What happened on Sunday?

IMG-8774This is kind of a sequel to yesterday’s post. It’s mostly highlights from my Easter Sunday. Not necessarily exciting, but a debrief for me nonetheless.

The alarm woke me at 4:30 am. I get up a little earlier on Sunday mornings so I have time to read and write a little before I get ready for the day. First things first, though: feed and walk Samson who is willing to get up whenever I do.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I am a few weeks ahead in my “Today’s Light” readings. I read Deuteronomy 27 today, taking note of the altar Moses instructed the leaders of Israel to built after they crossed the Jordan. It was to be made of uncut stone, a reminder that no human effort would make a sacrifice acceptable to God. It’s all grace.

I then pondered who I would see and wouldn’t see in church today. I’d see a bunch of once-a-year attenders, visiting family and other guests. I wouldn’t see some who were traveling, some who have died and some who I don’t know why they weren’t there. I made a mental note to watch and listen to all the Easter stories going on around me.

After showering and dressing, I got to church about 6:15. I love being the first person there, walking up to the church while it’s still dark as the birds are just beginning to sing and a gentle breeze nudges the flag from its pole. As I was walking to the front door, I noticed a car pull in the parking lot. About half-way in, they turned around and left, and drove to the church next door, which was still dark and vacant. After driving around the parking lot, they drove away. Looking for a sunrise service I guess.

IMG-8773After I unlocked the doors, turned on the lights and powered up the sound board, I practiced my sermon and then took a few pictures of the chancel filled with Easter lilies. I’m glad I got there a little bit early because some of the musicians began arriving about 7 to go over some music. A few folks from the hispanic congregation came to pray in the chapel soon after.

As the Praise Team ran through their music, I stood out front and talked with folks as they arrived for worship. At 8:11, I gave the musicians the thumbs up to begin their preservice song and we began our first Easter service.

Just before the sermon I invited the children to come and look at our last Resurrection egg (which was empty, just like the tomb), and search for the giant empty egg hidden in the sanctuary. Then I gave them their jelly beans and read them the Jelly Bean poem. As I prayed with them, my grandson Elijah, licked a green jelly bean, put it back in the bag, and then put half of the giant egg on my head like a hat. (I’m waiting to see if anyone got a picture of that.) Just another day worshiping with kids!

After the first worship service was over, one of our young men briefly presented to the congregation his eagle project of redoing our playground. I reset my children’s sermon props and headed over to the Fellowship Hall for a really nice breakfast prepared by our Parish Life board and served by our youth. I got to meet a few new families who had come to our area, checking out our church.

About 10:20, I warmed up a little on trumpet, set it out by the music stands, and greeted families beginning to arrive for the 11 am worship service. Straight up at 11 we began with a special cantor/bell/choir call and response, and then launched into the first hymn for a full house of worshipers. This year we had three trumpets and a baritone horn to accompany the the hymns. The choir sang two pieces and the bells rang a second at the beginning of holy communion.

29594660_10211761304368994_4027288363915323199_nAfter worship was over, I got to greet some of the Russian congregation who use our facility on Sunday afternoons. Then it was home for a nap and off to High Tides Snack Jack in Flagler Beach, our traditional Easter supper eatery. We beat most of the evening crowd, and had time to play on the beach a little, too.

29683255_10155600924063460_6691557633990882834_nA long time ago, I can remember Easter Sunday begin hectic, frantic and exhausting. But now with some ministry years under my belt, I just let it happen. Sure, it’s busy, but it’s fun, too. It’s fun to play my horn, meaningful to see everyone, and encouraging to speak and hear the refrain, “He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!”

 

What happened on Saturday?

Holy Saturday. For we pastors who run the entire Holy Week race, we’re coming out of the final turn on the way to Easter morning. The week has been filled with extra worship services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and a few visits to some homebound members who won’t be in worship tomorrow, perennially the biggest Sunday of the year. What do pastor’s do on that in-between day?

For me, it’s pretty relaxing. I didn’t have to get up as early as I usually do. I did a little sermon review for Sunday. Then I oiled up the valves and blew a few notes through my trumpet, just staying limber for tomorrow’s hymns. I exercised, did some grocery shopping, bought a new tie for tomorrow, got into the Easter candy, and may still take a nap this afternoon. All in all, a pretty nice day.

What happened on that Saturday before Jesus’ resurrection? Not much. It’s the Sabbath, so it’s a day away from the regular routines of work. The reality of Jesus’ death is beginning to hit those who knew and loved him. Thoughts of having to get up early to finish taking care of his corpse were on the minds of some. Fear haunted those in hiding; “Now what are we going to do?” The Roman soldiers had to work, guarding the tomb.

The one thing that we do not see on that Saturday is any kind of celebration from Satan and his demons. Why not? The Christ is dead. This should be their moment. They can run amok  unhindered through creation and mankind. They’ve won. They should be celebrating. They should be planning the parade.

But they’re not. Maybe they knew. Maybe they knew that this pause in the story isn’t a good thing. When Jesus said he’d rise, the disciples didn’t get it. Maybe the demons did. From the beginning they knew who he was. And they knew they didn’t have a chance.

In a sense, much of life is Saturday. We’re waiting for resurrection, for the return of Christ. For some, it’s relaxing. Others have to work. Some are afraid. Many hope it comes soon. We’ll get a taste of it tomorrow, in word and sacrament and song, and be reminded that death doesn’t have a chance!

I went to a funeral.

shutterstock_722607682I went to a funeral yesterday. As I sat there before the service began, I realized that I’ve been to very few funerals that I haven’t conducted. The person who had died was the father of a member. I had met him a few times, but didn’t know him very well. I was there mostly to support the family.

The service was held in an Episcopal church. I don’t think I’ve ever been in an Episcopal church before, either. As expected much of the liturgy was familiar and reverent, the ministers did a good job, the family participated in a meaningful way.

But when it was all over, I thought to myself, “I wish it were Easter.” Why? Because if it were Easter, I would have heard an account of Jesus’ resurrection! The homily did contain a passing reference to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but nothing more. The well-intended meditation focused on the ever-present love of God even in the face of death, but lacked the impact of the resurrection. Yes, the deceased will live on in our memories and in the presence of God, but no reference to that last day when Christ will come, the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised.

Though I wasn’t exactly grieving, I know that this was a tough day for the family. I don’t believe most of them had yet experienced the loss of someone that close to them, who was such an integral part of their lives.

I made up my mind right there and then that I would either read or include in any funeral or memorial sermon the account of Jesus’ resurrection from one of the gospels. If I’m doing your service, your friends and family are going to hear about the rolled away stone, an empty tomb, and angels telling you, “He’s not here, he is risen!” I cannot type, read or speak those words without feeling rush of emotion. A casket or an urn or even just a picture of the deceased may be on display before the altar. Death may have come quickly or over a long period of time. You may have had a chance to say good-bye. Or not. But you can be 100% sure that you will hear me say that the urn, coffin, vault, or grave can only hold your loved one for so long. When Jesus comes, the best trumpet I’ve ever heard (and I listen to a lot of trumpet players!) will be followed by the sounds and sights of urns, coffins, vaults and graves surrendering their dead as “the resurrection of the body” becomes a reality.

I am doing a memorial service next Saturday for a long-time member of our church. I am so looking forward to this. They are letting me pick the songs and readings. We’re going to send our friend and brother off with joy, hope and expectation!

Spoiler alert: at my funeral, you’re going to hear a Gospel Easter account (you pick one), Psalm 16, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Hymns: My Hope is Built on Nothing Less, Crown Him with Many Crowns, In Thee is Gladness, and For All the Saints. Hire a trumpet player. There you go.  Funeral planning done. I suggest you do the same. 

 

Flexing our Easter muscles

Over the last few days, I’ve read lots of recent Facebook status updates and Twitter tweets about how great everyone’s Easter was. I think it’s interesting how we pastors feel the need to flex our muscles and speak of how many attended worship services, how many people got saved and how full the parking lot was. Just like we do at the gym. Hey, I’m as prone to that as anyone, but it suggests an interesting question. Does Easter Sunday really have anything relevant to say about your church? Can it be used as a measuring tool for the effectiveness of your ministry? We certainly act that way, but I’m not so sure.

Yes, our Easter Sunday attendance is higher than any other Sunday of the year. But I believe this is more of a cultural thing than spiritual. Going to church is something you do on Easter, along with buying a new dress and eating candy. It’s a ritual repeated at Christmas, and in part, on Mother’s Day (when mom asks, “Why don’t you come to church with me today?” and you feel like you can’t say no.)

If that’s the case, then Easter Sunday says nothing at all about the church or ministry. Having said that, it might make you wonder why we put so much into this one worship service per year. Think about it. We invest a lot of time, energy, and money in preparing music and messages, purchasing lillies, and trying to impress someone. And experience has taught me that everything will return to normal next week. Spring break will be over. Families will return home. All the special flowers will be gone. And the candy will be eaten.

This is not to say that I don’t think Easter Sunday is important. The resurrection of Jesus is the one fact that gives oomph to every other gathering on the first day of the week. It is the one certainty that turns our morning into dancing and our sorrows into joy. It is the one thing that can truly brings us to life. But Easter worship itself is really just an anomaly. Something that boosts our average attendance statistics (and hopefully, our offerings). It’s very much like free pastry day at Starbucks. Bat day at the baseball stadium. Fourth of July fireworks. You attract a crowd for a day, but it will be back to business as usual.

So if it’s not Easter, what is an appropriate tool for measuring the effectiveness of a church’s ministry?