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A quartet of PC(USA) scholars and preachers offers up a how-to on preaching hope this Easter

Presbyterian Publishing Corporation features four of its authors engaging in a lively and helpful discussion

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Presbyterian Publishing Corporation gathered four gifted scholars and preachers — all of them with books published by Westminster John Knox Press — for a Tuesday webinar called “Leading with Good News in Difficult Times: Preaching and Teaching at Easter.” PPC President and Publisher David Dobson hosted the 45-minute event, which featured these well-known and beloved scholars:

Watch the webinar here.

Dobson led with this question: How do you suggest those who need to preach the good news of Easter do so in this time?

“The thing that jumps out to me is God’s people have been this way before,” Campbell said. “The Christian hope always looks fear in the face and faces trouble realistically.”

Long called Easter “an opportunity for preachers to face fear defiantly.”

“Preachers are in the news division of the church,” he said. “Something has happened. The tomb is empty and lies have been exposed.”

The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Caldwell

Caldwell was struck by the last line in Wendell Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”: “Practice resurrection.”

As she teaches and preaches during Lent, “I am thinking about the importance of checking in with people,” Caldwell said. “Where are they hurting? How can they practice resurrection in the midst of that?”

“I want to suggest we build a stronger muscle memory for teaching and preaching resurrection,” said Blount, adding he was talking to a friend recently about the man’s wife learning from an instructor how to ride a motorcycle. Unfortunately, the first thing she did was to steer the motorcycle into a light pole. Fortunately, she wasn’t injured. The instructor told her, “Where your eyes go, your bike will go.”

Many preachers “focus on the cross and the struggle that goes with it, which means we keep running into it,” Blount said. “Even in the midst of the difficulty we find ourselves in, if we can find the muscle memory that begins before Easter and moves beyond it, we can understand how God is moving in the midst of struggle.”

David Dobson

Dobson noted one of the lectionary passages for Easter Sunday is Isaiah 25:6-9, which includes the vision of God swallowing up death forever. He asked: What can we take this to mean?

Long talked about “capital ‘D’ death, the apocalyptic power, the final enemy. Unfortunately, it’s a great preacher. It shows up every Sunday and it says, ‘Damn all of you. I win every time.’ I think we need to unmask that as a lie.”

Dr. Thomas G. Long

“We need to acknowledge the pain that death causes,” Long said. “But call it what it is: the ultimate fake news about human destiny.”

“We’re so close to death. It’s so near,” said Caldwell, a lifelong educator. “How do we respond and help children and teenagers get through a death? Yes, someone is gone. But there is still hope because there are still those who care for them, and God’s love abounds.”

“The promise of God swallowing up death is a call for us to engage death in the present,” Blount said. “The ‘big D’ death, God contains it. We also engage the ‘little d’ death, the biological death. What we do in partnering with God is to engage death in its many forms here and now.”

Campbell noted the Isaiah passage also talks about God removing the shroud — the fear of the ‘little d’ death — that’s over the people on the mountain.

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Campbell

“Resurrection does not deny death,” Campbell said. “Our death is not the last word, and it’s not the most powerful word. That’s what we say during the funeral service and hopefully at Easter.”

The passage begins with God preparing a feast so the people on the mountain can have “rich food and wine, and then God swallows death,” she said. “How interesting is the way the metaphor turns! We are promised to ingest life while God ingests all the death and darkness.”

Long said another phrase that can be emphasized are the first words of Easter: “Do not be afraid.”

“The truth is in the life that God gives,” he said, “not in death and its many tentacles.”

At the end of Mark’s gospel, the women flee the tomb and say nothing to anyone, “for they were afraid.”

“It feels unfinished. Markan scholars say it is intentional. The reader is supposed to go back to Galilee too,” along with the women, Long said. Rather than ignoring the story of the resurrection, “the whole Gospel of Mark is a series of post-resurrection experiences,” including Jesus healing people, stilling storms “and teaching powerfully. We see resurrection in our Galilees everywhere.”

Dr. Brian K. Blount

Blount called the women “the last, best hope for the story to end the way it was supposed to end. For me, the resurrection account is not something we just celebrate. It compels us to move into the Jesus story and follow Jesus from Galilee forward.”

Resurrection is different from immortality because resurrection is “as mighty an act of God as Creation itself,” Campbell said. “It is not the way of nature. It is the way of God’s interruption, the re-creation of Creation that is sheer gift.”

“Resurrection recognizes we are creatures” and “not the Creator,” Blount said. “Resurrection is a gift from God.”

“The good news is you will die because you are mortal,” Long said. “The second piece of good news is God gives us new life.”

“God’s movement in Jesus was an invasion of sorts,” Blount said. “God through Jesus engaged death, and through the resurrection opened up the avenue of life and possibility. That gives hope.”

What can we say to people who are stuck on Good Friday?

“What helps me get through is taking some time for reading, thinking, and my own preparation for moving to Easter,” Caldwell said, preparation that can include attending an Easter vigil, a service that moves from darkness to light. “Taking care of your soul takes some attention — some reading, some prayer, the kinds of things I hope we can learn to do for ourselves,” she said. “Christians of all ages can find their own deep connection to faith as we move toward Easter.”

Campbell said she often finds the last line of the Good Friday hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” transformative each year: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

“That’s a Good Friday call to action. Love wins,” she said. “How do we help people find signs that love wins? It’s the strongest biblical truth, that this is God’s world and God will prevail. Goodness will prevail. Justice will prevail.”

For many people, “Good Friday is more believable than Easter,” Long said. “The only thing I know to do is not to think I have the power to explain things about Easter so clearly that they will suddenly take it as the truth.”

“When I proclaim resurrection, the reality is already in the proclaimed word. When I announce the resurrection, the risen Christ is present, comforting and giving peace,” Long said. “When I believe that, my body begins to act it out. It’s the proclaimed word that will allow Easter to become real for people.”

Dobson concluded the webinar with this video describing “A New Story: A Campaign for the Third Century of Presbyterian Publishing.”

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