St. Matthew's Episcopal

Preaching Big

Posted on: April 3rd, 2013 by Robin Jarrell

You might expect that we who preach usually dread the ‘big’ days such as Christmas and Easter.  It’s partially true – possibly because we want to reward the very faithful who have parked themselves in a pew for most of liturgies during the year and certainly because we want to reach out to those who feel less inclined for whatever reason.  I know one thing for certain:  it’s a trap for any preacher to think they have one chance during any ‘big’ liturgy to be profound, and that they should at any cost pull out all the stops.  The first assumes that the liturgy is all about the preacher and the second will snuff out any spark of Spirit just from anxiety alone.

Preaching, like liturgy, is not a one-time only experience.  It is a slow and winding process, like a dance, between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:  a sort of perichoretic amalgam of the energy created by the joyful work of speaking and of listening.  A good preacher is listening even as she talks and sings, and depends upon her hearers to expect to be heard and to be responded to.  A good listener participates in the preacher’s dance.   Ideally, this choreography happens over long stretches of time and, God willing, punctuated by bursts of holy moments every now and again.

So, like any dedicated dancer, this preacher was mulling over her steps last Sunday when a dear friend sent her this poem:

Seven Stanzas at Easter

By John Updike


Make no mistake: if He rose at all

it was as His body;

if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules  reknit, the amino acids rekindle,  the Church will fall.


It was not as the flowers,

each soft Spring recurrent;

it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled  eyes of the eleven apostles;  it was as His Flesh: ours.


The same hinged thumbs and toes,

the same valved heart

that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then  regathered out of enduring Might  new strength to enclose.


Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping transcendence;

making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the  faded credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.


The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,  not a stone in a story,  but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow  grinding of time will eclipse for each of us  the wide light of day.


And if we will have an angel at the tomb,  make it a real angel,  weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,  opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen  spun on a definite loom.


Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,  for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,  lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are  embarrassed by the miracle,  and crushed by remonstrance.

Telephone Poles and Other Poems © 1961 by John Updike


I’ll be honest.  Had I known about this poem on Easter Sunday, I would have gone to the podium, unfurled the poem like a scroll, read it aloud, returned to my seat and gone on with the Creed.  But that’s the wonderful thing about preaching and liturgy – it’s not a performance, so we always have another opportunity to do the joyful work of the people together again inside the Trinity.


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