Sitting in church this Easter morning as the music washed over me my mind traveled back through the years to Easter 1992. I remembered Easter that particular year. In early December I had resigned my church without a place to go. I had been there for several years and things had just not worked out. I think if I had stayed we probably could have made it work. There were many good people there—many I still remember after all these years. But never did feel like I was able to do there what I wanted to do. So—that December I resigned not knowing what the future would hold. I had had my share of disappointments and failures like any Pastor—but I had never felt like a failure until I left that church. My self-worth was just about at the bottom and though the church was generous in their settlement—at 55 years old I faced the future scared and anxious.
So Easter of ’92 we were visiting our son and his partner in Chicago. And that Easter morning we went to the Fourth Presbyterian Church to worship. It was a glorious service and John Buchanan preached a great sermon, but I was not in very good emotional shape. It just didn’t feel like Easter. In all my years in ministry, I had always preached on this special holy day. I had always loved Holy Week and Easter and its music and festivities and promise. But Easter didn’t really come that year as I sat in that Chicago pew. I sat there wondering how the future could be anything but dark.
Sitting in church this morning I was reminded of those early disciples. They had a hard time believing that Jesus had come back. After all, nobody comes back from the dead. Mary, in the Garden did not know who he was. The disciples who came and saw the empty tomb probably reasoned thought that Rome had stolen the body of the Lord Jesus. Thomas wondered. And then, if that was not enough, days later on the Emmaus Road those two disciples trudged along not knowing the stranger that walked with them was Jesus. Easter had come and gone and they felt flat, hopeless and grief-stricken. They told this stranger: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” There are no sadder words in the Scripture.
I think I must have been on my own personal Emmaus Road that Sunday in Chicago. Easter had come and I felt nothing but emptiness. I thought my ministry was over and I saw so little hope for the future.
But sitting in church this morning I remembered not only those feelings but also what came afterwards. Easter really did come that year as it has come every year since the Open Tomb. Only as I looked back did I remember that life did not stop for me and for those I loved or for the church I had left behind. Three months later of that same year I was called to an inner-city Church in Birmingham that stretched and challenged me and allowed me to heal. While there we built a much-needed sanctuary with little money. We fought the gay battle in our congregation and came out on the far side still keeping faith with the open tradition of the church. I served there for eight good years and when I left they threw a party for me that was glorious. People came from every church I had ever served. There were eight to ten friends there from the church I had left in 1992.
While there I began to write for The Birmingham News. As the years went by I discovered I had written over a hundred pieces for the Sunday Op Ed section of the paper. That retirement was followed by seven Interims back-to-back. And I went all over the South preaching for three different denominations. So the years after retirement were not exactly retirement after all.
So, sitting in Church this morning I couldn’t help but smile. Easter really did come that hard Sunday in Chicago. If Easter is hope and promise and new life as I had always preached—well, all those things happened to me after that year I sat and listened when I wished I had been preaching.
Life was never easy for those disciples after the Resurrection. Many lost their lives because of their faith. But we would not have this story that has come down to us without the wonderful stories those first eye-witnesses left behind.
So—Easter really did come this morning at church. And even if I had missed it completely—Easter would still be a reality for us all. Easter I have learned the hard way does not depend on outward circumstances. Easter cannot be stopped by dysfunctional churches or pastors. Easter cannot even be stopped by locked doors or tombs shut tight or doubting preachers.
Remember the old story about the man that asked his friend if he believed in infant baptism. The friend replied, “Shoot, not only do I believe it—I’ve seen it.” Not only do I believe in Easter—I’ve seen it again and again. And that is what I remembered as I sat in church this morning.