Emptiness in Preparation for the Empty Tomb

“The beautiful Easter Story itself with its message of victory over death is the best Easter sermon.  It needs no clever introduction to stimulate the once a year churchgoers.  Why should we pattern a sermon with those in mind who get religious only on Festival days?” That is a quote in my sermon notes for this Sunday’s Easter text Luke 24: 1-11.  I’ve always found it insightful and comforting. I wish I could attribute it to a source. I know it’s from someone other than me because it’s in quotes. Another thing worth remembering is that emptiness in the pastor this week is a good thing.  I do know where this gem comes from.

Surprisingly, startling actually to me, it comes from John Updike in his book In the Beauty of the Lilies.  Although Updike was Lutheran, I have never liked his work.  Although I might use a part of his poem Seven Stanzas at Easter for its clear testimony to the physical resurrection of Jesus, I have never thought he “got” Christianity.  I do not hereby assert that the man didn’t die in the faith only that the Faith didn’t come through to me in his writing.  It’s not that he doesn’t use Christian themes, but that I don’t hear an underlying theological cantus firmus in his work like I do in Graham Greene.

While I don’t find lilting through his novels a consistent theological melody, I heard a trumpet blast In the Beauty of the Lilies. It’s an episodic novel following a family for several generations.  I’ve only just finished the first generation where Clarence a Presbyterian pastor is the protagonist.  He is a casualty in American Christianity’s first war with Higher Criticism.  He goes to his superior seeking release from his Call.  The man asks why and Clearance at first replies that he is empty.  (Been there; known that every Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter.)  The man replies sagely that you are a conduit.  Conduits are supposed to be empty.  Men don’t come seeking what they can get in you but through you.

That’s profound.  Worthy of a church father rather than a lay author writing about the church.  That’s comforting.  Emptiness I got.  In point of fact, I don’t have enough emptiness.  I have too much of me, myself, and I in my thinking, my theology, my sermonizing.  That’s accurate.  The Greeks come at the start of Holy Week saying to a first pastor, “We would see Jesus,” not, “We’re here to see you.”


About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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