Who is listening

April 18, 2011

For more commentary on this week's readings, see the Reflections on the Lectionary page, which
includes Carter's current Living by the Word column as well as past magazine
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Century.

Regardless of its size, an Easter congregation can be an
amazingly diverse audience. Consider the following as a thought experiment
about those who will be listening.

  • The grieving. There may be a widow
    mourning the loss of her husband, or a widower with his two adult children from
    out of town. For the grieving, the experience of life and death is like a fresh
    wound, and the good news must be announced with confidence, sensitivity and
    realism. This may include acknowledging the grief of the first Easter morning
    (Mary's weeping in John's Gospel).
  • The
    estranged.
    Families go through illness, divorce and relocation. Churches
    are often more intentional in their mission to "traditional" families than to
    those who do not fit this image. But on Easter, everyone shows up--families of
    four, divorced people, single parents, teenagers who come along with friends.
    The estranged are often at church on Easter, perhaps because the day reminds
    them of family times shared in the past, times when that which is now broken
    was whole. Or maybe it's because they want to hear the good news of
    Easter--words of hope, healing and new beginnings. They may be cynical and
    scarred, but they are present.
  • The
    distracted.
    Some of those gathered will be distracted: by the presence of
    active children, by the feel of new clothing, by anticipation of family plans
    for the day. Don't worry about these people. Again, they are present. Trust
    that God will somehow penetrate the distracted thoughts of those who are
    gathered. A seed may be planted. Allow God to take responsibility for the
    growth.
  • The
    seekers.
    There may be people present who know very little about the
    Christian faith. They are not familiar with the meaning of the garden, the
    cross or the empty tomb, and so the sermon will need to provide some
    explanation. Why did Jesus die? What happened on the first Easter morning? Who
    were the participants? How did the experience change their lives? Why does it
    matter to us? The Easter message communicates truth, but it also opens up
    question upon question. As you move through these, you will find yourself
    speaking to seekers but also to many who've spent their entire lives in
    congregations.
  • The home
    folks.
    And yes, you will be sharing worship with friends who gather
    faithfully Sunday after Sunday. They know the Easter story, they can follow the
    order of worship in their sleep, and they know the ushers and greeters by name.
    The home folks need to hear the gospel in a fresh way for their own spiritual
    lives, and they also need to consider how God might be giving them a mission to
    the grieving, the estranged, the distracted and the seeker. Greet the home
    folks as old friends, and encourage them in their outreach to others.

The service needs to connect with all of these people. That
doesn't necessarily mean a sermon that tries to be many things at once. It does
mean questioning our assumptions and being aware of the struggles, desires and
questions that the various worshipers are bringing to the service.