Once more Christians of the world prepare to celebrate Easter!
It is usually record high attendance in stark contrast to the attendance on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday was on March 9th this year, the official beginning of Lent – the forty days and forty nights before Easter (not counting Sundays which are considered mini-Easters.) We had 23 at our service on Ash Wednesday but anticipate many more than that for Easter Sunday’s celebration of God’s grace.
I’ve been preaching sermons focusing on amazing grace this Lent, especially the amazing grace experienced by the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped for 69 days in a dank, dark gold and copper mine in San Jose, Chile. They were trapped 2300 feet under a mountain of solid rock. It took God, a whole army of engineers and a world of prayers to bring them to safety. Did you know that they started each morning with a group prayer? That they nicknamed Jesus the “thirty-fourth miner?” No doubt they will be rejoicing and celebrating with great joy this Easter, delighted to be above ground and reunited with their families.
Many of us have tales of how amazing grace touched our lives and gave us holy moments to remember – maybe even a few miracles along the way. We’ll be sharing some of those miraculous moments on Easter morning during worship.
I had many amazing grace moments as a child, mostly connected with Sunday School and Sunday worship at the United Methodist Church in the village of Vernon, NY. I loved going to church. It was a place where I felt safe and loved, sometimes bored and sleepy too. I slept through many a sermon and failed to understand a word of many more. But there was something about being there in the pew with my Mom and my siblings. Our fighting was minimal while we were at church. Though our behavior was not perfect, we were better behaved in church than we were at home. For everyone but Mom, we were polite and angelic. People would marvel at what wonderful children she had and Mom would roll her eyes wishing they could see us in action at home. Mom taught Sunday School and Vacation Bible School so we were in church every Sunday and then some, whether we wanted to be or not.
As a teenager, I was given free organ lessons with the understanding that I would take over the duties of church organist when the current organist retired. I am still grateful. Arlene Alger was the organist whose patience and grace accompanied every lesson and led to my being hired as the organist at both the Presbyterian and United Methodist Churches. The Presbys paid $5 per week. The United Methodists paid $3. Added to my babysitting money, I felt like a wealthy teenager back in the early 60’s. Amazing grace!
While I practiced organ alone at the church, God and I had long heart to heart talks. There were many holy moments when I felt my heart touched by a loving power, reassured that my soul was in good hands. As my relationship with God was getting stronger, my relationship with my parents and the family of faith into which I had been baptized was not. I began to notice feuds and fights, faultfinding and tensions which I had never been aware of as a child.
It seems like we get super critical as teenagers. Adults couldn’t seem to do anything right. I’d just get used to one pastor and discover a new one was due any day. It seemed like no pastor measured up for long. I didn’t understand why. I didn’t like all the changes. I wondered if I would ever feel as safe as secure in this family of faith as I had when I was a child. Amazing grace moments still happened but I suspect that during our know-it-all teen years, we probably miss most of the grace that God dishes out.
I remember how I tried to get out of going to church all together when I was a teenager. At a school function, I complained to a cousin that the only reason I attended church was because my mother made me go. I don’t know what I was thinking. This comment got back to my Mom real fast. When she heard what I had said, she was outraged. Mom insisted that I was free to stay home or go. But when I tried to stay home with my Dad the next Sunday morning, I was compelled to go to church as usual. My mother had ways of making us do what she wanted us to do. She must have had a chat with Dad too. Soon after that, he started going to church with us every week not just at Christmas and Easter. This didn’t feel much like grace at the time. I resented having to do what my parents told me to do. In hindsight, I am extremely grateful that my parents made going to church a regular part of our lives.
Even though I had an unfavorable opinion of the congregation at large
as a teenager and like many of my generation deplored the hypocrisy of these human beings who called themselves Christian, nonetheless, I attended Sunday School faithfully, completed Confirmation Class and became a full member of the church, served as a officer of the youth fellowship and have fond memories of the Sunday School teachers and pastors who did their best to keep my relationship with God and my walk with Jesus on an even keel, to keep my life connected to the Source of all the amazing grace there is.
When I went off to college and got to make my own decisions for the first time in my life, I confess that regular church attendance was not at the top of my list. Occasionally we would drag ourselves out of bed on Sunday morning and walk to downtown Potsdam for worship. We checked out the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the United Methodists and the Catholic’s Newman Center. They had Folk Mass which was our favorite. While living in France, I attended worship only once though I visited hundreds of cathedrals and prayed thousands of prayers.
My relationship with God ebbed and flowed. I was pretty sure God was worth knowing and that Jesus was the Messiah, but being a committed Christian would not a regular part of my life again until after my daughter was born. She was named after my Aunt Frances who had been a missionary to the Philippines. Aunt Franny’s husband was an ordained elder in the EUB denomination (the one that the Methodists merged with in 1968 to become United Methodists). Uncle Reuben came to baptize his wife’s namesake at the church in Vernon shortly after she was born in 1972. Our extended family alone nearly filled the sanctuary for this amazing grace event.
After Fran was born, I wrestled with the need to make Sunday worship a regular part of my life once more. I worried about how my daughter would learn about right and wrong. I doubted that her father and I could impart that wisdom alone. I remembered where I had learned it. Sitting in church hearing Scriptures being read, stories about Jesus being told—most of which did not make much sense at the time. My first Sunday School teacher was my own mother. Though frequently bored to tears listening to sermons I didn’t completely understand, I learned enough to know what right and wrong looked like from God’s perspective. Add to that all those hours in Sunday School and Youth Fellowship reading and studying the Bible. I knew that I needed a connection to a family of faith. God was the source of amazing grace and I wanted my daughter to be exposed to that grace just as I was—in the bosom of a family of faith, a family of human beings with their own share of failings and flaws along with an abundance of amazing grace.
We began to attend the Norwood UMC. Eventually I joined the choir, taught Sunday School, served on the Ad. Council and helped plan many a special worship service. One of my favorites has always been Easter Sunday. Back in Vernon, we went to an ecumenical Sunrise service followed by breakfast at either the Presbyterian or United Methodist Church. Aunts, uncles and cousins – we’d all hang out at my grandparents’ farm between services. Every year the scent of Easter lilies reminds me of childhood’s Easter mornings in the Vernon United Methodist Church, the precious years spent as a member of the Norwood United Methodist Church, and now more than 25 years of leading Easter worship as a United Methodist pastor.
Easter is the Sunday that comes closest to being pure unadulterated amazing grace! In spite of our faults, flaws and failings as human beings and as the human race, Easter is a day when we celebrate a miracle of grace! We rejoice because on this day, death turned out to be a beginning – not an ending! And the preceding paragraphs are a glimpse of how God wove that thread of amazing grace into my life – beginning with my own baptism in the Vernon United Methodist Church.
This world – and most human beings – can use all the holiness and grace we can get. I am remembering all the Easter Sundays gone by and drinking in all the amazing grace I can as I wait for this Easter to arrive. I hope you are too!