PreachingToday.com: Talk about the significance of preaching during Passion Week.
John P. Casey: Christmas and Easter are powerful opportunities to reach our community while also thinking through for the church family the crucial tenets of our faith. Our society is getting more open to spiritual things, so these two parts, Christmas and Easter, are important opportunities.
What do you like best about preaching during Passion Week?
I like and dislike this. I find it challenging to come at these familiar stories in a fresh way, but that also intrigues me.
I've done two things to meet this challenge. One is I've sometimes gone at parallel texts. For example, one year I preached on the story of Jesus raising the widow's son and used that as a parallel to what the big story was going to be later. It's a different angle, a fresh way of coming at it to say the Resurrection wasn't this one-time phenomenon. Jesus was working his way up to it. Also, we can be encouraged that this is for us as well. So I try to find creative angles to go at the story.
But the main way to keep it fresh is to be a growing person. If I can keep growing and dealing with things in my life, facing challenges and continuing to hear God and see different parts of God's glorious character, then the story comes alive in a different way. If I'm a growing person, the story will be alive and fresh in a way I haven't seen before. And I can pass that on to people who are both brand new at our church and those who have been there a long time.
When you talk about preaching Easter you've mentioned story.
Story is important for our world today. Story communicates to a variety of audiences and age groups in an easier way than doctrinal texts. I don't want to steer away from those wonderful doctrinal texts either, but we do try to reach into our community at Easter, and story works better for reaching that audience.
Do you have any special memories of preaching over the Easter season?
Several years ago, a college student who had been worshiping with us knew we liked to use visuals at Easter, and he volunteered as a graphic artist. He covered a circular window in the front of our sanctuary with this golden material and draped it over the front wall and down over the platform. It was a powerful visual that helped us to feel the new life of the Resurrection.
Did you refer to that in your preaching?
We try to make the whole service the message. So the visual, the drama, the music, often a personal testimony—we try to weave all of that together in one message for that day.
That changes preaching, doesn't it, when you think in terms of the whole service being the message?
It does. The rest of the service helps me figure out my part. I often will adjust my message with some idea that has come out of the planning of the service. Or my message will get shaped by the other parts of the service to add a nuance or an element I hadn't intended.
Let's talk more about the challenge of taking a familiar story and making it fresh. Do you have other suggestions?
If I have preached a story before, I will not go back to my notes from before. I'll pull out my resources and restudy the text. I may go back through other scholars, but I go through that in a fresh reading of it. I don't want to start with the old outline, because our world is different and I'm different and I want to take a fresh approach.
And who knows how the Holy Spirit will bring some part of a verse or an aspect of the story to light?
Invariably that's true. Of course, the text remains the same, but with changes in me and in our community I'll see things differently as I go back through that story.
How long do you take to think through a series for Easter?
Each year I take four or five days and try to sketch where I'm going the entire year. Part of that is thinking about crucial seasons, like Christmas or Easter. I ask myself, Where is the congregation? What's going on in our world? What would be the unique set of stories or passages that would best meet where this congregation is and where our community is? It's usually in the flow of that whole-year planning that I come up with an idea for Easter. Sometimes the idea will come quickly. Other times I will finish that week of study and still not quite have in mind what it is, but it will come to me later.
What are you preaching on this year for Easter?
Our theme is copying Christ together. The emphasis is on the word together. We're working this year on community. So, for example, I'm intrigued by the Marys who went to the tomb. They went together, these ladies. It wasn't a solitary experience.
Do you generally make Passion Week part of a broader series, or do you tend to focus it on those two weeks?
I've done it a variety of ways. A number of years ago we lined up an eight-part series following the whole Lenten period and marched our way up to Easter that way. More typically I've had four-or five-part series marching up to Easter. The last several years it's been just Palm Sunday and then Easter.
This year, I've been taking us through the Book of Colossians. I've held off planning an Easter message because I wanted to see where we were in Colossians, to see if we would get to a couple of key texts that might work nicely for Easter. So if I can keep it as part of a series, I will.
On the other hand, I like to make it unique in that season, because we work hard to open the door for community people. If I'm in the middle of a long series and referring to what we did last week and the week before, the visitor doesn't feel like he or she is in the right place. So typically I make it part of a recent or short series rather than something I've been working at for a long time.
Emotionally and physically do you find energy a challenge during that week?
I can't say I find it an overwhelmingly great challenge, because we're trying to take a team approach to this and involve a number of people. I realize every church situation is different, but I'm committed to developing several others on staff. I want to give some of those key things away to them as well.
It's draining in the sense that there are wonderful and rich opportunities that week to interact with people. That's a good kind of fatigue, though, and it's an important week to be with others and to help them encounter God.
A lot of churches try to do something over Lent like fasting or Scripture reading to focus on Easter. Do you try to coordinate your preaching with other spiritual disciplines in the congregation?
We have done that. We have invited people to read certain passages with us and to practice spiritual disciplines, particularly fasting and solitude.
Another thing we've done as a corporate discipline is what I've called a Gethsemane prayer meeting. We do this early on Friday morning at a park in the area. Generally it's a small group, but it gives a rich sensation of coming early, getting away, doing something unusual that helps us focus on Christ.
You mentioned the person with this big, wonderful image of the golden fabric. Do you try to include other artistic elements of music or drama or visual arts and tie them into your preaching?
We work in advance to think through where the service is going, and we have our arts people working on visuals that will undergird what we're trying to say in the service. Often in our Easter services we put together a significant drama. Usually those dramatic sketches pay particular attention to guests or visitors, and we uncover a need we believe is going to be answered in the story or the text we're going to take people through. We almost always have some new banner or visual or decoration in the sanctuary that will be working with the whole service. And the message gives direction to all of those pieces, and those pieces give fullness to the message.
For example, last year the drama was about a man in his sixties who was recently widowed and was struggling to make it through that dark time. The message immediately followed that. So I used that drama almost as an introduction to the needs we have when we bump against life's cruelty and wonder how we get through those things with any kind of abundance. That led into the story of Easter.
What about the weeks following Easter? Some churches have a letdown in attendance and there can be an emotional letdown after the excitement and celebration of the Resurrection. What happens in your church in the weeks after Easter?
The major thing we do is begin some new emphasis or series shortly after Easter. I may take a Sunday off after Easter, but then right away on the heels of that we begin some new emphasis, a new series that brings a sense of new beginning and excitement.
The other thing we tend to do around that time is a special baptismal service. We have done a baptismal service on Easter Sunday night, and we've done it a week or two after Easter. A baptismal service is one of our most celebratory times as people share the stories of how God got a hold of them, and we see their enthusiasm for a whole new approach to life. When I can put a baptismal service shortly after Easter, it is an exciting time of celebrating God's work in their lives.
John P. Casey is senior pastor of Blanchard Road Alliance Church in Wheaton, Illinois.