On Easter, preachers behind the pulpit look out on congregations that are larger, better-dressed and more colorful than on any other Sunday in the year. The sanctuary is full, and there are people in the balcony, which stays empty most of the year. They see the faces of the faithful, but also those special-occasion Christians who show up on Christmas and Easter.
There are women in big hats. Little boys dressed in suits. Girls wearing frilly dresses of yellow, lavender and pink. Men sporting neckties instead of their usual golf shirts.
Throughout the sanctuary, there's energy and anticipation. The Easter story of Christ's Resurrection is well-known. What is unknown is what the preacher might say that hasn't been heard before.
"For any pastor, Easter and Christmas are huge pressure," said Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, a Church Distributed in Longwood. "How can I say this in a way that makes it new this year?"
From Bishop John W. Howe of the Orlando Episcopal Diocese, who will preach his 44th Easter sermon today, to Bishop John Noonan, who will preach his first Easter sermon as head of the Orlando Catholic Diocese, the challenge is to fashion something fresh within the framework of the familiar.
"Sometimes the Easter sermon is slower coming because I'm always trying to find something that will give it an edge or hook," said the Rev. Bryan Fulwider, senior minister of First Congregational Church of Winter Park, who will be preaching his 25th Easter sermon.
For the sermon to be fresh and interesting to the congregation, it must first be fresh and interesting to the preacher, which is why Easter sermons — no matter how successful — are seldom recycled.
"Every Easter sermon is the first of its kind and the last of its kind," said Hunter, who will preach his 40th Easter sermon this Sunday.
The inspiration for many Easter sermons springs from the lives and events surrounding the preacher himself and applied to the message of the Resurrection. Noonan wrote his first Easter sermon for St. James Cathedral around the theme of change, which is central to his life as a newly minted bishop in a new city but also central to the Easter story.
Willie C. Barnes, senior pastor of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Eatonville, chose the theme of Christ's tomb because he sees within his own life, and his congregation, the limits, constrictions and confinements that hold people back.
"I like the idea of the tomb because there are a whole lot of things that are cluttering our lives that keep us from being free," said Barnes, who has been preaching Easter sermons for 24 years.
Barnes sketches out his sermon with three primary points he wants to make, but never writes the sermon out. Noonan writes his sermon word-for-word but preaches without notes. Fulwider writes out his sermon but keeps the manuscript in a closed Bible when he preaches. Hunter never writes his sermon out but brings with him a color-coded outline — main points in black, Scripture in blue, illustrations in red — that he keeps in an open Bible.
David Uth, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Orlando, carries the outline of his Easter sermon in a file folder that he lays on the top of a tall round table on the stage. He started thinking about this year's Easter sermon almost as soon as he finished last year's.
"I think about it all year. It's one of those days that live all year for you," Uth said.
In a folder labeled "Easter 2011," he collected articles, ideas, passages from books, pieces of Scripture, anything he thought might contain the seed of an Easter sermon.
Bill Barnes, lead pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Orlando, knew months in advance what the theme and Scripture of his Easter sermon would be. About a week before Easter, he started working on the sermon with the understanding that he will be preaching to several different audiences at once.
It's one of the things that makes Easter different: an enlarged congregation that presents the opportunity to reach the devout and the unchurched at the same time.
"You can't throw out big churchy words, but you have to be true to the Gospel message of the Resurrection," said Barnes, who will be giving his 37th Easter sermon today.
On Easter, even the regulars show up a little earlier because if they don't, others might be sitting in their favorite seats, Barnes said. Upsetting the routine of Sunday isn't a bad thing, he said, and it's kind of nice to see some of the familiar faces sitting in different places.
Some ministers speak of addressing the "audience" from a "stage," acknowledging that the sermon is a public performance. There is an interaction between the preacher and the people in the pews, and some will modify the sermon from one service to the next, based on the congregation's reaction.
"If they look like they are wandering, one of us is preoccupied," Fulwider said. "I may try to come back and make it a bit more engaging."
Easter is about Christ rising from the dead, but the sermon must also evoke his Crucifixion — the telling of two stories at once, Howe said. Before the joy of Jesus' Resurrection, there's the realization of his death.
"Easter comes as a burst of unexpected joy after crushing despair," Howe said.
No matter how many Easter sermons a minister preaches, there is always something new and uncertain when stepping before the congregation. It's a little like the first time, over and over again.
"You're always nervous," Noonan said. "You just have to keep reminding yourself, 'I've done this before' — and that it's not about you. It's about the message."
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