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The Super Bowl of sermons: Baltimore preachers bring their best to the pulpit for Easter

Two clergy members, one Episcopalian and one Baptist, talk about their upcoming Easter sermons. (Kenneht K. Lam & Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)

Three days after Jesus was killed, Scriptures say, his follower Mary Magdalene went to his tomb only to see, to her horror, that his body was gone.

Then she noticed someone standing nearby, a man she didn’t recognize. She figured he must be the gardener.

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Only when he spoke did she realize he was Jesus come back to life.

“Even today, most of us can relate to the confusion she must have felt, that sense of expectations completely reversed,” says the Rev. Florence Ledyard, an Episcopal priest who expects to spotlight the moment in her Easter sermon in Ten Hills on Sunday. “I’m thinking of posing this question: Why do we, too, have so much trouble seeing Jesus in our midst?”

This weekend, in Baltimore and around the world, pastors face the singular challenge that comes at the end of every Lent: how to bring their best preaching to the pulpit on the most important day of the Christian year.

Some call it the Super Bowl of sermons.

The Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., senior pastor of Union Baptist Church, looks through his family bible as he prepares for his Easter sermon.
The Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., senior pastor of Union Baptist Church, looks through his family bible as he prepares for his Easter sermon. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

“As big as Christmas and the birth of Christ are, none of that would be celebrated if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead,” says the Rev. Dr. Craig Garriott, co-founder and pastor emeritus of Faith Christian Fellowship, a Presbyterian congregation in Pen Lucy. “Easter demands our best worship, and the sermon is absolutely central to that.”

The tale on which Christianity is based, of course, makes an outlandish claim: Three days after Jesus, a Jewish carpenter and preacher, was crucified, he’s said to have come back to life, only to revisit many of his followers and later ascend to heaven.

Christians say his resurrection changed history, giving believers the opportunity to conquer sin, mortality and death.

As fantastical as the story is, pastors say it has also become so familiar that even the faithful can grow numb to its meaning.

To the Rev. Dr. Robert Hoch, the best preachers take the pulpit on Easter and make the familiar feel miraculous again.

“Every congregant comes into the service with this feeling, ‘I’ve heard this story millions of times,’ ” says Hoch, senior pastor of First and Franklin Presbyterian Church in Mount Vernon and a teacher of the art of preaching, or homiletics. “Yet the narrative is so countercultural that to say it’s familiar is really not to hear it at all.

“Our task is to knock the familiarity off the story, to find that angle that’s a bit head-scratching, to make it strange again.”

In Baltimore, throughout its suburbs and beyond, pastors of every denomination will be trying to do just that Sunday.

The Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway says he thinks of the oration as an intensified version of the goal he pursues every Sunday: marshaling hope in a community that can often feel hopeless.

Hathaway is the longtime senior pastor of Union Baptist Church, a congregation in an area of West Baltimore that is so crime-ridden that he asks police to keep a squad car parked at the end of the block.

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“I’m doing a ministry right where the violence is,” says Hathaway, another local pastor with a certificate in homiletics. Hathaway’s is from a joint program of Georgetown and Oxford universities.

The 68-year-old Baltimore native gets up at 4:30 every morning to pray, read the Bible and do theological research: He’s looking for the kinds of ideas that will connect the hope inherent in the resurrection to the lives and emotions of his flock.

He found such an approach one Easter when it came to to him to retell the resurrection story through the eyes of Judas, the apostle who gave Jesus over to the Romans for execution.

Had Judas chosen to stay loyal, Hathaway told his flock, or even sought forgiveness, he’d have stayed with the “tree of life” — Jesus — but relying on his own wits, he ended up hanging himself from a branch.

Congregants, he says, still buzz about that sermon with its simple, arresting theme.

“Judas’ problem was that he got his trees mixed up,” Hathaway recalls telling them. “Which tree do you choose?”

To Hathaway, the resurrection story is a gem with many facets. The Rev. Dr. C. Anthony Hunt also loves rotating that stone.

Hunt is senior pastor of Epworth Chapel United Methodist Church, a mostly African American congregation of about 1,200 members in Woodlawn.

He says one of his goals is to leave everyone in the pews with a sense of hope.

Hunt, who teaches theology and preaching at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, says he’s “writing all the time,” consulting the news, checking his Bible (and a Bible app), and praying and listening for what inspiration may come.

He aims to frame every Easter — a holiday that has epitomized hope for African Americans since the days of slavery — as an occasion whose meaning still illuminates the present and points to the future.

As he cast his thoughts toward the Easter service, he says a single word came to his mind — “lifted.”

“What does it mean to be lifted?” Hunt recalls thinking. “God came to lift us beyond ourselves. He demonstrated that by resurrecting Christ from death.

“But it’s not just about the resurrection. I’ll talk about how God wants to move us out of traps and harmful situations.”

He plans to compare airplanes, which must overcome air drag to take flight, to our own human efforts to soar.

Preachers across Baltimore say they’ll be getting in the pulpit — and in many cases wandering a stage or venturing out among worshipers — with messages that evoke a truth Christians believe Jesus made possible: that even though the world we live in is imperfect, the phenomena of death and loss are not final but give rise to renewed life and possibilities.

Fifteen miles south of Epworth, the Rev. Kati Kluckman-Ault has been working since 2016 to fashion one vital church from the remnants of three that were at death’s door.

With attendance declining at mainline Protestant churches, the local synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America asked her to create Rejoice Fellowship, a Glen Burnie congregation, as they shuttered nearby churches whose memberships had shrunk to an average of fewer than 40.

Her approach to sermons — pray through the week, begin writing on Saturday, keep the language plain and read from the text — seems to be working, as membership is holding steady at about 200, about half of whom attend regularly.

This Easter, Kluckman-Ault says, she’ll discuss the resurrection as told in the Gospel of Matthew, which includes an earthquake — a symbol of “something new and different that shakes everybody up.”

“We’re trying to live the resurrection — new life from loss, the giving up of something to give life to something else.”

Ledyard, meanwhile, says her 17 years as rector of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, a multi-ethnic congregation in West Baltimore, suggest that Easter will bring more people to the pews than other Sundays.

She’s praying her words will resonate.

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“Some people will come in and be overwhelmed by the lilies, the smells, the visuals that make their spirit joyous,” Ledyard says. “Others will come in skeptical, unsure.

“The role of the sermon is to bring God’s word to every one of those people in a way that says, ‘There’s something truly new and transforming about all of this. Let’s let the word of God speak.’ ”

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