Columbia pastors make sermon preparations for Easter crowds

Friday, March 21, 2008 | 1:29 p.m. CDT; updated 11:19 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Joachim Culotta is excited and exhausted. The Dominican priest and associate pastor at the Newman Center is busier than usual preparing for sermons and services. After all, it is the height of the church season — Easter.

Paula Robinson admits that she’s nervous about Sunday. The new rector of Calvary Episcopal Church says that any priest or preacher who climbs into a pulpit has reason to be.

Easter sermons can be daunting to prepare and deliver, often this sermon is one of the few some people hear all year, so it needs to be good, she said.

Easter and Christmas worship services tend to draw larger than usual crowds at most churches since they are the two most important Christian holidays.

“We are entrusted with such wonderful news,” Robinson said. “But we are just frail people, so we ought to be a little nervous as we present it.”

Pastors in Columbia know they’ve got an audience with big expectations for their sermons Sunday. Most have spent weeks, even months, preparing their lessons. Their aim has been to retain Easter’s meaning amid Holy Week activities and to remember the importance and opportunity of every Sunday, not just this one.

The Rev. Jim Bryan, pastor of Missouri United Methodist Church, is thrilled to have the hundreds of extra churchgoers hear his sermon this Easter, yet, “I am one of those who thinks it ought to be done well every week,” Bryan said. “The church is open and working 52 weeks out of the year.”

Still, the activities step up a notch on Easter.

John Battaglia, the pastor at Christian Chapel, is planning a creative service.

“Last year we had record attendance, more than ever before,” Battaglia said. “But it’s not about numbers for numbers sake.”

Battaglia said he believes that making worship appealing involves meeting people on their level, which is why Christian Chapel featured music and art coordinated into a powerful display during last year’s Easter service.

“We are in a visual world, and we need to speak to people in a way that relates to them,” Battaglia said.

Caleb Rowden, a national Christian recording artist and director of the church’s worship staff, sang while artist Mike Lewis put a brush to a blank canvas on stage.

“He didn’t announce what he was painting,” Battaglia said. “As you were singing along with the music, you peeked at the canvas, and suddenly, it just hits you — I see what this is: It’s the face of Christ.”

This year, Christian Chapel will feature a dance performance during its Easter worship.

Other churches also have special plans for their services.

New Life Community Church will celebrate with a new meeting place and baptisms. For the first time since its founding, the congregation will meet in a building other than members’ homes. Services will be held at the Activity and Recreation Center where members will be baptized in the pool. As of March 11, four people were scheduled to be baptized during the service.

A different kind of immersion experience is part of the Easter service with Chris Cook, the pastor of Parkade Baptist Church.

“Sometimes I dress as a Bible character, like Pilot, Barrabas the criminal, or King Herod, and tell the story from their perspective of the Crucifixion,” Cook said.

This year Parkade Baptist will do a dramatic reading instead, but Cook has plans for next year.

“I’m going to be Nicodemus,” Cook said. “He was a seeker, and came to Jesus out of curiosity.”

Although the commercial side of the Easter holiday, with its chocolate rabbits, colored eggs and candy-filled baskets, may be familiar to many, others enter the season with a curiosity about religion.

Thomas Ragsdell, pastor of New Life Community Church, remembers the Easter holiday as a child that tied the two aspects together.

“For me, church on Easter was about Mom making sure we had nice clothes on and the Easter egg hunt,” Ragsdell said. “But as I grew up, I had to sort out truth for myself.”

Ragsdell found new meaning in Easter as a teenager when he accepted the story of Jesus Christ’s death and Resurrection as truth. Now he poses questions about religion to others.

“It’s very easy for people to believe that Christianity is a nice story,” Ragsdell said. “But the question is, do you believe it is true with a capital ‘t.’”

It’s the truth of the Christian story that pastors want to tell during their sermons; it’s the message they hope some will receive.

“Every sentence of the Scripture points to this moment: the Resurrection of Christ,” said Dick Ramsey, pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

But Easter’s message comes as part of Holy Week, which began with Palm Sunday and includes Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

The Rev. Bonnie Cassida of Bethel Baptist Church doesn’t want her congregation to forget the other events of Holy Week, as these give Easter its significance.

“I don’t want them to jump from Palm Sunday, a day of celebration, to Easter, another day of celebration, without embracing the grief of the cross in between. This will bring a richer meaning to Easter.”

While preachers can offer insight into the meanings of Easter, they also know people still approach the day from various perspectives.

Ramsey knows that people seated in the pews at First Presbyterian approach Sunday’s service differently.

“So many people bring so many different things with them to the service,” Ramsey said. “Some come with great joy and hope in their hearts; others have the same things going on in their lives as they did the day before, and as they will the Monday after, and may not find much joy in the service.”

He knows that some people who attend worship on Easter will leave with lingering questions.

“It’s not wrong to have questions,” Ramsey said. “The gospel message is that our doubts and our questions should lead us to an examination of what we believe, and why we don’t believe what we don’t believe. Let your doubt lead you to exploration of the faith rather than rejecting it completely.”

Whether their sermons are well-received or rejected by audiences large or small, Columbia’s pastors will continue to preach with the hope that one or two Easter regulars will return before Christmas.

“They know we are here,” Cassida said, “and they will come when they are ready.”

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