Saturday, March 31, 2018

When No News is Big News

Several years ago I was asked to be the lay pastor of what must be called a faithful remnant at North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y.

Just standing in that pulpit was an honor. The three Tiffany windows over a preacher’s shoulder and other brilliant displays of stained glass make it one of the most beautiful worship centers I've known. The churchs storied past also includes a former pastor to whom I am married, the Divine M, ten inches shorter but always over me in the Lord.

But by the time I came to its pulpit the church had seen better years and most Sundays the congregation barely achieved the minimal requirement for Jesus’ presence, two or three gathered faithfully. But I worked as hard on the sermons as if I was preaching in Riverside Church, and although the congregation was the size of a small prayer group, I preached from the elevated pulpit so all participants could feel like we were not just playing church.

Un-ordained and un-adorned as I am, I had never preached on Easter so when Holy Week began that first year I began pouring through scriptures and commentaries. By Saturday morning, I was leafing through dusty volumes of The American Baptist magazine, for which I used to write editorial homilies. As any columnist knows, an approaching deadline puts the Muse to sleep. That must have happened in the spring of 1980, because I didn’t write an Easter message that year. I drew a cartoon instead.

The cartoon is hastily drawn and shaded with press-on screens that had to be shaped by Exacto knives and pressed on to the paper. My drawing shows a TV news van pulling up to a tomb carved out of rocks in the middle of a barren desert. A reporter with a microphone emerges from the empty hole as a videographer waits tensely from his perch atop the van.

“Just an empty tomb,” the reporter calls to the camera guy. “Signal the assignment desk. That news tip musta been a joke.”

Ha, I must have thought at the time. Irony. Very funny. But for me, the agony and ecstasy of art was still to come.

About a month after the cartoon appeared, I was one of thousands of participants in Religion Communication Congress 1980, a once-a-decade event for religious communicators. That was the year the newly elected Pope John Paul II addressed the gathering by videotape, and Harvard theologian Harvey Cox was a keynoter.

I watched Harvey from a balcony at the rear of the auditorium. He was - and is - a major American Baptist celebrity and he was idolized by a Roman Catholic chaplain I had worked for in the Air Force. Chaplain Kucharski, one of the young liberals swept into the church by the fresh air of Vatican II, quoted Harvey Cox incessantly, especially paragraphs from Harvey's best-selling book, The Secular City. Years later when I joined the American Baptist staff I met Harvey, joined him for staff coffee breaks, and even edited some of his essays for The American Baptist magazine. I made plans to casually run into Kucharski one day so I could pinch my fingers together and tell him, “Yeah, me and Harvey are like this!” Sadly, the next time I heard about Kucharski, he had dropped out of the priesthood, gotten married, and died. But I never think of Harvey without thinking of Father Kuch.

As I was settling in the rafters of the auditorium on that warm spring day in 1980, I was astonished to hear Harvey say, “I saw a cartoon recently that summarizes the state of the church.” I was stunned and then breathless as Harvey went on to describe my drawing and quote the caption as a smattering of applause broke out in the audience. Whoa, I thought. Is this my 15 minutes of fame?

I don’t remember what Harvey said after that (although I think he did conclude his speech by quoting the cartoon again). After he finished I made my way through the crowd to shake his hand. He smiled toothily at me and I thanked him for the endorsement.

“What?” he said. He lowered his ear in a quizzical manner.

I realized instantly that he had no idea what I was talking about. He had forgotten where he had seen the cartoon or the magazine that printed it.

I thanked him again and stepped back so the rest of the admiring crowd could get to him. My fifteen minutes of fame fizzled in the footlights.

It was a harsher lesson then, when I was in my early 30s, than it would be now. Three decades later I’ve accumulated a sufficient number of humbling experiences to handle them with a modicum of aplomb. Perhaps the real message back then was that there’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit.

But I’d like to think that the message of that cartoon still has meaning this Easter.

The fact that Jesus’ tomb is empty is big news. But it no longer tops the news hour or appears on page one above the fold. Seasoned reporters don’t get it. It’s the most overlooked headline of our times.

That became the message I preached to the faithful remnant at North Baptist Church on Easter morning.

North Baptist Church, alas, is closed now, and this year I’ll be celebrating Easter as a contented Lutheran at St. Paul’s ELCA Church in Rye Brook, N.Y.

But it really doesn’t make any difference where any of us greet the rising sun on Easter morning. The tomb is still empty. The Lord is still risen. And each of us it called to make sure everyone understands that this is big news.

The Lord has risen. Victory over death. Hallelujah.

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