Used Tombstone For Sale
When I began writing this sermon, it occurred to me that this is my 28th Easter sermon. I wondered how I could approach this sermon so that it would sound like the first time and not the 28th time. Then it occurred to me that there are some people here today who have heard Easter sermons twice the number of times I have preached on Easter. And I wondered how one who has heard the message of Easter so many times over can hear it as though it were something brand new.
Then I thought of the recent cornflakes commercial. You now, the one where a man is asked to try an “exciting breakfast cereal”. He says: “But this is cornflakes.” Then he tries a spoonful; a look of great satisfaction crosses his face, and the unseen announcer says: “Cornflakes…try them again for the very first time.” Well, maybe what is needed for preachers preaching their umpteenth Easter sermon, and maybe what is needed for people hearing an Easter message which they’ve heard many times before is to hear it again…for the very first time!
When I then approached this, my 28th Easter sermon with that in mind, everything changed. I decided that what I needed to do was to tell you a story—an Easter story. However, it is not the story of the first Easter, rather it is the story of Easter 1994. Although as I think about it, what happened that Easter couldn’t have happened without what happened on the first Easter. But let me tell you the story…
You may recall some of the elements of this Easter story because it appeared in our newspapers, but today I want to share with you the full story. It is an amazing story indeed!
In March of 1994, the Reverend Kelly Clem was the pastor of Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Alabama. Kelly and her husband, Dale, had two children: Hannah, age 4, and Sarah, age 2. Four-year-old Hannah was a delightful child, full of life and love, energy and enthusiasm. Just a few days before Palm Sunday, Kelly picked up Hannah from her pre-school. As they drove home through the Alabama countryside, Hannah was exuberant, speaking excitedly about all that had happened at school and all that they were seeing on their drive home.
As they pulled into the driveway of the parsonage, Hannah suddenly became quiet. Then, in a plaintive voice, she asked a child-like question: “Mommy”, she said, “will we all die at the same time? Will you and Daddy and Sarah and me all die at the same time?” Kelly was startled by the question, and wondered what had triggered such a thought in her normally ebullient daughter. Kelly tried to answer as best she could: “Well, Hannah, we may not die at the same time, but I do believe that we will all be together again.” Hannah responded quickly, “Yes, I know”, she said, “when you die, you get buried, and then you go live with God.” As they then climbed out of the car, the conversation hung in Kelly’s mind like a cloud, but Hannah quickly returned to the joyous splendor of being a child and ran off to play.
Palm Sunday, 1994. Kelly Clem stepped into her pulpit. The little church was packed with more than 140 worshippers. Two-year-old Sarah was in the nursery. Four-year-old Hannah was decked out in her blue and white robe, sitting in the first pew with the children’s choir. Husband Dale was away on a mission trip in Oklahoma. After the service started, a thunderstorm blew in- rain, lightning, thunder. The lights flickered. Then there was the sound of hail hitting the south wall of the church. People turned and looked. A baby near the back cried out. Then suddenly there was a deafening roar, and the stained glass window on the church’s south side exploded, showering purple and white glass across the pews. Someone screamed: “Get down! It’s a tornado!” The building began to disintegrate. The roof lifted up and then crashed down on the people in the pews.
Kelly Clem dashed from the pulpit, no longer minister, but frantic mother trying to get to her children. A flying brick hit her in the head. She fell hard on her shoulder. She covered her head as chunks of concrete and glass were raining down on her. And then, as quickly as it had hit, it was over. Kelly pushed the rubble away from her and was able to stand. Other survivors struggled to their feet. There was devastation everywhere. Suddenly a desperate thought pierced through Kelly Clem’s pain: “Where were Hannah and Sarah?” Kelly looked back toward the nursery. That part of the church was still standing. Someone at the back held Sarah up, letting Kelly know that she was all right. Then as Kelly turned, she saw it—a piece of blue and white material protruding from a pile of bricks where the first pew had been. It was Hannah. Hannah Clem and nineteen others died that Palm Sunday morning in church. Eighty-six more were injured.
In the days that followed, the funerals were held and a river of tears ran through that little Alabama town. The church family was so devastated that Kelly Clem wondered if the church could survive this. Furthermore, she was so stunned with grief and pain that she wondered if she could find the strength to go on at all. It was a dark, dark time for her, for her family, and for her church. But then, as that excruciating week ground to an end, on Friday, the phone began to ring. Church members wanted to know if they would be having an Easter service. These were the same people who had lost loved ones and who had been injured. Kelly knew that they were thinking about what had happened to Jesus on the cross and what had happened to them and to their loved ones and to their church—and they were longing for Easter. They needed Easter. Kelly responded only instinctively. She said: “Yes, we will have a sunrise service on the lawn right beside where the church used to be.”
Then reality hit her. She had lost a child. She couldn’t stop crying. “Besides”, she thought, “I wouldn’t even know what to say.” But over those next hours, some words from Scripture kept echoing in her brain. Even when she put her mind on other things, the words kept coming back. Finally, she realized that God was giving her those words, and He meant for her to read them to her people on Easter morning. Her heart was broken, her hope was shattered, her body was wracked with pain, but those words of Scripture touched something deep down inside of her and resurrected her, brought her back to life.
Easter 1994. The Reverend Kelly Clem and a couple of hundred other worshippers gathered in the predawn darkness where their church had been. In the center of the ruins of the church, someone had erected a large, wooden cross. Then at exactly 7:00 a.m., when Kelly stood to begin the service, the sun spilled over the horizon in a blaze of purple-pink colors Hannah would have loved. Kelly Clem, with her face swollen and bruised, and her shoulder in a brace, looking somewhat haggard from the days and nights of grief—Kelly Clem stood up to a makeshift podium. She said: “I can’t think of any other place I would rather be than here with you.” Then she opened her Bible and read these words God had given her to read—words from Romans: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loves us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
When Kelly Clem read those words, she looked out and she saw people with tears in their eyes, but nodding their heads in affirmation. She knew then that both she and they could go on. A year later, Easter 1995, they worshipped for the first time in the church they had rebuilt—it is in the shape of a butterfly, the symbol of rebirth and resurrection.
Isn’t that precisely what Easter is all about? Isn’t that what Mary Magdalene discovered on that first Easter morning when she arrived at the tomb of Jesus? She came defeated, in deep pain, paralyzed by grief and despair. She came shaken and hopeless. But look at this, please. She leaves running and shouting the faithful cry of Easter: “I have seen the Lord! He is risen! I have seen the Lord!” She realized then that nothing can defeat our God and that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. There is no grave deep enough, no stone heavy enough, no army strong enough, no seal imposing enough to keep Jesus Christ in the grave.