Purple Paper

Early on Easter morning this year, my colleague and I sat looking at one another over a large basket full of small pieces of purple paper.

Throughout Lent, we had encouraged the community to write down their sins and burdens, and to attach them to a large cross in the front of the church that was full of nails. As the piles of paper grew, a visible reminder of the weight of sin in our world and in our lives, we all looked forward to Good Friday when we would take the sins down and watch them burn in the fire. Unfortunately, due to a blizzard that left fifteen inches of snow, Good Friday services never happened, and we were left quite literally “holding the bag.” “What should we do with these?” my colleague asked. “I have no idea. I’m making this up as I go,” I replied.

It was a familiar feeling. The combination of an early Easter and the worst winter in one hundred years had meant that we’d also missed Ash Wednesday, and attendance on Sunday mornings had been reduced and unreliable. Lent felt like it had never gotten started, and now it had been abandoned completely.

After prayer, we decided to burn the sins in the fireplace in the center of our gathering space. As we watched the paper disappear into the fire, I struggled with a variety of emotions, most specifically guilt. As pastoral leaders, had we done the right thing by our congregation? Had we been good enough stewards of their trust? Had we tried hard enough to lead them in a meaningful Lenten experience? We were usually the ones pleading with people to attend Holy Week services, to be faithful witnesses to the love and truth present in the cross of Jesus Christ. How could we have Easter if we didn’t have Lent?

Listening to my colleague read the Easter story that sunny morning, I remembered with both sadness and relief that, at the time, there really were no “faithful witnesses to the love and truth present in the cross of Jesus Christ.” In fact, that was part of the point. Aside from a few women, hardly anyone noticed and certainly no one really grasped the impact of what was taking place either on Good Friday or on Easter Sunday; that didn’t stop God. Likewise, our attempts to prepare and return during a season of reflection are helpful ways of honoring God’s promise to us, but God does not wait for us to complete “our Lent” before honoring that promise.

This was an important insight for me, someone who had never missed a Good Friday service, let alone both Good Friday and Ash Wednesday. In any given year, no more than 20 percent of our Easter morning congregation is present for those services. It’s not that I had begrudged the other 80 percent, but I had begun to assume that without the faithful remnant’s presence during Holy Week, Easter somehow didn’t “deserve” to happen. And, now that I was experiencing Easter “like everyone else,” I was questioning my ability to bring the Good News of the resurrection with any integrity.

As I thought about the first witnesses’ encounter with the risen Christ, I was reminded that each of us as preachers is tasked with telling the story, and none of us is worthy. We are simply called. From those first women witnesses, we have receive the Good News, and like them, we are sent running and stumbling into the world to share it, often left to make it up as we go. Any integrity or authority we have to preach is God’s. Thankfully, we proclaim a God who has proven again and again to be more than trustworthy, more than faithful; we proclaim a God who gives endlessly so that the world may live.