It was Monday of Holy Week in 1974. I was a twenty-five-year-old associate and youth pastor at First United Methodist Church in Sherman, Texas. My phone rang early in the morning, and my Sr. Pastor, Dr. Earl Hoggard, told me his mother had passed away and that he was going to Oklahoma for her funeral. He promised me that he would be back for Easter, and expressed confidence that I could handle things in his absence. After expressing condolences, I assured him that everything would be fine. This, in spite of the fact that I had never called on a grieving family or conducted a funeral.
Despite the sad news that had started my day, I entered the office that morning in high spirits. I was in charge! I exchanged pleasantries with Jeri, our secretary, and went to my office to plan the day. Within minutes, it started. Jeri rang my phone to tell me that Mrs. D. A. Cater had died, and the family wanted to meet with me. I was seized with panic. What am I supposed to do? I’m not prepared for this!
To make a very long and sad story very short, within six hours three members of our church family died. As I entered the office after making my second call to a grieving family, Jeri was in tears as she told me that Wray Wible had just passed away. I was stunned, an emotional wreck. I was drowning in death; choked by despair; overwhelmed with sadness and feelings of ineptitude and hopelessness. By the end of the week I had conducted my first two funerals, and I was trying to figure out whether I was being called to attend law school or go into business. I just wanted out.
On Easter morning Dr Hoggard, having just buried his mother, stood behind the pulpit as the first hymn began. I remember looking over at him and noticing that he had a smile on his face, and he was singing loudly, “Christ the Lord is risen today…Alleluia…” I looked out into the congregation and suddenly my eyes locked onto the face of Mrs. Miller Gladden, whose husband I had buried on Good Friday. She had tears in her eyes, but she was also singing: “Where, O Death, is now thy sting…Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia…” Then I saw the Wible family, occupying nearly a whole pew, and they were all singing: “Soar we now where Christ has led…made like him, like him we rise…ours the cross, the grave, the skies…Alleluia…” I suddenly realized that, in spite of the tears that were gathering in my eyes, I had started singing as well.
That hymn was the greatest sermon I’ve ever heard. It came at a time of my greatest need. Forty-five years later, I can say that I am a pastor today because of that worship service and that hymn.
Maybe you’ve been thinking about skipping Easter worship this Sunday. The crowds, the search for a parking place…maybe you are thinking it is not worth it. Let me encourage you to think again. This is the greatest day of the year, the one Sunday when it is most important to be in church. That Sunday forty-five years ago changed my life forever. This Sunday might do the same for you.
Rev. Don Underwood