Other than Christmas, Easter is about the only Christian festival that still makes the national news. We have all these great traditions — breaking out our new spring clothes, Easter egg hunts, special brunches — trying to do justice to the wonder, the hope and the very newness of the resurrection of Jesus.
And along with all of that, there’s usually a sermon. We clergy-types try to make it worth the congregation’s while — honest, no lie, I promise. I have personally employed a whole basket of stuffed animals, a photo of a taxidermic otter, a Cadbury bunny that clucks like a chicken, a ceramic rooster and a plush lemur to try to make the Easter sermon one to remember.
I’ve also employed lots of illustrations from comic strips, old jokes and movies. A couple of years ago, yet another movie caught my eye: “Singin’ in the Rain,” starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor.
What Was Going On?
It came on the Turner Classic Movies channel one Palm Sunday evening. I studied “Singin’ in the Rain” — one of the greatest musicals of all time — as a Montevallo mass communications student, and in the times I’d seen it since then, I always remained thoroughly dry-eyed.
But as I watched the actual song-and-dance number, “Singin’ in the Rain,” there were tears of joy streaming down my face.
I couldn’t figure out WHY, but for some reason, on this first night of Holy Week, Gene Kelly’s dance number made me feel a powerful, almost MYSTICAL connection to the Church. And to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection that is Easter.
I wrote a first draft of a sermon and gave it to my fabulous bride, DebbieMiller before dinner on Good Friday. She read it and gave me honest feedback (the kind no preacher or writer wants, but needs).
“There may be a sermon here, but this isn’t it,” Debbie said. “This is too much about you and a movie and not enough about the Church and the resurrection of Jesus.”
And she was right. I had written a bunch of information that was interesting to me, but I never really communicated why I thought it was a good idea to base the biggest sermon of the year on an MGM musical. I had to figure out: What was going on with this movie?
Old School, Meet New Skool
In 1952, “Singin’ in the Rain” was a brand new movie about old-fashioned movies. It’s a weird mix of the old and the new. That made me think of a good church, where you sing old-fashioned songs, say old-fashioned prayers, worship in old-fashioned ways. And yet, somehow that doesn’t have to make us old-fashioned folks.
As a matter of fact, maybe it’s only after you spent a good portion of your adult life staring at a computer screen that you can appreciate what a joy it is to hold a real hymnal in your hands. Maybe it’s only after you have tried 14 different “piano” settings on an electronic keyboard or watched someone tune a real piano that you can appreciate why it’s such a marvelous thing.
On the other hand, you want to avoid the dangers of Golden Age Thinking phrases, like “we’ve never done it like that before,” and “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” I like to think if a congregation gets it right, then they do make ‘em like that anymore.
As we were driving home on Good Friday night, Deb and I were listening with delight to music from 1984. I mean literally — the Van Halen album, “1984.” It doesn’t get much more frivolous and silly than Van Halen. But pop music in general is pretty silly and disposable, and it lives a really short life. Maybe that’s why, after I saw DebbieMiller off to bed, I had some real, heavy stuff on my heart, and the fact that I hadn’t finished THE!!! EASTER!!!!! SERMON!!!!!!! barely made the top five.
It’s impossible to think about a new generation coming of age without thinking of your own generation passing away. I did funerals for the grandparents of children I baptized as infants, and now I’m doing their weddings. That realization packs an emotional wallop. As a youth, I never understood why old people cried at weddings. Now I understand. Death — my death — is not only real, it is inevitable.
Another pop music reference: Nobody gets out alive.
We all KNOW that, but every now and then, like when you’re sitting in front of a muted TV in a dark, silent house, it really sinks in. You can tell you’re starting to comprehend it when your heart skips a beat and then starts pounding.
When The Right Person Loves You
As I sat there — I promise, this is true — there, again, was “Singin’ in the Rain.” It was only about three minutes before Gene Kelly would do the big number.
Gene walks his Debbie Reynolds to her door, and she says, “You take care of that throat. You’re a big singing star now.” She looks out at the rain — it’s pouring — and says, “This California dew is just a little heavier than usual tonight.”
Gene says, “Really? From where I stand, the sun is shining all over the place.” Then he sings:
“I’m singing in the rain / Just singing in the rain
What a glorious feelin’ / I’m happy again
I’m laughing at clouds / so dark up above
The sun’s in my heart / and I’m ready for love
Let the stormy clouds chase / everyone from the place
Come on with the rain / I’ve a smile on my face!
I walk down the lane / with a happy refrain
Just singin’ / singin’ in the rain.”
Then, as Gene threw aside his umbrella and let himself get gloriously soaked by a rainspout, it hit me. The truth I was trying to express. The theological truth taught by a piece of tin-pan alley pop music, that made a grown man cry, and that — I hoped — would be worthy of the triumphant, holy day that is Easter.
When the right person loves you, there is nothing to fear.
When Debbie Reynolds loves Gene Kelly, a brave new world of “all talking, all singing, all dancing” musicals is nothing to fear.
When DebbieMiller loves Brad Hall, the prospect of growing up and growing old, “as long as you both shall live,” “‘til death do you part” is nothing to fear.
When Jesus Christ loves us — the people of His Church — all the sins of past, all the worries of the future, all the trials of life and all the terrors of death are nothing to fear.
We take hold of every fear — every thing that keeps us from living the lives of joy that God means for us — and we give them up to Jesus of Nazareth. Sin and death are crucified with Him, die with Him, and are buried with Him.
Then, on Easter, He is risen! We have seen the Lord! They killed Him by hanging Him on a tree, but God raised Him on the third day! We have been raised with Christ!
With all the communion of the saints and the great cloud of witnesses, we celebrate: Come on with the rain! Our risen Christ is Lord of all, and He loves us! What a glorious feeling.