Easter story more compelling through narrative preaching
By Lindsay Peyton
Pastor Stephanie Hughes considers Easter as an opportunity to share the Good News in a new way and to renew hope. And she challenges herself to find innovative ways to retell the story. Last year, she felt an even stronger call to go all out. After all, Easter was the first sermon back in the building for St. John’s UMC in Texas City. “I told everyone, we had to go big or go home,” she said with a laugh.
Hughes began brainstorming ways to make the 2021 services more memorable. That’s how she thought of doing a first-person sermon. This style of preaching examines scripture from a different perspective – that of a character in the story.
The pastor had tried the narrative style earlier in her preaching career – but never at this church and never for Easter. “It takes me a couple of weeks to commit to this,” she said. “It’s kind of scary. You don’t know how people will take it or if you will be able to pull it off.”
Still, she felt there was a compelling Easter story to tell – through the eyes of Mary Magdalene. In scripture, Mary Magdalene and her companions go to Jesus’ tomb early in the morning. When they arrive, the blocking stone is removed, and a man tells them that Jesus is risen and to spread the news. “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing.’
“The Gospel of Mark doesn’t have a very good ending,” Hughes said. “Women go to the tomb and then run away in fear. What are we supposed to do with that? That intrigued me.”
To start preparing for her first-person sermon, she put herself in Mary Magdalene’s place. “I thought about what it would be like walking to the tomb, getting ready to anoint this body of a man who changed my life, who now is gone,” she said.
She pictured walking through the early morning dew, carrying a jar of oil, emotionally preparing herself to see and touch the dead body of someone she loved. “I knew I would be grateful to not have to do it alone, to have very close friends with me,” she said.
Then, she would notice upon reaching the tomb that something was not right and ask, “Does this look open to you?”
“There would be a mix of emotions and questions seeing his body was gone,” Hughes said. “There’s a person saying Jesus had been raised from the dead.”
In her sermon on Easter, she recounted all of the details to the congregation. The scarf she was wearing around her neck, she raised over her head as she became the narrator.
Hughes ended the sermon by talking about being back in Mary Magdalene’s home, packing and replaying the words, “He is risen.”
As she said them over and over again, the words went from being a question to a statement. “I need to tell the others,” she concluded.
There were four sermons last year, and each time, the first-person narration was slightly different. Hughes does not memorize a script. Instead, she lets herself get lost in the emotions she imagined rushing through Mary Magdalene and describing in detail the tactile sensations.
“You want to bring your audience into the story, give them enough information so they’re right there with you,” Hughes said.
And it worked. “It was very well-received,” the pastor recalled. “People told me, ‘I was on the edge of my seat.’ Children were especially receptive. They were mesmerized by it.”
Now a year has passed. “I am still proud of the service,” Hughes said. “I’m proud of the message. It made it memorable.”
She explained that sometimes repeating the same story, with the same message, can make it lose steam. “When something becomes too familiar, we can take it for granted,” she said. “We have to find ways to hear and imagine this anew. It’s a challenge to present the same message in a new way and to create a new way for people to experience it – one more time.”
Hughes credits her mother and grandmother with teaching her the art of storytelling. Preaching a sermon in the first person is still a challenge, she said, one that she says forces her out of her comfort zone. She has never been an actress or liked public speaking.
Still, Hughes believes that spending a moment in Mary Magdalene’s footsteps can be powerful, especially this time of year. “She is wrestling with her own disbelief,” she said. “That’s the thing about being human. We do that. God gave us this imagination for a reason – to go deeper.”