SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The economic recession has given ministers plenty of fodder for sermons. It’s also put them more in tune with potential problems — job losses, failed mortgages, accumulation of debt — their parishioners might have.
But many say it’s also given them an opportunity, especially at Easter, to remind the faithful that there is more to life than material goods.
“My question is: What is it that makes a good life? 401(k)? Money in the bank? I don’t know if we’ve ever found God in our 401(k),” says the Rev. Beth Wagner, interim pastor at Hope Presbyterian Church in Springfield.
Most Christians mark Palm Sunday on April 5, heralding Christ’s entry into Jerusalem in advance of Holy Week, culminating in Easter on April 12. (Area Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter a week later.) Jews mark the beginning of Passover at sundown Wednesday.
The hope of the Easter and Passover stories may provide some of the salve recession-weary churchgoers are looking for, say representatives of different faiths from around the area.
“What Easter says is that no matter how difficult circumstances are, God has the last word,” says the Rev. Jeff Nelsen, pastor of Cherry Hills Baptist Church in Springfield. “Sunday and the resurrection eclipsed Friday (Christ’s crucifixion and death.)”
“We’re not supposed to put our hope in money; we’re supposed to be putting our trust in God and Jesus,” adds the Rev. Michael Fender of Grace United Methodist Church in Jacksonville.
“Easter Sunday,” says the Rev. Ron Otto of Lincoln Christian Church in Lincoln, “gives proof that there’s something more than all this pain and hurt around us.”
Some churches, such as Abundant Faith Christian Center in Springfield, have taken proactive steps when it comes to financial education. It has implemented Financial Peace, a 13-week program that helps people deal with budgets and credit card debt, says the Rev. Jerry Doss, senior pastor. The church also runs its own credit union, Financial Partners.
Abundant Faith is also the local staging area for Angel Food, a ministry that sells food at about half the retail cost.
Other churches have established community gardens, giving produce to local food pantries. Church members from Hope Presbyterian will cook Easter Sunday dinner for the Sojourn Shelter.
“People are looking for answers, for help. This is the time the church will rise and shine,” Doss assures.
The Rev. Phillip Blackburn, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, insists that for churches to provide hope in these times, “we need to get out of the buildings and go to where the people are.
“The church is an agent for change,” Blackburn says. “It needs to speak the truth, in a spirit of humility.”
The festival of Passover, the seder in particular, is replete with symbols of hope, says Rabbi Michael Datz of Temple B’rith Sholom in Springfield.
The essence of the story — the Israelites’ journey from captivity to exodus — “is meant to embrace an air of hopefulness,” Datz says.
The seder symbolically welcomes the prophet and forerunner Elijah, also a message of hope and optimism, Datz adds. At its conclusion, guests wish for “next year in Jerusalem,” a reference, he says, to “the spiritual ideal of the heavenly Jerusalem on earth.”
Fender will preach the story of Lazarus’ rising on Good Friday. It’s a reminder, he says, of humans’ greatest fear: death.
“Jesus says there is something more, that if we take away the fear of death, we can live life solely for God,” Fender says.
Christ’s death, reminds the Rev. Roy Newman, senior and founding pastor of Fresh Visions Community Church in Springfield, was considered “a hopeless situation. But he was dying for the betterment of the lives of others.
“There will be hope restored (through the resurrection.) That’s why we go through dark days, that a new day is coming.”
“One of the things Americans love,” says Lincoln Christian’s Otto, “is the comeback story. That’s the beauty of the Easter story: it’s one of the greatest comeback stories of all time. You ultimately beat death forever.”
While the Easter message is celebratory and inspirational, Doss says “it should not just be shared at this time of year. It should be expressed until (Christ returns.)”
Doss adds there needs to be “some application to that inspiration.”
“It’s one thing to preach about hope on Sunday,” he says, “but it’s another thing when Monday morning hits.”