Every year, it takes a lot of people putting forth a lot of effort. But at its core, “Easter at the Mathewson” is about sharing a story.
“We get extremely excited” about the event, said the Rev. Jared Wheeler, a pastor at First United Methodist Church, which for the fifth time will stage its Easter Sunday service at the Mathewson Exhibition Center on the Missouri State Fairgrounds. “The reason is not because it is at the Mathewson or that the crowd is so large, but the reason that we get excited is that sheer number of people will be able to hear a really good story and what we think is really good news for them immediately in their lives. It’s a lot of work, a lot of planning, but we have so many good people here who just put so much into it because they care about their friends and neighbors and they want them to have the opportunity to hear this story.”
Each year, “Easter at the Mathewson” carries a theme; this year, it is “The Name of Jesus.”
The Rev. Jim Downing, lead pastor at First United Methodist, said the service will open with an elaborate scene that depicts the crucifixion of Jesus and his body being placed in the tomb. As the choir sings “Jesus, Your Name,” 40 banners emblazoned with different names for Jesus from the Bible will be carried out and surround the arena floor.
“That opening scene will take nearly 100 people to pull off,” Downing said, encouraging attendees to arrive before 10 a.m. to ensure they are seated when it starts.
This year’s theme came to Downing right at end of the Easter season last year. On Thursday, he worked his way through a stack of banners, each carrying a different reference to Jesus, including “Lamb of God,” “Immanuel,” “Morning Star” and “Shepherd.”
“There are a hundred names for Jesus in the Bible; we just had to pick around 40,” he said. “In the New Testament, it talks about how Jesus is the name above all names, so that is definitely one of the scriptures that we will play off of. But there is an Old Testament passage in Isaiah that says, ‘He has your name written in the palm of his hand.’ ... (T)o think in some measure, even if that is metaphorical, that your name is written in the palm of his hand — well, we know where those palms were on Friday.”
Coming up with a theme a year out is typical for Downing.
“Usually as soon as ‘Easter at the Mathewson’ is over, next year’s thoughts are already cooking and percolating in his head, so it is a lot of fun to watch that take place and to try to support that and watch it come to fruition,” Weaver said.
This year’s event includes a special mission project to benefit local residents. Working with the Sedalia Senior Center, Open Door and the Pettis County Medical Reserve Corps, the church is helping create three-day emergency preparedness baskets for seniors who are part of the senior center’s meal program. The recent winter storms that limited transportation and caused power outages revealed a need to provide seniors with food that is ready to eat and requires no cooking.
Those attending the Easter service are invited to bring canned meat, peanut butter and dried fruit for the kits. Residents have until April 10 to drop off donations at the Celebration Center, 1701 W. 32nd St.
By the time Sunday’s service begins, about 200 people will have had a hand in bringing the production together. Downing is frequently asked why the church invests so much time and effort into it each year.
“When we talk about it, why we do it, one is a practical reason and one is very much the reason we exist,” he said.
The practical reason is simple: Even between the Celebration Center and the church’s downtown location at Fourth Street and Osage Avenue, there is not enough capacity for Easter services.
“The last time we held Easter at our two campuses, we had about 1,500 people” over multiple services, Downing said. Seating capacity is about 450, and 700 came out for one service.
“So I said, ‘Why don’t we just bring everybody together (in one location)? It’s one time a year, wouldn’t that be fun?’ ” he said.
The other reason is the core of the church’s mission.
“We lead people to an active faith in Jesus Christ,” Downing said. “There are many folks who wouldn’t come to a local church any time, let alone Easter. But Easter is one of those times, even still in our culture, that people have the idea that it is more than bunnies and chocolate-filled eggs. If we can take them to a place that is already familiar, where there has been a tractor pull or they have seen the queen of the fair crowned ... then maybe there is a chance for them to hear a message that would resonate with them. ... It’s not about us getting a benefit, it is about the kingdom of God growing.”
David Woolery, of Sedalia, attended one of the first “Easter at the Mathewson” services.
“It moved me, the way they were reaching out to the community,” he said. “It was just a wide-open, Easter Sunday celebration for everybody.”
Woolery has become a regular attendee at First United Methodist, and this year worked with local businesses to advertise the Easter service on their electronic signage. He is hopeful that others will give the Mathewson service a try.
“It’s not so much the service that is important, but the word shared at the service. What excited me is the way that it opened up for people who only go to church once a year, making them feel comfortable that they can dress way they want to dress, and become more spiritually aware in their life,” Woolery said. “That is what it is all pointed at. We’re not trying to change anyone’s faith, we just like to have them exposed to what we are excited about.”
Wheeler is pleasantly surprised at how frequently Woolery’s personal story plays out.
“It’s amazing. That happens quite a bit, maybe more than the cynic in me would like to admit,” he said. “When there is a wide door open, something like the Mathewson where they can come and blend for an hour and not be put on the spot, and maybe experience a different approach to church ... people make a connection with the church and with a force beyond themselves, and then they plug in.”
Last year’s service was the biggest to date, with attendance of about 2,700.
“It’s not about a big crowd, it’s about the one person,” Downing said. “If they make a connection, it is worth it all.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Easter at the Mathewson,” presented by First United Methodist Church
When: Doors open at 9 a.m. Sunday with refreshments available; the service begins at 10 a.m.
Where: Mathewson Exhibition Center on the Missouri State Fairgrounds