All morning my five-year-old daughter had been passively (and successfully) resisting my wife’s patient efforts to get her dressed. The dialogue running alongside her evasive maneuvers went something like this:
Q: “Why do I have to wear that?”
A: “Because we’re going to church.”
Q: “Why do we have to go to church?”
A: “Because it’s Sunday. We go to church on Sundays.”
Over and over again that catechism was repeated, always ending in the same place before the conversational needle jumped back to the start. But my wife was so consistent in her calm, repeated answers that, ultimately, my daughter could see there was no way out. The writing was on the wall. She would be wearing that dress and going to church no matter what.
But she also knew she had one last card to play. Breaking with her preferred delay tactic of rapid, repeated questions, she planted her feet, crossed her little arms, and threw down a stark declarative statement as a final protest:
“Well, I hate Sundays!”
The strife was o’er, the battle done. My wife wordlessly pulled a pretty pink something down over the furrowed little brow and off we all trundled to church.
A common loathing
And yet my daughter’s final protest stuck with me.
On one level, it was just a childish shout: the impotent rage of a tantrum. I have a penchant for grandiose denunciations as well, when I’m in the right (wrong?) mood, and certainly wouldn’t want one of my own fits of pique overanalyzed.
But on another level, I actually agreed with her. I hate Sundays, sometimes. I know that many of my friends and colleagues in ministry do too, at least occasionally. And I suspect that from time to time many of my parishioners feel the same way.
There are days when you can feel it just walking into church. The organ swells, the singing begins, the cross is lifted high, the procession makes its way through the grand west doors of the cathedral … and a sense of heaviness hits you at the back of the nave. True, we’re all there, and everybody knows that showing up is 90 percent. But do we want to be there? Does it make any difference? Is there anything animating our assembly other than habit and a vague sense of obligation?
Almost everyone has a strategy for addressing the problem of hateful Sundays. Most of the complaints I hear fall under the “style” rubric.
“Oh, it’s too formal.”
“Oh, we’re so stuffy.”
“The music is too dreary.”
“The prayer book is so hard for visitors to navigate.”
“If only we were more casual!”
“If only we were more relevant!”
“If only we were more upbeat!”
“If only we were something else!”
The trouble is that we cannot be other than what we are. That’s no lazy traditionalist dodge, but a truth borne out in daily life. Whether it’s the schoolboy learning to cuss in order to sound like the older kids he looks up to, or the man in the midst of a midlife crisis buying a sports car and a new wardrobe in an effort to look young again — the bitter, ironic truth is the same.
Our efforts to become something else only reinforce the undeniable reality of who we are. Most of the style critiques I hear about Sundays ignore that truth. Most of them would lead to the liturgical equivalent of a foul-mouthed 11-year-old or a 50-something with a comb-over and a leather jacket: awkward, unpleasant, utterly inauthentic. We cannot be other than what we are.
But if the style of worship isn’t the issue, then what is?
The straightforward simplicity of my daughter’s protest cut through all the prescriptive stylistic solutions. She went beyond our efforts to fix and simply voiced a visceral rejection of one major part of her weekly routine and our family life.
I hate Sundays! said so much more than the suggestions and recommendations of the parishioners who may have felt the same way but couldn’t say it so plainly.
It helped me realize something. My five-year-old would never dream of saying, “I hate the resurrection of Jesus!” She really does know and believe that Christ died for our sins and rose again on Easter Sunday. In fact, she was giddy about Easter — and not just for the chocolate bunnies and the marshmallow Peeps.
My wife and I have overheard breathlessly telling her little brother, “Jesus died, but now he isn’t dead! He’s not going to die anymore!” She knows that to be true, and was excited about the celebration of it. But what clearly isn’t connecting for her — or, many weeks, for me, for many of my clergy friends, and many of my faithful parishioners — is that every single Sunday is a celebration of that truth.
We go to church on Sundays because Jesus conquered death on a Sunday. We go to church on Sundays because our hope for life everlasting was given on a Sunday. We go to church on Sundays because on a Sunday God acted decisively for the redemption of the world. This fundamental truth ties together every Sunday of the year (and of every year). While a surprising number of people apparently understand that Sundays in Lent bring a relaxation of discipline because “every Sunday is a little Easter,” it doesn’t seem as though that affirmation brings joy and purpose and meaning to our weekly worship all year round.
Careful readers will notice that I neglected to mention one major element of Sunday morning worship in the little litany of complaints up above: preaching.
Folks complain that sermons are boring, or overlong, or irrelevant. In all these things, the sincere critic is pointing to the same truth my daughter identified in her defiant cry. If the Sunday sermon is an announcement of the Sunday truth — the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again — then how could that ever be boring? How could its declaration ever drag into dullness? How could that announcement ever be irrelevant?
Sunday sermons stray often from that simple subject.
I’m as guilty of this wandering as anyone else, and spending time on other topics can be necessary and right. Stewardship messages really are important, as are exhortations to Christian living in the secular world, or promises of pastoral peace, or rousing calls to social action. Nearly every sermon has something to commend it, something to justify its existence.
But a sermon that misses the message of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection misses the meaning of Sunday worship. Every time we fail to connect the weekly routine with the eternal announcement, we really do make Sundays boring, long, and irrelevant. We make them hateful.
In his 1877 Beecher Lectures at Yale, Phillips Brooks describes an imperfect but memorable sermon that he once heard preached by George MacDonald. According to Brooks,
It had many of the good and bad characteristics of [MacDonald’s] interesting style. It had his brave and manly honesty, and his tendency to sentimentality. But over and through it all it had this quality: it was a message from God to these people by him.
Brooks goes on to tell of MacDonald’s halting speech and inelegant language. But pushing through all that, the legendary preacher and bishop comes to this surprising conclusion:
As I listened, I seemed to see how weak in contrast was the way in which other preachers had amused me and challenged my admiration for the working of their minds. Here was a gospel. Here were real tidings. And you listened and forgot the preacher.
Brooks goes on to implore his seminarian hearers, “Whatever else you count yourself in the ministry, never lose this fundamental idea of yourself as a messenger.” For if the preacher is a messenger, it is not for the sake of “the minute, and subtle, and ingenious treatment of little topics, side issues of the soul’s life, bits of anatomy, the bric-a-brac of theology.”
Rather, preaching is about “the great utterance of great truths, the great enforcement of great duties.”
Great truths and great duties soar above questions of style. Urgent tidings from a place beyond to this particular place — the “message from God to these people” — can be delivered just as well in a cassock and surplice as it can be in a knit cap and blue jeans. Indeed, it can be communicated even more effectively when drawing on all the resources of what might be called our Anglican Sunday style.
When Sunday preaching proclaims the Sunday message, it is the final piece of a grand puzzle finally clicking into place. Our liturgy and hymnody are already suffused with the message. The iconography of well-built churches — whether written in stained glass, statuary, reredos, or even a cruciform floor plan — are all designed to express and uphold and affirm the great truths and great duties. It takes more effort to work against all those meaningful furnishings than to work with them.
Let’s let them speak, and preach alongside them with everything we’ve got. Let’s focus our energies on the one element of public worship that can and does vary dramatically from week to week, and make it better. Let’s not reserve the great truths for the great days, but bring them to bear every week, in every sermon.
Let’s not aim simply to keep our people from hating Sundays. Let’s give them our = Sunday best.
Let’s lead them to love Sunday, even as they love the Lord whose day it is.
The Rev. Canon Dane E. Boston is canon for Christian formation at Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina.
The featured image is Lori Riegel-Kapalin’s “Lakeview Park Easter Basket” (1963). It was uploaded to Flickr by Rona Proudfoot, and is licensed under Creative Commons.
“Is there anything animating our assembly other than habit and a vague sense of obligation?” There is no question that we will have times where the mature disciple must push through dry, down seasons in worship. And it is true that style is not really the issue (I think an argument of “language of the people” can be made – some styles are not a given person’s “language” so to speak, but that’s a matter for another day). I cannot quibble with the call for clergy to give us their “Sunday best.” But I think that is not at the… Read more »