Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why Pastors Dislike Preaching On Secular Holidays

Yesterday's post "Why I Don't Preach a Special Sermon for Mother's Day") got lots of amazing feedback, both on Facebook and Twitter, which, to be completely honest, I wasn't really expecting.  I knew I had to tread a fine line between making my point and coming across as an anti-mother crank who hates everything flowery and beautiful on a day that is ostensibly all about celebrating motherhood.  So, whenever I stick my neck out there, it is always reassuring to be affirmed.

But as I alluded to in that post, it isn't just Mother's Day.  It's Father's Day.  It's July Fourth.  It's the entire bloody calendar of secular holidays that are supposed to be a Biden-esque BFD in church but that shouldn't be.

And a lot of us pastors dislike it.  We loathe it.  I have colleagues who genuinely dread (behind closed doors, of course, lest they hurt a special snowflake's feelies) having to preach on those days.

Why do we run from that?  After all, preaching and teaching is a responsibility many of us cherish, honor, and take extremely seriously.

Here are, I think, five reasons why:

1. It's idolatrous

Yes, idolatrous.  I didn't stutter.  Church is meant to be for the worship and glorification of God and the furthering of God's mission, as revealed by Jesus Christ, on earth.  When we deviate from that to take a detour into celebrating Americana on Independence Day, or celebrating a greedy, racist explorer on Columbus Day, we are elevating something that isn't from God into an idol because we are glorifying it in the same space and before the same altar as God.

A few years ago, a minister whom I had regularly invited as a guest preacher to cover for me during my Sundays off, gave a seriously team-'murica-bordering-on-jingoistic sermon that was ostensibly about 9/11.  Except it wasn't on the Sunday of the week of 9/11, 9/11 was still weeks away, and I had already made plans to mark it during the appropriate Sunday in my pastoral prayer.  I had several of my congregants come to me afterwards, visibly disturbed by his sermon, and I completely understood why.  They were hearing an idolatrous message.  We aren't supposed to hear a message to worship America, we're supposed to hear a message to worship God.  And that didn't happen that Sunday.

2. It distracts from God

Springboarding from #1, if I'm preaching about mothers or fathers rather than God as a parent, I'm elevating us, God's children, to that same sort of idol-status.  It's tempting maybe to do that, because it really is super easy to go from your own mom or dad to God as a mom or dad, but, to repeat my main point from yesterday: your parent is not like God.  Your parent is human, God is not.  Our parents will stumble and mess up, sometimes horrifically, but God does not.

And when we distract from the perfect that is God by trying out some Hallmark-esque revisionism in preaching about our parents as perfect, it can induce all manner of feelings of inadequacy...all of which pulls us away from and distracts us from the perfect love of God.  We end up doing the exact opposite thing that church is meant to do: bring us closer to God's glory and to fulfilling the mission God has for us.

3. Secular holidays have an agenda

And no, I'm not talking about the "Secularism is taking over our government and our schools and our manufacturers of cheesesteak sammiches!  Beware of the new world order!" school of Chicken Little-esque Christianity.  I'm talking about secular holidays advancing a particular narrative, like that Christopher Columbus was somehow a swell guy (again, he wasn't) or that Halloween is a standalone holiday (it isn't), which simply isn't true.  This isn't the case for all public holidays, but for a lot of them, this is the case.  We're taught sanitized versions of historical events behind holidays like July Fourth, Independence Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. day that edit out some of our own sins (like our treatment of American Indians, or our trying to smear King as a communist).

Truth is beyond value in our worship and spiritual life in church--indeed, John writes in his first letter about how we are called to worship God "in spirit and in truth."  Jesus says that the truth shall set us free.  We can uphold these Biblical maxims by being honest with ourselves about what a holiday is trying to say to us, and what we are telling ourselves about it and its history.

4. It makes our work smaller

We like to pretend that our beloved flocks hang on our every word, even though we look out into the pews and know full well that when you've got your head bowed, you're checking the baseball score on your iPhone rather than praying.  And we realize that not every detail of the nitty-gritty exegesis, research, sweat, and tears that went into the writing of our sermons will be remembered--hell, I can sometimes barely remember what I preached on in any given worship service without looking it up.

But we do hope that our messages give you spiritual nourishment, and dense nourishment at that.  We hope they give you strength to get through the next six days before we get the honor of preaching to you again, and we hope that you retain some of the inspiration that made that particular message happen.  These are big, lofty hopes we have for our work, and when we feel the need or pressure from our communities to deviate from what we feel God is calling us to preach to what the community expects or wants to hear, it diminishes our teaching and its importance, which we already worry about enough (see previous paragraph).

Point blank: I can't think of a single person in my entire life as a Christian who has said to me anything along the lines of "I wasn't sure about this whole God-thing, but now that I've heard that Father's Day sermon, I feel restored to God now!"*

*An exception to this for me has always been Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, since King was himself a pastor, and I have received uplifting feedback about how discussing King's honoring of God and humanity helped inspire a listener or three.

5. The risk of offense is great

We live in a world where, if I don't preach about Memorial Day or Veteran's Day, some troll somewhere will think it is because I hate soldiers.  If I don't preach about Independence Day, I must hate America (TEAM 'MURICA).  It's ridiculous, reductive, and not even remotely constructive.  But that is how knee-jerk humanity has become, and sometimes, we bow to pressure not from what God is telling us to do, but from our instinct to follow the path of least resistance.  I myself often end up with a compromise arrangement, like not using my sermon to talk about a particular secular holiday, but using, say, my newsletter column to do so, just so that I can inoculate myself from any of that (plus, it provides a ready-made basis to springboard off of, and I otherwise often suck at writing my newsletter columns).

But doing what is convenient is seldom the same as doing what is right.  And so we feel guilty whenever we cave to that temptation.  But we know we shouldn't.

So there you have it.  I'm done cranking about secular holidays in the church, but I'm interested in hearing what you have to say about it.  Especially if you're not a pastor--how do you feel when your pastor gets up and says, "Today's sermon will be about [fill in non-church holiday here]?"

Yours in Christ,

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