No doubt a few preachers cringe at the thought of “C and E” (Christmas and Easter) Christians showing up for Christmas Eve Services. For many, these fair-weather parishioners come across like neighbors who want to borrow a hedge-trimmer, but never intend to return it. They are akin to free-riders who donate nothing to the community.
I must confess, when I preach on Christmas or Easter I do not share this sentiment held by some of my peers. What I see instead are families reunited, people returning to their roots, and individuals reentering the holy space where they were baptized, confirmed, or married. I thrive on the buzz of a larger crowd, all out of their routine, who are excited about being together.
Some feel such a ragtag audience really deserves judgment rather than mercy. No doubt there is some truth in that. For these preachers, Christmas and Easter do not seem to be opportunities for evangelism, but instead high-holy days exclusive to the truly faithful. That thought must be reexamined. Reaching out with God’s good news should be the weekly norm for preachers. If you are not sharing Christ as God’s mercy for sinners at every Sunday service, you might have no business being a preacher. Preachers need to learn to become more comfortable with the unchurched and the under-churched. We need not worry if we will catch their apathetic cooties. Sharing in the preaching office means we are upheld in that office by God’s Word. Nothing promotes security for a preacher more than this.
Nor should we aim to deliver a thin, watered down “gospel” highlighting the self-affirming values to which so many Americans adhere. No matter how sincere, our Christmas Eve preaching should not be so innocuous as to echo Ricky Bobby’s prayer in Talladega Nights:
Dear Lord Baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you, Jesús, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family, my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome, striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, or T.R. as we call him, and of course, my red-hot smoking wife, Carly who is a stone-cold fox.
Of course, this is a parody, but it is funny precisely because it hits so close to the tepid spirituality of many Americans.
No matter how much nervous energy C and E Christians exude on Christmas Eve or Easter Morning, we know that under their officially optimistic demeanor are insecure sinners—no different than ourselves—comparing successes with and hiding their failures from their peers. Behind the masks of sugar plum faces lie buried childhood or teenage hurts and bruises from barbs slung by various Grinches. Only rarely are adults able to unhook completely from buried slights which occurred in their childhood and are forever etched onto their psyche.
The Christmas temptation is to preach a sermon that sentimentalizes childbirth, motherhood, and family and idealizes the birth within the Holy Family, as opposed to a robust message of the Word becoming flesh. A hopeful proclamation of Christ crawling deep into every hole we dig, all to raise us to new life. Similarly, the Easter temptation is to reinforce the Gnostic illusion that all souls presently “imprisoned” in bodies eventually will transcend death and finitude in a display of pastel eggs, jelly beans and Easter grass as opposed to a Savior who undergoes a tortured death on a cross for us all, but swallows the enemy up definitively in resurrection life.
Along with our C and E, Johnny-and-Janey-come-latelies, all parishioners (and we ourselves) walk an earthly path that feels less and less steady. In the last several years, the American people have survived bouts between Tea Partiers and Occupy Wall Street folks. We are divided over #MeToo and Brett Kavanaugh. Economic, political, environmental, social and cultural disasters seem to loom with every Chicken Little who posts on Facebook. Many C and E Christians feel the weight of a divided America. They come to church with an anxious mindset.
These unsettling challenges reveal the depth of the political division in our nation. We are wise in our preaching to move beyond politics, or to use Bonhoeffer’s language, to move beyond “penultimate” matters to “ultimate” matters. That is, we need to specify God’s “No” to sin and our desire to be our own gods for ourselves; in all of its various manifestations. But we also must proclaim God’s “Yes” to sinners which is clearly revealed in Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. More than ever, we need to claim the spiritual truth we live in that is not of the world. Since through the Gospel we have one foot already firmly planted in God’s eternal kingdom, we can detach, to a degree, from the world’s narrative that reveals the depth of the trouble it is in and just how entwined it is in an ideological war that takes no prisoners; a dog-eat-dog game whose stakes is “winner takes all.” All too often, the world we live in resembles a Game of Thrones episode. But as Christians, we have hope in a new Heaven and a new Earth. We can unhook from the matrix of unending ideological warfare and freely live in the earthly kingdom, thereby helping our neighbors and even loving our enemies. Such a message could liberate some C and E Christians.
Many C and E Christians come on Christmas and Easter out of a sense of obligation to grandparents, or mom and dad. However, they often do not come all that begrudgingly. They too are excited by the festivities, the large crowd, and sometimes seeing old mentors, acquaintances and friends. They join in the familiar carols and songs which they may have learned in childhood. We are reminded that Christ told a parable about a man who invited many to his banquet. Unfortunately, many balked at his generosity and would not come. So, the host instructed his servant: “Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (Luke 14:21). When the servant noted how there were still some open seats, the host reached even further. “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet” (Luke 14:23-24).
What C and E Christians need to hear is: “If you walk through the doors of this church, know that you have a church, you have a pastor, and you have a home. Most importantly, you have a Savior and Lord.” They also need to hear, “Don’t miss out. Christ has so much more to offer you.” Instead of dreading all the freeloaders showing up this Christmas or Easter, let us embrace them, even enjoy them, and see them through Christ’s eyes as those for whom Jesus gave His life. Is that not the reason for it all anyway? As Luther’s last written words declared, “We are beggars.” If we do not recognize how every person present on Christmas or Easter stands at the door waiting for the judge to declare mercy, we have missed the point and the opportunity of the affair: God made flesh, crucified, died, and risen is for you.