There is something quite egalitarian about a sunrise service. You might be an unemployed carpenter sitting right next to the CEO of a major bank. There might be people whose total repertoire of church music would be “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace” standing right next to a person who knows their church hymnal frontward and backward.
Sunrise services attract people who haven’t stepped inside any kind of church building for decades. You can be very mad at the church and still feel perfectly fine about attending a sunrise service. Forget the liturgies, the choirs, the robed clergy, the offering plates and pipe organs. We’re talking about lawn chairs, blankets, maybe a gospel quartet or a soloist, perhaps a tinny sound system, and people attired blue jeans or Easter Sunday clothes. Predictably a few shivering worshipers who will have forgotten how cold it can be will come dressed way too scantily.
People for whom organized religion is a curse will nevertheless find their way to a sunrise service because there is this appeal to the primitive, to the re-creating or at least remembering how it might have happened on that very first confused morning when the women were overcome with awe and amazement at an empty Jerusalem tomb. In the informality is contained the potential for surprise.
Who began such services? My never completely reliable research assistant Wikipedia told me that the Moravians initiated the first service in 1732 in Saxony, just a year before the founding of Savannah. Other sources claim that services such as this can be traced back to at least 800 A.D.
A headline on a travel website caught my attention this week, what with Easter right around the corner: “Travel Picks: Top 10 Sunrise Destinations.” Their ranking prompted me to muse on the top ten destinations for an Easter Sunrise Service. Of course I’d take any of the destinations they’d selected: Hawaii, Angkor Wat, Stonehenge, Grand Canyon.
But I think I’d rather attend an Easter Sunrise Service in a place made dramatic by the circumstances rather than the scenery. How about in a hospice care facility? How about San Quentin or any state prison or even county jail where despair reigns supreme? How about China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Cuba or North Korea, where delusional despots and dictators think they’re in charge?
Maybe the best location for a sunrise service is in the least exotic place of all - right where you live. Sunrise services can be held anywhere: in pastures, on the beaches, at boat ramps, in cemeteries, in back yards. I have friends who hold such a service in their own field every year. I’ve attended, and sometimes had the privilege of preaching, at services held beside lakes, in church yards and in fairgrounds. The setting doesn’t make that much difference. Frankly, one can get along without the sunrise itself, although a pink sky sure helps one re-capture the grand surprise and the stunning victory of Easter.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.