We Ought Not Worship The Building
How faith (and government) leaders responded when a global pandemic displaced Easter
Most churches didn’t gather today, on this holy day of Easter. At least not in person. For many Christians across America, it’s the most significant day of the year. An occasion that marks hope eternal, a celebration of the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Growing up in the south, attending church on Easter was as necessary as skin to an apple, perhaps the most important thing you did all year. (And in my neck of the woods, what you wore was a close second.)
I was baptized — in the southern Baptist tradition — on an Easter Sunday at the tender age of 8. Forty-some years later I still consider myself a Christian, but I separated from the church over a decade ago… for a number of reasons.
Just outside Minneapolis, Paul Baudhuin, the pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church, had been in the thick of planning for his congregation’s Easter festivities. On tap was an egg hunt for after the service, a cinnamon roll spread, and a photo booth. Baudhuin refers to Easter as “the Super Bowl of Sundays.”
Regardless of denomination, I’ve gotta agree that this an accurate assessment. At least, from my perspective. Because here in the south, it wasn’t just the weekly pew-warmers in attendance; it was any and everybody in town. If you went to church at no other time throughout the year, you at least went on Easter. Easter was the pinnacle of hope, the season of renewal, of rebirth.
So what do you do when there’s a global pandemic on such a holiday? And moreover, a pandemic that occurs right at the beginning of spring when we should be able to congregate en masse outdoors and appreciate the renewal of nature itself.
Of course, this is hardly the first time our world has seen tragedy during the season of hope and renewal. Lest we forget, a year ago this month, the Notre Dame Cathedral was all but consumed in a devastating fire. This happened during holy week, ensuring that no Easter services would be held in the sacred building. And, on December 25, 2019, the cathedral did not host Christmas services for the first time since the french revolution.
As for Baudhuin back in Minnesota, he’d be joining the chorus of preachers around the world engaging in virtual services this year. “The beauty of this, if there’s anything beautiful right now, is the church is able to just be the church, and not be bothered by the competition and the marketing,” he said. “So much of the show has been stripped away that it’s a little bit liberating.”
But in other church sanctuaries around America, some congregations planned to conduct their Easter services anyway. In Kansas, this decision was made among Republican leaders, despite Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s order limiting religious gatherings to 10 people, especially in light of the state’s coronavirus death toll jumping 40 percent.
The Wichita Eagle outlined the actions their Republican state leaders took shortly after Gov. Kelly’s directive:
“House and Senate leaders — meeting as a body called the Legislative Coordinating Council — voted along party lines to throw out the directive. Their decision came as the number of reported COVID-19 cases in the state climbed to more than 1,000 and the death count ticked up to 38. Church gatherings have produced three case clusters across the state and health officials fear Easter gatherings could further spread the deadly coronavirus.” — The Wichita Eagle
Considering the distinct brand of “loyalty” that supporters seem to give the 45th administration, one has to wonder if Trump’s delayed response in giving this virus the serious attention it deserved, and his premature exalt over “reopening the country by Easter” had spread across the entire Republican party — as a pandemic in its own right.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the most revered men of late to speak during White House press briefings, just earlier today confirmed a “bombshell New York Times piece” which stated he and other officials recommended implementing social distancing to combat the coronavirus as early as February, but were rebuffed by Trump for nearly a month — time that could’ve been precious for so many.
It begs the question, should people be taking their faith cues from government leaders in the first place?
Raphael Warnock, Senior Pastor of Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia appeared on Saturday’s A.M. Joy show to address this very topic. When Joy Reid asked what he would say to Christian communities who insisted on meeting in-person for Easter services, he responded, “I say that my faith has no quarrel at all with science. And the church is not the building. The church is the people. And so let every home be a sanctuary, and let every soul be safe.”
He spoke of how his church had found ways to worship creatively in order to keep people safe, including just one week ago, a funeral that Pastor Warnock conducted from his home, via a Zoom virtual platform, for one of his parishioners. He said of that experience:
“If you had told me a few years ago that I’d be conducting an entire funeral on a virtual platform I would not have understood. But, this is where we are. A funeral should not produce other funerals. We should not lose lives trying to celebrate life. Churches tomorrow will be empty, but so is the grave — that’s what our faith teaches us.” — Senior Pastor Raphael Warnock, Ebeneezer Baptist Church
Pastor Warnock also eloquently put this whole ordeal — of religious leaders and Republican lawmakers being in cahoots to the detriment of the population — into proper perspective. He explained that looking to government leaders as faith leaders, basically, worshiping a political ideology, is a form of idolatry.
Seemingly anyone with common sense can understand this, right? I mean, Christianity boldly warns against the practice of idolatry in its many and varied forms.
“The fact of the matter is, faith leaders really out to be leading the way,” Pastor Warnock said.
“After all, this is holy week. Holy week is a story within a story about how to survive a pandemic. Ironically, the story of Passover, in which Jesus goes into Jerusalem to celebrate along with other Jews… is a story about a people overcoming oppression and injustice, and in the midst of that struggle, a pandemic, a plague emerges. And there comes a divine directive to shelter in place until the pass over — the pandemic — passes.
And so our spiritual ancestors have taught us how to survive a pandemic. We ought not worship the building. We need people to be safe. We ought to always be taking this seriously so that when the time comes we can gather and celebrate our faith in the God who gives us the promise that death and sickness will never have the last word.
That, after all, is the message of Easter.”