People look sheepish when they explain why they haven’t been to church in a while. “It’s not that I’ve been avoiding it, I’ve just been so busy. I promise I’ll be back next week.” I usually tell them that the preacher doesn’t take attendance — although I generally know what to expect as far as most people’s regular (or irregular) attendance patterns. It’s not that going to worship isn’t important; it is. It’s just that I’ve never found that guilting or browbeating people into the pews has any measurable effect on whether people actually show up. (Should it?)
Obviously, the past six weeks have been different. I preach to an empty sanctuary — but for a few socially-distanced musicians and a stationary camera. The church is oddly quiet. Traffic is lighter than it usually is on Sunday.
Yet I consider myself the lucky one out of the congregation because I get to be in worship as I usually do, even when no one else does. The space itself is reassuring. The empty seats call to mind the people who once sat in them, and who will again.
In the early days of social distancing, an eternity ago in March, a member of the church asked, “What happens if I just show up Sunday? Will you keep the door locked?” I said I didn’t imagine I could keep someone out of God’s house, as if I had the authority to do that. I did, however, express that I hoped not to be in that position.
Maybe this is what some pastors are feeling who want to keep church open no matter what. I understand the inclination — what better time to throw ourselves into prayer and beg for God’s grace than a global pandemic? That said, when Jesus promised his disciples persecutions, I don’t believe public health guidelines to mitigate the spread of a dangerous disease were what he meant. The early church was content to worship at home. Why shouldn’t we?
I confess frustration, then, about pastors who make a particular point to convene congregations in opposition to public health recommendations. I question whether that’s about the proclamation of the gospel or self-aggrandizement. I question, too, whether the real threats to human life as a result of convening (consider funerals in Albany, before social distancing was enacted) are what God wants as a result of our worship. (This is not said in criticism of those in Albany but in sympathy.)
Those who are most at risk of complications due to COVID-19 are mainly older, poorer and sicker than the general public. And Scripture gives pretty clear guidance on what to do if our worship or religious observances ever conflict with a call to justice and care of the vulnerable. Says God, in no uncertain terms, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.” (Amos 5:21-22). This criticism appears in light of Amos’ persistent reminders about problems with Israel’s neglect of the poor. In the balance, justice and righteousness seem to outweigh outward religious observance.
The theme repeats through the prophet Isaiah: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).
Prophetic injunctions to care for the poor and the vulnerable don’t preclude us from worship; they do, however, remind us what’s ultimately important to God — that is, the people of God have a mission, whether we’re in church or not: “love your neighbor as yourself.”
I’ll admit, this was hard throughout Holy Week: hard to not receive communion on Maundy Thursday; hard to grieve alone on Good Friday; hard to celebrate without trumpets on a stormy Easter.
On the Saturday before Easter someone had the bright idea of unearthing our wooden cross so that people could come and put flowers on it. We typically do this every Easter. So, throughout the day, more signs of spring, signs of hope, appeared on our front porch. Even if we couldn’t always see them, the church was there, at work, just as it always is, just as it will be again.
On Sunday, then, when we turn on the camera and connect it to Facebook, I’ll see the comments, “Sorry I can’t be there. I look forward to being back.” I know that. I don’t have to tell anyone.
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.