Donald Trump thought he was offering me a gift. In defiance of immunologists, scientists, and health experts, the president is pushing for an Easter re-opening of our social world, including communal Christian worship.
“So, I think Easter Sunday, and you'll have packed churches all over our country,” he touted in a press conference, “I think it would be a beautiful time.”
I suspect Trump thought I, a pastor, would be overjoyed by this news. After all, Easter is the most sacred day of the Christian year. It is the day we celebrate life over death and hope over fear. The thought of watching my congregation gather on Zoom for this holiest of days has left me sad and discouraged. I’ve silently mourned each week that my congregation cannot sing together, or share meals or hugs. Instead, we click a link to see each other’s faces appears in the grid of a computer monitor.
But I can assure Donald Trump – my church will not meet on Easter. To do so, to risk the spread of coronavirus, would be a denial of my faith and a perversion of our communal worship.
Our church will not meet in person because we love Judy, an octogenarian artist whose yard is dotted with the metal sculptures she welds in her home studio. We won’t gather because we can’t imagine life without David, a cancer survivor who strums the guitar on Sunday mornings. We won’t have in-person worship because there are millions of people who we don’t know, people who are beloved children of God, and the possibility of their infection increases if we spread the virus among us and others.
I’m aware that the Bible commands our corporate worship. But I also know that at times in biblical history God raged at religious ceremony. One place to hear this is in the prophecy of Isaiah. As coronavirus invades our communities, I’ve turned to the people of Judah who faced a military invasion by the Assyrians in the eighth century. I hear in their lament my own fear, in their frustration my own anxieties. Like us, they are worried about work shortages, troubled over food access, and angered by incompetent leaders.
But Isaiah begins with a blast of rage at the religious scrupulousness of those in the besieged city of Jerusalem. The ancient sacrificial system required large amounts of food. During a time of siege, that food was scarce, especially to non-landowner, namely “the alien, the orphan, and the widow.” Instead of compromising on ceremony and toning down sacrifice during this time when resources were low, the royalty charged with food distribution burnt great quantities of grain, vegetables, and meats as offerings. God’s response is devastating:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
These words of Isaiah 1 are written to the elite, the decision-makers, and those charged with protecting and providing for the economically and socially vulnerable. Perhaps ramping up sacrifice was a way to show off their piety, or to announce their power, the power to hold starvation over the heads of the poor. Whatever is behind this decision, God is incensed that leaders would diligently keep religious festivals that bring the threat of hunger to people who could be eating the food that turns to ash on the altar. Isaiah records God’s wrath:
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
In Isaiah, worship that endangers others is described as an abomination, a weariness to God, “solemn assemblies with iniquity.” Those who continue to worship in a way that brings harm to those who need protection – they have blood on their hands (Isa 1:15). God hides God’s eyes from them. God ignores their prayers.
Health experts say that having “the country opened” by Easter would be disastrous, leading to millions of deaths in this country alone. Many of those deaths would occur among the immunosuppressed, ill, and disabled. We’ve been warned that this decision would overwhelm our hospital systems and clog our morgues and cemeteries with the bodies of our family members.
I refuse to participate in worship that leads to this devastation. I will not lead people in the kind of worship that God judges as an scandal.
Instead, on Easter morning I will look into the faces of people I love on the screen of my laptop. Among them will be a high-risk stroke survivor, the grandmother of a severely disabled grandchild, and a woman recently released from 17 years of incarceration. As we sing with our mics muted and stutter through time-delayed liturgies, another verse from the Bible will come to mind, the same verse that I’ve called up each of these past weeks of streamed worship:
The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable (1 Cor 12:22).
Isaiah tells us how to right the situation before us. If we’re looking for a way to adjudicate worship, to figure out how to make decisions about meeting in person or not, we have the words of the prophet before us. “Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa 1:17). Worship that capitulates to a culture of death, that says to “the members of the body that seem weaker,” "your life doesn't matter," will find its leaders under the judgement of a holy God.