Ministers says healing power over pride keeps pews empty, but their faith full

Posted May 17, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Pastors of Faith 4 Justice Asheville submitted this commentary. They include: The Rev. Tami Forte Logan, Pharr Chapel AME Zion Church; The Rev. Dr. Marcia Mount Shoop, Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church; The Rev. Canon Nontombi Naomi Tutu, Cathedral of All Souls; The Rev. Kim Wells, New Hope Presbyterian Church; The Rev. Canon Milly Morrow, Cathedral of All Souls; The Rev. James Abbott, Retired; The Rev. Sara Wilcox, Land of Sky UCC; The Rev. Nancy Walton, Trinity United Methodist; The Rev. Nancy Sehested, Circle of Mercy; The Rev. Dr. Richard Coble, Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church; The Rev. Bill Buchanan, Asheville Youth Mission; The Rev. Amy Cantrell, Beloved Asheville; The Rev. Stephen Roach Knight and Holly Roach Knight, Transform Network; The Rev. Erin Maxfield-Steele, St. George’s Episcopal Church; and Tyrone Greenlee, Christians for United Community Director.

Christians all over the world are reading a passage in the Acts of the Apostles this week as listed in the Revised Common Lectionary that speaks into this cultural moment with humbling clarity. In his sermon to Athenians, the Apostle Paul said, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands.”

As the Christian church was being born, the earliest evangelists taught that church buildings were not the heart of ministry. They taught that following Jesus is a way of life unafraid of loss, self-sacrifice, and new ways of being faithful in whatever context in which we find ourselves.

A defining story of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the people of God wandering in the wilderness during exile. Without their temple to worship in, the people struggled to find their way. And God provided them with guidance that taught them a way of life not confined to a temple, but embodied in laws and practices that shape the ways we make and keep life together everyday.

These defining lessons of the Christian tradition backlight the protest of a group of 200 people of faith in Raleigh on Thursday rendering them a curiosity at best and a dangerous distortion of God’s word at worst. The “Return America” protestors gathered with no masks, shoulder to shoulder, and shouted about their constitutional rights. This is the same group who has sued the state of North Carolina for the right to place physical gathering above public health.. They argued that they should be able to worship if businesses can be open, and that churches are being unfairly singled out as non-essential.

Trusting God in hard times can be difficult. But seeing the difference between churches and businesses should not be that difficult. And understanding that what is essential about church has little to nothing to do with a building is also in our spiritual DNA. Churches don’t need to be treated like businesses unless you are running your church like a business.  The bottom line for churches is not making our budget or passing the plate on Sundays.  And faith being essential to life is not the same as the institutional church being essential to life.  The bottom line for us is being faithful.  And being faithful often means letting go of the things we’ve become too dependent on, the things that keep us from seeing God in our midst.

Churches do not exist to generate profit. Churches do not exist to support the economy. Churches do not exist to keep institutions functioning. We exist to share God’s love with the world in ways that alleviate suffering and that particularly minister to those who are struggling.

There is no question that typical church gatherings are the perfect petri dish for COVID-19 to spread. Singing is a super spreader. Shaking hands is a super spreader . Hugging, sharing a Communion cup, touching offering plates, and sitting close to each other for an extended period of time are all great ways to spread this virus.

Going back to church is what COVID-19 wants us to do! Why would churches be tempted to give this virus a place to create more suffering when it is our purpose in life to alleviate suffering?

We are learning over and over again that this virus finds ways to adapt. It does not just impact the elderly. It capitalizes on all of our ills as a society — racialized inequities, poverty, lack of health care, greed, fear, and distrust. And it uses these ailments to make itself stronger. Injustice is a preexisting condition in America.

People of faith are taught to have the eyes to see injustice and the hearts to fight it with our very lives. Laying down our lives for the good of the virus is not what God is calling us to do. Laying down our lives for the good of struggling communities and those most impacted by the virus is what God is calling us to do.

Gathering for worship is not the answer to our problems. Trusting that God knows how to work in the wilderness is the answer to our problems. The loving thing to do right now is to trust God to make a way to be the church where we can’t see one. Trust the power of prayer and the wonders of technology to keep us connected, and even strengthen our connections.  Finding new ways to share and deploy resources can make churches more faithful and more life-giving parts of our society.

Churches should be the last to reopen as our country continues to struggle with this pandemic. That’s not about our constitutional rights, our financial bottom line, or whether we are essential or not. Being the last to open is about laying down our pride, our fear, and our power to help heal the world of all that ails us.

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