Come Sunday morning, the Rev. Roland Brown won’t ascend the pulpit or sit in his office or greet people at the door of the sanctuary, the hallowed place to which Christians flock for words of comfort and strength. He won’t even drive to his church.
He’ll be at home, where it’s safe. Quarantined from his congregation.
On Resurrection Sunday.
“I haven't missed an Easter in 40 years,” Golden Springs Baptist Church’s pastor said. “I’ve preached the resurrection for 40 years.”
He’s not missing this one, either, thanks to Facebook Live and YouTube, a 21st-century intertwining of technology and pastoral efforts at salvation. Log on and see.
But it will be different, at Brown’s church and most others. It has to be. The tentacles of this global pandemic stretch far, across oceans and continents, and lasso everything we’re doing. Not even Easter, that joyous day on the Christian calendar, is spared.
Easters, in my cloudy mind, are awash in spring colors and smiling faces and ebullient people — even those whose Easter Sundays are their once-a-year church appearances. That’s OK. All should be welcome, regardless of faith or beliefs. This joy, even if secularized to its core, should be for all.
This pandemic and its disease, COVID-19, don’t permit such carefree emotion. They are rude and deadly and thus far unrelenting. They are winning: 93,000-plus worldwide deaths, including more than 100 doctors and nurses, in less than three months.
And yet, I suspect church-goers on this Resurrection Sunday — online, of course — will expect less of a fire-and-brimstone denunciation of this novel coronavirus and more of Easter’s traditional exuberance of rebirth and renewal. If that’s possible.
I’m not sure.
“My statement to them,” said the Rev. Stan Albright, pastor of First Baptist Church of Oxford, “is that if you truly are a believer in Christ ... then there’s never been a better time for you to place your trust in him.
“I’m not condoning a virus to drive people back to God, but I don’t lessen it as an opportunity for us to reconnect to our creator.”
My guess is that pastors will pepper their Easter sermons with pandemic references, less of a message’s main ingredient and more of an occasional spice. They must. This is an election year — one that carries graver significance than most — and yet there is no other topic as overwhelming, and all-encompassing, as the human destruction of COVID-19 and mankind’s effort to defeat it.
Albright’s Easter sermons at First Baptist of Oxford normally chronicle the overarching Christian story of Jesus’s path to the cross, the New Testament story of condemnation and crucifixion and return from the dead, a sermon with familiar chapters.
But preaching during a pandemic is rule-less, a test of clergy’s ability to speak with wisdom during an unspeakable time.
“This Sunday my whole message is on the resurrection,” Albright said. He won’t ban COVID-19 from his message, but neither will he weave it into every sentence. “My whole focus will be on the resurrection.”
People are hurting. Not only in the coronavirus hotspots of China and New York City and Italy, but here. Brown, the Golden Springs Baptist pastor, admits that.
They’re calling him, he said. Emailing him.
“I’m offering them hope,” he said. “Even when we are in an economic depression and even when we are afraid and uncertain about the future, this is the message I hope to give more often than not. Jesus is hope.”
But he can’t hold people’s hands. Churches are closed, their doors locked.
Through the phone I can see Brown’s frown.
“I can’t go see them,” he said. “I can’t. I want to, but I can’t. Everything has changed, and we’re all sitting at home with plenty of time to worry about the what-ifs.”
Unemployment, he means. And fears of getting sick, of dying, of burying spouses and children and friends, of being helpless against it all.
The stress is palpable. Brown is sure of it. And he doesn’t plan to give COVID-19 a starring role in his Easter sermon. He wants to discuss his faith’s hope, and little more.
“It makes the message I have to say more important than at any time in my life,” he said.
Forty years of Christian sermons. Forty years of Easter messages.
And Sunday’s is his most important.
A Resurrection Sunday indeed unthinkable.