Essential May 23, 2020

Use the church as a pawn in political games? They would never! 

Well. If by ‘never’ we mean every day and all the time…

We know this,. This is not #fakenews, this is not news at all– politicians on both sides the aisle sometimes use church and church people like poker chips in a never-ending game, in which every round is a dirty deal. The Church is a pawn in an ongoing strategy game where the board is… okay, I am killing this metaphor. You get it.

So we know that when the president declares church “essential,” it has nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with votes. Chips. Red checkers. Whatever it is we’re trying to win here.  But in this particular game– actual people are going to die.

If churches begin gathering before it is safe to do so, with or without government sanction, church people are going to get sick. That is not an opinion, it is fact. Scientific, medical, logical. And then, people infected in church buildings that open before their time will go to other places in their communities and infect others who have less choice in the matter. They will spread disease at grocery stores, at medical facilities, and at any number of other places that actually are “essential” operations.

They will know we are Christians by our pathogens, I guess.

In addition to spreading needless illness and death, this new directive will also spread something else: dissent. Every pastor in the country is now set up for the fight of his or her life. With a few rare exceptions in which every member of a congregation votes the same party line, most churches are filled with a diverse array of folks who fall on different sides of political divides. Somehow, the argument between whether to stay home and keep others well, or to go out and do whatever we want as free Americans, has become a deeply partisan issue. Which means that clergy across the country are about to upset a portion of their congregation, no matter what they do. Cancel worship? The ‘freedom at all cost’ folks will be angry. Open the doors? The ‘healthy at home’ crowd is incensed. By putting the weight of this decision on pastors, over and against the advice of state and local leaders and medical officials, the president is (one might say willfully) spreading seeds of dissent.

In-person worship services have been linked to several outbreaks. Singing together in an enclosed space is especially dangerous. The CDC released guidelines for safe gatherings, practices to which all churches should adhere when they do hold services again. But many find those guidelines so restrictive that they would be impossible to uphold, especially in larger congregations. Many will opt to just not gather until it is safe to do so without such restrictions; but many will go ahead and get together, ignoring recommendations about social distancing, wearing masks, and refraining congregational singing.

Any way you shake it, saying that churches are “essential” changes nothing about the risk; nor does it change anything about the church. The Church has always been essential.

Any authority who declares that “church” is “essential” in the midst of pandemic circumstances clearly misunderstands the meaning of both words. Because nothing about this decision echoes the purpose of church: or at least, the gospel it represents. That gospel–housed in the church building, perhaps, but never contained there– says to welcome the immigrant; to care for the poor; to heal the sick. Heal the sickNot make them sicker and then withhold coverage. I struggle to believe that anyone pushing to reopen the doors right now has ever heard or properly embodied that particular gospel.

What is truly essential about the Church is the daily living out of that gospel.  It is essential that we love our neighbor– even when loving our neighbor means we give up some things we want to do. It is essential that we care for the poor– even when that, too, has somehow become political. What’s essential is that we know how to worship, even when the easy and comfortable way of doing that is not available for a time.

Church has always been essential; and the Church never stopped being the Church. Opening the doors again? It’s a maneuver of the mighty, who thinks their powers more than they are. And the gospel has something to say about the mighty, too. (Something about being thrown from their thrones? Which, if nothing else, is a fun game of homonyms!)

On this Day of Ascension, we remember that Jesus can go anywhere. He can literally up and leave the earth when he feels like it– why did we ever think he was stuck in the building?

The Church has always been essential. And the Church has always been the Church. Even when it leaves the building.

Maybe especially then.

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