“______ AME Church, founded in 1794, is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the nation. Its present church, completed in 1890, is the oldest church property in the United States to be continuously owned by African Americans. In 1972, it was designated as a National Historical Landmark.”
April 12, 2020, Easter, 930 AM
I wanted to visit this historical church in person, but since it appears streaming worship services are not going away anytime soon, I decided to give this one a go. For such an old and notable church, it doesn’t have a working website. It does have a Facebook page, a few youtube videos and a 5-star rating on Trip Advisor.
The pastor entered the screen and knelt down in front of his chair, behind the pulpit, facing the cross, I presumed. A pre-recorded hymn played, with the choir and congregation singing. When the song ended, the pastor stood up, faced the camera and welcomed the viewers to Easter Sunday worship. For the first time in their history, they were not physically gathered together to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. But the church still worships together, he said, and announced the call to worship. A man and a woman read what sounded like a responsive psalm. If the words had been flashed on the screen, I could have joined along. Then, we heard a lively rendition of “Because He Lives,” recorded by the Metro D.C. Baptist Church. The pastor clapped and swayed to the hymn. I sang along with the parts I knew, but again, it would have been better if the words had been shown on the screen.
The pastor mentioned that the members had been emailed an order of worship. But there didn’t seem to be a way for visitors to access it. Next, a woman read a poetic prayer which sounded like something by Maya Angelou. Then, we heard another recorded choral gospel song. A woman associate pastor deftly read the scripture, from John 20:1-18. She gave us time to find the passage in our bibles.
We heard another recorded song, “The Decalogue,” which seemed to be a medley of hymns, with a spirited reading of the ten commandments. I had never heard it before, and although it lasted almost ten minutes, I really enjoyed it. After a few more comments by the pastor and another recorded song, “Break Every Chain,” we finally came to the sermon time.
His sermon, “Preaching through a Pandemic,” asked the question: How does one preach the Good News when it seems like we’re surrounded by bad news? How do we celebrate the victory of Christ’s resurrection, when the world seems to be falling apart? He listed a number of current realities: empty pews and streets, massive job and income losses, we can’t visit loved ones in hospitals or in nursing homes, we can’t go out to restaurants, movies, sporting events, and we can’t gather for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries or even funerals. He also cited the president’s downplaying of the virus, which led to even higher rates of infection.
We now know that COVID-19 has hit the black community more severely than others, so I can understand the pastor’s anger and frustration with the government’s initial response. Yet, I still believe it’s never appropriate to mention politics from the pulpit. He could have said the same thing without mentioning the president. Something like: “Those who didn’t understand or believe in the seriousness of the virus, may have unwittingly or ignorantly caused it to spread more widely.” The listener can make the projections as to where blame lies.
He then went on to say this Easter is probably the most like the first Easter. There was no good news that morning. Jesus had been put to death. It was still dark, when Mary went to the tomb, alone. The stone had been rolled away and his body was gone. Initially, Mary assumed someone had taken the body, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Even when she saw the “gardener,” she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” She wept over what she thought was another loss, more bad news.
The pastor veered off a bit, but I liked where he went. He used this example of Mary being the first to see the Risen Christ as further proof of why women have always been and should always be leaders in the church. He also cited the fact that she was the first one appointed to go and tell the GOOD NEWS, that Jesus had risen from the dead.
He pivoted back to the main point that the Good News is always the Good News, whether in good times or bad times. No quarantine cannot stop the Risen Christ. No Covid-19 will negate the power of the resurrection. No empty churches, no travel restrictions, no unemployment, no illness and no, not even death can keep Jesus in the tomb. He used an example of a FOX TV personality who asked the attorney general if shutting down the churches was an attack on Christianity. The preacher said that anyone who thinks like that does not understand the Church. Rome could not contain Jesus in the tomb and no government can contain Jesus and the Church. Again, I wish he had worded it differently so that it didn’t sound politically biased.
Overall, he preached a good sermon on why Jesus’ Resurrection gives us every reason to hope even in bad times. And that nothing can stop the power of Christ’s victory over death, which should make us joyful in every circumstance.
As a visitor, I could not access the order of worship, or see the words to the readings and hymns. I also didn’t appreciate his use of two political points in the sermon. So for me, this church FAILED the WELCOME TEST.