Fear and joy can take place at the same time. In fact, as the spring blooms into a New Haven besieged by COVID-19, they must.
Rev. Vicki Flippin preached that gospel Sunday, in her first-ever Zoom Easter for First & Summerfield United Methodist Church. One month after the church brought its worship services online, she urged congregants to tap into the full breadth of what they may be feeling as they relate the Easter story to their present.
“This is going to be an Easter like no other,” she said Sunday, flanked by her husband and young daughter in their home. “An Easter worship unlike anything we've experienced before. It's a time, I think, when we are feeling so, so grateful for any connection to one another. For a moment when we can see some faces and know that we are present to one another.”
It was still hard to imagine the Easter that might have been, she added. With the church’s doors closed, the sanctuary was sitting empty, light streaming through its windows with no one to see. No feet would press into its well-worn floors. None had danced in the week before either, at what would have been an annual Palm Sunday procession.
No organ rang out from music director Bob Girard. The white walls and scuffed-up floors of the basement, usually filled with the smell of Easter breakfast and hot coffee, sat quiet as a tomb. There were no large family dinners and no Easter egg hunts planned around her house.
But the service would go on. It was still Easter.
“The church is not a building,” she said. “The church is the people. And so we are the church today.”
She leaned into the frame as if she were propped on her elbows. Her eyes, bright even through a screen, twinkled mischievously. She began to unravel a sweeping sermon, jumping from a story of small personal loss—her home was out of Cadbury Creme Eggs, and grocery shopping in a mask seemed like too much—to the story of Jesus’ resurrection.
With no physical sanctuary, it was possible to imagine congregants nodding along, closing their eyes to imagine a world without a global pandemic.
“Many of us have already had some big losses,” she said. “We have lost people. We have lost the ability to be with the people we love. We have lost sleep, worried about our older and health-compromised and detained and incarcerated people we love. We have lost jobs and school and purpose. And those big losses make the little things hard to hear."
There is that same grief radiating through the Easter story, she continued. When Jesus was arrested and condemned to death, all of his disciples ran away from him in fear. Peter was asked if he knew him, and lied to protect himself. Of the women who stayed, all of them practiced social distancing, because “after all, they were associated by a seditious leader, so threatening to the powers that be that they crucified him in public as a warning.”
They were scared because there was so much they did not know, she suggested—and because the threat to their own lives seemed so real. After the crucifixion, Jesus’ body only narrowly escaped burial in a mass grave because Joseph of Arimathea rushed to claim it. And once he had, the was competing with an approaching Sabbath.
“Given the circumstances, there was so much left undone,” Flippin said. “Given the circumstances, it was not possible for anyone to wash the body, to anoint the body. It was not possible for his mother to sit with the body and weep. No time for friends to say goodbye. To gather, to hug one another, to cry and laugh around a table, touching one another's shoulders for comfort.”
“That just wasn’t possible for the people who grieved for Jesus,” she continued. “We know all too well how hard that is now. How confusing it is to grieve it is without grief and ritual. That detail feels really fresh right now.”
The story continued to echo as she wove past and present. When three women came to visit Jesus, they were terrified—not just because of the armed guards outside the tomb, but because they did not know what they would find there.
In a world where masses of people had followed Jesus just a week before, they were completely alone. The earth beneath their feet, as they understood it, had been turned on its head.
"I've talked with many of you about this anxiety,” she said. “How just walking out your door, buying groceries, greeting a neighbor on the playground—it all feels suddenly scary. Overnight, the world has become a place of fear."
Some days, she said, reclaiming certainty feels within reach. Scientists are working on a vaccine that could be as close as 12 months away. Schools and businesses will reopen, although no one knows when. Worship will no longer have to take place in tidy video galleries and on laptop screens.
But some days, the worry creeps in that physical distancing and isolation will last for years. That with time, global supply chains will come to a halt. That society will begin to collapse, until “we end up living in a zombie apocalypse movie scavenging for metal and teaching our babies how to shoot crossbows."
“We are there,” she said. “We are right there with them. We don't know how this ends for us, for our families, or for our world. And some days that feels impossible to live with.”
In that in-between, she said, it falls on humans to bear witness to the world around them. She urged worshippers to take in the full weight of that witnessing—just as the women did—and also look at the beauty that might be unexpectedly lurking in their midst. To feel, just as those women did 2,000 years ago, at a tomb outside Jerusalem, both “fear and great joy.”
That is what she is working to do as coronavirus ravages the world as she knows it. First & Summerfield closed almost exactly a month ago, as news of COVID-19 closures pushed her to think about the safety of her parishioners. She and a skeleton crew put together weeks of Zoom worship and pushed Monday Lenten study sessions online. She rushed to get groceries and supplies for her family. She was overwhelmed.
“And I just remember the day that the first daffodil bloomed in our yard,” she said. “I just remember looking it at and thinking, 'Didn't anyone tell you that the world has come to an end?'"
No one had. The birds were singing loudly, a full-lunged hymn that Mother Nature had taught them generations ago, now baked into their hollow bones. The trees were springing into bloom. As she spoke, ministering through a screen, blankets of pink and white cherry blossoms filled Wooster Square.
Slick carpets of magnolia petals lined the sidewalks from East Rock to Amity. She finished by recalling that morning, as she’d dragged herself out of bed for a sunrise Easter service. Oranges and pinks streaked the sky as she stood outside and thought about the resurrection. She'd gone back into the house feeling ready to weep.
"Friends, we have no idea what is coming,” she said. “We don't know if things will go back to normal in a month, or if we'll be living in the zombie apocalypse. But I believe this Easter reminds us of a principle that will serve us well, no matter what comes. Draw near to what is important, even if it is a place of grief."
"More than ever, we need to receive the rituals, the words, the music, even nature itself as they proclaim into our grieving hearts that fear can exist right alongside great joy,” she added. “That Christ has risen indeed. Alleluia."
Attendees listened with their mute buttons pressed, letting the message swirl around them. Before and after the sermon, congregants stepped in to perform, singing solo or in duets from their own homes. In some videos, trees exploded into colorful bloom. Sunlight drenched the frames.
Somewhere across New Haven, Sophy Gamber lifted a guitar and began to strum the purest, clearest benediction. Long-stemmed Chrysanthemums blinked hello from her shirt.
Moments later, Kimberly Vish popped onto the screen to sing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” and the silence between Zoon transitions gave listeners time to hear the words anew. They rose like birdsong into the air, and then disappeared.