On Friday morning, March 27, the Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, walked into the chapel of the Presbyterian Center in downtown Louisville. With his white robe in one arm and sermon notes in the other, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was preparing to do something he hadn’t done for an Easter service before, deliver his sermon to an empty room.
Nelson was one of a handful of people working to pull together the PC(USA)’s virtual Easter service. The Presbyterian Center had closed on the Monday before because of the COVID-19 outbreak and the participants were practicing something they had not heard of months before, social distancing, to bring the elements of the service together.
Actually, the Stated Clerk says he is very comfortable preaching to an empty room, saying he does this quite often in preparation for a preaching engagement.
“I literally will preach out loud, generally in the house, in preparation for a sermon. That’s not a new thing for me,” he said. “This goes back 30-plus years when I first started preaching in Greensboro, North Carolina. Every Saturday, when no one was in the church, I would go into the sanctuary and would preach as if the church was packed. It took me back there.”
A Louisville-based film and storytelling production company, 180 Degrees, set up two cameras to film the service. The pulpit and nearby cross were decorated with lights and Easter lilies.
“Whenever I film for PC(USA), I find myself wearing multiple hats. I wear the hat of a creative, a business owner, a technician, and of course that of a Presbyterian,” said Mike Fitzer, partner with 180 Degrees. “During several shoots with the church, I have found myself taken away by the strength and intensity of the moment. We cover some heavy topics. However, this production was especially touching for me.”
Once Nelson was ready to preach, there was another mic check, camera angles were reviewed once again, and the sermon began.
“To know I am not going to my Easter service and that I will not be with my extended family on that special day has left me, like so many others, feeling an inexpressible emptiness,” said Fitzer. “So, in the midst of single-handedly monitoring two cameras, fluctuating sound, and ever-changing light levels, J. Herbert Nelson managed to take me away. He reminded me to ‘slow down’ and listen to God’s Word. Truth be told, this is a message that I may have glossed over or quickly forgotten during normal times.”
Once Nelson had completed his piece for the service, he left the chapel. Minutes later the Reverend Dr. Diane Moffett, President and Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, came in to prepare for her portion of the service.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to share this Easter worship with fellow Presbyterians in our country. The taping alone reminded me that Good Friday is happening, but Sunday will roll around and I pray that our Easter worship, whether in this national Easter service or in local congregations, will inspire, nurture, and encourage all of us and that our sense of connection and the tie that binds us together as followers of Christ will be strengthened,” said Moffett.
After filming greetings and delivering prayers, Moffett and Nelson filmed some final scenes together, but six feet apart.
Dr. William McConnell, mission engagement advisor with the Presbyterian Mission Agency, is a familiar face at PC(USA) gatherings and is often called upon to lead music. For this service, he selected, sang, and played two familiar Easter hymns, “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” and “Thine Is the Glory.”
“It was an honor, a disorienting honor, to share familiar congregational Easter hymns with a congregation I couldn’t see or hear, and that hadn’t gathered virtually yet,” said McConnell. “It is my prayer that the familiar words of the music will remind us that there really is new life beyond the tomb — life beyond COVID-19.”
The service was rounded off with readings from the Co-Moderators of the 223rd General Assembly (2018). Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and the Reverend Cindy Kohlmann recorded their portions of the services on their smartphones. Fitzer had the job of bringing it all together with one smooth transition to the next.
The Reverend Dr. David Gambrell, associate for worship in the Office of Theology and Worship in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, pulled the service together. He says planning an online service in some ways is no different than the standard preparation.
“The Word is central. We confess our sin and offer our prayers. We give glory to God with songs of praise. We use multiple languages to reflect the unity and diversity of the church,” he said. “The biggest challenge is to imagine an Easter service without a physical gathering of the people of God. The act of assembling as the body of Christ is, itself, a way of bearing witness to the resurrection. We will miss being able to gather in the same way this year. Nevertheless, we trust that the Spirit will use these efforts to proclaim the good news the world needs so much: that ‘Jesus Christ is risen indeed!’”
“As we confront a global health crisis which is forcing everyone on the planet to adjust their very concept of normal, the words I heard throughout the service but especially from J. Herbert told me that with God, there is no ‘new normal,’” said Fitzer. “God has always been there and always will be. With God there is just ‘now.’ For me that was not work. That was church.”
“It was a joy taping this Easter worship service and seeing it all come together. I am grateful for the witness of Christ that comes through the hands and feet of Presbyterians and the opportunity for every congregation to help heal the brokenness caused by COVID-19 by participating in our One Great Hour of Sharing offering,” said Moffett. “While times are difficult, we remain a Matthew 25 Church.”
Nelson says that while he wasn’t sure what the service would look like when complete, he’s confident it will be a moving experience for those who watch.
“I’m very confident with the individuals who participated in this worship and know that the production work of pulling this together is going to be good,” he said.
Click here to view the service in its entirety. It is available in English, Spanish, and Korean.