Why we Cancel Church on Easter

It’s Easter this week and we canceled church. Well, not really. We canceled our Sunday morning gatherings and moved them downtown and outside to where we first met as a church. A few years ago a handful of people decided to “do” church differently that Sunday by grilling up hot cheeseburgers for some of the homeless who lived nearby. It wasn’t meant to fly in the face of traditional worship. It wasn’t meant to replace the idea of evangelism, disciple-making, exaltation, or proclamation… but it did come with the hope of focusing on the “incarnation”. We really didn’t know what we were doing, we just knew we were supposed to serve.

Easter Sunday 2010

This coming weekend is Easter Sunday. It marks the three year anniversary of Austin New Church. It’s normal for us to break from our regular scheduled Sunday gatherings to serve around the city… and no one time seems more significant than when we do it on our church’s anniversary: Easter Sunday.

It’s hard to explain really.

And it’s obviously not for everyone. But we love it. We’ve had a ton of visitors join us every time we’ve done this. We’ve had people return to the church. And we’ve had people come to faith on Easter. It’s been three years now of navigating the tension between communion and mission. We’re learning along the way. And each time we “stretch” ourselves and our traditions, we learn a little bit more. (Click HERE to Join Us)

Last year my wife wrote about our “Easter” experience downtown. It’s an incredible reminder of why we go back. I thought I’d share. It’s worth the read:

It’s Easter.

So between ages 0-32, I celebrated Easter the fun way: with bunnies, baskets, and expensive clothes. I mean, what better way to say “Jesus reigns” than dressing my preschooler in a $45 dress to show her off in the church lobby? (You’re welcome, Jesus. Be blessed.)

Now certainly if you asked me what my Easter priorities were, I’d become rather grave and pensive and say something about the resurrection. For crying out loud, I’m a Christian. But truthfully, between the outfit shopping, the Easter baskets, the egg ______ (dying, stuffing, hiding, hunting), the pictures, the lunch menu, and the gift buying, Jesus was nearly dead last in the running. I started thinking about Him right about the time the band started at church, and I thought about him a whole hour. Until the end of the service when I got distracted with lunch details.

That’s just true.

But for the last three years, Jesus has messed with me. Frankly, he’s managed to hijack all my usual holiday endeavors. I’ve always celebrated holidays with a Cultural Major and a Spiritual Minor, no matter what I said I cared about. Take Christmas, for example. I used to spend as much money as I wanted on crap no one needed and work myself into in a December frenzy and oh well. La de da. Now I can’t quit thinking about the poor and the sad and the disgusting consumerism cycle I’ve perpetuated and the heinous neglect of Jesus and the appalling nature of it all.

Then we got to Easter, or as God called it in the Bible, Passover. “Easter” is just a jaunty little name picked up from the Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess of spring, ‘Eostre’, who, as legend has it, saved a frozen bird from the harsh winter by turning it into a magical rabbit who could lay eggs. Hence: ‘Easter’, bunnies, and eggs. (Look it up.) Why are elements of a pagan religion associated with the highest holy day of the Christian faith, you ask? Oh bother. Can’t we all just carry on and dye our “Eostre” eggs in peace?

Anyhow, Jesus started asking me why I spent all my time and money and emotional energy on these worthless, even sacrilegious distractions. “You’ve been had, Jen” is kind of how he put it. I was lulled to spiritual sleep by the siren song of baskets and bunnies, patent leather shoes and chocolate.

When I take an aerial view of the typical American Easter, on one side I see Jesus on the cross, humiliated and mutilated, bearing the failures of every man and woman past and present, rescuing humanity once and for all through an astonishing miracle of divine redemption, splitting history in two and transforming the human experience for eternity. On the other side, I see us celebrating this monumental heroism with chocolate bunnies and boiled eggs, with Jesus as an afterthought. It just doesn’t make sense. (Insert some of you tossing this book in the garbage. Don’t mess with my Easter fun, you hippie chick.)

So since ANC constantly tries to sabotage itself by giving away too much money and cancelling church all the time to serve the city (“How will people tithe that week?!” asked a horrified pastor), we decided to rethink The Traditional Easter Service That Brings In More People Than Any Other Day Of The Year. It is our two-year anniversary as a church, and certainly we could stand more foot traffic, but I’m not sure the ultimate Passover is best celebrated by a high-attendance Sunday of people who won’t be back until Christmas Eve.

Easter Sunday 2010

We literally asked ourselves: What would Jesus do? Would he drop a bunch of cash on fancy clothes? Buy out the chocolate and plastic egg supply at his local store? Find the biggest church in town and spend twenty minutes in the lobby telling everyone how pretty they look? (These questions are rhetorical, dearest reader.)

Who in Austin might genuinely want to celebrate the resurrected Jesus and the astonishing hope he made possible, but might not feel comfortable in a church surrounded by beautiful people dressed to the nines? Who needs the beauty of the gospel spoken into their brokenness, but might not be welcomed into the gathering of the saints in the sanctuaries? It came rather quickly to us:

The homeless.

If Jesus literally came to proclaim freedom for the captives and good news to the poor, then Passover uniquely belongs to the bottom dwellers. So we cancelled service and took church downtown to the corner of 7th and Neches, where our homeless community is concentrated. We grilled 1300 burgers and ate with each other. Our band set up shop and we worshiped, then in a powerful moment of solidarity as the church, we all took communion together. It was a beautiful mess of dancing, tears, singing, and sharing. It wasn’t an “us” and “them” moment; it was just the church, remembering the Passover Lamb and celebrating our liberation together.

Easter Sunday 2010

Now, if we get one request over and over when we serve our homeless brothers and sisters, it’s this: “Do you have a bag?” (Could also be: Can I have that bag? Can I take that trash bag? Do you have a bag I can put this bag in?) So this was the perfect moment to give away seven out of my nine purses, which I might add, were almost all nice and roomy, just like the ladies want.
A few ANCers organized a clothes and shoes station from things they’d gathered. Others opened up their trunks full of hygiene supplies and such. Another group brought a bunch of reusable water bottles. I saw a different couple handing out bus passes. I stood smugly by, watching my friends give away their little things, knowing I was about to be Mrs. Popular and waiting for my moment. When the timing was right, when the ladies had a perfect view for maximum impact, I said:

“Hey girls! Anyone want one of…these?”

Cranberry red leather.
Green with gold buckles.
Chocolate brown bohemian bag.
Turquoise with short handles.
Burnt orange across-the-shoulder.
Shiny black backpack bag.

And one little purse I debated on bringing. It was a tiny little thing, hot pink crocodile by Gianni Bini. It was functionally useless but fashionably magnificent. Our street girls want the biggest bags possible, since they carry everything they own, everywhere they go. If I brought down wheelbarrows to pass out, they couldn’t be happier. So my little pink vanity purse was a wildcard, but at the very last second with a conspiratorial nudge from the Spirit, I threw it in.
Not surprisingly, it was the last purse left. What self-respecting homeless woman picks a hot pink purse that would barely carry her bus pass? She’s no fool; glamour handbags are only for women who have eight others and a house to stash them all in. So I was standing there with my one silly little purse left, when it’s rightful owner, the one for whom I daresay that purse was stitched together for in the first place made a beeline for me.

She had on her Easter finest, tights included even though it was nearly ninety degrees outside. Flouncy dress with – what else? – hot pink flower print. Hair done up in a bunch of sections with matching beads on the ends, floppy pink hat on standby. Leather dress shoes that had certainly seen better days but were polished to a sheen. Dainty little necklace on a ribbon and rings on four fingers to boot.

She was six years old. Her name was NeNe.

Never in the history of accessories has a purse better matched its owner. She slipped that hot pink number over her arm and didn’t put it down the rest of the night, not even to eat. Her mom took one look at me and no words were necessary; mothers speak a silent language. I took her picture and fussed over her beauty and breathed a silent thank you to Jesus for the nudge.

"NeNe with her new purse"

I serve a Savior who finds a way to get pink purses to homeless six-year-old girls.

Jesus is a redeemer, a restorer in every way. His day on the cross might have looked like a colossal failure, but it was his finest moment. He ushered in a kingdom where the least will be the greatest and the last will be first, where the poor will be comforted and the meek will inherit the earth. Jesus brought together the homeless with the privileged and said, “You’re all poor, and you’re all beautiful.” The cross leveled the playing field, and no earthly distinction is valid anymore. There is a new “us” – a ruined people rescued by the Passover Lamb who adopted us into his family and transformed us into saints. It is the most epic miracle in history.

This is why we celebrate. May we never become so enamored by the substitutions of this world that we forget.

“It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.” ~John 13:1

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About Brandon Hatmaker

Church Planter, Missional Strategist, Non-Profit Collaborator, and Author of "Barefoot Church: Serving the Least in a Consumer Culture". View all posts by Brandon Hatmaker

11 responses to “Why we Cancel Church on Easter

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