Hearing the first reading from the Book of Numbers about snakes and healing, that image can go a few different ways in a Christian setting. I think about revival gatherings at which pastors handled venomous snakes trusting they wouldn’t get bitten. When I lived in Virginia I remember hearing there was still one church in nearby West Virginia, up in the hills, that was still engaged in snake handling. Typically these ministries didn’t last forever because inevitably the pastor would get bitten by a venomous snake and a person can only do that so many times before throwing in the towel. I never did see this in person, but I always wondered about it.
However tent revivals aren’t limited to the American South. Growing up in Swift Current, Saskatchewan there were a number of parking lot revivals. I remember attending one that featured a praise band in a mall parking lot. Several gospel jamborees took place in the park each summer. And plenty of Bible colleges that feature literal readings of scripture.
Here in BC we’ve got our own Christian folks in Kelowna, Chilliwack, Langley, Abbotsford, and here on the island that push the limits on public health orders. They question whether Covid-19 is really as serious as doctors and scientists make it sound, pushing ahead for in-person worship and public gatherings. It’s no surprise that people often associate Christians with anti-science.
And yet that is not where we stand here at Church of the Cross and other churches who have been robustly supporting public health orders. Several pastors, including Pr. Lyle and I, signed a letter that Pr. Aneeta Saroop and Pr. Kristen Steele wrote. Together we pledged support of Dr. Bonnie Henry and public health restrictions. I had the privilege to join Rabbi Harry Brechner of Congregation Emmau-El, a synagogue in downtown Victoria, on CBC Radio’s On the Island early this past Thursday morning. I appreciated the convenience that I was able to resolve a dispute about Nutella among my kids and then moments later be on live radio. Rabbi Harry and I were in agreement that faith and science are in fact compatible. God gave us reason and wisdom to learn from our mistakes and care for one another.
Within this multifaith context with Jewish neighbours, I think about our first reading from the Book of Numbers and the snakes. Reading this in today’s context it’s hard not to think about Covid-19. Not that God sent Covid-19 as a form of punishment, but rather that in response to a pandemic we have often responded rashly as a wider society. We saw Western countries in particular struggle following health protocols, taking swift action to flatten the curve. Snakes in the 2020 context were the waves of infection as a result of our own hard heartedness. And yet God answers the threat of the snakes with the salvific snake on a pole. It’s hard not to think about the promise of vaccines in relationship to the snake on the pole God asks Moses to construct. The bite of a different kind of snake that saves. As you may already know, this image of the snake on a pole is still with us at pharmacies and in medicine in relation to the Hypocratic Oath doctors take: to do no harm, but rather to heal.
I know many of us continually check updates on the vaccine rollout, wondering when family members and we ourselves become eligible to receive the vaccine. We know we must remain patient, knowing that the global supply chain for vaccines is out of our hands. We are thankful already that the residents of Luther court, other care homes, and some health workers have received the vaccine.
Now that we’re passing the one year milestone of Covid restrictions, it’s a good time to check in. Where are we at one year into this haze I know we’ve grown more weary. At first we had resolved ourselves to a couple months of disruption, then half a year, then three quarters of a year. Now that we’re past the one year mark and we know there are months to go before the vaccine rollout is mostly complete. It is a sobering feeling.
One colleague Pr. Lauren shared a post on social media asking the question, “What would you share with yourself a year earlier if you could?”
Some responses, “Breathe. And don’t spend 5+ months in panic mode.”
“Buy the paper products early.”
“Buy a rowing machine and a stationary bike right away.”
“Stay home, wear a mask, and wash your hands!”
And a more significant reflection from another colleague Mycah: “This year is going to be hard. You are going to feel so stretched thin by work, school, and keeping up with daily life, you feel translucent. Isolation in the pandemic is going to make you feel alone, tired without cause, and permeated by a sense of fuzz you cannot quite break beyond.
This year is also going to be beautiful. You are going to take walks that reveal the wonder of creation. You are going to settle further into love, and bind yourself in that love with a celebration surrounded by a small group of loved ones. You will see hope in the ways people care for one another, and it will be good. Even on the hard and impossible days, remember that God looks at God’s creation and calls us good.”
Perhaps not all us feel as hopeful as Mycah does a year into the pandemic. Nevertheless the good thing about God’s grace is that you don’t have to feel good to know God is with you. You don’t have to feel happy to be surrounded by God’s love. God’s grace is for you just as you are. Whether you are happy or grumpy, joyful or sad, hopeful or without hope, God’s grace and love are for you. They are not dependent on anything any of us does. That is good news.
Especially considering so many of us are in a strange head space these days. Whether we are mourning the death of a loved one or simply tired from all the waiting. We are tired that the world is hurting.
Just yesterday I heard that already in Portland, Oregon there are federal agents launching pepper spray at protesters this past Thursday. There is video of Portland Police detaining a credentialed member of the press on Friday. Also on Friday police detained about 100 protesters. The protesters were speaking out about children detained by ICE without their parents.
Measuring by physical distance, Portland is only 326 km away from Victoria (203 miles). Traveling there by ferry and car makes it a longer journey, but that’s not far from us. Some of us are gathering on-line later this afternoon with Lenny Duncan a queer Black theologian, author and Lutheran pastor located in Vancouver, Washington. He participated in the protests in Portland over the past summer. There is still time to join the on-line conversation which will be at 3 PM PDT today, Sunday. There is a link to register for the talk and receive the Zoom link at www.lutheranvictoria.ca under “Events.” You can also send me an e-mail for the link.
Just knowing we are going to hear from Lenny Duncan makes me feel better. Having spent ten years living in Virginia these issues are dear to my heart. I know we need to support the Black Lives Matter leaders in Victoria as well. I have been having some great conversations with members of the Social Justice Committee, with the Stewardship Committee, with Truth and Reconciliation, with the Board of Care for Communities, and more. We have so many great folks already working on important issues in our midst. Some of these issues are local on the island, others are across BC, others are across Canada, and some we share with our neighbours in the US and beyond. I am excited about the year ahead of us. I feel like we have one year down in this pandemic, we’re just getting our sea legs.
Just like running a race, we may have bonked out a few times. Typically in a running race we have a tendency to start too fast. Experienced runners will tell you, start a bit slower. Not too slow, but don’t push 100% out the gate or you’ll steadily slow down throughout the race. And that never feels good when we’re getting passed by other runners. That we’re running out of steam and our legs are giving out. Sometimes the pandemic sure feels that way.
The good news is that as the body of Christ we aren’t running against one another. We are in a relay race. We are passing the baton, taking turns, while others recuperate. That way we can catch our breath. Consider that as we patiently wait for our turn to receive the vaccine. We need to support one another. And I’m heartened we are finding creative ways of doing that.
Snakes on a Plain
Wrapping up, remember that God sends the Israelites a balm that heals. God doesn’t leave them in the lurch.
In every bulletin we include a theme sentence. For this Sunday I chose, “Snakes on a plain.” Plain is spelled p-l-a-i-n. It’s a dad joke if there was one. Would be fun to invite Samuel L. Jackson to deliver some lines. I never did see the whole movie, but if memory serves well, there was a lot of dialogue unsuitable for church in that movie.
So instead we think about this pandemic in which we find ourselves, surrounded by the grace and love of God. Together we are running this relay race together as the body of Christ. Know that you are not alone. We’re supporting one another along the way. Amen.