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Proverbs 1:20-33 Mark 8:27-38

Funeral in a time of Covid  

Last weekend I made an unexpected trip to Saskatchewan for my grandfather’s funeral. It was good to be there in person and have the privilege of presiding at the funeral. In some ways it was a repeat of another unexpected trip to Saskatchewan four years ago where I presided at my grandmother’s funeral. While it is challenging to preside at the funeral of a grandparent, it is also a blessing as grandchildren that we served together as a team in both cases.            

            Two of my cousins are stylists and arranged with the funeral home for both grandparents to do their hair and some touch ups. When I arrived at the funeral home in Swift Current, Saskatchewan I found my cousins with some clippers, giving my grandfather his last haircut. They went to the house to get some of his favourite aftershave so some of the familiar things would be there for the viewing. They also made sure his complexion was recognizable since his parents emigrated from Syria to Southwestern Saskatchewan early in the 20th Century. The embalming made him look paler. There were also some other personal touches. My grandfather was dressed in one of his favourite checkered shirts from Mark’s Work Warehouse, his house jeans and his house sneakers. He even had a deck of cards tucked in one of his breast pockets, someone who was an avid card player. And unscratched lottery tickets as someone who liked to play the lottery. As my cousins said, only Grandpa will know whether he won.

            My cousins and I even had the privilege of lifting my grandfather’s body into the coffin. It was a special time together, hearkening back to a not so distant past when people may have had a wake and tended to the body in home or in church.

            Nevertheless because of Covid only immediate family could be present in the funeral home chapel for the funeral. There was no big funeral like for my grandmother, which was special in a different way. This was more intimate with the benefit of livestreaming for the friends and extended Lebanese/Syrian family around Swift Current and beyond who could not attend in person.

            At the graveside I could barely make myself heard over the wind sweeping across the prairie. To my surprise my cousins had a microphone and speaker for a song they sang after the committal wrapped up. While others departed, I stayed with one of my uncles as the cemetery crew filled the grave.  

In our gospel reading Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life with lose it and those who want to lose their life for the sake of the gospel will save it.” What does it look like to save your life during a pandemic? Traveling to Saskatchewan made me wary given among the highest per capital Covid numbers in Canada. Things are particularly dire in Saskatoon and north where hospitals are slammed with unvaccinated Covid patients.

            While most of my family is double vaccinated among those who are eligible, I have some family members and friends of the family who remain hold outs and are sceptical of the vaccine. They may take Covid seriously but they have concerns about side effects of the vaccines and so are hedging their bets. I am neither a physician nor an epidemiologist. All I can do is echo what people Dr. Henry and Dr. Tam have been saying all along to trust the science and to trust our doctors and nurses shepherding us through this pandemic. What I do know is that hospitals overrun with unvaccinated people is a recipe for disaster. It’s the kindling that sets forest fires ablaze and once the burn starts increasing exponentially it becomes harder to stop.

            I pray people make peace with technologies we don’t always understand. Yesterday for the talk on the climate crisis with Beth Eden for the first time I started the livestream using the Mevo camera on Facebook, YouTube, and the website. YouTube was new for me and a bit scary that it might not work because you need two devices to make it work: the church iPad and another device. I was worried I might not be able to figure it out and leave people online hanging. Brian and Braeden helped me with a test I did on Thursday to work out the kinks. For the event Craig ran the camera while I focused on sound and on-line comments and the livestream.

            Now for the first time I can say I can run the livestream. But if you ask me how any of it works I don’t have a clue. I don’t know how the internet works at a high level. All that I can say is that following the instructions you end up with a livestream. The livestream is real because I can see it. You can see it. And we learn to trust that it’s a legitimate way to connect as church online. Sometimes that’s true for other parts of life as well, including modern medicine. Most of us don’t know how it works, but we trust that it works and we see the results.  

Crickets and drought  

Driving from Saskatoon to Swift Current before the funeral was another big experience. I hadn’t been back to my home province in several years. Seeing the wide open prairies, the endless horizon was a joy. And something else, the only FM station you can receive in the midpoint between Saskatoon and Swift Current is a country music station, so I got acquainted with Top 40 country with a radio host named Kix Brooks, one half of the 90’s country legends of Brooks and Dunn. Even I know who Brooks and Dunn are, but I don’t know as much about more recent country stars. Kix Brooks was happy to fill me in.

            Listening to country and then somewhere getting closer to the town of Stewart Valley, just shy of the South Saskatchewan River, the road was covered in crickets. I mean hundreds of thousands of crickets over a several kilometres. I got out of the car at one point to look at the crickets. The fields were covered in crickets and they were loud, although the wind was louder.

            Perhaps even more startling than the crickets were the incredibly poor crops. The field received so little moisture the wheat wasn’t tall enough to harvest in the Southwest. I don’t know if I’d seen anything that bad in recent decades. Ranchers also don’t have enough hay to feed their cattle, can’t buy enough from neighbours who also don’t have enough hay. Many ranchers have had to sell of breeding cattle, which is only ever a last resort. It means getting that much closer to no longer having cattle.

            I read descriptions in the local news of people having all their cattle sold in auction and bursting into tears. Their way of life coming to an end for some of them. The inputs becomes too expensive for the smaller growers and ranchers and more land and herds are left in hands of larger operations.

            Everyone agrees something isn’t right. Perhaps not everyone agrees that the drought, excessive wildfires, and melting glaciers are the result of climate change. But whatever we want to call it, it’s not good. Scientists have warned us for decades that climate change will make bad things worse and certainly we’re experiencing some of that.

            Hearing the reading from Proverbs certainly leaves a stinging feeling: “Wisdom cries out in the street…“How long, O simple ones will you love being simple?”” However, the point of prophecy and gospel is not to lead to despair, unless it’s despair in one’s own powers in order to trust that much more in the power of God working through us. It’s meant to spur us into action as the body of Christ.

            I think about Beth Eden’s talk yesterday. She is under 30 and while righty concerned, also believes we can take action that will make a difference. It’s not too late. As we come up to a federal election in just over a week, something for us to pause and consider. Not that any one political party can ever solve a global problem on their own, but that it’s up to us to make sure they do what they can to tackle the problem.

            The last line of the reading from Proverbs states, “Those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.” Certainly those words are a lot more reassuring than everything that precedes this line. I believe as church we are well positioned to ignite curiosity in wisdom, the divine power that leads to action and solutions invested in each of us. Voting is important but more than that we to take collective action and do the work together.

            But I realize we’re tired and we all need to support one another. I know I’m tired after burying my grandfather, after moving to a new house and settling into new routines, the concern that Covid isn’t going away and that we’re into a fourth wave. But I also give thanks for all those doing the work, for healthcare workers, for climate scientists, and for each one of you checking in on neighbours and one another. We continue welcoming refugees, we keep fighting for what’s right.

            If my grandfather were here right now and we were playing cards, he’d say, “Whad’ya doing? Why didn’t you play your ace already? You saved your best card for the end.” God is with us, giving us good cards to play. Trust in God, trust in what works, and let’s help one another in this time. Amen.