Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:4 (NRSV)
I learned a tough lesson right after college when I traveled to spend the summer working with medical missionaries in West Africa. Children in remote villages were dying by the hundreds of dysentery from dirty water. We had plenteous pills that would almost instantly save those children’s lives. I’ll never forget those mothers with sick children, and I was full of gratitude to be a bearer of healing and hope. How naïve I was, how presumptuous, to assume that they would trust me, a white stranger, with their little ones. No amount of pleading could convince them to let us give their dying children that medicine. I watched many of them die in their mothers’ arms while I held what would have saved their lives in my hand. I had always thought how terrible it would be to be surrounded by horror and death and not be able to do anything about it. I learned that summer of 1982 that it’s even worse to be able to help, to save lives, but be misunderstood, mistrusted, and rejected by the underinformed and misinformed.
Fast forward to early August of 2021. The synod office has had almost a full-on opening of back to normal—meaning, of course, pre-pandemic. How devastating is it, on so many levels, to realize so quickly, so starkly, that this virus is far from done with us? Oh, it could be. We have, as with measles, polio, and many other diseases that ravaged, one magic bullet that can eradicate COVID’s threat: a vaccine. It’s plentiful, free, increasingly proven safe, and amazingly, as vaccines go, effective. But fewer than half of all eligible Americans are fully vaccinated, and astoundingly, half of those claim that they do not plan to be. It’s their right. But is it their right to be transmitters of the Delta variant and even worse, incubators for future variants against which our current vaccines do not provide protection? If it is indeed their legal right, it is not the way of Jesus. I’m addressing this to folks who claim to follow Jesus, and any way you slice it, he’s way less interested in your individual rights than in the common good and the last, lost, and least.
United Methodist Church Bishop Ken Carter of Florida, where the virus is in a phenomenal spike, wrote last week:
We are here to love our neighbor.
We love our neighbor as an expression of our love for God.
The whole law (Torah) can be summarized in this way.
Our love extends especially to the most vulnerable.
Jesus was a healer.
The cross was laying down one’s life for one’s friends.
We place the needs of others before our own.
We choose life rather than death.
The body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
He concludes with this remark with which I profoundly resonate:
That the church in the United States cannot say unambiguously that masks and vaccines are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace reveals how far we have drifted from the core mission of discipleship in the way of Jesus, who was a teacher, healer, and sacrificial servant.
In his July 29 press conference, the governor did not announce a mask mandate for the state of NC, despite double-digit COVID+ numbers and the biggest surge in the virus since February. But I get it. It’s so hard to roll it back once people feel that they’ve endured their purgatory and have now been set free from their previous shackles. I have a very full dance card this fall trying to catch up on several things we couldn’t do last year, including seven funerals. I will be at the very least wearing a mask. Many are resisting such a reintroduction of any suggested guidelines. Pandemic fatigue is real. Nobody wants to go back. But denial is not only not our friend. It is deadly. This week, the NC Synod Re-Gathering Task Force is meeting to reconsider possibly issuing COVID Re-Gathering Guidelines again after lifting them all in late May. Synod staff might face new travel and participation restrictions as well. Dang and double dang!
I do not wish to shame the unvaccinated. We are people of grace, right? Nothing I say in anger or disgust changes minds. All I know to do is encourage, invite, and inform that the vaccine is the way out of this mess and the best way to be a disciple of Jesus. That’s not my political opinion. It’s sound theology as well as scientific and medical fact. Just like care for your neighbor above your own individual rights is the way of Jesus.
Jesus understands our frustration and lament. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” Last week one of our grandchildren sharply reminded me that I couldn’t make him do something. He was right. But I tried really hard to help encourage and empower him to choose to do the right thing. Eventually, he did. So, we plead. We love. We encourage. We inform. We lament. We wait. And we rejoice with each new vaccination decision.