Canada has begun a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections. More than 3,000 new cases are diagnosed every day; and the increase in daily cases — from a low of 300 per day in early July — has occurred despite nearly 75% of Canada’s population having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination and nearly 70% having received two doses. Children under the age of 12, or about 10% of the population, are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, which leaves about 20% of the adult population who are currently unvaccinated.
All of Canada’s governments support vaccination; but only some — Quebec, B.C., and Manitoba — are requiring vaccination for public gatherings in places like restaurants and sport events. The others say legal reasons prevent them from requesting information about vaccination status for public gatherings.
There is no doubt that requiring vaccines is an infringement on liberty. But so are rules that driving must be done on the right side of the road; and no one objects to these driving requirements.
Canadians are not obligated to be vaccinated. But neither does being unvaccinated mean one should be free to enter restaurants, sports arenas, or churches, many of us argue.
Starting on Wednesday September 1st, people coming to events at the Mill Woods United Church building, such as Sunday morning services like this one, will be required to be doubly vaccinated, or be medically exempt from vaccination, or be less than 12 years of age. This means that those who sign in are comfortable in declaring their vaccination status; and everyone else is free to participate in a service online. This requirement will protect those who have not yet been vaccinated and will allow those of us who have received two doses of vaccine to enjoy services with fewer restrictions.
As an example of the latter, starting next Sunday not everyone will be masked. I will probably be one who will not wear a mask when speaking or singing from this podium. Others will come masked, and others may stay at home. We don’t yet know how this will affect things. But we believe requiring vaccination against COVID-19 is a reasonable and effective ruling for participation in church activities.
The number of places at which the unvaccinated can gather indoors will continue to shrink – but based on the rulings of private institutions and not public directives from provincial governments like the ones in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario; and this lack of public leadership will see the pandemic continue longer than it otherwise would. Our governments don’t want the pandemic to last. Nevertheless, their thinking about it is having this effect; and thinking clearly about the pandemic is an issue that many governments have struggled with throughout the pandemic.
Today’s Gospel reading is one in which Jesus rethinks his approach to healing. At first, Jesus refuses to provide healing to a non-Jewish woman. But the woman’s persistence convinces him that everyone deserves healing.
The religious technology of the people of Palestine in the time of Jesus involved animal sacrifice in Jehovah’s Temple in Jerusalem, keeping kosher rules with food, and observing hundreds of other commandments from the Hebrew Torah.
But in the intercultural melting pot of the Roman Empire, this religious technology was losing its effectiveness. More Jews lived outside of Palestine than within it, and they spoke Greek rather than the Hebrew of their ancient Scriptures.
Then by the time Mark wrote his narrative of Jesus’ life, the old ways had become impossible. In the year 70 CE, the Romans had defeated a three-year Jewish rebellion, they had burned the Holy City of Jerusalem to the ground, and they had taken Jehovah’s Temple apart stone by stone.
It was in this dire context that early Christians heard the story of Jesus being confronted by a Gentile woman. When she begs Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus refers to her and other non-Jewish people as dogs. She doesn’t disagree with this insult but persists in asking him for help.
Jesus is impressed by her strength, and so he agrees to heal her daughter. Instead of focussing only on the people of Israel, Jesus now reaches out with compassion and healing to everyone.
Shortly after today’s story, Jesus heads to Jerusalem where he confronts the religious and political elites who kill him; and when Jesus is resurrected as the Christ, he is no longer just the King of the Jews or the tribal god Jehovah in human form. He is a divine spark that lives within each human heart.
Today, our churches face a world that looks as different from our past as the Roman Empire must have looked to the followers of Jesus after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Compare, for instance, Canadian society of today with the one of 96 years ago when the United Church of Canada was founded. In 1925, many homes still didn’t have electricity; few had telephones; radio broadcasting was only in the planning stage; and nearly 100% of Canadians were Christian.
Today, we live in a world saturated with the Internet and smartphones. Only 65% of Canadians are Christians, and many of them rarely darken a church door. Cultural shifts involving feminism and immigration have swept away old certainties.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, his followers drew the circle of their communion wider to include more of the people in the Roman Empire.
Today in a secular world united by a world market and with vast amounts of digital information spread via social media, we are challenged to draw our circle wider still.
Where a church like ours will end up, I am not sure. Sixty-five years ago, my favourite theologian, Paul Tillich wrote: “It is the greatness of Christianity that it can see how small it is. The importance of being a Christian is that we can stand the insight that [Christianity] is of no importance” (from “The New Being,” 1955).
The Way of Jesus is inherently revolutionary. It moves from one crisis to another, suffers the death of even the most precious of old ways, and always leads to surprising new life.
A church that is willing to die in the face of new conditions is one that is true to the spirit of the first followers of Jesus. They confronted the destruction of ancient systems of beliefs and practices. In the ashes of their old traditions, they allowed faith in the Risen Christ to lead them to new ways to love God and neighbour.
I look forward to incorporating new technology in our worship, education, and outreach. I appreciate the vision of a church as a social network that weaves together in-person gatherings with online ones. And I want us to improve our church website and to learn how to use social media more adeptly.
But to find “success” with these techniques, I think we also need to grieve the loss of old traditions and accept God’s Grace to rise to something strange and new.
Tillich’s words from 65 years ago remind me that the old ways of church are unimportant. I pray that I can simultaneously enjoy these traditions, grieve their passing, and look forward to new ones that I can hardly even imagine.
In the words of Mary Oliver, let us take our old bodies out into the morning and sing.
May it be so. Amen.