Recently, Facebook has seemed dominated by arguments about the safety (or danger) of vaccines, as well as about whether the practice of vaccination ought to be a parental choice. Even Larry Wilmore's new program, The Nightly Show, took on this discussion recently. This all comes in the wake of more than eighty cases of measles in the U.S., something that began at Disneyland and apparently originated in the anti-vaccination community.
The point of this post isn't to stake a claim in that fight, at least not explicitly.
I am enamored by the language of choice within this discussion. Parents, almost without fault, want to do the best for their children. Whether parents choose to use every vaccine available or to refuse those vaccines, I'm sure each parent is making a choice that they believe is the very best for their child. Even more than parental instinct, the attempt to protect those you love is expected.
As often happens, Jesus' words complicate the decision making process, at least for Christians. In Matthew 5, part of what many call the Beatitudes, Jesus says, "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." As Christians make decisions about all sorts of things in the world, part of our responsibility is to make choices that reflect love for our neighbors.
When I first read the story about the Disneyland measles outbreak, I thought all those who got measles were part of the anti-vaccination movement or were in the incredible minority of people for whom vaccinations are not effective. While reading about the fallout, I learned about a third group of people who don't receive vaccines, or more accurately, cannot receive vaccines. For instance, people living with cancer and fight the disease using chemotherapy and radiation treatments have significantly compromised immune systems, such that vaccines are too dangerous a risk of introducing the actual disease. At least one such child is now in a de facto quarantine because she came in contact with an infected patron at Disneyland.
As a pastor, this all breaks my heart. No one who chooses not to vaccinate their children wants to put children at risk. Yet, the very act of not vaccinating does just that: it threatens the lives of those who don't have a choice in the matter, whose own diseases and illnesses prevent them from the luxury of choosing whether to vaccinate against some, all, or no diseases.
Of course, this kind of reasoning affects the entirety of the Christian life. As we seek to protect ourselves and those closest to us, we must also ask a fundamental question: are we loving our neighbor? Are our choices for ourselves working to oppress or endanger others?
At this point, perhaps a bit of full disclosure would help. I'm generally in support of vaccination. It does bother me that pharmaceutical companies make billions on vaccinations, but in my reading, no credible study has been able to link vaccinations to the development of autism, HIV, or the other common claims. The original studies that posited such correlations have been discredited. Some of you disagree with that sentiment. While I don't ultimately agree, I respect that.
But from a Christian point of view, as those who take the words of God as words for life, we can't make decisions thinking only of ourselves or of those closest to us. We're called to become children of God, and part of that means we're called to love one another, not just those with whom we share blood, but even those who we don't know, even our adversaries.
This isn't easy. Not in the least. But in the midst of the discussion on whether to vaccinate ourselves and our children, we must stop pretending as though the decision only affects ourselves. We're called to love everyone, absolutely everyone. The end-game of our choices should not just be, "This is the best thing for me," or "This will protect the people that I love." Rather, our call as people of the cross is to love our enemies. To pray for those who persecute us. To pursue a life that works for the good of all creation and the redemption of all things. Whatever choices you make about vaccines, about how to spend your money, about where to spend your time, about all things in life, keep in mind the words of Jesus and seek to act in love toward all people.
As a child, I bagged groceries, cut steaks, and worked in the office of my dad's meat packing plant. If you're ever in Wayne County, Ohio, check our Marshallville Packing Company. Anyway, as I grew, many people wondered whether I'd follow in dad's footsteps. My answer was always the same: I like the work, but I loathe the business side of things.
So instead, I became a pastor.
What I didn't realize as a teenager was that pastors almost inevitably become involved within the business aspects of church. Though we're called to the worship and service life of the church, that often includes ordering supplies, coordinating staff, and dealing with outside contractors.
Here in my first call, the building renovation process brings excitement about the potential for new and reinvigorated ministry. At the same time, it also brings me a distinct level of anxiety. Missed deadlines, botched projects, and unexpected needs for supervision were all things I saw my dad deal with day in and day out at MPC. I never considered that pastors might also have to deal with that as well. We do.
However, this is not making me wish I had become a butcher instead of a pastor. Rather, it's a constant reminder of why I believe God called me to this place in life. I love the vast majority of my work, whether preaching, leading worship, community organizing, ministry development, leadership education, and a myriad of other things that truly bring me joy. When I end up in the business side of the church, I give thanks to God that the church is not a business.
Yes, we have budgets. Many have buildings. But long before the advent of capitalism, the church existed as the Body of Christ in the world, trying to live life differently in order to point all creation to her creator , seen in Jesus. The business world is not our home; rather, we belong in the Kingdom of God. We sometimes become emissaries into commercial realms, but as ones who say that people matter more than bottom lines, that good news is found in forgiveness and hope rather than profit shares and dividends, that the reason for existence is not to accumulate wealth, but to share all that we have for the sake of Jesus.
I still have to deal with business as a pastor, but thanks be to God that we're not in the business of selling grace or profiting off of Jesus.
This week's Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for the Baptism of Our Lord includes Genesis 1:1-5 as the first reading. It reads, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness, swept over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light, 'day,' and the darkness God called 'night.' There was evening and there was morning--the first day."
So, where's the baptismal imagery? Only everywhere, if we connect with the deep roots of our tradition (something that I'm still learning every day). But what struck me about this juxtaposition for today's reading was the imagery of birth.
The Gospel passage from Mark reveals God naming Jesus as a child. The Genesis passage reveals the first light of creation through the chaos of waters. Both instances carry imagery of new birth, and particularly, of water breaking.
Yes, that kind of water breaking.
Today, my water broke. No, not that kind of water break. The temperatures dropped so low that our pipes froze. I didn't know that when I got in the shower, but just as I had lathered up my hair, the water disappeared. What I found out, very quickly, was that life without water is hard. No hair rinsing. Gritty teeth brushing. No drinking. Hydration, a necessity for life itself, fails without water.
We're carried in water for nine months before we're born, and in our baptisms, we're carried to eternity through the gift of water and the Spirit. Life comes through the breaking of water, first those waters that crash at creation of the world and the creation of each of our lives, and then the baptismal waters that crash around us at the font.
As we celebrate Jesus' baptism this Sunday, we recall that God brought the world into existence through the breaking of water, that we came into the world through the breaking of water, and that we came into eternal life, we became citizens of God's kingdom, through the breaking waters of Baptism.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.