"This COVID Wilderness, Continued ..."

"This COVID Wilderness, Continued ..."

Rev. Gusti Linnea Newquist

September 12, 2021


Based on *Numbers 21:4-9. Stinging Snakes of Fire in the Desert’s Last Days

*Incarnational Translation below

Tell the truth: how many of you thought we would have been long out of this COVID wilderness by now?

How many of you are complaining that we are still here?

How many of you are even more worried about your safety or the safety of someone you love than you were six months ago?

I am.

The truth is we have never, as a global human population, taken this pandemic seriously enough to journey through it swiftly and thoroughly. Some of us, yes. But not nearly enough of us. And now all of us, no matter how seriously we have taken it – or not – still suffer.

This is the human condition. “Life on life’s terms,” as the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous calls it. The truth that we are bound to one another and the decisions of others – good and bad – whether we want to be or not.

We do not!

So we complain about it, or at least I do, and I am guessing at least one or two of you do, too. We point the finger at all those other people messing things up for the rest of us. And we are right! At least I am! And I am guessing one or two of you are, too!

But it does not matter if we are right and all of those other people are wrong, at least not to a coronavirus. We who are human are still bound to one another and the decisions of others – good and bad – whether we want to be or not.

Whether we complain about it or not.

Whether we are “right” about it, or not.

The same is true for our siblings in the faith these many millennia ago, as we meet them in our Lesson for the today. Which should sound familiar. We have been here before.

In fact, this entire service of worship should sound familiar, since most of the prayers and readings and quotes are lifted directly from a similar service of worship last March, in the middle of our Lenten Wilderness, marking one full year into worship-at-home because of COVID.

Yes. We have been here before.

Like this ragtag band of ancient Israelites seeking safety, led by Moses, we find ourselves coming full circle, over and over again forging the exact same path through the desert. Leaving no cactus unturned along the way.

Yes, I used those exact words six months ago, when we were already discouraged by how long it had taken but were eagerly awaiting the miracle vaccine – most of us – or had already received it – those of us in certain age categories.

I also used these exact words:

In truth, an actual journey from Egypt to Canaan on foot in the ancient world should, by all rights, take two weeks. Perhaps a bit longer with such a large caravan.

It takes the ancient Israelites FORTY YEARS!

Forty years in the wilderness, with snakes of fire that can sting anyone, not just those who do not follow instructions. That forty years in the wilderness ends up belonging to all of us, and not just all of those other people who “do not get it.”

I also pointed – six months ago – to that number 40 in the Bible: forty years in the wilderness, forty days and nights of rain in the story of Noah’s Ark; forty days for Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism; forty days in this Season of Lent. And I reminded us that in the Bible that number 40 is more symbolic than literal.

It means “as long as it takes to learn the lessons that need to be learned.”

We at SPC have tried these last six weeks of getting ready for our “soft but still grand re-opening” to absorb at least some of those lessons: that the Body Matters [these physical bodies, the body of our congregation, the body politic across the globe]; that Lament Matters [keeping it real with God and one another about how we really feel]; that Time Matters [making the most of it because it is so very precious and so very short]; that Space Matters [we have just plain MISSED the Sanctuary!]; that Love Matters [in every form, in every way]; and that our Work Matters [joining Jesus on the other side of the divide between the haves and the have nots].

Today we have one final lesson. In fact, I would argue today’s lesson functions as the foundation for them all. And that lesson is about the danger of discouragement.

Yes, we have already learned that Lament Matters. As one of our siblings in the faith shared just this week, I need permission to not feel great right now. We miss singing. We miss hugs. We miss singing. We miss yummy snacks after services.

Did I mention we miss singing?

There is a difference, though, between feeling a bit blue through a genuine process of grief versus succumbing to a culture of chronic complaining. Between the language of lament and a spirit of discouragement. Yes, we have been humbled, and that is hard, and we are right to grieve. Yes, we are losing a lifestyle, and that necessarily leads to lament. Yes, we are doing everything “right,” so many of us are, and we are still losing friends and colleagues – fully vaccinated! – to this virus.

It is not fair!

And yet … at least for the ancient Israelites, their Lament – Gone – Rogue, their spirit of discouragement, permeates the population so thoroughly that it becomes just as dangerous – and just as deadly – as the snake of fire infecting them, itself.

Some of the greatest wisdom I have received in the ministry came from a beautiful elderly couple, faithful as the sunrise, to God and to one another, and to the community of faith with which they worshipped. They were aging, and their eyesight was failing, and so was their memory. But when I asked them every Sunday morning how they were doing, as they entered the sanctuary, they would respond, “I can’t complain, and it wouldn’t do any good anyway.” Can you imagine? With every reason to moan and groan, their wisdom for the universe – every time! – was, “I can’t complain, and it wouldn’t do any good anyway.”

The truth is complaining sure does not do any good for those ancient Israelites wandering through their wilderness. It only makes things worse. The spirit of discouragement, as we have already said, infects the entire community, dragging everyone down with it. As we have already said, the spirit of discouragement that comes from chronic complaining – in this Lesson from ancient Scripture, at least – is just as threatening to the people of God as the snakes of fire.

This particular lesson learned from lockdown – that the actions of some people affect the well-being of everyone – goes both ways!

Which leads us to Moses. And the words we are not given from his prayer to God, as the ancient Israelites repent – again – of their complaining. And ask Moses – again – to reconcile them to God and one another.

If the prayers of Moses are anything like mine, they start with something like, “Help!” Followed by, “I really don’t have a clue what to do.” Building up to, “Really, God. Is this what you had in mind when you called me to ministry!?” Resting into, “Okay, God, I give.” Concluding with, “Just show me, God, one step at a time, what is the next right thing? And help me do it.”

I can tell you with full honesty that God has responded to my prayers in a similar fashion as God responds to the undocumented prayer of Moses in our Lesson for today: face the truth, Gusti; quit complaining, Gusti; keep learning how to love God and to love one another more deeply through it, Gusti.

And say those words to the people, too.

The truth is, this COVID wilderness, continued … is only going to get better if we find something to be grateful for and start from there.

This COVID wilderness, continued … is only going to get better if we find something worthwhile to devote our time and energy to while we wander.

This COVID wilderness, continued … is only going to get better if we covenant to hold one another through the genuine cycles of grief that are ballooning within us, while at the same time relinquishing the spirit of discouragement that can too easily keep us bickering beyond – and even within – our community.

Friends, I promise you, there is a way out of this COVID wilderness, even though it sure does feel painful in the process. All we have to do is face the truth; quit complaining; and keep learning day by day how to love God and to love one another more deeply through it.

If we do these things, then maybe, just maybe, we can depart this COVID wilderness – someway, someday! – even stronger as a community than we were when we entered it.

Let the church say, Amen!



*Numbers 21:4-9

The Israelites set out from eastern Sinai
to go around the land of Edom;
but along the way, a spirit of discouragement
grips the soul of the community.

The people speak against God and against Moses,

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt
to die in the wilderness?” they complain.
“For there is no food and no water,
and our soul loathes this worthless bread!”

God is fed up with their ingratitude,
and releases the people to the consequences of their complaining.

They are, to be sure, still in the desert wilderness.
Snakes of desert fire slink into the community,
and they sting,
and many of the Israelites die.

Chastened by the consequences of their complaining,
humbled by life in the wilderness,
the Israelite community comes to Moses and says,
“We have sinned against God and against you;
pray to God to take the snakes of desert fire away from us.”

So Moses prays for the people.
(We are not given the words Moses speaks.)

God says to Moses,
“Craft yourselves a banner of this desert fire.
When everyone who is stung actually looks at the banner,
they shall live.”

*”Incarnational translation for preaching seeks to recontextualize biblical texts so that they say and do in new times and places something like what they said and did in ancient times and places” (Cosgrove and Edgerton, In Other Words: Incarnational Translation for Preaching, 62).