Do you know the term “herd immunity”? It pops up about this time every year as we move into the height of flu transmission. It’s the concept that if a significant proportion of a population is vaccinated against something, they will substantially reduce the possibility for the virus to spread. It also provides protection for those who for whatever reason cannot be vaccinated. The idea is that the community works together to protect each individual, especially those most vulnerable.
You may be aware that the vaccine many of us received this year didn’t cover the strain of flu that ended up becoming prevalent, so we are all more at risk than we normally would be. That’s why I am encouraging us to take extra precautions while we’re together on Sunday mornings: finding ways to pass the peace without shaking hands, being especially cautious during communion to avoid transmission of germs, encouraging all of us to be especially mindful that we have vulnerable populations in our midst.
But I am not here to lecture us all on the importance of washing our hands and covering our coughs.
I think Paul would have appreciated the metaphor of herd immunity when he was writing the portion of 1st Corinthians we heard this morning.
This passage is not about all of us becoming Vegetarians for Jesus! I want to give you a little context so that you understand what he’s talking about.
In that society, meat was not the basis of their diet. The wealthy could afford it, but for most people the only way they could get meat was by taking what had been sacrificed in the Roman temples—meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods, to “idols” as Paul calls them. We forget that at that time, the primary means of honoring whatever god you worshiped was blood sacrifice. Even Jews were still slaughtering animals in the Temple in Jerusalem, until it was destroyed in 70 AD. The animals would be killed as part of the sacrificial worship, and the meat then either given out or sold at a lesser price to those who would buy it.
The Christian communities living in Roman cities had to deal with this question: Should people eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols? But the deeper question was this: how do they deal with something that is not actually inherently evil but has the capacity to cause problems with some people within the community who might be drawn back into old destructive patterns? Should they just ban it altogether? That might appeal to the wealthier in the community who have the means to get meat some other way, but for the poorer among them, the sacrifices from pagan festivals was their only access to meat, and they needed the protein just to survive. Then there’s the religious divide—those who came to Christian community from Judaism were comfortable setting restrictions on food, but the Gentiles who came in were afraid it was the first step toward requiring them to keep all the Jewish laws (which were not just about keeping kosher, remember, but might also mean they had to be circumcised), and they insisted that Jesus set them free from all that.
At a deeper level was the problem that plagued the church in Corinth—a lack of unity. Paul spends a lot of time chastising the Corinthians for the ways in which they put their individual freedom ahead of the health of the whole community. The letters to the Corinthians are the source of most of our understanding of the church as the Body of Christ. Paul spent a lot of time teaching them that they were interdependent, that what one of them did had an effect on the rest of the community, that those who consider themselves “strong” in faith have a certain amount of responsibility to those who are “weak,” because ultimately we all belong to the community of Christ. We are expected to focus our energy on strengthening the whole community, not just ourselves. Sometimes that means making sacrifices so that even the weakest among has a place at the table.
That’s the connection to this morning’s Gospel reading.
This is Jesus’ first public appearance since his baptism in the River Jordan. Since returning from his time in the wilderness, he has been calling disciples to follow him and now he is prepared to begin teaching them, and everyone in the synagogue is “astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.”
What is fascinating is that we do not hear what he taught, only that it made an impression. What is even more fascinating to me is that what happens next is ultimately classified as part of that teaching, even though everyone here would probably characterize it as a miracle, not a lesson.
Jesus heals a man possessed by an ‘unclean spirit.’ I’ll save the discussion about what exactly that might mean for another time, because what is important here is how Jesus interacts with it. Jesus doesn’t argue with the unclean spirit. Jesus didn’t rise to the bait of its taunt. Jesus looks at it and tells it to BE SILENT.
As someone pointed out to me, what is really wonderful in this story is that Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, the demon, if you want to call it that—but not the man who is possessed. Jesus silences the voices that tell this man he’s worthless and hopeless and should be ashamed of himself and instead affirms the worth of that man, demonstrating his own power and authority by setting the man free from the thing that possesses him.
In doing so, he restores him to the community. And if all goes the way it should, the community can now keep him from danger; they can provide him with the strength and reassurance that will protect him. They will provide him with spiritual “herd immunity,” provided they have learned the lesson Jesus was teaching in this act of healing.
The point of both these readings is that salvation is not quite so individual a thing as we western Christians might like to think. Salvation is not just about making sure we have the right ticket for the hereafter. It is also very much about cooperating with God’s work of restoration and healing now. Today. To do so, we have to be looking for the activity of God in our daily lives, in our communities. Seeing how the Spirit blows into all kinds of situations, not just the overtly ‘churchy’ ones.
Where has God invited you to step outside our own interests and seek the good of others? How has God asked you to provide ‘herd immunity’ to the most vulnerable among us? Not just by getting a flu shot or making sure your measles vaccine is up-to-date (although I’m not discounting that as a spiritual activity!). There are a lot of ways to strengthen the communities to which we belong—everything from donations of food to the food pantry to praying the prayer list every day.
What if we were to create an “Oxford Hills rosary”? By that I mean that we identify several public locations that will prompt each of us to pray every time we drive past them. (I did this years ago to pass the time on a daily commute.) So we might all agree that when we drive past a hospital we’ll pray for those who are sick. When we drive past a school, we’ll pray for children and teachers. When we drive past a flag we’ll pray for our government and our military. I bet together we could put together a pretty impressive list.
Who would like to work on that with me? Who would like to participate in a little prayer-based spiritual herd immunity for the Oxford Hills area? Let’s give it a try.