In January of 2020, I stood on a hill in Jerusalem with my mother, Bishop Rickel, and a crowd of other Christian pilgrims from the Diocese of Olympia, gazing out at the shape of the city on the horizon. Most prominent is the golden Dome of the Rock, the sacred Islamic shrine built on the Temple Mount. We can also see the walls built around the Old City of Jerusalem, old walls built where even more ancient walls used to stand. And if you know where to look, you can spot the grayish-blue domes that mark the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And scattered throughout these holy landmarks, there are homes and businesses and cars and people going about their lives.
I remember standing on that hill, looking over the city, where ancient things and new things dwelled together, imagining how Jesus must have felt when he said the words we just read: “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!”
This metaphor is unapologetically feminine and maternal. Jesus could have described how he felt about Jerusalem in any number of ways, and he chose to compare himself to a mother hen longing to protect her babies. I love that so much; it speaks to the maternal aspects of God, and is one of many small ways Jesus surprises us with how he treats women and femininity. Jesus yearned to be mother to Jerusalem, bringing all his children together under his wings for protection and unity.
And when I stood on that hillside, looking down at Jerusalem, thinking of this very verse, I had no idea how wildly my life would soon change. After all, in January of 2020, the world was pretty unconcerned with whatever new virus had appeared in China; we packed ourselves onto planes and into crowded holy spaces filled with unmasked pilgrims and tourists with no concern. It’s so hard to imagine doing those things now.
But by February of 2020, the first case of communally transmitted COVID-19 had been detected in the United States, here in Washington State in Snohomish County. Soon after I returned from the Holy Land, the greater Seattle area had become the first American epicenter of the pandemic. And by March of 2020, the Washington state government mandated all non-essential workers to stay at home and all non-essential travel be paused. Seemingly overnight, businesses closed, classrooms and churches went online, and traffic nearly vanished.
The hospitals, of course, stayed open.
We braced ourselves, locking down and preparing as best we could. And it didn’t take long for our ICU’s to fill up with COVID patients. Soon every single patient on our COVID ICU was on a ventilator. And there was a time during that first wave, when we knew so little about the virus and how to treat it, where every patient we put on a ventilator still died.
During that time, being a chaplain was really difficult. Not just because it was scary and sad, but because a chaplain’s main job, our super power, is being present. Being literally with you, even if that’s all we can do. But in that first surge in spring of 2020, we were asked not to enter any patient rooms except in dire circumstances, in order to minimize infection spread and to reserve crucial supplies like masks for nurses and doctors.
So, chaplains pivoted. We called distraught family members who couldn’t come into the hospital to visit their loved ones to support them. We visited with patients and families via Facetime and Zoom on iPads. We called patients on the phone while waving at them through the glass doors so we could still see each other. And we spent time, important time, with all the healthcare workers who were battling the pandemic at great personal risk day after day. And when the dire times came, we would suit up and go into COVID rooms, holding iPads so that families could say goodbye to their loved ones.
Of course, when PPE supplies were replenished, chaplains were back in rooms, visiting patients like before, holding hands with the dying and attending to the living. And we healthcare workers all started to settle grimly into our new normal. Never in my life have I ever felt so helpless than I did during that first surge.
What occurs to me now, two years later, is that Jesus knows how that feels.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How I have longed to gather your children up as a hen gathering her children under her wings, and you were not willing!”
And helplessness was not the only feeling to plague healthcare workers during the pandemic; once there were safe and effective vaccines for COVID-19 available, the hope we felt soon faded into bafflement and frustration as conspiracy theories and false information flooded the public. As 2021 progressed, the pandemic soon became a pandemic primarily of the unvaccinated. And then, many of the patients my coworkers worked hardest to save had, for many different reasons, not been willing to get vaccinated. So often, when these patients were at their sickest and their prognosis was unknown or grim, nurses and doctors and I would grieve. Oh, how we longed for the community we served to get vaccinated as soon as they were able, and yet many refused, out of fear or distrust. Some refused simply because they wanted control over their lives, balking at being told what to do by the state or their employer. Oh how we longed.
And Jesus knew this feeling too.
“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!”
So instead of standing before you and breaking your hearts with all the stories I carry in my own heart about lives lost and families shattered during the pandemic–and I have many–instead, let us wonder together what Christ might have us do in the midst of feeling helplessness and despair, anger and a deep longing for a reality that seems so far away. If we use today’s gospel passage for our instructions, we hear Jesus say this: “Go tell that fox Herod, listen! I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day, I finish my work.”
In the face of danger and heartbreak, Jesus kept going. When the people he longed to serve turned on him, he kept going. He still loved them, still kept preaching and teaching and healing and forgiving until the moment of his death.
This is exactly what so many of the healthcare workers in our world have done for the past two years. They have kept going. Every day, they amazed me, still caring and serving, day after day, year after year, through so much trauma, fear, resistance, and grief, I’ve watched healthcare workers continue to devote their lives to service, choosing to care over and over again when it would be so easy to walk away. Even when they felt scared or angry, they still chose to give care to patients who needed them.
And that, of course, is what we all must do. Even in the face of so many uncertainties, we must choose to care. Oh it would be so easy to let go, to harden our hearts. But we are called not to apathy or bitterness but to love. Love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves. The good news is that Jesus himself knows how hard this is! And Jesus himself will be with us all, every step of the way. Amen.