Feeds:
Posts
Comments

The flame shall not consume you, for God is with you.

 

I’d like to take you to a scene that probably played out in a house somewhere near us over the holidays.

John and Marie are first time parents of a two-year-old toddler, Jeremy. Jeremy never stops exploring and moving.   Over the holidays his parents decide to light a fire in their fireplace for the first time since Jeremy was born. They meant to buy a fire screen but never got around to it, but anyway they are just going to light a fire log and they will be sitting right there on the old blue couch in their small cozy living room. It will be safe. They won’t take their eyes off Jeremy.

IMG_6327

Watch out!  Keep away from the fire!

Jeremy stares intently as the match is lit and the fire log comes to life. He stares – unusually still – at the flames. He reaches his hand out to the fire and his mother cautions – Hot. Don’t touch! He pulls his hand back but his eyes don’t leave the flames. Watch out! – She says – Keep away from the fire. After a moment he sits down on the carpet with his toys and loses interest in the dancing flame. John and Marie sit close together on the blue couch. Their love for each other and their son fills the room like a warm, cozy hug. They exchange a glance that speaks about love and gratitude … and a little exhaustion. In that split second Jeremy stands up and puts his whole chubby hand into the flame.

His mother sees him and grabs him back, shouting “No. Hot! Don’t touch! Little Jeremy starts to cry. The father runs to get some cold water for his little burned hand. His mother holds wailing Jeremy in a tight hug, her heart racing. There is shouting and crying. But soon the crisis passes and on examination, Jeremy’s hand is barely red – he must have snatched it back from the fire very quickly. The sobbing stops and his parents hold Jeremy close on the blue couch and surround him in a huge hug, holding him tight to their hearts. They know that today he has learned about fire, but they also know that his life will be filled with other fires, other pain, and they hug him even more closely as if to protect him against the troubles that life will bring. They wish that their love would always keep him safe, but in their hearts they know they will not be able to protect him from the firestorms of life.

John the Baptist brings us a different image of fire in our gospel text today.

We find ourselves on the banks of the river Jordan with John. People have walked for miles to hear John the Baptist preach about repentance. He is urgently calling on them to repent, to turn their lives around because the Messiah is coming.

He brings us a frightening image of fire: the Messiah will “gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” You see, in those times the grain stalks were threshed – beaten – on a threshing floor outdoors, to break the wheat kernels off the stalks. Then they would take a winnowing fork – like a pitchfork – and toss the stalks up into the air. The wind would blow off the “chaff” – the lightweight leaves and stalks, while the heavy kernels of grain would fall to the floor. The chaff, the dried stems and leaves, was no good for anything and it would be burned.

John’s message is that the people who do not turn their lives around, who continue to live sinful and ungodly lives, are like the chaff, no good for anything, and will be burned with “unquenchable fire.”

The problem is … fire is all around us. We are sure to be burned by life. Our broken world is filled with wickedness, cruelty and grief. Our own lives are filled with challenges and trouble. We are human and we sin – we forget to pray, get swept up in our own lives and don’t help others, act wrongly, hurt people. We feel overwhelmed with the injustices and pain of the world and don’t act… and tragedy also comes unbidden to our doorstep – sickness, death, illness, loss.

Often life can feel like we are not just putting our hand into the fire, but that we are passing right through a firestorm. We struggle to fulfill our baptismal promises. We don’t live up to our own expectations, or we are afraid that we don’t live up to God’s high standards. We fear that we are not good enough, not Godly enough. Perhaps in our heart we are afraid that we will be the chaff that gets burned.

But there is hope … Let us go back for a moment to the river Jordan. After all the people were baptized, Jesus comes forward and is baptized. And then he prays. Perhaps one by one the people in the crowd realize who he is, or feel that something is different about him. They surely fall silent and awestruck as the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove. And into that awed silence, into that hush, words of blessing sound from heaven:

You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

Well pleased. “well pleased” may have an air of faint praise about it, like “quite good,” but the phrase also means ”in you I have taken delight.” Taken delight! God the father delights in Jesus the son!   The father loves Jesus in the way a parent loves a child. Can you imagine the father taking Jesus into his arms just as the parents took Jeremy into theirs? Arms filled with love and hope … but also a sense of foreboding, knowing the path Jesus must follow leads to death on the cross. Just as Jeremy’s parents know that their son will have to face the firestorms of life.

And just as Jeremy’s parents delight in their beloved son, just as God the father delights in his beloved son Jesus, God delights in us, God delights in you! God is holding us even now in an unbreakable hug. God is with us when we walk through the firestorms of life.

And unlike Jeremy’s parents, who are only human after all, God will never leave us. There is always room on the blue couch by the fire for us to be surrounded by a hug of God’s love. And if we stray into the fire, or as we walk through the firestorms of life, God is always with us.

When we make wrong decisions, or don’t act as we should, and or tragedy comes unbidden to our doorstep, God is with us. When we struggle to do the right thing, to keep the promises we made at baptism, God is with us. God loves us even if we feel that we have failed. Even if we find we can’t even love our self, God still delights in us. We are always, always precious, beloved children of God!

In our first reading, Isaiah spoke to the people of Israel, but his words offer reassurance for us today.

I invite you to close your eyes for a moment, and imagine you are sitting in Jeremy’s cozy living room by the warm fire, on that old blue couch. You have worries and pain, guilt and fears, and all the troubles that human life brings. With your eyes closed, take a deep breath. (pause) another (pause) Feel God’s hug of unconditional love as you listen to his words

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

When you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

And the flame shall not consume you.

Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured,

And I love you.

Do not fear, for I am with you.

Do not fear. I am with you. (Is 43:1-7 excerpts)

 

Do you feel God’s hug? I am sorry but you have to come back now and open your eyes.

I’d like to leave you with a small task for the week. Take your bulletin home. Read again that first reading from Isaiah. Pray the words. If you feel moved, write or draw the words or a picture. Maybe memorize the verse that moves your heart. Sit in silence for a few minutes each day with the text, take a deep breath and feel God’s hug surround you. For you are a beloved child of God. And God delights, God delights in you!

And when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

the flame shall not consume you.

 

Text: Luke 3:15-22, Isaiah 43:1-7

(written to be delivered verbally, so please excuse eccentric punctuation and repetition)

January 10, 2016

 

You brood of vipers!

I am sharing my sermon from Advent 3 for those who are interested.

Text: Luke 3:7-18  (included below for reference)

A couple of weeks ago I walked up a beautiful walkway to a gorgeous house in our area. The grey slate flagstones were perfectly level, the garden groomed, not a stray leaf or a yellow spot on the perfectly manicured lawn. Beside the solid oak door stood two large urns artistically filled with holiday greenery. In the driveway there was an Audi and a Mercedes SUV. I was going door to door with my kids collecting food for our community food drive.

IMG_8021

Many people gave generously to the community food drive.

Good, I thought, this family is blessed with abundance, and will be able to spare some food for the food bank. They had received a flyer the week before, so I anticipated a good reaction. I pressed the doorbell and put on my best smile.

A rather handsome and well dressed man opened the door with his young daughter. She was snacking on cheerios in a pink plastic bowl, and behind them I could see breakfast foods set on a gray granite topped island in an immaculate white kitchen.

“Hi,” I said, “we are collecting food for the Leaside community food drive. Do you have anything to donate?” I exchanged a cheerful smile with his daughter, munching her cheerios.

“No,” he replied, “we don’t have any food.”

I looked at him a little quizzically. I glanced at his child, eating her cheerios, at the kitchen island behind him filled with breakfast.

“No, we don’t have any food in the house,” he repeated.

I kept my smile on my face, and said “thanks, have a good day”. He closed the door with a thud.

As I walked away I was filled with indignation. Obviously he had food in the house. To lie right in front of his child! Surely he had a can of tuna or some pasta in one of his cupboards! Such selfishness! I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and turn him around and say – look – you do have food. Why don’t you share some of your abundance? What is wrong with you!!! Think of others. Do good. Turn around and look at your kitchen man!

Of course I was polite and smiled and didn’t say anything like this out loud. And truly, maybe there was something going on in that house at that moment that I don’t know about.

On the other hand, in our gospel reading today, John the Baptist doesn’t pull any punches. His soul is on fire with indignation. He is fearlessly angry and accusatory.

People have traveled miles in the wilderness – many of them on foot – to repent and be baptized by John. They have come to see this renowned prophet, to be part of something extraordinary that is happening by the banks of the river Jordan. And instead of being happy to see them, John accuses them:

“You brood of vipers!”

IMG_7235

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”

 

John is outraged, fearless, speaking truth without any filter. He doesn’t care one bit if he offends the upstanding citizens in the crowd.

It must have felt like a slap on the face to them, perhaps especially to the Pharisees and soldiers and upstanding citizens who would never normally be accused in this rude way. He points an accusatory finger at them:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. … every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Harsh words. John suspects the crowd’s motives in being there. He is telling them it is not enough to come and say they are sorry and be baptized – they have to actually repent, to change their lives. To turn around.

Now the word repentance here is the Greek word metanoia. It means a change of mind, a conversion, reform of life, in effect a “turning around”. John is calling on the people to turn around, repent, and reform their lives.

He compares the people to fruit trees – trees that bear good fruit are kept, but trees that do not bear fruit are cut down and burned. It is not hard to understand his message –people need to act differently, doing good works, sharing, being honest and compassionate, not just voice their repentance, they have to turn around their lives and bear good fruit. Otherwise – and this is harsh – the says they will be cut down and burned. John certainly knows how to get our attention!

He even saves a special warning for the complacent in the crowd – the ones who are thinking he doesn’t really mean them, the ones who think their religious practices are beyond reproach. That is what he means when he talks about one who claim to have Abraham as their ancestor. He makes sure they understand that it is not enough to follow the religious rules, to smugly pray and walk about self-righteously like the Pharisees – all must love God and their neighbour. No one escapes John’s accusations.

John’s exhortation – his strong language – is meant to wake them up. He is preparing them for the coming of the Messiah. “Get ready!” he is saying, “turn around! Look at what you are doing!”

The good news is that his demands are not complicated:

  1. Share your abundance: whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise
  1. Be honest – Tax collectors only collect what is due, don’t take a cut
  1. Be ethical – do not extort money, soldiers, be satisfied with your wages

He is not asking the crowd to join him in living in the desert. He is simply calling them to acts of equity and kindness. He is not asking them to live in poverty, just to share their abundance.

John’s demands are urgent because he knows the Messiah is coming soon – there is no time to lose!

For us today, John’s message still make us uncomfortable – it should make us turn around and look at our lives. How many of us have passed a homeless person without making eye contact or giving a coin?  How many of us have been rude to someone at the door? How many of us have not given generously to the toy drive or not the the food bank. How many of us have angrily judged someone who did not give, just as I did at that door? I stand accused just as much as the man with his daughter and her pink bowl of cherrios. We all stand accused by John the Baptist.

So now that we are all feeling vaguely guilty – I know I am – how is it that this reading is assigned on the Sunday in Advent when we light a candle for joy? This doesn’t seem like a joyful message, does it? Where on earth is the joy in John’s accusation? It makes me feel unworthy and inadequate, like I am missing the mark – what about you?

So here’s the joy. John is preparing the way for Jesus, the Messiah. That is the good news. We are entering a new world where we are called into relationship with God, called to partner with God in making the world anew. To our joyful relief, we are not alone in our struggle to love our neighbour and share our possessions – Jesus is always alongside us, encouraging us, forgiving us and giving us the courage to keep trying. Jesus loves us unconditionally– even if we close the door on the person asking for food or fall short of John’s demanding standards. That is something to be joyful about!

Christmas isn’t just about an innocent baby in a manger. It is about rejoicing that Christ comes to live among us, to be in relationship with us. It is a time of awe and celebration. It is a time to take stock of God’s abundance in our lives, to share our gifts with others, to give thanks for friends and family, for peace and love even in our bruised and broken world. It is a time to feel our hearts swell with pride and generosity as Syrian refugees arrive in our wonderful country to begin new lives. A time to turn around and look at our abundance and give thanks, and out of that gratitude share with those around us.

God gives us his only son that we may be renewed, that we may be a resurrection people, renewed in his love, forgiven and embraced. The good news is that God loves us, even when we mess up, even when we lie or behave selfishly. Even when we don’t turn around and reach into the kitchen for food to donate to someone at the door.

Yet when we do turn around in our lives, there is so much cause for rejoicing, even among the challenges we all face.   Joy is all around us – in the faces of children, music, gathering together. Joy is like an underground spring that wells up within us – and if we let it, joy will overflow out of our lives and into the lives of others.

The Spirit acts within our hearts to inspire acts of generosity. Perhaps the Spirit is leading you to donating to our sponsorship of a refugee family … though, perhaps like me, you haven’t gotten quite got around to writing that cheque. If John the Baptist were here I think he would be pointing his finger at me and saying “the time is now”!

So this Advent let us turn around – repent – and prepare for the coming of Christ again into our lives. And let us rejoice that God sends his son to us in an act of great love.

Rejoice in the Lord always. Let our gentleness be known to everyone. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and minds as we approach Christmas.

Text: Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear histhreshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been thinking a lot lately about the story Linh* shared with me some years ago.  I want to share it with you.

Linh was a carefree 18-year-old student who lived with her loving father. One day she woke to chaos in the streets of Saigon. Quickly she and her father packed two small bags – their documents, money. They joined the panicked crowd swarming to the port. It seemed that everyone in the city was trying to get on a ship, any ship, to flee Vietnam. Linh, wearing a sleeveless pink sundress and sandals, lost sight of her father in the chaos. She found herself swept up in the crowd and, frightened and alone, she handed over her money to the captain of a rusty old ship. As the ship, overloaded with frightened people, pulled away from the pier, she scanned the crowd in vain for her father.

The captain sank the old ship just off the coast of Malaysia and dumped the refugees into the waves. Linh, unable to swim, struggled to shore, half drowned, losing her bag, her documents and even her sandals. Many did not make it that far.

The Malaysian authorities, overrun with refugees, took these “boat people” to a desolate internment island. It was a place stripped of trees and plants, without clean water or enough food. Linh and many of the refugees become very ill. More died. Linh was so sick and filthy that she was spared being raped. Linh told me: I had lost my father, I was so sick, I wanted to die. I lost track of time. Sometimes I thought I was already dead, that I was in hell.

Eventually a small group of brave Christian aid workers arrived on the island, living in the same terrible conditions as the refugees. Overwhelmed by the need, they offered what little medical care they could from their tent. Linh, still very ill and in deep despair, was suspicious. She asked through an interpreter why these people came to live in this hell to help strangers. Their incomprehensible answer was simple “Because of Jesus.” Still barely alive, she felt a glimmer of curiosity, a spark of hope. Inexplicably, against all odds, someone cared.

One day, as Linh sat limp on the rocky ground in the hot sun, she heard her name called on the loudspeaker. She stirred. The people around urged her forward to the aid workers tent. She was still numb, ill and didn’t speak English. But before she knew it, she was on a ship, then a plane. She did not understand where she was going, but she didn’t care. She followed and walked as if she was dead. Someone gave her a pair of flip flops decorated with pink flowers.

12316165_1078153725542306_3715738060316471781_n

The street was lined with cherry trees covered in blossoms.      (photo: B.Brewer)

Eventually the plane landed and Linh stepped out in Vancouver in her dirty pink sundress and pink flowered flip flops. Without a word of English, without documents, alone, weak, in a daze of grief. But when she stepped out of the terminal she saw a street lined with cherry trees, covered with blossoms.

Soon Linh was reunited with a relative in Vancouver, and three months later her father was found at a refugee camp. Together they started a new life in Toronto, and Linh found her way to a church to learn more about this person called Jesus, this God who had brought her back from a living death.  She learned English, went to college and worked as a graphic designer.  Her children are in university now.

Every spring, when the branches on the cherry trees are covered in blossoms, Linh gives thanks for her life and her home in Canada.

* name changed for privacy.

Last Year’s Word

For the past three years, instead of a list of resolutions, I have chosen a single word to focus my year.  In 2013 the word was trust, and I focused a lot on trusting God acting through me and through others.

snow, trees and sun

I still find it hard to be grateful for snow – even when the sun shines.

In 2014 I kept hold of the word trust, and choose a new word, gratitude.  Well, that word was seriously tested while I recovered from a badly broken leg for the second half of the year!

Still I found so much to be grateful for – from heat and light after an ice storm, to family and friends who fed and helped me for months after my accident, to people at work, and everyone I came in contact with.  I got back in the habit of writing thank you’s … and I ran out of thank you cards three times.

It seemed that each time I expressed gratitude, I received another gift in exchange – sometimes the gift of a person’s time or the sharing of something important in their life, perhaps a life lesson or the opportunity to help others in ways I had not even imagined.

I have been travelling on Wheeltrans, our city’s paratransit service for the past six months.  Often the rides are shared in a contracted taxi.  It’s a big city but eventually I have got to know some of the taxi drivers.

The other day I got in a cab and the driver said to the other passengers – “here’s Louise, you’re in for a great ride.  She always cheers people up.”  I was taken aback. But on reflection I realised my focus on gratitude had changed the way I interact with strangers.  I always speak to the driver or people in the taxi or bus – if they want.

I have listened to a stranger share his grief at becoming too ill now for a kidney transplant after nine years on the waiting list, and to a blind woman share her love for her job. I have heard the worry of a woman on her way – alone – to yet another surgery, and the pride of a taxi driver from Rwanda who has put three children through university – a doctor, an engineer and a teacher.

I learned from a cheeky double amputee from Jamaica that all I need in an emergency is “food, water, liquor and weed,” and from a 95-year-old woman still living in her own home that swimming three times a week is the answer to longevity.  I can’t untangle who blessed whom in many encounters, but I am grateful for every one.

One driver from Sri Lanka asked my permission and then prayed for me and my family – out loud – for most of the trip, then finished with an excellent theological rationale against infant baptism.  I still feel blessed by that experience, even though I demurred from converting to his evangelical church.

So this year of gratitude has reminded me to be grateful for every human contact, never knowing which encounter might make a small difference in someone’s life, including mine.

You may be wondering about my word for 2015 – I’m still trying it on for size, so you’ll have to wait for a few days to find out!

Street blocked with broken trees and ice

The aftermath of the ice storm in our neighbourhood.

On December 23, 2013 Toronto was in the aftermath of the Ice Storm.  Huge swaths of the city were without power.  But I had been visiting “Edith” in palliative care for a number of weeks and I was determined to visit her for Christmas.

I didn’t have power nor internet service at home, and last I had heard on the battery radio the subway was not running where I needed to go.  An hour cab ride later the sun had set by the time I arrived. The hospital was surrounded by darkness.  Inside the corridors were hushed and dim, the whole complex was running on backup power, the lonely corridors filled with the scent of institutional food and humanity…

I walk into Edith’s room – shared with two other people.  Only the emergency lights are on, and outside the window the city is dark as far as I can see.  The two other women in the room are asleep or unconscious – surrounded by loved ones keeping silent vigil.  A breathing machine roars and hisses in the corner pressing a dying grandmother to take one laboured breath after another.

Edith is sitting up and alert.  She greets me:  “You came!  No one else is coming because of some problem on the roads.”  I explain about the ice storm, the city-wide power outages, the trees toppled by the weight of the ice on every street.  Cut off from the news, she didn’t know about the storm. I water her plant, give her a Christmas card and settle in for a visit.  I ask what she remembers of the candlelight Christmas Eve services at her church.  We reminisce about the smell of the oil lamps and the music. Especially the music.

“Since you can’t get to church, shall I read from Luke?” I ask.  She nods.  I pull out last year’s Christmas Eve bulletin – all I could find in my darkened home – and read Luke’s account of the nativity.  In a loud voice, over the roar and hiss of the breathing machine in the corner, I read about angels and shepherds and a newborn baby.

Edith is rapt, soaking up every word.  I can feel the other visitors in the room leaning forward, listening.  “Do not be afraid; I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”  The words have new meaning in this room where the patients are weeks or days or even hours away from leaving this life.

The room is focused on me and I feel a little self-conscious.    “Would you like me to sing a carol?” I ask Edith.

“Oh yes!” she replies, her eyes gleaming with delight.

Summoning my best and loudest voice, channeling my meager music training, I sing a verse of Silent Night over the sound of the roaring, hissing breathing machine.

Edith mouths the words with me.  Her eyes shine.  A nurse changing a bed behind a curtain joins softly in the singing.

I launch into Hark the Herald Angels Sing.  The nurse comes out from behind the curtain and sings with me.

As I start O Come All Ye Faithful  two more nurses join in, singing from the doorway, and the visitors sitting with their dying grandmother sing too.  At that moment it seems that all the company of heaven is in that palliative care room.

It turns out that was Christmas for Edith.  No-one else managed to get through the ice clogged roads to visit her.  And there was no candlelit Christmas Eve service at her church either – the power was out.

Edith fell asleep in God’s arms a month later and passed into what awaits us on the other side of death.  I think she is singing with choirs of angels this Christmas, and tonight I will remember that precious night in the darkened hospital room as I sing Silent Night.

 

Mary did you know?

The highlight of my busy day was a quiet reflection before an evening church meeting with singing by the a cappella group Pentatonix.  This song asks Mary if she knows that her son is the Messiah – the great I am, the Lord of creation.  Surely she does not know all of these things as she cradles the newborn Jesus in her arms?

It reminds me that I don’t know what wonders God will do in my life either.  I’m not expecting my children to walk on water, but God is at work in them – and in you – in wondrous ways.    Skip the ad and take a quiet minute to breathe and listen.

 

Lyrics:

Mary did you know that your baby boy will someday walk on water?

Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?

Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.

 

Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?

Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?

Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?

And when your kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary did you know

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.

The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb

 

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?

Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?

This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.

 

yellow crocuses

Faith that, come spring, there will be yellow crocuses.

Somewhere buried under the snow are small brown bulbs encased in the frozen earth.  Planted in an act of faith, trusting that after winter, spring will come, as it has come for millenia.

They were planted trusting that the soil will warm again and green shoots will emerge from seemingly lifeless bulbs.

Planted in faith that after a dark winter, the days will get longer and the sun warmer.

Faith that reminds us that even in darkness, there is light.  And that light will overcome the darkness.

And in faith that, come spring, there will be yellow crocuses.