Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, December 20, 2015
It’s the little ones who bring us hope. The ones who aren’t yet scarred by cynicism; the ones wide-eyed with wonder, vulnerable in utter trust. They take us by the hand to patiently teach us the miracle of love.
It’s the little ones God often chooses; the ones whose egos haven’t blown up big bubble-heads ready to pop. Bethlehem was one of the little clans of Judah. It was a small, insignificant town. The name in Hebrew literally means “house of bread”. It was a rural, harvest centre where grain was gathered. The prophet Micah pronounced this humble town, not the majestic Jerusalem only 5 miles north, to be the birth place of a ruler who would not be a mighty warrior, but a shepherd—one who would lead his people in peace.
In the present day town of Bethlehem, there is a large cathedral called the Church of the Nativity, which marks the birthplace of Jesus. Strangely enough, the only way into this large cathedral is through the Door of Humility, which is so small that all but children have to bend down to get through. You have to become as a little one to enter.
Phillips Brooks arrived on horseback to the little town of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve in 1865. He attended a worship service in the Church of the Nativity and was impressed with both the simplicity of the service and the gentleness of the town. Three years later, the children of his Episcopal parish in Philadelphia asked him to write a new Christmas song for them. The memory of his visit to Bethlehem came flooding forth in verse, which we know today as O Little Town of Bethlehem.
God chooses to love through the little ones, the little places, the little things that we do. On January 17, 1991, I was at the curling rink in Argyle ready to start a game when we all heard the news that Canada had declared war on Iraq. We were stunned—most of us had never experienced a country at war before. I offered to lead a prayer for anyone who would like to join me and the curling club executive decided to invite those would like to pray to move into the coat closet with me. I was expecting one or two, but was surprised when every single person there began to crowd into the closet! We knew that our prayers wouldn’t change the situation, but somehow they changed us that evening. Even though we didn’t know each other very well, we felt each other’s concerns, fears and angst. As we prayed together, we helped to steady each other and we knew that when we returned home, we would hug our families a little tighter. It was just a little thing we did, but it seemed to make a difference in our lives.
This spontaneous outpouring of care for those we don’t really know has always surprised me. We ask, “What is it that makes people so violent and turns them into killers or terrorists?” But I know my shortcomings and I’m aware that any one of us could be pushed to violence. What I find more amazing is how often I see love break out in the unlikeliest of places, sometimes amongst complete strangers.
Westworth has been the recipient of some of this love. The media has been kind to us in our attempts to fundraise for refugee sponsorship. It has helped to raise our profile so that we continue to receive donations from complete strangers. Along with this privilege of a high profile comes responsibility and so our interfaith Refuge Steering Group decided two weeks ago to invite another church to be responsible for a new application for 6 more family members of the three families we’ve already sponsored: a grandmother to the three families, a sister, to the three brothers, with her child, and a brother and his pregnant wife, who have all fled to Beirut.
Barbara and I receive many calls and emails weekly offering to volunteer and donate. When the phone rang a week and a half ago in my office, the conversation began like many of the others. The caller wanted to know if we still needed donations. He then said that he had gone to Rabbi Green at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, wanting to donate to Syrian refugees. Rabbi Green referred him to us. I told him that the Refuge Steering Group had just decided to bring over 6 more refugees and to do this, we would need to raise another $56,800. After a brief pause, the caller asked me if $10,000 would help. I stuttered out, “Ah—yes!” He then said that he would have to talk with his wife first. Within about 15 minutes, he called back and said that they would like to bring one of the three additional family units over and give $20,000. The next day he arrived with a cheque and a letter addressed to members of the Westworth congregation, which I have posted on the board under Outreach. In the letter, he wrote,
“We, as Canadians, are so fortunate to have a quality of life that many on this earth can only dream of…As the middle eastern crisis has risen in our conscience we need only think back to how our ancestors came to be Canadians. Carol’s [Jewish] grandparents came from Russia and Odessa as children and mine on one side as Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine and on the other side as Selkirk Settlers, all looking for a new beginning and a brighter future. Back then we gave new immigrants land and seed to get started. With our donation of cash and your donations of support and resources we have provided the seeds for these new Canadian families to realize their dreams. What’s really fantastic is that regardless of faith and beliefs we can come together to make a truly remarkable difference.”
As soon as I wrote this part of the sermon last Monday, I received another phone call from someone else. He and his wife offered $30,000 anonymously to help with all of our Syrian refugee sponsorships.
And here’s yet another story of good news. Our board recently sent in a grant application to the national United Church to help with the hosting of a series of interfaith Lenten Studies, similar to what we offered this year with Stan McKay. We are planning to have a Muslim-Christian dialogue for this coming year’s Lenten Study, co-faciliated with Shahina Siddiqui. We immediately heard back that the particular grants to which we applied were not accepting applications until the spring and there was some doubt as to whether or not our grant was strong enough. However, 1½ weeks ago, I received an email of congratulations. Apparently the grant committee was pleased with our Lenten Study plan, as well as with our other ministries, and they decided to award us $3,000. Westworth’s name is becoming known for its compassion and concern.
One more piece of good news: I wish all of you could have heard the response of the recipients of these 7 donated poinsettias. When I called them last week, they were so grateful for Westworth remembering them in its care and in its prayers. We just heard from Allan this morning that we gave 18 cooked, sliced turkeys to Rossbrook House—the most we have even given! So thank you to everyone who is contributing even a wee bit to our various ministries. We may not think that our individual offerings amount to much, but when they’re all put together, it’s significant.
These are the miracles of love that I would love shout out to the world! Hate and fear do not have the last word. Let’s not let the dreary news drown out the multitude of little acts of love that are happening every day. They may not seem to make much of a difference in the big picture, but they make a huge difference in our own lives. When all of these little love acts from all of us little people across different faiths begin to work together, mighty miracles begin to happen.
For Christians, it started with just a little bundle of love 2000 years ago. The Holy family, poor and rather insignificant, from a little town of Bethlehem, were chosen to bear this love. God still chooses the little ones, with their little gifts of love that ease the dark night with their warm glow.