Sacrificial Love

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                           Dec 13, 2020

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; I Thessalonians 5:16-24


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

We have heard some pretty tough words this past week from Dr. Roussin. It was expected, but it was still hard to hear. We are being asked not to invite family or friends into our households for Christmas. Single people can only be in a bubble with one other person. This is an incredible sacrifice that we are being asked to make.

I have asked a number of people at Westworth what their Christmas plans are and every person I spoke with has accepted this sacrifice and is making the best of it. Some are dropping off meals for others, some are planning Zoom family time, some are planning virtual games. It will be a quiet and lonely Christmas, but it will help to ensure that more will live to celebrate Christmas next year. I am so grateful for this congregation that is pulling together once again and accepting what must be done if we are to do our part.

I have responded to media requests for interviews on behalf of Westworth because I felt it essential for the public to hear an alternative Christian voice to those who are demanding personal rights to ignore health restrictions. I believe that most Christians are following the gospel that requires self-sacrificial love for our neighbour and Westworth is an example of this. I have had so many phone calls, emails and cards from strangers grateful for what Westworth is demonstrating. Just a couple of days ago, we received a card from someone we don’t know who wrote that her brother died of COVID on Nov. 30. For her to see people protesting to protect their ‘rights’ has been disheartening. She then heard Westworth’s message on the CTV news and regained some hope. She sent us a donation to support our ministries as a way of saying, “Keep those messages coming. The public needs to hear them.”

When I read her card, I had goosebumps. Somehow, it made it more real than ever and it hammered home the message to me about not trying to get around the restrictions.

Pandemic fatigue makes it very easy for us to let our resolve slide and to make exceptions. But the virus doesn’t make exceptions. It is three times more deadly than the flu, has a longer, asymptomatic incubation period of up to 2 weeks that makes it more contagious and it results in more serious, sometimes long-lasting illnesses, if not death.

A woman I knew was a sales clerk. She chose not to wear a mask while working at the till. A few weeks ago, she contracted COVID and last week she died. Even some who are extremely careful have still caught this highly contagious virus. And that is why we are all being asked to go against the very fabric of our nature and not be with family for Christmas. It is so hard and yet it is so important. For any of you who are wavering, please know that it is just not worth the risk.

It is helpful for me to remember and be inspired by other times of sacrifice. In 1665 during the Black Death, a tailor who lived in the small town of Eyam received a bolt of cloth from London that had been infected with the plague. Soon people in the town started getting sick, including the tailor who died within the week. When the townsfolk realized what had happened, many wanted to flee to other towns and escape the disease. But the new Anglican priest, William Mompesson, preached a sermon pleading with them not to leave the town. It was their Christian duty to do all they could to stop the plague from spreading. He promised that if they stayed, so would he and his wife and they would do everything they could to support the townsfolk.

The town listened intently and made a very difficult decision to quarantine themselves within the border of their town. They made a ring of boulders to warn people not to come in or to leave. On the stones they left money cleaned in vinegar, which they believed would kill the virus, in exchange for food and supplies that neighbouring villages left for them.

Eighteen months later, the plague finally ended, due in part to the quarantine of the whole town of Eyam that epidemiologists believe significantly reduced the spread of the plague. However, it came with a tremendous cost. 250 of the town’s 350 residents died, including the wife of the priest.

Sobering stories such as this help me to keep true to the sacrifices we are being called to make. Within Westworth we have many medical staff and educators who are working flat out, sacrificing much more than I am. They, too, inspire me.

And then we receive other letters that bring a smile and remind us that a sense of humour and an ability to tap into the deep wellspring of God’s joy will also take us far. Last week, we received a letter from someone who remembers Westworth as a little boy. Al Mapes gave me permission to read to you his letter, which is apropos for today when we are also celebrating the 70th anniversary of Westworth. He writes,

Today, few among your congregation would recall that at the East end of the gymnasium was a modest stage. It was closed in many years ago to form a part of the entrance and foyer. As a lad of 8 years, I remember being coerced to dance with a girl in a very ornate blue dress upon this stage to the tune of “Sweet Little Alice-Blue Gown” while a packed gymnasium of parents and grandparents cooed and sighed. I, of course, was mortified and counted the nanoseconds until the song ended. I chuckle now, of course, and wonder how anyone could have stage fright on a stage barely larger than a phone booth.

I have been following your recent on-line services and I thank you all sincerely for the time, effort, and preparation expended in order to reach your congregation virtually. I’m grateful that your message of love and hope, as a result of live broadcast, reaches beyond your core congregation. How far beyond is anyone’s guess, but I’m certainly among those “sheep who are not of this flock”.

Al ended his letter with a blessing of continuing health and safety for us and all to whom our message might reach.

These letters, cards and emails convince me of the crucial importance in getting our message out into the community and into the world. Our Christian gospel of sacrificial love is a powerful story that can inspire others to hang in there, care for others enough to wear a mask and stay home—to be true to self-giving love.

Our scripture reading from Isaiah was quoted by Jesus in the 4th chapter of Luke as a type of mission statement for the beginning of his ministry. Jesus came to bring good news to the oppressed and to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus’ ministry was a public ministry. It wasn’t contained within the walls of a synagogue or with just a few friends. Jesus and his disciples travelled extensively to spread the good news of healing, of caring, of self-sacrificial love that tends to the most vulnerable. His world desperately needed to hear this good news, and so does our world today.

Jesus also knew how to laugh and enjoy life even in midst of his challenging lessons of sacrifice. Yes, he said some pretty strong words in public that condemned the self-centered piety of some religious leaders in his time. But he also told us that he came to bring us abundant life so that our joy may be full. I Thessalonians tells us to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances.

So how can one find joy in a time of fear and loss? It begins with gratitude for what we do have. In the midst of this incredibly difficult time, most of us have a home, food, and income. Most of us have family and friends. Most of us have a phone or a computer that allows us some way to connect with them. We have a church family and there are people we can reach out to in this congregation.

John Kralik had been going through a difficult time in his life. His small law firm was losing money and losing its lease. He was going through a difficult divorce. He was staying in a small, stuffy apartment, often sleeping on the floor under a barely-functioning air conditioner. He went out on a mountain hike one day, hoping that it would lift him from his depression but he got lost. It took him forever to find his way back down. By the time he finally returned, he had been shaken enough to gain new eyes into his situation. He had been focussing on his losses. What if he began to focus on what he had? He decided to write daily thank yous for a year to both acquaintances and strangers. As the year was coming to an end, he found himself attracted to a church. He writes in his book, 365 Thank Yous,

I had considered myself something of an atheist for years, but I started going to this church. The music was plentiful, delivered with…genuine enthusiasm. The dominant message was that grace was still available. To everyone. Even to me. I can deal with that, I thought. Through the process of writing thank-you notes, I had developed a notion of being blessed with grace.

We are all being blessed with grace—even during these tough times. Stories abound in our scripture of ordinary characters stumbling over the gift of grace that appears in the wilderness of life. Sometimes we just need new eyes to see what has been there all along.

A friend of mine who is single was trying to fight off depression in her isolation. Last week, as she was watching TV in her living room, a butterfly flew by. She was stunned. On your screen you’ll see the photo of a black-winged swallow-tail that she sent me. The butterfly must have emerged from a chrysalis formed very late in the season on some outdoor plants of her mother’s that she had taken inside her apartment for the winter. This butterfly emerged right when my friend needed a little miracle of joy.

There is hope. Light is coming. Healing is winging its way towards us to bind up the broken-hearted. But our message of hope needs to include a message of caution. We need to stay in the darkness of our cocoons a little while longer to prepare as best we can for the most joyful reunion ever imagined.