Oh, my goodness! This is a difficult time in which to live. Perhaps every generation says that, as we experience the challenges of life and the troubles of the world around us. But right now, it just seems that we are faced with one tragedy after another, so much senseless violence, and no end in sight!
The Rev. Matthew Sams, who serves at Willowdale Presbyterian Church, just around the corner from the van attack in Toronto that killed 10 people last week, wrote and shared this prayer last Monday:
Knees bent in service to comfort the wounded
Knees bent in prayer to summon peace
Sitting on my couch,
the news is on,
a curtain torn in the temple of my heart
admitting the world’s pain.
Death has its own schedule
A withered hand reaching in to steal away life
you are the giver of life
Therefore, we lift up to you those who have died on this day when violence erupted.
There is no making sense of their death, there is no justice available in this moment.
Yet may those who love them be comforted.
There will be no raising today as for the sons of the widows of Zarephath and of Nain. Yet we are a people who know about Death. All our hope rests in Christ, the first fruits of the Resurrection.
We lift up to you those whose lives have been disrupted, shattered, with broken bodies and bruised minds. Life will not be the same yet may they, like Jacob, find new life even as they limp forevermore.
We lift up to you those who were there first. The passersby, the lunch mates untouched, the strangers standing nearby who first witnessed the horror. We lift up to you EMS personnel, the vanguard of those rebuilding lives. We lift up to you fire crews and others who secured the area. Finally, we lift up to you the police, 32 Division who responded first among many; we honour the officer who disarmed the attacker with the power of words and conviction.
May they all be healed of their own wounds from today. As the years go by and images flood back, may all who need help seek it, may all who seek it receive it, and may all who receive it be made whole.
Finally, we pray for the man. The man beyond comprehension yet one we know too well. The man who drove the truck and took those lives. May your Holy Spirit convict him so that he may repent, and in so turning to you find new life.
Lord, may everything we do be pleasing to you.
A few days after that terrible event, the Christian churches of the neighbourhood gathered together to pray. I don’t know if Matthew used that same prayer that he posted on Facebook, but I know that he and others in the neighbourhood turned to God in the midst of their shock and grief and anger, looking for a source of strength, and peace, and hope.
They weren’t the only ones who came together and held vigils to find strength in the midst of the disaster. Such gatherings took place all across Toronto and in many other communities as well. And on social media, people posted their signs of support using the hashtag #TorontoStrong, just as they had done in the previous weeks with #HumboldtStrong.
But what is the source of our strength? What is it that can give us the courage to go on living, and walking the streets, and making plans, and maintaining hope for the future?
For some people, it’s their own internal strength. For others, it’s the supportive strength of their families and friends. Certainly, those who are personally impacted by a terrible accident or an act of violence are encouraged and strengthened by the community that prays, and posts, and gives, and shows other signs of support and care.
But those sources of strength are all temporary. They’re good, and they help us for a time when circumstances make our lives too difficult to manage alone for a while.
But I’m thinking about Job. Remember Job?… the main character from an Old Testament story that grapples with the problem of suffering, and what to do when bad things happen to good people.
Job was a good guy who did nothing to deserve the terrible things that happened to him. Job had everything taken from him, all the things that people might think of as sources of strength. He lost his health, he lost his home and all his possessions. He lost his family, and his friends turned away from him too.
After everything else had been taken away, all Job had left was God. All that remained was his faith that would not give up, even when he didn’t see God’s action for his good.
Some people told Job that God must be punishing him. Others said that God must be cruel and unjust, and he should just curse God and die. Job didn’t have any personal resources or any community around him to provide him with encouragement or support in the midst of his tragedy. All he had was his faith in God, and amazingly, that was enough to carry him through.
Today’s Gospel passage has a similar message expressed in the metaphor of Christ as the vine with us as the branches. Like a vine provides water and nutrients to feed and strengthen the branches, giving them what they need to produce good fruit, Christ nourishes and sustains us spiritually so that we can grow strong and produce the fruit of the Spirit that is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control.
Of course, water shows up in the Bible over and over to represent the Spirit of God that gives us fullness of life. But the image of the vine and the branches adds something very important to the metaphor.
Just as we need water to live, we need the gift of God’s Spirit to give us fullness of life, and to sustain us through troubles and trials and the challenges of living in our broken world. But we are not just asked to wait for rain while living in the desert. We are not just invited to go to a river or stream to get a drink when we are thirsty. We are told that we are like branches that get to stay connected directly to the vine, a constant and secure source of water and nourishment and life.
The encouragement to us in the Gospel today is simply to BE what we ARE. We are branches of the vine that is Christ. We need to ABIDE in the vine… stay connected to Jesus who is the source of our strength each and every day. Through worship, prayer, Bible study, and participation in the Christian community on a regular basis, we have the benefit of a constant source of strength and hope and courage.
Another metaphor occurred to me as I was thinking about it. Imagine that you have a fire to put out – a fire of hatred, violence, cruelty, or indifference. Would you choose to grab a bucket so you could run back and forth from the water tap to the burning house, dousing the flames a little on each successive trip? Or would you choose to grab a hose instead?
I love the enthusiasm of the Ethiopian convert from our first reading this morning. He’s been searching for a source of strength and life for a while now. He’s been reading the Scriptures and trying to understand who God is. And he’s travelled all the way from his home in Ethiopia to Jerusalem for one of the great pilgrimage festivals of faith. I can only imagine that he is deeply thirsty for the water that is God’s Spirit of life, and with Philip’s help he is able to find it.
When the chariot they are riding in comes near some water – a lake, a river, perhaps just a small stream at the side of the road – he exclaims, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He recognizes his need for God in his life, and he desperately wants to get connected to that ultimate source of strength.
The problem for many people in our world today, and the problem even for us (much of the time) is that we go to the wrong sources. We’re all searching for meaning, seeking fulfillment, longing for happiness and fullness of life. But we go to sources that are more like shallow wells instead of mountain-fed springs that gush up to eternal life.
Perhaps the best illustration is to consider the electronics store that is actually called, “The Source.” It used to be called, “Radio Shack,” of course, but technology has developed and improved at a staggering rate, and kids today may not even know what a radio is.
It was a good, reliable store for electronic supplies back when it was “Radio Shack,” and it’s a pretty good place to pick up various tech items today that we might find useful. I suppose it is A source, if not THE Source for electronic supplies, but the benefits of phones, computers, monitors, speakers, and other gadgets are limited.
Unfortunately, in the search for happiness and fulfillment, we often do turn to electronics for help. The advertising tries to convince us that “if you just get this latest thing, you’ll be happy and successful.” Indeed, “The Source” claims that it can fulfill your deepest desires with the latest technology. Their official slogan is, “I WANT THAT!” I want that.
None of us can pretend not to have been fooled at times into believing that our problems could be solved by something that we could buy. And we’ve also been tricked into thinking that it is our good health, our personal skills and talents, our secure investments, our amazing family, or our faithful friends that will be the source of our strength.
And even if there are parts of ourselves that WANT all those things, we need to remember that none of that is truly THE SOURCE. All those things are temporary fixes… things that seem to quench our thirst for a short time, but leave us longing for something more.
Christ alone is the vine, and we are the branches. And we are invited to ABIDE in the vine, to stay connected to the source, and let it refresh and strengthen our spirits day by day.
You see, we live in a difficult time, as many who came before us did also. Certainly, we can pray that the Toronto attack will be the last one we’ll see, but my guess is that most of us will witness (and perhaps even experience) more troubles and tragedies in our lifetimes.
And although I hope that we won’t end up like Job with everything else taken away… If we do, I hope we’ll be like Job, with the ultimate source of our strength still secure because we are the branches of Christ who is the vine.
One last thought for this morning… Did you notice the goal of the vine and the branches? The goal wasn’t to grow the biggest, strongest branches with the most beautiful, shiny leaves for all to see. The goal was to produce good fruit.
Likewise, the goal of our faith, and the role of the Spirit in our lives is not simply to make us strong so that we can be well and endure the trials of the world. The goal is that our lives will produce spiritual fruit… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and all the rest.
Indeed, in the midst of tragedy or trouble in our world or in our neighbourhood, our faith will not only sustain us, but by its fruit, it will bless others. Like the helpers who showed up on Yonge street after that violent act, like the churches of the neighbourhood that gathered to pray and offer support.
Let us abide in the vine that is Christ, so that our lives will produce good fruit, and God will be glorified. Amen.