This past week, we were relieved to hear that the Christie Mountain fire south of us and burning near Penticton came under containment and is being held. But we know the fire season is not yet over and we send our thoughts and prayers to those who are currently fighting the blazes and preparing for evacuation. Forest fires, I have discovered during my brief time in the Okanagan, are a fact of life of living in a treed and arid environment. I have heard some of your personal accounts of loss of your own property and close calls that saw every second count as neighborhoods were evacuated; of the things that were taken and the things that were left behind. As you know, I lived in north-central Alberta for most of my adult life and I recall back in 1998 the Carson Lake fire burned outside the community of Whitecourt we were living in at the time. The likelihood of this particular fire jumping the Athabasca River was not likely to happen, but it was such a dry and hot spring, it put the whole community and all the natural resource industries on an uneasy edge. I remember keeping a laundry basket of personal papers and photo albums at the front door in case we had to leave in a hurry. The sky was filled with wood smoke which turned an eerie green color and one could see the glowing embers high above… you knew it was daytime but the sun was nowhere to be seen. Forest fires can bring out the best and the worst in people. This morning I want to share with you an excerpt from a short essay by a favorite author of mine, Anne Lamott and her community’s experience of a blaze that was accidentally set by members from her community:
Fifteen years ago, there was a devastating fire on the long, majestic ridge above the coastal town where my family used to go for seafood dinners. Four teenage boys from town had camped on the mountain overnight, illegally, had built a campfire, buried it under dirt when they left in the morning — and caused a blaze that destroyed 12,000 acres of wilderness area and nearly 50 homes.
Helicopters saved the others by dropping water on the forest between town and the burning ridge. The loss of wildlife was unimaginable. It was as if a bomb had fallen. The kids who'd accidentally started the fire turned themselves in early on, with their parents beside them. Then a firefighter wrote a letter to the local paper, about how carefully the boys had tried to put out the fire. The flames had been extinguished, but embers were still burning underground. The boys hadn't known this could be a fire danger. They'd left.
After that, even as townspeople continued to share their loss and pain, they also told stories of their worst teenage mistakes and transgressions. We rarely think our way out of these tight, dark places. Sometimes as a community, though, we take an action together, and somehow something gives.
A picnic was held to honor the firefighters. The whole town turned out. The president of the board of firefighters gave a speech, but at the very end, he digressed from what you might have expected him to say.
He talked about how in ancient times, people who did damage to a town were sent to live outside its walls, beyond community, beyond inclusion and protection. He mentioned the four young men who had started the fire, and that he had heard that their families were thinking of moving away. His opinion was that the town should make it clear to the families that they should stay, that they were wanted, that they were needed. There was sustained applause. People whose houses had burned down came up to say they agreed with this plan. The town wanted these young men inside the ring of protection.
When you see a community coming together after a catastrophe, the round-the-clock efforts to save whatever can be saved, you realize the secret of life is patch patch patch. Thread your needle, make a knot, find one place on the other piece of torn cloth where you can make one stitch that will hold. And do it again. And again. And again.
This is a Bad News – Good News story… the seemingly innocent actions of four teens, the guilt they harboured was transformed by a community committed to restoring relationships through forgiveness and reconciliation. I am sure there were days when it was not one bit easy, but as a community, they came together and set the intention to pull together and support these young men and their families.
IN our reading from Paul’s letter to the young church community at Rome, he gives a length list of exhortations on what it means to love. And this is not the chocolate and roses, sentimental kind of romantic love… that’s not what Paul is talking about here. No, Paul is talking about Love in Action and more particularly love for someone who is perhaps hard to love for whatever reason… they have differing opinion on wearing a mask from you, they don’t sort the recycling properly, minute or enormous differences… an enemy or a foe. In this community and in other churches, we have all likely heard messages questioning who is our neighbour? And how do I relate to that person or group and get to know them better and enter into community with them. Today we consider what it means to extend love to those we find ourselves in conflict with or are estranged from. Paul makes it sound easy… just give what you have to take care of their needs and don’t worry about what’s in it for you. A change of heart can make a world of difference.
This has been another remarkable week. We learned once again of the police shooting of a black man by the name of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin; the paralysis he will endure the rest of his life; the anguish of his family; the fury of his community. We also saw professional athletes led by the NBA Players Association walk away from the games they love because they didn’t feel their actions were representative of their values and their need to be with their families and help their communities overcome police brutality and racism. There is much work to be done to heal and repair deep tears in the fabric of our society… timing is everything. Genuine love, as Paul describes, is not a one-time achievement, but rather a sought-after virtue fulfilled through things like prayer and spiritual practice. Generosity, hospitality… these are the practices of Love In Action we are called to exercise because of our faith to help patch up the holes that keep us apart as Anne Lamott suggests.
I do not want to over-analyze our readings shared this morning. I want to just let them sit with you and sink in… Maybe you are remembering your own teenaged transgressions similar to the boys’ in Anne’s story… maybe you’ll ask yourself who is my enemy? May this radical love we speak of today be shown in ways of forgiveness, reconciliation, justice and peace.
Amen and Amen.