Wednesday, March 15, 2017

HOMILY - Lent 2A, March 12, 2017 Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD




Nicodemus has been hooked by Jesus. He’s been watching him, listening to him, wondering about him. Nic has also heard all kinds of criticism about him from his colleagues – the Pharisees. (I hope you don’t mind me calling him Nic – he has come to seem quite real to me, and Nic just seems too formal for someone I have gotten to know quite well from a spiritual point of view.)

Like the rest of the Pharisees (who were the spiritual leaders of the Jews in Jesus’ time) Nic keeps the Jewish law impeccably – not only the spirit of the law as given by Moses, not only the prescriptions in the book of Leviticus that go way beyond the Ten Commandments in detail and difficulty, but also all the intricate details of the laws that the scribes wrote as commentaries on the laws in Leviticus. Nic was a shining role model among the Pharisees.

And yet something about Jesus caught his attention and wouldn’t let it go. Jesus, who always seemed to be stretching the limits of the law, like healing people on the Sabbath when no work was to be done; Jesus, who liked sharing meals with the ritually impure; Jesus who liked offending the social mores of the day by sleeping on the road with his disciples having no fixed residence; Jesus who told stories that seemed to make outsiders seem more moral than the Pharisees, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

We can guess what might have intrigued Nic about Jesus. Maybe he had become a little discouraged or even bored with his job studying the commentaries on commentaries on commentaries about the law. Maybe he was longing for something more fulfilling in his life, something that would light a fire in his heart, not just be fodder for his brain. Maybe he deeply needed real spiritual friendship, the kind that Jesus offered to his disciples. In other words, maybe Nic is having a vocational crisis. Is he meant to be a Pharisee – or a follower of Jesus?

But it’s dangerous to admit this up front, or even to ask too many questions in public – and so he comes to Jesus at night when he is less likely to be noticed by his Pharisee colleagues. And you can hardly blame him. He’s exploring, questioning, maybe even hoping that this Jesus has something better to offer, that he might even be the Messiah. But he doesn’t know yet and so unlike the other disciples he’s more cautious -- he doesn’t want to burn his bridges until he knows more about this handsome, charismatic young prophet Jesus.
He says to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

With the title “Rabbi” or “teacher” Nic is acknowledging that Jesus has a certain personal and spiritual authority even though he does not have an official place in the establishment. But clearly he knows there is more to Jesus than being a talented Rabbi. He is trying to understand. Like Abram in our first reading from Genesis, he is responding to a call from God to leave the place where he lives – not literally, but in terms of his position and authority – and to go somewhere new, somewhere unknown. It is a spiritual journey Nic sets out on when he comes to see Jesus at night.

And what does Jesus say? “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nic takes this very literally, and asks Jesus how a person can possibly enter into the mother’s womb a second time and be born again.

Jesus responds by trying to explain that he is talking about a spiritual birth – a birth that comes from the Spirit. And he seems amazed that Nic doesn’t understand this. Jesus tries to help him by saying “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

But this just seems more puzzling to Nic. “How can these things be?” he asks. Remember he is a Pharisee, a literalist, and he probably hasn’t had much practice in understanding metaphors. So he just doesn’t get it. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus asks. Well, we might feel the same way as Nic if we went to Jesus and he responded that way.

Nic, like ourselves sometimes, has to get the truth from his head to his heart, to know experientially that the Spirit of God cannot be controlled by us. We have no control over the wind, and even the most talented meteorologists can’t always predict where it’s going to go next. Likewise we have no idea how the Spirit might play in our lives, how God might use us, or what will happen if we respond to God’s call.

Abram couldn’t have predicted how the Spirit would blow through his life, nor could any of our ancestors in the faith, ancient or modern. People like Martin Luther King, like Gandhi, like Mother Teresa – all of them simply responded to God’s call to go on a journey. They blessed more people than the stars in heaven. But they couldn’t have known that ahead of time.

Nor can we. Nor could Jesus. The one thing we do know is that somehow, mysteriously, we have a part in the way God works out the divine purpose. The journey God calls each of us to is a road that leads to the working out of God’s plan, the Kingdom of God.

And that is summed up by gospel writer John. After we have listened to this conversation between Nic and Jesus, we are thrown back on the simple, glorious truth that “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Martin Luther called this short verse “the gospel in miniature.” And indeed, it sums up everything we know about God’s self-giving love, about Jesus’ faithfulness and obedience even to death, about the grace of forgiveness and new life that we receive from this gift of God’s love.

Abraham left his home to go out into a new, unknown world, and died of old age. Jesus followed God’s call for him even though it meant death at a young age. Nic became a follower of Jesus (at least we assume that because he brought Jesus’ expensive myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body after the crucifixion).

May we have the faith of Abraham, the courage of Nic, and the love of Jesus that allows us to say “yes” to whatever call God puts in our hearts. And may we never forget that God watches over our going out and our coming in, and will make us a blessing to all those whose lives we touch.


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Homily for Lent 1 - Year A The Rev. Claudine Carlson




For the sake of clarity. it’s helpful to know that you’ll be hearing a different kind of sermon today. It will be delivered as a first person narrative, and the words you hear come from an unexpected, even shocking source. Though I caution you to be skeptical of the speaker’s spin on what happened, I nonetheless believe that  his thoughts offer important insights into the nature of Jesus’ temptations, as well as our own.

Before hearing from our guest preacher, however, I invite you to close your eyes and recall a wilderness time in your own life. A time when you had some important decision to make and were confused about which path to take. A time when you felt very alone as you searched for answers…

I’m reluctant to begin my time with you on a negative note, but I consider myself an honest person and need to let you know, right up front, that I object to that lesson you just read. In fact, I find it downright offensive. To begin with, this inaccurate, one-sided account of what happened puts me in a very bad and most unfair light.  And next - and this really, really ticks me off -the story doesn’t even get my name right! I’m referred to as “the devil”! The DEVIL!! That’s NOT my name. My name is “Lucifer” and it means “angel of light”. It’s the name given to me by the Lord God, Almighty, for heaven’s sake… and it’s the name my friends call me. So at least that’s straight now, right? Okay. We can move along now.

Let me make it clear that I like Jesus just fine. He’s a bright young man with good intentions, but incredibly and dangerously naive. Green as spring grass. He doesn’t have a clue about how things really work on planet earth. Amazing to me how a person with a good brain like his can be so utterly stupid about things that matter… like how to get by in this life. But he doesn’t. And that’s where I can help him - that’s why I tried to help him. After all, I am the “Prince of this world”, and if I don't know how things work and how to get things done here - on earth - then let me assure you, nobody does. NOBODY!

Jesus had recently been baptized by John when I first met him. Quite the hell raiser, that John was. Way too serious for my taste, but I had to respect his fire. Anyway, Jesus saw this as the beginning of his ministry and, wisely enough, wanted to take some time to think about the “what-happens-next?” sorts of questions. Do some strategizing - to work on a game plan, you know?

But does he hire a consultant? Do any serious career planning? Even sit in on a few focus groups? No! He heads off into the wilderness and wanders around listening to the voices in his head, which no doubt got crazier and crazier the hungrier he got. Yep! That’s right. When I found him he was was ambling about the Judean wilderness with only snakes and scorpions for companions. Starving himself to death!

Well, I’m sure you’ll understand why I had to make an intervention. You should have seen him - he was emaciated! Nothing but skin and bones. Looked like he was within hours of death - that lean, strong carpenter’s body of his was just wasted away. How he thought this starvation exercise was in any way “holy” is beyond me. I mean, he says he’s here to help people, but think about it - how can you help people when you’re on the verge of starvation?

And so I appealed to him. Reminded him of his status. “C’mon, Jesus. If you’re the Son of God you can turn these stones into bread. You need to eat something, for God’s sake!” But does he listen? NO! “People don’t live by bread alone”, he says… as if I don’t know that. Of course you need more than food, but we do need food if we’re ever going to enjoy the other things we need.

But I thought maybe he wasn’t as hungry as he looked, so I moved on and encouraged him to begin his ministry with some pizzaz - to get it launched on a strong note. Do something that would give him credibility from the get-go. So I took him to the top of the temple, where all the important religious people gather. To strengthen my suggestion, I quoted scripture to him: “Hurl yourself off, Jesus. God’s angels will protect you, you know. And think of how impressed people will be! You’d have the high priest’s attention from the start! In a split second you’d have the endorsement of religiously significant folks - the ones who can help you in your career.” But his answer was a flat-out “No!”. Not supposed to tempt God and all.

Finally I appealed to his mission. Presumably he came to this world for the sake of this world, so I gave him a vision of all the kingdoms on earth - the world he came to help, to “save”. He could’ve had it all in his pocket if only he’d agree to worship me. Now please understand that I wasn’t demanding complete and total allegiance - I know better than almost anyone that you humans have divided, complex hearts and motivations. I just wanted him to acknowledge that, in the earthly realm, I’m the boss - the “go-to” guy. Recall that I am the “prince of this world”. And since he was operating on my territory, it seemed like a reasonable request.

But he throws scripture at me again. “Worship and serve the Lord your God only”
he says  He just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand that you can be an upstanding, religious person and still show devotion to me…. and to the ways of the world in which we live!  He’s a purist, an idealogue. “Love the Lord your God only”! Good grief, I know plenty - plenty - of religious men and women who care more about their bank accounts than they do about God. And they’re fine people - people you’d be proud to call your friends. More than likely, people who already are your friends. But Jesus….

This man is so frustrating! I just couldn’t reason with him. Couldn’t get him to understand - or even listen to - the most effective, time-tested ways of winning people’s hearts and minds… which, of course, is what you have to do if you’re going to make a difference in the world. He wants to help people - fine. But you know and I know that you have to look out for yourself first. He’s not doing that, and so he’s made mistakes - big mistakes. And he keeps making them.

For starters, he hangs around with the wrong people. Seems to just love the down and outs and losers - whores, tax collectors, lepers. He’d rather spend time with them than with the folks who could really advance his career. He also seems to delight in offending the truly religious people who could assist him. He treats the nobodies like they’re somebodies and the real somebodies like they’re nothing special at all. It’s as though he lumps the good people in with the great unwashed sinners of the world. Well, I’ve known a sinner or two in my day, and I can tell you there are much bigger (and better!) sinners than Jesus’ nemesis,
Caiaphas, the high priest. In my opinion, he’d do well to make friends with him…. and to do so in a hurry.

But he’ll likely continue on his stubborn, “principled” path, and quite frankly, I’m worried about him. Really worried. Things are heating up quickly and powerful forces are rising up against him. Oh sure, he has a little band of dough-headed devotees who talk about this healing or that feeding, but those folks matter not a bit - they have no significance whatsoever. If Jesus is hauled off before the courts of the High Priest or Rome, those friends of his won’t even be heard - they simply do not matter. No one would listen to them. And they’re such a crew of weaklings, they’d probably go mute at the first sign of trouble anyway.

So, yes, I’m concerned. But I still have hopes he’ll listen to me…. that it’s not too late. As I said, he’s a bright young man, a quick study. He could turn things around even now if he’d just take my advice. But if he doesn’t, he’s on a dangerous path indeed; in a short time, he’ll be past the point of no return, and even I won’t be able to help him. The clock is ticking and Jesus needs to make a choice. Change course, listen to me, and live, so that his voice will continue to be heard…. or keep on going the direction he’s going. Mark my words, people, and mark them well. If he stays on this current path - doesn’t make an about-face and make it quickly - he will soon be a dead man.Trust me when I say I’m not exaggerating here. They will kill him and he will be a dead man. And let me ask you the same question I’ll ask him when next I see him: Honestly now, of what possible use is a dead man?!?  

The Rev. Claudine Carlson

The Reverend Claudine Carlson, SSJD Alongsider





Wednesday, March 1, 2017

HOMILY: Ash Wednesday, preached by Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD at Massey College


Massey College, St. Catherine’s Chapel, March 1, 2017
Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD


Joel 2:1-2,29-35
Ps 103:8-18
Mathhew 6: 1-6, 16-21


In the Name of God, for the Love of God, to the Glory of God. Amen.


There was an interesting (and to me really funny) story in the news last Thursday about a 21-year old man who drove his SUV into the streetcar tunnel down at Queen’s Quay. It took eight people to get him out with a special crane that ran on tracks, and the incident diverted streetcar traffic for several hours during the morning rush hour. Lots of money lost and spent for the city and the TTC. And his penalty? A fine of merely $425!

But why did he do do such a thing the police asked? “I was just following my GPS” he said!

I think Ash Wednesday – and Lent as a whole – is about exactly that – following our GPS, or recalibrating when we have gotten off track. But the GPS we should be following is what one of my Sisters calls the God Positioning System – not that annoying disembodied voice that hounds you to turn left even if you want to turn right, even if turning left is going to lead you into a traffic jam, or Lake Ontario – or a streetcar tunnel. And when you don’t follow the voice’s instructions it just gets more and more stressed – until finally it gives up in despair and says “recalibrating, recalibrating, recalibrating.”

Our God Postioning System doesn’t do that. Its voice is not pushy or insistent. Rather it offers a gentle invitation to recalibrate our lives, to look at what is really important to us and set our course anew. Ash Wednesday, with the ritual of the imposition of ashes, is a reminder of our mortality. We have come from the dust of the earth and our bodies will return there. But that is not the end of the story because we are created by the original GPS – the voice of the creating God who said “let us make humankind in our image.” God’s image is stamped on us. And because we are made in God’s image we too have the gift of creativity and freedom – the freedom to choose which GPS we want to follow.

The scripture readings for today help us to do that. At first, though, it may seem as if we’re listening to two conflicting GPS voices. “Blow the trumpet,” says the prophet Joel, “sound an alarm – a day of darkness and deep gloom is coming. Call on the name of the Lord – anyone who does will be saved.”

But then in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says “do not blow the trumpet” – don’t blow your own horn to advertise your piety. Practice your prayer and your care for the poor privately. Go into you room and shut the door and the God who created you, who sees you everywhere, will reward you. And Jesus makes it clear in other places that the reward we will receive is not an earthly reward but the reward of an intimate relationship with the God who created us and loves us

So which voice do we listen to? Blow the trumpet or don’t blow the trumpet? Well, both of course.Both are proclaiming the same essential message – pay attention to what is happening in the world around you, and position yourself so you are grounded, rooted, in the love of a God who said at Jesus’ baptism, and again on the mount of Transfiguration, “this is my Son, the Beloved – listen to him.”

Call the community to prayer, Joel says, that we may repent of our preoccupation with things, with what the Hebrew prophets constantly call “false gods.” Call on God’s name, not on the name of wealth or power or greed or ambition.

Go to prayer yourself, Jesus tells us – enter into that place of intimacy with God your creator where you too can hear God say “you are my beloved son, my beloved daughter.”

Both these voices of Ash Wednesday call us to a holy Lent, a Lent that is not about false piety or spiritual practices that we undertake just because we think we ought to, but a Lent where the trumpet calls the community to prayer, and where the inner voice calls the individual to prayer, and where individual and community come together to respond to Jesus’ invitation to accept his gift of himself – to receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the nourishment we need if we are to stay on course, to know we are God’s beloved sons and daughters..

And that is what it means to keep a holy Lent. Let me close with a story from the second century Christian literature, from a book called The Shepherd of Hermas.
"I was sitting on a hillside, rather pleased with myself. I was fasting, as I often did, denying myself food, and getting up very early to climb the mountain and pray. I felt in this way I could repay the Lord for some of the difficult things he went through for me.  But then the shepherd approached me.

"What are you doing up here so early in the morning?" he asked.
"I'm observing a fast," I said, "to the Lord."
"What sort of a fast is that?"
"Oh, my usual. I abstain from food. Deny myself luxuries. Get up early. And pray."
The shepherd didn't look impressed.
"That's not the sort of fast that pleases the Lord," he said. "That's not what God asks of you."
He could see the puzzled look on my face.

"Look, God does not want you to deny yourself good things. That is no road to holiness. A true fast is to deny yourself bad things: keep God’s commandments, do what God says, reject evil thoughts and desires the moment they enter your imagination. Reject what is wrong and serve God with a simple, uncomplicated heart.   If you do that, you are fasting – fasting in a way that pleases the Lord."

Listen to the voice of your GPS: you are my son, my daughter, my beloved.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Homily, Thursday in Christmas Week preached by Sr. Constance Joanna SSJD


St. John’s Convent, December 29, 2016
Sr. Constance Joanna




“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
These are the theme words that are spoken in the beautiful 2011 film The Help. It takes place at the height of the American Civil Rights Movement in 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi – ostensibly the worst of all the states for its mistreatment and persecution of African Americans.

Aibileen, the black housemaid for a prominent and wealthy Jackson family, says to the toddler she looks after, in her southern black Creole dialect: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” She makes the child repeat the words. And when Aibileen is later fired because she has spoken out against the injustices to African Americans, she speaks these words to the child again, and again makes her repeat them. “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” As she leaves the house, the toddler screams after her, “Aibileen, don’t leave.” Aibileen is the only person in her life who has made her feel special, who has taught her that she is loved.

The words are in strong contrast to the institutionalized racism of the south. Somehow Aibileen must have grown up hearing these words from her own mother – how else could she possibly have survived the verbal abuse she received from her white employers? Particularly the “you is kind” part.

But would this white toddler that she looks after grow up to teach her children that they were special and loved? Or would she simply interpret the words as an expression of her own sense of entitlement? Would she be kind as well as smart and important? That is an issue at the heart of today’s readings.

In the gospel, Mary and Joseph bring their child to be presented to God in the temple, and they make the customary offering required of a poor family – a couple of small birds. They did what many young couples did at the time. But there was something special about this child and this event. Simeon, known to the people in Jerusalem as a holy man who prayed for the coming of the Messiah, took the child in his arms and praised God in the words we have come to know as the Song of Simeon and which we sing at Compline every night:
He could now die rejoicing because his hope had been fulfilled:

Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)

How that song must have warmed the hearts of Mary and Joseph – and most likely the child as well. Even at 40 days old, a child knows when he or she is loved; a child can feel the meaning of the words “you are special, you are kind, you are smart.” Even if they can’t yet process the words intellectually, they know they mean “you are loved.”

And Simeon’s song was not the first time that Mary and Joseph had heard words about their special child. Mary heard them from the angel Gabriel. Joseph heard the message when an angel spoke to him in a dream. Mary heard it again when she visited her cousin Elizabeth and the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy, Elizabeth responding with the words “blessed are you and blessed is the child in your womb.” They both heard it on the night of Jesus’ birth, from angels and from shepherds. This child is special, holy, loved. He will also be kind, and smart, and important – not self-important but important because he is God’s beloved and important to salvation history.

And – Simeon now adds when he blesses Mary and Joseph – “he is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34)

This holy and special child has come to teach that every human being is holy and special, and that message is going to threaten the establishment – as it did 2,000 years later in Jackson, Mississippi. And as it is doing now in Europe and North America.

Writing nearly 100 years after Jesus’ birth, and with the hindsight of the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, someone in the community of St. John wrote:

Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness. (1 John 2:9-11)

This is a really strong reminder that while God has created each of us to be unique, special, holy – to be God’s beloved – we have also been created to share that love, to love others as God loves us.

The toddler’s mother in the movie declares “I am a Christian woman” and yet she has no respect for either the lower classes of white people she calls “white trash” or for black people. But Aibileen demonstrates a love for her own children and her own people as well as for the rich white children she looks after and for the ostracized “white trash.” Her love is universal, and like Jesus it drives her to work for justice.

Aibileen is clearly a follower of Jesus, and she lives out Jesus’ teachings. She is also a kind of Simeon who can raise up a child and say “you are special.”

May you be kind, sharing Jesus’ love with all.

May you be smart – smart enough to know how desperately others need your love.

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And may you know you’re important – not with the self-importance that can cause us to treat each other unkindly, but with the importance that comes from knowing we are God’s beloved and are meant to share God’s love in every way we can.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Homily for St. John’s Day, December 27, 2016


The Rev. Lucy Reid, Incumbant of St. Aidan in the Beach, Toronto


Readings: Sirach 15:1-6; Psalm 93; 1 John 1:1-9 John 21:19-24



It’s such a privilege and a pleasure for me to be here with you on your patronal festival. Thank you. And may I wish you all a merry Christmas and a hopeful new year.


I want to share some reflections that come from the writings of John Philip Newell on John the Evangelist, or John the Beloved as he is sometimes called. Newell writes that in the Celtic tradition when John leans into Jesus at the last supper he is listening to the heartbeat of God. And, seen that way, Newell writes:
He became a symbol of the practice of listening—listening deep within ourselves, within one another, and within the body of the earth for the beat of the Sacred Presence.


And he continues:
Do we know that within each one of us is the unspeakably beautiful beat of the Sacred? Do we know that we can honor that Sacredness in one another and in everything that has being? And do we know that this combination—growing in awareness that we are bearers of Presence, along with a faithful commitment to honor that Presence in one another and in the earth—holds the key to transformation in our world?
-Newell, The Rebirthing of God, 2014 (Skylight: New York) xvii.

In the passage from Sirach that we heard before the gospel today, describing the one who seeks and finds Wisdom, it says that such a one “will lean on her.” This echoes the image of John leaning into Jesus, who embodied Holy Wisdom.

When we encounter true wisdom, we discover or remember who we are, and who God is.
As Newell writes, The gospel is given to tell us what we do not know or what we have forgotten, and that is who we are, sons and daughters of the One from whom all things come. It is when we begin to remember who we are, and who all people truly are, that we will begin to remember also what we should be doing and how we should be relating to one another as individuals and as nations and as an entire earth community.
John Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts, 2008 (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) p7-8.


The contemplative life, as you know better than I, enables us to listen to the heartbeat of God, to hear our true name, to see as God sees with compassion and hope. Sometimes the contemplative life simply enables us to keep calm and carry on in the midst of the messy brokenness and pain of the world around.


The contemplative way helps us all to see the treasure hidden in the field, the Christ child in the most ordinary of places, the handprints of God in all of creation.


Newell shares another image to convey this hidden truth:
A nineteenth-century teacher in the Celtic world, Alexander Scott, used the analogy of royal garments. Apparently in his day, royal garments were woven through with a costly thread, a thread of gold. And if somehow the golden thread were taken out of the garment, the whole garment would unravel. So it is, he said, with the image of God woven into the fabric of our being. If it were taken out of us, we would unravel. We would cease to be. So the image of God is not simply a characteristic of who we are, which may or may not be there, depending on whether or not we have been baptized. The image of God is the essence of our being. It is the core of the human soul. We are sacred not because we have been baptized or because we belong to one faith tradition over another. We are sacred because we have been born.
- Newell, Christ of the Celts, 2008 (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco) 2-4.


John the Beloved shows us this golden thread.
May we, like him, lean into the loving heart of Jesus, lean into Wisdom, and listen to the heartbeat of God. Amen.





Read about Lucy Reid's spiritual journey HERE 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Homily: Advent 2, Year A


St. John’s Convent, December 4, 2016

Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD

Isaiah 11.1-10         Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19
Romans 15.4-13 Matthew 3.1-12


CHARLIE THE BAPTIST

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord,  make his paths straight.” (Isaiah 40.3; Matthew 3.3)

In the classic TV animated film first shown in 1965, Charlie is a typical post-modern guy going through an existential crisis as he is growing up. He feels bad about himself: a failure, unloved, ridiculed, alienated from his culture but seeking meaning in his life, desperate to be accepted, longing for unconditional love which he has found not in his peers, not yet in God, but in his beloved and faithful dog. (Don’t forget though that dog is God spelled backward!)

In 2016 Charlie is just as relevant as he was 50 years ago. It seems as if a lot has changed in western society – and it has – but one thing that has not changed is peoples’ longing for God, for acceptance, for belonging, for love.

When the story opens, Charlie is feeling depressed. He hates the commercialization of Christmas but doesn’t understand why because he doesn’t really understand Christmas. He goes to Lucy for psychiatric help and the advice she gives him is to direct a Christmas play – she is sure that will give him the “Christmas spirit” (whatever that is) and will get him out of his doldrums.

But Charlie doesn’t have an easy job keeping a bunch of rude and unruly children focussed on a Christmas play. He probably feels like John the Baptist and would like to yell “you brood of vipers!” except that he doesn’t have the courage to do so. His friends just erode his lack of self-confidence more and he gets more despondent. He decides the one thing that might make the whole play hang together is a Christmas tree. Lucy wants him to get a nice shiny aluminum tree, but he is determined to find a real one – and ends up with the last one on the lot – a straggling, struggling little rut of a tree – rather a projection of Charlie’s view of himself.

When he gets the tree back to the auditorium where they’re rehearsing the play, all the kids mock him and make fun of the tree before leaving Charlie alone with the tree and Linus. Charlie cries the existentialist cry: “Does anyone know what Christmas is really about?” Or he might say, “is there any meaning to life?” Linus replies by reciting the narrative from Luke about the angels announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds.

Charlie regains enough composure to take the tree home to decorate, thinking that will help. The single ornament he puts on it makes the tree lopsided, even more ridiculous looking and he thinks he has killed the tree. But with Linus taking the lead, the other kids show up and take the decorations from Snoopy’s doghouse (presumably with Snoopy’s permission) and decorate the tree. The story ends joyfully with everyone singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and it reminds me of today’s passage from Romans:

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15.5)

The little community of “Peanuts” has come together against all odds, overcome their differences, and harmoniously giving glory to Jesus. Charlie, in his vulnerability, has led them to that place of reconciliation and rejoicing.

Charlie, it seems to me, is a lot like John the Baptist, the “voice crying in the wilderness” which is the theme of the second Sunday of Advent. He is the one among the children who has a passionate longing for the coming of the Messiah, though he would not use that word. He knows there is something more that the values of the society he’s living in.

The same was true for John. He came proclaiming repentance in preparation for the coming of Jesus, “the one who is greater than I”. While Charlie wasn’t asking people to repent in the same way, his mission was certainly to prepare the way for Jesus, to open his own eyes to the truth of what Christmas is about and to get others to see. His seeking Lucy’s help, his agreeing to direct the play, his looking for a real tree instead of an aluminum one, were ways of preparing the way – both for himself, to get himself out of his depression, and for his friends, family, and schoolmates.

And that tree! – Isaiah tells us that the coming Messiah is the branch of Jesse – another way of saying the descendent of David. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,” says Isaiah, “and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him . . . “ Charlie the Baptist’s tree reminds me of that branch of Jesse – just a small branch, a sapling really, like the tiny human born in a stable. Charlie’s tree reminds us of what great beauty can grow from something unremarkable –  even “despised, forsaken, rejected” as Isaiah describes the Messiah in another place.

And on that small branch of Jesse, we read, will rest the Spirit of the Lord – the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might, of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

And his coming will bring healing for people and renewal for creation: the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion – all will lie down together in the peaceable kingdom – “and a little child shall lead them.”

The little child in Isaiah reflects Jesus, the sapling, the little shoot from the root of Jesse. But it also reminds us of Charlie the Baptist or John the Baptist. John was, after all, only a few months older than his cousin Jesus. The vision of the Messiah was passed o to him from his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah. And so the grown-up John started as a sapling himself, a shoot form the roots of Elizabeth and Zechariah – one child preparing the way for another.

And what of us? Each of us is called to be a baptist, a forerunner – perhaps not literally baptizing people but certainly preparing the way for them to become followers of Jesus.

And how do we do that? I think the experience of Charlie and his friends can teach us a lot. We stick together. We help each other. We try our best to live in peace together just like the lion and the lamb. And after all is said and done, even when we give each other a hard time, even in conflict and hurt and misunderstanding, we help each other through the rough times, decorating a tree for someone who has hurt us or whom we have hurt when they are at the end of their rope as Charlie was, and allowing the beauty of the sapling to grow out of an unlikely beginning.

“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” Isaiah goes on to say. “For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

May each of us be open to be used by the Spirit to bring the knowledge of the Lord to those who are desperate to know about God and the Son and the Spirit. May each of us nurture the Jesse tree we have been given. And may we stand tall and straight, like beautiful trees ourselves, so that we may be signs of the coming Reign of God.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Canada Day preached by Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD

 

Homily: Canada Day

St. John’s Convent, July 1, 2016

Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD

 

Isaiah 32:1-5, 16-18Psalm 85:7-13

Colossians 3:12-17John 15:12-17

 

 

 

Canada Day is a special time for celebrating the goodness of our country – its values of openness and inclusivity, its commitment to human rights and dignity, its courage in coming to grips with the dark side of  its past (as with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), it’s leadership on the world stage in economic and social progress.

 

But it’s impossible to maintain that spirit of gratitude, or to celebrate this wonderful country, without an awareness of the unprecedented suffering of people in so many parts of the world, the increase in protectionism and nationalism in so many places including directly south of our border, and the violence that reigns in so many countries in place of democratic freedoms. 

 

It makes me a little nostalgic for better times – or at least what seemed better at the time. When I ived in Detroit back in the 1970s, one of the most popular things to do at the beginning of July was to go down to the International Freedom Festival on the Detroit River. It took place on the weekend closest to July 1 and July 4 and celebrated both Canada Day and U.S. Independence Day. It was fun to see people celebrating on both sides of the river, in Detroit and Windsor. There would be a carnival atmosphere in both cities – both countries – with thousands of people celebrating the great value of freedom that we all felt was shared by Canada and the US. Barges in the middle of the river were the site of fabulous firework displays, and if you got tired of what was going on in one city you could get in your car and drive across the the bridge or the tunnel to the city on the other side. No one had to have a passport in those days to cross between the U.S. and Canada.

 

The International Freedom Festival no longer exists – beginning in 2007 it was split into two different events, one in Windsor and one in Detroit. To me that’s a sad commentary on what we understand as shared values of freedom and democracy, and it reminds me of the discouraging way in which not only the U.S. but so-called free countries around the world are reacting to migration and the refugee crisis by putting up walls of regulations that we believe will protect us from each other.

 

I am so grateful to live in Canada, where we have enough walls of regulations ourselves  but at least where many people – I would hope most – are still open to welcoming the strangers, refugees, people who know longer have a country of their own.And yet we too are in danger of being sucked into the radical protectionism and nationalism that we are seeing in so many places around the world.

 

The readings today call us to something different. The passage from Isaiah presents a vision of rulers who will reign with righteousness, with justice. The imagery in the passage is all life-giving: they will be “like a hiding-place from the wind . . . like streams of water in a dry place . . .  like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.” And the rulers will no longer be fools or villains; they will exercise good judgement. They will speak “readily and distinctly” – we might say truthfully and transparently. What an amazing vision.

 

Sometimes I think we have caught it here in Canada, but sometimes I worry that we could so easily lose that vision which is so beautifully and seductively described in the psalm: “my people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.” God will “give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

 

This does not happen magically or without struggle and courage. Paul speaks, in his letter to the Colossians, of our responsibility to help bring about this vision of peaceful government and wise and generous leadership. ”As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another . . . forgive one another . . let the peace of Christ rule in your hearst . . . and be thankful . . . teach and admonish one another . . .” And above all, Paul says, be grateful: “with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”

 

In other words, a peaceful and just country comes from peaceful and just citizens – and grateful ones. We bear a responsibility in our own small spheres to treat one another the way we wish world leaders and countries would treat each other, not closing down our personal borders, not being isolationist, not being fearful of other people, not looking out just for ourselves.

 

Jesus knew about the fear of those who are different. He knew about the fear that rises in our hearts when we are asked to welcome others into our midst. He knew about the courage needed to stay open to those who hate and fear you. And in the last days of his life, as he was walking with the disciples in the vineyard, he told them, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That is the ultimate sacrifice demanded by the kind of leadership that Isaiah described. We lay down our lives – perhaps not physically (at least not often here in Canada) but spiritually and emotionally – to welcome the stranger.

 

The events of these past 10 days have left me (and I’m sure many of you) feeling overwhelmed by evil in our world, and as we anticipate the events that will unfold this summer in the U.S., our courage can be shaken. Archbishop Fred Hiltz, writing about the attacks on the airport in Istanbul, called our church to prayer:

 

Join me in praying for all who travel and for all whose work is ensuring their security and safety.

 

Let us remember before God all the victims of the bombings in Istanbul and their loved ones who grieve.

 

Let us pray all those seriously injured and traumatized and those who tend them in hospitals.

 

Let us pray too for all who are perpetrators of religiously-based violence and the chaos it brings.

 

Pray for conversion of hearts.

 

Pray that the world be free of such crimes against humanity.

 

Pray that we all live by the counsel given by God through his servant Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.”

 

I would add to this our prayer for the people of the United States as they move into the  Republican National Convention in Cleveland which opens July 18 and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia the following week, that somehow the people of the United States may have generous and wise hearts in the decisions they make.

 

I would add also prayer for the discussion and vote on changes to the marriage canon that will come to our own General Synod next week, that our church may show itself to be generous andopen and inclusive.

 

I would add prayer for Great Britain and the EU as they struggle with the outcome of the Brexit vote, that they may resist the xenophobic extremist groups and continue to maintain a stance of openness to refugees, immigrants, and the dispossesed of their own country.

 

And for the hundreds of thousands of refugees desperate to get into Europe, thousands of whom have died in the Mediterranean.

 

And finally, thinking of that freedom festival in Detroit/Windsor,I leave you with the words inscribed on the Statute of Liberty in New York Harbour, because I think they express the very bestvision of what both our countries can be.The words come from a poem written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, and they were paraphrased in the litany we used this morning

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

 

“Wretched refuse” – hard words, describing the way many people still treat refugees. “Desperate migrants” might better describe it today. May the USA and Canada and all countries be inspired to lift their lamps beside the golden door of safety, generosity, and welcome.