Sunday, August 11, 2013

Homily at the Requiem for Sr. Constance Murphy, SSJD, St. JamesCathedral, Aug 10, 2013

The Reverend Bill Whitla, Associate SSJD
+In the name of God who made us, who gave Love to us, and who fills us with blessed spirit. Amen.

It is humbling to consider Sr. Constance’s long, long life of love and service in her beloved community. Sister Constance was born in 1904, just three years after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. Who, we might ask, was the American president when Sr. Constance was born? Well, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, she has lived through the terms of 19 of the 44 Presidents of the United States. And in her own religious order, the Sisters of Saint John the Divine, she has served through the leadership of five of the six mothers superior—only the Founding Mother Hannah was before her.

Some here, like Sister Beryl, will remember her for some seventy years—Sister Beryl went to Qu’Appelle Diocesan School as a boarder in 1943 when she was just turned a teenager. Sister Constance had joined the community ten years earlier, and had already been at QDS for five years before that youngster, now Sister Beryl, arrived. When she first saw her, Sr. Beryl says, “She was in motion, hurrying somewhere, with her arms full of books and papers.” That’s it —a nun in motion, hurrying here and there, teaching the young, a lifetime and more working on behalf of the elderly. She said so herself: “”And I’m just going to go on. Seize the day, that’s my motto.” Well, didn ‘t she just go on—and talk about seizing the day! I only remember her for a mere fifty-eight years,when I was a server for Father Freeland at the Church Home for the Aged, to which she had come in 1958. And, of course, it was in gerontology that she was a pioneer, making an enduring contribution as a founding member with Dean Charles Fielding of the Canadian Institute of Religion and Gerontology and numerous other associations and organizations where her expertise was asked for and freely and incisively given, and for which she received numerous awards—two honorary doctorates, chosen the senior of the year in Toronto in 1999, awarded the Ontario Senior Citizen’s Achievement award, the Confederation medal, and so on—And not least, a canon of this Cathedral! While still in her wheelchair, she was still going —still seizing the day. But—and this should be stressed equally, she was a praying sister, she lived her life with her sisters, and she died in their midst.

In her Baltimore family it was often the custom to name children with at least one of their names from the Bible. So her father’s middle name was Benjamin. She alone, among her brothers and sisters, so far as I know, had no middle name [though some have more recently told me that she did indeed have a middle name—Elizabeth]. She was just Constance. The word means “Steadfastness, firmness, resolution, faithfulness, fidelity . . . Persistence, and perseverance” (Oxford English Dictionary)—all those she certainly was—along with endurance and fortitude., and with the final and not quite so flattering a connotation, stubbornness. But the word “Constance” or “Constancy” does not occur in the Bible—not in the King James translation, not in the RSV or any of the other standard translations. But I have found one passage from the Bible that names the great virtue of constancy, in an almost unknown translation by the Anglo-Irish Plymouth Brother, John Nelson Darby. Here is Darby’s translation of 1 Thessalonians 1: 3–4. Paul was speaking of Thessalonians, but I am thinking of Sister Constance:
“We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you at our prayers, remembering unceasingly your work of faith, and labour of love, and enduring constancy of hope, in our Lord Jesus Christ . . ., brothers and sisters, beloved by God, your election.
I doubt that the Darby translation was available in 1904 in Baltimore, so I wonder if her name came instead from one of the books that the well-read and well-educated Murphy family had nearby, one that their devout religious upbringings at St. James’s Episcopal C hurch Baltimore, would foster under the Rev’d George Freeman Bragg, himself one of the first black priests in the Episcopal Church, and a tireless worker for black education, black voting rights, and black equality. Through him and through their own interest they would have at hand, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. And the word occurs only once there too. In the last chapter of the second book, Mr. Great-Heart says to Mr. Valiant-for-Truth
And did none of these things discourage you?
Valiant-for-Truth: No; they seemed but as so many nothings to me.
Mr. Great-Heart: How came that about?
Valiant-for-Truth: Why, I still believed what Mr. Tell-true had said; and that carried me beyond them all.
Mr. Great-Heart: Then this was your victory, even your faith.
Valiant-for-Truth: It was so. I believed, and therefore came out, got into the way, fought all that set themselves against me, and, by believing, am come to this place [and then they sing this hymn]
Who would true valour see,
let him come hither; 
one here will constant be, [there is the word] 
come wind, come weather; 
there’s no discouragement 
shall make him once relent 
his first avowed intent 
to be a pilgrim.

So I think of Sr. Constance as this constant pilgrim, going through the river with Mr. Valiant-for-Truth . “and all the trumpets sounded for them on the other side.”

She was born in Baltimore into what was known as the Murphy clan—and what a clan it was! Her grandfather and grandmother were both the children of slaves and somehow got an education, enough for her grandfather, John Henry Murphy to establish the Baltimore Afro American, the parent of several highly influential alternative newspapers, including one in Washington, that became the largest black paper on the Eastern seabord. He had ten children, and one of them, Sr. Constance’s father, George Benjamin Murphy, born in 1870, became the principal of Baltimore Elementary School 112 where Sr. Constance and many of her cousins attended. Her father had seven children, and Constance was the third child, the second girl. The family eventually became famous; all five of her brothers and her older sister achieved degrees in higher education, as did she, and so did their numerous cousins. Her oldest brother took over the publishing of the Afro-American. Her youngest brother William became a judge. The brother born next after Constance, George Benjamin Murphy Junior, was an eminent journalist, taking over the editorship of the Washington Afro American, and turning it into a major voice for Black America during the troublesome 1940s and 1950s. He immersed himself in the world of the NAACP and worked all of his life for social justice, against Klan lynchings and other terrible racism. Becoming ever more radicalized, he left the NAACP and joined the National Negro Congress to press for gains in the labour movement and equal rights in all areas of life. He numbered among his close friends Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson and the members of the Kennedy family. His newspapers provided the evidence for a petition to the United Nations, “We Charge Genocide” for the abuse of African Americans. For his work for justice he was brought up before Governor McCarthy’s notorious witch-hunting UnAmerican Affairs Committee, defended by his brother the judge. “Who would true valour see, let him come hither, One here will constant be, come wind come weather. It was in this crucible that Sister Constance was forged at the beginning, and the work of education and care for those neglected—in her long term vision the aged—was the work already assumed by the Sisters of Saint John the Divine and they fit like a hand in glove.

Constance had set her heart on joining the All Saints Sisters of the Poor in Baltimore, but because they would not accept her because of her colour, she came to Canada and was welcomed by the Sisters of St. John. The rest, as they say, is history.

How separated she must have felt —separated from a large and loving and active family, separated from her own country, separated from the community she wanted to join by the colour of her skin. Yet welcomed in Ontario, at what had once been one of the ends of the Underground Railroad, by a new community that made her one of their own.

What Paul in the Letter to the Romans is talking about in that remarkable passage when he was writing to those few—perhaps only a hundred—Christians in Rome, and to the Jews there too, was about similar things—how, even in their far-from-Jerusalem existence, they were not separated; even in being isolated in Rome, in the centre of the Empire because of their faith, they were not isolated. But this part of the letter, the culmination of the first half of Romans, is not really about separation at all. Paul mentions separation—but only to negate it —nothing can separate us, he says—His writing here is really about inclusion —the inclusion of all despite all that seems to separate —the ills of human life, even death –and in the life to come, not even angels —nothing in the present or in the world to come, nothing in time or beyond time —all is inclusion of those who are in the love of God in Christ Jesus —and not only inclusion —but union –Paul is instructing those few Roman Christians about union of of them —all of us—in Christ.
God calling the individual —yes certainly—the individual who is faithful and the individual who is a sinner —that is – each one of us being called into this new relationship of life unified. But also God is calling the Gentiles along with the Jews —all are being incorporated —a community of faith and a community of deliverance.

It is that deliverance that Jesus is talking about in the great Eucharistic dialogues in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, when the people stretch out their hands to him asking for the bread that satisfies. Chapter 6 begins with the huge Eucharistic feeding of the 5,000—the crowds have brought no provisions with them, the disciples are totally unprepared and have nothing to offer of their own. Only a boy has the five barley loaves and two small fish for the Eucharistic banquet. The miracle occurs, and the people misread it, or ignore it, and so apparently do the disciples. The crowd wants to crown Jesus king—the last thing he wants—and he escapes by boat. Some follow him, and eventually comes to-day’s reading in which the crowd comes to Jesus and asks him, “Where do we get this bread that satisfies?” It seems they—and we—are never satisfied. We desire more and more, and we catch our desires from each other and pass them on again . It seems, then, that the only way out of this loop of stumbling over one unsatisfied desire after another is to finally find what God desires for us.
That is called vocation, and we all hear it and respond to it however we will—Vocation is having our best desires aligned with what God desires, made visible and tangible in Jesus, in the vocation to follow, and to love, and to serve. “Where do we get this bread that satisfies?” they ask. Jesus declares “I am the bread of life”
[one of seven such declarations: I am (he declares emphatically each time, ego eimi) I am the light of the world, the door of the sheepfold, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the true and living way, and the true vine.]

When Jesus declares that he is the true and living bread, those who hear that vocation stretch out their hands and claim it. —because it is the food that fills, that feeds, that satisfies, not just for now, but bread for life, bread as life, bread as deliverance, bread as unity, bread as community, bread as foretaste and bread as memory. For Constance it was all these things, and now for her, it is the bread of life indeed. As we receive it now, and share it now, there is no separation, but fulfilment, inclusion and union with God and with each other in the bread of hope and the wine of faith, here and now, and still to come. Amen.

The Rev. Bill Whitla
Associate, SSJD