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Of Comfort, Courage and Joy: the 2020 Preaching Series for the Triduum and Easter Sunday.

Read Srs. Anne, Elizabeth Ann and Sue and Archbishop Fred Hiltz’s homilies as they reflect on the readings for the 2020 Triduum and Easter Sunday.

Palm Sunday

By Sr. Anne, SSJD.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21: 1-11

It all started with a plan forming in his mind. It was time to make a statement not so much in words now, but as an act that would sear the minds & hearts of his disciples and for all the world. Like the prophets before him this would be remembered for generations to come.

      Thus, he arranged with a local farmer to borrow a donkey and her foal for what was to be his final procession up to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. He gave the password as “The Lord needs them” as a signal to release the animals into his care.

          Some time later, Jesus and his disciples were on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem for the Passover and stopped at Bethany on the Mount of Olives as that was their accommodation for the week. 

          The following day, Jesus sent two of his disciples to fetch the animals for his journey into Jerusalem later that day. When they got back to Jesus in Bethany, they threw their cloaks on the animals and Jesus sat on them. Then, like the crowds of people around them, they began their ascent up to Jerusalem. Many people in the crowd were singing songs that they remembered as they walked along the road. Seeing this, the disciples, sensing that Jesus by his actions was claiming his Kingship at long last, started to raise their voices as loud as they could. They began to announce “Hosanna to the Son of David…Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord” As they continued, people began to notice and began to spread palm branches and leaves in front of Jesus on the road for Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. They all seemed to recognize that a person riding on a donkey meant that this was a King of Peace! There was hope for the world… at long last … salvation is drawing near! As they approach the city gates, they all shouted “Lift up your heads O you Gates, and be ye lifted up you everlasting doors and the King of Glory shall come in”

Once through the gates of Jerusalem, the city was in turmoil and many asked “Who is this?” Those that walked with Jesus to this point said simply – “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

          This is where the Gospel story for today ends- the triumphant journey of Jesus into Jerusalem claiming his kingdom. But what next? The movement of our service today moves us from this scene into the passion of Jesus for the coming week. I found as I was preparing this homily, that all the readings with the exception of the Psalm had a common theme – of Humility. Both the prophecy of Zechariah and the Gospel of St. Matthew use the word Humble (and riding on a donkey). The entry of Jerusalem by Jesus was the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy and Matthew used the prophecy of Zechariah as a proof text for his story.

The other reading for today from the second chapter of the letter of Paul to the Philippians, is an old hymn that may have been in use by the early Christians in the decades following the Resurrection. One line in particular uses the word humbled.

As I pondered these reading and discovered that they were linked by this word Humble, I began to think about our own entry into Jerusalem and the start of our Holy Week observances. One verse stood out for me – Philippians 2:5 from the NRSV:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”

Having done a recent study of this reading, I was introduced to a book that is in our library of a Commentary on the Book of Philippians by Francis W. Beare, a former New Testament Professor at Trinity College here in Toronto. His translation of this verse is

“Let this be the disposition that governs in your common life,

as is fitting in Christ Jesus.”

His commentary on the words “In your Common Life” is what drew my attention. He wrote,

 “In your common life, means in your community of faith and love. Mutual relations within the Christian community are to be analoguous with the relationship of the individual with Christ. The whole atmosphere and attitude of life in the Christian community must always be that which befits those who are in Christ Jesus; and that is the like-mindedness, the unity of soul, the humility, the mutual esteem and mutual concern.”

That word humility was there again! What came to mind, then, was Chapter 7 of St. Benedict’s Rule which is the chapter on Humility in Community Life or in a Monastery.

Since we are now in Jerusalem after having made our little “procession” in this service, it might be worth reflecting on what it means for us as a “Christian community” to follow Jesus’s example of Humility as we journey with him in the coming week and beyond in our present situation of COVID 19.

The image for St, Benedict’s Chapter on Humility is that of a 12-step ladder. Each step or degree builds on the previous one.

1st Step – Reverence – being mindful of God’s presence always & daily.

2nd step – Imitate Christ – Translating good thoughts into good actions and by doing so we are following Christ.

3rd step – Obedience – the ability to submit ourselves to the wisdom of another. Learning to listen to the words, directions and insights of those in leadership who are the voice of Christ for us today.

4th Step – Persevere – to be able to deal with the difficult things in life and grow from them. It takes humility to find God where God is not expected to be.

5th Step – Openness – To become open and vulnerable to others. Being ready to admit weaknesses and limitations. Self Revelation is necessary for growth.

6th Step – Contentment – a sense of enough-ness – to be content with whatever we have and wherever we are called to be.

7th Step – Accept Self – accepting our fragility and smallness as well as our wounded- ness and weaknesses. It is then that our genuine real selves may begin to emerge. We will be open to learning.

8th Step – Stability – To stay in the stream of life, to learn what been learned from what has been learned before us, to value the truths taught by others, to seek out wisdom and enshrine it in our hearts.

9th Step – Silence – Listen, learn & be open to the other. That is the ground of humility. Humility is the ground of growth and graced relationships on earth.

10th Step – Stillness – The humble person cultivates a soul in which everyone is safe.

11th Step – Gentleness – Settling in low places, being gentle with one another and soft in our comments, kind in our hearts and calm in our responses.

12th Step – Unity – Humility is the foundation for our relationship with God, our connectedness to others, our acceptance of ourselves, our way of using the goods of the earth and our way of walking through the world. This is unity and integration at its best.

          Let us then take upon ourselves this Holy Week and beyond the invitation “to do justice, and love kindness and to walk humbly with our God”. (Micah 6:8)          Amen.

Maundy Thursday

By Sr. Elizabeth Ann, SSJD.

Exodus 12: 1-4, 11-14; Psalm 116; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26;John 13: 1-17, 31-35.       

We are keeping a very different kind of Holy Week and Easter this year.  Everything in the world seems upside down, and here, there is no Holy Week Retreat going on nor have we been able to welcome any outside guests or presiding celebrants in to worship with us.  There will be no influx of guests to celebrate with us when we light the new fire at the Easter Vigil, nor joining us for Easter dinner this year.  Instead, our guest house is currently hosting Sisters Beryl, Brenda and Wendy Grace recalled from St. John’s House in BC for a two-week period of self isolation.  Their period of exile is thankfully coming to an end in just a few days.  As the restrictions across the city and province tighten, we’ve got fewer staff in and around the house, so the corridors are quieter.  Sisters who usually work at SJR are all at home, and beginning to take on other responsibilities in the household.  Along with the rest of the world, we are learning the ways of social distancing; new ways to be with one another; to meet one another; to work together; and in our case, new ways to continue to pray together.  We end encounters with others we are in contact with a “keep safe!”  We are working differently, gloving and masking for some tasks; taking on tasks normally done by our staff; and keeping our distance in the Refectory, the Chapel, and in the Conference Room.  We are washing our hands over and over again, I’m starting to feel like Lady MacBeth but without the guilt!  We’ve learned how-to properly put-on gloves and face masks, and then how to safely remove and dispose of them.  We tune in and listen for updates from our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau; Dr. Teresa Tam, the Public Health officer for Canada, or Dr. Eileen de Villa, the Public Health officer for Toronto.  They are giving frequent reports and direction in this time of emergency.  We are learning the real value of sifting the truth from the cunning lies disguised as news popping up on the internet or in other sources of fake news that make their way to us.

Worry and fear is all around: “the plague that stalks in the darkness and the sickness that lays waste at mid-day,” (Psalm 91.6) is very real right now.  There is uncertainty as the economy takes a downturn, as family, friends, and colleagues are working in different ways from home while taking care of loved ones, or being laid off and uncertain about their future.  We are learning new ways to take deliveries and bring in packages and parcels into our house, wiping down boxes or spraying them with a solution of water and bleach to kill the virus, and washing all the produce in soap and water before putting it away.

All places of communal worship, Churches, Mosques, Synagogues, and other places where people usually turn for solace and comfort in times of social turmoil, are closed to public gatherings.  Some faith leaders are recording services for their congregants to watch over the internet to continue to have a sense of praying together.  The Quakers are even having their silent meetings for worship by Zoom (everyone uses the mute button unless the Spirit moves someone to speak or give a reading).  Sacraments and the rituals which normally bring us hope and reassurance, are denied us as we fast from our regular daily Eucharist, fast from holy water in the font, fast from the rituals which dramatize the actions of Holy Week including the processions, the sound of the organ, the washing of one another’s feet.

We’ve had to adapt our liturgies and the way we worship.  Making these changes is no different to what everyone is having to do to adapt to these times in their homes all over the country as we remain in lock-down trying to flatten the curve of the pandemic.  In adapting, we are trying some new things, including an Agape supper as part of our Maundy Thursday liturgy.

A hymn came to mind as I thought about this homily, one that we often have used at the time of our communion; “Thou, who at thy first eucharist didst pray, that all thy church might be forever one.” (CP 57)  It was the last verse of the hymn which came to my mind in which we sing, “So, Lord, at length when sacraments shall cease.”  It is not what the hymn meant, but it sure captures how I feel at this moment when we have ceased to have ready access to the daily Eucharist; and when other church services including funerals, baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, etc. have had to been postponed.  And should the call for continued social distancing and the ban on large public gatherings continue for any length of time, what will our churches look like when we are able to reassemble?

Phyllis Tickle wrote in her book The Great Emergence how the Church undergoes a Rummage Sale about every 500 years.  She postulated that we are in the midst of a huge rummage sale right now.  We are certainly seeing things being shaken up and turned over.  But we’ve also seen the church starting to move out of their buildings and onto the street, taking the liturgy outside to the people: Ashes being offered to people on their way to work on street corners and subway platforms; St. George on Yonge has been lighting their new fire out on the sidewalk to be seen by passersby; there are gatherings of church taking place in pubs (church on tap), and other innovative means of being church outside the walls including in this time when many are turning to social media to worship together.  The church also provides so many social services to anyone in need — soup kitchens, food banks, clothing depots, hot meals, etc although these too are being done differently at this time.  Churches are having to cooperate with other social agencies to continue their good work.  We’ve always said that the church is the people, not the buildings.  Is this a time when this truism is being put to the test?  Are we now also to say that the church is the people, not the sacraments?

The act of servant leadership depicted in the David Opheim statue above, shows Christ kneeling and washing the disciples’ feet.  We are not able to make this symbolic act this year as we practice social distancing for the safety of all.  But we can continue to make small, humble, loving acts of kindness towards one another, practicing patience when we are tired, gentleness in word and action, spreading peacefulness by exuding a non-anxious presence even when we are under stress, being generous to one another, forgiving of each other; keeping in touch with loved ones.  These acts, unlike the sacraments , never need cease.  Because it seems that it is necessary for the sacraments to cease, at least temporarily, then we are being called to live more fully into the prayer of Christ from the last supper. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  From the hymn, Christ’s prayer for us is this: “that all thy church might be forever one,” and continuing that, “may we be one with all thy church above, one with thy saints in one unbroken peace, one with thy saints in one unbounded love; more blessed still, in peace and love to be one with the Trinity in Unity.”  Feed on this in your heart and be thankful.

Good Friday

by Sr. Sue, SSJD.

Is 52:13-53:12; Ps 22; Heb 10:16-25 or 4:14-16, 5:7-9; Jn 18:1-19:42.

Today we remember the crucifixion of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  It is a day to grieve, a day to suffer, a day to repent, a day to be grateful, a day to question.  I could preach on any one of these topics, but the word that calls to me this day, this Holy Week is “question.”

The first and foremost question, a question that goes back to the very day of Christ’s crucifixion and perhaps still further back, to Isaiah, to Job, to the very creation of our universe, is “why?”

“Why was Christ crucified?”  “Why did God allow the Only-Begotten Son to die so terribly?”  “Why did God allow Jesus to die at all?”

Our readings and the anthems we will be singing shortly suggest a possible answer.  The passage from Isaiah speaks of the Suffering Servant, the misshapen, malformed, despised wretch who carried, and died for, all the wrong-doings of Israel.  Paul says “Although [Jesus] was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”  As we sing the Anthems, later in the service, we will hear “I went before you in a pillar of cloud, and you have led me to the judgement hall of Pilate. I scourged your enemies and brought you to a land of freedom, but you have scourged, mocked, and beaten me. I gave you the water of salvation from the rock, but you have given me gall and left me to thirst.”  

These and many other readings have been interpreted to mean that God required atonement for human sin and Christ provided it.  According to this answer, as I understand it, Christ’s death was ordained from the beginning, a matter of predestination, unavoidable, an act of God.

For many, for centuries for almost two millennia, in fact – this seems to have been a fine answer: it explains the inexplicable, makes Godly that which is ungodly, assures of us God’s love in an un-loving act, the crucifixion.

For me, though, and perhaps for some or all of you, this answer is as terrible as the event that it tries to explain.  What loving parent would sacrifice their son – their blameless, sinless son – in such a way?  What just God would use an act of injustice to restore order and sanity? 

There is some truth, some reason, some sanity to be found in the idea of atonement.  From time immemorial parents have sent their children off to war, to die, sometimes horribly, that others might live.  So we might think that God, with great reluctance, sent his son to die that all humanity might have eternal life. Certainly that explanation tells us how very much God loves us, that God sent Christ to pay for our redemption with his life. But I don’t particularly want to believe in – to worship – a God who sacrifices one for many, who permits – indeed, who provides! – a scapegoat to atone for the sins of others.  I don’t particularly want to confess a religion that considers scapegoating to be not merely acceptable but laudable.

The custom of using a scapegoat, like the custom of going to war, goes back to time immemorial.  Originally, it actually made use of a goat:  each year, in some cultures, a goat would be selected, a ritual would be performed that heaped all the wrong-doings of all the humans in a village or a town or a city on that goat, and the goat driven out into the wilderness, to live or to perish as the gods willed.  In our time, and our culture, scapegoating is a psychological concept relating to group dynamics, an all-too-familiar way of focussing the frustrations and conflicts of a family or work-place or community onto a single member of the group, blaming that one person for the problems of all.  I don’t particularly want to follow a custom – celebrate a custom – that makes an innocent responsible for the sins of those who are actually culpable.

It can be said, and has been said, that God is able to take the worst that human beings can do and twist it into good.  If this is true, and I certainly believe that it is true, why should God not be able to take scapegoating and the crucifixion and use them for good?  God can, absolutely.   God has.

But belief that God can twist sinful acts into a righteous result seems to me very different from saying that God has ordained the sinful acts that they might have a righteous result.

We don’t need the theory of the Atonement to make sense out of the crucifixion.  Christ died for our sins, yes; not just as atonement for our sins, but because we – human beings – are and were sinful, and were acting out our sins in this dreadful event.  Christ died because Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God – the power structure of God – and the power-structures of the Romans and of the Jews were threatened.  Christ died because human beings – not devils or demons, but human beings – were frightened, selfish, angry, disappointed, weak, and so easily manipulated into condemning an innocent man.  We – those of us in this room today – were not there, but I suspect that we have all known times when we were frightened, selfish, angry disappointed, or weak, and easily manipulated into doing harm to others.  When we cried out “crucify him, crucify him” a few minutes ago, in the Passion Gospel, we were admitting this to ourselves, and to those around us; admitting that, like the Jewish authorities, and the Roman authorities, like the Roman soldiers and the crowd that gathered and demanded Jesus’ death, we too are capable of sin, we too have sinned in our own ways and in our own times.  And in admitting our sins, we come a step closer to repenting those sins and asking the forgiveness we have been promised.

So – Christ died for our sins – not because God required a sacrifice beyond our own confession in order to forgive us, but because we came together in our sin to kill him.  Let us remember again the anthem we will hear soon: “I went before you in a pillar of cloud, and you have led me to the judgement hall of Pilate. I scourged your enemies and brought you to a land of freedom, but you have scourged, mocked, and beaten me. I gave you the water of salvation from the rock, but you have given me gall and left me to thirst.”   Whatever our sin, against each other individually, against other groups, cultures, nations, races, against the very earth which gave us birth and sustains us, when we do wrong, we do wrong against Christ, and when we do wrong against Christ we do wrong against God, for Christ is God, as God is Christ.

Atonement is one answer to the “why” of this day.  Human wrong-doing is another answer.  There are still more answers, perhaps as many answers as there are those who put the question; here is another of those possibilities.

When we ask “why” we may be asking:  “how did this come about?” or we may be asking: “what was the result?”  So far, I have been looking at “how did this come about?”  And despite having spent most of my homily looking at “how did this come about?” It now seems to me that this question is, in many ways, irrelevant.  We can argue all we like about whether God ordained the crucifixion or humanity brought it about.  What matters, what is relevant, is that the crucifixion occurred.  Christ Jesus was crucified on this day almost two thousand years ago, and the world was changed forever.

The world was changed forever because God took a horrible, unfair, unjust, humiliating, painful event and made it the crux – the cross – of a new world, a new reality, a world of forgiveness for sins, a world where God’s love triumphs over the worst of humanity’s sins, a world where death on a cross leads not only to forgiveness but to resurrection and eternal life.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Easter Sunday

By Archbishop Fred Hiltz.

Acts 10:34-43 or Jer 31:1-6; Ps 118:1-2, 14-24; Col 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:  1-18

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

The Lord has risen indeed! Alleluia!

This ancient proclamation by which Christians greet one another throughout The Festival of Easter takes its lead from Mary Magdalene’s message, “I have seen the Lord!” Following her wonderful encounter with The Risen Lord in the garden, and his commission to go and tell the disciples he had risen and would be ascending to the Father, she leaves the garden filled with a joy that but a few days ago was unimaginable. I see her hurried pace quickening as she gets closer to the place where the disciples are staying.  Bounding up some ancient stone stairway she pounds on the door and bursting into their midst, blurts out her news, “I have seen the Lord!”

In all of but a few hours Mary the Mourner had become Mary the Messenger, the Apostle to the Apostles. And in all of time to this very day her great delight is to lead the Church in the song and dance of The Resurrection.  Indeed on this Easter Day she invites us to ‘inhabit ‘the blessings of new life in The Risen Lord. She calls us to enjoy the stories of his appearances through the forty days before his Ascension into heaven. Today’s story is her experience of his call and commission.  Next week it will be the disciples’ experience of Jesus bestowing his peace and breathing the Holy Spirit into their souls,  quickening them for the work for which he is sending them into the world. Then there will be the story of Thomas, struggling with doubt in the testimony of the disciples, being graciously invited by The Risen Lord to come to believe.   There will be the story of Jesus accompanying a couple of disciples to the village called Emmaus, opening the Scriptures to understand the things concerning The Messiah and then revealing his risen glory in the breaking of bread at an inn where they would spend the night. And then we will be drawn into a story of breakfast by the sea. Taking Peter for a walk along the shore he asks in three-fold fashion if Peter loves him and with each ‘yes Lord’ he assigns him a task in shepherding the flock. In due course we will find ourselves in the midst of a story of  Saul of Tarsus, known to be a persecutor of those who were followers of The Way, being called by The Lord himself to be apostle to the Gentiles.

In his book Christ our Passover, Stephen Reynolds writes, “the first generation of the Church believed in the resurrection of Jesus because they found they could trust those who had seen the Lord Jesus after he rose from the dead. The character of Mary Magdalene, of Peter and the beloved disciple, of Paul and James and John, of Mary, the mother of Jesus and James his brother, was their oath, and the proof of their testimony was the way they lived.  They staked their lives on the resurrection and acted accordingly.”

What a marvelous expression that is ….”staking their lives on the resurrection”!  Isn’t  that what we are called to do as well…to stake our lives on the resurrection?  In a time in history when the shadows of Lent seem so very long we look to the dawn of a new day with life renewed in the mercy and glory of God.

Though currently separated by enforced protective measures of social distancing we are more beautifully aware than ever of the nature of the Church as the community of all those bound together in Christ, in his death and resurrection. “We were buried with him by baptism into his death so that as he was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”(Romans 6:4)

While we long for that day when we can taste the Bread of Life and drink the Wine of Resurrection we give thanks that we have so many rich opportunities through modern technology to dwell in The Word. And we give thanks for all our clergy and lay readers who are enabling this to happen. Many of us are seeing this as a time when in being The Church in such a way as we have never been before, as a time of regeneration.

With all of you I rejoice that while we cannot assemble in our buildings this Easter Day our bells will be ringing, reminding us in a lovely way of the words of a much loved Easter hymn:

“Lo! Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb;

            Lovingly he greets us, scatters fear and gloom.

            Let the church with gladness hymns of triumph sing, 

            For her Lord is living, death has lost its sting.”

 I rejoice too, that at the invitation of Archbishop Anne many of our church doors are bearing messages of care and concern for the world in its present suffering, prayers for the sick and dying, gratitude for the work of nurses and doctors and emergency personnel,  prayers for our Prime Minister and Premiers, Chiefs and Band Councils,  and all Public Health Officials and thanks for all who are maintaining  essential services –grocers, pharmacists, postal workers and those who take away our garbage.  All of these messages reveal something of the Church’s heart for the world in the name of Christ.   

Now indeed is a time for us to “stake our lives on the resurrection”.   With St. Peter let us, “bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ by whose great mercy we have been given new birth into a living hope through his resurrection.”(1Peter 1:3)  With St. Paul let it be our deep desire,  “to know Christ and the power of resurrection.” (Philippians 3:10)  With Julian of Norwich let us be confident in this, that “love was our Lord’s meaning and that for certain before ever he made us, God loved us, and that his love has never slackened, nor ever shall.” Her renowned declaration that “all shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” is so worthy of our embrace in these times.

 The first Christians staked their lives on the Resurrection, and their testimony moved subsequent generations to do the same.  Let us pray that our manner of living reflects the truth and joy of Easter as described by Clarence Jordan.  He writes, “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit -filled fellowship;  not a rolled away stone, but a carried away church.” (Jordan was a farmer and New Testament Greek scholar, founder of a small but influential religious community called Koinonia in south west Georgia. He was also instrumental in founding Habitat for Humanity).

If our testimony to the ‘ever Eastering Christ’ and his most sure word in making all things new should lag in joy or holy zeal let us look again to the passion of Mary Magdalene,  forever full of delight to lead us anew in the song and dance of the Resurrection!

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!”