A Grain of Wheat (Homily for Lent 5)

Homily March 18, 2018

by Jo Connelly

Fifth Sunday in Lent

“The days are surely coming, says the Holy One, when I will make a new covenant” says Jeremiah.

As Ian Sowton wrote:

“We wait on you.  Do not press REWIND,
returning things to the good old days
that never were.  Plant something new
in us,”

And Jesus proclaimed in John’s gospel:

“The truth of the matter is unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”

I am here before you to declare that we, the Holy Trinity community are embarking on a new covenant.  Together we are going to forge a new way forward using our Strategic Planning consultations as a guide.  This won’t be easy. For each of us it will entail parts of what we dreamed about as the “ideal community” coming to light but other parts we hoped for will need to die as a grain of wheat falling on the ground.  For some, there will be excitement as parts we hoped for will be reflected in what we see, for others we won’t see enough of what we hoped for. We are on a journey, and none of us will see everything we wanted.

Change is hard.  We say we like change, we need change, but when it comes right down to it, it is a lot of work.  Remember the last time you moved from an apartment, a room, or a house. There’s the excitement of the new beginning, and then the reality of packing up boxes, giving away stuff, saying goodbye to a place that was home, even if it was awful.  All the routines that were automatic, needing to be replaced with fixing up the new place, unpacking, figuring out your way to your family, friends and work. Finding the new places to buy groceries, where to hang out in the new neighbourhood.  Or think of the last time you decided you were just finished with your job. The excitement and the let downs of looking for a new job—and then finally getting one that seemed like the perfect fit (or at least better than the last toxic job!) And then the change hits you—all the new people at work to get to know, the unspoken workplace culture to maneuver, the exhaustion at the end of the first day, the first week, the first month when you think—why did I ever leave my old job?  I am so tired! I’ll never get this!

Unless we, like a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies…I think one answer to this is that in a certain sense our individual beliefs about how Holy Trinity should look like need to die, a dying to self, but allowing each of our ideas to fall to the earth, die together in their individual details to be re-born into something beautiful and new and part of the collective wisdom of the whole—new life—new vision—a new Covenant together—something more beautiful than each of our individual visions separately.

But, do we trust each other?  I am reminded of the grumbling of the Jewish people as they lived through their Exodus journey.  It must have seemed like it went on forever. Will they ever see the Promised Land? This awful manna, is this all we get to eat?  What if I don’t like this Promised Land? Maybe slavery in Egypt was better! How hard it must have been to trust Moses, to trust each other.  

Maybe at Holy Trinity, things were better ten years ago, twenty years ago.  Was it better with a different pastor? Was it better when we were on fire with different social justice issues?  Wasn’t it great when we had 100 people here on a Sunday? When we marched together all unified during the Pride Parade?  When we regularly had weekend retreats?

Right now, as many of you know I am part of the health care team who work both at Seaton House homeless men’s shelter and at a clinic off site for current and former Seaton House men. Seaton House will be closing by the end of 2019 if all goes according to plans.  Seaton House holds over 600 homeless men at a time, and often is the place for the very ill homeless men to go to, men who have been barred from other shelters, and it has been home to some men for decades. While we work on our Strategic Plan, Seaton House is also wrestling with change.  Five or six smaller shelters will need to be up and running, gradually moving some of the men into each of them, then closing off beds at Seaton House, allowing the big old shelter to close down finally when all have moved out. Then will start the demolition which in itself will take months.  It will be re-built into a lovely structure years in the future—lovely glass walls, courtyard gardens, an indoor waterfall, community hub space, transitional housing with fewer beds for homeless men. In fact, the Managed Alcohol Program will include not only men, but women and trans individuals as well.  We can only hope that some of the men leaving Seaton House will actually be housed in their own real homes!

The staff as well as the men there are frightened.  Some of the staff have worked there for decades, as some of the men have lived there for decades too.  Things are comfortable, even though almost everyone complains about the conditions there—the lack of cleanliness, the illness, the bugs, the lack of light, the crowded conditions, the ugliness.  But it’s home, it’s comfortable, no matter how terrible. Now, I’m not exactly comparing the closing down of Seaton House with our Strategic Planning, but there are similarities. Change is hard, even when you know that not only is change inevitable, change is necessary to grow and to develop.  Without change, everything becomes stagnant and begins to wither and die. It is often right at that point of withering and dying that it becomes obvious to everyone that change is now necessary. And we need to die to be re-born. Seaton House has to close down and be demolished for something more beautiful, more humane to rise up from the rubble.  Holy Trinity needs to create a more resilient new structure to attract new life and growth. It is going to be hard for Seaton House residents and staff alike to let go and change, and it will be hard for us. But the promise of a more vibrant, alive Holy Trinity draws us forward. Are we ready to die and rise again?

I have a quote on the wall of my front hall that says “Picture the face of the poorest and most helpless person you have seen and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person.”  Gandhi

As we decide Holy Trinity’s future, how will we respond to some of the people who have died unjustly—Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine come to mind immediately.  How would our Holy Trinity of the future speak to injustice? How could we be prophetic witnesses to Love?

What about the case of Delaine Copenace, an Ojibway teen from Onigaming First Nation in northwestern Ontario, was known as a “homebody” by her family and closest friends. She was reported missing in Kenora, Ont., on Feb. 28, 2016.

After a highly publicized search, her body was recovered from a nearby lake on March 22.  Just about two years ago.

Delaine Copenace

For Anita Ross, Delaine’s mother, too many questions remain unanswered by officials. First and foremost, according to her, was that police did not bother to look for her daughter until three days had passed.

Still, Kenora OPP say they found no evidence of foul play and Delaine’s death was determined by the coroner to be caused by drowning. The coroner’s case is still open.

What would our new vision have to say about justice for Delaine Copenace,  our Ojibway sister who died in Kenora, Ontario? What if our new vision as a community had something to say about justice for our murdered and missing Indigenous sisters?  What are our next steps as settlers and allies regarding Reconciliation?

Back to the picture on my wall—will the next steps we contemplate taking as a community be of any use to Delaine?

Imagine some time in the future, it’s a Monday after work and you are heading over to Holy Trinity.  You walk over to 10 Trinity and the youth group are working on painting a large banner for a demo in support of Indigenous youth.  A Cree grandmother is leading the group in song and laughter. You walk past them and a choir is rehearsing downstairs for a refugee benefit concert happening later that evening, but you are looking for the meditation circle meeting upstairs.  Over at the main building, there is a rock worship group with a very involved liturgical dance component happening. There is a day care running in the Café, and a group meeting in the upstairs chapel discussing the next homeless memorial event.  A new social enterprise has taken over 6 Trinity, a bakery for former convicts and the line snakes through Trinity Square for their freshly baked goods.

None of these things happening at Holy Trinity might be your picks of something to do on a Monday night, but what if the place was hopping?  Wouldn’t it be a delight to see so much life bubbling up here?

Let’s go back to the readings, specifically the one about a grain of wheat falling to the ground.  Three stories I’d like to tell you which looked like failures but bore later fruit.

I am reminded of Jim Loney’s book Captivity when in the middle of terrible boredom punctuated by extreme fear he writes:

“Some Things You Can Do While Handcuffed: (Without the Assistance of the Person You’re Handcuffed to):

…Pray, breath, rub your fingers together, cross your legs, wiggle your fingers and toes, sigh, slouch, sit up straight, rotate your shoulders, stick out your tongue, make a fist, forgive, use one foot to scratch the other foot, cough, dream about being free.”

It’s hard to imagine what it was like for Jim, Harmeet and Norman after Tom was taken away and killed.  It must have been incredibly difficult for Jim not knowing if they would make it out alive, if their CPT witness was just pointless or had any meaning at all, as day after day he remained in captivity.  A grain of wheat that fell in the ground.. would anything come of their witness?

Martin Luther King, Jr., his house was firebombed, the movement was split and fighting, people losing hope that they would ever be able to vote let alone to be free.  He had the vision to say: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Back when I lived at Haley House, the Catholic Worker soup kitchen in Boston, we had had a lot of violence breaking out during the shifts.  Crack cocaine had just hit the streets of Boston and breaking up fights became an almost weekly occurrence. I had begun to lose my nerve. I remember one morning, I was descending the stairs down to the soup kitchen to set up the big urn of coffee at 5 in the morning, when I was so scared of what the day might bring that I sat down on the stairs shaking with fear.  “God,” I remember praying, one of these days I am going to be killed and I just can’t do it anymore.” “Help me!” I begged. I don’t remember how long I sat there, but I finally dragged myself to my feet and filled up the big urn with water and coffee grounds. It’s not that I didn’t still feel scared but somehow I could bear it. After weeks of averaging 3-5 serious fights every shift, I had one minor scuffle that day and the fights on my shift just seemed to stop after that.  

Now, you’re probably thinking, “what does Martin Luther King Jr., Jim Loney and your time in a soup kitchen have to do with Holy Trinity’s journey forward?  Here we are with a handful of people, limited money, cracks in our walls—what could the future possibly hold for us? Can we hope in a future we can’t see yet?  Can we trust that our Creator God is guiding us when things feel foggy and unclear at best, and terrifying at worst?

Well, here we are in 2018!  Some of us have been here for 40 years or even more!  Some of us have only been here for a few Sundays. Some of us here today have homes, jobs, others dream of having an apartment or a job that would pay their bills.  But here we are. As some of you mentioned during the three Strategic Planning Events, there have been grumblings and rumblings—it was hard for us to be frank and honest with each other, but people did a great job of sharing both their hopes and dreams and their concerns and upsets.  Some of you might be wondering like the ancient Israelites—where the heck are we going? Will it be like the old days? Will it be better? Will it be awful? Will I stay here? Will I be fed spiritually? Will I be fed with meaning and with fire and passion towards the issues we face as a community?  As a city? As a planet? Will I look around on a Sunday morning, or a Sunday evening service and see lots of new faces? Families with kids? Youth and people in their 20s, 30s, 40s? Will us older folks still be welcomed and integral? Will we feel engaged as a community? Will we still be fighting some of the same social justice fights?  New ones? Will the issues I hold close to my heart be shared by some of the community members here at Holy Trinity in the future?

I am here to say, yes!  Let’s go forward and trust that together we will build a new Covenant!  The Promised Land we are heading to, might surprise you, it might not be exactly as you had dreamed, but let’s keep journeying together and see if we can listen closely to each other and to the Word that is emerging from each other.  Let us trust that where we are going is better than the desert we have been wandering in, even if it is a bit scary. It might feel a bit like falling into the ground and dying, but like the Passion Week walk we are about to embark on, may we have faith that at the end of this journey we will Rise like Jesus on Easter, or if you’d rather, Rise like the Mary Ellen Carter! 😊

And in closing, lets remember Ian’s last stanzas of his poem:

“reassemble the strewn backbones
of our resolve, breathe prophecy into us
so that blade by blade, tuft by tuft

we may animate these Lenten slopes
with living green of Easter hopes.”