Friday, December 28, 2007

Fear Not!

Sermon for Christmas I, Year A
Sunday, December 30th, 2007
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Reverend Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 2:13-23

“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened.”
-- Matthew 2:3

Fear. When allowed to take hold, it can overtake our reason and overwhelm our senses. While there are healthy fears, fears that can preserve and protect us from harm, and while we certainly acknowledge holy fears, like the fear or reverence of Almighty God, there is also a kind of fear that is all-consuming and all-destructive. At times, fear can grip hold of us in such a way that we become consumed by self-preservation at the expense of all virtue, of all reason, and of all consideration of others. It is this kind of fear that is the antithesis of the Christian faith. It is this kind of fear that ironically extinguishes life rather than preserve it. Fear can lead us to abandon our principles. The fear of what people might think if they learned the truth, leads us to lie, to create false truths, to create false identities for ourselves. Fear can destroy our relationships and our communities. On a larger scale, fear can lead to rash military decisions, political assassinations and even to genocide. Our recent history is littered with decisions made in the grip of fear and the deaths of innocents at the hands of those frightened to relinquish power and control.

So it was in the days of King Herod. In the innocence of the inquiries of the traveling magi, Herod receives word of a threat to his autocratic rule. Wise men seeking to worship the newborn king, inadvertently announce to the reigning despot the arrival of the one who could challenge his authority. And when he heard this, Herod was frightened. We began to wonder to himself, “Could it be so? Is my authority about to be challenged again?” Herod’s reign had not been without those who challenged it, even three of his own sons, Antipater, Alexander, and Aristobulus, were executed by his command when they appeared to pose a threat to his rule. Thus, the frightened Herod, pondered the words of these visiting wise men with a feigned sympathetic interest, all the while plotting the destruction of the child. For what was it for a man who had slaughtered his own sons in the grip of fear to slaughter the children of his Judean subjects, fear once again encircling his hardened heart? The sad reality is simply that Herod grasped the truth that if Jesus was Lord, he was not, could not, or ever be Lord. What will a frightened ruler do to hold on to power? Herod did what so many despots had done before and so many despots have done since, he took up the sword against the weak and the powerless in a frightful rage against all reason. Behold what fear can do. Who amongst us can imagine the threat of a tiny child in its mother’s arms?

Yet, time and time again, fear trumps reason, virtue, and compassion. Scholars may dispute the historical veracity of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, but we know this, that innocents continue to be slaughtered throughout this world when frightened tyrants cling to power. Herod represents the worst of what we can be, the depths of depravity to which each of us, as human beings, has the potential to descend. And we should never delude ourselves, the descent is not as distant as we might imagine. As a human race, and as members of that human race, we teeter constantly on the precipice of evil, with fear threatening to tip us into the chasm. Each of us has within us the potential to be like Herod.

Into this world of darkness, death, and terror, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and spoke these words: “Fear not.” Do not fear, for your wife Mary will bear a son who will save his people. “Fear not,” words spoken to Joseph, and words spoken to Mary. “Fear not,” the trumpet call of God that ushers in the dawning of a new day. “Fear not,” the light shines in the darkness. With the “yes” of Joseph and the “yes” of Mary, a new day truly dawned. For in the willingness of human hearts to cast away the works of fear and let the hand of God enter in, a new world of human possibility, mingled with divine purpose has been inaugurated.

Herod and Joseph were two men who both received the news of the coming of the Lord. Herod and Joseph, two human beings, just as we are human beings, with a choice before them: Fear or fear not. Herod allowed his fear to consume him and overpower him to the point that he spilled the innocent blood of little ones. But Joseph held in his arms the precious gift and nurtured the boy, cared for the boy, protected the boy. Joseph had every reason to be afraid. He could have feared the condemnation of his community when his young bride was found to be with child out of wedlock. He could have feared the responsibility of raising this important child. He could have feared the threat to the child and Mary by the wicked King Herod. Certainly he was confronted by such fear, and yet, the word of God through the voice of the angel resounded in his heart: “Fear not.” Facing those fears, he took up his task, against all odds, against the judgment of the world, in the face of a murderous tyrant, and protected and nurtured the tiny babe who would save us all.

“Fear not.” These words are still offered to us in these latter days. In these days of scandals, assassinations, of genocides, these words still resound. Herod is long since dead, and Joseph slipped quietly away into the background of the Biblical narrative, never to be heard from again. But the word of the Lord remains, “fear not.” As frightening as the world might seem today, the world into which our Lord was born was equally frightening. In the story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, all the picturesque sentimentality of stable, shepherds, and lowing animals gives way to the harsh reality of the human condition. But this is the world into which Jesus was born.

The world in which we live can be filled with joy and wonder. Often it is also a world filled with pain and terror. And yet into this world the Christ is born again and again in the hearts of the faithful, as he was born so long ago amidst the pain and terror of the Judean people. His coming is heralded with a cry, “Fear not!” It is a word that came to Mary and a word that came to Joseph. It came to some shepherds in the Judean hillside. It came to the disciples of the Lord as the met him in his resurrection. As he spoke it to them, so he speaks it to us, “Fear not, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” It is a word that comes to us again and again. We can let fear grip us. We can let fear overwhelm us. We can let fear control us. Or we can hear the words of the Christmas angels, and indeed the words of our Lord, himself, “Fear not.” We can be strengthened by the presence of Emmanuel, God with us, and be like Joseph who chose forever to remain a steward of the precious gift. In our baptism, we have been given the gift of Emmanuel, we have no reason to fear, for He is indeed with us.

Copyright 2007, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, by any means, either in whole or part without the express written consent of the author.

Friday, December 21, 2007

He Comes to Us

Sermon for Advent 4, Year A
Sunday, December 23rd, 2007
Holy Trinity, Thornhill
Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 1:18-25

“…He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.”
--Matthew 1:24

What if it had been you? What if in the days of your early adolescence an angel had spoken to you in the silence of the night and prophesied that you would be the mother of the saviour? What if as a young man, in the depth of your dreaming you received an angelic vision that the woman to whom you were betrothed, but with whom you had had no sexual relation, was about to bear a son who would save his people. What if it had been you – you or I, who had received this message, heard the awesome and frightening news? News that would not only affect our future, but also the future of the world. News of a son who would save his people. What if it were you or I?

Would our response have been Mary’s “let it be unto me according to your word?” Would our response have been “my soul magnifies the Lord,” or “My spirit rejoices in God my saviour?” Or would the shame of an illegitimate pregnancy bring fear, and shame, and loathing? Would our response more closely resemble the response of Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel, to put away the woman of shame? Could we have borne the shame or faced the judgement of those around us.

But the angel did come to Mary, and it did come to Joseph, and despite their initial fear, astonishment, and shame, both Mary and Joseph said “yes.” Joseph did not put away his future wife, nor did Mary hide her face in shame. Instead, Mary went immediately, with haste into the Judean hillside, into the country, to her relative Elizabeth, who in her old-age had also received a visitation from the Lord – Elizabeth who six months pregnant was destined to be the mother of John the Baptist.

Mary went – a young girl, barely a woman -- to Elizabeth, an elder, a mentor, a wise woman. She faced not the burden alone, but in the company of this holy mother who was herself a vehicle of God’s grace. And there she stayed for some time, sharing her both her fears and her dreams with the one, who in a remarkable way, could understand her sacred calling. For when she saw Elizabeth the words from the elder woman’s mouth were not words of judgment, nor words of condemnation, but words of blessing. Even within her own womb, the baby leapt for joy. Elizabeth, who had also been touched by God, greeted the one who others may have shunned, with reverence, respect and admiration: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” and she wondered aloud, “why has it happened that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

And so Elizabeth’s son likewise wondered aloud many years later, when the same Lord approached him on the banks of the Jordan river and asked him for baptism. Like his mother he evinced his own unworthiness, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal – it is he who should be baptizing me.” And yet, the timeless son of God was baptized by John. He came to John. He comes to us.

He comes to us again in these latter days – again and again. It shall not matter whether we are rich or poor, of high or low estate. He comes to us – again and again. And it is in our weakness and our brokenness that we meet him and he meets us. He comes to the scared and frightened child in each of us as he came to a trembling adolescent girl in Nazareth. He comes to us in our false pride and vanity, in our fear of shame and judgement as he came to a young man who actually considered abandoning his bride to be. He comes to us in our aged brokenness, in our regret and disappointment about what might have been for our lives if only things had worked out differently, as he came to an old woman whose womb had been barren throughout the decades of her life. He comes to us in our world of darkness, sadness, violence and anger, as he came to a middle-eastern land so long ago, and a people disappointed by failed hopes and foreign domination.

He comes to us today not with words of judgement or condemnation for who we are or what we might have been. He comes to us not with anger or wrath for the mistakes we have made or continue to make. He comes to us not with punishment for the sins in which we inevitably participate. He comes to us with great love, with words of hope, with healing in his wings. He comes to us with these words: Greetings favoured ones. He comes to us with the promise to be born within each one of us, to turn our fear to hope, our sadness to joy, and our sorrow into laughter. He comes to us, to you and me, with the same message that came to Mary and Joseph, and Elizabeth and Zechariah, greetings favoured ones. They were not great and powerful people, but people like you and me – and they were favoured by God; favoured to birth the Christ to a hurting world.

We are favoured, for the Christ has been birthed in each of us, and continues to be born again and again in our hearts with the purpose of transforming not only our lives but transforming the world and bringing hope to a people that walk in darkness. Hide not your light -- that is, his light -- under a bushel, but let it be unto you according to his word, that each of us might sing the words of blessed Mary this Christmastide and always, “My Soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my saviour!”

Copyright 2007, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, without the express, written permission of the author.

How Silently, How Silently, the Wondrous Gift is Given

Homiletic Reflection for Christmas Eve
Monday, December 24th, 2007 (7:00 p.m.)
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Reverend Daniel F. Graves

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.

Still – the still of night, the still of darkness, the still of sleep. But as this season has pressed in around us how difficult it is for us to be still. For those of us who have ever worked in a store during this season is there any sense of stillness? For those of us who have worked to prepare a Christmas feast for a large gathering of family and friends, can there be any sense of stillness? And for these little ones for whom excitement is heaped upon excitement, can there be any sense of stillness? Even our telling of the old, old story is bound up with frenzy, activity, and excitement! For it is after all, an exciting story.

In a world of constant coming and going, a world in which we live with a 24 hour clock and overnight shifts, and in a season when excitement runs high, it is hard for us to imagine that little town of Bethlehem, slumbering in a deep and dreamless sleep as silent stars go by. And yet, silent or frenzied though the world may be, though our lives may be, the angels still keep their watch of wondering love.

For into the dark streets of our lives – whether they be darkened by a frenzy that keeps us from slowing down to truly understand the blessings of life; whether they be darkened by loneliness or sadness through the loss of a loved one during this season; whether they be darkened by our feelings of failure over the mistakes we have made this past year or things that we ought to have done but have left undone; whatever our streets be darkened by, into our lives still shines an everlasting light.

It is a light that comes to us as we least expect it. It is a light that comes to us in the darkness of a dampened stable. It is a light that comes into the darkened streets of our lives. It is a gift that is given silently, O so silently – a wondrous gift. It is a light that illumines our dark places. It is light that shine over and around our frenzy, in and about our loneliness, and through our despair and regret. It is light that casts out our sin. It is a light that enters into our hearts and minds and souls and gathers us around a manger in which a tiny baby rests, silently, O so silently. And we behold his glory.

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Descend into our lives, into our darkness. Bring to us the stillness of peace that we might hear the Christmas angels, and their great, glad tidings. Come to us in our brokenness. Come to us, Lord Jesus, our one true light. Come and free us from all that enslaves us. Come to us, Holy Child, this night amidst our darkness, be born in us that others might hear in our song, those great glad tidings. Come to us, be born in us, our Lord, Emmanuel.

Copyright 2007, the Reverend Daniel F. Graves. This next may not be reproduced or redistributed either in whole or part without the express, written permission of the author.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Signal to the Peoples

Sermon for Advent 2, Year A
Sunday, December 9th, 2007
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Isaiah 11:1-10

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
-- Isaiah 11:1

When a new leader comes into power they bring with them a hope for a better future. The early days of a new government, a new city council, a new church leader all come with expectations that a new era has dawned and that whatever ailed the previous administration will now be corrected. The world will indeed be a better place. New leaders always look good when compared with their battle-worn predecessors. Yet, the day comes when that first disappointment is experienced, hope is dashed, and we realize that all leaders are human and capable of human error and human sin.

I suppose it is because we had such high hopes that the disappointment we experience can be so deep when leaders fail to meet our expectation. After all, victory speeches are filled with rhetorical hyperbole claiming in advance victory over problems that have not yet been solved. Simply electing or proclaiming a new leader will not change the ills of the state. Our misplaced trust in the messianic self-accolades of our worldly rulers is what disappoints us as much as the failure of the leaders themselves.

To be sure, leaders are called to high standards, but so are we. To be sure, leaders will make mistakes, but so do each one us. Before we stand in judgment of the ones who fail us time and again in power, shall we not consider our own misplaced faith in the rhetorical hyperbole of those who proclaim the job finished before it has begun?

In the days of Isaiah, the kingdom of Judah was in decline. A kingly line that had promised so much hope was producing disappointment upon disappointment. The current king, Ahaz, had now struck a deal with the enemy to save his own skin – an enemy that would bring great destruction upon Judah. The hope of the Davidic kingship was soured beyond recognition. And amidst the cynicism and skepticism of the day, Isaiah spoke of hope: A root shall spring forth from the stump of Jesse. Jesse was the progenitor of the Davidic line. The line shall be cut down and left as a stump, and yet, there would always be hope – the hope of a Davidic king who would bring forth justice and peace; a king that would be the saviour of the nations. But sadly, we know that the kingship never recovered. New kings would rise and fall in this Davidic line. There would be further kings of Judah in much later times – the Maccabees and their descendents – who came with good intentions but left the kingdom corrupted and in the hands of its enemies. Hopes for a better day were met, time and again, by failure after failure of the rulers and the misplaced trust of the people. Had the words of the prophet even been a farce?

And then, one day, hundreds of years after the death of beloved Isaiah, when disappointment had been heaped upon disappointment for generation upon generation, in a lowly stable, in the cold of the night, a new light shone. And a little child shall lead them. In the most unexpected of conditions, from the stump which had been violently cut back so many times, from the line in which so many hopes had been dashed, David, Solomon, and so many others, a tiny root sprung up, almost unnoticed. Where great kings had failed, this tiny one would triumph beyond every expectation and the world itself would be transformed.

That light continues to shine in the darkness and the darkness has never yet comprehended it. Time and time again we place our hope in our own power and in the power of earthly kings and leaders. Does this not show that we choose to make our home among the darkness? Does this not demonstrate that time and again we fail to understand that under our own power hope is but an illusion? That by placing all our trust in the grandiose promises of those who lead that we have set ourselves up for failure and disappointment?

None of this is to say that we should eschew political engagement in any way, or boycott our polling stations, or cease to work for a better future. No. These things are all important. We should, of course, seek to support those who present themselves for the very difficult and trying vocation of public office and other kinds of leadership in our society. And we should not only support them in their run up to office but in the ongoing practice of leadership, holding them to high standards, offering criticism where appropriate and forgiveness when Christian fellowship demands it. In all things, but especially in things political, we should follow the command of our Lord, to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.

It must never be forgotten that all good gifts are gifts from heaven and not of our own making. It is what we do with a gift that honours the giver. The gift of peace has been given to us in Christ. Shall we live it out? Shall the wolf lie down with the lamb in our time? Under our own power – no; but as a gift from God received in faith – yes, indeed, most certainly yes. Is the kingdom of justice and peace possible? Yes, indeed, most certainly yes. Yes, because when all things are considered, it is not a future hope about which we speak, but the hope of the dayspring from on high which has already dawned upon us.

The hope that the leaders of this world offer to us, election after election, victory speech after victory speech, is a utopian hope that will never truly dawn, but will always be met with disappointment because its success or failure lies in human hands. As human beings, in our earthly leaders we seek the restoration of David’s line, but in Christ we meet its fulfillment. This fulfillment is not a future dream to be sought after, but a present reality into which we are invited, because in the human womb of Mary, divinity met humanity, and in such sacred union the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.

We speak of Advent as a time of waiting, and so it is. Ironically, though, it is not a time of waiting for the birth of our Lord, nor his coming again in glory. Rather, it is a time of waiting for the opening of the eyes of our hearts and the ears of our misunderstanding. I shall say it again: Christ has come. Shall we remain as children of the darkness, and comprehend not the light of Christ? Christ is amongst us. We meet him in this Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. We meet him in the human touch of a brother and sister who anoints us with oil in the fear of our pain. We meet him when two individuals stand together in front of the community of the faithful and profess their love to one another in holy matrimony, for the whole world to see. We meet him in the support of the Christian community when we know the pain and loss of the death of a loved one. We meet him when we choose to look into the eyes of one who wronged us and seek common ground rather than a chasm of difference and distance.
Moment upon moment of this earthly life Christ comes to us again and again. Let those who have eyes to see, see, and ears to hear, understand. Can we dare to see that the root of Jesse stands, not as a future hope, but as a present reality, as a signal to the peoples? Shall the nations, shall we, inquire of him? If we do, we will recognize that his dwelling is indeed glorious.

Copyright 2007 by the Revd Daniel F. Graves. This sermon may not be reproduced either in whole or part, by any means, without the express written permission of the author.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

We Have Found the Messiah

Homily for St. Andrew’s Day (Translated)
Wednesday, November 28th, 2007
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 4:18-22

In the early chapters of St. Matthew’s gospel, we meet he apostle Andrew very briefly. He is a fisherman, the brother of Simon Peter who, with his brother, drops everything to take up that call, “follow thou me.” For him there is no looking back only pressing forward with the new task to become, as our older translations say, a fisher of men. Perhaps, in the terseness of this short anecdote we sense the excitement of the brothers as they take up their new lives as apostles of the Lord.

Could they have imagined what would happen in the days ahead? Legend tells us that both became great evangelists to the far reaches of the known world: Peter to Rome, Andrew to Scythia. Church tradition also reveals that both were crucified, Peter upside down and Andrew on an X-shaped cross. From the simple life of Galilean fishermen to martyrs for the gospel; would they have taken up this new life had they known?

Probably fifteen years ago, I heard Bishop Arthur Brown preach a sermon on St. Andrew. I believe that he took as his text the somewhat more detailed passage from St. John’s gospel in which Andrew answered the call of Jesus to “come and see.” This same apostle then went and found his brother Simon and then ran to his friend Philip and told them, “We have found the Messiah.” While I cannot remember all the details of Bishop Brown’s sermon, one particular refrain has remained with me to this day. As he exegeted the passage, he asked again and again, “who’s your Andrew?” The question is poignant because while Andrew is one who drops everything to follow the Lord, he is also one invites others on the journey with him. He runs, not walks, to gather others. With excitement, with joy, with passion, he lets all the world know that the Messiah has come. His passion does not end when his initial excitement wanes, for we know that he followed his Lord, even unto death.

And so the question remains: Who is your Andrew? When I work with those seeking baptism I often ask this question. Who is you Andrew? In whom have you seen the spark? Who was it that first led you on the path? Who was it in their thoughts, words, or deeds that helped that spark within you come alive? Who introduced you to the one who was knew you from your mother’s womb, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ? From whom did you receive the faith once delivered to the saints? Who was your Andrew?

Finally, to whom shall we be “Andrew?” The spark having been lit within us, and we ourselves having taken up the Christian life, to whom shall we deliver the faith? Will we have the passion and excitement to seek out Simons and Philips and tell them we have seen the Lord?

St. Andrew’s day toggles the end and the beginning of the liturgical year. Sometimes we celebrate it before the first Sunday of Advent, sometimes after the first Sunday. Regardless, this makes it the perfect occasion to recommit ourselves to that task of being Andrew to a broken and hurting world, and at the coming of that Holy Babe, announce to those around us we have found the Messiah.

Text copyright The Rev. Daniel F. Graves, 2007. This text may not be reproduced or distributed by any means, in whole, or in part, without the express written permission of the author.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Becoming the Good Thief

Sermon for the Reign of Christ
Sunday, November 25th, 2007
Preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 23:33-43

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
--Luke 23:42

The desire to demonstrate power through a show of force is not a new urge. If we find ourselves concerned with the growing tendency of our society to beat others into our own image and likeness, into conformity with our principles, political, moral, ethical or religious, then we stand with many across the ages who have felt powerless against belligerent exercises of unjust power. But we must remember that none of us are immune to the temptation to exercise power and force over others who are different from us. So, as we stand shocked and awed by the tyranny of others, can we dare to recognize the tyranny we exercise in our own lives over those less powerful than us?

There is a very real sense that the exercise of power is a good thing, that power equals strength. Indeed, most of us would rather work for a strong leader than serve under a weak one. Thus, we are sometimes seduced by the strong leader who demonstrates, with acts of power, their strength. We might laud their show of force as decisive, as the mark of one that is in control, that knows his or her own mind, that will not be swayed by others. But to what end is the power exercised and to what good? What good is a decisive king if his subjects go hungry, remain oppressed, are silenced upon the questioning his authority? What does it profit any of us to have peace, order, and security if indeed we have lost our souls?

Three convicted criminals were led up a hill to the place of their execution. The crime was sedition; the punishment was death by crucifixion. The peace of the empire was at stake. The king, the emperor, had been challenged by back-water upstarts. It is likely that the emperor, himself, never heard the name Jesus of Nazareth, nor those of two bandits crucified on his right and left. There was a way of maintaining peace, order and security in the empire, and the local governors, the instruments of the state knew it well.

We know little of the two men crucified with Jesus. Their names are lost to us. Both Matthew and Mark speak of them as “revolutionaries” while Luke simply calls them “robbers” or “bandits.” The implication, though, is that they themselves were men of violence; men who sought to overturn the rule of the Emperor through sedition, violence, the use of force. To fight force with force; for this, they were condemned. And what of the man, Jesus? A revolutionary? Certainly – but of what sort? He was not above shows of power and acts of force. He had overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple court, after all. But more often then not, his acts of power were miracles, healings, signs of God’s mercy and sacraments of God’s love for a broken humanity and hope of reconciliation for a conflicted world. He gave sight to the blind, he mended broken hearts, and he set free those who were tormented in their minds and in their spirits. He saved others through his gentle touch and compassionate words – a different kind of power.

“He saved others! Let him save himself!” Who dared shout these words as he hung on that rood of death? Who dared mock and taunt the Son of God in the passion of his suffering? The leaders of the people. The soldiers who crucified him. Even one crucified with him who had likely stood against the tyrannical power of the emperor. Who are these who mocked and taunted him? They are you and I. They are both those who held power and those who stood against tyranny. They are you and I – waiting, hoping, longing for a show of power to prove themselves wrong. They placed a placard above his head, ironically proclaiming him king. But in some sense hoping beyond hope that he was a king. “Show us your power! Make us believe! If you can do it, if you are a king, if you can save yourself we will follow you, we will bow down before you, we will worship you! Show us your power!” But nothing happens, darkness descends and hope is lost. He is no king; he has no power.

But then a voice, one thief rebukes the other who taunts the would-be messiah: “We are justly condemned, but this man has done no wrong.” It is a moment of crisis for this thief who is about to face his own death. Who in his own acts of power and shows of force has failed to see his goals met. Power and force have done him no good, and there he hangs justly condemned. But in this moment of crisis, his mind clear, he sees all that has gone before him and catches a glimpse of eternity – a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is truly like. In his moment of clarity he penetrates the fog of misunderstanding. The outstretched arms of the man between him and his fellow thief are not nailed to the cross in defeat, but rather, are outstretched for the healing of the nations. They are arms that embrace; they are arms that welcome home even the most brutal blackguards and hopeless sinners. He recognizes in the outstretched arms of this man, not defeat, but triumph, not weakness, but power. True power, in compassion, in love, the power of God to heal the world. And as his life drained from him, his wasted, bloodstained life, the good thief turned his head and uttered these simple words, “Jesus, remember me, as you come into your kingdom.” And beyond remembrance, Jesus offers him eternal friendship and companionship: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” In the words of St. Ambrose of Milan: “More abundant is the favour shown than the request that was made.”

In Jesus’ dying moments a criminal receives a share of the Christian destiny in the Kingdom of God. Those who mocked know not what they asked, for indeed a show of great power was made, not in force, but in humility and weakness. For it was not simply one criminal who was received that day, but with outstretched arms, our Lord opened the way for all humanity, broken as we are. The “Good Thief” is good not because he has done anything good, but because he has allowed himself to be known by the one who sought him out from before the foundation of the world. In his own weakness he met the humility of God at the cross and was born to new life in God’s kingdom of reconciliation.

Life is filled with moments in which we find ourselves crucified. In which all power is taken from us. There is a great temptation to grasp at power in order to raise ourselves up from despair. There is a great temptation to trample others in our grasping at that power. There is a great temptation to believe that in one great show of force we can resolve our brokenness. We cannot. We stand crucified with our Lord. And the moment of choice is ever before us: we can choose the lot of the one thief, who taunted and mocked to the very end, believing only in the fallacy of the force of might, or we, with the good thief, can turn to Jesus in our brokenness, in our own crucifixion, and ask him to remember us in his kingdom.

Copyright 2007, by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed either in whole or part, by any means, without the express written permission of the author.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Greater Love hath No Man than This: A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Sermon Preached on Remembrance Sunday, 2007
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 15:12-17

“I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” --John 15:17

What shall we do for love? To what does love drive us? How shall we show our love? Love is commanded by our Lord, and each of us, in our own way seek to live out the call to “love one another, as I have loved you.” Sometimes our different understandings of what it means to love, or what we do for love, or how we show our love, can lead to conflict amongst us. Even more poignantly, it may often lead to conflict within each person’s own heart and conscience. Each year, as we prepare to remember those who have fallen in battle, I find myself deeply conflicted – conflicted by our Lord’s promise to lead us into the way of peace and the continual call we face in our world to take up arms against injustice and tyranny that is contrary to the peace and justice of God. I find myself conflicted because I think that both those who lay down arms and those who take up arms often do so out of a sense of love. Both gestures will surely involve sacrifice and the giving over of self, possibly to the utter loss of self. Both gestures may, indeed, find themselves firmly rooted in this very gospel, “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

A couple of years ago, I was in a parish in which there were three “sons of the parish” fighting in Afghanistan. One was a nurse, another a military police office, and the third a gunner. One was killed. And at the same time that we were praying for them, and all members of our military, we were also praying for James Loney and the other members of the Christian Peacemaker Team who were held hostage in Iraq. One of them was ultimately killed. I recall standing and praying the prayers of the people in which we remembered all of these individuals, each acting out of the same call to love, the same sense that there is no greater love than that one should lay down one’s life for friends. The same love; lived out in very different actions. And would I dare say whose love was greater? I cannot, I dare not.

It would seem to me that each was driven by a call to do the greater good: a call to end injustice in the world; a longing for the end of violence; a passion to work for the perfect day when war shall be no more, when pain and suffering shall be no more, when mourning and crying shall be no more. Who amongst us cannot admire the courage and the sacrifice of any who shall risk their lives, or ultimately, make the supreme sacrifice for the sake of his or her friend?

At the heart of the sacrifice, whether the soldier who offers him or herself in battle, or the peacemaker who stands between blaring rifles, is the shared hope and longing that we may somehow be reconciled with those from whom we are estranged. Each earnestly desires love over hate, and peace over war. The hope and longing of either the soldier or the peacemaker is that in the act of vulnerability and risk, we might find a way through to a better world. That in offering up ourselves, others might live.

In our Lord, we find the pattern of this desire, and ultimately its fulfillment. Our Lord came to unite the estranged in brotherhood, in sisterhood, in friendship. In him we learn not only the example to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, but also the example to pray for those who hate us. As he gave up his life as a ransom for many, he expected “the many” to be, not only his friends, those who followed him, fickle as they were, but those who despised him, those who crucified him: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” In Christ, we meet the supreme reconciler, the one who reconciles all things to each other, to himself, and to his Father in heaven. Each of us, in Christ, shares in this ministry of reconciliation.

The soldier and the peacemaker, each offer themselves in risk, in vulnerability – each willing to lay down their lives. But is it the violence of life offered up that brings reconciliation? Is it the death itself that will bring peace? No. It is the love with which a life is offered. It is the love of friend, and indeed enemy in which the life is offered that has the power to transform. It is not the death of Jesus that brings us to new life, but the love of Jesus in his self-offering, even unto death. Our salvation is in the fact that God became human and that in the Incarnation divine love became human love in order that human love might become divine. And in this offering of love, we become friends – friends of God, and friends to each other, those who love us, and those who hate us.

Today, as we remember before God all who offered their lives in the midst of human conflict, we do so not glorifying death but recalling the love with which such sacrifices have been made. And we do so with the hope that all humanity might be reconciled and united in divine friendship, no longer strangers, but brothers and sisters as children of the new creation.

Copyright 2007, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. The sermon may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means without the express written persmission of the author.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Gift of Faith

Sermon for Proper 27, Year C
Sunday, October 7th, 2007
Preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 17:5-10

“Lord, increase our faith.”

A group of disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith. Now this does not sound like an unreasonable request. Who would not want to have more faith rather than less? Indeed, many of us, more frequently than we would care to admit, recognize the sad truth that our faith might be somewhat lacking. We gaze around us and see others who seem to have a greater faith than we have in the midst of the adversities of life. And for those of us who follow our Anglican calendar of saints’ days, we read nearly every day about someone who is commemorated for the strength of their faith. Thus, who can blame those disciples, so much like you and me, for approaching Jesus and asking him, “Lord, increase our faith…” is this not our prayer, as well?

Jesus rebukes them, using a parable about slavery, which might, at first, seem a bit removed from our modern sensibilities. But if I read today’s gospel correctly, I think that beneath the trappings of the parable, we can ascertain a certain truth, and learn two things: First, that faith is not something that needs to increase, per se, but to simply exist; and secondly, that by quantifying faith, we can fall into the trap that we are either better off, or worse off, than other brothers and sisters of faith.

To speak to the first point, Jesus uses the imagery of the mustard seed. Even if your faith were like this little tiny seed, you are still equipped to do my work – you are still equipped to be my hands and my feet for the bringing about of the Kingdom of God here on earth. Faith is not something that if you have more of it you are a better Christian, or if you have less of it, you are a worse Christian. In the eyes of God, God’s children are all equal, both as objects of love and as ministers of the gospel. A Christian is a Christian is a Christian. There are no favourites, there are no special Christians, there are no inadequate Christians. As the song tells us we are all precious in his sight. So, in this sense, the prayer “Lord, increase our faith,” while well-meaning, is misguided. I wonder if our prayer should be, rather, “Lord, we give thanks to you for the faith you have given us, now help us to live faithfully into our new life in Christ.”

I think many of us are confused about faith. We often act as if it is something that we can achieve if we work hard enough, strive hard enough, pray hard enough, or struggle hard enough – that it is something to be attained through perseverance, and therefore, only granted to the few. But, thanks be to God, faith is not something for which we strive, work or struggle. It is a gift, a gift that comes from God – a gift for all Christians, in our baptism. Under our own power, we have no faith, but through God’s gracious love, we are granted the gift of faith. And thus, even in our darkest, most human moments when we cannot seem to be faithful, especially under our own power, we can take great solace from the fact that faith come not from own wellspring, but from the dayspring from on high.

As to the second point, in using an illustration about not thanking slaves for the work that they are supposed to do, Jesus is cautioning his disciples about thinking too much of themselves and their own powers. There can be no doubt, the choice of slavery as a tool to illustrate this point is surely distasteful to us today. Furthermore, there will be many amongst us, probably in this Church, who have been beaten down in their lives and told the lie that they are worthless and of little value. The point of this parable is not to add to such abuse, but rather disarm potential abusers – particularly those who practice a sort of spiritual abuse, often unknowingly, based on the fact that they believe they have a greater faith than others. I believe that Jesus is trying to tell his disciples that when they ask for an “increase” in faith, they are asking that they might be better than others, who have “little” faith. And certainly the temptation for those who believe their faith is strong, is also, sooner or later, to take credit for this fact themselves. And we all know in our soberest moments, that the faith is not ours but that of the one who faithfully called us, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This parable reminds us that when we think of faith in terms of “quantity” or “quality” we not only take credit for that faith ourselves, but we inadvertently demean the faith of others. And are we not all equally precious in his sight? Is it not His faith, rather than our own?

So again, what is our response to the gift of faith if not “increase it”? Rather, reflecting on this parable, I suggest this: “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices.” Shall our response be “give me more, give me more” or shall it be, “thank you, thank you, Lord, for the greatest gift, the gift of faith." Shall our prayer be one of ingratitude or gratitude? May God give us the grace to thank Him for the wondrous things He hath done, and the gift of discernment to faithfully take up the call to share this Good News with others.

Copyright 2007 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, without the express written permission of the author.

An Existentialist Christian Reflection on Thanksgiving

Sermon for Harvest Thanksgiving
Sunday, Sept 30th, 2007 (8 a.m.)
Preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matt. 6:25-33

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
– Matt. 6:28-29

To what degree are we ruled by our anxiety? To what degree do our fears overwhelm us and inhibit us from functioning? To what degree are our decisions informed not by what we hope will happen, but by what we hope will not happen? And even more tragically, to what degree are we resigned to allow this anxiety to turn to pessimism and the abandonment of all hope? My wife and I were reflecting recently, as members of the Gen X generation, as children of the 70’s and teens of the 80’s as to how anxiety and pessimism governed our formative years. We came of age in an era in which it was assumed that at any moment the proverbial finger would press the button and a nuclear holocaust would be unleashed. And it was not simply a matter of if it would happen, but rather of when it would happen. I think most of us thought, and assumed, that we would not make it to adulthood, and that when one tallied the number of nuclear warheads it took to wipe humanity off the face of the earth, and compared it with the exponentially higher number of warheads actually in existence, we assumed that we really did not have much power to change the world.

As I recall, it was difficult for us to be thankful for much, given the psychological mindset in which our generation functioned. As a young person, I often heard it said, that we as young people didn’t show much gratitude for the what we had … and most of my friends had no concept of the hardships that our depression-era grandparents had known, and yet the question remained, amidst all we had, why should we give thanks if we were living on the edge of the apocalypse?

When the disciples separated themselves from family and friends. When they gave up their professions, gave up their property, gave up their futures, to follow this Jesus, they must have experienced a deep anxiety. And later, after our Lord had left them and in the early days of the Church when members of the Church known to St. Matthew were being cast out of their synagogues, persecuted for continuing to follow the now absent Jesus, they must have known a frightening anxiety. And how would the words of Jesus have sounded to them, either while he was with them, or after he had left them… “Do not worry, consider the birds of the air – they neither sow nor reap; consider the lilies, they neither toil nor spin…” would these words have allayed the anxiety of these early Christians any more than they allayed my anxiety as a young person, or the anxiety any of us feel as we struggle through the trials of life today? Do these words help us when face the reality that a loved one has died and we see them no longer? Do these words help us when we receive a chronic or terminal diagnosis that dashes our hopes and dreams? Do these words help us when we lose a job, a paycheque, the means for supporting our family? It is not only difficult for us not to fear, it is near impossible to even consider the possibility of giving thanks.

And yet, as I cast my mind back to those days when I was a teenager, when we thought that world was coming to an end, I also recall a passionate search for meaning in which many of my peers and I were engaged. Somewhere amidst that fear that today might be the day that it all ends, was the yearning to find meaning in why we were here at all, if it was all about to end. Ultimately, I think many of us discovered the meaning of our helplessness – and it empowered us. And that meaning was found in this: the gift of life – there was a moment when we were not, and there would be a moment, when we would pass from this earth. But in this moment, we live, and in this moment is mystery, and beauty, and grace. Perhaps I had no power to eliminate even one nuclear warhead, and perhaps I had no power to extend my life a single day, but I knew this: I had the power to live this day as a gift, embracing all the good things given to me by God – to write, to draw, to sing, to laugh, to love my family, to be loved by others, to be human, amidst the apparent hopelessness of the age. To be thankful for such things was to live, to truly live, to embrace life, while living in the culture of death.

Ultimately, none of us -- children of the depression, children of the war, children of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, children of any age -- have any claim on tomorrow. And so Jesus says, do not worry about tomorrow. I would hope that none of us would fall into a nihilism that would prevent us from working for a better tomorrow, for I don’t believe this is what Jesus is saying. Rather, I suggest, he is telling us that the moment of decision is always “now.” Each moment of my life, I choose to be Christian, or I choose not to be a Christian. Over and over again, I am confronted with the moment in which I must claim my faith or deny it. Over and over again, I am confronted with my own humanity, in which I choose to embrace the gift of humanity, or to deny it. Over and over again, in each moment the Word is made flesh in our midst, and we can choose to behold its glory or turn from its presence. Over and over again, Christ our Lord is Risen, and we can choose to stand with the risen Christ, in a transformed life, or to fall away and simply disappear as if we had never existed. Ultimately, we are a people of hope because confronted with this choice, we have the opportunity to say “yes,” and “yes,” and once again, “yes.” We are a people of hope because we do not have to wait for tomorrow to find the meaning of life, or to experience the mystery of God. It is upon, again, and again, and in this moment, again. And for this we are a thankful people, and for this reason, we turn again today, and live.

Text copyright 2007, The Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form, in whole or in part, without express written permission of the author.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Keeping the Rumour of God Alive

Sermon for Proper 29, Year C, 2007
Sunday, October 21st, 2007
Preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 18:1-8

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
-- Luke 18:1

This past week, Canon Greg and I were at a clergy conference, and our speaker, Bishop Joe Fricker, talked about one of the important roles of the parish priest, namely to keep the rumour of God alive. To keep the rumour of God alive – in a world that has increasingly turned its back on religious practice and yet seeks and longs for an experience of the divine, it is the role of the parish priest to keep the rumour of God alive. In a world in which we are now experiencing our third generation of people who may be completely un-churched, we are called to continue, to persevere, to labour to keep the rumour of God alive. And as I reflected on this phrase over the past few days, I became convinced while this is certainly something that both priests and deacons are called to do, in fact, it is also the call and ministry of all baptized Christians. Indeed, it is embedded in our baptismal covenant, and persistence is a virtue found in our very Scriptures.

Persist and never lose heart. This is the message of today’s gospel. Never lose heart. Persevere in faith, persevere in prayer, persevere in the Christian way of life. Always remember that God is faithful. Indeed, the example of today’s gospel is that even this marginalized widow, a woman with no power of her own in those ancient days, was granted justice from an unjust judge, a man of great power and influence, simply through her perseverance. The message of the gospel is simply this: if this is what an unjust judge might do, imagine what a loving and just master will do for those who he loves. Herein lies the heart of our call to persist in our faith, to never lose hope, to continue to live it out amidst the slings and arrows of the world, to live into our call, for the one who called us first is always faithful – we are marked as Christ’s own forever, and he will never leave us.

In our baptism we make a covenant with God, a covenant to persevere, to persist, to continue in our Christian life. On page 159 of the Book of Alternative Services we find five promises, each of which begin with the question “will you …” “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching;” “will you persevere in resisting evil,” “ will you proclaim by word and example;” “will you seek and serve Christ in all persons;” and “will you strive for justice and peace.” Essentially, “will you keep the rumour of God alive?” These are heavy responsibilities that we share as Christian people as part of our baptismal covenant.

When I am doing baptismal preparation, one of the ways that I get candidates, sponsors and parents to think about these promises is to change the vows slightly by putting the word, “how” in front of it so that it reads, “how will you…” In this way we begin to think about practical ways in which we might live out our Christian call. What does our baptism look like in practical terms? How is it that we participate as new creations in the new kingdom of peace and love? Of course, we have many answers to these questions, as many answers as there are Christians. Most importantly, though, there is one answer that makes all others possible – and that answer is found in the prayer itself. “How will you …” “I will, with God’s help.” For it is not under our own power that we live out our baptismal call, but under the guidance and care of the Holy Spirit of God that we receive in baptism, who upholds us and supports us in our weakness, encourages us in our successes, and corrects and comforts us in our failures. In our baptism we commit to perseverance and persistence in the faith, and we do so knowing full-well that it is only God’s grace and help that enables us to carry on.

As we take up and live out these promises, we are, in fact, keeping the rumour of God alive. As we continue to come here every week, amidst not so much the sneers as the bewilderment of the world around us, and break bread, continue in fellowship and in the prayers, we keep the rumour of God alive. As we say no to the powers of evil out there in the world, in our institutions, and even in our own sinful urges -- as we confess our faults one to another and to God, in this show of vulnerability in a world which knows only brutal force, we keep the rumour of God alive. As we proclaim in deeds of kindness and words of hope the Good News of God in Christ to those around us who know only brokenness and hurt, we keep the rumour of God alive. As we love not only our neighbours, those who love us, but also those who hate us, and demonstrate a different way to live in this world of litigation and punishment, we keep the rumour of God alive. And finally, as week seek to break the powers of domination not with swords but with ploughshares, not with hate, but with love, not with condemnation, but with dignity and respect, we keep the rumour of God alive. And as we kneel before our Lord and recognize our inability to do any of this under our own power, we keep the rumour of God alive.

Today, as a Church, we are baptizing six new Christians into the body of Christ. Five sets of parents bring their children forward, and also one young man – each of whom are here, because in some way, shape, or form, they have heard a rumour – a rumour that God is not dead, a rumour that love triumphs over hate, that forgiveness triumphs over sin, that life triumphs over death. They have heard a rumour that in Jesus Christ there is a new creation, a new kingdom, and that it is not some far off pipe dream, but a new kingdom breaking forth today, of which we can all be a part. They have heard a rumour and they have come, in faith, to see, and to be a part of it. It is a privilege then for us to journey together, with them and with each other, to keep this rumour of God alive. May God help and sustain them, and each of us in our call, with the gift of perseverance, persistence and hope, never losing heart, to continue to spread the rumour, and that in the fullness of time, through His grace, the whole world may come to reflect his glory.

Text copyright The Rev. Daniel F. Graves, 2007. This post is not to be reproduced or redistributed either in whole or part without express written permssion of the author.