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.