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.