Friday, May 30, 2008

I Am Not Ashamed of the Gospel

Homily for Proper 9, Year A
Sunday, June 1, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 1:16-17

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.
--Romans 1:16

There may be many things about which we are ashamed. One only needs to probe beneath the surface of our lives to realize that there are some things that we have done that we would rather not share with others. There are different levels of shame. For example, it has been a number of years since I allowed my time as the manager of a Dairy Queen store to drop off my resume. While managing a Dairy is nothing to be ashamed of, I’d rather just keep it to myself. Why do I not wish to share this fact with a prospective employer? Of what am I ashamed? On a somewhat deeper level, I rarely tell people that I dropped out of Art College at age nineteen because I simply wasn’t good enough and didn’t have the personal discipline to cut it as a professional artist. I suppose that nearly twenty years later I still carry some shame and embarrassment about this failure. And I certainly know that there were times when I worked in a management position at the Anglican Book Centre that I made and was involved in decisions that I would certainly not make again. Of these I can say that I carry regret and yes, some shame.

Each of us will harbour feelings of guilt and shame over things done and left undone, over associations with people we have known, groups with which we have been affiliated, places we have worked. Yes, there will be mistakes in our lives about which we are ashamed, regretful and sorry. To make mistakes is part of being human. Similarly, to grow beyond childish things is also very human. We remain, though, the sum of our parts, and to some extent the shames and regrets of our past always remain a glimpse away in the rear-view mirrors of our lives.

But there is something about which I am not ashamed, and there is something about which none of us should be ashamed, and that is the Gospel of Christ. As Christian people we stand alongside St. Paul in this confession of faith. And might I say it is one of the earliest Christian proclamations of faith. I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith. I am not ashamed because when I look back on the things in my own life that I would rather keep to myself I know and understand that under my own power it is so easy to take a wrong turn, make a bad choice. I understand that under my own power I really have no ability make the right choices for my life. I understand that when I have thought thus, my choices have been less than exemplary and that when pressed to share them with others, I would rather keep them to myself.

Next week Canon Greg and I will be away on a clergy conference. The topic is Passionate Spirituality: From Beleaguered to Beloved. One of the activities in which we will be participating will be a small group time in which we are supposed to share with other clergy a moment in which we have felt beleaguered in ministry. I can tell you that there are many of us who feel a great reluctance to participate in this kind of sharing. I know that I will be careful about what I want to share. And I must ask myself why. In addition to worrying about the judgment of our peers, I think that it is because in our beleaguered moments we believe that we are alone, that we are operating under our own power, and as such when we fail we will necessarily feel that the world has come crashing down and that we are to be deeply ashamed of the darkness in which we find ourselves. But what if we were to believe that even in that loneliest place, to our surprise, that our Lord was with still? What if we were to believe that in our darkest hour, God had not left us but was pressing more deeply and passionately toward us? What if we were to believe that in our deepest angst over our failures and shame that the power of God was most poignant and purposeful in our lives?

I am not ashamed of the Gospel because even in my deepest shame, my deepest regret, in my darkest hour, the power of God is working for my salvation. Even as I grope in the wilderness, the wellspring of life, the dayspring from on high visits me. And I come to realize, perhaps in the moment of crisis, or perhaps through retrospection, that it never was and never can be my power that will bring me to the purpose and fullness my life, but only the power of God in Christ Jesus.

When we turn toward this font and make the promises of baptism we do so acknowledging a help, a help that comes from the Most High: “I will with God’s help.” And we answer these questions, “Will you continue in the Apostles’ teaching; will you seek and serve Christ in all persons; will you repent and return to the Lord, will you strive for justice and peace,” we answer them all with, “I will with God’s help.” But we do not answer in this manner simply as matter of course but as a matter of faith. It is a faith that is rooted both in our experience of God’s help and our own human frailty. It is rooted in our experience of God meeting and calling us first, and also our experience of not quite making it under our own power and our need to call on God in times of trouble. The call is made in crisis and yet God does not come running because he is already present, already helping us, already lifting us on eagles’ wings, already urging us on even before we make the call.

Each person’s story will be different, but this is the common story of our faith of which I am not ashamed: That God loved us, has never left us, and walks with us in Christ Jesus, even though we turn away again and again. God never ceases to care for us. This is our faith, of which I am not ashamed: That God is our helper in every time of trouble in our lives. This is our faith, of which I am not ashamed: That God goes with us, even when we foolishly try to bear the load of our lives under our own strength. This is our faith, of which I am not ashamed: That God goes before us even in the darkest moment, our death, shows it to be the way of everlasting life. This is the faith we share and we are not ashamed. This is the righteousness of God, that remarkable reality that God cares even for you and even for me. This is such an exciting reality that it is something we wish to share with each other – the power of the Gospel, the power of God, in our lives. This is what St. Paul means when he says that it is “revealed through faith for faith.” Simply put, the footprints of God in our individual lives serves for the building up of the faith of the Church as a whole. The faith I learned was a gift from God through my fathers and mothers in the faith, and the faith of these young ones will be a gift for those who follow them in years to come. Our shared faith, of which we are not ashamed, is a shared gift, for the building up of the Church, of the Kingdom and for the Glory of God. What God has done for you means a whole lot for the life of the Church and for the transformation of the world. The old, old story is new again, in the life of every Christian.

Today, two young girls are presented for baptism and several other youngsters gather around this altar to make their First Holy Communion. Each new Christian and each new communicant brings the whole of their lives, their very being before God, all that they have and all that they are, every good gift that God has given them and they offer it up to God to be a gift to this community of believers and a light to a broken and lost world. They bring their faith, unashamed, they bring the power God, unashamed, and they bring Good News, unashamed, to broken and hurting world. And that Good News is this: that in Christ, love conquers fear, and hope conquers shame.

To this end, while each of us will harbour things about which we are ashamed, and moments in our past we would rather forget, the power of God transforms us and moves us forward. Shame will not be our master nor failure our companion. And this I say emphatically to you young people: Claim Christ as your companion and master and make hope and love your way. When we glance back on the wonderful works God has done in our lives, and when we look upon these young people committing their lives to follow the way of Christ, how then can we ever be ashamed of this Gospel and its power? Nay, we shall not be ashamed to renounce all that separates us from God and proclaim with a sure confidence that Christ is our Lord. For we know that even in our most beleaguered moments that we stand with a Lord whose love is stronger even than death.

The homily is c. 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves and may not be reproduced or redistributed, in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

The Mighty One Has Done Great Things

Homily for the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Lay Anointers’ Refresher Workshop
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: the Magnificat

“The mighty one has done great things for me.”
--Luke 1:49

To gather as lay anointers and those who share in Christ’s healing ministry on this Feast of the Visitation is a most appropriate and fortuitous convergence events, for in the words of that ancient hymn, Magnificat, we sing words that speak of the healing power of the Gospel. What can be more central to our understanding of the healing ministry than the proclamation that “the mighty one has done great things for me?” As partners with our Lord in the healing of the nations, we seek mighty works day-by-day. Thus, it would do us well to follow the ageless wisdom of the Church and make this hymn part of our daily pattern of worship and prayer. For if we do, we will hear of a God who not only cares for the lowly, the broken, the hungry, the disposed of the world, but we hear of a God who lifts them up, fills them, offers them good things. And lest we forget, we ourselves are amongst the broken, the lowly, the weak, who are in constant need of God’s loving care.

These words are both words of hope and words of a promise fulfilled. He has looked with favour on his servant, he has lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry. And most importantly, these promises are from generation to generation. These promises endure from age to age and his might works are known from one generation to the next. When we pray these most ancient words, when we sing this most ancient hymn, we extol a God who in Christ Jesus has changed the way we look at our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world. We extol a Lord who is ever present in the midst of brokenness and struggle.

While it will be important for us as caregivers never to minimize the pain, loss, sadness or grief experienced by anyone in need of healing; while it will be important for us to affirm that brokenness and illness are real; while it may be important for us to realize that in some cases the body is going to fail; we must never lose sight of the reality that regardless of our degree of human frailty, God continues to work mighty deeds in the lives of all God’s children. From complete physical cure on the one end of the spectrum to, on the other end, the passing from this life into the next, the Christ whose human body was formed in the womb of Mary journeys with us and lifts towards wholeness. As partners in the healing ministry it is our task to faithfully proclaim this Gospel. For at the end of the day, we are not healers in and of ourselves, we are but messengers, as was Mary, messengers of a gracious God who never leaves or abandons any of his children in times of trouble. In our act of journeying with another in their pain, be we healthcare professionals, psychotherapists, pastoral counselors, lay anointers, lay visitors, or clergy, we proclaim simply by our presence and companionship that no one is ever left alone. As Elizabeth journeyed with Mary in what should have felt like a time of abandonment, we journey together with those who are weakened by the changes and chances of their lives, and there in the midst is the Christ, the one who heals the wounds of our souls and comforts our troubled spirits. If we can simply share in this ministry of presence then indeed God will be glorified and the hungry will receive good things and a mighty work shall have been done.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Why Do You Standing Looking Toward Heaven? A Homily for Ascensiontide

Sermon for Easter 7, Year A
(Sunday in Ascentiontide)
Sunday, May 4th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Acts 1:6-14

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
-Acts 1:11

Sometimes we feel that we have been left alone, abandoned, forgotten. As individuals and as a people we often feel abandoned. The death of a loved one, the moving away of a friend, or perhaps the coming of age of a child – each of these leaves a hole our hearts and perhaps, a deadening of our spirit. During this past month as we remembered the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., forty years ago, we are called to remember all manner of people and societal groups that have been forgotten or abused by the powers that be, and consider what it is like to be part of a people who are forgotten, left alone or abandoned by the powerful classes of the world. And whether it is abandonment as individuals or abandonment as a group of people; whether it is abandonment by those close to us or abandonment by the institutions and systems that are meant to help us, abandonment can leave us feeling stranded, helpless, immobilized. In the powerlessness of abandonment we meet the demons of hopelessness and loneliness. To be left alone without aid or succour is, perhaps, our deepest human fear. There are times in our lives when each of us have felt abandoned, left alone, forgotten and we have a taste of the pain that is felt by so many in this broken world on a daily basis.

On the Mount of Olives, as the Risen Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God to his disciples, he suddenly disappeared. St. Luke tells us that he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. Whatever we might think about the mechanics of the Ascension, whether or not he was taken up into the sky, or simply vanished from their sight, or walked away into the distance, the disciples experienced his departure as a shock. The picture painted by St. Luke is one in which they are staring up into the clouds, looking for one that they could see no longer. In their abandonment they were immobilized, frozen. It was like they could not move.

They had not expected their leader to be taken away again. After all, they had not first expected their king to be crucified, and yet, he was, to their shock and surprise. Yet, their sense of fear and abandonment at his death, their loneliness and despair gave way to rejoicing at his surprising and glorious resurrection. And so they ask the Risen Christ, having witnessed the power of God, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” The disciples had expected a show of power and force from the earthly Jesus during his ministry. They had been disappointed, but surely this resurrected Jesus would topple the powers and oppressors, surely he would lead them triumphantly, surely this was the time appointed for victory. But he answers them with a cryptic response that it is not for them to know the times or seasons set by the Father. He goes on though to tell them that they have a special job to do, as his witnesses, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, suddenly, he is taken from them. Thus, we can imagine their shock. They expected a show of force. Their expectations were thwarted. They expected Jesus to lead. He disappeared. They expected to follow him. He told them that they would lead the way. Would not you or I be shocked and immobilized? For a second time, their expectations were left unmet. For a second time, he had left them.

But had he left them? For suddenly, two angels appear to them offering an explanation. Two messengers who seek to remind the disciples of their call. What they say, in essence, is this: “Why are you looking up to heaven? Why are you still standing around? You have other things to do! You asked about the kingdom … what are you waiting for? Now is the time. Will you waste your time waiting around until Jesus comes back? He will return just as suddenly as he left, and will you lot still be standing around here with your jaws on the floor?” Perhaps at this moment one of them, a certain man named Cleopas might have recalled another moment, perhaps days earlier in which their Lord, at a certain supper at Emmaus, had disappeared; a moment in which Cleopas and his companion realized that Jesus had not really left them but remained with them, in their fellowship, in the community, in the breaking of the bread, even though they saw him no longer. Perhaps, just perhaps, they caught a glimpse of the abiding presence of Jesus and the true meaning of their acclamation that “the Lord is risen, indeed!” At that moment, they realized that they were not left alone, even though he had vanished. At that moment they recalled what he taught them, what he gave them, what he called them to be. They picked up their jaws, they left their sense of abandonment behind, they turned from their places and headed back to town, not dispersed as at the crucifixion, but together as one family. They journeyed together, unemployed fishermen, dishonorable tax collectors, frustrated revolutionaries, folk of all sorts and conditions, and a widowed mother who had lost her son. They journeyed together. And he was with them. In an upper room they met, and prayed, and broke bread, not immobilized by abandonment and loneliness as a people without hope, but as a community and a family with a mission to the world – messengers of hope.

So we and many around us stand in our age, in our moments of loss and abandonment, in our fear and our hopelessness, in our immobility and frozenness, in a daze, gazing into the heavens, waiting for the kingdom of God, waiting for someone to make things right. But as the angels proclaimed to those disciples “people of Galilee, why are you staring into the heavens,” so those same disciples, who are to us angels of the gospel (for what is an angel but simply a messenger) proclaim to us through the pages of Holy Scripture across the ages, “People of your age, why are you gazing into the heavens? Why are you sorrowing as a people without hope? Why are you feeling lost and forsaken? The one who was crucified and was raised from the dead has not left you, but is glorified in your midst! He is with you to the ends of the age to the ends of the earth and is calling you to be his people and his messengers of the gospel!” Hearing these words, shall we forget the story of our faith? Even in our moments of isolation and abandonment, shall we forget the one that has journeyed with us through the crosses we have had to bear and has raised us up in from our moments of sadness and despair? Shall we forget the one who has carried us when we were weak? Shall we forget the one who forgets us not? Shall we forget the one who is with us always? We do not forget, because even in our brokenness we do not approach this story of the ascension as a paralyzed people but as a people who live in the power and light of the Risen Christ. We are a people who live in the power and breath of the Holy Spirit of God. We ourselves have become messengers, witnesses, like the angels and the apostles, who bear a message to a broken and hurting world. We come here like the apostles to discern our call, to wait on the call of the Spirit of God, to meet Christ in the breaking of the bread, and to return to the world proclaiming “He is risen, indeed!” To a world that only knows abandonment we proclaim he will not abandon or forsake the world or a single one of his children. In our experience of being beloved of God, in our knowledge that he will not forsake us, he gives us a mission: He sends us forth as messengers to proclaim to a hurting world that he is with us always, that we are not alone, that the kingdom of God is at hand.

Text copyright 2008, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This homily may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.