Sunday, August 31, 2008

Prayer as Being

Homily for Proper 22, Year A
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 12:9-21

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
-- Romans 12:21

In today’s epistle, the Apostle reiterates some of the most important teachings that we find in the Gospel. He admonishes his audience to be genuine in love, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in honour. Be ardent, zealous, hopeful, patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, and contribute to the needs of the saints. And finally, do not repay evil with evil, but overcome evil with good. Is it not true that many, if not all of these Christian virtues are difficult to observe and maintain? How many of us are truly able to turn the other cheek, or offer hospitality to one who has offended us? Are any of these virtues actually possible? How many of us actually live with the belief that good will indeed overcome evil?

If we have learned anything over the past several weeks of journeying with Paul, I hope that it is this, that these things are not possible without Christ. Indeed, if we seek these virtues under our own power we shall never attain to them. If these virtues are at all possible, it is our Lord and God working through us in Jesus Christ -- not me, but Christ in me. This is why the Apostle commands us to persevere in prayer. Prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. In prayer we bring before God the pains and sorrows of this weary world, and in prayer we lay before God our own brokenness and our sinfulness. What is more, in prayer we receive great peace. In prayer God enfolds us in love. In prayer, when all about us comes crashing down and all seems lost, God enfolds us in his loving arms and keeps us and reminds us that all shall indeed be well. In prayer, God reminds us not to be overcome by the world but to meet the world in its suffering.

Indeed, it was in suffering world to which our Lord Jesus Christ stretched out his hands on the cross, and it was this same suffering world that he redeemed in his Resurrection. Even on the road to the cross, even in Gethsemane, even on Golgotha – Jesus Christ was not overcome by evil, but overcame evil with good, for on the third day, as we all know, he rose from the dead, reconciling all things to God.

Yes, it is difficult for us to live with Christian virtue, to live in love and charity with our neighbour, and to love those who persecute us. But look to our Lord on the Cross and remember this, it is not me but Christ in me. It is not you, but Christ in you. Friends, if we rely on our own power to overcome evil with good, it shall never be done. But if we rely on Christ, who transforms us and transforms the world, all things are possible. It is not simply a matter of “what would Jesus do?” but “what has Jesus done.” He has trampled down the power of sin and death. He has overcome evil with what is good. And in him we have died to our old selves in order that we might be alive to God.

This is the truth to which Paul has spoken throughout the letter to the Romans, and this is the truth into which we are called to live. If we live into this truth we shall indeed be transformed and those Christian virtues that seem so difficult for each of us will become a way of life.

A man came to Jesus and asked him to heal his child who was severely afflicted. “Just believe,” Jesus told him. What was the man’s response? Was it not the response that might come from the lips of any of us – words of hope and yet words of doubt? “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” This is where most of us stand, is it not, with a desire to believe, a desire to live the Christian life, but with a fear that it is all an illusion? Yet, in Jesus’ presence, the man was encouraged and his prayer was granted.

Persevere in prayer. This is perhaps the most important encouragement in today’s passage from Romans. It is, of course, a vow that each of us have made in our baptisms: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” And what is our answer? “I will with God’s help.” Paul knows that we cannot do it on our own and thus in our Baptism we make our promise, which is actually a plea for help.

Persevere in prayer. How shall we do this? And is persevering in prayer a “work” toward our salvation, the kind of thing that Paul cautions against? I do not think so. For prayer, although often described as a work (and to be sure, prayer does take effort and discipline), is actually a way of being. It is a relationship rather than a task. Relationships take time and effort, but they are primarily about simply being together. So it is with prayer. Thus, if we believe that prayer is not so much a task but a relationship, then we believe that prayer is simply about being with God.

Now, how do we set about being with God, which is, I believe the primary task of prayer? First, I think that we must set aside a regular time to be with God, everyday. A relationship that does not have intention and commitment is really not a relationship at all. Set aside some time, even just a little bit. Think of how much joy it brings to you and a spouse, a friend or child, to have a regular bit of time together, even if it is just for a short while. Take the time.

Next, be intentional about how you spend the time. Any relationship is built upon shared experience and mutual conversation. What might time with God look like and what shape will our conversation take? Traditionally, our shared experience as a Christian people is the Holy Scripture. The Bible is our story. Our conversation is our reflection on this story, our grappling with it, our questioning of it, our praying it. There are many ways of prayer, but as Anglicans we have a particular gift, the gift of the Daily Office. The Daily Office is a daily cycle of daily prayer and reading in which we hear and pray the word of God day-by-day as a way of being with God and talking with God. If we hope to become a people with a passionate spirituality, then we must listen to God in our Holy Scripture and converse with God in prayer. There can be no substitute. We hear people say that the Bible does not have meaning for them, but have they chosen to take the time to read it faithfully in the context of prayer?

To this end, I issue you a challenge. I am calling this challenge “The Gospel of Mark Challenge.” I am encouraging, even challenging you, to take fifteen minutes every day to pray the Daily Office and read a little bit of Mark’s Gospel from beginning to end. The Gospel of St. Mark has sixteen chapters. This means that by reading half a chapter a day, you can read it through in about a month. But read it through as part of a little service that you do at a set time of the day, a time of your choosing. Many of you will own a Book of Alternative Services or Book of Common Prayer. Morning and Evening Prayer can be found in both these books. You can do a fuller or abbreviated service, depending on how you feel. You can do Morning or Evening Prayer; it is your choice. Each service makes provision for readings from Scripture. You don’t have to read a lot, just half a chapter of Mark (that’s a couple of paragraphs). Make the space in your life for a relationship with God, and be intentional about how you will use the time.

Finally, I offer two other thoughts. These thoughts are intended to help you keep at it. First, if you miss a day, that’s okay. No need to double-up on your reading or prayers. Just pick up where you left off. There is no pressure to meet any deadline. The only imperative is that we start today, not tomorrow. Tomorrow never comes. Secondly, let’s read together shall we? I’ll make the commitment to read along beside you in my daily prayer. Furthermore, I’m making the commitment to be available to you to help you in your reading: Drop me an email, leave me a voicemail message. I will be reflecting regularly on my website about interesting and challenging bits of the text, and attempting to reflect on questions that emerge. I invite you to journey with me.

As I said earlier, prayer is not so much about doing. It is about being – being with God and being together as a Christian people. If we persevere in prayer we shall find God waiting patiently for us. And we shall find a God who helps us in our weakness and comforts us in our sorrow. We shall find a God who will be virtuous when we cannot be virtuous, who forgives when we cannot forgive, who does all those things that Paul commands even when we cannot. Yet, we shall also find that his virtues will become our virtues and yes, come to discover that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

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

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Becoming Who I Am

Homily for Proper 21, Year A
Sunday, August 24th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 12:1-8

“So that you may discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
-- Romans 12:2

Who am I? What is my place in the world, in the Church, and in the kingdom of God? These are questions that cut to the core of our being and essential for each of us to address if we are to live out our lives with purpose and according to God’s will. These are also questions to which St. Paul turns in the twelfth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Having spent the previous eleven chapters probing very deeply the theological essence and understanding of new life in Christ, Paul turns from an exposition of the content of faith to offering ethical instruction on how we are to live as Christian people. He begins by addressing the very question that cuts to the core of each of us, the existential question: Who am I and what is my reason for being?

Thus, I suggest that in these few chapters Paul is addressing the question of our authenticity as Christian people. If we are born anew in Christ, if indeed we have died with him in the waters of baptism, who have we become as we are raised to new life and live in him? His answer, I believe, is threefold. If we are indeed alive to God in Christ, he calls us first to uncover who we are in our relationship with the living God. Secondly, he asks us to consider who we are with respect to the world in which we live. And finally, he exhorts us to consider our relationship with each other in our participation in the body of Christ, that is, the Church.

Consider for a moment the first point. Who are we, who have we become, or better yet, who are we becoming in our relationship with the living God. Paul exhorts us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is our spiritual worship. These words would have certainly evoked within the original hearers several admonishments from the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, Hosea 6:6, “For I desires steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”, and of course, Psalm 50:14, “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the most High.” Thus, Paul was surely evoking both within the narrative thought world of his first century Jewish listeners and the cultural world of his gentile audience a traditional image of sacrifice turned on its head – the offering of self, rather than ritual, cultic sacrifice.

Some months ago, I spoke about a similar passage found in the First Letter of Peter, and I drew the obvious connection to our post-communion prayer from the BCP: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.” I do not wish to traverse extensively over ground upon which I have so recently trod, but I do wish to point out that where the New Revised Standard Version of our Bible reads “spiritual worship” in Romans 12:1, the term might be better translated, “reasonable worship.” The BCP prayer certainly picks up this variant meaning. Furthermore, in ancient parlance, to say that we present “our bodies,” is to be understood as connoting “our whole selves.” Thus, in St. Paul’s understanding, what God asks of us is the offering of our whole selves, not just our minds or our hearts, but also our bodies, to God. We offer to God all that we are and all that we have. Again, this evokes a well-known saying of Jesus (which he actually cribbed from the Hebrew Scriptures), “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”

Now, at the outset this might seem to sound like a tall order, but I suggest that it instead rather simple, and indeed, quite liberating. Consider this: God does not ask us to offer what we have not or who we are not, but to offer what we have and who we are. This is what is reasonable and holy in the sight of God. It involves no striving, nor perfection. We are who we are, good or bad, and all the complexity in-between; wherever we are, who ever we are, whenever we are – God asks us to come to him, as the old hymn says, “Just as I am.” It is the entirety of our being that God seeks. Not just our spirits, souls, or minds, but also our bodies, all that has been created in his image, all that he deemed good in our creation, and yes, also every thing and every way in which we have failed to conform to that image. Just as I am.

This inevitably leads to the second point, found in verse two, in which Paul exhorts us not to be conformed to the world (or more literally, to the present age), but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that we may discern the will of God. Thus the question becomes, “Who am I in this present age; in this beautiful, wonderful, but confusing, complicated, and oft-disappointing world?” Well, if we have come to understand that we are God’s and that in Christ we offer ourselves back to him, then we cannot belong to another. The present age cannot be our master. Who then, are we to be with respect to the world? About one thing, we must be perfectly clear, and I believe Paul is clear on this point because he would not have offered extensive moral exhortation about how to live in the world if he did not believe it, namely, that the Christian life is not about escapism. Just as it is not about escaping our bodies, as the Gnostics and their modern heirs would have, neither is it about escaping this present world. The world is God’s creation. All creation belongs to God. All time is His. Yet, there are forces and powers in this age that rebel against God and his good creation. Indeed, within us we sense sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. Lest we think that these are all external forces, let us remember that each of us has within us the capacity to do great harm to our fellow human beings. Thus, let us not be conformed to what draws us from God, but be transformed. What can this mean, though, to be transformed. I suggest that it means nothing less than learning to see with the eyes of God – to see the world as God sees it, with love, hope, compassion and delight. What is more, it means that we must begin to see ourselves as God sees us, with love, hope, compassion and delight. A recurring theme in the letters of Paul, found especially in Philippians chapter 2, is the exhortation that we might have the mind of Christ. That is, to see as God sees, to act as God acts, to relate to each other and the world as God would relate to us.

We are fond of saying that we were created in image and likeness of God, but Eastern Orthodox theology makes a certain distinction: We were created in the image of God and while that image may be become tarnished it is never completed obscured. God, thus, became man that we might be transformed into his likeness. To be transformed in Christ is to find our truest self, which is both the image and likeness of God. Therefore, in the words of a prominent theologian H.A. Williams, the Christian life is the process of “becoming who I am.” Or to think of it another way, the Christian life is about learning to see myself as God sees me, not through my own eyes but through the eyes of Christ. When we can do this, then we shall the world as God sees it and understand more clearly our place in it.

Finally, we come to ask the question, who am I in the Kingdom of God? As Paul does, elsewhere, he invokes the image of a body, not just any body, but the body of Christ. And as Paul made clear to the Corinthians, so too he explains to the Romans, a body has many parts, and all the parts are necessary to the ordered working of the whole. Whereas the problem in Corinth was that one wanted to be hand when they were a foot, and another wanted to be an eye when they were an ear, in Romans Paul is simply offering the metaphor as a way of understanding that our callings and vocations are gifts from God. Each of us are given talents and skills which we are to offer for the building of the kingdom. Consider again the prayer, we offer “our selves, our souls and bodies,” which is our reasonable worship. Thus, to take up our gifts, to live into them, to live them out is also an act of worship. Paul identifies seven gifts because in the ancient world seven was the number of perfection. The number is purely symbolic; there are as many gifts as there are people. Thus, it is my duty to ask you to consider, explore, and discern your gifts. What is the special talent God has given you? Have your nurtured that gift? Have you honoured that gift? Have you used it for the building up of God’s kingdom? St. Paul also tells us that God gives us a measure of faith with our gifts that enables us to activate them, engage them, to live into them that we might faithfully fulfill the work to which we are called, not only as individuals but as a holy people, God’s Holy Church. When each of us faithfully engages our gifts, then together, as the body of Christ, we can be so much more than simply the sum of our parts, we can bring Christ’s body to the world – A body that has the power to heal a broken humanity and a broken world.

Who am I? What is my place in the world? Who is God calling me to be in his kingdom? The answer of course is simple: God is calling me to be me. Not as I see myself, but as God sees me. God is calling each of us, in our brokenness, and yes, even our sinfulness to become who we are. God is calling us, in the midst of an age that seeks but refuses to see, to see ourselves as he sees us. God is calling us to look within ourselves and claim our talents and skills. God is calling us to look at ourselves and the world through the his eyes, to have the mind of Christ in all things, and most of all, to become who we are, a holy people created in the image of God and growing day by day into his likeness.

Text copyright 2008 by 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.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Shall We Mistake the Branch for the Root?

Homily for Proper 20, Year A
Sunday, August 17th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
-- Romans 11:29

The Revised Common Lectionary, the ecumenical table of readings from Scripture that we follow week by week has been a blessing to the Church. In adopting this lectionary, mainstream Christian denominations, such as Anglicans, Roman Catholics, The United Church, Presbyterians, and Lutherans (amongst others) are committed to a shared journey through the same weekly lessons from Scripture over a three-year cycle. Much more of the Bible is read than many of us ever covered before in our respective denominational lectionaries; and yet, there are still portions that are left unread. Such is the case with today’s reading from Romans in which we read the first verse-and-a-half of Romans chapter eleven and then skip ahead to verses twenty-nine through thirty-two. As a result the intervening verses are never read during the regular Sunday worship in churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary.

Why did the framers of the lectionary leave out certain portions of Scripture? While I rejoice in the fact that we have a shared ecumenical lectionary and I encourage its use, the omission of certain portions of Scripture has continued to bother me throughout the years. I first recognized this tendency in the lectionary some years ago when I was preaching on the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Revelation, which contains a series of “blessings and woes.” The lectionary only included every other verse, the ones with the blessings, while the woes were omitted. Indeed, when one canvasses which passages from Revelation actually make the cut it becomes clear that most difficult passages have been removed and the ones that remain are the hymnic passages in which hosts gather round the throne and praise God. Several other examples could be cited.

At the time that I first encountered this editorial policy, I had the good fortune to be a staff member of the National Office of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. One of my fellow staff members had been a member of the editorial committee of the Revised Common Lectionary. I asked this person why these decisions were made and was told that some of the more difficult passages were removed because the preacher would have to spend a lot of time explaining the difficult parts of the text before they could ever get to preaching the Good News.

Well, that answer never really satisfied me. First of all, I believe that the difficult passages of Scripture are to be confronted and grappled with. Secondly, it places a low estimation on the preachers of the Church and their ability to deal with difficult passages of Scripture (You, the faithful people of the Church will, of course, be the ones ultimately to decide if this assumption is justified). And finally, given that today is one of those cases in which a significant chunk of Scripture has been edited out, I have had to spend the first third of my sermon explaining why it has been excised. Perhaps the time would have been better-spent exegeting the text rather than exegeting the rationale of the lectionary editors. To this end, I turn to today’s text from Romans, what is there and what is not.

In the eleventh chapter of Romans, Paul is wrestling with the fate of Israel, given the dawning of a new age in the Christ event. As Paul has been arguing throughout the letter, we are saved not by works of the Law but rather through God’s grace and are made righteous by faith. Now, if this is indeed the case, what is to become of those with whom the first covenant was made, namely historic Israel? Lest we think this to be either an academic or merely historical question, let us consider for an instant that this question might be very germane in this very community of Thornhill in which we live, a community in which Christian and Jew live side-by-side.

In the missing chapters Paul seeks to explain the fate of Israel. The heart of his argument is this: that because Israel rejected the Jesus as Messiah, this created an opportunity for the gentiles to receive Christ, and thus be grafted onto the tree of Israel. In Paul’s reasoning God used the tragedy of Israel’s disobedience to bring about his purpose of including all of humanity in the family of God, and not simply one nation, alone. We should also note that Paul did not create this theology ex nihilo. Rather, we know from the prophets that Israel expected the incorporation of the gentiles into their nation. Indeed, consider texts such as Isaiah 60, “The gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” Thus, Paul stands within a tradition of Jewish theologizing about the incorporation of the gentiles. Furthermore, he states that God has allowed a remnant to remain faithful, presumably those who chose to follow the Christ. Indeed Paul writes to a mixed Jewish/Gentile Christian community in Rome. Now, to our modern sensibilities this may seem a distasteful notion, that only Jews who became Christians would be considered part of the true Israel, but again, Paul is consistent with his biblical tradition in which again and again, the people of Israel refuse to follow God while a remnant remains to faithfully lead the way forward to a renewed covenant relationship with God. Paul is a thoroughly Jewish theologian in this respect.

The problem to be faced in this passage by modern interpreters – the problem the framers of the lectionary wish to protect us from considering – is what is called, in technical terms, supersessionism. Supersessionism is the belief that Christianity has superceded and indeed replaced Judaism. It is a belief that Judaism is no longer a viable religion, nor an authentic way to God. It asserts that in rejecting the Jesus as the Christ, Jews have not only abandoned any hope of salvation but that God has indeed revoked his covenant with them. Is this what St. Paul is actually saying?

On one level it would appear so. In fact, he asserts that the incorporation of gentiles into Israel and the example of their faith will be the cause for those Jews not among the remnant to once again be reincorporated. Yet, this is not the end purpose of Paul’s discussion -- he is not satisfied either to pass judgment on those members of Israel who have not turned to Christ, nor is he satisfied to assert that they are cut off from God. As the lectionary editors have left out the problematic text, they have also left out a text in which Paul grapples with the very problem he presents. In response to this problem, Paul offers the image of an olive tree. Certain branches (i.e., disobedient members of Israel) have been broken off and trimmed, while the gentiles (i.e., us), a wild olive shoot, have been grafted into their place to “share in the rich root of the olive tree.” Yet he adds that while it was true that some were broken off through unbelief, we only remain through faith. We must never forget that we, too, are but branches and that we, too, may be trimmed should we mistake ourselves for a root or trunk, rather than a branch. As James Dunn, a prominent Anglican scholar of St. Paul remarks, (Dunn: Theology of St. Paul, 526) “there is no room for pride, which is the antithesis of faith, only godly fear.” Dunn goes on to point out that Paul’s metaphor is that of a single tree, not one that is cut down and replaced by another. Thus, we are grafted onto the tree of Israel and the roots are the patriarchs & prophets. This, of course, is why we do not abandon the Hebrew Scriptures but choose to read them as part of our Christian Canon of Scripture. And what is more, the Hebrew Bible continues to maintain its revelatory power as sacred Scripture for Jews of any age, and yet as Christians, reading it in the context of the Incarnation & Resurrection, Hebrew Scriptures are also Christian Scriptures that point to, and reveal the Christ.

The whole point of Paul’s metaphor of the tree is simple: Having been grafted on to the tree – shall we lord it over others? The branch does not support the tree, the root does. To this end we share in a journey with our Jewish brothers and sisters who draw life from the same root and occupy the same tree. All of us are living “between the times,” we are caught between present and future fulfillment. As Christians, we have had died and are risen with Christ and yet we wait to taste that bodily resurrection from the dead. Similarly, our Jewish brothers and sisters who have received the Law devoutly follow it, and yet also await its consummation.

As I noted earlier, the concept of the gentiles becoming incorporated into Israel was an important theme of the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. But what we learn from this chapter of Romans is that the concept of Israel is more expansive than the Jews expected – the gentiles did come understand the God of Israel as their creator and Saviour – but not through the law but rather through the grace of God in Christ. The challenge is for us both to see each other as members of God’s family and as members of the house of Israel. This is a difficult task given our competing claims of exclusivity. It is difficult for both for Jews and for Christians. On the one hand, for Jews the requirement to uphold the law would seem to exclude Christians who reject the works of the Law. On the other hand, Christian claims of the exclusivity of Christ, especially given our appeal to texts such as John 14:6 (No one comes to the Father except through me), exclude those who do not come to God through the second person of the Trinity. What makes this all the more problematic is the fact that Christians and Jews have fought, slandered and abused each other (and there is blame on both sides, here), rather than seeing ourselves as children of the same God and branches on the same tree.

The challenge for us as Christians is not only to consider a broader understanding of Israel than we had previously thought (and this remains a challenge as well for our Jewish siblings), but also to remain open to the reality that perhaps there are other branches on the tree as well. Shall we be swift to condemn and mistake ourselves for a root when we are but a branch? In this metaphor of the olive tree Paul cautions us against believing that we hold a place of privilege above others in the eyes of God.

I recognize, though that this conclusion does not answer every question or hold up against every proof-text which claims either Jewish or Christian exclusivity. To this end I offer my own humble experience: As a Christian person, I have an experience of the living God in Christ. I know Christ to be my saviour and through our Scriptures, the lives of the saints, the lives of faithful Christians known to me, I know him to be the Saviour and redeemer of Christian People everywhere, and yes, even Saviour of the World. This is the point from which I must invariably begin. But I cannot speak for others or from the perspective of others, who claim as well to have an experience and relationship with the living God. Yet, shall my certainty of God’s offering in Christ prevent me from sitting down with another and seeking to understand them? And worse, shall my certainty lead me to condemn them. God forbid it, for we are all God’s children.

There is a sobering thing about what Paul is saying. He suggests that the stumbling of one branch of Israel is what brought us (the gentiles) into Israel. Shall my stumbling and lack of understanding be the thing makes room for another? I must face the reality that it may not be my faithful preaching, my zealous belief, my longing for God that allows another branch to be grafted on, but my stumbling, my mistakes, and my brokenness. The fearsome reality of God is that God can make use of my brokenness, disobedience and imperfection to bring about the fullness of his will just as easily as he can make use of my obedience and zeal, for as St. Paul says in Romans 11:32, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience that he may be merciful to all.” We are all sinners: Christians, Jews, and Muslims, what have you. If we are human then we sin. If we are human we are prone to arrogance. If we are human, we are imperfect. God alone is sovereign and perfect. But we must always remember, if we are human, God’s mercy is open to us all.

In the end, and this is indeed the part of the passage included by the editors of the lectionary, Paul opts to believe in the expansive graciousness of God. He states emphatically about God’s covenant with historic Israel, “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Therefore, let us meet each other in a spirit of humility, bringing not only the fullness of our convictions and beliefs, but also a recognition of the sovereignty of God and a healthy sense of our own limitations. Let us sit together, in silence if necessary, but at least together, that God may bring about the work of reconciliation, and that the tree of Israel, which is the whole human family, may grow into fullness and beauty in the sight of God.

“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways!”

Copyright 2008 by 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.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Word is Near You

Homily for Proper 19 Year A
Sunday, August 10th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 10:5-15

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”
--Romans 10:8

Perhaps, at our best, human beings are seekers. We are always seeking after what we do not know or do not have. And seeking, at its best, is a noble endeavour. Indeed, in philosophy, the goal of human existence was to seek out the “good life.” The good life was not, of course, something that was good only for me, but good for the whole community and ultimately, for the whole human family. To seek after the good life was to seek after truth, beauty, justice, and wholeness. To place this philosophy firmly in a Christian context, seeking after such things is to seek God, for in God we find truth, beauty, justice, and wholeness. To this end, Jesus implores us to seek: “Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Most importantly, he reminds us, “seek first the kingdom of God.” To seek is a godly thing and a Christian virtue.

Seeking can, of course, have its dark side. When the goal of our seeking is not the philosophical good life, when it is not the seeking after of the truth, beauty, justice and wholeness of God, our seeking can take a disastrous turn. When we become obsessed with seeking after our own glorification, or less maliciously, even our own betterment in a naïve disregard for the rest of our community and family, we run the risk of following the path that leads to a life that that while it may appear to be good in fleeting glances, is ultimately empty and without meaning or hope. St. Paul would surely add that seeking under our own power is likewise an exercise in futility and a path that leads not to a deepening of our relationship with God but to our estrangement from our Father and Creator.

It is to this end that St. Paul writes passionately in Romans chapter ten about a Christ who seeks us out and finds us that we might find him! Continuing his unwrapping of the concept of justification by faith he remarks that this justification (or righteousness) reminds us that we do not have to travel great lengths in our searching for Christ. He states, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down) or, ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is to bring Christ up from the dead).” We do not need to go searching for Christ who has traversed both the heavens and the depths of hell; instead, we shall find him very near to us. For indeed, the whole point that Christ descended from the highest heights to the lowest depths and again ascended on high is that he might gather to himself the whole of creation; that he might draw each one of us to him and make us his own; that he might seek us out as we seek after the true purpose of our existence, the proverbial “good life” of God in Christ. Shall we then grope about high and low for him? Shall we assume that he is somewhere else and inaccessible to us? Shall we believe that it is only through another that we can find him?

By no means! For Paul goes on to say “The word is near you!” Quoting the author of Deuteronomy he states, “It is on your lips and in you heart!” And thus turns what was spoken about the Law into a truism about the Gospel. The word of life need not be sought out in far and distant places but as close as home, in my own very core and on my lips, if I have indeed believed in the one who has risen from the dead.

To Paul’s audience, “the word” certainly referred to the preaching of the gospel, that is the good news that God raised Jesus from the dead -- a marvelous act in which he has offered new life and salvation to all those who believe in him. And yet, as Christians with the benefit of having read the Gospel of John, as Christians with the benefit of the wisdom of the early Church Fathers, and with the benefit of the knowledge of the theological debates that led to the formulation of the Nicene Creed, we understand the meaning of “the word,” on a deeper level, namely that Christ is The Word of God, himself. He is The Word through which all was created and through which the whole cosmos is redeemed and reconciled to God. And so to say that the word is near you, on your lips and in your hearts is to say that, for Christian people, Jesus Christ is with us always, or in the words of St. Matthew, he is Emmanuel – God with us. Indeed, he is with us even unto the end of the age. That is why if we but seek, we shall indeed find, not by searching high and low, in the heavens or in the depths, but in the faith of our hearts.

In the ancient world, to refer to the heart meant so much more than the emotional seat of our being. While it includes this connotation, it also includes our thoughts, our hopes, our purpose and indeed the whole of our interior life. Our heart is the seat of our faith. Seek the Lord where he may be found.

This is only half the story, though! He is in our hearts but also on our lips. Thus, the experience of God is not only internal, but external. It is at once personal and at the same time relational, for what is the purpose to speak but to share and to communicate. Then, there is the power of naming. What is in our hearts may seem ephemeral and unreal, but when we name our emotions, our thoughts, our fears, we can confront the fact that they are indeed real, and in naming them we can relate to the “thoughts of the hearts” of others around us, and journey together through out valleys and mountain peaks. While it is true that we must have our moments alone with God (and as I said last week, the moment of deciding to follow Christ in the moment of crisis is certainly one of those moments), our spirituality is never simply a private affair. Faith engages the whole person and faith engages the community as a body. We are called to name our faith and utter it aloud, and in doing so we claim its reality in our lives.

This leads us to a final assertion offered by Paul, namely, that our experience of God is to be shared with the world. What we have known and believed in our hearts is to be proclaimed on our lips. For as Paul says, “How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?” And this returns us to the point at which we began. Each of us seeks the proverbial “good life,” but so many people do not even know what they are looking for. They search high and low but they do not know the object of their search. They fill themselves with things that will only lead to their destruction. And ultimately, can they be condemned because they have never heard or understood or believed? Shall we hoard the “good news” of the “good life” selfishly in our hearts while others grope about in earnest but misguided hope? What if they were to learn that what they seek is indeed very near? What if they were to learn that the object was, in fact the subject? What if they were to learn that they are being sought be a loving God, whom to know is eternal life and to serve is perfect freedom? And what if we were to share this Good News?

We have tasted the Good Life in the Good News, because we have not had to traverse the heights or descend into the abyss to find him because he has found us in our heights and in our depths. Christ has traveled high and low for us that we might know him. Let us proclaim with our lips what we believe in our hearts that Christ has sought us out and found us so that the Good Life might be shared by one and all. How beautiful are the feet of are those who bring Good News!”

Text copyright 2008 by 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.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Moment of Decision

Homily for Proper 18
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 9:1-5

As Christian people, we speak frequently about the importance of community. In community we first learn the faith of our mothers and fathers; in community we are nurtured and grow to maturity in the faith; and in community we are upheld and supported through the various stages of our lives – times of joy and times of trouble. In community we share a common meal around a common table and celebrate our common life as we partake of the bread of life. So much of our life is lived in community.

But there is one area of our lives when the idea of community cascades out of sight, if only for a moment, and that moment is the moment of decision. We may make a decision with input from those around us, with advice from experts, or with the concern of loved ones in mind, but ultimately, we own our decision and make them fully on our own. To make a decision may be commonplace or it may be profound, but any decision is always fraught with unknown implications. Any decision involves risk, be it large or small. Thus, it is up to each one of us to make the decisions of our lives and claim the consequences of our decisions. Having made a decision we may then return to the life and fellowship of the community and seek its support and nurture, but the moment of decision remains a solitary moment in which all around us disappear momentarily from view and we stand alone with our consciences and with the risk of losing ourselves.

As Christian people, though, we are never really alone, for as we step apart from those around us to face our moment of truth, the silence of that eternal moment is penetrated by the presence of the eternal one made flesh in our midst. There is another who stands with us in that otherwise lonely moment, the invisible God, made visible in Jesus Christ.

There is much talk these days, not only in our own parish Church, but around this diocese in general, that Anglicans do not feel that they possess a “passionate spirituality.” The research tells us that Anglicans in this diocese, at least, do not feel the presence of God in their lives. There are any number of correctives suggested, from bible studies, to prayer groups, to focus groups, to spiritual direction and counseling, but I believe one thing if I believe anything, that while each of these are valuable tools, they count for nothing if, in the moments of decision, we fail to come face to face with our deepest fears, take the risk that we are going to lose ourselves, and plunge headlong into God’s loving care in Christ. Will our spiritual life grow and develop if we keep insisting that passionate spirituality is something that we can conjure up ourselves with hard work and persistent effort? I think not.

Ultimately faith is about one thing – confronting our human frailty, our human fallibility, and yes, our mortality and to realize that we are frail, fallible and mortal, and that God alone is strong, infallible and immortal. “Frail as summer’s flower we flourish blows the wind and it is gone, but while mortals rise and perish, God endures, unchanging on.” When we finally reach that moment when we confront our frailty and mortality it is a moment of crisis, because it means giving up believing in our own power to solve every problem and bind every wound of our lives. It means giving up believing that we shall live forever. It means taking a risk with the gift we are given, not selfishly clinging to this life but letting it go and offering it back up to God. And in that moment of crisis, to stand face to face with Christ our Lord and say all that I am and all that I have are yours O Lord, “All things come of thee, and of thine own have I given thee.”

This moment may indeed be the moment of our Christian conversion, but is certainly not limited to it. Any moment of crisis in our lives is the moment in which we are faced with a question and a decision: “Will I try to save myself from this moment or shall I plunge into the depths of Christ and allow Christ to be my life, my all?” My friends, if this, in each moment of challenge, each moment of trial, each moment of angst, is the decision we make then we will be confirmed again and again in our faith, and we shall live a life of great fulfillment, a life of great meaning, even in the midst of suffering, loss, and death.

Embracing our pain and calling upon the Lord in those solitary moments in which we seem so alone – this is the road to a passionate spirituality. There is no other.

St. Paul knew this only too well, for time and time again he turned to Christ when all might otherwise seem lost and when all around had abandoned him, relying only on His grace. And God’s grace is sufficient unto the day. Paul also knew that in spite of his best preaching, his most valiant efforts, his most persuasive rhetoric, that he was himself powerless to save another. The decision, to turn to Christ in our moment of despair, is left to each of us alone.

In today’s epistle Paul longs to sacrifice himself for his brothers and sisters who have not embraced Christ, who still labour under the Law, under the illusion that their human works and effort would lead them to God, under the illusion that if only they followed the right program they would find favour with God. Paul knew that it is only an encounter with Christ that will reveal God’s grace. Paul knew and understood that just as he could not labour for his own salvation, neither could he labour for another. He could only share the Good News. Paul knew that the role of the community was, and is, to stand alongside brothers and sisters as they journey through the moments of crisis in life, encouraging them, sharing the good news, helping them forward in Christ, as they meet the living God in their darkest moments.

And so my friends, those moments of crisis that inevitably come, are ultimately between each one of us and the Lord, in which we face the angst of our humanity. As you face the moments of despair in your life, the moments of sadness, the moments of regret, the moments of fear, the moments of anxiety, the moments of pain, turn to the Lord. Turn to Christ. Take the risk of letting go, take the risk of offering him the wheel. It is that very point of decision in which we meet the living God and ask him, “Who do you want me to be in the midst of this crisis, and who do you want me to be as the result of this crisis?” And we affirm, “Lord Jesus, you alone can take me there.” In these times, in the moment of crisis, Christ will indeed make the way known. Every mountain will be laid low, every deep valley exalted, and through the breaking mist of your dissipating loneliness you shall see a whole company of friends and witness present alongside you to share the journey of faith, the Church of God, all of us gathered here together, a passionate people, in Christian love.

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