Saturday, October 25, 2008

We are Determined to Share with You Not only the Gospel of God but also Ourselves.

Sermon for Proper 30, Year A
Sunday, October 26th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

“So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also ourselves, because you have become very dear to us.”
--1 Thess 2:8

What is it that humans have feared most from age to age? More that war, more than poverty, more than disease – humans are afraid of being alone. Indeed, I would venture to say that underlying most of the things that grip us with fear is the fear of being alone. War, poverty, disease – these are all things that, when all is said and done, precipitate some kind of loss. At the heart of loss, is separation. And when we are separated from each other, from those we love and care for, through distance, illness, or death, we are alone. To probe even deeper, the aloneness that we feel when separated from each other makes us wonder if we are alone in the universe. Here, I speak not of the cosmic realm, but of the eternal realm. What if, when all is said and done, we are truly alone?

There are many people in this world whose faith in God seems so assured that I wonder if this question ever crosses their minds? I admire such faith, but I must be honest, it is not the experience of most of the people that I meet. And if I am to be quite honest, it is not always my experience. I have acknowledged previously, because I believe that honesty about things spiritual is incumbent upon us all, that there are times in the depth of my dark nights that I feel alone, and I wonder. I wonder about the promises of God. I wonder what comes next. I wonder about the afterlife and our resurrection from the dead. I wonder if my life means anything at all. I wonder about God. I wonder if I am alone.

Ironically, though, I don’t think that I am alone in this wondering. Who amongst us has not wondered in such wise? Who amongst us has not had those moments of feeling desperately isolated and alone? Who amongst us has, through isolation from fellow human beings, not felt isolated from God? I think we all have. But the first thing that I wish to say is this: that in our shared struggles around loneliness and aloneness, we realize that we are not alone. We all share in this struggle and we all share in the realization that it holds a very destructive power over us. I think we all know that loneliness and aloneness can threaten our bodies, minds and spirits. Loneliness and aloneness can destroy us. Our struggle with being alone is a struggle we share as part of our human condition.

What is so destructive, though, is the fact that we have so little power to change this. We cannot will ourselves out of loneliness. What brings an end to loneliness, what ends our experience of aloneness, is the presence of another. And so to this end, St. Paul writes to the people of Thessalonica, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also ourselves, because you have become very dear to us.” And in those comforting words, a people who felt alone in the world, because of persecution, because of rejection, because of all the things the breed loneliness, knew they were loved. Paul’s words signify a certain reality that Paul sought to impart not only comfort, but his own very loving presence to them. And what is more, he sought to impart through his own loving presence, the loving presence of a loving God.

One of the devices frequently employed by Paul as he wrote to communities around the Mediterranean was this very literary device in which he seeks to impart his presence through the means of a letter. Paul could not be with every community at every time. But he always promised that he was coming soon, and was indeed already with them through his love and his letter writing. But for Paul, it was never really about his own presence and his own love for the people, but about God’s presence and God’s love. He hoped and prayed and believed that in making his love known, they would know something of the love of God and in this experience of love, know something of God’s presence. He hoped and prayed and believed that they would not be alone, that none of us would be alone.

What Paul sought to enact for the people of Thessalonica, and for Christians everywhere (and this is why we still read him today, and why his letters speak across the ages), was this: A loving God continues to seek us out, as individual and as a people. As individuals who are lost and alone, and as people who wander in the wilderness together, and yet apart, God presses forward, seeks us out, gathers us in. Why is this so? Because we have become very dear to him, not through our own merit, not through our own striving, not through works of the Law, but simply because it is in the nature of God to love his people more passionately than we could ever hope to love back. God is determined to share himself with us. God is determined to share his love with us. God is determined that we should not be alone.

This is indeed the Good News of the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ. Because God has walked amongst us in Christ, therefore we are not alone. Because God has shared himself with us, therefore we are not alone. Because God has given us the gift of human love, the gift to love each other, therefore we are not alone. Surely, the darkness of night continues to fall, and moments of loneliness will continue to wash over us, but we are not alone. Wars and rumours of wars may threaten to separate us from friend and neighbour, but we are not alone. Surely, those around us will abandon and forsake us, through the shattering of friendships, marriages, and even through death, but we are not, nor shall ever be alone. For God is determined when our determination fails. God is faithful when our faith diminished. God is present when all around us disappear. And most importantly God is ever seeking us out, sharing himself with us, and imprinting upon our hearts his wonderful words of life.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Rejoice in the Lord Always

Homily for Harvest Thanksgiving
Senior’s Luncheon
Wednesday, October 8th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Philippians 4:4-9

“Rejoice in the Lord always.”
-Phil 4:4

St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice!” It is, of course, easy to rejoice when things are going well. As our annual celebration of thanksgiving comes around and we see the bounty around us in this wonderful country, in this community, and even in this church, it is easy to find words of thanksgiving to God for all the ways in which we have been blessed.

Thanksgiving has two sides, though. There are those who go without the necessities of life on a daily basis – people who we cannot see in far away places, and people we choose not to see in this our own community. It then becomes somewhat more difficult for me to give thanks for what I have because then I must examine, why do I have so much and why do they have so little? Where is the justice in that? Where is the mercy of God? Is it easy for them to give thanks?

However, there is a reality that these two portraits fail to present. Even the wealthiest amongst us are not without pain, suffering, regret and some kind of poverty or another. Those who have much have much to lose, and often they do. Even if all our financial and material needs are met, we still lose loved ones to tragic illness or tragic accidents; we still face broken relationships; we still face the reality of a broken world. We have much to rejoice over, but we also have much to lament over.

And who has not seen blessing in the eyes of the poorest pauper? I remember talking with a street busker once who was not a wealthy man, but he constantly gave thanks for his life and all that he had. His spirit of thanksgiving was a blessing to those who passed by and spoke with him and heard his music. Who amongst us has not been touched by the generosity and gentleness of one who has less than we, and yet is thankful for even the slightest thing?

Be we rich or poor or middle class, each of us has within us poverty and wealth. When St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, he was impeded from being with them because he was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel. Yet, he exudes great joy. Was he suffering? Certainly – he was in prison. Was he conflict? Certainly – he longed to leave this realm to be with Christ. What St. Paul understood, though, was that suffering and joy are not single children. Suffering and joy are twin siblings that walk together. To consider them anything else is to delude ourselves. Paul’s experience ran the gamut from poverty to jubilation – and he experienced both things not as polarities but as partners in his human experience and as the result of his life in Christ.

The Church at Philippi was very likely a wealthy community, funding many of Paul’s missions, and yet, it seems as if they were experiencing suffering under some kind of persecution. There seem to have been conflict in the community. Today’s passage follows an exhortation by Paul for two members (two faithful members who had suffered much for the gospel) to be reconciled with each other. Suffering and joy exist together in an ongoing tension. Indeed, he holds up our Lord and Saviour as the primary model of this suffering and joy, for Christ suffered greatly for our sake but is now exalted so that we, too, might be exalted. God, himself, participated in both our suffering and our joy. Thus, all our suffering and joy is made holy in his suffering and joy.

I suppose then, that this is one of the things that make us both human and hallowed. In our suffering we can taste the suffering of another and not only feel compassion but be stirred to walk with them, help them lift their burden and carry their load. In our joy we can touch the joy of another and celebrate the blessings of each other’s lives. To be truly human, as God created us to be, is to be touched and moved by the life and experience of our fellow creatures.

Let us be stirred, then, to give a hand to those who suffer, walk in poverty, are filled with sadness, and need a companion, for do we not all experience some kind of poverty at some time or another? And let us rejoice with those who celebrate good news and abundant blessing, for are we not all blessed in one sense or another? Let us be of the same mind as Christ our Lord, who suffered and rejoiced, not for his sake but for ours. Let our suffering and joy be made holy, in him, in service to our fellow creatures.

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, October 5, 2008

Do Not Worry: A Homily for Harvest Thanksgiving

Homily for Harvest Thanksgiving, Year A, 2008
Sunday, October 5th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 6:25-33

Do not worry. How easy it is to offer this platitude when there is so much to worry about. The very suggestion not to worry seems to undercut the reality of the stress, pain or fear that we might be experiencing over any given crisis. How many times has a friend or loved one told you not to worry about someone or something and you have wished that your friend, well-meaning as they are, would simply go away? The well-meaning friend hopes that in offering this counsel will alleviate your worry, and perhaps even alleviate their own worry about you and everything that you are facing. Yet, such counsel and advice is often taken as the counsel of Job’s friends, as not really helpful advice at all. For to worry is to be a person invested in the world and invested in the stuff of life. I must worry about my children when I send them off either to kindergarten or university. I must worry about the safety of our schools and streets. I must worry about an aging parent whose health is declining. I must worry about a friend in financial need. Don’t tell me not to worry.

This week has been a week of financial worry for many who have invested in the markets, or for those who have pensions heavily invested in these same financial markets. This week has been a worry for those south of the border who have homes and houses on the line. There is cause for worry for many folk. We have cause to worry for the places in the world that are torn apart by warfare and strife. We have cause to worry for the poorest amongst us in the world who go without the basic necessities of life on a daily basis. We have cause to worry about our young men and women overseas. We have so much too worry about.

To deny our worry would be to deny a piece of ourselves and to deny a piece of our humanity. If we are to live with any authenticity we must admit that we do indeed worry and not push it down inside of us and pretend that we have some kind of superhuman resistance to it. Similarly, I believe that as friends to those who find themselves in crisis, we should resist the urge to tell others not to worry, when there is indeed cause for worry. Rather we should stand alongside those in their angst and offer them companionship and love as they authentically struggle with the challenges and worries that they encounter along life’s road.

Thus, these words of Jesus -- “do not worry” -- are difficult for us. Should we even take them seriously? Are they actually a realistic admonishment? Should we consider that they apply to others who have better resilience to crisis than you or me?

I suppose that more important than, “Do not worry,” is the comforting reality of Jesus’ abiding presence with us. As I have said so often about St. Matthew’s Gospel, it is a gospel about the enduring presence of Christ in our lives. The text begins with the fulfillment of the prophecy about the birth of Christ, Emmanuel, literally, God with us, and concludes with Jesus’ promise to be with us always even unto the end of the age. Having “book-ended” his Gospel in this way, I believe that this promise of presence is the key that we must constantly use to unlock Matthew’s text. To this end, I think that this is what this little story is really about. In the midst of our worry, in the midst of crisis, in the midst of sadness, in the midst of fear, in the midst of loss, Jesus is with us.

Jesus is with us not as one who negates our worry or angst but as one who helps us bear it on the road. Thus, when we look to the birds of the air or the lilies of the field we come to understand that God journeys with the whole created order through the seasons. As it is with us, so is it also for the Earth: for the earth, there are good seasons and bad. There are times where there is too much rain, or too much snow, or too much heat… but shall we say God has abandoned the Earth? There are times when the harvest is plentiful and there are times when the harvest is sparse. Shall we say that God has abandoned the wind or the sky or the earth or the sea? The seasons cycle through their days and yet comes another dawn, a new morn, a new sun and a new moon, new growth, and yes, so too again will follow the withering of the grass and the falling of the leaves and the sleeping of the earth. But as God attends the seasons of the Earth, so too, he attends the seasons of our lives. He is with us as joy is birthed and he is with us when death brings sadness. He is with us as we fall in love and with us when love is broken. He is with us in the brightness of our mornings and in the deep frightening stillness of our nights. He is with us always.

Do not worry. This phrase then takes on a new meaning because our counselor is not merely a well-meaning friend offering platitudinous counsel, but a companion who shares our fear, knows our pain, tastes our burden. In the crucible of our lives he lives and moves and has his being. And in his crucible is our burden lifted, carried, and redeemed in the sight of God.

We do not know why we face certain kinds of suffering in this life. And while these sufferings may feel like they are put upon us, let us never forget that our God is the one who helps bear the burden and lift our suffering and worry from us. Let us never forget that we are not left alone, or comfortless, or companionless.

Do not worry. This is not the counsel of a well-meaning, but wrong-headed friend, but a promise. It is a promise – a promise that our worry is never ours to bear alone; a promise that whatever suffering we face is a suffering that will be shared by the one who hung for us on the tree of life; a promise that dark though the road may be, Jesus will ever be a light to our feet and a lantern to our path.

Worry does not go away simply because someone tells us not to worry. Our fears and worries dissipate only when another helps us carry them, and lift them from our shoulders. Let us therefore embrace the reality of our worry, the reality of our fear, the reality of our struggle, and the reality of our pain and angst, for it is in embracing the reality of our lives that Jesus extends a hand to walk with us. It is in facing the reality of our lives that we are offered not empty words of consolation, but a promise of divine friendship, which is the gift beyond all measure and a harvest more bountiful than wealth of riches and gold.

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.