Sunday, November 23, 2008

I Will Seek Out My Sheep: A Sermon for the Reign of Christ

Homily for the Feast of the Reign of Christ, Year A
Sunday, November 23rd 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

“I will seek out my sheep”
--Ezekiel 34: 12

I have recently been giving some thought to apocalyptic theology. Last week, in our youth confirmation class we had questions raised about the meaning and interpretation of the images in the book of Revelation. In our parish newsletter and recently on my blog I wrote about the so-called “Little Apocalypse” in the thirteenth chapter of St. Mark’s gospel. In both cases, I noted that we as mainstream Christians have tended to shy away from such texts, fearing them to be too difficult to understand, resisting the urge to dig into them with enthusiasm, and thus leaving them within the realm and ownership of certain very conservative strands of Christianity. Yet, I think that apocalyptic theology, that is, theology that tends to focus on the appearance of Christ at the end times, has something to say to us, the everyday people of God, in our present situation.

Apocalyptic thought is usually painted in very black and white terms. There is evil and good. Which side are we on? However, I think that this question may be a bit of a “red herring,” for underneath all apocalyptic thought is the presumption that God, in his goodness, saves his people – and not only saves them, but recreates them and all creation, making all things new. God, in Christ, is transforming the created order into its final purpose. Thus, I think the question for us is, can this be true? Do we see it? Do we believe it?

The other thing that needs to be said about apocalyptic theology, and about biblical prophecy in general is that it is never really about predicting the future, but interpreting the present time. Now, by this I do not intend to suggest, as some do, that by reading the newspapers we will be able to identify the ten-horned beast of the apocalypse. This kind of simplistic association of a biblical image or metaphor with a particular person in our time is surely wrong-headed and dangerous. However, the writers of such apocalyptic and prophetic literature surely had individuals of their own day in mind, and spoke in a sort of code so that they would end up on the chopping blocks, themselves. What apocalyptic and prophetic texts suggest is that in every age there are tyrants that rise up, there are crises that are bigger than what we can handle, and there is always before us the real possibility that we will lose hope.

Years ago I heard one writer – this was during the Reagan years and the height of nuclear tension – asked if he thought we were on the brink of the apocalypse. He laughed a very serious laugh and noted, has not every generation been on the brink of the apocalypse? Did not the men in the trenches in the First World War look to heaven and cry, “My God, this is the apocalypse!” And so I concur – each age must face its own apocalyptic threat.
When terrorists run planes into buildings; when the climate seems to have changed irreparably; when we stand powerlessly in the midst of economic turmoil; do we not stand with hands outstretched and cry unto God, “Is this the apocalypse?” And of course, the greater danger is that we will simply buy into the apathy of the times and find ourselves not on the side of the righteous but aligned with the great whore, Babylon.

It is of course, so easy to place the blame. Our leaders have failed us. Certainly this was the view of Ezekiel. The people that found themselves in Exile were there because of the past failure and continued failure of their religious leaders. This oracle from Ezekiel is an oracle of hope in which God brings the righteous out of captivity and pronounces with judgment on those leaders who have failed in their responsibility, who have lived off of the fat of the land and the backs of the people. He calls them fat sheep that will be separated from the lean ones. Similarly, with this oracle surely in mind, Jesus talks about the separation of the sheep and the goats.

For those of who lead, those of us who are religious leaders, and those of you who lead in your workplaces and communities, these are hard words. We must ask the question, have we worked for the kingdom or have we worked to fill ourselves?

Let us not forget that the word “apocalypse” simply means “revelation.” And for us, as Christian people, this is the revealing of God in Christ. Has this not already happened in the Incarnation; in the appearing of God amongst us in the person of Jesus Christ? Is this not the reality that we confess in the words of our faith an in our creeds? And does he not come again and again to us, to each of us, in every generation, in every age?

So, amidst all this angst of a world coming apart; amidst our fear that we can do nothing to change the course of the mighty rivers of world events; amidst the struggle of leaders to do what is right when the current tempts us in the wrong direction, God comes to us with the words, “I will seek out my sheep.” And what comforting word these are, for who is it that does the seeking? Is it you or I? No. It is God in Christ. It is God who presses into the world in all its brokenness and seeks out you and me. It is God who risks and offers up his own life on the cross for you and me. It is God whose love eclipses our hatred and enfolds us as we resist enfolding. It is not up to you or me, it is up to God – and God has acted. He has appeared. The apocalypse is now, and it is good news for the whole world.

It is good news because although we as leaders may fail to lead, God will not fail.

It is good news because although we as Christians may fail in virtue, piety, and faithfulness, God will not fail.

It is good news because although kingdoms rise and fall through pride, arrogance, and power, God’s kingdom will never fail.

I recall our eleventh primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Michael Peers, offering these words, “We’re in it for the long haul.” His words are words of hope because it is true: while rulers rise and fall, we stand with Shepherd who fell and rose. Or rather – it is he who stands with us.

In every age the voice of the oppressed has called out for justice. Apocalyptic theology tells us that God will indeed execute judgment, or rather that the oppressors through their actions may have already executed judgment upon themselves. When Ezekiel speaks in today’s texts about the separation of the lean sheep and the fat sheep, and the deliverance of the oppressed and the punishment of those who have filled themselves unjustly, we must ask ourselves, in what way might we be amongst the “fat sheep.” Surely, we are not without guilt, both as leaders and as privileged people in the world. But are we without hope?

God continues to seek out his sheep even to the last. When Ezekiel enumerates the fate of the lean and the fat sheep, he adds this additional comment: “He shall feed them with justice.” To whom does this statement refer? One interpretation suggests he metes out justice by rewarding the good and exterminating the evil. Yet, if we read this statement through the lens of our Christian faith, and through the work of Christ, is not the justice of God that our Shepherd comes to seek out the lost sheep, the ones who have gone astray, and yes, even the evil ones? It is so easy to speak in terms of good and evil, and yet, what is evil if not human brokenness and disappointment? What is evil if not weakness hidden behind feigned power? What is evil if not insecurity and fear? Are there any amongst us who have not been the victims of brokenness, disappointment, weakness or insecurity and fear? And are there any amongst us who have not allowed ourselves to be overwhelmed by such things in negative ways? Ezekiel tells us that God promises to seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. And this is precisely what he has done in Jesus Christ. What if God is seeking out all of humanity, the good and the bad, and seeking to bring about reconciliation, healing, and wholeness to all? This is a hard message because we, as human beings, have one view of justice. But God has another.

Is not the justice of God this: “I came not to seek the righteous but the sinner?” God became human that each of us, in all our brokenness might be made whole. I suggest to you today that each of us has within us both the “lean” and the “fat.” Each of us is both sheep and goat. Each of us is both sinner and saint. The work of Christ is the reconciliation of our inner struggle. The work of Christ is the healing of this dichotomy. The work of Christ, and the justice of God in Christ, is transformation of brokenness into wholeness. When this happens in any one of us, the world is healed, and we do indeed behold and witness the revelation, the apocalypse, of kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ before our very eyes.

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.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

I Have Called You Friends -- A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Homily for Remembrance Sunday
Sunday November 9th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 15:12-17

"I have called you friends."
John 15:15

Upon my shelf sits a multi-volume history of civilization, inherited from my paternal grandfather, The History of Civilization, by Will Durant. Toward the opening of his first volume, he writes: “Civilization is not something inborn or imperishable; it must be acquired anew by every generation.”

As the nazi juggernaut moved forward, and as political appeasement failed, a generation of men and women searched their consciences and rose to answer the call of the day. They stood against a machine of death because they valued life and chose life for those of us who were to follow. For the sake of civilization, each of them made a sacrifice, and for the sake of civilization, many made the ultimate sacrifice. For the men and women of the day, participation in the War was beyond the acquisition and appropriation of civilization for themselves, it was about the very survival of civilization. And hoping to see the end of the war, it was about the hope that a better day would ultimately dawn. To them we owe a debt that can never be repaid. To those who came home and to those who fell our humble gratitude is annually extended upon this day.

“No greater love has this, that a man should lay down his life for his friend.” Surely this is the one Scripture that interprets the sacrifice made both by those who fell and by those who came home. Surely these are the words of Jesus to which we have annually turned to understand both the offering and the loss of that courageous generation. To lay down one’s life can mean so many things. There are those who sacrificed unto death, but there are those who came home came home changed forever, physically scarred, emotionally scarred, psychologically scarred. There is not one who went that did not lay down his life in one way or another… all for the love of his friend.

“I have called you friends.” What shall a man who did not live through the War say on such a day? What have I to offer to the many here lived through such times? I am afraid that I have little or nothing to offer. Over the past couple of weeks I have discussed today’s reading from St. John with many friends. One wrote me to say that in the context of Remembrance Day the focus on this text from John is, of course the words of Jesus, “No greater love has this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Other sayings of Jesus that form a part of the passage, such as “I have called you friends,” are for another time. Yet, I wonder... for while I may have little or nothing to offer on such a day, surely our Lord, in his full perfect and sufficient sacrifice, once offered, continues to offer himself to us. How exactly does he do that? He does it day-by-day, in times of war and in times of peace with these simple words, “I have called you friends.” These are words that cut us to the core. These are words that express a reality so revolutionary and so beautiful. These are words that change me. These are words that change us. Because when the spectre of evil looms and those around us, especially the weak and vulnerable, become the victims of unjust threats and violence, who amongst us is not moved to put our very being on the line to see the forces of darkness put in abeyance? God himself felt this way about us, and so in friendship he offered up himself tasting pain and tasting death that we might be called friends. God understands the pain and anquish of our souls, and yet, he redeems it.

The rhetoric of good and evil and light and darkness is so much a part of the conflicts we face today. I did not live through the War. I’m told that they were simpler times and that moral judgments were easier to make. I shall leave that to the consciences of those who lived through such times. However, I am compelled to speak to the consciences of those who live in the present time. I note, for myself at least, how easy it is to rise in righteous indignation when I feel under attack. But are we too quick to make judgments about the evil in another and stand against so-called darkness when we have not stopped to examine the darkness within ourselves? Whether it be wars in far off lands or wars within the Church, we perceive ourselves to be the defenders of what is right and the “other” to be part of an axis of evil, against which we must valiantly fight. We see ourselves as taking up the torch bequeathed to us from our fallen fathers.

“Take up your quarrel with the foe:
to you with failing hands we throw
the torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with those who die
We shall not sleep…”

But is their battle our battle? Do we blindly take a torch without understanding what it is that we are carrying? Are we under the delusion that the wars we fight and the battles that we wage are part of the same war fought so long ago? Do we examine what we fight and why we feel we must fight? They discerned the call of God and did what they felt they must do to be a civilized people in their own day? What is God calling us to do today?

I cannot judge the consciences of the people of another generation. I believe that they in good conscience saw a foe and rose against it, to the end that they took Jesus’ words very seriously and laid down their lives for their friends. However, I must judge the consciences of men and women of my own age – my own conscience included -- and begin to ask the question: who, or what, is the foe?

Who, or what, is the foe of our age against which we are called to stand? Is the foe not our human ignorance and fear of those who are different from us? Is not the foe our own impatience with a world changing faster than we can understand? Is not the foe our inability to listen to the voices of those from the margins? Is not the foe our vengeance and thirst for retribution? Is not the foe our sense of entitlement? And yet we do not recognize the foe. Again and again we mistake our brother or sister for our enemy, and in lashing out at them, we destroy ourselves. In doing so we choose not to acquire civilization for this generation but to destroy it. Will Durant is also reported to have said, “a civilization is not conquered from without until it is destroyed from within.”

So my friends, as we press on to the future (with the deepest admiration and respect for those who have taken up the battle in their own day), we must ask ourselves, what is the torch that is passed from failing hand? As we lay hold of the awesome responsibility of taking that torch in our own day, let us be clear not only about the foe against which we must constantly make a stand, but about the very nature of the torch itself.

Is it not the light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness cannot – can never! --overcome? Is it not that battle against evil in whatever form it takes? Is it not the battle against war itself, the greatest evil created by human hands? Is it not the battle against the deep sinfulness within us that compels us to destroy each other? Did our fathers fight that we should take up arms or did they fight that we should lay them down?

“I have called you friends.” Did Jesus lay down his life that we should continue to stand against each other, or that we should stand together as friends? Jesus saw in the midst of his less than perfect company of followers not sinners, but friends. He saw past the surface, past the tarnished visage, past the tax collector, past the revolutionary zealot, and yes even past the betrayer, and called them friends.

The terrorist. The Wall Street embezzler. The corrupt politician. Can I see past the labels and the visages? Of course I cannot. I am but a man. But Jesus can and does. What is more he calls them friends. He calls each of us friends because when his light shines upon us, all that darkens of our souls is washed away by his brilliance and his love. The brilliance of his light is given to us in our creation and is restored to as he seeks us out again and again as we ever fail in our struggle to be a civilized species.

What is it that is passed on from Flanders Field? Note that it is not a sword but a torch, a light. It is a light that illumines the darkness in which we all walk; a light that reveals the true darkness, the true enemy, the true foe -- the darkness of our own hearts; and it is a light that vanquishes that darkness forever. The torch has been passed from Flanders Field, yet, it is but a shadow of the torch that was passed not on battlefield, but on hill, lo those years ago, from other failing hands, pierced hands, and arms stretched wide in suffering and in love. From the hands nailed to the Cross, into the hands of a company of friends, His light – and not only his light but his very presence – is carried into the world.

Let us keep faith, then, with the one who died, or rather, may he keep us in His faith that all people might be called friends and not enemies; brothers and sisters and not strangers; beloved, not hated; precious, not reviled. Through His grace may we love each other as He has loved us. His love alone, the love that laid down its life for us, can cut through our prejudice, hatred, and anger… search your conscience. Is it not so?

After fifty years of chronicling the history of Civilization, Will Durant stated his final lesson, gleaned from his amassed learning: “Love one another. My final lesson of history is the same as that of Jesus.”

May it be so. Come, Lord Jesus.

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.