Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Fear Not! I Bring You Good News of Great Joy!" - Homily for Christmas Eve

Homily for Christmas Eve, Year C, 2009
Thursday, December 24th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 2:1-20

“Fear not, for behold I bring good news of great joy!”
--Luke 2:10

Into a world gripped with fear, a tiny babe was born. Over the past several hundred years, Judea had been a place that had been passed from foreign power to foreign power; it had known revolution upon revolution; and had known unjust ruler upon unjust ruler. There was prosperity for some and poverty for many. And just like today, amongst the names of the long-forgotten people of that day, there were many broken lives and broken hearts.

Broken lives and hearts – so many problems plague this age (and every age), but never is something so tragic as a broken life or broken heart. Some of you will have seen a full-page advertisement in the Toronto Star last week from our Archbishop, Colin Johnson. The headline read, “Does Jesus really matter anymore? Christmas is about shopping, presents, family and feasting, right?” He then goes on to remind us that our time is not so different from the time that Jesus was born into, “we suffer from worries and concerns, broken relationships, wars and famines. The very things that kept our ancestors awake all those years ago keep us awake still.”

It seems to me that fear is at the heart of all those things that keep us awake. Fear moves us to destructive action and paralyzes us from righteous, compassionate action. Fear tricks us into believing that we can do nothing to change the course of poverty, loneliness, economic injustice, and ecological degradation. Fear tells us that broken hearts are not to be mended. Fear also tricks us into thinking that the only way to solve the problems of the age is by engaging brute force, or conversely, by apathetically giving into it. Fear tricks us into thinking that there is no hope for the world or the people in it.

Fear drove a young unwed couple to journey the long distance from their home in Nazareth to the father’s ancestral home in Bethlehem for a taxation census. The unbreakable power of the Roman Empire demanded a head count for all to be taxed, and one can only imagine the fate of those chose not to obey the imperial edict. A young couple, afraid to show themselves in public for fear of the shame of the unplanned pregnancy, afraid to journey a dangerous road alone, afraid of what such a trip might do to the unborn child, pressed forward. Afraid that they would find no place to birth their child they scrambled about until a stable was found – no place for a baby to be born.

Yes, fear may have driven them, but God found them where they were, came to them and was birthed before their very eyes. He came to them as a tiny, vulnerable child, and turned their fear into joy and their angst into fulfillment. The stable was no longer a stable but the temple of God.

To this temple came poor shepherds, and I am sure, countless others (both rich and poor) who had eyes to see in that tiny child the one who would deliver them; who had ears to hear in his infant cries the voice of the one who would offer words of compassion and justice for all people. Why did the shepherds come to the child and his parents in this lowly place? Because in their own poverty and isolation they heard an angel loudly proclaim, “Fear not.” They, who were not worthy to be counted in the census, those shepherds keeping their watch, had courage stirred within them to leave their only source of income and well-being, and seek out a pearl of greater price, the newborn king! The song of joy had dispersed their fear.

The shepherds heard those great glad tidings and rushed, not with fear but with joy, expectation, and hope from their fields to that stable in Bethlehem, that unlikely temple, to see with their own eyes the great thing that God had done.

And what was that great thing. Had the Roman Empire fallen? No, Augustus was still Caesar. Did that young family find a manor house to live in? No, the child was still born in a stable. Did midwives and physicians show up to help in the birth? No, the woman gave birth with only her husband as a birth companion. These things had not changed, and yet, everything had changed, because the fear that had gripped their world was broken.

We draw nigh tonight like shepherds who have left our flocks. We draw nigh to see, to witness, to believe in the great thing that God has done. We have left our lives behind for a moment, even if just for a moment, to take time from presents, from shopping, from our families and from our feasting, to witness once again for ourselves the birth in time of the timeless Son of God. We draw nigh, to remember once again that though empires may rise and fall, though economies prosper and collapse, though jobs come and jobs go, though children are born and loved ones die, though the tides rise and fall, we are not afraid. We gather here to proclaim that fear is not our master, but rather the transforming love of the gentle babe who was born to a frightened young couple. We gather here to say that amidst the angst of the age, we shall not be overcome or sorrow as a people without hope but rather rejoice with that rag-tag group of shepherds that Christ is born.

Whether it be Bethlehem of Judea or Thornhill of Ontario, people are people, pain is pain, brokenness is brokenness, and fear is fear. But whether it be Bethlehem of Judea or Thornhill of Ontario, Jesus is the Christ and he has broken through the darkness of our pain and fear.

To a world that is hurting, he comes. To the fear that threatens to displace us, angels shout, “Fear not! Behold, I bring you good news of great joy!” Fear not, because a child is born who changes things.

He changes minds.

He changes hearts.

He changes people.

He turns the valley of the shadow of death into the way of life.

He has shone his light into the darkest places of our lives and welcomed us to his heart and cradles us, as his most holy mother cradled him those years ago. What greater joy can we know, and what better hope can we have, that the fear of the ages is dispersed by his ever-present light? Thus, I bid you return to your fields, to your flocks with this good news of great joy, having witnessed what the Lord has done, and like those shepherds of old, tell all about what you have seen and heard, as it has been told to you.

c.2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Monday, December 21, 2009

What If It Had Been You? - A Homily for Advent IV, Year C

Homily for Advent IV, Year C
Sunday, December 20th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 1:39-55

What if it had been you? What if in the days of your early adolescence an angel had spoken to you in the silence of the night and prophesied that you would be the mother of the saviour? What if as a young man, in the depth of your dreaming you received an angelic vision that the woman to who you were betrothed, but with whom you had had no sexual relation, was about to bear a son who would save his people. What if it had been you – you or I who had received this message, heard the awesome and frightening message for not only our future, but the future of the world? What if it were you or I?

Would our response have been Mary’s “let it be unto me according to your word?” Would our response have been “my soul magnifies the Lord,” or “My spirit rejoices in God my saviour?” Or would the shame of an illegitimate pregnancy bring fear, and shame, and loathing? Would our response more closely resemble the response of Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel, to put away the woman of shame? Could we have borne the shame or faced the judgement of those around us.

But the angel did come to Mary, and it did come to Joseph, and despite their initial fear, astonishment, and shame, both Mary and Joseph said “yes.” Joseph did not put away his future wife, nor did Mary hide her face in shame. Instead, Mary went immediately, with haste into the Judean hillside, into the country, to her relative Elizabeth, who in her old-age had also received a visitation from the Lord – Elizabeth who six month’s pregnant was destined to be the mother of the Baptist.

Mary went – a young girl, barely a woman -- to Elizabeth, an elder, a mentor, a wise woman. She faced not the burden alone, but in the company of this holy mother who was herself a vehicle of God’s grace. And there she stayed for some time, sharing her both her fears and her dreams with the one, who in a remarkable way, could understand her sacred calling. For when she saw Elizabeth the words from the elder woman’s mouth were not words of judgment, nor words of condemnation, but words of blessing. Even within her own womb, the baby leaped for joy. Elizabeth, who had also been touched by God, greeted the one who others may have shunned, with reverence, respect and admiration: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” and she wondered aloud, “why has it happened that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

And so her son likewise wondered aloud many years later, when the same Lord approached him on the banks of the Jordan river and asked him for baptism. Like his mother he evinced his own unworthiness, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal – it is he who should be baptizing me.” And yet, the timeless son of God was baptized by John.

He comes to us again in these latter days – again and again. It shall not matter whether we are rich or poor, of low or high estate. He comes to us – again and again. And it is in our weakness and our brokenness that we meet him and he meets us. He comes to the scared and frightened child in each of us as he came to a trembling adolescent girl in Nazareth. He comes to us in our false pride and vanity, in our fear of shame and judgement as he came to a young man who actually considered abandoning his bride to be. He comes to us in our aged brokenness, in our regret and disappointment about what might have been for our lives if only things had worked out differently, as he came to an old woman whose womb had been barren throughout the decades of her life. He comes to us in our world of darkness, sadness, violence and anger, as he came to middle-eastern land so long ago, disappointed by failed hopes and foreign domination.

He comes to us today not with words of judgement or condemnation for who we are or what we might have been. He comes to us not with anger or wrath for the mistakes we have made or continue to make. He comes to us not with punishment for the sins in which we inevitably participate. He comes to us with great love, with words of hope, with healing in his wings with these words: Greetings favoured one. He comes to us with the promise to be born within each one of us, to turn our fear to hope, our sadness to joy, and our sorrow into laughter. He comes to us, to you and me, with the same message that came to Mary and Joseph, and Elizabeth and Zechariah, greetings favoured ones. They were not great and powerful people, but people like you and me – and they were favoured by God; favoured to birth the Christ to a hurting world.

We are favoured, for the Christ has been birthed in each of us, and continues to be born again and again in our hearts with purpose of transforming not only our lives but transforming the world and bringing hope to a people that walk in darkness. Hide not your light -- that is, his light -- under a bushel, but let it be unto you according to his word, that each of us might sing the words of blessed Mary this Christmastide and always, “My Soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my saviour!”

c. 2006 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hope in the Darkness - A Homily for a Service of Remembrance and Hope

A Homily for a “Service of Remembrance and Hope”
(offered to those who mourn during this Advent and Christmas Season)
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; John 1:1-14

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
- Isaiah 9:2

As we draw close to the longest night of the year, I am deeply cognizant that for many, this year has been (as the prophet Isaiah says) like dwelling in a land of deep darkness. Many amongst us have lost someone over this past year and even after many years, others will still feel the loss of loved ones poignantly as the Christmas season approaches. The period of grief and mourning is often depicted metaphorically by our biblical authors as a period of dwelling or living in a land of darkness. Consider, for example, the words of that most beloved of psalms in which we find ourselves “walking through the valley of the shadow of death.” Shadows, darkness, deep darkness, and night. The darkness of grief is a darkness from which we wonder if we shall ever emerge. It is a darkness that no one else seems to understand, for we are surrounded by a festive season. Although the days have grown shorter, festive lights illumine night. Although our hearts may be saddened, we are surrounded by songs of joy. Although we long to be alone with our quiet thoughts we are dragged into the crowd to share in a cheer we can barely muster. One supposes we must come along for the ride, and yet, no matter how many carols are sung, no matter how many lights are strung, no many how many parties are attended, we still feel deeply lost in a land of deep darkness and wandering about in the shadow of death.

The truth is that the darkness never dissipates so quickly. Contrary to the expectation of our culture that we should be able shift gears, to “get over it”, to tune in to the season, the dawn comes slowly and gently. As I have related before, I like to rise early in the morning. Sometimes I look out the window and watch the sunrise. In my former life as a commuter, out the window of my train, I used to like to watch the sun come up and the sky gently illumined. First comes a faint glow, barely noticeable, then comes a soft light, perhaps some colour. The faints lights that shine like moments in the night, the stars, begin to fade, to be replaced by the rising sun, and even on the coldest morning, the warmth of its rays -- what a blessing the gentle sunrise is to us, and so different from the abrupt flick of the switch that brings about man-made light.

I suppose this is what the world expects of us when we are in our grief and we come into the Christmas season, that we should flick a switch and all shall be well with our broken hearts. But God does not ask this of us. God invites us to be present to our pain, sorrow and grief. God allows us to journey through the land of deep darkness, for is not the night God’s dominion as much as the day? And although the night feels cold and lonely, we are not alone, for as we journey through that land of darkness, through the valley of the shadow, God our shepherd is with us. We may not be able to always detect his presence, but we know his promise. And we know that the dawn comes gently.

The light does indeed shine in the darkness, but it is not the light of feigned happiness, nor is it the light of false festivity, rather, it is the faint sparkle of a star that reminds us that the darkness is never all-encompassing, or the glow on the horizon that says the day is coming, not just yet, but slowly, gently, warmly, tenderly. It is the warmth that is felt when we realize that we are not alone on the journey through the night but feel the presence of another who understands the journey we are making. It is in these things that the light shines through. For as the Christ is present will all those who make merry this season with song, and food and drink, and dance, so too is the Christ present with those who shed a tear and long once again for a warm and loving embrace. His light is the light of all people, those who dance and those who mourn. May you feel his warm embrace and catch a glimpse of his gentle dawning light this Advent and Christmastide.

c. 2009 The Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Your Redemption Draweth Nigh! A Homily for Advent I, Year C, 2009

Homily for Advent 1, Year C, 2009
Sunday, November 29th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 21:25-36

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
-- Luke 21:28

I am an early riser. I am also an avid listener to CBC radio. By the time I get into my car in the morning I have often listened to the newscast about a half dozen times. I don’t like to miss it even when I’ve already heard the news several times that morning. While there may be much overlap, the national news at the top of the hour is different from the local news on the half hour. Then there are the interviews and commentary in-between, and of course, there is always the breaking news. Often, I will be able to catch the beginning of the program, “The Current,” on my way to work, and on my way back down to the church for evening meetings, I enjoy “As it Happens,” both of which reflect on current news events with insightful and provocative interviews. It is nice to end my day driving home from evening meetings listening to “Ideas,” a thoughtful program that features documentary presentations on subjects of an intellectual nature. If I am out during the day visiting I often pick up bits and pieces of programming and catch up on arts and entertainment news and commentary on my way to and from visits and meetings. It is a wonderful world of news, is it not?

One day this week I couldn’t take it any more. I shut off the radio and slipped in one of my favourite Frank Sinatra CDs and breathed a sigh of relief as the “Chairman of the Board” crooned on, “Come fly with me, come fly, come fly away…”

Perhaps you will know that feeling. There is a lot going on in the world, in our lives, in our workplaces, and in our homes. If we don’t have enough confusion and trouble in our own circles we are more than willing to invite the confusion and trouble of the world into our lives by turning on the radio, the television, or the internet. And while it is wonderful to know what is going on out there, and I am all for exposing ourselves to a broad range of thoughts, ideas, and information, sometimes it can seem a bit much. Sometimes, it can seem as if the world is coming apart, locally on the half-hour and globally every hour, with traffic and weather on “the tens.”

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faints from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world…” No wonder we want to fly away, whether it be escaping simply through the words of a Sinatra song, or more seriously, and more tragically for some, the decision to give up on life and the world altogether.

Yet, it is at this precise moment, the moment in which we want to escape that we hear the command, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption draweth nigh!” What? Amidst the confusion of nations; amidst the confusion of our homes; amidst the confusion of voices around us; amidst distress, loss, foreboding and fear, our redemption draweth nigh? When these things happens our natural tendency is to run for the hills, to hide our faces, to “duck and cover,” but no – stand up, raise your head, your salvation is near!

This is a shocking command because contrary to what many people may think the Christian faith has never been about escaping a terrible world and its apparent hopeless plight. In the early of Christianity a heresy arose called Gnosticism. One of its principal errors was divorcing of the spiritual from the material. In Gnostic thought the material world is bad and the spiritual world is good. In Gnostic thought the redeemer is the one who delivers the enlightened believer from the evil material world into the spiritual realm. But our Christian faith is entirely rooted and grounded in a God who enters into the material world not to destroy it, nor to ferret us out of it, but to redeem in, restore, it remake it. And in all of this, we are invited to be God’s co-creators.

It is precisely at the moment when we are overwhelmed; it is precisely in the moment when we feel like abandoning hope in the world God has created; it is precisely in the moment when we long to fly away, that God enters in. God enters in to bring hope to those who suffer violence at the hand of another, to break the rod of the oppressor. God enters in to comfort and weep with those whose hearts are broken, those who have lost one so dear to them. God enters in to calm the souls of those who are afraid, who have become immobilized by anxiety, depression and hopelessness. And God enters in as the events of the hurting world seem oh so overwhelming to those of us who long only for peace and tranquility amongst nations. God enters in not to destroy this world and the men and women in it, but to redeem the Earth and all its peoples.

“I look from afar, and Lo! I see the power of God coming and a cloud covering the whole Earth!” (From the Matin Responsary for Advent)

Therefore, we shall not run to the hills or flee from the world, as tempting as the words “come fly with me” may be. Rather we shall be alert, stand tall, and lift up our heads in joyful anticipation that God is about to do a new thing. Let us go out to meet him and say, “Art thou he that should come and reign over thy people Israel?” Surely he is the one. Our redemption, and the redemption of the whole world, as troubled as it is, is drawing nigh.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Story of Three Kings - A Homily for the Feast of St. Edmund the Martyr

Homily for the Feast of St. Edmund-the-Martyr
Friday, November 20th, 2009
Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 2 Kings 23.21-25, 29-30a

A Story of Three Kings --

--not the three kings we normally think about in Epiphanytide, but rather three kings from different times and places, but all united under the banner of faithfulness and self-offering.

The First king – Josiah

Following a period of faithlessness, turmoil and confusion, a new king arises, a faithful king, one that we are told loves the Lord with all his heart, soul and might. One who returns to the Law of the Lord. We are told that in his time, the Passover is celebrated again for the first time in many years. The portion of the text we do not read today reminds us that the Lord’s wrath was still kindled against Judah for its sins. Our text then picks up again and we then learn that Josiah perishes in a battle with the Egyptians. His servants carry him back in a chariot, the throne of a great king, to be buried in Jerusalem amidst great honour. In a time of turmoil, faithlessness and broken humanity, the Lord raised up a faithful king, unlike any before or since, we are told, to be a sign to his people. The image of Josiah is a powerful one, an image appropriated throughout the ages of the faithful monarch who reforms a broken society. Diarmaid MacCulloch, a historian of sixteenth century Church History suggests that the boy king, Edward VI, was a new Josiah, bringing restoring true religion and piety to his people.

The Second King – The Christ

Then comes another king, the King of Kings, upon whom so much expectation is placed. As we approach the eve of the celebration of his reign, of his enthronement as king of kings and lord of lords, we are constantly called to remember that his throne is a cross and his crown a crown of thorns. He rides not on a warrior’s chariot, but on a lowly donkey; his birthplace is not a palace but a stable; his followers not a courtly retinue, but a rag-tag band of itinerants who have chosen unemployment over the honour of riches. Yet in this king’s reign, restoration is accomplished – restoration and reconciliation, the very heart of true religion. Faithfulness and self-offering, not the grasping of power and authority are the things that transform a broken world. He is incarnation of faithfulness and self-offering that Josiah could only embody in “type” and “sign”. The Christ is the fulfillment of the type and sign of faithful Josiah.

The Third King – Edmund the Martyr

In 870 in East Anglia, we meet our third king, Edmund, whose feast day we celebrate today. Should we seek the details of horrific and sensational death we shall find them in Edmund’s martyrdom – tied to a tree, scourged, pierced with an arrow, and finally decapitated by Viking marauders. The cause of his martyrdom was simple – he refused to renounce his faith and his fealty to his Lord and master. He would have been allowed to live had he renounced his faith and ruled as a vassal king to Viking overlords. Yet, Edmund knew that he could only serve one Lord and master, and it wasn’t the Vikings. Consider his death – scourged, tied to a tree, his body pierced. He took up his cross indeed and followed in the footsteps of his Lord and King. Another legend tells us that he was decapitated and his head thrown into the woods. His followers began looking for the head and calling out to it, “Father, where are you!?” To which the lost head beckoned back, “I am here, my sons!” They searched and searched and followed the voice until it was found under the watchful eye of a starving wolf. The wolf had not eaten the head but had protected it. Edmund’s followers retrieved the head and reunited it with the body. The wolf, sent by God, disappeared again into the forest. Edmund was buried in the place that is now known as Bury St. Edmunds. We are told that one hundred years later Edmund was exhumed and his head had reattached to his body with only a thin red line on his neck to indicate his martyrdom. His skin and flesh were soft and pure as the driven snow.

In his wonderful book, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, Peter Ackroyd speaks about the literature of this period (in particular Beowulf, but certainly this could be applied to such legends as that of Edmund) as an act of the historical imagination. Surely such stories of Edmund, rooted in the fact of his martyrdom speak to the more profound realities of faithfulness and self-offering, and the yet more profound reality of resurrection. I would venture to say that in the gift of imagination, God grants us the ability to deepen the understanding of our eyes of faith but what was true about Edmund was not simply that he followed in the footsteps of his Lord and Master amidst the reality of a brutal, broken world, but the reality that though his body was brutalized his spirit could not be destroyed. The metaphor of pure soft skin and a re-attached head speak to the spiritual reality that violence, anger, brutality and hate cannot destroy us. Death will not and never shall have dominion over us. This is what the Reign of Christ means to us. The sting of death has been swallowed up in the faithfulness and self-offering of Love Divine.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Birth Pangs of the New Creation: A Homily for Proper 33, Year B

Homily for Proper 33, Year B
Sunday, November 15th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 13:1-8

“For these are but the beginnings of the birth pangs.”
--Mark 13:8

What are we prepared to lose? What are we prepared to give up? We are learning that in spite of changing demographics in this community there are tremendous opportunities for the Kingdom of God to be experienced here in Thornhill. We are also learning that Holy Trinity can indeed be a part of sharing the Good News of that kingdom. We have recently received a report that indicates that there are over four thousand Anglicans that live within our parish boundaries. Furthermore, that report indicates that there are over ten thousand people that live within our parish boundaries that have no religious affiliation. We also learn that amongst those number there is a goodly percentage of those people under the age of twenty. Thus, in spite of what we might think, there is a tremendous mission field in this community. Even more exciting news, as we shall learn in more detail in the weeks ahead as the result of our third Natural Church Development Survey are released, is that we are becoming more comfortable about reaching out and sharing our faith with others. If “Back to Church Sunday” was any indication (approximately 50 people accepted invitations to join us that day), we are indeed becoming more and more confident about sharing our faith journey with those around us. We stand at the threshold of new and wondrous possibilities. God is calling us into a new day, and indeed into a new era. I believe that all signs indicate that we are ready to accept that call. There is a question though, of what we are willing to lose to journey into this new land and into this new era? The call is not without cost; no journey forward can be made without leaving something behind. What are we willing to give up?

As Jesus and his disciples exited the Temple, that grand edifice which was a monument the architectural vision of Herod the Great under whose patronage this latest version was constructed, the disciples of Jesus marveled at its grandeur, beauty, and apparent permanence, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Their rapture in the architectural magnificence of the Temple was interrupted by the words of Jesus, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone of them will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” How hard it must have been to hear these words. The Temple stood as a monument to their faith, the greatness of their God, and was considered to be the very place where heaven met earth, yet Jesus claimed that its great stones would fall. And he was right. Within fifty years the Temple was destroyed and both Judaism and Christianity were left to discern the religious and spiritual landscape into which God was now calling them.

The spiritual landscape in times of discernment will seem fraught with obstacles indeed. It may seem like the edifice with which we are so comfortable and so enraptured is crumbling down. There may be temptations to go off course, to follow different captains, it may seem like we are at war with one another. But Jesus offers a word of hope, fear not, “for these are but the beginnings of the birth pangs.”

This section of Mark’s Gospel is the beginning of a section we call the “little apocalypse”, because it goes on to describe an apocalyptic end-times scenario. I have spoken before about how difficult this imagery may be to us mainstream Christians, but let us consider this passage in the context of Mark’s message. We are now drawing close to the end of our liturgical year, which will culminate next week with the feast of the Reign of Christ. We will cease reading Mark’s Gospel until three years hence when we take it up again. Cast your mind back to last year at this time when we began talking about Mark’s message of Jesus. Near the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus introduces his mission with the words, “repent, believe, for the kingdom of God has come near.” Literally, the kingdom is at hand. Throughout this year this has been the interpretive key to which we have always turned as we have journeyed with St. Mark, the kingdom is at hand, drawing near, breaking through as we speak. It is this message that Jesus repeats at the beginning of the Markan “little apocalypse” as we draw near to the concluding our reading of the Gospel of Mark, namely, we are now experiencing the birth pangs of the kingdom. This is the oft-neglected hope of apocalyptic literature, the end is nigh, but so too is the beginning!

Those who have experienced giving birth, and those who have witnessed a birth will know that it is not an easy thing. Perhaps the phrase “birth pangs” is even too light a word. There is first the tremendous physical pain of birth itself, which is accompanied by the fear that something might go wrong, and then when the child comes, so too comes shocking realization that the life of family will never be the same again with the addition of this new member. Uncertainty, upheaval, suffering, pain, trauma, fear, and yet new life, new joy, new birth, new hope -- this is the message of Jesus as his disciples marvel at the magnificent edifice of the Herodian Temple. It is time for one glory to give way to another. A baby is on the way. What we have experienced to date in our life together has been wonderful, has it not? The edifice of our shared life is grand and something to marvel at, but Jesus is here to remind us, don’t cling to it too dearly, for the best is yet to come. What are you willing to give up? Which stones have to fall? Shall we choose to move forward as this era ends and another begins? Can we face the day with bravery, courage, and faith that this is not the end, but rather the birth of a new glorious day?

I believe that we stand like the disciples marveling at an edifice, for us it is the edifice of Anglican Christianity in Thornhill. We have reason to celebrate it, rejoice in it, marvel at it, and all that it has been to us. But if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, our Lord stands in our midst reminding us that he is about to do a new thing. This is not the end, but rather a new beginning. When a child is born our lives must change, but what a joy it is to change when we hold that lovely child in our arms and experience new life and new hope. We will have to give up many things precious to us, but who would not give them up when we realize that the child who is about to be born in our midst is, once again, the little child of Bethlehem in who brings life to world?

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Gift of Joy and Wonder: A Homily for All Saints Day and a Celebration of Holy Baptism

Homily for All Saints Day, Year B, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 11:32-44

Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?
--John 11:41

The culminating prayer in our baptismal liturgy petitions God to give the candidates of baptism “the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.” I certainly realize that as we travel this road of life that it can often be difficult to find and experience joy and wonder. Our souls have such a deep longing for these things, though. The birth of children and the welcoming of these children into the household of God is a moment in which we seek to claim God’s joy and wonder for them and for ourselves. It is a moment in which we see the road of life begin to open with glorious possibilities. It is a road of mystery, in the best sense of sacred mystery, in which we affirm our belief that God’s loving hand and life-giving Spirit will forever guide and animate the journey of this life for each and every Christian person.

This is a claim we make even amidst the troubles of the day. We have seen a people gripped by fear this past week as worries about the H1H1 virus have caused long line-ups at vaccination clinics. To a large degree, we have cause to be frightened, for we have seen the all-too frightening consequences of this virus. Fear exerts a power over us that threatens to tear the fabric of society and our souls. Whether or not the vaccination program has been competently administered is not a matter that is with my expertise and I am not capable of judging it. Yet, consider the anger, frustration, and panic that has been exhibited as people fear they will lose their place in line, or not get the vaccination in time. Consider what such anger, frustration and panic does to our community, and consider what it does to our souls.

In a town called Bethany, not far from Jerusalem, a dear friend of Jesus had fallen ill. Jesus, that great healer, did not get there on time and Lazarus died. When he finally arrived, Lazarus’ sister Mary was beside herself with grief. Panic and perhaps even anger had given way to despondency. She dropped to the feet of her Lord and wept bitterly, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And he joined her in her tears, Jesus himself wept.

Then words of derision came from the crowd, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” We know the rest of the story, the stone is rolled away, and Jesus utters the words “Lazarus, come forth!” And the dead man walks again.

For those in our lives who walk with pain and loss, in particular the loss of ones so dear, this passage may, on the surface, be cold comfort. We do not see the dead raised as Lazarus was raised. Yet, I would ask us to consider one oft-neglected phrase uttered by Jesus before he raised Lazarus, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

Jesus entered a town filled with fear, with anger, with frustration about him and about his ministry. He was met with derision and unbelief. Yet as the people wept, he wept, and as the people’s hearts were filled with trouble, so was his heart troubled. He joined them in depth of their despair and suffered alongside them -- Lazarus was his friend, too, remember.

But even as his heart was troubled and even as he wept with them, he reminded them of a promise he made, that if they believed they would see God’s glory. On that day in Bethany, when belief was so hard, God’s glory broke through. The miracle they witnessed was a miracle that pointed to the greatest miracle this world has ever known, the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The raising of Lazarus, as grand as it might seem to us who have not witnessed such things, is but a sign of the act of God that would restore life to the world. On that day in Bethany, when all seemed lost, God revealed his glory to a hurting and wounded people. He gave them the gift of faith, of belief, and the gift of joy and wonder.

Baptism is not inoculation to the pains and hurts of this life. It is not a vaccine that will protect us from illness or mortal death. Rather, baptism is the claim of a loving God on our lives that we shall never be left alone in such moments and that even in the midst of pain, grief, loss, frustration, anger and fear, God will reveal his glory. God does not bring these things upon us, and yet, somehow in divine mystery, just as he did in a lowly stable, God enters in, unexpected and unbidden and we behold his glory. Baptism is about saying “yes” to that glory; it is about believing in the light that shines in the darkness.

Thus, we welcome today these new Christians. We know that at times their lives will be easy and at other times, difficult. Yet we welcome them in full confidence and knowledge that they belong to Christ and that at the most unexpected moments along the road, he shall reveal himself to them and they shall marvel with joy and wonder at all his glorious works.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Anointed to Bring Good News - A Homily of for the Feast of St. Luke, Evangelist and Physician, 2009

A Homily for the Feast of St. Luke, Evangelist and Physician
Sunday, November 18th, 2009
Holy Trinity, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 4:14-21

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

This reading was followed by one of the shortest sermons in history, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” This is how Jesus began his public ministry; the rest was commentary and action. The entire ministry of Jesus is the proclamation to a broken and hurting world that through the power of the Holy Spirit we are free. Bodily sickness, broken relationships, broken hearts, troubled souls, mental illness, will not imprison us and lock us away from God’s loving embrace.

This is not to say we will not know pain, or loss, or brokenness. This is not say that these forces will not exert considerable power over us. Nor is this to say that any of these things are unworthy of being felt or experienced. To know pain, loss and brokenness is part of being human. To face illness of any sort is to face the reality that we must all let go of the gift of this earthly life at some point. Yet, to face this reality is not to debase the value of life but rather to affirm life for what it is -- a glimpse of the divine glory yet to be revealed.

There will be moments when that glory seems obscured. There will be moments when it is hard to believe that we are free, that we are fully alive, and that we are loved by God. If we read further in today’s passage, we realize that those who heard Jesus’ words had a hard time believing his proclamation. And when we are faced with the reality of illness, brokenness and life’s troubles, we can have a hard time believing it. The captives are free? The blind receive sight? The poor are raised up? It can be hard to believe.

Yet, something stirs us and contrary to the belief of a certain retired Episcopal bishop, I don’t believe it is simply the fear of death (although the fear of death does exert a profound influence over us), rather, I believe it is because as Christian people we know deep within our hearts that we belong to Christ. This is the reality that centres our being and this is the reality that gives us the words “pray for me,” when all seems lost. This is the truth that we proclaim when stand before another beloved child of God and ask to be anointed for health and wholeness.

In the ministry of anointing we proclaim who we are, and whose we are. Never forget that Jesus himself is the anointed one, for what do the ancient words “Christ” and “Messiah” mean, but anointed one? In baptism we too are anointed. We are signed with holy oil with the sign of the cross and marked as Christ’s own forever. Thus, to be a Christian is literally to be an anointed one. In baptism, we “put on Christ,” and the signification with oil is a proclamation that we are clothed with the same Spirit and power that clothes our Lord and conforms us to his likeness.

What is it that we do, then, when we seek anointing for healing and wholeness? It is nothing less than a reenactment of that baptismal anointing when we first put on Christ. When we come forward to be anointed for healing and wholeness we are proclaiming again and again in the midst of a broken world, in spite of our broken bodies, from the depths of our broken hearts that we are Christ’s own forever. We belong to Christ ever and always, and we stand firm in the truth as the apostle so boldly proclaimed that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able so separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In whatever way we are imprisoned or oppressed, in an ageing or broken bodies, in the darkness of depression, or the prison of our foolish decisions, God will not allow our imprisonment to destroy our soul. In whatever way we are poor, be it poverty of wealth, poverty of the Spirit, or poverty of relationships, God will not leave us without the riches of his abiding presence. In whatever way our vision is obscured, the road ahead clouded by the fog of uncertainty, the anxiety of fear that blinds us, or even the dark veil of death that frightens us, God will not leave us without his sight in the illumination of our hearts by his Holy Spirit.

Thus, whether or we are sick or well, we are the Lord’s. To come for anointing it to proclaim this reality in the midst of pain, in the midst of poverty, in the midst of uncertainty, in the midst of fear, and yes, even in the midst of death. It is to proclaim that the reign of God is here. It is to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. And while we stand and receive that holy balm which is salve for our troubled souls, we claim not only that reality for ourselves but we proclaim that reality for the rest of the world and for the whole of wounded humanity. When you are anointed you proclaim that the Scripture is fulfilled in this very moment, in our hearing. Let the rest of the world take note, this is the year of the Lord’s favour. Though this illness may lay me low I am the Lord’s, though I may be spared I am the Lord’s. It matters not to me, for I am the Lord’s.

This, my friends, is the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what the healing ministry of Jesus was about, the unbreakable claim of the loving Christ no matter the brokenness of our lives. The Holy Spirit has come upon us and anointed each of us with power to proclaim this Good News to the world around us.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, October 9, 2009

What Must I Do To Inherit Eternal Life? A Sermon for Proper 28, Year B, 2009

Sermon for Proper 28
Sunday, October 11th, 2009
Preached at Holy Trinity, Thornhill
Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 10:17-31

As the disciples travelled along the road, a young man, a man of great piety, and of considerable wealth approached Jesus and asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus queried him: Have you kept the commandments of our ancestors? Yes, sir, I have, since my youth. A moment of silence followed, and then Jesus gazed into his eyes, indeed into his heart, with a penetrating gaze. Not a gaze of condemnation, but a gaze of compassion, a hopeful longing gaze, a gaze of divine love. And with this gaze he gave him two tasks: Sell it all, everything you have… and follow me. Leave it all behind, all the cares and troubles that come from wealth laboriously acquired and zealously guarded. Let go of it all, and follow me.

St. Mark is not speaking of an evil man here, but a man who lived a holy and pious life, and certainly a man who, if he followed the commandments of God walked not only in the ways of righteousness but also in the ways of justice. But one wonders what he really desired when he approached Jesus on that day so long ago. Recall his words, what must I do to INHERIT eternal life? Inherit eternal life. Did he mean to possess it as he possessed his wealth? And perhaps he did believe that just as wealth was something to be owned, perhaps also was eternal life. Why would he think any different. What must I do to acquire it, own it, make it my own? Perhaps he also had a glimmer of hope. Perhaps, just maybe, his wealth was indicative of a blessing already upon him. Perhaps his great piety had already earned him what he sought. Perhaps, he asked himself, have I already purchased everlasting bliss through keeping the commandments, through my piety, through my holiness?

It seems to me that in this brief encounter Jesus attempted to change the entire way this young man thought about the world. But was he ready for it? The rich young man approached Jesus seeking to be taught, calling him teacher, but was he ready for the lesson Jesus was about to teach? Was he ready to have his world changed? Was he ready to receive the love offered by that loving gaze? Sadly, he was not. And are we ready for it?

Are we ready to have our worldview challenged? Do we realize when we approach the Lord in prayer, seeking for an answer to the things that trouble our souls, that we are asking to be challenged? Are we open to having our understanding of the Gospel challenged by opening our ears to the challenging words of our Lord and master? Have we not kept the commandments of our ancestors? Do we not come week-by-week to this altar? Do we not place an envelope in the plate? Do we not claim our pews and seats within this place with confidence of our inheritance? Teacher, what must we do to inherit eternal life? Are we prepared to have our Lord gaze upon us, with those loving but challenging eyes and tell us what we really must do? Will we hear his words, will his love penetrate our frigid, obdurate hearts? Will we set aside what prevents us from following our Lord, or will we turn with the young man, and return to a life of safety and security?

What is it to which we cling? What is it that we possess that anchors us in the cares of the world and prevents us from hearing the words of that timeless call, “Follow thou, me?” For that young man in Mark’s Gospel, it was the mistaken belief that eternal life was something to be possessed. He fundamentally misunderstood the fact that eternal life is not something to be owned, like his earthly wealth and possessions. Nor was it something that he could earn, through acts of piety or even justice and mercy. Rather, it is, through God’s graciousness, something to be lived into. Consider the loving eyes of Jesus, looking upon this young, foolish man. God already loved him, God already longed to bestow blessing upon him. “O dear, dear friend, focus not on what ties you to this life, but gaze upon me and look into my eyes, the eyes of love,” says Jesus, “and you will know eternal life. Leave behind the things that sparkle and distract your gaze, look upon your salvation, and follow me.” Oh what words of love and hope, and oh how our hearts break to know that this youngster could not receive them. He was rich with wealth and piety, but truly poor for he rejected the blessing of God.

And so the call goes out to us today. Eternal life does not begin sometime after we have crossed the way from life to death. Rather, it breaks through into the present reality of this life as we follow the way of Jesus, leaving behind the anchors that moor us to our limited potential. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. What can Jesus have meant by this oft-repeated proverb, but this: With our eyes on what anchors us to this transitory life, we too shall live a transitory, finite existence. But, oh, if we shift our gaze and turn to the one that beckons us to follow him on the road of life, what wonders we shall see, what graces we shall know, what joy we shall experience, even in the midst of the loss of what we leave behind.

What is it that holds each one of us back from following that way? I suggest that it is the mistaken belief that this world is home. But it cannot, and never can be home. It is but a road on which we travel. We are a people on the way. We may acquire wealth but it will slip through our grasp. We may receive great honour of position or state in life, but these honours are soon forgotten and the moment of glory passes. And even our loved ones and family, our friends, they too, pass through this transitory life and depart from our eyes. The world changes, and the things of this life pass away, but God changeth not. Even as the things of this world pass through our grasp, the longing, loving eyes of Jesus are ever fixed on us, reminding us that we are on a journey, a journey home. A journey in which we travel together, in which we taste eternal life, not as something that we can earn, or hold, or possess, but rather as a new and glorious reality that God is opening before us as we live our lives along that road, following Jesus.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Says the young man. “How can I possess it like I possess wealth and piety. What must I do?” Lovingly, longingly Jesus gazes at him, and each one of us, “Turn from the foolish belief that you can own it, work for it, or possess it. Lay down your fear and your angst that makes you cling to the things of this world, and follow me. It is not possible for you to do anything to possess eternal life. It is beyond human power. Rather it is through the graciousness of God, for with God all things are possible.

c. 2009 the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Trying to See Who Jesus Is -- A Homily for Back to Church Sunday, 2009

Homily for “Back to Church Sunday,” 2009
Sunday, September 27th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 19:1-10

"He was trying to see who Jesus was..."
--Luke 19:3

A man named Zacchaeus had heard that Jesus was in town. Now this man, Zacchaeus, was probably not well liked by the people of Jericho for he was the chief tax collector. If we think the taxman has a bad reputation today, we would do well to consider for a moment the reputation of the first century tax collector. In Roman occupied Judea, the tax collector would have been seen as a much-hated Roman collaborator. In addition to collecting an unpopular, and widely considered unfair tax, the tax collector would skim a sizeable chunk off the top, or worse, extort an additional amount for himself. Perhaps now, in our world of “Ponzi schemes” and economic fraudsters, we can appreciate what the first century person thought of the tax collector. Is it any wonder that they would have been counted amongst the greatest of sinners? We are told that Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, and as a result, as wealthy as he was, one cannot imagine that he held any popularity amongst the people of his day.

Thus, when Jesus was passing by, it is not hard to understand why others in the crowd would not let Zacchaeus come close. Perhaps he pushed and shoved, with some sense of entitlement, trying to get through. But he was simply ignored. To make things worse, we are told that he was of short stature, he could not even see over the crowd. For some reason, though, he was determined to see Jesus that day. So, he rushed ahead, found a sycamore tree, a small tree to be sure, but large enough so that when he climbed into it he could just see over the heads of the crowd. Well, the jaws must have dropped amongst the crowd, as Jesus immediately spotted Zacchaeus and called to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today!” One can only imagine that moment of awkwardness and surprise as the crowd was silenced at this remarkable interchange – a moment of silence that was soon interrupted by gossipy whispering and grumbling amongst the people.

Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was. How did he know about Jesus? What had he heard? What was it that drew him to find out more? These are aspects of the story that are withheld from us. All we are told is that Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was. With all his doubts about his own self-worth; in full knowledge of how difficult it would be for him to join that crowd gathering around Jesus, he stirred up incredible courage (he knew not from where it came), at went out into the crowd to try and catch a glimpse of the man. He never thought Jesus would catch his eye, much less call his name.

We are a community filled with Zacchaeuses. Each of us has come here with our human brokenness and failures, but also with our hopes and dreams. Each of us comes with our history of joy and sorrow, and our yet-to-be-discovered divine potential. There is not a one amongst us that has not asked the questions: Will I fit in? What will they think of me? Am I good enough? Yet as we draw closer to the crowd, that fear seems to dissipate, for as we climb awkwardly into that sorry little tree, and peer over the heads of others we are spotted; the eyes of our hearts are met by the eyes of the heart of another, who calls us by name. We have to look around from side to side; is it me that you are calling, or someone else with the same name? No, it is I. It is a fearful moment when all time seems to stop, and yet an exciting moment. It is a moment of being found amongst the crowd. Me, Lord? Me? Really? The tax collector? You must have at it wrong!

“No, indeed,” he says, “There is no mistake, I’m coming home with you today, for like everyone in this crowd, you also, are one of my children … You are a beloved child of God.”

The crowd around seems baffled at first. They ask the same question that is upon Zaccheus’s heart. How could Jesus love one such as him? But, it does not take long for the answer to come to them, for one by one they realize that Zacchaeus’s story is also their own story. One by one their hearts and minds turn back to the moment in which they had wondered who Jesus was and how he picked them out of the crowd in which they found themselves, and said to them, “I’m coming home with you today.”

Am I worthy? Will I fit in? I’m not sure I can be the kind of person that I’m expected to be. I’m not sure I believe all the right things.

I suspect these were questions rumbling around the depths of the Zacchaeus’s heart. And if we are honest with ourselves, I am sure that they are questions that we secretly harbour. Yet, in spite of these questions, in spite of what everyone might think of him, in spite of what he felt about himself, Zacchaeus still wondered who Jesus was and thought he’d take a peek. Somehow, strangely, when Jesus caught his eye, those questions seemed no longer important, for they were eclipsed by a much greater reality – Zacchaeus learned that he was God’s child, that he mattered deeply to Jesus, that he was loved profoundly by Jesus, so much so that the Lord went home with him that day.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Take the Risk and Dare! A Homily for Proper 24, Year B, 2009

Homily for Proper 24, Year B, 2009
Sunday, September 13th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 8:27-38

“Let them take up their cross and follow me.”
-Mark 8:34

(authors note: This homily was preached as we were preparing to invite friends & neighbours to church for the upcoming "Back to Church Sunday" - Sept. 27th, 2009)

When Jesus asks the disciples “Who do people say that I am?” and the Disciples start making guesses like “John the Baptist,” or “Elijah”, Peter is the one who gets it right. “You are the Messiah!” he proclaims boldly. This proclamation is remarkable because, as we have learned as we have read through St. Mark this year, the disciples rarely get it right; they rarely understand who Jesus is and what it means to be his follower. And yet, here, when asked directly, Peter gets it right. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Now we might ask, how and why does Peter get it right in this circumstance? I would suggest that by simply spending time with Jesus day after day, by building a relationship with him, Peter has finally begun to know Jesus more deeply and more fully. What remarkable good news this is for us! We come here to this place week after week, we say our prayers, read the Scriptures, sing the hymns, and make our Communion. If we add up worship time alone (not to mention our private devotion and prayer), we will find that most of us have spent a lot of time with Jesus. Like the disciples, though, we often fail understand and know him. Yet, each of us has moments in which we can confidently proclaim, like Peter, “You are the Messiah!” We have those moments of clarity when we recognize in Christ Jesus the living God is in our midst and we rejoice in his abiding presence.

Of course, Peter quickly messes it all up. When Peter learns that Jesus must undergo great suffering and ultimately death. Peter stands back in astonishment. “No, it can’t be so!” To be clear, Jesus did also prophesy his Resurrection, but that point seems to have slipped past Peter. Jesus then rebukes Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Alas, poor Peter has back to his old ways. So do we.

I think what frightened Peter, and what frightens us, is facing the risk of the Christian life. The risk, for Jesus, was the most horrifying risk that could be taken – public execution. Would the prophecy of his resurrection come to pass, or would it all be for nothing? This was the risk that Jesus had to take. Surely, the task before him demanded divine courage. For Peter, at that moment, it was all too much; divine courage escaped him. This is why Jesus rebukes him with “Get thee behind me Satan!” Although Peter was confident that Jesus was the Messiah, he was not so confident in what it meant to follow Jesus. If his Lord must undergo such tremendous risk, what would be the risk he was called to take?

This is a question that is ever before the Church throughout the ages. What are we willing to risk for the sake of new life? What is the crucifixion we must face before we experience the joyful Eastertide of Resurrection? There are many things. I want to address one particular fear we Anglicans are to which we Anglicans are prone – the fear of sharing our faith with others.

There are two verses that actually complete today’s gospel reading that have been left off (and you all know that I enjoy bringing these omissions into my homilies). I believe they might help us. They read

“Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of man will be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not face death until they see the kingdom of God has come with power.”

These verses are fairly strongly worded and one can see the reason why they might be left out of the lectionary. However, I think they provide a key to understanding today’s passage and a key for us as we try to unlock the mystery of the risks that stand before us today. (And before you begin squirming in your pew too much, I do not believe this passage is about shaming us into sharing our faith!)

So what risk is God calling us to take and what is the fear that stands in our way from stepping out in faith? Like many Anglicans, in recent days we have had much talk about declining attendance and the possible solutions to this problem. There are many scapegoats. We can claim that the changing demographics of our neighbourhood have contributed to decline. We can claim that our worship style is out of date or that programs are not relevant. We resign ourselves to the fact that people are too busy to come to Church. The truth is that we can make any number of changes but unless we actually invite people through these doors, internal changes will mean nothing to the advancement of God’s kingdom. I think that we must also be aware of an even greater fallacy of thinking. I would suggest that declining attendance is not the problem. A radical assertion, I know, but I do not actually believe God cares about the survival of any given parish Church. Rather I believe that God cares about the furtherance of the Kingdom of God. Growth is about growing and advancing the kingdom, not saving a parish in decline. If instead of advancing the Kingdom of God, saving the parish is our primary goal then we will lose everything – what will it profit us to gain the world but lose our spiritual life? If we choose not to participate in the true proclamation of the kingdom and the advancement of the Reign of God here in this community, then God will call others to take the risk in our stead.

Ultimately, Peter joined in that task. After proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, he was rebuked but for a moment as he was overcome by the risk that was set before him. But when all was said and done and the story unfolded, his experience of journeying with Jesus through his life, death and resurrection stirred up within him divine courage that he might join the work of the furthering the Kingdom of God. Though rebuked for a moment by the Son of Man, the Son of Man was not ashamed of Peter and Peter became first among Disciples.

We stand at a crossroad today. Each of us is here because we believe, we profoundly believe, that Jesus is the Messiah. We are here, and come here again and again because we have journeyed this far with Jesus. We now face a moment of risk. What shall be the future of the Kingdom in this historic place? Do we dare to risk?

The truth is I do not believe we are ashamed of the Gospel nor are we ashamed of Jesus. I know that Jesus has touched the lives of each and every person here, or you would not be here! I think that as Anglicans we might just be a bit shy. Perhaps it is our Victorian heritage, but there is something that makes us nervous about inviting someone to join us. “Would you come to Church with me,” seems as frightening to us as Jesus’ prophecy was to Peter about the road to the cross. I say it again: I do not believe we are ashamed. I believe that like Peter we have found the Messiah, we have followed him, we proclaim him again and again as our Lord and Master. Yet, like Peter, when called to face something more, we are more than a little scared. That is human, but to risk, to reach out to another and invite them to join us is to draw on the divine courage that we have with Jesus as our friend.

Jesus said, “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God has come with great power.” I have never believed this was a prophecy about the future. I believe that this was a word to his followers that the kingdom is upon us this very minute. As Jesus stands in our midst her in this church, his kingdom is breaking through as we speak. We are witnesses to that glory.

Let us then, who have walked in the presence of the Lord, in the glory of the Lord, take the risk of faith and invite someone else to join the journey of the kingdom. Let us face the fear before us with divine courage; a courage that comes from knowing Jesus and offer that gentle invitation to friend and neighbour, “Come and see!” Invite a friend into the Kingdom.

Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Saturday, August 29, 2009

For it is from Within: A Homily for Proper 22, Year B, 2009

Homily for Proper 22, Year B, 2009
Sunday, August 30th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark: 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

“For it is from within…”
--Mark 7:21

A dispute with the Pharisees, sandwiched between miraculous deeds of power and healing – just what was St. Mark up to, when he chose to include this rather obscure episode in the life of Jesus? Our understanding of this passage is perhaps further impeded by the fragmentary nature of the text as it appears in our lectionary. Once again, in an attempt to provide some focus and clarity, and omit passages that may direct us away from the core message of this text, the framers of the lectionary have omitted several passages. In one way, we may wish to thank them for it for we are spared an excursus on how certain Pharisees dodged the fifth commandment (“honour thy father and mother”) and their filial responsibilities by making offerings to God rather than supporting aged parents. We are also spared Jesus’ explanation of today’s parable by way of analogy to a description of how the human digestive tract works. These excised passages fall within the larger episode, which I will now review, of Jesus encountering a group of Pharisees who accuse his disciples of not following pharisaic oral law. Apparently Jesus’ disciples abrogated purity traditions by failing to wash their hands before meal. Jesus responds by leveling the charge of hypocrisy at the Pharisees. This is where he points out they seem to have forgotten the fifth commandment. Next, he seeks to overturn the meaning of the purity laws by explaining that it is not what goes into a person that defiles them but what comes out of a person. He then takes aside the disciples, that ever-so-dunce group, and explains to them just what he means by this, illustrating his parable by means of the digestive tract analogy. The moral lesson is then expounded: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

While I am sure that there are things that might yet be added to this list, and it seems quite thorough, there may be many little, lesser sins that are neglected. Realizing that we have not committed some of the greater sins, like murder or theft, does not get us off the hook. One would do well to remember that this list seems to be representative rather than exclusive, and that that all of us have fallen short of the glory of God. Thus, the point of Jesus’ parable is clear and should be simple, should it not? Just don’t do bad things and all will be well.

I suppose it should be that simple, and yet I wonder why it is we continue to get it wrong? I had moments in the last week, when despite my best efforts and striving, I could just not love my neighbour, much less my enemy. I am certain I am not alone in such realizations. I cannot tell you how many people I have had come to me that have been hurt by family or friends and have said, “Father, I know I am supposed to forgive, that is what is commanded of me as a Christian, but I just can’t do it.”

And therein rests our dilemma as Christian people, and the dilemma that is at the heart of this confrontation with the Pharisees. In this conflict over purity regulations that seem obscure to us today but essentially a conflict over how people of faith are to behave, is unearthed a conflict between the desire to do the right thing and the practical problem of how to live out of this desire.

If we were to rely only on the gospel narratives, we would only have a picture of the Pharisees as legalistic hypocrites who espouse strict laws but cannot keep them. Other sources tell us another story, though. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Pharisees are called “the seekers after smooth things” because they are not really so strict in their observance in the laws, but rather, they find loopholes to get around strict Torah observance. Indeed, Jesus himself, seems to be making such a criticism of them with respect to the fifth commandment. Perhaps a more charitable, and historically accurate picture might be that they developed traditions and customs to help them keep the commandments, to be better, holier people, to keep them precisely from the kind of sin about which Jesus was speaking. Let us not be too hard on the old Pharisees, because is not what they did precisely what we do as a church? Do we not make canons and rules to order our common life for the common good, for the advancement of God’s kingdom?

I see in this text a tension between two very real realities in which we live and move daily. On the one hand, there is crucial importance of the converted heart and the personal experience of God that changes the way we live. On the other hand, there is the ongoing reality that we live a common life in the shared polis of the world. We all know of course, that life lived together, even in the community of the faithful is a far from any utopian ideal. Thus, the Pharisees were deeply concerned with ordering their shared life together in a faithful way. But, the Pharisees have become so concerned about what one of my old professors called “building a fence around the Torah” (that is to say that if I make a set of rules that keeps me from getting close to the commandments of God I will never break those rules), that they have lost the experience of a relationship with God. Jesus seeks to remind the disciples (and the Pharisees) that without an experience of God, following rules will not keep us from destructive behaviour; indeed, even our rules have the potential to become destructive.

Thus, I believe that Jesus’ words can be read, and must be read, on two levels. The first level – the surface level -- is his instruction that destructive behaviour, let us call it sin, comes from the heart. The surface reading only identifies the problem. The solution has variously been to make rules outlawing the sin and punishments for those who break the rules. This may be crucial to a well-ordered society, but does it bring us any closer to God? Rules are crucial, but do they give life or transform the heart? Therefore, I suggest we go deeper and explore a second level of meaning, and for this we return to the question of just why did Mark place this episode where he did, between stories of healings and demonstrations of power? The answer, I think, is clear. The heart is not changed because we force it to change; rather the heart is transformed by the power of God.

Sandwiched between stories of the feeding of the multitudes, Jesus walking calmly across a stormy sea, and the healing of the sick people of Genesaret on one side, and on the other, the casting out of a demon from the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, the curing of a deaf man, and another miraculous feeding of the multitudes, is it not clear, that God in Christ is transforming us? The feeding stories are signs that we are given the spiritual food we need to sustain us, the healing stories are signs that our human brokenness, and yes our sinfulness is mended by God, and the nature miracles are miracles in which the forces that threaten to overwhelm us are calmed. And in the centre of it all is this story about our hearts. The human heart can hurl rage and hurt and destructive power, or it can surrender its hurtful impulses to Jesus and be transformed and itself become the temple of holiness, the temple of the Lord. When the heart weeps, Jesus seeks to console it. When the heart rages, Jesus seeks to calm the raging waters and winds. When the heart hungers, Jesus seeks to feed it. Let us then go to the table of the Lord, whether or not we have first washed our hands.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Put on the Whole Armour of God – or Shall We? A Homily for Proper 21 Year B

Homily for Proper 21, Year B, 2009
Sunday, August 23rd, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Ephesians 6:10-20

“Put on the whole armour of God.”
--Ephesians 6:11

May I make a confession? I do not find the militaristic language of putting on the “whole armour of God,” to be terribly helpful language. Of course, I mean no disrespect to those who have served or continue to serve in the military. The image is simply outside of the realm of my own experience. I have never served, and please God, never will serve in a uniform nor raise a sword against another human being. And to be quite honest, as someone who believes the Christian gospel to be a message of peace, I find the language troublesome. While I do realize that the militaristic language used is about battling supernatural evil and standing against life-destroying powers of darkness, it is all to easy, and we are all-too-ready, to point out and judge evil without much critical thought or reflection. Too be sure, we should stand against the forces of evil that threaten God’s good gift of life, but I think that often we name as evil things that simply frighten our sense of well-being and security, things that challenge us, and in the end we learn that they are not evil at all. Furthermore, we spend much time looking for evil in those around us and forgetting our own propensity to harm others. I find this troubling. Thus, this passage’s militaristic metaphors of armour and battle may serve more to mislead than to encourage.

To deepen my wariness of such language and metaphor is the way the Church has appropriated such this particular passage in hymnody and its Christian Education. Now, I know that Onward Christian Soldiers will be a much-beloved hymn to many and I am aware of the arguments that state that the language of such a hymn is simply symbolic or a metaphor for the Christian life. But there is no such thing as a “simple” metaphor or as something being “just” a symbol. Symbols and metaphors are things of great power. They carry within them a depth of meaning that is internalized and then lived out in practice. Should we choose to see the mission of the Church as “marching as to war” then we make it in the nature of our faith to conquer, suppress, and hurt others in whom we perceive the forces of evil at work. There can be no other outcome -- in wars people are hurt, are maimed, and are killed. And whether or not we physically hurt others, through living out this metaphor we have within us the potential to do incredible psychological and spiritual harm to others, not to mention ourselves. The men and women around Jesus expected him to draw the sword and overthrow the oppressor, but Jesus overcame evil not through shows of force but with a demonstration of humility. Indeed, our Lord’s humble self-offering robs such frightful metaphors of their power.

Sadly, though, the Church has laid hold of this particular metaphor as near and dear. Many who grew up in conservative Christian traditions will remember being taught to memorize Scripture, as a sort of “sword drill” in which memorized passages are sputtered out in attack against all manner of heresy because the “sword of the Spirit is the Word of God.” What kind of Christian education is this? The Word of God as a weapon to attack another child of God leaves me cold.

As we hear Scripture proclaimed in our assemblies and as we read our sacred texts we discover, though, that Scripture is graced with an abundance and variety of metaphor. We are not restricted to one particular militaristic metaphor that speaks of the Christian life; rather we have an expansive repertoire on which to draw. We are free to think in multiplicity of metaphor; where one ceases to function with meaning, we return to the core of our faith and begin to explore new ones. This is exactly what Paul was doing when he first employed this militaristic language. It was a language that made sense in his context. When Jesus went about his preaching, he used agricultural metaphors, of seeds scattered and vineyards planted, for he preached amongst a rural people. When Paul began his preaching, his metaphorical grammar shifted, to a language of sport and battle, of races won and battles fought. He did so because the people to whom he preached were an urban people and these were urban metaphors.

Who are we, and what does the gospel of Christ have to say to the world in which we live? What are the metaphors needed today to share the word of faith? Most importantly, though, what is at the heart of any metaphor of the Christian faith, and what does the metaphor proclaim?

If we leave aside the armour metaphor itself for a moment, let us consider Paul’s purpose in using it. He begins this passage by asserting, “be strong in the Lord.” He ends the passage by praying that he might “make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel.” Within this context of strength and boldness, the militaristic metaphor surely makes sense. Yet, when we consider where it is that we find our strength, truly, I feel drawn in another direction, to a servant-king, whose humility and gentleness were stronger than any sword, shield, helmet or spear. I am drawn to the metaphor of a master who bends down to wash the feet of his servant. I am drawn to the metaphor of the great physician who when we are found lifeless, beckons to us in words of hope, “wake up, come forth.” I am drawn to the metaphor of a mother hen gathering her brood within her embrace. I am drawn to the metaphor of a good shepherd who suffers not the loss of one of his flock. These, too, are bold metaphors – bold in their gentleness, and bold in their claim to power in vulnerability.

How do we proclaim our gentle faith boldly in our context? What are our metaphors?

When someone among us feels lonely, having lost their life partner, and indeed their own hope for the future, shall we not take the risk of wrapping them in the blanket of compassion, which is the embrace of Lord?

When someone has been given the heart-breaking news that their job will come to end, or even more tragically, that they are faced with chronic or terminal illness, shall we not take the risk to be their companion and walk with them on the Emmaus road, a road in which tears are wiped away; a path, which is the presence of our Lord?

When someone has been immobilized emotionally, psychologically, physically, by forces beyond their control, shall we not take the risk of offering the word of encouragement, which is the Word made flesh, in whom we live and move and have our being?

And when someone is overtaken by the poverty of hunger and pangs of thirst, shall we not offer them food and drink, which is truly the life-giving body and blood of our Lord.

Boldness in humility, proclamation in acts of gentleness: These are the metaphors that give me strength, and yes, I believe they are true to Paul’s longing to preach the Word of God boldly. These are the metaphors that clothe me in Christ. There are, for each of us, many more. It would be a shame if we chose not to explore them.

c. 2009 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.

Friday, August 14, 2009

"To Be or Not To Be": The Crisis of Faith -- A Homily for Proper 20, Year B, 2009

Homily for Proper 20, Year B, 2009
Sunday, August 16th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Ephesians 5:15-20

"Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of time..."
--Ephesians 5:15-16

Our short selection from Ephesians is a study in contrasts: be wise, not foolish; be filled with the Spirit, not with wine; and while the times may be dark and evil, rejoice, sing and give thanks.

In previously reflecting on St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I have spoken about how the first half of the letter is about the content of Christian belief, while the second half of the letter is about the content of the Christian life. We call these kerygma and paraneisis. There is the message, and there is action. But I have also argued previously that the “action” or the way of life is not what brings about faith, but is what flows out of a faithful life. I maintain that it is all too easy for us to think that doing the right things will make us better people. Rather, I emphatically believe that it is God that transforms our innermost being and outermost shape in order that we might become the beautiful creations he intended us to be! To be created in his image and conformed to his likeness – this is both the content and action of faith. And while it would be easy to read the letters of Paul and the writings of his school in a simplistic fashion that reveals the secrets of successful Christian living, it would be a shame if this was all we got from a reading of the Epistle to the Ephesians. Sadly, this is how many choose to read this text, as a handbook for how to live. But, oh! How much more there is for us to see in these hallowed pages, because how to live is but the surface; Paul’s express purpose is to tell us who we are! The letters of Paul and, in fact, the entirety of the Christian Scriptures is less about what we do and entirely about who we are.

The verb, “to be” is a wonderful verb. It encapsulates so much. It is at once pragmatic and yet mystical. “Being” is both rooted in our material reality and our eternal purpose. And the nexus at which they intersect is place in which all the angst of our material finitude confronts the glory of God’s eternal goodness. It is a frightful moment of decision. It is the moment in which we have the opportunity to embrace the goodness that knows no beginning or ending, or drown in the river of eternal nothingness. To be, to truly “be” is to embrace the reality in which we live, in the presence of that eternal reality from which the heavens and the earth take their meaning. It is in this moment of decision, when we utter the eternal Shakespearean cry, “to be or not to be,” that we both choose and abandon ourselves.

Should we choose not “to be,” we say “no” to life, “no” to both the beauty of this wondrous, divine, material creation, and “no” to the glories of eternal goodness and unending beauty. This is choice. And in this choice we let ourselves go. We abandon all hope for life. The world, both material and eternal, becomes unmanageable, untenable, unbelievable, unlivable, and then (As T.S. Eliot wrote in the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock), “human voices wake us and we drown.” We drown in nothingness.

Should we choose “to be”, though, we say “yes” to both the beauty of this wondrous, divine, material creation, whose splendours seem freshly new to our transformed eyes; and “yes” to the eternal goodness and unending beauty that surrounds, enfolds, and knows us from our mothers’ wombs. All that is in the world takes on new and brilliant meaning in the brilliant light of all that is eternal. And in one single moment, a moment of choice in which we say “yes,” I will face that bottomless chasm, I will face those fog-filled frightening streets, and the chasm closes, the fog dissipates, and then, our eyes are opened to the reality that no chasm can claim us and no fog can cloud our way! Choosing to face the demon that threatens us and the power that threatens to overwhelm us is to claim the reality that we, that I, cannot make the demon disappear or defeat the power with shows of brutal force or acts of will. My choice is simply “to be” before the chasm, to stand at the head of the fog-filled street, to face the demon, and hand myself over to eternal goodness. We abandon not hope, but our reliance on our limited power and stand before the Almighty who alone makes us who we need to be; who we were made to be.

In the nexus of choice and abandonment we meet the Christ.

The words immediately preceding today’s passage are the words, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” It is into death; it is into non-being, that Christ shines his light! It is into meaninglessness, that the radiance of eternal meaning is shone! It is into our failed attempts at making our own meaning that the meaning of God gathers us into the hope-filled meaning of sacred history.

“Be wise, not foolish.” Across frightening chasms, and down fog-filled streets heaven touches earth in the companionship of Christ. It is in tears along the Emmaus road that hearts are warmed and eyes are opened. What glories we would miss if chose not to walk the road, or abandon ourselves to the baptism of our tears?

“Be filled, with the Spirit, not with wine.” Wine can function as a symbol of life or symbol of despair, and while in much of Scripture the life-giving properties of wine are emphasized and extolled, in this instance it stands as symbol of denial, and as a metaphor of self-destruction. When we cannot face the chasm or fog-filled streets, and are afraid of the death they might bring, with sad irony we drown ourselves; kill ourselves with self-destructive behaviours. Each of us knows in the depths of our hearts what our own particular self-destructive patterns are. But there is a better course: We can stand before the chasm or fog in awe and trembling, but with the courage of heaven as our friend we shall be filled with the Spirit that collapses heaven and earth, and be led into a new and bounteous promised land.

“Give thanks in the name of Christ, sing hymns and songs, and make a melody to the Lord in your hearts.” The days are evil. But we make them so. It need not be thus, for in Christ we are a new creation. In Christ we choose to face the evil with song and thanksgiving, robbing evil of its fearful power and negating guile. In Christ we abandon ourselves to the worst possible fate knowing that should even death take us, death will not rob us of our sacred identity or life’s holy meaning. As the chorus sung in that ancient Greek drama by Aeschylus, “be sorrow, sorrow spoken, but let the good prevail!”

“To be or not to be?” Ah, ‘tis indeed the question for people of faith, and for all who walk this earth. In the moment on the edge of the chasm we face a choice of life and death; between being and non-being; between meaning and meaninglessness. Let us choose life. Before the fog-filled street of fear we must abandon ourselves, either into drowning nothingness or into holy meaning in the embrace of our Lord. Let us abandon ourselves into his holy embrace. Then, indeed in the midst of sorrow and pain, heaven will touch earth, and a song of praise be stirred in our hearts and sound from our lips.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"Be Imitators of God" -- A Homily for Proper 19 Year B

Homily for Proper 19, Year B, 2009
Sunday, August 9th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Ephesians 4:25-5:2

The late archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, once wrote (perhaps somewhat harshly) about the reformer John Calvin’s view of the Church:

For Calvin, the Church is rather utilitarian. It is not perceived as the glow of Christ’s incarnate presence; it is the policeman sent to protect the Christian life by commands and prohibitions. Here is discipline, without the sense of union with the death and life of Christ which gives meaning… (Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church. London: Longman, 1936, p. 197)

Whether or not this is a fair assessment of Calvin’s understanding of the Church, it could certainly be argued that it is a fair assessment of how the world sees the Church. To many in the world, the Church is a society governed by harsh rules, rules to which few can measure up, rules that are imposed and policed by harsh disciplinarians known as clergy and bishops. And we must ask ourselves, if at some level, this is how many within our own ranks view the so-called life of faith. Do we ourselves think that the Christian life is about ordering our own lives in a particularly rigid disciplinarian manner that we can never hope to live out? Do we ourselves think that a Christian life is about living a life in which I would do all the right things, behave the right way, and ultimately live by the impossible axiom “what would Jesus do?”

If we, to some measure, believe this to be true, and if it how we are perceived by the world around us, is it any wonder that the Church is seen as a less than viable option in this post-modern age of relative values and institutional skepticism. For some, I suppose, the need to have rules imposed on them in the midst of such uncertain times is a longing for comfort and security. I believe this is directly attributable to the growth of conservative and fundamentalist sects and denominations. Yet, for most, the Christian Church is seen as a society of rigid disciplinarianism to which they will never be able to conform. As I have written elsewhere, I believe this is the reason why the so tenaciously proclaimed mantra of our age is “I am a spiritual person, but not religious.”

The truth is, that most who proclaim a self-professed spirituality proclaim a poorly conceptualized, severely unreflective, and woefully inadequate expression of the divine that is rarely grounded in an authentic experience of the numinous but rather finds its origins in a longing to set itself apart from something it despises, namely a religion of discipline and works, governed by ecclesiastical policemen.

If such a person were to cursorily read through St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, they might feel self-righteously justified in their scathing assessment of the Church. At first glance, the second half of the letter (which we are reading through this month) seems filled with rules and codes for living out the life of faith. “Aha!” they might proclaim, “Rules, rules, rules! I knew it! And look at them all, so hopelessly out of date, ‘wives obey your husbands and slaves obey your masters!’ It’s all about domination and control” (I do plan to address these rules and codes in the days ahead, but will leave them aside for a moment). Should I have the opportunity to engage in a conversation with such a person, I would encourage them to read a little more deeply, a little more carefully into the letter (for the task of learning to read a text more carefully and deeply is always a fruitful task, even when reading texts with which we so vociferously disagree).

At the culmination of today’s passage we read, “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5.1). There my reading partner might strike out at me with such self-assuredness, “There it is – be imitators of God! How can one be an imitator of the one who is perfect? Is this not an unreasonable demand? Is this not what leads up to all those rules we can’t fulfill, and the ecclesiastical cops who punish us for not keeping God’s commandments?” On the other hand there might be those in the Church who blindly accept Paul’s saying as the embodiment of Christianity, “There it is in black and white, ‘what would Jesus do’… that’s what is expected of me as a Christian.” And this sort of simplistic reading would only strengthen the resolve and cement the case of my skeptical friend. But to get to the crux of the matter, we must truly ask what it means to be imitators of God, and what does this say about the living out of the Christian life.

In the ancient Greek world, of which Paul and his followers were very much a part, the concept of imitation, or mimesis (in Greek) was very much a cosmological concept. In Plato, for example the things we see around us are an imitation of an ideal form. Thus, for the ancients the concept of imitation was about copying the ideal, but more a conformity to the ideal or representation of the ideal. The first century Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo saw procreation as an imitation or mimesis of God as creator. Thus, human beings at their most intrinsic level as creations of God seek conformity to the ideal of God. There is a desire and longing deep within us to show forth the light of our creator in our lives by imitating the creator. Yet, all our efforts at doing so tend to fail. For this reason, Christ came into the world, that we might therefore be restored to the image of God and conform to God’s likeness, not through our own effort, but through the work of God in Christ.

Therefore, it seems to me (and some would argue to the contrary) that what Paul is trying to suggest is not that we become like God through copying him, but rather that because Christ has restored us to God, as we put on Christ we become conformed to God’s likeness, in whose image we are created. This is what it means to be imitators of God. It is to find our true character, our true nature, in Christ. Good works and a holy life flow from this reality. This would have been a radical assertion to many in first century Judaism who might have perceived this conforming to the image and likeness of God in an idolatrous way. It is however, crucial to the thought of Paul and his heirs, and crucial to our understanding of what the Church is.

In Ephesians 1:22-23 we read, “The Church is his (Christ’s) body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” There is a clear assertion that as in Christ we experience the fullness of God, as his body the Church, too,is filled with the fullness of God. Again, in 3:21 we read, “in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you are also built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” For Paul, God literally resides in our shared common life. In 3:18-19 Paul prays that we may have the power to comprehend the fact of Christ’s broad and deep love that we might be filled with the fullness of God. This is all to say that our shared life as Christian people, as the Church, is a life in which we are conformed to his image and likeness. This is the imitation of God, that the world might come to see God in the body of his Christ, which is the Church. This is the point against which Archbishop Ramsey was responding. What most people see is a society of rigid disciplinarians, what God intends them to see is his reconciling love for the world.

But still we ask, how can this be? In what way is this reconciling love manifest? The temptation is of course to try to force the issue through works of piety and charity. The temptation is to try with all our might to be like Jesus, to do what Jesus would do. But that is putting the cart before the horse. The answer to this dilemma is, I believe, to be found in that same verse that ends today’s reading, previously quoted, “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” They key, phrase I suggest is “as beloved children.” Now my skeptical friend who professes spirituality over religion will immediately understand another example of how people of faith are to be like children who blindly follow those in authority. Not so! I respond (And those of us who have had children will know how rarely children blindly follow their parents admonitions in any case). What does Paul mean by this? I once again suggest returning to the ancient world and the context from which the letter first emerged.

Athena and I have been listening to an audio recording of Homer’s The Odyssey. In the early chapters of the story are about the coming of age of Telemachos, the son of Odysseus who is long thought dead while returning from the Battle of Troy. Telemachos’s home is overrun by haughty suitors who seek his mother’s hand ignoring the honour of youthful Telemachos. The goddess Athena sees the plight of Telemachos and comes to him, telling him he is no longer a child but a man, and that he must go and find his father and that together they will drive out the suitors. Thus, Telemachos under the watchful eye of Pallas Athena, begins a journey to seek word of his father and visits his father’s old battle companions, wise kings. The important thing in all of this that king after king recognizes Telemachos as the son of Odysseus, because he speaks in wise words, beyond his years. This is in stark contrast to the haughty suitors whose insolence blinds them to the fact that in person of the son, the father was yet in their midst. The child Telemachos has become the image of his father. This is the kind of imitation of Paul speaks, this is mimesis. It came not from trying to be a man, but simply from the fact that in his faithfulness to his father, he had grown into a man – a man in his father’s image, quite contrary to the character of the haughty suitors.

I believe this is the context out of which Paul writes. To grow into maturity is to become the imitation of the ideal parent. Again imitation is not understood as simply copying the actions of the parent, for simply copying the actions of another is not what makes you into your parent, rather imitation, as understood as mimesis, is a sign that you are growing into the ideal, into maturity, into your truest character.

For Paul, what is the sign of maturity? What does God do in Christ? What is the ideal? It is to love and forgive. All our ethics, all our rules, the way we order our life and society, the way we order the Church are all to flow from this reality, that God loves us and offers us the grace of his forgiveness. As we grow into maturity, this is the life we come to imitate, not through human effort but because it is who we are. Because God put on man, we are able to put on God, in Christ. Thus, our true character in Christ is to touch our divine potential and we become capable of things that were once foreign to our fallen nature – to love and forgive. Love and forgiveness are not concepts that can be emulated but only offered from a place of deep authenticity and are a mark of character. When the Church decides to focus less on the discipline of faith and instead recognize within itself the character of Christ then shall the world perceive the glow of Christ’s incarnate presence.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves