Saturday, January 31, 2009

A New Teaching With Authority

Sermon for Proper 4, Year B, 2009
Sunday, February 1st, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON

The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 1:21-28

As many will know, Holy Trinity has been engaged in a process called Natural Church Development over the past couple of years. The tools of NCD allow us, through an annual survey, to capture a snapshot of where we are in several key areas of church life. Reflection on these results helps us to better understand who we are as the people of God in this place and the direction to which we are being called in the future. The survey provides us a snapshot of our weaknesses and our strengths. We know that like many Anglican Churches, we scored low in the area of Passionate Spirituality. One of the questions asked under this heading was “Do you believe that God will work even more powerfully in our church in the coming years.” Not only did we score low on this question but in our most recent survey our scored dropped. One must ask, therefore, what we believe about the ministry to which we are called in this community. A deeper question is must also be posed, “Do I believe that God works powerfully in my life?” If we do not believe that God works in our lives how will we believe that God works powerfully in the Church? Quite frankly, I don’t know what people believe about this question, but I do suspect that there are many, not only in this parish but in the Church at large, that find it hard to believe that God is active and working in their lives.

The story related in today’s Gospel is the first glimpse we get at the public teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. What is so crucial about this passage is not the content of his teaching (for indeed, we are not told what he preached) but the character of his preaching: “he taught them as one having great authority.” The word “authority” has many connotations, and in the Greek one such connotation is the sense of “dominion.” Thus I believe that Mark is suggesting that Jesus is here asserting the authority of the dominion or reign of God. I believe this reading is borne out by what he does next. His authority is demonstrated by the casting out of a demon from a man in the synagogue. His teaching was proved to be powerful because of the power he demonstrated before the eyes of all around him.

Let us now return to the question that I first posed. Each of us have heard the story of Jesus, we know the teaching of the gospel, and at some level we believe it, but do we live as if it were true? As many writers have reflected of late, we may be functional atheists. We believe the tenants of faith as abstract principles but we do not believe that God actually makes a difference in our lives.

Now, let us continue with the story of the exorcism in today’s gospel. Very clearly, the story as told is a clear demonstration of Jesus’ power and authority. It is a power and authority that creates awe amongst those who witness it and they, in turn, spread his fame throughout the countryside. It is an authority that inspires faith. Yet, I would suggest that we need to probe the meaning of this exorcism more deeply. For I do not believe that the story before us is primarily a story about exorcisms per se, but about what Jesus does to transform the lives of people and release them from bondage. It is a story that tells us not first and foremost about the casting out of demons, but rather about the power of God in Christ to work within us more powerfully than we can ask or imagine and cast out the demons that prevent us from seeing his mighty acts of power in our lives.

I would suggest to you that Anglicans are typically wary of such language because such seems to connote for many a kind of ostentatious spirituality that is more about show than substance. I wonder even when we ask the question about “God working more powerfully in our parish” if we are conjuring up images of fantastic exorcisms televangelistic healings? But what if the so-called demon is not so much an external force, but the impulse that keeps us from engaging in the reality of our lives, our troubles, and our angst in the context of a God who sees through it all and beckons us forth, casting away the things that enslave us? What if the demon is our blindness to seeing an active God?

The words of this particular demon speak directly, I believe, to what we believe and don’t believe about a God who has the power to change our lives. When the demon first encounters Jesus, his response to Jesus is ambivalent, “What have you to do with me?” It is easy for us to believe that this is a question spoken by those outside these walls. The world really doesn’t know or even care what Jesus can do for them. What has he to do with me? Yet, we must be honest with ourselves and ask, how often have we thought this about God? How often have we believed that God is distant and irrelevant in our lives as we are engaged in the business of muddling our way through this life? Thus, the words of this demon echo deeply within us as a reality many of us face on our journey of faith, namely, how our busy lives distract us from God’s persistent beckoning.

Next, the demon is hostile. He shouts, “Have you come to destroy us?” Again, honesty compels us to admit, that hostility to God is not simply felt by those who choose not to believe in God, but felt by those of us who proclaim our trust in him. Who amongst us has not cursed God for a tragic loss, a turn of fate that has disabled us, or an unfair judgment upon us. Thus, words of this demon once again unmask a certain frightening reality in our journey of faith, namely how our human disappointment eclipses God’s good gifts.

Finally, the demon attempts to gain control over Jesus. In the ancient world, a spell was affected by the naming of the subject over which the spell was being cast. Thus, “Jesus of Nazareth, I know who you are!” is not so much a recognition or submission of the demon to Jesus but an attempt to gain control over him. And again, we must ask ourselves about the times that God has set the way open for us and we choose not to follow his chosen path but seized our way and followed our own path. Once more, I speak not only about those outside these wall but about you and me, and the stubbornness we exhibit when we insist on our own way, when God has graciously opened a way for us.

Honesty compels us to admit, I think, that we might share more with the demon in this story than we would ever wish to confess. This is our human condition, though. We are each prone to ambivalence about God, hostility to God, and the desire to control God. Whatever it is that makes us this way, be it fear or be it sin, I think it behooves us to recognize it and name it. It is the thing that prevents us from believing that God will work powerfully amongst us in the days to come.

If we learn anything from the Gospel of Mark, though, we are to learn that the Kingdom of God has come very near indeed. Sometimes it is so near that we miss it. As the kingdom approaches we are confronted with a new reality, that things do not have to remain the same, and more importantly, that we do not have to remain the same. Ambivalence and apathy can be replaced by engagement and passion; hostility can be replaced by love and reconciliation; the need to control can be replaced by gentle trust. This is what Jesus offered the man possessed by that evil spirit, and this is what he offers us. With the words, “Be silent and come out of him,” Jesus muzzles the voices that confuse and confound us. Jesus silences the impulses that say it cannot be done. Jesus dampens the voice that says God is dead. God is not dead nor does he sleep. The Good News ever before us is that he banishes the forces within us and outside of us that seek to draw us from his love and care.

The kingdom of God has come near. In Jesus’ teaching and in this show of power, the people around him are amazed and recognize God’s dominion being reasserted once and for all. The question thus remains for each of us to ponder. We have heard his teaching time and time again, but have we witnessed his power? Most of us have not witnessed, and may never witness the sort of act of power described in today’s Gospel, but has your faith been strengthened in another way? Each of you are here because at some level you believe the truth that God in Christ transforms our lives and indeed transforms the world. Has there been a moment when hope seemed lost and a hand was extended? Has there been a moment when the night seemed darker than it could ever be and through that night a light broke through? Has there been a moment when you vowed that you would never believe again and some little sign was given that you were not alone or forsaken? Has there been a moment when and endless flow of tears have been wiped away? Has there been a moment when under your own power it was impossible, despite every attempt you made to do things on your own, and then God took control and opened a door?

I believe honesty compels us to admit that each of us have known such moments and to realize that they are no less powerful than that day on which he cast out an unclean spirit in a synagogue. I believe honesty and self-searching compels us to realize and understand that such moments are indeed a powerful demonstration of the truth of the Gospel to which we ascribe and profess belief. I believe honesty compels us to admit that we are indeed followers of the Christ who brings us a new teaching, and one with great power and authority.

It seems to me, that each of us carries with us demons that enslave us. And yet, each of us have had powerful moments, private though they might be, in which God in Christ has lifted those demons and those burdens from us and set us free. To know this reality is not simply to hear the story but to know its power. And if God has acted so powerfully amongst us individually, I refuse to believe that he will not act powerfully in this place in the days to come.

Text copyright 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.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Lamp of God Has Not Gone Out

Homily for Proper 2, Year B
Sunday, January 18th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-10

“The lamp of God had not yet gone out.”
-- 1 Samuel 3:2

“The word of the LORD was rare in those days.” These words preface God’s call to the young Samuel, who served in the Temple, an apprentice to the old priest Eli. To those who lived in those days it might seem that this saying was true, that the word of the Lord was indeed rare. Eli, himself, may not have been the best priest in the world, for he was willing to toss Hannah out of the temple when he mistook her prayer for a fit of drunkenness. However, later realizing her faithfulness he took Samuel, her miracle child, under his tutelage. But if Eli was a man of fickle spirit, his sons were outright scoundrels, guilty of all sorts of evil and abuses; men not fit to be priests in the Lord’s temple. Clearly, the author of 1 Samuel intended the wicked sons of Eli to stand as symbols of the social and religious decay of the time. Thus, with such examples before our eyes, we can understand why those of that day would have felt that the word of the Lord was rare indeed. And yet, it was in the midst of this corruption and decay that a Word came to young Samuel, a word that would shape the future of the Hebrew people.

It might be equally tempting to say that the word of the Lord is rare in these days. Few of us can claim to have heard the voice of the Lord in audible terms, fewer still can claim to have witness a bona fide miracle, and those who have seen visions are often characterized as deranged or worse, as suspected of being charlatans. And as we look about us, it is certainly easier to see the evil in the world overcoming the good, than to believe in an active God. It may seem as if moral decay has eclipsed any sense of decency and “good will amongst all people.” It may appear that our old notion of progress has been unmasked as destructive regression. But what is more frightening is the sense that God seems absent from our descent into this abyss.

There will be many out there that will capitalize on our fear, and upon the apparent absence of God, with apocalyptic stories of destruction and wrath. And there will be many who, because hope seems so faint, will buy into these tales and simplistic ways of understanding concepts of God’s justice. However, I would caution against such a simple black and white reading of events. I would argue that although we witness signs of evil and destruction every day in this world, the signs of God’s presence are not invisible, and when finally discerned they are signs that give us victory over our pessimism and hopelessness.

As young Samuel slept and the dawn neared, the Lord called to him. The text tells us that the lamp of God had not yet gone out. Now, this may be a very simple way of telling us what time it was, namely, that it was nearing the dawn because the menorah still burnt and had not yet been extinguished. However, taken on another level, in the night of pessimism, in the night of moral decay, in the night of sadness, the lamp of the Lord had not gone out. Even as we sleep; even as the world slumbers; even as we lose sight of the light, the light burns still. And as young Samuel slept, the light continued to burn. Thus, in the early hours, when the night seems like it will never end, a word was heard under the light of that lamp, a word to Samuel.

Samuel was initially blind to the light and deafened to the word, for although he had been under the tutelage of a supposed holy man, he did yet know the Lord, so he could not recognize his voice. At first, young Samuel thought the voice that of his mentor Eli, but it was not. Sadly, Eli was not quick to rise to the task of helping Samuel. He sloughed off Samuel’s inquiries in his own drowsiness. Eli’s response calls to mind for us how the fatigue of life can often numb us to the excitement and urgency of God. It is something akin to being a new parent. When the little one stirs in their crib, every cough, every gurgle, every noise is a call to us to jump up from our nominal sleep and check to see if that little one under our care is fine. Yet time goes on, the child grows, and so does our weariness at the world and with our task of parenting. The child soon has to come to our bedside, shake us, “wake up Dad, the house is burning down!” To which, at this stage in my life I might be tempted to respond, “That’s nice son, go back to bed, I’m sleeping.” Such was the case with Eli, who should have been attuned to the possibility of a word from the Lord, but in his weariness with the world, was not.

But the word still came. This time it did not come to the Holy Man, but to the boy. And thankfully, the boy persisted. Thankfully, too, old Eli, even in his drowsiness, offered some little guidance, for he in his younger days had known the Lord, and still had some small remembrance on how to test the Spirit. Eli sent young Samuel back to bed, but told him if he heard the word again, to respond with the words, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Indeed, the Lord spoke again, and Samuel responded as told.

It is not for us today to probe the depths of the frightening call or the powerful words that Samuel was called to proclaim. That is for another day and another homily. What is important for us today, though, is to ask the question, is the Lord calling us today? Of course he is. He calls us continually. His lamp has not gone out and his voice is ever issuing the call. How will we know his voice? How will we hear the call?

The Good News is that Jesus, the Good Shepherd knows his own and his own know him. We know the sound of his voice – we, his sheep know his voice. Samuel did not know the Lord. He had not been revealed to him. Although Samuel had lived amongst the priests, no one had really told him about the Lord. Yet, God is gracious beyond measure, for even through the tired sinfulness of old Eli, Samuel was given guidance, and at last he recognized the voice of God. But again, we know the voice of the Lord. We have heard it from the cries of manger-cradle, through the cry of anguish on a cross. We have heard it in parables and seen it lived out in acts of healing and restoration. We have heard it read from the pages of Scripture and we have heard across the pages of our lives. We have heard his voice.

Thus, when the night seems darkest and longest, let us ever remember that his lamp has not gone out. When the powers of the day seem hell-bent on self-destruction, let us recall that even through old Eli did God give guidance to a young lad who became a great judge and leader of his people. When the voices of confusion seek to overwhelm us, let us remember that there is a voice that has searched us out and known us before even we knew ourselves. Let us remember that there is a Good Shepherd calling in the night. Let us remember that amidst that cacophony of voices we can cut through the noise and hear the voice of the one true God with these simple words, a simple prayer indeed, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Text copyright 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.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Arise Shine, for Thy Light Has Come -- A Homily for Epiphany

Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany, Year B, 2009
Sunday, January 4, 2009 (translated)
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Texts: Isaiah 60:16; Matthew 2:1-12

“Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you!”
--Isaiah 60:1

The author of the book of Deuteronomy wrote these words: “This day, I set before life and death, blessing and curse, choose life!” And never are these words more relevant than in the Epiphany gospel. Indeed, one might say that they reach the summit of their meaning in the appearance and manifestation of our Lord. For today we hear the tale of such a choice. Today we hear the tale of a king who cowered before such a choice and chose the way that would lead to the slaughter of innocents, and ultimately to his own destruction. Today we also hear the tale of wise men from the east, kings perhaps, who chose not to walk in darkness, but follow the glimmer of a distant star and walk, instead, in the light.

The prophet Isaiah proclaims that a light has shined and that the glory of the Lord is risen upon us. For us, as Christian people, we believe that light to be the light of Christ. But there is an irony in Isaiah’s words, for even as he speaks of the coming light and the glory of the Lord rising, he foretells darkness covering the earth. That darkness, of course, is the darkness that clings to power when it knows its defeat is imminent; it is the darkness that thinks it has won the day when Christ hung lifeless on the cross. Yet, this is the darkness that ultimately dissipates when morning breaks and the bright Sun of Righteousness rises triumphantly. These truths are foreshadowed in the words of Isaiah, and they come to fruition in the coming of kings from the east to worship the light of the world, and sadly, in the resistance of a Judean king to the light.

Wise men came from the East, drawn and led by a distant light. The light they saw was in the sky – a glimmer in the distant night. And this light was but a glimmer of the light they encountered as they knelt before the Light of the World, lying in lowly estate. They offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but although they offered him gifts of earthly wealth, they offered him something more, the gift of themselves. Wise men, who could read both the stars and the signs of the times; wise men, possibly even kings of the Orient, recognized in this tiny boy, the true light – the light that was coming into the world. Recognizing that that light was the light of all people, they clung not to their own royal kingship but rendered themselves, their rule, and their very being unto the King of Kings, Christ the Lord.

There was another king, though, who was blind to the light. He could not read the skies nor prophetically take the pulse of the times, nor did he offer himself or his dominion to this newborn king. Rather, he clung selfishly and duplicitously to a precarious power that was not even his own, for this king was but a client of the Roman Imperial power. This Herod, an Idumean usurper of the Judean crown, clung so tenaciously to his fragile crown that he lost himself, his humanity, and left a wake of destruction in his frightened path.

Kings from the East and a king of Judea -- the former found their identity in submission to the Light of the World, while the latter lost himself by choosing to hide in the darkness. Kings from the East, drawn by a light, and a king of Judea, cowering in the shadows under the illusion of power – and between them both, the Kings of Kings, lying in lowly estate, a light shining through the darkness. Before them lie a choice -- to worship him or cut him down.

This is not simply the choice of kings, potentates, and wise men. It is a choice that is ever before the world. A light shines in the darkness, and yet darkness still covers the Earth. A light shines and those at a great distance catch a glimpse of its glimmer and seek it out. A light shines in the darkness and those close to its source cannot see it for they have been devoured by a darkness of their own making. But the light ever rises and his star is ever there to follow. It is never too late to see his star at its dawning and come and kneel before him.

The choice is ever before us to seek out the light, to search for its glimmer of hope amongst the darkness of this world, to see his star at its rising and to lay our gifts at his feet, feeble or grand as those gifts may be. The world may tempt us with promises of power and alternative glories. We may be tempted down dark roads that at first seem light but ultimately lead us to harm ourselves and others. Did Herod believe that he was doing the right thing for the people of Judea? Perhaps. Did he believe that clinging to his precarious power would keep the Roman overlords at bay? Perhaps. We can often choose dark roads with the best of intentions, but consider the consequence of such a choice; consider the slaughter of the innocents along the way.

How do we know the way? How shall we discern the light? Which star shall we follow amidst the many that glimmer in the night sky? It is the star that rests over a humble stable, not a palace of power. We know the light because it does not overpower us, but illumines us, warms us, enlightens the path peace. We know the light because it is the light that shines when we face the darkness of death and night with words that proclaim, “I am with you, even through the valley of the shadow of death.” It is a light that binds folk of good will together, rather than bringing estrangement. It is the light of a babe born in humility and laid in a manger for his bed.

Be assured, my friends, we have seen and borne witness to this light. At the font, and at the rail before the altar, we have been touched by the light of Christ and even held him in our hands. We receive him week by week and feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. We have seen his star at its rising and we have become partakers of his Risen Life! The wise men only had a distant star and a faint hope. We are marked forever as his own in baptism. As witnesses to his Resurrection we have beheld his rising star in a way that those wise men never could. His story has become our story. And thus, the prophet Isaiah presciently proclaims to us, “Arise shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!” So we arise, saying “no” to the darkness that covers the earth. We arise as shining as stars, reflecting his light, dispelling the darkness of the night.

When darkness seeks to overcome us, he arises within us and overcomes the night. And when we lose hope or when others seek to suppress his light in us, fellow stars arise amongst in gentleness and shine forth, sharing his resurrection glory, one with another, innumerable as the stars of heaven, helping us to once again kneel before the Light of the World. Together, as a holy people, we shine and the darkness shall never extinguish his light, for he has illumined our night and we shall never be without his light. Let us kneel before the Light of the World and offer our gifts of adoration and thanksgiving, and then, let us arise that his light might shine out into every dark corner of this troubled world.

Copyright 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.