Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fools for Christ -- A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Homily for Lent 3, Year B, 2009
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 1 Cor. 1:18-25

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.
--1 Corinthians 1:18

The kingdom of God is a world turned on its head, or at least so it seems to those who have not experienced the power of the cross. It is a kingdom that is ushered in through the weakness and humility of a Servant King. It is a kingdom that comes when a child is born in low estate, in a lowly stable rather than a majestic palace. It is a kingdom that comes when its king arrives embarrassingly on a donkey rather than a glorious stallion. It comes when its king is condemned before his peers by the kings of the world, rather than acclaimed by them. It comes when he takes his throne upon a cross rather than in the halls of power. It comes when his tomb is empty rather than inhabited by a rotting corpse. What sort of kingdom is this kingdom and what manner of king is this, whose power is manifest again and again not in shows of force but acts of humility?

For see, the wisdom of this age and any age is this: that power is manifest by the sword, the rifle or the bomb; that power is manifest when wealth is flaunted; that power is manifest when the strength of one man instills fear in the heart of another; that the values of equality, peace, and brother and sisterhood are best imposed rather than lived out in acts of gentleness and humility. This is the wisdom of this age, and of any age. But it is not the message of the cross. And to this end, the message of the cross is pure and utter folly.

It is folly because if I work hard enough I can be more successful than my fellow humans. If I can make more money, I can live more securely, more fully, more happily. If we are strong enough and we have big enough guns, we can send enough armies into far away lands we can make successful, prosperous, western friendly democracies in which our values are celebrated. If we push our children hard enough they can be smarter, better, more wealthy than their parents. And if I hoard enough wealth, go on all the right diets, exercise religiously, dress like I’m still twenty-five years old and call myself a “zoomer” instead of a “boomer,” I shall never die.

This is the wisdom of this age. But it shall not save us.

When the stock markets plunge what happens to our happiness, security, and strength? When this body starts to fail and no amount of homeopathy, medicine, chemotherapy, or surgery can stop its decline, where is our power, our self-assurance, and strength? And when young men and women come home from distant lands in body bags because our pride and arrogance has led us to places that will not embrace the superiority of western culture, what good do all the guns and bombs do? Where is our strength? And yet, the wise people of our age tell us to “stay the course.” Is this wisdom, or madness and folly?

It seems that the wisdom of this age is a wisdom based in the belief that if we are strong enough, we can ignore reality, put away our angst, and live as if loss and death shall never overtake us. Is this wisdom, or are we merely fooling ourselves?

There are many ways in which we experience both loss and death, and indeed, what is death, itself, if not the supreme sense of loss. Do we not experience a sort of death when we suffer financial loss and dreams of financial freedom die? Do we not experience death when our politicians who ran on platforms of hope inevitably let us down and fast-peddled political hope seems to die? Do we not experience a sort of death when relationships breakdown and when friends and family betray us? And then there is the reality of death that we face when we stand at the bed-side of one who is dying or before the casket of that loved one, or ultimately, on the precipice of our own death? Where then is the wisdom and power of this age?

When we stand to lose all, all in which we have invested our trust, our faith, our hope, where then do we stand? With whom do we stand? Where then are the debaters of this age? Where then is the wisdom of this world? Suddenly, what once seemed foolish to us begins to make sense. When we stand face to face with death of any sort, we suddenly realize that it is not the grasping at power or wealth or self-help techniques that will deliver us but complete and utter abandonment to our brokenness, and in that very moment arms stretched wide on the cross close round us, embrace us, and show us a better way. At the foot of that cross, before the crucified God we face our own demise and realize that it is not demise at all, because in that great act of love the grave has become a bed of hope. Because death no longer has dominion over him, it no longer has dominion over us. I can face the pain of today and the uncertainty of tomorrow because my trust is not founded on the wisdom of this age, but on Christ crucified and raised from the dead.

Debaters and philosophers and experts of all sorts, from this age or any other, can do their best to try to convince me that the accumulation of wealth, guns, elixirs of youth, and political power of all sorts will bring us to a better humanity. I shall never believe it, for I follow the one who, through the power of the cross, reclaims and transforms a broken people. I believe in and follow a Lord who is the Lord of lost causes, of broken hearts, of broken bodies and broken spirits. If this is foolishness, then can me a fool, for Christ’s sake.

Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Time is Fulfilled, Repent and Believe

Homily for Lent 1, Year B, 2009
Sunday, March 1st, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 1:9-15

“The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.”
Mark 1:15

If we were late first century Christians, perhaps living in the city of Antioch, and we had no knowledge of any other gospels (for indeed the other gospels may not have yet come into being), and if we were sitting in a community of people listening to a reader performing the words of the Gospel According to Mark, these would be the first words we hear from Jesus.

Following the opening narrative about John the Baptist, the author propels us into the ministry of Jesus beginning with his baptism by John, his temptation in the wilderness, and then with his first brief, one-line sermon. If we are to hear the text as it was originally written, we need to expunge from our minds all the details subsequently added by Matthew and Luke, and the variations we find in John. In those other gospels, we have a long unfolding of the opening of Jesus’ ministry, we have virgin births, flights into Egypt, shepherds, wise men, a child Jesus teaching in the Temple; we have secondary players of Joseph, Mary, Zechariah and Anna, Elizabeth, Herod the Great; we have angels and visions. When we come to the baptism we have details added about John arguing with Jesus about his fitness to baptize one who is greater. When we come to the temptation in the wilderness we hear about a detailed struggle with Satan in which various temptations and Jesus’ response to them are enumerated in detail. Finally, when we come to Jesus’ early preaching, these few terse words from Mark are expanded in Luke to a dramatic reading and exegesis of Isaiah in Luke, to a lengthy sermon on the mount in Matthew.

None of this is to suggest that these things did not happen. However, if we are to hear the impact of Mark’s introduction of Jesus of Nazareth we must, for a moment, lay aside these details from the other gospels and consider Mark’s words alone. Having recognized what we must lay aside, let us hear again the sparse narrative provided by Mark, listening as if for the first time.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news
of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

Three stories told in shotgun order, baptism, the temptation, first preaching. Three stories that are told elaborately in the other gospels, but in minimalist fashion in this gospel. The words are chosen carefully. What do we learn from them?

In the very short episode of his baptism, we learn that Jesus is God’s anointed, God’s beloved Son, in whom God is well pleased. The first time we encounter Jesus in St. Mark’s gospel, we learn that his life and mission are from God. We learn that as God’s son he comes with the authority of God.

In the very short episode of the Temptation in the Wilderness, free from any explanation of the specifics of the temptations he faced, we learn that it was the Spirit of God that in fact placed him there, much like the Spirit of God directed the prophets of old. And why was he sent into the desert? It was to face forty days of temptation by Satan, over which he is victorious, for he was not devoured by the wild beasts and indeed was cared for by the angels of heaven. What do we learn? That the powers of evil have no power over the one sent by God.

In the very short one-line sermon of Jesus, following the arrest of John the Baptist, we learn that Jesus has a very simple message. The kingdom of God has come near, is “at hand.” It is not a far-off future scenario. It is not coming with the fanfare that one might expect. The time of waiting is over. The kingdom is upon us. And what are we to take from that? It is time to get on board.

In what way is the kingdom of God at hand? If we are to take anything away from this simple, rapid narrative of Jesus’ first appearance it is that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God has chosen to walk with us, God defeats the powers of sin and death, and that in the very presence of Jesus, the his kingdom is at hand.

It may be difficult for us to believe that the kingdom is very near or even at hand. If it were so, would this not be a perfect world? Would things like crime and war not be abolished? Would emotions like sadness and anger not be permanently replaced by joy and contentment? Would psychological states like depression not give way to perfect mental health? Would broken bodies not be bound up and death itself come to an end?
Our view of the kingdom breaking through is that of a perfect world, but it is not a perfect world, and yet, with Jesus amongst us, it is something more than what it seems.

In what way is it something more? To understand this we must cast our eyes toward the end of the narrative, the end of Mark’s gospel, which ends not with a resurrection narrative (although some later editors of St. Mark panicked and added Resurrection stories) but with a word that death had not defeated Jesus of Nazareth, that all that was told throughout the gospel was indeed true, that in this man we have encountered the living God. Standing before an empty tomb we come to learn that an instrument of death, the cross, has become for us the tool through which life is offered. Standing before an empty tomb, we recognize that the sepulcher is not a grave, but a bed of hope for all people. Standing before an empty tomb, we now believe his words, that the kingdom of God is at hand, not tomorrow, not years from now, but truly at hand, today.

God’s moment is now, the time for waiting is over. Thus, if we are waiting for the right moment to deepen our faith, it is now. If we are waiting for the right moment to open our Bibles and begin a regular course of reading Holy Scripture, it is now. If we are waiting for the right moment to begin a course of daily prayer, it is now. If we are waiting for the right moment to be reconciled with our neighbour, it is now. This is the message of Jesus’ opening proclamation, and indeed it is the message that permeates through Mark’s gospel. It is time to turn again, because the kingdom is not far off, but very near, indeed at hand.

To repent, simply means “to turn.” The word need not have any deeper or foreboding meaning than this. It is the word we use in our baptismal vows. Each of us will know deep within us what type turning we need to do this day, in this season of Lent. Each of us will know that there will be certain things from which we need to walk away. Each of us will know that there are certain things that we need to embrace and affirm. When we probe the depths of our beings we cannot fool ourselves. There are some things that are wrong for us, and there are some things that are right for us. And now is the time to say “no” to what draws us from our loving creator and to say “yes” to the things that help us to discover who we truly are in the eyes of God.
This is possible because the kingdom of God is not far off. This is possible because in Christ, in Jesus of Nazareth, we learn that we are the beloved of God. As we have entered into the waters of baptism with Christ, those words uttered to him become words uttered to us, behold my beloved. And as the spirit hovered over him, so the spirit hovers in our hearts. And as he was tested in the wilderness and overcame temptation, so too we are tested but we shall not be overcome with woe for we are not alone in the desert. For as he overcame temptation, so too shall we overcome everything that seeks to destroy us because his victory over the powers of sin and death is our victory over those same powers. And as he proclaimed the kingdom of God has come near, we live into that reality, that it is very near indeed, in fact, at hand.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves