Sunday, April 26, 2009

You Are Witnesses: A Homily for Easter III

Homily for Easter 3, Year B, 2009
Sunday, April 26th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 24:36b-48

“You are witnesses of these things.”
-- Luke 24:48

He called them witnesses -- a group of frightened, doubting former followers. These are the ones he sent into the world to share the Good News of God. If we think that it is difficult for us to witness to our Christian faith in this world, in this age, then consider how difficult it would have been for them. The world and the powers to which they were called to witness were the same world and same powers that crucified their master; a difficult, if not dangerous audience indeed. More to the point, beyond the improbability of the audience to whom they were to witness was the improbability of the witnesses, themselves. They were a broken community possessed by fear, gripped by betrayal, and riddled with doubt. It was an improbable call, to an improbable people, to witness to an improbable audience. And yet, the call was made, it was answered, and a group of improbable witnesses told the story against all odds. The call goes out still.

It can be intimidating for Anglicans to think about witnessing because we may inadvertently compare ourselves (and find ourselves wanting) with those of our brothers and sisters of other Christian communities who witness with astonishing polemical certainty. We may wonder when we hear the preaching, evangelizing, and witnessing of certain Christian groups how we, in the face of such outward shows of devotion and zeal, how we, with our heritage of Victorian reservation, can even consider ourselves disciples of the Risen Lord, much less his witnesses. When we examine ourselves, we find ourselves (especially in contrast to so many others who bear the name Christian) to be improbable witnesses. Improbable though we are, we are witnesses indeed.

Do you not know that all you who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death? Death is not something embraced with certainty. Even those amongst us with the deepest, most certain faith will, in our silent, lonely moments find death a frightening mystery. Each of us will have our doubts and fears about our ultimate fate. Yet, when that moment comes, whether it be swift and unannounced or with much preparation, it is the ultimate moment of vulnerability and authenticity, when all else is eclipsed by the reality of who we are and have been in the eyes of God. In that moment of complete vulnerability it matters not how successful I have been nor how broken I am, for I am completely in the hands of God. And our brokenness is no obstacle to a loving, gracious God.

If, therefore, our brokenness is no obstacle to God in death, can it be an obstacle for him in life? Thus, our honesty and authenticity about our brokenness may indeed be a tool used by God as he calls us, his improbable witnesses, to the task of sharing the Good News. Jesus himself was an improbable saviour. We know of course, from the hosannas of a gathered crowd, hosannas that were followed by shouts of derision and denial, that the people of his day expected something else, another kind of messiah. Yet, the saviour given to this world was one that was broken and covered in wounds, who facing his death offered up his own doubts and fears, and ultimately bore his vulnerability before the eyes of the whole world. Yet, God transformed his brokenness, vindicated his fear, and defeated his doubt in a triumphant victory over the grave. Jesus is the man of ultimate authenticity. Even the resurrection body of Jesus still displays the wounds of his passion. His wounds are part of who he is. But the good news is that his wounds have been transformed gloriously for the healing of the nations.

Thus, we should never forget that our wounds are part of who we are. However, we are not our wounds. What is more, as God has transformed the wounds of Jesus for the healing of the nations, so too does the Risen Jesus transform our wounds that we might join him in his work of bringing healing and reconciliation to a broken world, that its wounds, too, might be healed. The wounds of Jesus are no longer crippling wounds but a glorious sign of his victory over all that would enslave us, even death. Each of us carries wounds that would cripple us were it not for the power of the Risen Christ.

There may be those who seem to be perfect, and yes, many of them may fly the Christian flag as a sign of their perfection. Perfect health, abundant wealth, ideal relationships, and a morally exemplary life will be the hallmarks of such a person. Perhaps, too, they share their faith with undying zeal. Yet, which of us finds comfort in the friendship of such a one? When we experience pain, or loss, or poverty, or the unexpected compromising of our own moral code, can we turn to such a one in comfort? Will their witness be of any assistance to us? It is likely that in the presence of such a one we will only feel inadequacy, alienation, an even condemnation. Is this the witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ? The truth is that a person such as these bears wounds, too, but they are afraid to share them.

Remember that Jesus commissioned a broken body to be his disciples. It was a broken body because those who were once twelve were now eleven because one of his own betrayed him. It was a broken body because Judas betrayed him and Peter denied him. It was a broken body because the women at the tomb ran away in fear. It was a broken body because the disciples believed the witness of these women to be “idle talk.” It was a broken body because even as he appeared to them, happy though they were, they still doubted. It was a body, a community, with gaping wounds. And yet he said to them, “You are my witnesses.” He did not go searching for others. He returned, with his own wounds openly and authentically displayed to the same ones who were so wounded, themselves, and called them his witnesses. But in offering them his transformed wounds, in opening the Scriptures to them they learned how God was transforming the world through his wounds, and yes, through theirs. In returning to them, a broken, wounded people, he transformed their wounds and entrusted them with his gospel.

Each new Christian who passes through the font, young or old, will bear many wounds through the course of their lives. Each of us will experience wound of doubt. Each of us will experience the wound of fear. Each of us will experience wounded bodies, and be they great wounds or small, each of us will know pain. We may be tempted to hide the wounds that make us human beings, but then we would also be hiding the truth of the Gospel, that even as each of us walks with pain, we walk also with a God who transforms our pain into healing, our fear into hope, and our doubt into faith. What makes us witnesses is not that we are perfect, without fear, without doubt, but that we, too, experience these things. The difference is that we do not experience these things alone, but in the company of the one whose body was also broken, who also bore the wounds of pain, and fear, and doubt. But the good tidings of great joy for all people is the truth to which we also witnesses that as his wounds are transformed for the healing of the nations, so too are ours. When we witness, or walk with someone who has journeyed through pain and has come through it transformed, our wounds are transformed as well. We recognize that their wounds, while they do not disappear, are not the story of their destruction, nor are ours the story of our destruction, but rather they are for the healing of the nations.

Our wounds are not left gaping but made to be a sign of hope that as we journey together in our brokenness we journey together in our healing. For our story does not end with one who hung wounded on a cross, but begins with one who stood before them with his wounds transformed. Our story does not end with a broken community of disciples dispersed, doubting and afraid, but begins with the wounds of that community healed in common purpose to witness to his healing wounds. Our story does not end with our wounds, but begins with a witness of authenticity in which our healing wounds are not a sign of shame but a beacon of hope, that even in our shared pain God can and will transform our wounds. Even we, with all our wounds, are his witnesses.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Who Will Roll Away the Stone For Us? -- A Homily for Easter Day

Homily for Easter Day, Year B, 2009
Sunday, April 12th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 16:1-8

“Who will roll away the stone for us?”
--Mark 16:3

A group of women approach the tomb of their crucified Lord, hoping to do one last thing for him – to anoint his body for burial. They had in mind one final act of devotion, one final offering of love. In their deep distress they embraced their task. Something occurred to them though, as they embarked upon that final offering of love, a great stone stood at the entrance of the tomb, impeding their way: “Who will roll the stone away for us?” they asked. Who, indeed.

Who amongst us, when gripped by sadness, by fear, by distress has not sought to bury ourselves in a task that would in turn bury our fear, distress or sadness? To “do” rather than to “feel” is the way we tend to deal with crises that threaten to overwhelm us. But having thrown ourselves into the task, with few emotional resources, and often with considerable physical and mental exhaustion brought on by the crisis, we are easily defeated when an obstacle of great proportions blocks our way and impedes our task. Our strength is gone, the task that would distract us falls apart, and we are left raw, despondent, “Who will roll the stone away for us?” Who, indeed.

“Crisis” is a word used liberally in our day and age. We have an environmental crisis that seems to be moving with such momentum that even if we change our ways, our natural world will never be the same. We have an economic crisis that is felt by many, rich and poor alike, with such destructive force that we have begun to words reserved for natural disasters and wars to describe their effect. Thus we have an economic catastrophe or we are facing economic turmoil, strife, or even destruction. We in the west have become so embroiled in wars on foreign soil, with motives so confused and poorly understood, that we wonder if we will ever see an end to such carnage.

Lest we think that the state of the world is an illusion created by media outlets, we have no shortage of official and learned apostles of hopelessness. We have pundits, commentators, politicians and generals; we have economists and environmentalists, each whom profess the starkly pessimistic and deeply despondent belief that we are powerless to stop the tide of history now forcefully released upon the world. Those who would counter such pessimism and despondency with a message of optimism and hope are counted and dismissed as “starry-eyed dreamers” who have their heads in the clouds. Meanwhile while the rest of us, who feel so overwhelmed and helpless as the magnitude and enormity of the various crises before us, go on imagining the tide to be no tide at all, firmly burying our heads in the sand. For most, the obstacle is too great, too large, too immovable. Who will roll away the stone for us? Who, indeed.

Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, those same women, who had felt defeated by the stone they knew they could not move, arrived at the tomb, gazed upon it and saw to their surprise that great stone had been rolled away.

Early in the morning on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, the great tide of anguish and pain is turned back and again put away. Not realizing what they were about to hear, not realizing the what they were about to see, they approached the tomb with renewed purpose for what had previously blocked their way was removed. They could do what they came to do. They could anoint his body. Perhaps they breathed a sigh of relief, but then another obstacle – his body was not there. Instead, a young man in a dazzling robe, by tradition an angel or holy messenger, told them not to be alarmed for Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen a new reality was proclaimed that forever changed the world. What would expect these women might have felt in that moment? Where hopelessness had held them captive, hope now set them free. Where the tide of tears threatened to drown them, the joy of the sun now warmed their hearts. Weeping may linger in the night, but joy comes in the morning. What cause for rejoicing this would have been … except … Mark tells us that they were gripped with fear. And so the gospel ends. Unlike the other accounts in Matthew, Luke and John, the Gospel of Mark ends not with appearance of the Risen Jesus conversing with his disciples, but with the news of his resurrection and three frightened women who have been given a task to go and spread the good news, yet, in their fear, they cannot. Why is it so?

I wonder if we are a people who have learned to be comfortable with crisis. Do we glory in the crisis we cannot stop or the oncoming catastrophe we cannot change? Do we in some strange and self-destructive way create crises that will spin beyond our control? Will we happily make half-hearted efforts to find solutions only to self-righteously defend our apparent heroic failures to proclaim, “well at least we went down trying?” I suppose that the reality we share with the women at the tomb is the reality that grace can be a frightening thing to receive. It may simply be easier to live with the turmoil of what we know than to risk faith in an empty tomb and an unseen hand that has rolled away the stone. Consider whatever stone stands in your way this Easter morning. If it were suddenly rolled away, would you know what to do, how to be, or how to feel? Surely, these women did not, even with such a great gift before them. This is the story of the women at the tomb. But it is not the entire story.

Why does Mark end his gospel here? I believe it is because that the story is made complete in our response to its stark ending. As the story draws to an abrupt close something wells up within us. We long to call to the women at the tomb, “Don’t you realize what has happened? Don’t you understand what this means? Don’t you get it? Death has been destroyed! Jesus is alive!” We call to them, from our vantage point of knowing the Risen Jesus, of hearing and believing the rest of the story which has here been left untold. From our own experience of having stones rolled away. We call, but they answer not.

Then, and only then, we begin to realize that we are calling not to them, but to ourselves in our dark and hopeless moments. We are calling to ourselves in words of encouragement, and words of faith in the Risen Christ. I would suggest that this is the way Mark wanted it, for the faith of the women in the story is not nearly as important as the faith that you and I, the readers of this gospel, share. Mark intended that his story of Jesus would elicit in us the same response that was offered by the centurion at the foot of the Cross, who upon the death of Jesus proclaimed, “Surely, this man was the Son of God.” Apparently it worked because future generations, confused at the abrupt ending and the actions of the women, shouted across the ages the same words of bewilderment and confusion at their lack of faith, and then from their own experience of the Risen Christ began to pen numerous faithful additional endings to the gospel to tell the rest of the story – a story they deeply believed, but eluded the women at the tomb, that Jesus was risen from the dead, a story to be shared with a hurting world. Apparently it worked because we are gathered here this joyous day proclaiming that the Lord is risen indeed, filling our hearts with hope and joy! Alleluia!

What the women at the tomb were to eventually learn, what the early church knew, and what I believe each of us knows deep within our hearts is the reality that God is ever and always rolling stones away that we cannot move alone. God rolls away stones that stand in the way of repairing the broken relationships of our lives. God rolls away stones that keep warring peoples from laying down their arms. God rolls away stones that keep us from caring for the poor amongst us. And how is it possible that these stones shall be removed? It is because God rolls away the most impenetrable, heaviest stones of all, the ones that surround our hardened hearts. With such stones removed, and with our hearts softened, arms are laid down, the earth is renewed, the hungry are filled with good things, and our own broken lives are mended.

Try as we might we cannot move such stones under our own power, but the one who turned the grave into a bed of hope, the one who rolled the stone away from a tomb so that life might burst forth triumphing over death, He is the one that shall roll the stones of our lives. And as he rolls away the stone for us, we realize that we are not gazing into a tomb, but rather gazing out from one – a tomb that has kept us captive in our fear and hopelessness. As that stone is rolled away, we like Lazarus, are called forth to join with our Lord in his work of rolling away the stones of a hurting world. We join in this holy task, in which tears of the world are turned to joy, not because we, ourselves, are able, but because in his triumph over the grave, he has made it possible.

Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, the women were wondering “who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb for us?”

Text Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A New Commandment: Love One Another - a homily for Maundy Thursday

Homily for Maundy Thursday, Year B, 2009
(using Year A texts)
Thursday, April 9th, 2009, 7:30 p.m.
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 13:1-17,31b-35

You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.
--John 13:7

A new commandment, a new mandate, mandatum novum, from which we get the term “maundy”: Love one another as I have loved you. As he knelt before them and washed their feet, they received a glimpse of the kind of offering he was making, for within a short time the one who washed their feet would have his arms stretch wide on the cross in such an embrace as to embrace the whole world. As he knelt before them that evening, and later, as he hung on a cross, Our Lord, unfolded before his disciples and before the world the nature of his kingship and the glory of his kingdom – a kingdom in which glory is not manifest in acts of power but in servant-hood and self-offering. Yet, even as Jesus explained it to them, it is unlikely that they fully understood it. They hoped to see his glory, but did they know what to look for?

Consider the opening verses of John, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us… and we beheld his glory.” Perhaps, for those of us who read the gospel at a distance of two millennia, and with a view of the entire gospel portrait, it is easier for us to behold his glory in his gracious self-offering. But did the early disciples recognize his glory as he was in their midst? He came to his own and his own knew him not. The kind of glory that he exhibited at once confused and confounded them. Do we count the kneeling of a master at the feet of his followers as an act of glory? And can we count a king nailed to a cross as a sign of glory? And yet, in this gospel of St. John, a gospel that above all others speaks of the glorified Christ, we meet the Christ in his deepest humility and is this encounter with the God who humbles himself at the feet of his own followers, and ultimately humbles himself to death, even death on a cross, that we behold his glory. It is in the condescension of the Word who was with God from the beginning that we behold his glory. If Luke locates Jesus’ lowliness in his birth a stable, and if Mark locates his lowliness in his identity as the son of a carpenter who is derided by his hometown family and friends, then John locates his lowliness in his act of self-abrogation, kneeling before his disciples, as he becomes the servant of his servants.

It then behooves us to remember whose servants we are. We serve the king who served others. Each Maundy Thursday is a time in which we clergy are to recall that we are called not to be served but to serve, and then by extension a reminder is offered to all the faithful, that as it has been done unto them so, too, they should do unto others. The tradition of this day is that the clergy would wash the feet of the congregation. Indeed this tradition was carried into the Reformation and early Anglicanism when Queen Elizabeth I, herself, would wash and kiss the feet of her subjects. The intimacy of foot washing, which was rooted in the ancient tradition of a servant washing the dirty sandaled feet of a traveler welcomed into a home has begun to give way in many places to a modern equivalent, the washing of each others’ hands. In a world in which we are afraid to touch and even shake hands, in a world frightened by SARS and C-Dif, and so many other frightening conditions that are passed by close contact, close proximity, and touch, the hands take on the symbolism held by feet in antiquity. Hands are in constant need of cleansing in the way that feet were in ancient times. It is an act of service, and indeed personal risk to touch and wash the hands of another. I believe it is what our Lord would do if he were amongst us this day.

We as clergy take up this task to remind ourselves whose servant we are. Our liturgy also reminds each of us, as baptized Christians, that we share in this sacred ministry of servant-hood. Ambrose of Milan, a late fourth century bishop, describes the baptismal liturgy in his church, in which after baptism each new disciple participates in a foot-washing ceremony done by the bishop, seemingly suggesting that the most senior minister of the church demonstrates that in our baptism we take up a servant-hood ministry. Consider also what we learn from another church father, Aphrahat, a great East Syrian Church Father of the 4th century (virtually unknown to us in the West), who writes “Our redeemer washed the feet of his disciples on the night of the paschal sacrifice, (which is), the mystery of baptism. You should know, my beloved, it was on this night that our redeemer gave the true baptism.”(Demonstration XII.10).

This is the glory of God, the glory into which we are baptized, to serve not because it attains for us the kingdom, but because in the kingdom we can do no other. It is in the very nature of God to serve and care and offer himself for the sake of his creation. Thus, it is in the very nature of his kingdom that we should live out our Christian lives as a servant-people, caring and offering ourselves for others. If, therefore humanity is glorified in Christ crucified, to be in Christ, to partake of his nature, is to serve not because it is the right thing to do but because we can do no other.

The forces of the world will tell us that there are all kinds of things that we are made for such as the accumulation of wealth and power. There will be others that try to convince us that it is impossible for human beings to escape the foibles that make us oh so sinful. We have impulses toward unfair and unhealthy competition with our brothers and sisters, impulses that lead us to take up arms, impulses to hurt others to save ourselves, impulses to place ourselves above all others. There are those that would have us believe, pessimistically or even nihilistically, that these impulses can never be curbed within humanity. This is true of our old nature. But under the banner of the servant-king, the glorified Christ, we can claim a new commandment, a new mandate, a new Maundy, one into which we are growing day by day in our life in Christ. Love one another as I have loved you. It is the way that is made open to us through the self-offering of our Lord, it is the way of love. It is what we are made for, designed for, built for. It is who we are destined to be in our glorified humanity, the humanity that is offered to us in the incarnation of God in Our Lord Jesus Christ.

In that moment when Jesus wrapped a towel around himself and gently took Peter’s feet within his hands and washed away the grime of the world, Peter could not understand the glory of God being revealed to him. But when his time would come be called to lead the sheep, he we would come to understand. When his time came that he would be led to his own cross he would understand. And as we take each other’s hands and gently pour water, wash and dry, and serve each other, we behold His Glory, the Glory of the Lord, not in demonstrations of power and force but in an act of loving and gentle humility.

Text copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves