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

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Warming the Winter of Our Hearts -- A Homily for the Feast of St. Stephen

Homily for the Feast of St. Stephen
Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 (translated from Aug 3)
The Convent of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine.
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Acts 6:9-7:2a, 51c-60.

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.

Perhaps we might experience some incongruity at the sound of these words in the early days of August. Granted, our summer has not been one of exceeding warmth, but we are at a distance from the cruel frost of winter. Good King Wenceslas is, of course, a carol about an event on the feast of St. Stephen, and perhaps the words make much more sense when that feast day was celebrated under the old calendar on 26 December. However, it may be important for us to consider the words of this old carol (which comes from the pen of that great Victorian hymn-writer John Mason Neale), because the lesson it seeks to teach may indeed seem distant in the warm days of summer. As we rejoice in the warmth of the sun, the poverty of a long cold winter and the poverty of our spirits may seem distant indeed.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

Amidst the great feasts of our lives and the abundance of an opulent society there are those who walk amongst us, apparently nameless and without status. They are in our midst, and we see them daily, but choose to avert our eyes. Their poverty frightens us. It frightens not simply because we are either helpless or selfish, while these may be the words we give to our fear, rather, it frightens us because it makes us confront the poverty of our own souls and the winter cold within us that seems a sort of perma-frost that ever threatens to take hold of our entire being.

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

The apostles appointed seven individuals to care for the poor and needy. The apostles appointed seven to go into the cold frightening places that we would rather not go. The apostles appointed seven individuals who, in Christ, could face down the frigid temperatures of their own souls and extend loving, warm hands to the poor and those in need. And how tempting is it to leave it to the deacons, those in deacon’s orders and those who seem to naturally take up that diaconal call, ordained or lay. How easy it is to turn away when we know others seem so much better fitted for the task. I have often wondered if the apostles who appointed those seven individuals had in some way abdicated the opportunity to melt away the ice of their own poverty. But in Christ, rich or poor, slave or free, male or female, we are called to gather our pine logs, bring flesh and wine, and brave the winter of our fear and the cruel frost of our spiritual poverty, leaving the warmth of the electric blanket or hot water bottle that will never melt the ice inside us, and make the journey to St. Agnes fountain and dine with friends we never knew we had.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread now in them boldly,
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to leaving the warmth of the castle of our comfortable lives is indeed the fact that our frozen spirits have not the warmth to carry us on the journey. Even if we stir up the courage to take the journey, seek to protect ourselves from the elements, the winter within is still too great a foe that will impede our efforts. The night within us brings fear, the cold wind within causes our hearts to fail, and we feel that we cannot go on. But somehow, in the example of the Christ-like Wenceslas, that young page carries on, in spite of his inner fear, his inner poverty, and inner frost, he carries on filled with the warmth of the bright Sun of Righteousness.

Is their story not the story of blessed Stephen? Do we not recall how Stephen in the midst of great adversity was filled with grace and power. This grace and power came not from his own spirit but from the Spirit of God, and so he stood before the Sanhedrin because he stood with his master, and ours. He could speak because Christ warmed his heart against the wind and frost of an unbelieving chorus of voices. And he could go to his death forgiving those who executed him, “do not hold their sin against them,” because the warmth of Jesus passion and Resurrection became his own.

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.

St. Stephen trod in his master’s steps, in a cold and heartless world, but found his heart strangely warmed. Is that not the way of the Christian faith, that when we journey together on the road, we will meet our sacred companion who will warm our hearts as we share his footsteps? Is it not the way of the Christian faith that as we sup together and break bread, his radiant transforming love becomes known to a cold and languishing world? Is it not the way of the Christian faith that our Lord melts not only the ice around us but within us?

Thus, in our master’s steps, we go. We journey forth in a winter that rages about and within, yet like a fabled king whose faith in Christ warmed his heart, like a young page who nearly gave way to the winter and yet found his path illumined, like the blessed proto-martyr Stephen, who faced a violent death but with a radiant soul and angel’s visage, we travel and meet our challenging gospel mandate not because we can face the winter’s rage, but because Christ Our Lord can.

Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Good King Wenceslas -- written by John Mason Neale (1818-1866)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Life Worthy of the Calling of God -- A Homily for Proper 18 Year B

Homily for Proper 18, Year B, 2009
Sunday, August 2nd, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Ephesians 4:1-16

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worth of the calling to which you have been called…”
--Ephesians 4:1

The early chapters of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians are a description of how God in Christ, in his unfailing love for humanity, has poured out the riches of his grace upon us. St. Paul blesses God who has blessed us in Christ Jesus with every spiritual blessing. Perhaps the greatest of these blessings is that Christ opened the way of faith not only to the Hebrew people, but also to the gentiles, and that in this remarkable development the people of faith become, in fact, the Temple of God.

Thus, we now reach the fourth chapter of the letter in which St. Paul addresses the question of what it means to live a life worthy of such a calling. Many of us will turn to such a list and perhaps experience a sense of deflation, if not conviction in realizing that we are confronted with lofty demands. What is a life worthy of the calling of God? We read in Ephesians 4 that it is a life lived “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

In the world around us, humility and gentleness are for suckers, patience is not a virtue, bearing another person’s foibles in love will only stunt my growth and defer the fulfillment of my personal and individual goals, and unity is, of course, a liberal ideal that can never truly be attained. Thankfully, though, we are members of another society, the Church of Christ. In the Church we are, of course, always humble and gentle with one another, we always have patience for those who think differently from us, no one ever feels unloved, and we are known to the world for our unity with our brothers and sisters in our own denomination and throughout Christendom.

Perhaps not.

Let us not, then, think ourselves holier simply because we are the church. I offer this thought not to shame us for failing to live up to the goal of a life worthy of the calling of God, but rather to demonstrate that when left to our own devices, desires, and human propensities, we simply cannot do it. What then are we to do?

On the one hand, there are Christian communities that understand this reality all too well but refuse to accept it. The focus of such communities is to try harder and harder, to work more and more to become the people they believe God wants them to be. These communities are often characterized either by an obsessive commitment to transforming the world through social justice initiatives or to obsessive attention to personal improvement through acts of piety and charity. And yet, somewhere along the way they lose sight of God’s grace. As a result, the harder they work their increasing moments of failure stand in stark contrast to their fleeting moments of success, and begin to realize that they are falling short of the glory of God.

On the other hand there are Christian communities who live with a sense of perpetual realized holiness. There is no need to work at things at all for God has made me perfect in his eyes. I am saved and I live a holy life through the virtue of being washed clean in his blood. Such groups are often characterized by a lack of concern for issues of social justice, the care of the world around them, and quite frankly, any concern for the well-being of anyone else outside the salvation of their eternal soul. Those who join such groups and cannot seem to attain that expected feeling of perpetual holiness often feel that they are unworthy in the eyes of God, and indeed, unlovable.

To be sure, these two portraits are caricatures. The reality is that both portraits speak to a dichotomy of the human condition within each of us. Each one of us will be tempted at times to either earn our stripes as a Christian through works of benevolence and charity or to be tempted to into believing that we are holier than we really are simply because we are Christians. But neither of these temptations are what it means to lead a life worthy of the calling of God because ultimately, both pictures focus not on God, but on you and me and what we are doing to lead a good and holy life.

The spiritual and ethical disciplines of gentleness, humility, patience, mutual upholding in love, and the striving for unity come not from efforts that derive from human potential. Rather, they are the outpouring of divine potential. What do I mean by this? Let us consider what St. Paul goes on to say a bit further in the fourth chapter.

After enumerating the characteristics of a life worthy of the call of God, he does not immediately go about giving us tools to live the life, but rather speaks of the origin such a life. He turns to examine the character of God and who we are in light of God’s character. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith one, baptism, one God and Father of all who is above all and through all and in all.” Anglicans will of course immediately recognize this as the opening of our baptismal liturgy. Our identity as Christians is rooted in the oneness of God who is above, through, and in all. Let me put it another way. Years ago, I offered a word of thanks to a much beloved history professor at York University for an act of kindness he extended. He responded by paraphrasing the apostle: “Not me, Dan, but Christ in me.” He then went on to say that given the background of his life and upbringing he was not capable of offering the kindness that was extended. It was only because Christ dwelled in him.

Now, he was not saying that his humanity was evil, but rather that his humanity had been transformed in Christ. This is precisely the point made by Paul in the subsequent verses concerning his descending into the lower parts of the earth prior to his ascension. What I believe Paul is trying illustrate here is the assumption and transformation of our humanity in the Incarnation of Christ. Christ came among us not simply as a visitor or a ghost but as a true and living man who was born, lived and breathed, and died. God, in Christ, not only walked amongst us but assumed our nature that we might assume the divine nature. Thus, the Christian life is a life in which we lay hold of that divine nature that coming to fruition within is, or more appropriately, God lays hold of us. To be a Christian is not necessarily to emulate the Christ but to allow Christ to conform our character to his. This is what we mean when we say we are “in Christ” or as St. Paul says elsewhere, “in Christ we are a new creation.” Indeed, in the Incarnation of our Lord Christ fills all things. Thus, we are his Temple and he will transform us in order that we shall be capable of this calling.

Alas, we live in an “in-between” time in which all has not yet come to fruition. This is what leads some groups to work all the harder, forgetting the one that is already within them and why others place too much emphasis on what they already have, forgetting that the road ahead may yet be long. The reality is that each of us struggles daily with who we are under our old nature and who we are in Christ. The old nature, the one that is focused on me, both on what I can do or what I already have is a selfish nature. We can delude ourselves by playing into its charms and seductions. The new nature, or more precisely, our true nature is the one that draws us out of ourselves. It recognizes that it is God who calls, God who animates, God who gives life, and God who gives direction. It is an empathic nature; one that finds its ground of being in the divine and wholly Other and directs our actions toward those around us who are “other” than us. It is a nature that is drawing us into the completion of who we are. This is why in his companion letter to the Colossians Paul can speak of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” We live in an age of expectation but it is also an age of hope.

As we are drawn into this growing maturity we will begin to understand, and believe that our faith journey is less about what I can do for God, but what God desires to do through me, and more precisely, and what God desires to do through us, his people. Thus, to live a life worthy of the calling of God, is hand over all our failures at being humble and gentle, to hand over all the moments where we could not be patient, to hand over the moments where we fell short of holding up each other in love, to hand over our frustrated attempts at unity, and turn to the one who shapes our destiny through his indwelling Spirit. Seek him where he may be found, in the longing of your transformed heart, and in the face of your brother or sister, then we shall lead a life worthy of the calling of God.

Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves