Sunday, September 27, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, September 13, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves