Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Fear Not! I Bring You Good News of Great Joy!" - Homily for Christmas Eve

Homily for Christmas Eve, Year C, 2009
Thursday, December 24th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 2:1-20

“Fear not, for behold I bring good news of great joy!”
--Luke 2:10

Into a world gripped with fear, a tiny babe was born. Over the past several hundred years, Judea had been a place that had been passed from foreign power to foreign power; it had known revolution upon revolution; and had known unjust ruler upon unjust ruler. There was prosperity for some and poverty for many. And just like today, amongst the names of the long-forgotten people of that day, there were many broken lives and broken hearts.

Broken lives and hearts – so many problems plague this age (and every age), but never is something so tragic as a broken life or broken heart. Some of you will have seen a full-page advertisement in the Toronto Star last week from our Archbishop, Colin Johnson. The headline read, “Does Jesus really matter anymore? Christmas is about shopping, presents, family and feasting, right?” He then goes on to remind us that our time is not so different from the time that Jesus was born into, “we suffer from worries and concerns, broken relationships, wars and famines. The very things that kept our ancestors awake all those years ago keep us awake still.”

It seems to me that fear is at the heart of all those things that keep us awake. Fear moves us to destructive action and paralyzes us from righteous, compassionate action. Fear tricks us into believing that we can do nothing to change the course of poverty, loneliness, economic injustice, and ecological degradation. Fear tells us that broken hearts are not to be mended. Fear also tricks us into thinking that the only way to solve the problems of the age is by engaging brute force, or conversely, by apathetically giving into it. Fear tricks us into thinking that there is no hope for the world or the people in it.

Fear drove a young unwed couple to journey the long distance from their home in Nazareth to the father’s ancestral home in Bethlehem for a taxation census. The unbreakable power of the Roman Empire demanded a head count for all to be taxed, and one can only imagine the fate of those chose not to obey the imperial edict. A young couple, afraid to show themselves in public for fear of the shame of the unplanned pregnancy, afraid to journey a dangerous road alone, afraid of what such a trip might do to the unborn child, pressed forward. Afraid that they would find no place to birth their child they scrambled about until a stable was found – no place for a baby to be born.

Yes, fear may have driven them, but God found them where they were, came to them and was birthed before their very eyes. He came to them as a tiny, vulnerable child, and turned their fear into joy and their angst into fulfillment. The stable was no longer a stable but the temple of God.

To this temple came poor shepherds, and I am sure, countless others (both rich and poor) who had eyes to see in that tiny child the one who would deliver them; who had ears to hear in his infant cries the voice of the one who would offer words of compassion and justice for all people. Why did the shepherds come to the child and his parents in this lowly place? Because in their own poverty and isolation they heard an angel loudly proclaim, “Fear not.” They, who were not worthy to be counted in the census, those shepherds keeping their watch, had courage stirred within them to leave their only source of income and well-being, and seek out a pearl of greater price, the newborn king! The song of joy had dispersed their fear.

The shepherds heard those great glad tidings and rushed, not with fear but with joy, expectation, and hope from their fields to that stable in Bethlehem, that unlikely temple, to see with their own eyes the great thing that God had done.

And what was that great thing. Had the Roman Empire fallen? No, Augustus was still Caesar. Did that young family find a manor house to live in? No, the child was still born in a stable. Did midwives and physicians show up to help in the birth? No, the woman gave birth with only her husband as a birth companion. These things had not changed, and yet, everything had changed, because the fear that had gripped their world was broken.

We draw nigh tonight like shepherds who have left our flocks. We draw nigh to see, to witness, to believe in the great thing that God has done. We have left our lives behind for a moment, even if just for a moment, to take time from presents, from shopping, from our families and from our feasting, to witness once again for ourselves the birth in time of the timeless Son of God. We draw nigh, to remember once again that though empires may rise and fall, though economies prosper and collapse, though jobs come and jobs go, though children are born and loved ones die, though the tides rise and fall, we are not afraid. We gather here to proclaim that fear is not our master, but rather the transforming love of the gentle babe who was born to a frightened young couple. We gather here to say that amidst the angst of the age, we shall not be overcome or sorrow as a people without hope but rather rejoice with that rag-tag group of shepherds that Christ is born.

Whether it be Bethlehem of Judea or Thornhill of Ontario, people are people, pain is pain, brokenness is brokenness, and fear is fear. But whether it be Bethlehem of Judea or Thornhill of Ontario, Jesus is the Christ and he has broken through the darkness of our pain and fear.

To a world that is hurting, he comes. To the fear that threatens to displace us, angels shout, “Fear not! Behold, I bring you good news of great joy!” Fear not, because a child is born who changes things.

He changes minds.

He changes hearts.

He changes people.

He turns the valley of the shadow of death into the way of life.

He has shone his light into the darkest places of our lives and welcomed us to his heart and cradles us, as his most holy mother cradled him those years ago. What greater joy can we know, and what better hope can we have, that the fear of the ages is dispersed by his ever-present light? Thus, I bid you return to your fields, to your flocks with this good news of great joy, having witnessed what the Lord has done, and like those shepherds of old, tell all about what you have seen and heard, as it has been told to you.

c.2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Monday, December 21, 2009

What If It Had Been You? - A Homily for Advent IV, Year C

Homily for Advent IV, Year C
Sunday, December 20th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 1:39-55

What if it had been you? What if in the days of your early adolescence an angel had spoken to you in the silence of the night and prophesied that you would be the mother of the saviour? What if as a young man, in the depth of your dreaming you received an angelic vision that the woman to who you were betrothed, but with whom you had had no sexual relation, was about to bear a son who would save his people. What if it had been you – you or I who had received this message, heard the awesome and frightening message for not only our future, but the future of the world? What if it were you or I?

Would our response have been Mary’s “let it be unto me according to your word?” Would our response have been “my soul magnifies the Lord,” or “My spirit rejoices in God my saviour?” Or would the shame of an illegitimate pregnancy bring fear, and shame, and loathing? Would our response more closely resemble the response of Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel, to put away the woman of shame? Could we have borne the shame or faced the judgement of those around us.

But the angel did come to Mary, and it did come to Joseph, and despite their initial fear, astonishment, and shame, both Mary and Joseph said “yes.” Joseph did not put away his future wife, nor did Mary hide her face in shame. Instead, Mary went immediately, with haste into the Judean hillside, into the country, to her relative Elizabeth, who in her old-age had also received a visitation from the Lord – Elizabeth who six month’s pregnant was destined to be the mother of the Baptist.

Mary went – a young girl, barely a woman -- to Elizabeth, an elder, a mentor, a wise woman. She faced not the burden alone, but in the company of this holy mother who was herself a vehicle of God’s grace. And there she stayed for some time, sharing her both her fears and her dreams with the one, who in a remarkable way, could understand her sacred calling. For when she saw Elizabeth the words from the elder woman’s mouth were not words of judgment, nor words of condemnation, but words of blessing. Even within her own womb, the baby leaped for joy. Elizabeth, who had also been touched by God, greeted the one who others may have shunned, with reverence, respect and admiration: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” and she wondered aloud, “why has it happened that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

And so her son likewise wondered aloud many years later, when the same Lord approached him on the banks of the Jordan river and asked him for baptism. Like his mother he evinced his own unworthiness, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal – it is he who should be baptizing me.” And yet, the timeless son of God was baptized by John.

He comes to us again in these latter days – again and again. It shall not matter whether we are rich or poor, of low or high estate. He comes to us – again and again. And it is in our weakness and our brokenness that we meet him and he meets us. He comes to the scared and frightened child in each of us as he came to a trembling adolescent girl in Nazareth. He comes to us in our false pride and vanity, in our fear of shame and judgement as he came to a young man who actually considered abandoning his bride to be. He comes to us in our aged brokenness, in our regret and disappointment about what might have been for our lives if only things had worked out differently, as he came to an old woman whose womb had been barren throughout the decades of her life. He comes to us in our world of darkness, sadness, violence and anger, as he came to middle-eastern land so long ago, disappointed by failed hopes and foreign domination.

He comes to us today not with words of judgement or condemnation for who we are or what we might have been. He comes to us not with anger or wrath for the mistakes we have made or continue to make. He comes to us not with punishment for the sins in which we inevitably participate. He comes to us with great love, with words of hope, with healing in his wings with these words: Greetings favoured one. He comes to us with the promise to be born within each one of us, to turn our fear to hope, our sadness to joy, and our sorrow into laughter. He comes to us, to you and me, with the same message that came to Mary and Joseph, and Elizabeth and Zechariah, greetings favoured ones. They were not great and powerful people, but people like you and me – and they were favoured by God; favoured to birth the Christ to a hurting world.

We are favoured, for the Christ has been birthed in each of us, and continues to be born again and again in our hearts with purpose of transforming not only our lives but transforming the world and bringing hope to a people that walk in darkness. Hide not your light -- that is, his light -- under a bushel, but let it be unto you according to his word, that each of us might sing the words of blessed Mary this Christmastide and always, “My Soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my saviour!”

c. 2006 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hope in the Darkness - A Homily for a Service of Remembrance and Hope

A Homily for a “Service of Remembrance and Hope”
(offered to those who mourn during this Advent and Christmas Season)
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; John 1:1-14

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
- Isaiah 9:2

As we draw close to the longest night of the year, I am deeply cognizant that for many, this year has been (as the prophet Isaiah says) like dwelling in a land of deep darkness. Many amongst us have lost someone over this past year and even after many years, others will still feel the loss of loved ones poignantly as the Christmas season approaches. The period of grief and mourning is often depicted metaphorically by our biblical authors as a period of dwelling or living in a land of darkness. Consider, for example, the words of that most beloved of psalms in which we find ourselves “walking through the valley of the shadow of death.” Shadows, darkness, deep darkness, and night. The darkness of grief is a darkness from which we wonder if we shall ever emerge. It is a darkness that no one else seems to understand, for we are surrounded by a festive season. Although the days have grown shorter, festive lights illumine night. Although our hearts may be saddened, we are surrounded by songs of joy. Although we long to be alone with our quiet thoughts we are dragged into the crowd to share in a cheer we can barely muster. One supposes we must come along for the ride, and yet, no matter how many carols are sung, no matter how many lights are strung, no many how many parties are attended, we still feel deeply lost in a land of deep darkness and wandering about in the shadow of death.

The truth is that the darkness never dissipates so quickly. Contrary to the expectation of our culture that we should be able shift gears, to “get over it”, to tune in to the season, the dawn comes slowly and gently. As I have related before, I like to rise early in the morning. Sometimes I look out the window and watch the sunrise. In my former life as a commuter, out the window of my train, I used to like to watch the sun come up and the sky gently illumined. First comes a faint glow, barely noticeable, then comes a soft light, perhaps some colour. The faints lights that shine like moments in the night, the stars, begin to fade, to be replaced by the rising sun, and even on the coldest morning, the warmth of its rays -- what a blessing the gentle sunrise is to us, and so different from the abrupt flick of the switch that brings about man-made light.

I suppose this is what the world expects of us when we are in our grief and we come into the Christmas season, that we should flick a switch and all shall be well with our broken hearts. But God does not ask this of us. God invites us to be present to our pain, sorrow and grief. God allows us to journey through the land of deep darkness, for is not the night God’s dominion as much as the day? And although the night feels cold and lonely, we are not alone, for as we journey through that land of darkness, through the valley of the shadow, God our shepherd is with us. We may not be able to always detect his presence, but we know his promise. And we know that the dawn comes gently.

The light does indeed shine in the darkness, but it is not the light of feigned happiness, nor is it the light of false festivity, rather, it is the faint sparkle of a star that reminds us that the darkness is never all-encompassing, or the glow on the horizon that says the day is coming, not just yet, but slowly, gently, warmly, tenderly. It is the warmth that is felt when we realize that we are not alone on the journey through the night but feel the presence of another who understands the journey we are making. It is in these things that the light shines through. For as the Christ is present will all those who make merry this season with song, and food and drink, and dance, so too is the Christ present with those who shed a tear and long once again for a warm and loving embrace. His light is the light of all people, those who dance and those who mourn. May you feel his warm embrace and catch a glimpse of his gentle dawning light this Advent and Christmastide.

c. 2009 The Rev. Daniel F. Graves