Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dream the Church -- A Sermon for Pentecost

Homily for Pentectost, Year B, 2009
Sunday, May 31st, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Acts 2:1-21

“… And your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
-- Acts 2:17

To dream, to dare to dream, is a part of Christian vocation. For men and women, young and old, to dream is to have hope. We dream about who we could become, who we are becoming in the hands of a loving God. Who we are becoming and who we might be – these things form the essence of our Christian dreaming. We dream about our place in the story, we dream about our community’s place in the story, and we dream about the place of the Church in the world. We dream about what God is doing and will be doing in the days ahead to further His kingdom here on Earth. More profoundly, though, our dreams and longings are longings placed on our hearts by the Spirit of God, the Spirit that gave birth to the church and continues to give birth to our spirits as it is poured out in Holy Baptism.

In the Upper Room, the disciples waited, prayed, and dreamed. They dreamed of the promised gift of the Spirit, they dreamed of the future and their place in it, and they dreamed about what the continuing presence of Christ might mean for them and their world. As it was for them, so to it is for us. As it shaped the longing of the disciples, God’s Holy Spirit shapes our human longing into a holy longing and our human dreaming into holy dreaming. As God’s love is poured out upon us our longing and dreaming is brought to perfection by that same Spirit. To dream is to invite God’s Holy Spirit to enter into our broken lives, wherever we are, in whatever state we find ourselves, and ask for the wings of the Spirit to unfurl in our dreaming. To dream the Church, to dream the Kingdom, is to invite God’s Holy Spirit into our humanity and shape our dreaming and longing into a Christ-like longing for the reconciliation of the world to God.

Our Primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, our spiritual leader, has called us to dream. As Canadian Anglicans what are our hopes and dreams for the future of this Anglican Church of Canada. The dream is not simply about what any one of us in particular want the Church to be, but rather for each of us give voice to the voice of the Spirit of God speaking to us individually that we might hear collectively the call of God to Anglicans in this country in the years to come. Like disciples in an Upper Room, we wait and pray; we dream and long. There may be many different voices, many different languages, many different images in our visions and dreams, but can we be open to the Spirit as it descends and allows us to understand one another, even when we speak in different tongues, different voices, appealing to different images, metaphors and paradigms? Can we, will we dare to hear each other and dream together?

Next Sunday, Trinity Sunday, has been declared Vision 2019 Sunday. A most appropriate day indeed, for the Trinity is nothing if not the diversity of persons in united purpose and loving harmony. In our dreaming and purpose can we mirror the divine life of the Blessed Trinity? In our wonderful diversity of persons let us let us dream together the Church and the Kingdom under the blessing of the Spirit that hovered over creation and recreates us day by day. Your pew leaflet includes an insert with ways in which we can dream together, as a parish, and as Canadian Anglicans. I encourage you to take up these opportunities and join your dreaming and longing to the dreaming and longing of Anglicans across this great nation and in this great Church of ours.

Perhaps I could begin. What do I dream?

I dream of a Church that has no fear or reservation in making the Gospel of Christ, the story God’s reconciling love, known to a hurting world.

I dream of a Church that turns to God again and again in prayer and listens to what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

I dream of a Church in which all the children of God are welcome, and not turned away because of human prejudice or human fear of those who are different.

I dream of a Church that has the courage to stand up to the injustices and prejudices of the world around us, and champion the voice and cause of the dispossessed, the marginalized, and the forgotten.

I dream that God will journey with those who have left the Church, and yes, even abandoned their faith in light of the ways that the Church has hurt so many in our history.

I dream that God will open our eyes to the harm we have done through ignorance, selfishness and naiveté. Thus, I dream and long for a meaningful reconciliation with those from whom we are estranged.

I dream of a Church of courageous people gathered under the banner of Christ who stand together and say no to the dark forces of this world that would have us believe that our human value is rooted only in what we can buy or what we can sell.

I dream of a Church that says proclaims a resounding “no” to the selfishness of within us and around us that leads us to destroy, rather than nurture and care for God’s good creation.

And I dream of a Church in which every one of God’s children knows and feels the healing and reconciling love of God in Christ, no matter how broken they are, defeated they are, no matter how sick, depressed or demoralized, I dream that God’s love will be known to any and all in need, strife or affliction, and I dream that we will be the people to carry that love to the world.

This is what I dream and this is what I long for, upon attempting to listen to the voice of God’s Holy Spirit. What do you dream for? What is your holy longing? It is time to share the ponderings of your heart. It is time for men and women, young and old to dream dreams and share their visions that God might shape our dreams and our visions into the vision of his kingdom.

Text copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Saturday, May 16, 2009

If You Keep My Commandments: To "be" rather than to "do" -- A Homily for Easter VI

Homily for Easter 6, Year B, 2009
Sunday, May 17th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 15:9-17

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”
--John 15:10

To keep the commandments of God; this is what we take to be the essence of our Christian life. Indeed, back in the fourteenth chapter of St. John, Jesus himself says, “if you love me, keep my commandments.” The keeping of commandments seems to suggest the taking up of a task, the doing of certain duties, the following or keeping of a code. I suggested last week, in our reading of John 15:1-8 (Jesus’ words about the vine and the branches) that we might be overly tempted to understand the concept of “bearing fruit” as the concept of living out a life of good works. I do wonder, though, if we miss the point of his words if we unduly focus on Christian “duty” rather than Christian “being.” Now, there will be many that will respond that “good works” are the natural response of those who respond positively to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and they would not be wrong in their assertion. The Church has long maintained this theological position and indeed, faith without ensuing good works would appear to be a meaningless dead faith. To this view I wholeheartedly subscribe, and yet there seems to me to be something of a chasm between faith and the work of faith, and this chasm is exacerbated by our societal obsession with doing. The evidence of our value and worth in this world is that we produce something of value. I expect that this is the ultimate result of the Industrial Revolution and the age of consumerism. Unless I produce something that people want, find useful, and will pay for, I am of little value to the rest of humanity. Is it so far a stretch, then, to ask if this loathsome estimation of our human worth as participants in a society obsessed with productivity is not frequently applied to our spirituality and life of faith?

As a Church that finds at least a portion of its identity formed in the womb of Protestantism, we are clear that “good works” do not buy us our salvation. We are clear that is by God’s grace alone and through our faithful response to that grace that we find ourselves to be his redeemed children. Yet, why are we so obsessed with works? On the one hand we may say that they have nothing to do with the attaining of salvation, yet on the other we still count ourselves worthless if our faith appears to bear no fruit. The problem seems to me to be that we have a very narrow understanding of what “bearing fruit” might mean. This skewed understanding is intensely shaped by a world that identifies intrinsic value in productivity. Thus, the evidence of a lively faith will seem to be for us a proliferation of churchly activity, of service to the community, of endless programme opportunities, of doing, doing, doing. The implication being that if our lives are full of doing this will be the evidence of a faith-filled life. The corollary, of course, is that if I do not pack my days with good works and productive activity, I have no evidence of my faith. I wish to reiterate, I do not see good works as bad. On the contrary, a lively faith will indeed lead the Christian person to an intense desire to live out the gospel in works of charity and activity. Yet, good works are simply that, a living out of the gospel, not the evidence of faith.

What then, does Jesus mean when he commends us to keep his commandments? Of what does he speak? He speaks, of course, of love, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Love is more than doing. Love may cause us, and even drive us, to act in certain ways, to do certain things, but at the core of its essence, love is really about being. Thus, we can say that “I am in love,” or “we are in love.” Love transforms us, changes us, and affects our very being. Love works on us, on our very being and our very existence. This is the reality to which Jesus speaks when he says you did not choose me, I chose you! To be in love is to be in Christ, for it is Christ who affects our hearts, inhabits our being, and transforms us. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love. The commandment is not so much an order to “do” but a invitation to “be.” It is the experience of the abiding presence of our Lord with us always. What is more, we experience the same love of the Father for the Son, for as they abide in each other; so now in Christ the Father abides in us and we in him. In this is the joy of Christ made complete, and is our joy made complete. And consider this: “joy” is another word of being rather than doing.

Thus, as I asserted last week, the fruit that we bear is Christ abiding eternally amongst us in the world. It is the fruit of love and the fruit of joy of which we, and those around us partake. The fruit is not to be hoarded, just as it (unlike so much in our modern age) is not grown for personal gain. It grows and ripens for the purpose of sharing, the purpose of nurturing, and the purpose of existential and eternal fulfillment for the whole world. If we try to hoard the fruit of love, the fruit of joy, and yes, even the fruit of hope, we will fail. The fruit will fall to the ground and rot, its life-giving purpose perverted. The fruit of the vine is for the life of the world and the healing of the nations. To this end, Jesus says “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

Love is something to be given away, not hoarded. When love, the fruit of the vine is given away, more will grow. When love, the fruit of the vine is given away it nourishes the one who receives it and it gives life. Love begets love. It is something to be enjoyed and something in which we abide.

Thus, it is true that love will cause us to live out our lives in acts of love. Love will cause us to bear the fruit of love in our lives, and yes, love will lead us to good works. Let us never forget, though, that works are not in and of themselves the fruit of the vine, the fruit is Love itself in the person of Christ. When we find ourselves consumed by the doing of this life, and when we begin to mistake what we “do” for the essence of Christianity, then let us recall what Jesus said: “I do not call you servants but friends.” To be a servant is to work, to define ourselves by what we do; to be a friend is to be defined by what we are. To be a friend is simply “to be.” And what marvelous fruit grows from branches that abide in the friendly vine of Christ.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, May 8, 2009

Abide in Me: A Homily for Easter V

Homily for Easter 5, Year B, 2009
Sunday, May 10th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 15:1-8

“You have already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you.”
--John 15:3

When we hear the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John about the vine and the branches, we are often captivated by the fate of the branches that bear no fruit, the ones that are pruned away and cast into the fire. While it is important to consider all aspects of this passage, I would suggest that it may not be fruitful for us to find ourselves entirely obsessed with this portion of the text. To focus disproportionately upon this aspect of the text may indeed draw us away from the point of the passage altogether and the message Jesus has for us. It is clear that John’s Gospel is characterized by a very strong polemic, casting in stark contrast those who are inside the community and those who are outside. Indeed, it is a polemic takes on cosmic and eternal overtones. This polemic may seem very jarring to us. We must never forget, though, that the community to which John initially wrote, of which he was a part, was a community cast out of the synagogue for its faith in Christ. Thus, he is pressed into using such language that is clearly a response to the church’s ejection from the community. This ejection caused upset in both communities in a number of ways, not the least being the tearing apart of families. The religious and social impact of such a break must have been enormous. In such events of social crisis, language tends to escalate and polemic heightens. The temptation for any of us, when rejected, is to reject in turn those who rejected us. Rejection upon rejection, slander upon slander. This is likely the social context from which this passage emerges, and in such wise does John interpret the words of Jesus. But again, I suggest that we probe beyond the polemic of the story and focus not on what has been pruned away, but rather what abides, for it is in these words, that I believe Jesus speaks directly to the Church of this and every age.

It is natural for any of us to feel that we are not included in the life of the community; that we may not be “in.” How many of us have wondered if we really are Christians when we compare ourselves with others who are zealous in their faith. But our faith is not a faith built on fear. Consider for a moment, how Jesus addresses the hearers of this passage. He does so in a form of direct address, using the second person plural, “You have already been cleansed.” To whom does he speak? Of course, in the context of the story, he is speaking to his followers, his disciples. But his words cut across time to others as well. As John wrote these words, they were words directly addressed to the community of his day, to a new generation of disciples in a new situation. They became the “you” to whom Jesus spoke. Now, as the Gospel is proclaimed in this assembly today, we become the “you” to whom Jesus continues to speak. Through the Scriptures, Jesus’ words continue to speak and we believe that through Holy Scripture, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we encounter the Living Word of God.

Thus, I ask, do you believe he is speaking to you, that this is a word address to our community today, the baptized faithful? If we do indeed believe that Jesus speaks his word directly to us through the words of Scripture, I ask, do you see yourselves in the collective “you” addressed by Jesus in today’s text when he says, “You have already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you?” And if the Christian faith is new to you and you are inquiring as to whether Jesus might be the Lord you are seeking, do you hear a word being spoken to you, seeking you out, calling to you?

The noted Roman Catholic biblical scholar, Raymond Brown reminds us that the word used by John for cleansing and pruning are the same Greek word. Thus, when Jesus says, the Father “removes or prunes every branch in me that bears no fruit,” Brown offers the following translation, “trims clean every branch in me that bears no fruit.” Thus, when he goes on to say that “you are cleansed already,” this suggests that we have already been “trimmed clean.” It suggests that we are indeed branches that will bear fruit because anything in us that does not bear fruit has already been cast away. The message for us, the baptized, and those approaching baptism is not that we are cast away because of what is not fruitful within us, but rather that God in Christ prunes away those things that keep us from bearing fruit. We remain attached to the vine.

Jesus goes on to say, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Another translation reads, “Remain in me as I remain in you.” Jesus remains with us, and within us, beyond his brief earthly life. He remains, alive in each baptized Christian. He remains, he abides, and he lives in us. Indeed, his primary manifestation in the world in our time is through his Church. Our life, as branches bearing fruit, is supported and sustained by the true vine, Jesus Christ our Lord. If there is no vine, a branch cannot bear fruit. However, the vine abides forever never dying, never withering. The Good News is that we are not branches that bear no fruit but branches, already trimmed clean, cleansed in our baptism, that we might make Christ known to the world. We are indeed fruitful branches. We must never forget, though, that we cannot bear fruit unless we abide in the vine. The vine sustains our life and allows us to bear the fruit we so desperately hope to bear. Thus, as we abide in that vine, our source and ground of our being, he abides in us.
Much of St. John’s Gospel is about a Jesus who seeks to offer us a relationship with the Father. In the prologue to the Gospel we learn that to those who believe he gives power to become the children of God. In Jesus’ final prayer (in the seventeenth chapter of the St. John), before the passion narrative unfolds, Jesus prays “Father they know everything you have given me is from you. For the words that you gave me I have given them.” Jesus offers the entirety of himself, everything that that Father has given him, that we might know what it is to be one with the Father. In this offering, the Father holds nothing back from us. The fruit born by Jesus becomes the fruit born by everyone who follows him. (Incidentally, this is a very sophisticated way of understanding the self-offering of Jesus, and ultimately, the offering on the cross becomes for us a sign of this very offering).

Jesus goes on to pray, “As you have sent me into the world so I have sent them.” As branches on the true and living vine, we offer Christ to the world. The fruit, which we bear, is Christ himself. And lest we have any doubt about that, he continues, “sanctify them in the truth, your word is the truth.” Again, we return back to the opening words of the Gospel, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is the Word. Therefore, if Jesus the Word of God abides in us and we in him, the fruit we will bear is Christ himself, to be offered to a world that hungers and thirsts for reconciliation, justice and peace.

To bear the fruit which is Christ is not simply to follow his precepts or do his will but to allow ourselves to abide in him that we might bear him in all our joy and all our sorrow, because to bear Christ in our sorrow and joy (and in everything else in-between) is to allow the entirety of our humanity to be sanctified for the healing of world. This is what it means to bear fruit. The mistake for us is always to think that it is about simply following a set of rules or living a good life. These may be important things, but they are not what it means to bear fruit. To bear fruit is to allow our very essence to be transformed by the one who abides in us that we might abide in him. In this mutual abiding, even our pain has the potential to bear healing fruit because Christ abides in our pain and remains with us. In this mutual abiding, our joy has the potential to be a healing joy for those around us, because Christ abides in our joy and remains with us in our heights. Yes, even in our mistakes and failures, he abides there, too. If we turn again and again to him, and recognize that he has not left us, that he remains and continues to abide, even our mistakes and failures can be a means of bearing Christ to the world. If we allow him to work through our authenticity, through our contrition, through our brokenness, and yes, even through our sinfulness, we will bear Christ to the world.

I cannot speak for others who have not chosen this way. I cannot and shall not judge them. Instead I speak as one who has heard his word and claimed it as my own; I speak to those who have claimed it as their own; I speak to those drawing near to the light of this faith, who sense the word awakening within them: His word abides; you have been trimmed clean already; you have been cleansed. Hear then his word: “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Others may find a word of comfort somewhere else, in some other way but I have found my comfort and challenge here in these words, in this Word of God, as have Christians of all ages. Thus, we do not fear being pruned away and cast off because we know that we firmly abide in the vine and that vine abides in us and will remain with us always.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves