Sunday, January 17, 2010

What Happens When the Wine Gives Out? -- A Homily for Proper 2, Year C, 2010

Homily for Proper 2, Year C, 2010
Sunday, January 17th, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 2:1-12

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
--John 2:11

What happens when the wine gives out? Most of us have been to a party, or have given a party where something dreadfully embarrassing has happened. In the grand scheme of things such embarrassing moments are rarely of cosmic significance. We forgive our hosts or we forgive ourselves for the faux pas, and we move on. Therefore, it is curiously interesting when Jesus chooses to intervene in just such a prosaic moment, when the wine gives out at a wedding feast, and turns water into wine. At first he shrugs off the request of his mother to do something, “what is this to you and to me, woman?” Yet, ultimately, he acquiesces and we learn, in fact, that his presence in the midst of the mundane has been an occasion for the revelation of God’s glory, for we are told that because of this his disciples believed in him. This was to be the first of his seven signs.

Scripture is filled with ordinary moments. For this we ought to be grateful. Those who do not read the Bible or know it, assume that it is a book that is ethereal and heavenly. While there is no doubt that it is a sacred book, those of us who read it, or listen to its words week by week, know that it is filled with ordinary people, dysfunctional families, weddings feasts gone wrong, loved ones dying unjustly, communities fighting amongst themselves, and so on. At Cana, Jesus is present for one of those moments that may seem so familiar to us, the party gone wrong. Thus, Scripture is not above us or distant from our reality, but a part of our reality. It is our story first and foremost not because we are a people of faith, but simply because we are people, plain and simple.

Into the midst of our ordinary lives, God enters in. God enters in not to rescue us from such a world, but to redeem and transform the world. Thus, we speak of the Incarnation, or literally, the “enfleshment” of God as the nexus of our faith. We do not worship a God who whisks us up, up and away from the world, rather we proclaim God among us as Christ crucified. And God among us changes things. God among us changes us. God among us changes the world. This is what happens at Cana – God uses the mundane moment of a party gone wrong to turn the hearts of a people from fear to faith.

It may seem glib to compare the experience of a first century party gone wrong with the terrible events this week in Haiti. They are on opposite extremes of the human experience. Yet, there is a thread that runs through both events, namely, the human question, “does God really care about us.” At that wedding feast in Cana when the wine ran out, Jesus’ response seems dismissive and aloof, “what is that to you and to me?” Amidst the destruction in Haiti, and in so many other disasters, the same observation might be made. Where is God? It seems as if God sits in his heaven and proclaims “what is this to you and to me?”

As the images of the destruction of Port-au-Prince cascade before our eyes, we will inevitably ask the question, “Why?” Why has this happened? Why did God allow this to happen? Was this the will of God? Does God even care? Many years ago I recall seeing an interview with the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and Cambridge Physicist, who was deeply concerned about the dialogue between faith and science. He was asked about the 1755 Lisbon earthquake in which thousands were killed, many in the Cathedral Church that collapsed, “was it the will of God that those people should die?” Polkinghorne responded, “I believe it is the will of God that the plates of the earth should move in accordance with their nature.” While the answer rings true to me on both a rational and theological level, it does not console me on a pastoral level. I think it will not console those in Haiti this week. Thus I look elsewhere to try to understand.

Nearly twenty years ago, I read Eli Wiesel’s semi-autobiographical fictional account of the holocaust, Night. It featured a terrifying scene in which a young boy was hanged with two other men for stocking arms. Wiesel writes,

"For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him…Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows…’" (pp. 70-72)

For many years I have struggled with what this passage was intended to mean. Did Wiesel intend it to characterize the absence and abandonment of God? Did he seek to say that Judaism itself was dead? Did he mean to suggest that God was dead? Or did he mean something else? I suppose I shall never really know what Wiesel meant or intended, but I cannot help but feel and see the story of my own God in this brief but horrifying excerpt, a God who hung on the gallows to share our human suffering.

The Christian God is not a God who swoops in and carries people out of danger. He does not engineer miraculous escapes. This may, at first seem the meaning of the story of Cana, of stepping in and saving the day by turning water into wine. But, I think something much deeper is happening in this story. We are told by John that it is a sign. What does the sign signify? I believe it communicates the reality that God does care deeply about us, so much so that he joins us in the crisis. He is the God who is with us in the disasters of our lives suffering alongside us. Where is God? He is at the banquet when the wine runs out. Where is God? He is amongst the rubble of Port-au-Prince and the suffering of the people. Where is God? He is hanging on a tree.

Closer to home, there is barely a week that goes by when the Canon and I do not receive at least one phone call in which we receive word that a member of this parish or someone beloved of them has cancer or some other devastating illness. There is barely a week that goes by when we do not receive a phone call from the Kane, Marshall or Jerrett Funeral Homes asking us to journey with a family who has just lost someone dear. There is barely a week that goes by when we do not see suffering in this parish family and community. It would be easy to believe God has abandoned us. It would be easy to believe that God is dead. It would be easy to cease to believe in God at all. But that would be the easy way out, would it not?

It is harder to believe when we live in a world in which the plates of the earth act in accordance with their nature. It is harder to believe when we live in a world in which cancer and aids ravage our friends and strokes damage the minds and bodies of our loved ones. It is harder to believe when we live in this fragile world in which the wine so readily gives out. However, God hanging on tree means something very different to us. God hanging on a tree means that in cancer, in earthquake, fire and flood, and yes, even in a party gone wrong, God is with us. God is with us in the crisis, God is with us in our angst, God is with us when death surrounds us. God is with us when the wine gives out. When the world comes crashing around us literally and figuratively and we so desperately long to be whisked away, God joins us in our pain. As we encounter God hanging from the tree, then something miraculous happens that appears to contradict reason, we come to believe. The miracle of Cana was not that water was turned into wine, rather that when it seemed like God did not care, they realized his presence in their midst, and in that revelation of his love, they came to believe. Thus, the miracle of water into wine is not deliverance from affliction, strife and need; rather it is the transformation our fear into hope, and the assurance of God with us, even in affliction, strife and need.

c. 2010 the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"A Voice was Heard in Ramah" - A Sermon for the Feast Day of the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents

Sermon on the Feast of the Holy Innocents
Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Preached at the Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Texts: Jer 31:15-17, Ps 124, Matt 2:13-18

If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say;
If the Lord had not been on our side,
when enemies rose up against us;
Then would they have swallowed us up alive
in their fierce anger towards us...

By God’s grace, an angel of the Lord warned Joseph, in a dream, to flee from the wrath of a tyrant; a tyrant, who like most other tyrants in history constantly feared for the loss of power. In Herod, we meet a tyrant who feared a tiny, helpless child, a tyrant who murdered his own sons, a tyrant who in an act of paranoia was willing to drop the veil of death upon the helpless people of his own nation. But, by God’s grace, an angel of the Lord warned Joseph to take his family out of the reach of the merciless tyrant. And so our story goes: The child and his family flee under the cover of darkness into the safety of a different land, as if the very fulfillment of prophecy.

If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say;
If the Lord had not been on our side,
when our enemies rose up against us;
Then would the waters have overwhelmed us
and the torrent gone over us;
Then would the raging waters
have gone right over us.

The Lord has provided the cover of safety for the holy family.

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children...

Left behind, unsuspecting, many other families are torn apart by the wrath of the same tyrant -- left behind, no angel to warn them about the unthinkable horror about to fall upon them. Children are torn from the arms of their fathers and mothers and slaughtered. In one swift act of terror, the tyrant tears apart the lives of countless families. The sudden onslaught of death and its swift departure leaves a desolate and despondent people wailing from the very core of their being for the slaughter of their very flesh and blood. God had not warned them. And the hymn of thanksgiving for deliverance begins to echo hollow:

Blessed be the Lord,
he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth.

Rather, our hearts are crushed by the sound of Rachel weeping for her children:

She refused to be consoled,
for they are more.

By what cruel interpretive slight of hand have commentators of the ages ridiculed the cry of Rachel? For what cruel and self-indulgent purpose have we dared to utter sentiments such as the words of the fifth century bishop of Carthage, Quodvultus:

“The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The Christ child makes those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the saviour already working salvation.”

By what cruel and utter madness have we dared to call these tiny victims the first martyrs of the church and written off the gutteral cry of parents destroyed by grief as the grief of those who mourn for martyrs? Give me no part of the kingdom of this Christ. Give me no part of the kingdom that theologizes the cry from Ramah as one that points to the Kingdom of God. Of what use is it to sing “Our help is in the name of the Lord” when, indeed, there is no help for these ones, nor is their help for the many silent voices lost to the purposeful silence of regimes that close their grips on power by massacring the innocent and muting the cry of Ramah throughout all the ages. By what twisted psychology do we justify the death of children and the grief of mothers as pointers to our own salvation, even the fulfillment of Scripture?

She refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.

So must we also refuse consolation.

Wise men came from the east seeking after a wonderful work that God was about to do. These wise men, holy men, in all good faith sought after a newborn king, a king that would bring peace. But they were deceived by a tyrant into revealing the vulnerability of God made human, and as such became inadvertently complicit in the ravaging of a people. They came seeking the light of the world and left in their wake the darkest night of the worst of the human condition.

During this holy time, we too seek the incarnation, God made human, the light of the world. We see his star rising in the east and we seek to follow it to where it rests. We long to do homage before the birth in time of the timeless Son of God. We seek after the light of the world and at that very moment are confronted instead by the slaughter of the innocent.


Why, when we seek a saviour, why when we seek the light of the word, are we confronted by genocide? Why are we confronted by the calculated destruction of an innocent group of people, simply for being who they are?

We seek the light and are confronted by the darkness. And we cannot, we must not, we dare not turn away. We look for the Christ and find instead innocent blood and are cut to our very core by the voice of lamentation, weeping for what cannot be returned.


It is in this horrible vision that we meet the darkness of our own souls. It is this very moment that we confront ourselves and realize that we might be Herod. And here, the possibility of our own darkness is the very reason that we need a saviour. In seeking a saviour, we encounter the very worst of human experience. And here is the purpose ro which God became human: to turn us away from the worst of what we might be and transform us into what we are meant to be, the likeness of Christ.

There are those that call this story fiction. It is simply the type of another massacre, a holy massacre. But no massacre is holy. And even if it was formed in the imagination of an evangelist we must not discredit it. If the historical record is silent about this massacre, so is it about many countless others, but do we dismiss or discredit them simply because the voice from Ramah is silent? We in our age, of all people, should know that enforced silence cannot dampen the cry of Rachel mourning her children. We know only too well... Auschwitz, Birkenau, Rwanda, and the near silence of Armenia that Rachel continues to weep for her children, and we cannot deafen our ears. These genocides are among us. This is not simply the fiction of a first century writer, it is the story of evil in the world which persists to this day. We cannot theologize away the death of innocents. It is a sin to hide these things. We must speak of them, and name them. We can only bring the darkness to light by speaking of it and acknowledging its existence. We are called to stare into the darkness and the forces of this world that draw us from the divine likeness, and speak to the darkness of humanity.

It is not the heart of God that these horrors come to pass. It will not do to say that the death of innocents as martyrs point us to the mystery of the Incarnation. It is not the heart of God that families suffer the loss of their heart and joy simply to fulfill the words of a prophet. It is the heart of God to enter into time to turn our hearts from such heresy. It is the heart of God for us to say a resounding no to such twisted nonsense. It is the heart of God to become as us so that we might be as him and not as children of the night.

God hears the cry from Ramah and will not let it be muted in silence.

c. 2003 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Gift of the Seeker - A Homily for Epiphany, 2010

Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord
Sunday, January 3rd, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 2:1-12

“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
--Matthew 2:2

They were the original seekers. Whether they were kings, wise men, or astrologers; whether they numbered three, or ten, or twelve, it matters not. What matters most, is that they were seekers. They came from a distant land, a land outside the boundaries of the kingdom seeking to pay homage to a newborn king. They did not need to be conquered or persuaded. Rather they caught a glimpse of his light, in the form of a distant but bright star, and followed its course. Like many seekers, they were not exactly sure where to go or who to ask for directions, and like many seekers they got some bad advice and visited the wrong person. Yet, in spite of their unfortunate visit to Herod’s palace, God honoured the intentions of these faithful seekers and brought them to the child and his mother, and they paid him homage. Kneeling before the one whose star they had observed at its rising, they laid their gifts before him and where overwhelmed with great joy.

In our day, as the institutional church staggers along with its propensity toward inward-looking narcissism, with its fear of change, fear of the world beyond our walls, fear of the outsider, fear of those who are different , we would do well to consider that amongst the earliest seekers of our Lord are found visitors from a strange and distant land. On any given Sunday there will be seekers amongst us. This may not be immediately evident because we may have formed a preconceived notion of what a seeker looks like. However, there are many kinds of seekers. There are those that we may notice readily through different forms of dress and different customs; they may not immediately understand the customs and traditions within these walls, and may feel awkward and out of place. There are less obvious seekers, though. Indeed, I would suggest that there are many more seekers amongst us than we might immediately suppose. In fact, all of us are seekers in one way or another. Even those who were baptized as infants, have been life-long communicants, long-term members of an ACW group, advisory board, attended numerous parish social and educational events, and contributed to the stewardship of the parish through envelopes or pre-authorized giving, even amongst the most committed churchmen and churchwomen, we find seekers.

Wheter we come here today for the first time, or whether we have been coming here week after week for many years, we are all seeking something. For some it will be a solution to a problem that seems irresolvable. Others seek the kind of support and care that can be so difficult to find in the world. Some seek a deepening of their faith, having already known both the peace and the challenge of being a follower of the Christ. Mourners seek solace, the hungry seek food, the sick seek healing, the marginalized seek inclusion, the persecuted seek justice. Each of us come seeking – seeking the embrace of a loving Lord, a Lord who came for all people, not simply for an elect few.

While it is easy for us to imagine that there are many outside these walls who have never felt the embrace of that loving Lord, it is perhaps more difficult for us to understand that amongst us, there are many who come here week after week that still long and hope for that loving embrace, hoping and praying that today will be the day that they know God’s loving touch.

There are all sorts of seekers and they all come bearing gifts. Wise men came from the East bringing gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, grand gifts indeed, and perhaps a bit intimidating for those of us seekers who do not have such gifts to bring. They brought what they had, and gave from their abundance, but their material gifts are largely symbolic. What was important was that they gave the gift of themselves. They left their homelands, journeyed afar, and offered themselves to the newborn king. While it is true they did not stay, they returned home changed people. The light they followed became the light they carried home to their own country. And what is just as important, they left us a changed people, for those who were once excluded from God’s covenant were now included. Foreigners sought out the Lord and the Lord welcomes us all today, not as foreigners but as friends, not as outsiders but as family. The Kingdom would never look the same again.

Here is the frightening truth about seekers: in their seeking they change us. I speak not only of the seeker that has joined us today for the first time, but also of the seeking that continues amongst our oldest and most venerable pillars. Seekers challenge us. Seekers threaten us. We feel threatened because we are challenged to see the world in new and different ways. We feel threatened because we are challenged to catch a vision of God’s kingdom, not as we have shaped it but as God is shaping it. The seeker challenges us to embrace a transformed world, a transformed way of thinking, a transformed way of being. The seeker challenges us to believe in a broader, more expansive view of God.

The visit of strangers, of seekers from the East, frightened Herod, the King of the Judeans. Herod feigned openness and interest both in the seekers and the object of their seeking. But his feigned interest and disingenuous hospitality masked his own murderous intent and his all-too-human insecurity. Often we feign openness to the seeker but wish they would simply go away because we are not prepared for the transformation God will bring through their presence amongst us. Often, those who have journeyed amongst us for years, longing and seeking yet, are afraid to articulate their longing and seeking for fear of what it might do to the stability of our lovely community. We are afraid of the change that comes from seekers and their seeking. If we embraced the seeker, and we embraced the seeking, then we ourselves might be changed. We fear this more than anything.

But this is exactly what happened when foreign seekers sought the Christ under the light of a distant star. Their journey into the land of the Hebrew people, seeking a king, meant that this king would not simply be the King of the Judean people, but the Lord of all people. Their seeking forever changed the way that we Christians are to see our mission to the world. In their seeking we have learned that the will of God is the inclusion not of a few people into the Kingdom, but the inclusion of all God’s children. It is a mission that changes us as we embrace it.

Thus, whether you have joined us here today, seeking for the first or second time, or whether you have been amongst us for ninety years, seeking, searching for the Christ, welcome home. It is path well-trod from ancient times, by king and peasant alike, by wise and foolish, by rich and poor, by healthy and sick, by adult and by child. It is a journey that changes the seeker and faithful, alike. What excitement and what joy it shall be to learn who we shall become together, to learn how we will change each other, but more poignantly how God will change us and shape us together in the Kingdom of the Christ. Make the final step of the journey to his cradle, kneel and pay him homage, and offer what you alone can give him, the gift of yourself. And even as you find him, you will learn that it has not really been us that have been doing the seeking after all, rather, it is he who has sought us out, who has placed his star in the longing of our hearts, eternally offering himself to us.

“Where meek hearts will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

copyright 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves