Sunday, February 21, 2010

What Would Jesus NOT Do - A Homily for Lent 1, Year C

Homily for Lent 1, Year C, 2010
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 4:1-14

We often hear it asked, “What would Jesus do?” However, I suppose the question set before us in today’s text is “What wouldn’t Jesus do?” The story invariably read on the first Sunday of Lent, whether it be the version from Matthew, Mark, or this year from Luke, is the story of the Temptation in the Wilderness. Following his Baptism, Jesus is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In the life of the Church, Lent is traditionally a time of preparing candidates for baptism. Of course, baptism is such a joyous occasion and almost always followed by a lovely party with family and friends. Jesus got no party. Instead, he was given forty days in the wilderness, starving, thirsty, fighting of demons, and to top it all off, the devil came to him and tempted him. This story should serve as a word to the wise, and to those seeking baptism, namely, that the Christian life isn’t always a picnic in the park. The Christian life is filled with desert moment. The Christian life is filled with struggle against demons internal and external. The Christian is filled with temptations to do the things we ought not to do, and leave undone the things we ought to do. It may come as a surprise to many outside the Church who harbour such saintly, pious pictures of Christians who seem to never complain, drink, swear, get angry, or sad, that at times we may feel, as the words of the Book of Common Prayer confession says, as if we have no health in us.

There are many moments in our lives when we are confronted by choices. We are called upon to make decisions in our private lives, in our public lives, in our work and in our play that require ethical decision-making. We may not be literally confronted by that caricatured little fellow with the pointy tail and ears, horns on his head and pitchfork in hand, but we are confronted by situations that have the potential to destroy our lives and the lives of those around us. Often, those decisions may not present themselves as very profound. They may be deceptively prosaic. And what is even more alarming, they may offer choices that seem to actually offer a good outcome, but as St. Paul wrote, the devil masquerades as an angel of light, and so we also take the advice of St. John, to discern the spirits because not every spirit is of God.

Thus, we meet Jesus in the wilderness and subsquently taken to the pinnacle of the Temple. Satan sets before him three temptations: the temptation to turn stones into bread, to become the master of all he could see, and to test God to do a miracle by saving Jesus from death. Now, are these things in and of themselves bad? Turning stone into bread to feed the hungry, Jesus as Lord of the world, and God delivering Jesus from death were all things that later became integral to the story of Jesus and salvation history. Feeding the hungry, Jesus as Lord, and the conquering of death through the resurrection are all signs marks of the Gospel. Yet, here, they are temptations by the devil.

Consider it further, in the shorter version of the Lord’s prayer in Luke 11, three of the key petitions clearly echo the evil’s temptation: give us today our daily bread; your kingdom come; save us from the time of trial.” Bread, kingdom, and salvation from the time of trial – all things with which the devil tempted Jesus, and yet, all things for which he prayed to his Father in Heaven.

As I see it, ethical decision-making in the Christian tradition, therefore, cannot simply involve proof-texting the Bible to see what it says, for the devil quotes Scripture, too. The words of Scripture can be twisted to justify the most insidious forms of chauvinism and bigotry. When posed with a difficult ethical question we must ask the question, to what end is my decision directed? Is my decision about filling my own stomach or quenching the hunger and thirst of others? Is my decision about giving glory, power and dominion to myself or about giving glory, power and dominion to God, the Father almighty and to his Christ? Is my decision about saving myself from the time of trial, or about relieving the trials, suffering, pain and brokenness of those around me and of the world at large? These considerations lie at the core of our ethical decision-making. And I believe that these are the principals that Jesus teaches us in Holy Scripture. He could have desired and accepted the good of all that the devil offered him, for the devil was not offering him inherently bad things. Yet, if he accepted what the devil offered, it would have been for his own personal aggrandizement and on contrary to the divine and triune will. He would not only have sold his soul, but he would have broken the heart of the Trinity. The Trinity would have ceased to be perfect holy divine communion. Ethical decision-making is about seeking Holy Communion with God and Holy Communion with each other. It means that we each have to give up a part of our own longings and desires to be together as God’s people, and to be a part of his body, in Christ.

This is not to say that we are to give up our human dignity, for human dignity is nothing less that image and likeness of God in us. Thus, we strive and fight “for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” as our baptismal covenant states. We stand against the evil forces that drive a wedge between us as a people and between us and our creator; we stand against the powers and dominions of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; and we stand against our own sinful desires that draw us from God’s love and break the bonds of our communion with each other.

Christ our God set before us the pattern of Christian ethical decision-making, namely to honour the divine, creative life in each one of us, not by turning to self, but turning outward to others, and upward to God the Father. True, authentic, divine selfhood is free from selfishness.

In and of ourselves, we are incapable of such divine selfhood; yet, in Christ, we learn what true selfhood is. In him we find our identity, and in him we live and move and have our being. And in communion with each other around his holy altar we dwell in him and he in us.

Thus, the answer to making ethical decisions is not always to simply ask what would Jesus do (although that is never a bad place to start), but perhaps to ask what he wouldn’t do. He would not turn stones to bread. He would not take the Lordship of the world for himself. He would not test God to save him from the time of trial. Tempting, and good as these things might have been, to have done them would have been to place his love of self ahead of his love for the world and his love for his Father in Heaven. Jesus knew who he was and what he wouldn’t do, because he knew that there is no greater love than that a man should lay down his life for his friend.

c. 2010 the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Where the Heart of God Resides - A Homily for Ash Wednesday

Homily for Ash Wednesday
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be”
-- Matthew 6:21

The annual exhortation to fasting, almsgiving, and prayer is upon us. Annually we read Jesus’ admonition to go about this work and devotion quietly, in private, without making a fuss. We are not to make a show of our almsgiving, we are not to be ostentatious in our praying, and we are not to disfigure our faces so that other will see we are fasting. And yet, here we are kneeling in prayer, confessing our faults publicly, receiving the imposition of ashes, which we shall wear out into the streets as a sign that Lent is once again upon us. There is a dissonance in all of this, is there not?

I recently spoke with a gentleman who told me that as a child, he was told all good Anglicans wiped the cross off their foreheads when they left church on Ash Wednesday, unlike those terrible Catholics who wore their ashes with pride throughout the day for all to see. Was this really Catholic pride and was this really Protestant humility. I doubt it very much. I think that the pious Catholic had a very different motive, and that the Protestant was little more than an iconoclast. Yes, at first glance there seems to be a dissonance in what we do today with the words of Jesus, but as we explore both the words of Jesus and our response more deeply, I think that we shall come to a deeper understanding than the caricatures of proud Catholics and humble Protestants.

Where is your heart? This is the question that Jesus is asking us. The admonition against practicing our piety before others is really about the state of our heart. Do we long for praise, acknowledgement, recognition, and reward? Jesus is warning us that sometimes the outward trappings of our religious practice are served up to meet that oh so human need for approval. We long to be liked, respected, and admired; yet we are fundamentally insecure creatures. We store up rewards on earth, we display our strength, our perfection, and our wealth before others in order that we might convince people that we are all right. And more than all right, we are perfect. What does this say about our hearts? It suggests that there is something missing and that we are trying fill that void or mend that wound with external trappings. These things are all on the outside, though. That is not where our heart is meant to be.

As with many of the sayings of Jesus in St. Matthew’s Gospel, choices are often presented as stark opposites. There is a temptation here to read the words of Jesus in simplistic terms, but viewed amongst the varied woven tapestry that is the Holy Scriptures, we sometimes admonished to wear our faith on our sleeves, as Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew, “Do not hide your light under a bushel,” whilst in other places, like today’s passage from the same gospel, he encourages us to practice our piety in secret. The corollary of all this must be not that outward piety is bad and inward piety is good, or vice versa, depending on the passage you read; rather the corollary must be that with our hearts set on the things of God, the inward and outward life of faith will both fall into place.

Consider an analogy. Think for a moment of a close relationship that you share with someone, a spouse, a dear friend and confidant, a family member, or even a counselor, spiritual director or priest. Any intimate relationship will be multi-layered and multi-faceted. In the intimacy of a relationship there are things that you will share with each other that you will not share with the rest of the world. There are some things that are meant only for the two of you and your personal intimacy. And that is just fine. At the same time, any intimate relationship will bear fruit in the world, and there will be things about your relationship that will be shared and celebrated with the community around you. We celebrate our relationships and covenants both privately and publicly. If our hearts are set aright on the good and we live our covenant relationships faithfully, then where are hearts are, there too will be our treasure. Wherever we live out depths of covenant love and friendship with authenticity, there we will experience richness and blessing. The same is true of our life of faith. The sign of the cross in ash upon our foreheads, giving to those in need, and being intentional about our public prayer is the external fruit of living out a deep and intimate relationship with a loving God.

There is one hitch, though, and that is where we come to this day, Ash Wednesday. Try as we might, sinners that we are, we are prone to break covenants, betray confidence, hurt those we love and with whom we share our deepest intimacy. We often use our intimate relationships for selfish gain and in doing so we can cause great harm to those we love, and to ourselves. It seems to me that this is what Jesus is speaking about. Thus, when we use the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving to direct attention to ourselves rather than nurture the deep intimacy of heart speaking to heart, we abuse the sacred mystery of humanity and the divine touching each other.

But herein we encounter the good news, as well. It is not humanity that has reached the heavens and touched God, rather it is God who has reached down and touched humanity. In the Word made flesh, God has placed his heart amongst his people. The heart of God is where is treasure is, and we are his treasure. In spite of all the ways we abuse his holy religion, in spite of all the ways we take advantage of his intimate presence for our own aggrandizement, God still counts us his treasure enough to place his heart amongst us. God longs for a loving relationship with his people, and persists again and again, even as we turn again and again from his intimacy and love.

Thus, to keep a holy Lent is not about whether or not we wear a cross proudly or wipe it away humbly, it is asking about where our heart will be, in the midst of the more profound reality of where God’s heart already is. In the intimacy of hearts meeting, human and divine, we will know treasure in the depths of our being and treasure in our common life with all God’s children.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Letting Down the Nets - A Homily for Proper 5 Year C 2010

Homily for Proper 5, Year C, 2010
Sunday, Feb 7th, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 5:1-11

“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
--Luke 5:4

Whether or not we enjoy fishing, most of us enjoy a good fishing story. Several years ago, I regularly visited one hundred year old man named Duncan. In his younger days, Duncan loved to fish. Not surprisingly, given his confinement to a wheelchair and his residency in a nursing home, Duncan had come to believe that his fishing days were long behind him. However, for his one hundredth birthday, his son and son-in-law took him to a well-stocked fishing pond, lifted him from his chair into a boat, and drifted out over the water, and for the first time in many years, Duncan fished. When I visited him he told me about pulling fish after fish out of the water. It was the best birthday present a man could have, he said. Duncan and I concluded our visit as we always did, with Communion from the reserved sacrament. Before we shared in Holy Communion I decided to read for him the fishing story from John 21, a passage quite similar to the story we read today in Luke 5. After hearing of Peter casting his net over the right side of the boat and hauling to shore one hundred and fifty three large fish, Duncan exclaimed, “Now that’s a fishing story!” At that moment, the Scriptures came alive for him in a special way. The disciples then shared in a meal of bread and fish with their risen master, and Duncan and I shared in a meal of bread and wine with the same risen Lord.

In the fifth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel we hear of a similar story, yet this story takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, rather than after his resurrection. The crowd has pressed in about Jesus and he has to get into the boat of some fishermen, who were ashore washing their nets, just so that he can get some distance from the crowd and teach them. Just off of the shore, in full view and in good voice, Jesus now begins to share his message with the crowd. After he had finished teaching he turned to Simon the fisherman, a man with whom he had some acquaintance, for he had recently healed Simon’s mother-in-law, and said to him, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon was skeptical. All night they had caught nothing. Was the area fished out? Had someone scared all the fish away? Was it not the right time of day or night? Perhaps we shall never know, but we do know all the usual fishing excuses. Yet, in spite of all his experience as a fisherman, and against his best instincts, Simon obeyed. And what happened next? The nets were so full that they began to break. They caught so many fish that all the fishing boats were filled and began to sink. As my friend Duncan might have said, “Now that’s a fishing story!”

The story does not end there, though, for when Simon Peter saw what was happening he fell down before the Lord and wept, repenting of his arrogance that had previously kept him from drawing in such a hearty catch, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Jesus did not leave him though, rather, in his gentle but challenging way addressed him, “Fear not, my friend from now on you shall fish for men.” Simon Peter, James and John then left everything and followed him.

A fishing story indeed.

The truth is, of course, that this story has nothing to do with fishing, but everything to do with following Jesus and living out his mission in the world. This story could equally be told about a people living in a suburban Canadian community. These people live in relatively wealthy community; they have decent jobs, or are comfortably retired. They have devoted their lives to working hard both for their families, and for their community. They have a lovely little church that has served the community well for nearly two hundred years, indeed, it may be one of the oldest churches in the country. But a sense of sadness hangs over these people because the world has changed so much; their community has changed so much. They do everything they can to preserve the way of life they love so much, have worked so hard for, and have known so well. Yet, the nets seem to come up empty. The demographics of the community have changed drastically, or to put it another way, the fish seem to have relocated. Some will say in despair that the area is “fished out.” Others will suggest that like good fishermen, we just have to wait it out, be patient, the fish will come back. Someone else will suggest that we need different bait. Another will say that maybe we should try fishing at a different time of day or night. Others yet will simply assume that our fishing days are long behind us. All the old fishing excuses are trotted out and no matter what we try, the nets come up empty.

There is one thing that we so often overlook, though, and that is who is in the boat with us. The disciples fished day and night and their nets came up empty. They tried every fresh approach they could imagine, and they used every fishing excuse in the book, but the nets were still empty. Maybe it was time to pull the boat ashore and find a different pond. Maybe their fishing days were behind them.

Or, maybe there was something they were overlooking.

With Jesus in the boat with them, with his voice, his instruction, and with his presence amongst them, they cast their nets and they came up full, so full that the boats began to sink.
You may expect me now to suggest that if only we had Jesus with us in the boat that is called Holy Trinity, Thornhill, the catch would be bounteous. I will not suggest this, though, because Jesus our Lord is with us. He has never left the boat. What I will suggest is that we sometimes fail to recognize this reality; sometimes we forget that we have him as a captain. What I will suggest is that we spend a lot of time trotting out all the old fishing excuses as to why the nets are not full. What I will suggest is that if we let go of our excuses for a moment, as Simon Peter did, and let down our nets into the deep water of our community, that we might just be surprised at the catch we shall pull in. If we listen to his voice, we might just be surprised that the waters have not been fished out, that the fish have not gone away, that we are not fishing at the wrong time of day or in the wrong place, that our fishing days are not behind us. If we listen to his voice we may just be surprised.

What is Jesus saying to us?

He is saying stop making excuses; let down the net where you are. In spite of what you might think, there is deep water here. Don’t wait for the perfect conditions, or the perfect location. Fish on the pond or the lake on which you find yourself, there is deep water here. Whether it is a the country club or community centre; whether it is with your children and grandchildren or around the bridge table; whether you are at the cottage or on a cruise; these are the waters into which Jesus says, “cast your net.” And if the words of Jesus aren’t good enough for you, let me quote a Nike advertisement, “Just do it!”

Jesus is saying don’t be afraid! As Anglicans this may seem frightening, but no one is asking you give anyone the hard sell. Simply be willing to claim the fact that you are a Christian person. Our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters are not afraid to claim their identities, let us not be afraid to claim ours. Be willing to say why you are a Christian and why it matters to you, not in an arrogant or boastful way, but with honesty and love. After all we are not trying to get someone to buy something; we are talking about the love of God for a broken world. If we at Holy Trinity learned anything from Back to Church Sunday, it’s that the roof does not cave in when we invite a friend to church! Back to Church Sunday is not just once a year (or Christmas and Easter). Back to Church Sunday is every Sunday! Cast your net and invite a friend, follow up with someone you invited on Back to Church Sunday, or someone you know who comes only on Christmas and Easter. “Do not be afraid – cast your net!” This isn’t Father Dan or Canon Greg that are telling you this, it’s Jesus – they’re his words, not ours.

Finally, the text today is telling us to kneel before our Lord in humility as Peter did. Peter realized that he was trying to fish under his own strength and when he own strategy did not work, he made excuses. Yet, in a moment of grace, he listened to the voice of his Lord and cast down the net into the deep waters where he was and it came back to him full. When he realized that his sinful arrogance had hindered rather than helped him, he fell down and wept. We, too, must repent before the Lord for thinking that the kingdom is a thing of our own making, that it is all up to us and our church growth programs and designs. We must repent for our fishing excuses, and then receive his gracious forgiveness.

What shall we do then? Listen and obey, let down our nets into the deep water of this community, and let the Lord do the rest. That won’t just be a fishing story, that will be a kingdom story.

c. 2010 the Rev. Daniel F. Graves