Saturday, March 27, 2010

Jerusalem, the City the Kills the Prophets - A Sermon for Palm Sunday, Year C, 2010

Sermon for Palm Sunday, Year C, 2010
Sunday, March 28th, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 24:1-43

One day, in the midst of his teaching ministry, some Pharisees approached Jesus to warn him that Herod wanted to kill him. He told them to send Herod this message, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! ... You will not see me until the times comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Luke 13:34,35). And with these words, he pressed on toward Jerusalem.

In time, the shouts of “Crucify! Crucify!” prevailed, Pilate handed the prisoner over to death, and Jesus was led to the place of crucifixion – flogged, beaten, stumbling. Then, a certain man, Simon of Cyrene, coming in from the countryside and crossing the path of those paraded to their death as he did on so many days, Simon was seized by the soldiers. Laying upon him the cross of this prisoner, they compelled him to carry it. As the beaten and flogged prisoner stumbled forward, Simon followed behind, slowly, under the weight of the timber pressing down on his back. Suddenly distracted by the clamour of the wailing of women beating their breasts and lamenting the fate of this one convict, Simon looked up. And as the shoulders of Jesus straightened and he turned his gaze at the women, the prisoner spoke these chastising words to the women who were already bewailing his death: “Weep not for me, you Daughters of Jerusalem. Hold yourselves in pity. Curse the day that you were born and curse the wombs by which you shall bear children.” Simon asked himself, what manner of man is this who curses those who lament his death? “Pity yourselves,” the prisoner continued, “bless the day of your own destruction for it will be a great relief to you. Don’t you see that if this fate falls upon an innocent man, what fate will fall upon you and all of this city who, guilty of such grievous sin, stand truly condemned?”

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!

The very day in which we live is a city that kills the prophets and persecutes those who are sent to it. Would any deny that we are in need of a prophetic voice? Would any, knowing the terrors of Armenia, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and the hidden terrors known only to God, dare to deny that we stand in need of a prophetic word? Would any deny that even as we hear such a word, we fail to receive it? Do we dare, like Herod, ask for a sign, when so many have been given, or call for a word of prophecy when so many have already been uttered?

The women around Jesus knew of the prophets. They knew the story of Israel; they knew the story of Judah. They knew of the Babylonian captivity, they knew of the subsequent short-lived liberation. They knew of God’s wrath, and they knew of God’s compassion. But they could not read the signs of their times. They were aware of the prophets but they were not in tune with them.

And so it is for us, if not more so: Do we even know who the prophets are? Are we so persuaded by those whom the world calls important, and those whom the world calls wise that we are unaware of those whom upon God has granted the gift of prophecy in our age? Do we call upon God to help us discern the prophets of our age? Do we even care to know who they are?

Do we even care when God raises up prophets amongst us? When God raises up those who dare to speak the truth or utter a prophetic word, we make the choice not to listen -- to turn the channel. There are people who cry out about injustice, they cry out with the voice of God and the authority of God, and we feign interest, and more disturbingly, we feign lamentation when their prophecies come to pass. What is more, it is easy to lament them when they are persecuted because we do not believe that we persecute them. But, God help us, we do, through neglect, disrespect, negligence, false piety, feigned interest, self-centredness, and self-indulgence. Is it not much easier to lament the horror and then, turn each one of us, to our own way?

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!

As they reach the place of execution, Simon relieved of his burden, falls to the ground, exhausted, not only under the weight of the instrument of death, but under the weight of the condemnation of his city. There they crucify the prisoner. His cross is lifted high, and on either side of him are other criminals, each bringing to the moment of their death the weight of lives wasted and lives of unfulfilled hope and promise. Then, from the lips of the man in the centre, looking down on the crowds, the women, the soldiers, and even this man Simon, and out into the world, come these words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

Have any more beautiful or gracious words ever been spoken? To the one who betrayed me and turned me over to death: Father, forgive him. To those who shouted “Crucify him! Give us Barabbas!”: Father, forgive them. To the ones who slipped away under the darkness of night: Father forgive them. To the one who denied me; Father forgive him. To you soldiers who nail me to this tree; Father forgive them. To that man who carried this cross on which I am nailed, Father, forgive him. And to you, Daughters of Jerusalem, who kill the prophets and stone those whom God sends, Father forgive them. Father forgive them all, for they know not what they do.

But they do know what they do. They have heard the prophets, the voice of God has spoken to each one of them. Some of them followed him, some of them shared in his proclamation of the Kingdom. Many witnessed miracles and healings. Did even one of these stay with him? They knew what they did, and they were ashamed. But Jesus speaks these words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

And then, one man, his name lost to history, one man, a sinner, hanging upon the cross. “Lord,” he says, “I know the evil that I have done. I know that I am worthy of such a death, but you, Lord? Jesus, remember me, a sinner, when you come into your kingdom.”

And then our Lord spoke such words with such power as never before, such words that changed the course of our human history: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

With those words, once spoken, the eyes of many a blind heart have been opened and the ears of many a deaf soul have received the word of salvation. With these words, the prophecy is fulfilled: How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood. One man was willing, one child of Jerusalem, and evil though he was, he threw himself humbly on the mercy of the crucified Lord. Blind to God’s prophets though he had been, deaf to God’s word, in a moment of grace he speaks the words: “Jesus, remember me.” And the words of life are spoken to him: “Truly, today you shall be with me in paradise.”

This then, is the good news of the gospel. Sinful sons and daughters of Jerusalem though we may be, we are heirs of the good thief, whom God called home though he was a grievous sinner. We are heirs to a promise and sons and daughters of the New Jerusalem. Though we are deaf to the prophets of God, God still desires to gather us under his wings as a mother hen broods over her children. Though we stone those who are sent to our city, Jesus still utters those gracious words, “Father forgive them” … although we know what we do.

God has sent us prophets. God has given us grace to hear the prophets. As he turned the heart of the good thief so he turns our hearts, giving and forgiving, opening our hearts to hear his word and giving us grace and power to not only hear but to act, and become prophets of the New Jerusalem. Faithful cross, the sign of triumph, now for us the noblest tree. For in the shadow of the cross, lit by the light of the resurrection, we have been transformed from sons and daughters of the old Jerusalem who wail and beat our breasts and feign lamentation for a prophet we have chosen not to hear into sons and daughters of the New Jerusalem, who at last have been gathered under the wings of God, and of whom this song is sung:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Saturday, March 6, 2010

"Give them another chance!" A Sermon for Lent 3, 2010

Homily for Lent 3, Year C, 2010
Sunday, March 7th, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 13:1-9

“Sir, let it alone for one more year.”
-Luke 13:8

In considering the evils that have plagued this world in the past century and contrasting the great evils of our time with the relatively benevolent behaviour of everyday men and women, it would be easy for us to say we are free from sin. Most of us lead lives in which we do our best to love our families, be good citizens, and make a positive contribution to the world in which we live. For the most part, we are not criminals or hurtful people and when contrasted with those who stand trial for brutal crimes or against those who perpetrate holocausts and ethnic cleansing, we come off looking pretty good. Without a doubt, the goodness of ordinary people is often eclipsed by the all too real stories of human depravity and brutal disregard for the lives of others. Thus, we should celebrate goodness where we find it and allow goodness to cast a light on the darkness. It is worth remembering during this Lenten season, though, that as good as we might be, we all do things for which we are ashamed and of which we ought to repent. To recall the words of St. John, “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

I suspect that this is the thrust of the first part of story found in Luke 13. Some people put a question to Jesus about those who suffered various horrible fates, namely some Galileans murdered by Pilate and those who were killed when a tower fell on them. In the ancient world, disaster was often considered to be a punishment for sin. Indeed, a disaster might have even been considered a display of God’s wrath and evidence of previously committed sins. Sadly, this archaic religion is not a thing of the past. A certain well-known televangelist recently claimed that the Haitian disaster was a consequence of sins committed by the Haitian people in the nineteenth century. Yet, one wonders if this well-known preacher has ever read Luke 13 in which Jesus rebukes the questioners with the words, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

We are so quick to see the sin in another and to assume that their misfortune is result of their faithlessness, but God forbid my own sins should be unmasked, for I am surely deserving of no better a fate. The truth is that be they large or small, our sins and our mistakes are all things for which God ought to be justly displeased. If our human brokenness were unmasked to the world there is not a one of us that could stand unashamed. We all have things we hide. We all have things in our lives about which we are deeply ashamed. And truth be told, we are all likely afraid that if our brokenness were unveiled, we would be punished for it.

Jesus’ words are harsh, not because God is harsh, but because we belong to a harsh reality, that good and decent as we are, there is not one of us that is perfect, and there is not one of us that does not harbour some shameful secret. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. Lent is a time for us to stare the reality of our sinfulness in the face.

Jesus confronts us with a harsh reality, but does not leave us without hope. As he so often does, he tells us a little story, a parable, to teach us something about God and the kingdom. Jesus tells the story of a man who plants a vineyard and this man’s encounter with the gardener who tends it. One particular tree in the vineyard has been without fruit for three seasons and the man, being the practical fellow that he is, commands the gardener to cut it down for it is simply wasting the soil in which it is planted. The gardener pleads with him though, “just one more year and a little more tending to the soil… if it doesn’t bear fruit at that time, then you can cut it down.”

“Give me one more chance, one more season.” We all deserve another chance, for we are all sinners. In spite of the fact that we think we ought to be punished, Jesus says, “Give me another go with him.” Maybe we need a little nourishment, a little cultivation, maybe just a little time. The truth is that maybe what we need is just a little help from our Lord. Left to our own devices we can be decent people, but we will always be flawed people. There will always be someone we offend or hurt, there will always be some way in which we have let ourselves down, let our loved ones down, let our God down. As Christian people, though, this need no dissuade us from pressing forward, for the Lord our God is good indeed. He does not visit disaster upon us for our sins, as some might suggest, rather his style is to say, “let’s give her another year,” or “I’m not finished with him yet.”

Most importantly, though, we are not left to our own devices to make things right, for God himself in Christ, tends the soil of our brokenness and sinfulness, and in doing so brings forth fruit in our lives. The whole Lenten journey is less about what we can do to make ourselves better people, and entirely about what God can do to bring forth fruit in our lives and for his kingdom. The triumph of the cross is the vanquishing of the shame of our sin and brokenness. The cross is at once Jesus’ cry to the Father, “give them one more year,” and at the same time his loving tending to the soil of our broken lives. When we are withering and dying under the shame of our guilt, Jesus stands for us, with us, and puts his hands into the dirt of our lives to cultivate within us the fruit of redemption.

Thus, to keep a holy Lent is not to work harder at something we can never attain on our own, but to offer the things we dare not share with other men and women directly to the Christ, hanging on the Cross, and he will bury them in a tomb from which no stone can be rolled away, and then give us living water that we might flourish and grow under the nourishment of his risen life.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves