Sunday, April 18, 2010

Freedom and Limitation - the Way of Vocation: A Homily for Easter 3, Year C, 2010

Homily for Easter 3, Year C, 2010
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 21:1-19

“But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else with fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” – John 21:18

When we are young, we are under the illusion that maturity buys us our freedom. One only has to go through the process of raising a child, or holding down a job in order to pay the rent, or to look after an ailing and aging family member, or face the disappointment that money can’t always buy what you want, to know that maturity doesn’t always buy us freedom. As children we might think that adults have all the freedom in the world, but as adults, we might longingly look back upon our youth and remember the carefree days without the responsibilities that we unexpectedly took on as we entered adulthood. This is not to say that as mature, responsible adults that we are bereft of freedom; to the contrary, we have considerable freedom in making choices for our lives. The real mark of maturity, though, seems to be the recognition that freedom and limitation are forever yoked together in a delicate dance.

Parker Palmer, a writer and teacher of teachers, has written some insightful words on vocation and discernment. He notes that he grew up being told that anyone could grow up to become the president of the United States. Upon reaching adulthood and undergoing a long journey of vocational struggle and discernment , Palmer came to the realization that he had been taught a bit of a lie. While it might be true that a society should provide equal opportunity for all its citizens, not everyone has the gifts to live out every vocation. As such, it is not true that everyone has the potential to grow up to be president. Palmer said he wrestled with some time with the idea of ministry in the Church, until he heard from God that in no uncertain terms, was he to be an ordained cleric in God’s Church. I think all of us can relate that there are some things we can do well naturally, that there are some thing that we can learn to do well, and that there are others that we should probably never even try. The delicate balance is discerning what we are called to do, and what we are not called to do -- freedom and limitation in a delicate dance.

I suspect that the Apostle Peter never really saw himself as much more than a fisherman. I doubt that he wanted to be a leader; yet, Jesus saw something in him that challenged him to reframe his self-understanding. Somewhere along the way, Peter made the leap from fisherman to shepherd. Jesus awoke within Peter a discerning spirit and gave him the courage to see within himself his leadership potential. Jesus helped Peter to understand that he would have the gifts and strengths not only to herd his flock but also to push them forward into new and verdant pastures. He saw within Peter a strong leader that could push and encourage his sheep, but also, when needed, to gently tend and feed them. Jesus activated within Peter his gifts for leadership, and there on the seashore, gave him the courage to use them.

Peter still had his limitations, though. He was not the first one to recognize the Lord that morning. No. That honour belongs to the beloved disciple, that unnamed follower of Jesus who rested his head on Jesus at the last supper, who remained faithful at the foot of the cross, who was the first to believe in the resurrection when he saw the empty tomb. So, some time later, on that morning in boats on the sea of Tiberias, after fishing all night with Peter and the others, when the eyes of all others were clouded, the Beloved Disciple looked toward the seashore and recognized the risen Lord. This Beloved Disciple, himself a fisherman, was not destined to be the shepherd of Jesus’ people. No. Instead, he had the gift of insight, the gift to recognize and see the risen Lord in the most unlikely of places, and to share that story with others. If he is indeed the witness that stands behind the words of the Gospel of John, then he had a most remarkable gift indeed, for his words have continued to witness to the Risen Christ, and teach the faith for two thousand years. Jesus stirred within the Beloved Disciple the gifts he needed to live out his vocation.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple shared many of the same practical skills, and likely, they both came from a very similar upbringing and socio-economic class, practicing the same profession -- two men with similar skills, but different gifts; two men with the same Lord and master, but different callings.

Both were called. Both men responded to the words, “follow me.” But their answers of “yes” meant different paths for each of them. They had the freedom to say “yes” or “no” to the call, to continue on doing what they were doing, or to see where unlocking their gifts and following Jesus took them. Both responded with a “yes,” but their individual gifts would shape how they each live out the call in very different ways. Peter could no more be the thoughtful insightful witness that inspired belief in others, any more than the Beloved Disciple could be the shepherd of a people who required equal doses of gentleness and challenge. Each had their gifts and each had their calling.

In their final conversation, Jesus thrice encouraged Peter to care and tend for his flock. Peter was a bit hurt by Jesus’ repetition of this instruction, but it was only to encourage Peter (and to confirm his faith in his gifts of leadership) that Jesus pressed this message repeatedly upon him. Jesus then told Peter that leadership is not about being free, but being yoked. In youth we fasten our own belts, we do what we want, and we go where we want to go. In old age, we stretch out our arms and others dress us and take us where we do not want to go. This was a thinly veiled reference to Peter’s eventual martyrdom. Peter was given the leadership of Jesus’ followers. He would be called upon to make decisions, to arbitrate disputes, to have the final say. If we follow Matthew’s account, “what Peter bound on earth would be bound in heaven.” He was given the keys. That’s a lot of authority, and presumably a lot of freedom. And yet, Jesus’ sermon illustration was about his loss of freedom. With his new-found authority, Peter was bound to follow a new way, the way his own master exercised leadership, that is, the way of the cross -- freedom and limitation in a delicate dance.

Peter, ever the straight-shooting talker (perhaps, one of his traits of leadership) asked about the other disciple, the Beloved Disciple, “what about him, Lord?” Perhaps, like many leaders, Peter was worried about the competition. Jesus simply said, “Don’t worry about him. I have other plans for him.” It was like he was saying to each of them,” I know your gifts; now you two recognize them in each other and all will be well. Now just follow me.” And follow they did. Peter led the people until legend tells us he followed in his masters step’s to martyrdom in Rome. The Beloved Disciple lived to a very great age, outlived all the other disciples, and went on to teach and inspire others to teach the faith to some of the great Christian leaders of the second century. The Gospel of John is a timeless testament to his story of Jesus, and through it, he witnesses to the Risen Lord still, and teaches us today.

As with raising children, working in unexpected jobs, caring for aging parents, in all the strange twists and turns that life throws at us, we find within ourselves the gifts to live the life into which we are called. The question is not whether I can grow up to the President or Prime Minister; it is not whether I can be a CEO or teacher, a nurse or fisherman, it is how might I be faithful to the call in which I am truly free? To live into the call that God gives us, to follow him wherever he may lead us, is perfect freedom, but it closes other doors. There are doors through which we may wish to walk, or have hoped to have walked by any given benchmark in our lives. Perhaps, after all, there are doors better left unopened and road better left unwalked, for not every door is the door to the house into which I am called, and not every path is the path of my life. What is more to the point, is that from the boat on which we drift through the night, working away at whatever we do, the risen Lord calls from the seashore with the words, “follow me.” With him as our friend on the journey, we shall find the right doors through which our gifts will lead us, and right path on which our life and path will unfold.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Blessed are They who Have Not Seen, and Yet Believe - A Homily for Easter 2, Year C, 2010

Homily for Easter 2, Year C, 2010
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 20:19-29

“Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe.”
-- John 20:29

Recently, the CBC re-ran an episode of Tapestry featuring an interview with the Franciscan writer, Richard Rohr. Rohr explained that while the Western Christian Tradition has a grand tradition of systematic theology, that strength, namely explaining and systematizing every detail of the faith, has also been its weakness. He posed this question: if everything is explained and understood, then where does faith come in?

To be sure, “faith seeks understanding,” as the old saying goes. I would be the last one to say that we should not engage our heads in the task of understanding our faith. To explore the questions of our faith and engage in critical theology is to worship and contemplate God with our minds. It is an act of intellectual piety. Sometimes though, in our efforts to work out all the details of the faith, we lose sight of what the concept faith actually means. Faith is about believing without knowing or understanding how it might all fit together. Faith is about trust. Faith is about believing even in the midst of all the doubts that bounce around in our heads and hearts.

Thomas is to be commended because demanded proof. His faith was not of the mindless sort. He could not make the acclamation “Christ is risen!” unless he saw and touched the risen Lord, himself. In his skepticism and his need for evidence, Thomas would have fit into the Church of our day (or any other day) quite nicely. Perhaps Thomas was the first Christian theologian, seeking to understand his theological landscape by gathering evidence in order that he might sort it out and make sense of it all. We need people who do this sort of work. In fact, we are all called to try to make sense of our faith.

On the other hand, though, we can be riddled with such skepticism and a demand for evidence that we might never believe anything, even when the evidence is put before us. Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to live our lives with a hermeneutic of suspicion: unless I can have absolute certainty about the theological landscape of Christianity, I cannot, I will not believe. But then, what is faith?

Thomas, who refused to believe unless he saw with his own eyes and touched with his own hands, stood before the Lord who offered him just that opportunity. “See my wounds, Thomas. Touch them! Do not doubt, but believe!”

Interestingly, and profoundly, we are not told if Thomas actually touched Jesus, only that he responded with the most forthright confession of faith in the whole New Testament, “My Lord and My God!” Did Thomas realize upon seeing his master, that he had no need to touch him, that sight alone was enough for him to make that leap of faith?

And what of us who have not the privilege of gazing upon those wounds, much less the opportunity to touch them? Will we demand evidence before we believe? Perhaps, though, we ought to look at things from another perspective. Maybe it is not us who touch Jesus, but Jesus who touches us. Perhaps it is Jesus who sees us in our doubt and our distress and reaches out to us, as he did to his disciples with the words, “Peace be with you,” and offering that peace opens for us the eyes of faith. For, it seems to me, faith is not something we can ever really attain by gathering up evidence, rather, it is something we can claim when we have been beheld and touched by our Risen Lord. In recognizing that the Lord has first touched us, then the fire of faith is kindled in our hearts. The work of theology is not about seeking out God to prove God exists and ignite faith within us, rather is our response to a loving God who knows us by name, calls us and reaches out to us. “Faith seeking understanding” is precisely that. It is the working out of the gift of faith that the fire kindled with in us might burn more brightly, more deeply and more fully in our lives. Blessed are we who have been seen by the Lord, and believe.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Incarnation of Truth: A Homily for Good Friday

Homily for Good Friday, 2010
Friday, April 02, 2010
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: The Passion According to St. John

"What is Truth?"
--John 18:38

Before the judgment seat of Pilate, Jesus was asked this question, “What is truth?” In my own never-to-be-produced imaginary Hollywood production of John’s Gospel, I direct a flashback sequence to be inserted, one of those rapid sequences recalling the many times this question has already been answered and reminding the audience of moments they have already witnessed. In rapid succession these snippets pass before our eyes in black and white celluloid:

Cut to: the opening sequence of the film in which John the Baptist is baptizing in the Jordan and suddenly Jesus appears, the omniscient narrator with a deep resonating voice begins –

"There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world … And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth … the Law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."

"John the Baptist," booms the narrator, "testified to the truth."

Cut to: a quickly succeeding montage of moments of Jesus teaching his disciples; a succession of his great “I am statements.” -

“I am the true bread, which has come down from heaven.”

“I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower.”

“I am the way, the truth and the life.”

“I have not come on my own, but the one who has sent me is true.”

Cut to: Jesus, the night before his trial, at supper with his friends praying his final prayer for them. He proclaims –

“When the Spirit comes, he will lead you into all truth,” and then prays to his Father, “Sanctify them in the truth. Your word is true. I came into the world to testify to the truth.

The rapid succession of black and white flashbacks end, and the audience reminded of all that has gone before is returned in full colour to the present of Jesus standing before Pilate and making his testimony:

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs the truth listens to my voice.”

To which Pilate replies, “What is truth?”

But the actor playing Pilate offers this line neither as a sneer, nor as a philosophically profound rhetorical statement. It is clear to those who watch that this is the empty question of a man who does not understand that the answer to the very question he asks is standing before him, in his very presence.

Jesus is Truth.

We, the audience, understand this, for we have journeyed with him from the outset of his ministry when he was proclaimed as the truth of God by John the Baptist, and through his ministry he proclaimed himself as God’s truth in a world blind and hostile to the truth of God. We have the flashbacks to remind us Jesus’ own confession of his identity, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” His very presence testifies to the truth in our midst.

For a moment we sit, our eyes transfixed upon screen, as the eyes of Pilate meet the eyes of Jesus. At first we experience a sense of anxiety, what will Jesus say, what will Pilate do? And then we realize that Pilate has missed the point altogether; we experience incredulity at Pilate’s ignorance. But soon, our incredulity turns to shame, for we quickly realize that Pilate’s question haunts us, for it is our question, too, is it not? What is truth? Even if we accept that Jesus is the truth, what on earth does that mean?

What is truth? Perhaps somewhere in our silver-screen adaptation, we shall have taken the liberty to create an apocryphal scene. This scene will have shown another teacher, an ancient nameless philosopher, who teaches a philosophy something akin to Platonism. In this scene, this teacher will have taught that Truth (that is, capital “T” Truth) lives in the realm of ideas, in the perfect mind, free from the corruption and decay of the material world. Truth exists in the realm of the divine, in the mind of God, and anything here on earth that appears true is but a reflection of the divine truth. While we may touch truth with our minds from time to time, it is fleeting and any immediate sense of truth is perishable. Truth is only in the mind of God. Anything else is a pale reflection of perfect truth. We can catch a glimpse of truth through the study of philosophy and through a certain ethic, but we are mistaken if we think truth walks amongst us.

Now this scene is not in our Gospel narrative, but I take liberty as the director to include it in my movie because it is a plausible scene and provides a sort of stereotyped image of an ancient philosophical teaching that characterizes the world into which Jesus comes.

Thus, when Jesus is seen amongst his disciples and proclaims, “He who has sent me is true,” our cast of disciples wonder if he is a platonic teacher, and we might wonder it, too, for we have just witnessed another teacher teaching that Truth exists only in the realm of the divine. God is Truth.

But as the film unfolds and the story of Jesus is told, we discover the twist that makes this story different. It is a different story of the truth. It is the story of the Incarnation of Truth. Perhaps that is what we should call the film, “The Incarnation of Truth.” For Truth ceases to be an abstract concept that only resides in the pure and divine mind; rather, Truth enters into the world, becomes part of the world, become part of the human species in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, Truth transforms the world.

“I am the true bread from heaven,” and “I am the true vine.” Not a mere reflection of the invisible, idealized bread, residing only in the mind of God, not an earthly representation invisible, idealized vine taking shape only in the mind of the Father in heaven. No. Jesus proclaimed, “I am the truth.” And to behold the Truth, to behold his glory is to become children of that same Light, not a light that shines distantly in the heavens, but a light that shines in our darkness. The True Light that was coming into the world.

The Incarnation of the Truth is for the purpose of leading God’s people into the Truth by the power of the Spirit. The Incarnation leads us into the truth, not by having us forsake this dark and broken world, but by shining its light into the darkness. The Incarnation leads us into truth not by lifting us out of an untruthful and unrighteous world, but by bringing Truth into the world and transforming the world in Truth. Jesus is the Truth of God that transforms the world from darkness to light, from sin to righteousness, and from falsehood to Truth.

Jesus stands before Pilate, his presence a testimony to the Truth of God. Truth itself stood before Pilate and Pilate asks, “What is truth?”

Blind to the reality of Truth in his midst, he sends Jesus to the cross – a story more sad than sinister. Yet, be it sad or sinister, God’s truth is made known to the world as Jesus hangs upon the cross. It becomes clear to all who watch the drama unfold that the Truth of God is riddled with paradox: strength in weakness, victory in humility, life in death. The instrument of execution becomes the means to eternal life. The cross intended to damn to death becomes the living tree that saves.

Truth stood before Pilate and Pilate knew him not.

Soon the film will wind to its close. Truth will stand in his risen body before others, in the garden near an empty tomb, in the home behind the locked doors of a house and on the shores of the Galilean lake. Yes, others will see Truth and recognize him. As director, I shall cut away to an image of cross resting on its side on a hill, its wood beginning to decompose, but from which green foliage and flowers begin to grow. And lastly, we shall see a man named John (another John, the disciple whom Jesus loved best), dictating words to a scribe. He will dictate words that that testify to the Truth, words we continue to read, believe and proclaim, that even on this darkest day, we might know the answer to the question, “What is Truth?”

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves