Sunday, October 31, 2010

What St. Paul Prays for the People of Ephesus - A Homily for All Saints, 2010

Homily for All Saints’ Day, Year C, 2010 (translated)
Sunday, October 31st, 2010
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Ephesians 1:11-23

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.
-Ephesians 1:17-18

One of the most important things that a priest is called to do is to pray for the people for whom he or she has the care of souls. The Anglican tradition is a tradition rich in prayer. In particular, Anglicans pray the form known as the Daily Office, easily recognized by those who grew up in the tradition of Mattins and Evensong as principal Sunday services. Morning and Evening prayer, offered daily, is a way of prayer shaped by the reading and recitation of Holy Scripture. When Anglicans (and Christians of other traditions who share this liturgical form) pray the Office, our prayer is rooted and grounded in the reality of Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word of God, revealed in the written Word of God. Thus, when we come to offer our intercessions and cares to God, we offer them enfolded in the words of Holy Scripture.

As we come to St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we read a text that is, in effect, a prayer. How helpful it is for us, both as clergy and laypeople, when our words grow stale or even when prayers refuse to form on our lips, to turn to Scripture, and to the Apostle in particular, to learn afresh how to pray. As St. Paul gives thanks for the Ephesians and tells them how he has heard of their faith in the Lord Jesus, he adds these words:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.

Can there be any better prayer that a pastor could offer to God on behalf of his or her people? Can there be any better prayer that any of us, as faithful Christian people, could offer for our brothers and sisters in Christ?

Let us consider for a moment what these words might mean to us.

First, Paul prays that God might give us the spirit of wisdom and revelation. This life is a journey of discovery. We might recall the prayer for the newly baptized person in the baptismal liturgy in the Book of Alternative Services, “Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works” (BAS 160). It may be said that the life of the baptized Christian is the journey of discovering the beauty and holiness of God. And how do we come to know such things? Through wisdom and revelation.

On the one hand, there is so much beauty in the world that points to the majesty and greatness of God. Indeed, when asked about how people know God exists, many will simply say look at the stars, or the beauty of the autumnal leaves, or the great complexity of the natural order. In fact, many a scientist has devoted their life to the study of God’s creation because this beauty has driven them with a desire to understand the works of God. The philosopher, the theologian, the scientist, all use the god-given gift of wisdom to seek an understanding of this divinely ordered cosmos. And Paul prays for the people of Ephesus, that they might be given the Spirit of wisdom. May it also be so for all of us.

There are other things, though, that cannot be known through wisdom, reason, or study. These are things that are known only through a special revelation of God. For Christian people, the Holy Scriptures are the place through which this revelation is found. What is this revelation? It is the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ. This is where we learn that death has no power over us, that indeed Christ has trampled down death by dying, and defeated the power of Sin that we might have life. This is where we learn that God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself. For the Christians of Paul’s day this revelation came through the reading and hearing of the Hebrew Bible for signs and prophecies about Jesus, for Christians since the second century or so, it has additionally meant reading the stories of Jesus, the acts of the early church, the letters of Paul and other apostles, for their disclosure of Jesus the Christ. Paul prays for the Ephesians that God might be revealed to them. May it also be so for us.

Wisdom and Revelation, two ways to God not alternatives, but complementary, and these are things for which we ought to continue to pray for each other. But why does Paul ask for these things, and why ought we to continue to pray for them? To what end are they important? Paul continues his prayer, “that we may come to know him (Jesus) and that the eyes of our hearts might be enlightened.” Sometimes the Church slips into thinking that it is a service club. Please note, I have nothing against service clubs – indeed, I belonged to one for several years – but the primary work of the Church is not about making the world a better place, but forming Christian people. The Church is a place, or more precisely, a gathering, in which we are nurtured that we might grow into the people God intends us to be. The Church is the gathering in which we pray, learn and serve. It is the gathering in which we are shaped and conformed, through the power of the Holy Spirit, into the likeness of Christ. It is where we come to know Christ and are transformed into the body of Christ. This is what Paul means by enlightenment – that they eyes of our hearts be opened that we might see who it is that we really are in Christ; that we might learn our true identity, and help others on that same journey. It is through the transformation of people, that the world is transformed.

And finally, what do we see with the eyes of hearts opened? We see hope; the hope to which we are called in Christ. This is a hope that the sadness of the world is not the thing that claims us. This is the hope that the broken promises of the world do not claim us. This is the hope that illness and indeed death are not our masters, but rather, we are claimed by a loving God whose love brings joy in the midst of sadness, healing in the midst of brokenness, and life in the midst of death. It is a hope that the world is indeed being transformed, as we hear in the Gospel today -- the poor, the mourners, the despised of the world are blessed in heart of God. With the eyes of hearts opened we see us as God sees us, as saints in light, on the road of becoming who we are in Christ Jesus.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Why it Can be Hard to Give Thanks - A Homily for Proper 28, Year C, 2010 (National Thanksgiving)

Homily for Proper 28 (National Thanksgiving), Year C, 2010
Sunday, Oct 10th, 2010
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 17:11-19

"Were not ten made clean?" (Luke 17:17)

There are certain seasons in our lives when it may seem that we have very little for which to give thanks. Those of us in the so-called “caring professions” know only too well that many people are in the midst of making very difficult journeys. One does not need to be a priest, or a physician, or a counselor to witness the pain that many people are experiencing. How many of us have watched marriages dissolve, or been with loved ones when they receive unwanted news of a chronic or terminal illness? Indeed, there are many amongst us who are experiencing such painful journeys, themselves. Thus, it can seem somewhat forced, or even trite, when we gather together on this particular Sunday of the year and offer thanks for all the goodness in our lives. There are seasons in our lives when we wonder what we have to give thanks for. Whenever we gather as families and friends and make merry at times of festive celebration, there will always be those who feel as though they are on the outside, not able to make merry, for the weight of the world is literally on their shoulders. We ought always to be sensitive to such a reality.

While there are times when we feel we have so little to be thankful for, there are also times when we have much to celebrate. Yet, sometimes that spirit of thanksgiving is overwhelmed by the frenzy that is brought about the thing that is the cause for celebration. I think back, for instance, to the births and infancy of our children. One cannot imagine a more wonderful gift, and yet one cannot imagine a more exhausting and frenzied time of life. It is difficult to pause and give thanks when the blessing becomes an all-consuming responsibility. I think also of someone who was without a job for many months and then finds new employment, only to be overwhelmed with the workload, and the stress of allocating the new income to pay down accumulated debt. Sometimes the joyous things in life can distract us from taking the time to offer a word of thanks.

On the way to Jerusalem, ten lepers approach Jesus, calling out to him, but keeping their distance. Now, the leper of Jesus’ time was an outcast, ritually unclean, and was required to announce his or her presence in a loud voice in order that others might not be rendered ritually impure by coming into contact with them. This is why these particular people call out to Jesus from a distance to have mercy upon them. In this particular case (unlike many of his other healings) Jesus does not touch them, or even proclaim them cured, he simply tells them to go and present themselves to the priests, those who can judge the purity or impurity of any given person. To their great surprise, in hearing this simple instruction, they have been made clean. One of the ten, a Samaritan, thus doubly outcast as he was from a derided race of people, returned to Jesus, knelt down and thanked him; and what of the other nine? Jesus ponders this question with the one that remained; were not ten made well? Why has only one given thanks?

Why did the Samaritan, alone, offer thanks?

Jesus’ words have often been taken as a condemnation of the other nine, but I wonder if this is really the case? Perhaps Jesus has recognized, posing a rhetorical question, that it is not always easy to give thanks. Consider for a moment, the plight of these ten individuals: they had been ostracized and cast out from their society, unable to participate in public life and unable to participate in religious observance at the Jerusalem Temple. They called out for mercy, and they received mercy. Jesus healed them. The healing they truly sought, though, was not simply the restoration of failing bodies, but a kind of social healing, a restoration and reintegration into their society and their religion. Having tasted that possibility, would you or I not do as they did and rush to participate and be a part of the thing from which they had so long been excluded. They sought healing and restoration, and their enthusiasm for what they received was a sort of lived out thanksgiving.

We must probe more deeply, though. Was thanksgiving even required of them? After all, they did exactly what Jesus told them to do – go and show yourselves to the priests. They did not look back, but did what they were told. Is it not somewhat unfair then for Jesus to criticize them for not coming back to offer a word of thanks?

The nine are not unlike most of us, who when having the tide go our way for a change, take full advantage of our good luck and plunge headlong into the stuff of life. I am sure they had thankful hearts because they went forth so enthusiastically.

What that one person in ten realized, though, was that the giver and the gift were one and the same. What that one leper realized was that what Jesus had given him was the opportunity to connect, to no longer be alone or isolated. The other nine plunged headlong into the world, but the last one plunged headlong into God. He realized that he did not need to run off to see the priests to cross the boundary from clean to unclean, from outcast to friend, the opportunity was standing before him. He approached Jesus, knelt down and worshiped him. The boundary that seemed impossible to cross was crossed. The divisions were healed. As he made contact with Jesus, this man was reconciled with God and with his society.

Sometimes, the thankfulness of an entire community is carried in the prayers of a single person.

Illness, broken relationships, bereavement, losses of all kinds, estrangement from friends, all have the potential to isolate us from each other, and in doing so lead us to believe that we are isolated from God. But as much as we may feel this to be true, it is not the case. In isolating us from each other, these pieces of brokenness and loss would have us believe that we are alone and without aid or succour. But this is emphatically not true. God is with us always, and God is always stretching out his healing hand to us in Jesus Christ. And while the body may give way, and while others around us may fall away, God is ever and always enveloping us in love, proclaiming to us that we are not alone, or isolated or without hope. Even more, God is always working to restore us amidst our brokenness to community and to those around us.

Claiming the blessing is often thanksgiving enough. Jesus didn’t recall the other nine and take their healing back. That they were restored to health and wholeness in the community was enough. They could be forgiven for forgetting the formal “thank-you.” Yet, once in a while, when we recognize the blessing, something stirs within us to turn around and glance back, and if we take that moment to do so, we will see a smiling Jesus, delighting in the work of healing, restoration and reconciliation. And seeing the joy on his face, the divine gift of thanksgiving stirs in our hearts, and forms on our lips, and then what could dare stop us from falling down and giving thanks and praise to God?

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Restless Hearts - A Homily for Harvest Thanksgiving, 2010

Homily for Harvest Thanksgiving, 2010
Sunday, October 3rd, 2010
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 6:25-35

“I am the bread of life.”
-John 6:35

Toward the end of the fourth century, St. Augustine began his spiritual autobiography with these words: “O Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” It is in the make-up of every human being to long after God and to seek communion with the one who created us and has loved us from before our births. That is why we gather in these buildings, whether they be modeled on Roman public buildings or eighteenth century tents: we come to meet God.

There is so much about our church life, though, that seems distant from God, possibly because there is so much work to do in church. Is it possible, that from time to time as we go about the “business of church” that we mistake the work we do as the substance of our religion? And that we mistake our work as the foundation of our relationship with the God our hearts so long to seek? Of course, I do not wish to suggest that the work we do is of no value, nor do I wish to suggest that it is not holy work. Yet, it must be stated that sometimes the work overwhelms us and we can forget why we are here. Consequently, in all the exhaustion that occurs we may feel farther away from God than ever before, and that God is not in this place but inhabiting some distant realm that is inaccessible to ordinary folk like you and me. Then comes the question we inevitably ask: Why am I here? This is not the existential question of life and death -- although such undertones may be present -- but rather, why do I bother to come to this place every week?

Why do we bother, indeed?

In the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, the crowd goes looking for Jesus and finds him on the other side of the sea. A conversation ensues in which they reflect back to an incident in the first part of the chapter in which Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes to feed a multitude. As the conversation unfolds, they ask Jesus “what must we do to perform the works of God?” Ah, that’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question we all seek answered, is it not? What must I do? Just tell me what to do, and I will do it! Those gathered around Jesus are so willing to do God’s will, if they only he would tell them what to do and how to do it.

But the gospel of Christ is not self-help therapy. Any preacher can get up and give you three nice points which tell you three tasks that you can carry out and go home and then you will be close to God. How is it though, that after hearing three points, and perhaps even trying three tasks, that we feel no closer to God than when asked the question in the first place? We put our noses to the grind stone -- doing, doing, doing … and yet we are no closer to God.

It is not what we do though, that makes us capable of touching the divine, rather it is what God does, in Christ Jesus. That is why when the people ask Jesus, “what must we do?” He responds simply, “Believe.” The answer seems so simple, but then we are prompted to ask, “what are we to believe? Show us a sign!” Jesus had, of course, already given them a sign – bread in the wilderness, multiplied beyond imagination and filling every empty person. Upon recalling this, they suddenly realized that this was like the time that the Israelites were given Manna in the wilderness while following Moses. But Jesus reminds them that it was not Moses that gave them bread, but God who gave them bread. Then, he delivered the real truth to them with these words, “I am the bread of life.”

I am the bread of life. What could this mean for them? What does this mean for us? Simply this: for all the groping in the wilderness that we do, it is God who comes to us. Our hearts are indeed restless, and we can search about for God by joining committees, committing to self-help disciplines heard from people like me in a pulpit, signing up for one more task we have not the time or effort to carry out, but none of these things bring us closer to God; it is God who moves closer to us in Christ Jesus. God is constantly in motion toward us. God is constantly seeking us out. If our hearts are restless for God, it is because God is calling to us, longing for us, desiring after us. God is seeking to touch our lives and so within us comes that deep longing God, on our own part, of which St. Augustine spoke.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” and these words are meant not only for that crowd two thousand years ago for they continue to speak directly to us today. These words are a claim that God the Father is not a distant far away reality in some netherworld; rather, God the Father is a deeply caring God who feeds his people with bread – not just any bread but the bread of life, Jesus Christ our Lord. In Jesus Christ, God is present and indeed, we feed on him. He is the nourishment that enables life not only in this world but in the next. When we approach the altar and take the bread of the sacrament in our hands, we truly hold the body of our Lord, the bread of life. And when we take that bread within us as our nourishment for everlasting life, we truly feed on our Lord, and the restless heart at last finds its home. We are thus assured of the reality that the old prayer of thanksgiving proclaims so clearly, “that we may every more dwell in him, and he in us.”

What, you may ask, has any of this to do with a celebration of Thanksgiving and Harvest? Much indeed! The very sacramental act that enlivens our shared liturgical life is called “thanksgiving”, the meaning of the Greek word “Eucharist.” We give thanks that God offers himself to us. We give thanks that God is restless until he gathers all his children home. We give thanks that God relentlessly pursues us. And we give thanks that he has made the calming of our restless hearts, our mystic sweet communion, possible in Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life.

Thus, the work we share in this community is not about “keeping a church going,” much less doing holy things that we might be closer to God – for these things can only lead to our spiritual, emotional and physical exhaustion – rather, the work we share in community is the proclamation of our joy and thanksgiving that God has reached out to us and made our relationship with him possible, and not just possible, but a reality! Feeding on our Lord who is present and nourishing us into the depths of our hearts, we shall not hunger or thirst, or find ourselves weary, for this work of belief is an expression of our thanksgiving that it is not through our effort but God’s effort that we have a relationship with God. To proclaim this belief in word and deed is to proclaim our joy and thanksgiving that God is indeed present here in this place and in that presence he is transforming this wonderful world from glory to glory. Thanks be to God for calling restless hearts into his presence.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves