Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hope for Today - A Homily for Christmas Eve, 2011

Homily for Christmas Eve, 2011
Saturday, December 24th, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 2:1-20

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
-Luke 2:10

In his recent book, The Triumph of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark notes that those who deride the Christian faith claim that Christianity is but “a sedative for suffering in this life by promising that we will be fully compensated in the next.”  He continues, “Atheists like to ridicule this aspect of faith as ‘pie in the sky.’”  While it is certainly true that the Christian faith is concerned about what happens to us after we die, it is equally true, that our faith is not about enduring present suffering for the sake of eternal bliss.  Nothing can be farther from the truth.  Indeed, Stark responds by noting, “What is almost always missed (in these derisive characterizations of Christianity) is that Christianity often puts the pie on the table! It makes life better here and now. “

It seems to me that the Christmas story is entirely about how our faith not only gives us a hope for the future, but transforms our lives in the present age.  The Christmas story is about hope.  Hope in the age to come, and hope in the present moment.   The truth is that in Christ Jesus, God changes lives. 

We live in a world that is desperately searching for meaning.  The promises offered by the world are failing all around us.  Political systems that once seemed so established are being reshaped and reformed in unrecognizable ways.  An economy that was once considered unassailable has repeatedly suffered blows that have unmasked its structural and systemic instability.  Even our beloved public institutions and social safety nets that were considered the envy of the world are threatened under the weight of the instability of the present economic system.  We long for a word of hope to be spoken into the present moment, not simply a word about some distant future hope, but a word of hope for “now.”

“Lo, there were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”  Although we live in a very different world from these shepherds, do not think for a moment that they needed a word of hope for their present reality any less than we need one today.  They lived in occupied territory.  They knew great hardship and suffering.  All of the things that threaten to defeat and destroy every generation were part of their story as much as they are part of ours.  What were their needs?  How did they suffer?  What meaning did they seek for their lives?  The human condition changes not from age to age.

“But suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone about them and they were afraid.”  Sometimes fear grips us when the possibility of change is before us, for even though we have longed for change, prayed for healing, we can fear it.  We have become so accustomed to the pain we experience, we have become accustomed to the brokenness of our lives and of our world, the brokenness of the systems of power that rule this world, that a challenge to that pain and brokenness might seem frightening at first.  What we experience may be difficult for us, but it is what we know.  Better the devil we know, so the saying goes. 

But into this fear of taking the plunge into the unknown ocean of hope, into this fear of taking a risk for healing, reconciliation and new life, the angel announces “Fear not!”   Fear not.  How easily it is said, but how much more difficult it is to follow, to believe.  Yet, the announcement to be not afraid carries with it a promise, and it is a promise that undergirds the proclamation and washes our fear away.  “Fear not, for I bring you glad tidings of great joy! I bring you good news!”  Into the midst of all the bad news of our lives and the brokenness of this world, good news is spoken, glad tidings are proclaimed.  And what is this good news?  Today, in the city of David, a saviour is born.

Today a saviour is born; not tomorrow, not next week, not in some far off, distant utopian future.  Today, this very night, Jesus is born.  This is the power of the Gospel. This is the truth of its message:  God with us, Emmanuel.  God changes us now. The moment is not long in coming.  The moment is now.    The Shepherds were not told to wait, nor did they go to sleep and wait until the morning. No!  They made haste in the late evening hours: “Let us go and see this thing that the Lord has done!” 

The message is no different this very night.  Amidst the brokenness of this age and of our lives, the angel voices proclaim, “Fear not! For unto you is born this day, a saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”  And as it was for the Shepherds, so it is for us, Jesus has come, our God Incarnate, God in the flesh, God made human, Emmanuel.  We need not wait, we need not hope for a better day, for hope meets us tonight!   Shall we then make haste to greet him as he comes to us?  

And what of the suffering of this present age?  What of the corrupt systems?  What of our broken world?  I say, that when God changes you and when God changes me, God changes the world.  With every heart that receives him a new piece of divine reconciliation occurs.  With every heart that receives him, a new and generous heart is created that says “no” to all the forces and powers that seek to destroy this world and the people in it. With every heart that receives him, human dignity is restored. 

God changes us.  Jesus changes us.  It is not all about what happens when this life is finished, although God cares about that, too.  It is about God changing this world, transforming this world, one life, one person at a time.  When God changes me, when God changes you, together we become a people whose lives are modeled on compassion, generosity, love and hopefulness.  When Jesus is birthed in us, these things are birthed in the world, and the world is changed.  When I know joy, the world knows joy.  When I know love, the world knows love.  When I know hope, the world knows hope.  When I am changed, when I am transformed, the world is changed, the world is transformed.

And so, this very night, angel voices proclaim that Good News again.  Let us heed their call, and like the shepherds of old, make haste to greet him.  But more than that, like them, let us bear witness to this thing the Lord has done.  Let us bear witness in our changed lives as the shepherds did in theirs.  May you know his life-transforming love this Christmastide and always, that each of you might carry the Christ Child to those who in turn need to hear the life-changing message, “Fear not, for unto you is born a saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, November 13, 2011

You are Children of Light - A Homily for Proper 33, Year A, 2011

Homily for Proper 33, Year A, 2011
Sunday, November 13th, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

“You are all children of light and children of the day.”
1 Thess. 5:5

One of the distressing things about the age in which we live is the pessimistic tendency to find hopelessness around every corner. It does not help when we are relentlessly bombarded with news of the seemingly unending economic crisis. From time-to-time we are given breaks with other bits of bad news, broadcast over our televisions, radios, or computers. Then there is the bad news we get in our personal lives. We hear of another relationship that has fallen apart, another dear friend has received bad news about their health, or we learn of a family member who is in crisis. Who can blame us if we seem to be walking about in a perpetually depressed state?

The Thessalonians of St. Paul’s day surely knew some hard times, as we have known hard times. They would have been just as affected by unforeseen illness, the loss of loved ones, and economic challenges, as we are affected in this day. And perhaps, having heard the news that Jesus would come again, they were seeking more information about when this wondrous event would take place. When would all the is bad come to an end? Perhaps they were wondering and hoping for this day, that the pain and pessimism that surrounded them would be swallowed up in the immanent return of the one in whom they had put their faith.

Perhaps the Thessalonians were disappointed that Jesus’ return had not come as quickly as they had expected, or as St. Paul might have promised. Loved ones were still dying, conflict continued, economic woes still persisted. If only Christ would return and put an end to it all.

But that is a very pessimistic view of the world, is it not? I know Christians who still take this line and hope that Jesus will return and put an end to this evil age. I think, though, that those who think such things have missed a crucial point and fundamental truth about Christianity. It seems to me that they have overlooked something about the character of God, something crucial to our understanding of who God is, and something crucial about God’s relationship with his creation. I would suggest, rather, that we have a hopeful God, a God who not only loves this world, but a God who seeks to redeem it, and is in fact redeeming it. We have a God who so passionately cares about us and loves us that he desires not to wipe it out and start again, but to bring it instead to its fullness and true purpose.

The Thessalonians were likely depressed, disappointed, and pessimistic. They were willing to cash in their chips and move quickly into the new and throw away the old, to write it off as broken, useless, out of date, and even evil. However, Paul admonishes them not to give up hope. He offers them a reminder of their identity in Christ Jesus. He reminds them that they are not in darkness. They are children of the light, children of the day. He reminds them to be attentive in the midst of a troubling world; to look for signs of the Lord’s coming.

It can be difficult in a troubled world to see signs of the Lord’s coming. I would suggest that as children of the day, as children of the light, we are to seek signs of light even in the midst of a troubled world and our troubled lives. I am not speaking of false optimism nor suggesting that we should be Pollyannas. Rather, I would encourage you, as Paul encouraged those early Christians, to really live as we believe. We believe that Christ has come amongst us in great hope for this world. We believe that God really does love us. We believe that God really does care for us and for his creation. We believe that in offering himself for us, we might have life even as death seems to win the day. To live in this way, to care about our world, to care about our fellow human beings, even those with whom me may find ourselves in conflict, to care about our society, to take an interest in our politics, to reach out to the weakest and the most vulnerable, to live, to live, to live, even in the face of death -- these are all way of walking as children of the day. These are all ways of living out the hope of God in this world. They are ways of being awake, of being watchful, of being mindful, in a world that sometimes feels like it is populated by zombies. And it is true, sometimes we all feel like zombies walking aimlessly through life. But stay awake, Paul says, for the day of the Lord is at hand, it comes like a thief in the night. We speak not of some apocalyptic end, but of a new age dawning now upon us, of which we are a part, and are partners with a loving God in its inauguration.

The things around us can indeed be discouraging at times, but Paul also gives us this reminder to encourage one another, as we have already been doing; to build each other up; to share the hope we have with each other that in times of trial, that we might not lose sight of the great hope that is set before us. The importance of Christian community, one of its primary purposes I would say, is that it is a place for encouraging each other in hope, when the world around us conspires in hopelessness. The Christian community is a place in which we encourage each other to live out in the world our baptismal covenant. It is the place where we say together, “I will, with God’s help,” and send each other out, not as individuals but as a community, into the world to say, that we know a better way. It is a place where we encourage each other with gentleness and love and then go forth to live lives of gentleness and love.

The banners of hate may seem firmly planted. The pessimism of the age may seem at times to triumph. But hope will not be disappoint and faith shall not fail, because whereas hate and pessimism are built on sand, faith and hope and love are built on the rock that is Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ, the one who walked among us and continues to abide with us through the Holy Spirit, is the faith, hope and love of God for a broken and hurting world; and in this faith, hope and love, the fullness of God’s creation will be realized.

We have nothing to fear because we meet the world under the strength of God’s hope. God believes in his creation, loves his creation, and in Christ Jesus, has given us new life, reconciliation, and the strength to live out his hope. God’s hope says yes to the world, not no, for this is God’s world and God will not see it lost.

St. Paul writes, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live in him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. “

You are doing it. I have seen it. This is why I have hope. Your love and encouragement of each other are a sign to me that Jesus Christ is alive and present in this community and changing the lives of men, women and children. I see hope wherever I turn, and that hope eclipses any pessimism that might distract us from God’s longing for us. That hope also gives me the great courage to participate in the mission of God for this world, and so it should give each of us such courage.

One of my favourite Anglican Churchman was a great liturgist named Percy Dearmer. He wrote this prayer, which has become my favourite prayer of the Anglican Tradition.

Almighty God, who has set before us the great hope that your kingdom shall come on earth, and taught us to pray for its coming; give us grace to discern the signs of its dawning, that we might work for the perfect day when the whole earth shall reflect your glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, October 7, 2011

When Patience is Tested - A Homily for Proper 28 (National Thanksgiving), 2011

Homily for Proper 28 (National Thanksgiving)
Sunday, October 9th, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Exodus 32:1-14

“Turn from you fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.”
-Exodus 32:12

God had every right to be angry with his people. He had delivered them from the hand of pharaoh and slavery in Egypt. He had led them dry-shod through the Red Sea. He had given them manna to eat in the wilderness. And still, the moment their Moses leader had gone up the mountain to converse with God, the Hebrew people decided to make a false god and bow down and worship it. The anger of God was kindled against his people and God was ready to raise his hand against them.

This story tells us that even the patience of God can be tested once in a while. In one way this gives me great comfort, for I am often disappointed in myself when I find my wrath kindled and my patience tested. While each of us has different levels of tolerance, I am sure that all of us have a breaking point. All of us, from time-to-time, find our patience tested by those around us, not only our adversaries, but family members, friends, and yes (dare I say it?), even fellow parishioners. We are only human, and perhaps it will come as a comfort to all of us that as we find our patience tested in difficult situations, by difficult people, even God finds his patience tested.

When our patience is tested it is easy to raise our voices in violent response. Throughout history, the taking up of arms often happens when we find our patience for talk and conversation exhausted. Violent words, violent actions, regrettable words and regrettable actions often follow the loss of patience. When a certain fury rises up within us, rages within, we are quick to act, and perhaps not so quick to think about the consequences. But oh, there is much time to think about consequences after the act is done, and much of the thinking we do is about our regret for the hastiness of our actions.

In his book Writing in the Dust, written immediately after the events of September 11th, 2001, Archbishop Rowan Williams, who was a short distance from the World Trade Centre that morning reflects on the natural desire to act decisively, vindictively, when we are hurt:

"The Response of at least some people in the face of deep injury, once feeling has returned, is a passionate striking out; there is something recognizable about the language of Psalm 137 – ‘ let their children die horribly, let them know what humiliation and exile are like.’ It is an honest moment; but for those of us who are not totally helpless in terms of internal or external resources it is only a moment" (p. 18).

His point is that when our patience is driven to the point of exhaustion, in that moment, we are ready to let loose. We are ready to exact vengeance. We are ready to make the decisive strike against what has driven us to this frenzied moment of exasperation. But perhaps, we need to step back for a moment and consider what acting in such circumstances will do. To recognize that the shattering of patience is but a moment that must be put in the larger framework of our ultimate response. Williams goes on to reflect that as people who have the freedom that we do in the West, we must use that freedom wisely. We have the freedom to think and express ourselves in so many ways. Williams notes:

"We have something of the freedom to consider whether or not we turn to violence, and so, in virtue of that very fact, are rather different from those who experience their world as leaving them no other option. But if we have that freedom, it ought to be less likely that we reach for violence as a first resort … it means putting on hold our most immediate feelings – or at least making them objects of reflection; and means trying to pull apart the longing to re-establish the sense of being in control and the longing to find a security that is shared …. It means acknowledging and using the breathing space; and also longing and using the rage and revengefulness as a way of sensing a little where the violence comes from." (p 23-4)

If only we had taken the Archbishop’s sage words to heart ten years ago. Now we are left reflecting on ten years of our response in Afghanistan and wondering, was it all worth it? The point, though, is this: As Christian people, we have a freedom in Christ that requires of us a higher response to anger, to hate, to infidelity and faithlessness. In Christ Jesus we have the freedom not to strike back with immediate force (either on the global scale or in our communities and in our relationships). We have the higher calling, when our patience is sorely tested, to breathe deeply, to create some space, to attempt to understand from where the pain that is thrust at us has come, and consider what words we will speak into that situation and what healing and reconciling actions we might live by. It seems to me, this is the calling of a Christian community.

On the mountain, where even God’s wrath was kindled and God himself was prepared to strike down his own people, Moses implored God to take a breath, to reflect on what he was about to do. Moses reminded God that 400 years of slavery is not so easily healed by a walk through the Red Sea and some manna in the Wilderness. Moses reminded God that healing is a process, that deliverance is a journey, and that God himself had made a promise. Moses reminded God of God’s own gracious and loving nature. Moses reminded God of God’s own merciful nature; and God relented.

If it gives me comfort that even God’s patience can be sorely tempted, then it also gives me comfort to know that God can reconsider wrath in the moment of temptation. This story gives me hope, should give all of us hope, that even though we may from time-to-time find ourselves driven to the breaking point where our patience is tested, that we are capable of a much higher calling, a much more compassionate response, and a much more reconciling love. When human beings, God’s children, were at their most rebellious, God chose not to raise his arm in anger, but sent his Son and came to be amongst us himself in Jesus Christ, to understand the pain and brokenness we feel and experience as human beings; to transform us that we might be made whole. When God’s patience could have been most sorely tested, rather than raising his hand, God reached out his hand in the person of Jesus Christ and saved us from ourselves. I can think of nothing greater for which to give thanks; and I can think of no more thankful way to live than to live into that higher calling of compassion, understanding, and peacemaking.

c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, September 4, 2011

"...Whose Service is Perfect Freedom." A Homily for Proper 23, Year A, 2011

Homily for Proper 23, Year A, 2011
Sunday, September 04, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 13:8-14

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves fulfils the law.”
-Romans 13:8

One of the old prayers of which I am so fond is a prayer that appears in the old service of Mattins from the Book of Common Prayer. It is the second collect, for peace, which reads in part, “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, whose service is perfect freedom…”

Whose service is perfect freedom.

One cannot imagine a more perfect creed of the Christian life. It is perfect because freedom and responsibility are interwoven in a beautiful knot. However, the freedom about which we speak is not a libertine, selfish freedom, that allows us to do anything we want; nor is the service about which this prayer speaks a slavery in which we are bound to a brutal taskmaster. The freedom we know is of a different sort, and the service to which we are called is of a more perfect kind.

The Exodus story that has been unfolding in our Old Testament readings over the summer months is a story that has been winding its way toward the climax of the Passover, of Moses leading his people from bondage in slavery into freedom. And the whole scope of Paul’s great letter to the Romans (and indeed all his letters) has been about our Christian reinterpretation of deliverance from slavery into freedom through the Christian Passover: Christ’s passing from death into life, that we might be led from the bondage of death into the freedom of new life.

What a wondrous concept freedom through new life is. It is all the more beautiful to behold when we try to place ourselves in the place of our forbears who knew what it was to be enslaved. Consider for a moment the enslavement known by the Hebrew people under their Egyptian taskmasters, and how their suffering led God to call Moses to lead his people out of that suffering, and how Moses cried out in anguish to Pharoah, “Let my people go!” Consider for a moment the Roman empire at the time of Jesus, and the number of men and women who fell into slavery through military conflict and penury, and how St. Paul reminded the early Christians that in Christ there is no male nor female, no slave nor free; that we are all one in Christ. Consider for a moment black slaves of the Antebellum South, or black brothers and sisters who continued to be enslaved by unjust laws in the supposed land of the free until the freedom marches of the 1960s. Consider the child soldiers of the world today who are bound in slavery to bellicose masters. Consider all these things, and imagine, if you are able, what it might be like to taste the longed-for freedom we so casually take for granted.

But there is a different kind of freedom that has gripped us today. It is a freedom that is rooted in a pernicious libertinism that absolves us from all responsibility to others. It is a freedom that is rooted in an individualism so prevalent in our modern culture that commands me to believe that my happiness, my well-being, my financial security is the good above all other that I must seek, to the exclusion, and even to the destruction of others. If they are weak, then let us just sweep them away, or enslave them. A freedom that destroys the life of another, a freedom that enslaves another, is no freedom at all. With such a freedom we also enslave ourselves. In such a freedom we become slaves to sin.

As St. Paul would have set, “Let me show you a better way.”

In another of his great letters, in a passage so often read at weddings, Paul enumerates all sorts of wonderful things that we might lay hold of that would suggest our perfect freedom, not only material wealth, but gifts of tongues, prophecy, and faith. But then he reminds us, if I have not love, I am nothing. In his letter to the Romans, he repeats the very words of Jesus, and reminds us of the character and nature of true. He recalls several of the ten commandments, “Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t covet,” and then he turns to remind us what is implicit in all of the ‘do nots’, namely do not do things that would harm or enslave your neighbour, but rather “Love your neighbour as yourself.” This is perfect freedom, not the freedom to do what we want, but to seek freedom and justice for all through love. Love does no wrong, he says. Love does not hurt your neighbour. Love is the fulfilling of the law.

And herein lies the paradox, to be perfectly free is to be bound by the law of love. This is our divine service. When we gather each week to worship God almighty, it is to prepare us and remind us that love of God is realized and lived out in love of neighbour. The king that we are bound to serve requires only this, to love his other subjects: both the weak and the strong. Love everyone. No exceptions. This is perfect freedom.

As I say to young folk who are getting married, love is not always easy. To love someone so passionately in those early days of romantic abandonment feels like we have been set free, but we soon learn that love has obligations; we soon learn that love requires the abandonment of self. Love requires sacrifice. The Hebrew people who fled from Egypt fled from fierce oppression, but they also fled the only home that they had ever known. Freedom requires sacrifice. Our Lord went to the cross, and oh how he longed for the cup to be passed from him, but he went and so brought all his people freedom through the overthrowing of death. Love requires sacrifice.

Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another, for the one who loves fulfils the law.

We won’t love everyone naturally or intrinsically. That is okay, I suspect. What is required of us,though, is that we let God love them through us, because in each person we me, we see look upon the face of Jesus: Slave or free; man or woman; black or white; gay or straight; friend or enemy. In the face of the other we see the face of our beloved, and they in turn see the face of their beloved in us. Love involves risks. Moses and his people risked. Jesus Christ risked. We are called to risk.

Through the strength we find in Christ, the service, the divine service, that we offer is to take the risk of loving not only our neighbours, but even those who would seem unlovable to all others, and abandon ourselves to that love, that in that divine abandonment to love, the whole world may know God’s loving embrace and move one step closer to being the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, whose service is indeed perfect freedom.

c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Rejoice in Hope - A Homily for Proper 22, Year A, 2011

Homily for Proper 22, Year A, 2011
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Trinity Church, Bradford & St. Paul’s Coulson’s Hill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 12:9-21

“Rejoice in hope.”
--Romans 12:12

Despair is a disease. It is a very contagious disease. Where it infects one, it quickly spreads to another, and very soon, despair becomes an epidemic. There is something in our human condition that makes especially prone to despair, that makes us exceptionally vulnerable. That is why when our leaders peddle despair, when they choose to speak about fear and impending doom, be it in the church or the world, even when they are doing so with apparently honest motives, it always backfires. Just think how quickly the media jumps on bad news and seeks to rebroadcast, and indeed recast it in even more despairing tones of hopelessness. Just think about how often you pick up the phone or go off to your computer to share a piece of bad news with someone else. Despair spreads as quickly and perniciously as any avian flu or SARS.

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes about how little things can make a big difference. He underscores that epidemics can be destructive, but also that there are good epidemics, positive epidemics, and that there is always something that tips them from being simply and isolated phenomena into a phenomenon that falls upon everyone. He gives a particular example when he writes about the “broken window” concept. In the early 1980’s, the New York subway system was a disaster. Every train was covered in graffiti, fare evasion was rampant, and violent crime so prevalent that ordinary folk would avoid the subway at all cost. The authorities attempted unsuccessfully to treat the symptoms of violent crime, but it was not until a new general manager was hired, who dealt aggressively with the problems of petty crime (graffiti, fare evasion) that things began to change. What that new manager did was essentially to fix the broken window. Broken windows are one ways that epidemics spread. If we see a broken window, we are more tempted to break another, to further vandalize the property, or simply to fall into the apathy of despair and not even bother to try to fix the window, the dilapidated building, and make things better.

If we are prone to despair, though, I believe we also long for hope. Even more than being prone to despair, I believe we are a people programmed for hopefulness. It may come with great difficulty, but ultimately, I believe we long to see the best, hope for the best, and believe in the best. If we are indeed made in the image and likeness of God, who longs for the best, hopes for the best and believes in the best for humanity, than this should come as no surprise.

Yet, we find ourselves mired in despair. But time and time again, remarkable, little things begin to happen. We want the subway system to be safe, we want our political system to work, we want the broken windows to be fixed. This week we witnessed an outpouring of hope. This week we buried at great leader of this nation, a leader who spoke words of hope to a people so prone to despair. This week, in the midst of death and profound loss, hope became an epidemic. The small gesture of a final will and testament, final words of exhortation left by Jack Layton to Canadians was an offering of words of hopefulness that love, hope and optimism are better than the things that would seek to crush us. People gathered, and rain could not wash away tributes chalked onto the plaza of Nathan Philips Square. A tipping point, I believe. And lest this become about the politics of one man, let us not forget the extraordinary gesture of our Prime Minister in offering an unprecedented state funeral to the leaders of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. A friend of mine, and ex-pat American wondered on Facebook if this would have happened in polarized America? I hope and believe that the potential is there, too. Yes, some will criticize our Prime Minister of making a political move, and others will criticize the funeral organizers of organizing one last political rally, but those who do so are purveyors of despair and I encourage you not to buy into their cynicism. When did politics become such a dirty word? Politics is about serving the people of polis, the city, the community, the nation. A political move should not be considered a bad thing, but a principled stand on seeking to do the best for the people we seek to serve. Both the late, lamented leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and our Prime Minister made political moves this week. They both did so with dignity, passion, and deep and profound hopefulness. We learned from both of them that politics can be hopeful and that cynicism and despair can be cast aside.

I have grown up in a Church that has been known as being less than hopeful. Pierre Berton’s Comfortable Pew has left a bitter legacy in the history of the Canadian Church. Church politics for the last forty years or so have been governed by fear: Declining attendance, lawsuits concerning residential schools, insufficient budgets, issues that divide such as the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church. Given this legacy, why are any of us here? And indeed, many are not here because the politics of fear has driven them away. But I heard some remarkable words recently. I attended a town hall meeting held by Archbishop Johnson in Barrie. It was an opportunity for him to answer questions and to listen to what people in this diocese are saying. There were many words of encouragement spoken. People spoke of the exciting things that were happening in their parishes. Even in tiny parishes that have traditionally been maligned for being small, we heard reports of the Spirit moving in wonderful ways. It was like the sign that hangs over the fictional record store in Stuart MacLean’s Vinyl Café, which reads proudly “We’re not big, but we’re small!” Then the Archbishop spoke these very profound words, “Everywhere I go, I see signs of hope; I see signs of God at work. I do not see the naysayers proved right. People are tired of bad news. People are tired about hearing about the demise of the Church. People are tired of it, and it is simply not true. Wherever I go I see Good News and I see hope.”

This week on the national scene people made a claim for hope. People who profoundly disagreed with Jack Layton’s politics said yes to his words of hope. Why did these words make such a profound impression upon us? It is because we are a people who, though prone to fear and despair desperately long for words of hope because deep down we do believe that hope is better, strong and greater than fear.

Every time I officiate at a wedding, I underscore a certain point, that in a world that knows much brokenness and hopelessness, I am standing before a couple that is saying “no” to such things, and instead, offering a profound “yes” to love and to hope, in the midst of their family and friends, and that love and hope has the power to change the world. In a prayer for the couple from the marriage liturgy we read, “May their lives together be a sacrament of your love to this broken world, so that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy overcome despair.” Sound familiar? We pray that every marriage will be a “tipping point” in the glorious epidemic of hope.

A small thing: the birth of a tiny babe in stable. This is the most profound and hopeful act since the creation of humankind. God hoped. God believed. God hoped and believed that Joseph and Mary of Nazareth would take this tiny babe and nurture and care for it, in a world of profound infant mortality, in a world occupied by a Roman oppressor, in backwater Judea, God hoped and believed. God hoped and believed that at least a few would follow the young man, that at least some would find his preaching transformative, his preaching of an upside-down kingdom where the last are first. God hoped and believed that the young man would see it through to the end, even as the man longed for the cup to be passed. God hoped and believed that those who turned away would once again follow. God hoped and believed that death would not win the day. And it has not. God hoped and believed that others would catch the vision of hope and love.

A small thing: the birth of a tiny babe in a stable. A tipping point.

Years later a zealous missionary, having caught the vision, would write in his Epistle to the Romans, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers …. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

We shall return home from this place, and surely as I am standing here, we will turn on the radio, television or internet. We will hear peddlers of despair, but they shall not, nor shall their message overwhelm us, hurt us or destroy us, for the point has tipped. We are bearers of Good News; we proclaim hope, and hope changes lives.

Rejoice in hope.

c.2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Keys of the Kingdom - Homily for Proper 21, Year A, 2011

Homily for Proper 21
Sunday, August 21st, 2011
Trinity Church, Bradford & St. Paul’s Coulson’s Hill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 16:13-20

“You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”
--Matthew 16:18

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They ventured all sorts of suggestions, but he pressed them further, “Who do YOU say I am?” Did Jesus cast he gaze around at all of them and then rest his eyes upon Peter? Whether Peter answered impetuously or under pressure, we shall never know, for we have only his response, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Perhaps following a moment of silence, a smiled crossed the face of Jesus and he proclaimed, “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Did Peter heave sigh of relief that he had answered correctly? Did Simon Peter feel like the school-child who has a tentative knowledge of the answer but a fear of putting up his hand? Whatever the feelings in that moment, Peter’s response was taken to be a profound one. Jesus claimed that Simon Peter had spoken not from some information that he had learned from a friend or teacher, but that his knowledge came from a much deeper place, indeed, that Peter’s knowledge was the result of divine revelation. Did Peter know this? Did Peter think this? Did Peter believe this? One suspects that Jesus’ proclamation that this knowledge was as much a revelation to Peter as the message itself.

What happens next, though, must surely have come as more of a surprise. Jesus gave Peter a new name and a set of keys. The name seems to have stuck and Simon son of John was henceforth known to his friends as Kephas (usually anglicized as Cephas), in Latin, Petros, Peter, or more colloquially, Rocky. The keys, though, were not literal keys, but figurative keys, and the church through the centuries has reflected on what the name change meant, and what these keys signify. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters understand the name change and the keys to represent a certain Petrine primacy and authority that has reached its apex in their bedrock dogma of papal infallibility. Other varieties of episcopally led churches, such as Anglicans, have generally reckoned that the keys and Petrine office represent a certain kind of apostolic authority that is diffused across the fraternity of the episcopacy and shared by all bishops alike, collegially. Protestants have envisioned Petrine authority and the power of these keys as further diffused across the leadership of the church, ordained and lay, gathered together, and that the “rock” was referring to the rock that was Peter’s faith.

But do we focus too much on trying to wed these symbols to our ecclesiological traditions at the expense of allowing them to speak to the story of our lives? What if we were to ask ourselves what it means to consider what this revelation that Peter had means to us, who believe that we receive revelation again and again (as much as Peter did) as we open the pages of Scripture and read these sacred words? What if in this story Peter himself is to be understood and read as stand-in for all Christians who in a moment of revelation recognize the Christ in their midst and seek to understand what it is he offers each of us as he calls us by name and hands us a set of keys?

Let me ask you a question, have you ever locked yourself out of your house? Well, I have done it, more times than I care to admit. When we lock ourselves out, we find ourselves relying on the generosity and indeed, the mercy, of others. The most recent time this has happened to me was when we were hosting the Bishop of Kingston, Jamaica. I had recently placed a mousetrap under the sink to trap a little creature I had suspected of infiltrating our green bin on successive evenings whilst the house, and the cats, slept. This particular Sunday morning, I got up and checked to see if I had caught anything, and sure enough I had snared a mouse. While the house still slept, I took the trap outside to dispose of the mouse and upon returning to the house realized that I had locked myself out. So there I stood, due to my own foolishness, at 6:30 am on a Sunday morning, in my bathrobe outside my front door, with a mousetrap in hand realizing that the only way to get back in was to ring the doorbell. I had hoped that Athena, who sleeps with earplugs, might have heard me, or perhaps one of the children, but no. Instead, I was greeted by our houseguest, a rather tired looking Jamaican bishop, in his housecoat, who had been roused by the doorbell. We stood there facing each other with telling smiles, I held up the trap, he gave a bit of deep chuckle, and without a further word exchanged, he let me back in. I made sure when I was dressed that I had the house keys in my pocket.

The power of the keys, we are told in Matthew 16, is that they have the power to loose and to bind, in both heaven and earth. We have traditionally thought that this is about the Church’s power to admit into the fellowship and to exclude from fellowship in the community. This may indeed be true, but this sort of thinking allows us to absolve ourselves from the responsibility of being bearers of the keys and locates that responsibility on others, be it papal authority, episcopal collegiality, or presbyterian or synodical collegiality. What if we were to think that holding the keys we have the power to lock ourselves out or let ourselves in? What if simply, we were to understand that Jesus has given us the keys to the house, the keys to the kingdom? It’s not that we earned them through some theology of works and that our power is to earn our way into heaven or hell through good or bad works; no, it is simply that we have recognized him as master of the house, the Lord, the messiah, the Christ, and in our recognition of him the master of the house has shared with us his keys. I can use those keys to go in, or I can throw them away, lose them, forget about them, abandon them, and find myself locked outside the house. The choice is mine.

But they keys aren’t the whole story here. As a member of the household we are given a name; we are counted as family. Jesus gave Simon a new name, he called him Peter. But oh, we know that Peter was not quite the rock he was supposed to be when crisis struck. At the passion of the one he had proclaimed as Christ, son of the Living God, he denied not once, but thrice that he knew the man. Good old Rocky seemed to have thrown away the keys and locked himself out. This seems to me to tell most clearly against the traditional Protestant reading of the name “Rock” signifying Peter’s faith. What then does it mean for Jesus to have called Simon son of Jonah the Rock? Of what possible significance is this name if it is applied to one whose faith sunk like quicksand at the moment of truth?

Perhaps the Rock is the truth of Peter’s acclamation, that Jesus is the Christ. Perhaps the Rock is the not so much our faith, but the faith of God in Christ. Perhaps the Rock is God’s commitment to his people; God’s commitment to go even unto death so that his people might have a place in the house. Remember that this acclamation directly precedes Jesus’ prediction of his Passion, of his death on the cross. Perhaps the Rock is Jesus and our relationship with him.

He trusts us with the keys to house, and we may lock ourselves out. We may do this intentionally, or foolishly. But the rock of faith upon which we stand is the reality of a faithful God, a steadfast master of the house, who goes to every length to open the door for us, even when we have lost the keys. The Rock of faith is the relationship that our Lord and master seeks to have with us, even when we forget him, turn from him, and believe that we have lost him; that naming us as his own, he will not leave us standing at the door, even when we have lost the keys. The rock of faith is that even when we lose the keys, abuse the keys, forget the keys, he is there to open the door for us again. And when we recognize that we are standing before the Christ, the son of the Living God, he smiles and once again hands us they keys to the kingdom and welcomes us home, as he did Peter.

c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"Except the Lord Build This House" - a Homily for Trinity Sunday, upon the Occasion of the 160th Anniversary of Trinity Church, Bradford

Homily for Trinity Sunday, Year A, 2011
On the Occasion of the 160th Anniversary of Trinity Church, Bradford
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Sunday, June 19, 2011
Texts: Genesis 28:10-17, Revelation 21:1-4,22-22:5

“God has made his home among mortals.”

When I worked at Church House, the informal name that was given to the head office of the Anglican Church of Canada, above the door of the rather plain three-story brownstone building stood a majestic plaque, probably four feet tall by three feet wide. It was in the form of the coat of arms of the Anglican Church of Canada. Inscribed at the apex were the words, Nisi Dominus. These are the Latin words which open Psalm 127: “Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it.”

There are many buildings in this world that stand as monuments to wealthy and powerful benefactors and serve to glorify those who made the majesty of the building possible, these edfices forever memorialize their founder and patron. For one hundred and sixty years a building has stood on this ground as a monument to a different sort of benefactor, a divine benefactor, the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And while there have been many individuals who have passed through the nave of this sacred space, or the nave of its predecessor, the first Trinity Church, this church stands not as a monument to the people, but as a monument to the living God.

More than a monument, though, this church is a home. It is a home and haven for all who enter. It is open to all regardless of wealth or station, to all sorts and conditions (as the old prayer book was want to say). It is open to anyone who feels the yearning for God stirring in their hearts. It is open to all who have lost their way. It is open to all seek to know God and make God’s love known to world. It is open to those who rejoice and those who mourn, those who long to make a joyful noise, and those who need to keep a prayerful silence. It is open to all, and has been and ever shall be a home for God’s people.

It is only the home for God’s people though, because it is first and foremost, God’s home. This is the profound and radical assertion of the Christian faith, that God is not a distant God, but a God who enters into our humanity, into our world, and chooses to reside with us. This is what it means to say that Christianity is a religion of Incarnation, to mean literally that God takes flesh, and dwells among us. Even more profoundly challenging for the world to believe though, than God becoming man in Jesus Christ, is God abiding with us eternally through his Spirit. God’s presence amongst us is not a fleeting thirty year span but an abiding presence in person of the Holy Spirit and in his presence a disparate people have become family. This is why we are able to call God, who is the creator of the cosmos, by the intimate name of Father, because the timeless one has chosen to enter time and be with his creatures. As the book of Revelation remarkably proclaims, “God has made his home among mortals.”

Oh how easy it can be, though, to lose sight of the God who has made his home with us. Should we be hard on ourselves when even some of the greatest of the patriarchs of old could lose sight of this reality from time-to-time? Think of Jacob, who proclaimed after a vision in a dream, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!” Difficult it can be to see the hand of God at work, and we can often get caught up on our own striving, our own building, our own sense of ministry and mission. Yet, time and again, we are granted, as Jacob was granted, a vision of the living God living amongst us. Time and again we are given a new set of eyes through which we can catch a glimpse of a reality that before seemed veiled. Time and again, we experience the God we thought was lost to us, and we proclaim with Jacob our ancestor, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!”

So it does not seem out of place to proclaim that reality once again, lest we forget who built this house and whose house it is. This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven. Oh, to be sure, it is a building built with human hands. Yes, it needs its ongoing repairs and maintenance as we know so well. But it is so much more than a building made with human hands. To recognize this church as the Lord’s house is to recognize that it is a place where heaven touches earth; a place where God is again incarnate in the world; a place where God has chosen to dwell among mortals.

Wherever we gather as God’s holy people this is true. Wherever two or three are gathered, there I am in the midst of you. And yet, people and generations are fleeting. “Frail as summer’s flower we flourish blows the wind and it is gone, but while mortals rise and perish, God endures, unchanging on.” We need our holy places, our holy buildings, not because God needs a house and not because they are the essence of what it means to be “the Church,” but because they are tangible, sacramental signs of the profound and earthshaking reality that God has made his home among mortals. They are a testimony to God’s abiding presence from generation to generation in this world and in this particular community.

Through the bricks and mortar of this place, frail and feeble as any building may be, we encounter the living God, and the living God is incarnate to the people of this community of Bradford. This is a reality that existed long before this congregation first gathered as Trinity Church without a building in 1849, or built the first church in 1851. It is a reality that will exist long after this current building is gone. God is in this place, and this building, and its predecessor, have not only told that story, but have tangibly made present the living God to those who seek his face.

I have been fond of quoting St. Matthew’s gospel in this our 160th year, especially the passage from the Sermon on the Mount: “You are a city set upon a hill … a light to the world.” We must never forget that we are God’s city and the light we radiate is God’s light – the light of the most holy, blessed and glorious Trinity.

While much hard work has gone into this place by human hands over 160 years, this house is not built on the bedrock of our work or the work of our ancestors, but on the bedrock of the faithfulness of God in Christ, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. I praise the faithfulness of God’s people, but let us all praise together the faithfulness of our God who has chosen to make his home amongst us. Let us praise the Triune God, our patron, the Holy Trinity, who is the foundation and the life upon which this house is built. Let us praise the Trinity for this home we have been given which is both our home and God’s home, and a place where heaven and earth touch. Truly the Lord is in this place. May we never forget our loving patron and the light and hope that shines here for all who seek to make it their home.

Nisi Dominus – Except the Lord build this house, their labour is lost that build it.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Why are You Weeping?" - A Homily for Easter, 2011

Homily for Easter, 2011
Sunday, April 24th, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 20:1-18

“Woman, why are you weeping”

I have seen the Lord.

The Beloved Disciple simply looks inside the tomb, without entering, and sees the graveclothes and believes.

Peter has to enter the tomb, hold and touch the graveclothes.

Mary has to have an experience of the Risen Jesus; she needs to speak with him, she tries to lay hold of him, in order to believe.

In another week we shall hear about another disciple, Thomas, who insists on inspecting Jesus’ wounds.

Some must see, others must understand, some need to touch, others need to feel – but there is one common denominator in all of these stories, and in our Christian faith, the presence of the Risen Jesus our midst. With Easter, we experience a new reality. It is a reality that transforms minds, raises fallen spirits, and mends broken heart. It is an experience that turns the sinner from their sinfulness. It is a reality that changes the way men and women live.

Mary Magdalene weeps and then is filled with joy. The disciples who doubt are inspired by faith.

The resurrection of Jesus is not simply and event in time long ago, it is an event our lives. The Risen Jesus is not only encountered at the mouth of an empty tomb, in middle-eastern garden, on the Emmaus road, or behind the locked door of a house in the Galilee. To be sure, our mothers and fathers of old met him in these places, but down through the ages he has been met, and has met us, again and again. Through the dark valleys of our lives, he meets us. In sickness and in health, as children are born and loved ones die, he meets us. In the angst of all that troubles us, the Risen Jesus meets us.

Oh, we may not know him at first. Like the disciples of old, we may at first fail to see him in our midst. We may only detect an empty tomb, we may see his garments and the place where he once rested, we may mistake him for the gardener, or a strange on the road we may mistake him for another simple fellow-traveler. He may come to us at unexpected times, in unexpected way and in unexpected places. Perhaps, like Mary our eyes will be opened in time to see him, or perhaps like the disciples on the Emmaus road we will only recognize that we have met him after he has disappeared from our sight. In either case, he has been and ever shall be present; and when the reality of the Christ Event touches us, our hearts burn within us with great joy!

Days will come and pass when this seems not to be true. Time will come when we again feel alone. We shall all journey through valleys in which we feel lost and abandoned. There shall be moments when we shall feel lifeless and it seems as if God himself is lifeless, hanging on a tree. But when all seems lost, he confronts us again, he appears and stands before us and asks the age old question, “Why do you weep?”

There shall be no answer to the question for the answer is unimportant, it is simply enough that the question has been asked, for it means he has not left us. As we hear those words we know he is with us and like Mary, we exclaim, “Rabbi,” and like Thomas we proclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

When we hear his voice and his words of comfort once again, “Why do you weep,” it means God is not dead. It means that the end we thought was the end is not the end, but rather the beginning of something new. It means he is raised, and it means we, too, are raised.

Do you not know that all of you that have been baptized have been baptized into his death? Surely then, if Christ is raised from the dead, do we not also share in his resurrection?

Signs of the Resurrection are everywhere to be found: for the disciples it was an empty tomb and strewn grave clothes, a man mistaken as a gardener, or a stranger along the road. Who knows where we shall meet him, we only know that we shall, again and again as our spirits falter, as we again turn to sin, as we again lose hope. We shall meet him, whether he touches your mind, your heart or your spirit, wherever he takes your hand or wipes your tear, you shall see him risen and know that we share in that glorious resurrection from the dead.

C.2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Fear Not - A Reflection fo the Great Vigil of Easter 2011

A Reflection for the Easter Vigil, 2011
Saturday, April 23rd, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 28:1-10

At the tomb of Jesus, the women heard these words: “Do not be afraid.”
Oh, how there is much to frighten us in this life. We fear the unknown. We fear the future. We fear for our loved ones when they are out of sight. We fear death. Fear has a way of capturing us, laying hold of us, crippling us, enslaving us.

But this is the night the Jesus Christ breaks the chains of all enslavement, shatters the bonds of death, and delivers us from all fear. This is the night that Christ our God tramples down death by death. This is the night that stone of the tomb rolls away. This is the night when we are delivered from darkness into light, from death into life. This is the night in which fear is destroyed.

Early, as the third day dawned, two Marys went to the tomb of Jesus, and the earth shook, the stone was rolled away, and an angel of light appeared and proclaimed, “Fear not!” But they did fear, for they could see that the body of their Lord had been stolen. No. Not stolen, but gone. “I know what you are looking for,” said the angel, “Jesus of Nazareth. He is not here; he is risen, as he said!”

In one instant, in one moment, their fear disappeared, and as Christ himself had slipped the surly bonds of death, so too, did the women find the fetters of their fear loosed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, they knew themselves to be delivered from fear, to be ransomed from death.

With great excitement, they ran, their fear turning to joy, they ran to tell the other disciples that their Lord was alive. Without seeing him they believed. Yet with their minds intent on the task before them and their hearts strangely warmed, he appears before the women and greets them. And what are his first words? “Fear not.”

Can we hear these words enough as the troubles of life unfold before us? Thanks be to God that they are ever before us. Again and again we meet our Risen Lord on the road of this life, and again and again he comes to us with these words, “Fear not!” Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be afraid for I love you. Do not be afraid for I shall be with you to the ends of the earth and to the end of days.

When all seems lost, when fear seeks to grip us once again, when we are feeling enslaved to fear, when the stone seems too large to roll away on its own, listen; listen, and you will hear those words, “Fear not!” Behold, and watch, and you will see the stone rolled away; you will find the tomb empty, and you will meet your Risen Lord on the road yet again, who, ever and always, greets us with the words, “Do not be afraid.”

c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, April 22, 2011

"Woman, Behold Your Son" -- A Homily for Good Friday

A Homily for Good Friday, 2011
Friday, April 22nd, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 19:26-27
“Woman behold your son”
-John 19:26

Confronted by the cross of Christ, we are changed. At the foot of the cross, beneath the feet of the crucified Jesus, a new family is born – the Christian community. As Mary his mother wept and the disciple he love best mourned, Jesus comforted them with these words, “Woman, behold your son; son, behold your mother.” But these were not simply words of comfort, but rather a radical reordering and recreation of community. Confronted by the cross, confronted by the death of a son, of a friend, of the leader of their movement, these two individuals who might be abandoned, forgotten, left alone, are knit together into one family. The widow and the orphan are drawn together into a new family, the Christian community. “From that hour,” we read, the beloved disciple to the mother of Jesus, “into his own house.”

And so it is, our movement, our religion, is one in which the edges are constantly being challenged. Our family is constantly being transformed and recreated, as others, who might otherwise feel lost and forsaken, are drawn in. Confronted by the cross of Christ, we are called again and again to re-creation, to envisage our family in new and creative ways. We are called again and again to include those whom the world forsakes as part of our family, in our company of friends.

When the family changes, we change, too. It is not always easy to be part of a family. There may be those with whom we disagree. There will be those who challenge us. There will be competing ways of doing things. Yet, there is something greater than our differences that binds us together. What is it? What is the force that makes us one, even when we differ in so many ways? Even when we come together with all our brokenness and sinfulness exposed?

It is the sacrifice of Christ our God on the cross. Jesus said, “When I am lifted up I will draw all people unto me.” At the heart of that sacrifice is the longing of God, longing for all his people, and longing that we may be one. Before he was handed over to death, that was indeed Jesus’ prayer, “Father, I pray that they may be one, even as you and I are one.” And to that end he breathed upon us his Holy Spirit that we might be knit together as a holy and sacred people, who in spite of all our differences, our brokenness, and all our challenges, that we may be one, even as Christ and the Father are one.

To be one may not necessarily mean that we will agree in all things, for some things are indeed a matter of indifference; but do we not agree in this, that Christ died that we might live? Do we not agree in this, that the offering that hangs on the cross is the God’s deepest self-offering of love for his own people? No greater love hath this, than a man should lay down his life for his friends!

“I have called you friends,” says Jesus, and that is what we are, a company of friends, a new family, that seeks to make known to each other, and to the world, the deep compassion of our God through the proclamation of his self-giving love in the cross. We seek to make known in thought, word, and deed the love that knows no boundaries, the inclusive embrace of God in God’s family for all who choose to receive it. We turn one to another in mutual brokenness, each of us knowing loss, exclusion, and forsakenness in some way, and we hear the words of our Lord, “Woman, behold your son,” and “son, behold your mother.” And all things are made new.

c.2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Then Crucify is all their Breath" - A Homiliy for Palm Sunday, Year A, 2011

Homily for Palm Sunday, Year A, 2011
Sunday, April 17th, 2011
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford ON

He enters in triumph, amidst shouts of “hosanna,” and is proclaimed as a great prophet, but the shouts of “hosanna” quickly give way to the cry of “crucify him!”, and to the derision that he should save himself if he is truly the son of God.” The dramatic sweep of Palm Sunday is summed up so eloquently and poignantly in the exhortation, “we follow him this week from the glory of the palms to the glory of the resurrection, by the way of the dark road of suffering and death.” And although our Lord told his followers again and again, that he was going to Jerusalem to suffer, although he told them again and again, that if they were to be his disciples they must take up their cross and follow him, time and again they could not see it. They chose not to believe it.

Who can really blame them, though, that they looked forward with joyful expectation? Who could blame them when they thought that Jesus would lead them in revolt and overthrow the oppressor who occupied their land? Even though he entered Jerusalem not as a mighty warrior king, but as a lowly king riding on the foal of a donkey, they chose not to see what they wanted not to see. They were looking for instant glory and oh, how their hopes were dashed.

Although this story is one that unfolds in a distant time and foreign place, in a world that seems unimaginable to us, is this story really any different from the story that unfolds before us, the story of our lives? Do we not hope for instant glory? Are we not prone to a sunny optimism about the world, and our lives before us?

This week I heard an interview on the CBC with an author who was speaking out against the myth of eternal youth, and how the post-war generation has somehow come to believe that aging can be beaten, and indeed that death can be beaten, that somehow we can and live forever, if only we buy the right anti-aging products, live to a certain standard, and have the right mindset. If we rebrand the word “Boomer” with “Zoomer” the inevitable reality of aging, and yes, of our eventual deaths, will suddenly disappear, no longer a possibility on the horizon of our existence, and we shall become the first generation of ageless immortals.

We may convince ourselves of this alternate reality, and even live in this alternate universe for a time, but what happens when reality breaks through the veil? What happens that phone call comes, what happens when we get tragic that tragic news about our own health or the health of a loved one? What happens when a cloud descends and blocks the rays of sunny optimism? What happens when the crown of gold is revealed to be a crown of thorns? What happens when “Hosanna to the king,” becomes “crucify him”?

And thus we find ourselves,when stark reality destroys the dream. We find ourselves fragile, we find ourselves alone, mournful, perhaps even angry, but most of all deeply vulnerable. When all our dreams are crucified, wherein shall we seek our hope? Has hope been destroyed?

We gaze upon the hope that is nailed to the tree and weep. We weep over our broken dreams, and we weep to think what we have lost. We weep over our foolishness in thinking that we might be masters of our fate, that we might somehow defeat death on our own, and we weep over our false pride, now a lifeless consolation.

In our vulnerability at the foot of the cross, we realize though, that those things that veiled our vision have fallen away. We come to see, and what is more, to feel, what it is to be truly human. In accessing our deepest pain, in beholding it nailed to the tree, we can at last let go of those thing which we have clung to out of fear, for they have been crucified with our Lord.

As the layers of protection against suffering and death with which we have clothed ourselves fall away into the mists of nothingness and we stand exposed, we contemplate the exposed figure on the cross, stripped, beaten, and lifeless. But he had no false layers to be cut away, nor did he have false dreams that needed to be broken. His vision was ever clear and he was ever meek and humble. His gentleness, his authenticity, his vulnerability was an offering that we might find these very things in ourselves and that our pride and vainglory might be unmasked.

In one short week we shall gather to share the rest of the story, and in between, journey together in the removal of the layers that we have placed upon ourselves to protect ourselves from pain and hurt. In one short week we shall know that to live forever does not mean cloaking ourselves from pain, from suffering and from death, but indeed, eternal life is embraced in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death. Eternal life, the resurrection from the dead, is found when we stand exposed at the foot cross and we behold true hope in the exposed lifeless figure, whom we know and believe shall live again.

c.2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Lord is My Shepherd - A Homily for Lent 4, Year A, 2011

Sermon for Lent 4, Year A, 2011
Sunday, April 3rd, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Ps 23

The Lord is My Shepherd
-Psalm 23:1

If our memories failed us and we could only remember one piece of Scripture, one word of comfort from our God to us, that would carry us through our earthly days, through each triumph and tragedy, I have no doubt that for many it would be the twenty-third psalm. This psalm speaks to our deepest fear and to our deepest angst. It is a part of our human condition that we fear that we will be left alone, forgotten, forsaken. And we fear that we will not only be forsaken by those who love us, but also by God. This is a fear to which even Jesus succumbed on the cross in his own cry of dereliction. Thus it is to this psalm that we turn at our darkest hour. It not only comforts us when all seems bleak, but challenges us to believe in the midst of our doubt. It challenges us to claim the reality of the Good Shepherd, our Risen Lord, who neither forsakes us nor forgets us, but walks with us and holds us close, even as our faith wavers and our hope falters.

It is a powerful piece of Scripture to which even the un-churched turn in times of crisis. I have a friend whose ministry is almost exclusively a ministry to the bereaved. He officiates at Christian funerals for those whose faith is but a distant memory. He often asks them if there is a particular Bible verse that they would like read as part of the service Invariably they pause for a moment and then say, “Oh yes, do you know that one about the shepherd?” He responds gently, “Yes, I think I know that one… Does is begin, ‘the Lord is my Shepherd?’” “Yes,” they respond, “that’s it!” If they want nothing else, they want Psalm 23. This has certainly been my experience, as well, in working with families with tenuous connections to the Church. Thanks be to God that there is a piece of Scripture that does call to them.

What is it about this simple Hebrew canticle that continues to resonate even with those who have little or no faith. I believe that it is simply this, that our Lord never forsakes us… we are not alone, have never been alone, and never will be alone – even if all others around us fail, God does not fail us. In the words of the psalm, God is reaching out to us, even when this same Lord seems absent from our midst. It is a means through which we can hear the voice of God, feel’s God’s warm embrace, know God’s strong and loving comfort, even when all hope and joy seem but a phantasm beyond our grasp. Thus, it is no surprise that people turn to these words in their deepest moments of loneliness, and particularly in moments in which loved ones are seemingly lost forever to us; when our world has become a lonelier place. For it is not us reaching out for God; rather it is God reaching out for us in our grief and our pain in timeless words of comfort and challenge. I have often wondered if this was one of the Scriptures to which the disciples turned after the crucifixion of their Lord. Was it a Scripture that relentlessly pursued them in their sense of abandonment? After all, Jesus had told them that he was the Good Shepherd, that he would not abandon even one of them to wolves, that if even one of them was lost, he would go searching and find them. Were they able to seek comfort in the Shepherd Psalm when they had lost their Shepherd? Could they find hope in the words “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me,” or “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me?” Could they understand that in these words their Shepherd sought them still?

I knew a man who carried a clipping of Psalm 23 in his wallet, throughout his entire life. It was, for him, a tangible way of expressing the reality that God never left him, that the Good Shepherd was daily leading him beside still waters. He knew the psalm by heart, but he could take it out when times got tough, read it, and form those familiar words on his lips, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” or “Thy Rod and thy Staff they comfort me.” When it seemed like his Shepherd was out of his line of sight, he took out the words, read them, and knew that while the Shepherd might be out of his sight, he was not beyond the sight of the Shepherd. He knew that he was not alone.

For the disciples, after the death of Jesus, perhaps Cleopas and the others along the Emmaus Road, it must have seemed like their Shepherd had abandoned them. Where now was his rod and staff? And yet, along the road they met a stranger who opened the Scriptures to them, broke bread with them, and then their eyes were opened. Had not their hearts burned within them on that road? The stranger then disappeared from their sight, but this time, they knew that they were not abandoned – no! Christ was Risen! He was with them! Their hunger and thirst were met, their tears were wiped away! Their Shepherd was indeed with them, even though removed from their sight, guiding them to springs of living water. As they broke bread with him that day, their wanting and lamenting turned to feasting and joy. Perhaps, just perhaps, the words he spoke when he was with them echoed in their ears, perhaps, just perhaps, his sheep once again heard his voice … “no one will snatch them from my hand.”

A couple of years ago, I was called to the bedside of a dying man. His family asked me to say prayers with them, and with him. I could tell by his breathing that he was moments from death. I began to read the prayers appointed for the time of death. I arrived at the part of the service in which it says “the 23rd psalm may be read,” I did not turn to it, but recited it from memory… until suddenly I drew a blank. An embarrassing pause that seemed like an eternity was broken by the man’s wife taking my arm and saying “I think it’s, ‘yea thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,’ dear.” Everyone smiled gently, and we all continued together, “I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

“For thou art with me…” Even in the fumbling of a young inexperienced minister; even in the grief of a family losing their husband and father; even in the moment of our own death… Thou art with me.” I shall fear no evil. Even if I cannot see the Shepherd, I know, Thou art with me. Even if I cannot hear his voice, I know, Thou art with me. Even if it seems all have forsaken me, even you my God, my God, I shall cleave to the truth, Thou art with me.”

Why is it that these words ring so true in the midst of our loneliness and loss? Because they are true. God does not forsake us or abandon us. While all seemed lost on that Emmaus road, along which the disciples walked in sadness and fear, they were pursued by their shepherd, who, in the breaking of bread turned their longing into joy. And while the pain and grief and loss we experience on the road of ithis life is real, so too is the presence of God, the presence of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, whom we meet as we break bread together. For that great Shepherd of the Sheep walks with us through the valleys of our angst and shares with us in our feasts of joy.

c. 2007 & 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves (a version of this homily was preached on Easter 4, 2007 at the Parish of Sharon & Holland Landing)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hope Does Not Disappoint: Strength in Weakness - A Homily for Lent 3, Year A, 2011

Homily for Lent 3, Year A, 2011
Sunday, March 26th, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 5:1-11

“For while we were still weak, at the right time God died for the ungodly.”-Romans 5:6

Strength, fortitude, self-assuredness – In the coming days as the electioneering gets under way for our upcoming federal election, we will hear much from our politicians about how strong they are, about the fortitude they have, and political statements will be uttered with such self-assured self-confidence that we will be led to believe that not one single one of our candidates has a weak, vulnerable bone in their bodies. All the while, in Libya, we witness horrifying displays of strength and power layered upon rhetorical utterances of strength that either side shall fight to the last man, woman and child. Yet, we only need to cast our gaze toward Japan, or to Christchurch New Zealand, to realize that human strength is but a phantasm and our utterances but bravado when faced by far greater forces that shake the ground upon which we walk and raise the seas upon which we sail. What is human strength when the “earth withdraws its consent”, as author and chronicler of earthquakes, Simon Winchester, has so aptly put it?

Fundamentally, we know that we are fragile creatures. Fundamentally, we know that our lives are fleeting in the cosmic scheme. Fundamentally, I believe all of us know deep down that we are indeed dust, and to dust we shall return. Yet, we continue in our bravado, in our displays of strength, and we continue to seek to “one-up” each other in the rhetoric of strength. Why do we do this?

I believe that it is because we know that deep down that we are not strong, that we vulnerable and fragile creatures, and so we fight against our vulnerability and fragility with words of strength and displays of power. However, the more we claim false strength and fortitude, the more we realize that we are hiding behind a façade. What happens when our self-proclaimed fortitude fails? What happens when we are unmasked? What happens when the curtain is drawn and the wizard is revealed as the diminutive little man masking his vulnerability behind a curtain and the projection of the face of the great and powerful OZ?

Most of us fear the moment of unmasking, and yet we know that it is inevitable. Sooner or later, we shall be found out, whether someone else unmasks us or when our lives spin out of control and we stand unmasked in front of the mirror. When we are faced with our own vulnerability, we are prone to feel like failures, unable to muster the appropriate strength to hold our lives together, unable to be strong enough to hold the lives of others together. At the core of our being we are frightened by something that is intrinsic to all of us as human beings, something from which none of us are immune – our fragility and vulnerability. Because we fear this so much, we create façades of strength to hide behind, but sooner or later we must face the fact that we are mortal, we are vulnerable, and that if you prick us, we will bleed.

The great mystery of our faith, though, is that this is precisely the place that God confronts us, that God meets us, and that God leads us into newness of life. It is not in our moments of strength, nor in our moments of rhetorical bravado that we encounter the loving God, but rather in moments in which we feel the weakest. It is in our moments of suffering, both physical and spiritual. It is in our moments of sadness. It is in our moments of failure. It is the moments in which the wounds of our lives lay open. It is in the moments when human resources are exhausted. It is in the moments when we feel the farthest from God that we meet the Christ: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” When we feel weak, when we feel distant from God, the Christ seeks us out.

St. Paul reminds us that it is not in our perfection, in our strength, or in our righteousness that God died for us, but rather in our imperfection, in our weakness, and in our sinfulness that he goes to the cross. He goes to his death not out of disappointment in us or to punish us with guilt for all the ways in which we have failed; rather, he goes out of deep love and because his heart, the heart that is big enough to eclipse the cosmos, seeks to draw us into its loving compass. In his vulnerability, his vulnerable people are made strong. In his brokenness, his broken people are made whole. In his unjust and death, his unjust people are made right in body, mind and spirit.

Thus, the world’s understanding of strength is turned on its head. No matter how many powerful words I may choose to use, no matter how often a politician may preface words of strength with rhetorical flourishes such as “Let there be no mistake…”, no matter how loud we shout about our strength, strength is not something to be manufactured, but will only be known in the embracing our weakness, in touching our pain, in acknowledging our brokenness, that the Christ might give us his strength, the true strength that comes from God, in the midst of our vulnerability.

This is how St. Paul characterizes strength. It is not a strength rooted in bravado or rhetoric that masks vulnerability, but a strength that embraces its vulnerability in order that the power of God might be made known. This is why he says that contrary to the false boasts of strength of the world, we boast in our suffering , because we know that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

What then is strength, true strength? Strength begins with an admission of our weakness and an open heart to let the Spirit of God work upon us. It is our endurance in allowing God to work through our weakness that character is formed. It is only then that true character, not false strength, shall be formed within us. And with such character we have hope, for we have witnessed the strength of God, we know what God can do for us and for this broken world. With such hope we need not shout. With such hope we need not raise arms against others. We need only to witness to his love by loving, and journeying together in our weakness and vulnerability, for this is the place where he meets us. This is where his heart touches ours. It is where his authenticity touches our authenticity, and it is in this life of shared authenticity and honesty that the strength of God will be known in Jesus Christ.

c.2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Choice that Confronts Us - A Homily for Lent 1, Year A, 2011

Homily for Lent 1, Year A, 2011
Sunday, March 13th, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 5:12-19

If because of one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
-Romans 5:17

Life is filled with choices. Some choices are of such an inconsequential nature that we barely realize that we are making them. I may find myself driving on a particular route because it is the one I always choose. I may find myself purchasing a particular brand of tea because it is the one I like and the one I always choose. A detour may cause me to choose a different route, or when my brand of tea is sold out I may be forced to choose another. However, even when such things happen, they are hardly catastrophic, and the decision-making involved in such unforeseen moments is hardly more consequential than the decision-making involved in the original choice.

Other choices may be more difficult and fraught with ethical and moral decisions that may be much more complicated. Sometimes we are called upon to act in ways that are in contradiction to our belief system, and what shall we do. In our working lives we may find our personal values colliding with the values of our employer. In our families we may find our values conflicting with other members of the family. Do we choose to make a stand, or do we go with the flow? We may ask the age-old question, “is this worth going to the wall for?” or “am I going to die in this particular trench?”

Regardless of what we decide in such situations, our decisions will have consequences. Often we make decisions that weigh us down, things done and left undone, action or lack of action that causes us considerable regret.

As human beings we all make bad decisions at some point or another. We make decisions that betray our own and shared values, we make decisions that hurt others, hurt ourselves, and wound the heart of God. Sin has many definitions, but I think that at the heart of any definition of sin, we must seriously consider a definition that includes our human propensity to consistently make bad decisions -- decisions to do the things that we know we probably ought not to do, and decisions not to act when we know action is needed.

In the mythopoetic world of Genesis, in the story of Eden, our primordial ancestors became involved in some very bad decision-making. Although they knew what was right, they grasped at divinity, eternity, and infinite knowledge, and as a result cursed themselves with fallen humanity, the finality of death, and the limitation of ignorance. Our primordial ancestors sought a good thing but did so through a profound act of disobedience to their Creator God.
Deep within our fallen humanity is a longing for what is good and also deep within us lurks the mistaken conviction that the end justifies the means. Our mistakes, our bad decisions, our sinfulness are all about justifying questionable behaviour for the good that may come. The impulse to do so is primal and difficult to avoid.

Thus for St. Paul, the primordial sin of Adam is the sin we all share as human beings. Sin is part of our fallen nature, and the excuses we make for sin and our bad decision-making seem justifiable to us because often the ends we seek are good. But Paul boldly proclaims in the face of our self-deceit that the true end of sin is death. In the cosmic scale, again in the language of Genesis, man’s first disobedience was repaid with the finality of existence, by death. One wonders, though, if the concept of death might function on another level and if the sinner is also condemned to experience a kind of living death?

When I make bad decisions, decisions against my values and beliefs, decisions that I know to be wrong, a part of me dies inside. When I see that my decisions may hurt another person, a part of me dies. The selfishness evident in much of the decision-making that we do as a society creates a world of the walking dead. We need not wait til the end of our lives to experience death, for do we not experience it in life?

Fortunately, for all Paul’s exploration about the origins of sin and its wages, Paul is not primarily concerned about sin or its consequence, death. Rather, Paul cares to share a message of the complete opposite nature. Paul proclaims the message of righteousness and of life. Paul sees the dilemma of the human condition, Paul understands the relentless impulses of our primordial urges, and Paul knows only too well that this is something from which we cannot escape under our own power, for it is simply part of being the heirs of Adam, being human in a fallen world.
Yet, Paul is also aware of a different reality, a different sort of humanity, a new, reborn humanity that has a second chance. Where we might only look about in despair, Paul sees hope; where we might wonder how we can escape the treadmill of things done and left undone, Paul witnesses to the Christ-event as the power of God to transform our reality. Where we are helpless, God enters in and changes things. Paul admits that the power of sin is great, that it is a primordial impulse that is hard, indeed impossible, to resist; yet, how much more powerful is the impulse of God? If sin came to us through Adam, how much more powerful is the righteousness that his imputed to us in Christ? The first Adam erred, the second Adam, Jesus Christ, makes right. The great Roman Catholic theologian, Cardinal Dulles wrote about this passage, “God’s grace is more powerful than man’s sinfulness, so that when sin abounded, grace abounded even more. Our belief in the superabundant power of grace when confronted by evil is founded upon the historical tangibility of God’s redemptive love in Christ.”

The choice then that is before us, the real decision that we need to make, is to whom do we belong? Which Adam is our master? Shall we belong to our primordial reality or to our redeemed reality? Do we belong to Adam or do we belong to Christ?

Ah, you may say, Christ is too high a thing to be attained; I am not capable of choosing the good. This may be so, and it would not be possible unless God first reached out to us. For Christ is not a high thing to be reached for but, the very presence of God come amongst us. Christ is the hand of God reaching for us that we may lay hold on life. The great German New Testament scholar, Ernst Kasemann wrote with respect to Romans 5 that as God reaches out to each individual, “God is concretely reaching out to the world.”

The gift that we receive in Christ is a free gift, we can do nothing to attain to it we may only receive it in the spirit of graciousness in which it is offered. And when is that gift offered? It is in the nexus of choice, in the moment of crisis, it is in the frightening wound of our vulnerability. It comes when all around us and within us urges us to listen to the voice of the primordial Adam which whispers to us the lie that self-preservation is the good above all. But the gift comes to us not preaching self-preservation, but confronting us with self-abandonment, risk, and sacrifice. The Word comes among us confronting us with the scandalous truth that the one who hangs dying on the tree is the one who destroys sin and death through his own self-effacing, self-denying sacrifice. To which tree shall I turn? To the one that gives forth a seductively ripe fruit now but withers when picked, or to the tree which at first seems an instrument of death, yet whose fruit ripens in the sepulcher and blossoms forth with life?

To whom shall I lay hold, to which tree shall I turn? Shall I turn to the tree of beauty that entangles or that stark tree upon which hangs the Lord with arms stretched wide? On the tree on which God hangs, God has risked all. Oh, the fruit of the former tree may be sweet to the taste, but only for but a moment. That same fruit weights heavily within me after but a moment: how it works away on my soul, consuming me from within. It is the tree from which I have tasted all my life. Perhaps it is time to turn to the other tree, to taste of another fruit, the fruit of that tree that confronts me with the dreadful but beautiful choice to abandon all, to plunge headlong into the arms of grace, and to risk being held by the arms that risk all for me.

And what do I find in that choice? I see the arms of my Lord no longer fastened to the wood, but enfolded around me. The fruit of which I have previously eaten is no longer eating away at me from within; rather I find that paradoxically, by clinging to the dying man on the cross, by joining my risk to his, I have chosen life, not only a life that transcends the grave, but a life for this age, a life in this world, a new life, new authenticity. It is not a life without mistakes or bad choices, but a life in which mistake and bad choices no longer destroy my soul, a life in which I find the courage to confront my mistakes, my sinfulness, and ask God to draw me day by day, into the true life which, in which the end and the means are not at odds but at one in self-giving love and joy.

c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Praying on the Mountain and in the Garden -- A Homily for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, 2011

Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (Transfiguration), Year A, 2011
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
Sunday, March, 6th, 2011
Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke Matthew 17:1-9

Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John, and led them up a high mountain.
--Matthew 17:1

Our Lord commanded us to pray, and in doing so invited us into a life-long conversation with him. It is one of the great privileges of the Christian faith that we are in a relationship with a loving and conversant God. Consider how remarkable it is that the Lord of the Cosmos, who created the heavens, the earth, and all that exists, beckons us into discourse on the most personal intimate level. One wonders that we should be at all surprised by this fact, for did not the Lord of the Cosmos come to us, choose to take our human nature in the form of a tiny child, subject to the limitation of the humanity of which we all share? It seems, then, that it is in the very character of God to seek intimacy with his people. One popular hymn, meant to illustrate how the events of that first Easter morning can be experienced daily in prayer, sings of a God who walks and talks with us in a garden, just like any other friend. And yet, sometimes God seems so strangely distant and his voice seems silenced.

In today’s gospel, we witness a very different sort of prayer and conversation. Jesus leads three of his disciples up the mountain for a private meeting. What was the purpose of this little gathering apart from the rest? The parallel version in Luke’s gospel tells us that it was to pray. When they reach the summit, Jesus becomes strangely changed, transfigured before their eyes. His appearance began to change and his clothes became a dazzling white. Then, two other figures appear, immediately recognizable as Moses and Elijah, two prophets of old. And if one has a hard time imagining a conversation with Jesus in the garden, how much more incredible is this story of this divine manifestation on the Holy Mount.

Yet, be it walking with Jesus in the garden, or seeing him transfigured upon the mountain, both stories can reveal to us something important about the nature of prayer, namely that we can expect that God will be with us – whether as that friend with whom we converse, or in the remarkable form of Glory that reminds of the Sinai experience of Moses. Whether it is the peaceful garden moments or the glorious mountaintop experiences, and yes, even in the deep valleys, God will be with us. The difficulty that we often find in prayer is that we think we are stepping out alone, into an unknown dark place, in the hopes that somehow, God will find us and come to us. But in actuality, where we step is into the presence of the ever-present God, who never leaves us or sends us anywhere alone. In the garden, we mistake him for the gardener, on the road to Emmaus we confuse him for a fellow-traveller, and on the mountain, we think him merely our teacher or rabbi – but each time he opens our eyes, and we see him transfigured before us and we know God is with us.

Why do we fail to see or feel his presence? Why does it seem like God is absent when we have his promise that he will neither leave nor forsake us? I think it often has to do with our expectations in prayer. We expect a garden, when God wishes to show us a transfiguration. We expect a sermon when God wishes to sing us a song. We expect a rebuke, when God wishes to hold us in his embrace. And I think that this is one of the issues at stake in this story of the Transfiguration. What did the disciples expect? We have no way to know, but probably they expected that Jesus would take them up the mountain and they would say together some of the daily Jewish prayers, prayed by all Jews in the time of Jesus. Perhaps they were expecting the ancient equivalent of Anglican Matins, or a United Church morning worship service. And what did they get? They got an epiphany. As their Lord led them in prayer they caught a glimpse of divine glory. And what is more, they received some clarification – some had thought that Jesus might be Elijah, or a new Moses. But Moses and Elijah appeared with him, and the voice of God clarified his identity: My Son, the beloved.

How do we respond to the surprises we receive in prayer? Usually, badly. This was the case with Peter and James and John. What did they want to do? They wanted to set up tents for the three holy figures. In biblical parlance, this means that they wanted to set up temples of worship, or shrines for the three holy men. But was this what God was asking of them? Was this the message of the transfiguration to which they were witnesses? No. But their response was very human. In technical terms we call it the domestication of transcendence. In layperson’s terms it is simply this: If something is amazing and extraordinary and beyond human scope we seek to make it ordinary, control it and manage it by human standards. The disciples sought to control this vision of God’s glory. What does God have to say about this? “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him!”

This uncovers for us the principal problem we experience in prayer. We seek God, we lament when God appears to be absent, and then when we are granted any kind of inkling of his presence, we seek to control it, rather than let ourselves be transformed by it.

Listen to him, says the voice of God. It is a call to open our hearts to the voice of his Son in prayer. It is a call to set aside all of our presuppositions about prayer. It is a call to allow ourselves to be transformed and changed through God’s gracious self-disclosure, through our Lord’s words that enter our hearts. Should we answer the call, we find ourselves transfigured, too.

In prayer, we find ourselves talking, sometimes shouting at God, and while there are appropriate moments for this, there are moments when we need to stop controlling the conversation and remember that we have a conversation partner, who is God almighty, our maker, redeemer and friend. We need to allow ourselves to be led in to the presence of God, and simply rest in that presence, listening for his voice, waiting expectantly for his Word to transform our hearts and souls, and open to the surprises that he has in store for us, to recognize that we are his beloved. And so, after the disciples have witnessed their Lord in Glory, St. Matthew tells us that they fall down in awe. In the silence of our quietest prayers, and in the awe of his presence, so may our hearts and minds be transfigured in the presence of the transfigured Word of God, who is our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

c. 2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves