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