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 CafĂ©, 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