Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Final Word - A Homily for Christmas Day, 2012

Homily for Christmas Day, 2012
Tuesday, December 25th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 1:1-14

Although the powers of darkness would seek to overcome and destroy us, they can never be the final word for us. 

When we cast our minds back over the course of our lives, I think many of us will realize that there are things we have done, and left undone, for which we are not proud.  All too often, these mistakes become for us the narratives that shape our lives.  Our mistakes and our sins have the potential to become the word of our lives, but the message of today is that even our grossest deeds, our most careless errors, and even our most malicious mistakes need not be the final word for us.

Christmas can be a difficult time for many because the pain of a recent – or even not-so-recent – loss may feel overwhelming.  When so many are making merry, the gap left by a loved one who is no longer with us, and the sorrow we feel, may feel like the word that is written upon our lives, but it need not be the final word for us.

In the midst of the great brokenness of this world, amidst senseless violence like the recent shooting in Connecticut, amidst accidents and unforeseen losses, imagining that the world is so irretrievably lost that only a 2012 Armageddon that will wipe things out may seem like the only word for a helplessly hurting world, but it need not be the final word for us.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God!

The only word that truly matters to us, the only word that really has a hold on our lives, the only word that is of any true substance is Jesus Christ, the Word of God, who was in the beginning with God and through whom all things were created.  This is the only word that matters because all things came into being through him.  Not one thing that was created came into being without him. All other words that seek to have a claim on us ultimately have not power or claim over us, for they are not the source of either our being, or our Salvation.  They are not the light of life.  The very Word that gives us life and light is the Word that is written upon our hearts and upon our very being, and should any other word seek to erase or deface that word, that word shall not stand.

We can fail to see the Word because the darkness is often so overwhelming that our vision is obscured, and that is why the Word became flesh.  When the world seemed too dark, when other words seemed to echo in our ears and garble our thoughts, the Word became flesh.

The Word becomes flesh and casts away the other words that seek to imprint themselves on our lives.  The light shines in the darkness, and although the darkness seeks to overcome the light it cannot.  The light casts out the darkness.

Darkness still covers the earth but we have a light that forces it back.  Other words still seek to write themselves into our story, but we have a Word that is our story, and no other words shall take his place. 

Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is God’s final word for us.  Jesus Christ is the light of the world, and although at times the darkness seems powerful, and those other words seem multitudinous, Jesus is written on our hearts and indeed, he is the light which shines forth from our new life in him.  By his grace, by water and the Spirit, we are a new creation and so we need not fear any other word or be threatened by the darkness. If God is for us, who can be against us?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Let us go, then, unto Bethlehem - A homily for Christmas Eve 2012

Homily for Christmas Eve, 2012
Monday, December 24th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 2:1-20

Fear not! I bring you good news of great joy for all people!

Into a world governed by fear, the message came.  Into the lives of the poor and the oppressed, the message came.  Into the hearts of those who hoped but dared not believe, the message came.  The message, “fear not!” sounded resolutely in the face of those who governed by fear, it lifted the dark veil of oppression, and gave birth to faith in the hearts of those who doubted.

But what had changed?  What was it that had cast away the fear that gripped the people of that long-ago age?  The angel proclaimed, “I bring you good news of great joy!”  But what was that joy?  The good news was news of their salvation.  Hard as it might have been to believe, had as it might have been to accept, God had come to save his people.  Did Herod the King still reign over them?  Was the violently imposed Roman peace still a reality for them?  Were those shepherds abiding in their fields still poor shepherds?  Yes.  On one level, nothing seemed different, and yet, everything had changed, for fear no longer gripped their hearts.  Fear no longer gripped them because they knew that the very things they feared were no longer the things that held power over them.  They knew that their salvation was something so much more precious and eternal than merely their deliverance from unjust rulers or wealthy exploiters.  They knew – and they knew it deep in that place where truth cannot be shaken – that they belonged to God.  They knew that somehow, all the walls that they had built separating themselves from God were being broken down.  How could this be?  They were not sure.  But at the very moment angels proclaimed the words “Fear not!” they knew their world had changed.  They were saved. 

Their salvation was not a spiriting out of this world.  Their salvation was not a rejection of this world.  Their salvation was not a destruction of this world. Rather, it was a reclaiming of this world for God.  Those shepherds of old did not know it at the time; what they did know was that God always gave a sign.  And what would that sign be?  They would find a babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  Those who were gripped with fear were gripped with fear no longer.  They made haste, and went to seek the sign, to see this great thing that God had done:  a simple child lying in a manger. What manner of greatness was this?  What manner of miracle did they witness?  In what way could the birth of a child into the poverty of a stable be a sign?  This, we cannot explain, except to say that they knew, once again, in that deep place of knowing where truth cannot be shaken, that they witnessed before them in that tiny child, cradled in a trough, their very salvation.  For God so loved the world; and they knew it to be true.

And thus in the midst of evil powers that might seek to destroy them, they could in turn say “fear not!”  When Caesars and Herods sought to oppress them, they could say “fear not!” And when their own sinfulness and their own brokenness might seem to be too heavy to bear, they could say to themselves and too each other “fear not!”

This story is an old one.  It is one we know so well, but do we know it and believe it in that deep place of knowing where truth cannot be shaken?  Do we believe the words of the angels, “Fear not?”  Do we believe the sign that was given to the shepherds, a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger is a sign still given to you and to me?  Do we believe that in deep humility, poverty and helplessness, God has saved us?

Let us go then, once again even unto Bethlehem and see this thing that the Lord has done. 

In a world in which broken men and women take up arms and seek to destroy the most weak and vulnerable, and in a world in which others cry out that the only solution to violence is arms and more violence, the angels host cries out “Fear not!”

In a world seems to spin apart with absurdity upon absurdity as politicians and rulers create and shape false truth at their whims, and in which the gullible believe every falsehood spun before them, the angel host cries out, “Fear not!”

In a world in which economic woes and fiscal cliffs have become the highest concern of our shared life, the angel host cries out, “Fear not!”

Into our lives when families break apart, when loved ones die tragically, when we make terrible, terrible mistakes that we deeply regret, the angel host cries out, “Fear not!”

I tell you now what the angels proclaimed to the shepherds then: fear not!

I tell you now what the shepherds heard then: I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all people.  Unto you is born this day, a Saviour which is the Christ the Lord.

I set before you now what was set before them then: You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

Let us go then, once again – or perhaps for the first time – even unto Bethlehem and see this thing that the Lord has done.  If you are afraid, fear not.  If you have pondered the child from a distance and yet have never drawn close, draw close now. And if you have hoped, yet never dared to believe, believe it now.  The holy child is born this day for me and for you.  He has come to us that we might never be far from him again and nothing will ever separate us from him ever again.  Fear not, for unto you is born this day a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Leaping for Joy: A Homily for Advent IV, Year C, 2012

Homily for Advent IV, Year C, 2012
Sunday, December 23rd, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 1:39-45

“The child in my womb leaped for joy!”
-Luke 1:44

Upon learning that she was pregnant, the Virgin Mary went to the hill country and met her aged cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant with a miracle-child.  In her own vulnerability Mary sought the counsel and comfort of a wise woman.  Together they would ponder and reflect on the work God was doing through them; together they would love and support each other; together they would dream the dreams that mothers have for their children. 

When Mary approached Elizabeth, she was greeted with excitement.  In a holy moment, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed how blessed she was to be greeted by the mother of her Lord, and how blessed Mary was to be carrying in her womb the one who would be called “Lord.”  It was a moment filled with excitement; a moment filled with joy; a moment filled with the presence of God through the Holy Spirit.  The moment was one of such excitement, and a recognition of the salvation that God was working through the agency of the gentle virgin, meek and mild, that even Elizabeth’s child leapt for joy in her womb, at the approach of Mary.

As we approach the natal feast of our Lord, our anticipation grows, our joy builds, and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are given songs of praise to sing.  Our redemption draweth nigh.  Each year, as we draw ever closer to hearing again the story of our Saviour’s birth, we experience afresh that anticipation that there is good news for us, and for the whole world.  If our hearts have become saddened, if our spirits have grown tired, if our senses have grown numb, or our minds weakened by the cares of the world, then once again the Holy Spirit goes to work on us.  Once again, hope is kindled, anticipation builds, and good news greets us.  As with the elderly Elizabeth, who was made youthful again by God’s grace, so are we restored to youthful exuberance and child-like cheer.  Deep within us, something is stirred, and our hearts leap within us, as the child leapt in Elizabeth’s womb.  Our Lord comes to greet us.

Why has this happened, and who are we that God should visit us?  Who are we that the Holy Family should seek our comfort?  Who are we that Jesus should come into our homes and seek shelter?  And yet, in spite of our sadness, our tiredness, our numbness, or our weakness, in Christ Jesus God comes to us, to dwell with us, to be with us, and to restore us.

God so loved the world that he looked upon the lowly, not only to be the ones he saved but to be partners in the salvation of the world.  He looked upon Mary and Elizabeth with deep love. He looked upon John the Baptist, and Joseph, and Simeon, and Anna, and Zechariah as his partners and his friends.  He looked upon the disciples of old as his partners and friends, and he looks upon you and me, as his partners and his friends.  In Christ Jesus, God reaches out his saving hand to us that we might be saved – saved from our sins, saved from our brokenness, saved from our isolation.  In Christ Jesus God reaches out his saving hand to the world and invites us to share that Good News to those who have not heard it, that as our spirits have been restored and our souls have leapt for joy, so too might the spirits and souls of the faint-hearted, the lonely, and the forgotten hear that same news and find themselves restored and lifted up.  Blessed are the feet of those who bring good news.




Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Sword Shall Pierce Your Own Soul, Too - A Homily for Advent III, Year C, 2012

A Homily for Advent III, Year C, 2012
Sunday, December 16th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Words calling us to rejoice may seem very hollow today.  When Zephaniah calls us to “sing aloud,” and “to rejoice and exult with all our hearts,” and when St. Paul proclaims “rejoice in the Lord always,” we find that we simply cannot stir up within our hearts such exultation.  The news that twenty-six people were killed on Friday, in a school in Connecticut, twenty of them young children, makes us seriously question what cause have we for rejoicing.  At this time of year when rejoicing abounds, when celebrations are taking place, when families come together in joyful thanksgiving for the bounty of this life and for the love we share as families and friends, I suspect that each person that celebrates will feel their joy restrained and indeed their hearts weighed down by the incomprehensible tragedy of what has taken place. Words cannot capture our grief nor can they express our sorrow for those who will never embrace their child or loved one again.  And when we seek to allow our imaginations to drift into that place of empathy we find ourselves reeling back, unwilling to even entertain what that horror might be like if we were in the place of those parents and family members today.  This act of violence will not only have repercussions for those who lost those dearest to them, but it will have repercussions for years to come on that whole community and those who will forever bear witness to that event.  Our prayer can only be, “Lord, have mercy.”

The Christmas narrative into which we move, has ever been one in which our shouts of joy have been met with deeds of darkness.  Angels proclaimed tidings of joy to shepherds; shepherds shared good news; priests and prophets sang songs of salvation that they were witnessing their salvation – songs we continue to sing today – yet, as those songs were sung of old, as they are sung today, sin remains at work in the world.  Wise men came from the East to worship the newborn king.  They came to bring him gifts, but inadvertently, they alerted Herod to the location of the child and Herod feared that his precarious grip on power would be loosened.  The powers of sin and darkness gripped Herod and he sought to kill the child.  He did not succeed, but he slaughtered many innocents.  Wise men came seeking the light, but instead, in their error, they left behind a trail of innocent blood.

In every generation, we seek the light.  During every Advent and Christmastide we proclaim the once and coming king whose light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome that light.  But still, in every generation, until all things are gathered up in Christ, sins persists, and the brokenness of one person can lead to the brokenness of a community, a nation, even a whole people.  The darkness threatens to overcome us and it will do us no good to tell ourselves that darkness does not exist, that sin does not exist, nor must we ever delude ourselves that we are not a broken people.   In these moments we need Jesus more than ever.  In these moments we need to trust in him and hold fast to our baptismal covenant to resist evil and sin in whatever form it takes, in our systems that allow such violence, in our human desires that drive us to despair, in the senseless forces that drive us to violence.  We must resist such things, with the help of God.  In these moments we must do as Mary did, and cling to the Christ child with all our might.  It does not mean that we will not be hurt, that our hearts will not be broken, that we will not know fear or sin or brokenness, or violence.  In the Temple, after the circumcision of baby Jesus, old Simeon prophesied that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul, too.  And so it did when she stood at the foot of the cross and beheld her wounded, bleeding, dying son.

Good news comes into the world; light comes into the world, and darkness seeks to overcome it.  Mary and Joseph fled the wrath of violent king, and many children died.  Truth came into the world and we nailed it to a tree.  Light came into the world and in its darkness the world failed to see it. The Holy Family knows the pain that the world feels today. Jesus knows the pain that the world feels today. God the Father knows the pain that world feels today.  And God in Christ helps us to bear what we cannot bear on our own.  Thus, we can do nothing else but cling to the Christ child, and cling to the man who hangs on the cross, that in his resurrection, the works of darkness might finally be cast out, and in the fullness of time, that mourning and crying and pain will be no more.



Sunday, December 2, 2012

Your Redemption Draweth Nigh - A Homily for Advent I, Year C, 2012

Homily for Advent 1, Year C, 2012
Sunday, December 2nd, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 21:25-36

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
-- Luke 21:28

Over the course of my life, I have been an early riser. I am also an avid listener to CBC radio. By the time I get I leave the house in the morning I have often listened to the newscast about a half dozen times. I don’t like to miss it even when I’ve already heard the news several times that morning. While there may be much overlap, the national news at the top of the hour is different from the local news on the half hour. Then there are the interviews and commentary in-between, and of course, there is always the breaking news. Often, I will be able to catch a portion of the program, “The Current,” as I head out for visits or meetings, and sometimes, while doing the dishes in the evening I enjoy “As it Happens,” both of which reflect on current news events with insightful and provocative interviews. Sometimes, I enjoy ending the day listening to “Ideas,” a thoughtful program that features documentary presentations on subjects of an intellectual nature. If I am out during the day visiting I often pick up bits and pieces of programming and catch up on arts and entertainment news and commentary on my way to and from visits and meetings. It is a wonderful world of news, is it not?

One day this week I couldn’t take it anymore. I shut off the radio and slipped in one of my favourite Frank Sinatra CDs and breathed a sigh of relief as the “Chairman of the Board” crooned on, “Come fly with me, come fly, come fly away…”

Perhaps you will know that feeling. There is a lot going on in the world, in our lives, in our workplaces, and in our homes. If we don’t have enough confusion and trouble in our own circles we are more than willing to invite the confusion and trouble of the world into our lives by turning on the radio, the television, or the internet. And while it is wonderful to know what is going on out there, and I am all for exposing ourselves to a broad range of thoughts, ideas, and information, sometimes it can seem a bit much. Sometimes, it can seem as if the world is coming apart, locally on the half-hour and globally every hour, with traffic and weather on “the tens.”

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faints from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world…” No wonder we want to fly away, whether it be escaping simply through the words of a Sinatra song, or more seriously, and more tragically for some, the decision to give up on life and the world altogether.

Yet, it is at this precise moment, the moment in which we want to escape that we hear the command, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption draweth nigh!” What? Amidst the confusion of nations; amidst the confusion of our homes; amidst the confusion of voices around us; amidst distress, loss, foreboding and fear, our redemption draweth nigh? When these things happens our natural tendency is to run for the hills, to hide our faces, to “duck and cover,” but no – stand up, raise your head, your salvation is near!

This is a shocking command because contrary to what many people may think the Christian faith has never been about escaping a terrible world and its apparent hopeless plight. In the early days of Christianity a heresy arose called Gnosticism. One of its principal errors was divorcing of the spiritual from the material. In Gnostic thought the material world is bad and the spiritual world is good. In Gnostic thought the redeemer is the one who delivers the enlightened believer from the evil material world into the spiritual realm. But our Christian faith is entirely rooted and grounded in a God who enters into the material world not to destroy it, nor to ferret us out of it, but to redeem in, restore, it remake it. And in all of this, we are invited to be God’s co-creators. “For God so loved the world!”

It is precisely at the moment when we are overwhelmed; it is precisely in the moment when we feel like abandoning hope in the world God has created; it is precisely in the moment when we long to fly away, that God enters in. God enters in to bring hope to those who suffer violence at the hand of another, to break the rod of the oppressor. God enters in to comfort and weep with those whose hearts are broken, those who have lost one so dear to them. God enters in to calm the souls of those who are afraid, who have become immobilized by anxiety, depression and hopelessness. And God enters in as the events of the hurting world seem oh so overwhelming to those of us who long only for peace and tranquility amongst nations. God enters in not to destroy this world and the men and women in it, but to redeem the Earth and all its peoples.

Therefore, we shall not run to the hills or flee from the world, as tempting as the words “come fly with me” may be. Rather we shall be alert, stand tall, and lift up our heads in joyful anticipation that God is about to do a new thing. Let us go out to meet him and say, “Art thou he that should come and reign over thy people Israel?” Surely he is the one. Our redemption, and the redemption of the whole world, as troubled as it is, is drawing nigh.

c. 2012 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What is Truth? - A Homily for the Reign of Christ, Year B, 2012

Homily for the Reign of Christ, Year B, 2012
Sunday, Nov 25th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 18: 33-38

Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
-          John 18:38

The rulers of this age are often more obsessed with holding on to power than using the power vested in them for the good of society. Often, it can seem as if the goal of politics is to assume power, rather administer justice and truth for the good of the people who delegate power to them in the first place.  In the political sphere, justice and truth are often the very first things that are sacrificed on the altar of power.  We have witnessed in the recent presidential campaign to the south candidates of all persuasions attempting to create truth, manufacturing realities that would project them (or return them) to power.  It no longer seems to matter if the truth I peddle has no relation to the facts that are clearly documented.  If I say enough times “this is true,” if I shout loudly enough, “this is true!” if I get enough people to believe that “this is true,” then by God, it is true! 

What is truth?

Why was Pilate so deathly afraid of Jesus?  In St. John’s Gospel we confront a conflicted Pilate, one that paces the room, one that goes in and out to the crowd, taking a poll as it were, or perhaps convening a focus group.  Pilate seems concerned to do the right thing.  But what is the right thing?  He has no inner resources make the right decision.  He allows fickle public opinion to sway him.  He fears the mob outside his window.  He fears the Emperor.  He fears what people will think of him.  He fears Jesus, a potential revolutionary.  And he fears losing his grip on power; his grip over his small little piece of the kingdom.

It is said that Jesus is a king.  Pilate wishes that this claim had not been made, for if it is true, then he must be rid of this man.  No leader relishes making difficult decisions like this.  No leader wishes to have the life of a person in his hands.  To administer justice is a great responsibility, and in the context of the Roman Empire, it meant meting out the death penalty to the seditious.  But Jesus has not claimed that he is a king.  “Are you the king of the Judeans?” Pilate asks.  Jesus obfuscates.  “Where did you hear this?  Did someone else tell you?”  He avoids the answer, which surely frustrates Pilate.  But Jesus also asks, “Do you ask this on your own account?”  What possibly could this mean?  It must only mean that Pilate has some deep suspicions of his own.  But where would these suspicions come from?  Does Pilate recognize something intrinsic in Jesus?  Does Pilate somehow have an inkling that standing before him is the true King, not some pale earthly imitation, but the true King of Kings?  Does Pilate know true kingship when he sees it?  Is this what Jesus is asking: “have you heard rumours about me, or do you recognize me for who I am?”

Pilate in turn obfuscates, “I am not a Judean. Your own people have handed you over. What have you done?”  But really, it is not what Jesus has done that makes him threatening, it is who he is.  Pilate knows he cannot execute him if he has not done anything seditious. If Jesus led an uprising, if he claimed to be a king, Pilate could condemn him.  But does Pilate really wish to condemn him?  It seems Pilate vacillates between a desire to do his duty, to cling to power, to protect the kingship of Caesar, and a recognition that true power stands before him and he must desperately seek to release this man.

“My kingdom is not of this world.”  Aha, so he admits he is a king.  Pilate has him.  “You are a king!”  To which Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king.”   Is Jesus a king or is he not?  This is the dilemma before Pilate.  Has Jesus claimed the treasonous title or not?  Pilate is torn.  And then Jesus explains who he is.  In a skillful circumlocution, Jesus explains the nature of his kingship.  His kingdom is not of this world.  He is not a ruler of territory, but the ruler of truth: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Jesus is the King of Truth.  To which Pilate responds, “What is truth?”

Is Pilate’s question rhetorical, or does he really fail to see the Truth of God standing before him? In the end, Pilate decides to wash his hands of Jesus, to release him to the mob, but the mob insists that Pilate crucify him: “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar,” they cry.   Pilate chooses his truth.  He chooses the truth that has been fabricated by Rome, the truth that has been fabricated by an angry mob of religious zealots, the truth that has been fabricated in the tortured indecision of his own soul, and he crucifies God’s truth.  Truth stood before Pilate, and Pilate embraced falsehood.

What is it that drives us to embrace falsehood?  Is it fear? – the fear of losing control, the fear of losing power, the fear of the unknown?  Are we afraid of the change that will come in our lives when we realize we have followed false gods and idols of our own creating?  Are we afraid of the change that comes when we embrace the truth?  When we embrace Jesus, when we turn to Christ, our lives change, but Jesus is the Lord of that transformation and his promise is that he shall see us through all the changes of our lives.  When we embrace Jesus, he continues to embrace us, even when we feel we cannot hold on any longer.  When we embrace Jesus we embrace the truth.  And when we embrace the truth, we find that we no longer need to hold on to false truths of our own manufacturing, or false truths that others have peddled to keep themselves in power over us.  When we embrace the truth, unlike Pilate, we learn who our real ruler is, to which kingdom we truly belong, and we learn that to serve the King of Truth is to live in perfect freedom.
c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, November 11, 2012

To Remember is to Work for Peace - A Homily for Remembrance Day

A Homily for Remembrance Day 2012
Sunday, Nov. 11th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves

“Blessed are the Peacemakers”

Last year, a dear friend gave me a button.  The words on the button are: “to remember is to work for peace.”  I choose to wear that button alongside my poppy to help me understand and interpret what it is that we are called to remember each year, and what it is we are called to do as the result of that remembrance.  Remembrance of a sacrifice should inform the way we live, remembrance of a sacrifice should shape the life of our community, remembrance of a sacrifice should shape the larger narratives of which we choose to be a part.  Thus, as a Christian on Remembrance Day, I not only think back on the sacrifices offered by brave men and women in all ages in service of their country, but I think back on the sacrifice of God, because more than anything else, the story of the crucified God is the story that shapes our lives as Christian people.  More than anything else, it is the story that shapes the community of all faithful Christians, and above all it IS the narrative of which we a part.

In Christ Jesus, God made the ultimate sacrifice: of giving up the power of his divinity for a time, walking amongst us, getting to know us as a human being, feeling our pain and the suffering of our condition, and finally offering himself on the cross that we might live.  And in his defeat of death, we come to realize that we need no longer be enslaved to the destructive power of death.  In his sacrifice on the cross and his victory over the grave, the proclamation “death no more has dominion over him,” means that death no more has dominion over us.  Yet, the final defeat of the destructive forces that seek to destroy and corrupt God’s children is yet to come.  This, my friends, is why we still fight wars.  We have tasted the goodness of God in the land of the living, but as human beings, as the race of humanity, we have not yet chosen to believe in his ultimate goodness. 

What was that sacrifice all about?  It was about reconciliation; reconciliation between human beings. It was about restoration; the restoration of humanity to God. It was about healing; healing as individuals, and healing as nations.  It was about healing our bodies and healing our souls.  And what is the underlying theme that connects reconciliation, restoration, and healing? Peace.  Jesus came to bring us peace.

In less than two months (and I suspect as we do our Christmas shopping) we shall hear again the words of the angels to the shepherds.  What were those words?  “Peace on earth, good will to all.”  Peace on earth.  The first evangelical proclamation that was heard when Jesus was born was “Peace on earth, good will to all.”  In the words of the Benedictus, which we have just sung, the prophecy with respect to Christ is that he is the one that will “guide our feet into the way of peace.”  Finally, when Jesus knows he will depart, what does he do?  He breaths the Holy Spirit upon his disciples with the words, “My peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you.  Not as the world gives, but as the Father in heaven gives.”

As Christian people, we must take seriously the fact that peace is the narrative of our lives.  Of all the veterans I have known, and loved, and to whom I have ministered over the years, this is what they have asked us to remember.  They have wanted us to remember the sacrifice offered for peace.  My grandfather, who was a serviceman during the Second World War, was not atypical of men of his generation. He did not want us dwelling on the war. “We don’t talk about the war, son,” he would say so frequently.  He did not want us dwelling on the horrors of the war.  He wanted us to continue to live in peace.  Many of those men could not live in peace.  My grandfather would fall asleep in his chair at night and dream, and sometimes shout and weep.  My great-uncle, who was a gunner in the Second World War, needed his sister, my grandmother, to sit with him through many a long night and hold his hand as they wept and prayed together, as she helped to assuage his conscience and calm his troubled spirit.  They desired for us a world of peace.

Thus, it pains me greatly that last night I heard some troubling words from our local member of parliament.  He said that the vision of Canada as peacemakers was the incorrect way to understand ourselves as a nation; that we had been led astray by previous administrations in this thinking.  I was truly shocked to hear him utter the words we are a martial nation.  Do you understand what that means?  We are a nation of warriors.  He was making the claim that our wars define us as a country. That is is our wars that have made us strong. It is thus my duty both as a Christian, and as your Legion padre and pastor to make an adamant renunciation of his claim as un-Christian and, I believe, un-Canadian. He was making a claim that I can neither accept nor condone, that war is what makes us Canadian.  A much more thoughtful tone was reflected by our member of the provincial legislature and also by our mayor.  They reminded us that war has touched our lives, that war has shaped us, and that war has consequences and sacrifices that affect us all. They are very right. However, if we choose to believe being a martial nation is who we are, that being warriors is our core identity, then we have lost the battle after all, and we have turned our backs on the Prince of Peace.

I am not proud of a country that chooses to define itself as a warrior nation.  I am proud of a country that calls itself a peacemaker.  Our member of parliament was not wrong when he talked about how much war has shaped us, but he was extraordinarily wrong and irresponsible in claiming that this should be our narrative.  We choose the narrative under which we shall live.  Events shape us, but so do our choices about what those events mean to us, and how we shall live as a result of those events.  Shall we choose to be known as warriors or as peacemakers?  I think the veterans I have known would shudder that their children and grandchildren should be asked to take up the mantle of warrior over that of peacemaker.  We get to choose, and what shall our choice be?  The great Abraham Lincoln, to a country ravaged by war and internal strife, reminded his people that this war and conflict were not to be their narrative, but rather, the hour had come to “appeal to our better angels.”

The hour is now, for us as Canadians and citizens of the Kingdom of God, to “appeal to our better angels.”  Shall we follow the powers of the world which glorify conflict and strife?  Or shall we follow the Prince of Peace who brings, peace, and reconciliation, and restoration, and healing in his wings?  Shall we embrace the words of Jesus, “blessed are the peacemakers?”  Shall we seek to walk in the footsteps of the one who “guides our feet into the way of peace?”   Shall the song of the Christmas angel be our song, “Peace on earth, good will to all?”

To remember is to work for peace.

I choose to read John McCrae’s 1915 poem perhaps a little differently than others, but I think my reading has merit, because it truly honours the sacrifice of the one who wrote it, and the ones described in it.  When McCrae talks about taking up the quarrel with the foe, I do not believe he speaks of German, or Russian, or Taliban, or the earthly foes of his or any other age.  I think he speaks of the foe of war itself.  For he throws to us, not a sword, not the weapon of a warrior, but a torch, the beacon of a peacemaker.  A sword cuts down; a torch casts light into dark places.  And the darkness upon which that light is cast is the darkness of war, the darkness of human sinfulness and brokenness, the darkness of our own souls, and the souls with whom we engage in conflict.  But, it is indeed light that chases away the darkness, transforming dark place of hopelessness into hopeful places of light.  The darkness fears light more than it fears the sword. 

To us, from failing hands, is thrown a torch, not a sword.  We are to take up that torch and cast light into dark places.  We are called to make peace, not war.  We are called to hold that torch high, to let its light become the narrative of our lives, instead of the darkness that is wrought by the sword.  McCrae’s poem calls us not to a martial life, but a life of peace.  And if we break faith with this vision, with this story, the dead shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders field. 

To remember is to work for peace.

c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, September 30, 2012

"...And One Turned Back" - A Homily for Harvest Home, 2012

Homily for Harvest Home, 2012
Sunday, September 30th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 17:11-19

“Master, have mercy on us!”
--Luke 17:13

 One of the most fundamental prayers of our faith, is “Lord, have mercy.”  It is a prayer that expresses our human frailty in the face of God’s majesty and sovereignty.  It is a prayer that takes great vulnerability on our part and places great trust that the majestic and sovereign God is also a compassionate and loving God. It is a prayer that is repeatedly offered in the gospels and a prayer that Jesus repeatedly answers – this is the ground of our praying it.  We have before us the example of those who have been marginalized, are forgotten, are broken with illness, sickness, or despair, and when they cry out to Jesus, even if they fear to approach him in the own uncleanness as with the lepers in this story, Jesus blesses them and offers them God’s mercy. 

“Master, have mercy” – it is at once a cry for help and a profession of faith.  It is a cry that comes from the depths of abandonment.  The lepers have been pushed to the margins of society, beyond the boundaries of their religion, and outside the community of their homes and families.  They have suffered profound loss and separation from their people, and indeed they feel, separation from the God.  Yet, even amidst that sense of separation and loss, there is still a profession of faith.  They call Jesus “master.”  Even in all they have lost, even in their separation, they still know who their Lord is.  Thus, when he travels past them, they call out to him, “Master, have mercy!” 

In an instant Jesus recognizes his own.  He sees past the illness that afflicts them and disfigures their appearances.  He even sees through the illness and afflictions that disfigure their hearts.  He sees through it all.  He sees into them deeply, and he recognizes his own.  With one command, he orders them to present themselves to the priests.  By saying this he was telling them that they had been made clean, they had been cured.  If they went to the priests and the priests found them without leprosy, they could be readmitted into the life of the community, into cult of the Temple.  They would be restored to their people, to their religion, to their God. 

But notice one crucial thing.  It is not until they have gone on their way that they have found that they have been healed.  They pressed forward, even with the signs of their illness still showing and went out to seek the priests and present themselves.  Imagine a faith that moves forward in belief, even when the signs of healing were not yet fully manifest. And yet, there was one thing still missing.   And only one of the men saw it. 

One leper amongst ten, when he saw the signs of healing taking place in his body turned back and came to Jesus, fell down at his feet and praised him and thanked him.  One leper amongst ten put his praise and thanksgiving to God above his reintegration into his community, above his restoration to his religious life.  One leper amongst ten said “thank you, Jesus.”   And that man was a foreigner, a stranger, a Samaritan.

 Should it surprise us?  Do we not learn all through the gospels, and especially in this Gospel of Luke, that Jesus has a special eye for those on the outside, the foreigner, those who have been forgotten, those who make terrible mistakes and yet are able to turn to Jesus, to return to God? Think of that good Samaritan along the road who risks life and limb, and offers of himself for that wounded man. Think of that prodigal son who so flagrantly wastes his inheritance, and yet is welcomed home by a loving father who missed him more than words can express. Think of that widow, whose mite he honoured more than the riches of the wealthiest of men. This Samaritan, this stranger, who had been excluded not only because of his illness, but also because of his foreign brand of the Jewish faith stopped, for a moment, and thanked the one who had made him whole. This is the fullness of faith.

Let us note that all ten received the gift. Whether or not we are gracious and thankful, God longs to pour his blessing upon us, God loves us, and God offers us healing and life.  Only one turned back to give thanks, but yes, there were ten that were healed.  Yet that one receives something more.  That one has his eyes opened – the eyes of his heart.  That one sees something very different than what the others see. The others will be able to return to their homes.  They will be able to return to worshiping in the Temple.  They will be renewed in their relationships, but God stood before them and they failed to see him.  One man, though, a Samaritan, and outsider, a stranger, saw Jesus.  One man recognized that God was in his midst.  One man recognized that it was no ordinary physician who had cured him, but a great physician.  One man saw in a way that the others could not, and though he goes on his way, as Jesus commands, he becomes a follower of Jesus.

Where the others go on their way merrily and with excitement, the Samaritan has first turned. He has turned to Christ and in his turning he has been healed in much more than his body.  He has been healed of all that ails him. He life has been healed.  His spirit has been healed.  He has turned back, and in that risk of turning back to offer a brief “thank you” to God, he has been given the gift of life.  His sins are forgiven.  His body is whole.  And though he is an outsider amongst men, he will never be an outsider to God.

“Your faith has saved you,” Jesus says.  The Greek term equally means “Your faith has made you well.”  What the Samaritan receives is the gift of faith, a faith that God has saved him, made him well in body, mind and spirit, a faith that God has forgiven his sins, and a faith that in Jesus Christ, God will never leave him.  Ten men cried out “Lord, have mercy.”  Ten men received mercy.  One man truly understood what that gift meant.  One man really understood what mercy does.  It does not simply heal the body, it does not simply restore us in community (great things as these are), it makes us well in all ways, in the entirety of our being.  It saves us.  It makes us right with God.

God’s mercy is poured out abundantly, in all times and in all places.  May we, when we are given the courage to cry “Lord, have mercy,” be given the grace that our eyes might be opened that we might see that we are indeed loved, that we are indeed healed, we are indeed forgiven, and that we are indeed saved.  And may that grace so enflame our hearts that our only response can and ever will be, “Thank you, Lord.”

c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"...And Franktown Still is My Delight" - A Sermon for the 190th Anniversary Celebration of St. James' Anglican Church, Franktown, ON

Sermon for the 190th Anniversary of St. James, Church, Franktown, Ontario
in the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa,
Sunday, September 23rd, 2012
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 1 Chronicles 29:6-19

“Near Franktown first I saw the light,
And Franktown still is my delight…”

These words come from the pen of a distant relation of mine and a son of this parish, the Rev. John May, M.A. (1834-1913), and are taken from a poem loftily titled, “Franktown Past and Present: A Poetic Panorama of Rich and Exuberant Fancy.”  Beyond these verses Mr. May goes on to lament the decline of the dear old place he loved so much, and yet, as I stand amongst you today, over a century after these words were penned, I see no cause for lamentation, but indeed, great cause for rejoicing!  For as John May first saw the light here in this place, as he was nurtured on God’s most holy word and holy sacraments from this pulpit and from this altar, so too, have countless others first seen the light here, and have been nourished thus. 

By my reckoning, for eight or more  generations, our Lord has drawn folk from all walks of life, all sorts and conditions, young and old, rich and poor, into his loving embrace in this very place.  For eight or more generations, Christians have first seen the light here.  For eight or more generations, Christians have heard that old, old story told, and have had their lives transformed by the Good News of Gospel in this very place.  St. James’ Church, Franktown, stands as a monument to the faith of our fathers and mothers who have now entered into glory and are at rest with the saints.  And yet, this place is no cold, lifeless monument, but a living, breathing witness to God’s power to bring healing, hope, reconciliation, and salvation in Christ Jesus.  While St. James’ Church may stand as a monument and a memorial to the work of God in the past, it continues to shine as a bright beacon of hope for those who come through its doors today, and for those who will one day catch a glimpse of that light and come to hear those wonderful words of life.  It calls to mind a particular biblical metaphor (one that was a favourite of John May) from the Sermon on the Mount: “You are a city set upon a hill.”  And indeed, although in Franktown one may search far and wide for a hill in geological terms, in theological terms, you are indeed “a city set upon a hill.”

 Every church, like every person, has its ebbs and flows in life.  There will be times when the way is hard, and the path uncertain.  Every church, like every person, will face moments of existential angst and crisis:  “Will we make it?” we might ask.  And “where are we going?”  And “how can we afford to do this.”  And yet, the simple fact that for 190 years you have faced these challenges serves to remind us that such fears, as real and pressing as they are, are but fears and not the final word. That these challenges have not overcome us or destroyed us speaks to the plain and simple truth of the most central aspect of our faith:  God is with us and is ever faithful.  Is this not the most self-evident message of the Incarnation, a message of which we so often lose sight?  In Jesus Christ, God is with us.  God has made his home among mortals.  But through the changes and chances of this fleeting life, we so often lose sight of this fact, we so often find ourselves drifting into fear, we so often find ourselves wondering if we can “do it.”  Then, we pause, then we listen once again to the words of Jesus, “Fear not, for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age,” and with his words stirring the very depths of our souls, we realize that it is not all about our striving, about whether we can do it, but about God bringing about his Kingdom in us, around us, and for us. It is about God choosing to dwell among us, to bear our burdens and transform our suffering, our fear, and our failures for his glory and for the building up of his kingdom.  God has chosen to make his home in this very place, and as the words of life are read and the Sacraments administered, Jesus Christ dwells with you.

It has ever been thus.  When we cast our minds back to the early days of this community, we may need to engage our historical imaginations, but the story is a familiar one.  We cast our minds back to the early settlers and imagine what hardships they endured.  We imagine the personal cost of building this church when they were also trying to clear land and meet their own legal settlement requirements, and more importantly, feed and shelter their families.  Imagine the extraordinary personal cost of erecting the edifice of this fine place of worship, of furnishing it for God’s honour and glory.  It was no small feat.  It was no small feat, considering the journey that most had just taken. Once again, the Rev. John May helps us paint a picture of that life as he reflects on this journey, a journey from Ireland that his family took, which surely stirs within each of us an image of similar journeys taken by ancestors of the many others worshipping here today.

Slow fades loved Erin from his lingering view;
Slow glides the keel across the solemn sea;
As, sad at heart, his wife and children, too,
Gaze fondly back in silent misery.

 Six weeks at sea! – the Gulf – and then Quebec –
The Durham boat – St. Lawrence – Montreal –
Old Bytown – then the “Bush” where’s not a speck
Nor sign of man! Unbroken forest all!”      
(From “The Pioneers,” by the Rev. John May 1911)

A wandering people, seeking a new home in a new and unknown land, but they sought to erect more than a home for themselves and their families, but a building in which they could give thanks to God for all his goodness to them, even during their wandering and exile.  It would cost them greatly.  It would mean extraordinary personal sacrifice, and yet, they did it; they did it because they believed God was with them, through their good times and bad, through moments of joy and moments of loss.  They believed God was with them on their journey. They built a house, not because God needed a house, for God dwells everywhere, but because they wanted to proclaim, in a tangible way, that God dwelled with them, ever and always, faithful to last.

Why should we be surprised at this?  Did not the Hebrew people build a house for God, even though God had been with them through their escape from slavery?  During their journey in the wilderness, through famine, in their living and in their dying, God was with them, a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.  And yet, in the fullness of time, they needed to construct something more permanent as a sacrament of God’s permanence, of his never-failing presence.

However, we must never let the apparent permanence of any structure we construct distract us from the spiritual grace which is incarnated in the “sacrament” of this building.  God forbid that though this building should ever be lost, we might ever be reminded of the fact that we shall never be lost, because we journey with the presence of God.  Jesus does not say that a building is a city set upon a hill, or that a building is a light of the world, rather he says “you are a city set upon a hill; you are the light of the world.”  Oh, to be sure, this building means much to us, and although I have lived all my life in another part of this province I feel such affinity for this place knowing that it was one of my ancestors who was amongst its architects.  I can only imagine how deeply important the very fibre of this building is to each of you.  It is an important and holy place because God has made his home here, but it is holy and sacred also because God has made his home in you.

And so we find ourselves here today.  Many of you have made your home here for generations, and others amongst us have found that our own wandering, or the wandering of our ancestors, has taken us far and wide.  On this earthly pilgrimage we, like the Hebrew people of old, are all aliens and transients, whether we stay put or whether we wander.  This earthly life is fleeting.  The ages pass us by and we wither like the grass.  Who are we in the sight of an unchanging God?  Who are we and of what value are the things we offer when we realize that our gifts, even offered with great personal cost, are so small?  But thanks be to God that in Christ Jesus, small things are counted as great things.  Thanks be to God, that when and where we are weak, he is ever strong.  Thanks be to God that through this pilgrimage he sustains us all the day long of this earthly life until the day has ended and the night falls.  Thanks be to God for the immeasurable riches we have known in Christ Jesus and for his abiding presence in our lives and in this place.  Indeed, all things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.

A light has shone in this community for one hundred and ninety years.  A light than will not be extinguished under a bushel, for it is not a light made by earthly flint, but indeed is ignited by a heavenly spark.  It is a light that has shone and cut through the darkness that has threatened to overcome many a faithful Christian, but the darkness has not, and never shall extinguish the light.  It is a light that has shone in the hearts of the faithful of this parish, and a light that has been a lantern along the path of many a lost wayfarer on the spiritual journey.  It is a light that continues to shine in your ongoing ministry and in the witness you offer to this wonderful village and the surrounding countryside.  It is a light that shines because God has made his home here, in you, in this city set upon a hill.

In closing, may I bid your indulgence for one last bit of verse from the pen of my Reverend ancestor, John May?  I shall let it be my prayer as we break bread together around this holy table, as did our ancestors in ages past, and so shall our descendants in years to come:

Come, Saviour, Come! And with us sup;
The night is drawing on apace.
Come, break the bread and pour the cup
That we may see and know Thy Face.
Come! Drink with us the sacred wine.
And feed us with the bread divine.

And when before the final gate
We stand, and shrink in mortal fear;
Then, as we halt, disconsolate,
Wilt Thou not, as of old, draw near;
Bide with us through that awful night,
And lead us safely to the Light.
(From “The Eyes were Holden that They Should not Know Him,”
by the Rev. John May, M.A. of Franktown, c.1913)

c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

The Rev. Daniel F. Graves is a priest of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, and is the first cousin four times removed of the Rev. John May (both are descended from William May, c. 1765-1855, the progenitor of the May family in Upper Canada).  Fr. Graves is the Priest-in-Charge of Trinity Church in Bradford, the editor of Prayers for Healing from the Anglican Tradition (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2010), and in 2007 wrote his M.Div. theological, political, and educational thought of the Rev. John May, M.A.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

"Who do People Say that I am?" - A Homily for Proper 24, Year B, 2012

Homily for Proper 24, Year B, 2012
Sunday, September 16th, 2012: “Rally Sunday”
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 8:27-38

"Who do people say that I am?"
When Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say that I am?” he is asking a question to which he knows the answer.  Jesus knows what people think of him. He knows who people think he is. He knows that some think that he is a prophet, like John the Baptist or Elijah, while others think him a miracle-worker or magician, still others think him a wise teacher.  Perhaps each of them have caught some part of his character, but each of them have understood him incompletely.  Then there are those who do know him. Surprisingly, when all others fail to understand him the demons he casts out recognize him for who he really is. For them, there is no doubt; he is the Son of David, the Messiah.  Yes, even the elements know him, for does not one witness cry out when Jesus stills the seas, “who is this that even the seas and the winds obey him?”  And so Peter reports to Jesus what people are saying, to which Jesus presses him further, “… and who do you say I am?”  Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”

But what does this mean?  What is does it mean to call Jesus the Messiah, the Christ?  Peter knows the right word, but does he know what it means?  Peter had a thought about what it meant, but he was sternly rebuked by Jesus when Jesus began to overturn the convention meaning of the concept of the “messiah” with talk of suffering and death.  There are literally hundreds of books written investigating what the typical first-century Jew thought the messiah might be like.  Investigating contemporary sources like inter-testamental Jewish literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and ancient historians like Josephus, we see that although in many ways Jesus does fit the bill for the description “messiah” (otherwise, how would he have been recognized as such?), in one important way, his version of messiahship was revolutionary.  Yes, he was a messiah that would ride on and conquer, as was expected, but he would ride on a lowly animal, not a majestic beast; he would take up a cross and not a sword; on his head would be placed twisted thorns and not a garlanded crown.  This messiah would suffer pain and suffer death. 

Peter would have been right to say “Forbid it, Lord!” Peter was right, given what he had learned the messiah should be, to object sternly to Jesus’ proclamation that the messiah must suffer and die, for this image of a messiah was not what was expected.  But Jesus rebuked him, for this messiah was not simply present to upset the current order of domination, but the cosmic order.  This messiah was here to set things right on all levels.  This messiah was here to deliver the people not only from the bondage of oppression of their earthly masters, but to deliver them from all other bondage, from the power of Satan, from the power of death, from the  all the things that bound them in body mind and spirit.  And how would he do this?  He would defeat those powers by defeating death itself.  He would go to the cross, go to the grave, with faith and hope and trust that God would raise him again.

Who do people say that I am? 

It seems to me that people are very confused, both within the church and outside the church as to who Jesus is. This should come as no surprise, for when we begin to read the stories of Jesus, to read his overarching story, it is a challenging one.  Anything that involves the dead being raised may be difficult to believe.  Peter was challenged and so are we.  Let us enumerate the various Jesuses we may hold dear to us.  There is the Jesus who cures the sick.  There is the Jesus who teaches that the God loves the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed. There is the Jesus that teaches us to love our neighbour, and even our enemies. There is the Jesus who says “let the little children come unto me.”  There is the religious revolutionary, who turns over the tables of the money-changers in the portico of the Temple.  There is the Jesus who debates and criticizes both the religious zealots and hypocrites of his day.  There is the gentle baby Jesus, meek and mild, in his mother’s arms that we adore every year. There are all these Jesuses and more.  Each of us will have a favourite version, and vision, of Jesus.  And none of these are wrong.  They are all Scriptural, they have all been preached by me and many others from this very pulpit.  But like those early followers of Jesus who were taking guesses at who he was, if we latch onto only one of these images, or even just a couple, we are not getting the full picture, we don’t really and truly know who Jesus is. We catch glimpses of him, but we only catch a partial glimpse of who the Messiah is.  All these aspects of Jesus, Jesus as healer, revolutionary, teacher, all point to the deeper reality of Jesus, and that is the reality of God with us.   That is why John’s Gospel begins, with “the word was made flesh.”  That is why the book of Revelation draws to a close with “behold, God has made his home among mortals.”  Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. 

Yet we dare not stop even there, for God is with us, not only to accompany us, but to lead us into our salvation.  And thus, God delivers himself, in his life as Jesus of Nazareth, to death on the cross.  By the Father raising the Son from the dead, Jesus tramples down the gates of death.  Death is the thing that enslaves us most in this life. All of our fears, all of our anxieties are ultimately rooted in the fear of death.  To a remarkable degree, when we dig down deep enough, death is what shapes the narrative of our lives.  What Jesus does is proclaim in his teaching, in his journey to the cross on our behalf, and in his glorious rising to new life, that death is not and will never be the story that shapes us as Christian people.  Death will not destroy us. Death will not be the final word for us.  The resurrection of Jesus is our story, because his resurrection is our journey through the Red Sea out of bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.


Who do people say that I am? 


It is not wrong to take a particular liking to one image of Jesus.  Perhaps Jesus the healer is of particular meaning to us because we have known him to be with us through our own illness.  Have we been alone and felt the presence of Jesus the comforter?  Or do you feel the presence of Jesus the liberator in your ministry with those who are poor and in need.  Never forget though that all these aspects of Jesus point to Jesus the Saviour.  This is the Jesus we worship with all our hearts, for Jesus the Saviour seeks out you and me as individuals and saves us. Jesus the saviour opens his arms wide for the healing and salvation of the whole world.  Jesus the Saviour redeems and restores the whole cosmos. 

When we realize just how all-encompassing the Messiah is.  We can sometimes respond as Peter does, because our own fragmented image of the Messiah is challenged.  Our world view, our religious convictions are challenged. This isn’t the messiah I thought I followed!  But as we are challenged, and our older, safer understandings are broken open, God reshapes our convictions, reforms them, and recreates them.  But what is more, he breaks us upon, he reshapes us, he recreates us.  And this is what the Messiah does.  He leads us out of our bondage to death and he leads of out of the bondage of our old selves.

Who do people say that I am?

Even more important than this question that Jesus asks Peter is the question he will later ask, after the Resurrection: “Simon Peter, do you love me?” To understand who Jesus is, is one thing. To love this Jesus, to follow him, to trust him, is quite another.  And so the real question for us is, do we love Jesus?  This is why one of my favourite prayers is the prayer attributed to St. Richard of Chichester.  It is a prayer that you likely know if you have ever seen the musical Godspell. In fact, in the early 1970s it even got a lot of radio play. It is prayer that might well serve as an answer to both of Jesus questions, “Who do you say that I am,” and “Do you love me?” It goes like this:

“Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
 For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
 For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
 O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
 May I know Thee more clearly,
 Love Thee more dearly,
 Follow Thee more nearly,”
To which the 1970s version adds,
“day by day.”

c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Sunday, September 9, 2012

"...Whose Property is Always to Have Mercy" -- A Homily for Proper 23, Year B, 2012

Homily for Proper 23, Year B, 2012
Sunday, September 9th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 7:24-37

“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under thy table.”

This line, from the “Prayer of Humble Access,” the prayer that is offered by priest and people in the traditional Anglican liturgy, just moments before receiving Communion, is rarely used any more.  It is thought that having moved through the liturgical journey of hearing God’s most holy word, professing our faith, confessing our sins and hearing the words of absolution, that it now seems inappropriate to return to lamenting our unworthiness.  Yet, when we realize that these words are rooted in a particular story from the life of Jesus, and when we delve into that story, we begin to understand why we might wish to reclaim these words as an important moment in our liturgical prayer. 

In the seventh chapter of St. Mark, Jesus goes into the region of Tyre, that is, gentile territory.   Characteristic of Jesus’ modus operandi in St. Mark’s gospel, he wishes to conduct himself in secret.  He does not wish anyone to know that he is there and so he slips into a house.  But as is always the case, he does not escape the notice of those who have heard of his wonder-working power.  A Syro-Phoenician woman, a gentile, whose daughter was possessed of an evil spirit sought him out.  As any mother in distress might, she threw herself at the feet of the man who might prove to be the only hope for her ailing daughter.  And what would you or I expect Jesus to do?  Would we not think that he would rush to the daughter and cast out the demon?  Would we not think that he would look with great compassion and empathy on the mother who was so deeply grieved and troubled?  Would we not think that gentle Jesus, meek and mild, would offer her words of hope and comfort?  We would expect all these things, therefore, how amazed, and yes, how distressed we are to hear Jesus utterly dismiss her. How saddened we are that he offers not a word of compassion but a word of rebuke.  How disgusted we are when we realize that he not only rebukes her but compares her child to a dog.  To her plea to cast the demon out of her daughter, he dismissively and disturbingly responds, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!”

What are we to make of this?  Oh, it would be so easy just to ignore this passage, explain it away as later interpolation, because the Jesus we love and serve would never have said, could never have said such a thing.  Oh it would be easy to suggest that these first century words were offered in a different way than we understand today, and that they might have been heard in a different way than we would hear them today, but the reality is this: the historical distance only serves to starken the words, not soften them.  In ancient times, dogs were not the lovely animals that we have domesticated today. They were not “man’s best friend.” They were scavengers who roamed the countryside and streets to devour whatever they could find that had been recently killed or thrown away.  Some modern commentators have suggested that because Mark uses the Greek diminutive term for dog that perhaps Jesus is make a more pleasing comparison of the little girl to a little puppy.  This is not so. His words are harsh.  Why would he compare the Syro-phoenician woman and her child to dogs?

There is an old rabbinic tradition that those who were not schooled in the study of the Jewish Law, namely the gentiles, were often referred to as dogs.  The woman is specifically identified as a gentile and thus, she clearly fits into this definition.  While this perhaps increases our understanding of why Jesus says such a thing, it does not soften his words.  Likewise, there is another clue to understand Jesus’ words that is found in his use of the word “first.” “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  In several other contexts in Mark’s gospel, Jesus uses the term “first” to explain an eschatological reality, that is, how things are unfolding in the end times.  For example, the strong man (i.e., Satan) must first be bound; or using his harvest metaphor, “first, the grain and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear.”  In this sense, time unfolds in its proper order, certain things must happen first in order for the fullness of God’s plan to unfold and the kingdom to truly come.  In this reading, the gospel must first be preached to the Jews, and only then will the gentiles “come to thy light” as Isaiah had pophesied.

Yet, even with this level of understanding, the words are still harsh and unforgiving.  But let us turn for a moment from those harsh words of Jesus to the response of the Syro-Phoenician woman.  Before we do, though, think for a moment what you might have done if you had thrown yourself at the feet of Jesus and he had rebuked you as a dog.  What would you have done?  Would you have left in sorrow? Would you have quietly slipped away, regretting how vulnerable you had made yourself, only to be abused?  Would you wish that you had never even tried, and simply returned home to nurse your ailing daughter as best you could on your own?  Perhaps we would have responded in such a way, but the remarkable thing is that this woman did not.  Perhaps she was gripped by anger. Perhaps her resolve to see her daughter healed is what drove her to continue to press Jesus.  Perhaps it was her sense of justice in the face of what she took to be his unjust rebuke.  Whatever it was that drove her, she did not stand down.  She faced him.  She cleverly and adeptly transformed his parable, his metaphor, to her own just purpose. And what did she say?  Her answer was brilliant, “My Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

The sheer and utter brilliance exhibited by this woman is remarkable.  She did not demand a place at the table.  She did not claim an honour beyond her place.  She did not even ask for something unrealistic. She only stated the truth.  Even the dogs are fed.  “I may be unworthy,” she states, “but I still need to eat.”

The Syro-phoenician woman touched a truth that is universal.  We all need the benevolence of others.  None of us can get through this life under our own strength and power alone. We need others to help us, support us, encourage us, nourish us.  Sometimes those things are offered lovingly, and sometimes they are offered resentfully, sometimes they are even offered unknowingly or thoughtlessly, like those who throw the scraps to the dogs. However this help comes, when we are starving, when we are helpless, we grasp at it wherever we can find it.

It is not enough to leave it here, though, for the Syro-Phoenician woman also touched another truth, and this is something that is true about God.  She reminded Jesus that we have to do with a merciful God, not a God who expects us to get it right, to follow all the rules perfectly, or even to be a part of a chosen, select group.  We have to do with a God whose property is always to have mercy.  This is what she reminds Jesus, and this is the thing that touches Jesus’ heart, for Jesus knows she speaks the truth.   

And when we consider this text in its context in the Gospel of Mark, we realize that this is where things have been moving all along!  Remember that last week Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for ignoring the spirit of the Law by embracing oral traditions in contrast to the Law? Recall that he turned the purity laws upside-down by suggesting that it is not what goes into a person that makes them unclean but what comes out of them? Think back and remember that Jesus had just redefined the boundaries of who was at the table and who was not, and he had opened the doors and broken down the barriers.  The woman who approached him this day did not ask him for a seat at the table, but only a scrap.  Yet, her request resounded in his heart for she was actually asking him to demonstrate in action what he was known to preach, that God’s mercy is not simply for those who keep God’s rules, but for all; not for the perfect, the righteous, and the sinless, but for the sick, the outsider, and the sinner. She did not claim to be worthy, she simply asked God to be God and demonstrate his mercy upon her, unworthy as she was. She was a gentile.  She had not kept the Law of the Jews.  She was not righteous nor did she claim to be.  She simply asked God to throw her whatever scrap he could that her daughter might be made well, for even a scrap from God is more wonderful and abundant than any scrap that is thrown from the table to the dogs.

If we allow ourselves to be transported from that moment so many years ago, we will realize that we are not unlike that Syro-Phoenician woman. We are gentiles by birth. We have not kept the intricacies of the Torah. And yet, do we not hope for God’s love and mercy? Do we not hope that he will look upon us not as dogs but as his children, too?  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve done a single thing is this life that could ever make me worthy of God’s love, and if I have, it has surely been cancelled out by the myriad of mistakes I have made.  But thankfully, we have not to deal with a God who asks us to be perfect before he loves us, before he offers us his mercy.  The true sacrifice to God is a broken and contrite heart.  The true worshipper is the one who recognizes their need to cleave to God, even for a scrap of his goodness, for even a scrap has the power to transform us beyond measure.  Even a tiny morsel of God’s mercy makes me more worthy than I could ever be under my own power.  At the same time it is the thing that keep us humble.  We ever remember that it is not me, as St. Paul would later say, but Christ in me.  It is not my strength but his, not my righteousness but his, not my life, but his.

Now we see the table is set.  Surely there are those more worthy than me that will approach it.  There must be others that have kept the commandments more thoroughly than me.  Maybe there are.  How often are we afraid to approach because we feel unworthy.  So many people feel unworthy before God. So many people never approach because they feel that they will be turned away because they are flawed, broken, have sinned, made terrible mistakes.  Yes, maybe by rights God should turn us away.  However, when pressed, Jesus hears the words of the Syro-phoenician woman and she returns home to find that her daughter has already been healed.  Even as she battled with Jesus, her daughter was being healed.  Even as she struggled with God, God’s grace was already at work.  Even as she sought God’s mercy, God’s mercy had already been poured out upon her daughter.  Yes, we are unworthy, but that does not matter to God, because mercy is what God is all about, and so we approach with all our flaws, and cry out for mercy, for God is the same God whose property is always to have mercy.
c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves