Sunday, June 24, 2012

It's All About Jesus - A Homily for the Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, 2012

Homily for the Birth of John the Baptist, 2012
Sunday, June 24th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves

“Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!”  How many of us remember these iconic words?  They were, of course, the introductory words of the Tonight Show.  Every show began with the inimitable Ed McMahon introducing Johnny Carson this way.  The depth and enthusiasm of Ed’s booming voice along with the music of Doc Severinson’s Tonight Show Band would get the audience pumped up and excited for that diminutive and dry comedian to appear from behind the curtain and begin his opening monologue.  Johnny might banter back and forth a bit with Ed, and Ed might even appear on the couch for a while, next to Johnny’s desk, but as the evening progressed Ed would move farther down the couch as Johnny took centre stage and his guests arrived.  Occasionally, we were reminded of Ed’s presence through his hearty laugh, his affirmations, “Yes sir, you are correct sir!”, but Ed was now usually outside the frame of the camera.  The man who opened the show with such fanfare quickly disappeared from view, his primary role being to introduce the star of the program.

Back in 1992 when I was working on my undergraduate degree at York University, I took my first New Testament course, taught by Professor Steve Mason.  At the time, I did not realize that I was studying under a man destined to become one of the great scholars our day in the field of inter-testamental studies.  Mason was (and is) a great teacher.  His thorough knowledge of the period and of the texts we studied was remarkable.  More remarkable though, was the way he helped us come to an understanding of what we studied.  Both Athena and I took courses with Mason, and it is amazing how frequently when we are discussing the biblical and other ancient texts that some of what we learned from Mason comes back to us and his words echo in our ears.

Professor Mason might be horrified that the example I now share with you is one that stuck with me.  Perhaps it is irreverent, and maybe it is on some level an over-simplification, but I think the analogy rings true enough that it remains a useful one for me, and it is about the role of John the Baptist in the gospels.  To this day I remember Mason telling us that if you want to understand the role of John, you have think of him as Ed McMahon, to Jesus’ Carson. 

I think it rings true in each of the gospel stories.  In Mark the gospel begins abruptly with John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, yet it is made abundantly clear from the quotation from Isaiah, that John is simply the one that prepares the way.”  And immediately, Jesus appears on the scene.  As Mason said, it is as if John was there saying, “Heeeeere’s Jesus!”  John immediately disappears from centre stage.   He shows up a few more times, like Ed on the couch, and his actions are reported by the disciples, like Ed’s laughter breaking through once in a while.  Eventually we learn that John is beheaded… I think the Tonight Show analogy eventually breaks down a bit here.  What is important, though, is that although the narrative begins with John, it is not ultimately about John.  It is about Jesus.

The Gospel of Luke gives even more information about the birth of John the Baptist.  In fact, the lengthy first chapter of St. Luke features two infancy narratives running in parallel, the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus.  One would think by the opening of the text, that the story would be about both figures, but after the baptism of Jesus by John, John slides into the background and Jesus takes centre stage.  It’s really all about Jesus.

In the third chapter of the Gospel of John, long after the baptism of Jesus, John the Baptist makes a surprise appearance, but this appearance is only to underscore to his own disciples that Jesus really is the one on they should be following.  He says plainly, “I am not the messiah,” and in fact shares with them that Jesus “must increase, but I must decrease.”  And so John slips away.  It is all about Jesus.

It’s not that John the Baptist didn’t have a robust career apart from Jesus.  There are other ancient sources that tell us about John the Baptist and give us some details that round out his character a bit more fully.  Lengthy, and sometimes highly speculative, scholarly treatments have been written about him.  Some try to link him up to the Qumran community of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  If I could push the Tonight Show analogy beyond what Mason did, even Ed McMahon had his own program at one point, Star Search. Only the true TV aficionados remember it, and it really wasn’t his claim to fame.  Ed McMahon shall forever be remembered as the one who introduced Carson.  And so it is for John the Baptist.  He is the one who first proclaimed Jesus.  It really is all about Jesus.

I think it behooves us to remember this.  Even for the greatest and last of the old-time prophets, it was not about him, but about the one about whom he prophesied and the one whom he proclaimed.  But that’s the point of a prophet isn’t it?  That’s the role of the preacher, isn’t it?  I would also suggest, that is the role of the church.  We are prone to turn inward; we can begin to think it is all about us, and all about the church.  We can forget who and what we are called to proclaim.  The church can become self-obsessed.  We can worry more about our survival than about proclaiming the kingdom of God.  We can worry more about our story than the story of the living God who comes to us in Christ Jesus.  To be sure, we play a part in that story, but we must know our part, as John the Baptist did, “I must decrease that he might increase.”  It’s about the living God who meets us in Jesus Christ.

We have a role in the story, but everything we are and shall be is shaped by our relationship with Jesus.  We are created for him, we are transformed through him, we are saved by him, and we live unto him.  Most importantly, though, we are called to proclaim him to each generation afresh.  To know our place in the story is not to be tethered to a constraining role, but rather to be freed from the things that distract us from our mission, to prepare a way in the wilderness for our God.

c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves
with apologies to Steve Mason, Ed McMahon & Johnny Carson

Sunday, June 17, 2012

With What Can We Compare the Kingdom of God? A Homily for Proper 11, Year B, 2012

Homily for Proper 11, Year B, 2012
Sunday, June 17th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves

“With what shall we compare the kingdom of God…”
-Mark 4:30

Life has its little ironies, and one of them is that one of Ontario’s great agricultural communities should find itself saddled with a priest who knows less than next to nothing about farming.  Even more troubling, is that when you consider that when our Lord speaks in parables about the kingdom, he not infrequently resorts to agricultural metaphors to describe it.  One might think your clergy might take a more active interest in agricultural matters if only to truly and fully appreciate our Lord’s preaching about the kingdom.  This is probably why I have always found the writings of Paul so attractive, for you see, St. Paul was a city boy.  When he talked about the church and about his faith he used urban metaphors, the sort of thing I can get my head around a little bit more easily.  But this is the wonderful thing about the gospel, is it not?  The gospel is universal; we can understand it through employing images, metaphors, parables and illustrations from our varied contexts.  It is not for one race or nation, for one socio-economic group, or one demographic.  It is for everyone.  Its message is timeless and its purpose is the conversion of hearts in every place. 

When Jesus preached, he knew his audience.  When he preached to fishermen, he talked of casting nets and making fishermen into disciples by making them fishers of people.  When he talked to vintners, he spoke of vines and branches.  When he talked to farmers he talked of sowers, sowing and reaping.  In Mark 4 he is speaking to this latter group.  “What is the kingdom of God like?” he asks.  He could have just as easily talked about fishing, but these were not a sea-faring people, these were people of the land.  The kingdom is “as if someone would scatter some seed on the ground, and would sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”  Now I don’t know much about farming, but I do know that when you plant a seed, in good time it sprouts and grows.  It is wise to tend the growing plant because nature can play tricks on us, there can be too much rain, or not enough rain, there can be pests and weeds.  The good farmer knows where to plant something, and in which soil.  It is amazing though, that even if none of things are in order, how often a plant will still grow without human assistance and  how resilient a plant can be, even when untended.  Nature has a cycle all its own. We can manipulate, tend, and intervene, but ultimately the process is a natural one, and it takes time.  Jesus underscores this point when he speaks of the farmer sleeping and rising, night and day, and the plant growing, we know not how.  The farmer sows and the farmer reaps, and while there may be much tending in between, he is involved in waiting game of sleeping and rising til the harvest comes: “The earth produces of itself,” Jesus adds, “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

No how is any of this an illustration of the kingdom of God?  Of course, this is a challenge for a city boy like me to understand, but let me give it a go.  The first thing is that we have very little control over the growth of the seed.  To be sure, we can make interventions, we can observe and control some of the conditions, but so many things are out of our control.  Ultimately, we can do everything we can, but the success of the crop is beyond our control.  So it is with the kingdom.  God is in control.  We can run church programs, we can do everything in our power to bring success to our mission, but really, it is God who will bring the seed that has been planted to  the point of harvest.  Sometimes we forget this.  Sometimes we think it is all about us and what we can do to make the church and its mission a great success.  Clergy are particularly vulnerable to this temptation, and when we fail, it is a humbling experience, especially when someone reminds us, well, it was never really about you, was it?  It is about God.   God is in control.  It is his kingdom.  It is his church.  It is his seed.  It is his harvest. 

So what are we to do?  We are to sow the seed.  We are to reap the harvest.  But what of the time in between?  The thing the farmer must do is be faithful to the seed that was planted and have hope and faith that the seed will bear fruit.  One commentator puts it this way about the disciples, “they cannot control the manifestation of the Kingdom of God, nor force it, but neither should they be impatient or discouraged.  They are only to proclaim it.”   Oh, how impatient we are, and oh, how discouraged we become at times.  The seed doesn’t grow as quickly as we like or yield fruit in our time, yet, we must let God be God.  Our role is to proclaim hope in the seed that has been planted.  Our role is to wait patiently and in our waiting to share the good news of the coming harvest.  And what, we may ponder, is the seed that was planted that we proclaim? It is that in Jesus Christ incarnate, crucified, risen and glorified, God is transforming our lives in new and glorious ways.  He is forgiving our sins, redeeming us from slavery, restoring broken relationships, and leading us into everlasting life. When we see the seed begin to sprout, when what appeared a lifeless thing begins, even in the smallest way to burst forth in life, we have a tiny glimpse of what the final harvest will look like, and we live in hope.  We are encouraged, and in our encouragement we proclaim that hope to others.

This led Jesus to another parable, to another metaphor, or more precisely, a simile, about the kingdom: with what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed.  Thankfully, for one like me who has never seen a mustard seed, Jesus gives us a little lesson, “it is the smallest of the seeds when sown on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and become the greatest of shrubs.”  Even to the agriculturally challenged this parable is fairly clear, from little packages come great things.  I suppose this is one of the truisms and joys of farming and gardening. It is so gratifying to see something wonderful come from practically nothing, from the most meagre of beginnings.   God takes what seems lifeless and gives it life.  God takes what is small and makes something great of it.  Most importantly, though, God give it purpose, for you note that he does not end the parable simple with the growth of the mustard seed into a great shrub.  No.  He tells us that it is a place in which the birds of the air make a home and find shelter in the shade.  It calls to mind another of Jesus’ sayings, “come unto me all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I shall give you rest.”  Or perhaps another, “abide in me as I abide in you.”  God give purpose to the kingdom.  The kingdom of God is a place where we can find rest for weary souls, succour in our discouragement, a home when others turn us away.   

It is interesting that he uses the metaphor of a shrub, though.  The Old Testament prophets often spoke about the coming messianic age as the restoration of the great cedars of Lebanon.  Now that is a majestic image. Instead, Jesus has a little fun with the metaphor.  The kingdom is not a mighty cedar, but rather a shrub.  It is the greatest of shrubs, mind you, but a shrub none-the-less.  Perhaps this should give us comfort when we realize the church seems to be so far from attaining the ideal of the Kingdom – we need not be a might cedar, perhaps it is okay to be a shrub, for even the birds of the air kind build a nest in the shrub and find shade and rest in our branches.

Have I done justice to these agricultural parables?  I hope in some small way I have understood them as best as a city boy can.  The kingdom of God is like a seed.  It takes time to grow, but grow it will.  We can nurture the seed but we cannot control its growth, God alone does that.  We must be faithful to the seed that is planted and live and proclaim the hope that the harvest will come.  The seed may be small, but great things will come.  And in the abundance of the harvest we shall find our true purpose, and granaries overflowing with abundance and grace for the feeding, healing, and redemption of the nations.

c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves