Sunday, February 24, 2013

Jerusalem, Jerusalem... A Homily for Lent II, Year C, 2013

Homily for Lent II – Year C, 2013
Sunday, February 24th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 13:31-35

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
-Luke 13:34

If Lent is a time to consider how we might draw closer to God, then we would do well to consider the ways in which we pull away from him, or alas, even reject him.  Indeed, the very language I use to refer to God may offer us a hint as to one of those ways.  You will have noticed that I referred to God as “him.”  Do I take this to be a cardinal sin?  No, I do not.  I am not amongst those who would have us dump all masculine imagery about God, wholesale.  I think we ought to retain many of those masculine images of God, most especially, the healthy ones.  What needs deep consideration are the unhealthy masculine metaphors and faces we have applied to God.  And further, for those of us who are men to have healthy understanding of our own masculinity, we must learn to sift and discern the healthy masculine images that flow from God to our humanity.  But if this is true, it is also true that we must attend to an equally pressing, and indeed possibly more urgent problem, and that is the suppression of the feminine face of God.  It is into this spring of hope that we plunge today, for in thirteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel we confront one of those rare moments in Scripture when the feminine divine seeks to enfold us and we, characteristically, reject it.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!”

This is, at first glance, a surprising Jesus.  This is Jesus as mother.  This is Jesus weeping over Jerusalem; weeping over her children.  This is Jesus as mother who will be shunned for offering her undying love. This is Jesus as the mother who will be punished and destroyed for loving her children and seeking their well-being.  This is Jesus the mother who calls to that other mother, Jerusalem, and admonishes her for abandoning her identity as “mother of us all” by perversely turning against, and destroying her own children.

None of this should surprise us though, for is Jesus not the one who challenges violent and patriarchal visions of power by the pouring forth of love in selfless abandon?  This is not singularly a feminine virtue, rather it is our human calling!  Gracious self-offering; selfless abandon!  Jesus the perfect human being offering perfect love for the health, well-being, and very salvation of her children! 

It has been said that to ascribe to God human attributes is wrong, for God is above human attributes, and God is above gender.  But I question this notion.  Of course, we put a human face on God because the ineffability of God is impossible for us to grasp.  We give God arms, we give God legs. He counts the stars with his fingers.  He breathes life into us.  We hear his footsteps in the garden.  We say these things about God, and yet, has not God taken human legs and hands in Jesus?  The point is this: we project our humanity onto God because our humanity flows from God.  Created in the image and likeness of God, male and female (!), our humanity flows from his divinity.  And so when God chooses to come to us, to reach out to us in deep love, God shows us a human face.  That face is the Christ.  The error we have made is to look only at Jesus the man to the exclusion of Jesus the human.  What Jesus accomplishes is that he makes us partners in the healing work of the gospel and in the persistent proclaiming of hope, regardless of gender, and indeed, in the fullness of our genders – equal, different, and partners. Who is it that catches that vision first?  Yes, some fishermen begin to follow him, but it seems at times like dim senses preclude them from understanding, and their quest for personal glory clouds their vision.  In St. Luke’s gospel, who is it that immediately catches the vision?  Consider Mary, the mother of Jesus, who in her youthful fright says “yes” to God’s plan of hope and healing.  Consider Simon’s mother-in-law, whose name is tragically lost to us, who upon being healed rises up to offer herself in Christian service.  Consider the nameless sinful woman who kisses the feet of Jesus in deep love and prophetic understanding, anointing him ointment and with her tears.   And Mary Magdalene and Joanna who opened both their purses and their hearts to make his ministry of love possible! And who stands at the foot of the cross when all others have fled?  Who journeys to the tomb?  These are the apostles of love, who by God’s grace, and in spite of the best efforts of violent voices, still leave their traces in our sacred texts.  These are the voices -- these are the prophets -- that we seek to stone and kill for fear that they will challenge us beyond what we can bear.  But what do they want? What do they seek?  Nothing less than the very longing of Jesus, the very longing of God, “how I have longed to gather you under my wings, as a mother hen gathers her brood, but you were not willing.”

Perhaps the supreme and most grotesque irony is the robbing of Jerusalem of her feminine nature.  The Old Testament prophets understood Jerusalem as the holy place in which all races, tribes, and nations would be gathered to know the goodness and salvation of God.  To them she was “the mother of us all.”  What might Jerusalem look like today if we really believed that?  Would the children of Abraham and Sarah so wilfully seek to destroy each other within her very walls? 

But Jesus comes to redeem all of that.  “How I have longed to gather you as a mother hen gathers her brood.”  Jesus reminds Jerusalem that she is a mother, not a warrior or vengeful judge that stones her own children!  “How you would not let me gather you under my wings!” Jesus cries in anguish. And so he presses forward to that Holy City to restore, rebuild, and verily, re-create!  His entry will be one in humility, not military might; and his recreating act will be offered in sacrificial love that consummates the new birth.

We are challenged to the core of our being by these words of Jesus, by his lament for Jerusalem.  This is a Jesus that sets before us God as mother.  This is a Jesus who offers us the pain of a mother in despair. However, we encounter also the resilience and persistence of the feminine divine that presses forward with strength and compassion in equal measure that her children may not be lost to her. If Luke can dare to imagine God in this way, can we dare to imagine God our mother who seeks to gather us under her wings?  Can we dare to allow that image, and oh so many more to be liberated from the prisons  in which we have kept them suppressed, deep in some dark chamber within us?  Can we dare to draw close to God our mother?  Can we dare to draw close to the feminine face of God? Or shall we be like Jerusalem, turning her back on who she is, stoning her own children?  Shall we not only seek to suppress the fullness of humanity but the fullness of divinity? There are wings waiting – longing ! – to enfold us.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Grace without Obstacles - A Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2013

Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2013
Wednesday, February 13th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

“We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way.”
-2 Cor. 6:3

As we embark on our Lenten journey, our thoughts will inevitably turn to what we shall give up, or what discipline shall we take on.  We will begin with good intentions, but as with our failed New Year’s resolutions, we shall find ourselves faltering, and perhaps even abandoning our disciplines before the forty days are over.  Perhaps the problem is that we give undo attention to the discipline, itself.  Perhaps the problem is that we allow the discipline to be the focus of Lent, rather than being the means upon which we focus on Christ.  Lent is about one thing, and one thing alone, turning again to Christ.  Nothing should stand in the way of this one goal.

We ought never to lose sight of this goal during our Lenten journey, and indeed, we ought never to lose sight of this goal during the whole of our Christian life.  Yet, we are mortals formed of the earth. We are but dust.  Our best intentions are fleeting and we lose sight of our purpose oh so frequently.  We are mere mortals with all the selfishness that comes from being mortals.  We are inclined to forget that we are mere creatures.  We place ourselves at the centre of the universe and we fail to account for the destructive nature of our actions and our selfishness.  Most of all, we are inclined to forget about the God who created us.
Lent is a time to turn again to God.  Yet, having become so selfishly inclined, having turned away again from our Lord, how can we even know we need to seek him?  God seems so distant at times.  Perhaps, though, God only seems distant because we push him to the fringes of our life.  But God is not distant.  God, recognizing the gaping chasm between creator and created, sought to bridge that chasm by becoming man.  God, in Christ Jesus, came to us that the chasm that separated us from God might simply disappear.  Nothing stands in the way from turning to God, when God has turned to us, in Christ Jesus.

When St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he claimed to be an ambassador for Christ.  He entreated the Corinthians to be reconciled to God.  Indeed, they had already received God’s grace in Christ, they had already been reconciled, but frail creatures that they were they had a proclivity to turn away from God.  And so too do we.  Paul entreated them once again to turn to Christ.  That call to turn again is as necessary for us to hear today as it was for the ancient Corinthians on that long-ago day.  Let us not risk receiving the grace of God in vain, but rather remember that God has listened to our prayers in the past and he has helped us.  He has brought us salvation in Christ.

If that truth seems distant; if those promises seem old and stale; if the fire in our hearts has waned to a mere flicker, then now is the time to turn again.  Now is the time in which the flames will once again be fanned.  Now is the day of salvation.  If we have turned away, it is time to turn back again to Christ. He will not leave us or forsake us.  He will receive us again and again.

As St. Paul wrote, we are putting no obstacle in in anyone’s way.  And neither is God.  God does not require sacrifice or burnt offerings; he does not require Lenten disciplines or fasting.  God loves a broken and contrite heart.  This is the thing he will not despise.  The very thing we are afraid of – brokenness – this is what God embraces.  The thing that would appear to be the obstacle for us, is means through which God reaches out.  Where God sees a chasm he builds a bridge.  That bridge is Christ. Where God finds a gaping wound he applies a salve.  That salve is Christ.  Where God sees the fire waning to a flicker he fans the flames.  That breath is Christ.  It is precisely in our weakness, not in our strength, that Jesus comes to us.  Indeed, our feigned strength may just be an obstacle for us before God.

Thus, in vulnerability and longing, with fear and trembling, with the risk of disappointment, we turn again.  And once again we meet Christ.  We turn to Christ, not to disciplines.  If we take up such disciplines during Lent it will not be because they will bring us closer to God, there is only one thing that brings us closer to God, and that is Jesus. If we take up Lenten disciplines once again it will be out of our deep devotion to the one who is there for us without obstacle, without condition, with pure grace.  If take up Lenten disciplines again, it will be because we wish to clear away the rubbish of our lives to make a place for the one who has so graciously reached out to us and made a place for us in his heart. 

No matter where we find ourselves as this Lenten journey begins, I entreat you, as St. Paul entreated the Corinthians, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  Turn again.  You shall find him, without obstacle, and with perfect grace, welcoming you into his heart.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why we Sometimes Want to Throw God off a Cliff - A Homily for Proper 4, Year C, 2013

Homily for Proper 4, Year C, 2013
Sunday, Feb 2nd, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text:  Luke 4:21-30

Most of us believe we know what is best for us.  After all, who knows my needs better than me?  Who knows your needs better than you?  It seems to me that we have elevated this understanding of need-fulfilment to doctrine.  Students tell teachers what they need, patients tell doctors what they need, children tell parents what they need – education, health care, and parenting all revolve around the stated (or unstated) needs of the individual.  Now, self-awareness is not a bad thing, indeed, it is a very good thing.  In particular, when we run up against large institutions and structures that inevitably forget about the needs of individuals, self-advocacy is very, very important. However, there is a difference between self-awareness, and selfish-centredness.  Self-awareness asks a multiplicity of questions, such as: what do I need to grow, to become a better, healthier, more educated person? Self-awareness considers the complicated web of relationships of which we are all a part and how we can function not only as individuals but as individuals in relationship with each other. Self-awareness asks the question “who am I in the world.”  Conversely, self-centredness asks one simple question, “what can the world do for me?” and pursues one single-minded goal: finding out how to make this happen.  We are at our best when we are self-aware beings seeking the common good of other self-aware beings, living in a self-aware society. Mutual self-awareness builds up the common good; selfish-centredness tears it down and destroys it.

When Jesus preached in his home-town, and when it became clear that that the messianic mantle had fallen upon him, people had certain expectations.  Messiahship had kingly connotations.  The messiah was a descendent of David, and it was prophesied that he would rule over Israel.  Now, we know from hindsight that Jesus was a very different kind of messiah than what had been expected.  However, in those days, they expected a king who would rescue the people and smite their enemies.  This is why they expected his so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem to be somewhat more triumphal than how it actually turned out.  And this is why even his disciples argued amongst themselves who was the greatest, and who would sit at his right hand in his kingdom. If any one of us had a person of great power or influence in our family or amongst our friends, it would only be natural to sidle up every now and again, ask for a favour, seek a point of privilege, maybe even a lucrative appointment or placement of some sort.

When Jesus preached in his home-town, and it became clear that the messianic mantle had fallen upon him, people had great expectations.  They had heard that he was gaining a following throughout the Galilee, that he was getting famous, that he was working great wonders! “Was this not Joseph’s son?” they murmured after they heard him preach for the first time?  Others might have been saying, “Just think, I knew him when…!”  One might think that Jesus would have ridden on his new-found popularity at home; after all, they were amazed at his preaching.  You might have thought that he would have used the home-town advantage a little more constructively.  Yet, instead, Jesus picked a fight with them.  He chastised them.  He put words in their mouths:  “Doubtless you will say ‘Doctor cure yourself!’” and “’Do here in your hometown the miracles we heard you did in Capernaum!’”   Well, they weren’t actually saying those things, at least not at that moment.  Jesus was cutting them off at the pass.  He knew the time would come when the requests for favours would start rolling in, when he would have to disappoint them, when he couldn’t be the sort of messiah they thought they were getting.  In an attempt to explain why they would be disappointed, he told them a couple of stories, one about Elijah who offered food during a famine to the widow of Zarephath and her son, and one about Elisha who cleansed but one leper amongst many, Naaman. These two stories made them so angry that they rode Jesus out of town and attempted to throw him off a cliff! What was the point of these two stories?  What was it about those stories that made the people closest to Jesus so angry at him?

 Jesus’ purpose in re-telling these well-known tales was two-fold.  First, not everybody gets what they want. Some people will be disappointed.  These two old-time prophets reached out to particular individuals who had particular needs, but the needs of others seem to have been ignored.  Secondly, you may not always like who gets the help, especially when it is not you!  Both the widow and Naaman were gentiles. These stories were stories of God reaching out to those considered to be on the outside, those not considered members of the family, those who may not seem to be deserving of God’s grace.

 So what is Jesus trying to say to his family and friends in his home-town?  Simply this, you may be impressed with me now because you think you know what I am about and you are imagining all that I can do for you. You are thinking, “Do for us what you are doing for them!” But what if that is not what I am here for?  What if it’s not all about you? What happens when I have to disappoint you?  What happens when you realize that you are not the only ones God is reaching out to? 

The expectations that the people in Nazareth had for Jesus were narrow, self-centred and to the exclusion of others.  God’s vision is broad, community-focused and inclusive.  When the people heard the truth, they couldn’t take it and they wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff.

We all have needs.  We are all in need of love, of forgiveness and healing. But that’s the point –
ALL of us need God, not just some of us, not just me, not just you.  “Come unto me ALL who are weary and carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says.  St. John writes that Jesus the righteous is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but for the sins of the WHOLE world.  Yes, my needs are important, and God cares about me, but if I am created in the image of God, and if through his grace I am to be conformed to his likeness, then my focus will shift away from me, the beloved of God, to recognize and serve you, the beloved of God. When I become self-aware that my identity is Christ, not in me alone, then I find my true self in the service of him, and those he loves.  Selfishness gives way to self-awareness, selfishness gives way to generosity, selfishness gives way to perfect love.  And after all, love is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its way.

We think we know what we need, and we may have some sense of it, but I am grateful that at times, my parents had a greater sense of what I needed than I did.  I am grateful that my teachers were trained to not only meet my educational needs (as I might have narrowly envisioned those needs) but to shape me for citizenship and community.  I am grateful that when I don’t know what’s wrong with me that my doctor has the training to know what might help, and the wisdom to offer proper treatment.  We have a great physician who knows our needs even before we do and even before we ask.  What is more, he knows our true needs, and yes, he can offer challenging words, words that may even make us wish to throw him from a cliff.  Yet, if we accept his wisdom, if we embrace his challenging love, if we let him work away on the dark places of our souls, we shall find that we are transformed and healed.  We shall find that what we thought we needed was not what we needed at all.  We shall find ourselves opened to new possibilities, but even more wonderfully, we shall see him working that same grace not only in ourselves but in our community and the world of which we are part.