Sunday, March 31, 2013

Why Do You Seek the Living Among the Dead? - A Homily for Easter, 2013

Homily for Easter, 2013
Sunday, March 31st, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 24: 1-12

"Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
-Luke 24:5

The women who faithfully remained with Jesus as he hung upon the cross, who were there when his body was laid in the tomb, were the first to come to that tomb on the early morning following their Sabbath observance.  Their spices were prepared, and they had come to anoint his body.  To their great surprise though, the stone that covered the tomb had been removed; and to their even greater surprise they encountered two men, garbed in dazzling apparel who addressed them: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  What a strange question this was.  Their Lord was dead and they were here to carry out their appointed task and ministrations.  They were not seeking the living; they were indeed seeking the dead. 

But the men stirred their memories – the memory of something he had said early in his ministry in the Galilee, a memory that was clouded with the passage of time and the dreadful reality of his failed mission which ended on the cross.  The men asked the women to remember. Remember what he said to you.  Remember how he had told them that “the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.”  Had they forgotten this promise?  Or were they here, actually seeking the living, did they remember, and hope, deep within themselves in the sacred silence of their hearts that maybe, just maybe, he was yet alive? 

When asked to remember, remember they did.  They had not yet seen him, and yet the stirring of their memory stirred within them the belief that he had risen.  His words stirred within them and the seed faith sprung to life in their hearts.  He was not to be found amongst the tombs; he had burst the chains of death; he had sprung forth from the tomb, and although he and not yet appeared to them, they knew with confidence that he was alive.

With great excitement they returned to the apostles and told them all they had seen and all they had heard; and yet, the apostles believed them not.  The apostles who had heard the same words, who were now being asked to remember what Jesus had told them way back in their Galilean days might have remembered his words, but they could not believe what they were being told by the women.  They castigated them for spreading “old wives’ tales.”  They did not believe.

But Peter, the first to have denied his Lord; Peter, who had with deep shame wept over his denial; Peter the first among the apostles who had proved to be the weakest when put to the test; something stirred in Peter.  Perhaps he remembered the words. Perhaps deep within the silence of his own heart he hoped beyond hope that it might be true.  Perhaps, just perhaps, he might be given a second chance.  And so against what must have been his better judgement he rose and ran to the tomb.  And there, on the floor of the tomb he found only the linen cloths.  He had not yet seen Jesus, and yet, he was amazed and his unbelief became belief. 

The women sought the living amongst the dead.  Peter sought the living amongst the dead.  But the one who lives is not to be found amongst the dead.  They cannot believe that he is alive and so they must seek out the place of the dead and look for him. They had seen him die. They knew where he should have been, and yet, that is not where God left him. He did not suffer his holy one to see corruption.

Where do they find him?  As we shall learn as we continue to read St. Luke’s gospel in Eastertide, they meet him as they journey in loneliness, sadness and despair along the Emmaus road. They meet him when they open the Scriptures and break bread together.  They meet him in their gathering together and they meet him in their going out into the world.  They meet him when they forgive each other their wrongs, and they meet him when they witness to his resurrection.  This is all to say that they meet him, not at a tomb, not amongst the dead but amongst the living.

This is the very place we meet him today.  We meet him when we gather round this table and share in receiving his risen and glorified body by faith with thanksgiving. We meet him when we hear the words of the prophets and the apostles opened to us, proclaimed and expounded. We meet him when we forgive each other the wrongs we have done. We meet him when we wash each other’s feet.  We meet him when we go out into the world to serve him in the person of God’s most vulnerable children. We meet him not amongst the dead, but amongst the living.  Seek the Lord where he may be found.

But just as the Father did not leave Christ in hell, just as he did not let his holy one see corruption, neither will he leave us amongst the dead. He does not abandon us to the grave. He does not abandon us to our sinful self-destruction.  He does not leave us amongst the dead or in the tomb.  In the glorious resurrection of Christ we are swept up into the power of his resurrected life.  In the resurrection of Christ, Jesus’ hands reach out to us to pull us from the very depths of despair, loneliness, brokenness, and sin. When we find ourselves walking amongst the dead, he descends to the depths with us and rescues us, restores us, redeems us, that we too might not be found amongst the dead, but the living.  And so that is where we find him today, not amongst the dead, not in a tomb, but in our very midst, risen in body and risen in the communion we share in this age, and risen in the communion we shall know when the final trumpet sounds and we are all raised to that new and glorious perfection. 

Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?  We are afraid it is not true.  We are afraid that death will be the final story that is written for us. We are afraid that what has been proclaimed to us is a lie. But remember what he said.  Remember.  Remember that he said that “the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” The Eucharist we share is an act of that remembrance.  It is a remembrance that as the grave could not contain him, so it shall not contain us.  Our shared ministry is a remembrance that though the powers of death might seek to destroy us in this life, when we act together in ministry we find hope and strength, endurance and fortitude, love and mercy, because the risen Jesus is with us.  When we serve each other, Jesus is with us.  To remember what he said is not simply to recall it, but to live into it.  When the men at the tomb tell the women “he is not here,” they mean among the dead.  When we proclaim he is risen, we are saying “he is here,” amongst the living.  The tomb is but a sign, the communion we share is the reality of Jesus risen from the dead. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Woman Behold Your Son; Son Behold Your Mother: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2013

Homily for Good Friday, 2013
Friday, March 29th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 18:1-19:42

“Woman behold your son; son behold your mother.”

In the church in which I grew up, a church dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, above the altar in the original church is a window.  In the centre is Christ, on his right side his mother reverently prays, on his left side, St. John, the beloved disciple and author of the Fourth Gospel, stands with quill and book in hand as a witness, testifying to the truth.  This image is clearly meant to evoke the scene in the Gospel of St. John in which Jesus, from the cross, commends his mother into St. John’s care and keeping with the words, “Woman, behold your son; son behold your mother.”  Jesus is not portrayed on the cross in this window, but rather as a priest offering the chalice to the faithful who are gathered for worship in that church, in much the same spirit as the image of Jesus portrayed in the window above the altar of this very church. The St. Mary’s window invites us to join with St. Mary and St. John around the foot of the cross and receive the benefits that are poured out in Jesus’ sacrifice.

In that same church it was our custom, much as it is in this very church, that during Holy Week we would follow the Way of the Cross, moving from station to station, re-enacting the Passion of our Lord. In that parish, I had a dear friend, whose name was Dorothy.  Dorothy was about my grandmother’s age and she was a spiritual mother to me.  Dorothy was one of those great servants of the Church with a deep faith and a spirit of true Christian servant-hood, she was a Christian friend to everyone and admired by all.  Very early in my Christian journey she took me under her wing and taught me the faith as a mother. 

Dorothy had three children.  When her only daughter Linda was in her thirties, Linda died of cancer.  This was an extraordinary blow to Dorothy, especially given that Linda had a young son, who was soon to pass into Dorothy’s care.   One Wednesday in Holy Week, a day I shall never forget, we were walking the Way of the Cross, and we got to the station in which Jesus commends his mother into the care of the beloved disciple.  Canon Bob Leckey asked Dorothy to read the Gospel appointed for that station.  She quietly for a moment and then read, “Woman behold your son; son behold your mother,” and we responded with the Trisagion, “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal One, have mercy upon us.”  After we had finished walking the stations she shared with me how profoundly moving it had been for her to be asked, on the spur of the moment, to read that particular passage.  I asked he why this was. She responded, “Dan, only Jesus knows how I feel.”

It is said that there is no greater pain than losing a child. It is also said that when this happens you feel so alone and no one can understand what it is like. In that moment in which she read those sacred words of the Gospel, Dorothy felt the grace and understanding of Christ wash over her.  Dorothy standing in the place of Mary, but saying the words of Jesus, knew the comfort of his love poured out on the cross.  She knew and understood at the deepest possible level what Mary felt, for like Mary, she too had lost a child.  She knew at that very moment what St. John felt, for she knew what it was to have another trusted into her care.  And yet, uttering the very words of Jesus from the cross, she knew and felt his loving compassion, his deep care and longing for her well-being, and the depth of his sacrifice for her.  Only Jesus knows how I feel.

For Dorothy, the Church had always been, but became more and more as the years rolled on, a family, her family.  At the foot of the cross we receive our salvation, not only for eternity, but for the present.  When we lose so much, it can seem like we cannot go on. When we make terrible mistakes it can seem like we cannot go on.  When we lose those closest to us it can seem like we cannot go on.  And yet, even as we lose, Jesus not only understands our pain, he ministers to us through his church: “Woman behold your son; son behold your mother.”  We become Mary.  We become the Beloved Disciple.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is speaking with his disciples and he is interrupted by someone telling him that his mother and brothers and sisters have arrived. What is his response?  “Here are my mother and my brothera and my sisters.”  It is not that he does not care for his own family; rather he radically and powerfully reorders our reality, he expands our kinship.  For Christians, the ties of kinship are not biological. They are spiritual.  That is why at the foot cross, St. John becomes the son of Mary, and Mary becomes his mother.  This is not simply the story of Mary and John.  It is our story. This is what the cross does. As Christ is bound to the cross, we are bound to each other both now and in the age to come.  The pain of loss is real, and yet the kinship we share with each other in Christ is even greater. 

My dear friend Dorothy not only felt these things, she not only believed them, she lived them.  She became a mother, a mother in the Spirit, a mother in Christ, not only to me, but to so many.  When she left this earth at the age of 95 many of us felt a deep loss. How is such a gap to be filled?  And yet, the words of Jesus echo in our ears again to each of us as we stand by the grave of any loved. Look about, “behold your mother; behold your son,” and “these are my mother, and my brothers, and my sisters.”  The kinship we share is nothing less than the work of the cross. And the work of the cross is that though death’s mightiest powers have done their worst, Jesus’ hath his foes dispersed.  What Jesus gives us in our holy kinship is a faith, a hope, and a love stronger than death.  Jesus knows how we feel, and he ministers to us through each other in the midst of it all.



Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Servant-Friend: A Homily for Maundy Thursday, 2013

Homily for Maundy Thursday, 2013
Thursday, March 28th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 13:1-17; 31-35

How difficult it can be for us to receive an act of kindness at the hands of another!  As this holy day of Maundy Thursday calls us to renew our own ministry of servant-hood it occurs to me that many of us are more comfortable taking up that role of servant than allowing others to serve.  To be sure, if we are to be like our master, we are called not to be served but to serve.  And yet, sometimes serving allows us to hide our own vulnerability, and strangely, in serving we find ourselves exercising power over those we serve.  I cannot imagine that this is what Jesus intended by calling us to a ministry of servant-hood.  Serving is not about us determining how we might serve, but listening to the needs of the vulnerable and the needy in our midst, and serving them as they need, not as we think they need.  When we decide what others need we exercise power over them and when they do not wish to receive what we so beneficently bestow upon them we become angered that our charity and philanthropy are rejected, and then we no longer consider them worthy of our graciousness.  This is not the servant ministry to which we are called by Jesus.

Jesus put his disciples in a difficult spot.  He asked them to put themselves in that position of vulnerability in which we are served and ministered to by another.  Jesus, the master, takes off his outer garment, the robe of rank, and ties the towel of a servant around his waist and washes the feet of his disciples. Surely, they must have felt extremely awkward at this overturning of the social order, but even more significantly, they felt vulnerable.  Perhaps they felt a loss of control.  This seems very clear from Peter’s response.  He wished to turn the loving gesture of Jesus into a utilitarian act.  Not just my feet, Lord, bathe my whole body; I need a good bath! Peter sought to control the experience.  It was difficult for him to allow himself to be served by Jesus. Perhaps his request to have his whole body washed was an attempt for him not only to control the experience but even to play into Jesus role-reversal somewhat.  Perhaps he takes upon himself the role of the master who, in having his feet washed, commands the servant to do more.  But ministry in Jesus’ kingdom is not about lording it over each other; rather, it is about loving one another. “I give you a new commandment,” says Jesus, “Love one another, as I have loved you.”  This is the origin of the name of this day, Maundy Thursday.  Jesus gives us a new commandment, a new mandatum, a new “maundy.”

How difficult it can be for us to receive the love of another.  When you are given a compliment that is offered in true earnestness, when a dear one offers a gift made from the sweat of their toil, when your beloved offers themselves lovingly, sometimes we are so humbled it is difficult to receive their loving acts with grace. What Jesus was doing, more than teaching us how to serve one another, was teaching us how to love one another.  Love requires great vulnerability.  Can we open ourselves to each other in ways in which we risk being hurt? Can we kneel before each other in ways in which we risk losing our own power that we might find strength together? 

When Jesus kneels before his friends, he does so not as master and servant or servant and master, but as friends. Jesus will say to them, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.”  Friendship requires risk. Friendship requires vulnerability.  As strange as this may sound, the Church, as long as it understands itself as an institution that offers service, will never truly be the Church.  When we see ourselves as offering something, as being the ones who control what we have to offer, and insisting that others accept what we offer on our terms, we are not being the Church Jesus called us to be.  This is not what he offered us, and it is not what we should offer others. 

Jesus offered us, offers us, friendship.  He lays down his life for his friends.  He kneels before his disciples not as master or servant, but as friend.  Jesus reimagines what servant-hood means and demonstrates a servant-hood shorn of power-imbalances, and demonstrates servant-friendship.  Why is it difficult for Peter to have his feet washed?  Why is it difficult for us to have our feet washed?  It is because we must assume a level of uncomfortable intimacy with another person, someone with whom there is a power imbalance. It involves extraordinary risk. Peter balks at it. We balk at it.  My first reaction would be to balk at it if my bishop were to ask to wash my feet, as many do when they consider allowing their priest to wash their feet.  And yet, we may be keen to offer that service to others, but how can we do that if we first have not felt the vulnerability that they feel?  Can we offer compassionate loving service, can we wash the feet of another, if we have not first sat in that chair and allowed our feet to be washed?  When it comes our turn to wash the feet of another we must understand how vulnerable that person is, what an extraordinary risk they are taking, what a privilege we have in serving them.  Can we understand this unless we have felt that same vulnerability or taken that same risk?

True servant-hood, the kind of servant-hood we encounter in Jesus, is not one person acting upon another. In fact, this is the very antithesis of the servant-hood modeled by Jesus. True Christian servant-hood is a ministry of friendship. It is reciprocal. It involves mutual giving and receiving. It involves mutual vulnerability and mutual risk. It involves mutual joy. This is why Jesus says I no longer call you servants but friends.  As Jesus loved us so we love him.  And as we have loved him and been loved by him, so too shall we be drawn into a deeper mutual love of each other in Christian friendship.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Choice of the Good Thief - A Homily for Palm Sunday, Year C, 2013

A Homily for Palm Sunday, Year C, 2013
Sunday, March 24th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford,
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke: 22:14-23:56

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

The gospel of Christ confronts us with choices.  Will we follow him?  Will we take up his cross?  Will we stay with him even to the last?  Will we say “yes” to him, even when all others are failing and falling away?  These are the choices we make in our journey of faith, on our journey to holiness, on our quest for communion with God.  But saying “yes” is not such an easy thing.  Saying “yes” has a cost. Saying “yes” has a risk.  There are many things we say “yes” to in life without a second thought.  They are choices that we make that have no real import on us, except perhaps a slight convenience or inconvenience depending on the situation, but these are not difficult or life-changing choices.  The costly choices are the ones that ask us to examine ourselves, to be honest with ourselves, and stir up in us the longing, perhaps with fear and trembling, to change or be changed.  This is the nature of the choice that confronts us in the gospel.  This is the choice we encounter in the cross.

We live in a world of denial and illusion.  Perhaps this is so because we are, at some deep level, afraid to face what reality brings.  We are afraid of what people think of us.  We are afraid of what might happen to us if we make certain choice, of what we might lose, of what we might suffer.  And so we retreat into denial and illusion.  We create happy, illusory edifices that surround our lives, and pretend that we are immortal, that we cannot be hurt or wounded by others or even by our own failures. “Always look on the bright side of life” says one popular song even when the pain reveals there is no bright side, but only sadness, regret, and loss. 

Sometimes we feign saying “yes” when our actions really say “no.”  We give lip service to one choice, while our actions tellingly speak of another.  Beneath it all is fear; the fear of death.  The fear of losing everything is at the heart of all lies, illusion, and denial.  Until we stare that fear in face and own it, until truth itself confronts us, we shall forever live in a world of happy illusion and delusory denial. 

But what if, confronted by Jesus, something were to cut us to the core, and in a moment we realize that losing all is our ultimate fate in spite of our best efforts to convince ourselves otherwise?  What if, confronted by Jesus, our fears were to be momentarily unmasked and revealed and we had to face them?  What if, confronted by Jesus, his witness and testimony to the truth, we were to realize that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves?

Our Lord hung upon the cross, between two thieves.  Even in the face of his own impending doom, one of the thieves made a choice and clung tenaciously to his illusion.  In the moment of his certain and unavoidable death, he hung next to the one who could offer him eternal life and mocked him.  In the moment when he could have been saved, his own pride prevented him from recognizing his saviour and so he cast his soul away, for  the power of sin is so strong that it tempts us that it is better to live a short life in illusion than an eternity in bliss.

Our Lord hung upon the cross, between two thieves.  In the face of his own impending doom, the other thief made a choice, his own arms stretched wide in vulnerability and pain, and let Jesus into his heart. That thief owned the choices of his life. He owned his sin. He owned his crimes.  He knew that he deserved to die.  In opening his heart to the reality of his own life, his heart was opened to the presence of the Christ who hung next to him.  And the sinless Christ, seeing his pain, seeing his penitent heart, hearing the words of compassion that he uttered, too this man’s sin upon his shoulders, and promised him paradise. 

The story of the good thief makes explicit the work of the cross: forgiveness to the penitent sinner.  To follow Jesus is to allow him to cut through the morass of the lies we tell ourselves to keep ourselves safe from the pain we fear so much; the pains of this life, and our fear of death.  The choice to follow Jesus is the choice to open ourselves to experiencing and witnessing our doubt, our fear, our pain, and our sinfulness.  “What need have the healthy for a physician?” Jesus asks earlier in the gospel.  When we care to be honest, when we have the courage to be authentic, we realize that we all need the great physician.  And yet, where does that courage come from?  How can we find the courage to face what is so frightening that we build castles in the air to hide from it? 

It is the stark reality of the cross, of the one man who needed no physician, of the one man who sinless, made the choice to succumb to its tortures that we might have true life in abundance.  In Jesus Christ, the living God made a choice for humanity. In Jesus Christ, God became human that we might become divine.  Remember how we are told in Scripture that we are created in image and likeness of God?  Yet, sin obscures that image.  We are apt to holiness and godliness, but are we able?  That is why every “yes,” every “I will,” is qualified by the phrase, “with God’s help.”  For you see it is only through Christ and him crucified that we can have any hope of re-attaining the image and likeness of God in which we were created.  Under our own power, death is too frightening, our mistakes are too frightening, our sins are too debilitating.  And our natural response, our primal predilection for self-perseveration is to begin to peddle lies to ourselves.  “I can do this if I only try hard enough,” or “it must be everyone else; I’m okay,” or the favourite phrase of the political consultant “I make the truth.”  But our castles will come falling down for our delusions and our lies are built on sand. 

We hear of two Simons, one named the rock.  Peter.  But where was the bedrock of his faith and commitment when confronted with the reality of a crucified messiah?  What were his words when asked about the one he swore he would never leave?  “I do not know the man.”  Fear gripped Peter.  Fear made him lie.  Fear put his very life and soul at risk.  And were it not for the mercy of God, were it not for the merciful arms of Jesus stretched wide on the cross, Peter may have gone down in history numbered amongst the bad thief, or even Judas who betrayed his master.

Another Simon, this one a Cyreneian, had the cross place upon his shoulders when Jesus could no longer carry it.  This Simon chose not to run.  This Simon chose to see in the sinless man his salvation and took up his cross to follow in his way.  This Simon did not turn back from the pain, or the shame, or even an uncertain fate. This Simon did not lie nor deny the Christ.  Like the good thief, he faced the reality of the moment, and made a choice to minister to Jesus.  Surely he too is with him in paradise.

When we reject Jesus, we seek to silence the voice our pain, the voice of our fear, and the voice of our sinful mistakes.  Jesus might have let the cup pass from him, but he was the man of perfect authenticity.  He was the man, the one man, the God-man, who was both apt and able to stare death in the face and openly embrace it.  And in doing so, he conquered all fear, conquered sin, and yes, even conquered death, not only for himself, but for all who will come to him with a fearful but honest “yes” in their hearts and on their lips.  For them, for us, Jesus offer truth and healing and even in the midst of all that pains us, a place in paradise.