Sunday, September 29, 2013

Where Did You Get to Know Me? - A Homily for Back to Church Sunday, 2013 (St. Michael & All Angels)

Homily for St. Michael and All Angels, 2013
Sunday, September 29th, 2013 (Back to Church Sunday)
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 1:47-51

“Where did you get to know me?”
-John 1:48

As human beings, we are on a journey.  It is a journey of discovery and a quest for meaning.  I know that sometimes I find myself so caught up in the everyday things of life that the questions of “discovery” and “meaning” become eclipsed by the more mundane questions of “what on earth am I going to make my family for supper?” and “where on earth will I find the time this week to get that haircut?”  Yet, even as such mundane question rumble about in the fronts of our minds, the deeper questions mull about still in the corners of our hearts.  Questions like “what is this life really all about?” “Why am I here?”  Where are we going?” “What is joy?” “Why do I hurt?” “What is love?” “Is there really a God?” are all questions that find their homes deep inside of us and every once in a while they percolate to the surface pushing away for a moment those questions about dinner, shopping, haircuts, and how I will get my kid from one program to the next.  And yet we push them down again.

The truth is, we seek deeper meaning in this life, and we seek the deeper meaning of this life. Even more precisely, we seek the deeper meaning in and of our particular lives.  Sometimes, that question becomes frightening: What if there is no meaning to life?  What if my life has no meaning?  It is often easier to push these questions down and try to forget about them and return to the comparatively easy questions about the pedantic things of everyday life.

I wish to push this line of thought just a little further, though, and ask an even deeper question that has to do with our quest for meaning, and that question is this: What are we really afraid of?  What keeps us pushing these questions down deep inside?  What is a life without meaning?  What does a meaningless life look like? 

Perhaps a life without meaning is a life in which we are forgotten by all others; that we are, in a way, completely unknown.  Maybe it means that we are unloved, or worse, unlovable.  I think there is something in our human condition that, sadly, tends us to despair.  I know that this can be true for me in my weaker and more vulnerable moments.  What if all I do and all the good I try to bring about goes unnoticed, unaccepted, rejected, or worse, is really all for nothing.  Have you ever worried about these things?  Have you ever worried that people will reject you, hate you, fail to honour what you are doing, that there is something wrong with you, or that you are even unlovable?  Well, welcome to the human race.  I think we all feel these things from time to time, in varying degrees.  Sometimes such thoughts are fleeting and for but a moment, at other times, we can become obsessed by them.  But lest you think I am only here to paint a bleak picture, I want you to consider a very special story.

Nathaniel was a skeptic.  I think he may not have been that different from many of us.  He was not won over by easy arguments and likely had an aversion to easy answers.  Now what I don’t know for sure, I am only speculating here, is if his skepticism was just an innate sort of thing, or whether it came from being “burned” too many times.  We cannot know for sure, but it we would not be surprised if he had maybe been conned once or twice in his early days.  Now, a healthy skepticism is certainly not a bad thing, but how many of us have known people whose skepticism has turn to an unhealthy cynicism?  Cynicism is that hopeless place in which we question everything not to seek answers, but to unmask the fallacy that there is meaning and hope in life.  It is a depressing place.  It a place of despair.  Now, was this Nathaniel’s story? We don’t know for sure, but when his brother Philip came and told him that he had met the one about whom Moses, the Law, and the Prophets had spoken (namely, the Messiah), Nathaniel replied skeptically with these words, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Oh how I, myself, have uttered similar words when challenged to believe unbelievable things! Have we not all wondered at various times if anything good could come out of our figurative “Nazareths”?  Perhaps Nathaniel was uttering the ancient version of that proverbial modern phrase, “I’m from Missouri… show me!”  Yet, his brother Philip was convinced by what he had found.  His brother knew he had found something special to share, and thus Philip, looked knowingly at his skeptical brother and said simply, “Come and see.”

Perhaps, like all of us, deep down underneath all the skepticism, Nathaniel had a longing, a deeper longing – a longing for meaning, a hope that this life is not all for nothing, and maybe, just maybe, he brother Philip had found something worth investigating, something he himself was afraid to admit he wanted to see. And so, Nathaniel, the man from Missouri, to a risk and followed Philip, and they went together seeking the Messiah.

One wonders if Nathaniel was thinking all the things we might think in such a situation:  “Why am I doing this?” “Why did I say ‘yes’ to going with him?”  “I know this is going to be a bust.”  “I’m not getting my hopes up only to be let down!” “I’m certainly not going to enjoy this…”  And yet, he came anyway, with all his fears, skepticism and even cynicism intact, and also with his unanswered longing tucked deep within his heart.  With all of his confusion and angst, with his wondering and longing, he came.

When Jesus saw Nathaniel approach he shouted out, “Truly, here is an Israelite in which there is not deceit!”  What did Jesus mean by this?  Perhaps it might be translated into an idiom my late great-grandmother loved use, “There ain’t no flies on him!”  Nathaniel was on not to be easily persuaded or easily fooled.  And Jesus recognized that. Jesus was not criticising Nathaniel – no, he was paying him a compliment.  The very skepticism that others may have found a character flaw, Jesus boldly celebrates.  Jesus likes what he sees when Nathaniel approaches.  Nathaniel does not try to be someone else, someone whom he is not; he simply comes as he is with all his prevailing doubt and secret longing.  Jesus respects that, knows that, and meets him with joy.

Nathaniel might have been justifiably confused. “How do you know about me?” Nathaniel asks.  “Ah,” says Jesus, “I saw you under the fig tree before your brother called you.”  Suddenly, Nathaniel realized that as he had longed to find deeper meaning, deeper meaning had found him.  What he had thought was held secretly in the quiet dark corners of his heart, he learned was actually known to this man who greeted him with respect and joy.  A question was answered for Nathaniel. He was not alone.  He was not unknown.  He was not lost.  He was not unloved. 

These are the question we all have – what if I am alone, unknown, lost and unloved? But as Jesus recognized Nathaniel, even in all his skepticism, and perhaps even will all his cynicism, Nathaniel discovered that even as hard as we might search for meaning and for truth, meaning and truth seek us out and find us.  Jesus recognized Nathaniel for who he was, without judgement, without condemnation, without all that the world might heap on him, and without all the judgement and condemnation that Nathaniel may have heaped on himself. Jesus recognized him, knew him, loved him. Something clicked in Nathaniel in that moment – he was not alone, he was known, he was loved, he was honoured.  Suddenly, and most surprisingly, Nathaniel, the guy from Missouri, made this bold proclamation: “Rabbi! You are the son of God – the king of Israel!”  Imagine what others who knew Nathaniel might have thought as he made this bold proclamation. Imagine what they might have thought as Nathaniel chose to follow Jesus on the way.

Friends, God know us even better than we know ourselves.  When we sit under whatever fig tree we sit under, pondering the deeper questions of hearts, wondering if we are alone, in our angst asking if there is any meaning to this life, if our lives mean anything at all, then think of Nathaniel, and how Jesus knew him. In Christ God knows each and every one of us.  He recognizes us for who we are, and bids us to follow him on the way.

Where there is meaninglessness, we find meaning in him.

Where there is loneliness, we find companionship in him.

Where there is rejection, we find acceptance in him.

Where there is despair, we find hope in him.

And when we feel lost, alone, sitting under whatever solitary tree we sit, rest assured, that even before we know or understand it, Jesus has found us, loved us, and offered himself for us in boundless love.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

God Rejoices in the Recovery of the Lost - A Homily for Proper 24, Year C, 2013 "Rally Sunday"

Homily for Proper 24, Year C, 2013 “Rally Sunday”
Sunday, September 15th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 15:1-10

“There is much joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.”
-Luke 15:10.

There are many ways in which we can become lost or feel lost.  In today’s gospel we hear of a God who rejoices in the recovery of lost sinners.  It is like finding the one lost sheep, or the one lost silver coin – even though you may still have ninety-nine more sheep, or nine more silver coins, you still rejoice in the recovery of the one that was lost because it is so precious.  The passage that follows this one, that beloved parable of the prodigal, speaks of the recovery of a lost and found son – moving the analogy away from chattel and money, to a person, a son, something even more precious.

Sin is but one way we can become or feel lost.  When we sin we separate ourselves from the ones we love, and from God. There is much emphasis in Scripture and in Christian theology about how sin can destroy lives and break communities.  What we sometimes forget to emphasize, though is the restoring and healing power of the grace of God.  I once heard of a pastor who preached twenty-six week sermon series on sin.  I thought, “I sure hope he spends another twenty-six weeks (at least) on grace!” The point is not that we should not talk about sin – it is a reality with which we all struggle – but rather that we should talk abundantly about grace.

Every community and every individual will struggle with sin and its effects.  This is no different for us as a parish, or for us as individuals.  But let us hold fast to our faith and hope that God’s grace is not only the remedy but the answer to sin.

I do want to propose another idea, though, which much more radical, and yet in some ways might seem like a “no-brainer”, namely, that God’s grace is the remedy and answer to so much more than sin.  Thus, when we hear of God rejoicing over the recovery of lost sinners in the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, or lost son, I think we might open our ears and our hearts to hearing more about God’s grace than his delight over the recovery of sinners, only, as wonderful a thing as that is!

There are many times in life when we feel or find ourselves lost.  It may be the result of sin, to be sure, but perhaps it was someone else’s sin that has hurt and isolated us.  Or perhaps it was an inexplicable, uncontrollable turn of events.  Or perhaps it is just the circumstances of life, of aging, or of illness that makes us feel lost.  Is there help for us on these occasions? Is there grace for us in these moments? 

I want to think for a moment about these last few years in our parish.  This week we begin our fourth year together in shared ministry in this community.  The events that brought us together were, to be frank, as series of unhappy events.  This  parish had known much hardship and had felt betrayed.  I think it safe to say that amongst many of you there was a feeling of being lost as a church.  For my own part, I left for the first time in my life my own home town where I was comfortable, accepted and at home, to enter into a new ministry in a place where I was not sure I would be accepted, and with an expectation that caused much fear and trembling.  While I was excited, I have to admit to feeling a little bit lost, and out of my depth.  And yet, something wonderful and remarkable happened that brought us, together, from that feeling of being lost and from that place of fear: that something was God’s grace.

In these three years together we have worked hard. In these three years together we have accomplished much.  In these three years together we have found much healing.  And what has been the cause of all of this? We can speak of hard work, and we have worked hard together to be sure, but I think what we must really speak about is the grace of God. People can work hard, but without God’s grace can we really accomplish the goals of the kingdom?

We are called to be faithful, and I believe that over the years, in the midst of great adversity you have been faithful; this parish has remained ever-faithful.  As a priest, I am called to be faithful and model faithfulness, but like you, I am human and can easily falter and fail.  We have come through challenging times, but we celebrate accomplishments today because not a single one of them has been achieved without faithfulness.  And we celebrate the one who has been faithful through it all, even when our faithfulness has seemed precarious. We celebrate our Lord, and his faithfulness. We celebrate the faithfulness of God.  We celebrate that even though we have felt lost, we have been found. We celebrate even more humbly and joyfully because we realize from Scripture that God rejoices over the recovery of what seemed lost.

I believe that healing, restoration, wholeness – these things are the victory of God.  Healing, restoration, and wholeness is the journey we have been on together, with Christ as our master and our guide.  As darkness turns to light in his presence the road is made easier and more navigable. Healing, restoration and wholeness is the journey which is really only brought to completion at the consummation of all things when Christ draws all unto himself and is all in all, when the dead rise in perfect glory.  Yet, the healing, restoration, and wholeness we experience along the way is evidence and a signpost of that complete and perfect healing we shall know in Christ at the last.  I believe we can be confident that God rejoices with us today as we find ourselves on this place along the road.  And that is truly a gift for this present moment, and so we should rejoice today as well.

Therefore, we praise and thank God for his faithfulness in leading us from being lost. We thank God for finding us as we grope along the way, taking questionable turns and following meandering paths.  We thank God because in reality, although we may feel lost at times, he has never really lost us, we just lose ourselves, but in Christ, we are never, ever lost to God.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Counting the Costs - A Homily for Proper 23, Year C, 2013

Homily for Proper 23, Year C, 2013
Sunday, September 8th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Luke 14:25-33

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
-Luke 14:27

Not too long ago, a friend of mine who is a priest in a rural setting made the comment, “You know Dan, all ministry has a cost.”  What he was talking about was the personal cost for us as clergy. He meant that if we want to do ministry, we have to expect that it will take a toll on us personally, that we will have to make sacrifices that are hard, and that this is a good thing for the sake of the gospel. His comments especially had to do with how it is sometimes harder for clergy in more isolated rural areas, and how the costs for a cleric and their families is sometimes greater than those in urban and suburban settings. The support networks aren’t there, and sometimes it feels like colleagues in the bigger, city churches just don’t understand what rural ministry is like.  Usually the funding of such ministries is a struggle, sometimes because of this, it is hard to find good clergy to go to such places, and the ones that offer themselves do so at incredible personal cost.

My friend was talking about the more rural areas of this Diocese, but in my years working for the National Church, I met a lot of clergy (and bishops!) from truly isolated places in this country and around the word, and I can say that it is true, that many clergy have indeed sacrificed much for the gospel.  I surely count myself blessed to be in this wonderful place in which the challenges we have had to meet have been relatively easy.  To be sure we have had to make sacrifices, our shared ministry has had its costs to count, but we are truly blessed.

Today’s lesson from St. Luke reminds us to count the costs of ministry.  The words of Jesus are hard ones.  Unless we are willing to abandon, nay hate (!) family are we able to follow Jesus? How about giving up all our possessions?  Which one of us is able to do these things?  Is Jesus actually asking us to do these things?

Perhaps Jesus is indulging in a bit of hyperbole here.  He also speaks of the builder who carefully measures how much the project will cost and does not take on the project unless he knows he can finish it.  He speaks, too, of the king who first considers if he can win the battle before he wages the war.  Is Jesus asking us to sell all? Is he asking us to abandon our families? 

As I have noted before, and as we have been discovering in our Gospel of Luke study, we are pretty confident that Luke’s Gospel was written to a wealthy house church, whose patron was a wealthy householder named Theophilus. When today’s passage is taken in the context of the whole gospel, I think things become a bit clearer.  Luke consistently relates stories and sayings of Jesus that encourage those who have much to use what they have not for their self-aggrandizement, not for their own glory, but for the building up of the kingdom of God.  This means breaking down those social boundaries of rich and poor, and counting the outcast and the weak as family.  It means using what one has been blessed with, not in small measure, but in sacrificial measure, to right the inequities of the world.  It means using the power that has providentially fallen upon them to reorder the world under the principles of God’s righteousness, God’s justice. 

Jesus suggests, throughout Luke’s Gospel, that the poor already have a leg up on the rich, ironically enough, for they have nothing to lose.  They have nothing that holds them back from clinging fully to Jesus.  They have nothing that holds them back from following Jesus.  They have no investments to worry about, or great houses to tend.  They can follow Jesus without counting the cost, because the cost of not following him is even greater for them.

But for those who have much, who have to worry about mother or father; or for those who have to worry about their homes and their investments, about their staff or their status, following Jesus is much harder and the cost is greater.  That is why Jesus says be like the builder who counts the cost of his building project.  That is why Jesus says be like the king who carefully establishes whether or not he can defeat the enemy.  The cost of not finishing the building or winning the war is great.  If you cannot bear the ultimate cost, then do not embark on the project in the first place.

This is why Jesus reveals to them the worst case scenarios of discipleship.  Those who love you most may hate you for following Jesus, and you may have to say goodbye to them.  Now this may not actually happen, but it has the potential to happen, and Jesus asks, are you prepared for it? We know of course that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.  If you follow on my way, are you prepared to take up your own cross? Will you suffer death for my sake as I am prepared to suffer death for yours? 

These may seem like distant questions to us, but there are many Christians around the world whose families would hate them for becoming Christians.  There are people who have given up everything to serve Jesus, at extraordinary financial cost.  And even in these days we hear of people dying for their faith. There are Christians still taking up their cross and dying for Jesus, confessing their faith.  In truth, when we cast our glance a bit farther afield that normal, we will find these stories not that distant after all.

But what of the cost of ministry here in Bradford?  Perhaps the scale is not the same as Jesus suggests in today’s gospel, and yet, Jesus uses the extreme case to illustrate inclusively all manner of sacrifice.  The road to recovery in this parish has been a hard one. There is no denying that.  All of you have made sacrifices to restore this church to a place where it can offer viable ministry that makes an impact in this community.  And during harder times, you made extraordinary sacrifices to keep this church community alive hoping against hope for a better day, working tirelessly in faithfulness to those who built, and in commitment to those who will follow.  Most importantly, in the midst of extraordinary sacrifice, you continued to believe in and follow a loving God who has never left you, even during challenging times.  You continued to believe in God’s mission.  You continued to believe in the kingdom values of the Gospel, even though the cost was great. Together and as individuals, each of you something of the cost of discipleship.

But there is one other point, a very important point that is perhaps not so evident from today’s passage from Luke, but becomes clear in light of the whole gospel story.  When we count the cost of discipleship, we can do so with confidence in the outcome, in confidence of what we have to give up, that the cost will not be so great that we cannot bear it, because it is not ours to bear alone.  Yes, we must take up our crosses, but only because Christ has first taken up his.  Our crosses are bearable, because the weight of all those crosses is shared in the weight of the cross that he carried on his shoulders.  And when the weight seems so heavy, when it feels like we are buried under the weight, like we are in a tomb, and we cry who shall roll the stone away, the stone is moved, the weight of the cross is lifted, and the light of the resurrection breaks through! 

Discipleship has a cost, to be sure. And it is a cost that must be counted and faced if we wish to follow Jesus.  Yet, we must never think that it is our cost to bear alone. We must never think that the weight of the cross falls fully on our shoulders.  We will be called upon to bear our portion, but that portion will be all the lighter when we realize that we are part of host of witnesses, a company of disciples, each bearing one another in love through hardship, and bearing us all up, is the one who takes the weight of the world on his shoulders, Christ our God.