Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Good News When We Are At Our Worst - A Homily for Christmas 2014

Homily for Christmas Eve, 2014
Wednesday, December 24th, 2014
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Titus 2:11-14

“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation has appeared to all men.” (Titus 2:11)

Do you ever find that Christmas can bring out the worst in people?  You might even be shocked to learn that sometimes Christmas brings out the worst in me.  Oh, don’t get me wrong; I love Christmas, I revel in Christmas, I glory in Christmas.  Yet, the demands of the season can be great, sometimes greater than we can bear.  Have you ever found yourself caught in a battle with family members about where, when and how Christmas should be hosted?  Have you ever found yourself in a battle with a child over a present they long for but you know they shouldn’t have?  Have you ever found yourself so financially strapped that the Christmas you (and your family) long for is beyond your reach.  Perhaps this Christmas is one in which some or all of these things are happening in your life.  And perhaps, just perhaps, it is hard to find any joy in the season.

            My son started his first part-time job this fall, and is now experiencing his first Christmas season in the retail business.  While he has a passion for his job, he has found his passion for Christmas quickly disappearing. Having spent twenty years of my own life in the retail sector, I know something of his pain.  It can be a time for meeting people at their worst, and indeed we may even find ourselves at our worst, too.  What are we to do?   And yet, when all is said and done, and the tree is taken town, and the  carols have ended for another year, how many of us do not feel a tinge of sadness at Christmas becoming once again a distant future dream?  And how many of us when December rolls around again, begin to feel that same excitement, that same hope, as trees are trimmed, and carols once again sung?  How many of us become again as little children, hoping and longing for the coming day?

            We want to experience the joy of the season. We want to feel the hope.  We want to sing our carols heartily. We want our families to finally get along. We want all the shoppers and clerks alike to be friendly and warm. We want to see and experience peace on earth and good will amongst men.  And then we are met with disappointment once again and the ugliness of humanity, and even disappointed in ourselves when we fail to live up our own expectations of peace and good will.  What are we to do?

            Amid all our attempts to be better people, and amid all our failures in doing so, not only during this annual Christmas season, but throughout the year, I remain thankful of one thing, that as St. Paul said to his friend and co-worker Titus, “the grace of God that bringeth salvation has appeared to all.”  Why is this such good news to me?  Why should it be such good news to all of us? 

            If I can be sure of one thing, it is this, that as good a person as I may aspire to be I know that I will never be able to be that good person under my own strength. It is inevitable that I shall hurt people, offend people, have bad days and be downright miserable. I will hang up on telemarketers and say nasty things to them. I will yell at that guy at the gas station who cut me off.  I will make snide comments to the person ahead of me in the express lane at Sobey’s who is playing and redeeming their bundle of lottery tickets when I just want to buy a bag of milk.  Oh, I try to be a better person, but I fail time and again.  Thank God that the happiness of the world and the joy of Christmas is not all resting on my shoulders.  Perhaps you may be thanking God that it does not rest on yours either. 

            But the grace of God that bringeth salvation has appeared to all.  The grace we seek comes not from us, but rather from above.  The grace we seek comes not by having the perfectly planned Christmas feast, but from a divinely orchestrated birth in Bethlehem. The grace we seek comes not from gifts bought and sold at malls, either for pennies or for thousands, but is given freely in a babe born in a stable.  All the striving we do to find joy, to make peace, to force ourselves into the perfect picturesque Currier and Ives moment, will come to nought without the gift of the Christ born anew in our hearts. 

            Are we able to receive this gift? Are we able to behold it, behold him, in our midst?  St. Paul tells us that this free gift of grace has appeared to all, and yet we hurry about our lives ignoring it, seeking after other gifts, gifts that will soon pass away, gifts that can never really fill our longing hearts.  And yet, we seek after them more and more, more hungrily and voraciously than before, hoping beyond hope that what did not fill us last year, might fill us this year.  Then at the eleventh hour, someone cuts us off, grabs the gift that is just beyond our reach, for themselves, and we lash out in anger, in disappointment, in discouragement.  In our despondency we fail to notice the most wonderful gift that is set before us, longing still for what we cannot have.

            Even in today’s world of mass produced gifts, in which everyone should be able to have what he or she wants, is it not interesting how much disappointment we feel at this time of year? Is it not interesting how many people lament not receiving what they feel they want or deserve?  Is it not interesting that there never seems to be enough to go around? 

            But there is one gift that is plenteous for all that never gives out, that never fails; and that is the gift of salvation in Christ Jesus.  It is not simply a gift for the few, or even for the many, it is a gift for all people: “for the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all people.” Christ Jesus is the well that never runs dry. Christ Jesus is the dawn that never sets. Christ Jesus is the banquet that never ends.  Christ Jesus is God’s gift of himself, to the people he created.  He is not for the chosen only, but for the whole cosmos.  And sinful man that I am, I need him.  At this time of year, in which our childhood hopes and innocent dreams may seem so quickly dashed by the narcissism of the age and the selfishness we exhibit, by God, I need him desperately! I need him at Christmas, when I hope to be my best, but am invariably at my worst.

            I would wager you need him too.  I think, I believe, we all need him.  All men and women have needed him in all places and ages.  And truth be told, he comes to us when we are at our worst, not when we are at our best. Was the world at its best when Caesar Augustus called for that census to be taken?  Do you think Joseph was at his best when he received word that he had to take his pregnant wife across the country on a donkey to be counted? Do you think young Mary was at her best when Joseph told her the news of that impending trip? I think they may have been like any other married couple I have known, and choice words may have been spoken.  Were all those innkeepers at their best when they turned away a pregnant woman?  Were those shepherds at their best, or wearing their Sunday best, when angels appeared to them?  And what of King Herod when he heard the news of the birth of the new king and felt his rule threatened?  And what of those who even followed Jesus, his disciples, when they fought about who was to be the greatest in God’s kingdom? And what of blessed Peter when he denied he knew his master? And Pilate when he condemned an innocent man hoping to ensure civic peace?  And what of Thomas, when he doubted the Messiah had risen?  And what of those disciples on the Emmaus road, or Mary Magdalene, who at first failed to recognize their risen Lord? Were any of them at their best when he came to them?  And friends, what of you and me? Are we at our best this Christmastide as he comes to us again? 

            I thank God that I am not required to be at my best to receive him, and that he comes to me even, and especially at my worst, for that is when I need him the most. That is when we all need him the most.  We need him when we are mistakenly seeking our salvation and our hope elsewhere. We need him when we have failed to be the people we long to be. We need him when we have hurt others and ourselves. And it seems to me, that during this season, which sometimes brings out the worst in people, not the best, we need him now.

            The good news, indeed the greatest news of all, is that none of this frightens him or stops him from coming to us when we need him. He is not afraid of our sins. He is not afraid of an innkeeper who closes his door, or a raging Herod. He is not afraid of disciples that misunderstand his mission, or disciples that run away, or disciples that fail to recognize him.  He simply keeps coming to us again and again, with those same words, “come unto me all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will refresh you.”  He comes to us with an invitation to come to him, and in him we will find that peace on earth, that good will to all, that will turn our sorrow into joy, our darkness into light, our despair into hope, our fear into holy comfort. 

            As you come to the altar of the Lord tonight, see and believe that the grace of God that bringeth salvation has come to you, and receive him – perhaps for the first time, or perhaps for the hundredth time,  it matters not – and in receiving him receive that gift of salvation that has come not only for you, not only for me, but for all people, not matter how badly we have failed ourselves and each other.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

You are so loved -- A homily for Proper 30, Year A, 2014

Homily for Proper 30, Year A, 2014
Sunday, October 26th, 2014
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 22:34-46

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; … and love your neighbour as yourself.”

As usual, the adversaries of Jesus were trying to trip him up.  In this particular instance, it was a lawyer, that is, someone trained in the intricacies of the Torah, the Jewish law. And so he asked Jesus which one of the commandments in the law is the greatest.  Now there are some 613 commandments in the Jewish Torah. This expert in the law listened patiently and waited to see how Jesus might make a statement by which he would convict himself.  However, Jesus was just about as tricky as the lawyer, and he responded with the traditional Jewish daily prayer, the Shema, an acclamation of faith in the oneness of God and our obligation to worship him alone.  “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul and mind.”   How could this be argued?  And then Jesus further added, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” which echoes everything we hear in the prophets about the sort of worship God desires, which is a compassion for those around us and justice for the poor. 

This silenced his opponent, for the lawyer knew he could argue neither of these points.  What is very interesting about this is that it is not the law itself to which Jesus turns, but rather to a prayer; which always reminds us that our prayers inform and shape our theology.   Theology is the art of interpreting, and reflecting upon our relationship with God and God’s world. It is not the other way around. We do not start with a law, or a theology, or a set of beliefs and then shape our relationship with God out of them; rather, we start with a relationship with God and we build our theology out of that relationship. The rule of prayer is the rule of faith, or belief.    This is precisely what Jesus did. He started with our relationship with God, and then moved to our relationship with God’s creation in our fellow creatures and then proclaimed, “all of our theology hangs on these two things.”

I find this a very comforting thought.  And when you think about it, all of our Christian theology revolves around this very simple truth, that in Jesus Christ, God is reaching out to you and me for a relationship.  We might even say it more simply, that Jesus IS our relationship with God. Jesus makes God’s love known to us. All of our theology about the Incarnation, the Cross and Resurrection, the Ascension, his coming again – all of these things point to the one essential fact that in Jesus God reaches out to us in relationship and invites our response.  Each aspect of our theology attempts to explain this relationship.  In the Incarnation, in the Cross, God seeks to be with us in poverty, in humility, in vulnerability. In the example of his birth in the stable, and his death upon the cross God is reaching out to us.  He is with us in our humility, in our pain, in our vulnerability, and bears those things with us and for us. In the Resurrection and the Ascension, God draws us into his divine life.  We embrace his risen body and his risen life and we embrace God, and thus share in his glory. It is all relationship. And it is a relationship of love.

And what of our theology about the Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem, the Church Militant, and the Church Triumphant? These are ways of talking about our relationship with each other, both now and in the age to come. When we speak of the “kingdom” we are speaking about a newly ordered community in which all our relationships are seen in light of the relationship we have with God in Christ.  It is through God’s Spirit who animates our relationship with God in prayer that our relationships with each other will find new hope and joy. 

Thus, it seems to me that when Jesus is asked which law is the greatest, by responding with a prayer, he in essence is saying, no law is the greatest. He rather is changing the conversation and asking do you believe God loves you? Do you love God? And if these things are true, do we recognize that love in the love of our neighbour?

Is this not what really matters? To know that we are loved? 

This week we heard the powerful story of another lawyer, this one a woman named Barbara Winters, who upon hearing gunshots near the national war memorial ran toward those shots. What she encountered was a dying solider, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. And what were her words to that dying man? “You are loved… your family loves you… everyone loves you… we are all so proud of you… You are so loved…”  And when later asked why she said what she said, she responded simply, “When you are dying, you need to know how loved you are.” 

This is the entire theology of the Gospel wrapped up in a single sentence. “When you are dying, you need to know how loved you are.”  To a dying race, to a people who constantly hurt each other, who sin against each other, who make terrible mistakes trying even to do the best, God comes to us in Jesus with the words “You are so loved… I love you … you are so loved.” God believes that we need, more than anything else to hear these words from him:  “I love you.” And he speaks these words to us in Jesus Christ.  We are further called to speak these words to each other, to run toward the fire, toward the gunshots, toward the tragedy, towards death and proclaim life in the words “I love you” to those who desperately need to hear that they are loved. To know that we are loved by God, and to share that love with one another in the midst of forces that attempt to drive us to hatred, upon these two things hang all the law and the prophets.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A War that Wages Within Us - A Homily for Proper 14, Year A, 2014

Homily for Proper 14, Year A, 2014
Sunday, July 6, 2014
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Texts: Romans 7:15-25, Matthew 25-30

“Come unto me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

Since last December, I have made a conscious effort to be a healthier person. When I sprained my ankle just before Christmas, I realized that I was not going to get better without better self-care. And so I undertook seriously, what I had previously only committed to half-heartedly, and made regular exercise a priority. Now, those who know me well know that reading has always really been my sport, and when I figured I needed a bit more cardiovascular activity then what was required to turn a page, I picked up my guitar and let the strumming count for my cardio activity that week.  Obviously, I needed a wakeup call.  The problem is, though, that I really don’t like exercise. Sure, I feel great after I have done it, but perhaps that is one of God’s little tricks he plays on us, because motivation is actually needed before we do something, not after the task is completed!  So, I plug away. I try to do my daily exercise, and for the most part I am feeling better, but it is hard, and it is not really what I want to be doing with my time.  It is amazing how often I hear that Lumberjack breakfast at Hot Stacks calling my name, and that is really where I want to be! 

Like St. Paul, I have a problem.  I know what I ought to do, what I really should do, and in my heart of hearts I really want to do, but then I turn and do the wrong thing, the thing I ought not to do, the thing in my heart that I actually hate.  I suspect I am not alone on this journey, indeed, if I am not mistaken, it is part of the human condition and we are all part of that same race.  Like St. Paul, we do not understand our own actions.  We know what is good, and yet how often do we choose what is not so good.  And then we rationalize our choice.   The other day when I was on the treadmill, I had to pause it and tie my shoe.  I accidentally reset it and was trying to figure out how to get it back, and then just gave up.  “Oh well,” I said to myself, “that’s pretty good, I’ll make it up tomorrow.”  And then tomorrow gets busy, and you know the rest.

I am using the example of exercise because for me, it is the thing that is good for me, but the thing I am tempted to continually to forsake.  Each one of us will know what our temptations are.  Each one of us will have our “oughts” and “ought nots” that we struggle with.  And each one of us will think from time-to-time that we have slain our dragon, that we have become strong enough under our own might to fight off that beast of temptation, and yet, the moment our guard is down, we find ourselves veering off that good road, and wandering down that familiar side street of temptation. 

The truth is, we are actually wired to do the right thing. We are wired for goodness. We are created in the image and likeness of God. God looked at all he created and said “it is good!”  As human beings we have an intrinsic sense of the natural law of right and wrong. We know what is best for us both as individuals and as a community.  We may argue about the details of how to bring about goodness in the world, but we are wired to strive toward the good.  This is what St. Paul is talking about when he says that we know the good we ought to do.  There is both a natural revealed law of right and wrong, and in the Commandments of the Moral Law of the Old Testament we are taught right and wrong. The natural moral law and the revealed moral law have one and the same font, and that is God. 

Why then, knowing good from evil in our heads and perhaps even in our hearts, why, being wired for the good, do we struggle against it and often choose what is not best for us?  Somewhere along the line, something short-circuited.  Something interfered with the wiring.  A bug got into the programming.  Somewhere along the line, the creation confused itself with the creator, and placed itself at the centre of the universe, in place of the one to whom that honour is truly due.  Somewhere along the line, human beings, in extraordinary hubris mistook themselves for gods and forgot the one true God.  When we become gods and cast out the one true God we take to ourselves the role of rule maker, and the role of rule-breaker.  We place our own temporal and earthly desires and wants above the eternal good and twist our moral framework to accommodate our unhealthy longings.   And all the while, we know down deep inside something is wrong. We know the good we ought to be choosing, and yet, we choose it not. What we desire temporally has become so important that we have lost sight of things eternal.  But deep down the struggle is there, and from time-to-time pangs of conscience will attack, and yet we push away and bury them. It is often not until we reach a crisis, and we know we cannot go on rationalizing, seeking after earthly treats that never fill the longing soul, that we know something has to give. The weight of juggling all our conflicting rationalizations of our behaviour to ourselves, and to others, has become too heavy, and what are we do?

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” Jesus says, “for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  The truth is, we know that in our moment of struggle, when the burden is hard, when the world is confusing, when we are hiding from ourselves and others that the answer really is a simple one: turn to Christ.  And yet, I want to carry that load. I want to prove that I can bear the burdens. I want to keep all the balls in the air.  Yet, I know deep down that I cannot.  But here is the irony: the burden sometimes is in laying down the load, rather than continuing to carry it, or even taking on more. It is harder to lay down the load, to say, “I can’t do it on my own”, and “I need someone else to carry it for awhile”. These are the truly hard things to say, and they are the truly hard things to do. But they are the right thing. Why? Because, in laying down your load before Christ you allow yourself to be re-wired, to be re-ordered, to be restored, refreshed, recreated.  In laying down your burden before Christ you take yourself out of the centre of the universe and recognize that that is God’s place, and indeed, that God never left it when you tried to place yourself there. 

And thus, the burden we pick up in Christ is an easy burden. Note carefully that Jesus still calls it a burden. It is not that the Christian life is without challenge, or work, or trial, but it is a burden that is carried by Christ, and not ourselves alone.  Last week we spoke about some of those challenges that come from following Jesus, from taking up his yoke, and we heard that they are not easy at all, and yet nothing beats doing the right thing, and God will empower us with his strength on the journey. “Learn from me,” he says, “For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”.  Is this not what St. Paul says he is longing for when he talks about the war going on within him, within all of us?  Is this not what we all long for – peace in our souls?  And yet we turn not to Christ because we are afraid of being judged for all our wrongs, for our mistakes, for the war that wages within us.  But what does Jesus say to all that? Do not fear, I will not judge you.  His words are simple, he is gentle, and he says “Come to me all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”  That is why St. Paul, at the conclusion of his lament about the war that wages within us, can cry “but thanks be to God, who has given us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

As each of us face the struggles that challenge us, and as we set out, attempting to do the right thing, and inevitably, under the weakness of our own strength fall short of the mark, may we be given grace to hand over our challenges, our weaknesses, our hopes and our failures to the one who will truly give us peace, and find victory in him, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Bring me my Arrows of Desire - A Homily for Easter VII (Sunday in Ascensiontide/Jerusalem Sunday)

Homily for Easter 7, Year A, 2014
Sunday in Asceniontide, Jerusalem Sunday
Sunday, June 1, 2014
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 17:1-11

“…And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.”

And did those feet in ancient time
walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
on England’s pastures seen?

An ancient legend, of dubious merit, posits that our Lord (along with Joseph of Arimithea) visited England during an unrecorded period of his life.  In the preface to his epic poem “Milton”, a text now sung as the anthem “Jerusalem”, William Blake asks the question: “And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?” 

And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem build-ed here
Among those dark satanic mills?

The English are well-known for gazing back through time and imagining a lost golden age.  One only has to consider the myth of Camelot. But this is not Camelot that Blake is envisaging, it is Jersualem the Golden, the heavenly kingdom.  Did Christ visit the land of Blake’s fathers and for a moment, did heaven touch earth? Did Jerusalem break forth and did Satan’s hosts flee?  One can imagine Blake in his own day, surrounded by the dark satanic mills of the Industrial revolution, wondering if this was indeed the place where heaven had once touched earth, because surrounded by the suffering and injustice of the age, it surely did not seem so in the moment.

And so in our age, can we believe that in the Incarnation of God in Christ heaven touched earth? That the forces of Satan were defeated and that death itself was destroyed? Oh, as we look about and see the brutality of mankind, the flagrant destruction of God’s creation for the sole benefit of commercial gain, when we see the disparity between rich and poor, when we see the wars and destruction, and indeed as we look upon the earthly Jerusalem, so continuously wrought with strife and death, do we not feel as though we are indeed surrounded by dark satanic mills?  Can we believe in the new Jerusalem, the Holy City of God, a Jerusalem of peace, a Jerusalem of hope?  Do we not feel as though God has left us, and even wonder if he was ever here in the first place?  Did his feet in ancient time walk upon the Palestine’s mountains green?  And was the holy Lamb of God in the valleys of Judah seen?

How easy it is for us to forget the promise and the hope that has been bequeathed to us.  The glory of Jesus, according to the seventeenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel  is that he has given eternal life and hope to all of his people through his life, his death, his resurrection and ascension.  In Jesus Christ, the very word of God, God himself is made known to those who would believe in him.  The world chooses not to know him. The world chooses still to labour away in those dark satanic mills, and yet, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, God has made himself known in Christ Jesus.  In Jesus we have found hope, we have encountered the living God. That encounter, that relationship brings peace, brings reconciliation, brings hope, and brings new and everlasting life.  All these things he has given us, and yet even as he returns to the Father, our faith begins to falter, and we begin to wonder, did his feet in ancient time actually walk upon mountains and pastures green?

Yet, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, although he is no longer in the world, he is present in the world through his church, the body of Christ.  Jesus says, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.” Can we dare to believe that he is present in us, in our communion, in our community, in our love for one another and in our compassion and love for this broken world?  Can we dare to believe, even as the powers of evil tempt us to doubt and despair, that he dwells in us and we in him?  Can we believe that even as the earthly Jerusalem is continually wrought with violence and strife, the new Jerusalem is being built every time we worship together, pray to God, serve and love?  Jesus himself prayed to the Father that we might be protected from the snares of the evil one, that we might be guarded from harm, and guarded from hopelessness and despair, that we might be faithful to our calling, and that we might be one with each other and him, even as he and the Father are one.

As Blake wondered, and perhaps even doubted a fabled Jerusalem in England’s golden past, he knew that Jerusalem could only be built through the apostolic faithfulness of the children of God.  Even if Jesus never set foot in England, or in North America -- in the presence of the Church, his true and living body, Jesus is amongst us, walks amongst us, is seen on mountain and in vale, his countenance scatters the clouds and the tramples down the dark satanic mills of our own day. 

And so Blake wondering about the past, sings with certainty about today, and our role in building the new Jerusalem:

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

Blake prays not for earthly weapons but spiritual weapons, an arrow of desire, a chariot of fire that he might be aflame with a holy passion for justice, for peace, for the new Jerusalem.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
in this our green and pleasant land.

Jesus prayed that his departure would not disable his disciples, but rather empower them.  And so, as we shall hear next week at Pentecost, he breathed the fire of the Holy Spirit upon them that they might be enflamed with desire for the peaceable and new Jerusalem.  Shall we shrink from the task? Shall we grow cold as the dark satanic mills of this age breath fire?  Or shall we burn with passion for God’s kingdom about which Blake sung?  The feet of Jesus walked in Jerusalem of old and yet through the power of his Spirit, and through the arrows of desire that bring us, and the chariot of fire upon which we go forth, may the gospel of Jesus be proclaimed in this, our green and pleasant land.