Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Work of Civilization - A Homily for Proper 33, Year C, 2016

A Homily for Proper 33, Year C, 2016
Sunday, November 13th, 2016
St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Newmarket, ON
Text: Isaiah 65:17-25

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.”

The prophet Isaiah speaks about the creation of a New Jerusalem. This is a vision of hope, a vision of joy, a vision of a new and just world, in which the evils of this age are swept away.  The church continues to proclaim this hope from age to age, even as the kingdoms of this world rise and fall.  And so it is perhaps appropriate that we should hear about God’s promise of a New Jerusalem this week, as for some of us, that reality seems to be farther away than ever.
            I shall not mince words, nor shall I cloke or dissemble my disappointment and fear following the outcome of the American election.  I am not rejoicing, although I know there are many that are. I have been challenged more than once this week by individuals who have suggested what has happened in America is actually a good thing -  a great thing. I hope they are right, but I fear that they are not. When I see a man come to power who has consistently spoken using racist, xenophobic, misogynistic language, who clearly has little respect for the laws of the land or for the most vulnerable who walk amongst us, I think we have cause to fear.  What I have heard from him so far, is so far from my understanding of the Christian gospel, that I cannot simply acquiesce to the admonition to “get behind him” and “give him a chance.”  You may very well think differently from me, and I have no doubt that those who do will be more than happy to call me to task.  I thank God that we actually live in a society where that can happen.  I hope and pray that we will continue to live in such a world, but I do have my fears.
            But the pulpit is not a place for fear, it is place from which hope is proclaimed. Yet, it is also a place in which truth must be proclaimed, and in which truth must be proclaimed to power. So, it is incumbent upon me as your priest to warn that there may be dark days ahead.  After the election, clergy friends began posting a meme on Facebook, which said that we should not worry or lament because “God is still on his throne.”   Of course this is true, God still is on his throne, but another one of my colleagues was quick to remind us that God was on his throne through genocides and wars, too.  As Christian people, we have a solemn and sacred call not to bury our heads in the sand, not to follow blindly the hysteria of the masses, but to name what is wrong and speak truth to power.  I cannot easily pass over the sabre rattling, the misogynistic comments, the bragging of sexual assault, the bravado about banning and deporting whole religious communities, as “campaign rhetoric” and blindly trust that “all shall be well.”
            We cannot simply sit back and hope that things shall get better, or that they will smooth themselves out.  When a bully takes command of the playground, it is amazing how many other bullies come out of the playground and find strength in numbers.  I was bullied as a child. Trust me. The times I am least proud of, though, is when I countered violence with violence.  I’ve tried it more than once. In despair I have thrown a punch in the school yard, I have adopted the bully’s tactics, and it has almost always been the wrong approach.  I have either found myself punished, ended up flat on the ground, or been deeply disappointed in myself.   There must be a better way.
Upon my shelf sits a multi-volume history of civilization, inherited from my paternal grandfather, The History of Civilization, by Will Durant. Toward the opening of his first volume, he writes: “Civilization is not something inborn or imperishable; it must be acquired anew by every generation.”  I believe this with all my heart.  God sets before each generation the choice found in the Book of Deuteronomy 30:19, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

But what does it mean to choose life?  I think for many, choosing life is a selfish thing.  It is not an urge to create a civilization, but an urge to get the best for me and for me alone.  It is an urge that says “to hell with the other guy, he has had his day, let him feel my pain for awhile, while I’m on top.”
Several weeks ago I attended the Aurora prayer breakfast.  The speaker was a woman named Marina Nemet, a survivor of torture in post-revolutionary Iran. As a teenage girl she was taken into custody for associating with the wrong sorts of people and tortured for several years. She was eventually forced to marry her torturer.  What she discovered after he had died, from his mother, the mother of the man who tortured her, was that he had been tortured by the Shah’s regime.  When the transfer of power came, the instruments of torture were simply handed from regime to regime, and the tortured became the torturer.  Ms. Nemet spoke of how easy it would have been for her to pick up the weapons of torture, and how great that urge remains, but to this day she has not. She has chosen another way. A better way.
A great segment of people in America have felt marginalized for a long time.  I am not here to question the validity of this claim – what they feel is what they feel.  Our history is filled with marginalization.  There are now winners in the battle for who has been marginalized the most.  Trump has given voice to the anger and rage that is felt by many, justly or unjustly, and with that rage now un-bottled, we should be very worried about where that rage will lead.  I am worried because the instinct of one who is marginalized is often not to build a better world, but to inflict pain on the ones who we perceive have hurt and marginalized us.   Where in the Gospel are we called to live this way?
It is my firm conviction that we must doggedly resist the dehumanizing instincts of our day; instincts that seek to destroy our civilization rather than build it up.  We must call out words and deeds of racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and all other forms of dehumanization.  We must resist the false doctrine that all will be set right if we just sit back and let history take its course. 
If we believe in the kingdom of God, if we believe that it is truly breaking through, then we must live our kingdom values today. We must not wait for the moment when the time is once again right. That day never comes.  We must not go into hiding as Christian people, but cast the light of the Gospel into the dark corners of this age through our faith and witness. We must seek and serve Christ in our neighbour, respect the dignity of every human being, strive to preserve God’s creation in the midst of the great onslaught that is put upon it. We must be reflective of our own behaviour, and contrite, remorseful, and repent when we lose our way. We must never cease coming together and breaking bread around this table, the Lord’s table, recalling who died for us, and for the world; recalling who rose for us, and for the world; remembering that we are not simply individuals seeking our own good, but one great family seeking the common good of all.  If we believe in the kingdom of God, if we believe that it is truly breaking through, then we must live those kingdom values today!  We must live as though Christ were standing amongst us in this moment. And would he tolerate any one of us denigrating the other to build ourselves up? Could any of us stand in the presence of God and speak the horrible rhetoric we have heard in these last days.  God forbid it.
There is a better way. That way is the way of the cross.  It is the way of self-giving love. It is the way of putting the needs of the other above my own for the greater good and for the kingdom.  God himself led that way. God himself chose death that we might have life, not life that we might die. Ponder that. The almighty put himself on the cross. He didn’t have to. He did it because he loves us, believes in us, and has a hope for what he has created.  God has a hope for us. He hopes in us. He believes in us enough to die for us. Will we be worthy of that hope? Will be worthy of our call? Let us do the work of creating and building a civilization worthy of the hope and trust that our Lord has placed in us.
Let us keep faith, then, with the one who died, and lived again, that all people might be called friends and not enemies; brothers and sisters and not strangers; beloved, not hated; precious, not reviled. Through His grace may we love each other as He has loved us. His love alone, the love that laid down its life for us, can cut through our prejudice, hatred, and anger… search your conscience. Is it not so?
After fifty years of chronicling the history of Civilization, Will Durant stated his final lesson, gleaned from all his amassed learning: “Love one another. My final lesson of history is the same as that of Jesus.”
May it be so. Come, Lord Jesus.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The People Who Walked in Darkness - A Homily for Christmas Eve, 2015

Christmas Eve, Year C, 2015
Thursday, December 24th, 2015
Trinity Anglican Church Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Isaiah 9:2

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  The prophet Isaiah foretold a time when the yoke of the burden of the people would be lifted and the rod of the oppressor would be broken.  The people in Isaiah’s time dared to dream that it would be so.   And to shepherds abiding in the fields, to a young couple from Nazareth, to the people of Judea who struggled under the yoke of the oppressor, could they believe it would be so?  In the birth of this tiny babe, had the rod of the oppressor been broken, had the yoke of oppression been lifted?  Only time would tell, for while that child rested in the manger, he was still but a child, and what can a little child do to break the rod of the oppressor and lift the yoke that burdens the oppressed?

However, we ought to listen carefully to what Isaiah says. Does he say that the people who walked in darkness will see a great light? No!  His proclamation is a bold one: that they have seen a great light.  For Isaiah, the Lord of hosts is ever with us.  And so it was in Bethlehem, too.  At the birth of this blessed babe, the angels did not announce what was to come, but what had happened.  Unto you is born THIS day, in the city of David, a saviour which IS Christ the Lord.  The shepherds did not go to Bethlehem to see a thing that was about to take place, but rather, to see this thing which the Lord has done! 

The birth in time of the timeless Son of God is the moment in history in which God acts definitively and decisively to break the rod of the oppressor, to destroy the yoke of the oppressed.  In the birth in time of the timeless Son of God it is done, the rest of the ministry of Jesus is the working out of all that has already come to pass.  There is no going back to oppression. There is no going back to slavery. There is no going back to darkness. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, on them the light has dawned. 

The birth in time of the timeless Son of God is the dawn of a new day, a day that ever lies open before us.  Even the day, though, must come to an end.  But thanks be to God that he has given us the victory in Christ Jesus.  When the night seems to fall upon us again, when the darkness of death seeks to overcome us and oppress us, when it seeks once again to make us its slave, then Christ himself goes into the darkness, into the land of deepest darkness, on the cross, to the grave, and shines his radiance into the darkest places. No darkness will stand against his light.   Darkness is not darkness in your presence, O Lord.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who dwelled in a land of deep darkness, on them the light has shone.  To shepherds in the field, on a night covered by cold and darkness, a light shone forth.  In the midst of darkness, the heavens opened to them.  On a dark night they were surrounded by the glory of God, and heaven filled the earth with its presence. It was such an unusual and unexpected sight that they were sore afraid, terrified.  Sometimes we seem to dwell in such deep darkness that darkness becomes what is normal for us.  Sometimes the darkness becomes so normal, that we bristle at the light.  The light surprises us, frightens us, astonishes us. But from the light comes the voice, “Fear not, I bring you good news! Tidings of Joy!”  Fear not, the light brings joy, the light brings hope, the light brings peace.  And as fast as the light can move, so joy, hope and peace are upon us. They are not something that is merely on the way, they are have arrived.  Christ is born. The Light has arrived, and with it has come our salvation from the darkness. Darkness shall never overcome it.

Wise men, seeking hope looked into the darkness of the night sky.  When you consider the darkness of the night, the depths of blackness that the night sky holds, what a marvel it is that amongst all the blackness, they saw the light that was dawning. In the deep, dark night sky, wise men from the East, caught a glimpse of the light.  It was a star that must have begun its life millions of years before they had ever seen it. It had begun its work of shining in the darkness long before men walked upon the face of the earth.  Is this not so with the ways of God? We cry out, “where are you God?” and “Show me your light?”  But has God not been present from before the foundation of the world? Has his light not shone from time immemorial?  When we stare into the darkness what do we see?  Does the darkness overwhelm us?  Or can we catch a glimpse of the light?  And shall we follow it?
And that’s just what the people in our Christmas stories did.  The shepherds got up, and went, not slowly, not lingering, but with haste, and sought out what had already taken place, sought out the one who was born not to become king of the Jews, but the one who was king before he was ever born.  That was why Herod feared him so much.  The Shepherds went with haste, and they found him, already born, already in their midst, lying in the manger.  And their lives changed forever.

The magi, the wise men, left their home in the east, and made the long journey, perhaps even a couple of years, and found the child and his parents. They offered their gifts, not only gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, but the gift of themselves.  And when they went home, they went not the way they came, but by another road.  I have often thought that there is another meaning to this phrase. The early Christians were first known as “the people of the road”, or “the people of the way”. To go another way, means to follow a new path, a new road. Their lives were changed forever, for they recognized God in their midst in the Christ child. Their lives forever followed another road.

Think of the nativity sets we build and make.  There is Mary and Joseph. There are shepherds. There are wise men.  But if your set is at all like ours, there is always room to grow.  Our set has villagers, wanderers, perhaps you might even have a little drummer boy coming to worship Jesus.  I have seen some nativity sets in which the stable seems to be surrounded by a whole village that is taken in by the birth of the babe.  It is a far sight from that lonely stable. And so it should be. 

Friends, we are continuing to build that nativity set this Christmas, with every generation of new worshippers, new Christians come and fall down before the manger on this holy night.  At this time of year, when the days are short and nights are long. When we seem enveloped in a great darkness, a deep darkness; when the world seems shrouded not only in the darkness of night, but the darkness of evil, there is good news.  A Son has been born to us.  The news is not that he will be born, but that he has been born. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The news is not that we will see a great light, but that we have seen a great light.    So, as the angels proclaimed long ago, as the appointed messenger on this Christmas I proclaim to you now, and again, “Fear not, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour which is Christ the Lord.”  Let us go then, with haste, and see this thing which the Lord has done. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

From Unworthiness to Holy Service: A homily for Lent 1, 2015

Homily for Lent 1, Year B, 2015
Sunday, February 22nd, 2015
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 1 Peter 3:18-22

“Christ suffered for sins once for all.” – 1 Peter 3:18

I think one of the great struggles people have with God is they wonder how an all-powerful God who created the entire cosmos could love and care about them?  When we contemplate the expanse of time and space on a cosmic scale, my life is but a blip.  Even when we move from the cosmic perspective to a human perspective, our lives can seem still quite insignificant. I do a lot of genealogy, and it is amazing how completely a person can be forgotten in just a hundred years, or even less. It is humbling for me to look at that gallery of clergy hanging at the back of this church and think about how little we know about some of those people and that in sixty or so years, people with look at my picture and say “who was he?” and likely no one will remember.  If I will be forgotten in less than a century, who am I that the God who created the cosmos should love me and care about me?
            And yet, God does love me and God does care about me. God does love you and God does care about you.  Today, on this first Sunday of Lent, we hear in the First Epistle of Peter about that love and care God has for us, and God brings purpose and meaning into our lives. Some scholars believe this letter was written to a group of early Christians who found themselves in exile for their faith.  Some may have been persecuted or even killed for their belief in Christ Jesus.  It would have been very easy for them to have become discouraged. Yet, Peter wrote to them to give the courage, to strengthen their faith, and remind them of the purpose God had given them, when they asked does God really love me, does he really care about me? 
            To all of this Peter responded with an encouraging reminder about the foundation of their faith, Jesus Christ and his saving work.  He told them to remember that Christ also suffered, and that it was the suffering of Christ that brought them to God, unworthy as they were.  What a remarkable proclamation this is; God came to us in Christ Jesus, although we were unworthy, to bring us closer us to God. 
As stated at the outset, many people believe that they are unworthy of God’s love and care because they have made mistakes, sinned, or hurt others. Some just have a general sense of unworthiness before God.  Indeed, one of my first deeply religious experiences was when I was on a school trip in grade eight to Quebec City, and we visited that great church of St. Anne de Beaupre. As you walk into that church you see crutches hanging from the arch of the nave, no longer needed by people who received healing at the church.  In that church is a relic, allegedly the arm (encased in gold) of St. Anne, the grandmother of our Lord.  As a child I looked at that relic and was overcome by the greatness of God, the magnitude of God, and as I stood in the presence of a holy relic of a great saint, I felt myself somehow in the presence of God, and found myself unworthy.  Many people describe religious experiences in which they come to a sense of awe and wonder of the almighty nature of God and sense their own unworthiness in the presence of the Almighty.  But God does not leave us there.  I am reminded of the story of Isaiah found in chapter six of that book. Isaiah has a vision of the throne room of God and sees the angels around the throne crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, and Isaiah is overcome by his own unworthiness and his own sinfulness. He cries out “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  Who among us would not respond as Isiah did?  But God did not leave him there. An angel touched his lips with a live coal from the altar of God and proclaimed that with the touch of the coal to his lips, all his sin had departed him and his guilt had been blotted out. Isaiah then felt free of what burdened him, free of the weight of unworthiness, so freed in fact, that he when he heard the Lord ask “Whom shall I send?” he called out bravely, “Hear I am: send me!”
            It seems to me that Peter was reminding this very same thing to the exiles to whom he wrote. He reminded them that in Christ Jesus, their guilt had been removed, their sin had been blotted out, and that in Christ their lives had new purpose and meaning. He was telling them that no matter their broken histories, and no matter their present suffering, in Christ Jesus they had been made worthy of God, and worthy to proclaim his gospel.  Jesus, who was righteous, suffered for the unrighteous, to bring them to God. 
            And how magnificent and how powerful is the work of God in Christ that guilt might be removed and sin blotted out?  As we read on Ash Wednesday from Psalm 103, “So far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us.” That is a long way!  Peter, however, takes this even one step further, for he tell us that after his death, Christ went to proclaim good news to the spirits of those in prison.  This passage is considered one of the most difficult passages in Scripture, and what does it mean?  According to Peter, they were the ones from former times, the ones who did not make it onto the Ark when God was waiting patiently for their repentance, who disobeyed the word of God.  Peter is actually telling the Church that God’s mercy is so great that it extends to those who have died.  It says to me, that there is no one who is so sinful, so miserable, so broken that he or she is beyond the bounds of God’s grace, in this life, or the next.  What a wonderful thing to contemplate. If we believe not only that God is all-powerful, but all-merciful and all-loving, then we must believe that his power stretches not only from the heights but to the depths as well. His love extends beyond the grave. This is why the Easter Icon of the Orthodox Church shows Jesus trampling down the gates of hell and rescuing Adam and Eve, the primordial sinners, our ancestors in unworthiness, from its clutches.  St. Peter makes no bones about it, for he says Christ suffered for the unrighteous.         
            This is good news for us today.  We have a great privilege in the land in which we live. We can love and serve God without persecution, unlike the early Christians, and unlike Christians in some other places in the world today. Indeed, the heavenly throne room recently received the souls of 21 brave Coptic Christians, who would certainly have deemed themselves unworthy of the witness of martyrdom to which they were called, and yet through the power of Christ Jesus proclaimed their faith even to the last.  We have not been called to such a witness, but that should never be taken for granted. For although we are all unworthy in and of ourselves to proclaim the gospel of life in a culture of death, Christ Jesus makes us worthy witnesses. The point of all this is not to say that we are all called to such martyrdom. Indeed, God desires a world in which such martyrdom was not necessary, rather it is to say that Jesus has joined us in our suffering that in his victory over suffering and death, so too are we victorious.
            The ultimate point of Peter’s message to the Church is that the God, before whom we feel unworthy, looks upon us in our sin, in our brokenness, in our sense of unworthiness with great compassion and deep love. How do we know the almighty creator of heaven and earth cares about us? We know because in Christ Jesus, he came to us, to be with us, and in one supreme act of love participated in our suffering that we might participate in his glory.  He loves us so much that he chose not only to be with us in our worst, but to join us to him in his best.  The vision of Isaiah becomes our reality. In Christ Jesus, God turns the unworthiness and meaninglessness of our lives into worthiness and meaning. Where once we called, “who am I?” we now call “Here I am! Choose me!”  In Christ Jesus, we are made fit for joyful, meaningful, loving service, even when we shall meet hardship and trial.

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.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Tale of Two Kings - A Homily for Christmas I, 2013

A Homily for Christmas I, 2013
Sunday, December, 29th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 2:13-23

“Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went into Egypt…”
--Matthew 2:13

Today we hear the story of two kings.  The first king is a jealous king, a threatened king, an angry king.  The second king is but a child, and yet a child who holds the salvation of the world in his tender hands.  In the background are three others who have been traditionally described as kings, the magi, who have just departed from the stage.  In the forefront is Joseph, the righteous, obedient servant of the Lord; and offstage is the terrible slaughter of the innocent children, victims of Herod’s unrighteous wrath. 

It is one of the peculiarities of our liturgical calendar that we read this story out of sequence.  On Christmas I, we read the second part of the story first, namely, the flight into Egypt and the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.  Next week, on Epiphany, we shall read the first part, the arrival of the wise men, the magi from the East, the “three kings” of legend to worship and offer gifts to the infant Christ. 

Perhaps in some way reversing the order might seem strangely appropriate in that we know in advance, and we have already seared into our minds, that awful image of Herod’s wrath against the children of Judea.  If the wise men were so wise, why did they visit the insecure Herod and tip him off that they were searching for the one who would be king, the one who would challenge his rule?  Perhaps the natural place to seek out a future king is in a palace and not a stable, but we know what the wise men inadvertently unleashed in their visit to Herod, and we watch with different eyes as they lay their gifts before the infant child, knowing that their actions have set in motion a genocide.

Questions without answers are ever before us in this story.  Why would God allow this massacre? But then, why does God allow any massacre?  What is clear, though, is the darkness into which humanity is fallen, and how dark was the world into which our Lord was born.  Even as the light comes into the world, the darkness still rails against the light. 

Yet, the light comes into the world, and God, in his great condescension, in his great vulnerability in becoming man, trusted himself to man.  God trusted himself, in Christ Jesus, to the righteous man Joseph and the faithful handmaiden Mary.  In a world in which tyrants destroy the lives of infants, God yet had enough trust in humanity to allow himself to be born into the poverty of a stable, nurtured in the womb of the faithful virgin Mary, protected by the hand of the righteous Joseph.  Into such a world in which a Herod reigns, God trusts himself to humanity.  God is indeed the source of all hope.

As we learned in the nativity story according to Matthew, Joseph was indeed a righteous man, but more than that he was an obedient man. When the angel came to him in a dream and told him not to put Mary away because of her unexpected pregnancy, he obeyed.  One must ask: which of us would trust an angel who speaks to us in a dream?  Joseph trusted.  Joseph was obedient to the Lord’s word.  And so when an angel once again came to him in another dream, he was obedient again and led his family out of Israel into Egypt.  Why does Joseph trust?  Why does Joseph obey?  In the nativity according to Luke we read of a faithful and obedient Mary.  I have suggested at other times that Mary’s obedience and faithfulness grew out of being deeply steeped in the story of salvation as she would have learned it through hearing the biblical story read and retold throughout her life.  When she heard that God would use a lowly one such as herself, the words from Isaiah would have resonated within her.  Because she knew the ancient stories, she knew how God acted, and thus that what he was doing was completely in character with all she knew of God.  It was a risk for her to be faithful – faith if always a risk! – but she had faith that God was acting in and through her, and that his actions were completely in character with the God she had learned about and had always worshiped.  And so I think is the case for Joseph.  He was a righteous man, which means a man who would have known his Scriptures, studied them carefully, understood the Law and the Prophets.  Therefore, when an angel in a dream came to him, telling him to depart to Egypt with his family, did he think of another angel who came to Jacob in a dream (Gen 49), telling him to take his family into Egypt?  And what did Jacob find when he got there? That the son he thought was lost, Joseph, was alive, a leader amongst the Egyptians! Joseph, like Jacob obeyed God, and his family lived. 

When it came time to return to Judea, the angel came to Joseph in another dream, telling him of the death of Herod.  Joseph and his family returned, but learned that Herod’s son reigned, so again in a dream he was advised to go into the Galilee.  We learn that the sojourn out of Egypt was to fulfil the prophecy, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”  To most Jews the was a reference to the delivery of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, but Joseph clearly understood it on another level.  Joseph knew that another work of salvation was afoot, a salvation of which the former delivery from slavery in Egypt was but a sign.  Recall that Joseph was told to name his child, “Jesus” literally, “the one who saves his people.”  Obedient, righteous Joseph knew that he had a special guardianship of God’s new work of salvation, God’s decisive work of salvation.  And in all of this, Joseph, for our sakes, was obedient.

Yes, the exodus of old is fulfilled for us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Into a world in which tyrants slaughter innocents, comes the saving hand of God.  Into a world in which darkness threatens to envelop us and never let go, comes the light of Christ.  Into a world in which hope seems lost, the hopeful God entrusts himself to the care of the righteous man and the faithful woman.  And that same gospel is entrusted to us today.  It can be hard to believe that in a world such as this God’s hope can prevail. It can be hard to believe that in a world in which tyrants still slaughter innocents, that God is bringing about salvation.  It can be hard to believe that in a world in which much darkness prevails that he light of Christ can still shine.  But not only do we believe it, we proclaim it! For shine it does.   We are witnesses to that light.  Each of us is here, and we worship Christ, because of the saving work he has worked in us.  We are here and worship because God in Christ has acted decisively in our lives.  In Christ we have chosen the King who is a saviour, not the pretender king who is a destroyer.  In Christ we have chosen the King who is gentle, not the one who is jealous.  In Christ we have chosen the King who says suffer the children unto me, not the one who slays all the children that threatens his precarious reign.  We know from the ancient historian Josephus that Herod even slaughtered his own sons when they were a threat to him.  This may seem like a distant, fabulous story from a long-past time, but the human condition has changed little.  Those who seek after power still guard it jealously, and maliciously.  We have the inclination and the ability to do awful things with power.  These acts are not isolated acts found only in first century Judea.  They happen today.

The presence of Jesus, though, has the power to transform us.  As the embryonic Christ grew in the womb of blessed Mary, his presence shaped and transformed the lives of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth.  Were they as capable as any other human beings of terrible deeds?  Could they have rejected the Christ?  I imagine they could have, and yet, his very presence even in the womb, inspired a faithfulness and hopefulness in them that changed and shaped their lives forever.  And so it is true for us.  Without Christ what are we?  Without Christ, consider who we might be?  But with Christ, think of who have become, and are becoming!  As Christ is born in our lives, consider how our lives, our hearts, our meaning are reshaped, remoulded, and reformed.  The presence of Christ in the lives of Mary and Joseph inspires faith, encourages obedience, and fosters righteousness.   As the infant Christ shaped Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, so too Christ shapes us.   The Christ leads us on a new exodus, an exodus away from the prince of this age (who would shape and mould us as Herods) into a new and promised land in which we are shaped and moulded in to the image and likeness of the loving God, who has come to us in Christ Jesus.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The People Who Walked in Darkness - A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2013

Homily for Christmas Eve, 2013
Tuesday, December 24th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
-Isaiah 9:2

Many have been in the dark in the days leading up to Christmas.  Ice has weighed down power lines. Branches and even the trunks of trees have snapped.  Many have sat in coldness and darkness, and yet wonderful stories of hope, of generosity, and of joy have emerged.  Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a sign given to us in all of this.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the darkness and cold might have awakened us to the insatiability of the consumerism of the season and the unrealistic expectations of family to be in two or three places at one time.  When the angels sing of peace on earth, for many, this may seem the least peaceful time of year.  For many, it is a time filled with pressures, with angst, with exhaustion.  The loss of power and heat, the loss of light and warmth, the snow blocking driveways and entrance ways, perhaps these are a sign to us to be still for a moment and seek the meaning and truth of a season somewhere else than malls and parties. 

Where shall we seek?  Where shall we look?  And where shall we go when our road is blocked and the way seems dark and cold?  The shepherds of old, on a cold, dark wintery night, in the quiet of the darkness heard the song of the angel, and they responded, “Let us go then, even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.”  We may not be able to travel to the literal Bethlehem, but can we, ourselves, go even unto another very real Bethlehem and witness this thing which the Lord has done?  With lights out, with driveways blocked, can we yet go even unto Bethlehem?

In the days of the Prophet Isaiah, the people of Israel walked in darkness.  Perhaps they, too, felt as if their way was blocked. Perhaps they, too, felt a coldness and darkness that cut them through to the core.  For them, the darkness was the boots of tramping warriors.  For them the darkness was their loss of faith amidst oppression and corruption.  For them the darkness seemed unending.  But Isaiah reminds them that even the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.  Yes, even those who have dwelled in the land of deep darkness, upon them a light has shone.

For the people of Isaiah’s day, the hope came in the birth of a new heir – someone who would bring justice, righteousness, and peace. Although this child about whom Isaiah spoke was a king who predated Christ by about eight centuries, Isaiah’s words were also a prophetic utterance concerning another king who would come centuries later, and who, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is with us still.  The name of the king about whom Isaiah spoke to his contemporaries is lost to us, but the name of the one who ultimately fulfilled his prophecy is written on our hearts for ever and ever, and that name is Jesus Christ, our King and Lord—the one who was born in a stable in Bethlehem, heralded by angels, worshiped by shepherds, adored by magi. 

But in this present time, amid the stamping of feet in Christmas malls, and the reverie of Christmas parties, can we hear the angels’ song?  Can we hear the mother’s lullaby?  Can we hear the babe crying in the night in that cold, dark stable?    With all the clamour our ears become deaf.  With all the hysteria of “doing Christmas right” is it possible that the artificial warmth of our hearths will prevent us from receiving the Good News about which the angels sing? Or of making that journey even unto Bethlehem?

Then suddenly God acts in a surprising and unpredictable way. When the world is struck dark, when our artificial fires fail, when the way to the mall is blocked, we are given a special gift.  It is the gift of being able to gather with that small group of shepherds around that meagre fire, a fire that is soon paled by the warmth of the angelic apparition that fills the sky. Then, and only then, are our hearts prepared to make that trip to Bethlehem.  Then, and only then, are we able like the magi to leave riches, and opulence and the safety of our earthly palaces behind and  make the journey along desert road, our path illumined only by the light of a distant star.  In the darkness, with all light extinguished, we seek the light that never goes out.  In the cold night, we seek the warmth that cannot fail, along our snow-blocked, ice-laden paths, we seek the one whose way is ever open to us.

Oh how difficult it can be to see his light, perceive his warmth, travel his way, when other lights distract our eyes, other fires burn within us, and other roads seem to beckon down their paths.  These things become for us the meaning of life, they masquerade as the meaning of Christmas, they encourage us to rely on them to such an extent that we do not know what we shall do when they fail us. What can we do? Where may we go?

Let us go then, even unto Bethlehem!  No, not that distant war-torn place we see on TV and read of in our papers and on the internet, but that place where heaven touches earth and the cold turns to warm, the darkness turns to light, and the way of life is open for us. Let us turn to the Bethlehem of our hearts, where Christ is born this day! Let us go then even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which the Lord has done!  For in Bethlehem, there is no artificial light.  In Bethlehem there is no artificial warmth.  In Bethlehem there is no road but one, one that leads directly to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  In Bethlehem, his gates lie open continually. There is not wanting nor destruction within its borders.  Even as all other lights fail, so too shall all nations come to the light that shines in Bethlehem.  And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

Advent began with a prayer that we might be given grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life.  But darkness deceives us. Darkness masquerades as light. Sometimes we do not know that we travel in the darkness, for the lights are so bright, and the fires burn so brilliantly, and all roads seem lit.  Yet, make no mistake, the light we create because we are afraid of the dark is of no enduring consolation.  The fires we light because we are afraid of the coldness within us shall not warm us continually.  The roads we build to make the rough places plain will crumble.  There is only one light, one divine flame, one holy way, and that is Christ our God. 

Sometimes we need to have our lights turned off; sometimes we need to have our furnaces quit;  sometimes we need to have our driveways blocked, to remind us of the true light, the true divine flame, the one true way,  and to seek it.  The angel voices herald it again. The shepherds make the journey again.  The magi once again follow the star.  And in stable, cold and dark, the light shines in the darkness.


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.