Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Gospel of Mark Challenge

In my August 31st, 2008 homily (click here), I issued a challenge to parishioners to engage in praying the Daily Office over the next month and reading through the Gospel of Mark. In my homily I stressed that prayer (although requiring both effort and discipline) is not principally about doing, but about being. Prayer is about being in relationship with the living God. All relationships require commitment, effort, and time. However, the most important thing about being in a relationship, be it with a friend, lover, child or parent, is simply being together.

As Christian people, prayer is our way of being in relationship with God. In prayer we make the time, we commit ourselves to being together with God, and we enter into a conversation with God. How do we do this?

In my homily I suggested the following. First, make a regular time everyday to spend in prayer. If you are a morning person, this could be early in the day, before anyone else in your house awakes. Perhaps ending the day with prayer before you fall asleep will be more suited to your personality and lifestyle. Some people I know take a bit of time in the middle of the day, over their lunch hour, in a quiet place to engage in prayer. It is important to make the time and pray daily. The time of day does not matter.

Secondly, all relationships involve mutual conversation and shared experience. As Christian people, Holy Scripture is our shared story and the beginning and ending of all our conversations with God. Thus, a daily reading of Scripture should be at the core of our daily prayer. To this end, I have invited the people of my own parish to join me over the next month and read through the Gospel of Mark as part of our daily time of prayer. The Gospel of Mark (which will be the Gospel that read through next year during our Sunday liturgies) has 16 chapters, so this means roughly half a chapter a day -- a mere couple of paragraphs! (If you do not have copy of the Bible you may find the Gospel of Mark online by clicking here).

How are we to pray? There are many ways to pray but I suggest (as I have in the past in this blog-- click here) that we take up a particularly Anglican form of prayer, the Daily Office. The Daily Office is that ancient cycle of morning and evening prayer and reading that has nourished the life of the Church for centuries. It consists of sentences of Scripture, versicles and responses, canticles, pslams, readings from Scripture, an affirmation of faith, intercessory prayers, collects and other prayers. The Daily Office can be either a short or lengthy service, depending on whether or not we include all the variables that are offered -- it is up to the one praying! The wonderful thing about the service is that the words are words of "common prayer," that is, words that are found in a common text and shared by other Christians who are also "praying the office" either individually or in communities around the world. Some people will wish to pray both the morning and evening office, while others will be satisfied with one or the other. The late night office of Compline (Night Prayer) is also a beautiful service that ends the day.

Where can these services be found? If you own a Book of Common Prayer or Book of Alternative Services, Morning & Evening Prayer can be found toward the beginning of these books. If you don't own either, they can be obtained very inexpensively through The Anglican Book Centre. I have also included, on the sidebar of this page, several resources (books and online resources) which might be of assistance.

Thus, I encourage you, in the days ahead, to pray the Daily Office each day, and as part of that prayer, where a passage of Scripture is appointed, read half a chapter of the Gospel of Mark. In my homily I made two further points. First, if you miss a day, don't worry. No one is keeping track. Just pick up where you left off -- no need to double-up. Just keep going. Secondly, I pledge to read and pray with you and be a companion on the journey of prayer. As you pray daily and read through Mark I shall be doing the same. If questions arise, or if you have any comments (either with respect to The Gospel of Mark or praying the Daily Offfice), please do not hesitate to contact me at the email address above. I will be offering reflections on Mark's Gospel in the days ahead and would be pleased to address any of the questions or comments that might emerge out of your reading and prayer.

Finally, I would like to reiterate that prayer is not so much about doing but about being. Prayer is about being with God in a relationship, and Scripture is the anchor of our conversation. The Daily Office is one way in which we can intentionally nurture and deepen that relationship. I invite you to join me on the journey.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, without the express, written permission of the author.

Friday, August 15, 2008

What the Lectionary Doesn't Let Us Read

In preparing for my homily for Proper 20, I found myself once again frustrated with the Revised Common Lectionary. Throughout the summer I have been preaching on the The Epistle to the Romans. For Proper 20, Year A, the lectionary appoints Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, to be read, thus skipping over a large portion of chapter eleven. This happens several times with respect to Romans. On Proper 9, we read 1:16-17, 3:22b-28, thus skipping much of chapters one and three, and all of chapter two. Similarly, much of chapter nine is missing later on in the cycle. As a result, we are carefully directed away from passages that might lead us in the direction of sermons that address themes and concepts such as homosexuality, knowledge of God through natural theology, supersessionism, predestination, and yes, sin). Careful readers of the lectionary will note that considerable portions of the The Revelation to St. John are also absent, as well as several unpalatable passages from the Old Testament. This is only to scrape the surface.

As I explain in my Sunday homily (click here), I first encountered this problem some years ago when I was preaching on the The Book of Revelation and noted that all the nice “pie-in-the-sky” passages and glorious eschatological hymns were included but difficult passages, such as a series of “woes” in Revelation 22, were not. I asked someone with whom I worked, who had been a member of the lectionary committee, why this was the case, and was told that many difficult passages had not been included because preachers would have to spend so much time explaining the difficult pieces that they might never get to preaching the Good News.

Well, I’m sorry, but this has always stuck in my craw. Just who are the lectionary editors to judge that preachers are incompetent to exegete the text responsibly? This is not to say that the state of preaching in the Church is not in a sorry state. I have heard many sermons that have left me positively unedified, but not because the text of Scripture was unedifying. I am not above being the object of the criticism, either. I have preached some bad sermons in my time. I suggest, though, that our congregations should be the judge of our preaching and not the lectionary people. Furthermore, I would suggest, in opposition to my colleague on the lectionary committee, that excising difficult passages may actually inhibit the preaching of the Good News.

If we consider ourselves to be believers in the Incarnation, we must face the brutal but glorious reality that the Incarnation occurred in the muck and mire of our human existence. God in Christ redeems us in our brokenness and brutality because that is precisely what needs to be redeemed. God did not do a clean-up job before the Incarnation; the Incarnation occurred in the midst of a mess. I suggest that we need to approach the Scriptures through this same incarnational lens. The Scriptures speak of and to the muck and mire of our world, and often times reflect it. The question to ask these difficult texts is the incarnational question: What does a belief in the Incarnation teach us as we approach a difficult text from Holy Scripture. In any given difficult text, what is the human brokenness in search of divine healing? How does the God’s grace provide a context for this story or passage?

Last Sunday, we found ourselves responding to the story of the sons of Jacob selling their brother Joseph into slavery with, “Thanks be to God.” But as I pointed out before I began my sermon, the Psalm appointed for the day was a portion of Psalm 105, which sung about the wonderful works of God through Joseph in Egypt and ends with an “alleluia!” I tried to make it clear that our “Thanks be to God,” is only uttered in the context of the whole story in which God’s grace is revealed. The psalm provided this context. In this instance, the lectionary editors got it right – a difficult text was included, but given its proper context. What we learn is the truth that even in (and especially in) the muck and mire of our human existence God can work mighty acts of grace. This is the reality of the Incarnation.

There are, of course, those passages that are difficult and seemingly without context. Sometimes, we simply need to name the horror of the text and stand in silence before it. This is, of course, why we value our tradition of preaching. It is the task of the preacher to help the congregation interpret the text, understand its difficulties and perplexities, live within the tension of certain texts, and most importantly, to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ in the text.

The Revised Common Lectionary offers us grand possibilities and a wide selection of Scripture over the three-year cycle. Indeed, as Anglicans we are reading more Scripture than ever before (much of the Old Testament was left unread in the old BCP lectionary). We have the opportunity to follow large pieces of text sequentially, week after week, as well as hear thematic selections at particular points during the festivals and seasons of the Church Year. Believe it or not, as mainstream Christians, through the gift of the lectionary, we actually read and hear much more Scripture in worship than many of our Evangelical brothers and sisters! Yet, the lectionary is not without flaws. I believe the courageous preacher will address these gaps and take up the task of preaching the difficult pieces of Scripture that have been excised, and work toward their inclusion in the difficult journey that we call the way of faith.

Copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

Friday, August 8, 2008

On Reaffirming Our Faith

During these summer months I have decided to move away from the prescribed Daily Office readings and instead read a chapter from Paul during each of my prayer times. I have been moving through the Epistles in canonical order and have found this a most edifying discipline. As parishioners and regular followers of my sermons page will note, since June, I have been preaching on Romans. The daily reading of Paul, combined with reflection and research on the texts for my Sunday homilies has helped me consider the importance for Paul of turning to Christ in our moments of crisis. I have preached on this subjected much, of late, and from several angles.

Several key themes have emerged – decision, community, being alive to God, not being ashamed of the Gospel, amongst others – and I suppose what I find most exciting about reading Paul, and particularly Romans, is the challenge he lays before us. It is essentially a reworking of that old deuteronomic admonition: I set before you life and death, choose life! For we live in a wonderful but broken world and we can choose how we shall live in it. It is a world that is so imbued with the imprint of divine love and yet it is a world that fails to recognize the beauty bestowed upon it by our creator. It is a world that paradoxically seeks after the divine and simultaneously rejects any authentic encounter with the God who both consoles and challenges.

But what does it mean, in Christian terms, to choose life? I suppose the most poignant thing that we learn from Paul, and especially in his letter to the Romans is that we, in and of ourselves, are unable to do what God alone can do, namely, bring about the reconciliation of the world to God. This goes for each of us as individuals, for our communities, and for the human family as a whole: strive as we might, God alone, in Christ Jesus, is the one who transforms human hearts, brings about reconciliation amongst peoples, and transforms us into his likeness; it is not we, ourselves.

What then are we to do? As I understand it, from my reading of Paul, we are to turn to Christ, put our whole trust in him, and follow him as our Lord. This is what it means for a Christian to “choose life.” Traditionally, turning to Christ has been a phrase that has been appropriated by Evangelicals and members of the "religious right" to speak specifically, and only about our moment of conversion. While I certainly believe that this can, and might very well be the most poignant moment in many lives, a moment in which one experiences God first time, I have tried to suggest over these past weeks, and I believe that in doing so I am faithfully presenting the position of Paul the Apostle, that “turning to Christ” is something that we must continually do, especially in our moments of crisis, change, and even triumph. Choosing life is something that we must do again and again, and to choose life, we must choose Christ.

We are each faced with moments in which we know that we cannot do it on our own, no matter how hard we work or strive. Perhaps you or someone you love is facing a chronic or terminal illness; perhaps you have been engaging in intensive psychotherapy and confronting the demons of your past; perhaps you are facing frightening decisions about beginning, ending or changing your employment; or facing decisions about discontinuing the life support of a family member; or going through one of those difficult life transitions in which your whole world has been turned upside down. These are moments when we are apt to meet God if we simply put our whole trust in him.

Then there are the moments of joy in which we realize that God has walked with us and that is only by his grace that we are where we are. It may be the joy of the gift of new life in the birth of child; or perhaps the joy of fulfillment and sense of relief after making the risky, but correct decision about a life change; or maybe the opening of a door when one has closed; or simply the emerging reality that God has walked with us and carried us to the other side of our sea of troubles.

These are all “moments of conversion” in which we have the potential to see that God in Christ has transformed our lives and set us on the path of life. These are moments when joy comes out of suffering and meaning out of chaos. And to respond to these moments by recommitting ourselves to seek and serve Christ all our days is, I believe, the truth at the heart of the Gospel preached by St. Paul.

In the Church we have a moment in which we can respond to these encounters with the living God. Many will feel that it is appropriate to respond either to the stark conversions that we experience in the midst of crisis or to the gentle unfolding of God’s grace over many years with a re-affirmation of faith. To such an end (or rather, new beginning) we may share in the rite of Confirmation.

Confirmation is a moment in our shared liturgical life when baptized Christians who have had an encounter with the living God choose to make the vows of their baptism their own, perhaps for the first time, or perhaps for the hundredth time. It is a moment in which our bishop lays hands upon the Christian person and confirms for them what they already know to be true, that they share in the apostolic faith of our fathers and mothers, in the gospel of our Salvation – that in Christ, they have chosen life. It is a moment in which individuals stand in the midst of the community and say “yes”, once again, to following Christ as their Saviour and obeying him as their Lord. It is a moment in which all our moments with our Lord coalesce into an affirmation of faith that is a witness to our broken and hurting world that hope is not destroyed, that death is not the final story, and that Christ is indeed Risen, restoring life, releasing us from the captivity of meaninglessness existence, releasing us from fear, from death and calling us forth to share this Good News with the God’s beautiful but broken world.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This text may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.