Sunday, August 21, 2016

How to Avoid Sinking: Homily for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost and the 9th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

I Corinthians 3:9-17; Matthew 14:22-34
Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that we are totally self-sufficient and able to live exactly as we please with no serious consequences.  Self-reliance, independence, and freedom certainly have their places, but they also have their limits and must be kept in proper perspective.  We must develop these qualities in light of who we are before God, if we are to flourish as His beloved sons and daughters.  
            That is precisely what Peter did not do in today’s gospel reading, however.   As he miraculously walked on the water with Jesus Christ, he did not accept the reality of who he was in relation to the Lord.  He turned his trust away from the One Who was enabling him to do what he could never do on his own, to walk on the water.  Instead, he focused on the wind and the waves and his own weakness, and began to sink.  It had apparently not sunk into Peter’s mind that he was walking on the waves purely because the Son of God had enabled him to do so.  As he turned away from trusting the Lord and relied only on himself, he began to sink like a stone.  As we all know, that is simply the reality of what happens to a human being who tries to walk on the water by his own power.  
                Something similar would happen to a building that was not squarely grounded on a solid foundation.  It would collapse under its own weight. As St. Paul reminded the Corinthians, our one true foundation in life is the same Son of God Who spoke the universe into existence, became the Second Adam to restore our corrupt humanity, and Who conquered death in His third-day resurrection. He is the very basis of our existence and our hope for salvation. 
                Whenever we use our freedom as an excuse to turn away from Him and to trust only in our own desires and abilities, we turn away from our true selves.  We cut ourselves off from the truth, reality, and power that are necessary for us to flourish as those created in the image and likeness of God.  If we are honest, we will see that it does not take much at all to put us in our place, to show us that living by our own designs is a path that leads only to weakness and despair.  That is why Peter started to sink when he focused more on the stormy sea than on the Lord.  Our ultimate choice, which we make every moment of our lives, is whether to entrust ourselves to the merciful, transformative power of the Savior.  He alone provides the path to true freedom from slavery to our passions and ultimately from death. 
            It is no accident that Peter’s fear in that moment was focused on death.  He was a fisherman and knew that someone in his situation was about to drown, but he at least had the presence of mind to call out “Lord, save me.”  The circumstances that we face due to our lack of faith may not be quite so clear, but the meaning is the same.  When we step away from the one true foundation, we choose the pain of death instead of the joy of the empty tomb.  When we nourish hate and anger toward others, we murder them in our hearts.  When we embrace lustful thoughts, we enslave ourselves to immoral desires and commit adultery.  When we refuse to forgive others, we harden our hearts and make it impossible to accept God’s forgiveness for our own sins.   When we do not serve our neighbors in need, we disregard the Lord Himself.  No, we do not have to do anything nearly as dramatic as Peter did in order to start sinking into the depths. 
            Of course, some will justify drowning in sin in the name of being true to themselves.  Here is where Orthodox Christianity insists that human beings are not mere bundles of freedom who are made to find fulfillment wherever and however they happen to desire.  Instead, the Lord has made us in His image and likeness.  It is our very nature to be united with God in holiness.  Unfortunately, our common corruption has gravely distorted our ability to fulfill that righteous vocation.  That is why we so easily worship money, power, pleasure, and getting our own way.  It why we so easily make success in the world on our own terms a false god.  And even as we become more and more enslaved to our self-centered desires and illusions, we may truly believe that we are doing the right thing.  That is simply a sign that we are diminishing ourselves even further.
             In this light, we must all seriously discern whether we are really being true to ourselves as those created in God’s image and likeness and whose one true foundation is Jesus Christ.  Are we being true to ourselves as God’s temple in whom the Holy Spirit dwells?  Are we being true to ourselves as those who have put on Christ in baptism and who are nourished by His Body and Blood in Holy Communion?  If not, then we are living a lie that puts major roadblocks between us and the holy joy that it is our nature to seek.
            When Christ enabled Peter to walk on the water, He gave us an icon or image of what it means to share in His life by grace.  He showed us that human beings may participate already in His victory over sin and death, that in Him we may know a blessed freedom that enables us to overcome even the darkest and most powerful temptations.  As we grow in personal union with our risen Lord, He heals us from corruption and empowers us for a life of holiness.  In Him, we find infinitely greater fulfillment than in a life of slavery to our self-centered desires and illusions.  That is what it means for us to walk with Him across the stormy seas of our lives.
                St. Paul reminded the Corinthians that they were “God’s fellow workers; God’s field, God’s building.”  If the workers on a building site become careless and do not ground the structure on its foundation, the project will likely collapse. The same is true of us.  We must all wrestle with the question of whether we are cooperating with the Lord as we build the project of our lives.  He calls us to be His holy temple, and we must all resist the temptation to become distracted from fulfilling that high calling.  A temple is a place where we offer ourselves to God in holiness.  That is the most fundamental calling of our lives which fulfills God’s purposes for creating us in the first place.  It is only by offering ourselves for union with Christ in holiness that we become participants in the eternal life and blessedness for which He brought us into existence. 

            Let us use our freedom to become God’s fellow workers in making ourselves holy temples.  Let us embrace the divine power that enables us to walk across the stormy seas of our lives, even to share in the Savior’s victory over sin and death.  We will be able to do so only when we embrace personally the glorious truth that our nature and purpose is to grow in holiness and union with the Lord.  Anything less is a path to the despair of sinking like a stone or collapsing like an ill-constructed building under its own weight.  True freedom comes in accepting who we are in God’s image and likeness, His beloved sons and daughters, and living accordingly.  

Sunday, August 14, 2016

How to Share in the Glory of Christ's Resurrection: Homily for the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28

At the very heart of our faith as Orthodox Christians is the good news that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  He truly died and was buried as a human being, but Hades and the grave could not contain Him as God.  Because He is risen, those who die enter into His presence as they await the resurrection of the body and the Last Judgment.  Those who have loved and served Him experience paradise already as a foretaste of heaven, for they are with the Lord to Whom they united themselves during their lifetimes.  Our Savior rose as a whole person with a glorified body and then ascended into heaven forty days later. That is how He has made it possible for us all to share in the eternal joy of the heavenly kingdom.
As St. Paul wrote in today’s epistle lesson, Christ rose and ascended because, though He is fully divine, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name which is above every name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  Our Lord has made it possible for us to participate in His heavenly glory by lowering Himself to become one of us, and thereby conquering sin and death on our behalf.
This great feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos shows how we may all come to share in the eternal life of our Lord. At the end of the Mother of God’s earthly life, the Apostles were miraculously assembled in her presence. St. Thomas, however, arrived three days late.  When her tomb was opened for him to pay his last respects, her body was not there.  Even as she was the first to accept Christ into her life—and in a unique way into her womb as His virgin mother—she was the first to follow Him as a whole, complete person into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Her Dormition is an icon of our hope for eternal life.
            In order to see the connection between this feast and our hope, we must remember that the Virgin Mary is as fully human as the rest of us.   We call her “Theotokos” because she is the “Bearer” or “Mother of God.” The One to Whom she gave birth is our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  In order for Him to be truly human, He had to have a mother like the rest of us.  From ancient times, Christians have honored her with this title for that very reason.  The only ones who refused to call her Theotokos were those who did not believe in the divinity of the child born to her, such as the heretic Nestorius. By overreacting to various abuses in the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, Protestant traditions have downplayed and often ignored her unique role in our salvation.  In contrast, the Orthodox Church makes a clear distinction between worship and honor or veneration.  We worship only God, but we honor or venerate those whose lives are shining examples of God’s holiness.  The honor that we give them magnifies the glory of God Who has done great things through them.   Properly honoring the Theotokos in no way distracts us from worshiping her Son, but inspires us all the more to welcome Him into our lives as she did.  And since she followed Him into the heavenly kingdom at her Dormition, how could we not ask for her prayers even as we celebrate her wonderful example of loving and serving the Lord?  Remember that He performed His first miraculous sign in St. John’s gospel, turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, at His mother’s request.   
It is no accident, of course, that the Theotokos is a woman, for obviously only a woman could be the mother of our Savior.  Her unique role in our salvation reminds us that God creates us male and female in the divine image and likeness, and uses both sexes together to bring salvation to the world.  The Church knows the Theotokos as “the New Eve” through whom the Son of God became “the Second Adam.”  The first Eve came from the body of the first Adam, while the Second Adam became a human being through the body of the New Eve.  The imagery of male and female continues with the Church as the Bride of Christ, born from the blood and water which flowed from the Lord’s body at His crucifixion.  They symbolize the Eucharist and baptism through which we share in the life of our Lord.  He is the Groom and we, the Church, are His bride.  The biblical drama of salvation culminates in the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation, which fulfills so much imagery from Christ’s teaching and ministry about the marriage banquet as a sign of the Kingdom of God.
           Today’s gospel reading reminds us that the Theotokos prepared to follow her Son into eternal life by attending to the one thing needful, by hearing and obeying the word of the Lord.  As she said to the Archangel Gabriel in response to her unique vocation to become the Virgin Mother of the Son of God: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  Through her obedience, she gives life to the One Who conquers death.  She risks her life and reputation by agreeing in humble faith to do something totally unheard of in becoming a virgin mother.  In a world where slavery to the passions so easily dominates the circumstances surrounding conception and childbirth, she bears the Savior in complete purity.  None of this was her idea or plan; it was God’s.  But she obeyed in humility, nonetheless.
The particulars of our callings are different from that of the Theotokos, but the underlying truth is the same.  Namely, we become participants in the eternal life of our Lord by obeying Him in humble faith, by opening our lives to Him such that His holy glory shines through us.  She became the living temple of the Lord in a unique way when she contained within her own body the Son of God.  Remember, however, that we also become temples of the Holy Spirit by the presence of Christ in our hearts.  We are living members of His own Body, the Church.  We receive His Body and Blood into ours.   We, too, are called to give life to Christ in this world, to allow Him to become incarnate in us and in all that we say, do, and think.
            In all these ways, the Theotokos stands as a clear and relevant model for each and every one of us, regardless of the circumstances of our lives.   Married, single, widowed, or divorced, we must all keep a close watch on our thoughts and desires, especially concerning the relationship between man and woman.  If not, they will control us instead of us controlling how we respond to them. No matter how busy or distracting our lives may be, we must devote ourselves to prayer and reading the Scriptures daily. If not, we will end up putting the world before God without even noticing it.  Above all else, we must become close to Christ, uniting ourselves to Him in obedient love.  That means doing our best to live as we know He wants us to, not because of a law, but because we want His life to become ours.  We want His holiness to shine through us.  That is how to prepare to enter joyfully into His presence when we depart this life. 
            The feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos calls us to enter mystically into the Kingdom of Heaven as we celebrate her following her Son into eternal life.  It should not be surprising that one who had welcomed Christ into her life so profoundly was in turn welcomed by Him.  Inspired by her great example, “let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2) That is how we will prepare, by God’s grace, to follow the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary into eternal life.  She shows us how to respond to the good news of His resurrection which, of course, is the basis of our hope to participate in the blessed joy of the heavenly kingdom. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  Those who live that truth are already in the presence of the One Who died, rose from the grave, and ascended into heaven.  They are united to the Savior in holy love and experience a foretaste of heavenly glory.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Opening the Eyes of our Souls to the Brilliant Light of Christ: Homily for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost, the 7th Sunday of Matthew, and the After-Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ

Romans 15:1-7; Matthew 9:27-35

Have you ever noticed how we often use our ability to see as an image for our ability to understand?  We say “as you can see” when we mean “as you can understand.” And we say that people are blind to the truth in order to express that they do not know the truth.  There is a deep connection between seeing and knowing.  

            Yesterday we celebrated a great feast that focuses on human beings actually seeing and knowing God.  At our Lord’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, He revealed His divine glory to Peter, James, and John.  His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as light itself.  Moses and Elijah appeared with Him, until a cloud overshadowed them and the voice of the Father proclaimed, “This is my Beloved Son with Whom I am well pleased:  Hear Him.”  The disciples had understandably fallen to the ground before this overwhelming revelation, but the Savior told them to “Rise, and have no fear.”  Then they saw only the Lord Himself. (Matt. 17:1-9)

            We may think that the change that occurred at the Transfiguration was in Christ’s appearance, but it was actually in the spiritual eyes of the disciples.  The Lord enabled them to behold His unchanging, eternal divine glory to the extent that they were able in order to prepare them for His Passion, so that they would know that His suffering was voluntary.  For He is truly the Lamb of God Who offered Himself freely on the cross out of love for the salvation of the world. That is how He conquered sin and death, bringing corrupt humanity into eternal life through His glorious resurrection on the third day.

            The Transfiguration is not simply an event that occurred two thousand years ago, but the greatest manifestation of what it means to unite ourselves with Christ.  For to know Him is not simply to affirm certain ideas or words about Him, however true they may be.  To know Christ is to experience and encounter Him as the eternal Son of God from the depths of our souls.  It is to see and know Him for Who He really is as we share in His life by grace.  We enter mystically into the Transfiguration when we are transformed personally by His divine energies and shine with His holy light.

In today’s gospel lesson, Christ restored the sight of two blind beggars who had called out to Him as the Jewish Messiah, saying “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” When these men came to Him, He asked: “Do you believe that I am able to do this? They said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord.’ Then He touched their eyes, saying, ‘According to your faith be it done to you.’ And their eyes were opened.”

This passage has much in common with the Transfiguration, for in both we read of Christ opening the eyes of the blind.  Both concern Jews who lacked full understanding of Who the Lord is as the Son of God, as they thought of the Messiah as an especially blessed human being, not as divine.  Moses and Elijah represented the Old Testament law and the prophets, but Christ’s superiority to them was revealed when the voice of the Father identified Him as His Beloved Son.  At the end of the vision, only Christ remains.  He is not simply the Son of David as a righteous ruler, but “Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made…”

Both our gospel text and the Transfiguration also concern people who need healing beyond their own power.   In this regard, the disciples represent us all who have turned away from the deep personal union with God for which He created us in His image and likeness.  Our sins have darkened, distorted, and clouded the eyes of our souls.  Left to our own devices, we would never behold the glory of God.  Spiritually, we all come to Christ like the blind men, calling out for His mercy to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  Those men did not have a full understanding of Who Christ was, but the Savior did not require that in order to restore their sight.  He asked only if they believed that He was able to help them.  When they answered “yes,” He said “According to your faith be it done to you.”   

            The Lord treated Peter, James, and John in a similarly generous way.  These disciples did not have a full comprehension of Who Christ was until after His resurrection.  Nonetheless, He mercifully revealed His divine glory to them.  They had at least enough faith at the time for this vision to be of spiritual benefit.  It was through this experience that they were prepared to receive the good news of the resurrection and to proclaim the gospel to the world.  In this sense, we can see that St. Paul bases his call for humble compassion on the example of Christ: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’”  He enlightened the disciples at His Transfiguration for the healing of their souls, which enabled them in turn to enlighten and serve others.

            We all suffer from badly distorted vision in our relationship with God, other people, and even ourselves.  Our spiritual vision is weak because we have become content with darkness and weakness in our souls.  Instead of doing all that we can to grow in the divine likeness in response to our Lord’s mercy, we have preferred to stumble around in the night of our passions.  Too often, we are the blind leading the blind who together fall into a pit.   

            The good news, however, is that Christ has become one of us in His infinite mercy so that we may become partakers of the divine nature, so that we participate personally in the eternal and holy life for which He created us.  If we will call out to Him in humble faith and repentance, He will restore our spiritual vision as surely as He healed the eyes of the blind.  All that they had to do was to ask and to believe as best they could.

We can be sure that those men were not expressing a casual emotion by calling out to Him, but instead opening the wretchedness of their lives for healing with every ounce of their being.  We must do the same thing daily by cultivating a settled habit of prayer in which we open our hearts and minds to the Lord for healing and strength that are beyond our own ability.  Prayer is not simply thinking about God, but being fully present to Him.  It is true spiritual knowledge of God, not simply having religious ideas or feelings. As hard as it is to believe, true prayer is opening the eyes of our souls to the same divine glory beheld by the disciples at the Transfiguration.  It is how we may become illumined with the gracious divine energies like an iron left in the fire.

Even as we cannot expect a room to be full of light unless we uncover the windows, we cannot expect the eyes of our souls to be illumined unless we offer our lives to God in prayer.  We all like to convince ourselves that we have better things to do, but can anyone really not spend at least a few minutes each day in focused prayer?  We can all offer the Jesus Prayer quietly and meditatively many times during our daily routines: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Whenever you are tempted not to pray, remember that prayer is how you open the darkness of your soul to the brilliant light of Christ.  It is how, like those blind men, you present yourself in faith for His healing.  Though we do not yet have the eyes to see it, prayer is how we may behold the radiance of the only-begotten Son of the Father as truly as did the disciples on Mount Tabor.  Prayer is the most basic practice of the Christian life, and absolutely necessary if we want to stop wandering around in the dark.  It is how we ourselves may be transfigured by the mercy of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.       


Sunday, July 31, 2016

Healed for the Journey of Active Faithfulness: Homily for the 6th Sunday After Pentecost and the 6th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 12: 6-14; Matthew 9: 1-8
There are surely many people who have little interest in the Christian faith because the Christians they know do not seem different from anyone else.  That can easily be used as an excuse not to believe, but it is also perfectly understandable when people are not attracted to something that does not appear to make much of a positive difference.
St. Paul made clear in today’s epistle reading that we must energetically use the gifts given us by the Lord, which is another way of saying that we must be actively faithful, regardless of what our particular abilities may be.  Those who follow his advice will not simply blend in with the larger culture of any age, but will instead become vivid icons of what God’s salvation means for human beings.  The Apostle calls us to be genuine in showing love, mercy, and honor to our neighbors as we cling to what is good and allow evil no place at all in our lives. He instructs us to respond to difficult challenges with hope, patience, and prayer.  And just as Christ taught, St. Paul reminds us to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  Obedience to these teachings demands a deep commitment that extends from the depths of our souls to every thought, word, and deed.  And that is not something we accomplish simply by our own power, but by responding faithfully to the merciful grace of our Savior.
Today’s gospel reading gives us a clear portrait of what it means to encounter the Lord in this way.  Christ did not rest content with forgiving the paralyzed man’s sins.  He also provided visible proof to the skeptics of His divine authority by enabling the man to stand up, carry his bed, and walk home.  Christ’s healing of the man’s soul was not an invisible act somehow totally separate from the rest of his life.  His miraculously renewed health was a visible sign of his restoration as a whole human being in God’s image and likeness.  The Lord restored his freedom, his strength, and his integrity as an embodied person.  And He commanded him to live accordingly by doing what he could never have done by his own power:  to rise, pick up his bed, and walk home.
Whether we recognize it or not, that is the will of the Lord for each and every one of us.  He comes to heal our corruption, to strengthen us so that we will not be enslaved in weakness to our sins and passions, and to enable us to share fully in His restoration of the human person in the divine image and likeness as the New Adam. Even as the Savior rose bodily from the tomb and ascended to heaven, He enables us to serve Him faithfully in our own bodies in the practical challenges of the world as we know it.  He did not rest content with forgiving the paralytic’s sins, but empowered and commanded him to embrace a new life. He does the same for us, calling us to pursue a life of holiness, a life that displays to the world the healing of every dimension of our humanity.
Tomorrow begins the two-week period known as the Dormition Fast, when we commemorate the end of the earthly life of the Most Holy Theotokos.  By abstaining from the richest and most satisfying foods and devoting ourselves to prayer and repentance, we seek to follow her example of saying: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.  Let it be to me according to your word.”  The Theotokos said that to the Archangel Gabriel when he announced that she was to become the virgin mother of the Son of God.  And she lived that way for the rest of her days, uniquely welcoming Christ into her life as His Living Temple.  When she departed this life at her Dormition, the Mother of God followed her Son– as a whole, embodied person– into the heavenly kingdom. She is the first and model Christian whose example we seek to follow.
Unfortunately, most of us have many years of experience in not being very much like the Theotokos.  Instead of devoting ourselves to prayer and purity, we have filled our minds and hearts with tempting attachments to all kinds of things.  They may not be bad in and of themselves, but in our corrupt state we have developed unholy relationships to them.  Doing so simply weakens us further and makes us paralyzed before our besetting sins.  Even when we resolve not to do or say something, we often do so anyway.  Even when we abhor a particular behavior, we so often lack the strength to stop doing it.  When that is the case, we are just like the paralytic before he encountered Christ, lying helplessly in our bed of sin.
When the paralytic was brought to Christ, He did not tell him immediately to stand up.  First, He forgave his sins.  That is a key point because our salvation is not found in simply doing good deeds or obeying laws by our own power.  If that were the case, we would not need the God-Man to conquer sin and death on our behalf.  Even as a paralyzed person lacks the ability to rise up and walk, fallen humans lack the ability to free themselves from slavery to sin, to raise themselves from the grave, and to participate in the eternal life of God for which He made us in His image and likeness.  Christ first forgave the man’s sins, which means that He healed the corruption that reached to the depth of his soul and that kept Him from personal union with God.  Our salvation is an infinite journey, for to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect is a calling with no upward limit.   Christ told the paralytic to begin that journey by standing up, carrying his bed, and walking home.  By forgiving his sins, Christ graciously gave him the healing necessary for him to take a first step that would have otherwise been impossible for him.  Then the man had to cooperate with the Lord, obeying His command as he moved forward in life, one step at a time.
Do you see how we are all just like that formerly paralyzed man, strengthened beyond our own power in Christ and commanded to move forward?  That is not where our spiritual journey ends, but only where it begins.  By virtue of our baptism and chrismation, we are all empowered to begin the pilgrimage to the Kingdom.  Christ nourishes us with His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist and forgives us in Confession when we stumble or wander from the path.  We do not take this journey alone, but as members of His Body who participate mystically in the Heavenly Banquet in every Divine Liturgy.  On a daily basis, we open ourselves to further strength and healing by prayer, reading the Bible, and studying the lives and teachings of the Saints.
It was probably a struggle for a formerly paralyzed man, who had been used to lying still all his life, to start walking around. It will definitely be a struggle for us to make progress in pursuing a holy life, but that is what is necessary for us to participate in the fullness of Christ’s healing.  During the Dormition Fast, let us look to the Theotokos as the greatest example of someone who has completed the journey.  And let us use the disciplines of the fast to develop a greater sense of our constant dependence upon the mercy of Christ even as we step forward in faithfulness.  That is how, by God’s grace, we may become vivid icons of the healing and salvation that the world so desperately needs.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Shocking Mercy of Christ Extends to All: Homily for "St. Timon Sunday" and the 5th Sunday After Pentecost and the 5th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 10: 1-10; Matthew 8:28-9:1
Many people today have lost a sense of how shocking the gospel of Jesus Christ truly is.  Especially in a culture like ours, it is easy to become blind to the gravity of the healing and fulfillment of the human person that our Lord has brought to the world. That temptation is especially strong in a time and place where many confuse superficial acquaintance with Christianity with true discipleship.
In contrast, the people in today’s gospel lesson had no difficulty in being shocked by the Lord.  The Gergesenes were so terrified by Christ casting out the demons and sending them into the pigs, which then drowned in the sea, that they actually asked Him to leave their region.   Think for a moment how totally unexpected it would have been for Gentiles to see the Messiah of Israel transform the lives of two of their own people in such a dramatic way.   They were so unsettled by what had happened that they literally asked Him to depart, which He did.
Our epistle lesson teaches something similarly shocking.  St. Paul, a Pharisee and expert in the Old Testament law, writes that “Christ is the end of the law, that everyone who has faith may be justified.”  He teaches that, through faith in Him, human beings become participants by grace in the righteousness of God, regardless of their ancestry or cultural heritage.  That is why St. Paul championed the reception of Gentiles into the Church without requiring them to be circumcised or convert to Judaism.  He knew that it is not by the kind of obsessive legalism that he had known as a Pharisee that one becomes righteous, but by sharing in the divine life of Christ through humble faith. As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3:26-29)
These biblical texts shockingly break down the distinctions between competing groups of people. They challenge assumptions about who is a neighbor and who is an enemy.  They repudiate the idea that God’s mercy is for some and not for others.  The demon-possessed Gentiles certainly did not do anything to justify themselves or earn the Lord’s favor.  Nonetheless, He delivered them from their wretched and inhuman condition.  Likewise, St. Paul rejected the idea that obedience to the Old Testament law determines whether one earns God’s favor or becomes righteous. As he writes immediately after today’s reading, “For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For ‘whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” (Romans 10: 11-13)
If we have received His mercy by faith, then we must extend His love and reconciliation to everyone. If we participate in His life through grace and not by our own accomplishments, then we must love and serve those who have not earned something in particular from us.  If we truly believe that all peoples and nations may become one in Christ, then we must learn to treat even strangers as our neighbors and loved ones.   We must dare to become living icons of the same outrageous generosity that we have received from our Lord and that extends literally to the entire world.
That is what we seek to do on “St. Timon Sunday” in our Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America, when we take up a collection for the relief of our brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran in Syria.  We do so today as we remember St. Timon, one of the seventy apostles sent out by Jesus Christ and one of the original deacons mentioned in Acts (Acts 6:5).  St. Timon was the first bishop of what is now known as the city of Bosra, and he died as a martyr.  He played a key role in evangelizing a region where our Lord Himself often ministered (Matt.4:25) and where St. Paul took refuge after he escaped from Damascus following his conversion. (Gal. 1:15-18)   All Christians, and especially Antiochian Orthodox, can easily trace their spiritual roots to this part of the world.
At least 400,000 people have died in Syria since the start of the present conflict five years ago, and many millions have fled for their lives.  Many clergy and laity have become martyrs and confessors for Christ. In the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran, many towns and parishes are now deserted.  Thousands of refugees are seeking shelter in Sweda, where the cathedral of the Archdiocese is located.  Under the guidance of His Eminence, Metropolitan Saba, the Church there is doing all that it can to help everyone in need.
Divisions between people are growing greater today not only in Syria, but also in many parts of the world.  We must remember that our Lord’s mercy extended to those who were considered strangers and foreigners to the heritage of Israel.  St. Paul explained how Christ broke down the division between Jews and Gentiles, how are all one in Him and equally dependent upon His mercy and grace.  If that is how we all have come to share by faith in the life of Christ, then how can we not share His love with everyone we can help, especially those with whom we share a common spiritual life?   Remember that it is through the witness of the faithful in that region across the centuries that we have received the blessing of participating in the fullness of the Body of Christ.
I know that we are all deeply troubled by the violence, persecution, and humanitarian crises of the Middle East.  We often feel helpless before such great catastrophes and wonder whether we can do anything of significance in relation to them.  Instead of fantasizing that we rule the world and can make problems vanish in an instant, Christ calls us to do what we can in order to convey His mercy to our brothers and sisters—and to do so with simple trust that He will work through our humble efforts in ways that we cannot fully understand.  Remember that He delivered particular people, only two demon-possessed men, in today’s gospel reading.  That should inspire us not to denigrate the small, focused offerings that we make today for relief in the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran.
As with any other act of faithfulness in our families, our parish, or our neighborhoods, we can place no limits on what the Lord may do with them.  He fed thousands with a little bit of bread and fish.  He established His Church through the work of unlikely disciples with no power or influence in that time and place.  He even conquered death through His Cross, which was the ultimate symbol of weakness, insignificance, and despair.  But through it, He brought a shocking victory over death itself that extends to people of every generation who call on Him in humble faith. We can place no limits, then, on what God can do with any act of faithfulness on our part—even one that looks so small as to be pointless in the jaded eyes of the world.
Our Lord is still at work casting evil out of broken humanity, both individually and collectively.  He is still breaking down the stupid barriers that we build up against people who are different from others in superficial ways.  And what He does is so shocking that some still ask Him to leave because they cannot tolerate any challenges to their idolatry of nationality, ethnic heritage, religion, politics, or something else.  Of course, these are simply our pathetic attempts to justify ourselves, to build up our own righteousness on the basis of our petty characteristics and accomplishments.
Trusting in Christ’s mercy, let us lay aside all efforts to justify ourselves over against others and instead become vessels of the shocking love that is the salvation of the world, poured out freely to all who call out to the Lord in humble faith.  For if we have received His grace, then we must do what we can to convey His mercy to others, especially to our suffering brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran in Syria.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Purity of Heart and of Life: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in the Orthodox Church

Titus 3:8-15; Matthew 5:14-19
            Have you ever found yourself devoting too much time and energy to matters over which you have no real control?  It is easy to give in to that temptation today because there are so many deeply troubling things going on in the world, in our nation, and in our families.  In our age of the internet, social media, and 24-hour television news, it is not hard to become obsessed with very large questions about terrorism, politics, and other matters.  The reality, of course, is that there is not much that we can do as particular people to change the course of world events.  Though we have much more influence on family and friends, we still usually cannot make people do what we want.  Often we struggle even to make ourselves do this or that.  It is a pity, then, for us to waste our lives in pretending that our will must be done.  
            Jesus Christ did not even attempt to rule the world, or any of its inhabitants, by conventional means.  He did not accept the dominant narratives of His day about how to solve big problems.  He was not a member of the competing factions of the Herodians, the Zealots, the Pharisees, or the Sadducees. Instead, He took an entirely different path, calling His disciples to be the light of the world, which meant that their lives were to shine with holiness such that others would give thanks to the Father for them.  They would share in His holiness, not by relaxing or disregarding the requirements of the Old Testament law, but by fulfilling them.  For example, they would not only refrain from committing murder, but from anger and insult. They would not only refuse to commit adultery, but would purify themselves from lust.  They would not limit their vengeance to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but would turn the other cheek when insulted and love, forgive, and bless their enemies.  They would seek to be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect.
            Whether in first-century Palestine or today, to live that way is to be the light of the world. It is to shed light amidst the darkness such that others will give thanks for our witness and be drawn to the Lord. It is also to be out of step with what is easy and conventional.  It is to take a difficult and demanding path that is not nearly as popular as the ways of those who tell people what they want to hear. Many of the Jews had wanted a successful political and military leader who would wage a holy war against the Romans, but our Savior called people to a Kingdom not of this world.  He praised the faith of a Roman centurion, said good things about the hated Samaritans, and offended representatives of all the different factions of His own people.  There was nothing conventional or expected about His ministry and teaching.
            Today many in our cultural want a vague spirituality that requires virtually nothing of them and simply provides a coping mechanism for helping them feel better about themselves.  Some want a faith that serves whatever political agenda they happen to like. Whatever kinds of religions those would be, they have nothing in common with the way of a Lord Who called people to take up their crosses and follow Him, not to pamper themselves by giving in to every self-centered desire for pleasure or power.  Such forms of spirituality are not the light of the world.  No, they are simply “the world” which is already darkened by those who want to make God in their own image and likeness.  They are doing the same thing as did the Pharisees and the other groups who refused to accept Christ’s message.   
            The Lord said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them…Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”  Contrary to popular opinion, Christ did not tell His followers simply to have certain feelings or hold particular opinions, and then live however they wanted.  He did not teach some kind of generic spiritual path focused merely on reducing stress or becoming a productive member of society. No, He called for a purity of heart that would be visibly displayed in how people lived their lives every day, especially in regard to the most common and most difficult challenges that human beings face.  That kind of purity means loving, forgiving, and blessing even those who have wronged us and our loved ones most deeply.  It means keeping our hearts free from addiction to pleasure and self-centered desire, and disciplining ourselves in living accordingly.  It means learning to see Him even in those whom the world tells us are not our people, those unworthy of our care or concern.  It means modeling a way of life that shines with holy glory amidst all the darkness and brokenness that surround us.
            St. Paul reminded St. Titus to encourage his people to focus their time and energy on doing good deeds and helping people in urgent need.  He warned against getting caught up in “stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile.”  The particulars of our distractions are different, but the point is still the same.  To be faithful to Jesus Christ requires devoting ourselves to living as He taught and modeled.  To be faithful to Him also requires believing the faith handed down in His Body, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit since Pentecost.  Faith and faithfulness are two sides of the same coin.  If we allow ourselves to be distracted by anything from living and believing as our Lord taught, we will lose the ability to become the light of the world.  Whatever kind of religion we pursue, it will be a form of the darkness and corruption that the world already knows all too well. 
            We remember today the 630 Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, who affirmed that Jesus Christ is one Person with two natures, being fully divine and fully human.  They recognized that only the God-Man is able to make human beings participants in the divine life by grace.  We cannot use the excuse that the Lord’s teachings are impossible for human beings, for our struggles and weaknesses are no stranger to Him. His gospel is not designed for disembodied spirits, but for those who live in the same world in which He was tempted, faced fierce opposition, and was killed by His enemies.  Remember that He prayed for them from the Cross:  “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  And then through His glorious resurrection, He brought light and life even to the darkest tomb.
            Our only hope to become the light of the world is for His divine glory to illumine us.  For that to happen, we must refuse to be distracted from serving Him faithfully in the matters that really are up to us in our daily lives.  Whether His light is in us is revealed especially in how we treat our enemies, those in need around us (especially those we are inclined to ignore, neglect, or fear), and how we respond to the self-centered desires for pleasure that threaten to darken our hearts in so many ways.  When we find ourselves worrying obsessively over matters that are well beyond us, we should persistently turn the eyes of our souls back to Him in prayer, calling for His mercy on all concerned.  And then we should get back to doing the good deeds that so obviously need to be done on behalf of our families, our neighbors, and our parish.  Then we should also get back to guarding our hearts from corrupting influences, refusing even to pay attention to tempting thoughts.
            The more that we direct our time and energy to serving Christ in our immediate circumstances, the less inclination we will have to allow darkness into our hearts.  The more faithful we are in living this way, the more His light will shine through us to the world.  And the more those who are sick and tired of the world’s darkness will be drawn to the light as they “see your good works and give glory to your Father Who is in heaven.”  That is what it means to be the light of the world and a sign of its salvation.  

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Divine Strength of Those Who Are Full of Light: Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Matthew and Commemoration of St. Joseph of Damascus in the Orthodox Church

2 Timothy 2:1-10; Matthew 6:22-33

            There are some who think that the way of Christ is a crutch for the weak, a source of support for wimps, cowards, and losers to make themselves feel better about their wretched condition.  Of course, that attitude reflects only the weakness of those who are spiritually blind, who are enslaved to their own lust for power and refusal to show mercy to their neighbors in their suffering.  Instead of embracing the darkness by worshiping the false gods of domination and vengeance, faithful Christians open themselves to the divine strength that can make even our most bitter challenges points of entry into the blessedness of the Kingdom.    

            It should go without saying that we all know pain, sorrow, and the lack of peace all too well.  Terrorist attacks in our own country and abroad, wars seemingly without end, murder and other forms of violence and injustice, racial and political strife, the sufferings of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and elsewhere who are persecuted for their faith and forced to leave their homelands, our own loss of loved ones, and other difficult personal problems tempt us today to allow darkness to take over souls.  It is easy and often appealing to fill our hearts with hatred, fear, and despair by accepting the lie that we will find salvation by damning others,  returning evil for evil, and abandoning hope.  But to do so would be to turn away from the victory over death and sin that Christ accomplished through His cross and empty tomb.  It is also to repudiate the transforming power of the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost, Whose fruits arelove, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”  As St. Paul wrote, “Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:22-24)         

            In order to crucify our corruption and open the eyes of our souls to the brilliant light of Christ in the midst of all the temptations that beset us, we must have the dogged determination of soldiers, athletes, and farmers.  St. Paul used those examples with St. Timothy because they are all very demanding undertakings that require daily discipline, sacrifice, and perseverance.  No one can succeed in those vocations by taking it easy, giving in to self-centered desires, or giving up out of fear. He told Timothy to “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”  That is not because it is somehow pleasing to God for us to suffer, but because living a faithful Christian life requires us to struggle for the healing of our souls and in the service of our neighbors, especially as we resist the temptations that threaten to consume us.  There will be some pain involved, for we must take up our crosses in obedience to the way of our Lord.  Our faith requires pressing on in faithfulness each day, regardless of the cost.

            Today we commemorate St. Joseph of Damascus, a priest who was martyred during anti-Christian riots in 1860.  In the midst of violent attacks by mobs that killed 2,500 people, he jumped from rooftop to rooftop in order to hear confessions and serve Communion to elderly and sick people who could not leave their homes.  He recounted to them the lives of the martyrs in preparation for what was to come.  After the cathedral where Christians had gathered was burned with those trapped inside perishing, St. Joseph roamed the streets looking for others to whom he could minister.  He consumed what remained of the Lord’s Body and Blood before a mob hacked him to death with axes, after which his body was dragged through the streets and thrown in the city dump.

No doubt, the vicious persecutors felt powerful on that day, but they were actually the weakest of all, enslaved to their passions and totally blind to the basic humanity of their neighbors, not to mention to the merciful way of the Lord.   Christ said, “The eye is the lamp of the body.  So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”  The example of St. .Joseph of Damascus shines in brilliant contrast to the darkened souls who rushed to murder him and so many others.  He did not try to run away from certain death or think only of himself or his family.  He “share[d] in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” as he ministered as best he could to His people.  He, like all the martyrs, shines with light as an icon of the great strength that the Lord provides to sustain us through even the greatest challenges of life, even through death itself.

Most Christians do not become martyrs in the sense of literally being killed for their faith.  Christ calls us all, however, to die to our tendency to embrace the darkness of sin and passion instead of His holy light.  We may all do that in response to the seemingly small challenges and temptations that we face daily.  For whether we acknowledge it or not, we face every day of our lives a more subtle version of the test faced by the martyrs.  Namely, will we refuse to abandon our Lord?    As the Savior said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and mammon.”   

Christ tells us here that worshipping money, wealth, and possessions is a form of idolatry that turns us away from serving Him.  No, that is not a temptation only felt by extremely wealthy people, for He then says “do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink; nor about your body, what you shall put on.  Is not the soul more than food, and the body more than clothing?”   We worship a false god whenever our souls are so darkened that we no longer trust in the Lord’s mercy to sustain us through life, but instead become obsessed with establishing and protecting ourselves on our own terms and by our own methods.  That is not a path to peace, but only to worry and fear.  As the Lord taught, “And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his stature?”  He is the One Who has conquered death, but we still worry as though everything were up to us, as though we could solve all our problems and those of our families and the world.  That is simply an illusion that appeals to us because the eyes of our souls are not yet fully illumined with the light of Christ.  And giving in to it leads only to idolatry, anxiety, and disappointment. 
Christ said, “[D]o not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.  But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”  None of us can predict or control fully what will happen in the world, our families, or our own lives.  But we do know that if we purify our hearts and souls with the dogged determination of soldiers, athletes, and farmers, we will gain the spiritual clarity and strength that are necessary to serve Christ through whatever challenges we and our loved ones will face.  We will avoid the appealing temptation to surrender in weakness to our passions, anxieties, and fears when we mindfully reject the thoughts and desires that encourage us to place our commitment to anyone or anything before our commitment to the Lord.  When we look to St. Joseph of Damascus and all the martyrs, we will remember that the path we follow is not one of responding in kind to those who threaten us or being overwhelmed by fear, but instead one of courageously seeing first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness.  That is how, even in the midst of all the darkness that surrounds us, we may become radiant with the divine glory and filled with holy light as a sign of the salvation of the world.