Sunday, October 9, 2016

On Sharing Undeserved Mercy: Homily for the Third Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 6:1-10; Luke 7:11-16

            I have known people who have been troubled by the question of whether God is primarily characterized by human standards of love or justice.  Some of them have worried that a God of love would simply overlook evil and hold no one accountable for their actions.  Others have reacted against the view that God is primarily a harsh judge Who is out to get us and to make sure that we pay our pound of flesh for our sins.
        Those with time to spare can have a debate about such abstract matters, as though God where a math problem that needed solving.  But as Orthodox Christians, our focus must be different, for we humbly embrace God’s truth not as a speculative idea, but in the Person of Jesus Christ.  He is not a bundle of competing definitions according to the standards of our limited minds, but the Son of God Who became fully human in order save us out of a divine compassion beyond our understanding.  He lowered Himself, taking on the form of a servant to the point of death on the Cross, burial in a tomb, and descent into Hades in order to rise triumphantly over them in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  And He did not do so for His own sake, but for ours.  In Him, we encounter not merely the best human aspirations, but truly the Lord Himself Who alone is Holy, Holy, Holy.   
           What does it look like when the Alpha and the Omega of the universe becomes one of us, living in our corrupt world of sin, death, and personal brokenness?  In today’s gospel text, we have a clear picture of what it means for the Word to become flesh and dwell among us.  It means that He gives life to the dead and joy and comfort to those who mourn.  Christ had compassion on the widow who had lost her only son.  He consoled her, saying “Do not weep,” and then touched the coffin, bringing the young man back from death itself.
            The Lord’s great act of mercy for this woman is a sign or enacted icon of our salvation.  For we weep and mourn not only for loved ones whom we see no more, but also for how our own sins, and those of others, have broken, marred, and distorted the beauty of our world, of our souls, of our relationships, and of every dimension of our life. Death, destruction, hatred, fear, and decay in all their forms are the consequences of our refusal to live faithfully as those created in the image and likeness of God.  We have worshipped ourselves, our possessions and our pride, and found only despair and emptiness as a result, as well as slavery to our own self-centered desires.  So we weep with the widow of Nain both for losing loved ones and for losing ourselves.
            The good news of the Gospel, however, is the unfathomable compassion of our Savior. Rather than simply observing human suffering and letting us bear the consequences of our actions, the Father sent the Son to enter into our suffering, into our distorted and disintegrated world, in order to restore us to the blessedness for which He created us.  He came to heal us, to stop us from weeping, and even to raise us from the dead into the glory of the heavenly kingdom.  He came to unite us to Himself in holiness.  The Son touched the coffin of the dead man and he arose.  Christ’s compassion for us is so profound that He also entered a coffin, a tomb, and even descended to Hades, the shadowy place of the dead because, out of love for humankind, He could not simply stand by and allow us to bear the full consequences of our actions. 
             No, our faith is not fundamentally about punishment or wrath for sinners.  It is not focused on the bad news that we get what we deserve.  Instead, we celebrate the good news of the infinite, holy mercy of Christ Who will stop at nothing to bring the one lost sheep back into the fold, Who is not embarrassed to welcome home the prodigal son, and Who will even submit to death on a cross in order to destroy it by rising in glory. 
           Of course, we have our part to play in responding to His great compassion.  If we identify ourselves with Jesus Christ, if we are members of His Body, the Church, and are nourished by His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, then His mercy must become evident in our lives.  If we are partakers of the divine nature in Him, then His life must become ours such that, as St. Paul teaches, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:2)  If we claim to receive Christ’s compassion, then we must extend that same compassion to others, suffering with them in love, sharing their burdens as best we can, and going out of our way to show them the mercy that we have found in our Lord.
            If we are to live the Christian life with integrity, we too must have the courage to relate to others with true compassion as they suffer, mourn, and live with pain and disorder of whatever kind.  Perhaps they brought some of these conditions upon themselves.  Like the rest of us, they have not always done the right thing and have suffered the consequences of their own bad choices.  In some cases, they may actually believe that what they are doing is good.  In other words, they are a lot like you and me.  Instead of doing the easy and self-righteous thing by simply leaving them to their allegedly well-deserved misery, we must follow the way of our Lord, Who did not come to show mercy upon those who deserved it.  Remember that mercy and grace, by definition, are not deserved. The widow of Nain and her dead son did not deserve the compassion of the Lord, but He showed love to them anyway.  The relevance for our lives should be clear.  If we have integrity as Christians, we will respond to others with the same compassion that we have experienced in Jesus Christ. 
But we need to be clear:  Extending Christ’s compassion to others is not the same thing as being what our culture calls “a nice person” or making sure that everyone likes us or that we always tell people what they want to hear.  It took discipline, strength, and courage for the Lord to show compassion throughout His entire earthly ministry, especially during His journey to the Cross.  And every time that He healed the sick or raised the dead, He knew that the Pharisees and perhaps the Romans were watching, noticing Him as a threat to their power.  He offended them virtually every step of the way with what He said and did.  If we live and speak with holy compassion, we can be sure that some will take offense and think that we are crazy or even dangerous. To be His disciple is not a calling for cowards afraid of their own shadow or for people addicted to the praise of others, for it requires discipline, self-control, and a strength of character beyond our own power.  It requires a willingness to be out of step with the dominant ways of the world, whatever they may be in a given time and place.  
Unfortunately, it has become second nature to defend our egos by damning others, by building ourselves up as we put others down. Thank God, that is not way of our Lord.  If it were, we would have no hope for salvation.  If it were, the dead would be left in the tombs and the mourners would sorrow alone.  But because the Savior has come to us purely out of love for fallen, broken, sinful humanity, we must share His compassionate love with everyone we encounter, especially those whom we are inclined to ignore or condemn for whatever reason.  For we do not relate to Jesus Christ as isolated individuals, but as members of His Body who share a common life.  If we are members of His Body and receive His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, how can we disregard Him even in “the least of these” whose hearts and lives are broken, regardless of who is at fault for the circumstances?
Our Lord is a Person, not an abstract idea.  Prepared by prayer, fasting, and confession, let us unite ourselves to Him in the Eucharist, receiving His compassionate mercy even as we extend the same holy concern to our neighbors, loved ones, and enemies.  He came to call sinners to repentance, to heal the sick, and to raise the dead.  He came to save, bless, and restore people as broken as you and me.   If we receive Him, then we must receive them.  For as hard as it is to believe, He works through us to extend His compassion to others.  To be in Him is to become a living icon of His mercy, a personal sign of His salvation. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Obedience Despite Disappointment: Homily for the First Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Luke 5:1-11

We have all felt at some point like the disciples did when Jesus Christ found them washing their nets.  They had fished all night and caught nothing.  Things had not turned out as they had hoped, and they were disappointed and frustrated to the point of giving up.   We have all been right there with them many times.  But then the Lord told them to get back to work and let down their net.   They did so and caught so many fish that their net was breaking and their boats began to sink.  Just imagine what a surprise that was for them. They were all amazed and St. Peter fell down before Christ and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” But the Lord said, “Do not be afraid.  From now on you will catch men.”  Then the disciples left behind their boats and nets and followed Christ as His disciples.
            That day probably began like any other day.  The fishermen were busy with their work and who knows whether they expected anything out of the ordinary to occur.  It was just another day with the same old routine and the same responsibilities and worries.  But then the Lord blessed them and they saw that their work was not simply about fish, but about bringing people into the eternal life of the Kingdom of God.
            Surely, the disciples knew that they could not take credit for such a large haul of fish.  And there was no way that they could become fishers of men simply by their own power.  We are made of the dust of the earth, enlivened by the breath of God.   We are just flesh and blood.  We cannot make fish swim into our nets or even solve many of the small problems we encounter every day. Much less can we give anyone eternal life. 
            The good news of the gospel, however, is that our Lord is able to bless and transform our humble work, the difficult situations we face, and all the struggles of our lives.  No matter what we are doing, no matter how well or poorly it seems to be going, no matter how frustrated we may be, Christ is with us, inviting and empowering us to make the same old frustrating and boring routine into a ministry of the Kingdom, even when we cannot imagine how that could possibly be the case.   
            He called the disciples to a very special ministry in the founding of the Church; they had to leave their old occupations and serve the Lord full-time as evangelists, apostles, and bishops.  Some continue to be called to serve in that way.  But most of us will remain right where we are, spending each day in an office, a shop, a classroom, our homes, or another similar place.  We may be tempted to think that what we do has no spiritual significance, that we are somehow second or third-class in our service of the Kingdom because we remain in the same old world.   But that would be a great error, for all work is holy because it provides opportunities to be good stewards of God’s creation and to offer our lives and the fruits of our labor to the Lord for blessing and fulfillment. 
            Our work, our education, and our daily grind of whatever kind can be very difficult and frustrating, but He calls us to bear our crosses and learn patience through our struggles and problems.  In response to disappointments and difficulties, we have opportunities to grow in humility and trust.  That is what Zacharias and Elizabeth did as a faithful Jewish couple who had not been blessed with children.  Like the disciples, their nets were empty and they had given up hope for children, an especially painful situation for Jews who had a role to play in continuing the family line of Abraham that God had promised to bless in the Old Testament.  Of course, the story of the Hebrew people began with Abraham and Sarah, another elderly couple without children, whose frustration and sorrow was overcome by God’s promise to bless them and their descendants.   They could take no credit for this blessing and neither could the parents of John the Baptist.  And even though Zacharias responded to the message of the Archangel Gabriel with doubt, he and Elizabeth were still blessed beyond their expectations.  God always remains faithful to His promises, even though we are often not faithful to ours.
            Their life was not easy, however, for Zacharias would be martyred when the wicked King Herod murdered the young boys of Bethlehem.  Elizabeth died forty days later, and John grew up in the wilderness as an ascetic prophet who would eventually lose his head for criticizing the immorality of the royal family.  But God worked through these painful circumstances to prepare the way for the ministry of Jesus Christ, to extend His promises to Abraham to all who have faith in the Savior.
            Do you see what these stories have in common?  Barren elderly people have babies.  Fisherman who have caught nothing suddenly find that their nets are breaking and their boats sinking because of their large haul.  And worn out, discouraged people like you and me grow in patience, humility, and selflessness by enduring our daily disappointments, worries, fears, and aches and pains.  At times, we may feel that we are accomplishing nothing and be tempted to think that there is no point at all to what we do all day or maybe even to what we have done for years.  But that would be truly a temptation, for the Lord has promised never to abandon us, to be with us always, and we know His power most when we have no doubt about our own weakness.  If we are offering our lives to Him as best we can, we can trust in His blessing—even if we cannot figure out how He could possibly be at work in our present situation.
            What is failure and frustration in our eyes may present a unique opportunity for us to grow into the people God wants us to be, to prepare us for a role we cannot yet imagine.  He used the childlessness of Zacharias and Elizabeth to prepare the way for Christ.  He used the frustration of the fisherman to open their hearts to the new life of discipleship.  And in ways that we probably do not yet have the eyes to see, He calls us to use our present circumstances as an opportunity to grow in faith, hope, and love and to better serve Him and our neighbors.           
            Contrary to what our culture teaches, our daily occupations are not simply about us.  They are forms of service through which we transform God’s good creation for His glory.  We do not do that alone, for we journey together toward a new heaven and a new earth.  Jesus Christ’s ministry of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, and proclaiming good news to the poor shows that His salvation concerns the real-life challenges that people continue to face in the world as we know it.  He showed God’s love for the hated Gentiles and Samaritans, for people who had fallen into great sin and were shunned by respectable people, for the sick. blind, and lame.  In His Body, the Church, all peoples and nations are reconciled and united in the life of the Kingdom.   
            Whether we see it or not, our routine tasks and challenges provide an opportunity to play our unique role in bringing His salvation to the world.  Everything that we do and say may become a sign of God’s blessing.  We all have the opportunity to forgive those who wrong us; to work toward reconciliation with those from whom we have become estranged; to refuse to treat people poorly because of some trivial human difference; and not to let greed, pride, or any passion get in the way of treating others as we ourselves want to be treated.  Of course, our work must support us financially, but there is a difference between meeting our legitimate needs and selfishly worshiping comfort, convenience, and commercialism or obsessively making any form of worldly success our false god.  Ultimately, our work is not about us, but about playing our small part in fulfilling God’s gracious purposes for His creation. And when our disappointments in it reveal our own brokenness, we are in the position to call out to the Lord in true humility.
            Like Abraham and Sarah, Zacharias and Elizabeth, and John the Baptist, our calling is to use the challenges, blessings, and painful struggles of our daily lives to grow in holiness as we play our role in making this world an icon of God’s salvation.  That is how we may all become fishers of men.  So even if we feel like we have fished all night and caught nothing, we must let down our nets again in obedience to Christ’s command.  He alone brings life even from the tomb and turns apparent failure into glorious victory.  He alone works even through our more difficult challenges to bless us.  So we must not fall into despair or fear, but instead trust that God is with us and at work in our lives, especially when we obey His command to put down our nets just one more time.        

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Dying to The Idolatry of Self: Homily for the Sunday After the Elevation of the Cross in the Orthodox Church

Gal. 2:16-20; Mark 8:34-9:1
Today we continue to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  It may seem strange that we devote certain periods of the Church year especially to the Cross because it is so characteristic of our entire life in Christ.  No matter what else is going on in the Church or in our own lives, we may never leave behind the Cross, for our Savior calls us—just as He did His original disciples—to take up our crosses and follow Him each and every day.  That is not a command limited to certain days or particular facets of our lives; it is simply a key dimension of what it means to be a Christian.    
            Our Lord’s disciples, like the other Jews of that time, had apparently expected a Messiah who would have had nothing to do with a cross.  They wanted a successful ruler, someone like King David, who would destroy Israel’s enemies and give them privileged positions of power in a new political order.  So they could not accept His clear word that He would be rejected, suffer, die, and rise again.  When St. Peter actually tried to correct Him on this point, Christ called him “Satan” and said that he was thinking in human terms, not God’s.  To place the pursuit of worldly power over faithful obedience was a temptation Christ had faced during His forty days of preparation in the desert before His public ministry began.  Then that same temptation came from the head disciple, and the Lord let St. Peter know in no uncertain terms that He must serve God and not the powers of this world. To place worldly success over sacrificial obedience was simply the work of the devil; we face the same temptations today.   
In complete contrast to what the disciples expected, the Savior told them that they too must take up their crosses and lose their lives in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  The same is true for us, for whatever false gods we are tempted to serve cannot conquer sin and death or bring healing to our souls.  To serve them is to become their slaves and to receive nothing in return but weakness and despair.  The word of the Cross is that we too must lose ourselves in the service of the Kingdom in order to participate personally in our Lord’s great victory and blessing, both now and for eternity. 
            Though we do not like to acknowledge it, holiness remains on a collision course with the conventional standards of our corrupt world.  That truth is the same for all nations, people, and cultures, for the way of the Cross judges them all.  The witness of the martyrs from the origins of the faith right up until today in the Middle East makes that especially clear.  But let us not think that taking up the Cross is reserved only for those called to make the ultimate sacrifice.  For He calls every one of us to become a living martyr by dying to our sinfulness, to how we have corrupted ourselves, our relationships, and our world.  And that way of death to sin is the Cross, for if we want to share in the joy of His resurrection, we must first participate in the struggle, pain, and sacrifice of crucifixion.
           That does not mean trying to put ourselves in situations where we will be harmed or convincing ourselves that we are persecuted for our faith whenever someone criticizes or disagrees with us.  We must never distort our faith into a habit of feeling sorry for ourselves or justifying hatred or resentment towards anyone—much less to finding a way to use Christianity to gain earthly power and prestige. Our calling is to follow the example of our Lord as we forgive, turn the other cheek, and genuinely bless those who curse us.  If we crucify others even in our thoughts for whatever reason, we turn away from the true Cross.  
          The One Who offered up Himself calls us to crucify our own sinful desires and actions, the habits of thought, word, and deed that lead us to worship and serve ourselves instead of God and neighbor.  That is very hard to do in a culture that celebrates self-centeredness and self-indulgence.  In the name of being true to ourselves, people today justify everything from adultery and promiscuity to abusing and abandoning their own children. If any of their desires go unfulfilled, many feel justified in falling into anger, hatred, and even violence toward those who offend them.  In our society today so much seems to revolve around our desires, our will, our pleasure, and our obsessive need to worship ourselves, rather than the Creator.     
            But as we have all learned in one way or another, living that way simply makes us miserable, ashamed, and even more enslaved to our passions.   That is not how God made us in His image and likeness to find peace, fulfillment, and joy.  Yes, some may seem to gain the whole world by living that way, but they still end up losing their souls.  
Saint Paul said of himself, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.”  By dying to his sins, St. Paul became a living icon of the Lord.  Our Savior’s glorification of humanity was made present in his life.  He became truly himself in the divine image and likeness by sharing in the Lord’s death and resurrection.  The same is true of all the Saints, of all those who have manifested in their own lives the holiness of our Lord, whether they died as martyrs or not.      
In our day, there are many cheap substitutes for a life of holiness in which we truly take up our crosses and follow our Lord.  Popular culture tempts us to believe that simply expressing ourselves is somehow really virtuous.   While there is nothing wrong with “liking” a post on social media or putting a sign in our yard or a wearing a t-shirt in support of even the most laudable causes, simply expressing an opinion on an issue usually requires very little from us and does not change much.    
It is much harder actually to give of our time, energy, and resources to help a troubled or needy person than it is to agree with the idea of helping others.  It is much more difficult to live a life of chastity and purity as man and woman in our decadent culture than it is to call for moral decency in society or to criticize others whose struggles we do not know.  Most of us have more than enough work to do in purifying our own hearts before we start worrying about how strangers are doing, even if we see them in the news or on social media.     
Regardless of how correct we may be on any issue or problem, words alone will not suffice and may become a distraction from our own repentance, especially if they inflame passions such as self-righteous pride or judgment.  In order for our faith to mean something, we must act in ways that require self-sacrifice and help to purify our hearts, if we truly wish to follow Jesus Christ.   
Some bear their crosses daily as they respond to sickness or other chronic personal challenges with patience, humility, and deep trust that the Lord will not abandon them.  There is no “one size fits all” journey to the Kingdom, no legal definition, even as the Saints include people of so many different life circumstances and personalities.  Regardless of our situation, we all have the opportunity to bear our crosses in relation to the particular challenges that we face. Most of us do not need to go looking for spiritual challenges; if we will open our eyes, we will see that they are right before us.   
At the end of the day, Christ calls us all to live as those who are not ashamed of His Cross.  That means that we must take practical, tangible steps every day of our lives in order to die to sin so that we may participate in the new life that our Savior has brought to the world.  If we do not, then we deny our Lord by what we do each day as much as those who worship false gods.  In fact, we worship the false god of self whenever we do not follow the way of Christ in offering ourselves in free obedience to Him.  Our ultimate choice is not between this or that issue or idea, but between the way of the Cross and all other ways, no matter how popular, easy, or moral they may seem to be.
 If we ever think that we are serving the Lord faithfully when our lives do not display any serious self-sacrifice, then we should think again.  For we are not to commemorate the Cross only in certain periods of the Church year, but every day of our lives in how we live, how we treat others, and how we respond to our temptations, weaknesses, and chronic challenges.  The Savior offered Himself in free obedience on the Cross for our salvation.  If we are truly joining ourselves to His great sacrifice, then our lives must show it.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Cross and the New Creation: Homily for the Sunday Before the Elevation of the Holy Cross and the After-feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 6:11-18; John 3:13-17

One of the most dangerous temptations that we can face is to despair, to give up hope that we and those we love will ever be any different than we are today.  Too many of us have abandoned hope for anything but more of the same.  Sometimes we justify that in the name of a false humility that says nothing more could be expected of broken, imperfect people like us.  But when we do so, we turn away from the joy of the new creation that our Lord has brought to the world through His cross.

            If there were ever a couple tempted not to have hope, it would have been Joachim and Anna, an elderly Jewish couple with no children.  In a faith that began with the promise that Abraham would be the father of a multitude, that was a real problem.  But God heard their fervent prayer and gave them a daughter named Mary, who became the Living Temple of the Lord when she freely agreed to become the virgin mother of the Son of God.  Through this New Eve, the New Adam came into the world in order to free us from the corruption and fear of death and to bring life even from the tomb. 

            Ever since our first parents became slaves to corruption, every generation had repeated the cycle of life leading to death. But across the generations of the Hebrew people, God prepared the way for the coming of the One who would destroy death by His cross and resurrection.  Like Abraham and Sarah, Joachim and Anna were miraculously blessed by a child in old age, perhaps in part to make clear that God was mercifully doing something new, not simply calling them to continue life as they had always known it.  With the birth of the Theotokos, the Living Temple arrives through whom Christ brings us into the “new creation” of His salvation, the “eighth day” of the heavenly kingdom.  As the Savior said to Nicodemus, He did not come to condemn the creation, but to save it.   

            In today’s epistle text, St. Paul refutes the Judaizers who required Gentile converts to be circumcised and obey dietary and other laws in order to become Christians.  He saw the danger in those requirements, for obedience to law does not bring us into the life of God or make us participants in the new creation of His Kingdom.  Following rules simply by our own power may make us more religious, moral, or civilized, but it does not make us “partakers of the divine nature.”  (2 Pet. 1:4) Our problems are not so slight that we simply need a few more instructions in order to be set right.  No, we need to be born anew into eternal life, which is possible only through the One who conquered death through His cross.

            The Judaizers wanted Gentile converts to obey the law of Moses, in which Nicodemus was an expert as a Pharisee.  But Christ made clear His superiority to Moses by saying “No one has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven, the Son of man.”  Moses received the law and beheld the glory of God, but only Christ is the God-Man who came down from heaven and ascended in glory after His resurrection. The Lord referred to a miracle worked through Moses when the Hebrews were saved from poisonous snake bites by looking at a bronze serpent that he held up for them to see. (Numbers 21:9) The people were saved through Moses from physical death on a particular day, but Christ—who will be lifted up upon the cross at His crucifixion-- will give eternal life to those who believe in Him. 

            As blessed a prophet as Moses was, he did not bring anyone into the fullness of the new creation.  Only Jesus Christ is able to do that.  He is so unique that we cannot talk about Him simply in terms of ideas, laws, or doctrines.  Instead, we speak of profound realities such as birth, death, creation, and resurrection.   We bring to mind outrageously shocking events such as barren senior citizens having babies and a holy virgin who becomes pregnant with the Son of God in her womb.  We see the One who spoke the universe into existence born in the humility of a barn with a manger for His crib.  We see Him rejected, despised, and killed as He offers Himself in free obedience on the cross.  “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  (John 1:29) And then we see the strangest thing of all when He rises in glory after three days in the tomb, bursting the bonds of Hades and defeating even death itself.  That is what a new creation looks like, and it is anything but life as usual.  

            As hard as it is to believe, the Savior enables us to participate in the new life of the heavenly kingdom even as we live and breathe in this world.  To be in Him is to be set free from the fear of death, from slavery to sin, and from domination by our disordered desires, including the obsession with making ourselves worthy by our own accomplishments.  Unfortunately, many of us remain addicts to self-justification, to the impossible task of saving ourselves from shame, anxiety, and despair by an outward show of respectability or success.  Whether it is religion, work, money, physical appearance, family or anything else, that kind of self-justification is ultimately the idolatry of worshiping ourselves, of glorying in our own flesh, as St. Paul said of the Judaizers.   He wrote, “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”

Christ’s cross is the end of all human attempts at self-justification, including of any form of religion that sees salvation as just another human achievement.  Our problem is too grave to be solved by an outward show of piety, ethics, or anything else.  The glory to which we are called is too sublime to be fulfilled even by our best efforts.  It is beyond us to conquer death and shine with divine light simply by trying really hard.  That is a path to worry, failure, and fanaticism, not to the peace, joy, and holiness of the Lord.  Like St. Paul, we must die to our addiction to self-justification if we are to understand the infinite love of the God-Man who offered Himself on the cross and endured the wages of sin in order to conquer death on our behalf and for our salvation.  He died that we might live.  He went into the tomb and Hades in order to bring us into the new creation, the “eighth day” of His heavenly kingdom. 

We will not secure the meaning and purpose of our lives by self-reliance or maintaining an impressive outward appearance in any way.  Instead, we must become like Joachim and Anna in their patient trust in God to bless them.  We must become like the Theotokos, their long-awaited daughter, who welcomed Christ into her life in a unique way as His Living Temple.  We must become like St. Paul in dying to everything that keeps us from entrusting our lives fully to the mercy of our crucified and risen Lord.  Following their examples, let us all embrace as fully as possible the new life that He has brought to the world.  For that is truly what we all need:  a new life; a new birth; and a new creation.  Those who worship the false gods of the world may be able to achieve certain goals, but they will miss the one thing needful that we cannot give ourselves. As Christ said to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Forgiveness and the Healing of the Soul: Homily for the 11th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Matthew 18:23-35
            Sometimes the truth has to come to us in an unusual way in order to get our attention.   That is because most of us are really good at hearing only what we want to hear and seeing only what we want to see.  Unfortunately, that means we are skilled in ignoring uncomfortable truths, including the simple teaching of our Lord that we must forgive others if we want God to forgive us.  In today’s gospel text, Jesus Christ spoke a very disturbing parable that should make that truth clear to us all.   
            A servant owed his ruler more money than he could possibly earn in his entire life.  When he could not pay, the master was ready to sell him and his entire family in order to cover the debt.  But the servant begged for more time to pay, and the master showed mercy even beyond his request.  He actually forgave the huge debt; the man then owed nothing and he and his family were safe from punishment of any kind. This was an unbelievably good turn of events for the servant and his family.
            Then that same servant found another servant who owed him a much smaller sum of money.  Since the second man did not have enough to pay the debt, the first servant had him put in prison until he could pay.  He refused to show him even a small measure of mercy or patience. When the king heard about it, he was enraged that the man to whom he had forgiven so much would be so cruel to his fellow servant.  So the king put the first servant in prison until he could pay all that he owed.  The Lord ended this parable with the harsh warning: “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
            This parable gets our attention because we all find it hard to forgive at least some of the people who have wronged or offended us in the course of our lives.  Regardless of whether the wrongs occurred days, years, or decades ago, it is difficult to forgive. At times we actually enjoy holding grudges against others; maybe it serves our pride to think that we are better than those who have wronged us, and thus justified in looking down on them.  We sometimes hate our tendency to remember past offenses, but unpleasant memories can play over and over in our minds, inflame our passions, and make us feel powerless against them.
            Like everything else in the Christian life, forgiveness is a process of healing as we participate more fully in the life of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Notice that the Lord concluded the parable by saying that we must forgive others from our hearts, from the depths of our souls.  Though it is a necessary and important first step, simply putting on a good face and not striking back is just the beginning of the journey.  Our goal is not only to be a bit better at self-control, but to be fully reconciled with our neighbors, to be so filled with love that we forgive and forget, and show them the same mercy that the Lord has shown us with a pure and whole heart.  When we realize how far we are from fulfilling that high goal, our need for His mercy should become all the more clear.    
            Even as we always want God to forgive us when we sin, there is no limit to the forgiving, reconciling love that He calls us to give our enemies.  When St. Peter asked how many times he was to forgive his brother who sinned against him, maybe seven times, Christ said, no, ‘seventy times seven.” (Matt. 18:22) In other words, we should always forgive; there is never a point where the Christian becomes justified in judging, condemning, and refusing to show mercy. We are instead to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect in His providential love, care, and blessing for the just and the unjust. (Matt. 5:48)
            None of us is anywhere near fulfilling that divine calling, but we must not give up and despair about our struggle to forgive others.  Instead, we must remember that to be a Christian means to participate personally in the life of the Holy Trinity by grace.  Jesus Christ brings us into eternal life such that we share in His victory over sin and death.  Already in this life, in the world as we know it, the holiness, mercy, and love of the Lord must become active in us, must become characteristic of us as unique persons as we find greater healing for our souls.  
The more we participate in Him, the more we will extend His forgiveness to those who have wronged us.  If we refuse to do so, however, we refuse Christ and reject His mercy.  And when we refuse Him, we condemn only ourselves.
In moments of anger and pain, it is usually much easier to judge, hate, and condemn than to love and forgive.  Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, we humans have distorted our relationships with one another, allowing fear, judgment, and insecurity to divide us.  Early in the book of Genesis, their descendent Lamech brags that he will avenge himself seventy-seven fold. (Gen. 4:24) In other words, he was like a bloodthirsty gangster who never showed mercy to anyone.  We are not that far gone, but we probably do find it beyond our present strength to forgive seventy times seven as Christ forgives us.
Like any other area of weakness in the Christian life, our struggle to forgive must begin with a sincere confession that we hold a grudge against someone else. So we must ask for God’s forgiveness and help in being healed.  We must also pray for those who have offended us, asking God’s blessings on them.  And when we are tempted to remember what they have done or to judge them, we must immediately turn our attention to the Jesus Prayer and remembrance of our own need for forgiveness from the Lord, and from those whom we have offended throughout the course of our lives.  We are not the blameless judges of others, but those who stand in constant need of grace, mercy, and healing together with those who have wronged us.
It is a long struggle, but if we consistently turn away from unholy thoughts, they will lose their power over us.  “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7) The less attention we give to our temptations, the more they will diminish.  The challenge is harder if the others involved in these relationships continue offending us.  But remember what the one who told us to forgive seventy times seven said from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) There is no limit to the forgiving love of Jesus Christ.  And if we are in Him, there can be no limit on our forgiveness either.  We who want His mercy must show it to others.  Otherwise, we reject Him and condemn ourselves.
Every human being bears the image of God, including our enemies.   In that we have done something harmful to anyone, we have done it to the Lord.    Remember the words of St. John: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.”  (1 John 4:20) It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and souls that we will be able to live out our love of God in relation to every human being we encounter.   
The more we share in His life, the more His mercy will become characteristic of us in relation to our enemies.  We fool only ourselves by thinking that we may accept His forgiveness without also showing that same forgiveness to our neighbors.  If we do that, we will become the hypocritical judges of others, like the servant in today’s parable who shut himself out of his master’s mercy.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, that is who we risk becoming every time that we refuse to extend the great forgiveness that we have received in Jesus Christ to those who have wronged us.  So let us all convey our Lord’s mercy to our enemies, for that is how we open ourselves to the grace that we all desperately need for the healing of our souls.

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.