Sunday, February 19, 2017

Needy Neighbors and Strangers as Icons of Christ: Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgment in the Orthodox Church

Matthew 25:31-46
It is easy to think that we have been successful in any endeavor before we are tested.  Students in college classes, for example, often think that they are doing just fine until they take the first examination.  Athletes may think that their team is the best until they lose the first game.  Cooks do not know how good a recipe is until someone actually eats the dish. And sometimes the challenges that reveal how well we have done are not those that we would have expected. 
            In today’s gospel reading, everyone was surprised that how they treated the sick, the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the prisoner—“the least of these” in society—was how they treated Jesus Christ.  The ultimate standard of their relationship to God, of their spiritual health, was shown in how they responded to the everyday challenge of caring for those in need.  By serving Christ in their wretched and miserable neighbors, some demonstrated that they were in union with the Lord, that His holy mercy had permeated their souls.  Others, by disregarding those same neighbors, had shown that they had rejected Christ, that they did not share in His life.  Some opened themselves to the life of the Kingdom in which they already participated in this world, while others shut themselves out of an eternal blessedness they had rejected bit by bit throughout their lives.  The judgment of the Lord in this parable is not some random decree, but a confirmation of who people had chosen to become through their actions.
            If we have been paying attention at all, we will know that Great Lent begins very soon.   The Church calls us to weeks of intensified spiritual struggle in which we devote ourselves to prayer, abstain from the richest and most satisfying foods, give generously to the needy, turn away from our sins, and extend and ask for forgiveness from those from whom we have become estranged.  We all need the spiritual disciplines of Lent for the healing of our souls as we prepare to follow our Lord to His great victory over death.
Today’s gospel reading, however, reminds us that the practices of Lent are not ends in themselves by any means.  If, like a prideful Pharisee, we believe that observing them fulfills what God requires and automatically makes us closer to Him than others, we will do ourselves more harm than good.  For the standard of judgment in today’s gospel lesson is not whose religious observance was the most austere or otherwise impressive.  No, the key issue in this passage is who we become in relation to the Lord as that is shown by how we treat others, especially those whom we are in no way naturally inclined to help.  Remember that all human beings bear the image of God, which means that we are all icons of the Lord.  How we treat an image of someone reflects what we think about that person.  So if we become the kind of people who ignore and disregard suffering neighbors and strangers, we turn away from Christ. Conversely, if we love and serve them, then we love and serve Him. 
The question is not simply what we say we believe or where we spend a couple of hours on Sunday.  It is whether we have truly become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace (2 Peter 1:4), whether “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20) The test is whether we actually live as those who have died to sin and been born anew into a life of holiness.  As St. James wrote in his epistle, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this:  to visit widows and orphans in their trouble and to keep oneself unspotted from the word.” (Jas. 1:27) And as St. John taught, we are liars if we say that we love God while we hate our brothers and sisters. (1 Jn. 4:20) 
In the world as we know it, there is nothing naturally attractive about following Christ to His Cross, burial, and descent into Hades. And there is nothing naturally appealing about serving suffering human beings in their misery and need. But if we serve only ourselves and abandon them, we abandon Him.  If we are to become the kind of people who do not deny our crucified Lord and run away in fear, we must learn to bear our own crosses, including the challenge of caring for those whose crosses are much heavier than ours.  Our Lord’s sacrificial love must become characteristic of us; otherwise, we will reject Him because, regardless of what we say we believe, we will want no part of a Lord Who reigns from a Cross and an empty tomb.
From Judas Iscariot to today, there have always been those who betray Jesus Christ for money, power, pride, or some other false god.  There are those who, even as they call themselves Christians, identify our Lord’s Kingdom with the corrupt ways of worldly kingdoms, who associate the way of Christ with ways that He clearly rejected, such as worshiping wealth and earthly power, judging others self-righteously and hypocritically, or hating people of different ethnic, religious, or national backgrounds.   Of course, it is appealing in every generation to think that all we find to be familiar, comfortable, and desirable must be holy—and that whoever we think our enemies are must be God’s enemies. It is tempting to hate and condemn people or groups whom we see as a threat to whatever we may want in life. No matter how attractive that way of thinking is, it amounts simply to idolatry, to identifying our ways with God’s ways and rejecting Him without even recognizing it.
If we are to prepare ourselves for a journey that leads to the Cross, to the sacrificial slaughter of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, we must reject conventional and easy ways of thinking about religion that so easily lead us away from Christ.   Remember that no one expected a Messiah Who would associate with sinners, bless Gentiles and Samaritans, die on the Cross, and then rise in glory.  If we are to acquire the humility and faith necessary to follow such a shocking Lord, we cannot rest content with what is pleasing to us on our own terms.  No, we must open ourselves to His strength by humble repentance and obedience. 
This Lent, let us use our lack of enthusiasm for serving our neighbors as a reminder that we must pray daily for God’s strength and healing for our own souls.  Let us abstain from meat and other rich foods as a tool for learning to control our self-centered desires so that we may put the needs of others before our own.  Let us give money, time, and attention to bless those here and around the world who lack what we take for granted.   Let us take advantage of the opportunities all around us to serve our Lord in our neighbors.  The more that we embrace these disciplines with true humility, the more fully we will participate in the healing and restoration that Christ has brought to the world through His Cross and glorious resurrection. 
The Lord said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14:15) If we call ourselves Christians, then we must obey Him.  If we dare to ask for the Lord’s mercy on us, we must show His mercy to others.  If we claim to be His followers, then we must learn to put others before ourselves, especially those we are not particularly inclined to help.  For as He taught, “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”  If we use the disciplines of Lent to gain the spiritual health necessary to serve Him more faithfully each day in relation to neighbors and strangers, then we will be prepared to go with Him to the Cross and to enter into the joy of Pascha, to “inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  For as hard as it may be for us to accept, in our small efforts to help “the least of these,” we serve the Lord Himself Who died and rose again for our salvation.    

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Choose Repentance Instead of Shame: Homily for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in the Orthodox Church

 Luke 15:11-32
          We have all had the experience of being ashamed of ourselves.  We had done, said, or thought something which probably seemed fine to us at the time, but which we later realized was simply terrible.  Sometimes when that happens, we catch a glimpse of truth about ourselves that is hard to bear.  Sometimes when that happens, we are paralyzed by shame, by a prideful refusal to accept in humility that we—like everyone else in this life—are very far from perfect and in constant need of our Lord’s mercy and grace.  Those who remain stuck in the rut of shame will face great obstacles in finding healing for their souls.
            The prodigal son in today’s gospel reading provides a wonderful example of how to get over wounded pride and repent of even the most shameful acts.  Remember that this fellow had given his father the ultimate insult by asking for his inheritance, which was basically to tell the old man that he was tired of waiting for him to die.  The father apparently meant nothing to this son other than as a source of cash that he could use to fund a debauched life.  The young man was apparently blind to the gravity of what he had done until he found himself in truly wretched circumstances, especially for a Jew.  In a foreign land, he tended pigs and was so hungry that he envied the food of the swine.  Then it dawned on him what he had done.  He came to himself and began the long journey home, knowing that the most he could possibly expect from his father was to become one of his hired servants. When he finally arrived at home, he said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The son knew what he had done, made no excuses, and was not going to ask anything from the father other than to become one of his hired hands.  He knew the seemingly irreparable harm that he had done.  He had come to see clearly the seriousness of his rotten behavior.  He was well aware that his father owed him nothing at all.  He was totally dependent upon his mercy.   
            Before we continue with the story of the parable, we should pause to admire the courage and humility of the prodigal son.  After seeing how horribly he had treated his father, he refused to be paralyzed by shame.  He began the journey home, accepted the truth about what he had done, and was ready to accept whatever rejection, criticism, or awkwardness resulted from daring to show his face to the father whom he had rejected.  At this point, he had no illusions about himself, his behavior, or how it had impacted others.  He knew that he could hope, at the very most, to return to the household as a servant, not a son.  Nonetheless, he still took the long journey home.
            Had the son not done so, he would not have put himself in the place where it was possible for him to receive his father’s unbelievable mercy.  The father ran out to greet him when he was still a long way off, which shows that the old man had been scanning the horizon and hoping for this moment. When the father embraced him, the son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  But before he could ask to become only a servant in the household, the father restored him fully as a son with a robe, a ring, shoes, and a party with music, dancing, and a great feast. For from the father’s perspective, he was not simply forgiving someone who had rejected and insulted him. No, he was celebrating a resurrection: “for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
 Most of us do not have to think very hard to recognize times in our lives when we have done, said, or thought shameful things.  We usually do not like to be reminded of them because they challenge our pride.  Unfortunately, some of us go through life with a crippling sense of shame, which is more a reflection of our refusal to accept in humility the truth about ourselves than of anything else.  If we have the proper attitude, the intensified spiritual disciplines of the coming weeks of Great Lent can help to heal us from shame, for they are not only for you, me, or anyone else in particular.  They are a common calling of the Church because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  We have all failed to love the Lord with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves.  We are not perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. We have all turned away from fulfilling our vocation to become ever more like God in holiness.  That is why we all need the coming weeks of intensified prayer, fasting, generosity to the poor, and repentance.  Through them, we will come to know our true spiritual state more clearly and open ourselves more fully to receive the mercy of our Lord.      
Before the infinite holiness of God, we are all guilty of shameful thoughts, words, and deeds, but none of us should be stuck in a rut of pride that keeps us from taking the journey home.  Some disregard Lent and avoid Confession because they cannot believe that God would ever really forgive them for what they have done.  Today’s parable is a good remedy for that attitude, for the father in the story is an image of our Heavenly Father, Whose love is such that He will restore our dignity as His sons and daughters through our repentance.  His abundant mercy is eternal, but we must respond as the prodigal son.  That means acknowledging our failings, sincerely regretting them, knowing that we deserve nothing by our own merits, and actually beginning the journey home.
As we prepare for the spiritual disciplines of Lent, we must all keep the lessons of this parable squarely in mind, for it provides such a powerful image of what happens when we come to our senses and recognize our sins, turn away from them, and turn toward the Lord.  The overwhelming mercy of the father in the story is an image of the abundant grace of God.  For He does not settle simply with forgiveness, but restores us fully to the dignity of His sons and daughters.  He makes us true participants in eternal life by grace, not hired hands with some low level of blessing who somehow sneak into the Kingdom through the backdoor.  He does not scold or shame us, but truly welcomes us home with love beyond what we can understand.
            Sin is shameful because it is ultimately a rejection of our Lord and His blessed purposes for us.  Repentance, however, is never shameful because it is an acceptance of our Lord and His blessed purposes for us.  How tragic it would have been for the prodigal son to have remained as a starving laborer on a pig farm due to wounded pride, for him to have chosen such lonely misery over the joyful restoration that he found when he went home.  The same is true for us, no matter what we have done, thought, or said, no matter how far we have strayed from our Heavenly Father.

            The prodigal son’s return home was a resurrection from death to life, which is why his father called for such a great celebration.  Lent prepares us to follow our Savior to His Cross and the glory of the empty tomb at Pascha.  We must die to sin so that we will be prepared to behold with joy our Lord’s victory over death and to enter into eternal celebration of the Heavenly Banquet.  There is no shame in preparing ourselves to accept such a great invitation.  In fact, the only shame would be if we refused to accept it out of wounded pride.   

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Cultivating Humility: Homily for the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican in the Orthodox Church

Luke 18: 10-14
There are some problems that have to be identified clearly and addressed plainly because they are so important, so fundamental to our life in Christ.  There are some temptations so subtle, persistent, and dangerous that we must always be on full alert against them because they have the power to destroy our souls.  Today we call ourselves to that kind of vigilance against pride, which often leads us to wander far from the path of the Kingdom without even knowing it.   
            In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, we encounter a man whom we would probably admire based on how he lived his life.  He was just in his dealings with others, did not commit adultery, fasted, and gave alms.  He appeared to be the model of righteousness.  But he had one fatal flaw that destroyed him spiritually.  That, of course, was pride as shown in his self-righteous judgment of other people, especially the publican or tax collector who was also in the Temple that day.
            Like Zacchaeus, this tax collector was a traitor to his own people by collecting taxes from his fellow Jews to pay for the Roman army of occupation.  He made his living by collecting more than was required and then living off the difference.  He was crooked and a collaborator with his nation’s enemies.  There was nothing admirable about the outward appearance of his life.  Who would not be tempted to look down upon such a person?  But this fellow had one tremendous virtue that healed him spiritually.  That, of course, was his humility as shown when he would not even lift his eyes up to heaven, but simply prayed from his heart as he beat his breast, saying “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  The Lord explained the key difference between these two men in this way: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  The Pharisee sent himself down by the weight of his own pride, while the miserable tax collector was raised up by the Lord due to his humility.  
            Today we begin the three-week period of preparation for Great Lent, which begins this year on February 27.  Lent prepares us to follow our Lord to His cross and empty tomb.  It is a penitential season that provides tremendous opportunities for the healing of our souls.  But if we retain the spirit of the Pharisee, the disciplines of Lent will not bring us any closer to Christ; indeed, they will have the opposite effect.  For it is possible to attend services and pray at home in a self-congratulatory way such that, like the Pharisee, we are really worshiping ourselves and not God.  That is called idolatry.  It is possible to corrupt prayer and church attendance as ways to build ourselves up and put others down when we fall into the self-righteous judgment of others. It is possible to destroy the spiritual benefit of fasting, giving to the poor, and every other spiritual discipline through pride.  We will do ourselves more harm than good by approaching them in that way.  Spiritual disciplines are not ways of showing God how good we are or making us feel better about ourselves; instead, they help to open the eyes of our souls to the truth that each of us is personally the chief of sinners and totally dependent upon our Lord’s mercy and grace.
            This is an important lesson not only as we prepare for Lent, but for every day of our lives.  We face temptations all the time to put ourselves in the place of the angels and to view others as demons.  We may do that in relation to particular people who have harmed us or whom we do not particularly like, perhaps for good reason.  It may have to do with people or groups we do not know personally, but who inspire hatred and fear in us for whatever reason.  Without denying that harms have been done or that there are risks in the world as we know it, we must never allow our hearts and souls to be consumed by self-righteous judgment as though it were perfectly fine for us to celebrate how great we are in contrast to how rotten others are.  If we have ever fantasized about how some deserve condemnation and we deserve an award for good behavior, we have become the Pharisee.   
            Thank God, then, that we have seasons of intensified spiritual struggle, such as Great Lent.  For there is nothing like them to help us see the true state of our souls a bit more clearly.   Periods of intensified prayer make us aware of how far we are from being fully present to God in the services of the Church or in our daily lives.  Try to focus on prayer and you will likely be distracted by thoughts that seem almost impossible to control.   Something similar happens when we try to fast.  The call to abstain from the richest and most satisfying foods often reveals a fixation on how we simply cannot live without meat, cheese, and other rich food. And even when we change what we eat to lighter fare, the temptation to stuff ourselves remains.  The reminder to give generously to the poor makes us fear that we will become impoverished if we help, even in small ways, those who are truly in need.   We so easily justify extravagances for ourselves while others starve or lack basic necessities.   In other words, the spiritual disciplines of Lent call us to humility precisely because they reveal our spiritual weakness and brokenness.   They show us our pride because we are obsessed with putting our desires before God’s will, and we can always find someone to look down upon in order to feel better about ourselves.  When we struggle with these and other spiritual disciplines, they help us to gain just a bit of the spiritual clarity of that blessed tax collector who knew his own corruption so well that the prayer of his heart was simply “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
            The hard truth is that we will never grow in Christ unless we intentionally take steps that help us grow in humility, that help us embrace the truth about where we stand before the Lord.  To see that truth does not mean having ideas about ourselves or about God.  Instead, it means gaining the spiritual health to become more fully the unique persons He created us to be in His image and likeness.  Of course, we are called to holiness, but true holiness is incompatible with thinking that we are holy.  True holiness means becoming like Christ, Whose humility knows no bounds, not even the Cross and the tomb.  And since He calls us to become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, we are always in need of His mercy and grace as we press on toward an infinite goal that we may never say that we have fully met or mastered.  
            The key difference between the two men in today’s gospel reading is that the Pharisee was so spiritually blind that he thought he actually had done all that God required.  He even prayed to himself.  He apparently thought that he needed no forgiveness and was justified in worshiping himself and condemning others.  His was a very watered-down religion, ultimately a form of idolatry that was focused on the glories of his own life.  The tax collector was the complete opposite, focused only on his own need for God’s mercy as the chief of sinners. As we begin to make our plans for intensified prayer, spiritual reading, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and repentance this Lent, we should focus on turning away from every form of self-justification and every form of condemnation of others.  We should embrace the spirituality of the Jesus Prayer as much as possible: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  We should look for opportunities in our daily lives to put the needs of others before our own, to live for others and not simply for ourselves.  And when we struggle and fail to accomplish what we set out to do, we should kneel in humility like the publican with no excuses, no passing of the blame, and no judgment of anyone else for any reason.  We should learn to see ourselves as the chief of sinners with nothing to present to the Lord except a plea for mercy and a humble resolve turn away from our sins and to turn toward Him in how we live our lives each day.   
            Our inflamed passions will tempt us to give up quickly when prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other disciplines are difficult.  If we make progress in any discipline, we will likely be tempted to focus on that and fall into pride.  We should be prepared for strange thoughts and odd desires to attempt to distract us.  We should be ready for a struggle, but it is precisely through the battle that we may acquire the humility that will open our souls to the healing power of the Lord Who lowered Himself to the cross, the tomb, and Hades in order to rise in glory and conquer all forms of corruption.  And if we want to share in the glory of His resurrection, then we must also lower ourselves by crucifying our passions, by dying to sin, and doing all that we can to destroy the corruptions of pride in our souls.  In other words, we must kill the Pharisee within us even as we cultivate the spiritual clarity of the tax collector if we want to follow Christ to His crucifixion and behold the brilliant light of the empty tomb.  The only way to do that is by being in the place of that humble publican who knew that he was the chief of sinners.  May we all follow his blessed example during our Lenten journey this year.      

Sunday, January 29, 2017

How Strangers and Foreigners Become God's Holy Temple: Homily for the Sunday of the Canaanite Woman in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1; Matthew 15:21-28
It is easy to fall into the trap of looking only at the surface of the challenges that we face in life.  Instead of getting to the heart of the matter, we often accept simplistic answers about ourselves, others, and even God.  One of those false answers that Jesus Christ corrected was that only people of a certain ethnic and religious heritage were called to holiness and capable of finding salvation.   That is another way of saying that He came to bring all peoples and nations into eternal life, for His Kingdom is radically different from the ways of the kingdoms of this world.
            Today’s epistle reading is from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  As I hope you remember, that church was made up primarily of Gentile converts who had recently converted from paganism, and they faced great problems in turning away from their old habits to embrace a life pleasing to God.  St. Paul, the former Pharisee, does something really shocking in today’s reading. He addresses the Corinthians as “the temple of the living God.”  He tells them that, because they are in Christ, they have become God’s people, His sons and daughters, and are to reject all corruption of body and spirit so that they will “make holiness perfect in the fear of God.” 
            What is so surprising is that St. Paul sends them that message by quoting Old Testament passages that called the Jews to become holy by having nothing to do with the Gentiles, to be separate from them and their ways.  And the Corinthian Christians were Gentiles. But because our Lord has fulfilled and extended the promises to Abraham to all who have faith in Him, those instructions now apply even to the very confused Gentile Christians of Corinth.  The holiness to which St. Paul called them was not a matter of having nothing to do with people of different ethnic or national heritages. Instead, it is a calling to acquire the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Gal. 5: 22-25)
In first-century Palestine, the Jews did not think such holiness was even a possibility for Gentiles, such as the Canaanite woman who called out “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” No one was surprised when Christ did not answer her at first, for who would have expected the Jewish Messiah to help a Gentile, especially a woman with a demon-possessed child?  But the Lord was actually doing something quite surprising, for He challenged her to respond to the conventional wisdom of the Jews when He said “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  She knelt before him and cried “Lord, help me!”  He then pressed her even harder by saying “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Christ was stating clearly the common Jewish understanding of that time that Gentiles had no claim to the promises to Abraham. 
Our Savior is obviously an excellent teacher, however, for these sharp words inspired her to utter a profound theological insight that had been forgotten by the Jews and was not known by the disciples.  For she responded, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” In other words, she saw the deep truth that God’s promises to the Jews were always intended to bless the entire world, and now they are fulfilled in all who have faith in the Messiah.  That is why the Lord then said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And then the demon left her daughter.
Think about it for a moment. The Messiah of Israel praised the faith of a Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed by a demon. Could there be a more powerful sign that all people, including the hated foreigners, are also God’s people?  Could there be a more brilliant icon of how all nations are called to holiness than how the demon immediately left the girl when her mother showed such great faith?  This is a sign of all humanity being delivered from corruption by the Savior Who came to heal, bless, and sanctify all who bear His image and likeness.  Yes, that means even the Canaanites, the Corinthians, and people like you and me who probably are not of Hebrew descent.  Race, ethnicity, nationality, and other merely human characteristics have nothing to do with whether someone shares by grace in the holiness of God.  The healing of our souls is equally open to all through the God-Man Who has sanctified every dimension of our common humanity.
We must, however, do our part by actually living as God’s holy temple, as His sons and daughters who “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.”  St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians was not to congratulate them on having already achieved something, but instead to challenge them to live faithfully to their high calling.  He does the same with us. Our identity as members of Christ’s Body is nothing that we have earned, but purely a gift of grace which we must continue to receive with humility.  If it were our achievement or possession, then perhaps we could look down upon others as though God’s blessings were for us and not them.   Instead, we are exactly like the Canaanite woman with no claim to anything before the Lord.  We are as dependent upon His mercy as a foreign woman with a demon-possessed daughter begging on her knees and weeping as she cried out for help that no one else thought that she could possibly receive. 
As we struggle to find healing for our souls and to grow in holiness, we must cultivate the bold persistence of that Canaanite woman.  She refused to be denied, even though she knew that she was totally dependent upon the mercy of a Lord Who owed her nothing at all. We must also persist in humbling ourselves before Him as we separate ourselves from all that hinders us from sharing more fully in the life of Christ. We must refuse to be denied in our repentance, and that means taking steps that hit us where we live.  If we watch shows or play video games that inflame our passions and put images, worries, and fears in our minds and then distract us when we pray, we should stop indulging in them. If the news or social media does something similar to us, we must carefully regulate our consumption of it or turn it off.  If we put ourselves in social situations that tempt us to act, speak, or think in ways that we know are not pleasing to God, we should stay away from them.  If we find our greatest joy in food, drink, or any bodily pleasure, we should fast and reorient our lives from self-centered desire to growing in love for our Lord and our families and neighbors.
If we have harbored hatred and self-righteous judgment toward anyone or any group of people, and especially if we gossip about them, we must soften our hearts through the Jesus Prayer and keep our mouths shut when we are tempted to spew venom.  If our daily routine does not include falling on our knees in prayer before the Lord with the humble persistence of the Canaanite woman, that must become our very first priority in life.  For God’s holy temple must be a place of prayer, and as hard as it is to believe, by His grace we have become that temple.  Now we must fulfill our calling “to perfect holiness in the fear of God” by cleansing ourselves from every form of corruption.  That is how we will take our place with Canaanites, Corinthians, and other strangers and foreigners in a Kingdom not of this world.      

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Two Paths to the Kingdom: Homily on Zacchaeus and the Apostle Timothy in the Orthodox Church

1 Timothy 4:9-15; Luke 19:1-10
One of the worst mistakes that we can make in life is to insist that everyone be just the same.  Part of the beauty of the human being is the distinctiveness of our personalities, our interests, and our abilities.  We see that in our families, in our friendships, in our work, and in the Church, where the different members of the Body of Christ have different functions in working together for the strength and blessing of all.  We should also learn to see that in the spiritual paths that we pursue, in the journeys that we take to share more fully in the life of our Lord.
            Zacchaeus’ path to salvation was shocking, decisive, and scandalous.  As a chief tax collector, he was a high ranking traitor to the Jews because he worked collecting taxes for the pagan Roman Empire, which occupied Israel.  He became rich basically by stealing from his fellow Jews when he took even more of their money than the Romans required and lived off the difference.  He was the last person whom anyone would have expected to entertain the Messiah in his home, but that is precisely what he did at the instruction of Jesus Christ.  And when people complained how disreputable it was for the Lord to enter his home, Zacchaeus made a bold change in an instant.  This man who had apparently loved money and comfort more than his own people or righteousness, repented of his own accord.  There is no record that Christ told him to take any particular action, but he immediately committed himself publicly to giving half of his possessions to the poor and to giving back four times the amount that he had stolen.  Since he was a chief tax collector and wealthy, these acts of restitution surely involved large sums of money.  No one would have ever expected someone like him to do that, and it was such a grand gesture that many probably found it hard to believe.
Jesus Christ knew, however, that he was sincere and would follow through with these outrageous acts of repentance.  That is why He said what no Jew ever expected the Messiah to say about someone like Zacchaeus: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”  Unlike those who wanted a Messiah to reward the righteous, destroy the sinners, and defeat the Romans, our Savior came to bring the lost sheep back into the fold, even those who were so lost that they had gone over to the side of the wolves.
There have been many people whose journey to the Kingdom has much in common with Zacchaeus.  Like him, they had turned away from God and many people probably thought that they would be the very last people to find healing for their souls.  Remember that St. Paul actually persecuted Christians before the risen Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus.  St. Peter denied the Lord three times during His Passion. In the Old Testament, King David committed murder and adultery.  St. Mary of Egypt was a grossly immoral person before repenting so profoundly that she rose up off the ground in prayer. St. Moses the Black was a feared criminal before becoming a model of holiness in the monastic life.  The list goes on and on of outrageous sinners who shockingly redirected their lives to the Lord through humble repentance.  In contrast with all the darkness of their past lives, His glory shines especially brightly in them. 
Not everyone follows that particular path to the Kingdom, however.  Today we commemorate St. Timothy the Apostle, who was converted to the Christian faith by St. Paul together with his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.  He became the bishop of Ephesus and was martyred there for opposing the worship of false gods. St. Paul thought highly of him as his spiritual son, and exhorted him to embrace his calling fully and to be a good steward of his gifts.  As. St. Paul wrote, “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.  Until I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching.  Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties; devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress.”
St. Timothy came to the faith early in life and the reference to his youth shows that he had responsibilities in ministry as relatively young adult.  St. Paul instructed him to be responsible to the great dignity of his calling, to devote himself to cultivating all the spiritual strength that he possibly could, and to be fully aware of the gravity of the grace given him to serve as a shepherd of the flock. 
Unlike with Zacchaeus, Timothy apparently did not need astounding repentance.  He had the benefit of coming to Christ early in life and needed primarily to be faithful with all the blessings that he had received.  That may seem easier than turning away from a life of grave sin, but it is a path with its own temptations, which can be subtle and deadly.  It is easy to take for granted what we have known for so long, perhaps for our whole lives.  It is appealing to denigrate “the same old thing” that we and our families have done for so long.  It is a temptation to become comfortable with our level of spiritual growth or with the place that we have allowed God in our lives.  St. Paul surely knew that, so he instructed Timothy straightforwardly to remain focused, take nothing for granted, and give his all to the Lord each day.
At different points in our lives, we will identify more with Zacchaeus and at other times more with Timothy.  Some have given their lives to the Savior after falling into the worst forms of corruption that the world has to offer.  They have found the way of Christ as a relief and a blessing that stands in stark contrast to the darkness they had previously known. 
Some have grown up with the faith and always had some sense of living a Christian life.  Nonetheless, we are all Zacchaeus when we turn away from the Lord by embracing darkness in our thoughts, words, and deeds.  We may not be traitors and corrupt tax collectors, but we murder people in our hearts when we hate and refuse to forgive them.  We fall into adultery whenever we allow lust to take root in our hearts. Married or single, we sin whenever we fuel our passions with images, thoughts, or actions that make us slaves to self-centered desire, that lead us to reject the calling to direct our deepest desires to union with God.  When we are stingy with our resources, time, and attention in relation to the needs of our family members and neighbors, we steal from them.  But when we reorient ourselves according to the Lord’s purposes for us like Zacchaeus did, salvation will come to our house.
And even if we came to faith from a broken and dark past, we are all Timothy in having gifts of which we must be good stewards.  We must devote ourselves to remaining on the path by which we have begun the journey to the Kingdom, refusing to be distracted from our high calling.  We must remember the struggles of the past and never take our deliverance for granted, for we are all only one grave sin away from weakening our relationship with the Lord.  And if we want to continue on the path to healing and strength that we have begun, we must actually continue on it.  St. Paul’s words apply to us also: “Practice these duties; devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress.”   Yes, we all owe it to one another to set the best example possible in striving to grow in holiness.  This is not a journey that any of us can take entirely by yourselves.
The personal histories of Zacchaeus and Timothy were profoundly different, but they both became shining examples of our Lord’s salvation.  The same will be true of us when we turn from sin like that tax collector and mindfully stay focused on serving Christ like that young apostle. No matter where we are on the journey to the Kingdom, we can all learn from these two faithful men.  The beauty of our unique personalities will shine all the more brightly when, through humble repentance, salvation comes to our house and when, through steadfast commitment, we refuse to be distracted from offering our lives faithfully to the Savior each day. That is surely His calling to each and every one of us.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What We Can Learn from Two Ascetics and One Grateful Samaritan: Homily on St. Paul of Thebes and St. John the Hut-Dweller for the 29th Sunday After Pentecost and the 12th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Colossians 3:4-11; Luke 17:12-19
            You can learn a lot about a person by asking them who their heroes are.  The people we admire tell us a lot about what we value, what we hope for, and who we want to become in the course of our lives.  The Church canonizes Saints who are shining examples of faithfulness to Jesus Christ, who show in their own lives what it means for a human being to become a brilliant icon of holiness.  The Saints are as varied as people are, for we each have unique personalities.  Their distinctive examples inspire us to unite ourselves fully to Christ and, thus, to become our true selves in His image and likeness.
            Today we commemorate two Saints with whom we may think that we have little in common.  St. Paul of Thebes was the first Christian hermit, living for 91 years in a cave in the Egyptian desert in constant prayer in the third and fourth centuries.  His diet consisted of dates and bread, which a raven brought him.  God revealed to St. Antony the Great that St. Paul was more advanced in the ascetic life than he was, so he went to visit him.  When Paul died, Antony saw his soul ascend in glory to heaven surrounded by angels, prophets, and apostles.    
            We also commemorate today St. John the Hut Dweller, who left the wealthy home of his parents to become a monk in the fifth century.  He eventually returned to Constantinople, where he hid his true identity and lived as a beggar outside his parents’ home for three years, where he prayed for them constantly, endured abuse and ridicule, and suffered from the lack of adequate clothing and shelter.   Before his death, John revealed his identity to his parents, who built a church and hostel for strangers on the site of his grave.
            These men are not regarded as heroes in our culture, and few of us know much about them or have taken them seriously as models for our lives.  On the one hand, that is understandable because only a minority of Christians hear the calling to follow the difficult ascetical path of monasticism, which receives great honor in the Church precisely because it is such a stark and demanding example of what it means to take up our crosses and follow Christ.  But on the other hand, these two Saints should intrigue us all because they demonstrate that people of flesh and blood, with all our common weaknesses, may still resist temptation and press on to grow in holiness in profound ways.  If anything, their temptations were greater than ours because of the difficulty of their path and the attraction to any human being of what they gave up:  physical comfort, family relations, and what we think of as a normal life in the world.
            Their example should inspire us, even as we remain in our families, homes, and occupations, to follow St. Paul’s advice to “appear with Him in glory,” to become epiphanies or manifestations of our Lord’s healing and restoration of every dimension of the human person in the divine image and likeness.   That may sound abstract and theoretical, but the calling is as concrete and practical as making sure that “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” have no place in our lives.  It is as matter of fact as refusing to accept “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.”  It is as straightforward as putting an end to our habit of lying, of telling people what they want to hear or whatever helps us get what we want. These are signs of what it means to “put off the old nature with its practices and... put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.”
            We are not desert fathers and mothers or famous ascetics.  We are average people who live fairly conventional lives.  We are not ready to take on the stark choices and challenges that we see in the lives of St. Paul or St. John.  Nonetheless, our daily struggle to turn away from slavery to self-centered desire and corruption is simply another version of their path, and it too has eternal consequences.  In all that we say, do, and think each day, we have the freedom to unite ourselves more fully to Christ in holiness or to distance ourselves from Him.  We may become more beautiful living icons of His salvation or uglier and more deformed distortions of what it means to be in God’s image and likeness.  We may become epiphanies of His salvation or of the consequences of repudiating our true calling in life.  That is a choice that each of us makes every moment.
            We may be tempted to ignore the calling to holiness that Christ places upon each of us due to our particular history of personal brokenness, our busy schedule, or whatever set of difficulties that we and our loved ones face.  It is a temptation to think that sharing more fully in our Lord’s life is only for those with no problems, no history of doing the wrong thing, and no strong pull in the other direction.  Yes, that is simply a temptation and we must identify and reject it as such.  God calls us all to be faithful in our present circumstances, for those are the only circumstances that are real. Instead of dreaming that someday, when all is well, we will become really holy, we should take the steps that we are capable of today to orient our lives more fully to the Kingdom of God.  In the world as we know it, all will never be well and we will never be without excuses and distractions.  Now is the time to live as those clothed with a robe of light, as those who have put on Christ in baptism like a garment, who have died to sin and risen with Him to a new life of holiness.
If you feel discouraged about taking even the first steps toward embracing such a life, think for a moment about the Samaritan leper in today’s gospel lesson.  It would be hard to be more out of place and lower socially than a Samaritan with leprosy in first-century Israel.  He must have had virtually no hope for a better life, and surely not for a Jewish Messiah to heal him.  Nonetheless, that is precisely what our Lord did, and he was the only one of the ten cleansed lepers who returned to thank Christ for the miracle.  The Lord said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
            This Samaritan was not someone free from problems and distractions.  No, he had them as much, if not more, than anyone else in his time and place.  But he used his weakness and pain to open his soul in humble gratitude to Christ.  Perhaps it was precisely because his path had been so difficult that he alone went back to thank Him.  We can learn from his example to be thankful for every blessing, every bit of strength and healing, and every glimpse of truth into the true state of our souls. This man was not perfect, but He called for mercy from the depths of His heart, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” obeyed the command to head to Jerusalem to show himself to the Jewish priests (which must have been very difficult for him as a Samaritan), and then alone returned to give thanks.    
              The Samaritan leper surely had may opportunities for spiritual struggle built into his life.  The same is true for all of us in one way or another.  Remembering his example, and that of St. Paul of Thebes and St. John the Hut Dweller, let us embrace every opportunity to die to self and sin as we open our hearts and souls to the healing mercy of Jesus Christ. God does not call us all to become monks and nuns or famous ascetics, but He does call us all to become holy by repentance and faith.  That is how we may all prepare to appear with Him in glory.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Creation Fulfilled and Restored: Homily for the Sunday After Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians. 4:7-13; Matthew 4:12-17
Some people think of religion as a way of escaping the problems of life in the “real world.” They may view our physical bodies and their weaknesses, as well as all the problems that people and societies have in relating to one another, as evil or pointless realities from which they hope God will deliver us.  Perhaps they want an imaginary spiritual bliss of not having to put up with others or with the other challenges that life in the created world presents.  That hope may fit with the sensibilities of some and even be appealing to us at times, but it has nothing to do with the God Who revealed Himself as the Holy Trinity when Christ was baptized by St. John in the Jordan for our salvation.  
            Think for a moment about how the Holy Trinity is manifested.  Jesus Christ submits to the baptism of St. John the Forerunner in a river full of water.  When the Lord comes out of the water, the voice of the Father identifies Him as His Beloved Son and the Holy Spirit descends upon Him in the form of a dove.  Instead of escaping the creation or rescuing us from it, God enters into it.  The Son lowers Himself into a river and gets as wet as anyone else who did so.    The deepest mystery of the universe, that God is the Holy Trinity, is proclaimed in relation to what happened in a river full of water.
            The Savior was not baptized as a sign of His own repentance, of course, for He had no sins of which to repent.  Instead, He makes the water holy by entering into it, by restoring the entire creation to its right relationship with God.  As the God-Man, He descended into the world that He spoke into existence in order to free it from subjection to futility and fulfill it as an icon of His salvation.
We, of course, are part of that creation in every dimension of our existence, both as particular persons and in relation to one another.  Recall the nakedness of Adam and Eve when they turned away from God, for they stripped themselves of the divine glory by repudiating their calling to become ever more like God in holiness.  They diminished themselves and the entire creation by serving their self-centered desires instead of the Lord.  They brought death and slavery to our passions into the world, which we see so vividly when their son Cain murdered their son Abel.    
Our Savior entered fully into our distorted world of brokenness and pain in order to set it right.  He was baptized in the Jordan in order to clothe the naked Adam, in order to restore us to the dignity of those who wear the robe of light of His beloved sons and daughters.  We put Him on in baptism like a garment.  By His mercy and grace, we participate personally in His healing and blessing of every aspect of our humanity.  He does not call us to flee from His world, but to be so united with Him in holiness that we play our unique parts in fulfilling His gracious purposes for it.  He invites us to become like Him as partakers in the divine nature by grace.  That is really simply what it means to be a human being in the divine image and likeness.
I hope that you will sign up today for a time to have your house blessed, which is a standard Orthodox practice at Theophany.  We bless houses with holy water, which was blessed at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy on the day of the feast. By entering into the water, the Lord made the water holy, which means that He restored and fulfilled its very nature.  We need water in order to live.  The earth needs water in order to become fertile, bearing fruit and giving life to animals of all kinds.  We wash with water and use it to maintain cleanliness and health.  Without water, we become weak and die, as do other creatures.  And in the world as we know it, water can kill us through floods and storms. Since the creation has been subjected to futility through the sin of human beings, the very water through which God gives us life may become the means of our death.
    The good news is that our Lord has made even death an entrance into life.  When we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into His death.  When we put Him on in baptism, we died to sin and rose with Him in holiness, regaining the robe of light and being restored to our intended place in the creation in God’s image and likeness. When we bless holy water, we restore water to its intended place, to its original role in giving life and cleansing impurities.  These are fulfilled in baptism, by which the Lord shares His eternal life with us and washes away our corruption. Here we see the purpose of water, and the creation itself, fulfilled.
 When we bless a home, or anything else, with holy water, God restores it to its natural state, to its place in fulfilling God’s purposes in the creation.  And since our homes are where we and our families live each day, how could we not want that blessing on our marriages, our children, and the physical space where we offer our lives to the Lord?  When we bless our homes, we join what is most important to us to Christ’s healing and restoration of the entire universe. We make our daily lives a liturgy, an entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
We cannot stop there, however, for we must actually live as those who have put on a robe of light, who have entered into the fulfillment of all things in Christ.  We must make our marriages, families, and daily interactions with others an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s gracious purposes.  We must become icons of the Holy Trinity as particular people united in holy love with others. 
As St. Paul taught in today’s epistle lesson, “And His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  Christ blesses us, not as isolated individuals, but as members of His Body for the blessing of all our fellow members and ultimately for the entire world.  We become truly human together in Him. 

We will not find salvation in isolation, but as persons united in holy love who share a common life in Christ.  As those created in His image and likeness, that is our natural state.  It is revealed at Christ’s baptism that He is the Son of the Father.  That is a relationship of holy love beyond our full understanding.  To be in loving relationship with others is a key dimension of what it means to be a human being in the divine image and likeness.  When we bless our homes, we find strength to make our marriages and families icons of the fulfillment of God’s gracious purposes. That is only a start, however, as we must intentionally turn away from darkness in all its forms in order to become radiant with the light of Christ.  In other words, we must repent. That is ultimately how to celebrate this great feast, by offering every dimension of our lives to the Lord such that we become living epiphanies of His salvation in the world as we know it.  The point is not to escape the world, but to become icons of its fulfillment.