Sunday, July 24, 2016

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

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

Sunday, July 17, 2016

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

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

Saturday, July 9, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, July 4, 2016

Hear, Follow, and Obey: Homily for the Second Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Romans 2:10-16; Matthew 4:18-23
          Most of us like to find ways to make things easier on ourselves and harder on others. We enjoy coming up with excuses to justify not fulfilling demanding and inconvenient requirements, even as we judge our neighbors for not meeting them perfectly. That tendency is both common and difficult for many to resist, but it is diametrically opposed to the way of life to which our Lord calls us.
          St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome that “God knows no partiality.” He taught that it is not those who know God’s requirements who are pleasing to Him, but those who actually obey them. Against his fellow Jews who thought that their ancestry and heritage made them necessarily superior to the Gentiles, he pointed out that all people have God’s law “written on their hearts,” such that God would judge them according to whether they obeyed His law as known through their conscience. “For it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the Law who will be justified.”
          St. Paul strongly challenged the pride of anyone who thought that merely knowing what God requires justifies someone in looking down upon another. Remember also that, in the parable of the Last Judgment, Christ welcomed into His Kingdom those who had cared for Him when they cared for the poor and needy, even though those who did these righteous acts had absolutely no idea that they were serving Him. (Matt. 25) The key matter is not simply how much people know, but how conscientious they are in living faithfully to the measure of God’s truth that they have grasped. Christ taught that “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:14) That means that the clearer our knowledge of what God requires of us is, the more responsible we are. And the temptation to waste our time in evaluating others or looking for excuses for ourselves is precisely that: a temptation that we must resist.
          In today’s gospel reading, the Lord made His immediate requirements for Peter, Andrew, James, and John quite clear: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They left behind their occupation of fishing and their families in order to follow Christ as “He went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.” As we know from elsewhere in the gospels, the disciples did not fully understand who Jesus Christ was until after His resurrection. They did not have a full grasp of His identity, teaching, and mission during the three years that they literally followed Him around. The Lord certainly chastised them for their spiritual confusion and weakness, but He never abandoned them or cast them out. Perhaps it was through their years of doubt and misunderstanding that they were prepared to receive the fullness of the truth of His resurrection with humility, joy, and gratitude.
          Those first disciples had nothing like perfect knowledge or understanding when Christ called them, but they were still responsible to respond to the command: “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” By obeying that instruction, they began the journey that would lead them to become pillars of Christ’s Body, the Church, and martyrs who gave the ultimate witness for their Lord. Throughout the course of their time with Christ, they were given much—and much was required of them.
           He says something very similar to teach of us who have put Him on in baptism, been filled with the Holy Spirit in chrismation, and nourished with His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist. We enter mystically into the Heavenly Wedding Banquet in every celebration of the Divine Liturgy. As the God-Man, He has made us participants in the divine life by grace. We are members of one Body with all those from all generations who have become shining examples of holiness. He has provided us with all that we need to follow their path to the Kingdom in His Body, the Church.
           How tragic it would be, then, for us to think that these undeserved blessings are somehow signs that we such special favorites of God that it does not really matter if we actually obey Him, if we actually hear and respond to His calling in our lives each day. Had the first disciples congratulated themselves on being told by Christ to follow Him, but then not actually done so, they would not have fulfilled their calling and become great saints. The Virgin Mary became the Theotokos by agreeing freely to obey the message from the Archangel Gabriel that she would be the virgin mother of the Savior: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She had prepared for that moment through her childhood in the Temple, and then she lived accordingly, loving and serving her divine Son for the rest of her days.
          It is true that God calls and equips particular people for particular ministries, but there is no doubt that He calls us all to embrace the new and holy life that He has brought to the world. He wants us all to shine with holy light as living icons of His salvation. There is no predestination in Orthodox Christianity such that God wants to save some, but not others. As St. Paul taught, “God wants all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4) There is no partiality in God.  He calls each of us to be responsible for the measure of His truth that we have received.
          It is up to God, not us, to determine how well those outside the visible boundaries of the Church have served Him. It is very much up to us, however, to make sure that we ourselves respond faithfully to the fullness of God’s truth that we have received in the Church. At the end of the day, no one else can do that for us. And as with most endeavors in life, it is good to start with the most obvious matters, such as prayer. In order to hear and obey the Lord’s calling, we must open our hearts, giving Him our attention in stillness and silence each day. When our minds wander in prayer, as they will, we should simply draw them back to focusing on God and pay no attention to our distracting thoughts. The deeper our communion with the Lord in daily prayer, the more clarity and power we will have in discerning His will in our lives.
           Since addiction to self-centered desire challenges our faithfulness in many ways, we also need to practice appropriate forms of fasting and self-denial on a regular basis. The strength that we gain in refusing to gratify every desire for pleasure will help us in turning away from many sins, including the self-centered excuses that we use to rationalize serving ourselves instead of the Lord and our neighbors in whom we encounter Him. As St. James wrote, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (Jas. 1:27) By denying ourselves, we cultivate the spiritual and material resources necessary to serve Christ in those who struggle, suffer, and mourn. There is no question that we serve Him by sharing our time, energy, and resources with “the least of these.”
          Prayer, fasting, and generosity to the needy are not practices reserved for Lent, but basic building blocks of Christian faithfulness. Without them, we will lack the spiritual strength to do what Christ calls us to do. He says “Follow Me” to each of us. We need to pay attention to that call daily and do what is necessary to strengthen ourselves spiritually so that we will be able to respond responsibly to the great blessings that we have been given in His Body, the Church. Remember what St. Paul wrote: “God knows no partiality… it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the Law who will be justified.” So let us not only hear God’s truth, but actually live it out each day of our lives.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Learning from Martyrs and Confessors: Homily for the Sunday of All Saints in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:33-12:2
Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30
        It is tempting to think that what we read about in the Scriptures and the history of the Church occurred in a world so different from ours that it has become irrelevant.  This Sunday of All Saints reminds us that our Lord’s fundamental calling to every generation does not change, but challenges the assumptions of every culture and the preferences of every human being.  That calling is to participate personally in the holiness of God and to seek first His Kingdom, regardless of the cost.   
            When we hear today of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia who are killed, abused, or become refugees due to their faithfulness to Jesus Christ, His words from today’s gospel reading should come to mind:  “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My Name’s sake, will receive a hundred fold, and inherit eternal life.  But many that are first will be last, and the last first.”  When we hear of terrorist attacks upon churches, the kidnapping of bishops and priests, and other atrocities, we should recall the graphic descriptions in Hebrews of the suffering of the Old Testament saints who hoped for the Messiah:  “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.  Others suffered mocking and scourging, even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”
            The first saints recognized by the Church were martyrs and confessors, people who accepted death or severe physical suffering instead of denying their Savior.  As St. Polycarp said when urged to save his life by denying Christ, "For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"  Whether at the hands of the pagan Romans, Persian and Islamic empires, Communists, Fascists, ISIS or other terrorist groups, countless Christians have made—and continue to make-- the ultimate witness for the Lord.  According to His promise, He will acknowledge them before the Father because they acknowledged Him in the most profound way possible.
            For Orthodox Christians, the saints are not dead figures from the past, but alive in Christ.  There is one Church in heaven and on earth, and we are members of the Body of Christ together with them.  They are the white-robed martyrs around the throne of God who worship Him eternally.  We pray and worship God together with them, asking for their intercessions and seeking to follow their example of holiness.  As our epistle reading states, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.”  As shining examples of what it means to love and serve Christ, the saints inspire us to ever greater faithfulness to Him.  They are living proof that He has conquered death and that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we may participate personally in His holy and eternal life.  They point us to Him.
            On this Sunday of All Saints, we commemorate all those who have entered in holiness into this great cloud of witnesses, especially those whose names we do not know.  The Holy Spirit has revealed the names of many saints to the Church for our edification, but that is hardly an exhaustive list.  And since humility is a necessary quality of holiness, that should not be surprising.  When we remember the harsh realities of martyrdom and persecution through which they bore witness, it becomes immediately clear that the saintly path is not one of self-exaltation or pride.  No, it is how those who are last --those who give up even life, family, and the most basic necessities—become first in a Kingdom not of this world.
            Regardless of the country or time period in which we live, Christ calls us—no less than the martyrs and confessors—to acknowledge Him before others, to love Him even more than our families, and to take up our crosses.  Today He calls us to be faithful witnesses to Him in a culture that has little place for principled self-restraint of any kind.  We live in a time when many worship at the altars of immediate gratification and self-indulgence in every area of life.  The selfishness, anger, hatred, and violence that we see so often in our culture reflect a failure to control our passions, which is a symptom of our collective disdain for putting anything or anyone before doing or saying whatever we feel like at the moment.  Holiness in the relationship between man and woman, as well as faithful self-sacrifice in rearing children, are strange goals in our age of promiscuity and pornography, when many see no higher standard in life than fulfilling whatever desires they happen to have at the moment.  Gluttony, greed, and trying obsessively to get what we want when we want it make many so spiritually and morally weak that they probably cannot even imagine living otherwise.  And the fact that we celebrate these ways of thinking and living in the name of freedom or being true to ourselves makes them all the more dangerous.
            To be true to ourselves as human beings means to become holy, to direct all our desires to their ultimate fulfillment in the Lord, and to be healed from our self-imposed slavery to self-centered desire.  The saints are icons of what it means to be true to ourselves as those created in God’s image and likeness. The martyrs and confessors are shining examples of how to love and serve Christ above all else, and to order all our other attachments in light of our most fundamental commitment to Him. Their example calls us to acknowledge Him each day by living in this way.  We acknowledge Him by taking up our crosses as we resist the pervasive temptations in our culture to worship ourselves, our possessions, our pleasures, and our loved ones. It may seem strange for Christ to warn against loving family members more than Him, but think for a moment how destructive it is for anyone to become a false god to another person.  That kind of idolatry leads only to abuse, disappointment, and despair; we diminish ourselves and others when we do that.  We distort marriage, family, and sex when we make them ends in themselves. It is far better to serve Christ in our family members through prayer, encouragement, and self-denial.  That is how we and our loved ones will find fulfillment, blessing, and joy together as God’s children.
            Our path to holiness will likely be through our daily struggle to be faithful in small ways that few will notice or celebrate.  The question is not whether to serve God through grand gestures or extraordinary circumstances, but whether there is something of the martyr and the confessor in each of us.  That means dying to our self-centeredness out of love for Christ.  That means loving people in Christ, ordering our relationships such that they fulfill His purposes for us and them, even when that requires suffering.  And it means turning the other cheek and loving our enemies, even when we risk being rejected, criticized, or ignored for being out of step with the ways of the world.             

               No, that is not easy.  But when we remember the martyrs and confessors and all that they endured—and still endure-- for faithfulness to Christ, we should have confident hope that the same Lord Who strengthened them even to the shedding of blood will surely not abandon us in our smaller struggles each day.  And unless we are faithful in small challenges, we will never be prepared for the large ones.  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.”  It is through His love, mercy, and grace that we too may share in the holiness that shines so brightly in all the saints.   

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Persons in Communion with God and One Another: Homily for Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Acts 2: 1-11
John 7:37-52; 8:12
On today’s great feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming upon the followers of the Risen Jesus, which is the birthday of His Body, the Church.  After the Savior’s resurrection, He ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples so that they would not be cut off from the new life that He has brought to the world.  The Holy Spirit is, of course, the third Person of the Holy Trinity, fully divine and eternal as are the Father and the Son.  By being filled with the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s followers participate personally and communally in the unity, power, and blessing of the very life of God by grace.
          Unlike the period before Christ’s Passion, the disciples now no longer think of themselves a students of a mere teacher, prophet, or king.  They no longer struggle to accept the good news of His resurrection.  Instead, they experience the new life of the Kingdom as “rivers of living water” flowing from their hearts.  By the Spirit, they participate by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity.  God is not remote, distant, or removed from them, but present in their souls. By God’s presence in their hearts, they become truly who He created them to be in the divine image and likeness.
         At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles as a group who were gathered together in obedience to the Lord’s command.  The divine breath which first gave life to humanity comes upon them as a mighty wind.  The divine glory beheld by Moses in the burning bush now rests upon each of them personally as flames of fire.   The divided speech of the tower of Babel is now overcome by the miracle of speaking in different languages so that everyone can hear and understand the praise of the Lord.  Not the possession of any nation or group, this great feast manifests the fulfillment of God’s promises for the entire world and every human being.
          God creates us all in His image with the calling to grow in His likeness, actually to become like Him in holiness.  As those corrupted by sin and death, however, fulfilling that vocation is beyond our ability.  Only God is God, and our only hope is to share by grace in His eternal life.  This glorious participation in the divine life is made possible to us at Pentecost.  Human distinctions of every kind become irrelevant here, for all that matters is that we respond with faith, humility, love, and repentance as we receive the Spirit poured out on the whole world and on every generation.
         With the Holy Spirit present in our hearts, linking us together organically as one, our fallen, divided humanity is restored.  Just as Father, Son, and Spirit share a common life of love, unity, and holiness, we share a common life in Christ’s Body, the Church.   As particular people, we have the responsibility to believe, repent, and obey the Lord as we participate in the ministries of the Church and live faithfully each day.   As members of Christ’s Body, we are nurtured by worship, the sacraments, and spiritual instruction in our common life.   The holy Tradition of the Church is the presence of the Holy Spirit, guiding the Body into ever greater knowledge of and participation in the life of the Holy Trinity.
          For we receive the Holy Spirit not as isolated individuals, but as persons in communion, in loving relationship with Christ and with one another in His Body, the Church.  The only proper way to celebrate Pentecost is to open ourselves as fully as possible to God’s healing, transforming power in all areas of our lives.  That is how we may become radiant with the divine glory as we celebrate this great feast of our salvation as living temples of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, now and ever and unto ages of ages.  Amen.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

On Not Escaping the World, But Being Holy in It: Homily for the Sunday After the Ascension in the Orthodox Church

Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
John 17:1-13

            It is so easy to diminish ourselves by serving the false gods of pleasure, power, and pride.  It is so tempting to allow our pursuit of these passions to obscure the holy calling that we have as those created in the image and likeness of God.  Our Lord’s Ascension into heaven, forty days after His resurrection, makes clear that we find true fulfillment as human beings by participating in His blessed, eternal life. Anything else falls well short.
            Jesus Christ has fulfilled our ancient calling to grow in the likeness of God, for in Him humanity and divinity are united in one Person.  In His Ascension, He goes up into heaven as the God-Man, sharing in the glory that He had with the Father and the Holy Spirit from eternity.  Rising with His body and bearing the wounds of His crucifixion, He brings us with Him into the divine glory.  Here is a brilliant icon of our salvation that makes clear that our Lord has raised us, not only from the grave and Hades, but into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  Here is a clear sign of the completion of our vocation to become partakers of the divine nature by grace.
            Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, who proclaimed that the One Who brings human beings into the eternal life of God is Himself truly divine and eternal:  the only begotten Son of the Father. They recognized that even the best angel, prophet, or teacher could not do that, for only One Who is divine and eternal can bring us into the divine, eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  That is a key reason why the Council of Nicaea rejected the teaching of the heretic Arius, who did not think that the Son was fully or eternally God.  That is why the Orthodox Church has always disagreed with those who seek to reduce Christ to a great religious teacher or moral example, or who view the Kingdom of God as a mere extension of an earthly kingdom of whatever kind.  Our salvation comes not merely through instruction or social change, but through the New Adam Who conquers death and ascends to heavenly glory as the God-Man.
            Even if we know the words of the Nicene Creed by heart, we may still be tempted to turn Christ into a Savior who fits with our preconceived notions about what we would like from a religion.  After all, it is much easier to follow a Lord Who serves our own pursuit of pleasure, power, and pride than it is to embrace One Who calls us to holiness in every dimension of our existence.  Even as He is fully divine, He is also fully human.  He went up into heaven with a glorified human body.  To share in His life is to share in His holiness in ways that make us shine with the divine glory in body, soul, and spirit in the world as we know it.  That does not mean becoming less human, but becoming more truly ourselves in God’s image and likeness.
Some think that salvation will come to the world through changes of this or that kind in politics, culture, or economics.  Others focus their hopes on changing how people think, feel, or otherwise adjust themselves in relation to various challenges in life.  Some ways of addressing such matters are clearly better than others, but none of them fulfills our vocation to be in God’s image and likeness.  None of them conquers death and makes us participants in the eternal life of our Lord.  None of them can ascend to heaven.
Contrary to some popular notions, ascending with Christ to heavenly glory is not about escaping or abandoning the world, its people, or its problems.  The Lord said to His Father concerning His disciples: ”I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.” (John 17: 15) He prayed for their holiness:  “Sanctify them by Your truth.” (John 17: 17)  Christ’s prayer shows that we find the fulfillment of our humanity when we unite ourselves with Him through a holy life, when we become radiant with the divine brilliance in how we live in this world in tangible, practical ways.
St. Paul is a good example of what such a life looks like.  He obviously did not place his own personal tranquility above the needs of others or the ministry of God’s Kingdom.  He was beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, and ultimately killed for his faith in Christ.  He dealt with difficult challenges of all kinds in the churches that he founded and oversaw. In today’s reading from Acts, he warned the elders “that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.  Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.”   That is certainly not the way of life of someone who thought that religion was a way to escape from problems and difficulties. 
St. Paul also said that he “coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel.  You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities, and to those who were with me.  In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” This apostle manifested his union with Christ by living in a Christ-like way, taking up his cross and serving others, regardless of the cost.  That is how he was sanctified in God’s truth and came to know the holy joy of true participation in the divine life to the depths of his soul.
St. Paul’s background as a fierce persecutor of Christians before his conversion did not keep him from ascending to holiness in Christ Jesus.  Neither was he held back in this regard by the multitude of grave and even life-threatening challenges that he faced throughout his ministry. After the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness,” St. Paul wrote “I take pleasure in weaknesses, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Cor. 12: 9-10)
Like the apostle, we will ascend with Christ in holiness as we offer our weaknesses, failings, and challenges to Him, struggling as best we can to be faithful as we call on His infinite mercy.  Unlike some commercialized forms of spirituality, genuine Christianity is not about making us happy on our own terms or somehow convincing ourselves that all is well when it is not.  Instead, it is about being sanctified, becoming holy, by uniting every dimension of our life to Christ, including those which we find so hard to offer to Him for healing.      

When doing so reveals our weakness, we will be in the position to receive the strength of the One of Who created us in His image and likeness, and Who has united humanity and divinity in His own Person.  To ascend in holiness in Him is the fulfillment of what it means to be a human being.  It not to escape the world, but to enter into the holy glory for which He made us by turning away from evil and corruption.  An angel, a prophet, a political leader, or any mere creature could not do that for us sinners.  No, that is something only God can do, and something that we can participate in only if we, like St. Paul, offer ourselves to the Lord in humble obedience amidst the pains and challenges of life in the world as we know it, including our own personal brokenness.  That is how we may ascend in Christ to heavenly glory, not by escaping the world, but by opening our weakness to His strength.