Sunday, February 11, 2018

Fasting to Serve Christ in "The Least of These": Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgement (Meat Fare Sunday) in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2; Matthew 25:31-46

            Today we continue to prepare to follow our Lord to His cross and empty tomb at Pascha.   Great Lent begins a week from tomorrow, and it is time for each of us to get ready to embrace the spiritual disciplines of the season in a way appropriate to our spiritual strength and life circumstances.  Since fasting from rich food and giving generously to the needy are characteristic practices of Lent, the Church directs our attention today to passages of Scripture that place them in their proper context.
            When St. Paul wrote to the confused Gentile Christians of Corinth, he had to remind his audience of former idol worshipers to restrain their liberty in what they ate for the sake of their weaker brothers and sisters in Christ.  Pagan temples were a good source of cheap barbeque in Corinth, and some new converts might be led back to paganism by the sight of a fellow believer eating meat that had been sacrificed to a false god. St. Paul warned that scandalizing someone in that way was a sin against the Lord and wrote that “if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.”  Notice that the problem was not with the food itself, but with how eating it might harm someone else.  He called the Corinthians to limit their freedom for the sake of others.   
            As we prepare to give up eating meat after today until Pascha, we must keep squarely in mind that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any kind of food.  The problem is not with what is on the menu, but with how we use food in ways that weaken us spiritually.  Remember that, in the biblical narrative, humanity’s estrangement from God is first manifested in relation to food.  Our unruly appetite is a prime example of our enslavement to our own desires, of our addiction to getting what we want when and how we want it. That is a form of idolatry as dangerous as that which threatened the faithfulness of the Corinthians. It may even be more dangerous because it is so subtle, as few people today think of their eating habits as being spiritually significant. 
Especially in a society where food is plentiful and relatively cheap, it is so easy to get in the habit of eating in a self-centered, indulgent way that is not healthy spiritually or physically.  The more deeply ingrained the habit of satisfying our taste buds and stomachs becomes, the weaker we become in our ability to resist other self-centered, indulgent desires.  That makes it harder to put the needs of others before our own or to control what we say or do for the sake of others.  We do not fast in Lent because some foods are unholy, but in order to learn to redirect our deepest desires to God.  Our fulfillment is in Him, not our bellies. Since every human being bears His image and likeness, we should fast in a way that strengthens us in our ability to serve Him in our neighbors, especially those we are inclined to overlook and disregard.  Not only is fasting a powerful tool for the healing of self-centered desire, it will also save us some money on our grocery bill that we can then give to the poor.
          The Lord makes the connection between our spiritual health and generosity to our needy neighbors quite clear in His parable of the Last Judgement.  The ultimate standard of eternal destiny here is how people treated Him in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner.  Neither those on His right nor on His left had any idea of the spiritual significance of their actions, but His identification with “the least of these My brethren” is so real that whatever they did, or did not do, to the miserable people they encountered throughout their lives, they did or did not do, to Him.
Hunger, thirst, disease, crime, and all other forms of human misery as we know them in our world of corruption are symptoms of our estrangement from God.  Instead of living as those made in His image and likeness, we have all followed in the way of the first Adam in prideful, self-centered indulgence.  That is why we are inclined to obsess about fulfilling our own desires while ignoring the basic needs of our neighbors.  The habit of stuffing ourselves with rich food weakens our ability to put others before ourselves in any area of life.  If we want to become those who serve Christ “in the least of these,” we must learn that our lives—including our money, time, and energy-- do not amount to a grand offering to ourselves.  No, we must learn to refuse to gratify many of our inclinations so that we will be able to offer ourselves in holiness to the Lord Who is present in our suffering neighbors.  
Unfortunately, we are usually so weakened by our self-centered desires that we do not treat other people with the dignity of living icons of the Savior.  The problem is not that we fail to work out in our minds that Christ is present to us in a particular person, but that we lack the spiritual strength necessary to serve them as we should. This is the same kind of weakness that we experience before our favorite foods and beverages; before we know it, we have consumed too much. It is the same kind of weakness that we have when we are angry and find it virtually impossible not to lash out.  It is the same kind of weakness that makes it to so easy to choose just about anything over prayer.    The problem is not with our ideas about what is true, but with our souls.
 Lent hits us where we live and there is much in us that does not like that.  But what path other than that of self-denial will enable us to follow Christ to the cross and to embrace the joy of His resurrection as the fulfillment of our existence?  If we do not learn to deny ourselves in humility as we serve our neighbors each day, then how can we truly claim to be united with Christ, Who offered Himself for the salvation of the world?  If we are in Him, His sacrificial love must become characteristic of us in how we live the point that we may say with St. Paul “It is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.” (Gal. 2: 20) 
Even as we fast in a way appropriate to our spiritual maturity and life circumstances, we should think of serving “the least of these” in the same way.  To give up because we cannot meet our imagined ideal of perfection is simply an excuse not to pursue the healing of our souls. We can all pray for those who suffer, provide friendship and support to someone who is lonely and troubled, and treat neighbors with love. We can all become a blessing to someone who needs us.  We can all restrain our self-indulgence in order to grow in generosity.  Instead of doubting the significance of what we can do, we must remember that the Lord accepts even the small offerings we are able to make in humility and blesses them to serve His Kingdom abundantly.
Remember also that we will never gain the strength to serve the Lord faithfully in people who are not close to us if we have not learned how to serve Him in those who are close to us, especially our spouses, children, and family members.  The opportunities for finding healing from self-centeredness are unlimited in the common life of man and woman together with their children and extended families.  That is why brides and grooms are crowned for martyrdom in the Orthodox wedding ceremony.  If we are not sacrificing ourselves out of love for those with whom we are “one flesh,” how will we ever be able to do that for others?  Regardless of marital status, most of us do not have to look far for opportunities to serve Christ in those we know quite well.
          The same is true of our life together in the Body of Christ, for we are all “one flesh” in Him. Doing what we can to bear one another’s burdens and to provide relief of whatever kind for the problems that we face is how we serve the Lord together.  For all our challenges, this little parish has embodied His love in powerful ways both for our members and complete strangers.  If we serve Christ faithfully in His Body the Church even in what seem like the small ways that are available to us, we will advance in dying to our illusions of self-centered individuality and embrace more fully our true identity as members of Him and one another. 
Let us fast this Lent in ways that will free us from bondage to the self-centeredness that causes so much human misery and keeps us from serving our Savior in “the least of these.”  Let us serve one another in the life of this parish and in our families in ways that prepare us to enter a Kingdom in which “the last shall be first, and the first last.” (Mark 20:16)    Let us never forget that what we do, or do not do, to the people we are inclined to ignore, we do to the Lord Himself.   Let us repent by gaining the spiritual strength to reorient our lives to serving Christ in all those who bear His image and likeness.  That is how we, by God’s grace, may have good hope of entering into the Kingdom of Heaven.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

Courageous Humility and Repentance: Homily for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 6:12-20; Luke 15:11-32
Last Sunday, we focused on the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee.  You will remember that the Pharisee was so filled with pride that he prayed to himself in praise of his virtues as he condemned the tax collector, who was so aware of his sins that the only prayer he could muster was a humble plea for God’s mercy from the depths of his heart.  As we prepare for the intensified spiritual disciplines of Lent, it is clear whose example we must follow:  that of the tax collector who returned to His house justified.
            Today we turn our attention to our Lord’s parable of the prodigal son. This young man was focused only on himself at the beginning of the story, which is certainly a form of pride.  His father meant nothing to him at that point other than as a source of money which he could use to indulge himself in the pleasures of the flesh.  That is why he asked for his inheritance and left his family and homeland.  Before long, however, the young man was humbled by the consequences of his way of living when the money ran out and he was simply a stranger in a strange land in the midst of a famine.  He was so miserable that he actually envied the food of the pigs which he was hired to tend there.  Truthfully, he had lived like a pig and now he ended up with them in their filth.   
            At that point, the young man came to himself, recognizing that even the hired servants of his father were well fed.  By suffering the consequences of his actions, his eyes were opened to how he had treated his father; he knew he was no longer worthy to be his son.  He wanted only to become a servant in his family’s home and rehearsed his apology to the old man as he undertook the long journey home.  The prodigal son certainly grew in humility through that process.  He made no excuses for his behavior and knew that he would be lucky to be taken back into the household as a servant.
            His father’s reaction was, of course, entirely different than he had anticipated.  The old man must have scanned the horizon for him every day, for he saw his son when he was still a long distance away.  The father then ran out to greet the son.  Before the young man could finish his rehearsed apology, the father did what was unthinkable:  He fully restored this miserable wretch of a son.  He threw a party and celebrated because “this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
            Pride takes different forms.  Some like the Pharisee think that they are so much better than anyone else and become blind to their own sins.  Others insist on being so self-reliant that they would rather remain isolated in misery than to ask for mercy that they do not deserve and cannot control.  Some would prefer to continue suffering the consequences of their actions than to risk exposing themselves to the healing grace that is beyond their power.  Some who are quite well aware of how miserable they are prefer simply to wallow in the corruption of their sins than to acknowledge that they need help well beyond what they themselves can provide.
            In contrast to that form of pride, there is the courageous humility of the prodigal son.  Think for a moment how he must have felt.  He had no idea how his father would react to him.  By taking the long journey home, he might have been setting himself up for final rejection and condemnation.     Thankfully, he was not so enslaved to being in control or completely self-reliant that he chose the isolation of perpetual suffering over the possibility of even a low level of reconciliation with his father.  He was no longer the self-centered fool who had insulted and abandoned his father in order to waste his inheritance on prostitutes.  No, he had developed the eyes to see the gravity of what he had done to himself and to those who loved him. He risked what little shred of dignity he had left by going home, apologizing, and facing the consequences of actions. His only hope was in his father’s mercy. It took courage for him to face the old man under those circumstances.
            By taking that difficult trip home, the prodigal son put himself in the place to receive the father’s overwhelming love, forgiveness, and restoration.  The father was not interested in exacting justice or requiring the son to pay a penalty.  He did not condemn or embarrass him or even remind him of the bad things he had done. No, he simply welcomed his son back into the family with joy beyond what anyone would have expected.  
            If we take the spiritual disciplines of Lent at all seriously, we will gain a deeper level of insight into how we have used our Heavenly Father’s blessings selfishly for the satisfaction of our own distorted desires.  We will see how we have weakened and diminished ourselves to the point that we have become slaves to pride, anger, lust, gluttony, and many other passions.  We will know that we have debased ourselves to the point that we deserve the full consequences of our actions, hardly being recognizable as those called to become like God in holiness.   
            Through our struggle to pray, fast, give to the needy, confess and repent of our sins, and heal broken relationships with our neighbors this Lent, we will open our eyes at least a bit to what we have done to ourselves in turning away from the blessed life for which our Lord made us in His image and likeness.   That is how we will begin the long journey home to a Father Whose love is not a matter of mere justice in the sense of giving us what we deserve.  If that were the case, there would be no hope for any of us.  Christ used this parable to encourage those who know their guilt and brokenness not to give up hope.   Repentance is precisely the long journey home that the prodigal took in order to return to his father.  It is the journey that we all must take this Lent.   
            If we have any doubt about the mercy of our Heavenly Father, we need only remember that Lent is preparation for following our Lord to His cross and empty tomb.  What greater expression of the infinite mercy of God for sinners could we possibly want?  Christ has taken the full consequences of all human sin upon Himself in order to deliver us from them in His glorious resurrection.  By normal human standards, that is far more outrageous than the response of the father in today’s parable.  We are not speaking here merely of exceptional human kindness, but of the One Who spoke the universe into existence submitting to death at the hands of those He came to save, descending to Hades, and then rising in glory in order bring us into the fullness of the holy joy for which He created us. 

            In Lent, we prepare to journey in Him from death to life, from suffering the consequences of our self-centered addictions to our passions to full restoration as the beloved sons and daughters of the Lord through His glorious resurrection.  So like the prodigal son, let us come to ourselves and return to our Father with true humility.  Without excuses of any kind, let us open ourselves to the great of joy of those who were dead returning to life, of those who were lost being found. That is what the coming weeks of Lent are all about.  Let us use them courageously for our salvation. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Praying to God or to Ourselves?: Homily for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee in the Orthodox Church

2 Timothy 3:10-15;   Luke 18:10-14

The most dangerous temptations are usually the most subtle ones.  Most people have the good sense to see that murder, for example, is obviously wrong and to avoid it.  But when we do not sense the danger of falling into evil at all, we are more likely to let down our guard.  That is usually when we are most susceptible to spiritual corruption. 
            The Pharisee in today’s parable was apparently not aware of his most serious temptations.  He was going into the temple to pray, and his prayers indicate that he lived an exemplary life.  He was honest in his dealings with others, faithful to his wife, and obedient in fasting and tithing.  His outward appearance was that of a righteous man.  Probably in any time and place, most people would think that his standing before God was secure. That is obviously what the Pharisee thought. 
Unfortunately, he not only thought about himself, he actually prayed to himself.  When he thought that he was addressing God, he was simply praising himself for what he had accomplished.  His prayer was so self-centered that it was a form of idolatry, of simply thanking himself for being so good.  That there is nothing of true prayer going on here is shown when the Pharisee judges others in order to make clear his own virtue.  To thank God that he is “not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” is to fall into the prideful self-righteousness that our Savior so strongly condemned throughout His ministry.  It is a form of spiritual blindness that shuts our eyes to the truth about where we stand before God.
What a shocking contrast the parable gives us with the prayer of the publican, the tax collector whom the Pharisee condemned.  Remember that tax collectors in that setting were Jews who worked for the occupying Roman government and made their living by charging more than was required.  They were traitors and thieves, and certainly not among the righteous of Israel.  This tax collector also went to the temple to pray, but in an entirely different way from the Pharisee.  He had such a strong sense of his own sinfulness that “standing far off, [he] would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”  This despised, wretched man truly opened his heart before the God Who is Holy, Holy, Holy.  And he knew that before such a Lord, all that he could do was to call for mercy as he acknowledged the disaster that he had made of his life.  That his approach to prayer is superior to that of the Pharisee is shown by Christ’s comment at the end of the parable:  “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.”
Today we begin the Lenten Triodion, which means that Great Lent, the year’s most intense period of spiritual discipline, will begin in a few weeks.  During the coming season of Lent, we will prepare to follow our Lord to His cross and glorious resurrection at Pascha.  The kind of prayer that we need in Lent, and every day of our lives, is that of the tax collector.  The kind of prayer that we must avoid in Lent, and every day of our lives, is that of the Pharisee. 
If we pray like the Pharisee, we will never enter into the deep mystery of salvation through our Lord’s death and resurrection.  If it were possible to make ourselves so righteous by our own actions that our prayers would be nothing more than self-congratulation as we condemned others, then we ourselves would have already conquered sin and death. Indeed, we would be gods worthy of our own worship.  Whatever religion that would be, it is certainly not Orthodox Christianity.  Such attitudes clearly have no place in our prayers at any time. A key lesson to learn from the bad example of the Pharisee is that we must be careful to direct prayer to God, not to ourselves.  Our prayers must not be offered to a false god we have made up in our minds in order to feel better about ourselves or help us get what we want.  No, the Lord is infinitely holy and “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) As God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” (Isa. 55:8)  We must never make the mistake of thinking that whatever is pleasing to us is necessarily pleasing to Him.    
The Pharisee made a false god in his own image who would never hold him accountable to the truth and who could never heal his soul. The tax collector did something far more challenging and quite scary, for he exposed his soul to the true God.  When Isaiah had a vision of the Lord in His heavenly temple, he said “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Isa. 6:5)  The tax collector responded in the same way as he prayed that day, for he knew the infinite distance between God’s holiness and his own sinfulness.  He was not praying to an idol of his own imagination who told him what he wanted to hear.  In that moment, he allowed everything about his life to be called into question by encountering the One Who is Holy, Holy, Holy.
            We should never been surprised when it is a struggle to pray, especially when our minds wander in our private prayers or in services.  There is much of us that does not want to be fully exposed to the infinite holiness of the Lord.  It is much easier to stay wrapped up in our own thoughts and obsessed with our preferred pastimes and daily cares than to encounter God.  But to do so is to risk ending up in the same place as the Pharisee.  For if we neglect genuine prayer, we are essentially telling God and ourselves that we are fine as we are. That, of course, is exactly what the Pharisee did when he gave thanks that he was so much better than his neighbors, especially the tax collector.  It is a form of spiritual pride that inevitably leads to judging others, which further weakens us spiritually.
            Instead of turning away from prayer because it is difficult, we must use our struggle to pray for growth in humility.  When we do not want to pray, when our minds wander, and especially if we start to judge or recount the wrongs of others in our thoughts, we should cry out like the tax collector “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” as we turn our attention back to the Lord.  It is really impossible to pray without humility, for to be fully present before God requires us to accept the truth that we are in constant need of the divine mercy and healing.  The more fully we open our hearts to the Lord in prayer, the more we will see the absurdity of setting ourselves up as the self-righteous judges of others.  Remember what He taught about taking the huge plank out of our own eye before being concerned with the tiny speck in someone else’s. (Matt. 7:3-5)
No matter how outwardly upright our lives may appear to be, the words of the Jesus Prayer always state the truth about how we stand before God:   “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  This is a prayer to the Savior, not simply a mantra or phrase to help us become mindful or reduce stress.  When we focus on those words as we open our hearts to Christ in humility, we follow the example of the tax collector in today’s parable.  He knew that he deserved nothing from God except the misery and brokenness that resulted from his many sins.  But by exposing himself as a sinner, with no excuses or distractions, he opened himself to the infinite mercy of the One Who died and rose again for our salvation.  That is how we must learn to pray this Lent, and every day of our lives, if want to return to our homes justified, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  


Sunday, January 14, 2018

In Communion with Christ and One Another: Homily for the Leave-Taking of and the Sunday After Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 4:7-13; Matthew 4:12-17

It is certainly possible to have a letdown after the holiday season.  Though it has its own stresses, a time of year filled with parties, rich food, and visiting with loved ones appeals to most people, if only as a cultural observance. The same is surely true for those of us who celebrated the Savior’s birth at Christmas and His baptism at Theophany.  We enjoyed the beautiful services with their joyful hymns and familiar readings, as well as the blessing of the holy water.   As the season of Theophany concludes today, we may have a sense of loss that this special time of year is coming to a close.  That is understandable, but we will have missed the point entirely of this great feast if we think that we should now simply forget about it and get back to life as usual.
             Today’s gospel reading tells us what the Lord did after His baptism, at which it was revealed that He is the Son of God and a member of the Holy Trinity.  He went to “Galilee of the Gentiles,” an area where Jews lived in a culture with such strong Gentile influence that it was called a place of darkness.  The Lord went there in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”  Christ went there to begin preaching openly as He said “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
             The miraculous events that occurred at the Lord’s baptism were not ends in themselves, as though all had been completed when the voice of the Father declared “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased” and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove.  The truth about Him had been revealed, and the Savior blessed the waters and restored the entire creation when He lowered Himself into the Jordan for baptism by John.  Even with their cosmic significance, these extraordinary events were preparatory for the Lord’s public ministry.  They showed that He is the Light Who shines on those who live in darkness, who remain captive to the fear of death and blind to His divine glory.  In order for people to benefit from the revelation that He is truly the Son of God, they had to respond to His call for repentance.  Christ proclaimed the good news in order for them to be able to respond to Him with obedient faith.
             St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that the One Who ascended into heaven is the One of Who first “descended into the lower parts of the earth.”  The same Lord Who lowered Himself to Hades after His death then rose up in glory and ascended into heaven.  At His baptism, He also descended into the dark waters of the Jordan, into the physical creation itself which had been “subjected to futility” because of human sin. (Rom. 8:20)   The wages of sin is death, and the Savior took upon Himself the full consequences of our estrangement from God in order to conquer them and bring us into the holy joy for which He created us in the first place.
           After the Savior’s resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit, Who descended upon the Lord in the form of a dove at His baptism, fell upon upon His disciples as flames of fire upon their heads, enabling them to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and to minister boldly and prophetically in His Name.  Christ’s followers became the Church, His Body, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The point of this great blessing was not for them to rest content with their personal religious experience, but to strengthen all the members of the Body in their ministries “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.”  The Lord provided them with spiritual gifts in order to strengthen the Church in faithfulness as they drew the world to salvation, not for their own glorification.
            As we conclude the season of Theophany today, our focus should not be on regretting that we are back at work or school or that the beautiful trappings of the holiday season have come down.  It should also not be on how we have fulfilled a religious duty by focusing on the spiritual truth manifested at Christ’s baptism:  that He is truly the Son of God and member of the Holy Trinity.  Instead, our focus must be on becoming ever more brilliant epiphanies of the Light of Christ in our darkened world.  We do not do that as isolated individuals or on the basis simply of our emotions, our opinions, or even our morality.  No, we do that when we live our lives faithfully as members of Christ’s Body, the Church.  We must use our gifts “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” There is no other genuinely Christian way of life.  
             Contrary to popular opinion, the Christian life is a life in community, a shared existence, and an experience of communion with God and one another.   It is not something that can be pursued apart from the Church.  When we celebrate the revelation of the Holy Trinity, we proclaim that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons Who share a common divine nature.  “Father” and “Son” are relational terms, and it is through the Holy Spirit that we are brought by grace into intimate communion with the Lord.  As St. Paul taught the Galatians, the Father has adopted us through the Son, making us sons and heirs through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.  (Gal. 4:4-7)  Our calling is nothing less than to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  (2 Pet. 1:4)
          Should it be surprising, then, that growth in the Christian life is also relational and communal?  We share in the eternal life of our Lord, not as isolated individuals, but as members of Him and of one another.  That is why our common life must become an icon that images the eternal love of the Holy Trinity, if we are to grow in holiness.  Anything less falls terribly short of manifesting what we celebrate at Theophany.    
After His baptism, Christ called the people to repent and get ready for the coming of God’s Kingdom.  We must repent of thinking that we can serve Him faithfully apart from using our gifts, whatever they may be, for the edification of His Body, the Church.  God has given us different strengths and abilities, and we must offer ourselves to Him and to one another to build up His Body if we are to have any hope of attaining “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
Our calling is nothing less than to become an epiphany of the communion of divine love shared by the members of the Holy Trinity.  We have certainly not ascended into heaven, but we have died to sin in being baptized into the death of the One Who is now seated at the right hand of the Father. We have put Him on like a garment, being clothed in the robe of light.  We are Christ’s Bride, the Church, and He is the Bridegroom.  In receiving Communion, we become one flesh with Him through union with His Body and Blood.  We are also one flesh with one another, with all who commune with Him, for we are members of the same Body.     
So after celebrating Theophany, we simply cannot go back to life as usual.  In order to respond faithfully to the revelation of the Holy Trinity, our common life must shine with the light of God’s salvation in our darkened world. There is no other genuinely Christian form of witness, no other way to attain to “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” than to love and serve our Lord in one another. That is how the worship of the Trinity will be made manifest in the life of our parish. as we build up the Body of Christ.  That is how we will obey the Lord’s command:   “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”


Monday, January 8, 2018

Homily for the Synaxis of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John in the Orthodox Church

Acts 19:1-8; John 1:29-34
            In one way or another, we all struggle with the temptation to be self-centered.  Even helping others can become primarily a way to draw attention to ourselves or to meet our own emotional needs.  Many view religion in this way, trying to use even God to help them get what they want.  That, of course, is simply a form of idolatry.
Today we commemorate someone who completely rejected such distortions of the faith:  the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John.  We do so immediately following the day of Theophany, for it was St. John who baptized Jesus Christ.  As the Lord came up from the waters of the Jordan, the voice of the Father proclaimed “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well-pleased” and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove. (Mat. 3:16-17)  In the context of the Savior’s baptism by John, the Holy Trinity is revealed, thus making clear that Christ is truly the eternal Son of God, the Light shining in a world darkened by sin and death.
When people asked John if he were the Messiah, he clearly declared that he was not.  He said of himself that he was simply “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  Make straight the way of the Lord.” (Jn 1:23)  When Pharisees asked why, then, he was baptizing people, John responded that One was coming “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.”  (1:27)  The coming Messiah, he said, “is preferred before me, for He was before me” as the eternal Son of God.  John “came baptizing with water” so that “He might be revealed to Israel.”
Obviously, John was not focused on himself or achieving any worldly goals. He apparently had quite a following as Matthew’s gospel states that “Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mat. 3: 5-6)  His message had a wide appeal and attracted even Pharisees, Sadducees, tax collectors, and soldiers.  He certainly did not tell those powerful groups what they wanted to hear, as he mocked the religious leaders as “a brood of vipers” and asked “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  (Mat. 3:7) He told the tax collectors and soldiers to stop abusing their authority by taking advantage of others. (Lk 3:12-14) He told his Jewish audience not to rely on their descent from Abraham, but actually to repent. (Lk. 3:8) Given his fearlessness, it is not surprising that John was ultimately beheaded by the ruler Herod Antipas for denouncing his immorality.
He was obviously a charismatic figure who knew how to get people’s attention.  The Forerunner, however, did not use those skills for his own glory; indeed, he directed his own followers to become the first disciples of the Lord.  As he explained to some who seem to have viewed Christ as a competitor to himself, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30).  The Baptist compared himself to the bridegroom’s friend at a wedding.  The friend is happy for the groom, but he is hardly the center of attention. (Jn. 3:29)
This great prophet was a truly humble man who, instead of focusing on his own agenda, was completely dedicated to fulfilling the calling that God had given him.  His vocation was so important that Luke begins his gospel by telling us of his conception by the elderly, barren couple Zechariah and Elizabeth immediately before describing the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.  As the Archangel Gabriel declared to doubting Zechariah, John “will…go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Lk 1: 17-18) When the pregnant Theotokos visited the pregnant Elizabeth, the not-yet-born John leaped in the womb as his mother “was filled with the Holy Spirit” and proclaimed to the Virgin Mary “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  (Lk. 1:41-42)  The Theotokos responded with The Magnificat:  “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior…” (Lk. 1:46ff.)  These passages show that John was obviously going to play an extremely important role in revealing Christ’s salvation to the world.
It would not be easy for any human being to fulfill such a high calling, which is surely why John grew up in the wilderness and devoted his entire life to strict asceticism.  For example, he famously wore a simple garment of camel’s skin and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey.  Through decades of humbling himself through self-denial before God, he gained the strength to resist whatever temptations he faced and to calm whatever passions beset him.  That was how he gained the humility to see that his gifts were not for his own glory, but to enable him to serve God.  That was how he acquired the vision to see the Holy Spirit descend upon the Savior as a dove at Christ’s baptism.  That was how he developed the spiritual clarity necessary to speak prophetically in bold, outrageous ways, even to the point of laying down his life.
John the Baptist fulfills Old Testament prophecy as an angelic messenger of the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.  Unlike all who went before, he lived to see the One Whom he proclaimed.  Through his life of radical obedience, he became a fitting vehicle for the manifestation of the Trinity when he reluctantly dared to baptize the Son of God.
We learn from the Forerunner’s example that it is no small or easy thing to bear witness to Jesus Christ.  If we seek to use our faith to get what we want in this world on our own terms, no matter what that is, we will have nothing in common with John at all.  If we refuse to fight our passions, guard our thoughts and words, and put others before ourselves, we will never gain the strength necessary to decrease in self-centeredness so that Christ’s healing presence will increase in us.  If we are not fully present before God in prayer each day and united with His Body, the Church, in worship on Sundays and feast days, we will lose the ability to serve God instead of ourselves. If we do not deliberately prepare the way of the Lord in our own lives, then we will be of no use in pointing others to the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.
As we continue to celebrate Theophany, we must follow the example of St. John in order to become epiphanies of the salvation that the God-Man has brought to the world.  By becoming one of us and lowering Himself into the waters of the Jordan, our Savior has sanctified the entire creation, making it possible for us to be restored to the ancient glory of His sons and daughters as we put Him on like a garment, a robe of light, in baptism.   The revelation of the Holy Trinity through Christ’s baptism shows that every dimension of our life in this world may become radiant with the divine glory. The blessing of water demonstrates that every bit of creation, and of ourselves, may be set right and brought to fulfillment according to God’s gracious purposes.
In order to find a model of how to prepare ourselves to embrace the full meaning of Theophany, the Church directs our attention today to the Holy  Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John.  He was not powerful in a conventional sense in his time and place.  He did not tell anyone what he or she wanted to hear.  He did not embody what was popular or easy.  But through his humble, obedient life of self-denial, he acquired a holy strength that not even death could destroy.   That strength was not his own creation, but a quality of the Lord Whose divine glory shone brilliantly from the dark waters of the Jordan.
John prepared the way; now we must continue on the straight path in our own lives.  The more that we follow the Baptist’s example, the more open our lives will be to the healing of the God-Man Who was baptized in the Jordan for our salvation.  If we have put Christ on in baptism, then we must live in the world each day as those who have died to sin and risen up in Him to a new life of holiness.  That is how we too may become epiphanies of God’s glory.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Born to Raise the Image that Had Fallen: Homily for the Sunday Before Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40; Matthew 1:1-25
In spite of what we may like to think, the story of our lives did not begin on the day of our birth, but extends back across the generations to those from whom we have inherited so many traits that make us who we are.  Knowing about the heritage of our families can give us a sense of rootedness, a healthy acceptance that we are not our own creators.  Ultimately, of course, we trace our origins back to the Lord Who created us in His image and likeness by breathing life into our first parents. 
            As we all know from personal experience, not everything passed down in families is healthy or holy.  That is because we all participate personally in the consequences of humanity’s refusal to become more like God in holiness.  Due to their disobedience, Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise into the world of corruption that we know all too well.  We have followed them in serving our own self-centeredness instead of God.  We have followed them into slavery to the distorted desires that we call the passions.  Instead of freely becoming more like God in holiness, we suffer the consequences of being held captive to sin and death. 
            On this Eve of Christmas, we must remember that Jesus Christ “is born now to raise the image that had fallen aforetime.”  In other words, He is the New Adam Who fulfills our original calling to become like God in holiness.  Indeed, He is truly God and truly human, and thus able to restore us to the sublime dignity for which He breathed life into us in the first place.  In Him, we inherit the blessedness of Paradise, for He comes to heal every dimension of our corruption and to unite us to Himself in holiness.
            We may wonder, however, if there really is healing for us who suffer the effects of our own sins and of the brokenness of others.  We may despair of ever experiencing the fulfillment of our calling to become like God because pride, anger, lust, and other passions seem so deeply rooted in our souls.  We may lose hope of ever finding peace amidst the battles that rage in our minds, hearts, and relationships.
            If our struggles were simply about us as isolated individuals left to our own devices, we would have good reason to despair.  Today, however, we remember that God worked across the generations from Abraham to the Virgin Mary and Joseph, her betrothed, to prepare for the birth of the New Adam.  Since King David served as a model for the Messiah, he figures prominently in the Lord’s family tree.  Remember, however, that he was guilty of adultery and murder, which the genealogy indicates by listing Bathsheeba as “the wife of Uriah.”  Along with this reference, the names of Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth are surprising because they are all women who bring to mind scandalous episodes involving matters such as prostitution or intermarriage with Gentiles. 
            Our Lord’s family heritage was certainly not comprised of perfect people.  They experienced all the spiritual and moral brokenness common to humanity in our world of corruption.  Nonetheless, they looked forward in faith to the coming of the Messiah.  Despite their sufferings and imperfections, God worked through them to prepare for the Virgin Mary to become the Theotokos when she accepted the outrageous calling to become the Mother of God, the living temple of the Savior.  In a manner beyond understanding and not tainted by passion of any kind, she conceived and gave birth to the Son of God as a virgin.  Joseph, her elderly protector, turned away from his earlier doubts and faithfully played his unique role in caring for both mother and Child.
In the God-Man born at Christmas, we have received the fullness of the promise for which the Old Testament saints longed in faith.    By becoming one of us, He has raised the fallen image and made us “partakers of the divine nature” by grace. The disciplines of the Nativity Fast have helped us to know why we need a Savior Who comes to us in this way.  By devoting ourselves for forty days to intensified prayer, fasting, and generosity to the needy, and by preparing conscientiously for Confession, we have come to see our own spiritual brokenness a bit more clearly.  These practices have shown us that we need more than a set of rules or a good example to follow.  Like all those enslaved by the fear of death and our own distorted desires, we need to be born again in the New Adam.  We need to be healed from the spiritual maladies that have taken root in our souls so that we will participate personally in the fulfillment that Christ works when He becomes a human being for our salvation. 
None of  us, however, is yet fully healed.  We all have a long way to go—an infinitely long journey—in order to become like God in holiness.   Instead of becoming discouraged at how far we are from fulfilling this high calling, we should remember that we fit right into the Lord’s family tree.  Those who prepared for His coming often fell short, even to the point of committing murder, adultery, and idolatry.  If He can work through such people to prepare His way, then it should not be surprising that the Savior came to call, not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
Who needs to be reborn except those who are spiritually dead?  Who needs to be set free from captivity except those who are enslaved to sin?  Who needs a New Adam if not all the children of the first Adam, all human persons who have fallen short of the glory of God and earned the wages of sin, which is death?  Christmas is not a feast focused on rewarding the righteous, for who could possibly have merited or deserved the unbelievable miracle of the Son of God becoming a human being?  He fulfills the ancient vocation of all people to become like God in holiness not because any of us have somehow earned that astounding blessing, but instead on the basis of His love for sinners.
Even before the Incarnation, King David found forgiveness for committing murder and adultery.  If already before the promise of the coming of the Messiah was fulfilled, God was so gracious to a repentant sinner, how much more must we trust that the mercy of the Savior born at Christmas will extend also to us? Many people struggle with a prideful form of shame that paralyzes them when they catch a true glimpse of their own spiritual state.  When they do not live up to their own illusions of perfection, they cannot accept that—like everyone else—they  have sinned and need the Lord’s healing mercy.  So instead of humbly repenting and trusting in His grace as they stumble forward in obedience, they insist on relying on their own power and ability.  That results in worshiping a god of their own imagination, not the Lord Whose family tree included scandalous sinners of all kinds. 
The Son of God was born “to raise the fallen image,” which means to restore our beauty as living icons radiant with His holiness.  No matter the present shape of our souls, the New Adam makes it possible for us to be fulfilled in His likeness, to become truly human as He always intended us to be.  Nothing but our own prideful will has the power to keep us from entering into the divine joy of Christmas for our salvation.  In Christ, we have all inherited by faith the fullness of the promise passed down for so many generations through the children of Abraham.  As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Savior, let us all receive Him into our hearts with humility, knowing that He came to save us who were lost.  If you think that you do not deserve that great blessing, then you are absolutely right.  No one does. That is why the Savior was born.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Choosing to Enter the Banquet: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Colossians 3:4-11; Luke 14:16-24
Think for a moment about the choices that we make.   Each day of our lives, we decide to do this instead of that.  Sometimes we are pleased with our choices, but other times we look back on our decisions and wonder what we could possibly have been thinking at the time.  All too often, we choose poorly and end up the worse for it.
            Today’s gospel lesson describes people who made the foolish choice of excusing themselves from a great banquet, a glorious celebration that anyone would want to attend.  Their excuses for doing so are mundane:  buying land and animals and being married.  In light of their refusal to attend, the master of the house insisted that his servants bring the blind, lame, and maimed from the streets to the party. Then he told them to go out “to the highways and hedges” and bring those passing by into his house so that it would be filled.  
            We read this parable on the Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ as we remember the choices that the righteous people of the Old Testament made across the centuries in preparing for the coming of the Savior.  This line of Hebrew patriarchs and prophets who prefigured or foretold the coming of Christ leads to the Theotokos, who freely chose to welcome the Messiah into her life in a unique way as His virgin mother.  But even as we remember their faithful decisions, we must also recall false prophets, wicked kings, and numerous other characters in the Old Testament who chose poorly.  Like the people who excused themselves from the great banquet in the parable, they made idols out of the things of this world and worshiped their power, possessions, and pleasure instead of the one true God. 
            Those who rejected the Savior did exactly the same thing, for they could not accept a Messiah Who challenged the self-righteous religious pride that fueled their power over others.  They could not serve a Lord Whose kingdom was not an earthly one of conventional political or military conquest.  They had no interest in a Savior Who told them to take up their crosses and follow Him.   Since they worshiped themselves and the things of this world, they literally hated the One for Whom the righteous of the Old Testament had prepared across the centuries.   
      In the midst of their rejection of the Messiah, it became clear how God would bless the entire world in fulfillment of the ancient promise to Abraham.  (Gen. 22:18)  Though often ignored, Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah envisioned all the nations being drawn to God’s Temple. (Isa. 2:2)  To use the imagery of the parable, we Gentile Christians are the blind, lame, and maimed found in the streets, the strangers brought in from the highways and hedges so that the master’s house will be full.  As St. Paul teaches, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.”  Through faith in our Savior, we are all the children of Abraham, rightful heirs to the fulfillment of the promise.
            Today’s parable reminds us, however, that it is not enough merely to be invited to accept the great blessings that are ours in Christ.  “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  Like those who shut themselves out of the great celebration because of their obsession with the earthly cares of everyday life, we face the choice of how we will respond to the invitation that is ours through Christ to enter into the great joy of His heavenly banquet.  In order to answer the call, we must avoid the poor choice of convincing ourselves that whatever daily responsibilities we have are somehow more important than participating personally in the eternal life that our Savior was born to bring to the world.  Instead, we must view the challenges of our lives as opportunities to enter more fully into the holy joy of our Lord.
            In order to “appear with Him in glory,” we must follow the advice of St. Paul to the Colossians “to put to death what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”   He warns us clearly against what happens when we look for our fulfillment as human persons simply in the things of this world.  As those created in God’s image and likeness, we will remain slaves to our self-centered desires as long as we worship what can never satisfy us.   That is a path that leads to such spiritual blindness that, like the characters in the parable, we will actually think that the common concerns of life are good excuses for not uniting ourselves to Christ in holiness.   That is the way of “the old nature” corrupted by slavery to death, which is powerless before deeply ingrained tendencies to “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.”
            Let us be perfectly honest.  We all know from personal experience what happens when we embrace evil thoughts, act according to our disordered desires for pleasure and power, and speak out of anger and self-righteous judgment.  We all know what results from making our possessions and relationships false gods.   We all know what happens when we make our life an offering only to ourselves. To choose to indulge our passions is nothing but a path to greater slavery to them.  It is to enter into a captivity that ultimately leads only to despair and the grave.  It is to separate ourselves from God, from one another, and even from our own true selves.
            We pray often in services that we will live the rest of our lives in peace and repentance.  That is not a petition for others to stop bothering us so that all our problems to go away, for the problems are deeply rooted in our own souls.   As St. Paul knew, we will find peace only when we deliberately embrace “the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.”  In other words, we must mindfully pursue the healing of our souls by offering our daily cares and our deepest desires to the Lord.  Instead of allowing them to become excuses for disregarding Him, they must become opportunities to enter more fully into the joy of His Kingdom.  That is how repentance leads to peace.
            The forefathers and foremothers of the Lord prepared the way for His salvation through lives that were by no means easy.  The Old Testament makes clear that they struggled with every problem known to humanity in our corrupt world. Despite their challenges and failings, those who accepted the invitation to prepare for the coming of the Messiah remained faithful to the Lord through repentance.  If those who looked forward to His coming in hope did so, how much more of an obligation do we have as those who have received the fullness of the promise?  Indeed, we enter mystically into the Heavenly Banquet at every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, nourished by His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  Christ offered Himself fully for our salvation and, if we are truly in communion with Him, then we must offer ourselves to Him each day of our lives.  That is the only path to peace for those created in His image and likeness.
            In the coming days, let us all mindfully prepare to welcome the Savior at Christmas by refusing to think that we have more important things to do.  Following the example of the Old Testament saints in their preparation for Him, let us respond enthusiastically to the Lord’s invitation to the great feast of His Incarnation.  He is born to bring every dimension of our life and world in the holy joy of His Kingdom. Absolutely nothing is worth excluding ourselves from that tremendous celebration.  There is still time to get ready, even for us who are blind, lame, and maimed in so many ways.  Let us make good use of it for our salvation.