Sunday, November 22, 2015

On Becoming a Holy Temple like the Theotokos: Homily for 25th Sunday After Pentecost and the 9th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 4:1-7
Luke 12: 16-21
            It is sadly ironic that the time of year leading to the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ has become for many a time of great distraction from the spiritual life.   Shopping, decorating, parties, and social gatherings of various kinds—and figuring out how to pay for them-- so easily turn our attention away from the blessed opportunity given us in the weeks of Advent.  There is nothing wrong with any of these activities, but they often take on a life of their own and take precedence over true spiritual preparation for the great feast of Christ’s birth in the flesh.  By seeking to grow in holiness through the disciplines of the Nativity Fast, we do something very strange in a culture that “is not rich toward God.”
            Of course, being distracted by worldly cares is nothing new.  That was the problem of the man in the parable from today’s gospel lesson, for he saw the meaning of his life simply in his material possessions.  When he thought that he had enough to sustain him for a long time, he decided to relax and indulge himself in pleasure:  eat, drink, and be merry.  But that night God required his soul and he lost everything, including himself.  As Christ said, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
            The tragic terrorist attacks, wars, and humanitarian disasters that have been going on for years in the Middle East and elsewhere should remind us all that true security and salvation are not found in the wealth, power, or politics of this world.  No earthly regime is capable of ushering in a realm of perfection, and even the strongest and most developed nations and societies are not immune from struggles as old as Cain and Abel.  Wealth and power never have and never will conquer sin and death, and we must refuse to allow worldly agendas of any kind to distract us from finding the meaning and purpose of our lives in our Lord, God, and Savior  Jesus Christ, Whose Kingdom is not of this world.  To do anything else is to follow a path that leads only to despair, as the rich fool in today’s parable discovered.
            Even as we are horrified by the grave problems of the world and want all the nations to protect the innocent, uphold justice, and establish a lasting peace, we must remember that what we as Orthodox Christians have to offer the world is not an opinion or an agenda about anything, but most fundamentally our example of a holy life in union with Christ.  St. Paul urged the Ephesians “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another with love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  We must treat one another, and indeed everyone with whom we come in contact, in ways that show visibly what our Lord’s salvation means for a world in which people so easily hate, fear, and harm one another.  We must provide an example in our own lives that shines like a candle in the darkness, drawing others to a way of life worth living and dying for.  If we do not, why should anyone care what we have to say?  If we do not, can we really proclaim with integrity anything different from what is said by the rich and powerful fools of the world who ultimately worship themselves?  
            Yesterday, we began celebrating the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, which commemorates the three-year-old Virgin Mary being brought there by her parents Sts. Joachim and Anna.  She entered the Holy of Holies and grew up in the Temple in prayer and purity as she prepared to become the living temple of the Lord by accepting Christ into her life in a unique way as the Theotokos, the Mother of God.  This feast calls us to follow her blessed example by intentionally preparing to welcome the Lord into our lives at Christmas.  Because of His birth as the God-Man, as the Second Adam, we are all able to become His living temples by the power of the Holy Spirit.
            Doing so requires, however, that we follow the example of the Mother of God, who opened her entire life to Him.  Temples are places of offering and sacrifice, and who offered and sacrificed herself more to the Lord than His Mother?  Imagine her courage in freely consenting to the message from the Archangel Gabriel that God had chosen her for this unique role and ministry.  She was prepared to accept that unbelievable challenge by those years in the temple in which she laid aside distractions in order to focus on the one thing needful of hearing and obeying the word of the Lord.  The calling of this feast, as well as of the season of Advent, is for us to follow her example in turning away from all that diverts our attention from becoming ever more holy temples of God, for we want to receive Christ as fully as possible into our lives at Christmas.           
            An initial step in doing so is to ask in what ways we have refused so far to join our lives to His.  For like the rich fool, we have all viewed at least some of our blessings as ends in themselves. If we have made our money, possessions, and pleasures the measures of our life, we will begin to find healing from this sin by giving to the needy of our time, talents, and treasure.  The way to combat a settled habit of self-centeredness is to get in the habit of serving others, of taking tangible steps to reorient our lives toward our neighbors in whom we serve and encounter the Lord.  Especially in a season so corrupted by commercialism and selfishness, we should all find ways to show Christ’s mercy to others by generously sharing our attention and resources with those who truly need them.  Of course, that includes the members of our own families whom we so often neglect and take for granted.
            In order to become faithful temples of the Lord, we must also pay attention to what we allow into our hearts and minds.  Some things, of course, simply do not belong in a holy temple.  In our world of round-the-clock entertainment, news, social media, and video games, it is so easy to fill our eyes and ears with messages and images that inflame our self-centered desires and fears, and which encourage us to view ourselves and others in unholy ways.  The problem is not simply with pornography, but also with so much media designed primarily to get us to consume more of it.  These messages are ultimately intended to make money for those who sponsor them, not to make us holy.  Think and pray about what you fill your eyes and ears with on a regular basis because you can be sure that it is shaping your soul one way or another.  If it fills you with anger, lust, envy, pride, fear, or despair, hit the off button. And if it does not help you become more like the Mother of God in welcoming Christ more fully into your life, then it would be better to turn your attention elsewhere.
            Above all, we must devote ourselves to prayer during the weeks of the Nativity Fast.  Most fundamentally, that is how we welcome Him into our souls.  That means turning our attention to the Savior in humility, opening our worries, fears, weaknesses, and failures to Him. The same Lord Who was born in a barn wants to be present in our broken lives, healing and blessing us so that we will shine brightly with His holiness in a dark world.  He wants to make us His living temples, brilliant with the divine glory.  For that to happen, we must set aside time and energy each day to turn away from distractions and center our lives on Him.  That is how His strength will empower our weakened souls.       
            Now is the time to follow the Theotokos’ example of becoming a living temple of the Lord.  Most of us have decades of experience in foolishly worshiping ourselves and the things of this world.  Let us use the remaining weeks of Advent to stop following the bad example of the rich fool and instead to become more like the Mother of God.  Surely, there is no better way to prepare for the great feast of Christmas. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"Christ is Our Peace": On Learning to See Enemies as Neighbors and Fellow Citizens of the Household of God

Ephesians 2:14-22
Luke 10: 25-37

         The recent terrorist attacks in France, Lebanon, and Baghdad, as well as the crash of the Russian airliner likely due to a bomb, are horrible reminders of how hatred and spiritual blindness keep many people from seeing those of different beliefs and heritage as their neighbors or even as human beings. That was certainly a common attitude in the time and place in which Jesus Christ was born for the salvation of the world.  For example, the Romans thought that they alone were civilized humanity, the human race itself, in a way that justified their occupying Palestine and oppressing the Jews (and many others) in cruel ways.  The Jews thought themselves superior to the Gentiles and especially hated the Samaritans.
            When Christ followed His first sermon in Luke’s gospel with the reminder that great Old Testament prophets at times had blessed Gentiles and not helped Jews, the crowd literally tried to kill Him.  And if that were not enough, Luke also provides us with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which concept was to the Jews a shocking contradiction in terms.  If there was any group of people whom they did not view as their neighbors, it was the Samaritans. From their perspective, there could be nothing good about any of them.  Unfortunately, such ways of thinking are all too familiar to us today.  
            In these dark times, we must remember that our Savior was born to overcome such hatred and division.  As St. Paul wrote “Christ is our peace.”  He unites Jew and Gentile—all humanity-- in Himself, for He fulfills the ancient promises to Abraham, the law of Moses, and all the teachings of the prophets, making it possible for all peoples and nations to become truly human through faith in Him as the God-Man. He destroys the pathetic competing definitions of who is worthy of being treated as a human being, as someone who bears God’s image and likeness.  He does that through the Cross by which He conquers sin and death.   These are the consequences of our estrangement from the Lord and the cause of our estrangement from one another. Our alienation from other people is a sign of our alienation from God.  Through Christ’s victory over the grave and Hades, those who had been strangers and foreigners to the spiritual heritage of Israel—and bitter enemies of one another-- are now made “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” 
            Ancestry and nationality are irrelevant in His Kingdom. When St. Paul wrote that Jew and Gentile “both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” and are “members of the household of God,” he was referring to people of all nations and cultures who have faith in Christ. Regardless of who we are by worldly standards, we join together in the Orthodox Church as the building blocks of a holy temple with Christ as the chief cornerstone and the apostles and prophets as the foundation. We are “built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” along with all the other members of the Body around the world, from generation to generation.  That is the perspective from which our worldly divisions are shown to be ultimately meaningless.  As those who have died to sin and risen to new life in Christ, we must be vigilant in refusing to define ourselves or anyone else by the petty rivalries over which our Lord has triumphed, or to harbor hatred in our own hearts even for those who commit terrible crimes.  For if we do so, we abandon the way of Christ and risk losing our own souls to the forces of darkness.  “Christ is our peace,” and His Church must be a light of reconciliation shining in the darkness of bitter hatred.  The same must be true for each of us as members of His Body.         
That is a message that many people do not like to hear because it destroys the basis of our prideful inclination to build ourselves up by putting others down, by defining our worth in contrast to other people’s worthlessness.  That is precisely what the lawyer in today’s gospel lesson was trying to do by asking “And who is my neighbor?”  He was trying to justify himself by narrowing down the list of people whom he had an obligation to treat as human beings.  That was a very self-serving question that he probably expected to be answered in a way that would encourage him to think of his own people as worthy and everyone else as unworthy.  Of course, the Savior shattered those expectations by telling a story in which righteous Jewish leaders disregarded the obvious and profound needs of one of their own nation, while a hated Samaritan cared for the man with extraordinary generosity.
Of course, this parable shows us that whoever is in need is our neighbor, no matter who the person is.  There are no boundaries to our obligation to love, even as God’s love knows no limits. If we ourselves as Gentiles and sinners have become heirs to the promises to Abraham through Christ’s mercy, who are we to say that anyone is not deserving of our care, attention, and forgiveness? The parable also shows us that true righteousness is not limited by nationality or ethnic heritage.  In this parable, it is also not limited by religion, for it is the Samaritan who loves his neighbor as himself.  He obeyed God’s law more faithfully than did the Jewish priest and Levite.  Perhaps he reminds us of those in the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 who are surprised to learn that they served Christ when they served those in need. 
As we begin the Nativity Fast, the 40-day period of preparation for Christmas, we want to become more like that Good Samaritan who cared so conscientiously for someone who thought of him as a hated enemy. Even as Christ was born to save the entire world, including those who tried to kill Him from infancy, we who are in Christ must become icons of His humble love that knows no bounds.  We especially must abandon all attempts to be like that lawyer in the parable who wanted to justify himself by narrowing down the definition of a neighbor. There may well be people in our families, workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools who view us as their enemies. There are others whom we probably view as our enemies, including those we do not know personally.  That should be no surprise, as Christ Himself had enemies and told us to expect to be treated as He was. And when that happens, we must follow His example. Remember that when they nailed Him to the Cross, the Lord prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  The leaders of the Jews and the pagan Romans collaborated in His crucifixion, and He prayed for them all. 
Most of us have lots of room for growth in forgiving our enemies, treating everyone in need as our neighbors, and overcoming the many divisions that separate us from others.  If being faithful to Jesus Christ were a simple matter of receiving a commandment and obeying it perfectly, we would not need the spiritual disciplines of Advent to help us gain the spiritual strength to welcome Him anew into our lives at His birth.  Preparing for the Nativity requires much more than simply observing the American holiday season or even going to late-night services on December 24.  It requires deliberate, intentional steps that will open us to the strength necessary to manifest Christ’s life in our own, to be so united with Him that we shine with His holiness, love, and mercy for a broken and distorted world.  He is the healing and restoration of what it means to be a human being in the image and likeness of God.  He invites us to participate in Him as the God-Man, calling us to become like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory.     
             Let us do that by finding ways to help those we view as strangers, foreigners, and enemies in our own lives.  Let us do that by mindfully refusing to accept even our own thoughts about who is worthy of our time, attention, and service.  Let us do that by reaching out to someone this Advent who needs our friendship, support, and encouragement, as well as by struggling to cleanse our hearts of hatred toward anyone. When nourished by prayer and fasting, these acts of forgiveness and service will become blessed channels for preparing our souls as mangers for the Prince of Peace.  And then, by God’s grace, we will grow in our ability to love and forgive, and bear witness to the salvation that our Lord has brought to a world that still knows hatred and division all too well. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Getting Ready to Get Ready: Preparing for the Nativity Fast in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 2:2-10
Luke 8:41-56
            Some good things are a long time coming.  We know that in our own lives, relationships, and accomplishments at work, school, or elsewhere.  The best things in life are worth waiting for and require our patience and preparation.  
            That is true of how salvation has come to the world through our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  The many generations of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament prepared His way.  God’s messengers, the angels, instructed them through the Law and other announcements and actions.  His prophets called the people to faithfulness in anticipation of the Messiah, the One anointed for the fulfillment of all the promises to Abraham both for his descendants and all the people of the world who respond with faith to the Lord.
            Today we are one week away from the beginning of our time of preparation for the coming of the Messiah, for the birth of Jesus Christ.  Neither merely an angel nor a prophet, He is truly God in the flesh. The Nativity Fast, which we often call “Advent,” begins on November 15, forty days before the great feast of Christmas.  The weeks leading to the Nativity of the Savior do not have the bright sadness of Lent, as they are a joyful time of getting ready to celebrate Christ’s birth by receiving Him anew into our lives as we take our place with angels, shepherds, prophets, and generations of righteous people from all over the world who have rejoiced that the Son of God has become one of us, bringing broken and suffering human beings into the very life of God, Who made us in His image and likeness.   
            We will fast, pray, confess our sins, give to the needy, and forgive our enemies during the coming weeks so that we will have the spiritual strength to celebrate Christmas properly, which means welcoming the Savior into our lives at His birth.  Of course, anyone can make a cultural observance of Christmas.  But something as profound as the Incarnation, the joining of divinity and humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ for our salvation, requires more than putting up a tree or going to a party.  It requires that we unite ourselves personally with the One Who comes to save us, that we prepare the way of the Lord in our own souls.    That is what the Nativity Fast is all about as a season of joyful anticipation, a time of getting ready to enter more fully into the salvation of the world.
As we all know, the world in which Christ was born was not a place of perfection where all was sweetness and light.  Some sought to kill Him from His birth, and St. Joseph had to lead the infant Jesus and the Theotokos to Egypt for their physical safety.  Christ was born as a vulnerable baby in the same world of suffering and pain that we know all too well.  It is the world experienced by Jairus in his grief and by the woman with the flow of blood in her chronic illness.  It is the same world filled with war, terrorism, hatred, strained marriages, broken homes, and every sort of depravity, decay, and loss.  And in a season when our culture tells us to shop, eat, drink, be merry, and pretend that all is well, many will experience these pains even more powerfully than usual.  We will soon be in what many people find to be the most stressful and difficult time of year.  
There is, of course, no magic solution to the problems of the world or our own personal struggles.  But the weeks of Advent lead us back to today’s epistle reading:   “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to Him.  But we see Jesus, Who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.  For it was fitting that He, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the Pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
 The Savior entered fully into the corruption and danger of our world, voluntarily suffering so that our path of struggle would not be in vain, but become a blessed entrance to eternal life.  His unimaginably profound love is manifested through the humility of His birth, life, and death—through which He conquered all the corruption and pain of our fallen humanity in His glorious resurrection.  That is how He brings us into His glory when we endure suffering faithfully and obediently.  That is how we participate in His glory as we share in His life, which requires dying to sin, taking up our crosses, and serving Him in our neighbors, especially “the least of these.”  
Who in the Church would not praise this way of living?  Talk, however, remains cheap; truly to prepare our hearts and souls to receive Him at Christmas requires much more than pious words and warm feelings.  It requires actions that grow from a courageous mind and a humble heart.  The woman with the flow of blood certainly had the courage to confess openly that she had touched the hem of Christ’s garment and found healing for her illness, which had made her unclean and isolated for many years.  She fell down before Him trembling and said out loud what she had done and revealed the deep pain and embarrassment of her life. The Lord said that her faith had made her well and then she left in peace. Courage is not the absence of fear, but doing the right thing in spite of our fears.  And sometimes the greatest courage is shown not by superheroes, but by perfectly ordinary people who simply reach out to God for mercy and healing as best they can one day at a time.
  We must be courageous in refusing to be overcome by the fears and doubts that may fill our minds this Advent.  Perhaps difficult circumstances of whatever kind seem more real to us than the new life of Christ.  Maybe we despair of ever finding health for our bodies, healing of broken relations with others, the strength to reorient our lives toward God, or hope for a world with so many problems.   When done with humility, the spiritual disciplines of the Nativity Fast help us to remain focused on our Savior, Who entered into more suffering and pain than we can possibly imagine for our salvation.  Because of Him, even our most difficult struggles may become pathways to share more fully in His victory over all evil and corruption. He was born to sanctify every aspect of human existence.  No dimension of our life in the world is a stranger to Him or His salvation.  We must have the courage not to despair because He is born truly to save and bless us in our much less than perfect world.
In addition to courage, we also need humility as we begin to prepare for Christmas.  Did you notice the humility of Jairus in today’s gospel reading?  This upstanding leader of the Jewish community humbled Himself by falling before the Lord and asking for His help in healing his daughter.  And even when all was lost and others were laughing at Christ, Jairus and his wife had humble faith and were amazed at the miracle.
The spiritual disciplines of the Nativity Fast are tools to help us grow in the humility that we need in order to be amazed at the birth of our Lord in a world that often laughs at those who view Christmas as anything other than a mere cultural celebration or a season of shopping and socializing.  Fasting from the richest and most satisfying foods is a way of humbling ourselves before God, gaining some strength in resisting self-centered desires, and freeing up resources to share with the needy in whom He is present to us.  Confessing our sins is at the heart of humble repentance, of acknowledging how we have fallen short and receiving the strength to heal from our self-inflicted wounds.  What could be more fundamental to true humility than taking the time each day to call to Him from the depths of our souls?   That is the discipline of prayer.  And there is surely no greater opportunity for humility than forgiving our enemies and asking forgiveness of those whom we have wronged.
For many of us, life will soon get very busy all the way to New Year’s and Theophany. Now, in this week before Advent begins, is the time to prepare to cultivate the courage and humility that we need to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ by welcoming Him anew into our lives. Now is the time to get ready to enter more fully into His life, for He is the salvation of the world.  

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Neither Pharisee Nor "Legion": On Becoming our True Selves in Jesus Christ--Homily for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost and the 6th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 2:16-20
Luke 8:26-39
            We all know what it is means not to feel like ourselves.  We can become so out of sorts for all kinds of reasons that we do not think or act like we usually do.  Sometimes we do not even recognize our thoughts, words, or deeds as our own, and wonder where certain impulses or behaviors come from. And we rightly fear what would happen if we accepted those inclinations and let them shape our souls.
            St. Paul recognized that human beings do not become their true selves simply by trying to obey a code of conduct.  The Old Testament law, about which he was an expert as a Pharisee, made clear to him how far he was from holiness, for he constantly fell short of it.  But he found a new identity in dying and rising with Christ.  He found his true self in God’s image and likeness, for “it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.”  Instead of being defined as one who inevitably fell short of the law and was captive to sin, he became through faith one who participates in the righteousness of Christ, one who has risen in Him from sin and death to the life of holiness for which God created us in the first place.  By faith in Jesus Christ, St. Paul became his true self.
            If that was a struggle for St. Paul, imagine what an ordeal it was for the Gadarene demoniac, the man in today’s gospel reading.  He was so filled with demons and consumed by evil that he called himself “Legion,” which meant a division of the Roman army containing thousands of soldiers.  His sense of personal identity had disintegrated into a mass of a great many demons.  Like Adam and Eve who stripped themselves of the divine glory by their sin, he too was naked and without the dignity of a child of God.  He lived among the tombs, held captive by corruption and cut off from everyone else. He was such a terror that he broke the chains that bound him and fled alone into the desert.  This poor man is an icon of our alienation from ourselves, others, and life itself that evil so easily works in us. He was very far from his true self. And even the best code of behavior would not have helped him.  He did not need just a bit of instruction; no, he needed the healing and cleansing of his soul—the restoration of his humanity.   Like St. Paul, he needed to die to sin and rise to a new life in Christ.   
            That is what the Lord gave him by casting the demons into a herd of pigs, which then stampeded into the lake and drowned.  The locals were so astonished by what had happened, and especially by seeing this fellow in his right mind, that they were terrified to the point of asking Christ to leave their region.  Understandably, the man whom Christ delivered wanted to go with Him, but the Lord told him to stay there and proclaim all that He had done for him.  He was to do the difficult job of bearing witness to the good news among people who knew him, and his horrible past, all too well.
            Both St. Paul and the Gadarene demoniac  remind us that we must accept a kind of death in order to become our true selves.  It is a death, first, to our efforts at self-justification, to our attempts to make ourselves perfect simply by our own abilities.  There is often no one more anxious and depressed than a perfectionist, for we never reach that high goal.  If that is our approach, then we will be like St. Paul in gaining only slavery to a sense of imperfection and brokenness by obsessively trying to justify ourselves in doing everything right all the time.  Though we may think that we are serving God in this way, we are actually serving only ourselves by doing all that we can to hide our sickness and corruption even from ourselves.  At the root of our efforts at self-justification is pride, which blinds us from seeing the truth about ourselves, others, and God.  We need to die and rise with Christ, not simply a list of rules against which to judge ourselves and others.  Our justification is in Him, not in our own attempts to master a code of conduct.    
            Like the demon-possessed man, we must also die to accepting our distorted condition as normal, natural, or who we truly are.  There is some pain in doing that, for we get used to living on our own terms, giving in to temptations that are all too familiar, and excusing any behavior by saying we are being true to ourselves.  The problem is that the self so comfortable with sin is not our true self, but a form of “Legion”—of a distorted identity that we take on due to our acceptance of corruption in our hearts and lives.  The Gadarene demoniac asked Christ not to torment him, and we may feel the same way when we realize that we must do the hard work of repenting and reorienting our lives according to God’s purposes for us.  But like him, we must do so in order to become our true selves in the image and likeness of God.   That is never a reward for legalistic perfection, but a way of dying and rising with Christ as we become more fully human in God’s image and likeness.
            Our spiritual journeys will surely not be as flamboyant or famous as those of St. Paul and the Gadarene demoniac, but the challenges we face are very similar.  Too many have turned Christianity into a self-righteous system of legalism in which it is all too easy for self-appointed judges to separate the sheep from the goats, as though they were the Lord as the Last Judgment.   Instead of a vocation to shine with heavenly light and participate personally in God’s gracious Divine Energies, some water the faith down to a simple list of “do’s” and “don’ts” that usually fits with popular cultural notions about who is good and who is bad.  Of course, there are paths that lead to holiness and paths that do not; the Church provides many clear and steadfast resources to guide us in the right direction.  But the difference between true and false paths is not mere legalism.  The key factor, instead, is whether a path leads to fuller participation in the life of Christ, which requires both faith and faithfulness and forbids the self-righteous condemnation of others.  Saul, the great persecutor of Christians, became St. Paul by faith and repentance in response to the gracious calling of the Risen Lord.  St. Paul called himself the chief of sinners and knew that he was made right with God by mercy, not his own accomplishment.  “It is no longer I who live but Christ Who lives in me.”  He gave up all attempts at self-justification. That is how he became his true self in God’s image and likeness.
            On other hand, many others have turned Christianity into a kind of spiritual self-indulgence that requires very little of anyone.  Some water the faith down to acceptance of virtually any belief, behavior, or inclination in what amounts to little more than religious sentimentality.  Remember, however, that Christ did not simply help the demon-possessed man to feel better about himself and otherwise do as he pleased; no, he cast evil out of him, gave him his life back, and commanded him to stay in that region and bear witness to how God had delivered him.  The Lord empowered him for a challenging life of holiness and changed him in a way that astonished everyone who knew him.  That fellow could then say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live but Christ Who lives in me.”  Like the Apostle, he surely knew that his salvation was not somehow his own accomplishment or just a nice feeling, but the gracious gift of a Lord “Who loved me and gave Himself for me” in ways that infinitely surpassed what even the best legal code could ever achieve.  

            Like St. Paul and the Gadarene demoniac, we will become our true selves in God’s image and likeness by participating in the grace and mercy of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  Like them, we must die both to self-righteous legalism and to the sinful corruptions that have become second nature to us.  We must have faith in Christ even as we pursue a faithful life, turning away from all that distorts our beauty as the living icons of our Lord.  The more closely we unite ourselves with Him, the more fully we become our true selves.  For He made us to be neither Pharisees nor “Legion,” but His beloved sons and daughters who become ever more like Him in holiness.  That is the calling of each and every one of us; and through repentance, faith, and love, we may answer it to the glory of God.                    

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke: The Perfect Patron for a Small Orthodox Parish in West Texas!

Colossians 4:5-11, 14-18
St. Luke 10:16-21
Today is the Feast Day of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke, the patron saint of our parish.  Our small community is named in his honor and memory, and we ask him to pray for us in virtually every service.  In many ways, St. Luke is an especially appropriate saint for our parish.  He was a Gentile, a physician, an iconographer, and one of the 70 Apostles sent out by the Lord to proclaim the good news. (Our members include a physician, an iconographer, and a bunch of Gentiles!) Author of both a gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke died a martyr’s death at the age of 84.
          He was the only Gentile to write one of the gospels of the New Testament.  Like St. Matthew, he includes the family tree or genealogy of Jesus Christ.  St. Luke traces the Lord’s lineage all the way back to Adam, the first human being who lived before the distinction between Jew and Gentile.  Thus he showed that Christ is the Savior of all, that He came to bring all peoples and nations into the glory of His Kingdom.  As a Gentile, St. Luke’s own family tree did not place him in the house of Israel, and his gospel especially emphasizes the mercy of Christ for those then thought of as strangers and outsiders to God’s blessings.     
           The Lord rejoiced in today’s gospel reading that the Father hid His truth from the wise and prudent, but revealed Himself to babes, to humble and simple people with little standing in the eyes of the world.   Gentiles, the poor, the sick, and women got little respect in that time, but St. Luke presents the ministry of our Lord in a way that makes clear that the blessings of the Kingdom extend to all, and that the lowly and despised are often the ones most ready to receive the good news of Christ, precisely due to their humility.
          For example, it is from Luke’s gospel that we know of the Virgin Mary’s obedient acceptance of the calling to become the Theotokos, the Mother of the incarnate Son of God.  She sings the Magnificat in response, praising Him for regarding the low estate of His handmaiden; for henceforth all generations will call her blessed.  She sings of a God who has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly, who has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.  A simple, unknown virgin girl miraculously became the living Temple of God; through her, the Savior came to the world; and in purity of heart, she accepted a shocking pregnancy that put her own life and reputation at risk. 
            The physician Luke even tells us of a meeting between the pregnant Theotokos and the pregnant St. Elizabeth in which St. John the Forerunner leaped in the womb in the presence of the not-yet-born Jesus Christ.  What an amazing detail that probably only a physician would have recorded in that time and place.
          It is also from St. Luke’s gospel that we learn of the astounding humility of Jesus Christ’s birth in a barn.  The Son of God used the feeding trough of a farm animal as His crib.  And the shepherds—poor, dirty, and generally looked down upon-- were the first group notified of this event.  They were blessed to be the first to know that the Messiah had been born.
          And when the Savior preached His first sermon in St. Luke’s gospel, He chose an Old Testament text that showed His love for the outcasts, the suffering, and those on the margins of society.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor…to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.“  Though the worshipers at the synagogue that day had liked the beginning of Jesus Christ’s sermon, they hated the ending.  For the Lord reminded them that God sometimes worked through the great Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha to help Gentiles instead of Jews.  When the people heard of God’s concern for the hated Gentiles, they literally tried to kill Christ by throwing Him off a cliff.  They wanted a Savior only for themselves on their own terms, not this surprising kind of Messiah Who came to save even their enemies.
          Do you see the common theme of these examples?  St. Luke demonstrated clearly that the Lord does not operate accordingly to conventional human standards of who is important, powerful, worthy, or holy.  In contrast with the ways of the world, our Savior taught that the last will often be first in the Kingdom of Heaven and the first will be last.  The “least of these,” the babes, will often respond to Christ with a pure heart while those who trust in themselves, their riches, their social status, their power, or their respectability will often refuse Him. 
          As a small parish in a part of the world with very few Orthodox Christians, we should be glad that St. Luke is our patron saint.  Like those common people in Luke’s gospel, our little community has no special prominence or power.  We are not wealthy or large or well-known.   We all have friends, neighbors, or family members who, until they met us, had never even heard of the Orthodox Church.  We certainly cannot rely on a common ethnicity or any other human characteristic to hold us together and build up our church.  In some ways, we are probably the most diverse congregation in Abilene; sociologically, our very existence probably makes no sense.  No, our very existence as a parish is a sign of God’s abundant grace and mercy.  We should all thank the Lord for creating and sustaining this blessed community through which we share in the life of Christ and have become members of one another in Him.  
          St. Luke also wrote of the original Christian community in similar ways in the Acts of the Apostles.  By the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, people of different nationalities who spoke different languages were united in a common faith in Jesus Christ.  They were persecuted by both Jews and Romans; there were tensions in the church between different ethnic and cultural groups; arguments raged over whether Gentiles had to be circumcised and obey the Jewish law before becoming Christians.  The early church as described by St. Luke was not wealthy or large or well-known.  To follow Jesus Christ under those conditions was a difficult struggle that literally made many saints and martyrs.  In their weakness, the first Christians found God’s strength.  In their humility, they were lifted up by His power.  In their obedience, they became victors over their enemies by sharing in Christ’s conquest over sin and death.
          The Book of Acts has many of the same themes as the Gospel of Luke.  St. Luke describes the early Church as a rare place of reconciliation for Jew and Gentile and a community in which financial resources were shared so that no one was in need.  The Church was born at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit empowered Christ’s followers to proclaim the good news such that people from all over world could understand and call on the name of the Lord.  As in those days, it remains the case that it is often the babes, the least of these, the outsiders, those who know trouble and pain all too well, who call upon Him with the purest of hearts.
          On this feast day of St. Luke, our challenge is to remember that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are that Church that began on Pentecost.  And like the first generation of Christians, we will find our salvation in the obscure place in the world that God has given us.  We have learned from St. Luke that lowliness and humility are actually favorable characteristics in the Christian life.  And we grow in these Christ-like virtues by patiently serving one another and our neighbors as Christ has served us.  That is why—even though we have not yet repaired our hall from the fire and have limited resources-- we are sponsoring a reception this week in support of IOCC’s relief work for refugees from Syria and Iraq, even as our members have given generously over the years for several campaigns to help our suffering brothers and sisters in the Middle East. It is why we assist our own members and others who are in need and support Pregnancy Resources of Abilene.   Even as St. Luke described the Theotokos welcoming the unexpected birth of the Savior, we want to help women today welcome their own children, regardless of the difficulties that they face.  As Christ said, “In that you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”  That includes those who leap in the womb today, as well as their mothers in the most challenging of circumstances.

          From a worldly perspective, all that we do in our parish is small scale and out of the cultural mainstream.  That is no problem at all, of course, because St. Luke has shown us a Savior Who works through weak and unlikely people to establish His Kingdom, which is surely not of this world.  As hard as it is to believe, that is precisely what the Lord is doing through us in this place by the prayers of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke, our patron. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Flourishing and Bearing Fruit in the Lord's Garden: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council and the 4th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Titus 3: 8-15
Luke 8:5-15
     Last Sunday, we focused on the importance of sowing abundantly, of investing ourselves in the life of Christ in order to reap bountifully, in order to bless others as we open ourselves to the holy joy of the Kingdom. Today’s gospel reading reminds us that that will not happen simply by throwing lots of seed on the ground and hoping that they will somehow grow to maturity as beautiful plants and bear fruit.  Birds, rocks, thorns, and lack of moisture easily keep many—if not most—seeds from taking root, flourishing, and producing a good yield.  No, we must tend and care for the seeds and the growing plants of our souls if they are to have any realistic hope of producing a good crop.
     Imagine a gardener who simply puts a bunch of seeds in his backyard, but does not prepare the soil, pull the weeds, guard against pests, or provide adequate water.  He is not really gardening, but more likely just feeding the birds and the squirrels.  Now, why would someone do that? Maybe he became distracted and thought that he had better things to do than to invest the time and energy necessary to help the seeds grow to maturity; but as a result, his garden would be a failure.
     As Christians, there is a parallel truth for us in the spiritual life. No matter how sincere our beginning may be, no matter how much we initially filled our hearts and minds with holy things, we can easily end up giving so little time and attention to growing in union with Christ that we suffer a similar fate spiritually.  Few of us will do that because we intentionally decide to turn away from God or formally renounce our faith.  Usually, it is not nearly as dramatic as that, for we simply get distracted and make other things higher priorities than maturing in the Christian life.  As a result, subtle temptations and worldly cares sicken and weaken us spiritually to the point that our souls seem to dry up and blow away.
     We may wonder how it is that we so easily fall prey to such distractions. Perhaps part of the reason is that we so often forget that life itself is a blessing from God that bears good fruit only when we offer it back to Him.  In other words, we are not our own creators or saviors, and we cannot bless, redeem, or save ourselves or anyone else by our own power.  The things and people which we tend to make into false gods are actually the blessings of the one true God.  Like the rest of His good creation, they are certainly not intrinsically evil—no matter how badly we abuse them.  No matter what joys or difficulties we face in His world, we may use them in accordance with His purposes for our spiritual healing.  But when our own pride leads to such anxiety about anything in life that we forget to offer it to the Lord, we commit the idolatry of trying to fulfill the creation on our own terms.  We want to make the world, ourselves, our neighbors, and even God Himself in our own image.  That is a heavy burden to bear and an invitation to be so overcome with anxiety that, when we fall prey to it, we will actually think that we have better things to do than to tend our spiritual gardens and bear good fruit for the Kingdom.  The truth, of course, is that nothing in creation flourishes unless it is firmly rooted in the garden of the Lord and tended in ways that help it serve the purposes for which He created it. Adam’s original vocation was to be a steward of the Garden of Eden, to be the priest of creation; but ever since he and Eve refused to do that, we have found it all too easy to follow their unfortunate example. And as bitter experience has taught us all, trying to live in this world on our own terms usually does not turn out well at all.
     Of course, we all have our excuses for whatever it is we want to do or do not want to do.  Perhaps we like to think that our particular circumstances are so special that we are somehow justified in neglecting the way of Christ, Who offered Himself in free obedience on the Cross for the salvation of the world. But that way of thinking is simply a reflection of our pride.  Regardless of the particulars, we inevitably make ourselves spiritually weak and vulnerable whenever we do not offer ourselves for the healing of the Lord on a regular basis through prayer, Bible reading, fasting, forgiveness, and service toward those around us.  When we put off taking Confession so long that we never get around to naming our sins in humble repentance, we suffer the weakness of struggling in spiritual isolation and depriving ourselves of the audible assurance of forgiveness. When we welcome into our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts those things that inflame our passions and distract us from holiness, we invite weeds into our garden and make it much harder for us to grow in the divine likeness.   Just as a lazy or inattentive gardener or farmer cannot expect a good crop, we cannot expect to flourish in the Christian life by allowing ourselves to be distracted habitually from the kind of life to which Jesus Christ calls us.
     St. Paul warned in his letter to St. Titus against letting foolish disputes, pointless arguments, or anything else get in the way of what is most important in life:  good works, meeting the urgent needs of others, and bearing fruit in the Christian life.  In this warning, St. Paul reminds us to turn away from all our senseless obsessions and excuses that tempt us to become so distracted from the Lord and the service of His Church that we end up turning away from the very source of life.  Whether in the first century or today, it is so easy for us to take our faith and our blessings for granted and to find just about anything else much more interesting than God.
     The problem is not with Him, of course, but with us, for we often simply disregard prayer, repentance, and serving others in the name of Christ.  We become content with making our spiritual life a low priority to the point that we become sick and weak because we are too lazy or distracted to fight our passions and accept the healing and strength which the Lord gives us through the ministries of His Church.  Too often, we rest content with bearing no fruit at all for the Kingdom.  The problem is that, when we live like that, we become as weak and vulnerable as a plant in an un-watered and un-weeded garden; and then we have very little hope of thriving or being of benefit to anyone.
     But if we follow St. Paul’s advice to become so busy with good works that we have no time or energy for foolish arguments or other pointless distractions, we will then become like the seed that landed on good soil, got proper nutrition, and produced a bumper crop.  And despite the trials, tribulations, and brokenness of our lives, we will know already the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven.
     That is the will of the Lord for each and every one of us, no matter the particular set of burdens that we bear or how faithfully or unfaithfully we may have lived so far.  Through His Body, the Church, Christ has revealed to us all the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, and we all have the ability to respond to our Lord’s great mercy with repentance, love, and faithfulness each day.
     So even if our souls presently look more like a bed of weeds than a beautiful garden, we still have hope because Christ has made us all participants in the blessing and fulfillment that He has brought to our world of corruption.  He has conquered sin and death, and invites us to join our broken lives to His great offering through which our ancient vocation to become like God is fulfilled.  The first Adam made a mess of the garden of the Lord, of the world as we know it, while the Second Adam has set right the creation for its fulfillment in the Kingdom of Heaven.  He calls and enables each of us to live faithfully each day in His blessed garden, playing our role in bringing all that He created to participate in His holiness.  In doing so, we will become more truly ourselves as those who bear His image and likeness.  And through our faithfulness daily, the world will become more fully what God created it to be. May we all become healthy plants in the Lord’s garden, and bear good fruit a hundred-fold.  For that is why He breathed life into us in the first place.  As Christ said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Investing in Mercy by Loving Our Enemies: A Homily for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost and the Second Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

2 Cor. 9:6-11
               Luke 6:31-36               
               It is true in everything we do:  the more we put into something, the more we get out of it.  No matter what we say or think, if we do not invest our time, energy, and attention in something, it is not very important to us and we should not expect much from it in return.  Many people have learned that lesson the hard way in marriage, family, work, and school. Above all, we need to ask ourselves if we are really investing ourselves in the life of Christ. How we treat our enemies is a good test of whether we are truly doing so. 
            St. Paul made precisely this point to the Corinthians:  “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  Gardeners who plant only a few seeds cannot expect much of a crop, while those who plant more can expect a better outcome.  Likewise, we enter more fully into the life of our Lord when we bless others with the mercy that God has shown us.  That is how those who share with others “will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.”   Becoming a blessing to others is the way to be blessed ourselves.
            Jesus Christ gave His disciples this message in today’s gospel passage, for He called them to demonstrate the mercy of God to their neighbors, even those whom it is very hard to love.  He told them to treat everyone as they would like to be treated.  He said that they should love not only their friends, but also their enemies.  They were to do good even to those who had treated them poorly.  They were to lend to those unlikely to pay them back.  By doing so, their “reward will be great” and they “will be sons of the Most High.”  That is what it means to “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
            With these words, the Lord calls us to enter fully into His life and thus to manifest personally the mercy that He has shown to the world.  He calls us to become like Him, to be so closely united to Him that His holy love becomes characteristic of who we are, even as we relate to those we do not like and who do not like us.    That is an important dimension of what it means to become His sons and daughters, to be “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.
            As with so many of Christ’s hard teachings, we may find it impossible to believe that we could ever fulfill these commandments.  If you are like me, you fall into anger and judgment toward others very easily and find it more appealing to hold grudges than to forget past wrongs. We may say that this is simply human nature and excuse ourselves, but the Lord reminds us that this is simply the way of sin.  Even terrorists and gangsters are good to those who are good to them.  We must not rest content with being like them.
            It may seem normal and natural to us in our world of corruption to hate our enemies, but that is not the life for which we were created in the image and likeness of God.  Christ is the Second Adam Who restores our fallen humanity, and He expects and enables us to live in a way that is different from business as usual. But if we are to grow in obedience to Him, we must not view His teaching as simply another set of rules to follow according to our own ability.  The Savior called His followers to be more righteous than those who thought of God’s commandments as a long list of requirements that could be satisfied by going through the motions.  He reinterpreted the Old Testament laws in ways that called for a transformation of our hearts and souls as we become more like Him.  That is a fulfillment so profound that no one can achieve it as some kind of accomplishment gained merely through will power.  
            If the goal is truly to become like God, truly to share in the divine life, love, and holiness that have conquered sin and death, it should be clear that we will not reach it simply by trying really hard. To become the sons and daughters of the Most High, we must be born again for the life of the Kingdom. We must be empowered for a new life beyond our ability by the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We must put on Christ and participate to the depths of our being in a blessing and healing well beyond our own ability. That blessing is always God’s gracious gift, never a reward that we have deserved.
            The good news is that members of Christ’s Body, the Church, already share in His life and have the spiritual strength to hear and obey His commandments.  Here is where we must remember St. Paul’s words on the importance of sowing bountifully, of investing our lives deeply in practices that open us to participate more fully in blessedness. If we have not done so, then it is no wonder that we so often fall short of loving our enemies, giving to those who cannot pay us back, and treating everyone as we ourselves would like to be treated. Our failure and frustrations are reminders that we have not sowed bountifully, that we have not invested ourselves diligently in the practices of mercy and forgiveness, and that we have not produced much fruit for the Kingdom as a result.  We have not been good stewards of the spiritual strength and power He has given us.   
            If that is where we are today, then we must use our weakness for our salvation, humbling acknowledging that we are in constant need of the mercy and grace that we so often refuse to show others.  We have wanted blessings for ourselves that we will not share with our neighbors.  We have sown sparingly and greatly limited our own participation in the healing and blessing of Jesus Christ.  Of course, we can never earn His grace, but we can put ourselves in the place where we are open to receive and participate in His mercy, where we will be “enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.”  In other words, we can do what we have the spiritual strength to do in helping, forgiving, and otherwise being reconciled with our enemies.  We must sow as bountifully as we can.  When we fall short, we must ask for God’s forgiveness as we rise up again to do what we can to bless those we find it hard to love.  In other words, we must continue the journey in humility, investing ourselves in the ways of the Kingdom as we plead for greater strength to become more beautiful icons of God’s mercy for the world.     
            Through this process, we will be blessed as we become blessings to others.  If we extend to our neighbors the same mercy that we humbly ask of God, we can trust that we are becoming more faithful sons and daughters “of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and selfish.”  Yes, that includes sinners like me and you who struggle, often unsuccessfully, to “be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”  What does it mean to invest ourselves in the life of Christ?  It means to keep up the struggle to love, forgive, and serve each day, and never to give up.