Saturday, August 1, 2015

Embrace the Calling and Avoid Drowning: Homily for the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 3:9-17; St. Matthew 14:22-34

             In my experience as a college professor, I have found that students who forget that they are students usually do not do very well in their classes. The same is true of employees, athletes, musicians, parents, and spouses who ignore their distinct identities and responsibilities.  In order to accomplish anything, we have to accept who we are, stay focused, and faithfully fulfill the duties that our particular calling gives us.  Otherwise, we will fail in what we set out to do.
            St. Paul had to address all kinds of deep problems in the confused and divided church at Corinth.  In today’s epistle lesson, he challenged them to recognize that they had a unique identity that gave them a demanding calling.  He told them that they are “God’s field, God’s building,” even a holy temple of the Lord.  If you have read his letters to the Corinthians, you can imagine how far these people probably seemed to themselves and others from being anywhere close to fulfilling that exalted identity. Despite their immorality, lack of love for one another, and deep confusions about the faith, St. Paul refused to allow their brokenness to define them.  Instead, he insisted that their true foundation is Jesus Christ in Whom they are “God’s fellow workers” in building up His Body, the Church.
            In some ways, the Corinthians had a lot in common with St. Peter in today’s gospel lesson when he turned his attention away from Christ as he walked on the water with Him in the midst of a storm.  When the Savior enabled him to do so, Peter focused on the wind and the waves and was overcome by fear.  At that point, he fell back on his own resources and repudiated his identity and calling as someone given a share in the miraculous power of Christ.  So he began to sink, until he came to his senses and cried out “Lord, save me!”  The Savior’s response gets to the heart of the matter:  “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?”
            That is precisely what Jesus Christ says to each and every one of us when we do not accept fully His high calling and blessing as members of His Body, as His temple, as His coworkers, as those whose very life is built upon Him as our only true and sure foundation.  Like St. Peter, we sink down time and time again because we forget who we are and define ourselves by our sins and weaknesses. The problem is not that we have a simple slip of memory; it is that we welcome distractions that divert our attention from fulfilling our calling and duty.  We voluntarily become lax and lazy in the Christian life because we find other things more appealing at the moment.  That is not surprising because we are broken and weak people who live in a world of corruption in which it is so easy to fall into the idolatry of worshipping the false gods of our own desires.  But it is tragic because our Lord calls us to such a higher dignity, to a blessedness that infinitely transcends the momentary pleasure of giving in to passion and temptation.    
            Think for a moment about where our sins have led us, about how they have weakened us, harmed others, and presented burdens that do not easily go away.  We can easily drown ourselves and others in them.  Just as a building with a faulty foundation will never be stable, we will never find healing, peace, and strength by being more fascinated by sin than by holiness.  No one ever became good at any task by refusing to give it attention, by directing their energies elsewhere.  And we will never grow as Christians if we treat faithfulness as an afterthought, as an unimportant endeavor that we might get around to some day when there is nothing better to do.  There is no dimension of the Christian life that does not require discipline and self-sacrifice.  If we are not intentionally embracing our identity in Him, then we risk drowning in sin without even recognizing it.  We are in as dangerous as position as someone living in a house not built squarely on a solid foundation.  We are inviting our own collapse.
              Of course, it is easy to ignore these truths. Perhaps we take solace in comparing ourselves to the decadence of contemporary culture or of people who at least seem worse off than we are spiritually or morally—as though it were our place to judge them.  Maybe we define ourselves by our jobs, possessions, pastimes, abilities, physical appearance, education, or other worldly accomplishments that ultimately serve our own pride.  We may have watered down our faith to the point of thinking that as long as we have warm feelings toward Christ and are good citizens that all is well. 
            These may be coping mechanisms for navigating the world on its own terms, but they remain distractions from building squarely on the one true foundation of Jesus Christ.  As appealing as they may be, they cannot raise us up from drowning in our own sins.  They cannot fulfill in us the high calling of God’s fellow workers and holy temple.  They are simply excuses for not building on the one true foundation of our souls.     
            During these first two weeks of August, we observe the period of the Dormition Fast, when we commemorate the end of the earthly life of the Most Holy Theotokos.  We fast during this period because we want to follow her example of focusing on the one thing needful of hearing the word of God and keeping it.  Our Lord’s Mother became God’s holy temple in a unique way when she contained within Her own womb the One who is uncontainable, the Eternal Son of God.  By saying “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” she demonstrated that she was truly a fellow worker with God, “God’s own field” in a unique way for the salvation of the world through the Incarnation of her Son.         All generations call her blessed, and we should all look to her as the best example of how to build our lives on the one true foundation of Jesus Christ.  As we celebrate on the Feast of the Dormition on August 15, the Theotokos was the first to follow Christ-- body, soul, and spirit--into the heavenly kingdom.  There is no better model for how to be a faithful Christian.
            The Virgin Mary prepared for her unique role by a life dedicated to prayer and purity, and her path was in no way easy. But she refused to be distracted from her high calling and identity, even though she certainly received no affirmation from the society in which she lived.  Remember that she was the mother of someone rejected as a blasphemer and publically executed as a traitor.  Nonetheless, the Theotokos fully embraced her identity as the Mother of God and lived accordingly.  Let us take her as our example, steadfastly refusing to take our eyes off Jesus Christ as we endure the winds and waves of our own sick souls and of life in our corrupt world.  Let us invest our time and energy staying true to our foundation and the glorious identity that He has given us.  Whenever we begin to be distracted, let us have the spiritual clarity to cry like St. Peter, “Lord, save me!”   And through it all, let us remember Who our Savior is and who He enables weak and distracted people like you and me to become:  His fellow workers, His field, His holy temple, and even members of His own Body.   


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Offering our Loaves and Fishes for the Diocese of Bosra-Hauran: Homily for St. Timon Sunday

Galatians 3:23-4:5:Matthew 14: 14-22
            Today is “St. Timon Sunday” in our Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America, when we take up a collection for the relief of our brothers and sisters in Syria as we remember Timon, one of the seventy apostles sent out by Jesus Christ and one of the original deacons mentioned in Acts 6:5.  St. Timon was the first bishop of what is now known as the city of Bosra in Syria.  He played a key role in evangelizing a region where our Lord Himself often ministered (Matt.4:25) and where St. Paul took refuge after he escaped from Damascus following his conversion (Gal. 1:15-18).
          Millions of Syrians today are refugees in other countries or displaced persons in their own land.  The basic services that we take for granted, such as health care,   education, and access to adequate food and shelter, are simply not available in much of the country.  The physical, psychological, and social damage from the ongoing conflict—in which over 200,000 people have died– cannot be overestimated in its horrible effects on millions of men, women, and children, all of whom bear the image and likeness of God.
          Many of us feel overwhelmed even by the struggles we face in our own souls and families.  In our own nation, we encounter so many problems and difficulties that do not seem likely to go away anytime soon.  So it would be easy to give in to the temptation to think that such a grave and complicated situation as the crisis in Syria is simply far too large and deep for the members of our small parish to address.  We may be tempted to despair of being able to do anything helpful at all for a land so far away and with so many needs.
          When we feel that way, we must remember how our Lord fed thousands of hungry people at the end of a long day in a deserted place.  He blessed the tiny bit of food that the disciples had collected, five loaves and two fish, to feed everyone with a substantial amount left over.  By any conventional way of looking at what it would take to feed thousands, such a small offering would be nowhere near sufficient.  Someone in charge of organizing a meal for that many people would be insane to suggest that five loaves and two fish would be sufficient.  The disciples knew that, so they asked Jesus Christ to send the people away to buy their own food.  Due to their own sense of inadequacy, they wanted to leave the hungry people to take care of themselves.  But He would not let them off the hook so easily and challenged them to offer what little they had in faith.
          So that is what they did.  Then, looking up into heaven, the Lord blessed, broke, and gave the few loaves back to the disciples, and they in turn gave them to the crowd.  Miraculously, everyone had more than enough to eat; twelve baskets full of bread were left over after several thousand people had had dinner.  What seemed so small, so insignificant, so inadequate, was more than enough because of the blessing of our Savior.
          So much in our lives is just like that, a seemingly insignificant offering that could not possibly make much of a difference.  We take up a collection each year and pray every Sunday for the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Bosra-Hauran.  Our parish does what it can to help our own members when times are tough, to donate each year to “Food for Hungry People” during Lent through our Archdiocese, and to support Pregnancy Resources of Abilene in their work for pregnant women and their children in our own community. Likewise, our members undertake many seemingly small tasks for the flourishing of our parish, from cutting the grass to bookkeeping, from teaching Sunday School to giving someone a ride to church.  Most of us cannot imagine that the amounts of time and energy we invest in prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other forms of service really amount to much in comparison with the great needs of our society and world.  They probably seem barely worth mentioning and nothing out of the ordinary.
          From a purely human perspective, that is true.  But we must remember that our Savior has united humanity and divinity in Himself.  He has made it possible for humble human beings to participate by grace in His abundant life. Of course, we ourselves do not have the power to fix all our own personal problems, much less to end wars or feed thousands.  Fortunately, He does not call or expect us to do so.  All that He asks us to do is to follow the good example of the disciples in offering what little we can to Him for blessing with the faith that He will do with it what is best.
          That kind of offering is at the very heart of our worship in the Orthodox Church, for our spiritual fathers have always seen the Lord’s miraculous feeding of thousands with the loaves and fishes as a sign of the Eucharist, of Holy Communion.  A few loaves of bread and a cup containing wine and water might make a decent snack by themselves, but not a satisfying meal even for one hungry person. But in the Divine Liturgy, God blesses the little bit of bread and wine that we offer to Him.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, they become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the menu of the heavenly banquet.  We receive back from Him so much more than we offered.  It is not a mere meal, but true communion with our Lord, the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.
          For this blessed miracle to occur, we have to do our part, making our small offering with the fear of God and faith and love. We have to supply the bread, wine, and water for the Eucharist.   These offerings are essential, for He requires that we do our small part, just as the disciples had to offer what little they could gather to feed a multitude of hungry people.  With His blessing, our tiny gifts become infinitely more than what they would have been on their own.
          Our whole life, then, should become an icon of the Divine Liturgy, of offering every bit of who we are to God for Him to bless and use as He pleases.  It does not matter whether we think that we have an impressive or large offering to make.  God knows our hearts and He will accept our humble gifts and multiply them to accomplish His purposes for a suffering and needy world.  That is true whether we are talking about giving money for the relief of refugees, devoting time and energy to prayer, or struggling to resist any temptation.  He is able to make our small investments of whatever kind to bear abundant fruit for the Kingdom as a sign of the salvation of the world.
          It is simply a temptation to think that our offerings of resources, time, energy, or anything else are too insignificant for our Lord to bless.  Remember that He has always worked through what appears at first weak and insignificant, such the cross by which He conquered death itself in His glorious resurrection.  He uses imperfect, conflicted people like us to do His work, as He did throughout the unfolding story of the Bible.  He calls us, like He called the disciples, simply to obey as best we can in our present circumstances and to leave the rest to Him.
          So in the spirit of the loaves and fishes, let us offer up what resources we can to help our suffering brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Bosra-Hauran.  Doing so is part of our ongoing calling to offer our humble lives to the Lord, trusting that the same God who blessed St. Timon’s ministry in an obscure corner of the world will do the same with our offering to His glory.  If we feel inadequate to meeting the needs of Syria, then remember how the disciples must have felt with their few loaves and fish before a hungry multitude, and what abundance the Lord produced from their small collection.  May this be true for all of us, each day of our lives, as we struggle to offer ourselves to Jesus Christ for His blessing for the salvation of the world and of our own souls.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The God-Man Makes Us Holy, Not Merely Nice: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council

          Someone told me this week that there must be more to being a Christian than just being a nice person.  The fellow who said that knows that Jesus Christ calls His followers to something much more profound than being friendly, decent, or thoughtful. Those personality traits are not the sole possession of any religion, and our Lord did not rise from the dead in order to make us pleasant people who fit especially well into our, or any other, society.  Christ sets His and our sights much higher, calling us to become lights shining in stark contrast to the darkness of the world. 
            That is surely why He sets the bar so high for His disciples.  He did not “come to abolish the law and the prophets” of the Old Testament, “but to fulfill them.”  So those who “shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven” are those who obey the commandments and teach others to do so.  And, likewise, those who relax God’s requirements and teach others to follow their example “shall be called least in the kingdom of Heaven.”
            The Savior wants us to shine with holiness such that we become the light of the world, illuminating it with goodness so that all will give glory to God.   So it is not enough to refrain from the physical act of murder; we are to be healed of the passion of anger, which is at the root of murder.   It is not sufficient to avoid the physical act of adultery or other sexual sins; we are to be free from bondage to lust in all its forms.  It is not enough to limit our revenge to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We are to turn the other cheek, blessing our enemies with the same love that we have received from Him.  The ultimate goal of these commandments is nothing short of: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  If that is who we become in Christ, imagine what a blessing we would be to the world as living proof of His salvation.  That is a calling much higher than being merely nice.
            Today we remember the 630 holy and God-bearing fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in the year 451.  They made clear that Christ is fully God and fully human:  one Person with two natures. They rejected the views of the Monophysites who claimed the Lord has only one nature, a divine one.  If that were the case, we could not participate in His divine life—for we are simply humans--and it would be hard to see how Christ’s death and resurrection had much to do with us.  Today’s commemoration is not simply a reminder about Church history; it is a proclamation of the Gospel, for Jesus Christ must be both fully God and fully human in order to bring us into eternal light and life as our Savior.
            Indeed, He is the Light, the eternal Son of God who becomes fully human while remaining fully divine.  That is how He makes it possible for us to shine with His holy glory even as we live and breathe upon the earth as flesh and blood.   He fulfills all the foreshadowing and preparation of the Law and the Prophets, for God was never primarily concerned with Old Testament rules about outward behavior or the sacrifice of animals.  Instead, they pointed the way to the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, to the One who triumphs over sin and death itself.   And now He makes it possible for us to share in His glorious, brilliant light as partakers of His divinity by grace.
            The God-Man Jesus Christ is our perfection, our salvation, our theosis.   He has joined humanity and divinity, has conquered sin and death, and made us creatures of the earth participants in His life. Our task is to open the dark corners of our lives to His light, to stop hiding in the night of sin and instead to do all that we can to become more radiant living icons of the divine glory.          In order to do that, we must embrace our identity as members of the living Body of Christ. That means growing in holiness, finding healing for our passions, and turning away from the darkness as we enter more fully into the light of the Kingdom.    Our goal is nothing short of perfection, full personal participation in the eternal life of God by grace.
            We will not advance toward that high goal by accommodating ourselves or our faith to whatever strand of popular culture we happen to like.  At the end of the day, simply being nice and decent by any worldly interpretation falls short of our high calling.  We need the God-Man to save us, not simply a moral teacher or good example. We must humble ourselves before Him by refusing to water down our faith into a comfortable cultural agenda of any kind.   
            So in a world of addiction to self-indulgence, we must fast and learn to say “no” to our self-centered desires for pleasure.  In a society of violence, hatred, and revenge, we must love, forgive, and bless our critics and enemies.  In a time of disregard for the weak, helpless, and inconvenient, we must sacrifice to serve all who bear the divine image and likeness from the womb to the tomb.  In an age when we are distracted and busy, we must take the time and effort to pray, to read the Scriptures and the lives of the saints, and to keep a close guard on our thoughts.  And whenever we stumble on this path, we must do the radically countercultural act of refusing to make excuses and humbling ourselves by sincere confession and repentance.  Above all, we must not compromise the high vision and calling that our Savior gives us.  As the God-Man, He has shown us how to radiate His light in our darkened world, and it is surely not by relaxing His commandments.  Easier paths may make us nice, but they will not make us holy.
            We must be on guard against everything that distracts us from following Him, including becoming obsessed with pointless arguments.  In St. Paul’s letter to St. Titus, he notes that some Christians preferred to spend their time in foolish, unprofitable, and useless arguments which led to nothing but division.  Apparently, not much has changed in two thousand years! St. Paul teaches that it is much better to use such wasted time and energy in actually doing good works, meeting the urgent needs of people, and bearing fruit for the Kingdom.  In other words, it is better to focus on living the basic Christian life than it is to distract ourselves with what ultimately amounts to nonsense.
            We certainly have a lot of nonsense in our day.  In our age of the internet, social media, smart phones, video games, and 24-hour television, we probably have more opportunities for distraction, endless arguments, and inflamed passions than any other generation in human history.  So we must be on guard not to waste our lives on habits that sap time and energy we could use as fuel to become lamps burning brightly with the light of Christ.   If we will focus on getting the basic practices of our faith established in our daily lives, we will find strength for keeping other habits in their proper place.  Unfortunately, too often we put other things first and then find that we have very little power to focus on what is really important. If we have already wasted our fuel, we should not be surprised when we do not have enough left to burn brightly ourselves as lamps of holiness.

            We can avoid these problems by simply doing what we know we should be doing already. Come to church; receive the Holy Mysteries with proper preparation; pray, fast, and take confession; repent of any wrong that you do; give to the needy; serve the weak; forgive those who have wronged you and ask forgiveness of those you have wronged; fight your passions; watch your thoughts, your mouth, and whatever else you have trouble controlling.  Focus your energy on living the basic Christian life and you will have much less time for pointless disputes and other spiritually unhealthy endeavors.  Do all of this with sincere faith, hope, and love, and you will become much more than merely nice.  Your light will shine before others such that they will see your good works and give glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

Sunday, July 12, 2015

How to Become a Living Relic: Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church


Romans 12:6-14

Matthew 9: 1-8
             Last Sunday I went to liturgy in an Orthodox parish in Rome that meets in a vacant Catholic church.  After the service, the priest showed me the bones of early Christian martyrs kept there in a cabinet. Rome was the capital city of an empire that put so many to death for their faith in Christ and their refusal to worship the emperor and other false gods.  Whether in great cathedrals or humble parish churches, the relics of saints are never far away in such a place.  They are tangible signs of holiness.
            From as early as anyone can tell, Christians preserved the bones and other relics of saints and martyrs.  That may appear to be an odd practice, but remember that in the Old Testament a dead man came back to life when his body was put in the grave of the Prophet Elisha and touched his bones.  God worked many miracles through the touch of the hands of the Apostles in Acts—and even through the aprons and handkerchiefs of St. Paul and the shadow of St. Peter. Such events remind us that God, Who created us from the dust of the earth, calls us to holiness in every dimension of our existence—body, soul, and spirit.   
            In today’s gospel reading, our Lord demonstrates His divinity by doing something tangible and practical for a paralyzed man who could not move his own body.  Not only did He forgive the man’s sins, but He gave evidence of His authority to do so by enabling this fellow to “rise, take up your bed, and go home.”  Those who saw it marveled and glorified God. Christ made him a living witness through the healing of his body of the salvation that He has brought to the world.  Our Lord did not simply give him ideas, rules, or feelings.   He enabled him to manifest visibly the blessed life of the God-Man as a whole, complete person.  Everyone could plainly see the difference Christ made in this man’s life.    
            Likewise, Saint Paul exhorted the Romans to become living evidence of Christ’s salvation, regardless of their particular gifts.  In words that still apply to us directly today, he wrote: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, and serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” 
            In this passage, St. Paul urges the Roman Christians to become like that formerly paralyzed man whom Christ healed and told to get moving.  He called them to specific practices and actions that do not come easily to human beings in our spiritually and morally corrupted state, and which were certainly counter-cultural in their time and place. They lived in a proud, violent, and cruel society that thought nothing of abandoning unwanted children to die and treating slaves, the poor, and foreigners as far less than human.  The slaughter of human beings was popular entertainment in the Colosseum. The decadence and immorality of pagan Rome remain legendary.
            In contrast to the conventional attitudes and behaviors of their day, the early Christians did what it took to show the world something radically new.  As we know even from the writings of those who persecuted them, they lived the Christian life in practical, tangible ways that got the attention of their neighbors and drew many of them to the Lord.  For example, they rescued infants others had abandoned to die and raised them as their own.  They risked and even gave up their lives to care for the sick during plagues.  They did not define themselves or others by divisions such as Jew, Gentile, slave, and free. They modeled purity in the relationship between man and woman in stark contrast to their mainstream culture. Persecuted literally to the point of death, they prayed for their tormentors and laid down their lives like their Savior.  They actually lived and died this way with bodies just like ours.  And their witness is a key part of how the Church grew, spread, and flourished throughout the Roman Empire and around the world.
            Had these early Christians thought that their faith concerned simply their ideas or feelings, the story would have been very different.  Had Christ simply forgiven the sins of the paralytic and not visibly restored his health, that story would have been very different.  Perhaps one of the reasons that so many in our culture do not take the faith seriously is that too many Christians do not rise up from their spiritual and moral weakness actually to live in ways that stand in clear contrast to the dominant customs and habits of our time.  If we do not live as clear examples of what happens when a human being puts on Christ and becomes a partaker of the divine nature, then why should we think that anyone will take our faith seriously, let alone be drawn to it?  No, we must actually live the life of Christ and the Saints in our own flesh and blood if we are to bear faithful witness. 
            Talk is cheap, even when it is about religion or morality; but taking up the cross is costly, personal, and real.  The early Christian witness was fundamentally a matter of how people lived their lives in sharp contrast to what was popular and easy.  It required discipline and sacrifice.  They explained and defended their faith with integrity because they practiced what they preached in a fashion that attracted others to a new life.  They modeled holiness to the point of death and drew others to join them.  They knew that tangible, distinctive practices for how we live our lives as Christians are absolutely essential for calling the world to its salvation.
            Like the martyrs of long ago and today, we must do the hard work of growing in holiness if we are to have any hope of becoming living witnesses of Christ’s healing and blessing of humanity.  If we are not doing that, we have no standing to speak a critical word about any aspect of the moral and spiritual corruption of our society and world.   Whenever we preach what we do not practice, we bring judgment upon ourselves and give others a bad impression of our faith.   

            The relics of saints are about as tangible as you can get, for it is easy to handle pieces of bone or cloth.  Our calling is to make our own lives relics of holiness that are visible signs of the salvation of the world.  Fulfilling this calling requires more than words, feelings, good intentions, or saying we support a cause of whatever kind.  We must actually live as those united with Christ in sharp contrast with a world that still worships false gods and thinks that those who refuse to do so are deluded and dangerous. The way to convince skeptics and opponents is rarely by words alone, but more fundamentally by obeying the command of Christ to the paralytic to rise up from the weakness of sin and move forward in the blessed life for which He created us from the dust of the earth.  We must be faithful to Him in our own flesh and blood in our daily lives if we want to entice others to marvel, give glory to God, and enter into the life of the Kingdom.  

Sunday, June 28, 2015

How to Respond to Contemporary American Culture with the Humble Faith of the Centurion: Homily on the Fourth Sunday of the Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 6:18-23
Matthew 8: 5-13

           Especially in our time and place, no one wants to be a servant, a slave, or held accountable to anything that they did not freely choose.  We are much more likely to want to be free from all constraints with total liberty to define ourselves and live on our own terms.  The problem, of course, is that we are also susceptible to falling into delusions about who we are before God and where the paths that we follow will lead us in life.  In the name of freedom, we easily enslave ourselves to our own desires and passions in ways that make it very hard to set things right once again.  
            St. Paul reminded the church in Rome that the abuse of freedom is quite serious business, as “the wages of sin is death.” Before their conversion, his largely Gentile audience had been slaves of sin with one level of depravity leading to another.  As we have all learned by bitter experience, one sin so often gives rise to another, usually more serious than the first.  But St. Paul teaches that those who have faith in Christ have become slaves of righteousness toward the end of sanctification, holiness, and eternal life.  They will find freedom, not by enslaving themselves to disordered desires and corrupt practices, but by embracing the healing of our humanity made possible through our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  As the Church has taught from its origins, there is a path that leads to our fulfillment in Christ, that makes us more fully participants in the eternal blessedness for which He created us.  This path makes us free to share in the very life of God and to shine with the light of heaven even as we live in the world.   
            The Roman centurion in today’s gospel lesson provides an example of how to follow this path to true freedom in Christ.  He showed trust and humility so profound that the Savior said that He had not found such faith in Israel.  In other words, an officer of a pagan army of occupation, someone despised and condemned by the Jews, showed great faith in the Messiah, the one expected to fulfill the ancient hopes of the Hebrew people.  As the Lord made clear, some will begin the path to eternal blessedness from very unlikely places, as Gentiles “from east and west,” while some “sons of the Kingdom” (presumably some of the Jews) will not inherit such blessings. As was often the case, Christ’s words here must have shocked and offended many people.  He did not make Himself popular by saying such things.
            The humble faith shown by the centurion is very far from the self-centeredness that so often passes for freedom in our culture.  First of all, this fellow cared about his lowly servant so much that he risked embarrassment, if not something worse from his own superiors, by asking for Christ’s help.  But he was not ashamed to lower himself to be point of being dependent on the aid of this Messiah.  He also confessed his sinfulness publicly by telling the Lord that he was unworthy to have Him enter his home.   Think about how astounding that statement was from a Roman officer to a Jewish rabbi, a person quite far beneath him in every way according to the standards of the empire that he served.   In this man’s humility, he had the spiritual clarity to know that Christ needed simply to say a word from a distance in order to heal the sick servant.  He had the humble faith necessary to follow the path to freedom from sin and death.   And because of that, the Lord granted his request and used him as an example of those from all over the world, even hated Gentiles, who would share in the heavenly banquet with the great patriarchs of the Old Testament.  Remember that Jews would never eat with Gentiles, but here is Christ predicting that some Gentiles will dine with the founding figures of the Hebrew people in the coming Kingdom—while some of the Jews will be shut out of the celebration.  What a radical and disturbing thing to say.
            We all need the humble faith of the centurion in order to respond in a spiritually healthy way to cultural trends in our society.  A great many things are legal, accepted, and even celebrated in our culture in the name of freedom that the Body of Christ does not bless as being paths to greater righteousness. Our faith teaches that using freedom contrary to God’s purposes does little more than weaken us spiritually and enslave us even more to corrupting passions and unholy desires. That is true in all areas of life, including sexual behavior, regardless of our particular temptations. The abuse of freedom makes us even more the slaves of sin. If we want to be faithful Christians, we must use our liberty to live in accordance with God’s purposes for us, not in ways contrary to them.
             The Supreme Court has made civil marriage between persons of the same sex legal throughout the United States. The Orthodox Church does not approach marriage in terms of arguments about civil rights or the principles of the American Constitution, but in terms of salvation.  Hence, the Church blesses only the marriage of one man and one woman for the growth of the spouses in righteousness as faithful servants of Jesus Christ, Who said "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matt 19:4) That is how the eternal Word of God, Who created us male and female in the divine image and likeness, spoke of marriage.
            St. Paul wrote something very similar to the Ephesians (5:31-32): “’For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” Along with many other types of sin, St. Paul describes desire for members of one’s own sex as a sign of humanity’s rebellion against God. (Rom. 1: 26-27)  And, of course, the union of man and woman is the only  kind of human relationship blessed with the capability of fulfilling God’s ancient commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” bringing forth new life from the personal union of the spouses. (Gen. 1:28)  There is no basis in the Bible, the lives of the Saints, or any aspect of the Church’s tradition to bless other forms of marriage. 
How we approach the union of man and woman is part of the ancient and unchanging faith of the Orthodox Church, which we accept with the humble faith of the centurion.   He knew that he was unworthy to have Christ visit his home, and we are unworthy to take it upon ourselves to change the holy mystery of marriage or any other dimension of the path to the Kingdom that the Lord has given us.   Like the centurion, we may risk losing social standing or popularity due to faithfulness to the way of Christ.  We must remember, however, that Christians have sacrificed to follow the Lord from the very beginning of the faith.  Think for a moment about our suffering brothers and sisters in Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East, literally becoming martyrs and refugees because of their steadfast commitment to the Lord.
We must not feel sorry for ourselves due to changes in civil laws about marriage, but instead remember that Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world.  He calls us to become a city on a hill—a beacon in the night-- that attracts those who are sick and tired of slavery to sin to a new way of life, to the glorious freedom for righteousness of the children of God.  Current cultural trends demand greater faithfulness on our part, as well as vigilance against hypocrisy.     
With the humble faith the centurion, we must also remember that there is hope for every human being to enter the joy of the Kingdom.  The centurion was a hated foreigner, a despised Gentile in the army of occupation from a pagan empire.   The Romans were famous for their immorality and quite unclean from the perspective of the Jews.  But here we have Christ praising a Roman officer for his faith being superior to that of the Jews, together with a prediction that Gentiles will be guests at the heavenly banquet.  How amazing is that?  In other words, the Lord reminds us not to write off anyone, including those who presently order their lives in ways contrary to Christian teaching on matters of sex and anything else.
Judging the souls of other people is completely contradictory to the beautiful humility of the centurion.  That is God’s business, not ours, even when someone acts publically in ways contrary to our faith.  Whenever we are tempted to make ultimate pronouncements on others, and in effect to put ourselves in the place of the Lord at the Last Judgment, we are the ones who need to repent and should say the Jesus Prayer until that temptation goes away. Upholding the fullness of Christian teaching is one thing, while self-righteous judgment of particular people is quite another.  If we persist in that practice, we will shut ourselves out of the heavenly banquet.  As Christ said of the self-righteous in His day, “Prostitutes and tax collectors go into the Kingdom of God before you.”   (Matt. 21:31) Let us take that warning quite seriously.
            We should use everything in life for our salvation, for opening ourselves more fully to the healing and blessing of Jesus Christ.  Let us use current cultural trends as a reminder to become more faithful servants of righteousness, more faithful followers of our Lord on the blessed path to the Kingdom that He has given us in His Body, the Church.  We cannot control what others do and it is never our business to judge.  We must all press on with the humble faith of the centurion, trusting in Christ’s mercy as we pursue holiness in every dimension of our lives, no matter the cost or difficulty.  That is still the best way to witness for Christ in a world so terribly confused.  For if our lives do not shine forth with righteousness, no one will pay any attention to what we have to say about marriage or anything else.

            And why should they?  If we do not become living witnesses of a blessedness beyond the customs of mainstream culture, then we will have failed to manifest the joy of a Kingdom that calls all people to become who God created them to be in His image and likeness.    With the humility of the centurion, let us be faithful witnesses of what our Lord’s mercy can do with even the most unlikely guests at the heavenly banquet, including sinners like you and me. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Eyes Full of Light: Homily on the Remarkable Forgiveness Shown by the Mourners of Charleston on the Third Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 5:1-11
Matthew 6:22-33
The murders of several African-American Christians gathered at their church for Bible study in Charleston are truly horrible beyond words.  The comments of survivors and family members to the perpetrator at a legal hearing are truly merciful beyond words.  For in the midst of their terrible agony, they forgave the murderer, asked for God’s mercy upon him, and called him to turn to Christ in repentance.   He gave them terrible darkness, but they responded with brilliant light.
Jesus Christ taught that the eye of the soul, our spiritual vision, is all important.  If we are illumined by His light to the depths of our hearts, then we will see everyone and everything in light of His kingdom and righteousness.  We will seek Him first in all that we say and do.  In the reaction of those grieving family members, we see the light of Christ in astoundingly sharp contrast to the darkness that inspired such an obscene crime. 
St. Paul suffered for Christ to the point of death as a martyr.  He wrote of rejoicing in sufferings which ultimately give rise to hope “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”  Just as God enables martyrs to remain steadfast and even rejoice in their sufferings, He strengthened those grieving family members in Charleston to respond with grace, peace, and reconciliation that are simply not of this world.
Their example reminds us that the Christian life is not about living in society on its own terms, which usually amounts to little more than stumbling around in the darkness and serving false gods of one kind or another. Since Cain and Abel, people have found reasons to become blind to their brothers and sisters, so easily viewing them as enemies deserving only of death and even to think of murder as virtuous. In our world of corruption, everyone easily appears as a threat to everyone else and there is no limit to vengeance from generation to generation.
St. Paul reminds us that the way of Christ is totally different, for “God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”  He speaks of us as “enemies…reconciled to God by the death of His Son…”  By turning away from Him ever since Adam and Eve, we had made ourselves the enemies of the Lord; but God was never our enemy.  Instead of destroying us or giving us what we deserved, the Father sent His Son to save us.  The Son offered Himself freely on the cross and rose in glory in order to bring us into  eternal life.  So as St. Paul wrote, “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation.” 
In the gracious response of the grieving family members of Charleston, we see a powerful icon of God’s love for enemies that should inspire us all to become more faithful Christians.  For if we claim to accept His mercy to us, how can we not extend it to others?  If we ask the Lord to forgive us our trespasses, how can we not forgive those who trespass against us?  How can we rest content with hatred of anyone in our hearts for any reason? 
Of course, most of us fall into holding grudges and remembering the wrongs of others for matters far smaller than mass murder.  We find ourselves serving more than one master with some frequency.  The eyes of our souls are not full of light and we do not see everyone and everything in light of His Kingdom and righteousness.  At times, we even get a perverse joy from defining ourselves over against our enemies, whether real or imagined.    
Consequently, we all need clearer and more focused spiritual vision.  We all need to enter more fully into reconciliation with our Lord, into His peace.  That is the only way that we will have the strength to love and forgive others from our hearts, no matter who they are or what they have done.  That is the only way we will learn to see every human being as a living icon of Christ and recognize that what we do to them, we do to our Lord.  That is the only way that the light of Christ will shine from our hearts and overcome the darkness with which we are all too familiar.
The Savior’s teaching about serving two masters gets to the heart of our problem.  Too often, we think of our faith as an optional addition to what is really important, to life as we want to live it in a secular world in which we have made God largely irrelevant.  We seek possessions, pleasure, and power more than we do God’s Kingdom and righteousness. That is obviously not the Orthodox Christian faith, but I am afraid that most of us fall into such ways of thinking and behaving more than we would like to admit.  In other words, we try to serve more than one master and the Lord is usually not the one who claims the greater loyalty.
If our goal is simply a conventional life in society, then that way of living may work well enough for a time.  But if we want to enter more fully into the peace and reconciliation of the Lord, we must not serve the false gods that only darken our hearts and wed us more closely to the very kind of anxiety and fear that are at the root of so much brokenness in our lives and relationships.
Unfortunately, we so often do exactly what Christ warns against, making idols of our life in the world:  our food, drink, clothing, and other possessions. That leads many to constant worry, for poverty, hunger, famine, crime, disease, war, and terrorism are always possibilities in the world as we know it.  There is no way that we can protect ourselves completely from dangers far beyond our control.  Too often, we cope with these worries by demonizing others and imagining that if our alleged enemies fail and our will is done then all will be well.  We can easily feel justified in doing whatever it takes to build ourselves up and put down whoever we think stands in our way as though we were our own saviors. 
Of course, that is the way of the blind leading the blind, of a profound lack of peace of with God, our neighbors, and even ourselves.  True reconciliation comes from the Lord’s cross and empty tomb.  It is a gift, not our accomplishment.  It shines through a life of mercy and forgiveness that overcomes fear, anxiety, and resentment.  It extends to even the most wretched evildoers of every generation, from those who crucified our Lord to those who kill His children today, whether in Charleston, the Middle East, or elsewhere, and actually think that they have done something good.
If we want to participate more fully in Christ’s peace and reconciliation, then we must use our worries and fears as reminders to call to God from our hearts for strength to put Him and His Kingdom first in our lives.  If we harbor hatred or judgment toward anyone, we must ask Christ to help us grow in showing others the same forgiveness that we ask Him to show to us. If we do not see Christ in anyone for any reason, we must ask Him to flood the eyes of our souls with His light and overcome the darkness that is within us.   
If we are tempted to fall into despair about the great problems of our time, we must remember that the Lord has never, and will never, abandon His Body, the Church, through which He calls the entire world to salvation. Even as He sustained the martyrs of the first century, He strengthens those who die for Him to this very day.  And in ways that go beyond rational understanding, He even empowers those who mourn to bless and forgive as He does.  By His unfathomable grace, even those who suffer terribly may know “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” and become full of light as they seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness.       

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Follow Me" Applies to Us All: Homily for the Second Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Romans 2:10-16
             Matthew 4: 18-23            
            In some ways, we may envy Peter, Andrew, James, and John for the clarity of their call.  On the day that Jesus Christ called them to leave everything behind and follow Him, there was no question what He wanted them to do.  The message was clear and they did as they were told.   
            Of course, that was only the beginning of their ministry as disciples and apostles.  As we know from reading the rest of the gospels, these men did not have a clear understanding of who Christ really was until after His resurrection.  Nothing in their background had prepared them for this unusual kind of Messiah or for the great sacrifices that following Him would require.  But on the day that the Lord called His first disciples, He did not require perfect understanding.  He asked only that they leave behind the life that they had known and take the first steps in following Him.
That was not a small thing, of course.  Imagine how hard it would be if Christ made very clear to you that He wanted you to give up the only occupation you had ever known, leave your family behind, and literally follow Him as He went around teaching, preaching, and healing the sick.  On that particular day, despite the enormity of this calling and their less than full understanding of it, these men did as they were told and became “fishers of men” for the Kingdom of God.   They were clearly chosen to be Christ’s disciples, but they certainly did not have it easy in any way for the rest of their lives.    
            It is a blessing and a challenge to have a strong and clear sense of what God wants you to do in life.  How many holy people—from the very first Christians until this very day—die as martyrs or suffer abuse and persecution for their faithfulness to Christ?  To take even small steps toward a holy life requires struggle, persistence, and a willingness to endure tension within our own souls and usually with other people.  To lead a righteous life requires loving God with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves.  Try to do that seriously and you will find yourself fighting many battles, especially in your own soul.
St. Paul was a Jewish convert to Christianity who knew that God had called the Hebrews for a unique role in the salvation of the world.   The Jews certainly had an advantage over the Gentiles because of all that God had revealed to them through Moses and the prophets.  But St. Paul also knew that God shows no partiality.  Hearing the Law without obeying it was of no benefit at all, even as Christ’s disciples would have gained nothing by ignoring Christ’s call to follow Him.  What matters is actually doing what God requires of us.
St. Paul knew that God had not abandoned the Gentiles, for He gave everyone a conscience, a knowledge of right and wrong engraved in our hearts; that is an important part of what it means to be a human being in God’s image and likeness.    So whether Jew or Gentile, whether according to the law of Moses or the dictates of conscience, St. Paul teaches that God holds us all accountable to the truth that we have received.  The question for every human being, then, is whether we obey the Lord according to what we know of His purposes for us.   
            He was under no illusion that the Jews had perfectly obeyed the Law or that the Gentiles had lived fully in accordance with conscience.  St.  Paul taught that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  No one is in the position to boast of a privileged status before the Lord or to judge another, for both Jew and Gentile (namely, all human beings) stand in need of grace and mercy to the depths of our souls.  Everyone is in need of a Savior Who conquers sin and death and brings us into the eternal life of God.
            That was certainly true our Lord’s disciples, who failed with some frequency to obey or even understand what Christ expected of them.  They largely abandoned Him at His arrest and crucifixion, and it was not until He appeared to them after His resurrection and gave them a measure of the Holy Spirit that their eyes were truly opened.  It was not until the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that they boldly and effectively became “fishers of men” whose preaching and miracle-working ministry brought multitudes into the life of Christ.    As a consequence of their apostolic ministry, they took up their crosses in suffering persecution, hardships of all kinds, and even death as martyrs.  The Lord did not call them to an easy life of special privilege, but to an extremely demanding one of sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom.
            At the end of the day, He does the same with us all.  Of course, the details will be different.  We are not fishermen in first-century Palestine or the very pillars of the Church in the sense that they were.  St. Paul surely did not have us in mind when he wrote to the Romans about Jews and Gentiles. It is possible to get so caught up in the particular callings and circumstances of others such that we miss the larger point. To be perfectly clear, the larger point is that we are all fully responsible for hearing and responding to God’s calling in our lives, no matter how imperfectly we understand it or how difficult it is to obey. 
In many ways, we have much less of an excuse than Christ’s first disciples, for we have the benefit of their example and of so many generations of faithful people who have gone before us in following Jesus Christ. As Orthodox Christians, we have received the fullness of God’s revelation in the ongoing life of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.  But instead of patting ourselves on the back and simply taking pride in these great blessings, we must humbly accept the great responsibility that they give us.     Like the Jews of old, we must remember that it is no great thing to be a recipient of God’s requirements if we do not actually do what He requires.  Like the Gentiles mentioned by St. Paul, we must remember that it is no accomplishment to have a conscience that leads us in the right direction if we do not actually follow it.  And our participation in the Church will be of no benefit to us if we ourselves do not become living witnesses of our Savior’s victory over sin and death in our daily lives.
In this season of the Apostles Fast, we want to become more like those blessed men who left everything behind in response to the Savior’s call, even though they often fell short.  Their understanding was imperfect and the same was true of their actions on many occasions.  But the Lord did not abandon or reject them, even when they abandoned Him.  He is merciful and calls us all to accept His mercy when we realize that we have not been doers of His will and have disregarded His calling. Like the apostles, we do not yet have perfect faith and obedience; but just like them, we are responsible to respond to the calling we have received as best we can.  To do so will never be easy or without sacrifice; we will often stumble along the path of discipleship.  But if we continue the journey with humble repentance, we will grow each step of the way in hearing Christ’s calling more clearly and in gaining the strength to obey Him more fully.
As hard as it is to believe, Jesus Christ calls each of us with the urgency that He called those first disciples and apostles.  We are every bit as responsible for obeying Him as they were, indeed even more responsible because we have the benefit of their example.  They had to wait three years for Christ’s resurrection and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, while we do not.  Far more than the Jews of the Old Testament or the ancient Gentiles, God has opened the eyes of our souls to know what He requires of us.  He has given us a great calling to share personally in His eternal and holy life.  There is no question about that.  The only question is how we will respond to the One Who says to each and every one of us: “Follow Me.”