Saturday, February 28, 2015

Choose the Joyful Beauty of the Second Adam over the Ugly Misery of the First: Homily for the First Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40
John 1:43-51            

            It is all too easy to find evidence that we human beings are not living as God originally intended in His image and likeness.  Whether it is the horrible persecution of Christians in the Middle East or the challenges posed by our own health or other difficult life circumstances, we have good reason to join Adam in his sorrow about what sin, suffering, and mortality have done—and continue to do--to us all. 
            God created us as His icons, in His image with the calling to become ever more like Him, to grow in the divine likeness.  But we have all followed Adam and Eve in repudiating that calling, stripping ourselves naked of the divine glory, and choosing the misery of lives driven by self-centered desire over the joy of holiness. 
            The good news of our faith, of course, is that Jesus Christ is the Second Adam Who has come to restore the fallen image and to enable us to participate personally in the divine glory for which He created us in the first place.  On this first Sunday of Great Lent, we recall that we are all living icons of Christ, made in His image and likeness, and enabled by His mercy to be healed of the disfigurement and decay that our sins have worked on our souls. That is why we pray, fast, confess, repent, forgive, and give to the needy during this season, for we want to cooperate as fully as possible with our Savior’s gracious intentions to bring us into the holiness for which He breathed life into us.  
            Today we commemorate the restoration of icons to the Church after the period of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire, which I know may seem like ancient history.  But it actually speaks to the very heart of our faith; for the icons show us what Christ has enabled us to become.  Visibly and tangibly, using paint and wood, the icons make clear that Jesus Christ became one of us with a real body in the world as we know it.  Icons of the saints display particular people glorified in the holiness of God.  Their example calls and inspires us to become like them.  Icons teach that salvation is not something invisible, totally out of this world, or somehow separated from what we think of as real life.  Christ did not come to save people who live in a fantasy world without evil, pain, or death.  No, He entered fully into the great mess that we and countless generations have made of our lives.  He came to call not the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.  Of course, that means us all.  As the Second Adam, our Savior clothes us with a robe of light and our original dignity in the image of God is fulfilled as we become ever more like our Lord.  Yes, He makes that possible for even the most wretched person.  By His mercy, we may all become unspeakably beautiful icons of His salvation.
Today we rejoice because we are no longer shut out of Paradise.  Today we celebrate because through our Savior we “will see the heavens opened and angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”  Today we process around the Church joyfully with icons because we have received the fulfillment of the promise for which the Saints of the Old Testament hopedsince God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”  Imagine that.

So as we continue our Lenten journey in preparation to follow our Lord to His Cross and the joy of His glorious resurrection, let us do everything that we can to embrace as fully as possible this high calling to become holy, pure, and righteous icons of Christ.  The disciplines of Lent are not about legalism or punishment; no, they are simply tools for opening our lives to the healing power of the One Who wants to make us all uniquely beautiful and blessed in holiness.  As your priest and spiritual father, I urge all of us to use these tools for our salvation. All that we have to lose by using them is the misery that fallen Adam brought upon himself and that we have brought upon ourselves.  What we have to gain is the divine glory for which we were created and by which Christ has conquered sin and death.  When we think of it that way, our choice should be clear for the joy of the Second Adam over the despair of the first.  Remember that the Savior said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  He wants to make us all shine with the light of heavenly beauty and glory.  At the most fundamental level, what could be more natural than for us to become who we are created to be, living icons of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ?        

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Habits of Lent and the Heart's Treasure: Homily for Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church

                                                              St.  Matthew 6:14-21 
Romans 13:11-14:4        
           Have you ever thought about how our habits shape who we become throughout the course of our lives?  When we invest our time and energy in something, it rubs off on us.  In fact, it becomes part of us and we become part of it.  For example, when we devote hours—and ultimately, years-- to video games, work, sports, reading, music, or other anything else, we change as a result, for better or worse.  Sometimes in obvious ways and sometimes in ways too subtle to notice, our activities become our treasures and capture our hearts, our attention, and our sense of who we are. In one way or another, they impact every dimension of our lives.   
            Great Lent begins tomorrow, and it is a blessed time to put some distance between ourselves and the habits that are so close to our hearts that we may not even recognize them.  As we prepare to follow Jesus Christ to His passion and glorious resurrection, we must remember that He told us to love God with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves.  None of us does that perfectly, of course.  Most of us do not even come close, and we waste much of the treasure of our lives in activities that weaken us spiritually.  For example, usually thinking nothing of it, we judge others with our thoughts and words in ways that bring condemnation due to our own self-righteousness.
            Likewise, we become slaves to our desires for food, drink, money, entertainment, and pleasure of whatever kind.  No matter how much we have, we are never satisfied.  Too many of us have developed the habit of simply pleasing ourselves and disregarding others.  No wonder that we treasure so much else more than God and neighbor in this life.
            As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, it is time to wake up from our sleep.  For without acknowledging it, we have all been stumbling in the dark, seeking first that which cannot satisfy us, wasting our lives on foolishness.   Now that Lent is upon us, it is time to acknowledge the truth and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.”
            St. Paul’s warning is for every single one of us because we have all fallen short of participating fully in the healing that our Savior has brought to the world.  For example, we tend to focus on the wrongs of others and to be blind to many of our own failings.   Instead of using food, entertainment, or other pleasures with self-restraint so that they have their proper place in our lives, we indulge ourselves and become their slaves—which means that we become the slaves of our own self-centered desires.   We selfishly love our money, possessions, and comfort, and find it so hard to be generous with the needy. We are also stingy with the time and attention we give to those who need our friendship and encouragement.  In other words, we have been shaped by the habit of loving   ourselves and the things that help us get what we want.  Too often, that is what our lives revolve around; we have become   our own treasure.  
            In order to follow Jesus Christ to His cross and glorious resurrection, we must develop new habits that will change us in holy ways and reorient us toward our true treasure.  The Savior   calls us to invest ourselves in Him, to offer our time, energy, possessions, relationships, and bodily appetites for the healing, fulfillment, and transformation of the Kingdom.  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  If we want to be pure of heart, if we want to love God with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves, we must learn to treasure the new life that Christ has brought to the world.  We do that by taking deliberate, intentional steps to redirect our hearts to Him, by investing the treasure of our lives in the blessed habits of the Kingdom.
            First on the list is forgiveness, one of the hardest things to do in life because it requires humility.  How easy and seductive it is to fixate on the wrongs other have done us, to judge them  again and again in our minds, and to make ourselves feel better by looking down on those who have wronged us.  But when we do so, we simply make provision for the flesh and fulfill its lusts.  We sink deeper and deeper into a spiral of self-righteous delusion which blinds us to the truth that we stand in constant need of mercy and are in no position to judge anyone else. 
            Our Lord teaches clearly that, if we refuse to forgive others, the Father will not forgive us.  If we refuse to forgive others, we obviously do not love our neighbors as ourselves.  Whenever we want God to apply one standard to us, while we apply another to other people, we become idolaters who worship only ourselves.  To refuse to forgive is to refuse to put on the Lord Jesus Christ; it is to refuse to participate in His mercy and compassion as a partaker of the Divine Nature.  If the habits of judgment and condemnation shape our lives, we will become the sort of people who have no interest in following our Savior to His Cross and resurrection.  We will end up worshiping another god made in our own image.      
            Given our current spiritual state, forgiveness may seem impossible to us at times.  Like healing from any serious disease, it is a journey or process that can take a long time and has its ups and downs.  But the more effort we place in developing the habits of forgiving others, of ignoring memories of past wrongs, and of rebuilding broken relationships as best we can, the more progress we will make in learning to love Christ in our neighbors, even in those who have offended us.  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”    We should all begin this Lent with Forgiveness Vespers today at 6 pm.  There is no better way to begin investing ourselves in the habit of forgiveness such that our hearts will follow.
            Fasting is surely no one’s favorite topic.  In a culture of fast food where more people struggle with eating too much than with eating too little, fasting hits us where we live.    We have become so accustomed to convenience, self-indulgence, and immediate gratification that we have developed the habits of self-centeredness, impatience, and addiction to pleasure.  We are what we eat, and if we continue to invest our lives in these unholy habits, we will become the kind of people who find it impossible to make room in our hearts for the love of God and neighbor.  We will also not be able to restrain our desires, especially those that involve bodily appetites.  Too often, gluttony is the mother of adultery, promiscuity, addiction to pornography, and other sexual sins.   
            In secret and without drawing attention to ourselves, we develop the habit in Lent of saying “no thank you” to rich foods and large portions in a way appropriate to our health and life circumstances.  No matter our particular situation, we can all identify habits of self-indulgence from which we can abstain, whether they involve food or something else.   Fasting and self-restraint do not heal our passions instantaneously, but when done with humility, these are powerful tools for waking ourselves up, for developing the habit of placing the treasure of our lives in the hands of the Lord.  By fasting this Lent as best we can, we will learn to redirect our hearts to our true treasure in God.  We learn to direct our desires ultimately to Him.
            Of course, the most obvious kind of investment involves money, and today we hear our Lord’s teaching to lay up treasures in heaven, not simply on earth.  If we use our money only for ourselves, we will be in the habit of loving only ourselves, which is simply another way of saying that we will make provision only for the flesh to fulfill its lusts.  We may put on the Lord Jesus Christ, however, by using our financial resources for a heavenly purpose, especially in helping the needy with whom our Savior identified Himself.  That is why we should all take home a Food for Hungry People container and put money in it throughout Lent, especially when fasting reduces our grocery or restaurant bill.  How much of our treasure should we put in?  Enough to direct our hearts to God and neighbor.  At the very least, we can all afford to put in our spare change as a way of beginning to cultivate the holy habit of generosity to those in whom we encounter Jesus Christ.   
            Lent is about to begin.  It is time to wake up and accept the challenging blessing of the coming weeks.  It is time to invest ourselves in the new life that Jesus Christ has brought to the world. Now is the time to cultivate the holy habits that will make us the kind of people who treasure our Lord above all else. And when that happens, we will be prepared to follow Him to His Cross and then to behold the glory of His resurrection on the third day.  That is the purpose of Great Lent.   

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Serving Christ in the Poor in Lent: Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgment in the Orthodox Church

            This past week at McMurry University, we had a visiting lecturer who spoke about what it means for Christians to remember the poor. One of his insights was that we should be thankful that the Lord said that “the poor will always be with you” because that means that He will always be with us.  As today’s gospel reading makes clear, He is with us in the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.  To the extent that we serve needy people, we serve our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  And to the extent that we neglect them, we neglect Him.  Christ says to the righteous, “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”  And He says to those headed for punishment, “In that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
            The truth about our relationship with God is not simply a matter of what someone believes or where someone goes to church.  How we treat others on a daily basis, especially the weak and inconvenient, manifests where we stand in relation to Him.  If we truly participate in the life of Christ, we will become living icons of our Lord’s love and mercy in the world as we know it in relation to real people with real problems. 
            St.  John wrote in his Epistle, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”   He also writes, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?  My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.”
             It is easy in our time a place to be Christians in word only.  We may even become prideful at times about being Orthodox, thinking we are better than others because the teachings and practices of the Church embody the fullness of Christian truth.  To profess in humility that our faith is true is one thing; it is quite another, however, to think that we as particular people have scaled the heights of holiness so high that we may judge others.  That is the way of the self-righteous Pharisee and brings only condemnation. We must avoid it at all costs.
            Given what we believe as Orthodox Christians, the Lord will hold us accountable to the highest standard, for the more we have received, the more will be expected of us. He expects us to become so fully united with Him that we convey His love and mercy to everyone, especially those who are miserable and isolated.  Before that high standard of holiness, there is no room for self-righteousness, but only for humble repentance.   
            Did you notice that the righteous people in our gospel text apparently were not even aware that they were caring for the Lord when they cared for those in need?  They did not think, “I need to treat this person well because in him I serve Jesus Christ.”  Instead, they simply showed love and mercy because they were so united with the Lord that His characteristics had become theirs.  
            Even on our best days, most of us are surely a long way from meeting that standard of holiness.  Instead of overflowing with Christ-like love and mercy toward the needy, inconvenient, and annoying, we look for excuses not to help them because we have more important things to do.  We say were are too busy and do not have enough time, energy, or other resources.  We blame other people’s problems on them, but still think that others should cater to us.  Of course, these are simply excuses and lies that we tell ourselves due to our laziness and self-centeredness. 
            Even as our Lord’s original followers were common people, we do not have to be rich in the world’s resources in order to serve Him by visiting the sick and lonely, helping a child learn to read, or mentoring a refugee.  Every one of us   can have a conversation, send a note or email message, or make a phone call to someone who needs a friend.  We can all find a way to be a blessing to someone who suffers.  Most of us have old clothes to give to the Salvation Army or Good Will; many can donate blood and literally save someone’s life.  We will soon start the “Food for Hungry People” drive for Lent when we put spare change into containers for the poor.  No matter how young or old we are, we interact with people who need our attention, our encouragement, and our prayers.  Instead of ignoring them, we all have the ability to treat them as we would like others to treat us, especially if we were sick, unemployed, alone in life, or in jail.
            It sounds so easy, but we all know hard it is in practice to be considerate of the needs of others.  That is precisely why we need the spiritual practices of Great Lent, such as fasting, prayer, almsgiving, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  For when we humble ourselves before God and our neighbors in these ways, we open our lives to His strength, power, and healing.  When we turn our attention from self-centeredness to God-centeredness, we gain experience in saying “No” to ourselves and “Yes” to Him.  We wake up at least a bit from the deceptive illusions we have accepted about ourselves and other people, and begin to see ourselves and them more clearly.
            As much as we do not like to acknowledge it, even those who irritate and annoy us bear the image of God.  That group of people whom we are inclined to ignore or hate or condemn is made up of those for whom Christ died and rose again; they too are living icons of our Lord.   The world will not end if our plans and preferences are replaced by those a Kingdom not of this world.   We participate more fully in that Kingdom when we put the needs of others before our own desires, especially when it is a bit of a challenge to do so.
            St. Paul was right that “food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.”  He was responding to the question of whether Christians in his day should eat meat from animals that had been sacrificed to pagan gods.  St. Paul thought that the relevant consideration was how eating or not eating that meat affected other people.  If recent converts from paganism were scandalized by the sight of a Christian eating meat from a pagan temple, then the one who ate sinned against his weaker brother and against Christ.  “Therefore, if food makes by brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”  
            We fast and undertake other spiritual disciplines in Lent so that we will not cause others to stumble, so that our spiritual diseases will be healed by our Lord’s mercy and we will become better channels of God’s love to our neighbors.  Every one of us needs this kind of spiritual therapy.  Anger, pride, envy, lust, self-righteousness, gluttony and other passions distort our relationships with other people, even those we love most.  We tempt them to sin because of our infirmities and corruptions.  None of us is fully healed; no one is free of the distortion and weakening that our sins have worked in our own lives; none of us may disregard Lent as though it is a season simply for other people.       
              As we prepare for our Lenten journey, we should keep in mind that fasting is not first of all about food, but a tool that can help us fight deep seated passions that keep us from seeing and serving Christ in our neighbors.  A bit of generosity to the poor will not change the world, but it will change us by giving us practice in attending to the needs of others in how we use our resources.  Prayer is not magic, but in order to grow in union with Christ we must get in the habit of at least giving Him our attention.   Otherwise, how can we hope to share more fully in His life?

            If we want to become like the righteous in today’s gospel passage, so filled with the love of Christ that we share His mercy with everyone we encounter, we need to take our medicine; we need therapy for the healing of our souls.  Great Lent will soon invite us to turn away from everything that keeps us from recognizing Christ in our neighbors and to learn to love Him in them.  As our Savior said, “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”    Yes, Christ is with us in every needy, miserable, and inconvenient person.  Let us use the practices of Lent to grow in our ability to serve Him in them.  That is how, by God’s grace, we too may enter into the joy of the Kingdom.   

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Prodigal Son and the Loving Father: Which One Needed to Change?

        Now just two weeks from the beginning of Great Lent, today’s gospel passage reminds us of Who God is and who we are.  He is our loving Father and we are His beloved children.  Unfortunately, we have not acted accordingly.  We have taken Him for granted, rejected Him, and wasted His blessings and our lives for the sake of getting what we want. So like the prodigal son in today’s parable, we all need to come to our senses, recognize the truth about how we have strayed, and return home.   No matter what we have done, no matter how broken we have made our relationship with God, He patiently awaits our return, runs to greet us, and welcomes us back into His family with joy and celebration.
          The prodigal son in today’s gospel certainly did not think that his father would react that way to him.  He had deeply insulted and rejected his father by asking for his inheritance, which was like telling the old man that he should drop dead so the son could have his money.  The young man traveled far away, quickly spent all his money with partying and immorality, ended up as a servant taking care of pigs, and was so hungry that he wished he could eat the pigs’ slop.
          Then he came to himself, realized how terrible his life was, and decided to return home in hopes of becoming merely a servant to his father, for he realized that he was not worthy to be called his son anymore.  No self-respecting father in that time and place would have done more for such a disrespectful son.  Even to receive him back as a servant was probably a stretch.
          But in a way that must have shocked everyone, the father ran to greet his son, hugged and kissed him, gave him fine clothes, slaughtered a calf, and threw a big party.  Instead of condemning or trying to get even with his son, the father rejoiced that his lost son had returned home, that one who had been dead to him was restored to life.    
          The story of the prodigal son should inform all the repentance that we do throughout our lives.  It shows us that there are no limits to our Lord’s mercy, no restrains on His compassion or forgiveness in response to truly repentant sinners.  Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ was born, was baptized, taught, worked miracles, was crucified and resurrected, and ascended into heaven for our salvation.  He came as the Second Adam to restore us as the children of the Father, to put us in our proper place in the family of heaven as those created in the divine image and likeness.
          Despite some bad theology that remains all too popular, the Father is not a harsh, stern, hateful judge who is out to get us.   Neither is He somehow a projection of our experiences of our own fathers, no matter what they are like.   Likewise, the Son did not come to condemn and punish, but to save.  We should have no fears about Him rejecting our genuine repentance, no matter what we have done.  He accepted and blessed everyone who came to Him in humility during his earthly ministry, including tax-collectors, a woman caught in adultery, Gentiles, the demon-possessed, and His own apostles who denied and abandoned Him.   Even as He died on the cross, our Savior prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified Him.  His abundant mercy and compassion extend to all who call upon Him from the depths of our hearts.
          If we have any spiritual vision at all, we will see ourselves in the parable of the prodigal son, for like him we have foolishly rejected our true identity and dignity as the beloved children of the Father.  We have chosen our own pride, our own self-centered desires, and our addiction to pleasure over a healthy relationship with the One Who has given us life itself.  And we have born the consequences of our foolish decisions and actions by making ourselves and others miserable in ways that often cannot be easily remedied.  
          St. Paul wrote sternly to the Corinthians because they had done the same thing as that lost young man.  The men there were having immoral relationships with prostitutes and apparently believed that what they did with their bodies was not of importance to God, as though Christ came only to save their souls.    
          St. Paul set them right by reminding them that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, members of Christ, and destined for the life of the heaven.  The intimate union of man and woman is for growth in holiness and love through the blessed covenant called marriage, which is an image of the relationship between Christ and the Church in which husband and wife wear the crowns of the Kingdom.  When people join their bodies in other ways, they choose their passions over holiness and the glory of their identity as God’s children.   Though it is unpopular to say in our culture and a real challenge to live out, we must proclaim what the Church has always taught:  Sexual union in any other context falls short of God’s purposes for man and woman, who were created together in His image and likeness, and places major obstacles in their journey to the life of the Kingdom.  These are grave sins that call for repentance.     
          The prodigal son was like those Corinthian men.  He had treated his father shamefully in order to lead a shameful life of pleasure; and when the money for women and wine had run out, he ended up in a pig sty so wild with hunger that he envied the food of the swine.  And since the Jews considered pigs to be unclean, the Lord makes clear that this fellow had truly hit rock bottom.
          No matter what particular kind of wandering from the path to the Kingdom we have done, no matter what our particular set of temptations may be, each and every one of us is in the place of the prodigal son in one way or another.  That is because we have chosen our own will over our Father’s.  We have asked for our inheritance—namely, all of God’s blessings that we take for granted--and then used them however we pleased.  In thought, word, and deed, we have often done our best to live as though God were dead and out of the picture, as though He were no longer our Father and we were no longer His children. 
          Lent is the time set aside in the church calendar to come to our senses, to recognize how we have diminished and degraded ourselves, and begin the journey back to the Lord.  If you need inspiration to take the journey this year, remember that we have an advantage over the prodigal son because we already know that our Heavenly Father wants nothing more than to restore us to His family.   He wants nothing more than to forgive, heal, and bless us; to return us to our proper dignity as sons and daughters of the Most High.  That is why the Father gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life. 
          Lent is not about getting God to change His mind about us; no, it is about us changing our minds and lives in order to return to Him.  No amount of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving will alter anything about the Lord; but these tools are useful in helping us see the truth about our sinfulness and in opening our lives to the mercy that Jesus Christ always extends to repentant sinners.
          No matter what others say or what our own thoughts may tell us, our Heavenly Father is not a harsh, unforgiving God out to punish us.   We do not deny ourselves and take up our crosses because He is somehow appeased by our suffering or wants us to become miserable.  Instead, He simply wants us to do what we must in order to return home and become participants in the great celebration of the Kingdom of Heaven.   He wants His departed children to leave the pig sty and return to the life for which He created us. He wants those who are spiritually dead to return to life. 
          At the end of the day, that is the blessed opportunity provided by Great Lent:  to come to our senses and begin the journey back to a Father Who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.  He runs out to welcome us, but we must decide to start walking toward Him.  Let this sink in:  He is not the one who needs to change. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

How to Enter the Temple with Our Great High Priest: Homily for the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican and the Feast of the Meeting of Christ in the Temple

           Just as people go to church for different reasons today, people surely had a variety of motives for going to the temple in Jerusalem during the first century.  Our gospel reading tells us that the Pharisee went in order to remind God and himself of how much better he was than anyone else, especially the miserable tax collector who stood off to the side humbly begging for God’s mercy for his many sins.  Presumably, upstanding religious leaders like the Pharisees would be more likely to pray in the temple than would professional thieves and traitors like the tax collectors of that day, but Christ saw these men differently.  It was the lowly publican who asked only for mercy as a sinner whose prayer was heard, while the self-righteous Pharisee went home unjustified

On the feast of the Presentation of Christ, we also remember that the Theotokos and St. Joseph went to the temple, bringing the infant Jesus Christ, forty days after His birth, in accordance with the requirements of the Mosaic law.  They made there the offering of a poor family, a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons.  The One brought into the temple that day fulfilled all the foreshadowing of the Old Testament’s priestly and sacrificial imagery, for He is the Great High Priest Who offers Himself, Who becomes the Passover Lamb through Whom we may enter into the Heavenly Temple, the very life of God.  His offering and priesthood are eternal, as He now intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father.  In every Divine Liturgy, we participate in the true worship of heaven through Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.    

            We are able to do so precisely because Christ fulfilled all the promises, hopes, and expectations of the Old Testament. His young Mother, the New Eve, and the elder Joseph brought the New Adam into the house of the Lord, where the Holy Spirit inspired the old man St. Simeon to proclaim that this Child is the salvation “of all peoples, a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.”  The aged prophetess St. Anna recognized Him likewise.

The presence of these elderly Jews reminds us that Christ fulfills the ancient promise made to Abraham.  Having grown up in the temple after being presented there as a young child herself, the Theotokos stands as the culmination of many generations of faithful preparation for this Messiah.  Men and women and the young and the old appear in this scene.  And in this very Jewish context, Simeon even mentions the Gentiles.  This feast reveals that the One presented in the temple forty days after Christmas is the eternal High Priest Who comes to save the entire world, to fulfill the entire creation in the Heavenly Temple.            

           Unfortunately, some like the Pharisee totally misunderstood this glorious Old Testament heritage fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  As we begin the Lenten Triodion today, we recall that the Pharisee thought that the temple was a place primarily for the self-righteous condemnation of others.  He used the word “God,” but really prayed to himself, being thankful that he was so much better than others, especially the tax collector. He reminded himself of all the kinds of people whom he thought he surpassed and of the virtues of his fasting and tithing.  His spiritual practices surely did him more harm than good.

            As we begin the Lenten Triodion today, the three weeks of preparation for Great Lent, we all need to come to terms with the question of what we focus on when we come to church, whether for Sunday Liturgy or other services, and when we undertake any spiritual discipline.  It is entirely possible, of course, to put ourselves physically in the church temple with an unholy attitude.  If coming to services is simply a matter of doing what is required or expected, then we can fall easily into the self-righteous attitude of evaluating other people’s behavior.  Perhaps like members of clubs take attendance or record who has paid their dues, we can take it upon ourselves to evaluate others, whether they are members of our parish or not.  We can try to justify our own failings because at least we are not as bad as this or that other person.  If we have an attitude like that, however, we will damage our souls and lose all the benefit of being in the house of God.

            As the tax collector’s good example shows us, the only person’s sins we should be concerned with are our own.  Regardless of what we may be tempted to think about others, when we stand before the Lord we do so as those in need of mercy.  The only way to put ourselves in the place to receive that mercy is to embrace the humility of the tax collector and to refuse to fall into the judgmental pride of the Pharisee. There will be a lot in Lent that someone could be prideful about it.  Fasting, prayer, almsgiving, forgiveness, repentance, and church attendance are all blessed spiritual disciplines, but we can corrupt them by having a self-righteous attitude of praising ourselves and condemning others.  Whenever we do that, however, we join the Pharisee in an idolatrous temple of self-worship.  But when we take on these practices with true humility, we follow the much better example of the tax collector.

Fortunately, true spiritual disciplines can easily open our eyes to our true spiritual state.  For example, we often find it so hard to pray and to keep our minds and hearts focused during services or in our daily prayers at home.  Forgiveness, fasting, and generosity to the poor are great challenges to most people.  In contrast to our self-indulgent culture, the Church follows our Lord in setting a high standard before which we all fall short.  And whenever we allow into our hearts the false belief that we have met Christ’s requirements while others have not, we fall really short.  Honest acknowledgement of our spiritual weakness, and of how we so easily corrupt even the best disciplines, should lead us immediately to the humble prayer of the tax collector who begged for the mercy of God and was concerned only with his own sins.  

            By cultivating that kind of humility during the struggles of Great Lent, we will enter into worship properly and in a way that is pleasing to our Great High Priest, Whose salvation is not a reward for mastering a law or convincing ourselves that we are better than our neighbors. The Jerusalem temple was a building with merely human priests who offered the blood of animals.  Christ, our Passover Lamb, has ascended to the Heavenly Temple in which He intercedes eternally for us with the Father.  We participate in that heavenly worship in every Divine Liturgy.  The proper attitudes in services, and for all Lenten disciplines, are humility and repentance before the awesome divine glory in which we participate through the grace and mercy of our Great High Priest. If we approach Lent with the spirit of the tax collector, then we will enter more fully into the joy that Christ has brought to the world in fulfillment of the ancient promises as “a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.”  May it be so for us all.     

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Generosity of Grace: Homily on Zacchaeus for the 15th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

               Nobody likes to pay taxes. The people of first-century Palestine were no different; however, the Jews of that time had additional reasons to dislike paying taxes, for their money went to support the Romans, pagan foreigners who occupied their land.  It was collected by their fellow Jews who had gone over to the other side, who were viewed as traitors because they worked for the enemy.
            If that were not bad enough, the tax-collectors were thieves, collecting more than was required so that they could live in luxury from the oppression of their neighbors.    Zacchaeus was apparently one of the worst offenders, for he was a chief tax collector and was very rich.   He was a short little man who, for reasons we do not know, wanted to see Jesus Christ.  He could not see over the crowd, so he climbed a sycamore tree in order to get a better view.  That must have been quite a sight:  the tiny little tax-collector (whom everyone hated) up in a tree so that he could see a passing rabbi.
            Even more shocking was the Lord’s response when He saw this man:  “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”  Jewish religious leaders would have nothing at all to do with people like Zacchaeus, but this Messiah was different.  He blessed Zacchaeus with His presence, and the tax-collector received the Lord joyfully in his home. 
            Of course, others noticed what was happening.  A man who presents Himself as the Messiah has gone to be a guest in the home of a notorious traitor and thief.  No self-respecting righteous Jew would ever do something like that.  He would be defiled by going into his house and eating with him.  But before Christ says anything in response to the critics, Zacchaeus repents.  He accepts the truth about himself, that he is a criminal exploiter of the needy.  He says that he will give half of what he owns to the poor and will restore four-fold what he stole from others.  He says that he will make right the wrongs he had committed. In that moment, this wretched man began to turn his life around.  Jesus Christ, as He always did and still does, accepts the sincere repentance of the sinner, proclaiming that salvation has come to this son of Abraham, for He came to seek and to save that which was lost.
            This memorable story demonstrates the generosity of our God.  To be generous is to give freely and abundantly; it is not to be stingy or reluctant to bless.  Zacchaeus did not even have to ask for the love, forgiveness, and mercy of the Lord.  All that he did was to climb a tree out of curiosity, but that was enough to begin to open himself to the overwhelming generosity of Christ.    
            The Savior did not shout words of condemnation to this man.  He did not judge him in any way.  Instead, He blessed him with His attention and care.  When others complained about what a sinner Zacchaeus was, the Lord did not join in the criticism, perhaps because this dishonest tax-collector already knew that he was a crook.  Instead, the Lord let Zachaeus respond in freedom to His generosity.  He let him open his heart and soul to a divine love that is beyond the mere observance of a law and knows no human limit.
            We can see that Zacchaeus got the point, for his response to Christ’s generosity transformed him.  The one who previously was greedy and selfish became a living icon of the abundant love of God, freely giving half of what he owned to the poor and restoring what he had stolen four-fold.  No one told him what to do; no one required him to take these actions.  No one had to because he had been transformed by the mercy, love, and gracious abundance of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.   He had received a generous blessing and then became a generous blessing to others.
            Zacchaeus stands as a wonderful example of repentance because he spontaneously and freely entered into the life of Christ.  His actions shine brightly with the love and holiness of the Lord, which is quite strange because only a few minutes ago we spoke of him as a notorious, hated sinner.  His amazing transformation reminds us that salvation is not a reward that we earn or a matter of what we deserve.  Instead, our faith is about the mercy and grace of a God Who wants to share His life with us, Who stops at nothing to bring us into the eternal communion of the Holy Trinity.  Sometimes it is those who have hit rock bottom, who know their own sins so well that they do not need to be reminded of them, who in their humility receive our Lord’s generous mercy so completely and fully that they become powerful living proof of what God can do for even the most wretched human being.   
            King David, guilty of murder and adultery, became a man after God’s own heart.  Saul the persecutor of Christians became St. Paul, the missionary to the Gentiles and author of so much of the New Testament.  Mary of Egypt was a truly wicked woman who fled to the desert in repentance and became a great saint.  Recall also the thief on the cross who asked the Savior to remember him in His kingdom.
            A harsh, stingy, judgmental god would not make saints of such people.  He would punish or destroy them.  The good news is that the true God does not relate to us on the basis of our accomplishments or virtue, but in terms of His unbounded love, mercy, and forgiveness.  Our salvation is a matter of receiving His generosity, of accepting His abundant blessing.  The miserable Zacchaeus did that and we can too.  But truly to receive Him is not simply to pray certain words or feel a certain way; neither is it simply a matter of coming to church services or following religious rules.
            The Lord’s boundless love must penetrate to the core of our being and become characteristic of our lives, if we are to share in His.  Love for God and for neighbor must shine through our actions and words and purify our thoughts.  If we have stolen and hoarded money, we must give it back generously.  If we have ignored or neglected others, must learn to love them as Christ has loved us.  If have thought only about ourselves, we must learn to love our neighbors as ourselves.   
            Yes, that is our repentance:  to become an open channel for God’s merciful generosity in this world.  He is the vine and we are the branches.  And since the Father gave His only-begotten Son for our salvation, there are no limits to the mercy and love we are called to embody.   We did not ask Christ to be born in a manger or baptized in the river Jordan for our salvation.  We did not ask Him to die on the cross, to rise again, or to ascend into heaven.  But He still did so, out of His unfathomable love for those who abandoned and betrayed Him.  The only proper response to this divine love is to be transformed by it as we become a living and breathing icon of the unlimited generosity that is the only hope of the world.
            The Savior has come to us all, as he did to Zacchaeus.  No matter what we have done or left undone, it is time to respond like he did, joyfully receiving  Christ and allowing our lives to be fulfilled by the generous mercy of the Lord, and then showing that same mercy for others.  Such true, sincere, humble repentance is the only way to the Kingdom of Heaven.  The point is not to wallow in guilt, but to move forward in holiness.  It is not to follow a legal code, but to enter into a blessed new life.     That is how salvation will come to our houses, for “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”      


Monday, January 19, 2015

Humility, Obedience, and Faith: A Homily on the Grateful Samaritan Leper for the 12th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

           I am sure that most of us take too many of our blessings for granted.  We get used to the comforts and conveniences of life and to the people with whom our lives are intertwined.  We compare ourselves with others who seem to have it better than we do, and we forget that all our blessings are God’s good gifts to us.  When we do not appreciate them, we become selfish and fall into the idolatry of thinking that satisfying our own immediate desires is the most important thing.
            Today’s gospel passage is a powerful reminder that those who are most grateful are sometimes those who have the least and who have suffered the most--perhaps because their struggles have helped them see what is really important in life.  Today we read that the Lord healed ten people with the dreaded disease of leprosy, but the only one who came back to thank Him for the life-changing miracle was a Samaritan.  Samaritans were hated by the Jews as religious and ethnic half-breeds who had mixed the worship of the true God with paganism.  Since lepers were also outcasts and considered so unclean that no one could get anywhere near them, this Samaritan leper surely had nothing going for him in that time and place.  But he alone returned to Christ to thank Him for this miracle and to give glory to God.
            Perhaps he was so thankful precisely because he knew who he was and how others viewed him.  He probably would never have thought that a Jewish messiah would help him in any way.  Perhaps he had learned time and again to expect little compassion and that he could take nothing for granted. He likely felt out of place walking with Jewish lepers to Jerusalem to show themselves to a priest at the temple.  But as he went along, he was healed.  And he alone took the time to return in order to thank the One who changed his life.   And then Christ said to him, “Your faith has made you well.”
            This man’s healing is a sign, a glimpse, of the fulfillment of the good news that we celebrated at Christmas and Epiphany and that is at the very heart of our faith.  The healing of the Samaritan leper from a terrible disease is an icon, an image, of our salvation, of our fulfillment and transformation in the God-Man Jesus Christ.  And of course, this great blessing extends to all who have put on the New Man in baptism, regardless of their nation, race, health, or standing in any society. 
            As the healing of the Samaritan leper shows, God’s mercy extends to everyone who truly responds to Jesus Christ with faith, repentance, and gratitude—no matter how miserable, wretched, or sickened we have become due to our own sins, those of others, or any other circumstances in life.  But in order to receive Christ’s healing of all the effects of sin and death in our lives, we have to put to death the diseases of soul that have taken root in us.  These are the ways of the old man, the ways of corruption that lead only to despair. They are a spiritual leprosy that distorts and disfigures us and those with whom we come in contact, and—if not healed—will make it impossible for us to participate in the blessed eternal life of the Lord. 
            The leper in the gospel is a model for all of us who struggle to embrace Christ’s healing, for all of us who wrestle with the ways of the old man.  The Samaritan joined with the other lepers in calling out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  In other words, he began with humility, openly acknowledging that he was sick, needed to be healed, and could not work his own cure.  He did try to fool himself into thinking that he was well and did not need healing because of what he could accomplish by his own power.  We should do the same thing in our prayers every day of our lives, confessing our sins and asking for the Lord’s forgiveness.  We should also acknowledge our weaknesses daily and pray for strength to resist temptation, to calm our passions, and to help us grow in holiness. 
            The struggle to live faithfully can certainly be frustrating at times, especially when we are aware that our sins isolate us from one another and even from our selves. The burdens of guilt and shame can literally separate us from others and make us feel as unclean and helpless as a Samaritan leper.  That is one of the reasons why the sacrament of Confession is such a blessing, such a source of strength in our journey to the new life in Christ.  In Confession we are reminded that we are not left alone to struggle with our sins, for the priest is an icon of the Lord, conveying His mercy and providing guidance for the healing of our souls.  If we want to be healed like the Samaritan leper who called out for mercy and then returned to give thanks, we will come to Confession regularly, naming our sins, especially those of which we are most ashamed and which threaten to destroy our relationships with the Lord and our neighbors.  We will kneel before Christ in humility, bare our souls, and be assured of His forgiveness, if we are truly honest and repentant.   Confession is a therapy for our healing, and a reminder that we are members of a Body united together in love and mercy. Christ says to each of us in Confession through the voice of a priest, “Arise, go your way.  Your faith has made you well.”  All who want to hear those blessed words from the Lord should come to Confession on a regular basis, and especially when they are aware of a grave sin in their lives.     
            The Samaritan is also an example for us in his obedience because he did what Christ told him to do, to head toward Jerusalem to show himself to the priests.   And as he was going, he was healed.  Here we have another powerful image of the Christian life, for we open our lives to the Lord’s healing by obeying Him, by actually keeping His commandments. 
            A drug dealer will not find honest work by continuing to sell heroin.  An alcoholic does not become sober by continuing to drink.  No one will experience victory over any sin in their lives if they simply give into it or make up excuses to justify their actions.  In other words, we all have to repent, to turn our lives around toward God in specific, practical ways.  We may fall flat on our faces a thousand times, but we must at least be inching along in the right direction.  The Samaritan was going toward Jerusalem in obedience to Christ’s command and we also must be on the path to a holier life through obedience, doing what we know we must do in order to live as those who have put on the New Man Jesus Christ in baptism.
            The reality is that we cannot expect to find healing for the corruptions of our souls if we do not obey the Lord.  If we do not pray at home and at church, practice fasting or other forms of self-denial, give to those in need, forgive those who have offended us, and keep a close watch on our thoughts and actions as we struggle mightily against our besetting sins, we put major roadblocks along our path to the healing of our souls.       No matter what we do, we will not heal ourselves any more than the leper did, but we must put ourselves in the place where we may receive the mercy of Christ.  That is always the place of humble obedience to His commandments.
            Finally, we learn from the Samaritan leper to be grateful for every step of progress, for every bit of strength we gain.  It was not simply walking toward Jerusalem that healed this man; it was the mercy of Christ. The leper certainly knew that, which is why he returned to the Lord to thank Him. 
            And what thanks should we offer God for our blessings, for life itself, for the promise of forgiveness, and the hope of salvation?   We give thanks by offering every aspect of our lives to Him and thus become epiphanies of His salvation in every word, thought, and deed.  For He is the Alpha and Omega Who created all reality out of nothing and on Whom our life is entirely dependent.  We have nothing and are nothing apart from His mercy, love, and grace.  Nothing fits in its proper place in our lives until it is offered to Him for blessing and fulfillment.  But everything is healed when—through humble repentance, obedience, and faith—we turn from the dark night of sin and toward the brilliant light of holiness.   

            So just as we offer bread and wine in the Liturgy, let us offer thanks to the Lord by living lives that are pleasing to Him, by living according to the New Man Jesus Christ, and killing the habits of death and darkness that can so easily destroy us and harm others.  For Christ was born and baptized in order to heal us and to bring us into the new life of His Kingdom.  He made a wretched Samaritan leper an icon of His salvation and He will do the same with us, despite our weakness and corruption, if we follow that man’s example of humility, obedience, and gratitude.  At the end of the day, that is a powerful reminder to take absolutely nothing in this life for granted and always to give thanks.