Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Overcoming "Bye Felicia" in the Relationship Between Man and Woman: Response to a Commentary on "Straight Outta Compton"

                When I exercise on weekday mornings, I usually listen to National Public Radio.  A couple of weeks ago the morning program included a commentary about a film I had not heard of previously named  "Straight Outta Compton," which is about a hip hop group I had not heard of previously either.  The film, the commentator said, includes a portrayal of an orgy in which a man throws a naked woman into the hallway of a hotel, locks the door behind her, and says “Bye Felicia.”  That phrase has become widely used in popular culture, and the commentator thought that the film used it as a punch line to present violence and disrespect towards women as being somehow amusing.
                I will not see the film and will leave it to others to comment on it, but will instead reflect on the  commentary’s silence about the orgy.  Surely, the kind of depravity embodied in a group sex party manifests disrespect for all concerned and especially solidifies the worst male attitudes toward women.   Disease, abortion, divorce, personal sorrow, and further depravity are just of a few of the likely results of engaging in such behavior.  It would not be hard to list many others, several of which would have to be condemned by any fair-minded person committed to the dignity of human beings.   The kinds of sexual behavior portrayed in such a scene lead inevitably to the abuse condemned by the commentator.  Why, then, did  she not state that an orgy is profoundly degrading by its very nature, as it reduces unique human persons to nothing but body parts to be used for momentary pleasure?  What about the long-term effects on those involved and their families?  Are we so accustomed to such debauchery that we no longer notice how awful it is?  
                The commentator’s silence on these points gives me yet another reason to fear that many in our society have become blind to the seriousness of sex in shaping and revealing the character of people.   We are never more vulnerable to one another than we are in this area of life.  How we treat one another there forms us, them, and future generations in powerful ways.  And if we will cheat, abuse, or simply use others sexually, we will take a long step down a path toward forms of corruption that we do not control well at all.  We hand ourselves over to slavery to immediate pleasure in a way that weakens our ability to treat others as anything but instruments for our immediate purposes, whether in the bedroom or elsewhere.
                If it is not clear to that women typically bear the brunt of these affairs, then we need to think again.  Who gets pregnant and is at risk for the tragic choice of abortion?  Who bears the burdens of rearing a child alone?  Who is far more likely to be a victim of physical abuse?  Who is more inclined to view acts of physical intimacy as signs of true personal union?  In the world as we know it, it is the woman.  How strange that so few in our society dare to open their eyes to the misogyny embodied in the current state of sexual ethics or the lack thereof.  The consequences of the promiscuity celebrated as sexual liberation fall heavily on women and their children.  If we condone sexual practices that treat women as nothing more than the sum of their body parts, then should we be surprised when audiences laugh as a woman is thrown naked out of an orgy?    
                As a father, a husband, and a priest who asks daily for the intercessions of the Mother of God, especially for my wife and daughters, the current state of popular culture on these matters sickens me.  Our larger society is apparently without the resources necessary to recognize and respect our God-given capability for intimacy, covenantal fidelity, and bringing beloved children into the world.  We have reduced a most sacred calling to little more than the pursuit of domination and self-centered pleasure so common that many do not even recognize a scandal when they see it.  
                Part of the problem is that we think of ourselves as isolated individuals with rights to do as we please with our bodies.  It is one thing to have a legal system that affirms the liberty of people to do what they freely choose.  It is quite another, however, to pretend that there is nothing more at stake in profound matters of character, identity, and relations with others than the question of whether those involved have consented to participate in certain acts.  People can consent to do all sorts of reprehensible things which are good for no one.  Such things diminish us, however, in ways that we cannot control and never fully know.  It is notoriously difficult to predict the consequences of our actions or to control how we and others will respond to them.  Nowhere is that more true than in the intimate relationship of man and woman.
                Perhaps part of our society’s inability to deal soberly with these matters has something to do with our collective ignorance about the passions. Passions are the disordered relationships we have with just about everything.  They are misdirected energies that pull us this way and that, even when we know and deeply desire to stay on the straight path.  As the origins of the word itself indicate, we suffer weaknesses of soul that make it so easy for so little to punch our buttons and make us feel virtually powerless to resist the temptations that have become most familiar to us.
                Passions go deeper than particular actions we choose freely, at least in a legal sense.  They reflect the state of our souls, of our deepest character, of who we are mostly profoundly in relation to God, neighbor, and self.  People may choose to do this, that, or the other thing in a fashion they understand to be informed and free, but may actually be as helpless as slaves before the force of  their addiction to their own self-centered desires.  To continue to act in such ways puts us in a downward spiral of degradation that destroys freedom in all but a formal sense. It is like exercising the freedom to abuse a substance until we are addicted to it, which surely makes us much less than free. 
                As shocking as it sounds in our current cultural setting, sexual intimacy with another makes us “one flesh” with that person.  St. Paul said that was the case even for those who have relations with prostitutes.  (1 Cor. 6: 16) By its very nature for those created male and female in the image and likeness of God, the “one flesh” union is a blessing intended for our healing, fulfillment, and growth in holiness.   It is no accident that Christ so often used a wedding feast for an image of the Kingdom of God or that the eschatological vision of Revelation culminates in the marriage banquet of the Lamb.  He is the Groom and the Church is His Bride.
               In the Orthodox wedding service, husband and wife wear the crowns of the Kingdom, which are also martyrs’ crowns for those who die to self out of love for the Lord and one another.   All of this is for the healing of passions, sexual and otherwise, by directing our desires ultimately to God.  The point is not to destroy our desires, but to purify them.  True Christian teaching on sex is in no way negative, but truly sublime and holy.       
                In contrast, those who see nothing much at stake in promiscuity or orgies are blind to the power of the passions to corrupt even the greatest blessings and joys of life.  In the name of liberation, they fall into a bondage from which it is difficult to escape.  Their sights are set far too low. True respect for the dignity of women arises from the healing of passions that corrupt intimate relationships, which requires identifying and correcting their failings.  Passing over them in silence does no good at all.    If we want to get beyond the abuses associated with “Bye Felicia,” we need to start by redirecting our desires to the Lord Who invites man and woman together to become participants in the heavenly wedding banquet.  There could be no more positive view of the “one flesh” union  of male and female.  

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Cultivating the Fruit of our Souls: Homily for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost and the Thirteenth Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

St. Matthew 21:33-42
1 Corinthians 16: 13-24
            Most of us today--even in Texas-- buy our food in supermarkets and rarely think about the soil from which it grows.  Things were very different in biblical times, when abundant crops, milk, honey, wine, and oil were signs of God’s blessing to people who knew how dependent they were on the fruits of the earth.  This is the case from the beginning of Genesis, when God planted the garden of Eden and gave Adam the responsibility to care for it.  But the soil became cursed when he and Eve disobeyed; full of thorns and thistles, it would sustain them only through the hard and frustrating work that farmers have known all too well across generations.
            Many times in the Bible, cultivated land is a sign of our relationship with God.  For example, the prophet Isaiah spoke of God planting a vineyard. Because of the sins of the people, God said of what He had planted: “I will forsake My vineyard.  It shall not be pruned or cultivated, but thorns shall sprout forth as in a barren land.  I will also command the clouds not to rain on it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the man of Judah His beloved plant.” (Is. 5:6-7) 
            Jesus Christ used stories about planting seeds, harvesting crops, as well as other similar examples, to proclaim the good news of salvation.   In today’s gospel lesson, the Lord told a parable about a landowner who had workers take care of the vineyard he had carefully planted.  When the grapes were ready, he wanted the fruit and sent servants to get it.  But the workers beat and killed whomever he sent.  Even when the landowner sent his own son, they killed him also. These wicked servants brought destruction upon themselves, and the landowner then found new tenants who would give him his fruit in due season.
             As in Genesis and Isaiah, this story is not simply about agriculture, but ultimately about our relationship with God. St. Matthew tells us that the chief priests and Pharisees knew that Christ was speaking this and other parables against them. The parable of the vineyard reminds us that religious and political leaders so often rejected and killed the prophets whom God had sent them in the Old Testament.  And that is also how they responded to the Son of God, their own Messiah, refusing to accept His teachings and handing him over to the pagan Romans for death on a cross. 
The Lord concludes this parable with a quotation from the Psalms about a stone, rejected by builders, that became the chief cornerstone, the most crucial part of the foundation of a building. He shifts the imagery here from a vineyard, the people of Israel, to a temple that includes all who are members of the Body of Christ.  As St. Paul wrote to the Gentile Christians of Ephesus, “you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph. 2:19-21) 
Likewise, St. Peter wrote in his first epistle that Christians are “living stones…being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  (1 Peter 2:4-5) In other words, the Church is the temple of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”  (1 Peter 2:9) This blessed identity is shared by all who are members of Christ’s own Body, regardless of ancestry or ethnicity.    There is neither Jew nor Greek in Him. By the Savior’s grace, all may become branches of His vine and communicants of His own Body and Blood.  He is the Groom and we are His Bride, the Church.
Did you notice that these images for our relationship with the Lord are all as organic as a vineyard or a garden?  We went from speaking of a cornerstone to envisioning a temple, which sounds like just another architectural structure. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, for this Cornerstone is not a piece of rock or masonry, but our living Lord.  As members of His Body, we are also living stones, not inanimate objects, because of our “one flesh” union with Him. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are a temple organically united to Christ, the prophets, the apostles, and all the other members of His Body, the Church. Through Him, we become full participants by grace in God’s eternal life that overcomes even the grave and Hades itself.
We are also the new workers in today’s parable who have taken over stewardship of the vineyard.  Vineyards grow grapes from which wine comes.  Abundant wine is a sign of God’s blessing in the Old Testament, but is fulfilled in the New Testament as the Blood of Christ.  As He said at the institution of the Eucharist, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My Blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins… But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom." (Matt. 26: 27-29)   To share in this fruit of the vine is to participate in the fullness of God’s salvation in the heavenly banquet.  It is the completion of God’s gracious and life-giving purposes for human beings ever since He first planted the garden of Eden. The Second Adam reverses the curses of the first Adam that subjected the creation itself to futility.  Now He makes wheat His Body and enables grapes to become His Blood.  In every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, He makes us participants at the heavenly banquet that manifests the salvation of the world, the fulfillment of the entire creation for His intended purpose of bringing us into His blessed eternal life.
With this good news comes great responsibility, for we have to ask ourselves whether we are being good stewards of the vineyard of the Lord.  Are we offering our fruit, which is really His fruit, to Him?  We are not talking simply about grapes, but about our lives in this world, especially what we value and treasure the most, our most cherished abilities and strengths, and the habits and routines most familiar to us.  To change the metaphor, are we going through each day as living stones of His temple?  Are we grounding ourselves thoroughly on our one true foundation Jesus Christ and turning away from all that is not holy? Our calling is not to escape the world, but to offer our little pieces of it for the healing and fulfillment of the Kingdom.  It is through making our life in this world holy that we participate already in the world to come. 
If the Pharisees and Sadducees of old brought judgment upon themselves for corrupting the Old Testament law and the teachings of the prophets, then we had better be careful.  For we are not accountable merely for instructions and rituals that foreshadowed the fullness of what was to come.  No, we have received the fulfillment of all God’s promises as a Person with Whom we are united intimately and organically, Who dwells in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Through Him, we “dare” to call God “Our Father,” as we say in the Lord’s Prayer.  There is no upward limit to the holiness to which our deep personal union with Christ calls us. He planted the vineyard to begin with and is the cornerstone of our life.  We must live as those in organic union with Him if we are to enter into the blessedness to which He calls us, for His life really is ours.  Thanks be to God!  

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Second Adam Brings the New Eve into Real Life: Homily for the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos in the Orthodox Church

           There is much in our culture that tempts us to think of faith and religion as arbitrary matters of personal preference or antiquated tradition that are not nearly as important as matters of  “real life.”  Even a few moments’ thought about the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, however, reveals that this great feast calls us to embrace the fullness of life, the deepest reality of what it means to be a human being in the world as we know it.     
            At the end of the Mother of God’s earthly life, the Apostles were miraculously assembled in her presence. St. Thomas, however, arrived three days late.  When her tomb was opened for him to pay his last respects, her body was not there.  Even as she was the first to accept Christ into her life—and in a unique way into her womb as His virgin mother—she was the first to follow Him as a whole, complete person into the Kingdom of Heaven.  She is the first and greatest example of one who receives, loves, and serves Jesus Christ with every ounce of her being. 
            When we think of the Theotokos, we are immediately reminded of how God creates us male and female in the divine image and likeness, and uses both sexes together to bring salvation to the world.  The Church knows the Theotokos  as “the New Eve” through whom the Son of God became “the Second Adam.”  The first Eve came from the body of the first Adam, while the Second Adam becomes a human being through the body of the New Eve.  The imagery of male and female continues with the Church as the Bride of Christ, which is born from the blood and water which flowed from the Lord’s body at His crucifixion, for they symbolize the Eucharist and baptism through which we share in the life of our Lord.  He is the Groom and we, the Church, are His bride.  The biblical drama of salvation culminates in the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation, which fulfills so much imagery from Christ’s teaching and ministry about the marriage banquet as a sign of the Kingdom of God.
            The term “Theotokos” means “Bearer” or “Mother of God,” but not, of course, in the sense of her somehow being the mother of the Holy Trinity or a goddess.  From as far back as anyone can tell, Christians have honored Mary as Theotokos in recognition of the divinity of her Son.  Those who refused to call her Theotokos, such as the heretic Nestorius, denied a true Incarnation and did not think that the baby born to her was truly God.   The Church teaches that the Virgin Mary is every bit as human as the rest of us, but in her purity, obedience, and receptivity to God’s will, she freely agreed to become the mother of the Son of God, Who alone is fully divine and fully human.  Hers is a unique and glorious vocation.  “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”     
            By accepting her life-changing calling, that obviously only a woman could fulfill, the Theotokos heals and restores the vocation of motherhood to welcome and nurture new life. In contrast to the mortality and corruption that have been the common lot of everyone born since the fall of our first parents, she gives life to the One who conquers sin and death.  In the place of slavery to the passions that so easily makes the circumstances surrounding conception and birth tragically broken, she brings forth the Savior in purity and faith.  And when her Son turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, He does so at her request.  This miraculous sign reveals the potential of the union of man and woman to become an icon of our salvation, our true participation in the heavenly banquet.   
            In all these ways, the Theotokos’ life is about the fulfillment of our broken and imperfect selves and world.  God called her to play a unique role as a woman and a mother in setting right what has gone wrong with all the children of the first Adam and Eve.  Her example stands as a powerful reminder that God’s salvation is neither an escape from the world as we know it nor an imaginary endeavor of simply pretending all is well.  The Theotokos dealt with matters of life and death, challenges as unsettling as a surprising pregnancy, the suspicion of others about the miraculous conception, and the rejection and public execution of her only Son.   This is the stuff of real life by anyone’s definition.
            We celebrate her Dormition, her “falling asleep” at end of her earthly life, because even in death she is a brilliant icon of God’s intentions for us all.  Even as her Son’s tomb is empty on the third day, so is hers.  The New Eve joins the Second Adam in the heavenly kingdom, thus showing that the man and the woman who bear God’s image and likeness may find together the fulfillment of the gracious purposes for which God breathed life into them in the first place.  Together with the Ascension of the risen Christ into heaven forty days after His resurrection, her assumption into the heavenly kingdom presents an icon of the salvation of all humanity, of the entire creation.  Not only is eternal life a reality for her Son, the God-Man, but He shares that blessedness with her and all who like her respond to Him with faith, love, and obedience.  He makes us all guests at the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb, where we as the Bride of Christ become true participants by grace in the divine nature.  We thereby enter into the eternal life that He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit as whole, complete persons united in love. By sharing in the Lord’s bodily resurrection, we become “one flesh” with Him in the glory of heaven.
            It is surely not an accident that the Theotokos’ story began with an old Jewish couple, righteous and barren, who prayed to God for a child and dedicated her in the Temple where she grew up.  Sts. Joachim and Anna remind us of Abraham and Sarah and of others in the biblical narrative who struggled with infertility.  The unique blessing of man and woman, created together in God’s image and likeness, to bring new life into the world out of love for one another should remind us of the overflowing love of the Holy Trinity which created all that is and enables us all to become participants in eternal life.  To set right all that has gone wrong with man and woman from time immemorial, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, became the Son of the Virgin Mary.   She fulfills the meaning of all humanity in saying “yes” with her whole person to the Lord in ways that the first Adam and Eve did not.  In this way, she entered into real life, into true humanity, the fulfillment of the image and likeness of God.   
            In the icon of the Dormition, Christ holds the soul of the Theotokos as she held Him as a baby.  This detail indicates that she has been born anew in the eternal life of the heavenly kingdom.  What else would we expect for one who played her unique role in the salvation of the world so faithfully?  She welcomed Christ fully into her life and now He welcomes her fully into His.  Together they show us the ultimate purpose of our creation as male and female, which is to enter into real life, to find fulfillment for every dimension of our existence in God.     So let us celebrate the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos by honoring her, asking for her prayers, and—above all else—following her blessed example of responding to the Lord’s calling:  “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”   That is how we will become truly ourselves in the image and likeness of God.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Transfigured by Humility: A Homily on Faith, Prayer, and Fasting for the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

 1 Cor. 4:9-15
Matt. 17:14-23

             It is easy to become discouraged by the distortions of Christianity in our culture.  Some preach that those who truly believe will become rich and healthy with no problems at all.   More assume that following Jesus Christ is just another way to have a bit of inner peace as they pursue what is really important in life:  professional success, personal fulfillment, or some other worldly goal on their own terms.  Neither approach, however, has much to do with truly participating in the life of our Lord.   
            Even a quick glance at Jesus Christ, His mother the Theotokos, or apostles such as St. Paul shows how weak such teachings are.  They did not live what any mainstream culture—then or now--thinks of as a happy or successful life.  Obviously, they lived the best and holiest of lives; they are models for us in how to live, to die, and enter into glory. But they appear strange to the world because they put the Kingdom of God first and refused to put even their own happiness before God’s will and the humble service of others.  They suffered horribly by conventional standards, but thereby participated in a blessedness not of this world.                                                                                                        The Son of God lowered Himself in the Incarnation, becoming one of us and even enduring death and descent to Hades in order to conquer them and bring us into His eternal life through His resurrection.  He was rejected by the leaders of His own people and brutally executed by the Roman authorities.  The Theotokos accepted a scandalous pregnancy as the Lord’s virgin mother and saw her Son murdered by those He came to save.  St. Paul endured hardships of all kinds, beatings, imprisonment, and ultimately martyrdom for Christ.  These were not wealthy people; their lives did not follow conventional patterns; they were not in favor with the religious and political authorities of their day.  They were outsiders and outcasts in many ways, but it was precisely through their difficult struggles that salvation has come to the world and we have inherited the blessings of life eternal.
            That is an important truth to keep in mind when we read of the father of the epileptic boy kneeling before Christ to ask for the healing of his son. The disciples had been unable to cure him because of their lack of faith, prayer, and fasting.  Consequently, they lacked the spiritual strength to overcome evil.  Like most of the other Jews, they probably assumed that following the Messiah—thought to be a great king and military ruler-- would result in a privileged life.  In their hopes for that kind of savior, the disciples were part of a “faithless and perverse” generation that trusted in and served itself, rather than the one true God.
            In contrast, the boy’s father had true faith, trust and humility before the Lord, kneeling down before him and asking for mercy from the bottom of his heart.  He lowered himself before Christ, putting himself in the lowly place of one who could receive the blessing of the most humble One of all.
            Unfortunately, many in the church of Corinth were nothing like that father; they were so full of pride that St. Paul had to set them straight on what it meant to serve Jesus Christ.  He wrote that true apostles lived like “men sentenced to death,” as fools who are weak, dishonored, homeless, and treated as the filth of the world.   Theirs was not a path for the rich and famous.  The words used by St. Paul of his own ministry remind us of how our Lord identified Himself with “the least of these,” the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner, the sick—those  on the margins of any society. 
            How ironic that the same Lord Who identified Himself with the wretched and miserable, and whose apostles suffered so greatly, was transfigured in glory before His disciples on Mt. Tabor.  As He shone with the brilliant light of heaven and was shown to be superior to Moses and Elijah, the voice of the Father said “This is my beloved Son with Whom I am well pleased.  Listen to Him!”  The divine glory of this most exalted One shines through the apparent weakness of a cross and a tomb, through what looked like failure and foolishness in the world as we know it.  Indeed, He glorifies martyrs, confessors, and others who truly take up their crosses and die to the idolatry of self that is the real religion of so many, regardless of what we say we believe.  To this very day, those who share in His glory first participate in His lowliness, meekness, and humility.
            Despite what some of Christianity’s supporters and some of its foes like to say, our Lord’s salvation is not an extension of any earthly kingdom, culture, or achievement.  Instead of building ourselves up according to designs of false gods, we must lower ourselves before Him like the father of the epileptic in order to be transfigured by His grace.   We must go against the popular trends of our culture—and of any culture-- in order to believe, pray, and deny ourselves if we are to open ourselves to His brilliant light, if we are to become radiant with His holiness.  The journey to His Kingdom has nothing to do with acquiring earthly power, prominence, or popularity.  As much as in the first century, His Kingdom is still not of this world.  And some of the most dangerous temptations are to distort the Christian faith in the service of any worldly goal or agenda, regardless of the name it goes by at the time.
            Instead of following the easy paths today of worshiping money, power, pleasure, and other forms of self-indulgence, we must follow the advice of the Lord Himself to the disciples on the necessity of faith, prayer, and fasting.  Instead of believing that success according to the standards of any earthly realm is the highest good, we must entrust our lives to the One whose divinity shines forth through His humility and Who identifies Himself with the outcasts of all times and places.
            Instead of defining ourselves by our busy schedules, routines, or obsessions about other earthly cares, we must—and we all can-- carve out time every day for spiritual communion with the Lord. Instead of satisfying every desire and wallowing in unrestrained indulgence, we must learn to say no to our addiction to pleasure through appropriate forms of fasting and self-denial on a regular basis.  Instead of making our faith a way to get what we want and gain the praise of others, we must learn the essential place of humility in the Christian life.  For it is only when we stop focusing on ourselves—our strengths, our virtues, our abilities, as well as our failures and weaknesses—that we will be able to kneel before Christ like that father who was at the end of his rope and  open ourselves  to the mercy and healing of the Lord.
            We have to accept that it is not all about us. If we make our faith basically about helping us get what we want, then we will always serve ourselves and become addicted to self-centered desires.  We will become so enslaved to our bellies, our entertainment, our will, and our false hopes for fulfillment that we will become just like the disciples:  powerless against the forces of evil in our own lives and totally unable to help others.   If we serve and please only ourselves, we will become so self-focused and self-centered that we will find it impossible to cultivate the humility required to serve God and our neighbors.  We will become so addicted to our desires that we will lack the ability to say no to ourselves for any reason, which is ultimately a recipe for nothing but despair.
            Far better to look to Christ who came not to be served, but to serve, and Whose glory had nothing in common with worldly domination or success.  He will transfigure us into participants in His divine glory through our humble faith, prayer, and fasting.  In this season of the Dormition Fast, we follow the example of the Theotokos who was prepared and sustained for her sublime ministry by these spiritual disciplines.  The same is true of St. Paul and the apostles. 
            There is hard work involved when we embrace humility, obedience, and self-denial. Should that be surprising if we serve a Lord Who told us to take up our crosses and follow Him?  If our goal is to become so permeated with holiness that we radiate the divine beauty, should we be shocked that sacrifice is required?          
            By investing ourselves in the basic disciplines of the Christian life we will become more like the father of the epileptic boy who, in his humble faith, received the mercy and healing of the Lord. That is a blessing beyond the ability of this world and the only hope for the salvation of our souls.       



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.