Sunday, March 29, 2015

We Must Enter into Christ's Death In Order to Rise with Him: A Homily Near the End of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

          We go to great lengths to insulate ourselves from the realities of suffering and death.  Consequently, people who experience profound loss and sorrow often find themselves alone.  Surely, it is difficult to be in the presence of those in great pain of any kind, especially those who are dying, for we often feel helpless before them and are reminded of our own mortality.  At some level, we know that something similar is in store for us.   
            Perhaps these tendencies have at least something to do with why so few of our Lord’s followers stood at the foot of His cross as He suffered and died.  The Theotokos, the other women, and St. John refused to abandon Him, but the rest of the disciples fled in fear.  Surely, they had good reason to be afraid for it had to be dangerous to be associated publically with someone who was crucified as a traitor to the Romans after being rejected as a blasphemer by the leaders of the Jews. But the Theotokos, the other righteous women, and St. John did not flee.  They refused to allow their shock and sorrow to cause them to abandon their Savior, even in the midst of His horrible suffering and death.
            The season of Great Lent gives each of us blessed opportunities to become like those who remained at the foot of the Cross, who endured the agony of beholding our Lord’s self-offering for the life of the world.  We will soon enter quite profoundly into the mystery of our salvation in as we journey with Christ from the raising of Lazarus to His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where in a matter of days He is rejected and condemned by those He came to save. We will chant “Today is hung upon the tree He who hung the earth upon the waters.”  We will not merely remember His crucifixion as a past historical event during the services of Great and Holy Friday; no, as we read the Passion Gospels and place Christ on the Cross, we enter into the eternal present of the divine love that stops at nothing, not even death, the tomb, and Hades, in order to bring us—and the entire creation—into the eternal blessedness for which He breathed life into us in the first place and for which He spoke the universe into existence.   
            So we are not only figuratively in the place of those who stood at the foot of the Cross.  We really are there, even as we are really guests at the heavenly banquet in every Divine Liturgy. Is it surprising, then, that we need several weeks of preparation in order to have the spiritual strength and clarity necessary to abide with the God-Man as He suffers and dies for us?  “The King of Angels...Who wrapped the heavens with clouds” humbles Himself to the point of accepting hatred, torture, and cruel public execution purely out of love for all of us who have rejected Him time and again.  He even asks the Father to forgive His tormenters for “they know not what they do.”  This is not the death of a mere teacher or example,   but the slaughter of the true Passover Lamb, the Incarnate Son of God Who is fully divine and fully human.  If we shy away from the suffering and death of those we encounter daily, how much more will we shake with holy fear before the death of the Alpha and Omega of the universe? How much more will we say “This is no place for me!” and run away from the Cross? 
            Perhaps we feel justified in doing so because we have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story. Our Lord will rise victorious on the third day.   Who does not want to shout “Christ is Risen!” as soon as possible? The problem, of course, is that we cannot enter into the great mystery of His resurrection unless we first participate in His death.  Even as our Savior tramples down death by death, we too must die to death, to the corruption and decay that our following in the way of Adam and Eve has brought about in our own lives.  That means death to sin however it has taken root in us, however it has distorted and disfigured us as living icons of our Lord.   A once beautiful painting loses nothing but its ugliness from an expert restoration that reveals its original beauty.  The same is true for us when we turn away from all that separates us from growing evermore like God as partakers of the divine nature.  That is the fulfillment of the ancient, true, and beautiful vocation to which Lent calls us.
The Christian life begins with baptism into the Lord’s death as we die to sin and rise with Him into newness of life.  We put on Christ in baptism and regain the robe of light that Adam lost.  That is, of course, only the beginning of the journey to become radiant with the divine energies like an iron left in the fire.  Unfortunately, we so easily return to the ways of the first Adam, preferring the darkness of our own corruption to the brilliant light of God’s glory.  
  As Christ taught, we must persevere in dying to death by taking up our crosses and losing our lives in order to save them.  We must struggle each day to die to the corrupting effects of sin and embrace more fully the holy joy which our Lord’s cross has brought to the world.  As St. Paul writes, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:24)  Slavery to self-centered desires is never a path to joy, but only to addiction to self-imposed misery which will never satisfy us.  God did not create us for the tomb of slavery to ourselves, but for the eternal joy appropriate to those who join themselves to His self-offering in free obedience as beloved sons and daughters of the Most High.
And that is what Great Lent is for.  By devoting ourselves to prayer, by fasting from rich food and anything else to which we have an unhealthy attachment, by sharing our resources and attention with the needy, by forgiving our enemies and healing broken relationships, by humbly confessing our sins and reorienting our lives toward Christ, by embracing the practices of this season, we crucify our passions and desires.  We advance in putting to death the morbid distortions of sin in our lives.  We open ourselves at least a bit more fully to the victory over sin and death that Jesus Christ has accomplished through His Cross.  We take up our crosses and follow Him one step at a time.  We participate in His trampling down death by death when we use the spiritual disciplines of Lent to trample down the pernicious power of the passions in our lives.  The more we unite ourselves to our Lord’s Cross in these ways, the more we will  know the Cross as victory, not as a defeat--as the path to joy, not to despair. 
The disciples surely fled the crucifixion in large part because they had no hope.  They thought that it was all over for Jesus Christ and for them as His followers.  Perhaps we are tempted to abandon our friends and loved ones in their final years or hours, or in other times of great pain, because we see no future for them or ultimately for ourselves.  That may be the way it is with the first Adam, but it is surely not with the Second Adam Who brings life from the very depths of Hades, light from the darkness of the tomb, and unspeakable joy from the worst despair.       
            Here is the key point:  If we do not enter into the reality of our Savior’s crucifixion, we will find it impossible to celebrate Pascha as much more than a cultural festival with rich food. If we do not make progress in  crucifying our passions this Lent, we will lack the spiritual clarity to see our Lord’s Cross as much more than an unwelcome reminder of our own pain and suffering in the world as we know it.  In effect, we will abandon Him in fear like the disciples who fled and miss the entire meaning of this penitential season, as well as of Pascha.
But those who take up their crosses and die to the ways of death in their lives will do something very different.  They will abide at the foot of the Cross and participate in the deep mystery of salvation in ways too profound for words.  They will not then run away in fear, but with the Most Holy Theotokos and all the Saints, will enter personally into the joy before which even Hades and the tomb are powerless.  That is the great promise of this blessed season of Great Lent.  If we will join ourselves to our Lord’s self-offering on His Precious and Life-Giving Cross, if we will truly enter into His death, then we too will know the indescribable joy that comes on the third day.    


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Jesus Christ Makes Great Saints Out of Even the Worst Sinners:Homily for the 5th Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 10:32-45
            We have all had the experience of falling short of our own goals, our hopes, and our values.  We have all said, done, and thought the wrong thing on more than one occasion.  We all know what it is to be embarrassed and disappointed about our failings, and to be ashamed to acknowledge what we have done.
            So we can imagine how James and John felt when Christ corrected them for asking to be His favorites in the coming Kingdom.  The Lord had just told the disciples that He would suffer and die, but these two disciples would not hear the Lord’s message.  They insisted on thinking in terms of a worldly, political kingdom on this earth, and they wanted really good positions of authority when Jesus Christ came into power, not unlike the politicians of our day.    
            “You do not know what you are asking,” our Savior said to them.  For to follow Him into the Kingdom will require that they drink the cup and undergo the baptism of suffering and death.  This is the way of complete self-sacrifice for the Kingdom, not of grasping for earthly authority and status. The other disciples were understandably angry when they heard that James and John were jockeying for position, and the Lord reminded the whole group that humble service, not domination, is the way to life eternal.  “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”  On that day, James and John surely had to face up to their failure to live up to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ, and then to make things right both with the Lord and their fellow disciples.
            On this fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we remember St. Mary of Egypt, someone who also came to see that she had fallen short of the Lord’s expectations.  Mary was a nymphomaniac and a prostitute, totally enslaved to her own perverse sexual passions.   Her life was truly an obscene scandal, but everything changed when an invisible force prevented her from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  She then asked humbly for the help of the Theotokos , entered the church to venerate the Holy Cross, and obeyed a divine command to spend the rest of her life in repentance and strict asceticism as a hermit in the desert.  When the monk Zosima stumbled upon her almost 50 years later, he was amazed at her holiness.  But like all the saints, she was aware only of her sins and her ongoing need for God’s mercy.
            When Mary of Egypt prayed before the icon of the Theotokos, she acknowledged for the first time the sad truth about her life.  She had heard in the past that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, and now she knew that she was one.  And that humble confession was the beginning of a life of such holiness that we devote a Sunday in Lent each year to her memory.  Have you ever noticed that we do not hide repentant sinners in our church? Instead, we put them on icons and sing about them for they are such wonderful examples of the kind of people we hope to become by God’s mercy.
           Mary of Egypt, like James and John, had to acknowledge the truth about her failings.  These disciples had wanted only power and she had wanted only pleasure.  But they all eventually accepted the Lord’s correction of their faults and became saints, people whose lives shine brightly with holiness.  As we near the end of Lent, let us follow their example by honestly confessing our sins both in the Sacrament of Confession and in our daily private prayers.  For nothing that we have thought, said, or done is beyond forgiveness by the mercy of Christ.  No damage that we have done to ourselves or others is beyond His healing.  No human being is beyond repentance; and, yes, that includes people like you and me.
            So take heart and keep hope alive.  The same Lord who patiently corrected power-hungry disciples and who made a great saint out of a grossly immoral woman has plans for us also.  And they involve a life of righteousness which we will find by repentance, by humbly setting right what has gone wrong in our lives, by accepting His correction and finding healing for the self-inflicted wounds that we all bear.  Yes, in Christ Jesus there is hope for us all, no matter what we have done or left undone.  
            Now, so near the end of Lent, it is time to get over our pride and embarrassment, our slavery to our self-serving illusions, and to take the medicine of confession and repentance as we  get ready to follow our Savior into the deep mystery of His cross and empty tomb.  He drank that cup because of our sins, and we will only be able to follow Him on that blessed journey if we open ourselves in humility to His merciful healing and strength.  

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Healing through Humble Repentance: Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 6:13-20
Mark 9:17-30

         We often have more doubt than belief, more despair than hope.  Our worries and fears so easily increase, and then joy vanishes.  Our health, the problems of our loved ones, stress about a busy schedule, or challenges at home, at work, or with our friends—these often leave us at the end of our rope.
            If you feel that way today or ever have in your life, you can begin to sympathize with the father of the demon-possessed young man in today’s gospel reading.  Since childhood, his son had had life-threatening seizures and convulsions. With the broken heart of a parent who has little hope for his child’s healing, the man cries out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  Christ’s disciples had lacked the spiritual strength to cast out the demon, but the Lord Himself healed him.  We can only imagine how grateful the man and his son were for this blessing.
            And imagine how embarrassed the disciples were.  The Lord had referred to them as part of a “faithless generation” and asked how long He would have to put with them.  He told them that demons like this “can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting,” spiritual exercises designed to strengthen our faith and to purify our souls.  Not only were the disciples unable to cast out the demon, they could not even understand the Savior’s prediction of His own death and resurrection.   At this point in the journey, they were not great models of faithfulness.
            In fact, the best example of faithfulness in this story is the unnamed father.  He wants help for his child, and he humbly tells the truth about himself.  His faith was imperfect; he had doubts; his hopes for his son’s healing had surely been crushed many times before.  He said to Christ, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us.”  In other words, he wasn’t entirely sure if the Lord could heal his son.  All that he could do was to cry out with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” 
            And in doing so, he showed that he had the spiritual strength and clarity that the disciples lacked, for he knew the weakness of his faith.  Still, with every ounce of his being He called to the Lord for mercy.  He received it and the young man was set free.
            If we have taken Lent seriously at all this year, we will have become at least a bit like this honest father when our struggles with spiritual disciplines have shown us our weakness and corruption.  When we pray, we are distracted and often find excuses to do something else instead. When we set out to fast from food or something else to which we have become too attached, we become angry and frustrated.  If we succeed in fasting, we may be tempted to pride and judgment toward others.   Our good intentions to heal broken relationships and give generously to the needy often do not lead us to act on them.  When we wrestle with our self-centered desires just a bit, they become stronger and we feel weaker.   We do, think, and say things that aren’t holy at all, often without even thinking.   We put so much else before loving God and our neighbors.  The spiritual disciplines of Lent are good at breaking down our illusions of holiness, at giving us a clearer picture of our spiritual state.  If we are honest, we will not like what we see.   
           If that’s where you are today, rejoice and be glad, for Jesus Christ came to show mercy upon people like the father in our gospel lesson.   That man knew his weakness, he did not try to hide it, and he honestly threw himself on the mercy of the Lord.  He made no excuses; he did not justify himself; he did not wallow in self-pity. He did not hide his doubt and frustration before God.   He was not stifled by wounded pride, and did not obsess about his imperfections, worry about what someone else would think of him, or judge his neighbor. Instead, he simply acknowledged the truth about his wretched situation and called upon Christ with every ounce of his being for help with a problem that had broken his heart.
With whatever level of spiritual clarity we possess, with whatever amount of faith in our souls, with whatever doubts, fears, weaknesses, and sins that weigh us down, we should all follow his example of opening the deep wounds of our hearts and lives to the Lord for healing this Lent.  Jesus Christ heard this man’s prayer; He brought new life to his son.  And He will do the same for us, when we fall before Him in honest repentance, knowing that our only hope is in the great mercy that He has always shown to sinners like you and me with weak faith.

If we need a reminder of the importance of taking Confession this Lent, this gospel passage should help us.    Christ did not reject a father who was brutally honest about his imperfect faith, but instead responded to his confession with overwhelming grace, healing, and love.  He will do the same for each of us as we kneel before His icon with a humble plea for forgiveness, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  Now is the time to stop suffering in isolation, to repent from the depths of our hearts, and to embrace the divine strength and healing for even our worst wounds.  There is no repentance without truthful acknowledgement of our weakness and pain.   And there is no better time to repent than during Great Lent as we prepare to follow our Savior to the agony of the cross and the joy of the empty tomb.  

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Time to Get Out of Bed: Homily on the Healing of the Paralyzed Man for the Second Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

            St. Mark 2:1-12

               We all know what it’s like to want to stay in bed in the morning.  We’re sleepy, comfortable, and warm; we would like to turn off the alarm clock and go back to sleep.  Now it’s fine to do that every once in a while when we really don’t need to get up and get going.  But if we get in the habit of sleeping in, we’ll probably lose our jobs, neglect our families, do poorly in school, and be less than the people God wants us to be.
            And if we’re tempted to stay in bed sometimes, imagine how the paralyzed man in our gospel reading felt.  He had probably stayed in bed his whole life; he could move only if people carried him.  But Jesus Christ not only forgave his sins that day, He gave him the ability to stand up and walk.  In fact, He commanded Him to “arise, take up your bed, and go to your home.”  He was to get on with living the new life that Christ had given him.
            We don’t know how this man felt; he was probably profoundly grateful to the Lord for changing His life.  But think for a minute about how hard it may have been for him to obey Christ’s command.  He knew how to live as a paralyzed person, how to be dependent upon others.  That’s probably the only life he had known and all of a sudden that changed.  I imagine that that could be pretty unsettling and scary.
            Sometimes even people who know that they have ruined their lives are often terrified by the possibility of living differently.  They may not like how they’ve lived so far, but at least they know how to live that way, they know what to expect. They’ve become comfortable with their lifestyles at some level, no matter how miserable they are.  The same may have been true of this paralyzed man. So it was probably with fear and trembling that He got up, picked up his bed, and walked home.
            In this season of Great Lent, we are all called to see ourselves in this paralyzed man.  For we have become too comfortable with our own sins, our own habits of thought, word, and deed, even though they have weakened and distorted us.  Despite our best intentions, we live like slaves to our self-centered desires:  pride, envy, anger, lust, self-righteousness, fear, laziness, and gluttony so easily paralyze us.  Sin has put down roots in our bad habits of how we think, act, speak, and relate to others and to God. We often can’t even imagine what it’s like to live free from the domination of our own passions and sins.   And we certainly can’t heal ourselves of these spiritual sicknesses by will power.  At a deep level in our souls, we find it almost impossible at times to practice self-control.  
The good news is that we can all still do what so many truly repentant sinners did when they encountered Jesus Christ:    In humility, they opened their lives to His mercy.  They touched the hem of His garment and fell down before Him; they cried, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” from the depths of their hearts; they left their nets, gave their goods to the poor, and literally gave up their lives to be His disciples and apostles.   Like us, they were weakened by their sins and afraid of what the new life in Christ would entail.  But they still obeyed—with fear and trembling-- our Lord’s command to:  “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”  Despite their fears and weaknesses, they moved forward, they stepped out, they pressed on in the journey to the Kingdom.
In Lent, we pray, fast, give to the needy, and mend our broken relationships with one another; as we prepare to celebrate the joy of Christ’s resurrection, we should turn away from any sin, bad habit, or unhealthy relationship that isn’t pleasing to God.  If we take Lent seriously, we will often feel like someone recovering from paralysis or in physical therapy.  We will struggle, become uncomfortable, and wrestle with fears, frustrations, and doubts.  Often we will be tempted to stay in bed, to give up and take it easy.  How tragic it would have been for the man in our gospel lesson to have done that, to have disobeyed the Lord’s command to embrace His healing and move forward into a new life.  And how tragic it will be for us if we choose the false comfort of our sins and passions over the glorious freedom of the children of God.

 But how truly wonderful it will be for us to use Lent as a time to wake-up, to recognize that it is through the challenges of repentance that we open our lives to the healing and peace of the Lord.  Let us use these few weeks to turn from the weakness and slavery of sin to enter more fully into the strength and blessedness of life eternal that shines so brightly at Pascha.  For the Lord’s command also applies to us:  “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”   In other words, accept and live the new life that Christ has given you.  This was good, though difficult, news for the paralyzed man to receive; now it’s our turn to follow his example, to trust that the Lord really can heal us, and to obey His command to get on with our lives to the glory of God.  

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.