Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mercy Beyond National Boundaries: Homily for the 7th Sunday of Matthew and "St. Timon Sunday" in the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America

Romans 15:1-7; Matthew 9:27-35
        So much of what passes for religion in our culture is very self-centered.  Some develop a spirituality to help them feel a certain way, while others want to use God to promote political and moral agendas in their own image.  Their nation or their people then becomes the highest good. Regardless of the particulars, those who make their faith all about themselves will end up worshiping a false god of their own creation.
         One of the reasons that our Lord’s ministry in first-century Palestine was so shocking is that He blessed not only His fellow Jews, the chosen people of the Old Testament, but also the Gentiles.  That is what He did in today’s gospel reading.  The blind men were obviously Jews who called to Him using a traditional title for the Messiah, “Son of David.”  But the crowds said “Never was anything like this seen in Israel” because the demon-possessed man He enabled to speak was not a Jew, but a Gentile.  The Jews of that time had overlooked the clear teaching of the Old Testament that God would bless the entire world through them and draw all nations to Himself.  That is why the crowds were so surprised, for they did not expect the Jewish Messiah to help anyone outside their own community.
         This past week we celebrated the feast day of the Prophet Elijah.  The gospel reading for that day described the shocking scene of what happened when Christ reminded the people of His hometown that God had once sent Elijah to help a Gentile woman during a famine, which also affected many Jews.  He also mentioned that God sent the Prophet Elisha to heal a Syrian of leprosy when many Jews suffered from that disease.  Do you remember what the people of our Savior’s hometown did when He told those stories?  They tried to kill Him by throwing Him off a cliff, for they had no use for a Messiah Who cared about foreigners and enemies.  (Luke 4: 22-30) Here we have a clear and terrifying portrait of where the hatred and rejection of other people in the name of God leads:  to the hatred and rejection of the Lord Himself.
         Thank God, the Orthodox Church from her origins has recognized that our Lord’s mercy extends to all who call upon Him with faith, love, and humble repentance, regardless of their background or heritage.   We read in Acts of the founding of the first Gentile church in Antioch, where our Lord’s followers were first called Christians. (Acts 11:19-26) That same awareness that God’s salvation is not limited by nationality, race, culture, or any other human division remains characteristic of the Antiochian Orthodox Church to this day. Very few of the members of our parish are of Arab or Middle Eastern descent, yet we have all been welcomed as full members of the Body of Christ.  The very existence of Orthodox churches in unlikely places like Abilene reflects the same universal evangelistic spirit that we read about in Acts.  Regardless of human ancestry, we are all one in the Savior Who came to bless and heal the entire world.
As members of the Christ’s Body, we must not rest content with receiving our Lord’s mercy through the ministries of those who have shared the faith with us.  We must not fall into a self-centered distortion of religion in which we seek simply to please ourselves.  Instead, we must serve and strengthen those who suffer and struggle, especially in the homeland of our faith in Syria.  Today in our Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America we take up a collection for the relief of our brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran.  We do so as we remember St. Timon, one of the seventy apostles sent out by Jesus Christ and one of the original deacons mentioned in Acts (Acts 6:5).  St. Timon was the first bishop of what is now the city of Bosra, and he died as a martyr.  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)     
In the very same region from which we have received the great blessings of the Orthodox Christian faith, hundreds of thousands have died and millions have become refugees due to six years of brutal armed conflict.  In Bosra-Hauran, many towns and parishes have been abandoned, and His Eminence Metropolitan SABA leads the Church in doing everything possible to care for those in need.  As with the relief programs of the Patriarchate of Antioch and IOCC, these efforts extend to all who suffer, regardless of religious affiliation or anything else.  Even as our Savior’s mercy extended both to blind Jewish beggars and to demon-possessed Gentiles, the Orthodox of Syria strive to show His love to all their neighbors as best they can.
It is surely impossible for us to understand fully how difficult it is to do so in a setting of ongoing war, sectarian strife, and humanitarian catastrophe.  Despite the problems of our own society and our own personal struggles, our hearts must go out to the people of Syria as they suffer in ways well beyond our own experience or knowledge.  In response to their plight, we must follow St. Paul’s advice “not to please ourselves” but for “each of us to please his neighbor for his good, to edify him.  For Christ did not please himself…”   If we are truly in communion with Christ, then His selfless love must become characteristic of us.  The healing of our souls is neither a legal transaction nor a storm of emotion, but our transformation in holiness as we participate ever more fully in the eternal life of our Lord by grace.   By offering a portion of our resources to help our brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran, we unite ourselves more fully to our Savior.  In the parable of the last judgment in St. Matthew’s gospel, those who enter into the Kingdom of Heaven are those who ministered to Christ in their needy neighbors.  “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”  (Matt. 25: 31-46) The application to St. Timon Sunday should be obvious.  Here is an opportunity to do precisely that for the very people from whom we have received the fullness of the Orthodox Christian faith.
Contrary to dominant perspectives in our culture, true religion is not about finding ways to feel better about ourselves.  Neither is it a means to gain worldly power and influence.    Instead, it is a calling to respond to the universal love of God by embracing a life of holiness, a life in full personal union with Jesus Christ.  He calls everyone to respond to His mercy in ways not limited by nationality, race, class, politics or any other human characteristic.  That is an important part of the reason that His ministry was so shocking to the Jews of first-century Palestine.  It is why true Christianity remains offensive to those who worship their own prejudices and agendas to this very day.  It is also why those who limit their list of neighbors to those who are like them in conventional human ways are at grave risk of turning away from Christ.  If they end up serving only themselves and those like them, they will be in the same position as those who thought they were justified in trying to throw the Lord off a cliff.
The way of Christ, and of His Church since her origins, is characterized by a holy love that wants to bless and save the entire world.  In our Savior, there are no foreigners and strangers.  And in His Church, even people who live on the other side of the globe are members of our own family.  We must support them by our constant prayers and generous offerings on their behalf.    When we do so, we show proper thanks to those who welcomed us into the Orthodox Church.  When we do so, we reject self-centered distortions of the faith that tempt us to the idolatry of putting culture, politics, and nationality before the way of our Savior.  When we do so, we follow the Lord Whose mercy extended both to blind Jewish beggars and to demon-possessed Gentiles.  For us all, that is the path to the Kingdom of God.



Sunday, July 16, 2017

Shining with His Light: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in the Orthodox Church

Titus 3:8-15; Matthew 5:14-19

              In just about anything we do in life, it is helpful at times to sit back and ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve.  Unless we have a clear purpose in mind, we are probably not going to get very far in anything.  By taking a hard look at ourselves, we may find that there is a disconnect between our goals and our actions.  If so, some adjustments are in order.
            What Jesus Christ told His followers in today’s gospel lesson certainly challenged them to take a hard look at themselves and change their expectations. He made clear that He was not calling them to join a nationalistic campaign for Israel’s liberation from the Romans, as most Jews then expected the Messiah to do. Instead, they would have to abandon their dreams of using Him to gain power.  They would not conquer with an army, a revolution, or a political party, but were to become the light of the world by becoming holy.  That holiness would not be the result of obedience merely to the externals of the law as interpreted by the Pharisees, but would instead reflect its fulfillment to the depths of their souls.
By teaching in the following verses that the commandment against murder extended to prohibit anger and insult, Christ showed that He called His followers to a purity of heart that would enable them to see God.  He did the same by insisting that the law against adultery also condemned lust.  He called the disciples to embody the fulfillment of the ultimate purpose of the law:  to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.  It is in that context that the Savior taught that we must go beyond “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and instead love, forgive, and bless even our enemies.   Whether in first-century Palestine or today, those who live this way will be a light to the world as they provide a vivid example of a holy life that stands in stark contrast to the usual ways of our age.  It will be as impossible to hide the brilliance of their souls as it is to hide a shining lamp in a dark room.
Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which met at Chalcedon.  This council taught that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, being fully divine and fully human. It is only by confessing that He is both perfectly God and perfectly man that it is possible to give an account of how He is the Savior Who brings human beings into the eternal life of God.  For if He is not truly one of us, even as He is divine, how can He make human beings “partakers of the divine nature” who shine with holiness like an iron left in the fire?  Christ enables us to become the light of the world by becoming radiant with His light, by being illuminated with His gracious divine energies.  He is able to share His holiness with us because He is both fully God and fully human.  This is not simply a point from ancient Church history, but the bedrock of our faith and our hope. 
It is also the most basic reason that we must all take a hard look at ourselves and adjust how we think and live as Christians.  For if we truly believe that the eternal Son of God has become fully one of us and makes us participants in His eternal life, then His holiness must become characteristic of our lives.  Anything less than that is a distortion of what it means be a person in communion with our Lord. His true humanity enables us to become truly human as the fulfillment of our creation in His image and likeness.  That is why we speak so much of theosis in the Orthodox Church as the process of being united with God in holiness.
If we have made any progress at all in this journey of the healing of our souls, we will immediately be aware of how poorly we have answered this call.  The greater spiritual clarity we acquire, the more open our eyes will be to how far we are from shining brilliantly with the light of holiness.  So if our reaction to this high vision is along the lines of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” we are in the perfect place to embrace more fully our identity as the light of the world.  That is the case because humility is absolutely essential to opening ourselves to the gracious divine energies of our Lord.  Consider again His interpretation of the laws against murder and adultery.  If they referred only to the physical actions of taking life or being unfaithful to a spouse, many could congratulate themselves for not breaking them.  But when they extend to condemn anger, insult, and lust, our illusions of self-righteousness immediately fall away.  The same is true about loving our enemies, for Christ calls us to go beyond limiting our vengeance to turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and loving as our Father loves the just and unjust. We probably do not have to have much spiritual clarity to see that we are not there yet.
Were Jesus Christ simply another religious or moral teacher, these high requirements would probably lead us to despair and give up.  Rules tell us what to do, but do not give us the strength to obey them.  But because Christ is both divine and human, He provides more than a set of instructions.  For precisely through our awareness of how far short we have fallen from meeting these standards, He heals and strengthens us to serve Him more faithfully. The calling to holiness is not about meeting abstract rules by our own power, but about being united with a Person by grace.  Even as He has made great saints out of so many sinners who kneeled in humility before Him, His transforming mercy extends also to us.  That is a sign of hope for us all.  Who would have thought that Zacchaeus, a notorious tax collector, or Photini, a Samaritan woman of questionable reputation, would become shining lights of the world?   They did not do so because of perfect obedience to the law.  Far from it, they came to see their own brokenness through personal encounters with Jesus Christ.  Their humble acceptance of the distance between themselves and the Lord enabled them to grow closer to Him, to open their lives to a divine healing that they could never have given themselves.  
They show that, as we fall before Christ in humility, He will raise us up to participate personally in His holiness in ways that simply cannot be known except through repentance.  If we truly believe that Jesus Christ is the God-Man Who has come to make us participants in His healing of every dimension of our humanity, then we must follow the example of all the sinners who have become saints by opening themselves to participate in our Lord’s holiness. Instead of worrying about whether we will get our lives in perfect order according to our own standards, we must simply do what we have the sight and strength to do today in serving Him as we know we should.  St. Paul reminded St. Titus to tell the people to avoid foolish arguments, do good deeds, and meet urgent needs.  If we fill our lives with the things we know we should be doing and ignore the temptation to become distracted by nonsense, He will enable us to become light to the world.  Since He Himself is the Light, the more closely united we are to Christ, the more brilliantly our lives will become signs of the fulfillment of His purposes for the entire creation.    
Perhaps one of the reasons many people do not take the faith seriously today is that the lives of so many Christians do not manifest Christ’s healing and blessing of our humanity.  If we are not living icons of His fulfillment of the law and the prophets, then we are very poor witnesses to our Lord.  As Orthodox Christians who have received the fullness of the Church’s teaching about Jesus Christ as God and man, we have no excuse to accept distorted views of what faithfulness to Him means such that we excuse ourselves from the vocation to holiness.  Even as He did with His first disciples, He calls us to adjust our lives to be in line with His gracious purposes for those created in His image and likeness. As we turn away from all distractions, let us keep focused on shining the light of Christ so that others will give thanks to God and be drawn to the new day of His Kingdom. There is no other way to bear true witness to the Savior Who is both fully human and divine, for He came to enable us to shine with His holy light in our darkened world.  

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Delivered by Mercy, Not Law: Homily for the 5th Sunday of Matthew and the 5th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church


Romans 10:1-10;  Matthew 8:28-9:1

           We live in a time in which many people feel lonely and isolated, even if they are around others on a regular basis at home, work, and other settings.  Sometimes that is because we hold ourselves back emotionally from the possibility of being rejected or harmed.  Such separation is a symptom of the estrangement from God and one another which Jesus Christ came to heal.      
           The demon-possessed men in today’s gospel reading represent Gentiles who were enslaved to the worship of idols and false gods.  Their deliverance shows that Christ’s salvation is for all people, including those separated from others by the power of evil in their lives.  When He set them free from their miserable isolation, the Lord required nothing of them in advance; instead, He graciously liberated them from the degrading forces of evil and restored them to a truly human existence.  Here we see an implication of St. Paul’s instruction to the Romans: “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  At the very heart of our faith is not a requirement for meeting an objective standard; instead, the unlimited mercy of God is the very foundation of our life and extends even to demon-possessed Gentiles, as well as to you and me.  
            The Orthodox Church has many rules, many canons, traditions, and practices.  But at the heart of our faith and common life is not the obedience of law, for we are not called to be like the Pharisees of old.  Instead, we are called, as St. Paul teaches, to confess with our mouths the Lord Jesus and to believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead; if we do so, we will be saved.  “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”
            Of course, there are no magic words that can heal our souls. Instead of creating a new law, St. Paul points to the deep truth of what it means to commend all our life to Christ our God.  It means that we trust in Him as whole persons. As we offer our lives to Him, our words, deeds, and thoughts will come to embody the new life that He has brought to the world.  That is how we open ourselves to receiving His transforming grace.  That is how, like the demon-possessed men in today’s reading, we too may become living icons of the mercy of Jesus Christ.
Remember that He did not require the Gergesene demoniacs to earn their deliverance; neither does He require that of us. Instead, the Savior has graciously taken upon Himself the consequences of all human corruption and sin to the point of death, burial and descent to Hades so that He could conquer them all in His glorious third-day resurrection.  He has ascended into heaven with full, complete glorified humanity and sent the Holy Spirit to empower His Body, the Church, of which we are members.  He lives within our hearts by the Holy Spirit, casting out our demons, forgiving our sins, and enabling us to share in His eternal life even now as healed and transformed persons in relationship with Him and one another.  By His grace, Christ restores us to the dignity and freedom of those who bear the divine image and likeness.
            Those particular men were set free from the control of demons, but that was surely only the beginning of their lives in Christ.  Even though their deliverance was quite dramatic, it was only a start and they surely had to press on from there to resist temptation, to grow in holiness, and to learn to love and serve Him in their neighbors.   They certainly had old fears and habits to overcome.  And the same is true of us.  Our salvation is a process, an ongoing journey of sharing more fully in the new life that our Savior has brought to the world.  We must confess Christ more fully each day as we find greater healing, as we more fully manifest His victory over sin and death in our own lives.     
            If our religion were about meeting the requirements of a law, we could meet the standard and not think about it anymore.  We could check off a box and move on to something else; perhaps then it would make sense to condemn others who did not measure up.  But Orthodox Christianity is not about rules and regulations, but instead about growing in relationship with a Person, our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  It is about sharing in His blessedness, about partaking in His divine nature by grace.  And because God is eternal and infinite and beyond even our best attempts to define and control Him, there is no upward limit on what it means to unite ourselves to Him.  
            So we are constantly as much in need of Christ’s mercy as were those demon-possessed fellows. We say the Jesus Prayer precisely because we are sinners in need of Him.  The more we are healed by His grace, the more aware we will be of our brokenness and weakness.   The more we open our lives to Christ, the more clearly we will see how far we have yet to go, how undeserving we are, how grateful we must be before an infinitely holy God Who will stop at nothing—not even the cross—in order to bring us into His blessed kingdom.
            The formerly demon-possessed men could claim no credit for their deliverance.  They could only marvel at their great blessing and do their best to live lives worthy of what Christ had done for them.  We all face the same challenge:  to live in ways that reflect what our Lord has done for us, to bear witness to the healing and fulfillment that He has brought to our lives, and to continue to open ourselves more fully to His salvation.
That means that we must all continue to struggle against whatever evil thoughts, habits, words, and deeds threaten to separate us from the Lord and one another. We will not do that perfectly, for we get side-tracked and distracted from fulfilling our vocation each day.  That is precisely why we need to build holy habits—like attending services, praying daily, fasting regularly, and giving generously to the needy-- into our lives.  We need to wake up and stay alert, for the ultimate choice of our lives is an ongoing challenge.  At stake is whether we will grow in relationship with Christ by faith, repentance, and humility:  by a life that confesses what He has done and is doing for us. The other alternative is to return to the graveyard, to the isolation and slavery of worshiping the false gods of our own will.  Our choice is not whether to obey a law, but whether we will embrace deliverance and healing.  If we turn away from Christ, we do so as isolated individuals who prefer our own will to His, who would rather decay in the loneliness of a cemetery—of a dark tomb-- than share in the blessed banquet of the Kingdom.   But if we offer ourselves to the Lord, we enter into eternal joy through His Body, the Church; we become members of Him through our life together.  The standards and practices of the Church help us to grow in relationship with Him and with one another.  They sustain our faith, and help us grow in freedom from our slavery to the power of sin in our lives.  They enable us to do what we cannot do alone as isolated individuals who hide in fear from God and one another.
            So like those Gergesene demoniacs, it is time for us to leave behind the graveyard of evil and instead become who we are called to be in Jesus Christ.  It is time to embrace our true identity as those created in God’s image and likeness and called to become partakers of the divine nature. By sincere faith, honest confession, and genuine repentance, let us accept the infinite mercy of the One who loves us so much that He conquered sin and death in order to bring us from the despair of the tomb into the joy of the Kingdom.  Now is the time to turn our backs on the degrading delusions of idolatry and to enter into the unspeakable blessedness to which He calls us.  Now is the time to confess and believe in Christ as we offer every dimension of our lives to Him for deliverance and transformation that know no bounds.  Now is the time to turn from the isolated misery of sin for the joyful communion of those who have been set free through the mercy of Jesus Christ.   

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Hearing and Responding to "Follow Me": Homily for the Second Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

   Matthew 4:18-23

              Two weeks ago we celebrated the great feast of Pentecost at which the Holy Spirit descended upon our Lord’s followers, making them members of His Body, the Church.  A week ago we celebrated the Sunday of All Saints, remembering all those who have become living icons of our Lord’s salvation by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Since then, we have begun the Apostles Fast, a period in which we embrace a fairly light discipline of self-restraint in our diets in order to gain the spiritual strength that we need to become more like the apostles who responded faithfully to Christ’s command “Follow Me.”    
            When the disciples first heard that command, they were involved in their daily work as fishermen.  But the Savior called them to the fulfillment of their fishing, for they were to learn how to catch people for the Kingdom, how to draw them into the blessing of God’s salvation.  That required leaving their homes and occupations in order literally to follow Christ around in His ministry and to learn from His teaching and example as best they could.  Of course, it was not until after His resurrection that they really understood who He was and were empowered by the Holy Spirit for their unique ministry.
            Nonetheless, it was essential that the first disciples obeyed the command to leave home and follow the Messiah.  Even though their understanding was quite limited, they were prepared by their close association with Christ for what was to come.  Had they not obeyed that initial command, they would not have become His disciples. Literally leaving home and following Christ were necessary dimensions of their preparation to unite themselves with the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit, as well as for their leadership of the Church.  Their discipleship provided the context within which they would find the healing of their souls.
            We live well after Christ called His first followers to leave their nets and become fishers of men.  Many centuries have passed since the day of Pentecost when our ascended Lord sent the Holy Spirit to empower the Church.  As members of the Body of Christ, however, we participate in the eternal truth and reality of these events.  They are present to us in the life of the Church, especially as we enter into the heavenly banquet in the Divine Liturgy.  That means that He calls us as He called them.  That means that He enables us to share in His life as He did for those gathered at Pentecost.  The Apostles Fast provides us all with a good opportunity to consider whether we are placing our lives in a context that enables us to follow their example of faithfulness to the Lord.   
            Even small acts of self-denial, such as abstaining from meat in the Apostles Fast, remind us that our strength comes from God, not from our own will being accomplished or our desires for pleasure being fulfilled.  We humble ourselves when we put our own preferences for food or anything else aside in order to orient ourselves more fully to the Kingdom.  Fasting periods are times of training, of learning to say “no” to our self-centeredness so that we will find it easier to say “yes” to Christ, especially when He calls us to follow Him in ways that challenge our inclinations to place our own comfort and desires before the demands of serving Him faithfully.
            In some ways, we may think that the disciples had it easy when Christ walked up to them and told them straightforwardly what to do.  They had to leave home and their livelihood, but at least the Lord made that crystal clear to them.  Our challenge is a bit different because we encounter Him in our hearts and souls, which are not pure and so easily misinterpret what He wants us to do.  We typically get so caught up in our thoughts and self-centered desires that we hear only what we want to hear.  It is much more appealing to make God in our own image than to take up the cross of truly becoming more like Him in holiness.  It is so tempting to fill our minds with whatever fuels our passions such that we have little interest in devoting ourselves to prayer, Bible reading, or the lives and teachings of the Saints.  It is so easy to fill our eyes and ears with entertainment that denigrates the holiness of the intimate union of man and woman, that celebrates violence and hatred, and that worships at the altar of money and what it can buy.
            In so many ways, we are caught up in nets that make it difficult for us to follow the example of the apostles who left everything behind in order to follow Christ.  The good news, however, is that we have all we need in the life of the Church in order to hear and respond faithfully to the call of our Lord.  The path that leads to the healing of our souls is open to all and quite obvious.  We have died to sin in baptism and risen with Christ into a new life of holiness.  We have received the Holy Spirit personally in chrismation and are nourished with “the medicine of immortality,” our Lord’s own Body and Blood, in the Eucharist.  When we fall short of living faithfully as those who are in Christ, He Himself receives us through repentance and forgives us through Confession.  Through our life together in the Church, we have innumerable opportunities to serve and love Him in one another.   In a world so obviously corrupted by the worship of the false gods of power, pleasure, and possessions, we have tremendous resources in the Church for a radically different way of living in which self-righteous judgment and self-centered indulgence have no place at all.
            It is tempting to think that all this is fine for the Saints, but not for people like you and me who have spent decades weakening ourselves spiritually in one way or another.  We all bear the burdens of our brokenness, both personally and collectively.  The Church is a hospital for us all, and the therapy is not always easy or pleasant.  Old habits are hard to break, and pursuing a life of holiness can be as difficult as undergoing physical therapy for muscles that have grown weak through disuse or become mangled by disease or accident.  So it is rarely going to be easy or appealing for us to embrace the healing of our souls.  Work and sacrifice are required, but this is not simply a journey of self-help.  It is, instead, always a matter of opening ourselves as fully as possible to the gracious healing energies of the Holy Spirit by embracing the humble path of discipleship as best we have the strength to do at this point in our journey. 
            It really is a simple path.  If you want to discern faithfully what Christ is calling you to do in life, devote at least a few minutes regularly each day to prayer.  As your physical health allows, fast as best you can according to the guidelines of the Church.  Give as generously as you can to the needy and in support of the Church’s ministries.  Read the Bible each day and turn your attention away from entertainment that inflames your passions.  Learn more about the teaching and example of the Saints and give less attention to the rich and famous of this world.  Confess your sins in humility and strive to reorient your life to Christ.  Pray for those who have offended you every day and do your best to mend broken relationships.  Ask forgiveness of those you have wronged.  When someone asks for your forgiveness, give it readily.  Pray for the departed and for everyone in need.  Refuse to judge anyone else and focus on repenting of your own sins.  Prepare to receive the Eucharist with prayer, fasting, and regular Confession.
Do these things persistently throughout your life as you call upon the mercy of the Lord with the humility of the Jesus Prayer.  If you do so, you will be able to hear and respond to His command “Follow Me.”  And, by His grace, you may even become a Saint.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Ascending with Wounds into Heavenly Glory: Homily for the Sunday After the Ascension in the Orthodox Church

John 17:1-13
With all the problems in the world today, as well as the challenges in our own lives and families, it is tempting to lose hope.  It is easy to think that the best we can do is simply to cope with the difficulties that we face from day to day.  We may think that there is no alternative to living in terms of whatever helps us make it through the day in the world as we know it.
            During this season of the Ascension, the Church calls us to an entirely different way of responding to our persistent challenges.  Our Savior did not only conquer death through His glorious resurrection, He also ascended into heaven with a glorified body that still bore the wounds of the crucifixion.  Now He sits at the right hand of the Father in eternal glory as the God-Man in Whom the very causes of our corruption are healed.  The Ascension fulfills our original vocation as human beings to become like God in holiness. Even as we are baptized into His death and rise up with Him into eternal life, Christ calls us to ascend with Him into the Kingdom of Heaven.  He makes us participants by grace in the blessed communion shared by the Holy Trinity.
That is not only a future hope, but also a present reality for the members of Christ’s Body, the Church, whom He nourishes with His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  In every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we enter mystically into the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb.  When we unite ourselves to our Lord’s great Self-Offering, we offer ourselves as participants in His complete restoration of the human being and of the creation itself.  We offer not only bread and wine in the Liturgy, but ourselves and every dimension of our lives in the world for fulfillment as we share personally in His eternal life.  Because our Lord has ascended in glory as a complete human being Who is also divine, we may participate even now in such profound blessedness.  That is His will for each and every one of us.     
In order to do that, we must ascend with the Lord Who conquered death, “the wages of sin,” and brought even the wounds of crucifixion with Him as He sat down at the right hand of the Father in eternal glory. Instead of using our wounds, or those of our society and world, as reasons to think that God is cruel, irrelevant, or does not even exist, we must see the Ascension as a clear sign that death, destruction, and decay will not have the last word.  They do not shut us off from the blessedness that transcends what this world provides on its own terms.  Instead, it is in the midst of our deepest pains that we know the brokenness of our lives and relationships and find the strength to offer ourselves more fully to the Lord as we actually are in this world of corruption.
As long as we fool ourselves into thinking that all is well when we live according to our passions and familiar self-centered desires and habits, we will not be able to ascend with Christ.  For it is always the case that we must die to sin in order to rise up in holiness, that we must humbly repent in order to receive our Lord’s gracious healing.  He ascended after rising from the tomb, and we will ascend with Him when we share in the glory of His resurrection by turning away from the corrupting effects of sin and death.  If we remain wedded to them, we will remain captive to the distorted ways of the first Adam, the ways of this fallen world.  But if we die to them by uniting ourselves to our Lord in His journey from the cross to the heights of heaven, we will participate already in eternal blessedness even as we walk on this earth.
As the 318 Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea knew, only One Who is truly God is able to raise us up from captivity to this world of death into heavenly glory.  If Christ were merely a creature, He could never make us participants in the eternal life of God.  If He were not truly divine, His Body, the Church, would be simply another social organization operating like any other group.  But because He is “very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father by Whom all things were made” while also being fully human, every dimension of our humanity may become radiant with the brilliance of heaven through Him.
The Lord ascended with His glorified and wounded body.  Those wounds did not compromise His divinity or holiness, of course.  Indeed, it was through them that He conquered death and made clear that He is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.  And our wounds, no matter what they are, do not shut us out of the Kingdom.  We must, however, offer those wounds to Him, opening them to the healing light of His gracious divine energies.  When they are the results of our sins, we must confess and repent in humility.  When they are not, we must learn to make them points of contact for ascending with Christ in holiness.  That requires that we learn to see what our wounds reveal about our lives, our relationships, and our world, no matter how difficult that is.   We then can make them entrances into heavenly glory when they become opportunities to grow in “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-23) By offering even our darkest struggles to the Lord, we will ascend with Him to personal participation in His healing of our humanity.   
The same is true of our common life in the Church.  We will provide no credible witness to our neighbors if we do not visibly manifest a life of holiness that stands in stark contrast to the corrupt ways of a world enslaved to the fear of death.  We will not be able to speak of the Ascension with integrity unless we, as a community, become a living icon of loving union in Christ such that we are one in righteousness.  Both as a community and as particular people, we must be on guard against anything in our lives that distracts us from strengthening the Church as a sign that Christ has ascended and really does enable us all to rise up with Him into the life of heaven.  Anything that would hold us back from that high vision has no place in our lives, individually or collectively.  The more that we live out our unity in pursuing such a life, the more integrity we will have in inviting friends, neighbors, and strangers to join us as we enter in each Divine Liturgy into the heavenly banquet.  If we do not display the joy of the Ascension in our own lives each day, then we are very poor witnesses to the fullness of the Orthodox Christian faith.  The world already has enough religious organizations that do little more than help people feel better about themselves as they cope with life’s problems.  We must be something very different.  

Contrary to what many people in our culture think, the mission of the Church is not to provide us a means of escaping the world and its problems.  It is not to distract us for a couple of hours each week from our challenges or to make us think that they are somehow not real.  It is not to work us up into an emotional state that helps us feel better about ourselves.  Instead, the Body of Christ is to be a brilliant icon of what happens when this world, and its inhabitants with all their wounds, enters into heavenly glory.  Anything less is a failure to manifest in our common life the communion of love shared by the Holy Trinity. So let us all offer every aspect of our lives to our Lord Who has ascended in glory so that we may participate fully by grace in the joy that He shares eternally with His Unoriginate Father and the All-Holy and Good and Life-Giving Spirit, to Whom be all glory, laud, and honor, both now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.             

Sunday, May 21, 2017

We Must Obey in Order to See: Homily for the Sunday of the Blind Man in the Orthodox Church

John 9:1-38
             Christ is Risen!  
             Seeing is believing.  There are many things in life that we will not accept unless we see them with our own eyes.  And there are some things that we have to learn how to see because they are not obvious to the untrained eye.  It often takes experience to see something rightly, to understand its true significance.  If that is true in everyday life, it is all the more the case in how we know God.
            We began our celebration of Pascha several weeks ago when we saw the light of a flame in the darkness of midnight.  Until the brilliant light of the Savior’s resurrection, humanity wandered in spiritual blindness as a result of being enslaved to corruption.  “The wages of sin is death,” and the darkness of the tomb had reigned supreme since the fall of Adam and Eve.  Like the man born blind in today’s gospel reading, our capacity to participate in the blessed holiness for which we were created was grossly deformed.   Enslaved to the fear of death and cast out of Paradise, we were all held prisoner by the darkness of the tomb which extended to the depths of our souls.   
            In sharp contrast to that darkness, we celebrate in this glorious season of Pascha that the light of Christ shines even from the grave and extends to the darkest dimensions of our lives and relationships.  To be radiant with the light of the resurrection is what it means to know God.  To know Him is not merely to have religious ideas or emotions about Him, but truly to share by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity.  It is to have the eyes of our souls cleansed, to have our minds illumined such that we move from darkness to light.  The change is certainly not in our Lord, but in us who rise with Him from death to life, from the dark night of sin to the brilliant light of holiness.   
            This great blessing is not something that we give ourselves, but which our Lord has made possible as the God-Man Who unites divinity and humanity in Himself.  That is how He heals us, personally taking upon Himself all the consequences of our corruption, even to the point of death, in order to conquer them through His resurrection.  He brings every dimension and capability of the human person into His divine life, making us radiant with the holy glory that we share by grace.  That is what it means to be truly human in His image and likeness.
When Christ spat on the ground and made clay to anoint the eyes of the blind man, He gave us a sign of how He restored us through His Incarnation, His entry into our world of flesh and blood, which was necessary for our healing.  The blind man’s sight was restored when he obeyed Christ’s command to wash in water, which is a sign of how He illumines us in baptism.  Of course, we are baptized into the Lord’s death in order to rise up with Him into a life of holiness.
Our spiritual sight is not restored by denying our bodily limitations or the reality of the physical struggles that we face, whether illness, poverty, or anything else.  Instead, our Risen Lord heals our souls when we offer ourselves fully to Him in obedience.  The blind man in today’s gospel lesson did what the Lord told to Him to do, walking to the pool of Siloam and washing off the clay from His eyes.  He had to obey Christ’s command by doing something that involved his whole person.  That is how he overcame the blindness with which he had been born. Even though he thought of the Lord as only a prophet at that point, the man quickly professed faith in Him when the Lord told him His true identity.  As Christ said of Himself as the Son of God to the man, “You have seen Him, and it is He who speaks to you.”
            As Orthodox Christians, we routinely make bold claims about seeing the true light and beholding the resurrection of Christ.  We employ the sense of sight in the worship of God with icons, crosses, candles, vestments, and in many other ways.  We put on Christ like a garment in baptism and are filled personally with the Holy Spirit in chrismation.  We receive our Lord’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion, as we participate already in the Heavenly Banquet.  He is the Bridegroom and, as His Church, we are His Bride and members of His own Body.  We do not think of Him as only a prophet or a righteous man, but know that He is truly the Son of God.  There is no question, then, that He has restored our sight, giving us all the ability to embrace Him from the depths of our souls.  He has done for us what we could never do simply by ourselves, even as someone born blind could never give himself sight.
            Imagine how great our responsibility is, then, to open the eyes of our souls as fully as possible to the light of Christ.  For as He is infinitely holy, there is no upward limit to the holiness to which He calls us.  Even as the healing of our bodies is a process that requires our cooperation and effort, the same is true with the healing of our souls.  The blind man had to exercise what little faith he had at first by obeying Christ’s command.   That was how he put himself in the place to receive such a miraculous blessing.  And though we do not know the rest of his story, that was surely only the beginning of his journey.  He had to live as one whose eyes had been opened by the mercy of the Lord.
If we are truly to enter into the holy joy of Pascha, we must follow the example of the man born blind.  Our spiritual vision remains far from perfect, but our Risen Lord has given us all that we need to become radiant with His brilliant and holy light.  That happens when we know and experience Him from the depths of our souls, which requires offering ourselves to Him through humble obedience in our daily lives. That means joining ourselves to His great victory over death by opening even the darkest and most difficult areas of our personalities and relationships to His healing light.  There is no way to do that without living as our Lord taught, which means turning away from all that obscures His light in us, from all that keeps us captive to the darkened ways of sin and corruption that we find so appealing.   
As we prepare to move from Pascha to the Ascension, let us discern where we persist in darkness and what we need to do in order to obey our Lord more faithfully as we rise with Him from the grave to the heights of heavenly glory.  Let us grow in our personal participation by grace in the life of Christ by living daily as those who have beheld the glory of His resurrection and who have seen the true light.  The Savior has already done the miraculous for us by conquering death.   Now it is our responsibility to respond faithfully as we open ourselves to the Light Who shines so brightly that He overcomes even the darkest tomb.  And as hard as it is to believe, He will illumine even the darkest and most corrupt dimension of our lives, if we will only offer ourselves to Him in humble, trusting obedience each day.
  The good news of Pascha is not confined to a season of the year, but is always the fundamental truth of our life in Christ.  Now we must live as those who have been blessed to behold the glory of the resurrection.  Now we must remove every obstacle to embracing personally the brilliant, radiant light of the empty tomb.  Now we must live with all the holy joy of a man born blind who can finally see the light.  That is what it means to know God and to be truly human in His image and likeness, for Christ is Risen!  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Courage to Face the Truth: Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church

John 4:5-42
Christ is Risen!
It is strangely appealing to define ourselves by our failures, especially when others know that we have stumbled and treat us poorly as a result.  As well, our own pride often causes us to lose perspective such that we obsess about how we do not measure up to whatever illusion of perfection we have accepted.  People are often their own harshest critics in ways that are not healthy at all.
            On this Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, we celebrate that our Lord’s great victory over death enables us to be free from defining ourselves by our sins or by how other people may view us.   He rises in glory not only over the tomb and Hades, but over all the distortions of the beauty of the human person created in His image and likeness. Today we commemorate that His salvation extends to our most painful failings and to the harsh judgments of others upon us. Even such difficult circumstances may become points of entry into the joy of the empty tomb.
            The woman at the well certainly knew what it was like to be defined by others as someone who did not measure up.  She was a Samaritan, and therefore rejected by the Jews as a heretic and a member of a despised group that had intermarried with Gentiles.  She herself had been married five times and was now with a man to whom she was not married, which may have been why she went to draw water at the unlikely time of high noon.  Perhaps she went to the well in the heat of the day in order to avoid the other Samaritan women who wanted nothing to do with someone like her.  
            Imagine her surprise, then, when the Savior asked her for a drink of water and then engaged in a conversation about spiritual matters with her.  Jewish men simply did not strike up conversations with women in that time and place, and consuming food or drink from a Samaritan was out of the question.  How even more shocking it is that Jesus Christ’s conversation with her is the longest recorded between Him and any one person in the four gospels.  He spoke straightforwardly to her and did not shy away from uncomfortable truths that hit her where she lived.  But instead of shutting down the conversation or running away in fear, this Samaritan woman told the people of her village about Christ.  As a result, many of her neighbors came to believe in the Lord.
            This Samaritan woman is known in the Church as St. Photini, which means “the enlightened one.”  Through the Savior’s conversation with her, Photini became an evangelist who boldly shared the good news, even to her Samaritan neighbors who were surely used to viewing her in anything but spiritual terms.  That took tremendous courage.  Photini was not only brave in preaching to them, but ultimately in responding to the persecution of the pagan Roman emperor Nero, to whom she said “O most impious of the blind, you profligate and stupid man! Do you think me so deluded that I would consent to renounce my Lord Christ and instead offer sacrifice to idols as blind as you?”  The Great Martyr Photini refused to back down and gave the ultimate witness to Christ’s victory over death by laying down her life for Him.  The Savior had set her free even from fear of the grave.
            Too many of us today flee in shame from uncomfortable truths, whether we encounter them in our own thoughts or in the opinions of others.  Too many of us define ourselves by our failings, weaknesses, and temptations.  Too many of us accept some unrealistic cultural standard of “the good life” as the norm we must meet in order to be worthwhile.  Thank God, St. Photini the Great Martyr did none of that. In response to her shocking encounter with the Savior, she humbly acknowledged the truth about her brokenness; she did not react defensively or make excuses.  She did not end the conversation or run away in shame.  Instead, she was open to the healing of her soul, to the possibility of a new and restored life through the mercy of the Lord.  This was such a great blessing to her that she immediately shared the good news with the people of her village and refused to stop, even to the point of laying down her life.
            In this joyous season of Pascha, we celebrate that Christ’s victory over death delivers us from all the corrupting effects of sin, including our deeply ingrained habits of thought and action that distract us from facing the truth about ourselves.  By setting us free from bondage to the fear of death, our Risen Lord enables us to make even our most bitter failures points of entry into the new day of His eternal life.  He has conquered death, the wages of sin, which means that our sins now have only the power over us that we allow them to have.  When, like St. Photini, we acknowledge them straightforwardly and turn away from them, we participate personally in the good news of Pascha.  We rise from death to life as we enter into the joy of the empty tomb.  But when we proudly refuse to confess or repent of our sins, we remain in slavery to our self-centered illusions of perfection, to our sense of shame that we do not live up to the standards that we think we must meet in order to be worthwhile.
In other words, we insist on being our own saviors.  But since we cannot conquer death or heal our own souls, that is nothing but foolish pride that keeps us bound to the fear of death, to the terror of realizing how weak we are before the challenges we encounter both within our own minds and in relation to others. Our failures and weaknesses are not good in and of themselves, but we put them to good use when we let them open our eyes to the truth of who we are, of where we stand before the Lord.  If we will use them as ways to humble ourselves without making excuses or otherwise blinding ourselves to what they reveal about us, then we will put ourselves in the blessed place of St. Photini, who was thirsty for strength and healing that she knew she could not give herself, for “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” from the depths of her soul.
Like her, we must refuse to be paralyzed by guilt and shame before others and in our own minds.  Then we will take our attention off whether we measure up to some self-imposed standard and instead focus on receiving the healing mercy of Jesus Christ.  No matter what we have done, no matter how distorted and corrupt any dimension of our life may be, no matter how anyone else treats or views us, Christ is able to raise us up with Him from death to life.  That is not only a future promise, but a present reality.  He rose in glory with His wounds still visible, and no wound that we or others have inflicted puts us beyond the good news of His resurrection.  In this glorious season of Pascha, let us all become like the Great Martyr Photini by embracing enthusiastically the new life that the Savior has brought to the world, for Christ is Risen!