Monday, October 23, 2017

"Often Disappointed, but Seldom Surprised": Thoughts on Sexual Harassment and a Culture of Depravity

        “Often disappointed, but seldom surprised.”  That old saying came to mind upon hearing of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against a leading figure in the American film industry. Alas, it is commonplace for mainstream films today to present the bodies of women as visual commodities to be bought and sold for the voyeuristic pleasures of men.  Moviegoers are so used to nudity and “strong sexual content” that most have become desensitized to what is going on:  presenting the exposed bodies of women as entertainment.  In earlier ages, men had to sneak into disreputable places to see such displays.  Now they are easily available in the privacy of their homes via the screens of computers, televisions, and the phones in their pockets.  And it is not considered scandalous to show in regular cinemas films that not long ago would have been rated X.      
            I once saw a brief interview with the film mogul in question in which he said that a particular film had “good sex” that people wanted to see.  Think about that for a moment.  The holy act of two people becoming “one flesh” has been reduced to a bit of entertainment to be sold.  It is not hard to give the clear impression in a film that a couple have gone to bed together and to leave it at that when necessary for the plot.  There is no reason to show the graphic details of their intimate union other than to inflame the passions of viewers.  Even as we hear of gratuitous vulgarity thrown into the dialogue of films so that they will merit a rating that will draw in more customers, the same is surely true of “strong sexual content.”   
            That should not be surprising in a culture with no higher standard for sex than the consent of individuals.  Many believe and act as though there were nothing sacred or even particularly profound in the intimate union of man and woman or in the dimensions of their bodies traditionally treated with modesty.  If they can be used to sell movie tickets and advertising, nothing else matters.   When actors agree to expose themselves and engage in sexually explicit scenes, they do so in the same way that they sign a contract to perform in any production.  It boils down to an commercial exchange.
            Perhaps some may view scenes of nudity and intercourse without being phased.  At least most men, however, will find their passions aroused in one way or another.  Many men, women, and children will make what they see their standard for how their bodies, and those of others, should look and how they should act sexually.  Regardless of what we intend, unrealistic and unhealthy expectations work their way through such images into our minds, souls, and relationships in a fashion that makes real intimacy more difficult.  What is fake then becomes the standard for what is real with the predictable results.  What is as intimate as life gets becomes impersonal and a matter of commercial exchange for mass entertainment.
            Should it be surprising that women typically bear the brunt of living in a society that celebrates that kind of entertainment?  As the “Me Too” campaign on social media has shown, sexual harassment and assault are epidemic.  In an age that has rejected the holiness of sex and of virtually any intrinsic moral restraints on the pursuit of pleasure, it is tragically predicable that many men will use their typically greater physical strength and economic power to take advantage of women.  The passions of men for domination and pleasure are sadly often so dominant that the fragile restraint of consent is too weak to stand in the way.  Legal standards often do not serve as a firewall to protect the intrinsic dignity of human beings, but as mere procedural hurdles to be ignored, overcome, or maneuvered around with the help of a good lawyer.  Unfortunately, they often fail to keep people enslaved to their passions from doing terrible things.
            These observations are not excuses or justifications for this horrible state of affairs, of course, but a description of the low point to which we as a culture have fallen.   Those who say that the sexual revolution has not harmed consenting adults are fooling themselves.  In a culture that has abandoned the holiness of sex and marriage and treats the bodies of women as commodities for entertainment according to the demands of the marketplace, too many men will distort or ignore the requirement of consent in order to get what they want.  
            I cannot imagine that there is a decent man alive who does not regret many of his actions, words, and thoughts in relation to women.  The passions that drive men to treat women as objects of desire to be used and dominated run deep within our corrupt souls.  No one has earned the right to be self-righteous in this area of life, which is surely one reason that Jesus Christ said that those guilty of lust are guilty of adultery.  No one is in the position to cast the first stone, for we have not achieved purity of heart or become perfect as our Father is perfect.  
That is also true for women, who also experience lust and in our culture are consuming pornography at increasing rates.  By focusing on the failures of men and the impact of cultural trends on their behavior, I do not mean to give the impression that women are free of such temptations in this area of life, but will leave it to others to comment on the particular challenges faced by women.     
Criticism of depraved cultural standards is not a matter of the pure pointing a finger at the sinners.  It is, instead, a recognition by those who struggle against their own distorted desires that we all are in this together.  Because of our common brokenness, norms and practices of decency are crucial to form men of decent moral character, as well as to protect women from harassment, assault, and otherwise being treated as less than a person in the image and likeness of God.
Men and women formed by the practices of pornography and promiscuity will be the weaker and the worse for it.  It is hard to see how even basic standards of decency may exist in a society in which young boys now routinely become addicted to pornography on their cell phones and the entertainment industry lives by some mixture of “strong sexual content” and graphic violence.  Those formed in the habit of viewing women’s bodies as objects for gratification in media of whatever kind will likely fail to develop the character necessary to respect even the requirement of consent.    
            I recently heard a brief radio news report on BBC that celebrated a certain pornographic magazine having its first “transgender woman” on its centerfold.  A female commentator spoke in glowing terms about how this publication used the public display of nudity to empower women.  The reporters spoke enthusiastically of the choice of this particular model as a great step forward in sexual liberation.  Leaving discussion of “transgender issues” for another time, I will simply comment that when dominant cultural voices lionize publications the only purpose of which is to make money by fueling the lust of men with images of the objectified bodies of women, what can be the expected outcome but a society with even weaker moral vision and less ethical strength to resist practices that lead to a culture of harassment and abuse?  That hardly sounds like liberation to me.
            In the current cultural context, the Church must form men who gain the purity of heart necessary to treat every woman they encounter with the honor due a living icon both of our Lord and of His Holy Mother.  The dominant culture will not help us with that, which is where the ascetical and sacramental life of the Church comes in. If there were ever a time for the Body of Christ to become a sign of hope for the salvation of the world in the troubled relationship of man and woman, it is now.  

Sunday, October 22, 2017

On Overcoming the Fear of Becoming our True Selves: Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Luke 8:26-39

We have probably all been surprised at some point by a family member, friend, or acquaintance who behaved out of character. We get to know people and have some idea of who they are, but then they say or do something that makes us wonder if we really know them.  If we are honest, we will acknowledge that the same is true of each of us.  We say, do, and think things that surprise even ourselves.  Sometimes we handle a problem or respond to a temptation better than we thought we would, but so often our actions reveal a brokenness that we do not like to see.  That is why we can so quickly become defensive when others see our weaknesses, and especially when they point them out.
            In today’s gospel reading we read about a man whose situation was beyond miserable.  He surely had no illusions about himself, for he was so filled with demons that he called himself “Legion.”  His personality had disintegrated due to the power of the forces of evil in his life.  That is shown by the fact that he was naked, like Adam and Eve who stripped themselves of the divine glory and were cast out of Paradise into our world of corruption.  He lived among the tombs, and death is “the wages of sin” that came into the world as a consequence of our first parents’ refusal to fulfill their calling to become like God in holiness.  This naked man living in the cemetery was so terrifying to others that they tried unsuccessfully to restrain him with chains.  People understandably feared that he would do to them what Cain had done to Abel.  But when this fellow broke free, he would run off to the desert by himself, alone with his demons.  In the Gadarene demoniac we have a vivid icon of the pathetic suffering of humanity enslaved to death, naked of the divine glory, and isolated in fear from loving relationships with others.
            Evil was so firmly planted in this man’s soul that his reaction to the Lord’s command for the demons to leave him was “What have you to do with me?...I ask you, do not torment me.”  His brokenness was such that he had no hope for healing and perceived Christ’s promise of deliverance simply as pain.  By telling the Lord that his name was Legion, he was acknowledging that the line between the demons and his own identity had been blurred.  He was in such bad shape that it was not clear where he ended and where the demons began.  The Savior then cast the demons into the herd of pigs, who ran into the lake and drowned.  In the Old Testament context, pigs were unclean, and here the forces of evil lead even them into death.
            Perhaps there is no clearer image of human brokenness in need of the healing of Christ than this miserable man.    He represents us all in many ways.  He did not ask Christ to deliver him, even as we did not take the initiative in Christ's coming to save sinners.  The corrupting forces of evil were so powerful in his life that he had lost any sense of what it meant to be someone in God’s image and likeness.  Whenever we are driven by our distorted self-centered desires, we think, speak, and act similarly. We too are often so wedded to our favorite sins that, like him, we would rather that Christ leave us alone than that He set us free.  We are often so weak and confused that we fear His healing mercy will torment us, for we have lost all hope of being set free from them.  We are afraid of what life would be like without them.
            After the spectacular drowning of the swine, the man in question was “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”  The one who had not been recognizably human returned to being his true self, was back in society, and was learning from the One Who had set him free.  That was very disturbing, however, to the people of that region.  In fact, they asked Christ to leave out of fear at what had happened.  We may find their reaction hard to understand.  What could be so terrifying about this man returning to a normal life?  Unfortunately, we all tend to get used to whatever we get used to.  What we have experienced in ourselves or in others becomes normal to us.  Even as the scary man in the tombs was afraid when Christ came to set Him free, his neighbors were afraid when they saw that he had changed.   
            It is no surprise, then, that the man formerly possessed by demons and still feared by his neighbors did not want to stay in his hometown after the Lord restored him.  He begged to go with Christ, Who responded, “Return to your home, and declare all that God has done for you.”  That must have been a difficult commandment for him to obey.  Who would not be embarrassed and afraid to live in a town where everyone knew about the wretched and miserable existence he had experienced?  It would have been much easier to have left all that behind and start over as a traveling disciple of the One who had set him free.
            But that was not what Christ wanted the man to do.  Perhaps that was because the Lord knew that the best witness to His transforming power was a person who had been healed from the worst forms of depravity and corruption.   Why should people believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world?  Surely, the lives of His followers must bear witness to His power in order to convince them.  When someone moves from slavery to the glorious freedom of the children of God, that person has moved from death to life.  Such a radical change is a sign of the truth of Christ’s resurrection, for He makes us participants in His victory over death by breaking the destructive hold of the power of sin in our lives.   
Our Lord makes it possible for us to become our true selves in Him, the Second Adam.  That means being united with Him in holiness such that, by His gracious mercy, we become “partakers of the divine nature” who fulfill humanity’s original vocation to become like God in holiness.   He has overcome our nakedness by clothing us in a robe of light in baptism, filled us with the Holy Spirit in Chrismation, and nourished us with His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  He Himself forgives and restores us through Confession and repentance.  Our Lord is even more present to us than He was to the man in today’s gospel lesson, for He has made us members of His own Body and dwells in our hearts. 
Our challenge, then, is not to ask Him to go away out of fear that He will torment us.  Sin only has the power in our lives that we allow it to have, and we all have a long, challenging journey to turn away from it.  Nonetheless, we must take the small steps of which we are capable to turn our hearts more fully toward God through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and all the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life.  When we fail, we must use our weakness to grow in constant dependence on the Lord’s mercy and strength.  We cannot save ourselves by our own power any more than the man could cast out his own demons.
  We may be as terrified to think about life without our favorite sins as the man’s neighbors were to see him in his right mind.  Sharing more fully in Christ’s victory over death will always be terrifying in a sense, for we must die to sin in order to rise up with Him in holiness.  His Kingdom is not of this world and we must crucify the distortions of our souls that have become so familiar to us.  When the struggle is hard and we want to give up, remember the difference between a naked and isolated person out of his mind due to the power of evil in his soul and that person “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”  That is really what is at stake in the question of whether we will do all that we can to welcome the Lord’s healing presence in our lives or run away from Him in fear.  May He grant us all the wisdom and strength to choose blessedness over despair, to choose life over death.   

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sacrificing in Order to Bear Fruit: Homily for the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council and the 4th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15
            In last Saturday’s football game at McMurry University, the home team was behind at half-time even though they were favored to win.  The coach had noticed that the players had not seemed to enjoy playing during the first half and told them to remember to have fun in the remainder of the game.  He reminded them that ultimately that was why they played their sport:  to go out there and have some fun.  Well, they did have fun in the second half as they came from behind to win.
In just about any area of life, we can get into trouble when we forget why got into it in the first place.  It is so easy to become distracted and confused to the point that we become blind before the most obvious truths.  It is tempting to get so caught up in matters of secondary importance that we simply miss the point, not only of an activity, but of our lives.
With His explanation of the parable of the sower, Jesus Christ instructed the disciples to think of themselves as plants that have grown from seed cast upon the ground.  Why would someone throw seed on the soil?  In this context, it was done in hope that they would take root, grow, and bear fruit. That is the most obvious reason that someone plants a garden:  in order to enjoy the growth of healthy plants.  And that is why we have all embraced the fullness of Orthodox Christianity:  to become mature plants that bear good fruit for the Kingdom of God.  In other words, we have come to Christ and His Church for the fulfillment of our most basic calling as those who bear the divine image and likeness.  We want to be united with God in holiness.  We want to find the healing of our souls.  That is in no way selfish, for doing so requires dying to self out of love for our Lord and our neighbors in so many ways.
Just like we can easily get distracted in any tense and frustrating situation, we usually find it very hard to remain focused on what is necessary to grow spiritually and bear fruit for the Kingdom.  Some are quite enthusiastic about the faith at first, but then fall away when the new wears off and they realize that growing in holiness is a long, difficult road that requires sacrificial commitment for the long haul.  Others last longer, but are overcome by “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” which they allow to dominate them, to become more real to them than the joy of sharing more fully in the life of Christ.
The world as we know it is full of distractions, and who does not have to devote significant attention to matters as pressing as sickness, paying the bills, and challenges of all kinds in our families and in our world?  To use the imagery of the parable, if gardeners wait until they have no distractions or problems of any kind, most of them will never even begin to prepare the soil.  But even if they do prepare the soil and then later allow themselves to become so distracted that they do not water the plants and protect them from weeds and pests, they will likely never have healthy plants that bear good fruit.  Just like athletes enjoying playing their sport still have to concentrate on what they are doing, gardeners who take pleasure in their work must pay attention and refuse to become distracted.
The same is true for us, if we are to abide in Christ, share more fully in His blessed life, and bear fruit for the Kingdom.  Instead of allowing whatever is going on in our lives to separate us from Him, we must make our daily cares points of contact with Him, opportunities to gain strength for living faithfully with our challenges.   That is just as true when things are going well as when they are going badly.  Even as we must not fall prey to the temptation to allow enjoying good times to become a false god, we must not allow even the darkest and most difficult problems in our lives to lead us to despair.  A garden neglected by someone who is too busy having parties to care for it probably looks just like a garden neglected by someone who is too sick to tend it. The result is the same: dead plants that ultimately dry up and blow away.  And no matter what it is that keeps us from preparing the spiritual soil of our lives, from pulling out the weeds of our souls by the roots, and from receiving the nourishment that we need in order to flourish in the Christian life, the result will be the same.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul reminded St. Titus to instruct his people not to waste their time with foolish distractions, such as arguments over pointless things with contentious people.  He wrote, “And let our people learn to apply themselves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful.”  Addressing real problems that we can actually do something about is far more spiritually beneficial than getting worked up about nonsense or matters that we cannot change.  In today’s world of constant news and social media, it is tempting to get caught up in ceaseless worry about all kinds of things and to define ourselves in terms of how popular culture divides us up as this group against that group. And it is often much more appealing to brood about our own persistent personal problems than to turn our attention to serving God and our neighbors.
The problem, then, is how little time, energy, and attention we will have left to offer to the Lord for the healing of our souls and the fulfillment of His purposes for the world.  Just as gardeners so overcome with worrying about other matters will probably not provide adequate care to their plants, we will not give adequate care to our relationship with Christ if we are so obsessed with other things that basic spiritual disciplines become afterthoughts that we admire, but do not practice.  People who do not sacrifice so that they can advance in any endeavor probably will not make much progress.  If we are not sacrificing other objects of our attention in order to pray at home and at Church on a regular basis, to share our resources and time with the poor and lonely, and to fill our minds with the Scriptures and other beneficial spiritual reading, we really cannot expect to become healthy plants that bear good fruit in the Lord’s garden.  If we are not struggling to keep our mouths shut when we want to speak in anger or judgment, to turn the other cheek when we are insulted and to forgive our enemies, and to gain the strength to overcome our many addictions to our self-centered desires, we cannot really hope to find healing for our souls.
Gardeners do not earn a good crop by their dedicated labors, but their diligent work opens their little plot of land to the power of the natural world.  Faithful Christians do not earn the healing of their souls by conscientious practice of the spiritual disciples, but that is how they open themselves to the gracious divine energies of our Lord.   Amidst all the other appealing things that we could be doing, we must invest ourselves each day in what we know it takes to participate more fully in the life of Christ.   We must refuse to be distracted from the one thing needful of hearing and obeying the Word of God, for He is the One in Whom we will find the fulfillment of our most fundamental desire as human beings:  to be united with God in holiness.
If we stay focused on Christ, and do what it takes to unite ourselves more fully to Him each day, then we will be like the good seed in the parable who “hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”  No, that will not happen by accident, but by persistently turning away from all that would threaten to keep us from bearing good fruit for the Kingdom of God.  It will happen by persistently investing ourselves in what it takes to flourish in the garden of the Lord.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sharing the Mercy We Have Received as God's Temple: Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost & Second Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1; Luke 6:31-36

How we see ourselves plays a very important role in how we live.  Many people define themselves in light of their own weaknesses in ways that keep them chained to whatever shattered personal history they may have.  It is easy to weigh ourselves down with ways of thinking that hold us in bondage, especially when we think that there is no possibility of us changing.  When we do that, we simply enslave ourselves further to a distorted perspective on where we stand before God and in relation to others.

When St. Paul addressed the Gentile Christians of Corinth as “the temple of the living God,” he was doing something no one would have anticipated.  As his letters to the Corinthians make clear, they were converts from paganism who had to be corrected from their tendency to fall back into old ways of living on everything from worshiping false gods to engaging in sexual immorality.  Not only were they Gentiles, they apparently continued to fall back into the very ways of living that the Jews associated with the perversions of strangers and foreigners.   

The Old Testament contains many warnings to the Jews to have nothing to do with Gentiles.  That is why St. Paul quotes Hebrew prophets admonishing the Jews to be entirely separate from the corrupt ways of other peoples.  What is so shocking, of course, is that he now applies that instruction to the Gentile Christians of Corinth.  Those who were hated and feared for their immorality and paganism are now themselves “the temple of the living God” in Jesus Christ.  They are His people, His sons and daughters, to whom the promises of Abraham have been extended through faith.  Because of this great dignity, St. Paul tells them to be clean “from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”

No matter how debauched the Corinthians had been before becoming Christians, and no matter how gravely they had sinned since their baptism, the Apostle urges them to remember who they are in Jesus Christ and to live accordingly.  He calls them to refuse to define themselves by their sins, past or present.  The point is not how they have fallen short or what particular temptations they face.  The point is to accept in humility who they are by the grace of God and no longer to give any place to sin and corruption in their lives.  Whatever does not belong in God’s holy temple does not belong in them, for their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  St. Paul calls them to live according to the high calling and dignity that is theirs in Jesus Christ, not according to whatever sins have enslaved them in the past or still threaten to distract them from offering every dimension of their lives to the Lord.

We may be tempted to think that those Corinthian converts had it easier than we do.  After all, they lived in a world in which it was obvious who the false gods were.  The ways of the pagan culture were diametrically opposed to those of the Church in many ways.  But as the problems St. Paul had to address in Corinth indicate, there was actually nothing easy at all about being a Christian in that time and place.  Though they take different forms, the challenges of taking up our crosses and following the Lord are always with us; and no generation navigates them perfectly.

In today’s gospel reading, the Savior teaches that we must do something that seems impossibly hard in every generation, namely, loving our enemies.  He reminds us not to define ourselves by what seems easy or even natural in our world of corruption by simply being nice to those who are nice to us.  Even terrorists and gangsters do that, of course.  There is no great virtue in loving those from whom we expect love in return.  Far more challenging is the calling not to be defined by the disagreeable actions and words of others or by how we are inclined to respond to them.  Even as the Corinthian Christians were sorely tempted to return to what was comfortable and convenient to them in light of their pagan past, we will find it much easier to hate and condemn our enemies than to be generous, kind, and forgiving toward them.  There is much in our culture, and much that somehow passes for Christianity in our society, that would tell us we are perfectly justified in allowing fear, resentment, and self-righteous judgment to shape how we respond both to particular people and to certain groups.  Those who worship the false gods of worldly power and self-centeredness may think that loving their friends and hating their enemies helps them get what they want.  Because they set their sights so slow, they may be right—at least for a time.  Even terrorists and gangsters will have a measure of success by their own standards. 

But what on earth should that have to do with us, who by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ have become “the temple of the living God”?  Our goal is not to achieve this or that earthly goal like another interest group or faction, but to become “merciful, even as your father is merciful.”  Our goal is to live as sons and daughters of the Lord, cleansed from every stain, and to “make holiness perfect in the fear of God.” 

We are just like the Gentile Christians of Corinth who, purely by God’s grace, moved from aliens to heirs, from hated foreigners to those who have inherited the promises to Abraham in Jesus Christ.  We must separate ourselves, then, from much that is appealing to us in our culture, from much that would keep us enslaved to old habits.  We must shut our ears to voices that associate strength with bondage to the passions of anger and hatred, as though it is somehow virtuous to hold grudges and refuse to forgive.  We must shut our eyes to the habit of seeing as neighbors only those who are like us in how we look, how we live, or how we believe.  Thank God, His mercy extends even to sinners like you and me.  If that is the case, then how can we refuse to extend mercy to anyone?  Did not Christ die and rise again in order to save the entire world, including those who nailed Him to the Cross?  Even as there are no limits to His love, there should be no limits to ours.   If we judge others by merely human standards of any kind, we fall well short of showing to others the same mercy that we want for ourselves.

There is no limit to the holiness to which our Savior calls each and every one of us.  We are all weakened by our own sins and those of others.  We may find it impossible to believe that our lives will ever manifest the holiness of God’s temple.  That was surely true of St. Paul before his conversion, as well as of the Gentile Christians who came to faith from pagan backgrounds.  Our culture teaches us primarily to believe in ourselves, but we must primarily believe in the healing mercy of our Savior, which extends even to the most unlikely candidates “to make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”  If before such a high calling, you feel as unworthy as a Corinthian pagan, then thank God for that profound insight and use it for your humility. For we never stand before the Lord based on what we deserve.

The best way to thank Him for His mercy is to extend that same mercy to others, which is possible only if we refuse to define ourselves as anything but His beloved sons and daughters, as His holy temple.  The more we embrace this blessed calling, the more strength we will have to turn away from everything that would separate us from fulfilling our vocation to become like God in holiness.  In some ways, the message is really very simple.  We are the temple of God by His grace.  It is time we started living like it as we show love, do good, and extend mercy to neighbors who need His grace just as much as we do.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Finding Healing Through Sacrifice: Homily for the Sunday After the Exaltation of the Cross in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 2:16-20 ; Mark 8:34-9:1
Today we continue to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  It may seem strange that we devote certain periods of the Church year especially to the Cross because it is so characteristic of our entire life in Christ.  No matter what else is going on in the Church or in our own lives, we are never done with the Cross, for our Savior calls us—just as He did His original disciples—to take up our crosses and follow Him each and every day.  That is not a command limited to certain days or periods, for it is a calling that permeates the Christian life.      
            Our Lord’s disciples, like the other Jews of that time, had apparently expected a Messiah who would have had nothing to do with a cross.  They wanted a successful ruler, someone like King David, who would destroy Israel’s enemies and give them privileged positions of power in a new political order.  So they could not accept His clear word that He would be rejected, suffer, die, and rise again.  When St. Peter actually tried to correct Him on this point, Christ called him “Satan” and said that he was thinking in human terms, not God’s.  To place the pursuit of worldly power over faithful obedience was a temptation Christ had faced during His forty days of preparation in the desert before His public ministry began.  Then that same temptation came from the head disciple, and the Lord let St. Peter know in no uncertain terms that He must serve God and not the powers of this world. To place worldly success over sacrificial obedience was, and is, simply the work of the devil. 
              The Savior told the disciples what they did not want to hear:  that they too must take up their crosses and lose their lives in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  The same is true for us, for whatever false gods we are tempted to serve cannot conquer sin and death or bring healing to our souls.  To serve them is to become their slaves and to receive nothing in return but weakness and despair.  The word of the Cross is that we too must lose ourselves in the service of the Kingdom in order to participate personally in our Lord’s great victory and blessing, both now and for eternity. 
            Though we do not like to acknowledge it, true holiness contradicts conventional standards of success in our corrupt world.  The way of the Cross judges all nations, people, and cultures, and makes clear how they fall short.  The witness of the martyrs from the origins of the faith right up until today in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere makes that especially clear.  But let us not think that taking up the cross is reserved only for those called to make the ultimate sacrifice.  For He calls every one of us to become a living martyr by dying to our sinfulness, to how we have wounded ourselves, our relationships, and our world.  To turn away from corruption in any of its forms is to take up the cross.  We do not want to hear it, but if we want to share in the joy of Christ’s resurrection, we must first participate in the struggle, pain, and sacrifice of crucifixion.
           That does not mean convincing ourselves that we are being persecuted for our faith whenever someone criticizes or disagrees with us.  It does not mean having a “martyr complex” in which we sacrifice in order to gain sympathy from others.   We must never distort our faith into a way of getting what we want from others, a habit of feeling sorry for ourselves, or a means of justifying hatred or resentment towards anyone for any reason.  If we crucify others even in our thoughts for whatever reason, we turn away from the true Cross. Instead, our calling is to follow the example of our Lord in forgiving even those who hate and reject us.  
          The One Who offered up Himself calls us to crucify our own sinful desires and actions, the habits of thought, word, and deed that lead us to worship and serve ourselves instead of God and neighbor.  That is very hard to do in a culture that celebrates self-centeredness and self-indulgence.  In the name of being true to ourselves, many today justify everything from adultery and promiscuity to abusing and abandoning their own children. If any of their desires goes unfulfilled, many feel justified in falling into anger, hatred, and even violence toward those who offend them.  Many people are such slaves to their own desires that there is no limit to their wrath when those desires are not met.  Of course, this is simply a form of idolatry, of worshiping ourselves instead of the One who went to the Cross for our salvation.      
            If we are honest, we will confess that living that way simply makes us miserable, ashamed, and even more enslaved to our passions.   Contrary to popular option, it is a path toward ever greater weakness, not toward strength of any kind.  It may seem possible to gain the whole world for a time by living that way, but those who do still end up losing their souls.    
Saint Paul said of himself, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.”  By dying to his sins, St. Paul became a living icon of the Lord.  Our Savior’s glorification of humanity was made present in his life.  He became truly himself in the divine image and likeness by sharing in the Lord’s death and resurrection.  The same is true of all the Saints, of all those who have manifested in their own lives the holiness of our Lord, whether they died as martyrs or not.      
In our culture, it is not hard to find false substitutes for taking up our crosses and following our Lord.  We may think that simply expressing ourselves is somehow really virtuous.   But true holiness is much more demanding than stating an opinion, “liking” a post on social media, or putting a bumper sticker on our car.  For example, it is much harder to give of our time, energy, and resources to help a troubled or needy person than it is to agree with the idea of helping others.  It is much more difficult to live a life of chastity and purity as man and woman in our decadent culture than it is to call for moral decency in society or to criticize others whose struggles we do not know.  Most of us have more than enough work to do in purifying our own hearts before we start worrying too much about how others are doing.
Regardless of how correct we may be on any issue or problem, words and thoughts alone will not help us die to the power of sin in our lives, especially if they inflame passions such as self-righteous pride or judgment toward particular people.  In order for our faith to be more than a reflection of how we think or feel, we must act in ways that require self-sacrifice and help to purify our hearts.  We must actually follow Christ in our daily lives by taking up our crosses.  
We may do so by enduring sickness or other persistent personal challenges and disappointments with patience, humility, and deep trust that the Lord will not abandon us.  There is no “one size fits all” journey to the Kingdom, no legal definition, even as the Saints include people of so many different life circumstances and personalities.  Regardless of our situation, we all have the opportunity to bear our crosses in relation to the particular challenges that we face. Most of us do not need to go looking for spiritual challenges; if we will open our eyes, we will see that they are right before us.   
Christ calls us all to live as those who are not ashamed of His Cross.  That means that we must take practical, tangible steps every day in order to die to the corrupting influence of sin so that we may participate more fully in the new life that our Savior has brought to the world.  If we do not, then we deny our Lord and His Cross.  If we do not, we worship the false god of self because we refuse to place obedience to the way of the Savior over obedience to our own self-centered desires.  Our ultimate choice is not between this or that opinion or idea, but between uniting ourselves to our Lord in His great Self-Offering and simply serving ourselves. One is a path to life, while the other leads only to the grave. 
 If we ever think that we are serving the Lord faithfully when we are not sacrificing to bear our crosses, then we should think again.  We must not commemorate the Cross only in certain periods of the Church year, but every day of our lives in how we live, how we treat others, and how we respond to our temptations, weaknesses, and chronic challenges.  The Savior offered Himself in free obedience on the Cross for the salvation of the world, and it is only by taking up the cross of dying to sin’s corruption in our lives that we will share in the great victory that He worked through it. He conquered death in His glorious resurrection on the third day. We will participate personally in His great triumph only if we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him.  That is what it means to be one of His disciples.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Becoming a New Creation Through the Cross: Homily for the Sunday Before the Elevation of the Holy Cross & the After-Feast of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 6:11-18; John 3:13-17
Most people probably think of birth and death as totally different and unrelated things.  We often associate one with great joy and hope, while the other is simply a sorrowful ending.  If we think simply in terms of our experience in this world of corruption, then it makes sense to view them in that way.  But if we place them in the context of what our Lord has accomplished through His Cross, then we will understand them very differently.
            Today we continue to celebrate the Nativity of the Theotokos even as we anticipate the feast of the Elevation of the Cross later this week.  That we magnify the Cross should not be surprising to anyone who knows anything about Christianity, for it is through His great Self-Offering on the Cross that our Savior took the full consequences of sin and death upon Himself, and thus conquered them in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  His death is our entryway into the new life of the Kingdom, into the “eighth day” of the new creation.
The importance of the birth of the Virgin Mary may be a bit more obscure, however. Perhaps the place to begin understanding the importance of her birth is with our first parents, Adam and Eve.  By choosing to satisfy their own prideful desires instead of fulfilling their calling to become ever more like God in holiness, they ushered in the cycle of birth and death that has enslaved every generation.  But instead of leaving us captive to corruption, God prepared across the centuries to restore us to the ancient dignity for which He created us in the first place. Joachim and Anna were a righteous, elderly Jewish couple who, like Abraham and Sarah, longed for a child.  God heard their fervent prayers and gave them Mary, whom they dedicated to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem.  That is where she grew up in preparation to become the Living Temple of the Lord when she miraculously contained Christ in her womb.
We call Mary “Theotokos” precisely because the One Whom she bore is truly divine, the eternal Son of God.  We call her the New Eve because she gave birth to the New Adam in Whom our calling to become like God in holiness is fulfilled.  As the God-Man, He united humanity and divinity in Himself, making it possible for us to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  The first Eve chose her own will over God’s and gave birth to those enslaved to death, beginning with Cain and Abel.  The New Eve said “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word” and gave birth to the One Who conquered death. 
As St. Paul knew, Christ’s healing of our fallen humanity is so profound that we become through Him “a new creation.”  The references to Adam and Eve are especially fitting in this context, for we cannot understand the gravity of our healing if we do not recognize the depths of our sickness.  Unlike the Judaizers who wanted Gentile converts to be circumcised, St. Paul saw that corrupt humanity, whether Jew or Gentile, was enslaved to death, the wages of sin.  Our problem is not so slight that we need only a few rituals or rules to improve us.  No, as the Savior told Nicodemus, we need to be reborn.  We need to move from death to life.  That is why Christ offered Himself in free obedience on the Cross:  in order to raise us up from the tomb as participants in the eternal life for which He breathed life into us in the first place.  He did not come to condemn the world, but to save it—and all of us-- as a new creation.
The good news of Christ’s salvation is so glorious that we do not want to leave out any dimension of how He has set right all that has gone wrong with humanity across the ages.  We want to tell this beautiful story in full detail--past, present and future.  Since He had to be a real human being in order to save real human beings, Jesus Christ had to have a mother.  At one level, that is simply a fact of what it means to be human.  But as we know from St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, He also had to have a mother who freely welcomed Him into her life.  He had to have a mother who chose to obey God’s calling to her, even though she could not have possibly known all that her agreement would mean.  Mary did not know how a virgin could become pregnant and give birth while remaining a virgin.  Well, who does?  But her humble, trusting obedience played a crucial role in how salvation came into the world.  He could not have been the God-Man unless he was born of a woman.  He could not have become the Second Adam were it not for the consent of the New Eve.
The Theotokos’ birth resonates beautifully with so much Old Testament imagery.  She was miraculously conceived by an elderly couple whose barrenness represents the pain and despair of a world enslaved to sin and death.  Joachim and Anna could not overcome childlessness by themselves, even as we cannot overcome the grave by our own power.   God’s blessing on their intimate union in conceiving the Theotokos is a sign of the healing of the frustrations of the relationship between man and woman, which also result from the rebellion of our first parents.  Like Abraham and Sarah, they had to wait for a very long time, but finally God gave them a child. As Hannah did with Samuel, they gave the child to God in the Temple, where she grew up in preparation to receive Christ into her life in a unique way as His Living Temple. The promises to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ and extend to all with faith in Him.  The Theotokos’ birth is a crucial dimension of how God prepared for the fulfillment of those promises.  We cannot tell the story of Christ without also telling hers.
 If we want the best example of what it means to become “a new creation” in Him, we need only look to her as the first and model Christian who, like St. Paul, did not “glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”  Nothing about the Theotokos’ life was a conventional religious accomplishment that drew the praise of others at the time.   She is the mother of One Who was crucified as a blasphemer and a traitor. She saw Him on the Cross with her own eyes.  As St. Symeon told the Theotokos at Christ’s presentation in the Temple, “a sword will pierce your soul as well.” (Luke 2:35) But it was precisely through the horror of the Cross that the Savior brought the world into the new day of the Kingdom.  He makes us “a new creation” not by giving us mere rules and rituals by which we can try make ourselves worthy or respectable, but by enabling us to become participants in the great victory He won through His crucifixion and resurrection.
In order to accept that high calling, we must be willing to die to all that holds us back from playing our role in fulfilling God’s purposes for the new creation.  Like Joachim and Anna, we must be prayerful and patient.  Like the Theotokos, we must say “yes” even when we cannot have a full understanding of what it will mean to obey.  In all things, we must unite ourselves to the Lord in His great Self-Offering on the Cross, and refuse to base our lives on anything or anyone else.  We should remove from our lives anything that we cannot offer to Him for blessing.  We should welcome into our lives every opportunity to become more like Him in holiness.  In other words, we should move in Him from death to life.  The point is not to become conventionally religious or morally impressive, but to embrace the salvation He worked on the Cross that extends to you and me, as well as to the rest of the world.   For His death truly is our life, our birth into the new creation of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Rejecting Self-Centered Idolatry Through Love for Christ and Our Neighbors: Homily for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost and the 13th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 16:13-24; Matthew 21:33-42
                      As with anything else in life, it is possible to make religion simply a means of getting what we want.  Self-centeredness is a subtle temptation that so easily distorts even our highest commitments.  We must be constantly on guard against making everything about ourselves, for otherwise we will easily fall into a form of idolatry in which we attempt to use God and everyone around us for our own purposes.
That is what the tenants did in our Lord’s parable of the vineyard.  They did not own the vineyard, but were leasing it out with the arrangement that the landlord would get his fruit at harvest time.  But when he sent servants to collect the fruit, the tenants beat and killed them.  They did the same thing to the next group of servants that he sent, and ultimately killed the landlord’s son because they wanted to take his inheritance.  In other words, they wanted not only all the fruit, but the vineyard itself.  They showed no respect for anyone and would stop at nothing to fulfill their greedy desires.
Christ spoke this parable against the Sadducees and Pharisees in the days leading up to His crucifixion.  Right before this parable, St. Matthew reports that the Lord said that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of God before those who had so terribly distorted the faith of Israel for the sake of their own power.  He had also recently cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem by chasing out those who had made God’s house a den of thieves. The religious leaders of the Jews rejected Him as the Messiah, handing Him over to crucifixion by the Romans, because He was a threat to their influence, status, and goals.  In doing so, the Lord foretold in the parable that they were rejecting the corner stone, the very foundation, of their life in God.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul calls the Gentile Christians of Corinth to a very different way of life. They were not physical descendants of the Hebrews of the Old Testament, but had become their spiritual heirs through faith in Christ.  The promises to Abraham have been extended and fulfilled in our Lord, Who is the Savior of all Who turn to Him with humble faith and repentance. As those grafted into the olive tree of Israel, the Gentile Christians stood on the one true foundation of Christ, the true Corner Stone, in Whom even strangers and foreigners have become “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” (1 Pet. 2:9)
St. Paul exhorts them to “be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, and be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”  As a former Pharisee, he knew how easily even the best religious teachings and practices may be distorted by self-centeredness, pride, and a desire for power over others.  The Corinthians had massive spiritual problems, but he holds up to them the example of “the household of Stephanas” in their devotion “to the service of the saints.”  He reminds the people to obey and honor those who embody such faithfulness.  He stresses the importance of keeping love for Christ at the heart of their common life: “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.”  St. Paul knew that the Corinthians desperately needed good examples to follow, even as he knew how the faith could be so easily distorted by those driven by self-love instead of love for Christ.  He instructed the Corinthians to be on guard against anything that distracted them from loving God with every ounce of their being and loving their neighbors as themselves.   And, of course, the Lord Himself had taught that, if we love Him, we will keep His commandments.  (John 14:15)
The contrast between the selfishness of the tenants in the parable and the way of life to which Christ calls us could not be more stark.  On the one hand, we encounter those who are so consumed with selfishness and disregard for others that they will even kill innocent people.  The Lord spoke this parable against those who rejected and crucified Him in the name of their religion and nation.  They were the respectable religious leaders of their day and enjoyed their position and influence.  They wanted a Messiah who served their agendas, and they could not tolerate One Who showed compassion to sinners, blessed Gentiles and Samaritans, and proclaimed a Kingdom not of this world in which “the last will be the first, and the first will be last.” (Matt. 20:16)   So just as the tenants in the parable killed the son of the landlord in order to get what they wanted, those who had corrupted the faith of Israel conspired to kill the Son of God.
Here we have a reminder of where the self-centered distortion of religion inevitably leads: to an idolatry so profound that it rejects the true God.  It not only refuses to worship Him, but does its best to reject Him completely, to make Him totally irrelevant to how we live our lives.  The danger, of course, is that it is so easy to keep up the illusion that we are serving God even as we reject Him, when we do so in the name of religion. That is why the idolaters of every generation who place nation, race, or any group or goal before the way of Christ may actually believe that they serve the Lord in Whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) In reality, however, we turn away from Him and bring judgment upon ourselves when we proclaim our righteousness even as we fail to see His image and likeness in every human person.  Like the Sadducees and Pharisees of old, we will end up rejecting the true Corner Stone of our life in God if we live that way. 
His Eminence, Metropolitan JOSEPH, has directed all the parishes of our Archdiocese to take up a collection this month for the victims of Hurricane Harvey.  The lives of millions of people have been disrupted by the storm and thousands have lost their homes and livelihoods.  It has been inspiring to see so many average people in boats and trucks doing what they can to rescue complete strangers out of the goodness of their hearts.  Even though our parish is small and can barely meet its own budget, we must all do what we can to give sacrificially to love and serve Christ in those who have become “the least of these” as a result of this great disaster.
Of course, we are not billionaires who can give massive amounts and meet great needs.  Instead, we are like the disciples with their few loaves and fish before a hungry multitude of thousands.  Like them, we simply have to offer to Him what we can, trusting that He will make it an abundant blessing in ways that we never could by our own power.
We must also remember the impact upon ourselves of making whatever small donations we can to help our needy neighbors.  The Church has always known that almsgiving is a powerful tool for fighting self-centeredness, for helping us learn to redirect our love from ourselves to the Lord and our neighbors.  It is a way of investing ourselves in the life of the Kingdom and of offering ourselves for the fulfillment of God’s purposes in the world.  In doing so, we guard against the selfish distortion of religion that we see in those who rejected Christ in the first century and those who reject Him today by worshiping nation, politics, race, money, or any other human goal.  By offering even a small portion of our resources out of love for Christ in our neighbors, we open ourselves more fully to the eternal life of the One Who offered Himself on the Cross for the salvation of the entire world.   He is love, and we unite ourselves more fully to Him when we put off serving our own desires in order to meet the needs of others with humble faith.
So unlike the tenants in the parable, let us offer the fruit of our labors to the Lord out of obedient love.  That is how we will find healing from the self-centeredness that can so easily turn religion into nothing but idolatry.  If we do not want to end up rejecting Christ in the name of a corrupt religion, we must follow St. Paul’s advice: “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, and be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.”