Monday, December 17, 2012

A Light in the Darkness: Homily for the Sunday of the Forefathers in the Orthodox Church in the Aftermath of the Tragic Shooting in Connecticut

Gospel According to St. Luke 14: 16-24
St. Paul's Epistle to the Colossians 3:4-11

            This Friday’s unbelievably horrible school shooting reminds us of the depths of evil, wickedness, and pain that have corrupted and distorted our humanity.  It is difficult enough when our loved ones die of natural causes after a full life, but we do not even have the words or categories of thought to make sense of the terror of the intentional murder of young children and their teachers in a school.  Where is God when such things happen?, it is fair to ask.  Well, as hard as it may be to believe, He was born as a defenseless baby in a world where the evil King Herod plotted to have Him killed; and when that scheme didn’t work, Herod slaughtered all the young male children in the region of Bethlehem.
            In the Savior who is born at Christmas, we behold the glory of a Lord who truly becomes one of us, sharing our vulnerability and pain, and even allowing Himself to be nailed to a cross until He was dead.  Jesus Christ is no stranger to the insane evil of human beings who have so horribly distorted their nature as those created in the image and likeness of God.   And His glorious resurrection is a powerful sign that His love conquers even the grave, even the worst that the forces of wickedness can do even to the most innocent.
            Our calling as Christians is certainly to pray for those who died and for those who mourn them.  Even more fundamentally, it is also to reject from our lives whatever darkness has taken root there so that we will become beacons of Christ’s light that invites others in our darkened world to the brilliant banquet of God’s Kingdom.  St. Paul reminded the Colossians to have nothing to do with “fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness…anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language” and lying.  Those are simply the ways of death and there is no telling the damage that they will do to us and others if we let them take over our lives.  Evil is an insane spiral that takes us further away from reality one step at a time.    That is the way of the old Adam who brought sin and death into the world and which, if we let it, will suck the life out of us and leave us half human at best.  We know all too well what depraved human beings are capable of and we do not want to follow their path that leads only to the grave.        The good news that we prepare to celebrate during this season of Advent is that Jesus Christ comes to deliver us from that kind of warped, miserable existence.
             We sometimes forget that life was cheap in the world to which He was born.  For example, the pagan Romans routinely exposed unwanted infants, which meant they literally abandoned them to whatever wild animal or slave trader came along or simply to die of hunger or thirst.  They did not recognize the human dignity of poor people, slaves, or their enemies.  They literally killed human beings for entertainment in the coliseum.  Their sexual immorality was legendary, which is why St. Paul and others had to respond to cases of prostitution, incest, and other forms of debauchery in the early Church.  No, not much is new when it comes to sin.  The Messiah entered such a corrupt world in order to save it and to invite anyone who would hear—Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, male or female—to a radically different way of life characterized by selfless love toward anyone who suffers, forgiveness of those who wrong us, and control over the self-centered desires that threaten to dehumanize us all.
            Unfortunately, many were so distracted by earthly cares that they insanely excused themselves from the blessed life of the Kingdom to which the Lord invited them.  As in the parable in our gospel lesson, they obsessed about money, power, status, possessions, and even their families in ways that made them blind to the brilliant light of Christ shining right before their eyes.  The terrifying truth is that we can do the same thing, shutting ourselves out our Lord’s salvation because we insist that we know better.  We can become experts at coping with the darkness in our lives, or accepting the lies of the world that this, that, or the other thing, will make our problems go away. The harsh truth, of course, is that more of the same isn’t going to help.   They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  The more we choose the world over God, the further we drift from reality, truth, and holiness; the greater mess we will make of our lives.  The results are always the same.  
                In one sense, we are all the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind who were brought into the great banquet described in today’s gospel reading.  We have wounded, weakened, and distorted ourselves with our own sins.  We have also suffered the consequences of the corruption of everyone else from Adam and Eve to today’s criminals and terrorists.  We have all harmed one another.  And terrible tragedies like Friday’s shooting reveal an impossibly hard truth about the human condition in the world as we know it.
            In the midst of our sorrow today, we must remember that Christ was not born simply to make us feel better about our collective failings and struggles, but to save us; that is, to heal and set right all that has gone wrong with those created in God’s image and likeness.  He came to unite our poor, maimed, lame, and blind humanity with the holiness of His Divinity.  He is the God-Man who took upon Himself all our corruption to the point of death, burial, and descent into Hades in order to rise victorious over them and bring us into the eternal blessedness for which we were made.
            Let’s be honest.  Who doesn’t want to make the world a better place?  Which of us hasn’t asked what we could do to bring our culture more in line with God’s purposes?  Aren’t we all wondering what the solution is to horrible acts of violence in our society and to other manifestations of evil?  Well, Orthodox Christianity points to the heart of the matter:  Our most basic calling is to become holy by being as fully united as possible with Jesus Christ.  Whatever is not Christ-like, we should remove from our lives.  The excuses that we make for not doing so are simply that, excuses that reveal our spiritual sickness.  St. Paul told the Colossians to put their sins to death.  The gospel reading tells to get over our excuses and accept the invitation to the great joy of the Kingdom.  Unless we are seriously responding to Christ’s call to holiness in our lives, we will have nothing to offer the world that it doesn’t already have.  We must take the logs out of our own eyes before taking the specks out of other peoples’ eyes.  If we don’t do that, no one will pay any attention to what we say or do any.  And why should they?
            So we need to prepare to welcome Christ in our darkened world by first welcoming Him into even the shadowy corners of our lives.  If we do so, our parish, our families, our friendships, our workplaces, and our relationships will become beacons of light that model for others a better way and draw them to the healing that is found only in the Lord.  If we want to reduce violence in our society, we must first remember Christ’s teaching about murder in the Sermon on the Mount and root out anger and judgment from our own souls.  If we want innocent life to be protected, we must take off whatever blinders have limited our vision of the threats to the well-being of the weak and vulnerable and do what we can to help them.  If we want some level of moral decency in society, we must first become holy in our own lives.
            Our Savior brought light and life to a darkened, dying world.  The good news is that He still does.  Our calling is to respond as fully as we can to His gracious invitation to share in His joy.  If we do so, our lives will become beacons of hope to a despairing and often insane world.  That is how we as Orthodox Christians should respond to this week’s tragedy even as we prepare to welcome the baby born in Bethlehem:  By growing in holiness and drawing others to the heavenly banquet of the Kingdom of God.     


Anonymous said...

Father Phillip,
Thank you for your spiritual guidance. Two things in your homily touched my heart. First, the parallel between the recent killing of children and the slaughter of the innocents by Herod in the Christmas story. It is so easy to think that contemporary evil is somehow worse than it ever has been, but the examples from history show that it is not so. It is easy to slip into the mindset that evil is advancing in this world but God's Kingdom is not. Yet it is God who is always doing the new thing, the thing we never would have dreamed of. There is nothing new in evil; it is the same sad story, over and over.

Second, I appreciate how you related the Connecticut horror to sin in our own lives. These sorts of massacres leave us feeling helpless and out of control. It doesn't take a psychologist to realize that helplessness and hopelessness take their toll on the human body, mind,and spirit. It helps to remember that the root problem is ultimately sin, not lack of gun control, glorification of violence in the media, etc. And our own sin is something we can do something about, surrendering it to Christ and leaning on his Holy Spirit to transform us.

I hope you and your family have a blessed Christmas!
Greg Schneller

Tim Dunn said...

Thanks for sharing this with me. Your link has been sitting in my inbox for a few weeks, but the reading of your sermon was providential. Through personal "sufferings" and difficulties of all kinds, it is so refreshing to be reminded that this is what my Savior experienced. The God of all threw himself into humanity, to save us from within. If anyone gets it, he does. So we're never alone, no matter what befalls us.
God is so very close--good, bad, in it all.