Saturday, May 24, 2014

Open Your Eyes to the Light of the Kingdom: Homily for the Sunday of the Blind Man in the Orthodox Church

             I am never out as late at night as I am after the Pascha liturgy and the party that follows.  In the midst of that dark night, Pascha is a light shining in the darkness and blindness of this world.  Around midnight, one candle is lit, and the priest chants, “Come receive the light from the Light that is never overtaken by night, and glorify Christ Who is risen from the dead.”  Then we all light our candles, exit the church, sing His resurrection, and glorify His victory over death as we enter into the beauty of a brightly lit church.   The Pascha service is truly a glorious experience.
            But if we limit the bright light of Pascha to that service or even to a 40-day season, we will have missed the point.  For in Christ’s resurrection, our Lord brings light to the entire world.  He restores sight to the blind and gives life to the dead.  He opens the darkest tomb to the brilliant light of life eternal.   The light of His resurrection floods the entire universe.
            But we must not rest content with general statements about the light of Christ, for we are all to be illumined by Him to the very depths of our hearts and souls.  Like the man whom Jesus Christ healed in today’s gospel text, we are all blind from birth:  held captive by the corruptions of death, our passions, and the accumulated weight of human sin all around us.  We have worshipped the creature, especially ourselves, instead of the Creator.  We have looked for fulfillment in the vanity of life:  money, power, pleasure, appearances, impressing others, and getting our own way.  We find it easy to think only of ourselves and our will, but so hard to live with the humility and selfless love of Christ.  We define ourselves over against other people, and build ourselves up by putting them down and harboring resentment.   So much of our life has been a wandering in darkness and we may have despaired of things ever getting any better.  At times, we may not have the eyes to see any light at all.
            The good news of Pascha is that, in Christ, we may pass over from this living death to life eternal.  The spiritual blindness of our souls may be healed.  If we develop the eyes to see it, we may leave behind our slavery to sin, our addiction to the passions, the distortion of ourselves that we have brought about.  We may rise up from these darkened, pointless ways of living to the light, truth, and joy of the kingdom of heaven.  We may share in Christ’s eternal life, in His victory over sin and death, even now.
            But we have to be honest with ourselves:  it is much easier to remain in the darkness than to move into the light.  Just as our eyes need time to adjust when we leave a movie theater and walk into the sunshine of a summer day, the eyes of our souls are not cleansed in an instant.  Our salvation is not a magic act, but requires our intentional, patient cooperation with the grace of the Great Physician.  There is simply no alternative to perseverance, to accepting bravely the tension and struggle that we experience when we expose our darkened souls to the healing light of Christ, and to mindfully turning away from temptations of whatever kind.
            There is too much in all of us that prefers the darkness to the light.  We are all quite comfortable with some of our sins and passions.  We have gotten used to them and may have accepted the lie that we are justified in doing so out of honesty, out of being true to ourselves.  Just as a blind person may cope quite well with a lack of vision and get used to navigating the world in darkness, we may have become experts in how to justify our actions, condemn others, and keep God on the margins of our life.  All too often, we have become too well adjusted to our own spiritual darkness.
 Now there may be something to be said for being psychologically well adjusted, but our faith is not about coping well with the darkness.  It is about being illumined by the Light of the world, about participating in the brilliant new day of the resurrection, about sharing in the glory of life eternal.  Our goal is to shine with the light of God, like an iron in the fire.  Of course, no one of us is worthy of such a transition from death to life and no one of us has achieved it perfectly.  Indeed, to think of our life in Christ as an achievement is a mistake, for we share in the great blessing of the Lord’s victory over death by His mercy, not our accomplishment.
 But if we are not doing all we can to open the dark places of our lives to the light of Christ, we are abusing His mercy, using the hope of forgiveness as an excuse not to cooperate with the Lord’s healing.  Our Savior told the blind man to go to a pool and wash.  The man did and he was healed.  Too often, we do not obey the clear instructions that Christ has given us for our spiritual healing:  to love God with every bit of who we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves; to forgive those who have wronged us; to serve the poor, sick, and needy with every bit of attention that we should show to the Lord Himself; to close our eyes and ears to temptation; to shut our mouths when want to stay say something hateful; and to focus on our own failings instead of those of others.  
As we near the end of the season of Pascha, we should all wrestle seriously with the question of whether we are really doing  what we can to open ourselves to the light of Christ.  Are we obeying the Lord’s instructions on how to find healing in our souls?   Are we keeping a close watch on our thoughts and disregarding those that tempt us to sin?  Are we following a rule of prayer and fasting that reorients our daily life toward God and helps us find healing from our passions?  Are we preparing faithfully to receive our Lord’s Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist each Sunday?  Do we take confession regularly and ask for the forgiveness of others whenever we wrong them?    
Finding healing from our spiritual blindness is no more complicated—no harder or easier—than living the basic Christian life that we all know we should live.  There are no secret codes or handshakes; no one is required to achieve heights of asceticism that are beyond his or her ability; no one should try to become some kind spiritual super hero.  The brilliant light of Pascha shines on us all and we must learn to accept the course of our lives, no matter how painful or disappointing, as our path to the Kingdom.  Despite differences in life circumstances and personalities, we all have the same kind of work to do:  bit by bit, step by step, opening the eyes of our souls to a light so bright that we think it will blind us.  But there is the irony:  we are already blind.  The light of Christ comes not to blind, but to give sight; not to condemn, but to save; not to kill, but to bring life eternal.

            At the end of this glorious season of Pascha, let us all open our eyes and souls to the light of our Lord, Who is never overtaken by night, and glorify Christ who is risen from the dead.  May this Pascha provide us not only with memories of beautiful services and rich food, but more importantly with personal participation in the brilliant light of Kingdom of God, shining in the dark places of our lives, illuminating every dimension of who we are, and drawing us ever more fully into the life of the One Who has conquered death and sin.  He alone is our salvation and our hope.  For Christ is Risen! 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Saint Photini the Great Martyr and Equal to the Apostles: Homily on the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church

                 As we continue to celebrate the new life that Jesus Christ’s resurrection has brought to the world, we are reminded today that His mercy and blessing extend to all,  even the most unlikely people,  like the Samaritans and those who are despised and rejected by respectable society.
             The Jews hated the Samaritans as religious and ethnic half-breeds because they had mixed the ethnic heritage and the religion of Israel with that of other peoples.  No self-respecting Jew would have anything to do with a Samaritan, much less ask one for a drink of water.  But Jesus Christ did, and a Samaritan woman came to recognize Him as the Messiah, to believe in Him, and to lead many other Samaritans to the faith.  She ultimately becomes Saint Photini, an evangelist and martyr with the title “equal to the apostles.”
            All the more remarkable is the fact that she was not only a Samaritan, but she was a woman.  Jewish men simply did not strike up conversations with women in public.  Women had low status in that time and place and were not expected to have deep theological conversations with rabbis.  But this Messiah operated differently.  He saw in her one made in the image and likeness of God who, like everyone of us, is called to a life of holiness, regardless of where we stand in worldly hierarchies.
            The Samaritan woman also seemed an unlikely candidate for holiness because of her history with men.  She had been married five times and was then living with a man outside of marriage.  Some have suggested that she went to the well at noon, an unusual time to do so, in order to avoid encountering the other women of her village due to her bad reputation.  The Lord knew about her history, but did not condemn, judge, or ignore her as a result.  Perhaps because she appreciated His respect and genuine concern, she acknowledged to Him the truth about her life and their conversation continued.  Quite possibly, she had never encountered a man who had treated her in this way before as a beloved child of God.
 And very soon, she told the men of her village that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.  Can you imagine how surprised they probably were to hear this woman speaking to them of God, for they surely were not used to thinking of her as an especially religious person?  Think of how brave Photini was, how radically her life was changed through her encounter with Jesus Christ.
We will make a mistake this Pascha if we think that the good news of Christ’s resurrection is only for people who live what we consider to be admirable lives, those who measure up to our standards, or who are members of groups that we admire.   We must not exclude anyone from the possibility of embracing the new life brought into the world by the empty tomb, even if they presently order their lives in less than ideal ways—as is true of us all in some respects.  Jesus Christ Himself brought the blessing of His kingdom to a Samaritan woman with an immoral lifestyle.  She was changed by His mercy and changed her ways. Who knows how many came to share in His eternal life through her witness and ministry?
We learn from the story of St. Photini that we must not write off anyone as a hopeless case.  We must not isolate ourselves from those whose lives seem especially broken and off course—or even perverse and godless.   If we respond with hatred, judgment, or stony silence to those we deem unworthy, we turn away from Christ’s ministry of bringing new life to the whole world.    For which of us has the right to cast the first stone at a sinner?  Our Savior never condoned sin of any kind and neither should we; but He came not to condemn, but to save.  He came to bring sinners to repentance, to heal the sick, to give sight to the blind.  He died and rose again for the salvation of all created in His image and likeness, of the entire world.  He has made great saints of murderers, adulterers, and evildoers of every kind who have called on His mercy and changed their lives.   
When we have the opportunity to show compassion or friendship or encouragement to someone whose life is off course and who seems very far from following Jesus Christ, we should do so.  Whenever anyone who bears the image of God is treated as less than human, we should show them the love of Christ.  When we have the chance to draw into our church community someone whose life has been noticeably less than perfect, we should not hesitate.   Yes, we should treat them as our Lord treated the Samaritan woman who became a great saint.  To do anything less is to place our own limits on the power of the Risen Lord to bring salvation to the world—and it is to refuse to follow in the way of the One who conquered death.    
St. Photini is also a powerful example for each of us as we struggle with our own sins, passions, bad habits, and weaknesses.  Sometimes the burden of our sinfulness is great and we are tempted to despair of ever finding peace and healing in our lives.  The standards of Christ are so high and we are so low.  We can become obsessed with our unworthiness; and if we are not careful, this way of thinking can lead us away from the Church, for the guilt and frustration of spiritual failure are hard to bear, and we often would simply rather not think about it.   
St. Photini was no stranger to such failures, but she learned to keep her eyes on the prize of the new life in Christ.   Perhaps her experiences had taught her humility. She knew she was a sinner and must have been thrilled finally to be on a path that would take her in a different direction.   We do not know the details, but she surely faced struggles, temptations, and reminders of the mess that she had made of her life.  Some of those difficulties probably occurred in her own thoughts.  Some people probably continued to view her in a judgmental light, for there are always those who appoint themselves as self-righteous judges of their neighbors and like to look down on them. 
Despite these obstacles, the Samaritan woman with a checkered past became a glorious saint, an evangelist equal to the apostles and ultimately a martyr.  If she could pass over from sin to righteousness, from death to life, in Christ Jesus, then we can, too.  The great blessing of Pascha comes to us all, and we have countless opportunities in our families, our marriages, our parish, our friendships, our workplace, our use of time, money, and energy, in all our thoughts, words, and deeds,  to participate more fully in the Lord’s victory over sin and death.
 No matter what we have done in the past, no matter our present weaknesses and challenges, no matter what anyone thinks or says about us, we must remember that the Son of God has conquered  death in order to bring us into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity, to make us partakers of the divine nature. Like the Samaritan woman, we must acknowledge our corruption and turn to Christ with faith, love, and hope for a new life, and then continue on the journey of discipleship, even when we stumble or are tempted to give up. 
Just as we ask for the Lord’s mercy on our sins, we must extend the same mercy to others.  The Savior spoke the truth with love and respect for the Samaritan woman, but he did not condemn or judge her.  And He has surely not appointed any of us to judge others either. 
St. Photini did not earn the new life given her by Christ and Pascha is not a reward given to us for our good behavior.  During this season of Pascha, we know that life eternal has sprung from an empty tomb purely as the result of our Lord’s love and mercy.   The good news of Pascha extends to the Samaritan women of our day and even to us.  So let us embrace our Risen Lord and become participants in His life.  He raised up St. Photini and brought her from darkness into light; and He will do the same for us when we respond with faith and repentance:  that is the gloriously good news of this season of resurrection.   Let us embrace Him by living a holy life that draws others into the new day of the Heavenly Kingdom, even as did St. Photini the Great Martyr and Equal to the Apostles.       

Saturday, May 3, 2014

With a Courage Born of Love: Homily for the Sunday of the Myrrh Bearing Women in the Orthodox Church

Christ is Risen!
            We have now been celebrating our Lord’s victory over death for two weeks.  We will continue to do so for a few more weeks, saying “Christ is Risen” many times.  But we must not let our celebration of Pascha stop there. For we want to live the new life that the Lord has brought to the world; we want to participate in His victory over sin, death, and all that separates us from life eternal.  And we can learn an important lesson in how to do that from those who were at the empty tomb on Easter morning as the first witnesses of the resurrection to hear the word of the angel: “He is Risen.  He is not here…Go tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”
            These first witnesses of our salvation were women who went to the tomb with oil and spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus Christ.  They obviously did not expect the tomb to be empty.  They were surely heart-broken, afraid, and terribly disappointed that their Lord had been killed.  But they had the strength to offer Him one last act of love:  to anoint His body properly for burial.  Just imagine the risks that they took, publically identifying themselves with the Lord at His crucifixion and then going to the tomb of One executed as a traitor in the wee hours of Sunday morning.  With a courage born of love, they must have put aside obvious concerns about their personal safely. And as they did so, these women-- Mary the Theotokos, Mary Magdalen, two other Mary’s, Johanna, Salome, Martha, Susanna and others whose names we do not know--  received the greatest news in the universe, the resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  Yes, the angelic proclamation of Pascha came first to the Theotokos, even as she was the first to hear from the Archangel the good news of the Incarnation.
            As you will remember, the male disciples did not believe their testimony at first, even as St. Joseph the Betrothed was at first skeptical of the circumstances of the Lord’s virgin conception. But with the balance between man and woman that we see throughout the unfolding of our salvation, we remember along with these blessed women two men:  Sts. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, prominent Jewish leaders who were also secret followers of Jesus Christ.   This Joseph risked his position and possibly his life by asking Pilate for the Savior’s body, even as Joseph the Betrothed had surely risked his life during the flight to Egypt to escape the persecution of the wicked King Herod.  Nicodemus, who had understood the Lord so poorly in a conversation recorded near the beginning of St. John’s gospel, came to faith and joined Joseph of Arimathea in wrapping the Lord in linen with spices and placing Him in a tomb.  
            Like the myrrh-bearing women, these men must have been terribly sad and afraid.  Their hopes had been cruelly crushed; their world turned upside down.  Not only had their Lord died, He was the victim of public rejection, humiliation, and capital punishment.  Nonetheless, these women and men did what had to be done, despite the risk to themselves from the authorities and their own pain.  They served their Christ in the only way still available to them by caring for His body.
            Before Jesus Christ’s death, He washed the feet of His disciples in order to show them what it meant to serve in humility as He did.  The myrrh-bearers were not present that evening, but they followed the Lord’s example of service better than anyone else. Perhaps they were not there because they had already learned the centrality of humble service in how they cared for and supported the Lord throughout His ministry.  Regardless, their selfless devotion to Christ put them in the place where they would be the first to receive the good news of the resurrection, the first to share in the joy of Pascha.  We have a lot to learn from them, as well as from Joseph and Nicodemus.  For if we want to live the new life of our Lord’s victory over death and corruption in all its forms, we must do as they did by serving our Lord in humility out love, despite the cost.
            We have no lack of opportunities to serve Christ, in His Body, the Church, whether by visiting the sick, giving of our time and other resources to the poor, providing someone without transportation a ride to church, maintaining our building and grounds, cleaning and beautifying the church temple, teaching Sunday School, chanting, hosting coffee hour, baking holy bread, serving on the parish council or at the altar, reading the epistle in liturgy, inviting others to visit our services, or otherwise doing what needs to be done for the flourishing of our parish.  These things may seem small, but they make a huge difference.  If we are not faithful in small tasks, how can we hope to be faithful in large ones?  Out of love for Christ, let us all answer the call to serve Him as we are needed in His Body, the Church. 
            We are also reminded of the importance of humble service by today’s passages from Acts in which the first deacons were ordained to oversee the distribution of bread to the needy widows who were supported by the Christian community.  The word deacon means “servant,” and we read that, after the deacons began their ministry, “the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”  Perhaps the passage reads that way because humble service is the very backbone of the Church, an essential part of our faithfulness and growth as Christ’s Body. 
            Of course, we do not encounter the Lord only in the visible boundaries of the Church.  For every human being is an icon of Christ, especially the poor, needy, and miserable.  In that we care for the least of these in society, for prisoners or refugees or the lonely or mentally ill, we care for Him.  In that we neglect them, we neglect Him.  The myrrh-bearers did not disregard Christ’s body in the tomb, and neither should we disregard the Lord’s body hungry, sick, poorly clothed, abused, or otherwise suffering in our world.  It is not hard to find the Lord in people we encounter every day who need our service and attention. That is why we should all bring our Lenten collections for “Food for Hungry People” to church as soon as we can. And food, clothing, and other items brought to church will always be put to good use by those who need them, regardless of the season of the year.
             On this Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, it is clear that holiness is not a matter of earthly power or prestige.  Those righteous women did not count for much at all in their time and place; even the male disciples disregarded their preaching of the resurrection.  The new day of God’s reign ushered in by Pascha is a passing over from spiritual blindness, self-centeredness, and domination to love, selfless service, and true humility before God and all who bear His image and likeness.  Here we encounter the same apparent weakness manifest in our Lord’s cross, which ultimately destroyed the corrupt orders of our distorted world through the glory of the empty tomb.  If we want to participate even now in that glory, if we want to embrace a power beyond the powers of this age, we must follow the example of those courageous and loving women and men who risked their lives out of love for our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  No, a life of courageous love for our Savior is not easy, but it is the only path that we lead us to behold, and even to participate personally in, the good news of His resurrection on the third day, which is ultimately what this blessed season is all about.