Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Habits of Lent and the Heart's Treasure: Homily for Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church

                                                              St.  Matthew 6:14-21 
Romans 13:11-14:4        
           Have you ever thought about how our habits shape who we become throughout the course of our lives?  When we invest our time and energy in something, it rubs off on us.  In fact, it becomes part of us and we become part of it.  For example, when we devote hours—and ultimately, years-- to video games, work, sports, reading, music, or other anything else, we change as a result, for better or worse.  Sometimes in obvious ways and sometimes in ways too subtle to notice, our activities become our treasures and capture our hearts, our attention, and our sense of who we are. In one way or another, they impact every dimension of our lives.   
            Great Lent begins tomorrow, and it is a blessed time to put some distance between ourselves and the habits that are so close to our hearts that we may not even recognize them.  As we prepare to follow Jesus Christ to His passion and glorious resurrection, we must remember that He told us to love God with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves.  None of us does that perfectly, of course.  Most of us do not even come close, and we waste much of the treasure of our lives in activities that weaken us spiritually.  For example, usually thinking nothing of it, we judge others with our thoughts and words in ways that bring condemnation due to our own self-righteousness.
            Likewise, we become slaves to our desires for food, drink, money, entertainment, and pleasure of whatever kind.  No matter how much we have, we are never satisfied.  Too many of us have developed the habit of simply pleasing ourselves and disregarding others.  No wonder that we treasure so much else more than God and neighbor in this life.
            As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, it is time to wake up from our sleep.  For without acknowledging it, we have all been stumbling in the dark, seeking first that which cannot satisfy us, wasting our lives on foolishness.   Now that Lent is upon us, it is time to acknowledge the truth and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.”
            St. Paul’s warning is for every single one of us because we have all fallen short of participating fully in the healing that our Savior has brought to the world.  For example, we tend to focus on the wrongs of others and to be blind to many of our own failings.   Instead of using food, entertainment, or other pleasures with self-restraint so that they have their proper place in our lives, we indulge ourselves and become their slaves—which means that we become the slaves of our own self-centered desires.   We selfishly love our money, possessions, and comfort, and find it so hard to be generous with the needy. We are also stingy with the time and attention we give to those who need our friendship and encouragement.  In other words, we have been shaped by the habit of loving   ourselves and the things that help us get what we want.  Too often, that is what our lives revolve around; we have become   our own treasure.  
            In order to follow Jesus Christ to His cross and glorious resurrection, we must develop new habits that will change us in holy ways and reorient us toward our true treasure.  The Savior   calls us to invest ourselves in Him, to offer our time, energy, possessions, relationships, and bodily appetites for the healing, fulfillment, and transformation of the Kingdom.  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  If we want to be pure of heart, if we want to love God with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves, we must learn to treasure the new life that Christ has brought to the world.  We do that by taking deliberate, intentional steps to redirect our hearts to Him, by investing the treasure of our lives in the blessed habits of the Kingdom.
            First on the list is forgiveness, one of the hardest things to do in life because it requires humility.  How easy and seductive it is to fixate on the wrongs other have done us, to judge them  again and again in our minds, and to make ourselves feel better by looking down on those who have wronged us.  But when we do so, we simply make provision for the flesh and fulfill its lusts.  We sink deeper and deeper into a spiral of self-righteous delusion which blinds us to the truth that we stand in constant need of mercy and are in no position to judge anyone else. 
            Our Lord teaches clearly that, if we refuse to forgive others, the Father will not forgive us.  If we refuse to forgive others, we obviously do not love our neighbors as ourselves.  Whenever we want God to apply one standard to us, while we apply another to other people, we become idolaters who worship only ourselves.  To refuse to forgive is to refuse to put on the Lord Jesus Christ; it is to refuse to participate in His mercy and compassion as a partaker of the Divine Nature.  If the habits of judgment and condemnation shape our lives, we will become the sort of people who have no interest in following our Savior to His Cross and resurrection.  We will end up worshiping another god made in our own image.      
            Given our current spiritual state, forgiveness may seem impossible to us at times.  Like healing from any serious disease, it is a journey or process that can take a long time and has its ups and downs.  But the more effort we place in developing the habits of forgiving others, of ignoring memories of past wrongs, and of rebuilding broken relationships as best we can, the more progress we will make in learning to love Christ in our neighbors, even in those who have offended us.  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”    We should all begin this Lent with Forgiveness Vespers today at 6 pm.  There is no better way to begin investing ourselves in the habit of forgiveness such that our hearts will follow.
            Fasting is surely no one’s favorite topic.  In a culture of fast food where more people struggle with eating too much than with eating too little, fasting hits us where we live.    We have become so accustomed to convenience, self-indulgence, and immediate gratification that we have developed the habits of self-centeredness, impatience, and addiction to pleasure.  We are what we eat, and if we continue to invest our lives in these unholy habits, we will become the kind of people who find it impossible to make room in our hearts for the love of God and neighbor.  We will also not be able to restrain our desires, especially those that involve bodily appetites.  Too often, gluttony is the mother of adultery, promiscuity, addiction to pornography, and other sexual sins.   
            In secret and without drawing attention to ourselves, we develop the habit in Lent of saying “no thank you” to rich foods and large portions in a way appropriate to our health and life circumstances.  No matter our particular situation, we can all identify habits of self-indulgence from which we can abstain, whether they involve food or something else.   Fasting and self-restraint do not heal our passions instantaneously, but when done with humility, these are powerful tools for waking ourselves up, for developing the habit of placing the treasure of our lives in the hands of the Lord.  By fasting this Lent as best we can, we will learn to redirect our hearts to our true treasure in God.  We learn to direct our desires ultimately to Him.
            Of course, the most obvious kind of investment involves money, and today we hear our Lord’s teaching to lay up treasures in heaven, not simply on earth.  If we use our money only for ourselves, we will be in the habit of loving only ourselves, which is simply another way of saying that we will make provision only for the flesh to fulfill its lusts.  We may put on the Lord Jesus Christ, however, by using our financial resources for a heavenly purpose, especially in helping the needy with whom our Savior identified Himself.  That is why we should all take home a Food for Hungry People container and put money in it throughout Lent, especially when fasting reduces our grocery or restaurant bill.  How much of our treasure should we put in?  Enough to direct our hearts to God and neighbor.  At the very least, we can all afford to put in our spare change as a way of beginning to cultivate the holy habit of generosity to those in whom we encounter Jesus Christ.   
            Lent is about to begin.  It is time to wake up and accept the challenging blessing of the coming weeks.  It is time to invest ourselves in the new life that Jesus Christ has brought to the world. Now is the time to cultivate the holy habits that will make us the kind of people who treasure our Lord above all else. And when that happens, we will be prepared to follow Him to His Cross and then to behold the glory of His resurrection on the third day.  That is the purpose of Great Lent.   

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