Saturday, August 29, 2015

Cultivating the Fruit of our Souls: Homily for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost and the Thirteenth Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

St. Matthew 21:33-42
1 Corinthians 16: 13-24
            Most of us today--even in Texas-- buy our food in supermarkets and rarely think about the soil from which it grows.  Things were very different in biblical times, when abundant crops, milk, honey, wine, and oil were signs of God’s blessing to people who knew how dependent they were on the fruits of the earth.  This is the case from the beginning of Genesis, when God planted the garden of Eden and gave Adam the responsibility to care for it.  But the soil became cursed when he and Eve disobeyed; full of thorns and thistles, it would sustain them only through the hard and frustrating work that farmers have known all too well across generations.
            Many times in the Bible, cultivated land is a sign of our relationship with God.  For example, the prophet Isaiah spoke of God planting a vineyard. Because of the sins of the people, God said of what He had planted: “I will forsake My vineyard.  It shall not be pruned or cultivated, but thorns shall sprout forth as in a barren land.  I will also command the clouds not to rain on it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the man of Judah His beloved plant.” (Is. 5:6-7) 
            Jesus Christ used stories about planting seeds, harvesting crops, as well as other similar examples, to proclaim the good news of salvation.   In today’s gospel lesson, the Lord told a parable about a landowner who had workers take care of the vineyard he had carefully planted.  When the grapes were ready, he wanted the fruit and sent servants to get it.  But the workers beat and killed whomever he sent.  Even when the landowner sent his own son, they killed him also. These wicked servants brought destruction upon themselves, and the landowner then found new tenants who would give him his fruit in due season.
             As in Genesis and Isaiah, this story is not simply about agriculture, but ultimately about our relationship with God. St. Matthew tells us that the chief priests and Pharisees knew that Christ was speaking this and other parables against them. The parable of the vineyard reminds us that religious and political leaders so often rejected and killed the prophets whom God had sent them in the Old Testament.  And that is also how they responded to the Son of God, their own Messiah, refusing to accept His teachings and handing him over to the pagan Romans for death on a cross. 
The Lord concludes this parable with a quotation from the Psalms about a stone, rejected by builders, that became the chief cornerstone, the most crucial part of the foundation of a building. He shifts the imagery here from a vineyard, the people of Israel, to a temple that includes all who are members of the Body of Christ.  As St. Paul wrote to the Gentile Christians of Ephesus, “you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph. 2:19-21) 
Likewise, St. Peter wrote in his first epistle that Christians are “living stones…being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  (1 Peter 2:4-5) In other words, the Church is the temple of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”  (1 Peter 2:9) This blessed identity is shared by all who are members of Christ’s own Body, regardless of ancestry or ethnicity.    There is neither Jew nor Greek in Him. By the Savior’s grace, all may become branches of His vine and communicants of His own Body and Blood.  He is the Groom and we are His Bride, the Church.
Did you notice that these images for our relationship with the Lord are all as organic as a vineyard or a garden?  We went from speaking of a cornerstone to envisioning a temple, which sounds like just another architectural structure. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, for this Cornerstone is not a piece of rock or masonry, but our living Lord.  As members of His Body, we are also living stones, not inanimate objects, because of our “one flesh” union with Him. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are a temple organically united to Christ, the prophets, the apostles, and all the other members of His Body, the Church. Through Him, we become full participants by grace in God’s eternal life that overcomes even the grave and Hades itself.
We are also the new workers in today’s parable who have taken over stewardship of the vineyard.  Vineyards grow grapes from which wine comes.  Abundant wine is a sign of God’s blessing in the Old Testament, but is fulfilled in the New Testament as the Blood of Christ.  As He said at the institution of the Eucharist, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My Blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins… But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom." (Matt. 26: 27-29)   To share in this fruit of the vine is to participate in the fullness of God’s salvation in the heavenly banquet.  It is the completion of God’s gracious and life-giving purposes for human beings ever since He first planted the garden of Eden. The Second Adam reverses the curses of the first Adam that subjected the creation itself to futility.  Now He makes wheat His Body and enables grapes to become His Blood.  In every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, He makes us participants at the heavenly banquet that manifests the salvation of the world, the fulfillment of the entire creation for His intended purpose of bringing us into His blessed eternal life.
With this good news comes great responsibility, for we have to ask ourselves whether we are being good stewards of the vineyard of the Lord.  Are we offering our fruit, which is really His fruit, to Him?  We are not talking simply about grapes, but about our lives in this world, especially what we value and treasure the most, our most cherished abilities and strengths, and the habits and routines most familiar to us.  To change the metaphor, are we going through each day as living stones of His temple?  Are we grounding ourselves thoroughly on our one true foundation Jesus Christ and turning away from all that is not holy? Our calling is not to escape the world, but to offer our little pieces of it for the healing and fulfillment of the Kingdom.  It is through making our life in this world holy that we participate already in the world to come. 
If the Pharisees and Sadducees of old brought judgment upon themselves for corrupting the Old Testament law and the teachings of the prophets, then we had better be careful.  For we are not accountable merely for instructions and rituals that foreshadowed the fullness of what was to come.  No, we have received the fulfillment of all God’s promises as a Person with Whom we are united intimately and organically, Who dwells in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Through Him, we “dare” to call God “Our Father,” as we say in the Lord’s Prayer.  There is no upward limit to the holiness to which our deep personal union with Christ calls us. He planted the vineyard to begin with and is the cornerstone of our life.  We must live as those in organic union with Him if we are to enter into the blessedness to which He calls us, for His life really is ours.  Thanks be to God!  

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Second Adam Brings the New Eve into Real Life: Homily for the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos in the Orthodox Church

           There is much in our culture that tempts us to think of faith and religion as arbitrary matters of personal preference or antiquated tradition that are not nearly as important as matters of  “real life.”  Even a few moments’ thought about the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, however, reveals that this great feast calls us to embrace the fullness of life, the deepest reality of what it means to be a human being in the world as we know it.     
            At the end of the Mother of God’s earthly life, the Apostles were miraculously assembled in her presence. St. Thomas, however, arrived three days late.  When her tomb was opened for him to pay his last respects, her body was not there.  Even as she was the first to accept Christ into her life—and in a unique way into her womb as His virgin mother—she was the first to follow Him as a whole, complete person into the Kingdom of Heaven.  She is the first and greatest example of one who receives, loves, and serves Jesus Christ with every ounce of her being. 
            When we think of the Theotokos, we are immediately reminded of how God creates us male and female in the divine image and likeness, and uses both sexes together to bring salvation to the world.  The Church knows the Theotokos  as “the New Eve” through whom the Son of God became “the Second Adam.”  The first Eve came from the body of the first Adam, while the Second Adam becomes a human being through the body of the New Eve.  The imagery of male and female continues with the Church as the Bride of Christ, which is born from the blood and water which flowed from the Lord’s body at His crucifixion, for they symbolize the Eucharist and baptism through which we share in the life of our Lord.  He is the Groom and we, the Church, are His bride.  The biblical drama of salvation culminates in the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation, which fulfills so much imagery from Christ’s teaching and ministry about the marriage banquet as a sign of the Kingdom of God.
            The term “Theotokos” means “Bearer” or “Mother of God,” but not, of course, in the sense of her somehow being the mother of the Holy Trinity or a goddess.  From as far back as anyone can tell, Christians have honored Mary as Theotokos in recognition of the divinity of her Son.  Those who refused to call her Theotokos, such as the heretic Nestorius, denied a true Incarnation and did not think that the baby born to her was truly God.   The Church teaches that the Virgin Mary is every bit as human as the rest of us, but in her purity, obedience, and receptivity to God’s will, she freely agreed to become the mother of the Son of God, Who alone is fully divine and fully human.  Hers is a unique and glorious vocation.  “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”     
            By accepting her life-changing calling, that obviously only a woman could fulfill, the Theotokos heals and restores the vocation of motherhood to welcome and nurture new life. In contrast to the mortality and corruption that have been the common lot of everyone born since the fall of our first parents, she gives life to the One who conquers sin and death.  In the place of slavery to the passions that so easily makes the circumstances surrounding conception and birth tragically broken, she brings forth the Savior in purity and faith.  And when her Son turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, He does so at her request.  This miraculous sign reveals the potential of the union of man and woman to become an icon of our salvation, our true participation in the heavenly banquet.   
            In all these ways, the Theotokos’ life is about the fulfillment of our broken and imperfect selves and world.  God called her to play a unique role as a woman and a mother in setting right what has gone wrong with all the children of the first Adam and Eve.  Her example stands as a powerful reminder that God’s salvation is neither an escape from the world as we know it nor an imaginary endeavor of simply pretending all is well.  The Theotokos dealt with matters of life and death, challenges as unsettling as a surprising pregnancy, the suspicion of others about the miraculous conception, and the rejection and public execution of her only Son.   This is the stuff of real life by anyone’s definition.
            We celebrate her Dormition, her “falling asleep” at end of her earthly life, because even in death she is a brilliant icon of God’s intentions for us all.  Even as her Son’s tomb is empty on the third day, so is hers.  The New Eve joins the Second Adam in the heavenly kingdom, thus showing that the man and the woman who bear God’s image and likeness may find together the fulfillment of the gracious purposes for which God breathed life into them in the first place.  Together with the Ascension of the risen Christ into heaven forty days after His resurrection, her assumption into the heavenly kingdom presents an icon of the salvation of all humanity, of the entire creation.  Not only is eternal life a reality for her Son, the God-Man, but He shares that blessedness with her and all who like her respond to Him with faith, love, and obedience.  He makes us all guests at the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb, where we as the Bride of Christ become true participants by grace in the divine nature.  We thereby enter into the eternal life that He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit as whole, complete persons united in love. By sharing in the Lord’s bodily resurrection, we become “one flesh” with Him in the glory of heaven.
            It is surely not an accident that the Theotokos’ story began with an old Jewish couple, righteous and barren, who prayed to God for a child and dedicated her in the Temple where she grew up.  Sts. Joachim and Anna remind us of Abraham and Sarah and of others in the biblical narrative who struggled with infertility.  The unique blessing of man and woman, created together in God’s image and likeness, to bring new life into the world out of love for one another should remind us of the overflowing love of the Holy Trinity which created all that is and enables us all to become participants in eternal life.  To set right all that has gone wrong with man and woman from time immemorial, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, became the Son of the Virgin Mary.   She fulfills the meaning of all humanity in saying “yes” with her whole person to the Lord in ways that the first Adam and Eve did not.  In this way, she entered into real life, into true humanity, the fulfillment of the image and likeness of God.   
            In the icon of the Dormition, Christ holds the soul of the Theotokos as she held Him as a baby.  This detail indicates that she has been born anew in the eternal life of the heavenly kingdom.  What else would we expect for one who played her unique role in the salvation of the world so faithfully?  She welcomed Christ fully into her life and now He welcomes her fully into His.  Together they show us the ultimate purpose of our creation as male and female, which is to enter into real life, to find fulfillment for every dimension of our existence in God.     So let us celebrate the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos by honoring her, asking for her prayers, and—above all else—following her blessed example of responding to the Lord’s calling:  “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”   That is how we will become truly ourselves in the image and likeness of God.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Transfigured by Humility: A Homily on Faith, Prayer, and Fasting for the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

 1 Cor. 4:9-15
Matt. 17:14-23

             It is easy to become discouraged by the distortions of Christianity in our culture.  Some preach that those who truly believe will become rich and healthy with no problems at all.   More assume that following Jesus Christ is just another way to have a bit of inner peace as they pursue what is really important in life:  professional success, personal fulfillment, or some other worldly goal on their own terms.  Neither approach, however, has much to do with truly participating in the life of our Lord.   
            Even a quick glance at Jesus Christ, His mother the Theotokos, or apostles such as St. Paul shows how weak such teachings are.  They did not live what any mainstream culture—then or now--thinks of as a happy or successful life.  Obviously, they lived the best and holiest of lives; they are models for us in how to live, to die, and enter into glory. But they appear strange to the world because they put the Kingdom of God first and refused to put even their own happiness before God’s will and the humble service of others.  They suffered horribly by conventional standards, but thereby participated in a blessedness not of this world.                                                                                                        The Son of God lowered Himself in the Incarnation, becoming one of us and even enduring death and descent to Hades in order to conquer them and bring us into His eternal life through His resurrection.  He was rejected by the leaders of His own people and brutally executed by the Roman authorities.  The Theotokos accepted a scandalous pregnancy as the Lord’s virgin mother and saw her Son murdered by those He came to save.  St. Paul endured hardships of all kinds, beatings, imprisonment, and ultimately martyrdom for Christ.  These were not wealthy people; their lives did not follow conventional patterns; they were not in favor with the religious and political authorities of their day.  They were outsiders and outcasts in many ways, but it was precisely through their difficult struggles that salvation has come to the world and we have inherited the blessings of life eternal.
            That is an important truth to keep in mind when we read of the father of the epileptic boy kneeling before Christ to ask for the healing of his son. The disciples had been unable to cure him because of their lack of faith, prayer, and fasting.  Consequently, they lacked the spiritual strength to overcome evil.  Like most of the other Jews, they probably assumed that following the Messiah—thought to be a great king and military ruler-- would result in a privileged life.  In their hopes for that kind of savior, the disciples were part of a “faithless and perverse” generation that trusted in and served itself, rather than the one true God.
            In contrast, the boy’s father had true faith, trust and humility before the Lord, kneeling down before him and asking for mercy from the bottom of his heart.  He lowered himself before Christ, putting himself in the lowly place of one who could receive the blessing of the most humble One of all.
            Unfortunately, many in the church of Corinth were nothing like that father; they were so full of pride that St. Paul had to set them straight on what it meant to serve Jesus Christ.  He wrote that true apostles lived like “men sentenced to death,” as fools who are weak, dishonored, homeless, and treated as the filth of the world.   Theirs was not a path for the rich and famous.  The words used by St. Paul of his own ministry remind us of how our Lord identified Himself with “the least of these,” the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner, the sick—those  on the margins of any society. 
            How ironic that the same Lord Who identified Himself with the wretched and miserable, and whose apostles suffered so greatly, was transfigured in glory before His disciples on Mt. Tabor.  As He shone with the brilliant light of heaven and was shown to be superior to Moses and Elijah, the voice of the Father said “This is my beloved Son with Whom I am well pleased.  Listen to Him!”  The divine glory of this most exalted One shines through the apparent weakness of a cross and a tomb, through what looked like failure and foolishness in the world as we know it.  Indeed, He glorifies martyrs, confessors, and others who truly take up their crosses and die to the idolatry of self that is the real religion of so many, regardless of what we say we believe.  To this very day, those who share in His glory first participate in His lowliness, meekness, and humility.
            Despite what some of Christianity’s supporters and some of its foes like to say, our Lord’s salvation is not an extension of any earthly kingdom, culture, or achievement.  Instead of building ourselves up according to designs of false gods, we must lower ourselves before Him like the father of the epileptic in order to be transfigured by His grace.   We must go against the popular trends of our culture—and of any culture-- in order to believe, pray, and deny ourselves if we are to open ourselves to His brilliant light, if we are to become radiant with His holiness.  The journey to His Kingdom has nothing to do with acquiring earthly power, prominence, or popularity.  As much as in the first century, His Kingdom is still not of this world.  And some of the most dangerous temptations are to distort the Christian faith in the service of any worldly goal or agenda, regardless of the name it goes by at the time.
            Instead of following the easy paths today of worshiping money, power, pleasure, and other forms of self-indulgence, we must follow the advice of the Lord Himself to the disciples on the necessity of faith, prayer, and fasting.  Instead of believing that success according to the standards of any earthly realm is the highest good, we must entrust our lives to the One whose divinity shines forth through His humility and Who identifies Himself with the outcasts of all times and places.
            Instead of defining ourselves by our busy schedules, routines, or obsessions about other earthly cares, we must—and we all can-- carve out time every day for spiritual communion with the Lord. Instead of satisfying every desire and wallowing in unrestrained indulgence, we must learn to say no to our addiction to pleasure through appropriate forms of fasting and self-denial on a regular basis.  Instead of making our faith a way to get what we want and gain the praise of others, we must learn the essential place of humility in the Christian life.  For it is only when we stop focusing on ourselves—our strengths, our virtues, our abilities, as well as our failures and weaknesses—that we will be able to kneel before Christ like that father who was at the end of his rope and  open ourselves  to the mercy and healing of the Lord.
            We have to accept that it is not all about us. If we make our faith basically about helping us get what we want, then we will always serve ourselves and become addicted to self-centered desires.  We will become so enslaved to our bellies, our entertainment, our will, and our false hopes for fulfillment that we will become just like the disciples:  powerless against the forces of evil in our own lives and totally unable to help others.   If we serve and please only ourselves, we will become so self-focused and self-centered that we will find it impossible to cultivate the humility required to serve God and our neighbors.  We will become so addicted to our desires that we will lack the ability to say no to ourselves for any reason, which is ultimately a recipe for nothing but despair.
            Far better to look to Christ who came not to be served, but to serve, and Whose glory had nothing in common with worldly domination or success.  He will transfigure us into participants in His divine glory through our humble faith, prayer, and fasting.  In this season of the Dormition Fast, we follow the example of the Theotokos who was prepared and sustained for her sublime ministry by these spiritual disciplines.  The same is true of St. Paul and the apostles. 
            There is hard work involved when we embrace humility, obedience, and self-denial. Should that be surprising if we serve a Lord Who told us to take up our crosses and follow Him?  If our goal is to become so permeated with holiness that we radiate the divine beauty, should we be shocked that sacrifice is required?          
            By investing ourselves in the basic disciplines of the Christian life we will become more like the father of the epileptic boy who, in his humble faith, received the mercy and healing of the Lord. That is a blessing beyond the ability of this world and the only hope for the salvation of our souls.       



Saturday, August 1, 2015

Embrace the Calling and Avoid Drowning: Homily for the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 3:9-17; St. Matthew 14:22-34

             In my experience as a college professor, I have found that students who forget that they are students usually do not do very well in their classes. The same is true of employees, athletes, musicians, parents, and spouses who ignore their distinct identities and responsibilities.  In order to accomplish anything, we have to accept who we are, stay focused, and faithfully fulfill the duties that our particular calling gives us.  Otherwise, we will fail in what we set out to do.
            St. Paul had to address all kinds of deep problems in the confused and divided church at Corinth.  In today’s epistle lesson, he challenged them to recognize that they had a unique identity that gave them a demanding calling.  He told them that they are “God’s field, God’s building,” even a holy temple of the Lord.  If you have read his letters to the Corinthians, you can imagine how far these people probably seemed to themselves and others from being anywhere close to fulfilling that exalted identity. Despite their immorality, lack of love for one another, and deep confusions about the faith, St. Paul refused to allow their brokenness to define them.  Instead, he insisted that their true foundation is Jesus Christ in Whom they are “God’s fellow workers” in building up His Body, the Church.
            In some ways, the Corinthians had a lot in common with St. Peter in today’s gospel lesson when he turned his attention away from Christ as he walked on the water with Him in the midst of a storm.  When the Savior enabled him to do so, Peter focused on the wind and the waves and was overcome by fear.  At that point, he fell back on his own resources and repudiated his identity and calling as someone given a share in the miraculous power of Christ.  So he began to sink, until he came to his senses and cried out “Lord, save me!”  The Savior’s response gets to the heart of the matter:  “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?”
            That is precisely what Jesus Christ says to each and every one of us when we do not accept fully His high calling and blessing as members of His Body, as His temple, as His coworkers, as those whose very life is built upon Him as our only true and sure foundation.  Like St. Peter, we sink down time and time again because we forget who we are and define ourselves by our sins and weaknesses. The problem is not that we have a simple slip of memory; it is that we welcome distractions that divert our attention from fulfilling our calling and duty.  We voluntarily become lax and lazy in the Christian life because we find other things more appealing at the moment.  That is not surprising because we are broken and weak people who live in a world of corruption in which it is so easy to fall into the idolatry of worshipping the false gods of our own desires.  But it is tragic because our Lord calls us to such a higher dignity, to a blessedness that infinitely transcends the momentary pleasure of giving in to passion and temptation.    
            Think for a moment about where our sins have led us, about how they have weakened us, harmed others, and presented burdens that do not easily go away.  We can easily drown ourselves and others in them.  Just as a building with a faulty foundation will never be stable, we will never find healing, peace, and strength by being more fascinated by sin than by holiness.  No one ever became good at any task by refusing to give it attention, by directing their energies elsewhere.  And we will never grow as Christians if we treat faithfulness as an afterthought, as an unimportant endeavor that we might get around to some day when there is nothing better to do.  There is no dimension of the Christian life that does not require discipline and self-sacrifice.  If we are not intentionally embracing our identity in Him, then we risk drowning in sin without even recognizing it.  We are in as dangerous as position as someone living in a house not built squarely on a solid foundation.  We are inviting our own collapse.
              Of course, it is easy to ignore these truths. Perhaps we take solace in comparing ourselves to the decadence of contemporary culture or of people who at least seem worse off than we are spiritually or morally—as though it were our place to judge them.  Maybe we define ourselves by our jobs, possessions, pastimes, abilities, physical appearance, education, or other worldly accomplishments that ultimately serve our own pride.  We may have watered down our faith to the point of thinking that as long as we have warm feelings toward Christ and are good citizens that all is well. 
            These may be coping mechanisms for navigating the world on its own terms, but they remain distractions from building squarely on the one true foundation of Jesus Christ.  As appealing as they may be, they cannot raise us up from drowning in our own sins.  They cannot fulfill in us the high calling of God’s fellow workers and holy temple.  They are simply excuses for not building on the one true foundation of our souls.     
            During these first two weeks of August, we observe the period of the Dormition Fast, when we commemorate the end of the earthly life of the Most Holy Theotokos.  We fast during this period because we want to follow her example of focusing on the one thing needful of hearing the word of God and keeping it.  Our Lord’s Mother became God’s holy temple in a unique way when she contained within Her own womb the One who is uncontainable, the Eternal Son of God.  By saying “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” she demonstrated that she was truly a fellow worker with God, “God’s own field” in a unique way for the salvation of the world through the Incarnation of her Son.         All generations call her blessed, and we should all look to her as the best example of how to build our lives on the one true foundation of Jesus Christ.  As we celebrate on the Feast of the Dormition on August 15, the Theotokos was the first to follow Christ-- body, soul, and spirit--into the heavenly kingdom.  There is no better model for how to be a faithful Christian.
            The Virgin Mary prepared for her unique role by a life dedicated to prayer and purity, and her path was in no way easy. But she refused to be distracted from her high calling and identity, even though she certainly received no affirmation from the society in which she lived.  Remember that she was the mother of someone rejected as a blasphemer and publically executed as a traitor.  Nonetheless, the Theotokos fully embraced her identity as the Mother of God and lived accordingly.  Let us take her as our example, steadfastly refusing to take our eyes off Jesus Christ as we endure the winds and waves of our own sick souls and of life in our corrupt world.  Let us invest our time and energy staying true to our foundation and the glorious identity that He has given us.  Whenever we begin to be distracted, let us have the spiritual clarity to cry like St. Peter, “Lord, save me!”   And through it all, let us remember Who our Savior is and who He enables weak and distracted people like you and me to become:  His fellow workers, His field, His holy temple, and even members of His own Body.