Sunday, April 23, 2017

Belief in the Resurrection Requires Commitment: Homily for the Sunday of St. Thomas the Apostle and St. George the Great Martyr in the Orthodox Church

John 20:19-31
As we continue to celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, we remember today how Thomas was transformed from a skeptic into a believer, and ultimately into a martyr who gave the ultimate witness for His Savior’s great victory over death.  Since Thomas was not present when the risen Christ first appeared to the disciples, he doubted their testimony.  That is why we know him as “doubting Thomas,” but we should also remember how the apostles had doubted the testimony of the women who first heard the news of the resurrection from the angel.  No one had anticipated the Lord’s rising, and the news of someone’s resurrection from the dead after public crucifixion and burial for three days was simply outrageous.
People of that time and place were more familiar with death than most of us are today.  In comparison with our society, their infant mortality rates were much higher, their lifespans were usually much shorter, and they themselves prepared the bodies of their loved ones for burial. They knew all about death.  As well, they knew that Roman soldiers were seasoned professional experts in administering a long, painful execution.  Joseph of Arimathea removed the Lord’s dead body from the cross and, with the help of Nicodemus, buried Him.  The women went to the tomb very early on Sunday morning in order to anoint the Savior’s dead body.  None of them had any illusions about what death meant.  There could have been nothing more shocking to them in the world than the unexpected and unbelievably good news that “Christ is risen!”  And quite understandably, Thomas did not believe in the resurrection until the Lord appeared to Him, still bearing His wounds, and invited Him to touch His Body.  Then Thomas confessed the risen Christ as “My Lord and my God!”
We should not be surprised that many people today continue to doubt the truth of Christ’s resurrection.  Such a unique and astonishing event is a great challenge to accept, for it is contrary to what we know about death in this world.  But perhaps it is precisely the difficulty of believing in the resurrection that invites us to deep, personal faith in our Savior’s great victory over the grave.  We do not need much faith in order to agree that water freezes at a certain temperature, as a little experimentation with a thermometer will remove all doubt.  We do not need much faith in order to believe that it is better to lead a morally decent life than one characterized by dishonesty and murder.  In one way or another, virtually all cultures and religions teach that.  But if we are going to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God Who rose victorious over death and made even the grave an entryway to the eternal life of the Heavenly Kingdom, then we need the kind of faith that takes root to the very depths of our souls. 
That kind of faith is not like the rational certainty that we have about the temperature at which water freezes.  Instead, it is the kind of faith that requires trust in giving our lives to that which is not obvious; it requires profound commitment and sacrifice.  For example, the love of spouses for one another and for their children is not a rational theory based on objective experimentation or historical research.  It is known only through experience; it becomes real through a thousand acts of putting one another and the children before themselves.  It changes them.  It requires a kind of martyrdom, of dying to self for the sake of others.  There is a depth of love in marriage and family that it is simply impossible to know and experience without such sacrifice.   
The same is true of our knowledge of the Lord’s resurrection.  To say the least, it would be very hard to give an account of the origins of Christianity without Him actually rising in glory.  A few questions make this point clear.  For example, why would His followers have made up such an unbelievable story about a dead man, and then gone to their deaths out of faithfulness to a lie about a failed Messiah?  Why would they have concocted a story in which women, who were not viewed as reliable witnesses in that culture, provided the foundational testimony to such an astounding miracle?  Had they made up the resurrection, why would they have included in the gospels so much material that describes how they totally misunderstood Christ’s prediction of His own death and resurrection and then abandoned Him at the crucifixion?  Apart from the truth of His resurrection, the rise of the Christian faith makes no sense.
Nonetheless, many skeptics will, like Thomas, still be doubtful that something so contrary to our experience of the world actually happened.  Here we must remember that Thomas came to faith not due to rational arguments or historical research, but because of seeing the risen Lord before His own eyes.  Since we live after the Ascension, we do not see Him in that way today.  But the root meaning of the word martyr is “witness,” and from the very origins of the faith countless people have given the ultimate witness to the Savior’s victory over death by going to their deaths out of faithfulness to Him.  All the apostles, with the exception of John, did so.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  Their powerful example has, and still does, bear witness to the truth of Christ’s resurrection.  In them, we see the Savior’s victory over death with our own eyes.
Today we also commemorate the Great Martyr George the Trophy-Bearer, a respected soldier who boldly denounced the Roman emperor Diocletian for persecuting Christians.  For refusing to worship pagan gods, St. George endured horrible tortures and laid down His life for Christ.  From the apostolic age to today, countless Christians have done what St. George did in showing steadfast personal commitment to the Lord literally to the point of death.  They do so because they know the truth of Christ’s resurrection, not as an abstract idea or merely something that they accepted as having happened long ago, but as the real spiritual experience of participating in eternal life.  They see the Body of Christ, the Church, bearing witness to a life that shines brilliantly in holiness in contrast to the darkness of the world.  Even when they died as a result, the early Christians cared for the sick with contagious diseases.  They rescued abandoned children, gave generously to the poor, and pursued chastity in the relationship between man and woman. They refused to worship other gods, even when that led to certain torture and death. They loved and forgave their enemies, even as the persecuted Christians of the Middle East do to this very day in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and many other countries.   
            We may not be physical martyrs in the sense that they are, but we still must bear witness to the resurrection of Christ.  We do that by providing evidence of His victory over death in how we live our lives.  Thomas came to faith when He saw the glorified Body of the Risen Lord.  We must live as those who have passed over in Him from slavery to sin and death to the glorious freedom of eternal life.  Our lives must shine brightly with the holy joy of the resurrection if anyone is to believe that “Christ is risen!”

Indeed, we ourselves will not truly believe that glorious news unless we personally rise with Him from death to life, from sin to holiness. True faith in the risen Lord is not a mere idea, but requires deep personal commitment and self-sacrifice.  His astounding victory is neither a rational concept nor just another truth of the natural world known by experimentation.  To know His resurrection is to know Him, and that requires dying to self out of love from the depths of our souls.  It requires a form of martyrdom, an offering of our flesh and blood to the One Who makes us mystical participants in His Flesh and Blood in in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist.  Even as we receive Him as our Lord and our God, let us bear witness to His glorious resurrection in how we live each day.  That is the only way to follow Thomas in moving from doubt to true faith.  It is the only way to say with integrity “Christ is risen!”

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Time to Offer Ourselves to the Savior Who Offered Himself for Us: Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 4:4-9
John 12:1-18

Sometimes it is not enough to have ideas or speak words, no matter how true they are.   There are circumstances that require us to act in order to respond properly to them.  There are challenges in life that we must enter into personally if we are really going to engage them.    They require us to invest ourselves in them fully; otherwise, we end up fooling only ourselves.
Palm Sunday is like that.  Jesus Christ had to enter into Jerusalem, being hailed as a conquering hero after raising Lazarus from the dead, in order to fulfill His ministry as the true Passover Lamb Who takes away the sins of the world.  That was the only way to make clear the radical difference between the anticipated earthly king of the Jews and the One Who reigns from the Cross and a tomb that ultimately cannot contain Him.  The Savior did not simply think about going from being celebrated as a righteous military leader to being killed as a blasphemous traitor within the short space of a few days.  He actually experienced it in order to set us free from the fear of death and make us participants in His eternal life.  He did so purely out of love for us.  When He wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, He was mourning for us all who are enslaved to the misery of corruption and decay in all its forms. Christ’s love is not limited to a feeling or an idea, for He literally laid down His life in order to restore us to the holy joy for which He created us in the first place.    
That kind of love requires commitment, action, and self-sacrifice.  The Lord offered Himself completely, without reservation of any kind, to set right all that had marred and distorted our original beauty as those created in God’s image and likeness. He rejected the temptation to play to the desire of the crowds for a conventional ruler, and instead won His great victory in the most shocking way possible through His own rejection, death, burial, and resurrection.  He entered into it all in order to heal, bless, and save fallen humanity, indeed the entire creation.    
The Savior had raised Lazarus from the dead, thus showing that He is the resurrection and the life.  Lazarus’ sister Mary prophetically anointed Christ for burial, even as those who saw Him as a threat to their power plotted to kill both Him and Lazarus.  In contrast, the One Who offered Himself as the true Passover Lamb sought no earthly power at all.  Even as the crowds welcomed Him with shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!” in hopes of liberation from Rome by a ruler like King David, this Messiah rode into town on a humble donkey.  He is not a fearsome warrior, but the Prince of Peace.
Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem not merely as a great human being, but as the Son of God.  Being fully aware of the rejection, torture, and death that would come in the next few days, the eternal Word Who spoke the universe into existence went into Jerusalem as a lamb led to the slaughter.  He knew exactly what He was doing and what others would do to Him.  Out of love for us, He intentionally offered Himself as a ransom in order to set us free from slavery to the fear of the death and all its malign effects.   
            Our Lord is not some kind of distant god who delights in making others suffer.  He is not a typical political or national leader who wants only to build up his own power and glory.  He is not a self-righteous legalist keeping score of who deserves punishment or a reward.  Instead, He freely takes upon Himself the worst and most painful dimensions of life in our world of corruption in humility beyond our understanding.  The same Son of God Who wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus will Himself lie in a tomb and descend even to Hades in order to look for His ancient friends Adam and Eve, lifting them up from the pit and bringing them to the blessedness for which He made them in His image and likeness.  In doing so, He sets us all free from slavery to sin and death.  
            That is how Jesus Christ has enacted our salvation, how He has accomplished it through His own flesh and blood.  It is an understatement to say that His death and resurrection required His personal participation.  He gave Himself fully, without reservation of any kind, in order to save us.  And if we want to know His salvation, if we want to know Him, that will require our personal participation also.
Holy Week invites us to participate personally in the deep mystery of the Savior’s great victory on our behalf. Through the services of the Church, we participate mystically in the triumphant entry of the Prince of Peace into Jerusalem, even though He triumphs in a way that still makes no sense according to the standards by which we usually live our lives.  This week we will prepare to receive the Bridegroom when He comes to invite us into the joy of the Kingdom. We will receive His Body and Blood as He institutes the Holy Eucharist on the night in which He was betrayed.  We will follow Him as He is rejected, abused, and crucified—as He dies, is buried, and descends to Hades.  We will sing dirges at His tomb and then stand in awe when that same tomb is empty and He arises in glory.
Holy Week enacts truths so profound that merely describing them with words or thoughts does not do them justice.  In order to enter into them, we must participate personally as whole, embodied persons who bow down and worship His Passion.  That means changing our schedules and routines as much as humanly possible in order to invest ourselves in the services of the Church.  It means not taking our Lord’s great Self-offering and victory over death for granted as an idea or a course of events that we already understand.  It means investing ourselves in Him by turning from our usual excuses, obsessions, and distractions to focus on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.”  As St. Paul put it, “The Lord is at hand.”  So we should “have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”   
Now is the time to lay aside our earthly cares as we make faithfulness to our Savior the highest priority of our lives this week.  He did not shrink from going to the Cross for us, and we must not abandon Him by saying that we already know what happened two thousand years ago or simply have better things to do.  No, we must enter into the deep mystery of our salvation by investing ourselves as fully as possible in the journey of our Savior from the welcoming crowds of Sunday to those that yelled “Crucify Him!” on Friday.  We must kneel in humility at the foot of the Cross and sing lamentations at His grave if we are to have the eyes to behold the brilliant glory of a Savior Who rises in victory.  This week is one of those times not to rely on mere thoughts, feelings, or good intentions.  It is a time to act, to be committed, and to refuse to ignore the One who conquers death and Hades for our salvation. It is a time to offer ourselves to the Lord Who offered Himself for us purely out of love.  

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Selfless Service Over Self-Centered Desire: Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 10:32-45
            Human beings have an amazing capacity to miss the point, to become blind to truths that should be obvious.  We often do that because we become so preoccupied and distracted with our own agendas and desires that we ignore everything else.  That is especially the case when the truth goes strongly against our inclinations by telling us what we do not want to hear.
That is what James and John did when they asked for choice positions of honor right after Jesus Christ had told them that He was to suffer, die, and rise from the dead.  They were apparently so consumed by their desires for prominence and power that they refused to hear the Lord saying that He was nothing like an earthly king.  They boasted of being prepared to follow the Savior without having any idea of what that would mean.  He responded by making clear that the path to true greatness was to follow His way of selfless service.  “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” 
As we begin the last week of Lent, it should be clear to us all that we have not earned a place of honor in God’s reign.  If we have practiced the spiritual disciplines of Lent with any integrity and honesty, we will know primarily our own weakness and brokenness.  By revealing how easily we are distracted and how enslaved we are to our self-centered desires and habits, they show us that we cannot heal our own souls.  And if we have not devoted ourselves to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving at all in the previous weeks of Lent, we should confess that in humility and thus gain a greater awareness that we stand in constant need of the Lord’s gracious mercy. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 
Regardless of how we have approached Lent so far, we must not become paralyzed with a sense of obsessive guilt for not living up to a standard of perfection, for not making ourselves worthy of the mercy of Christ.  To do so is simply a form of self-centered pride, for it is impossible to earn grace as a reward for good behavior.  Becoming great among the Lord’s servants means laying down our lives for others, lowering ourselves by placing the needs and interests of others before our own.  That is the opposite of a self-centered obsession to prove that we are worthy of anything. 
Today we remember St. Mary of Egypt, who had lived a grossly immoral life, but then gave herself up in repentance for decades in the desert, where she became a remarkably holy saint.  Instead of continuing to gratify her addiction to sexual pleasure, she died to self by rejecting everything that was a hindrance to the healing of her soul through incredibly rigorous repentance for the rest of her long life.  She knew that such disciplines did not somehow put God in her debt, but were ways of opening herself to receive the gracious healing of the Lord, which we never deserve.   
St. Mary of Egypt was not like James and John in trying to use the Savior to get what she wanted.  Instead, she freely obeyed a divine command to turn away from fulfilling her obsessive desires by uniting herself to the One Who offered His life as a ransom to free us all from slavery to sin and death.  Our Lord’s disciples ultimately found victory over their passions in different ways, for they had to learn that greatness in the Kingdom comes through selfless service to the point of suffering and death, not by yearning after what the world calls power and success. 
In the remaining days of Lent, we all have the opportunity to embrace our Lord’s way of selfless service in relation to those we encounter on a regular basis in our families, in our parish, at work, at school, and in our larger communities.  We all have the opportunity to confess how we have enslaved ourselves to self-centered desires and then to take the steps we can to turn away from them.  We all have the opportunity to fill our minds with holy things and give less attention to whatever fuels our unholy passions.   We all have the opportunity to follow the example of St. Mary of Egypt in doing what it takes to find the healing of our souls.  If our Lord could make a great saint out of her, then how can anyone remain paralyzed in guilt?   Our great High Priest offered Himself on the Cross and rose in glory on the third day in order to save sinners, to restore all who bear His image and likeness.  Thanks be to God, that includes even people as broken as you and me. In the coming week, let us open the eyes of our souls to this glorious truth through selfless service, humble prayer, and genuine repentance.     

Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Challenge that Reveals the Truth: Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent and the Leavetaking of the Annunciation

Hebrews 6:13-20; Mark 9:16-30
We have all fantasized about what we would say or do in certain situations, and we probably all know that we often respond differently in real life than we do in our imaginations.  In fact, we never really know how we will act until we actually face the test. Reality has a way of revealing the truth in ways that surprise us.   
            That was surely the case for the father of the demon-possessed boy in today’s gospel reading.  Since the disciples had not been able to deliver him, the father said to the Lord “But if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.”  Those are the words of someone who had learned the hard way not to get his hopes up.  Perhaps that is what he had said to healers many times in the past who had not been successful.  But then Christ challenged him by saying ‘“If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”’  That was obviously not what he had planned to say, for the words came spontaneously from his heart in response to Christ’s challenge.  The Lord led the father to a remarkable level of spiritual honesty and clarity.  Through his painfully honest faith, the man’s son was healed.   
            Today we continue to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation in which a young woman was challenged through the message of the Archangel Gabriel to respond to the outrageous news that she was to become the Theotokos, the Mother of the Son of God.   Mary had obviously not expected this strange calling and asked how such a thing could happen, as she was a virgin.  When Gabriel explained that the pregnancy would be a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, she said “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”   In response to this astounding and unique challenge, her sense of identity and calling were focused, clarified, and transformed.   With her words, she revealed to herself and to us all what it means to be fully receptive to Christ.  It is through her humble obedience that the Lord became incarnate for our salvation.  
            During this season of Lent, we seek to open the eyes of our souls to God’s challenging message to each of us.  It will surely be different from what we might fantasize about God calling us to do.  It is different from an imaginary religion that serves only the self-centered desires to which we are all tempted in one way or another.  Instead, through prayer, fasting, generosity, and repentance, the Lord calls us to gain the spiritual clarity to see the truth about ourselves like the father in our gospel lesson who confessed in humility the weakness of his faith.  He calls us to crucify our passions and turn away from our sins so that we will gain the strength to become more like the Theotokos in simple, trusting obedience.   
            There is really no mystery about how to do this. We must attend Liturgy faithfully on Sundays and weekday services whenever possible.  We must keep a daily rule of prayer and Bible reading.  We must fast and practice other forms of self-denial.  We must give of our time, energy, and resources to others who need them.  We must forgive our enemies and ask forgiveness of those we have offended.  We must turn away from our sins and toward the Lord.  We must prepare honestly for the holy mystery of Confession, and strengthened by the assurance of Christ’s forgiveness, press on in faithfulness. Whenever we fall down, we must get back up as we offer the Jesus Prayer from the depths of our souls.  
The Savior wants to heal each of us fully from all the ravages of sin, but we must confess our brokenness from the depths of our hearts in order to open ourselves to receive His mercy.   He wants us to discern and obey His calling in the midst of all the challenges and problems of our lives in the “real world” as we know it.  Any other type of spirituality is a fantasy.  But in order to do so, we must turn away from our usual excuses in order to be fully present to Him.   Otherwise, it will be impossible even to hear His message, much less to obey it.
            The more that we pursue this simple path, the more the words of the man in today’s gospel lesson will become our own: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  The more that we pursue this simple path, the more we will be able to say with the Theotokos “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  The more that we pursue this simple path, the greater spiritual clarity and strength we will have to hear and obey God’s challenging message, not as some kind of fantasy, but in reality as the ultimate truth of our lives.  That is the Lord’s calling to each and every one of us in this blessed season of Lent.  Let us use it for our salvation.       


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Killing the Fear of Death: Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent (Adoration of the Cross) in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 4:14-5:6; Mark 8:34-9:1

Today we do something that goes against the strongest inclinations of fallen humanity:  We adore and celebrate the Cross.  Absolutely no one rejoiced about crosses in the first century, for crucifixion was the most horrible form of execution the Romans could devise.  When the Lord told Peter plainly that He would be killed, the head disciple was horrified and tried to correct Him.  That is when Christ said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”  In order words, Peter was thinking like any other human being enslaved to the fear of death.
            That, of course, is precisely why Jesus Christ offered Himself on the Cross:  to set us free from captivity to the grave.  He did not breathe life into us so that we would disappear into the earth, but so that we would be united eternally with Him in holiness. If we believe our fate is simply for the decay of the tomb, we will go to great lengths to distract ourselves from the pointlessness of our existence.  So we end up worshiping power, pleasure, possessions, and anything else that staves off the dread of death.  We will make this world a false god in one way or another in a failed effort to save ourselves on our own terms.  
            Today we adore the Cross because through it our Lord has conquered death, making even the tomb and Hades pathways to the eternal life of the Kingdom through His glorious resurrection.  It is because of His great Self-offering as our High Priest that we may depart this life with the hope of resurrection and life eternal.  But in order to share in the glory of the empty tomb, we must first follow Him to the Cross by taking up our own crosses.  That means dying to the corrupting power of sin in our lives as we crucify the addiction to self-centered desire that arises from the fear of death.  For if we seek to save our lives by the standards of our fallen world, we will end up losing our souls.
Fortunately, there is still time to live as those who are not ashamed of the Cross.  We have the remaining weeks of Lent to prepare to enter into the deep mystery of the Lord Who caused death to die.  And we do not have to look hard for opportunities to do so.  They are all around us. For example, we should turn our attention away from our favorite distractions (e.g. cell phones, video games, social media, news, sports, and movies) and toward the Lord in daily focused prayer, Bible reading, and studying the lives and teachings of the Saints.  We should sacrifice a small part of our usual routine by attending Lenten services each week. If our physical health and life circumstances allow, we should fast as best we can according to the guidelines of the Church. If we cannot fast from food due to illness, we should learn to accept our struggles with patience, perhaps finding another area of life where we can practice self-denial.  We should give generously of our resources, time, and attention to others, especially the poor, sick, and lonely.  We should serve our family members, friends, and fellow parishioners instead of simply ourselves. We should pray for our enemies and do what we can to heal broken relationships.  We should stay on guard against anything that inflames our passions.  We should shut out our dark and tempting thoughts with the Jesus Prayer.  We should confess our sins honestly this Lent, and be vigilant against sliding back into unholy habits.   
It is through such everyday acts of faithfulness that we will take up our crosses and follow the Savior Who offered Himself on the Cross for our salvation.  That is how we will be set free from the fear of death and all its corrupting effects on our souls.  That is how we will adore and celebrate the Cross as the great sign of our hope, as the only true answer to the tragic brokenness of our humanity.  The God-Man offered Himself on it in order to save us.  Now we must offer ourselves to Him in humble repentance by dying to sin in order to open ourselves to the glory of His resurrection.  That is the Lord’s calling to each and every one of us for, through the Cross, He has filled all things with joy.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Overcoming Paralysis Through Humility: Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Mark 2:1-12

If we were not aware already that we have much in common with the paralyzed man in today’s gospel reading, the first two weeks of Lent have surely opened our eyes a bit to that truth.  The struggle to embrace spiritual disciplines quickly shows us that we typically do not control ourselves very well at all.  We find it so hard to turn away from our usual self-centered habits when we seek to give more attention to prayer, fasting, and generosity.  We are so weak in our ability to stay focused in opening our hearts to the Lord and guarding them from evil thoughts.  We have so little strength to resist our addiction to our stomachs and taste buds, and basically to indulging our desires for pleasure in whatever form we want it.   We often feel powerless in our struggle to forgive others and mend broken relationships.  Taking even small steps to reorient our lives to God through spiritual disciplines should open our eyes to the paralysis of our souls.

            If that is the case for you today, then give thanks that the Lord has shown you a truth that is necessary for your healing. Jesus Christ said “It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) We must know our own disease in order to receive His healing.  We must know our own weakness in order to find His strength.  The disciplines of Lent are tools for helping us see that we do not simply need a new set of rules or a list of things to do or believe.  No, we need to be restored, to be transformed, to be enabled to rise up from our slavery to decay in order to walk, to move forward in a blessed life of holiness from the depths of our souls.  

            The salvation to which Christ calls us is not simply a matter of having ideas or feelings about Him, but of participating personally in the divine nature by grace.  Today we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas, a great bishop, monastic, and theologian of the 14th century.  He is known especially for defending the experience of hesychast monks who, through deep prayer of the heart and asceticism, were enabled to see the Uncreated Light of God that the Apostles beheld at the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor.   Against those who denied that human beings could ever experience and know God in such ways, St. Gregory taught that we may truly participate in the divine energies as whole persons. He proclaimed that knowing God means being united personally with Him by grace.  It is to become radiant with the divine glory like an iron left in the fire in ways that permeate a person’s body, soul, and spirit.

            That is precisely what we see in the healing of the paralyzed man.  Christ raised him up from weakness and misery, enabling Him to move forward in a life of holiness, a life in which he had the strength to live as one created in God’s image and likeness.   Today we celebrate that the Savior does precisely the same thing for each of us.  Through His glorious resurrection, He raises us all from slavery to sin and death.  Left to our own devices, we would always be servants of our own corruption.  But when we confess from our hearts our own brokenness and take the steps necessary to open ourselves to His healing, He mercifully raises us up to participate personally in the blessed life that He came to bring to sinners like you and me. 

            The more that we truly humble ourselves before the Lord this Lent, the more open our hearts will be to the infinite healing power of His grace.  He does not rest content with forgiving us in a legal sense, but calls us to be permeated by His divine energies, to radiate His holiness as we live and breathe in this world.  He strengthens and commands us to manifest His victory over sin and death in our own lives.  Perhaps that is just another way of saying that He calls us to “rise, take up your pallet and go home.”  There is no way to receive His merciful healing without true humility.  And there is no way to acquire true humility other than to learn to see ourselves in that paralyzed man whose only hope is in Jesus Christ. Let us use the remaining weeks of Lent to embrace this deep truth through prayer, fasting, generosity, and repentance.  That is how we will unite ourselves more fully with the Lord Who came to raise us up with Him into eternal life.  That is how we too will be healed.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Restoration, Not Escape: Homily for the First Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40; John 1:43-51
We are all tempted at times to think how nice it would be to run away from all our problems.  We would like to leave behind our jobs, annoying people, or difficult circumstances of whatever kind.  We would like to escape all that weighs us down in order to find peace and happiness.   In one way or another, we have all fantasized about that. And that, of course, is precisely the problem.  Such an escape is a fantasy because we cannot escape ourselves.  No matter where we go, we bring along our own personal brokenness, which is at the root of our lack of peace with others and within ourselves.
            The way to find joy is not by imagining that we can run away from our problems.  It is, instead, to find healing for our souls, which means becoming more beautiful living icons of Christ in the midst of life as we know it.  The word “icon” means “image,” and God has created us male and female in His image and likeness.  The ugliness of sin, in all its forms, mangles and distorts our beauty as those whose nature is to be an image of the Lord, to be like Him. Whatever makes us more like God in holiness makes us more truly ourselves.  And whenever we justify any form of sin as “just being who I am,” we deny the most basic truth of our humanity.
            As we celebrate the restoration of icons to the Church several centuries ago after the period of iconoclasm, we call ourselves to restoration in holiness, to return to our true identity as those called to be like God in every aspect of our lives. Our epistle reading reminds us that that is a difficult task, for those who looked forward to Christ’s coming in the Old Testament suffered and sacrificed greatly in anticipation of the fulfillment of a promise that they did not live to see.  We, however, have experienced the fulfillment of the promise in Jesus Christ.  And that is why we will make a procession around the church with our icons at the conclusion of Liturgy today, for we celebrate that the Eternal Word of God has become one of us, entering fully into our fallen world and humanity in order to restore us to the great dignity for which He breathed life into us in the first place.  The icons reflect the truth of the Incarnation.  They provide signs of hope that people like you and me, with all our problems and limitations, may enter into the holiness of God from the depths of our souls even as we live and breathe in the world as we know it.
With flesh and blood like anyone else, and in the midst of great threats, difficulties, and temptations, the Savior offered Himself fully in free obedience.  Through the mystery of His death and resurrection, He has made it possible for us to share personally in His eternal life.  In this season of Lent, we open ourselves more fully to His gracious healing of the human person through humble prayer, acts of mercy toward the needy, fasting, and repentance.  As we embrace His holiness, we become more like Him as His true icons. That happens not by trying to flee from our bodies, relationships with others, or any aspect of the creation, but offering them to the Lord for healing and blessing.
It is a hard struggle to reorient our desires toward the Lord and in the service of our neighbors.  There is much in us that wants to find fulfillment on our own terms, not by entering into the deep mystery of the Cross and the empty tomb from the depths of our souls.  But as the witness of the Saints has shown, there is no other way to become more beautifully ourselves in holiness.  There is no other way to “see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” than to become who He created us to be in His image and likeness.  There is no other path to the Kingdom than to become a better icon of the Lord.          



Sunday, February 26, 2017

Putting on the Armor of Light for Lent: Homily for Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21

            There are some lines of work in which people who are on duty have to dress in distinctive ways.  The uniforms of police officers, firemen, and members of the military, for example, reflect their unique vocations, responsibilities, and authority.   Athletes, employees in many businesses, and some students must wear clothes that identify them in terms of the larger organization of which they are a part.  Whether we like it or not, the clothes we put on our bodies say something to others, and also to ourselves, about who are and what we should be doing.
              We begin our Lenten journey with the reminder that we must be properly dressed spiritually.  That is a challenge because we are the children of Adam and Eve, who were cast out of Paradise after they stripped themselves of the glory that was theirs as those created in God’s image and likeness. The garments of skin that God gave them at that point showed their weakness and mortality, their slavery to the ways of death.  The good news is that Jesus Christ, the New Adam, has conquered our corruption and restored us to our ancient dignity as those who wear a robe of light.  We have put Him on in baptism like a garment.  In His mercy and love, He has made it possible for each and every one of us to fulfill our original vocation to become ever more like God in holiness as partakers of the divine nature.  Yes, that is truly what it means be a Christian and a human being.
Unfortunately, there is much in us that prefers the nakedness of Adam and Eve to the glory of the robe of light.  Corruption and decay root deep within our souls, and we so easily repudiate our glorious attire and turn away from our calling, preferring darkness and weakness to the brilliant holiness which the Savior has shared with us. For each of us in one way or another, there are strong temptations to strip ourselves of such great dignity and to disappear into the dark night of sin.  Not to do so requires a struggle, a battle, that goes to the depths of our souls. Perhaps that is why St. Paul said to “put on the armor of light,” for armor is strong and designed to protect those who wear it from deadly blows from their enemies.
During the season of Lent, we will be engaged in a difficult struggle to “cast off the works of darkness,” to strip ourselves of the ugly rags of sin that distort and hide our true identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters.  Instead of making sure that we give enough time and attention to serving our self-centered desires, we will invest ourselves in prayer, fasting, and serving others.  Instead of doing our best to ignore the truth about who we are before God and in relation to others, we will open the eyes of our souls to shining light that will reveal some very uncomfortable truths about each of us.  And even as we are tempted to take the focus off our own brokenness and to judge others, we will have to struggle mightily to see that the only failings to concern ourselves with are our own.  
Ever since Adam and Eve stripped themselves naked of the divine glory, people have wronged one another and often refused to extend forgiveness, to ask for and accept forgiveness, and to be reconciled with one another.  Despite the infinite mercy we have received from the Lord Who went to the Cross and rose from the dead to restore us, we so easily fall back into the old ways of resentment and division.  The Church calls us to forgive one another today as a way of taking a first step of repentance, of repudiating the passion-driven separation of God’s children from one another that has plagued humanity ever since Cain murdered his brother Abel.
The Son of God entered into our world of sin and death and took upon Himself the full brunt of its corruption.  He shed His blood in order to reconcile us to Himself, for we had separated ourselves from Him by slavery to sin in all its forms.  In humility and love, the eternal Word submitted to death, burial, and descent to Hades in order to raise us up with Him into eternal life through His resurrection.  That is the ultimate healing of a relationship, and we have only our Lord to thank for it.
As He taught in today’s gospel lesson, we must forgive others in order to be forgiven, in order to be restored to right relationship with God.  To put on Christ like a garment is to participate in His life, to be transformed and healed by personal union with Him.  If we claim His forgiveness and then refuse to forgive others, we strip ourselves of the divine glory as surely as did Adam and Eve.  For those who want His forgiveness without forgiving others do not really want anything to do with the Lord other than to get what they want from Him at the moment.  That was the problem of our first parents, who placed self-centered desire over obedience.  They fell into the idolatry of serving themselves instead of God.  And if we abuse our Lord’s mercy by proudly claiming His forgiveness while refusing to forgive others, we show ourselves to be guilty of the very same thing.  That path leads only to further weakness, darkness, and decay.  
Lent calls us, of course, to do the very opposite by taking every opportunity to participate more fully in the Savior’s healing of our fallen humanity.  We do that by extending forgiveness to those who have wronged us, by asking for and accepting forgiveness from those we have wronged, and otherwise doing what we can to mend broken relationships. These matters strike at the heart of the healing of our souls, and we should not be surprised when we struggle along this path.  So struggle we must, focusing on our own unworthiness when we are tempted toward anger and resentment toward anyone for any reason.  Like all spiritual disciplines, forgiveness teaches us humility because we do it so poorly. When our eyes are opened to that truth, we will know more fully our dependence upon the Lord’s mercy, as well as our constant obligation to extend that same mercy to others.
For the same reasons, we struggle to fast from the richest and most satisfying foods during Lent, as well as to give generously to the poor and needy.  Again like our first parents, we are more interested in making “provision for the flesh,” in satisfying self-centered desires than we are in obeying God.  Even small steps in fasting and generosity this Lent will help us catch a glimpse of our weakness, and thus serve as reminders that we need the merciful strength of our Lord to heal us from slavery to deeply rooted temptations.  The more that we struggle to live faithfully as those who have put on Christ, the more we will recognize our dependence upon His grace and love.   The more our eyes are opened to our reliance on His mercy, the more genuine the forgiveness we show to others will be, and the less we will try to impress anyone by our piety.  
If we approach Lent this way, we will remain robed securely in “the armor of light” as we gain the strength to live faithfully as those called to become ever more like God in holiness. We will strip ourselves of darkness and decay as we embrace the healing and restoration of our souls, our relationships, and the entire creation, in the New Adam, Who stopped at nothing, not even the Cross, the tomb, and Hades in order to bring us bring us into His blessed, eternal life.  If we approach Lent this way, we will be dressed spiritually in the most fitting way possible to enter into the joy of our Savior’s glorious resurrection on the third day.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Needy Neighbors and Strangers as Icons of Christ: Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgment in the Orthodox Church

Matthew 25:31-46
It is easy to think that we have been successful in any endeavor before we are tested.  Students in college classes, for example, often think that they are doing just fine until they take the first examination.  Athletes may think that their team is the best until they lose the first game.  Cooks do not know how good a recipe is until someone actually eats the dish. And sometimes the challenges that reveal how well we have done are not those that we would have expected. 
            In today’s gospel reading, everyone was surprised that how they treated the sick, the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the prisoner—“the least of these” in society—was how they treated Jesus Christ.  The ultimate standard of their relationship to God, of their spiritual health, was shown in how they responded to the everyday challenge of caring for those in need.  By serving Christ in their wretched and miserable neighbors, some demonstrated that they were in union with the Lord, that His holy mercy had permeated their souls.  Others, by disregarding those same neighbors, had shown that they had rejected Christ, that they did not share in His life.  Some opened themselves to the life of the Kingdom in which they already participated in this world, while others shut themselves out of an eternal blessedness they had rejected bit by bit throughout their lives.  The judgment of the Lord in this parable is not some random decree, but a confirmation of who people had chosen to become through their actions.
            If we have been paying attention at all, we will know that Great Lent begins very soon.   The Church calls us to weeks of intensified spiritual struggle in which we devote ourselves to prayer, abstain from the richest and most satisfying foods, give generously to the needy, turn away from our sins, and extend and ask for forgiveness from those from whom we have become estranged.  We all need the spiritual disciplines of Lent for the healing of our souls as we prepare to follow our Lord to His great victory over death.
Today’s gospel reading, however, reminds us that the practices of Lent are not ends in themselves by any means.  If, like a prideful Pharisee, we believe that observing them fulfills what God requires and automatically makes us closer to Him than others, we will do ourselves more harm than good.  For the standard of judgment in today’s gospel lesson is not whose religious observance was the most austere or otherwise impressive.  No, the key issue in this passage is who we become in relation to the Lord as that is shown by how we treat others, especially those whom we are in no way naturally inclined to help.  Remember that all human beings bear the image of God, which means that we are all icons of the Lord.  How we treat an image of someone reflects what we think about that person.  So if we become the kind of people who ignore and disregard suffering neighbors and strangers, we turn away from Christ. Conversely, if we love and serve them, then we love and serve Him. 
The question is not simply what we say we believe or where we spend a couple of hours on Sunday.  It is whether we have truly become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace (2 Peter 1:4), whether “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20) The test is whether we actually live as those who have died to sin and been born anew into a life of holiness.  As St. James wrote in his epistle, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this:  to visit widows and orphans in their trouble and to keep oneself unspotted from the word.” (Jas. 1:27) And as St. John taught, we are liars if we say that we love God while we hate our brothers and sisters. (1 Jn. 4:20) 
In the world as we know it, there is nothing naturally attractive about following Christ to His Cross, burial, and descent into Hades. And there is nothing naturally appealing about serving suffering human beings in their misery and need. But if we serve only ourselves and abandon them, we abandon Him.  If we are to become the kind of people who do not deny our crucified Lord and run away in fear, we must learn to bear our own crosses, including the challenge of caring for those whose crosses are much heavier than ours.  Our Lord’s sacrificial love must become characteristic of us; otherwise, we will reject Him because, regardless of what we say we believe, we will want no part of a Lord Who reigns from a Cross and an empty tomb.
From Judas Iscariot to today, there have always been those who betray Jesus Christ for money, power, pride, or some other false god.  There are those who, even as they call themselves Christians, identify our Lord’s Kingdom with the corrupt ways of worldly kingdoms, who associate the way of Christ with ways that He clearly rejected, such as worshiping wealth and earthly power, judging others self-righteously and hypocritically, or hating people of different ethnic, religious, or national backgrounds.   Of course, it is appealing in every generation to think that all we find to be familiar, comfortable, and desirable must be holy—and that whoever we think our enemies are must be God’s enemies. It is tempting to hate and condemn people or groups whom we see as a threat to whatever we may want in life. No matter how attractive that way of thinking is, it amounts simply to idolatry, to identifying our ways with God’s ways and rejecting Him without even recognizing it.
If we are to prepare ourselves for a journey that leads to the Cross, to the sacrificial slaughter of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, we must reject conventional and easy ways of thinking about religion that so easily lead us away from Christ.   Remember that no one expected a Messiah Who would associate with sinners, bless Gentiles and Samaritans, die on the Cross, and then rise in glory.  If we are to acquire the humility and faith necessary to follow such a shocking Lord, we cannot rest content with what is pleasing to us on our own terms.  No, we must open ourselves to His strength by humble repentance and obedience. 
This Lent, let us use our lack of enthusiasm for serving our neighbors as a reminder that we must pray daily for God’s strength and healing for our own souls.  Let us abstain from meat and other rich foods as a tool for learning to control our self-centered desires so that we may put the needs of others before our own.  Let us give money, time, and attention to bless those here and around the world who lack what we take for granted.   Let us take advantage of the opportunities all around us to serve our Lord in our neighbors.  The more that we embrace these disciplines with true humility, the more fully we will participate in the healing and restoration that Christ has brought to the world through His Cross and glorious resurrection. 
The Lord said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14:15) If we call ourselves Christians, then we must obey Him.  If we dare to ask for the Lord’s mercy on us, we must show His mercy to others.  If we claim to be His followers, then we must learn to put others before ourselves, especially those we are not particularly inclined to help.  For as He taught, “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”  If we use the disciplines of Lent to gain the spiritual health necessary to serve Him more faithfully each day in relation to neighbors and strangers, then we will be prepared to go with Him to the Cross and to enter into the joy of Pascha, to “inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  For as hard as it may be for us to accept, in our small efforts to help “the least of these,” we serve the Lord Himself Who died and rose again for our salvation.    

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Choose Repentance Instead of Shame: Homily for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in the Orthodox Church

 Luke 15:11-32
          We have all had the experience of being ashamed of ourselves.  We had done, said, or thought something which probably seemed fine to us at the time, but which we later realized was simply terrible.  Sometimes when that happens, we catch a glimpse of truth about ourselves that is hard to bear.  Sometimes when that happens, we are paralyzed by shame, by a prideful refusal to accept in humility that we—like everyone else in this life—are very far from perfect and in constant need of our Lord’s mercy and grace.  Those who remain stuck in the rut of shame will face great obstacles in finding healing for their souls.
            The prodigal son in today’s gospel reading provides a wonderful example of how to get over wounded pride and repent of even the most shameful acts.  Remember that this fellow had given his father the ultimate insult by asking for his inheritance, which was basically to tell the old man that he was tired of waiting for him to die.  The father apparently meant nothing to this son other than as a source of cash that he could use to fund a debauched life.  The young man was apparently blind to the gravity of what he had done until he found himself in truly wretched circumstances, especially for a Jew.  In a foreign land, he tended pigs and was so hungry that he envied the food of the swine.  Then it dawned on him what he had done.  He came to himself and began the long journey home, knowing that the most he could possibly expect from his father was to become one of his hired servants. When he finally arrived at home, he said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The son knew what he had done, made no excuses, and was not going to ask anything from the father other than to become one of his hired hands.  He knew the seemingly irreparable harm that he had done.  He had come to see clearly the seriousness of his rotten behavior.  He was well aware that his father owed him nothing at all.  He was totally dependent upon his mercy.   
            Before we continue with the story of the parable, we should pause to admire the courage and humility of the prodigal son.  After seeing how horribly he had treated his father, he refused to be paralyzed by shame.  He began the journey home, accepted the truth about what he had done, and was ready to accept whatever rejection, criticism, or awkwardness resulted from daring to show his face to the father whom he had rejected.  At this point, he had no illusions about himself, his behavior, or how it had impacted others.  He knew that he could hope, at the very most, to return to the household as a servant, not a son.  Nonetheless, he still took the long journey home.
            Had the son not done so, he would not have put himself in the place where it was possible for him to receive his father’s unbelievable mercy.  The father ran out to greet him when he was still a long way off, which shows that the old man had been scanning the horizon and hoping for this moment. When the father embraced him, the son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  But before he could ask to become only a servant in the household, the father restored him fully as a son with a robe, a ring, shoes, and a party with music, dancing, and a great feast. For from the father’s perspective, he was not simply forgiving someone who had rejected and insulted him. No, he was celebrating a resurrection: “for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
 Most of us do not have to think very hard to recognize times in our lives when we have done, said, or thought shameful things.  We usually do not like to be reminded of them because they challenge our pride.  Unfortunately, some of us go through life with a crippling sense of shame, which is more a reflection of our refusal to accept in humility the truth about ourselves than of anything else.  If we have the proper attitude, the intensified spiritual disciplines of the coming weeks of Great Lent can help to heal us from shame, for they are not only for you, me, or anyone else in particular.  They are a common calling of the Church because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  We have all failed to love the Lord with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves.  We are not perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. We have all turned away from fulfilling our vocation to become ever more like God in holiness.  That is why we all need the coming weeks of intensified prayer, fasting, generosity to the poor, and repentance.  Through them, we will come to know our true spiritual state more clearly and open ourselves more fully to receive the mercy of our Lord.      
Before the infinite holiness of God, we are all guilty of shameful thoughts, words, and deeds, but none of us should be stuck in a rut of pride that keeps us from taking the journey home.  Some disregard Lent and avoid Confession because they cannot believe that God would ever really forgive them for what they have done.  Today’s parable is a good remedy for that attitude, for the father in the story is an image of our Heavenly Father, Whose love is such that He will restore our dignity as His sons and daughters through our repentance.  His abundant mercy is eternal, but we must respond as the prodigal son.  That means acknowledging our failings, sincerely regretting them, knowing that we deserve nothing by our own merits, and actually beginning the journey home.
As we prepare for the spiritual disciplines of Lent, we must all keep the lessons of this parable squarely in mind, for it provides such a powerful image of what happens when we come to our senses and recognize our sins, turn away from them, and turn toward the Lord.  The overwhelming mercy of the father in the story is an image of the abundant grace of God.  For He does not settle simply with forgiveness, but restores us fully to the dignity of His sons and daughters.  He makes us true participants in eternal life by grace, not hired hands with some low level of blessing who somehow sneak into the Kingdom through the backdoor.  He does not scold or shame us, but truly welcomes us home with love beyond what we can understand.
            Sin is shameful because it is ultimately a rejection of our Lord and His blessed purposes for us.  Repentance, however, is never shameful because it is an acceptance of our Lord and His blessed purposes for us.  How tragic it would have been for the prodigal son to have remained as a starving laborer on a pig farm due to wounded pride, for him to have chosen such lonely misery over the joyful restoration that he found when he went home.  The same is true for us, no matter what we have done, thought, or said, no matter how far we have strayed from our Heavenly Father.

            The prodigal son’s return home was a resurrection from death to life, which is why his father called for such a great celebration.  Lent prepares us to follow our Savior to His Cross and the glory of the empty tomb at Pascha.  We must die to sin so that we will be prepared to behold with joy our Lord’s victory over death and to enter into eternal celebration of the Heavenly Banquet.  There is no shame in preparing ourselves to accept such a great invitation.  In fact, the only shame would be if we refused to accept it out of wounded pride.   

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Cultivating Humility: Homily for the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican in the Orthodox Church

Luke 18: 10-14
There are some problems that have to be identified clearly and addressed plainly because they are so important, so fundamental to our life in Christ.  There are some temptations so subtle, persistent, and dangerous that we must always be on full alert against them because they have the power to destroy our souls.  Today we call ourselves to that kind of vigilance against pride, which often leads us to wander far from the path of the Kingdom without even knowing it.   
            In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, we encounter a man whom we would probably admire based on how he lived his life.  He was just in his dealings with others, did not commit adultery, fasted, and gave alms.  He appeared to be the model of righteousness.  But he had one fatal flaw that destroyed him spiritually.  That, of course, was pride as shown in his self-righteous judgment of other people, especially the publican or tax collector who was also in the Temple that day.
            Like Zacchaeus, this tax collector was a traitor to his own people by collecting taxes from his fellow Jews to pay for the Roman army of occupation.  He made his living by collecting more than was required and then living off the difference.  He was crooked and a collaborator with his nation’s enemies.  There was nothing admirable about the outward appearance of his life.  Who would not be tempted to look down upon such a person?  But this fellow had one tremendous virtue that healed him spiritually.  That, of course, was his humility as shown when he would not even lift his eyes up to heaven, but simply prayed from his heart as he beat his breast, saying “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  The Lord explained the key difference between these two men in this way: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  The Pharisee sent himself down by the weight of his own pride, while the miserable tax collector was raised up by the Lord due to his humility.  
            Today we begin the three-week period of preparation for Great Lent, which begins this year on February 27.  Lent prepares us to follow our Lord to His cross and empty tomb.  It is a penitential season that provides tremendous opportunities for the healing of our souls.  But if we retain the spirit of the Pharisee, the disciplines of Lent will not bring us any closer to Christ; indeed, they will have the opposite effect.  For it is possible to attend services and pray at home in a self-congratulatory way such that, like the Pharisee, we are really worshiping ourselves and not God.  That is called idolatry.  It is possible to corrupt prayer and church attendance as ways to build ourselves up and put others down when we fall into the self-righteous judgment of others. It is possible to destroy the spiritual benefit of fasting, giving to the poor, and every other spiritual discipline through pride.  We will do ourselves more harm than good by approaching them in that way.  Spiritual disciplines are not ways of showing God how good we are or making us feel better about ourselves; instead, they help to open the eyes of our souls to the truth that each of us is personally the chief of sinners and totally dependent upon our Lord’s mercy and grace.
            This is an important lesson not only as we prepare for Lent, but for every day of our lives.  We face temptations all the time to put ourselves in the place of the angels and to view others as demons.  We may do that in relation to particular people who have harmed us or whom we do not particularly like, perhaps for good reason.  It may have to do with people or groups we do not know personally, but who inspire hatred and fear in us for whatever reason.  Without denying that harms have been done or that there are risks in the world as we know it, we must never allow our hearts and souls to be consumed by self-righteous judgment as though it were perfectly fine for us to celebrate how great we are in contrast to how rotten others are.  If we have ever fantasized about how some deserve condemnation and we deserve an award for good behavior, we have become the Pharisee.   
            Thank God, then, that we have seasons of intensified spiritual struggle, such as Great Lent.  For there is nothing like them to help us see the true state of our souls a bit more clearly.   Periods of intensified prayer make us aware of how far we are from being fully present to God in the services of the Church or in our daily lives.  Try to focus on prayer and you will likely be distracted by thoughts that seem almost impossible to control.   Something similar happens when we try to fast.  The call to abstain from the richest and most satisfying foods often reveals a fixation on how we simply cannot live without meat, cheese, and other rich food. And even when we change what we eat to lighter fare, the temptation to stuff ourselves remains.  The reminder to give generously to the poor makes us fear that we will become impoverished if we help, even in small ways, those who are truly in need.   We so easily justify extravagances for ourselves while others starve or lack basic necessities.   In other words, the spiritual disciplines of Lent call us to humility precisely because they reveal our spiritual weakness and brokenness.   They show us our pride because we are obsessed with putting our desires before God’s will, and we can always find someone to look down upon in order to feel better about ourselves.  When we struggle with these and other spiritual disciplines, they help us to gain just a bit of the spiritual clarity of that blessed tax collector who knew his own corruption so well that the prayer of his heart was simply “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
            The hard truth is that we will never grow in Christ unless we intentionally take steps that help us grow in humility, that help us embrace the truth about where we stand before the Lord.  To see that truth does not mean having ideas about ourselves or about God.  Instead, it means gaining the spiritual health to become more fully the unique persons He created us to be in His image and likeness.  Of course, we are called to holiness, but true holiness is incompatible with thinking that we are holy.  True holiness means becoming like Christ, Whose humility knows no bounds, not even the Cross and the tomb.  And since He calls us to become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, we are always in need of His mercy and grace as we press on toward an infinite goal that we may never say that we have fully met or mastered.  
            The key difference between the two men in today’s gospel reading is that the Pharisee was so spiritually blind that he thought he actually had done all that God required.  He even prayed to himself.  He apparently thought that he needed no forgiveness and was justified in worshiping himself and condemning others.  His was a very watered-down religion, ultimately a form of idolatry that was focused on the glories of his own life.  The tax collector was the complete opposite, focused only on his own need for God’s mercy as the chief of sinners. As we begin to make our plans for intensified prayer, spiritual reading, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and repentance this Lent, we should focus on turning away from every form of self-justification and every form of condemnation of others.  We should embrace the spirituality of the Jesus Prayer as much as possible: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  We should look for opportunities in our daily lives to put the needs of others before our own, to live for others and not simply for ourselves.  And when we struggle and fail to accomplish what we set out to do, we should kneel in humility like the publican with no excuses, no passing of the blame, and no judgment of anyone else for any reason.  We should learn to see ourselves as the chief of sinners with nothing to present to the Lord except a plea for mercy and a humble resolve turn away from our sins and to turn toward Him in how we live our lives each day.   
            Our inflamed passions will tempt us to give up quickly when prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other disciplines are difficult.  If we make progress in any discipline, we will likely be tempted to focus on that and fall into pride.  We should be prepared for strange thoughts and odd desires to attempt to distract us.  We should be ready for a struggle, but it is precisely through the battle that we may acquire the humility that will open our souls to the healing power of the Lord Who lowered Himself to the cross, the tomb, and Hades in order to rise in glory and conquer all forms of corruption.  And if we want to share in the glory of His resurrection, then we must also lower ourselves by crucifying our passions, by dying to sin, and doing all that we can to destroy the corruptions of pride in our souls.  In other words, we must kill the Pharisee within us even as we cultivate the spiritual clarity of the tax collector if we want to follow Christ to His crucifixion and behold the brilliant light of the empty tomb.  The only way to do that is by being in the place of that humble publican who knew that he was the chief of sinners.  May we all follow his blessed example during our Lenten journey this year.      

Sunday, January 29, 2017

How Strangers and Foreigners Become God's Holy Temple: Homily for the Sunday of the Canaanite Woman in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1; Matthew 15:21-28
It is easy to fall into the trap of looking only at the surface of the challenges that we face in life.  Instead of getting to the heart of the matter, we often accept simplistic answers about ourselves, others, and even God.  One of those false answers that Jesus Christ corrected was that only people of a certain ethnic and religious heritage were called to holiness and capable of finding salvation.   That is another way of saying that He came to bring all peoples and nations into eternal life, for His Kingdom is radically different from the ways of the kingdoms of this world.
            Today’s epistle reading is from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  As I hope you remember, that church was made up primarily of Gentile converts who had recently converted from paganism, and they faced great problems in turning away from their old habits to embrace a life pleasing to God.  St. Paul, the former Pharisee, does something really shocking in today’s reading. He addresses the Corinthians as “the temple of the living God.”  He tells them that, because they are in Christ, they have become God’s people, His sons and daughters, and are to reject all corruption of body and spirit so that they will “make holiness perfect in the fear of God.” 
            What is so surprising is that St. Paul sends them that message by quoting Old Testament passages that called the Jews to become holy by having nothing to do with the Gentiles, to be separate from them and their ways.  And the Corinthian Christians were Gentiles. But because our Lord has fulfilled and extended the promises to Abraham to all who have faith in Him, those instructions now apply even to the very confused Gentile Christians of Corinth.  The holiness to which St. Paul called them was not a matter of having nothing to do with people of different ethnic or national heritages. Instead, it is a calling to acquire the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Gal. 5: 22-25)
In first-century Palestine, the Jews did not think such holiness was even a possibility for Gentiles, such as the Canaanite woman who called out “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” No one was surprised when Christ did not answer her at first, for who would have expected the Jewish Messiah to help a Gentile, especially a woman with a demon-possessed child?  But the Lord was actually doing something quite surprising, for He challenged her to respond to the conventional wisdom of the Jews when He said “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  She knelt before him and cried “Lord, help me!”  He then pressed her even harder by saying “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Christ was stating clearly the common Jewish understanding of that time that Gentiles had no claim to the promises to Abraham. 
Our Savior is obviously an excellent teacher, however, for these sharp words inspired her to utter a profound theological insight that had been forgotten by the Jews and was not known by the disciples.  For she responded, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” In other words, she saw the deep truth that God’s promises to the Jews were always intended to bless the entire world, and now they are fulfilled in all who have faith in the Messiah.  That is why the Lord then said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And then the demon left her daughter.
Think about it for a moment. The Messiah of Israel praised the faith of a Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed by a demon. Could there be a more powerful sign that all people, including the hated foreigners, are also God’s people?  Could there be a more brilliant icon of how all nations are called to holiness than how the demon immediately left the girl when her mother showed such great faith?  This is a sign of all humanity being delivered from corruption by the Savior Who came to heal, bless, and sanctify all who bear His image and likeness.  Yes, that means even the Canaanites, the Corinthians, and people like you and me who probably are not of Hebrew descent.  Race, ethnicity, nationality, and other merely human characteristics have nothing to do with whether someone shares by grace in the holiness of God.  The healing of our souls is equally open to all through the God-Man Who has sanctified every dimension of our common humanity.
We must, however, do our part by actually living as God’s holy temple, as His sons and daughters who “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.”  St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians was not to congratulate them on having already achieved something, but instead to challenge them to live faithfully to their high calling.  He does the same with us. Our identity as members of Christ’s Body is nothing that we have earned, but purely a gift of grace which we must continue to receive with humility.  If it were our achievement or possession, then perhaps we could look down upon others as though God’s blessings were for us and not them.   Instead, we are exactly like the Canaanite woman with no claim to anything before the Lord.  We are as dependent upon His mercy as a foreign woman with a demon-possessed daughter begging on her knees and weeping as she cried out for help that no one else thought that she could possibly receive. 
As we struggle to find healing for our souls and to grow in holiness, we must cultivate the bold persistence of that Canaanite woman.  She refused to be denied, even though she knew that she was totally dependent upon the mercy of a Lord Who owed her nothing at all. We must also persist in humbling ourselves before Him as we separate ourselves from all that hinders us from sharing more fully in the life of Christ. We must refuse to be denied in our repentance, and that means taking steps that hit us where we live.  If we watch shows or play video games that inflame our passions and put images, worries, and fears in our minds and then distract us when we pray, we should stop indulging in them. If the news or social media does something similar to us, we must carefully regulate our consumption of it or turn it off.  If we put ourselves in social situations that tempt us to act, speak, or think in ways that we know are not pleasing to God, we should stay away from them.  If we find our greatest joy in food, drink, or any bodily pleasure, we should fast and reorient our lives from self-centered desire to growing in love for our Lord and our families and neighbors.
If we have harbored hatred and self-righteous judgment toward anyone or any group of people, and especially if we gossip about them, we must soften our hearts through the Jesus Prayer and keep our mouths shut when we are tempted to spew venom.  If our daily routine does not include falling on our knees in prayer before the Lord with the humble persistence of the Canaanite woman, that must become our very first priority in life.  For God’s holy temple must be a place of prayer, and as hard as it is to believe, by His grace we have become that temple.  Now we must fulfill our calling “to perfect holiness in the fear of God” by cleansing ourselves from every form of corruption.  That is how we will take our place with Canaanites, Corinthians, and other strangers and foreigners in a Kingdom not of this world.