Sunday, November 19, 2017

Preparing to Welcome Christ like the Theotokos by Entering into the Nativity Fast: Homily for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost and the 9th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 2:14-22; Luke 12:16-21
            It is now 36 days until Christmas, and there will soon be much in our culture trying to convince us that the season is really about indulging ourselves in food, drink, and whatever else money can buy.  Consequently, we will all face temptations to live the next several weeks as though there were no higher purpose to our lives than to find pleasure in the things of this world.
That, of course, is precisely what the rich man did in today’s gospel reading.  His only concern was to eat, drink, and enjoy himself because he had become so wealthy.  But when God required his soul, the man’s true poverty was revealed.  The possessions of this life pass away and cannot heal our souls.  His horizons extended no further than the large barns he planned to build in order to hold his crops.  So before the ultimate judgment of God, he was revealed to be a fool who had wasted his life on what could never truly fulfill one who bore the divine image and likeness.
Though we are not as rich in the world’s goods as he was, we will face a similar temptation in the coming weeks to ignore the spiritual gravity of the birth of our Savior for the sake of the annual round of parties, presents, and other earthly cares associated with the holiday season.  If a good Christmas is defined for us simply by the quality of our food and drink, our presents, and our reunion with family members, then we are fools in the sense of thinking that the passing pleasures of this life are more real, more important, and ultimately more satisfying than is the salvation brought to the world by the incarnation of the Son of God.  Food, fellowship, and a desire to give to others are not, of course, wrong in and of themselves; they are certainly God’s good gifts.  The problem is that, due to our spiritual weakness, we so easily make them idols instead of remembering that they are blessings to be received and offered back to God in holiness.  Our challenge is to keep them in their proper place as signs of our joy at the birth of the Lord; they themselves are not the reason for our celebration.
That is why we all need an extended period of spiritual discipline in order to prepare ourselves to behold the true glory of Christmas. The Church calls us to use these blessed weeks of the Nativity Fast in order to get ready to enter into the great joy of Christ’s birth, which we will begin to celebrate on December 25. We devote ourselves to fasting, prayer, and almsgiving for forty days in order to gain the spiritual clarity to celebrate His Nativity as the salvation of the world. In order to do that, we must refuse in this time of year to settle for a pleasant cultural celebration when the eternal blessedness of God’s Kingdom is fully open to us.  Unless we prepare our hearts in a disciplined way to receive Christ at His birth, we will easily become distracted by indulgence in pleasures that fuel our passions and weaken us spiritually.  When that happens, we will become like the rich fool who let his desire to eat, drink, and be merry blind him to the ultimate meaning and purpose of his life before God.
This Tuesday we celebrate a feast that helps us avoid that error, for we commemorate the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple.  Her elderly parents Joachim and Anna offered Mary to God by taking her to live in the Temple in Jerusalem as a young girl, where she grew up in prayer and purity as she prepared to become the Living Temple of the Lord in a unique way as His Virgin Mother.  The feast obviously points to the good news of Christmas, as it is the first step in Mary’s life in becoming the Theotokos who gave birth to the Son of God for our salvation.
Joachim and Anna had a long and difficult period of preparation to become parents, as they had been unable to have children until God miraculously blessed them in old age to conceive.  They knew that their daughter was a blessing not simply for the happiness of their family, but for playing her part in fulfilling God’s purposes for the salvation of the world   Their faithfulness throughout their years of barrenness prepared them to offer her to the Lord.  They knew that their marriage and family life were not simply about making them happy on their own terms, but were blessings to be given back to God for the fulfillment of much higher purposes.
In becoming the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary followed the example of her parents.  She was prepared by a life of holiness to agree freely to become our Lord’s mother, even though she was an unmarried virgin who did not understand how such a thing could happen.  When she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” this young Palestinian Jewish girl bravely made a whole, complete offering of her life to God.  She did not ask what was in it for her, how this would fit into her life plans, or whether she could count on financial support.  Unlike the rich fool in the parable, God was more real and more important to her than any of those things.   She did not think of her life in terms of acquiring enough possessions to enable her to eat, drink, and be merry.  Instead, she acted as a true temple of God, offering every dimension of her life to Him.  She found her joy in personal union with the Lord in a unique way, in opening and offering herself to Him in every dimension of her being.  The Theotokos did not lay up treasures for herself on earth, but was unspeakably rich toward God.
St. Paul taught the Gentile Christians of Ephesus they too were part of a holy temple “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone…”  Though they had been “strangers” to the heritage of Israel, they are now “built into” the living temple of Christ’s Body, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Here is a reminder that, through His great Self-offering on the Cross, our Savior has enabled us all to enter even now into the blessed joy of eternal life through personal union with Him. Absolutely nothing holds us back other than our choice to remain more like the rich fool than like the Theotokos.
So in the coming weeks of the Nativity Fast, let us remain squarely focused on becoming more like her in welcoming Christ into our lives fully and without reservation.  We will do that by attending to the Lord each day in focused prayer and Bible reading.  We will do that by fasting from rich food and other forms of self-indulgence that threaten to weaken us spiritually.  We will do that by denying ourselves in order to help others with our attention, service, and resources.  Through these disciplines, as well as through Confession and repentance, we will prepare ourselves to embrace more fully our true identity as His living temple when we celebrate His birth at Christmas.  That is how we will learn not to be so consumed with the outward trappings of the season that we end up missing the point.
For Christ was not born to give us a reason to have a massive cultural celebration of self-indulgence, but to unite us to Himself in holiness.  He came to fulfill the deepest desires of those created in His image and likeness for sharing in His eternal life.  He came to make us rich toward God. During the blessed weeks of the Nativity Fast, let us dare to do something countercultural by rejecting the temptation to use the season as an excuse to gratify our self-centered desires and instead focusing on living faithfully as His holy temple like the Theotokos.  That is how we may avoid the error of the foolish man in today’s parable as we prepare to welcome the Savior into our lives more fully this Christmas.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

"Go and Do Likewise" as Our Response to Evil: Homily for the 8th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 9:6-11; Luke 10:25-37

            In a world of mass shootings, terrorism, and constant strife between nations and competing groups of all kinds, it is tempting to narrow down the list of people we care about.  By limiting our concern only to those we think deserve it, we try to protect ourselves from going beyond the easy habit of loving only those who are like us and love us in return.  The problem, however, is that shortening our list of neighbors in this way is a complete rejection of the good news of our salvation.
            When a lawyer tried to find a loophole to limit the requirement to love his neighbor as himself, Jesus Christ told the parable of the good Samaritan in response.  After having been attacked by robbers and left half dead by the side of the road, a Jewish man was ignored by religious leaders of his own people.  But a Samaritan, whom the Jews certainly did not view as a neighbor, stopped to help him, bound up his wounds, took him to an inn, and paid for his lodging, even promising to return in order to pay for any additional costs as the man recovered.  In response to the Lord’s question concerning who was a neighbor to this fellow, the lawyer answered rightly: “The one who showed mercy on him.”
In other words, the true neighbor was the hated Samaritan.  Christ concluded the parable by saying “Go and do likewise,” which meant to become like that Samaritan.  In other words, He told the lawyer to love as himself even those who hated and rejected him, even members of ethnic and religious groups he had learned to view as his enemies.  Not only did the lawyer fail to find a loophole in the requirement of love for all his neighbors, he found himself facing a much more demanding standard than he had ever considered. For the Lord responded to his question in a way that made clear his obligation to treat as a neighbor even those usually thought of as despised strangers and enemies.
The Savior used this parable to call us to participate personally in His merciful love for all corrupt humanity, for the Samaritan is surely an image of our Lord coming to heal us from the deadly ravages of sin.  Stripped of the divine glory like Adam and Eve cast out of paradise and bearing the wounds of our own transgressions, we have become slaves to death, the wages of sin.  Religious rituals and laws were powerless to restore the spiritual health of those who bear the image and likeness of God.  So the One Who was rejected as a blasphemer and even accused of being a Samaritan (John. 8:48) became one of us in order to conquer death and make us participants by grace in His eternal life.  The oil and wine of the parable represent the Holy Mysteries through which Christ nourishes and heals us.  His Body, the Church, is the inn where we regain our strength to grow in holiness. He will return in glory to raise the dead and fulfill His Kingdom.
“Go and do likewise” is not an abstract legal or moral command, but a truthful statement that those who are in Christ will manifest His mercy in their own lives.  Those who participate already in His eternal life will become living icons of His love even to those who hate and reject them.  The point is not to reduce our relationship with God to being nice to others, which usually means little more than helping our friends and trying to have warm feels about humanity in general.  It is, instead, that those who are being healed by the ravages of sin through the mercy of Christ will no longer be blinded by the passions and fears that make it so appealing to limit our list of neighbors to those who measure up to our standards.  Christ died and rose again for the salvation of all people, including those who called for His crucifixion and literally nailed Him to the Cross.  He enables those who are truly in personal union with Him to become radiant with the divine glory in a way that overcomes the darkness that so easily separates people, and groups of people, from one another.
That is why St. Paul reminded the Corinthians that “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.”  There are no limits to the merciful love of our Savior.  We must relate to our neighbors not on the basis of how we happen to feel about them or how much moral virtue we can muster, but instead on the basis of the boundless grace we have received.  The Apostle knew that “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  The more fully we open our lives to the healing mercy of His grace, the more He will work through us to bless the world.  So instead of limiting our list of concerns out of fear that we will run out of steam, we must unite ourselves so fully with the Savior that His merciful holiness becomes characteristic of our lives.  Then we will say with St. Paul “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.”
Some people today find it hard to believe in God in light of all the problems of the world, the divisions between people, and especially horrible acts of wickedness like mass murder in churches and other public places.  It is understandable why, in the face of such suffering, some will ask “Where is God?”  Here we must remember that Jesus Christ came to a world of sin and death to heal our wounds and grant us the spiritual strength to manifest His love to all who suffer.  He did not rain down wrath upon evildoers, but as the God-Man entered into our brokenness and pain to the point of death, burial, and Hades, over which He triumphed gloriously in His resurrection.  The same hateful wickedness that led people to crucify Him wounds human beings to this day, and none of us is yet fully healed from its malign effects.  Surely, every form of human depravity imaginable will remain in this world of corruption until He returns and fulfills His Kingdom.  But until then, He works through His Body, the Church, to bind up the wounds of those He died and rose again to save.   
Our response to horrific acts of evil is to obey Christ’s command “Go and do likewise.”  His Kingdom comes not through the coercive powerbrokers of the world as we know it, but through the healing of human souls and communities in which broken, imperfect people extend to others the same mercy we ask for ourselves.  His divine mercy is not limited to people we like or admire or to any nation, race, or group.  Even as the Lord offered Himself on the Cross for the salvation of the entire world, we must refuse to live as though anyone in His image and likeness is not a neighbor whom He calls us to love and serve, even as He has loved and served us. 
At the end of the day, our answer to those who doubt God’s presence in the world is primarily practical, not abstract or theoretical.  It is to love our neighbors as ourselves in a way that foreshadows the blessedness of a Kingdom in which there are no hated foreigners.  It is for our common life to become a sign of our Lord’s merciful love for everyone He came to save.  It is to become living icons of the indiscriminate love of our Savior, for He came to bless us all who like the man in the parable have been beaten, stripped, and left for dead by the side of the road.
For that to happen, we must invest ourselves in the abundant grace of our Lord such that His life becomes present in ours.  When that happens, our lives will be living proof that He is still at work binding up the wounds of suffering humanity.  By treating everyone as a beloved neighbor, we will provide the world a much needed sign of hope for an alternative to the pointless strife and divisions that so easily blind us to the humanity of our enemies. Yes, God is with us in Jesus Christ as the Samaritan was with the man who was victimized in the parable.  The only question is whether we will be with Him in refusing to narrow down the list of neighbors whom we are to love as ourselves.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Showing Others the Mercy We Have Received: Homily for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost and the 5th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 6:11-18; Luke 16:19-31
          In Paris in the 1930s and early 40s, there was an unusual Orthodox nun whose ministry was focused on showing the love of Christ to destitute and broken people who lived on the streets in misery.  During the Nazis occupation of Paris, she and her companions risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.  Eventually, they were arrested and sent to concentration campus.  That is where Mother Maria Skobtsova, now known as St. Maria of Paris, died for the Savior Whom she served in her neighbors on Holy Saturday in 1945 only a few weeks before the liberation of the camp, by some accounts taking the place of another prisoner in the gas chamber that day.
St. Maria of Paris comes to mind as the complete opposite of the rich man in today’s gospel lesson.  That man was such a slave to self-centeredness that he spent his time and resources buying the finest clothing and funding great banquets for himself every day.  His needy neighbor Lazarus was at most a nuisance to him, a diseased beggar in front of his home whose only comfort was when the dogs licked his open sores.  The rich man, however, ignored Lazarus, and at most stepped over or around him whenever he went into his house.  His heart was hardened and he had no compassion even on a fellow Jew living in such squalor.  He must have denied him even the crumbs from the table on which he enjoyed his fine meals.
By disregarding his poor neighbor, the rich man showed that he worshiped only himself, not the God of Israel.  The Old Testament makes quite clear the obligation of the Hebrews to care for their needy neighbors, but this man lived as though he were his own god.  So after he died, he experienced the brilliant glory of God as a burning flame, which reflected how he had been overcome by darkness to the point of becoming totally blind to the dignity of Lazarus as one who bore the image and likeness of God.  It is no small thing to live that way, for those who treat the living icons of the Lord as worthless creatures also reject Him and bring condemnation upon themselves.
That is why Father Abraham said in this parable about the brothers of the rich man that “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”  In other words, those who have ignored what has already been clearly revealed have made themselves so blind that they will be unable to recognize even the greatest miracle of all, the resurrection of One who rises from the dead.
This parable points, of course, to the spiritual blindness of those who rejected Jesus as the Messiah of Israel.  Those who had disregarded the clear teachings of the Law and the Prophets to the point that they had ignored meeting the most basic needs of their neighbors lacked the spiritual clarity to see much at all of God’s truth, including the profundity of the Savior conquering death through His glorious resurrection on the third day.   Those so wedded to the idolatry of serving only themselves and ignoring the needs of others were in no position to recognize and receive their own Messiah.
That recognition is a reminder of why St. Paul was so critical of the Judaizers who would have required Gentile converts to Christianity to be circumcised in obedience to the Old Testament law.  As he put it, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”  Something as minuscule as the requirement to obey a particular command for a surgical procedure pales before the need of humanity for healing, transformation, and fulfillment in God.  Other rules involving diet or the kind of activities done on a certain day cannot conquer death, the wages of sin.  They cannot turn corrupt human beings into living icons of holiness.  As St. Paul knew as a former Pharisee, their scrupulous observance easily leads to a prideful self-reliance in which people believe that they are made right with God simply by doing this or that by their own power.   Such an attitude is nothing but glorying in oneself, in rejoicing at how holy we think we have become simply by following the rules.
How completely different, however, is the attitude of those who look not to themselves for justification, but to the Cross.  “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”  By recognizing that the ultimate healing of our humanity comes through the Self-offering of the God-Man on the Cross, St. Paul destroys the rationale for thinking that Gentile converts must first obey the Jewish law before becoming Christians.  Instead of self-justification, the basis of our relationship with Christ is His gracious mercy available to all who respond to Him with humble faith and repentance.  The focus here is not on ourselves or what we can accomplish in any way, but on His holy love that stops at nothing, not even the Cross, to bring us into right relationship with Him through grace.
As Orthodox Christians who confess that we have received the fullness of the faith through His Body, the Church, how should we live in relation to the Lazaruses of our world and lives?  If the Hebrews of old had an obligation to bless their needy neighbors, how much more do we as the new creation in Christ Jesus have an obligation to become living icons of His love and care for every human being we encounter?   We must not do so with a self-centered spirituality that would view helping others as a way for us simply to fulfill a religious obligation or build up credit with God.  No, we must do so as a new creation, as simply a natural outgrowth of being those who take “glory…in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  He offered Himself on the Cross for the salvation of the entire world.  If we are truly in communion with Him, then Christ’s outrageous love for fallen, broken, corrupt people like us must come characteristic of our lives.  We who have received His mercy must show His mercy to others.
If we do not, then we are more spiritually blind than the rich man in today’s parable.  He was held accountable to the Old Testament Law and Prophets, but we have received the fullness of the promise in the God-Man Who rose from the dead on the third day for our salvation.  He offered Himself “on behalf of all and for all,” and if we are in communion with Him, then we must also be in communion with our needy, annoying, and frustrating neighbors, and ultimately all those to whom we may become a sign of His salvation in any way.  The point is not to view other people as an opportunity for us to perform our spiritual duties, but to offer ourselves to them in sacrificial love.  Like St. Paul, we should take glory only in the Cross of our Lord, which we do by joining ourselves to His great Self-offering on behalf of all who bear His image and likeness.
The One Who has risen from dead invites us to participate in His way of living in the world for its salvation, its fulfillment, and its ultimate good.  Those who answer that invitation will look something like St. Maria of Paris as they give themselves away for the sake of others.  They will not disregard the Lazaruses of this world out of selfishness, but will instead learn to love and serve them as Christ has loved and served us.  If we are truly a “a new creation” in Him, how could our lives be otherwise?  If we claim to have received the Lord’s gracious mercy, how can we not show that same blessing to others?   So let us offer ourselves to our neighbors even as He has offered Himself for us.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Finding Healing Through the Humble Faith that Overcomes Shame: Homily for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost and the 7th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 2:16-20; Luke 8:41-56

The lives of many people are shattered by the burdens that they carry due to their own sufferings and those of their loved ones.  When those closest to us are troubled, we are troubled also.  When our lives come to revolve around persistent problems that strike at our hearts, it is easy to lose our hope and trust in God.

            The woman who had been bleeding for twelve years had spent all her money on physicians who could not heal her.  Because of her condition, she was considered unclean, which meant that she could not enter the Temple or have a normal social life.  Anyone who touched her would also become unclean.  She was chronically ill, impoverished, and isolated.  After twelve years of such problems, it would not have been surprising for her to have lost all hope for the healing of her body and her relationship with others, as well as with God.

            Somehow, however, she had both the courage and the faith to reach out and touch the hem of Christ’s garment as He passed through a crowd of people.  She was understandably too embarrassed to walk straight up to the Lord, explain her condition, and ask for His healing.  So she did what she had the strength to do, hoping she could secretly be relieved of her affliction.  When she did that, her bleeding stopped immediately, so she got what she wanted.  But because Jesus Christ is not merely a human being with healing powers but the Son of God, He knew what had happened.  By saying “Who touched me?,” He challenged her to grow in faith by recognizing that the point of this miracle was not simply to get what she wanted.

Instead, He gave her the opportunity to fall down before Him, confess in the hearing of a large crowd what her malady had been, and how she had been healed.  Of course, being put on the spot like that terrified the woman and she trembled with fear.  But through this difficult experience, she was transformed.  Not only her body, but also her soul, were healed.  She died to the damage that came from focusing only on her own problems and the need to protect herself from the rejection and ridicule of others. She was delivered from her shame at not having the life that she understandably wanted.  Shame is a form of pride that holds us captive to the illusion that everything is up to us.  When we cannot accept in humility that there are matters beyond our control and that we cannot solve our own problems, we easily become obsessed with doing all that we can to hide these truths from others and even from ourselves.

This blessed woman was not, however, totally paralyzed by shame, because she had the humility and faith to identify herself publically once she knew that the Lord was aware what had happened.  He did not directly command her to do that, but she knew that was the proper response to His question when “she saw that she was not hidden.”  Her secret was out, at least to the Lord.  The isolating power of embarrassment died in that moment, and she gained the strength and freedom of a truly humble person by telling the whole story in public.  That is when the Savior said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” 

With these words, the Lord confirmed that she was no longer defined by her illness or her inability to heal herself.  She had died to her old life as an anonymous outcast suffering from a condition that cut her off from personal relationships with other people and from God.  Through humble faith, she embraced her true identity as a beloved daughter of the Lord who was dependent upon His mercy.  In order to do that, she surely had to muster every ounce of courage in overcoming her fear.  That is how she gained the spiritual clarity to see who she really was before God:  not simply a bundle of medical symptoms or an example of social isolation, but His beloved child and the recipient of His grace.

St. Paul refers in today’s epistle reading to a similar kind of death, for he writes that he “died to the Law, that I might live to God.”  Earlier in his life, Paul had thought that meticulous obedience to the Old Testament law, as interpreted by his fellow Pharisees, put observant Jews in right relationship with God.  But after the Risen Lord appeared to Him on the road to Damascus, Paul became a Christian and ultimately a great champion of God’s mercy extending to all who have humble faith in Jesus Christ.  St. Paul had to die to relying upon whatever righteousness he could earn for himself by legal observance, for that approach could never overcome the power of sin.  He had to die with Christ in baptism to his illusions of earning his own righteousness in order to rise up with the Lord into eternal life.  That is why he says “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.”

If we think that we stand before God based on whether we perfectly obey a law simply by our own ability, we may easily become slaves to shame and guilt because we will never be at peace with how we never measure up to what we think God requires.  We will likely view Him as a harsh, impersonal judge who is eager to condemn and reject us.  We will likely become obsessed with how unclean we are before Him, and perhaps do all that we can to hide the truth of our corruption from others and even from ourselves.  We may become as miserable and isolated as the woman with the flow of blood.  Recognizing that some things are simply beyond our control can be quite scary.

The good news is that Jesus Christ taught us to view God as “Our Father.”  Through Him, we are not anonymous defendants before a court of law or individuals simply on our own, but beloved sons and daughters.  As much as I hope that we all love our own parents, they are not the models for our understanding of the Heavenly Father.  It is the other way round, for Christ has shown us the Father.  Recall the parable of the prodigal son, in which the father eagerly awaits the return of his wretched son and restores him fully to the household with great joy.  How sad it would have been if the self-absorbed shame of that young man had kept him from returning home to a right relationship with his father.  He was blessed by his father’s mercy well beyond anything that he deserved or could have achieved.

In Christ, we are all sons and daughters of such an outrageously merciful Father in heaven.  It will be tragic if any of us allows our problems, or those of our loved ones, to keep us from responding to His mercy with humble faith.   Shame or embarrassment that keeps us from doing so reflects the pride of not accepting the truth about who are in relation to Him.  It is impossible to earn the status of son or daughter, for that is a gift based on a relationship initiated by parents.  Christ calls us not to either measure up or run away in shame, but humbly to open even our deepest and most painful wounds to Him for healing with the recognition that we are not our own saviors.

That will not mean that every sickness will be cured, all broken relationships will be restored, or that we will simply get what we want.  It will mean, however, that our weaknesses will become opportunities to die to the misery that comes from the self-centered perspective that we relate to God and other people only in terms of what we achieve, earn, or deserve.  It will mean that, if we have only the faith to touch the hem of His garment, Christ will enable us to grow in the humble trust of sons and daughters for their Heavenly Father.  It will mean that He will grant us the strength to see that literally nothing other than our own refusal can keep us from knowing the holy joy of His beloved children.  As the woman healed from the flow of blood demonstrates, His healing mercy calls us to die to our pride, shame, and self-reliance. That is how we too will find healing for the deepest pains of our lives.

Monday, October 23, 2017

"Often Disappointed, but Seldom Surprised": Thoughts on Sexual Harassment and a Culture of Depravity

        “Often disappointed, but seldom surprised.”  That old saying came to mind upon hearing of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against a leading figure in the American film industry. Alas, it is commonplace for mainstream films today to present the bodies of women as visual commodities to be bought and sold for the voyeuristic pleasures of men.  Moviegoers are so used to nudity and “strong sexual content” that most have become desensitized to what is going on:  presenting the exposed bodies of women as entertainment.  In earlier ages, men had to sneak into disreputable places to see such displays.  Now they are easily available in the privacy of their homes via the screens of computers, televisions, and the phones in their pockets.  And it is not considered scandalous to show in regular cinemas films that not long ago would have been rated X.      
            I once saw a brief interview with the film mogul in question in which he said that a particular film had “good sex” that people wanted to see.  Think about that for a moment.  The holy act of two people becoming “one flesh” has been reduced to a bit of entertainment to be sold.  It is not hard to give the clear impression in a film that a couple have gone to bed together and to leave it at that when necessary for the plot.  There is no reason to show the graphic details of their intimate union other than to inflame the passions of viewers.  Even as we hear of gratuitous vulgarity thrown into the dialogue of films so that they will merit a rating that will draw in more customers, the same is surely true of “strong sexual content.”   
            That should not be surprising in a culture with no higher standard for sex than the consent of individuals.  Many believe and act as though there were nothing sacred or even particularly profound in the intimate union of man and woman or in the dimensions of their bodies traditionally treated with modesty.  If they can be used to sell movie tickets and advertising, nothing else matters.   When actors agree to expose themselves and engage in sexually explicit scenes, they do so in the same way that they sign a contract to perform in any production.  It boils down to an commercial exchange.
            Perhaps some may view scenes of nudity and intercourse without being phased.  At least most men, however, will find their passions aroused in one way or another.  Many men, women, and children will make what they see their standard for how their bodies, and those of others, should look and how they should act sexually.  Regardless of what we intend, unrealistic and unhealthy expectations work their way through such images into our minds, souls, and relationships in a fashion that makes real intimacy more difficult.  What is fake then becomes the standard for what is real with the predictable results.  What is as intimate as life gets becomes impersonal and a matter of commercial exchange for mass entertainment.
            Should it be surprising that women typically bear the brunt of living in a society that celebrates that kind of entertainment?  As the “Me Too” campaign on social media has shown, sexual harassment and assault are epidemic.  In an age that has rejected the holiness of sex and of virtually any intrinsic moral restraints on the pursuit of pleasure, it is tragically predicable that many men will use their typically greater physical strength and economic power to take advantage of women.  The passions of men for domination and pleasure are sadly often so dominant that the fragile restraint of consent is too weak to stand in the way.  Legal standards often do not serve as a firewall to protect the intrinsic dignity of human beings, but as mere procedural hurdles to be ignored, overcome, or maneuvered around with the help of a good lawyer.  Unfortunately, they often fail to keep people enslaved to their passions from doing terrible things.
            These observations are not excuses or justifications for this horrible state of affairs, of course, but a description of the low point to which we as a culture have fallen.   Those who say that the sexual revolution has not harmed consenting adults are fooling themselves.  In a culture that has abandoned the holiness of sex and marriage and treats the bodies of women as commodities for entertainment according to the demands of the marketplace, too many men will distort or ignore the requirement of consent in order to get what they want.  
            I cannot imagine that there is a decent man alive who does not regret many of his actions, words, and thoughts in relation to women.  The passions that drive men to treat women as objects of desire to be used and dominated run deep within our corrupt souls.  No one has earned the right to be self-righteous in this area of life, which is surely one reason that Jesus Christ said that those guilty of lust are guilty of adultery.  No one is in the position to cast the first stone, for we have not achieved purity of heart or become perfect as our Father is perfect.  
That is also true for women, who also experience lust and in our culture are consuming pornography at increasing rates.  By focusing on the failures of men and the impact of cultural trends on their behavior, I do not mean to give the impression that women are free of such temptations in this area of life, but will leave it to others to comment on the particular challenges faced by women.     
Criticism of depraved cultural standards is not a matter of the pure pointing a finger at the sinners.  It is, instead, a recognition by those who struggle against their own distorted desires that we all are in this together.  Because of our common brokenness, norms and practices of decency are crucial to form men of decent moral character, as well as to protect women from harassment, assault, and otherwise being treated as less than a person in the image and likeness of God.
Men and women formed by the practices of pornography and promiscuity will be the weaker and the worse for it.  It is hard to see how even basic standards of decency may exist in a society in which young boys now routinely become addicted to pornography on their cell phones and the entertainment industry lives by some mixture of “strong sexual content” and graphic violence.  Those formed in the habit of viewing women’s bodies as objects for gratification in media of whatever kind will likely fail to develop the character necessary to respect even the requirement of consent.    
            I recently heard a brief radio news report on BBC that celebrated a certain pornographic magazine having its first “transgender woman” on its centerfold.  A female commentator spoke in glowing terms about how this publication used the public display of nudity to empower women.  The reporters spoke enthusiastically of the choice of this particular model as a great step forward in sexual liberation.  Leaving discussion of “transgender issues” for another time, I will simply comment that when dominant cultural voices lionize publications the only purpose of which is to make money by fueling the lust of men with images of the objectified bodies of women, what can be the expected outcome but a society with even weaker moral vision and less ethical strength to resist practices that lead to a culture of harassment and abuse?  That hardly sounds like liberation to me.
            In the current cultural context, the Church must form men who gain the purity of heart necessary to treat every woman they encounter with the honor due a living icon both of our Lord and of His Holy Mother.  The dominant culture will not help us with that, which is where the ascetical and sacramental life of the Church comes in. If there were ever a time for the Body of Christ to become a sign of hope for the salvation of the world in the troubled relationship of man and woman, it is now.  

Sunday, October 22, 2017

On Overcoming the Fear of Becoming our True Selves: Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Luke 8:26-39

We have probably all been surprised at some point by a family member, friend, or acquaintance who behaved out of character. We get to know people and have some idea of who they are, but then they say or do something that makes us wonder if we really know them.  If we are honest, we will acknowledge that the same is true of each of us.  We say, do, and think things that surprise even ourselves.  Sometimes we handle a problem or respond to a temptation better than we thought we would, but so often our actions reveal a brokenness that we do not like to see.  That is why we can so quickly become defensive when others see our weaknesses, and especially when they point them out.
            In today’s gospel reading we read about a man whose situation was beyond miserable.  He surely had no illusions about himself, for he was so filled with demons that he called himself “Legion.”  His personality had disintegrated due to the power of the forces of evil in his life.  That is shown by the fact that he was naked, like Adam and Eve who stripped themselves of the divine glory and were cast out of Paradise into our world of corruption.  He lived among the tombs, and death is “the wages of sin” that came into the world as a consequence of our first parents’ refusal to fulfill their calling to become like God in holiness.  This naked man living in the cemetery was so terrifying to others that they tried unsuccessfully to restrain him with chains.  People understandably feared that he would do to them what Cain had done to Abel.  But when this fellow broke free, he would run off to the desert by himself, alone with his demons.  In the Gadarene demoniac we have a vivid icon of the pathetic suffering of humanity enslaved to death, naked of the divine glory, and isolated in fear from loving relationships with others.
            Evil was so firmly planted in this man’s soul that his reaction to the Lord’s command for the demons to leave him was “What have you to do with me?...I ask you, do not torment me.”  His brokenness was such that he had no hope for healing and perceived Christ’s promise of deliverance simply as pain.  By telling the Lord that his name was Legion, he was acknowledging that the line between the demons and his own identity had been blurred.  He was in such bad shape that it was not clear where he ended and where the demons began.  The Savior then cast the demons into the herd of pigs, who ran into the lake and drowned.  In the Old Testament context, pigs were unclean, and here the forces of evil lead even them into death.
            Perhaps there is no clearer image of human brokenness in need of the healing of Christ than this miserable man.    He represents us all in many ways.  He did not ask Christ to deliver him, even as we did not take the initiative in Christ's coming to save sinners.  The corrupting forces of evil were so powerful in his life that he had lost any sense of what it meant to be someone in God’s image and likeness.  Whenever we are driven by our distorted self-centered desires, we think, speak, and act similarly. We too are often so wedded to our favorite sins that, like him, we would rather that Christ leave us alone than that He set us free.  We are often so weak and confused that we fear His healing mercy will torment us, for we have lost all hope of being set free from them.  We are afraid of what life would be like without them.
            After the spectacular drowning of the swine, the man in question was “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”  The one who had not been recognizably human returned to being his true self, was back in society, and was learning from the One Who had set him free.  That was very disturbing, however, to the people of that region.  In fact, they asked Christ to leave out of fear at what had happened.  We may find their reaction hard to understand.  What could be so terrifying about this man returning to a normal life?  Unfortunately, we all tend to get used to whatever we get used to.  What we have experienced in ourselves or in others becomes normal to us.  Even as the scary man in the tombs was afraid when Christ came to set Him free, his neighbors were afraid when they saw that he had changed.   
            It is no surprise, then, that the man formerly possessed by demons and still feared by his neighbors did not want to stay in his hometown after the Lord restored him.  He begged to go with Christ, Who responded, “Return to your home, and declare all that God has done for you.”  That must have been a difficult commandment for him to obey.  Who would not be embarrassed and afraid to live in a town where everyone knew about the wretched and miserable existence he had experienced?  It would have been much easier to have left all that behind and start over as a traveling disciple of the One who had set him free.
            But that was not what Christ wanted the man to do.  Perhaps that was because the Lord knew that the best witness to His transforming power was a person who had been healed from the worst forms of depravity and corruption.   Why should people believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world?  Surely, the lives of His followers must bear witness to His power in order to convince them.  When someone moves from slavery to the glorious freedom of the children of God, that person has moved from death to life.  Such a radical change is a sign of the truth of Christ’s resurrection, for He makes us participants in His victory over death by breaking the destructive hold of the power of sin in our lives.   
Our Lord makes it possible for us to become our true selves in Him, the Second Adam.  That means being united with Him in holiness such that, by His gracious mercy, we become “partakers of the divine nature” who fulfill humanity’s original vocation to become like God in holiness.   He has overcome our nakedness by clothing us in a robe of light in baptism, filled us with the Holy Spirit in Chrismation, and nourished us with His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  He Himself forgives and restores us through Confession and repentance.  Our Lord is even more present to us than He was to the man in today’s gospel lesson, for He has made us members of His own Body and dwells in our hearts. 
Our challenge, then, is not to ask Him to go away out of fear that He will torment us.  Sin only has the power in our lives that we allow it to have, and we all have a long, challenging journey to turn away from it.  Nonetheless, we must take the small steps of which we are capable to turn our hearts more fully toward God through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and all the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life.  When we fail, we must use our weakness to grow in constant dependence on the Lord’s mercy and strength.  We cannot save ourselves by our own power any more than the man could cast out his own demons.
  We may be as terrified to think about life without our favorite sins as the man’s neighbors were to see him in his right mind.  Sharing more fully in Christ’s victory over death will always be terrifying in a sense, for we must die to sin in order to rise up with Him in holiness.  His Kingdom is not of this world and we must crucify the distortions of our souls that have become so familiar to us.  When the struggle is hard and we want to give up, remember the difference between a naked and isolated person out of his mind due to the power of evil in his soul and that person “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”  That is really what is at stake in the question of whether we will do all that we can to welcome the Lord’s healing presence in our lives or run away from Him in fear.  May He grant us all the wisdom and strength to choose blessedness over despair, to choose life over death.   

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sacrificing in Order to Bear Fruit: Homily for the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council and the 4th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15
            In last Saturday’s football game at McMurry University, the home team was behind at half-time even though they were favored to win.  The coach had noticed that the players had not seemed to enjoy playing during the first half and told them to remember to have fun in the remainder of the game.  He reminded them that ultimately that was why they played their sport:  to go out there and have some fun.  Well, they did have fun in the second half as they came from behind to win.
In just about any area of life, we can get into trouble when we forget why got into it in the first place.  It is so easy to become distracted and confused to the point that we become blind before the most obvious truths.  It is tempting to get so caught up in matters of secondary importance that we simply miss the point, not only of an activity, but of our lives.
With His explanation of the parable of the sower, Jesus Christ instructed the disciples to think of themselves as plants that have grown from seed cast upon the ground.  Why would someone throw seed on the soil?  In this context, it was done in hope that they would take root, grow, and bear fruit. That is the most obvious reason that someone plants a garden:  in order to enjoy the growth of healthy plants.  And that is why we have all embraced the fullness of Orthodox Christianity:  to become mature plants that bear good fruit for the Kingdom of God.  In other words, we have come to Christ and His Church for the fulfillment of our most basic calling as those who bear the divine image and likeness.  We want to be united with God in holiness.  We want to find the healing of our souls.  That is in no way selfish, for doing so requires dying to self out of love for our Lord and our neighbors in so many ways.
Just like we can easily get distracted in any tense and frustrating situation, we usually find it very hard to remain focused on what is necessary to grow spiritually and bear fruit for the Kingdom.  Some are quite enthusiastic about the faith at first, but then fall away when the new wears off and they realize that growing in holiness is a long, difficult road that requires sacrificial commitment for the long haul.  Others last longer, but are overcome by “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” which they allow to dominate them, to become more real to them than the joy of sharing more fully in the life of Christ.
The world as we know it is full of distractions, and who does not have to devote significant attention to matters as pressing as sickness, paying the bills, and challenges of all kinds in our families and in our world?  To use the imagery of the parable, if gardeners wait until they have no distractions or problems of any kind, most of them will never even begin to prepare the soil.  But even if they do prepare the soil and then later allow themselves to become so distracted that they do not water the plants and protect them from weeds and pests, they will likely never have healthy plants that bear good fruit.  Just like athletes enjoying playing their sport still have to concentrate on what they are doing, gardeners who take pleasure in their work must pay attention and refuse to become distracted.
The same is true for us, if we are to abide in Christ, share more fully in His blessed life, and bear fruit for the Kingdom.  Instead of allowing whatever is going on in our lives to separate us from Him, we must make our daily cares points of contact with Him, opportunities to gain strength for living faithfully with our challenges.   That is just as true when things are going well as when they are going badly.  Even as we must not fall prey to the temptation to allow enjoying good times to become a false god, we must not allow even the darkest and most difficult problems in our lives to lead us to despair.  A garden neglected by someone who is too busy having parties to care for it probably looks just like a garden neglected by someone who is too sick to tend it. The result is the same: dead plants that ultimately dry up and blow away.  And no matter what it is that keeps us from preparing the spiritual soil of our lives, from pulling out the weeds of our souls by the roots, and from receiving the nourishment that we need in order to flourish in the Christian life, the result will be the same.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul reminded St. Titus to instruct his people not to waste their time with foolish distractions, such as arguments over pointless things with contentious people.  He wrote, “And let our people learn to apply themselves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful.”  Addressing real problems that we can actually do something about is far more spiritually beneficial than getting worked up about nonsense or matters that we cannot change.  In today’s world of constant news and social media, it is tempting to get caught up in ceaseless worry about all kinds of things and to define ourselves in terms of how popular culture divides us up as this group against that group. And it is often much more appealing to brood about our own persistent personal problems than to turn our attention to serving God and our neighbors.
The problem, then, is how little time, energy, and attention we will have left to offer to the Lord for the healing of our souls and the fulfillment of His purposes for the world.  Just as gardeners so overcome with worrying about other matters will probably not provide adequate care to their plants, we will not give adequate care to our relationship with Christ if we are so obsessed with other things that basic spiritual disciplines become afterthoughts that we admire, but do not practice.  People who do not sacrifice so that they can advance in any endeavor probably will not make much progress.  If we are not sacrificing other objects of our attention in order to pray at home and at Church on a regular basis, to share our resources and time with the poor and lonely, and to fill our minds with the Scriptures and other beneficial spiritual reading, we really cannot expect to become healthy plants that bear good fruit in the Lord’s garden.  If we are not struggling to keep our mouths shut when we want to speak in anger or judgment, to turn the other cheek when we are insulted and to forgive our enemies, and to gain the strength to overcome our many addictions to our self-centered desires, we cannot really hope to find healing for our souls.
Gardeners do not earn a good crop by their dedicated labors, but their diligent work opens their little plot of land to the power of the natural world.  Faithful Christians do not earn the healing of their souls by conscientious practice of the spiritual disciples, but that is how they open themselves to the gracious divine energies of our Lord.   Amidst all the other appealing things that we could be doing, we must invest ourselves each day in what we know it takes to participate more fully in the life of Christ.   We must refuse to be distracted from the one thing needful of hearing and obeying the Word of God, for He is the One in Whom we will find the fulfillment of our most fundamental desire as human beings:  to be united with God in holiness.
If we stay focused on Christ, and do what it takes to unite ourselves more fully to Him each day, then we will be like the good seed in the parable who “hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”  No, that will not happen by accident, but by persistently turning away from all that would threaten to keep us from bearing good fruit for the Kingdom of God.  It will happen by persistently investing ourselves in what it takes to flourish in the garden of the Lord.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sharing the Mercy We Have Received as God's Temple: Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost & Second Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1; Luke 6:31-36

How we see ourselves plays a very important role in how we live.  Many people define themselves in light of their own weaknesses in ways that keep them chained to whatever shattered personal history they may have.  It is easy to weigh ourselves down with ways of thinking that hold us in bondage, especially when we think that there is no possibility of us changing.  When we do that, we simply enslave ourselves further to a distorted perspective on where we stand before God and in relation to others.

When St. Paul addressed the Gentile Christians of Corinth as “the temple of the living God,” he was doing something no one would have anticipated.  As his letters to the Corinthians make clear, they were converts from paganism who had to be corrected from their tendency to fall back into old ways of living on everything from worshiping false gods to engaging in sexual immorality.  Not only were they Gentiles, they apparently continued to fall back into the very ways of living that the Jews associated with the perversions of strangers and foreigners.   

The Old Testament contains many warnings to the Jews to have nothing to do with Gentiles.  That is why St. Paul quotes Hebrew prophets admonishing the Jews to be entirely separate from the corrupt ways of other peoples.  What is so shocking, of course, is that he now applies that instruction to the Gentile Christians of Corinth.  Those who were hated and feared for their immorality and paganism are now themselves “the temple of the living God” in Jesus Christ.  They are His people, His sons and daughters, to whom the promises of Abraham have been extended through faith.  Because of this great dignity, St. Paul tells them to be clean “from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”

No matter how debauched the Corinthians had been before becoming Christians, and no matter how gravely they had sinned since their baptism, the Apostle urges them to remember who they are in Jesus Christ and to live accordingly.  He calls them to refuse to define themselves by their sins, past or present.  The point is not how they have fallen short or what particular temptations they face.  The point is to accept in humility who they are by the grace of God and no longer to give any place to sin and corruption in their lives.  Whatever does not belong in God’s holy temple does not belong in them, for their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  St. Paul calls them to live according to the high calling and dignity that is theirs in Jesus Christ, not according to whatever sins have enslaved them in the past or still threaten to distract them from offering every dimension of their lives to the Lord.

We may be tempted to think that those Corinthian converts had it easier than we do.  After all, they lived in a world in which it was obvious who the false gods were.  The ways of the pagan culture were diametrically opposed to those of the Church in many ways.  But as the problems St. Paul had to address in Corinth indicate, there was actually nothing easy at all about being a Christian in that time and place.  Though they take different forms, the challenges of taking up our crosses and following the Lord are always with us; and no generation navigates them perfectly.

In today’s gospel reading, the Savior teaches that we must do something that seems impossibly hard in every generation, namely, loving our enemies.  He reminds us not to define ourselves by what seems easy or even natural in our world of corruption by simply being nice to those who are nice to us.  Even terrorists and gangsters do that, of course.  There is no great virtue in loving those from whom we expect love in return.  Far more challenging is the calling not to be defined by the disagreeable actions and words of others or by how we are inclined to respond to them.  Even as the Corinthian Christians were sorely tempted to return to what was comfortable and convenient to them in light of their pagan past, we will find it much easier to hate and condemn our enemies than to be generous, kind, and forgiving toward them.  There is much in our culture, and much that somehow passes for Christianity in our society, that would tell us we are perfectly justified in allowing fear, resentment, and self-righteous judgment to shape how we respond both to particular people and to certain groups.  Those who worship the false gods of worldly power and self-centeredness may think that loving their friends and hating their enemies helps them get what they want.  Because they set their sights so slow, they may be right—at least for a time.  Even terrorists and gangsters will have a measure of success by their own standards. 

But what on earth should that have to do with us, who by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ have become “the temple of the living God”?  Our goal is not to achieve this or that earthly goal like another interest group or faction, but to become “merciful, even as your father is merciful.”  Our goal is to live as sons and daughters of the Lord, cleansed from every stain, and to “make holiness perfect in the fear of God.” 

We are just like the Gentile Christians of Corinth who, purely by God’s grace, moved from aliens to heirs, from hated foreigners to those who have inherited the promises to Abraham in Jesus Christ.  We must separate ourselves, then, from much that is appealing to us in our culture, from much that would keep us enslaved to old habits.  We must shut our ears to voices that associate strength with bondage to the passions of anger and hatred, as though it is somehow virtuous to hold grudges and refuse to forgive.  We must shut our eyes to the habit of seeing as neighbors only those who are like us in how we look, how we live, or how we believe.  Thank God, His mercy extends even to sinners like you and me.  If that is the case, then how can we refuse to extend mercy to anyone?  Did not Christ die and rise again in order to save the entire world, including those who nailed Him to the Cross?  Even as there are no limits to His love, there should be no limits to ours.   If we judge others by merely human standards of any kind, we fall well short of showing to others the same mercy that we want for ourselves.

There is no limit to the holiness to which our Savior calls each and every one of us.  We are all weakened by our own sins and those of others.  We may find it impossible to believe that our lives will ever manifest the holiness of God’s temple.  That was surely true of St. Paul before his conversion, as well as of the Gentile Christians who came to faith from pagan backgrounds.  Our culture teaches us primarily to believe in ourselves, but we must primarily believe in the healing mercy of our Savior, which extends even to the most unlikely candidates “to make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”  If before such a high calling, you feel as unworthy as a Corinthian pagan, then thank God for that profound insight and use it for your humility. For we never stand before the Lord based on what we deserve.

The best way to thank Him for His mercy is to extend that same mercy to others, which is possible only if we refuse to define ourselves as anything but His beloved sons and daughters, as His holy temple.  The more we embrace this blessed calling, the more strength we will have to turn away from everything that would separate us from fulfilling our vocation to become like God in holiness.  In some ways, the message is really very simple.  We are the temple of God by His grace.  It is time we started living like it as we show love, do good, and extend mercy to neighbors who need His grace just as much as we do.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Finding Healing Through Sacrifice: Homily for the Sunday After the Exaltation of the Cross in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 2:16-20 ; Mark 8:34-9:1
Today we continue to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  It may seem strange that we devote certain periods of the Church year especially to the Cross because it is so characteristic of our entire life in Christ.  No matter what else is going on in the Church or in our own lives, we are never done with the Cross, for our Savior calls us—just as He did His original disciples—to take up our crosses and follow Him each and every day.  That is not a command limited to certain days or periods, for it is a calling that permeates the Christian life.      
            Our Lord’s disciples, like the other Jews of that time, had apparently expected a Messiah who would have had nothing to do with a cross.  They wanted a successful ruler, someone like King David, who would destroy Israel’s enemies and give them privileged positions of power in a new political order.  So they could not accept His clear word that He would be rejected, suffer, die, and rise again.  When St. Peter actually tried to correct Him on this point, Christ called him “Satan” and said that he was thinking in human terms, not God’s.  To place the pursuit of worldly power over faithful obedience was a temptation Christ had faced during His forty days of preparation in the desert before His public ministry began.  Then that same temptation came from the head disciple, and the Lord let St. Peter know in no uncertain terms that He must serve God and not the powers of this world. To place worldly success over sacrificial obedience was, and is, simply the work of the devil. 
              The Savior told the disciples what they did not want to hear:  that they too must take up their crosses and lose their lives in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  The same is true for us, for whatever false gods we are tempted to serve cannot conquer sin and death or bring healing to our souls.  To serve them is to become their slaves and to receive nothing in return but weakness and despair.  The word of the Cross is that we too must lose ourselves in the service of the Kingdom in order to participate personally in our Lord’s great victory and blessing, both now and for eternity. 
            Though we do not like to acknowledge it, true holiness contradicts conventional standards of success in our corrupt world.  The way of the Cross judges all nations, people, and cultures, and makes clear how they fall short.  The witness of the martyrs from the origins of the faith right up until today in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere makes that especially clear.  But let us not think that taking up the cross is reserved only for those called to make the ultimate sacrifice.  For He calls every one of us to become a living martyr by dying to our sinfulness, to how we have wounded ourselves, our relationships, and our world.  To turn away from corruption in any of its forms is to take up the cross.  We do not want to hear it, but if we want to share in the joy of Christ’s resurrection, we must first participate in the struggle, pain, and sacrifice of crucifixion.
           That does not mean convincing ourselves that we are being persecuted for our faith whenever someone criticizes or disagrees with us.  It does not mean having a “martyr complex” in which we sacrifice in order to gain sympathy from others.   We must never distort our faith into a way of getting what we want from others, a habit of feeling sorry for ourselves, or a means of justifying hatred or resentment towards anyone for any reason.  If we crucify others even in our thoughts for whatever reason, we turn away from the true Cross. Instead, our calling is to follow the example of our Lord in forgiving even those who hate and reject us.  
          The One Who offered up Himself calls us to crucify our own sinful desires and actions, the habits of thought, word, and deed that lead us to worship and serve ourselves instead of God and neighbor.  That is very hard to do in a culture that celebrates self-centeredness and self-indulgence.  In the name of being true to ourselves, many today justify everything from adultery and promiscuity to abusing and abandoning their own children. If any of their desires goes unfulfilled, many feel justified in falling into anger, hatred, and even violence toward those who offend them.  Many people are such slaves to their own desires that there is no limit to their wrath when those desires are not met.  Of course, this is simply a form of idolatry, of worshiping ourselves instead of the One who went to the Cross for our salvation.      
            If we are honest, we will confess that living that way simply makes us miserable, ashamed, and even more enslaved to our passions.   Contrary to popular option, it is a path toward ever greater weakness, not toward strength of any kind.  It may seem possible to gain the whole world for a time by living that way, but those who do still end up losing their souls.    
Saint Paul said of himself, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.”  By dying to his sins, St. Paul became a living icon of the Lord.  Our Savior’s glorification of humanity was made present in his life.  He became truly himself in the divine image and likeness by sharing in the Lord’s death and resurrection.  The same is true of all the Saints, of all those who have manifested in their own lives the holiness of our Lord, whether they died as martyrs or not.      
In our culture, it is not hard to find false substitutes for taking up our crosses and following our Lord.  We may think that simply expressing ourselves is somehow really virtuous.   But true holiness is much more demanding than stating an opinion, “liking” a post on social media, or putting a bumper sticker on our car.  For example, it is much harder to give of our time, energy, and resources to help a troubled or needy person than it is to agree with the idea of helping others.  It is much more difficult to live a life of chastity and purity as man and woman in our decadent culture than it is to call for moral decency in society or to criticize others whose struggles we do not know.  Most of us have more than enough work to do in purifying our own hearts before we start worrying too much about how others are doing.
Regardless of how correct we may be on any issue or problem, words and thoughts alone will not help us die to the power of sin in our lives, especially if they inflame passions such as self-righteous pride or judgment toward particular people.  In order for our faith to be more than a reflection of how we think or feel, we must act in ways that require self-sacrifice and help to purify our hearts.  We must actually follow Christ in our daily lives by taking up our crosses.  
We may do so by enduring sickness or other persistent personal challenges and disappointments with patience, humility, and deep trust that the Lord will not abandon us.  There is no “one size fits all” journey to the Kingdom, no legal definition, even as the Saints include people of so many different life circumstances and personalities.  Regardless of our situation, we all have the opportunity to bear our crosses in relation to the particular challenges that we face. Most of us do not need to go looking for spiritual challenges; if we will open our eyes, we will see that they are right before us.   
Christ calls us all to live as those who are not ashamed of His Cross.  That means that we must take practical, tangible steps every day in order to die to the corrupting influence of sin so that we may participate more fully in the new life that our Savior has brought to the world.  If we do not, then we deny our Lord and His Cross.  If we do not, we worship the false god of self because we refuse to place obedience to the way of the Savior over obedience to our own self-centered desires.  Our ultimate choice is not between this or that opinion or idea, but between uniting ourselves to our Lord in His great Self-Offering and simply serving ourselves. One is a path to life, while the other leads only to the grave. 
 If we ever think that we are serving the Lord faithfully when we are not sacrificing to bear our crosses, then we should think again.  We must not commemorate the Cross only in certain periods of the Church year, but every day of our lives in how we live, how we treat others, and how we respond to our temptations, weaknesses, and chronic challenges.  The Savior offered Himself in free obedience on the Cross for the salvation of the world, and it is only by taking up the cross of dying to sin’s corruption in our lives that we will share in the great victory that He worked through it. He conquered death in His glorious resurrection on the third day. We will participate personally in His great triumph only if we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him.  That is what it means to be one of His disciples.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Becoming a New Creation Through the Cross: Homily for the Sunday Before the Elevation of the Holy Cross & the After-Feast of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 6:11-18; John 3:13-17
Most people probably think of birth and death as totally different and unrelated things.  We often associate one with great joy and hope, while the other is simply a sorrowful ending.  If we think simply in terms of our experience in this world of corruption, then it makes sense to view them in that way.  But if we place them in the context of what our Lord has accomplished through His Cross, then we will understand them very differently.
            Today we continue to celebrate the Nativity of the Theotokos even as we anticipate the feast of the Elevation of the Cross later this week.  That we magnify the Cross should not be surprising to anyone who knows anything about Christianity, for it is through His great Self-Offering on the Cross that our Savior took the full consequences of sin and death upon Himself, and thus conquered them in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  His death is our entryway into the new life of the Kingdom, into the “eighth day” of the new creation.
The importance of the birth of the Virgin Mary may be a bit more obscure, however. Perhaps the place to begin understanding the importance of her birth is with our first parents, Adam and Eve.  By choosing to satisfy their own prideful desires instead of fulfilling their calling to become ever more like God in holiness, they ushered in the cycle of birth and death that has enslaved every generation.  But instead of leaving us captive to corruption, God prepared across the centuries to restore us to the ancient dignity for which He created us in the first place. Joachim and Anna were a righteous, elderly Jewish couple who, like Abraham and Sarah, longed for a child.  God heard their fervent prayers and gave them Mary, whom they dedicated to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem.  That is where she grew up in preparation to become the Living Temple of the Lord when she miraculously contained Christ in her womb.
We call Mary “Theotokos” precisely because the One Whom she bore is truly divine, the eternal Son of God.  We call her the New Eve because she gave birth to the New Adam in Whom our calling to become like God in holiness is fulfilled.  As the God-Man, He united humanity and divinity in Himself, making it possible for us to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  The first Eve chose her own will over God’s and gave birth to those enslaved to death, beginning with Cain and Abel.  The New Eve said “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word” and gave birth to the One Who conquered death. 
As St. Paul knew, Christ’s healing of our fallen humanity is so profound that we become through Him “a new creation.”  The references to Adam and Eve are especially fitting in this context, for we cannot understand the gravity of our healing if we do not recognize the depths of our sickness.  Unlike the Judaizers who wanted Gentile converts to be circumcised, St. Paul saw that corrupt humanity, whether Jew or Gentile, was enslaved to death, the wages of sin.  Our problem is not so slight that we need only a few rituals or rules to improve us.  No, as the Savior told Nicodemus, we need to be reborn.  We need to move from death to life.  That is why Christ offered Himself in free obedience on the Cross:  in order to raise us up from the tomb as participants in the eternal life for which He breathed life into us in the first place.  He did not come to condemn the world, but to save it—and all of us-- as a new creation.
The good news of Christ’s salvation is so glorious that we do not want to leave out any dimension of how He has set right all that has gone wrong with humanity across the ages.  We want to tell this beautiful story in full detail--past, present and future.  Since He had to be a real human being in order to save real human beings, Jesus Christ had to have a mother.  At one level, that is simply a fact of what it means to be human.  But as we know from St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, He also had to have a mother who freely welcomed Him into her life.  He had to have a mother who chose to obey God’s calling to her, even though she could not have possibly known all that her agreement would mean.  Mary did not know how a virgin could become pregnant and give birth while remaining a virgin.  Well, who does?  But her humble, trusting obedience played a crucial role in how salvation came into the world.  He could not have been the God-Man unless he was born of a woman.  He could not have become the Second Adam were it not for the consent of the New Eve.
The Theotokos’ birth resonates beautifully with so much Old Testament imagery.  She was miraculously conceived by an elderly couple whose barrenness represents the pain and despair of a world enslaved to sin and death.  Joachim and Anna could not overcome childlessness by themselves, even as we cannot overcome the grave by our own power.   God’s blessing on their intimate union in conceiving the Theotokos is a sign of the healing of the frustrations of the relationship between man and woman, which also result from the rebellion of our first parents.  Like Abraham and Sarah, they had to wait for a very long time, but finally God gave them a child. As Hannah did with Samuel, they gave the child to God in the Temple, where she grew up in preparation to receive Christ into her life in a unique way as His Living Temple. The promises to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ and extend to all with faith in Him.  The Theotokos’ birth is a crucial dimension of how God prepared for the fulfillment of those promises.  We cannot tell the story of Christ without also telling hers.
 If we want the best example of what it means to become “a new creation” in Him, we need only look to her as the first and model Christian who, like St. Paul, did not “glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”  Nothing about the Theotokos’ life was a conventional religious accomplishment that drew the praise of others at the time.   She is the mother of One Who was crucified as a blasphemer and a traitor. She saw Him on the Cross with her own eyes.  As St. Symeon told the Theotokos at Christ’s presentation in the Temple, “a sword will pierce your soul as well.” (Luke 2:35) But it was precisely through the horror of the Cross that the Savior brought the world into the new day of the Kingdom.  He makes us “a new creation” not by giving us mere rules and rituals by which we can try make ourselves worthy or respectable, but by enabling us to become participants in the great victory He won through His crucifixion and resurrection.
In order to accept that high calling, we must be willing to die to all that holds us back from playing our role in fulfilling God’s purposes for the new creation.  Like Joachim and Anna, we must be prayerful and patient.  Like the Theotokos, we must say “yes” even when we cannot have a full understanding of what it will mean to obey.  In all things, we must unite ourselves to the Lord in His great Self-Offering on the Cross, and refuse to base our lives on anything or anyone else.  We should remove from our lives anything that we cannot offer to Him for blessing.  We should welcome into our lives every opportunity to become more like Him in holiness.  In other words, we should move in Him from death to life.  The point is not to become conventionally religious or morally impressive, but to embrace the salvation He worked on the Cross that extends to you and me, as well as to the rest of the world.   For His death truly is our life, our birth into the new creation of the Kingdom of Heaven.