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.