Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mercy Beyond National Boundaries: Homily for the 7th Sunday of Matthew and "St. Timon Sunday" in the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America

Romans 15:1-7; Matthew 9:27-35
        So much of what passes for religion in our culture is very self-centered.  Some develop a spirituality to help them feel a certain way, while others want to use God to promote political and moral agendas in their own image.  Their nation or their people then becomes the highest good. Regardless of the particulars, those who make their faith all about themselves will end up worshiping a false god of their own creation.
         One of the reasons that our Lord’s ministry in first-century Palestine was so shocking is that He blessed not only His fellow Jews, the chosen people of the Old Testament, but also the Gentiles.  That is what He did in today’s gospel reading.  The blind men were obviously Jews who called to Him using a traditional title for the Messiah, “Son of David.”  But the crowds said “Never was anything like this seen in Israel” because the demon-possessed man He enabled to speak was not a Jew, but a Gentile.  The Jews of that time had overlooked the clear teaching of the Old Testament that God would bless the entire world through them and draw all nations to Himself.  That is why the crowds were so surprised, for they did not expect the Jewish Messiah to help anyone outside their own community.
         This past week we celebrated the feast day of the Prophet Elijah.  The gospel reading for that day described the shocking scene of what happened when Christ reminded the people of His hometown that God had once sent Elijah to help a Gentile woman during a famine, which also affected many Jews.  He also mentioned that God sent the Prophet Elisha to heal a Syrian of leprosy when many Jews suffered from that disease.  Do you remember what the people of our Savior’s hometown did when He told those stories?  They tried to kill Him by throwing Him off a cliff, for they had no use for a Messiah Who cared about foreigners and enemies.  (Luke 4: 22-30) Here we have a clear and terrifying portrait of where the hatred and rejection of other people in the name of God leads:  to the hatred and rejection of the Lord Himself.
         Thank God, the Orthodox Church from her origins has recognized that our Lord’s mercy extends to all who call upon Him with faith, love, and humble repentance, regardless of their background or heritage.   We read in Acts of the founding of the first Gentile church in Antioch, where our Lord’s followers were first called Christians. (Acts 11:19-26) That same awareness that God’s salvation is not limited by nationality, race, culture, or any other human division remains characteristic of the Antiochian Orthodox Church to this day. Very few of the members of our parish are of Arab or Middle Eastern descent, yet we have all been welcomed as full members of the Body of Christ.  The very existence of Orthodox churches in unlikely places like Abilene reflects the same universal evangelistic spirit that we read about in Acts.  Regardless of human ancestry, we are all one in the Savior Who came to bless and heal the entire world.
As members of the Christ’s Body, we must not rest content with receiving our Lord’s mercy through the ministries of those who have shared the faith with us.  We must not fall into a self-centered distortion of religion in which we seek simply to please ourselves.  Instead, we must serve and strengthen those who suffer and struggle, especially in the homeland of our faith in Syria.  Today in our Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America we take up a collection for the relief of our brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran.  We do so as we remember St. Timon, one of the seventy apostles sent out by Jesus Christ and one of the original deacons mentioned in Acts (Acts 6:5).  St. Timon was the first bishop of what is now the city of Bosra, and he died as a martyr.  He played a key role in evangelizing a region where our Lord Himself often ministered (Matt.4:25) and where St. Paul took refuge after he escaped from Damascus following his conversion. (Gal. 1:15-18)     
In the very same region from which we have received the great blessings of the Orthodox Christian faith, hundreds of thousands have died and millions have become refugees due to six years of brutal armed conflict.  In Bosra-Hauran, many towns and parishes have been abandoned, and His Eminence Metropolitan SABA leads the Church in doing everything possible to care for those in need.  As with the relief programs of the Patriarchate of Antioch and IOCC, these efforts extend to all who suffer, regardless of religious affiliation or anything else.  Even as our Savior’s mercy extended both to blind Jewish beggars and to demon-possessed Gentiles, the Orthodox of Syria strive to show His love to all their neighbors as best they can.
It is surely impossible for us to understand fully how difficult it is to do so in a setting of ongoing war, sectarian strife, and humanitarian catastrophe.  Despite the problems of our own society and our own personal struggles, our hearts must go out to the people of Syria as they suffer in ways well beyond our own experience or knowledge.  In response to their plight, we must follow St. Paul’s advice “not to please ourselves” but for “each of us to please his neighbor for his good, to edify him.  For Christ did not please himself…”   If we are truly in communion with Christ, then His selfless love must become characteristic of us.  The healing of our souls is neither a legal transaction nor a storm of emotion, but our transformation in holiness as we participate ever more fully in the eternal life of our Lord by grace.   By offering a portion of our resources to help our brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran, we unite ourselves more fully to our Savior.  In the parable of the last judgment in St. Matthew’s gospel, those who enter into the Kingdom of Heaven are those who ministered to Christ in their needy neighbors.  “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”  (Matt. 25: 31-46) The application to St. Timon Sunday should be obvious.  Here is an opportunity to do precisely that for the very people from whom we have received the fullness of the Orthodox Christian faith.
Contrary to dominant perspectives in our culture, true religion is not about finding ways to feel better about ourselves.  Neither is it a means to gain worldly power and influence.    Instead, it is a calling to respond to the universal love of God by embracing a life of holiness, a life in full personal union with Jesus Christ.  He calls everyone to respond to His mercy in ways not limited by nationality, race, class, politics or any other human characteristic.  That is an important part of the reason that His ministry was so shocking to the Jews of first-century Palestine.  It is why true Christianity remains offensive to those who worship their own prejudices and agendas to this very day.  It is also why those who limit their list of neighbors to those who are like them in conventional human ways are at grave risk of turning away from Christ.  If they end up serving only themselves and those like them, they will be in the same position as those who thought they were justified in trying to throw the Lord off a cliff.
The way of Christ, and of His Church since her origins, is characterized by a holy love that wants to bless and save the entire world.  In our Savior, there are no foreigners and strangers.  And in His Church, even people who live on the other side of the globe are members of our own family.  We must support them by our constant prayers and generous offerings on their behalf.    When we do so, we show proper thanks to those who welcomed us into the Orthodox Church.  When we do so, we reject self-centered distortions of the faith that tempt us to the idolatry of putting culture, politics, and nationality before the way of our Savior.  When we do so, we follow the Lord Whose mercy extended both to blind Jewish beggars and to demon-possessed Gentiles.  For us all, that is the path to the Kingdom of God.



Sunday, July 16, 2017

Shining with His Light: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in the Orthodox Church

Titus 3:8-15; Matthew 5:14-19

              In just about anything we do in life, it is helpful at times to sit back and ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve.  Unless we have a clear purpose in mind, we are probably not going to get very far in anything.  By taking a hard look at ourselves, we may find that there is a disconnect between our goals and our actions.  If so, some adjustments are in order.
            What Jesus Christ told His followers in today’s gospel lesson certainly challenged them to take a hard look at themselves and change their expectations. He made clear that He was not calling them to join a nationalistic campaign for Israel’s liberation from the Romans, as most Jews then expected the Messiah to do. Instead, they would have to abandon their dreams of using Him to gain power.  They would not conquer with an army, a revolution, or a political party, but were to become the light of the world by becoming holy.  That holiness would not be the result of obedience merely to the externals of the law as interpreted by the Pharisees, but would instead reflect its fulfillment to the depths of their souls.
By teaching in the following verses that the commandment against murder extended to prohibit anger and insult, Christ showed that He called His followers to a purity of heart that would enable them to see God.  He did the same by insisting that the law against adultery also condemned lust.  He called the disciples to embody the fulfillment of the ultimate purpose of the law:  to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.  It is in that context that the Savior taught that we must go beyond “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and instead love, forgive, and bless even our enemies.   Whether in first-century Palestine or today, those who live this way will be a light to the world as they provide a vivid example of a holy life that stands in stark contrast to the usual ways of our age.  It will be as impossible to hide the brilliance of their souls as it is to hide a shining lamp in a dark room.
Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which met at Chalcedon.  This council taught that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, being fully divine and fully human. It is only by confessing that He is both perfectly God and perfectly man that it is possible to give an account of how He is the Savior Who brings human beings into the eternal life of God.  For if He is not truly one of us, even as He is divine, how can He make human beings “partakers of the divine nature” who shine with holiness like an iron left in the fire?  Christ enables us to become the light of the world by becoming radiant with His light, by being illuminated with His gracious divine energies.  He is able to share His holiness with us because He is both fully God and fully human.  This is not simply a point from ancient Church history, but the bedrock of our faith and our hope. 
It is also the most basic reason that we must all take a hard look at ourselves and adjust how we think and live as Christians.  For if we truly believe that the eternal Son of God has become fully one of us and makes us participants in His eternal life, then His holiness must become characteristic of our lives.  Anything less than that is a distortion of what it means be a person in communion with our Lord. His true humanity enables us to become truly human as the fulfillment of our creation in His image and likeness.  That is why we speak so much of theosis in the Orthodox Church as the process of being united with God in holiness.
If we have made any progress at all in this journey of the healing of our souls, we will immediately be aware of how poorly we have answered this call.  The greater spiritual clarity we acquire, the more open our eyes will be to how far we are from shining brilliantly with the light of holiness.  So if our reaction to this high vision is along the lines of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” we are in the perfect place to embrace more fully our identity as the light of the world.  That is the case because humility is absolutely essential to opening ourselves to the gracious divine energies of our Lord.  Consider again His interpretation of the laws against murder and adultery.  If they referred only to the physical actions of taking life or being unfaithful to a spouse, many could congratulate themselves for not breaking them.  But when they extend to condemn anger, insult, and lust, our illusions of self-righteousness immediately fall away.  The same is true about loving our enemies, for Christ calls us to go beyond limiting our vengeance to turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and loving as our Father loves the just and unjust. We probably do not have to have much spiritual clarity to see that we are not there yet.
Were Jesus Christ simply another religious or moral teacher, these high requirements would probably lead us to despair and give up.  Rules tell us what to do, but do not give us the strength to obey them.  But because Christ is both divine and human, He provides more than a set of instructions.  For precisely through our awareness of how far short we have fallen from meeting these standards, He heals and strengthens us to serve Him more faithfully. The calling to holiness is not about meeting abstract rules by our own power, but about being united with a Person by grace.  Even as He has made great saints out of so many sinners who kneeled in humility before Him, His transforming mercy extends also to us.  That is a sign of hope for us all.  Who would have thought that Zacchaeus, a notorious tax collector, or Photini, a Samaritan woman of questionable reputation, would become shining lights of the world?   They did not do so because of perfect obedience to the law.  Far from it, they came to see their own brokenness through personal encounters with Jesus Christ.  Their humble acceptance of the distance between themselves and the Lord enabled them to grow closer to Him, to open their lives to a divine healing that they could never have given themselves.  
They show that, as we fall before Christ in humility, He will raise us up to participate personally in His holiness in ways that simply cannot be known except through repentance.  If we truly believe that Jesus Christ is the God-Man Who has come to make us participants in His healing of every dimension of our humanity, then we must follow the example of all the sinners who have become saints by opening themselves to participate in our Lord’s holiness. Instead of worrying about whether we will get our lives in perfect order according to our own standards, we must simply do what we have the sight and strength to do today in serving Him as we know we should.  St. Paul reminded St. Titus to tell the people to avoid foolish arguments, do good deeds, and meet urgent needs.  If we fill our lives with the things we know we should be doing and ignore the temptation to become distracted by nonsense, He will enable us to become light to the world.  Since He Himself is the Light, the more closely united we are to Christ, the more brilliantly our lives will become signs of the fulfillment of His purposes for the entire creation.    
Perhaps one of the reasons many people do not take the faith seriously today is that the lives of so many Christians do not manifest Christ’s healing and blessing of our humanity.  If we are not living icons of His fulfillment of the law and the prophets, then we are very poor witnesses to our Lord.  As Orthodox Christians who have received the fullness of the Church’s teaching about Jesus Christ as God and man, we have no excuse to accept distorted views of what faithfulness to Him means such that we excuse ourselves from the vocation to holiness.  Even as He did with His first disciples, He calls us to adjust our lives to be in line with His gracious purposes for those created in His image and likeness. As we turn away from all distractions, let us keep focused on shining the light of Christ so that others will give thanks to God and be drawn to the new day of His Kingdom. There is no other way to bear true witness to the Savior Who is both fully human and divine, for He came to enable us to shine with His holy light in our darkened world.  

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Delivered by Mercy, Not Law: Homily for the 5th Sunday of Matthew and the 5th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church


Romans 10:1-10;  Matthew 8:28-9:1

           We live in a time in which many people feel lonely and isolated, even if they are around others on a regular basis at home, work, and other settings.  Sometimes that is because we hold ourselves back emotionally from the possibility of being rejected or harmed.  Such separation is a symptom of the estrangement from God and one another which Jesus Christ came to heal.      
           The demon-possessed men in today’s gospel reading represent Gentiles who were enslaved to the worship of idols and false gods.  Their deliverance shows that Christ’s salvation is for all people, including those separated from others by the power of evil in their lives.  When He set them free from their miserable isolation, the Lord required nothing of them in advance; instead, He graciously liberated them from the degrading forces of evil and restored them to a truly human existence.  Here we see an implication of St. Paul’s instruction to the Romans: “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  At the very heart of our faith is not a requirement for meeting an objective standard; instead, the unlimited mercy of God is the very foundation of our life and extends even to demon-possessed Gentiles, as well as to you and me.  
            The Orthodox Church has many rules, many canons, traditions, and practices.  But at the heart of our faith and common life is not the obedience of law, for we are not called to be like the Pharisees of old.  Instead, we are called, as St. Paul teaches, to confess with our mouths the Lord Jesus and to believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead; if we do so, we will be saved.  “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”
            Of course, there are no magic words that can heal our souls. Instead of creating a new law, St. Paul points to the deep truth of what it means to commend all our life to Christ our God.  It means that we trust in Him as whole persons. As we offer our lives to Him, our words, deeds, and thoughts will come to embody the new life that He has brought to the world.  That is how we open ourselves to receiving His transforming grace.  That is how, like the demon-possessed men in today’s reading, we too may become living icons of the mercy of Jesus Christ.
Remember that He did not require the Gergesene demoniacs to earn their deliverance; neither does He require that of us. Instead, the Savior has graciously taken upon Himself the consequences of all human corruption and sin to the point of death, burial and descent to Hades so that He could conquer them all in His glorious third-day resurrection.  He has ascended into heaven with full, complete glorified humanity and sent the Holy Spirit to empower His Body, the Church, of which we are members.  He lives within our hearts by the Holy Spirit, casting out our demons, forgiving our sins, and enabling us to share in His eternal life even now as healed and transformed persons in relationship with Him and one another.  By His grace, Christ restores us to the dignity and freedom of those who bear the divine image and likeness.
            Those particular men were set free from the control of demons, but that was surely only the beginning of their lives in Christ.  Even though their deliverance was quite dramatic, it was only a start and they surely had to press on from there to resist temptation, to grow in holiness, and to learn to love and serve Him in their neighbors.   They certainly had old fears and habits to overcome.  And the same is true of us.  Our salvation is a process, an ongoing journey of sharing more fully in the new life that our Savior has brought to the world.  We must confess Christ more fully each day as we find greater healing, as we more fully manifest His victory over sin and death in our own lives.     
            If our religion were about meeting the requirements of a law, we could meet the standard and not think about it anymore.  We could check off a box and move on to something else; perhaps then it would make sense to condemn others who did not measure up.  But Orthodox Christianity is not about rules and regulations, but instead about growing in relationship with a Person, our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  It is about sharing in His blessedness, about partaking in His divine nature by grace.  And because God is eternal and infinite and beyond even our best attempts to define and control Him, there is no upward limit on what it means to unite ourselves to Him.  
            So we are constantly as much in need of Christ’s mercy as were those demon-possessed fellows. We say the Jesus Prayer precisely because we are sinners in need of Him.  The more we are healed by His grace, the more aware we will be of our brokenness and weakness.   The more we open our lives to Christ, the more clearly we will see how far we have yet to go, how undeserving we are, how grateful we must be before an infinitely holy God Who will stop at nothing—not even the cross—in order to bring us into His blessed kingdom.
            The formerly demon-possessed men could claim no credit for their deliverance.  They could only marvel at their great blessing and do their best to live lives worthy of what Christ had done for them.  We all face the same challenge:  to live in ways that reflect what our Lord has done for us, to bear witness to the healing and fulfillment that He has brought to our lives, and to continue to open ourselves more fully to His salvation.
That means that we must all continue to struggle against whatever evil thoughts, habits, words, and deeds threaten to separate us from the Lord and one another. We will not do that perfectly, for we get side-tracked and distracted from fulfilling our vocation each day.  That is precisely why we need to build holy habits—like attending services, praying daily, fasting regularly, and giving generously to the needy-- into our lives.  We need to wake up and stay alert, for the ultimate choice of our lives is an ongoing challenge.  At stake is whether we will grow in relationship with Christ by faith, repentance, and humility:  by a life that confesses what He has done and is doing for us. The other alternative is to return to the graveyard, to the isolation and slavery of worshiping the false gods of our own will.  Our choice is not whether to obey a law, but whether we will embrace deliverance and healing.  If we turn away from Christ, we do so as isolated individuals who prefer our own will to His, who would rather decay in the loneliness of a cemetery—of a dark tomb-- than share in the blessed banquet of the Kingdom.   But if we offer ourselves to the Lord, we enter into eternal joy through His Body, the Church; we become members of Him through our life together.  The standards and practices of the Church help us to grow in relationship with Him and with one another.  They sustain our faith, and help us grow in freedom from our slavery to the power of sin in our lives.  They enable us to do what we cannot do alone as isolated individuals who hide in fear from God and one another.
            So like those Gergesene demoniacs, it is time for us to leave behind the graveyard of evil and instead become who we are called to be in Jesus Christ.  It is time to embrace our true identity as those created in God’s image and likeness and called to become partakers of the divine nature. By sincere faith, honest confession, and genuine repentance, let us accept the infinite mercy of the One who loves us so much that He conquered sin and death in order to bring us from the despair of the tomb into the joy of the Kingdom.  Now is the time to turn our backs on the degrading delusions of idolatry and to enter into the unspeakable blessedness to which He calls us.  Now is the time to confess and believe in Christ as we offer every dimension of our lives to Him for deliverance and transformation that know no bounds.  Now is the time to turn from the isolated misery of sin for the joyful communion of those who have been set free through the mercy of Jesus Christ.