Sunday, July 30, 2017

Offering Ourselves Despite our Inadequacy: Homily for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost and the Eighth Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 1:10-17; Matthew 14:14-22

Most of us are pretty good at finding ways to avoid acknowledging uncomfortable truths about ourselves, such as our weaknesses and failings.  We know how to distract ourselves from focusing on them in order to preserve our illusions of self-sufficiency and perhaps even perfection. The problem with that approach, however, is that avoiding the truth inevitably weakens us and those around us.
            In today’s epistle lesson, St. Paul corrected the very confused Christians of Corinth by calling them to confront the uncomfortable truth that they were consumed with fighting with one another as members of competing factions.  They were more interested in dividing themselves over which spiritual leader was the most impressive than in being at peace through their unity in Christ.  If the Church were simply a club of people with similar ideas, it might make sense to argue over who taught those truths in the best way.  But since the Church is the Body of Christ, the Corinthians had to confront the unpleasant truth that they were ignoring that the Church is one.  St. Paul called them to stop thinking of themselves as members of rival factions and instead to recognize that they are united as members of one Body.  Their salvation would be found by humbling themselves to embrace their common life in Christ, not by trying to prove that they or their spiritual heroes were better than others.
            Perhaps the Corinthians had fallen into their divisions because they did not want to give up the illusion of their own superiority.  A common temptation is to hide our own weakness and imperfection by building ourselves up as we put others down.  We identify with this or that faction, party, group, race, or class so that we can pretend that we alone are virtuous and powerful, and thus justified in getting our own way.  That is a very popular coping mechanism because it is more appealing to fallen human beings than accepting that, like everyone else, we are broken, weak, often wrong, and in need of healing that we cannot give ourselves.
                 In today’s gospel lesson, we encounter a memorable portrait of a much better way to handle our own inadequacy.  Jesus Christ had compassion on a large crowd of people and healed those among them who were ill.  At the end of the day, the disciples wanted the Savior to send the people away to get their own food.  He turned the responsibility back to the disciples by instructing them to give the people something to eat.  Since they had only five loaves of bread and two fish, the disciples must have felt very inadequate to that task.  But before they could start blaming one another about who was most at fault for failing to find more food, the Lord told them to bring Him the bread and fish.  Then, in a way that foreshadowed the Eucharist, He blessed their small offering, which provided far more than enough for five thousand men and their hungry families. 
            The disciples certainly had their squabbles over who was the greatest, but on that day there seems to have been no argument about who could take credit for this miraculous feeding.  In the face of such an astonishing event, they did not even try to hide their own inadequacy by building themselves up and putting others down.  Their example shows us a far better path than that of the fighting Corinthians.  Instead of trying to make themselves feel more powerful by attacking one another, they simply obeyed Christ by offering Him what they had, even though they could not imagine how that little bit of bread and fish would be sufficient to the task.  They left the rest in the Lord’s hands and were not disappointed.  Indeed, they were astounded at the abundance that He provided.
            The challenge that we all face is to become more like the disciples in today’s reading and less like the Corinthians.  It does not take much insight to see that we constantly face situations that reveal our own weaknesses and failings.  The uncomfortable truth is that we are beset with thoughts and emotions that show we have a long way to go in finding healing for our souls.  We routinely wound others with our words and find it so hard to control what we say.  We have many habits that weaken us and harm others.  Whether in our families, marriages, friendships, or at work, we are all in strained relationships that we cannot easily heal. And if that were not enough, just think about the ongoing strife in our nation and around the world, which reflects problems far too large for any of us to think that we can solve.
            If we take a close look at our lives, we will see that we are just like those disciples facing a crowd of thousands of hungry people with five loaves and two fish.   The needs are far greater than our resources.  We can always try to distract ourselves from stressful situations and hard realities by blaming others or shutting our eyes to the truth.  We may try to ignore problems or hope that they somehow fix themselves.  If we are honest, however, we will recognize that as a false hope.  St. Paul told the Corinthians that they actually had to take action by abandoning their political battles and embracing their unity in Christ.  The Lord would not let the disciples send the crowd away to buy food, but told them to give the people something to eat.  And it was through their obedience in what appeared to be a hopeless situation that He miraculously fed thousands of people.
            It is a very dangerous, and strangely appealing, temptation to think that what we have to offer the Lord is so small and insignificant that there is no point in even trying to obey Him.  In the face of great need and intractable problems, it is much more appealing to blame someone else or to convince ourselves that we can handle things on our own terms.  And that is the problem; namely, that we want to avoid doing the work of obeying the Lord.  When we live like that, we refuse to offer ourselves to Him.   In every Divine Liturgy, we unite ourselves to His unique Self-Offering on the Cross.  “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee on behalf of all and for all.”  In order to share in the life of Christ, we must give ourselves to Him, including our anxiety and fears about our own inadequacy and brokenness.  Otherwise we will inevitably fall into the idolatry of serving only ourselves.
We all know that we cannot conquer death and sin by our own power.  But we can obey our Savior as best we can each day in the challenges that we face, refusing to accept our usual excuses to hide from reality.  We must open the eyes of our souls to the truth of where we stand before Him.  And then when we know our own inadequacy, it will be possible to offer ourselves truthfully—with all our brokenness, imperfection, and pain—to Christ for Him to bless and heal. 
            The Savior does not call us to fix all our own problems or those of others or of our world.  If we could do that, we would not need a Savior.  Those who think in those terms usually end up doing more harm than good, and then blaming others for their failings.  Christ simply calls us to accept the truth about who we are before Him and to live accordingly.  That will mean a life of humble obedience in which we do not have to keep up the illusion of being powerful, important, or always right.  He fed thousands with five loaves and two fish, and He will use our small offerings—each day of our lives—to accomplish His purposes for the salvation of the world.  All that we have to do is to obey by giving Him what we have, namely, ourselves.   

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