Sunday, July 29, 2012

St. Timon Sunday: Homily for the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
St. Matthew 14:14-22   
St. Luke Orthodox Church, Abilene, TX
             We sometimes get so caught up with our own schedules and problems we forget who we are, where we came from, and how closely we are connected spiritually even to people whom we have never met.  Today is “St. Timon Sunday Day” in our Diocese, when we remember Timon, one of the seventy apostles sent out by Jesus Christ and one of the original deacons mentioned in the book of Acts.  He became the bishop of Bosra in Syria and eventually became a martyr.  All Christians are in his debt as a pillar of the early Church.   He converted many Arabs to the Christian faith , and especially we Antiochian Orthodox should remember him with great appreciation.  For he played a crucial role in building the mother church of which we are a part and of evangelizing the part of the world where our faith began.
                So it is fitting that in the last few of year s our Diocese has established “the Hauran connection,” a way for us to help our impoverished Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters in southwestern Syria.  I actually visited there briefly when I was in Syria for a conference a couple of years ago.   Life was very hard then, with few economic opportunities and a Christian population of no more than 10%.  Life is impossibly hard now for everyone in Syria.  In a revolution or civil war, it doesn’t matter what you call it, everyone’s life is at risk.  The situation is especially complicated for Christians who have been protected by the Assad regime and typically fear what the future will hold for them.  Along with people of other faiths, many of our Orthodox brothers and sisters are now refugees.  
                I am obviously not a politician and none of us has much influence over world events.  If anyone has a good solution for Syria’s problems, I’ve not heard it yet.  So it may not seem like there is much that we can do.  The collection that we take up here at St. Luke each summer for “the Hauran Connection” may seem small.  We are a sister parish to the parish of the Dormition of the Theotokos, a community of twelve families whose church temple was under construction when last I heard.   They sound a lot like us.  We pray for them every Sunday and make a small monetary donation to them each year.   We do what we can to make life a little easier for them.  I hope that you will prayerfully consider putting an offering designated for the Hauran Connection in the collection plate in the next week or so. 
                Our little parish’s connection to  another little parish in Syria reminds us of the five loaves and two fish that the disciples collected to feed thousands of hungry people in a deserted place at the end of a long day.  It seemed crazy to think that such a small amount of food could have any importance at all in that situation.  It was enough food for one person, not for a big crowd.  And the disciples knew that, so they asked Jesus Christ to send the people away to buy their own food.  But He challenged them to feed the people instead with what they had.
                Looking up into heaven, the Lord blessed, broke, and gave the loaves back to the disciples, and they in turn gave them to the crowd.  And everyone had more than enough to eat; twelve basketsful of bread were leftover after several thousand people had had dinner.  What seemed so small, so insignificant, so inadequate, was more than enough because of the blessing of our Savior.
                So much in our lives is like that, a seemingly insignificant offering such as a little bit of money and weekly remembrance in prayer for a small parish in Syria.  From time to time, our parish gives a few dollars or a bus ticket to a needy family.  We donate to “Food for Hungry People” during Lent and to Pregnancy Resources of Abilene.  Our members make offerings through their commitments to teach Sunday School, chant, serve at the altar, clean the church or the yard, host a coffee hour, bake holy bread, visit someone in a nursing home, or give someone a ride to church.   We set aside time and expend the energy to pray, to fast, to come to church, or to mend a broken relationship.  In the larger scheme of things, all of these acts seem small and incapable of meeting the great needs of those around us.  Perhaps they seem barely worth mentioning.
                But we have to remember that the point is never whether we have the power or ability to feed thousands or fix the world’s problems.  We’re not that great.  We’re neither God nor the rulers of the world.  We probably struggle enough just to deal with our own problems, much less to set the world right.  All that we are called to do is to be like the disciples, to offer what little we can to the Lord for His blessing and trust that He’ll do the rest.
                That kind of offering is at the very heart of our worship in the Orthodox Church, for our spiritual fathers have always seen the Lord’s miraculous feeding of thousands with the loaves and fishes as a sign of the Eucharist, of Holy Communion.  A couple of loaves of bread and a cup containing wine and water.   By themselves, they might make a decent snack, but not even a full meal.  They couldn’t satisfy those of us gathered here today as dinner, much less a crowd of thousands. 
                But in the Divine Liturgy, we pray for God’s blessing upon the bread and wine.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, they become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the menu of the heavenly banquet.  We receive more than a mere meal, but the forgiveness of sins and life eternal in our communion.   We are nourished with heavenly food and raised to the life of heaven in the Eucharist.  That’s far more than we could expect from even the finest gourmet dinner.
                But have you ever noticed that human beings have to supply the bread , wine, and water for the Liturgy?  God works miracles upon the small gifts we offer Him , but these offerings are essential.  He requires that we do our small part; we have to make the offering.  And then He does the rest, which makes of our tiny gifts far more than they could have been on their own.
                We often say in the Church that we are not simply to attend the Divine Liturgy, but to live it.  All of our life should be an offering to God.  We should participate in heavenly worship with every thought, word, and deed.  But sometimes we honestly wonder how we can ever do that.  We have a thousand things going through our mind at once.  Our thoughts, words, and deeds often seem out of control.  Very often we would rather do just about anything else other than pray, worship, or serve God and our neighbors.   
                When we feel this way, we should remember that small offering of loaves and fish.   The Lord blessed this tiny gift and miraculously multiplied it to feed thousands.  Perhaps we are barely able to offer God anything.  Perhaps we wonder if our offering of prayer or fasting or service of whatever kind really matters.  Maybe we are tempted to think that it’s so insignificant that we shouldn’t even bother. 
Yes, that is a temptation, for our Lord has always worked through what is small and seemingly insignificant to bring salvation to the world.  If we’ve read the Bible, we know that God has always used imperfect, conflicted people like us to do His work.  He calls us, like He called them, to be as faithful as we can right now.  He accepts whatever offering of time, energy, and other resources we able to make.  And how He blesses it is more His business than ours.  So in the spirit of the loaves and fishes, let us continue offering our lives and resources to the Lord as best we can, trusting that the same God who make much from  St. Timon’s ministry in an obscure corner of the world will do the same with ours to His glory.  And let us remember all the people of Syria in our prayers and do what we can to ease the suffering especially of those in the Diocese of Hauran.    


Sunday, July 22, 2012

St. Mary Magdalene and the Shooting in Aurora, Colorado: Homily for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

St. Matthew 9: 27-35
Epistle to the Romans 15: 1-7
There are times when terrible tragedies occur that no one can explain or make sense of.  The shooting in the movie theater in Colorado is one of those senseless, unbelievably bad events.  Though far removed from us geographically, the graphic reports of this crime have surely impacted us all.  They remind us that we do not have the luxury of living in a world that is all sweetness and light or even basically humane or secure.  When such things happen, we may feel the darkness bearing down upon us and fear threatening to overtake us.  It can be hard to find a way out.
            St. Mary Magdalene knew the darkness of despair, grief, and loss all too well.  She had been possessed by seven demons which Christ cast out of her, and then she became one of His women disciples.  She helped support Him from her own resources and stood at the foot of cross as the Lord died.  We can only imagine how devastated and traumatized she must have been to see the One who had delivered her from evil executed in such a gruesome way.  Her world was surely turned upside down as she saw her Savior killed before her very eyes.
            But after resting on the Sabbath day, Mary Magdalene went very early on Sunday to anoint Christ’s body for burial.  That’s why she is called a myrrh-bearer.  And that’s when she was the first to see the empty tomb, the first to see the Risen Lord, and the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection, which she did to the doubting apostles.  She has the title of Equal to the Apostles because she actually evangelized them and then continued spreading the gospel throughout her life. Despite her fear and pain, Mary Magdalene refused to abandon the Savior, even when He was dead.  And because of her steadfast faith, love, and courage in going to anoint His body, she was blessed with the greatest news of the universe.  She continued sharing that good news, traveling with the apostles as an evangelist and even proclaiming Christ’s resurrection to the Roman Emperor.  We celebrate her memory today, ask for her prayers, and strive to be like her.    
            But it’s hard to follow Mary Magdalene’s example because we are too much like the men whom Christ encountered in today’s gospel reading.  Two of them were blind and one of them was mute, which means that he could not speak.  In a world of senseless shootings, and ongoing wars and worries about terrorism, not to mention our own personal problems, we have become too well adjusted to the darkness that is all around us.  We may find it hard to see the light of the Kingdom in a world of death and decay.
            We also too easily lose the ability to speak a word of blessing, comfort, or hope in times of pain and loss. There seem to be perfectly good reasons in life to be fearful and worried and to think that that’s just the way things are.  So we build walls between ourselves and others and trust in nations or politicians or medication or own resourcefulness to help us make it through.  The problem is that moving around the deck furniture on the Titanic has never worked.   We need more than a better means of coping with the night.  We need our eyes opened to the light that is never overtaken by night, to the light of Christ, which shines even from an empty tomb.
            Now let’s be clear:  Our Savior did not try to hide the dark and painful dimensions of life in the world as we know it.  He died on a cross and told His disciples that they could expect the same.  He came not to bring peace, but a sword that would cut through our ties to the false gods of this world that we have come to love and serve.  Our calling as Christians is not to pretend that all is well, but instead to open the eyes of our souls to the brilliant light that Christ has brought to a world of crucifixions and wars and terrorist attacks and mass murders.  We won’t pretend that there is a secret explanation or answer as to why innocent people suffer.  But we know that in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, God has entered into our world of pain and death.  Our Savior suffered with us that we might rise with Him and share in the life of an eternal day that knows no night, no darkness at all. 
            Mary Magdalene did not behold the Risen Christ because she denied that He had died.  She went to the tomb to anoint a dead body; yes, she accepted the reality of the situation.  Despite her grief, fear, and bitter disappointment, she went to offer the one last act of love that she could to her Savior by preparing His body for a proper burial.  And that’s when, like those blind men, her eyes were opened to His glorious resurrection.  That’s when, like the mute man, her mouth was opened to proclaim the news that He is risen.  Christ delivered those men from their infirmities and he did the same for Mary Magdalene.  She was with Him in the misery of the crucifixion and He made her a participant in the joy of the Kingdom.
            Joy in this sense is not having all our problems go away, getting what we want, or going around like we are on some kind of spiritual painkiller.  Instead, it’s a foretaste of heavenly peace, a confident hope that God’s purposes will be fulfilled for us, that we will become more truly ourselves as we grow in the divine likeness.  We can’t stop tragic world events or even our own personal crises; there’s no telling what life in our fallen world will send our way.  But like Mary Magdalene, we may respond to those challenges in ways that bring us more fully into the peace that passes understanding, into the blessings of a Kingdom not of this world.  It’s not about denying harsh realities, but about how we react to them.
            Keep in mind here St. Paul’s advice to the Romans:  Bear with the weak and don’t please yourself.  Let each of us please his neighbor for his good.  Be likeminded toward one another according to Jesus Christ.  Receive one another just as Christ also received us to the glory of God.  In other words, treat others as the Lord has treated you.  Become a living icon of His mercy, comfort, and patience in a world that falls so easily into hatred, despair, and fear.  That’s what the myrrh-bearer Mary Magdalene did when she went to anoint the body of the Lord.  And it’s what we must do in a world of scared, sick, lonely, and needy people.  Instead of wallowing in our own problems and being paralyzed by own fears, we can all follow her example of extending the love of Christ to someone else.  A visit, a phone call, a card,  help with a practical project, a simple expression of friendship—whatever it might be—can become an icon that God has not abandoned them and that there is at least a spark of light in the darkness.
            We know that darkness all too well and we can’t click our heels and make it go away.  But by God’s grace, we may open our lives to the One who transformed the blackest night into the glorious light of the Kingdom.  He went to the cross for us.  He understands our pain and fear. So following the example of Mary Magdalene and all the saints, let us commend ourselves and one another and all our life unto Christ our God.  At the end of the day, that’s how we respond as Christians to even the worst that our corrupt world has to offer.  We proclaim the good news of His resurrection and show His love to others.      


Friday, July 20, 2012

Eastern Orthodoxy and Environmental Stewardship

Many Orthodox Christians would  be surprised to learn that their faith calls them to be good stewards of the environment.   We are used to worrying about dishonesty, anger, and adultery, but when we think about the life in Christ, we rarely think of conserving energy, recycling, and composting–or of viewing the world as an icon.   Perhaps that is because we imagine that worship is only about what we do in the church temple.  Or maybe we assume that faithfulness to the Lord is a purely spiritual matter that aims toward escape from the world, not taking care of it.  And if the truth be told, many dismiss any sort of environmental concern out of fear that it would lead them  to question a comfortable, materialistic American lifestyle.  That last one hits a bit too close to home for most of us.

            I am on solid ground, however, in writing that stewardship of God’s creation is a fundamental dimension of the Orthodox faith.  One way of showing that is a brief glance at Psalm 104 (103 LXX), which is read at the beginning of every Vespers service.  It describes the glory and goodness of God’s creation, for the Lord has “set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be shaken.” He has established seas, mountains, and valleys, and provides water and shelter for wild beasts.  The food of the cattle, and our wine and oil, come from the hand of the Creator, Whose bounty extends to mountain goats, badgers, and lions.  “O Lord, how manifold are Thy works.  In wisdom hast Thou made them all.”  These works include even Leviathan, the sea-monster created for the sport of it, merely to play in the oceans.  All these creatures look to God, find life in Him, and die when He removes their breath.  After describing the creation so poignantly, the Psalmist exclaims, “May the glory of the Lord endure forever, may the Lord rejoice in His works...”   

            Psalm 148 is similar in its call for all the creatures to praise God:

Praise the Lord, all creatures on earth.  Praise Him all creatures from the ocean depths.  Let fire, hail, snow, ice, strong winds obey His word.  The mountains and all the hills, fruitful trees and all cedars, the beasts and all the cattle, creeping things and winged birds, kings of the earth and all people, princes and all the judges of the earth, young men and women, old people and children–all praise the Name of the Lord together, for He alone is worthy of praise, above all other names.

            We must remember the place of God’s creation in our salvation.   It is within the world created by God–for there is no other world–that our whole life occurs.  The Son of God entered this world for our salvation, and our life in Christ will be lived in this creation.  We are, of course, part of it.  As Genesis 1 teaches, human beings are the crowning work of creation, and have been assigned from the beginning the role of stewards over the  rest of God’s world.  It should not be surprising, then, that Noah is commanded to preserve from the flood the lives of animals together with those of his family.  The ark is a foreshadowing of our salvation, and harmony with the animals is part of this picture of God’s blessing and protection.

            There are many other biblical images of salvation that include animals and the land.  For example, the prophet Isaiah described the Messianic Kingdom as a time when

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole, and the weaned child shall put his hand in to the viper’s den.  They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isa. 11: 6-9)

            The prophet Amos envisioned God’s Reign as a time when vineyards, gardens, fruit, and wine would be bountiful. (Amos 9:13-14)  The creation itself has borne the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve.  No longer a peaceful realm for vegetarians, the big critters eat the little critters, and we often like our steak rare. Death, disease, famine, hurricane, earthquake, and other catastrophes threaten us all.  Such pestilence and strife were not God’s original plan for His world.  In His blessed Kingdom, peace and harmony will extend to all God’s creation.  So it is not surprising that the lives of many saints, such as St. Seraphim of Sarov, show “an unusual sympathy and compassion for animals, plants and in general every creature.”1         

            These Old Testament themes find their fulfillment in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  The incarnation of the Lord–as fully God and fully human–grounds Orthodoxy’s distinctive view both of the place of human beings in the world and of the world itself.  On the basis of the incarnation, everyone is called to become a priest and an iconographer of creation, offering the world to God so that it may become an epiphany or manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven. This relationship to the natural world is essential for human beings to fulfill their vocation as those created in the image and according to the likeness of God, and for the world to fulfill its destiny in the working out of salvation.

1Anestis G. Keselopoulos, Man and the Environment: A Study of St. Symeon the New Theologian (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 136.
*This post is an excerpt from Fr. Philip LeMasters, The Goodness of God's Creation (Regina Orthodox Press, 2008), 1-3.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

"You Are the Light of the World" : A Homily for the Holy Fathers of Chalcedon in the Orthodox Church

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost and the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council

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

            We do a lot with lights in our church.  There are candles on the altar and in front of icons.  We turn up the lights at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, and “Come Receive the Light” is the high point of the Pascha service when the light of our Lord’s resurrection shines in the darkness and spreads from the priest’s candle to everyone in the church. 
            So we shouldn’t be surprised that Christ told His followers that they were to be the light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.  Imagine driving in the countryside at night, you will see the lights of even a small town from quite a distance; when light shines in the darkness, it is very hard to hide.  And we never turn on light in order to hide something; instead, we want to illumine it so that we can see it clearly. 
            The good news of our faith is that Christ has brought the light of heaven to our darkened world.  Indeed, He is the Light, the eternal Son of God who becomes fully human while remaining fully divine.  That’s how He brings us into His light, how he makes it possible for us to shine with His holy glory even as we live and breathe upon the earth.   He fulfills all the foreshadowing and preparation of the Law and the Prophets, for God was never primarily concerned with Old Testament rules about outward behavior or the sacrifice of animals.  Instead, those rules pointed the way to the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, to the One who triumphs over sin and death themselves.  And now He makes it possible for us all to share in His glorious, brilliant light, to become partakers of His divinity by grace. 
            Today we remember the 630 holy and God-bearing fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in the year 451.  They made clear this very point:  that Christ is fully God and fully human:  one Person with two nature, for if He were not, how could He save us who are fully human?  They rejected the views of the Monophysites who claimed the Lord has only one nature, a divine one.  If that were the case, we could not participate in His divine life—for we are simply humans--and it would be hard to see how Christ’s death and resurrection had much to do with us.  So today’s commemoration is not simply a reminder about ancient history; it is a proclamation of the Gospel, for Jesus Christ must be both God and man in order to be our Savior. 
            Yes, the good news is that we are called to become radiant and illuminated by the light of Christ such that we become the light of the world, shining so brightly with good works that all will give glory to God.   The point is not to relax the laws of the Old Testament, but to bring their purpose to completion.  In other words, it’s not enough to refrain from murder; we are to overcome the passion of anger, which is at the root of murder.   It’s not sufficient to avoid the physical act of adultery; we are instead to be free from bondage to lust in all its forms.  Instead of getting back at our enemies in accordance with “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” we are to turn the other cheek, blessing them with the same love that we have received from the Lord.  The ultimate goal of these commandments is our perfection, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  If we ourselves lived that way, imagine what a blessing we would be to the world, for we would be living proof that human beings may become partakers of the divine nature in Him.    
           Well, most of us aren’t there yet, but the fundamental good news of the gospel remains:  The God-Man Jesus Christ is our perfection, our salvation, our theosis.   He has already worked the unfathomable miracle of joining humanity to divinity, of conquering sin and death, of making us participants in His life. Our on-going task is to cooperate with Him, to open the dark corners of our lives to His light, to stop corrupting and diminishing ourselves and instead to start living as the icons of divine glory that we were created to be. 
            And in order to make progress in the Christian life, we need our Church, which speaks the truth about how we participate in this great salvation—not as an emotional experience, a one-time event, or a reward for good behavior--but as members of a living Body in which our passions are healed, our hearts are purified, and our souls are illumined as we grow in union with Christ and one another.   Any relationship is a process, a journey, and a relationship of communion with the Holy Trinity is no exception.  By God’s grace, we hope to grow in holiness throughout eternity.  We may put no limits on what it means for us as creatures to share in the life of the Creator. 
            And perhaps that’s why the Lord sets the standard so high.  Those who are great in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ones who break God’s laws and teach others to follow their bad example, those who teach and live out a low standard.  They are not those who bring confusion and division into the Church.  No, they are those who keep God’s commands and teach others to do so as they shine every more brightly with light.    
            You know, it’s unfortunately always been easy to find religious groups that don’t shine with light all, who sound just like the one St. Paul addressed in his letter to St. Titus.  Apparently, some people preferred to spend their time in foolish, unprofitable, and useless arguments which led to nothing but division in the church.  St. Paul teaches that it is much better to use such wasted time and energy in actually doing good works, meeting the urgent needs of people, and bearing fruit for the Kingdom.  In other words, it is better to focus on living the basic Christian life than it is to distract ourselves with nonsense. 
            If Jesus Christ had been just another rabbi, then it wouldn’t have mattered if people argued on and on about His teachings and lived as they pleased.  But that is not our faith.  Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human, the Risen Lord in whom we share in the life eternal of heaven.  He is the true Light “never overtaken by night” who calls us to become the light of the world, to manifest the glory of His salvation in even the small details of our lives.  There are no secret mysteries or hidden teachings that require endless debate, for Christ did not come to save a few select philosophers.  There is no code for figuring out when He will return or for identifying people we don’t like as the Antichrist and other such craziness.  And there is no reason for each succeeding generation to attempt to redefine basic Christian teaching about theology and morality in light of what’s popular or easy in their particular time and place.
            Christ has brought light and life to all, to the entire world, and in His Body, the Church, we all learn how to grow in relationship with Him.  Basically, if we actually do what we know we should be doing, we will grow in holiness.  That means simple steps, such as:  coming to church; receiving the Holy Mysteries with proper preparation; praying, fasting, and taking confession on a regular basis; repenting of any wrong that we do; giving to the needy and for the support of the church; forgiving those who have wronged us and asking forgiveness of those we have wronged; fighting our passions; being mindful, which means to watch our thoughts, your mouth, and whatever else we have trouble controlling.  Like St. Paul said, we should focus our energy on living the basic Christian life and we will find that we have much less time for pointless disputes and other spiritually unhealthy endeavors.  Do all of this with sincere faith, hope, and love, and you will grow in Christ and be a light and blessing to the world. 
           But don’t be surprised if you still don’t glow in the dark, at least not in your own eyes.    Truly holy people don’t think that they are holy at all.  In contrast with the brilliant light of the Lord, they see their own dark spots with greater clarity than the rest of us see ours.   The closer we are to the Lord, the more aware we will be of how far we have to go to be perfect as He is perfect. 
           So if you are aware of more darkness than light in you at the moment, don’t be surprised and don’t despair. Do what you can to welcome the light that is in you, no matter how dim it appears; focus on it, fuel it, do everything within your power to help it grow and overtake the night. Our Lord has conquered the darkness of death, the tomb, and hades; and He wants to do the same in our lives—and He will, if we will continue the process of growing in union with Him; and as we do our good works and our personal transformation will bring at least a glimpse of the glory of heaven to earth.  And that’s a good thing because it is our calling:  to be the light of the world so that others will glorify God and be drawn to the new life of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  For He is truly the light that shines in the darkness, illuminating even people like you and me.            

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Rick Warren, "The Daniel Plan," and Fasting

                  Time reports that the members of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church have lost over a quarter of a million pounds on “The Daniel Plan.”  After becoming exhausted from baptizing hundreds of hefty parishioners in a few hours, the pastor found inspiration in the Old Testament story of Daniel and the Jewish youths who refused the rich food of Nebuchadnezzar’s table and instead subsisted on vegetables and water.  Warren now encourages congregants to follow a “diet of 70% unprocessed fruits and vegetables and 30% lean protein, whole grains, and starchy vegetables.”[1]  Saddleback sponsors exercise classes, nutrition training, athletics, and small- group sessions.  At least 15,000 participate in the program.
                In our increasingly obese and out-of-shape culture, the rise of the Daniel Plan is surely a good thing.  Though Warren apparently doesn’t promote the program as a form of fasting or a way of fighting gluttony, he does promote stewardship of one’s body and health.  As a T-shirt worn by many participants reads, “God created it/Jesus died for it/The Holy Spirit lives in it/Shouldn’t you take care of it?”[2]  Given the “I’ll fly away” Gnosticism of so much popular American Christianity, it’s refreshing to see megachurch evangelicals embracing an often neglected teaching of ancient Christianity.  Namely, our bodies really are holy and called to share in God’s salvation here and now, as well as eternally.  In light of the Incarnation, there is nothing profane or religiously irrelevant about anything physical.  Our Lord has  united Himself with every dimension of human existence—body, soul, and spirit—and has ascended into heaven as an embodied, glorified human being who is also God.  He calls us to become living icons of the divine glory even as we live, breathe, eat, and drink.
                Eastern Christianity prizes the spiritual discipline of fasting from the richest and most satisfying foods as a way of humbling ourselves before God and of learning to resist self-centered desires.  Sin came into the world in relation to Adam and Eve’s distorted relationship with food, and most of us have followed their example of treating our taste buds and stomachs as false gods.   So we need some discipline, some restraint, in order to heal our unhealthy relationship with the great blessings of food and drink, as well as with other sources of pleasure.   There is a saying in the Orthodox Church that gluttony is the mother of adultery.  When we get in the habit of satisfying our self-centered desires, we find it hard ever to control ourselves.            
The unpopular truth is that Christians need to fast in order to learn to live eucharistically.   To be in communion with the Lord, we must offer every dimension of our lives to Him.  That’s a form of fasting in and of itself, for our usual inclination is simply to serve ourselves.  But to participate in the Heavenly Banquet, we have to put our usual self-addiction aside and create space for the Lord to bring us, including our bodies, into His life.  For those not in the habit of fasting, something like the Daniel Plan sounds like a good place to start.   

[1] Jeffrey Kluger and Elizabeth Dias, “Does God Want You to be Thin?”  Time June 11, 2012, p. 45.  All the information in this posting on Rick Warren and The Daniel Plan comes from this article.
[2] Kluger and Dias, p. 45. 

Gentiles, Demons, and Pigs: Homily for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
St. Matthew 8:28-9:1
Epistle to the Romans 10:1-10
St. Luke Orthodox Church, Abilene, TX

            It may be hard for us to relate to today’s gospel passage.  We are not possessed by demons, living in a cemetery, and so frightening that no one will come near us.  And probably none of us have ever seen a whole herd of pigs run off a cliff and drown in the sea.  On the surface, the story of Jesus Christ casting demons out of these wretched men may seem irrelevant to us.  But if we look into the narrative more deeply, and with an eye on our epistle passage from St. Paul, we will see that it speaks to us directly.
            First, the demon-possessed men were Gentiles, which we know because of the presence of the pigs, which were considered unclean by the Jews.  The Fathers of the Church see their demon-possession as symbolic of the state of our ancestors, the Gentiles who worshiped idols and false gods.  The good news of the Gospel is that Son of God became a human being for the salvation all people, Jew and Gentile alike.  He has released us all from the bondage of sin and death and has restored us to His image and likeness.  Just like demon-possessed people who are set free and in their right minds, all humanity is healed and liberated in the incarnate Son of God.
            And did you notice that our Lord did not give those poor fellows a law?  He did not require anything of them; instead, He simply set them free from the powers evil and restored them to a recognizably human existence.  Here we see the basis 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 a standard; instead, the unlimited mercy of God is the very foundation of our life.  The same mercy that came to demon-possessed Gentiles, who represented all the idol-worshiping peoples of the world, has come to us in Jesus Christ, the God-Man, the Second Adam.
            For He does not require us to earn His love. Just as He took the initiative to deliver the Gergasene demoniacs, He has taken the initiative with us, becoming one of us, taking 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.
            Yes, 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 Jesus Christ’s day.  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.”
            No, St. Paul is not giving us magic words which we say once in order to guarantee a spot in heaven.  He is not giving us a new law that somehow earns salvation.  To the contrary, He is pointing to the deep truth of how we share in the life of our Lord:  we commend all our life unto Christ our God.  We trust in Him; we offer our lives to Him; our words, deeds, and thoughts come to embody the new life that He has brought to the world.  We are to be as transformed by our Lord as those formerly demon-possessed men, whose lives were living witnesses to the mercy of Jesus Christ.
            Those particular men were set free from the control of demons, but that was surely only the beginning of their lives in Christ.  Even thought their deliverance was quite dramatic, it was only a beginning and they surely had to press on from there to resist temptation, to grow in holiness, to learn to love and serve Him in their neighbors.   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 are challenged each day to confess Christ more truthfully in all that we say and do.  Throughout our lives, we are challenged to participate more fully in His resurrection, to manifest His victory over sin and death, and to turn away from temptations to do evil.   
            If our religion were about law, we could meet the standard and not think about it anymore.  We could check off a box and move on to something else.  But Orthodox Christianity is not about rules and regulations, but about a relationship with a Person, our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  It is about participating in Him, 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, we may put no limits of any kind on what it means to confess Him and to believe in Him. 
            So we are constantly in need of Christ’s mercy and grace.  We don’t say the Jesus Prayer because we like the way it sounds or someone requires us to do so.  We say the Jesus Prayer because we are sinners constantly in need of Him.  Our life in Christ is possible only because of His love, which we never deserve or can control in any way.  And the more we open our lives to Christ, the more fully we share in His life, the more aware we will be of how far we have yet to go, of how undeserving we are, of how grateful we must be before an infinitely holy God Who has stopped at nothing 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.  And must all continue to struggle against whatever evil thoughts, habits, and deeds have become second nature to us.   
            Of course, none of does that perfectly.  We get side-tracked and distracted by all kinds of things.  And that’s why we need to build holy habits—like attending services, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving-- into our lives, to wake us up, to keep us alert, to remind us that the ultimate choice of our lives is ongoing, is constant:  And that choice is whether we will grow in communion with Christ, in relationship with Him by faith, repentance, humility and a life that confesses what He has done and is doing for us; or whether, instead,  we prefer to return to the graveyard, to the powers of evil, to worshiping the false gods of our own will.  Our choice is not whether to obey a law, but whether to grow in a relationship of love with a Person, the only One Who can set us free from slavery to sin and death and give us the freedom to become our true selves in His image and likeness.
            If we turn away from Christ, we do so as isolated individuals who prefer our own will to His, who would rather brood and decay in the loneliness of a cemetery—of a dark tomb-- than share in the blessed banquet of the Kingdom.   But if we embrace Christ, we enter into eternal joy through His Body, the Church; we become members of His own Body.  The standards and practices of the Church help us to grow in relationship with the Lord and with one another.  They sustain our faith, teach us to confess Christ, and help us grow in freedom over our passions and slavery to sin.  They enable us to do what we cannot do alone.  
            So like those Gergasene demoniacs, it’s time for us all to leave behind the graveyard of evil and instead become who we are called to be in Jesus Christ.  By sincere faith, honest confession, and genuine repentance, let us grow in the new life that He has brought to the world and accept the mercy of the One who loves us so much that He conquered sin and death in order to bring us into the joy of the Kingdom.       
            Whatever struggles we face in turning from the darkness to the light are well worth it.  Whatever excuses we make not to do so are simply lies that will destroy us, if we let them.  Now is the time to do whatever it takes to get out of the insanity of sin and to enter into the unspeakable blessedness for which we were created in the image and likeness of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.    

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Homily for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost and Sts. Cosmas and Damian

   Matthew 8: 5-13
I Cor. 12:27-13:8
          So much in our world today seems to boil down to money and power.  So many will sacrifice everything for those false gods.  But today we are reminded that God’s ways are not our ways, that His love, mercy, and blessing are not the prisoners of the false boundaries that we have constructed between  ourselves and others—and between ourselves and Him.    That was shocking news to the Jews of first century Palestine and it still challenges us all today.
In the time and place of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry, most people wanted to limit God’s salvation to their own kind, to those who were part of their group.  They wanted a savior, a messiah, who would be a regular earthly ruler who would free their land from the control of the pagan Romans.  And the Romans believed that their gods protected their empire.  By the end of the first century, they persecuted Christians who would not worship the gods of the Rome because they were considered traitors who would not do their part to serve the empire.  And they crucified the Lord as though he were a rebel, one who challenged the authority of Caesar.  That’s why the sign at the top of the cross identified Him as the King of the Jews.  The Romans used His death to remind the Jews what would happen to anyone who dared question their authority.
            So imagine how strange it must have seemed to everyone when a Roman centurion asked Jesus Christ to heal his sick servant.  A centurion was a Roman soldier with a hundred men under his authority, but this centurion had so much humility that he knew immediately that he was not worthy that Christ should enter his home.  And he had so much faith that he knew that the Lord didn’t need to enter into order to heal his servant.  “Only speak a word, and my servant will be healed,” the man said.  Our Savior marveled at his faith, which surpassed that of anyone in Israel, of any of the Jews.  This humble, faithful Gentile, this hated foreigner, was a sign that “many will come from the east and the west, (from all over the world), and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

            In other words, this gospel passage shows that God’s promises to Abraham and his family from the Old Testament apply to everyone with faith in Jesus Christ.  He is the Messiah of the Jews in Whom God’s promises are extended also to the Gentiles, to the entire world, to all people regardless of nationality or culture.  That is how a Roman centurion became the model of faith, the great example of a hated foreigner who will join in the heavenly banquet with the saints of the Hebrew people.

            His story reminds us that, in Christ Jesus, the petty distinctions we make between ourselves and others do not matter very much; indeed, they are irrelevant in the Kingdom of God.  For as we see in the Lord’s encounter with the Roman centurion, true humility and faith are not the exclusive possessions of any nation or race.  People from all over the world will enter God’s Kingdom not because of the passport they hold, but because they have become participants by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.
            We also commemorate today Sts. Comas and Damian, the unmercenary healers and martyrs.  They provided medical care free of charge to their patients; and if that weren’t miraculous enough in itself, God also worked healing miracles through them.  The Lord certainly did not charge for healing and these saints continued that ministry by extending His mercy, love, and blessing to the sick regardless of whether they were rich or poor.  Their care was a sign of His gracious salvation that extends to all.    

            As we all know, it’s a temptation to prize wealth and power in ways that separate us from God and one another.  At the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry, the Jews commonly assumed that rich people were wealthy because they were holy.  Likewise, they assumed that the poor were in need as punishment for their sins.  Christ and His apostles challenged these assumptions on many occasions by word and deed.  In fact, it was often the lowly who responded most readily to the Lord’s teaching, perhaps because they had no illusions about their self-importance or righteousness.    And the Church has canonized as saints the unmercentary healers who became living icons of the humble, selfless love of Christ in restoring the sick to health with no regard to financial resources.  Since they received freely the blessing of the Lord, they gave freely to others.  They paid it forward, you might say.   

            Today we remember that our Savior challenges all the earthly distinctions that we have created in order to build ourselves up and put others town.  The division between Jew and Greek, between Hebrew and Roman,  between rich and poor, between strong and weak, are broken down in Jesus Christ.  The same is true for the national, ethnic, and political distinctions that divide people today.  Did you notice that Christ did not call upon the centurion to take on a new political affiliation, resign from the Roman army, or become a Jew?  Instead, He simply praised the faith of that humble man, healed his servant, and used the occasion as an opportunity to prophesy that many foreigners will join the great patriarchs of the Old Testament in the Kingdom of heaven, while many Jews will be excluded.

          And that was truly an amazing and shocking thing to say.  Don’t forget that the centurion was an officer in the army that occupied our Lord’s homeland.  Contrary to what everyone expected from a Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ apparently had nothing against him on that account.  He was not concerned with kicking out foreign invaders.  He did not treat the centurion as an enemy soldier to be defeated or a political foe to be overthrown, but instead as a child of God with faith superior to that of His own people.  For Jesus Christ is not a tribal deity only concerned with those of a certain land or background.  He is the second Adam Who heals our common corruption and conquers death, which is the wages of sin for all human beings. The blessings of life eternal are available in Christ to all who have the humility and faith shown by that most unlikely believer, the Roman centurion.

          And if we are truly faithful to the Lord, we may not claim Him only for ourselves and those like us.  Instead, we will manifest His love, mercy, and blessing to all by how we welcome and serve them, and how we speak and think of them, regardless of their nationality, race, wealth, poverty, or anything else.  We encounter Christ in every person we meet, for all human beings are created in His image.   How we treat “the least of these” is how we treat Him.  He does not limit His mercy to those who deserve it and neither should we.

It is so easy to judge and divide others according to the corrupt standards of our world, which usually boil down to money and power in one form or another; but that is certainly not what the Lord did in how he responded to the Centurion.   In ways that surely shocked everyone, He saw faith and humility in a hated foreigner that surpassed those of His own people.  The challenge to us is to follow His example and that of the holy mercenaries, fighting the temptation to make God in our image and to limit His mercy to those whom we think deserve it for some reason.  The challenge is to reflect, to convey, to make present the same grace and love that we have freely received to those whom we encounter each day without exception, no matter who they are.
So with mindfulness and repentance, let us learn to view everyone—even those whom we find it hard to love or even tolerate-- as someone called to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven. Let us live as those who know the undeserved mercy of God and share His grace with others in how we treat them.  That was the way of the holy unmercenaries Sts. Comas and Damian, and it must be our way if we wish to follow them into eternal life.   We have freely received Christ’s mercy; let us then freely give.