Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Hedonism and the Culture Wars: A More Fundamental Issue than Homosexuality

Perhaps an old “gray beard” should not be surprised that his university students are highly interested in sex, but their apparent obsession with being for or against homosexuality as the litmus test of social acceptability strikes me as simply weird.  Those who want to be liberal, progressive, or inclusive tend to follow dominant voices in media and culture in praising all things related to sexual minorities and reducing thoughtful moral and spiritual discourse to simplified debates of “love” versus “hate.”  Those who want to be conservative and traditional often make opposition to the endorsement of same-sex unions or intimacy the watershed moral and political question of our time, not unlike the signers of the Barmen declaration against the Nazified German Christians of the 1930’s. 
Granted, there are profound spiritual, moral, cultural, and political questions at stake in how our society and religious institutions respond to what I understand is now called the LGBT community.  But why matters that concern directly such a small portion of the population seem to be viewed as the defining issue of our time would remain a mystery to me, where it not for the great social upheavals of the 1960’s.  Yes, I mean the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution.  Without belaboring the point, we seem to have in discussions about homosexuality and related matters the “perfect storm” of political activism intertwined with hedonism.
The vast majority of hedonism remains heterosexual, of course, as most men and women find themselves drawn to intimate relations with members of the opposite sex.  But the perspective that the ultimate good is pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction on our own terms, however we as isolated and self-defining individuals want it, is at the heart of our society’s take on sexuality, marriage, and family.  No wonder promiscuity, pornography, and divorce are so popular today in a culture of individuals for whom immediate personal happiness is the highest standard.  And no wonder that, regardless of their sexual inclinations, good American hedonists want to extend the same rights to pursue pleasure to everyone, regardless of their sexual inclinations.  On these terms, it would be unfair not to do so.
Alas, that may be the best our society can do at this point.  We have accepted the fiction that because people find themselves with certain desires—whether married, single, or whatever-- that they must or at least should fulfill them.  We talk about these matters as though being true to oneself in the pursuit of pleasure is the ultimate meaning and purpose of the universe.  In contrast, some vocal advocates of more traditionally Christian views of sexuality tend to give the impression that the problem is with a small minority of the population who maliciously choose to have certain desires. A better question, of course, is how we all choose to respond to whatever set of disordered desires beset us, how we guard our thoughts, and how we respond when immediate pleasure is down one path while faithfulness to Jesus Christ leads us down another.
The most fundamental issue is not straight versus gay or bi-sexual, but whether we are willing to take up our crosses, deny ourselves, and serve Jesus Christ faithfully.  The Orthodox Church has never blessed sexual intimacy apart from the monogamous marriage of one man and one woman.    Whether we find ourselves in such a marriage or not, we are called to reject the lie that everything boils down to our immediate pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction.  We are called to accept the reality that we all want some things are not good for us, paths to holiness, or pleasing to God.  We are not to judge anyone, including ourselves, by our desires, but instead to undertake practices such as prayer, fasting, generosity to the needy, mindfulness, forgiveness, and reconciliation by which we open ourselves more fully to the eternal joy that Jesus Christ has brought to the world.  That joy is not so much immediate gratification as a foretaste of the eternal blessedness to which our struggles and unfulfilled longings may open us in new ways.
As anyone who has reached a certain age will know, the fundamental question here is not sex, but the meaning and purpose of our lives.  It’s not as easy as this group versus that group because we all stand in need of the mercy of a Lord before Whom all our obsessions and divisions are revealed to be less than holy.  The teachings of Orthodox Christianity about sex are clear, unchanging, and true, but it would be a mistake to give the impression that the overriding spiritual and moral issue of our day boils down to our stance on an issue that is not a pressing intimate struggle for most of us. To do so would be to accept a distraction that lets us off the hook of our own calling to fight our passions, deny ourselves, and reorder our desires in ways that bring us more fully into the life of Christ.      
So I will continue to challenge my students to reject the categories of mainstream culture, whether right or left, when discussing sexuality.  The truth is that neither liberation nor traditional values will make us partakers of the divine nature.  That’s the work of the Holy Spirit to Whom we open ourselves by repentance, humility, and selfless love for the Lord and our neighbors.  This deep journey cannot be reduced to political or cultural or even moral slogans, much less to the pursuit of pleasure on our own terms.  

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Homily for the Feast of the Ascension in the Orthodox Church

           Sometimes we are all set our sights too low, expecting too little of ourselves and others.  When we do so, we sell ourselves short and do a disservice not only to ourselves but to everyone around us.  When we aim low, we can’t expect to achieve high goals.  The season of the Ascension is a powerful antidote to such low expectations, for it reveals the great glory and dignity that Jesus Christ has given us.  Through His Ascension, we are raised with Him literally to the heights of the heavenly Kingdom.
            Forty days after His resurrection, our Lord ascended into heaven.   In Him, humanity and divinity are united in one Person; He goes up into heaven as the God-Man.   The Son shares in the glory that He had with the Father and the Holy Spirit before the creation of the world.  And He brings our humanity into that glory with Him.  There is perhaps no more powerful sign of our salvation than the Ascension, for it makes clear that our Lord has raised us—not only from the tomb, not only from hades—but into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  We truly become participants in God, partakers of the divine nature by grace, in our ascended Lord.
            And we are reminded by the Ascension that Jesus Christ is not merely a great teacher or example or even an angel or lesser god.  As the Fathers of the Council of Nicaea proclaimed, He is light of light, very God of very God, of one essence with the Father, the only begotten Son of God.   For only One who is truly divine and eternal can ascend into heaven and bring us into the divine, eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  That is why the Council of Nicaea rejected the teaching of Arius, who did not think that the Son was fully divine.   That is why the Orthodox Church has always disagreed with those who deny our Lord’s full divinity or His full humanity.  For only One who is truly both God and human can bring humans into the life of God.
            Unfortunately, some have set their sights too low in how they view Jesus Christ and themselves.  If we want a Savior who merely teaches and models a good life or advances a political agenda, we might become a bit more moral by listening to Him.  But human teachers and examples cannot conquer death and cannot raise us with them into eternal life.  There apparently always have been, and continue to be, those who want a Lord in their own image:  a teacher of secret spiritual truths to a select few; a social or political activist of whatever ideology; or a rabbi or philosopher who speaks with wisdom.  Movies, documentaries, and books come out all the time with the claim to have discovered a true or secret Jesus who is different from the Lord portrayed in Scripture and confessed in the Church. 
            But countless martyrs, including Jesus Christ’s disciples, did not go to their deaths out of loyalty to a mere human teacher.  They looked death in the eye and did not blink because they knew that their Lord was God, that He had conquered death and would share His victory with them in heaven.  In a matter of days, Christ’s disciples went from total despair and defeat at His crucifixion to the astounding joy of Pascha and Pentecost.  These were life-changing experiences that gave them the strength to sacrifice their own lives for the Lord.  Teachers and good examples die and are ultimately forgotten; generations of martyrs do not give their lives for them.  But the life of the risen and ascended Son of God continues in the Church, especially in the witness of the martyrs who share in a victory that is not of this world.
            Indeed, we all share in the eternal life of Christ through His Body, the Church.  The Son prayed to the Father that His followers “may be one as We are…that they all may be one, as You, Father are in Me, and I in You; that they may also be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.  And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one…”
            Here is a very high, very exalted view of what it means to be a human being in the image and likeness of God.  In Christ’s Body, the Church, we are to be one in Him, showing forth the unity of holiness and love that are characteristic of the Holy Trinity.  Christ has given us His glory, a share in life eternal, the life to which He has ascended as the Savior of the world.   And that glory, that eternal life, is not an individual undertaking; it is the life of unity in Christ, of His Body, of which we are all members by baptism. 
            Unfortunately, we have all fallen short of the life in Christ.  The truth is that we often would rather not ascend in Him to a life of holiness.   We prefer to do things which are beneath us, which are not fitting for those created in the image and likeness of God, those who are called to live the life of heaven even now.   Instead of dwelling on what is true, noble, just, and pure, we too often dwell on what inflames our passions, our self-centered desires.  Instead of recognizing that our salvation is a life together in the Body of Christ, we try to live as isolated individuals, continuing the division from one another that has beset humanity since Adam and Eve.
            It might be possible to follow the guidance of a teacher in isolation from others, on our own terms, according to whatever private interpretations seem right to us.  But it is impossible to embrace the fullness of life in our Risen and Ascended Lord in isolation or as though our faith means whatever we want it to mean.  We can interpret the words of a merely human teacher however we want, but the One Who has conquered death and ascended into heaven requires something different.  The point is not to make Him in our image, to water Him down into someone Whom we can accept and understand on our own terms.  Instead, the point is to fall before Him in worship, to accept in humility the great blessing of the resurrected, ascended life which He gives us, and to live faithfully in the unity of the Church as we grow in Him.
            Let us celebrate the Ascension, then, by embracing the great dignity that is ours in the God-Man Who has gone up to heaven.  Let us pay close attention to our thoughts, words, and deeds, and stop doing what is beneath us as those whose are called to the glory of the Kingdom.  Let us make of our life in the Church an icon of the Holy Trinity, a Communion of love and holiness.
            Yes, we really can live this way because we are not simply following the teachings of a human being; instead, we are participating even now in the eternal life of the One Who has conquered death, the tomb, and hades, and taken our humanity into heaven.  If Jesus Christ can do that, we may put no limits on what He can do with our lives, our families, our marriages, our friendships, our relationships with other people, or anything else.  For the Lord has ascended into heaven, and He will take us with Him if we will only embrace—with humility and repentance-- the great glory that He has brought to us as those created in His image and likeness.
            This is not a message for a few select souls, but good news for the entire world, for you and for me, no matter how we have fallen short of fulfilling God’s purposes in our lives.  We are all called to ascend in Jesus Christ to a life of holiness and to the blessedness of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The only question is whether we will answer that call.    

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Saint Photini: Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church

             As we continue to celebrate the new life that Jesus Christ’s resurrection has brought to the world, we are reminded today that His mercy and blessing extend to all,  even the most unlikely people, such as the Samaritans.
             The Jews hated the Samaritans as religious and ethnic half-breeds.  They had mixed the ethnic heritage and the religion of Israel with that of other peoples.  No self-respecting Jew would have anything to do with a Samaritan, much less ask one for a drink of water. But Jesus Christ does, and a Samaritan woman comes to recognize Him as the Messiah, to believe in Him, and lead many other Samaritans to faith.  She ultimately becomes Saint Photini, an evangelist and martyr.
            All the more remarkable is the fact that she was not only a Samaritan, but she was a she, a woman.  Jewish men didn’t strike up conversations with women in public.  Women didn’t have much status in that time and place, and certainly weren’t expected to have deep theological conversations with rabbis.  But this rabbi, this Messiah, didn’t operate according to social convention.  He saw in her one made in the image and likeness of God who, like everyone of us, is called to a life of holiness.
            And she also seemed an unlikely candidate for holiness in light of her history with men.  She had been married five times and was now living with a man outside of marriage.  Yes, her life was a scandal.  Some have suggested that she went to the well at noon, an unusual time to do so, in order to avoid encountering the other women of her village due to her bad reputation.  The Lord knew about her lifestyle, but He did not condemn, judge, or ignore her as a result.  Perhaps because she appreciated His respect and genuine concern, she acknowledged to Him the truth about her life and their conversation continued.  Quite possibly, she had never encountered a man who treated her in this way before as a beloved child of God.
 And very soon, she told the men of her village that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.  Can you imagine how surprised the men of her village probably were to hear this woman speaking to them of God?   They surely weren’t used to thinking of her as an especially religious person.  Think of how brave Photini was, how radically her life was changed, how she became a new person in her encounter with Jesus Christ.
We will make a mistake this Pascha if we think that the good news of Christ’s resurrection is only for people who live what we consider to be admirable lives, those who measure up to our standards.  We will be wrong if we try to exclude any group of people or particular people from the possibility of embracing the new life brought into the world by the empty tomb—even if we disagree may with them on important religious and moral issues and do not condone their behavior.    Jesus Christ Himself brought the blessing of His kingdom to a Samaritan woman with an immoral lifestyle; her life was changed by His mercy; and who knows how many came to share in His eternal life through her witness and ministry.
We learn from the story of St. Photini that we must not write off anyone as a hopeless case.  We must not isolate ourselves from those whose lives seem especially broken and off course—or even obviously immoral and godless.   If we respond with hatred, judgment, or stony silence to those we deem unworthy, we turn away from Christ’s ministry of bringing new life to the whole world—and to sinners like you and me.    No, our Savior never condoned sin of any kind and neither should we; but He came not to condemn, but to save.  He came to bring sinners to repentance, to heal the sick, to give sight to the blind.  He died and rose again for the salvation of all created in His image and likeness, of the entire world.  He has made great saints of murderers, adulterers, and evildoers of every kind who have called on His mercy and changed their ways.   
So when we have the opportunity to show compassion or friendship or encouragement to someone who has made bad choices in life, and who may even seem very far from a faithful Christian life, we should do so.  Whenever anyone who bears the image of God is treated as less than human, we should reach out and show them the love of Christ.  When we have the chance to draw into our church community someone whose life has been noticeably less than perfect, we should not hesitate.   Yes, we should treat them as our Lord treated the Samaritan woman who became a great saint.  To do anything less is to place our own limits on the power of the Risen Lord to bring salvation to the world—and it is to refuse to follow in the way of the One who conquered death.    
St. Photini is also a powerful example for each of us as we struggle with our own sins, passions, bad habits, and weaknesses.  Sometimes the burden of our sinfulness is great and we are tempted to despair of ever finding peace and healing in our lives.  The standards of Christ are so high and we are so low.  We can become obsessed with our unworthiness; and if we aren’t careful, this way of thinking can lead us away from the Church, for the guilt and frustration of spiritual failure are hard to bear, and we would rather not think about it.   
St. Photini was no stranger to such failures, but she learned to keep her eyes on the prize of the new life in Christ.   Perhaps her experiences had taught her about humility; she knew she was a sinner and must have been thrilled finally to be on a path that would take her in a different direction.   We don’t know the details, but she surely faced struggles, temptations, and reminders of the mess she had made of her life.  Some of those probably occurred in her own thoughts.  And some people probably continued to view her in a judgmental light, for there are always those who appoint themselves as self-righteous judges of their neighbors and like to look down on them. 
Despite these obstacles, the Samaritan woman with a checkered past became a glorious saint, an evangelist and ultimately a martyr.  If she could pass over from sin to righteousness, from death to life, in Christ Jesus, then we can, too.  The great blessing of Pascha comes to us all, and we have countless opportunities in our families, our marriages, our parish, our friendships, our workplace, our use of time, money, and energy, in all our thoughts, words, and deeds,  to participate more fully in the Lord’s victory over sin and death.
 No matter what we have done in the past, no matter our present weaknesses and challenges, no matter what anyone thinks or says about us, we must remember that the Son of God has conquered  death in order to bring us into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity, to make us partakers of the divine nature. Like the Samaritan woman, we must acknowledge our corruption and turn to Christ with faith, love, and hope for a new life, and then continue on the journey of discipleship, even when we stumble or are tempted to give up. 
And just as we ask for the Lord’s mercy on our sins, we must extend the same mercy to others.  The Savior spoke the truth with love and respect for the Samaritan woman, but he did not condemn or judge her.  And He has surely not appointed any of us to judge others. 
St. Photini did not earn the new life given her by Christ and Pascha is not a reward given to us for our good behavior.  We must stop thinking in terms of who deserves what from God.   During this season of Pascha, we know that life eternal has sprung from an empty tomb purely as the result of our Lord’s love and mercy.   The good news of Pascha extends to the Samaritan woman, to the evildoers of our day, and even to us.  So let us embrace our Risen Lord and become participants in His life.  He raised up Photini and brought her from darkness into light; and He will do the same for us when we respond with faith and repentance:  that is the gloriously good news of this season of resurrection.   Thanks be to God.