Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Love Your Enemies" and Commune with Christ: Homily for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Luke 6: 31-16            
           One of the hardest things in life is to be kind to those who have offended us.   It seems to come naturally to respond with resentment, anger, and judgment to those who treat us poorly.  This is true in our personal relationships, in our families, at work or school, and it is also true when we think of how nations get along or often do not get along.  In the world as we know it, it is easy to do good to those who do good to us, but terribly hard to love our enemies.
            So we may wonder why the Lord gave us such a difficult teaching to follow as we find in today’s gospel lesson.  Be merciful even as your Father in heaven is merciful.  Love your enemies.  Do good to everyone; lend expecting nothing in return.  Treat others as you wish to be treated.  Christ Himself tells us that this is the difficult path to the blessed life of the Kingdom of God.
            I know that we are tempted to say that this message somehow does not apply to us.  Maybe it is possible for monastics, such as the great ascetic St. Cyriacus the Anchorite of Palestine whom we commemorate today, or for others who lived long ago or in other parts of the world.  We often despair, however, of actually obeying Christ’s command ourselves.  We do so because, like everyone else since Adam and Eve, we are fallen people in a fallen world.
            No matter what century or country we live in, no matter our age or marital status or occupation, we all struggle against the spiritual diseases that make it so hard to forgive, love, and serve those who have violated our pride by offending us.  We have turned away collectively and individually from the truth that we are made for a common life in the image and likeness of God.  We have forgotten that it is our very nature as persons to be united with one another in love as are the members of the Holy Trinity.
            No, our calling is not simply to have friends or family members. Even terrorists and gangsters have them, for it is easy for people to love those who love them—even if they are so filled with hate against others that they think nothing of killing innocent people who get in their way.  But what kind of love is that?  It is a love not even worthy of the name because it is really nothing more than self-centered desire, than simply judging others in terms of whether they please us.  If so, they will be nice to them.  If not, they will find a way to destroy them.
            Of course, that is an extreme example; but we have only to look in the mirror to find instances that hit closer to home.  If our spouse, child, or best friend needs help, we usually do not even think twice about doing what we can.  But if it is someone whom we do not like, who has wronged us, or a stranger whose request is simply inconvenient, we make excuses. And sometimes we treat even our spouses, children, and friends in such poor ways.   When we do so, we live according to the lie that whether people please us is what determines whether we relate to them as those who bear the image and likeness of God or as nuisances not worthy of our attention.
And in that moment, we commit idolatry as surely as if we bowed down before a golden calf, for we are simply serving ourselves, worshiping our own will, and disregarding the calling that the Lord has given us all:  to participate in the mercy of our Father in heaven.  He is kind to the ungrateful and selfish.  He loves even those who reject Him, even those who killed His Son and the rest of us who reject Him so often in what we say and do.   Still, He bestows countless blessings on us all.  And through the Son whom He sent out of love for the world, we are able to become participants in His life, to become His sons and daughters.
How tragic, then, that we so often choose to reject this high calling and instead to live according to the same corrupt principles that continue to bring crime, war, and broken relationships of all kinds to the world.  How sad that we so often prefer death to life, pain to joy, and the hollow victory of self-exaltation to the blessedness of growing in communion with one another and with the Lord Himself.  And if we as Christians live this way, what hope is there for a world where helping our friends and cursing our enemies is just business as usual?
Jesus Christ is certainly the hope of both the Church and the world.  He is our hope because He brought a new way for human beings to relate to others and to God.  He died and rose again for those who rejected Him, who nailed Him to a cross and thought that He was demon-possessed.  He not only healed His own people the Jews, but showed the same mercy to Gentiles, Samaritans, and even a Roman centurion, a foreign soldier who occupied His homeland.  He was at times very frustrated with the disciples for their lack of faith; they largely abandoned Him at His arrest and crucifixion, but Christ still appeared to them after His resurrection and blessed them as the leaders of the Church.
Our Savior is the embodiment of mercy to everyone, for He came to save and transform the entire world, the whole creation, and especially every human being—for we are all created in the divine image and likeness with the glorious calling to share fully in His victory over sin and death, to ascend with Him to the peace and joy of eternal life.  Even more amazing is the truth that we are able to participate in Him, to be nourished by His Body and Blood, the medicine of immortality and holiness.  And, yes, we really are able to become merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful.  By being filled and transformed by His grace, we may become living icons of the divine love and light even in our most difficult relationships.
No, receiving the Eucharist does not automatically restore us to perfect spiritual health. We have to prepare to receive Christ for our salvation by repentance, prayer, and fasting, but we are still never worthy of Him because He is the infinitely Holy God and we are sick and in need of a physician.  We are the dying who need to be brought back to life. We probably reject Him in some way every day.  And yet He still loves us, receives our prayers for mercy, and even makes us guests at His Heavenly Banquet.  In every Divine Liturgy, we enact and participate in the joy of our salvation, the unfathomable mercy of God that extends even to you and me.
The answer to our tendency to be kind only to those who are kind to us and to worship at the altar of our self-centered desires is found in the One who offered Himself for those who were not kind to Him, who treated Him like an enemy to the point of death.  Again and again, as we approach Him “With the fear of God and faith and love,” we become what we receive.  His selfless mercy will transform us, becoming the deep truth of our lives that we will live out in how we treat friend and foe alike.  Of course, we must cooperate by mindfully struggling to go the extra mile for others even when we do not want to, by turning the other cheek when we are insulted, and biting our tongues when we would like to respond in kind to harsh words.  We will surely stumble and fall short on this path, but with a prayer for mercy, we must move forward, step by step, in showing others the same compassion that we ask from our Lord.  And then we will become more like our Father in heaven, whose mercy extends even to you and me.         
Let us never think of the Eucharist as just something that we do every week or even simply as how we as individuals commune with Christ.  More fundamentally, the Eucharist is   how we are transformed to be the Body of Christ, in communion with the Holy Trinity and the Church in heaven and on earth. It is how we participate personally in our Lord and fulfill our true nature as human beings united in love with all who bear the divine image and likeness, even our enemies.   It is an icon of the Heavenly Banquet to which we all—friend and foe alike—are invited.  

So despite our spiritual brokenness and imperfect relationships, let us put aside everything that stands in the way of opening ourselves by prayer, repentance, and faithful reception of our Lord’s Body and Blood to the joy and reconciliation that are ours as the sons and daughters of the God.  Let us leave this holy temple strengthened in our ability to be kind even to the ungrateful and selfish and to be merciful like our Father in heaven.  Let us make all our relationships visible signs of the great salvation that Jesus Christ has brought to the world, and thereby grow closer to Him and to one another. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

How to Become "Fishers of Men" in the Context of our Daily Work: A Homily for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

St. Luke 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 16: 13-24
                  I am sure that every one of us has felt at some point in our lives just like the frustrated fishermen did when Jesus Christ found them washing their nets.  They had fished all night and caught nothing at all.  As happens so often in our own lives, things had not turned out as they had hoped despite their best efforts.  They were disappointed and frustrated to the point of giving up.   But then the Lord told them to get back to work and let down their net.   They did so and somehow caught so many fish that their net was breaking; then they hauled in so many fish that their weight almost sank two boats.
            That must have been quite a scene, and it was so astonishing that St. Peter recognized this tremendous abundance as a miracle.  He fell down before Christ and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” But the Lord responded said, “Do not be afraid.  From now on you will catch men.”  Then the disciples left behind their boats and nets and followed Jesus Christ.
            That day probably began like any other day in the family fishing business that they had always known.  The men were busy with their work and did not expect anything unusual to happen.  Over the years, there had surely been many times before when they had caught nothing.  So it was time to wash their nets and hope for the best the next time.  But in the midst of their disappointment and resignation, the Lord blessed them in a way that helped them see their lives, and calling in life, in a new way.  Their work would no longer be catching fish, but bringing people into the eternal life of the Kingdom of God.
            The details are different, but Jesus Christ says something very similar to us all.  No matter what we do every day, no matter how satisfied or disappointed we may be with our circumstances, the Lord invites us to participate in bringing the blessings of His Kingdom to the world and all its inhabitants. 
            Of course, the disciples were called to a special ministry in the founding of the Church; they had to leave their old occupations and serve the Lord full-time as evangelists, apostles, bishops, and ultimately as martyrs.   Some continue to hear similar callings to this day. But most of us will remain right where we are for the foreseeable future, in the familiar circumstances of our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools with all their strengths and weaknesses.
            Familiarity often breeds contempt, and we may be tempted to think that because we do not have our “dream job” or live in a setting more to our liking that we are somehow failures.  When we think in those says, we forget that the measure of our lives is not in success according to the standards of the world or even to our own preferences.  The fishermen did not expect a miraculous haul or a new calling in the midst of their frustration.  We cannot place limits on what God is doing through us and with us even when we are disappointed, frustrated, and unfulfilled.    
            Likewise, we may think that really holy people are all in monasteries, seminaries, and mission fields, not in the mundane circumstances in which we find ourselves.  We may doubt that what we do each day could be truly pleasing to God and what we are really called to do.  We must remember, however, that every bit of our life and work is called to become holy.  Everything that we do provides an opportunity to be stewards of God’s creation and to offer our lives and the fruits of our labor to the Lord for blessing and fulfillment. 
            For Jesus Christ is present to us in every human being whom we encounter at work, school, or elsewhere since we all bear His image and likeness.  Every human being and the entire creation are called to shine with the light of our Lord’s glory.  In our daily lives, we are all to become priests who offer the world back to God for His blessing.  We are all to become iconographers who bring out the beauty of the creation so that it manifests the life of our Lord, so that it becomes an image of His Kingdom.   That is as true for every one of us as it is for the monks on Mt. Athos and our bishops and patriarchs. 
            In order for us to accept this high calling, we must learn from St. Paul about how to work every day as priests and iconographers of the creation.  We need to obey his teaching to “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong.  Let all that you do be done with love.”  Some have claimed that Christianity is a religion for the weak, for wimps who want to feel better about being the doormats and losers of life.  But those who take up their crosses and follow Jesus Christ know that this is not a way for the weak and timid, but for those who boldly step out in faith to resist the temptation to do what is easy and popular and satisfies our self-centered desires.  
            In contrast, the true Christian life requires discipline, self-sacrifice, and the sort of dogged commitment characteristic of athletes, soldiers, and others who do the hard work of sacrificing for a good higher than themselves.  Opportunities to grow in this kind of life are available to us all in whatever set of circumstances we face today.  
            Some in our parish care for the sick and troubled; some take on the great burdens of defending our nation or protecting us from crime; some provide jobs by running a business or provide goods and services that people need in order to live a decent life; others teach; some take care of a home or a family; some go to school; and some are retired.   At times, we all get discouraged and frustrated; we have conflicts with others or feel neglected or mistreated by them.  At times we may wonder if there is any point at all to what we do every day.  When we feel this way, we must remember that the Son of God has entered into our world and blessed every bit of it.  He wants to sanctify every human being, every relationship, every responsibility, task, and assignment that we have—and every word that we speak.  Nothing is foreign to Him; nothing is outside of His love and salvation.
            When we live and work faithfully in our present circumstances, we have the opportunity to transform a portion—no matter how small-- of God’s good creation for His glory.  And we are reminded that salvation is not a matter of the spiritual experience of isolated individuals, for we all journey together toward a new heaven and a new earth.  Jesus Christ’s ministry of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, and proclaiming good news to the poor shows that His salvation concerns the real-life challenges that people continue to face in the world as we know it.  He showed God’s love for the hated Gentiles and Samaritans, for people who had fallen into great sin and were shunned by respectable people.  In His Body, the Church, all peoples and nations are to be reconciled and united in the life of the Kingdom.
            Whether we see it or not, the circumstances we face each day provide an opportunity to play a role in bringing salvation to the world and all its inhabitants.  Everything that we do and say at work, school, or among family and friends should be sign of God’s blessing to those we encounter. We all have the opportunity to forgive; to work toward reconciliation with those from whom we have become estranged; and not to let greed, ambition, or power get in the way of relating to others with honesty, kindness, and decency.           Of course, our work must support us financially if we are to live in the world, but there is a difference between meeting our legitimate needs and selfishly worshipping comfort, convenience, and “the almighty dollar.”
            Our calling is to use the challenges and blessings of our daily grind to grow in holiness as we play our role in making this world an icon of God’s salvation.  That’s how we will become fishers of men in our daily work.  For salvation is not an escape from the world, but its fulfillment.  Spirituality is not about separating ourselves from others, but about serving one another in Christ-like humility.
            Human labor has fashioned wheat into bread and grapes into wine.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, they will soon become the Body and Blood of Christ, our salvation, our Communion with the Holy Trinity.  The same will be true of our daily life and work in the world when we offer ourselves and all our labors to Him.  Then like the first disciples, we will move from frustration to amazement at God’s blessing to become fishers of men.    



Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Way of the Cross and the Crisis in Syria: Homily for the Feast of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos and the Sunday Before the Elevation of the Holy Cross in the Orthodox Church

            We have a lot going on today in the Church with our liturgical calendar, parish activities, and response to world events.  I am wearing blue because it is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, the birthday of the Virgin Mary.  Since this coming Saturday is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, our epistle and gospel readings focus on that theme.
            In addition, His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP has urged us to ask our senators and congressman to oppose authorizing a military strike on Syria, which is the home of our Antiochian Orthodox Church. His Beatitude Patriarch JOHN X requests that we take up a special collection next Sunday for the “Antiochian Day of Solidarity” which will go toward humanitarian relief in Syria. And today we resume Christian Education classes after our summer recess.
            Yes, that seems like a lot, but it is not that much different from life as usual in the world as we know it.  The situation in Syria is certainly terrible and we should all pray, give generously, and do whatever else we can to ease the burdens there of everyone.   Unfortunately, the innocent have suffered ever since Cain murdered his brother Abel.  The bloodshed and misery of wars and exiles described throughout the Old Testament are well known.  Wicked King Herod tried unsuccessfully to kill the infant Jesus, but then succeeded in slaughtering thousands of young boys in the region of Bethlehem.  The Church has survived centuries of persecution in various times and places; there are still martyrs who die for their faith to this day in Syria, Egypt, and many other countries.
            It is tempting to think that worldly power is the solution to such difficult situations.  But as anyone who has studied history even a bit knows, one war often sows the seeds that lead to the next and none of it is holy. Regardless of who has a better claim to being justified in killing, the blood of the victims cries out from generation to generation, often inspiring revenge and vengeance. No matter the details, “the wages of sin is death” and the spiritual damage of taking life under any circumstances is profound. When we “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war,” all hell is liable to break loose in ways that no one is able to control, whether in the soul of one person or the collective life of the world.  For example, our nation is only beginning to come to grips with the psychological, spiritual, and moral trauma endured by so many of our veterans in the last decade.    
            Perhaps that sober recognition will help us see how important it is that God did not save the world through a conquering king or a powerful army, but through a Suffering Servant Who hung on a cross at the hands of the most powerful empire on earth.  He defeated the powers of sin and death not by shedding the blood of others, but by allowing His own blood to be shed.  Purely out of love, Jesus Christ entered fully into horrific torture and the black night of the grave as one of the world’s countless victims and then rose victorious, bringing all the departed with Him.  Our hope is in our crucified and risen Lord, in the selfless, forgiving, humble way of the cross that remains a scandal to the rulers of this age.
            Unfortunately, there are times when the use of deadly force to protect the innocent is a tragic necessity in our fallen world.  But even then, the Church provides spiritual therapy for the healing of the soul of those who have blood on their hands for whatever reason.  Whether through movies, television, video games, a sensationalistic news media, or our own passions, we have become desensitized to the profound gravity of using violence against those created in the image and likeness of God.  Much of our entertainment and news has become a celebration of graphic violence and almost another form of pornography, a way of taking perverse pleasure in the horrible distortion of what it means to be a human being called to a life of holiness.  We do not have to be vampires or zombies in order to lust for blood, especially the blood of those we feel justified in hating.
            The way of Jesus Christ is, however, totally different.  And it should not be surprising that He took His humanity from a mother who was not corrupted by the ways of the world.  Today we celebrate her birthday, when the infant Mary was born to the old, righteous, and barren couple Sts. Joachim and Anna.  They prayed for a child whom they dedicated to the Lord.  Mary grew up in the Temple in prayer and purity.  And when she could no longer remain there, St. Joseph was chosen as her guardian.  Then she became the Theotokos, the virgin mother of our Savior, and had the unique and amazing role of giving human life to the incarnate Son of God.  She did not abandon Him, even at the foot of His cross.
            In every war-torn country, there are old people who like Sts. Joachim and Anna have hope only in God.  There are completely vulnerable babies and young girls whose lives and safety are at risk in ways too numerable to count and often too horrible to describe.  The brokenness of life in our corrupt world is such that civilians--such the old and the young--are often among the most vulnerable victims of war.  Sts. Joachim, Anna, and their daughter lived in a time of Roman occupation and the threat of terrible violence against anyone who dared challenge the powers that be.  That is why the Romans crucified traitors and rebels, which is what they did to Jesus Christ.
            The Roman Empire eventually fell apart in both the West and the East.  Such will be the fate of all the kingdoms and nations of the world, including our own, no matter what weapons we have. As much as we love our country, we know that it is not the Kingdom of God or “the life of the world to come.”  Like Sts. Joachim, Anna, and the Theotokos, we are called to embody the ways of the heavenly Kingdom even as we live amidst the broken realities of earthly kingdoms.  We cannot pretend as though we have escaped the dynamics of this life or that the world will somehow become a perfect place if we simply call for peace or advocate for other high minded ideals.  Instead, we must humbly do what we can in order to become livings icon of God’s salvation in a world where people hate and disregard one another and look for their salvation just about anyplace else than the cross of Christ.
            For example, we all have room to grow in showing the love and mercy of the Lord in our own families, friendships, workplaces, schools, and other familiar settings.  We all have ways of thinking, speaking, and acting that need to be purified and redirected according to the ways of God’s Kingdom.  We all need to take up our crosses and die to self in how we relate to those whom we view as enemies in our personal lives.  If we want peace and reconciliation in the world at large, we must begin with our little bit of the world, with our own souls and the neighbors we encounter on a daily basis.
            In addition, we must give as generously as we can in efforts to relieve the suffering of refugees and other victims of the civil war in Syria.  I know that our parish has already been remarkably generous in earlier drives to raise funds.  But now our Patriarch, who lives in the midst of this crisis in Damascus, has asked us to open our hearts again to our suffering brothers and sisters.  So if you are at all able to share from what God has given you to bless those who have lost everything in this cruel conflict, I hope that you will put an offering in the collection plate for Syria either today or next Sunday.  And regardless of whether you can donate, pray intensely for those who suffer there.   
            Heeding the call of our Metropolitan, we should also urge our government to refrain from taking steps that will only make a bad situation worse—and instead do what it can to help refugees, promote stability and reconciliation, and protect Christians and other vulnerable groups from persecution.  None of this is about conventional politics between groups that compete for power.  All of it is about living out the selfless love shown on the cross by Jesus Christ. Like Sts. Joachim and Anna, as well as the Theotokos, let us look to Him as our only hope.  Let us play our small role in making His life present in a world that desperately needs forgiveness and peace, for we have already had more than enough vengeance, contempt, and the shedding of blood.   Our Lord has already conquered death; let us live accordingly.