Saturday, August 30, 2014

True Faith is Neither Self-Righteousness nor Despair: Homily on the Rich Young Ruler in the Orthodox Church (12th Sunday of Matthew)

St. Matthew 19:16-26
            Many of us probably make a list of things we have to do from time to time so that we will not forget something on an especially busy day.  If you are like me, sometimes you go down a list like that and check off doing an errand, paying a bill, or calling the plumber. When we have a lot to do, we likely feel pretty good about ourselves on those rare occasions when we accomplish everything on our list.  There is nothing wrong, of course, with checking everyday chores, but it is a mistake to approach the Christian life in that way.  For to participate personally in the salvation that Jesus Christ has brought to the world is a calling of any entirely different sort that must not be reduced to a simple list of tasks.  
            Unfortunately, the rich young ruler who asked Jesus Christ what he had to do in order to find eternal life did apparently think of his relationship with God in terms of a list of accomplishments. So when the Lord told him to keep the commandments of the Old Testament, the man said that he had checked them all off, that he had completed God’s requirements.  But just to be sure, this fellow asked what he lacked, what else he could do. And that is when the Lord told him what he did not want to hear, for he challenged him to do something well beyond his list:  “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
This fellow was rich and loved his possessions, so he became very sad and apparently walked away in despair.  The Lord knew how hard it is for people who have it all in this life to enter the kingdom of heaven, for they are tempted strongly to love their possessions and status more than God and neighbor.  But in response to the disciples’ question “Who then can be saved?”, Christ said “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  In other words, even people like this fellow may find salvation by God’s grace.   
            The Lord challenged the rich young man by giving him a commandment that went to the core of his being, to what he loved the most, his money.  By telling him to do what he did not have the spiritual strength to do, Christ challenged him to stop thinking about his relationship with God as a set of simple laws or behaviors that he could master.  The truth is that anyone who responds to the Old Testament commandments by saying that he has always obeyed them since childhood has a very shallow understanding of what God requires of us.
            Recall that Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount that we are guilty of murder if we hate and insult others.  He taught that we are guilty of adultery if we lust in our hearts.  And if we do not love God with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves, we have broken the greatest of the commandments.  Unless we are spiritually blind, we should see immediately that none of us has mastered God’s requirements, none of us may stand before the Lord bragging that we have done all that was expected of us.   
            Christ jolted this man out of his delusion, out of his false self-confidence, by giving him a commandment that He knew he did not have the spiritual strength to keep:  giving away all his beloved money, possessions, and power.  Perhaps for the first time, this fellow was challenged to see that eternal life is not a matter of checking off a list, not something that we can accomplish simply by a bit of will power.  And since Christ came to unite our fallen humanity with divinity and to conquer sin and death, it is pretty clear that even the most law-abiding person still needs the mercy, grace, and love of the Lord in order to inherit eternal life.  By our own power, it is simply not possible to share in the holiness of God, but with Jesus Christ, all things are possible.
            The Christian life is an ongoing struggle against our own spiritual corruption and that of the world in which we live.  We must cooperate with our Lord’s mercy by resisting temptations and following His commandments as best we can.  But even our ability to do so is not simply our work, for we are enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives to grow in holiness and find healing for our souls beyond what we can accomplish by ourselves.  Likewise, no matter how much progress we make in the Christian life, the journey to “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” is an eternal one, an infinite undertaking that will not be completed in this life.  The more we participate personally in Christ, the more aware we will be of our need for mercy; the more aware we will be that we have only just begun to find healing for our souls.
            Regardless of what some say, Christianity may not be boiled down simply to leading a morally decent life and having warm feelings about God.   If that were the case, I suppose that some could claim that they have checked off that box and now need only wait to receive their reward.  But that would be a very watered-down form of the faith that would call us neither to holiness nor to a realistic understanding of our spiritual brokenness and weakness. Christians who fall into the self-righteous mindset of those who think they are so holy that they may judge and condemn others do so in part because they have such a shallow and impoverished view of their own spiritual state, of what God requires of us, and of how we all stand before Him in need of mercy and healing.
            Too many Christians in our society are just like the rich young ruler.  We think that we have done all that God requires and accept illusions about our own holiness, when in reality we love ourselves and our possessions more than God and neighbor.  One of the great blessings of the Orthodox Church is that we have so many resources to shake us out of such complacency.  Before I became Orthodox, I always thought that I had to supplement what the churches I attended expected of me because they seemed to expect so little.  But Orthodoxy really does call us to be “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”: to love and forgive our enemies; to reject all unholy and tempting thoughts; to pray constantly from the heart; to fast and deny ourselves on a regular basis; to confess our sins honestly and turn away from them; and to shine with the light of the Divine Glory in every dimension of our lives.  This is the fullness of the Christian faith that should lead us to fall in our faces before God as we call for His mercy, not to brag about how righteous we are or to judge our neighbors.
            Of course, we always stand in need of the Lord’s mercy, as the Jesus Prayer so clearly demonstrates.  But we cannot rest content with any type of spiritual disease or disobedience in our lives. We must always pursue healing, strength, and wholeness.  Orthodoxy teaches the fullness of the Christian faith, emphasizing both our need for God’s forgiveness and our calling to become more like God, to become participants in the Divine Nature by grace.  We do not earn God’s favor by checking off a list of laws, but neither should we become lax by presuming His forgiveness if we are not sincerely repenting, which means reorienting our lives according to His will for us.  We must not be like someone who realizes he is going the wrong way on a journey, feels bad about it, but keeps going in the wrong direction.  We have to actually stop, turn around, and go the right way.  If we do not, we have not really repented or reoriented our lives. 
Not everyone, of course, is tempted to self-righteous thoughts of perfection.  Some people know quite well that they have not served God faithfully.  That recognition is a blessing because it clues us in to the truth about ourselves.  But even those with that level of spiritual vision may be tempted to walk away in despair when they hear what the Lord requires of us.  “How could I possibly live the life to which Christ calls us?,” we may ask.  If that is your question today, focus on the final words of the passage: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  The good news of the gospel is that there is hope for us all in Jesus Christ, especially when we have come to see how far we are from Him, how we have not served Him faithfully, and how much room for healing there is in our souls. 

None of us will enter the Kingdom of Heaven because we have checked off a list or somehow become perfect by our own moral power.  All of us should tremble before a calling that seems so far beyond our abilities.  And all of us should take heart that, if salvation is possible by God’s grace even for the rich young rulers of the world, there is hope for us too in Jesus Christ.  

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Forgiving Others as Christ Forgives Us: Homily for the 11th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Matthew 18:23-35
            If you are like me, there are times that you realize that you have wanted for yourself something that you were not willing to give others.  It is so easy for us all to fall into the self-centeredness of seeing things only from our own point of view, of focusing on our own needs and desires to the point that we treat others quite poorly and become hypocrites.   As we can see from today’s gospel text, Jesus Christ addressed this common human failing in a memorable and disturbing parable that applies to us all when we refuse to forgive others.  
            A servant owed his ruler more money than he could possibly earn in his entire life.  When he could not pay, the master was ready to sell him and his entire family in order to cover the debt.  But the servant begged for more time to pay, and the master showed mercy even beyond his request.  He actually forgave the huge debt; the man owed nothing and he and his family were safe from punishment.  How tremendously relieved and grateful the man must have been.
            Then that same servant found another servant who owed him a much smaller sum of money.  Since that man did not have enough to pay the debt, the first servant had him put in prison until he could pay.  He refused to show him any mercy at all.  When word of his response reached the king, he was furious that the man to whom he had shown such tremendous mercy would not even be patient with his fellow servant.  So the king put the first servant in prison until he could pay all that he owed.  Jesus Christ concluded this parable with the harsh warning:  “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
            This parable gets our attention because we all find it hard to forgive at least some of the people who have wronged or offended us.  Sometimes we enjoy holding grudges against others; perhaps we get a perverse boost to our ego by thinking that we are better than someone else, that we are somehow justified in looking down on them.  Sometimes we hate the fact that we hold grudges.  We may not want to remember bad things about other people, but unpleasant memories play over and over in our minds and we feel powerless to stop them.
            Like everything else in the Christian life, forgiveness is a journey, a process of growth as we share more fully in the life of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Notice that the Lord concluded the parable by saying that we must forgive our brothers from our hearts, from the depths of our souls.  Though it may be a necessary first step, it is not enough simply to put on a good face and stop saying angry words and behaving badly toward someone who has wronged us.  The goal is to be fully reconciled with them, to forgive and forget, to show them the same love and mercy that the Lord has shown to us with a pure and whole heart. 
            Even as we always want God to forgive us when we sin, there is no limit to the forgiving, reconciling love that He calls us to give our enemies.  When St. Peter asked how many times he was to forgive his brother who sinned against him, maybe seven times, Christ said, no, ‘seventy times seven.”  In other words, we should always forgive; there is never a point where the Christian becomes justified in judging, condemning, and refusing to show mercy. Surely, we all have a long way to go in fulfilling that commandment. 
            In order not to give up and despair about our struggle to forgive others, we have to remember what it means to be in Christ.  Most fundamentally, to be a Christian means to participate personally in the life of the Holy Trinity by grace.  Jesus Christ bring us into eternal life such that we partake in His victory over sin and death.  The holiness, mercy, and love of the Lord become active in us, become characteristic of us as unique persons, as we share more fully in His life. 
The more we find healing and transformation in Him, the more we will extend His forgiveness to those who have wronged us.  If we refuse to do so, however, we refuse Christ and refuse to participate in His mercy.  When we refuse Him,  we condemn only ourselves.
In moments of anger and pain, it is usually much easier to judge, hate, and condemn than to love and forgive.  Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, we human beings have distorted our relationships with one another, allowing fear, judgment, and insecurity to divide us.  Early in the book of Genesis, their descendent Lamech brags that he will avenge himself seventy-seven fold.  In other words, he was like a mobster or a terrorist who loved to shed blood and never showed mercy to anyone.  While our desire for revenge surely does not go as far as that, we do find it almost impossible to forgive seventy times seven as Christ forgives us.
Like any other area of weakness in the Christian life, our struggle to forgive must begin with an honest acknowledgement before God that we hold a grudge against someone else, that we have not forgiven that person.  Even as we ask for God’s forgiveness, we should ask for His help in being reconciled and forgiving completely whatever wrong has been done.  We must also pray for those who have offended us, asking God’s blessings on them.  And when we are tempted to remember what they have done or to judge them, we must immediately turn our attention to the Jesus Prayer and remembrance of our own need for mercy and forgiveness from the Lord and from those whom we have offended throughout the course of our lives.  We need to recognize that we are not the blameless judges of others, but those who stand in constant need of grace, mercy, and healing together with those who have wronged us.
It is a long struggle, but if we consistently turn away from unholy thoughts, we know that they will lose their power over us.  “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7) The less attention we give to our temptations, the more they will diminish.  Overtime, we will grow in forgiveness from our hearts and learn to replace grudges and resentment with love, to be at peace with our enemies, as much as it depends on us.
The challenge is greater, of course, if the others involved in these relationships continue offending us and acting like our enemies.  Many would tell us that we are fools to keep forgiving someone a second, third, or fourth time.  But remember what the one who told us to forgive seventy-times seven said from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  There is no limit to the forgiving love of Jesus Christ.  And if we are in Him, there can be no limit on our forgiveness either.  We who want His mercy must show it to others.  Otherwise, we reject Him and condemn ourselves.
It may be impossibly hard for us to remember when we are angry with someone, but every human being bears the image of God.  In that we have done it to anyone, we have done it to Him.  Few of us have the spiritual health and vision to see the Lord’s image even in those who have offended us.  But we must remember the words of St. John:  “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.”  (1 John 4:20) It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and souls that we will find the strength to stop lying in this way, to treat others as we would treat our Lord Himself. 

Obviously, Christ has done us no wrong; we need His forgiveness, not the other way round.  The more we share in His life, the more we will share in His love by forgiving those who have wronged us.  We fool only ourselves by thinking that we may accept His mercy without also showing that mercy to those who have wronged us.  It is time for us all to put on Christ and relate to others as He relates to us.  If we refuse that calling, we hurt only ourselves.  But if we embrace that calling, we will play our unique role in the salvation of the world.          

Saturday, August 16, 2014

How to Follow the Example of the Most Holy Theotokos: Homily for the Sunday After the Dormition in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians  4:9-16
St. Matthew 17: 14-23
           On Friday we began celebrating the Feast of the Dormition, which commemorates the falling asleep of the Most Holy Theotokos.  We celebrate especially that she followed her Son into the life of the resurrection, as her body ascended into heaven after her death.  She was the first human being to accept Jesus Christ into her life at the Annunciation, when she agreed to become His mother, and now she is also the first to participate fully in His victory over death in the Heavenly Kingdom.
            St. Paul could rightly say of himself to the Corinthians, “I have begotten you through the gospel.  Therefore I urge you, imitate me.”  But the Theotokos could say this with even greater force, for she is the spiritual mother of us all.  Our Lord took His body and all the other dimensions of His humanity from her.   She played a crucial role in Christ’s becoming the New Adam in Whom we are all healed, restored, and united with God.  The mother of Jesus Christ is thus also the New Eve, the mother of the Church, our mother, and the first and best example of what it means to love and serve her Son with every ounce of our being.
            If we are honest with ourselves, we will see immediately that we all have a very long way to go in following her example.  In purity of heart, she agreed to become the virgin mother of the Son of God.  She risked her life by accepting a miraculous and shocking pregnancy as an unmarried girl.  Even as she became the living temple of the incarnate Son of God, she was surely ridiculed and rejected by many; and she suffered the unspeakable pain of witnessing her only Son’s rejection and crucifixion. Nonetheless, she always said “yes” to God’s will for her life and had tremendous faith.  As the Theotokos said as a young girl to the Archangel Gabriel, “Behold the Handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”
            But instead of following her example, we are too often like the disciples who could not cast out a demon because of their unbelief.  The Lord called them a “faithless and perverse generation” and asked rhetorically, “How long shall I be with you?  How long shall I bear with you?”  He was frustrated with them, for they lacked even the small bit of faith identified with a tiny mustard seed, which is all the faith it takes to move mountains.
            The disciples were trying to cast out the stubborn kind of evil that leaves only with prayer and fasting.  St. Matthew’s gospel records this scene immediately after the Lord’s Transfiguration, when Sts. Peter, James, and John saw Christ in His divine glory and heard the voice of the Father identify Him as the Beloved Son of God.  Despite this great revelation, the disciples did not yet have mature faith in Him, let alone fast and pray in ways that strengthened them for the ministry of the kingdom.  So they were powerless to cast the demon out of the young man.
            The hard truth is that we are often like them.  We may keep up the outward appearances of the Christian faith, but it does not take much to reveal how weak and small our faith really is. The fullness of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ has been given to us.  We are members of His Body, nourished by His own Body and Blood.  By the power of Holy Spirit, Christ dwells in our hearts.  What generations of prophets dreamed of and longed for, we have.  But we so often act, speak, and think as though none of that is real.  We build our lives on our own plans, our own desires, and our own abilities.  We trust in the false gods of the world:  money, pleasure, relationships, or our own self-centered will.  We look to our own schemes to find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in our lives, and not to God.
            We can sometimes fool ourselves pretty well that everything is fine with us spiritually, but it often does not take much of a conflict or a disappointment to inflame passions such as pride, lust, greed, self-righteous judgment, or resentment of others.  Once those catch fire, it may take a lifetime to put them out, and we wonder how we have become so weak, why our faith has so little power, health, and joy.  Like the disciples, we are then confronted with the sickness of our souls.
            When we recognize this truth about ourselves, we must remember the Theotokos as our mother and model.  Having followed her Son into the eternal life of heaven, she has great boldness as His mother to intercede with Him on our behalf.  Remember that Christ worked His first miracle, turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, at her request.  We should all ask for her help and intercession every day of our lives.  We ask righteous people in this life to pray for us, and who better to intercede on our behalf with her Son than the Mother of God, who is also our mother in Christ.
            The Theotokos is also a model for us because she was brought up in the Temple as a young child, and then she became the living Temple of God when she contained Jesus Christ in her womb.  Her faith was not imaginary; it was as real and life-changing as her miraculous pregnancy.  Yes, her role in the salvation of the world is unique; but we are all called to the same kind of faith that enabled her to say “Yes” to God’s will for her life.  “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
            There is no way to develop that kind of faith-- there is no way to become a living temple of the Lord—other than through prayer.  For in order to strengthen our belief and trust in the Lord, we must give Him our attention.  No human relationship exists without attention and focus, and the same is true for the life of faith.  We must open our minds and hearts to God from the depths of our souls, being present with Him both in the words of spoken prayer and watchful silence as we listen for His word.
            The “Our Father” is our model prayer as Christians, and it provides a structure for all our petitions and requests.  Blessings before meals, the Jesus Prayer, and other short prayers found in any prayer book enable us to place our daily lives into God’s hands.  These written prayers are a springboard for using our own words to speak with God and to growing in prayer without words, where we commune with the Lord in silence.  If we want to grow in faith, the first step is to grow in prayer.
            If someone kept track of how we used our time and energy each day, that person would know what is really important to us.  If we say that something is important, but we hardly invest any time and energy in it, then it is not really important to us, no matter what we say.  Let us apply that standard to our prayers, remembering that the Virgin Mary’s life of dedicated prayer gave her the faith to become the Theotokos, the living Temple of God.  If we follow her example, then we will have a power and strength in the Christian life well beyond what the disciples had when they failed to cast out the demon.

            During this time of the Dormition, we are reminded of the great blessing that is ours in Christ Jesus.  For we are all called to receive Him into our lives, to become His living temples, to love and serve Him with every ounce of our being, and to follow Him into the eternal life of the Kingdom.  His mother shows us how to do this more than anyone else.  She is an icon of our salvation who always points to Christ, inviting us to the life of true faith and obedience.  Let us celebrate this season of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos by praying as she did and does to the Lord Who conquered sin and death and Who will bless us also with the joy of life eternal when we come to Him in true faith,  repentance, and love.   Let us learn from the Mother of God how to enter into the joy of the Heavenly Kingdom. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Annie LeMasters' Reflections on an OCMC Trip to the Hogar of San Miguel del Lago, Guatemala

Hogar by Annie LeMasters

Almost a month ago, I journeyed from the boring flat land of West Texas to the beautiful mountainside of Villa Nueva, Guatemala with two familiar faces and eight new ones. I was on a team put together by the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) sent to the Hogar Rafael Ayau, an Orthodox residence for children in Guatemala. That’s all I knew going into it. I had shown interest in going on a mission trip, so my dad emailed OCMC about where someone my age could go, and we were told Guatemala was a possibility. The only preparation I had was 3 years of Spanish in the Texas public education system (so not much), babysitting, and growing up in the Orthodox church. I knew close to nothing about Guatemalan culture, orphanages in general, or even who was going with us. I honestly didn’t even feel like I was going on this big, exciting adventure until I was at the Hogar late on a humid Saturday night. What I found wasn’t the somber, dark orphanage I expected, but rather a beautiful safe haven filled with happy, healthy, beautiful children. Hogar translates from Spanish to home, which was exactly what it was.
I could easily give a day-by-day breakdown of my trip. I could write thousands of words on the joy and love I recieved at the Hogar. I could talk about how the trip shaped me more than the kids I was with, how I saw God working through everyone, and everything else that anyone who’s ever been on a mission trip has said. But I won’t, because we’ve  it heard it all before.
What I experienced was home. The nuns, strict but kind, reminded me of my own parents. The children bickered like my sister and I do. The teens reminded me of  friends at home, and we goofily danced and sang along to American/Hispanic music we all knew (Shakira was a favorite). The room I stayed in with other women on the trip felt like church camp. Matins, Orthros, and Liturgy (Orthodox church services), made me feel like I was right back in my tiny parish in Abilene, Texas. Sitting on the porch at night talking with my dad about everything from politics to family matters was just like some nights back home. The trip was strangely familiar and beautifully new.
I couldn’t talk about my experience without mentioning the contrast of the Hogar and the areas surrounding it. Riding through Guatemala City, I saw a kind of poverty I had yet to witness. We drove through seemingly endless slums, and traffic control is nearly nonexistant. Any respectable public place has at least one armed guard. You have to get past two to arrive at the Hogar. Yet, behind the Hogar’s gates, I found a safe, lovely oasis of smiles, hopeful children, and deep spirituality. 
On my trip, I learned more than I often do during a semester of school. I discovered that arts and crafts with kids might not seem like much, but it can be their only break from the necessarily rigid schedule of living in an institution. I learned that yes, I can go ten days without Starbucks or cell phone service. I found Annie seemingly cannot be pronounced in Spanish (Ana quickly became my new name). I learned rabbit doesn’t taste half bad when you don’t think about eating Bugs Bunny, and that peanut butter can be a a life-saver. I heard and cried over stories of children with unthinkably tragic pasts.  My patience was tested with seemingly pointless yard work. I found I speak more Spanish than I expected, but still not enough to not make a fool of myself. I learned how to properly cut vegtables and wash clothes without a machine. I saw how 30 children who aren’t biologically related can become a family similar to my own. I watched children so eager to go to church that they almost always arrived early voluntarily. Often, the nuns will punish children by not letting them go to a church service.  (Certainly different from myself as a child.) My most important lesson has to be “big is God”. This is a phrase at the residence which essentially means “thank God” or “everything will be ok.” Big is God. His precense is everywhere, and I saw him in 30 children every day for over a week. I saw him in my team members. In the hard-working nuns who make sure the children are safe, healthy, and content every day. If I had to condense my experience into three words, “big is God” would be my choosing.
The Hogar was an experience so uniquely beautiful and challenging that I almost can’t put in words. When someone asks “How was Guatemala?”, I usually just smile and say “good!” because I honestly don’t know how to answer without crying and/or babbling on about it for hours. 
Since the trip, I’ve struggled with feeling like my world in Texas, shaped by school, tennis, and friends isn’t deep enough. I’ve started working to treat those around me the way I saw children and nuns treating each other. I’m constantly reminded that “everyone you meet is Jesus in disguise.” (Mother Teresa). So, thank you to the Hogar for new friends, stories, and inspiration to make each day meaningful. Most importantly, thank you for my second hogar. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

How Not to Sink Like a Stone in the Raging Sea of Life: A Homily for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 3:9-17
St. Matthew 14:22-34
              If you are like me, you are often easily distracted from what is really most important in life.  It is so easy to worry obsessively about matters beyond our control and to waste our attention on fantasies of what the future may hold.  With all of the bad news in the world today and our own personal struggles, we may face powerful temptations to fill our minds with fear.  When we do that, however, we sink into a deep abyss, just like St. Peter in today’s gospel reading.  
            As he walked on the water with Jesus Christ, St. Peter let himself be distracted by the dangerous wind and the waves of a stormy sea.  Instead of focusing his attention and trust in the Lord Who miraculously enabled him to walk on the water in the first place, St. Peter let doubt and fear fill his mind.  So he began to sink, to be consumed by the turbulent sea that scared him so much; but when he called out in terror for help, the Lord reached out to St. Peter and saved him from drowning.
            The story is even more profound when we remember that St. Peter had just asked Christ to let him walk on the water.  St. Peter actually tested Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”  As was often the case, this disciple spoke before he thought.  Indeed, he was the one who would actually be put to the test to see if he really had faith; and he fell short.
            We can all understand St. Peter’s situation, for we have all been like him at one time or another; indeed, we may be like him this very minute.  With pride, we like to think that we have a lot of faith and even put ourselves in situations where we know we will be tested, but then our fears, passions, and weaknesses take over.  When that happens, we pay more attention to the dangers that threaten us than to the Lord Who gave us life in the first place and continues to enable us to walk by faith even through the most difficult challenges that the world presents.   And when we do so, we sink like a stone thrown into the sea or someone who has jumped off a tall building.
            For as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, our one true foundation in life is the Son of God.  Our entire life is built on Him, the One by Whom all things were made, the One Who became the second Adam to heal our corrupt humanity,  the One Who conquered death in His third-day resurrection, the One Who has brought us into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.
            When we turn away from Him, we turn away from being truly human in His image and likeness.  That is why St. Peter started to descend to the deep when he gave more attention to his fears than to trust in the Lord.  And it is why we all experience the weakness of slavery to our habitual sins, to our passions that we know all too well.  We may believe with our hearts that Christ is the Savior, but our faith shows its weakness when we are confronted with a difficult challenge, when the waves seem so big and the winds seem so strong:  and then we feel like someone who all of a sudden realizes that he is trying to walk on the water in the middle of a storm.
            Fear, panic, and anxiety will then seem more real to us in than will faith, hope, and love.  The key question, however, is what do we do then?  For we have freedom, we are God’s fellow workers and He never forces us to love and serve Him.  We may give in to our temptations and allow our lives to be controlled by our self-centered desires and fears.  Out of pride, we may live as though it were simply up to us to figure out how to cope as best we can with whatever may happen. That may sound noble, but it is a path that leads only to continued slavery to sin as surely as trying to walk on water by our own power leads only to drowning.  Despite our best efforts, we cannot conquer sin and death by ourselves.   
            Thankfully, St. Peter came to his senses about his situation and called out, probably at the top of his lungs, “Lord, save me!”  In crying out for Christ’s help, St. Peter showed that he did  have some level of  faith, but it was not the quality of his faith that saved him.  It was the mercy of the Lord.  Like him, we all stand in constant need of the mercy of Jesus Christ.  That is why we sing “Lord, have mercy” so many times in our services.  It is why the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is at the heart of spiritual vision.  We focus on the Lord’s mercy so much because, like St. Peter, we know that we are sick and weak, constantly tempted to turn our attention and trust elsewhere, especially to ourselves.    
            No matter what our personal challenges are and no matter what problems the world faces, no one has to be distracted from humble trust in the Lord’s mercy.  Remember that He endured and conquered even death and Hades for our salvation.  He came to the same corrupt and scary world in which we live with wicked people trying to kill Him even as an infant.  He is no stranger to even our worst problems.
            So instead of being paralyzed by fear and worry, we must call to Christ with confident hope no matter what, keeping our attention focused on Him.  We must do our part each day in order to grow in humble faith. As we stand before our icons at home in daily prayers, we should ask for God’s mercy upon our loved ones, those who suffer around the world, and on ourselves as we meet whatever challenges the day holds.  Whenever we are tempted to sinful words, deeds, or thoughts of any kind, we should call upon the Lord’s aid, whether silently or aloud.  And we can all do many things in our daily routines while offering short prayers, such as the Jesus Prayer, from our hearts. 
            Of course, it takes effort to guard our thoughts and to pray with humility when we are tempted.  How much easier it is in the moment simply to welcome anger, pride, lust, fear, despair, and hatred than to reject them.  That is surely why our epistle passage today refers to us as fellow workers with God, for we have to exert effort to do God’s will.  And, no, we will not do this work perfectly.  But the more we struggle and perhaps fail, the greater awareness we will have that our situation is like that of St. Peter.  Apart from the mercy of Christ, we will sink and drown.  Apart from Him, we are like a building without a foundation which will collapse under its own weight. 
As St. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”   A temple must be holy and dedicated to God.  For us to be a temple requires vigilance and perseverance to ground our lives in the mercy of Christ, for we are so often tempted to worship the false gods of our own devising.  All the more is the reason is to maintain a daily rule of prayer and to pray the Jesus Prayer as much as we can.  For if we are not intentionally welcoming, inviting, and cooperating with the Holy Spirit each day of our lives, how on earth are we going to be able to live as holy temples in the midst of a corrupt and dark world?
The basic point is very simple:  The more we turn our attention to Christ and His salvation, the better we will be able to walk with Him on the water through the storms of our own lives and of our fallen world.  The more mindful we are, the closer watch we will keep on our thoughts, the more strength we will have to reject the lies that we so often tell ourselves—and instead to open our hearts to the mercy of the One who is our foundation, our Savior, and the victor over sin and death.  Apart from Christ, we will sink like stones.  But in Him, we become fellow workers with God for our salvation.

We cannot stop the world’s storms from raging or even calm the seas of our own lives very well.  But we can keep our eyes and our hearts centered on Christ and call out to Him with humble trust that He will hear our cry, “Lord, save me!” just as He did St. Peter’s. Let us focus our lives and attention on Him, and not on our fears, worries, or other temptations.       

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Ancient Faith Radio Interview on The Forgotten Faith

The Forgotten Faith

August 01, 2014 Length: 25:15
Bobby Maddex interviews Fr. Philip LeMasters, Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Religion at McMurry University and an occasional AFR podcaster, about his new book The Forgotten Faith: Ancient Insights for Contemporary Believers from Eastern Christianity, published by Cascade Books.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

"You Give Them Something to Eat": Homily on the Importance of Offering Ourselves to the Lord During the Dormition Fast in the Orthodox Church


I Corinthians 1:10-17 (8th Sunday after Pentecost) 

Matthew 14:14-22 (8th Sunday of Matthew) 

             Even as some of us are enjoying the last weeks of summer vacation, things are very busy in the life of the Church.  For the first two weeks of August, we are in the Dormition Fast which leads to the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15.  “Dormition” means “falling asleep” and every year at this time we commemorate the end of the earthly life of the Mother of God, after which she followed her Son body and soul into the Kingdom of Heaven.  We fast during this time just as we do in Lent, for we all need to humble ourselves and fight self-centered desires if we are to follow her example of complete obedience and receptivity to the Lord.  As we did this past Friday evening we will pray the Paraklesis service to the Theotokos this coming Friday at six o’clock, for there is no better intercessor with the Son of God for us than His Mother.  We need her prayers now especially, with so much violence and hatred around the world and so many in our own parish who have health problems. 
            This Wednesday we celebrate another great feast of the Church, the Transfiguration of our Lord.  The eyes of Sts. Peter, James, and John were opened on Mount Tabor to behold the divine glory of Christ as He shined with heavenly light.  We will serve the Divine Liturgy for this feast Wednesday at six o’clock, and all who are able to attend the service should do so.  Of course, we want our spiritual eyes to be opened also so that we can know and experience the glory of the Lord as did those apostles on Mount Tabor.  We want to be transfigured so that we will also shine with uncreated light, reflecting the brilliant holiness of our Savior just as an iron left in the fire manifests the heat and light of the flames. 

            We must be careful, however, to resist the temptation of thinking that participating more fully in the life of Christ is simply a passive matter of asking Him for a miracle or otherwise to help us out according to our own preferences.  In other words, we have to take responsibility for doing our part in actually obeying His commandments.  The point is to become the kind of people who actually do His work in the world; it is certainly not to manipulate Him somehow into following our preferences. For example, in today’s gospel lesson the disciples understandably did not want to take responsibility for feeding thousands of hungry people.  They asked Christ to send the people away to buy their own food, for they had collected only five loaves and two fish. But the Lord did not let them off the hook so easily.  He told them to bring Him their few loaves and fish, which they did.  Then the Savior blessed the food, had the disciples distribute it, and everyone had more than enough to eat.  I bet that the disciples were as shocked as everyone else at how well things turned out that day.  
            Notice that Jesus Christ required the apostles to bring the offering, to give what they had, and to take responsibility for their role in feeding the people.  The very same thing is true for you and me.  We are all tempted at times to ask the Lord for this or that, to solve a problem, or to get something done according to our own desires.  We may think that we have done our part then; of course, there are some circumstances in life about which we can do little other than pray.  But most of the challenges we face daily are not like that.  What we think, say, and do really does matter; we need to grow in our ability to fulfill the role to which God calls us in the circumstances we face.  To let ourselves off the hook by asking for God’s help and then continuing life as usual with no changes on our part is irresponsible and a sign that we view Him more as magician than as our Lord.  We will never develop the spiritual eyes to behold the divine glory by living like that.  

            Jesus Christ fed thousands of people miraculously, but the disciples had to do their part of offering what little they could find for the meal.  He required them to provide the material for the project, you might say.  Imagine what the story would have been like had the disciples refused to bring the loaves and fish to Him.  What if they had been offended at His command and walked away or simply did not follow through?  What if they had decided to eat all the food themselves in place of bringing it to Him?  Instead, they obeyed the command:   “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”  And through their obedience, the Savior worked a miracle that fed thousands of hungry people and fulfilled so much imagery from the Old Testament.

            No, the disciples did not earn or deserve anything as a result of their obedience.  But their obedience surely changed them at least a bit.  It made them stronger spiritually and helped to solidify in them the good habit of doing what Christ said and offering what they had to Him.  They got many things wrong during the time that they followed the Savior during His earthly ministry, but that day they got it right and played their intended role in fulfilling God’s will for their lives.

            Though our lives and circumstances are very different from theirs, we all need to become more like them in learning that the point of our faith is not to get Christ to do more of what we want Him to do. Instead, it is for us to gain the spiritual clarity and health both to recognize what He calls us to and then actually to carry it out.  In order for that to happen, we must be transfigured or changed from people who basically want God to do our will into those who want to do God’s will.  We want to become like the Theotokos in her simple, honest, and pure response to the Archangel Gabriel:  “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.  Let it be to me according to your word.”  That was how she received Christ into her life in a truly miraculous way as His virgin mother:  through humble obedience.

            In the last few weeks, our parish showed humble obedience by giving generously to help our suffering brothers and sisters in Syria. Our parish is blessed by those whose obedience includes giving of their time and talents to chant, to serve at the altar, to teach Sunday School, to work in the yard, and to attend services regularly, even when it is inconvenient and requires sacrifices.  We all have the opportunity to offer our lives to Christ in humble obedience when we observe the Dormition Fast, pray and read the Bible daily, come to Confession, mend broken relationships with others, and refuse to worship the false gods of money, pleasure, and power that are so loved in our corrupt world.  If we are not making a serious effort to offer our lives to the Savior in obedience to His command, we really cannot expect to grow in our participation in His life or the joy of His kingdom.

            In a sense, Christ says to each and every one of us:  “You give them something to eat.” Everyone we encounter is hungry for the Bread of Life.  Everyone needs to be fed. And we sometimes feel like idiots with our few loaves and fish in the face of such overwhelming need.  Yes, we can refuse responsibility and tell God that it is all His business and we have better things to do.  We do not want to go down that road, of course, for we know that it is a dead end. Far better to be like the disciples and offer our meager resources to Him, trusting that He will do with them what we cannot. In ways that we cannot fathom, He will use us—and heal and transform us—to accomplish His glorious purposes for our parish, our neighbors, our families, our enemies, and for those at home and abroad who bear burdens far too heavy for anyone to bear.  So in this busy season of the life of the Church, let us all be like the Theotokos and the disciples, offering ourselves to the Lord in humble obedience as best we can.  At the end of the day, that is what it means to be a Christian.