Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Urgency of Letting Down our Nets One More Time: Homily for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost and the 1st Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 6:1-10
Luke 5:1-11 
            Every one of us has felt at some point like the disciples did when Jesus Christ found them washing their nets.  They had fished all night and caught nothing.  Things had not turned out as they had hoped, and they were disappointed, frustrated, and had already given up.  But when the Lord told them to get back to work and let down their net just one more time, they did so and caught so many fish that their net began to break and their boats began to sink.
            What a great surprise that was to them. They were all amazed and St. Peter fell down before Christ and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” But the Lord replied, “Do not be afraid.  From now on you will catch men.”  Then the disciples left behind their boats and nets and followed Christ.
            That day probably began like any other day for them.  They were busy with their work and who knows whether they expected anything out of the ordinary to occur.  It was just another day with the same old routine and the same responsibilities and worries.  But when they obeyed the Lord’s command, He blessed them and challenged them to see that their lives were not simply about catching fish, but about bringing people into the eternal life of the Kingdom of God.  They heard that day a calling worth leaving everything else behind. 
            Fishermen are famous for exaggerating and telling stories about the size of their catch and the big ones that got away.  But these fishermen knew that their skill and luck had nothing to do with taking in such a large haul of fish.  They had not been so successful because of their abilities, for their best efforts all night long had produced nothing.  But as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “now is the acceptable time…now is the day of salvation.”  In other words, Christ called and enabled them to receive a blessing beyond their wildest dreams on that particular day.  That was not, of course, simply for the sake of success in catching fish.  Instead, it was a sign that they would become fishers of men.  The Savior blessed and enabled them for a new life, a new ministry which transformed and fulfilled the toil of their daily lives.   He called them to something completely different from what they had known, and they were greatly surprised.   
Like those fishermen, we are just flesh and blood, created from the dust of the earth by the enlivening breath of God.  In the world as we know it, we are subject to death and decay and cannot even control our own thoughts and actions very well.  We cannot make fish swim into our nets or bite our hooks, much less can we give anyone eternal life.  And no matter what we do all day, we encounter much that is well beyond our control.   
            The good news of the gospel, however, is that our Lord is able to bless and transform our daily work, the difficult situations we face, and all our struggles in ways that bring us more fully into eternal life.  Our salvation is not a matter of escaping our bodies, this world, or even our problems.  Instead, it is a matter of their fulfillment in the God-Man Jesus Christ, the Second Adam Who heals every dimension of our existence.  No matter what we are doing or experiencing, no matter how well or poorly it may be going, Christ is with us, inviting us to make the same old frustrating and boring routine into a ministry of the Kingdom, an icon of the salvation of the world. 
            Granted, the disciples were called to a special ministry in the founding of the Church; they had to leave their homes and occupations in order to serve the Lord full-time as evangelists, apostles, and bishops.  Some continue to be called to serve today in ways that radically reorient their lives or lead them even to become martyrs.  But God calls most of us to remain where we are in our familiar circumstances at work or school, often in the same neighborhood and parish where we have been for some time.   It is tempting to think that what has become familiar and routine has no spiritual significance, that we are somehow second or third-class in our service of the Kingdom because we remain in our same old circumstances with the same old problems. But that would be a terrible error, for St. Paul’s word to the Corinthians also applies to us:  “now is the acceptable time…now is the day of salvation.”
            The Lord created every dimension of our life and every bit of the universe.  He calls us and it to become holy.  No matter our circumstances, He calls each of us to offer our lives, including our frustrations and failures, to Him for healing and fulfillment.   Just as He used a failed night of fishing for the salvation of the world, He wants to use us for His glory in ways that we cannot predict or fully understand.
            Though it is beyond our spiritual or rational comprehension, a central teaching of our faith is that Jesus Christ is present to us in every human being whom we encounter every day, for we all bear His image and likeness.  He spoke the universe into existence, so we are always on holy ground.    He calls every human being and the entire creation to shine with the light of His glory. In all that we do, no matter what it is, we are to offer the world back to God for His blessing.  In this sense, we are all the priests of our own lives.  In our daily struggles, He calls us all to become iconographers who bring out the beauty of the world and all its inhabitants so that we all manifest more fully the life of our Lord, so that the whole creation becomes more fully an icon of His Kingdom.   
            In order for us to accept this high calling, we must learn from St. Paul how to work every day as priests and iconographers of the creation.  Like him, we need to show patience in our sufferings and problems.  We must use even the difficult, frustrating, or simply boring parts of our lives as opportunities to grow in faith, hope, and love.
            It is tempting to think how nice life would be if we always got our way on our own terms and time table.  But if that were the case, we would never get over our self-centeredness and impatience.  We would never sympathize with others who were not so successful.  We would have little chance of becoming fishers of men if we easily caught everything that we pursued purely by our own ability.  We would probably become so addicted to our own success that we would never leave behind our nets and follow Christ.    
            Of course, no one’s life is really a simple story of going from one success to another.  As we all know in various ways, life is often so difficult that it takes effort to resist the temptation to despair, to simply abandon all hope of experiencing God’s presence and blessing in our lives.  It is so tempting to focus on our failures, limitations, and distractions.  That is why we must embrace prayer, fasting, repentance, and other spiritual disciplines in order to gain the spiritual strength to persevere, to continue the journey of taking up our cross and following Him.
            No matter how hard life is, God’s salvation is not reserved for some other time and place.  “Now is the acceptable time…now is the day of salvation.”  If we do not hear and respond to His calling today, right now in our present circumstances, then when will we?  If we wait for everything to become perfect according to our own preferences, we will never obey Christ and play our unique roles in the salvation of the world.  That was true for those first disciples and it is still true of us.  Despite their disappointment, they had to let their nets down one more time, even though they probably did not really believe that the results would be any different from those of the previous night.  But St. Peter had enough faith at least to obey Christ’s command and to try one more time.  And that is when their lives changed forever.     
            The next time that we are tempted to think that there is no hope for us in participating more fully and faithfully in the life of Christ, let us at least have as much faith as those fishermen who let down their nets one more time.  That is how they became fishers of men, great apostles and evangelists who offered their lives to the Lord and became instruments of the salvation of the world.  By God’s grace, may the same be true of us as we refuse to be distracted from hearing and obeying His call each day of our lives. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Taking up Your Cross is Never Popular: Homily for the Leave-taking of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

             At the conclusion of last Sunday’s liturgy, we knelt and prayed before the great sign of our Lord’s victory over sin and death as we celebrated the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  Today is the conclusion of the celebration of that feast, what we call in the Church its “Leave-taking.” But in the Christian life, we never leave behind the Cross, for our Savior calls us—just as He did His original disciples—to take up our cross and follow Him every day of our lives.  That is not a command limited to a season of the church year; it is simply a necessary part of what it means to be a Christian.    
            Our Lord’s disciples, like the other Jews of that time, apparently expected a Messiah who would have had nothing to do with a cross.  They wanted a successful ruler, someone like King David, who would destroy Israel’s enemies and give them privileged positions of power in a new political order.  So they could not accept His clear word that He would be rejected, suffer, die, and rise again.  When St. Peter actually tried to correct Him on this point, Christ called him “Satan” and said that he was thinking in human terms, not God’s.  To place the pursuit of worldly power over faithful obedience was a temptation Christ had faced during His forty days of preparation in the desert before His public ministry began.  Then that same temptation came from the head disciple, and the Lord let St. Peter know in no uncertain terms that He must serve God and not the powers of this world. To place worldly success over sacrificial obedience was simply the work of the devil.  It still is today.
In complete contrast to what the disciples expected, the Savior told them that they too must take up their crosses and lose their lives in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  The same is true for us, of course, for the false gods of power, possessions, and pleasure cannot conquer sin and death.  Indeed, they simply make us their slaves and give us nothing in return but weakness and despair.  The word of the Cross is that we too must lose ourselves in the service of the Kingdom in order to participate personally in our Lord’s great victory and blessing, both now and for eternity.  That is how we find both life and our true selves in God.   
            Though we do not like to acknowledge it, holiness is on a collision course with the conventional standards of our corrupt world.  That truth is the same for all nations, people, and cultures, for the way of the Cross judges them all.  The witness of the martyrs from the origins of the faith right up until today in the Middle East makes that especially clear.  But let us not think that taking up the Cross is reserved only for those called to make the ultimate sacrifice.  For He calls every one of us to become a living martyr by dying to our sinfulness, to how we have corrupted ourselves, our relationships, and our world.  And that way of death to sin is the Cross, for if we want to share in the joy of His resurrection, we must first participate in the struggle, pain, and sacrifice of crucifixion.
            No, that does not mean trying to put ourselves in situations where we will be harmed or convincing ourselves that we are persecuted for our faith whenever we do not get our own way.  We must never distort our religion into a habit of feeling sorry for ourselves or finding a way to justify hatred or resentment towards anyone.  Our calling is to follow the example of our Lord as we forgive, turn the other cheek, and genuinely bless those who curse us.  If we crucify others even in our thoughts for whatever reason, we condemn only ourselves.     
            No, our calling is to crucify our own sinful desires and actions, the habits of thought, word, and deed that lead us to worship and serve ourselves instead of God and neighbor.  That is very hard to do in a culture that celebrates both selfishness and self-indulgence.   In the name of being true to ourselves, people today justify everything from adultery and promiscuity to abusing and abandoning their own children.  If any of our desires go unfulfilled, we often feel justified in falling into anger, hatred, and even violence toward those who offend us.  In our society everything seems to center on us, our desire, our will, our pleasure, and our obsessive need to worship ourselves as creatures, rather than the Creator.     
            As we have all learned in one way or another, living that way simply makes us miserable, ashamed, and enslaved to our passions.   It is not how those created in God’s image and likeness were made to find peace, fulfillment, and joy.  Yes, some may seem to gain the whole world by living that way, but they still end up losing their souls.  
Saint Paul said of himself, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”  In other words, by dying to his sins, St. Paul became a living icon of the Lord.  Our Savior’s glorification of humanity was made present in his life.  He became truly himself in the divine image and likeness by sharing in the Lord’s death and resurrection.  The same is true of all the Saints, of all those who have manifested in their own lives the holiness of our Lord, whether they died as martyrs or not.      
In our day, there are many cheap substitutes for a life of holiness in which we truly take up our crosses and follow our Lord.  For example, popular culture tempts us to believe that simply expressing ourselves is somehow really virtuous.   While there is nothing wrong with “liking” a post on social media or putting a sign in our yard or a wearing a t-shirt in support of even the most laudable causes, simply expressing an opinion on an abstract issue usually requires very little from us and changes nothing.  That is especially the case when our friends and neighbors tend to agree with us.
For example, it is much harder actually to give of our time, energy, and resources to help a troubled or needy person than it is to praise the idea of helping others.  It is much more difficult to live a life of chastity and purity as man and woman in our decadent culture than it is to call for moral decency in society or to criticize others whose struggles we do not know.  Most of us have more than enough work to do in purifying our own hearts before we start worrying about how strangers are doing.      
Regardless of how correct we may be in a theoretical sense on any issue or problem, words alone will not suffice and may become a distraction from our own repentance.  In order for our faith to mean something, we must act in ways that require self-sacrifice if we truly wish to follow Jesus Christ.  Yes, we have to actually do something that is rarely easy or popular.       
Of course, those with major health problems or other profound challenges in their daily lives may take up their crosses simply by enduring their sufferings with patience, humility, and trust in the Lord.  There is no “one size fits all” journey to the Kingdom, no legal definition, even as the Saints include people of so many different life circumstances and personalities.  Regardless of our situation, we all have the opportunity to serve the Lord faithfully in a way appropriate to the challenges that we face.   

At the end of the day, Christ calls us all to live as those who are not ashamed of His Cross.  We must take practical, tangible steps every day of our lives in order to die to sin so that we may live the new life that our Savior has brought to the world.  If we do not, then we deny our Lord by what we do each day as much as those who worship false gods.  In fact, we worship the false god of self whenever we do not follow the way of Christ in offering ourselves in free obedience to Him.  Our ultimate choice is between the way of the Cross and all other ways, no matter how popular, easy, or moral they may seem to be.   If we ever think that we are serving the Lord faithfully when what we do requires no real self-sacrifice, then we should think again.  He gave up everything for us on the Cross.  What will we give up for Him?  

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Wisdom and Power of God: Homily for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 1:18-24
John 19: 6-35
           No matter what it might be, everyone trusts in something or in someone.  We bet our health, happiness, and even our lives on all kinds of people every day, ranging from our family members and friends to people we do not know, such as airline pilots and the workers who make our cars.  If we refused to trust anyone with our well-being, we simply could not live in society.
            At the very heart of our faith as Orthodox Christians stands our deep trust in a Person, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  By His Cross, our Savior has conquered sin and death and made it possible for us all to become participants in eternal life.  To believe in the power of His Cross is not simply to affirm that Christ died upon it or to be able to describe in words why it is important to our faith.  No, to believe and trust in Christ’s Cross is to bet our lives on His sacrificial offering.  It is to think, act, and speak from our hearts in ways that manifest our Lord’s way of holy, loving obedience. It is for the Cross to become the deep truth of our lives.  And even as no one forced or required the Savior to accept the Cross, no one forces us to take up our crosses or to follow on His path of selfless love.
            Whether in first-century Palestine or twenty-first century America, the way of the Cross is neither popular nor easy; it naturally attracts no one.  We should never forget that the Romans nailed people to crosses in order to make them die painful, slow deaths.  They publically humiliated and tortured them as a reminder to everyone else of what they would do to their enemies.  Who would be attracted to that?
            St. Paul recognized the offense of the Cross by calling it a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.  In other words, the Jews were hoping for a conventional political and military leader to conquer their earthly enemies, not One who would die a shameful death at the hands of the Romans.  For Gentiles, crucifixion was the most disgraceful way to die; consequently, it made no sense to worship someone who died like that.  But St. Paul experienced personally the new life that the crucified and risen Savior has brought to the world. He knew in his soul the power and wisdom of God that seems like foolishness and weakness to those who live and die by the false gods of this world.  He proclaimed One so strong and righteous that He overcame the very worst that corrupt political and religious leaders could do to Him.  St. Paul trusted this Lord and literally bet his life on Him by eventually dying as a martyr.
            Perhaps we have heard the story of Christ’s crucifixion so many times that we have lost our sense of shock and horror about the public torture and execution of the incarnate Son of God.  This was not only the death of an innocent human being, but the slaughter of the God-Man.  The One Who spoke the universe into existence became the Passover Lamb that takes away the sins of the world through His sacrifice.  The One Who is “Holy, Holy, Holy” accepted the very worst misery and punishment that fallen humanity could devise in order to save us. 
            Those who worship the false gods of power, wealth, and pleasure continue to view Him and His Cross as foolish and weak.   But those who like St. Paul have experienced in their souls the wisdom and power of God know better.  This is not the kind of knowledge that confirms that “two plus two equals four,” but the kind of knowledge that comes only from trust, love, and personal encounter.  True spiritual knowledge roots in the soul and is the stuff of experience, not abstract thoughts.  Even those who claim that power, wealth, and pleasure are the ultimate truths of life do so not because they are particularly intelligent, but because they love power, wealth, and pleasure.  They have given their lives to them and that is how they see the world. Likewise, there is no path to the knowledge of the power of the Cross without taking up our crosses, without serving Christ through lives of obedience and sacrificial love.   We must entrust ourselves to Him if we are to know Him and the power of His Cross.  
            To trust the Lord in this way is not simply to have religious thoughts and feelings.  Think of what it means really to trust another human being who is very close to you.   It is not simply about occasional words, thoughts, or even deeds, but an ongoing relationship that changes us, requires something of us daily, and opens our eyes to new dimensions of who this person is and of who we may become.  If we truly love someone, we sacrifice for them in meaningful ways on an ongoing basis.  So if you wonder why the Church calls us to pray, fast, forgive, repent, give to the needy, and lead pure and righteous lives, here is an important part of the answer.  It is through such practices, done with faith and humility, that we strengthen our relationship with Jesus Christ.  We know and experience the Lord by entrusting ourselves to Him through practical steps that we take every day in serving Him and our neighbors in Whom He is present.    

            In His crucifixion, Jesus Christ has made clear that He is no stranger even to our most horrible sufferings, pains, and fears.  Our salvation has appeared not in an imaginary world of perfect people with no problems, but in the same broken reality that we experience every day.  On this Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, let us remember that the One worthy of our trust is He Who endured the full consequences of sin and death in order to bring us into His holiness and eternal life.  He did so purely out of love, even for those who killed Him.  Christ’s Cross manifests the love of God that has conquered even the tomb and Hades.  Therefore, let us trust Him with our lives and take up our crosses daily so that we will grow in our knowledge of the crucified Christ.  For as St. Paul put it, “the word of the Cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Born Again as a New Creation: Homily for the Sunday Before the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 6:11-18
John 3: 13-17
            It is amazing how blind we can all be at times to truths that are staring us in the face.  For whatever reason, we sometimes simply do not grasp even the most obvious points. 
            That is how Nicodemus, a Pharisee and expert in the Old Testament law, responded to Jesus Christ’s teaching that we must be born again in order to enter the Kingdom of God.  Though Nicodemus thought that the Lord spoke of a second physical birth, Christ was speaking of a new life in Him, a spiritual rebirth through water (meaning baptism) and the Holy Spirit whereby we participate personally in the  eternal life of God.  Nicodemus was shocked because he thought of religion in terms of obeying laws, not in terms of becoming a new creation.  
            So the Savior gave Nicodemus a practical example from the Old Testament.   Moses once lifted up a bronze serpent on a rod to cure the Israelites from poisonous snake bites.  Through this act by Moses, the giver of the law, the Jewish people were spared from death on a particular day.  But when Jesus Christ is lifted up on the cross, He makes it possible for those who believe in Him to be born into eternal life, to become a new creation in Him.  For our Lord is not merely a prophet or the giver of the law, He is the One Who came down from heaven, the only-begotten Son of the Father.  Purely out of love for us, He went to the cross, not to condemn us, but to make it possible for us to be born again in the joy and blessing of life eternal.  
            This was too much for Nicodemus to understand; he had probably never heard such things in his life.  But by the end of the gospel of John, we read that Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea prepare the Lord’s body for burial after His crucifixion. He became Saint Nicodemus and gave his own life for Christ, following Him in the way of the cross as a martyr.
            Why would Nicodemus have done that?  He had a respectable position among his own people as a Pharisee.  But perhaps he sensed in Jesus Christ something completely new and for which he longed deep in his soul.  In this unconventional Messiah, he found an unexpected God Who took the condemnation of the law upon Himself.  He found a Father Who would offer His own Son to death out of love for those who are condemned by the law.  He found a Lord Who would be slaughtered as the Passover Lamb and rise in glory for our salvation.
            Like Nicodemus, the Apostle Paul was a Pharisee who changed completely, ultimately becoming an unparalleled evangelist and missionary and the author of so much of the New Testament.  In Christ Jesus, St. Paul experienced what he called “a new creation.”  For our Lord is the new Adam in which all that has gone wrong with human beings and the world since the fall of our first parents has been set right.  He has taken the condemnation of the old Adam—of sin, death, and corruption—upon Himself with His cross.  He has brought us all up from the pit of hades to the heights of heaven in His glorious resurrection and ascension.
            A legal code cannot do that, but the God-Man Jesus Christ can and did.  So Paul learned, as had Nicodemus, to boast in nothing except the cross of Christ; in other words, the unfathomable love of the Father Who gave His only-begotten Son, the great Mystery of the Eternal Word of God who became a Passover Lamb, became the basis of a new life for these former Pharisees, a new life that was worth dying for as martyrs.
            Even as we speak today of being born again into a new life and becoming a new creation in Jesus Christ, we remember the birth of His Holy Mother the Theotokos to Sts. Joachim and Anna.  Think about that for a moment.  We cannot tell the story of God’s salvation becoming present in the world without mentioning particular people who offered themselves as agents of the new creation, as instruments of His new life.  This is not a faith about a book or a set of laws that falls from the sky; instead, our faith is about true personal participation in the life of One Who shares and fulfills our existence in this world as we know it.  Yes, to be our Savior as the God-Man, the Son of God had to have a mother and grandparents like the rest of us.
            Joachim and Anna were a righteous, childless, and old couple, like Abraham and Sarah.  God worked through these particular people and the miraculous conception of their daughter to bring the eternal life of Christ into the world.  Perhaps laws and ideas can simply be taught or written down in general, but God’s salvation is personal and must be embodied in the lives of unique human beings.  The Holy Trinity prepared for the incarnation of the Son through so many generations of the Hebrew people, culminating with a particular couple who in old age miraculously give birth to the one holy, pure, and obedient young woman who in turn brought Christ into the world through her own maternal love.
            This narrative is the unfolding of a new creation that cannot be reduced to a set of rules or abstractions.  It is not about general ideas of any kind.  It is, instead, a particular and personal story that cannot be told without reference to matters as intimate as marriage, conception, and pregnancy; it involves men, women, the young, and the old; and its fulfillment extends from the Virgin’s womb to the Cross and empty tomb.  The shocking good news is that Jesus Christ calls each of us as powerfully and personally as Joachim and Anna were called to become the parents of the Theotokos.  He calls us all to new life in Him, to share in the new creation of His salvation, as the distinct and unrepeatable people that we are in His image and likeness.   
            So it is not enough simply to know the words of John 3:16, as spoken to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”  As participants in the new creation, you and I must actually live out this new life that Christ has brought to the world in our daily challenges with all the quirks, peculiarities, and weaknesses that each of us possesses. Every bit of who we are must become the stuff of the new creation, must be shine with the light of the new birth in our Lord.
            The same sacrificial, humble, forgiving love that is our salvation must become evident in our lives, must become characteristic of who we are as real living and breathing people.  For to live as one born again through Christ is not merely to have a feeling or experience a one-time event; instead, it is the full-blown personal reality of sharing in His life, of participating in His salvation, of living as His faithful disciples each day in response to whatever challenges come our way.   It is the joy of being part of a new creation, the New Adam, the Body of Christ. It is the blessing of life everlasting, of the salvation of God, which the cross of Christ has brought into the world.
            Of course, if this new life were about being perfect in the sense of never falling short, none of us would know anything about it because we all have room to grow in holiness. None of us fully manifests the righteousness of Christ; remember, however, that He came to save and heal, not to judge and condemn by a legal standard.  So whatever progress we make in the Christian life is ultimately a sign of His mercy and blessing.  When we hold our tongues when we are tempted to curse and condemn, when we struggle mightily to turn our attention away from unholy thoughts of any kind, when we pray for those who irritate us, and when we feebly turn our attention to God in prayer and at least make it to Liturgy with some regularity, we take small and real steps in opening our lives more fully to a deeper personal relationship with our Savior.  We embrace at least a bit His new life and become more fully His new creation by His grace.  

            Judge you or me by a legal standard alone, and there will be no hope for us because we all fall short.  But in the mercy of the God Who worked through Joachim, Anna, Nicodemus, and Paul to bring salvation to the world, we have great hope as those born again in Jesus Christ.   He did not come to bring a new set of laws, but to fulfill the old ones as the Person in Whom we are all able to participate in eternal life and to become a new creation.  If you have not figured it out, that is what we pray for in every service and hopefully every day of our lives.  So just as the Theotokos and Her parents and all the Saints have played their unique roles in the salvation of the world, let us do the same with trust that, in ways that we cannot possibly know, this is all part of bringing the new creation in Jesus Christ to its fulfillment.   As hard as it may be to believe, the story of God’s salvation of the world continues each day through you and me.