Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Good News of Christmas: Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!

          The glorious feast of Christmas is finally here, and what a mysterious blessing it is.  For the Eternal Word of God becomes a human being, a helpless babe born in a barn with a manger for His crib. Angels sing in His honor.  The lowly shepherds and the foreign wise men worship Him.  A young virgin becomes a mother, not simply of a son, but of the Son of God.   And kings tremble, for this baby brings to earth a Kingdom not of this world.

          The good news of Christmas is that Jesus Christ is born this day, not to judge or to destroy us, but to save and bless us.  He is the Second Adam in Whom the diseased decay of the first Adam is healed.  By becoming one of us, He brings us into the life of God.  We are made holy, we are fulfilled, we are raised to life eternal in Him.

          Our Lord brings His great joy to the world humbly and peaceably.  He does not arrive in the earthly splendor of a king, with the military power of a conquering general, or in the material comfort of the rich. Instead, He takes the lowest, most vulnerable place for Himself:  born in a cave used as a barn to a family that lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire and the cruelty of Herod.  Soon Joseph would take the Virgin Mary and the young Jesus to Egypt by night, fleeing for their lives from a wicked, murderous king.      What a difficult, lowly way to come into a dark and dangerous world, not unlike how refugee children are born in war-torn regions to this very day.

          But when we pause to consider the glory of our Lord’s Incarnation, we should not be surprised at all.  For what does it mean for the Immortal One to put on mortality?  What does it mean for the One Who spoke the world into existence to become part of that creation?  What does it mean for the King of the universe to become subject to the kings of the world?  It means humility and selfless, suffering love beyond our understanding.  For our Lord, God, and Savior is not a rational concept to be defined, but a Person Who mercifully shares His life with us.   So that we could enter into His life, He entered into ours, sanctifying every dimension of the human person.

          The wise men show us how to respond to the unbelievably good news that God has become a human being:  they worship Him.  Let us follow their example this Christmas season by worshiping Him as we open ourselves to the glorious transformation that the Incarnate Son of God brings.  For Christ is born, and the peace and joy of God’s kingdom are ours as we forgive and love even our enemies.  Christ is born, and we welcome Him especially when we serve the poor, needy, and outcast.  Christ is born, and He calls all to participate in the blessedness for which He created us in His image and likeness.

          The only limits on the joy of Christmas are those that we place on ourselves.  For the One Who comes as a humble, meek, peaceable baby in a manger never forces us or anyone else.  He is the Mystery of Love made flesh for our salvation.  We celebrate this great feast by becoming participants in the deified humanity that the God-Man Jesus Christ has brought to the world.  That means living in this world in ways that manifest the deep truth of the Incarnation.  That means being united to Him in holiness from the depths of our souls.

          So throughout this Christmas season, let us become like the Theotokos who received Him with joy, like the elder Joseph His steadfast protector, and like that strange combination of lowly shepherds and Persian astrologers who first worshiped Him.  Let us welcome Him into our lives by how we live each day, for now nothing but our own refusal can separate us from the holy joy that He was born to bring to the entire world. That, my brothers and sisters, is the good news of Christmas.

Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Scandalous Good News of Christmas: Homily for the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40; Matthew 1:1-25
            Some things are so familiar to us that we no longer take them seriously.  We can become so accustomed to thinking about people, events, and ideas in the same old way that we become blind to their true character and significance.  When that happens, they lose their ability to shock us. 
Unfortunately, it is very easy to view Christmas in precisely that way.  For too many, this is a time of year primarily to become obsessed with buying and receiving gifts, with socializing, traveling, and otherwise trying to meet cultural expectations.  The danger with this attitude is that it distracts us from preparing to enter into the mystery of our salvation as the eternal Word of God takes on flesh and becomes one of us as the God-Man. If we have become so used to a merely commercial and cultural Christmas that we neglect to welcome the Savior into our lives in a new way at the celebration of His birth, we will have missed the point entirely.
Sometimes it takes something really shocking to wake us up, to get us to reexamine our perspective and priorities.  Today’s lengthy gospel reading should do precisely that, for it is not simply a list of who begat whom to be rushed through or skipped over.  Instead, it is a reminder that the One born at Christ had the right family tree to be a very surprising kind of Messiah.  Of course, the family tree shows that He is a descendant of Abraham and David in Whom the promises to the chosen people of the Old Testament were fulfilled.  But the genealogy shockingly includes four women:  Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheeba.  They stick out like sore thumbs in this list of Jewish fathers and sons because they were women, Gentiles, and involved in situations involving such scandals as the intermarriage of Jews with foreigners, prostitution, adultery, and murder.  For St. Matthew to have gone out of his way to include them in the family tree of the Messiah must have surprised many who first heard this account.
To mention their names is also to remind us that our Lord’s salvation is not a fulfillment of anyone’s expectations on their own terms.  His blessing is not a reward for our righteousness or limited to those who have a certain ethnic or national heritage or who have spotless reputations in any time or place. This genealogy reminds us that even the great figures of the Old Testament, such as King David, fell into the most serious sins.   To mention these names is to destroy the assumption that there is anything conventional, customary, or expected about the One born at Christmas. 
Things get even more complicated at the end of the family tree when we are reminded that the Theotokos is a virgin who became pregnant while betrothed to the elderly St. Joseph.  He was selected against his will as her guardian when she left the Temple where she had grown up in purity and prayer.  When he first learned of her pregnancy, he was horrified and wanted to divorce her quietly.    He obeyed, however, when the angel told him in a dream that this Child was conceived of the Holy Spirit and would be the Savior.  Of course, others remained as skeptical then of a virgin conception as they would be today.  The Theotokos’ situation appeared to be as scandalous as those of the other women in our Lord’s genealogy.  To say that this household made up of an old widower, a young virgin girl, and the incarnate Son of God is an unconventional family would be an understatement. By any normal human standards, it is truly outrageous and unbelievable.  No, there is nothing customary about how the Savior comes into the world.
Likewise, His ministry does not fit with the cultural expectations of first-century Palestine, for this Messiah was neither a legalist out to condemn the unrighteous nor a military leader ready to destroy Israel’s foes and set up an earthly reign for the Jews.  His family tree shows that He fulfills God’s purposes to draw all people, including Gentiles and scandalous sinners, to a Kingdom not of this world.  The circumstances of His birth demonstrate that God’s ways are not our ways and that holiness is not the same thing as cultural respectability. Imagine the courage and humility of the Theotokos and St. Joseph in playing their unique roles in bringing salvation to the world, despite the risk to their reputations and even to their lives.
That really should not be surprising, for Christmas is about the One Who spoke the universe into existence becoming a human being in order to heal and restore our fallen world in holiness.  The Savior is not born to make us socially respectable or successful or even happy according to the standards of our, or any other, culture.  His Kingdom is radically different from even the best of earthly realms and challenges what we have come to accept as the way things are. 
Unfortunately, there is much in our society that encourages us to approach Christmas as just another cultural celebration that is not really about God, but simply about various unrealistic social expectations.  For example, only the wealthiest people can afford to buy all the latest and most expensive items that advertisements tell us are the key to the happiness of our loved ones.  But even if we go into debt to purchase them, possessions will never truly fulfill those created in God’s image and likeness.  Those who get accustomed to receiving more than they could possibly need or use in a healthy way are also at risk for developing the expectation that those who love them will show that primarily by spending a lot of money.  For both the giver and the receiver, there is the danger of becoming so accommodated to the commercial aspects of the season that we neglect and weaken our relationships with one another, not to mention our relationship with God.  And if we spend all our resources indulging loved ones with expensive presents they they do not really need, we will not be able to give to the poor what they truly need in order to live.  When we serve them, we serve the Lord Himself.   
 The way that our culture observes Christmas also tempts us to unrealistic expectations about our families.  What we are told should be the most wonderful time of the year is often one in which whatever tensions and problems exist in our families will be highlighted and brought out into the open.  And given all the focus on happiness and warm feelings, it is also the time of year when we are most likely to feel the loss of loved ones and mourn for the better days of years past. If our life circumstances do not fit with what we have learned to think Christmas is about in our culture, we may want these weeks to pass as quickly as possible.  At the very least, we all know people who think of the season in this way.  We have an obligation not to abandon them to their despair, but to reach out to them as brothers and sisters whom Christ also came to bless and save.
Our Lord’s family line was not full of people who were rich, powerful, and happy by earthly standards.  When you read the Old Testament, you will learn about some terribly broken family relationships. Today’s epistle passage mentions Hebrew saints who suffered greatly as they waited in hope for the Messiah.  As that reading concludes, “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”  In the next week, let us turn away from all that would distract us from embracing the good news that God’s ancient promises are fulfilled and extended to us, and to the entire world, in the birth of Jesus Christ.  Our salvation is not in striving to meet unrealistic cultural expectations or any other merely human standard, but in the great mystery of the Word made flesh.  He comes to save broken, imperfect, and sometimes scandalous people like you and me who have a lot in common with His ancestors.  Use this next week to recognize from the depths of your souls how shocking the true meaning of Christmas really is.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

On Getting Ready for the Banquet: Homily for the Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Colossians 3:4-11; Luke14:16-24

It is easy to accept illusions about ourselves when we have not been tested, when there is no crisis to which we must respond.  We usually think that all is well until we find ourselves falling short of meeting a goal that we thought we could achieve.   Great challenges judge us because they reveal the true state of our ability and character.  They often open our eyes to our weaknesses in surprising ways.
Christ’s birth certainly provided unexpected challenges to the leaders of first-century Israel, many of whom were so obsessed with their power and self-righteous legalism that they rejected their own Messiah.  He spoke of them in today’s gospel reading as those who excused themselves from the great banquet of the Kingdom of God, claiming that other concerns were more important.  They judged themselves by how they refused to accept the invitation to such great blessing.  As the Lord said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” They chose other things before God and turned away from life eternal.
In the remaining weeks before Christmas, we must prepare to be judged by how we respond to our Savior’s birth.  We must get ready to enter into the deep mystery of the Son of God becoming a human being.  He does so for our salvation, to invite us to share in the heavenly banquet of His Kingdom. As members of His Body, the Church, we have no excuse not to be prepared.  We have no excuse not to accept this great blessing. He certainly calls us. And if we do not accept, we will judge only ourselves.
As we commemorate the Holy Forefathers of Christ today, we remember all those who foretold or foreshadowed the coming of our Lord, all the way from Adam to the Theotokos.  Perhaps part of the reason that it took so many generations to get ready for Him is that there could be no greater challenge than to be prepared to embrace with joy the good news that the Son of God has become the Son of the Virgin, that He has truly become one of us.  Remember that many of those who had the benefit of the Old Testament Law and the Prophets failed that test during the earthly ministry of the Savior.
St. Paul reminds us of the gravity of the situation that we all face. He writes that “when Christ, Who is our life, appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”  Our Savior is born to make us participants in His divine glory by grace so that we will become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.  That is ultimately what it means to share in His banquet as partakers of the divine nature. That is why the Second Adam is born, to fulfill our vocation to become like God in Whose image we are all created.
We cannot achieve these great spiritual heights by ourselves, of course, which is precisely why Christ is born to save us.  But the One Who enters our world as a helpless baby in a barn does not force us to do anything.  He calls us, but we must choose to respond by cooperating with His grace in doing all that we can to accept His invitation for the healing of our souls.  St. Paul instructs us to do that by dying to all that stands in the way of preparing ourselves to receive Him.  He lists especially “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”  Then he mentions “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.”  He follows that up with a warning not to “lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature.”
The recent Gentile converts to whom St. Paul wrote needed these reminders about how to live lives pleasing to God.  We need them just as much today in a time when many celebrate lust for material possessions, violent hatred of those they consider to be their enemies, and unrestrained sexual pleasure.  And just like those to whom St. Paul first wrote, we are also susceptible to these and other powerful temptations.  If we do not recognize that and stay on guard against them, they will seem much more appealing to us than truly preparing to enter into the Kingdom.
          In the weeks before Christmas, we must focus on embracing the healing and restoration of our humanity that Christ is born to work in us.  We died to the corruption of the first Adam in baptism and now we must live intentionally as those who have been restored to a new and holy life through the Second Adam.  He makes it possible for us to share in the true humanity that He has healed as the God-Man.  That is why the Savior is born at Christmas.
          Contrary to what the religious and political leaders who rejected Christ believed, our human ancestry and national identity are totally irrelevant in the Kingdom of God.  As St. Paul wrote, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.”  In our world of corruption, people use many excuses not to accept the great invitation of our Lord to the heavenly banquet.  Some are more concerned with political parties, racial or ethnic groups, or national identity than with true holiness.  Even as we can easily fall into idolatry by covetousness or being enslaved to a desire for material possessions that others have, we can shut ourselves out of the Kingdom by giving our souls to the false gods of worldly power in whatever form we encounter them.   Remember the chief priests who shouted “We have no king but Caesar!” to Pilate as they encouraged him to have our Lord crucified. (John 19:15) We certainly do not want to become like them.
          During the remaining weeks of the Nativity Fast, we should each recognize that we are preparing ourselves for a kind of judgment that will reveal our true spiritual state.  At Christ’s first coming at His birth, He does not come as our judge.  No, we judge ourselves by how we respond to Him.  Contrary to popular opinion, there is much more at stake here than whether we have warm, sentimental feelings about a baby born long ago or the cultural trappings of the season.  If that were the standard of judgment, we would need no preparation at all.  But if the standard of judgment is whether we will be prepared to turn away from all that distracts us from being united with Christ in holiness, it is an entirely different matter. For just like the people in today’s parable, we routinely become so burdened and obsessed with daily cares that we disregard prayer.  Instead of mindfully turning our attention to Christ, we become paralyzed by worry and fear.  Instead of making our marriages icons of the fulfillment of the man-woman relationship for the salvation of the world, we so easily fall prey to resentment, selfishness, and neglect.  Instead of living within our means so that we can share generously with the poor and support the ministries of the Church, we become addicts to desire for more and more possessions that will never satisfy us.
          The problem here is not that we have families, possessions, and jobs, and have to deal with whatever other circumstances we face.  The problem is that we use them as excuses to fall back into the ways of our old nature, the ways of corruption that disorder our most basic human desire to be united in holy love with God.  All sin is a form of idolatry, of putting our devotion to a false idol before our worship of the Lord.  That idol is ultimately ourselves, and our slavery to any particular passion is a symptom of that deeper disease.  
           The good news is that Christ is born at Christmas to restore us to the blessedness for which He breathed life into us in the first place.  He calls us all through His birth, but now we must choose to lay aside our obsession with earthly cares in order to accept the invitation to His great banquet.  He is coming, and we will judge ourselves by how we respond to Him.  Now is the time to prepare as did the Holy Forefathers of our Lord by confessing and turning away from our sins, opening our hearts and minds to Him in humble prayer each day, and giving generously to the needy in whom He is present to us.  The point of this way of life is not simply to obey laws for their own sake, but to find the healing and strength that we need in order to respond to the birth of the God-Man with great joy.
          So in the remaining weeks before Christmas, let us devote ourselves daily to getting ready to enter into the great mystery of our salvation by prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and repentance.  For the Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin and truly one of us.  What could be more important than to refuse to be distracted from welcoming Him into our lives at His birth?

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Unique Beauty of His Daughters and Sons: Homily for Sts. Barbara the Great Martyr and John of Damascus and the 10th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 3:23-4:5; Luke 13:10-17
            When I look around our parish community, I am thankful that we are not all alike in our personalities, our backgrounds, our interests, and our gifts.  Our distinctiveness enriches us and helps us realize our dependence upon one another as members of the Body of Christ.  It also keeps us from falling into the common error of thinking that growing in holiness means losing our personal characteristics.  In fact, the opposite is true.  The more we become like God in holiness, the more we become our genuine selves as His unique sons and daughters.  That is why our Savior was born at Christmas:  to restore us to our true identity as His beloved children. And as every parent knows, children are distinctive characters.
            In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus Christ healed a woman who had been stooped over for eighteen years, saying “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” When a legalist complained that it was wrong to heal someone on the Sabbath, the Lord pointed out that even oxen and donkeys get water then.  So how could it be wrong for a daughter of Abraham to be healed of her affliction on the Sabbath?  He treated her not as an anonymous bundle of disability or an impersonal legal case, but as a unique person whom He loved and wanted to restore to the holiness for which He created her in the first place.  He cared for her as His own daughter.
            We do not have to look very deeply into our own souls to find what keeps us all stooped over, what steals our personal distinctiveness in freely becoming more like the Lord Who created us in His image and likeness. Instead of embracing the joy and holiness that are ours through Christ, we remain slaves to disordered desires and habits of thought, word, and deed that diminish our personal distinctiveness, that make us more like anonymous bundles of corruption than His unique children.  When anger, pride, envy, lust, selfishness, and other passions control us, we become pretty much like anyone else under their domination. Like pigs feeding at a trough, we become obsessed with gratifying our desires and act as those with no calling higher than to get what we want at the moment.  That is not a very pretty picture, but we can all see ourselves in it.
            The Savior is born at Christmas to set us free from such demeaning slavery.  As St. Paul wrote, “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”  In Him, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”  No matter what categories we fit into based on human divisions, we share fully in the healing and restoration of our true dignity as His sons and daughters.  Our true distinctiveness shines all the more as we overcome our self-imposed slavery to everything that holds us back from becoming brilliant icons of Christ.
When the Lord said, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity,” He was speaking to us all as members of the Church, the Bride of Christ.  Having been baptized into Christ, we have all become His Bride, united intimately with Him in holy love and called to grow eternally in our participation in His life. The Members of the Holy Trinity are united in love as distinct Persons, and the same must be true of us all as members of His Body, His Bride, the Church.
Today we commemorate great Saints whose examples show us that such blessedness is truly open to all.  The Great Martyr Barbara was a young virgin who died at the hands of her pagan father for refusing to deny Christ in the early fourth century.  He had originally kept her in seclusion due to her great beauty, but she discerned on the basis of reason that the pagan gods were false idols.  When Barbara later professed the Christian faith, she openly defied her father, who handed her over to be tortured.  Seeing her steadfastness in suffering terrible abuse, a Christian woman named Julianna joined her in enduring horrible treatment.  They were both beheaded when they steadfastly refused to deny their Lord.
We also remember today a very different person.  St. John of Damascus was an administrator under Muslim rulers, and he composed many important theological and liturgical works that remain integral to the life of the Church.  His right hand, which was cut off due to his powerful defense of icons, was miraculously restored by the Theotokos. After retiring to a monastery, where he was an example of obedience, asceticism, and humility, he departed this life peacefully in the eighth century at the advanced age of 104.
            The example of these Saints shows us that it does not matter whether we are young, old, male, female, or face this or that set of challenges.  We may still grow in personal union with the Lord regardless of any such details.  The door to holiness is fully open to us all.  Christ Himself is the Door (John 10:9) through Whom we may all enter into the fulfillment of our unique personalities in Him.  The stories of the Saints are quite diverse, and their personal uniqueness shines brightly through their particular circumstances.  They saved their lives by losing everything that separated them from God, and we will find our salvation by dying to everything that mars and distorts the unique beauty of our souls.  That is another way of saying that we become free by being loosed from slavery to our sins.  It is another way of saying that we will no longer be stooped over with spiritual disability when we rise with Christ from death and decay to the life and strength which are ours as beloved sons and daughters of the Most High.
            The Church gives us these biblical passages and Saints as we prepare to welcome Christ at His birth.  Contrary to what is popular in our culture, there is more to welcoming Him than having a nice cultural celebration of the season.  There is also more to welcoming Him than having warm feelings about the Lord for a couple of days and then returning to life as usual.  If we are truly to welcome the Savior into our lives in a new way this Christmas, then we must actually straighten up from being stooped over in sin.  We must actually find a measure of healing for the corruption and infirmity that have taken root in our souls.  We must become more fully our true selves by growing in personal union with Christ, being transformed by Him for a life of greater holiness. Even as Saints like the Great Martyr Barbara and John of Damascus became living icons of God’s salvation, we must also.  That is truly what it means to welcome our Lord at His birth.
            Fortunately, we do not attempt to do that simply by our own power, but by cooperating with the infinite mercy and grace of our Lord.  The woman who had been stooped over for eighteen years could not have healed herself, but Christ did.  Gentiles could not have made themselves heirs to the promises to Abraham, but Christ extended those blessings to us through faith.  Sts. Barbara and Julianna could not have endured their sufferings simply by will power, and John of Damascus could not have restored his own severed hand.  You and I will not become more fully ourselves in God’s image and likeness simply by our own efforts, but by uniting ourselves to Christ in humble faith and repentance.  We must open ourselves to Him and embrace His holy life so that the healing power of His salvation will become evident in us.  That is what it will mean for us to welcome Him into our lives this Christmas.
We must take the small steps that we are capable of this Advent in order to prepare to receive our Savior.  That means embracing fasting and other forms of self-denial.  It means sacrificial generosity to the poor and lonely.  It means confessing our sins and turning away from them.  It means apologizing to those we have wronged and offended, and doing what we can to heal broken relationships.  It means praying for our enemies and going out of our way to help them. The more that we devote ourselves to daily prayer and reading the Scriptures, the lives of the Saints, and other spiritually beneficial writings, the more strength we will have for embracing all these spiritual disciplines. 
            If we will have such a Nativity Fast, then we will rise up from being stooped over with sin and become more truly the beautiful and unique sons and daughters whom our Lord created us to be in the first place.  There is no better way to prepare to receive Christ with joy at Christmas.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

On Preparing to Receive Grace Through Advent: Homily for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost and the 13th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 2:4-10; Luke 18:18-27
In just about any activity, we can get so caught up in following the rules that we miss the larger point.  Sometimes we do that due to our own pride, our sense that we simply have to achieve perfection in order to be worthwhile.  Of course, what we are really showing then is that we think that it is all about us and our ability to be right by our own standards.  But when circumstances arise that make clear that it is not all about us and that we are not perfect, it can lay us low.  That is exactly what happened to the rich man who encountered Jesus Christ in today’s gospel lesson.
            He was certainly not looking for someone to burst his bubble, for he had apparently convinced himself that he had fulfilled all God’s commandments since childhood.  So the Lord opened his eyes to his true spiritual weakness.  He told him to sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Him.  That made the man very sad because he loved his money.  It had probably never entered the man’s mind that he had a problem with loving his wealth too much.  He had likely never thought that his riches posed any spiritual problems for him at all, for the conventional wisdom in that time and place was that riches were a sign of God’s favor.  He was not aware that he was more attached to them than to God. But because of this hard teaching from the Lord, his eyes were opened a bit to his own imperfection, and he did not like what he saw.
            It is unfortunately easy for people who are familiar with the requirements and practices of any religion to fool themselves into thinking that they have mastered it.  We avoid the truth about ourselves by thinking that we have done all that we could possibly do and, therefore, have earned God’s favor and blessing in ways that others have not. St. Paul opposed Judaizers who wanted to require Gentile converts to be circumcised and obey the Old Testament law because he was afraid that doing so would lead Christians to trust in their own ability to justify themselves, to earn salvation by doing enough good works.  In contrast, he knew that the Son of God died and rose again in order to conquer sin and death, in order save us in a way that we could not possibly earn or achieve by ourselves.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.” 
            We need to hear this message from St. Paul because we have probably become comfortable and content with our present level of spiritual devotion and religious activity. Even when our minds are elsewhere, we may still say the words of our daily prayers, read the Scriptures, or attend services.  We may fast, give to the Church and the needy, or prepare for Communion and Confession by simply going through the motions that have become so familiar to us over the years.  We may even pat ourselves on the back for our piety and look down upon others whom we judge as godless.  If we have come to think of our faith as simply a collection of habits that we repeat over and over in order to earn something from the Lord, then we have fallen into a spiritual fantasy, an illusion that has very little to do with God and everything to do with our pride.  If that is the case, then we have too much in common with the man in today’s gospel reading who thought that he had mastered all the commandments.     
And like him, we need to be brought back to reality by a prophetic word that shocks us out of our complacency.  This time of year, our wake-up call is the Nativity Fast.   For if we are to become holy temples that are prepared to receive our Savior at His birth, we cannot remain captive to our illusions that we have achieved righteousness by simply doing this or that or having our names on the membership roll of our parish.  Instead, we must know from the depths of our souls our complete reliance on the mercy and grace of our Savior, who came to call not the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.  We must know our own sickness and weakness in order to receive the divine therapy that brings health and strength beyond our own ability.  
During this season of preparation to welcome our Lord at Christmas, we must embrace spiritual disciplines that help us know from our hearts why He became one of us for our salvation.  Instead of mindlessly mouthing words or simply trying to make ourselves feel a certain way, we must persistently stand in the presence of God, with our souls fully open to Him, in daily prayer.  We should concentrate our attention on the words of the prayers as a tool for being more fully present to Him.  This will be a struggle, for there is much in all of us that does not want to be in personal communion with the Lord.  And even as those who are not in good physical condition find it hard to exercise, we who are spiritually weak will have to struggle mightily in order to turn from our distractions and desires in order to give ourselves to Him each day in focused prayer.  
When we find our minds wandering or realize that we have forgotten to pray at the usual times, we should turn to the simple words of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  We are all able to focus our minds on those words as we open our hearts to the Lord in humility, even if only briefly.  Praying in this way is far better than doing what the rich man did when he realized that he could not easily obey Christ’s command.  He went away in sorrow; in other words, it appears that he just gave up.  In contrast, we must never give up.  When our eyes are opened to our own weakness and imperfection, we must channel our sense of guilt or failure toward true repentance, for humbly reorienting ourselves to the Savior.  To do so, we must have the strength not to cave in to our prideful inclination to run away from disciplines that reveal our brokenness, that show us how imperfect we are.  No, we must realize that it is not all about us or our success in doing anything.  Remember St. Paul’s words: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.”  Instead of running away due to hurt pride over our failures, we must learn from them the true nature of our spiritual state and use that awareness to open our hearts to the Lord as best we can with a humble plea for mercy.     
The same is true about giving generously of our resources and attention to the needy and lonely in Advent.  The Lord gave no general command to sell all that we have and give it to the poor, but He certainly warned all against the grave spiritual dangers of loving money, hoarding our resources, and neglecting our hungry, sick, and poor neighbors.  No matter how much or how little we have in terms of worldly goods, we all struggle with being as generous with our resources and attention as we should.  All of us can find ways to put the needs of others before our own during this season, even if through very small acts of self-denial.  Remember that the point is not to be perfect by our own prideful standards, but to manifest our Lord’s mercy as best we are able.  And when we recognize how selfish we are before the unmet needs of others, that is a good time for the Jesus Prayer also.  
Instead of pretending that we are perfectly holy or turning away from Christ in sadness due to hurt pride, let us turn to Him in humble repentance, honestly recognizing our brokenness and imperfection, even as we trust in His grace.  Let us embrace the disciplines of this season with joy, for they will give us the spiritual clarity to see that the Messiah born at Christmas comes to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.”  Let us use this fast to prepare to receive our gracious Savior with the fear of God and faith and love. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Focusing on the One Thing Needful This Advent: Homily for the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple

Luke 10: 38-42; 11:27-28
              In an age of seemingly endless controversy and conflict in our society and world, it is easy to allow what is prominent in our culture to dominate our lives, our sense of who we are, and of what is ultimately most important. In other words, it is easy to make the world our temple and to offer our lives to its false gods.  No matter what form it takes, that is simply idolatry.  Today we celebrate a feast that invites us to a totally different way of living and thinking that is focused on offering ourselves to our Lord, and not to idols.
On the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, we remember that when the Virgin Mary was a little girl, her parents Joachim and Anna took her to live in the Temple in Jerusalem.  They were an old, faithful, and barren couple who conceived miraculously and promised to offer their long-awaited child to God.  She grew up in the Temple as she prepared to become the Living Temple of the Lord, when she agreed to become the Mother of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.   “Theotokos” means Bearer or Mother of God, and she has this title because the One whom she bore, the One to whom she gave birth, is truly the eternal Son of God.
Because the Theotokos accepted Christ into her life in this unique way, every human being may now become His living temple.  By taking His humanity from her, Jesus Christ has united every dimension of our life with His divinity.  As the Second Adam, He has healed and restored all that went wrong with the first Adam.  He has made us His temple already through his Incarnation.  But our calling during this season of the Nativity Fast, of Advent, is not merely to acknowledge that we are His temple and then live according to the conventional standards of our, or any other, society.  Instead, it is to become more faithful and pure temples so that we will be prepared to welcome Him with integrity into our lives this Christmas. And there is no better way to do that than by following the example of the Theotokos, who was by no means a powerful, famous, or conventionally influential person according to the standards of her culture.
The Church gives us gospel passages today that highlight her characteristics.  When the Savior visited their home, Lazarus’ sister Martha was busy serving the guests, while his other sister Mary sat at Christ’s feet and listened to His teachings.  When Martha complained that her sister was not helping her, the Savior told her that she was worried and troubled about many things; but only one thing is needed, and Mary had chosen to focus on that. In other words, Mary had focused on the Lord, on hearing His word, on responding to Him with faith.  It was not wrong for Martha to serve her guests; the problem was that all her busyness had become a distraction from the one ultimately important thing of being fully attentive to Christ.
We also read in the gospel today that, when someone cried out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts which nursed you!,” Christ responded, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
These passages point to the Theotokos, for she certainly heard the word of God and kept it more than anyone else.   She is uniquely blessed because she was prepared to respond in obedience to the astounding message of the Archangel that she was to become the mother of the Messiah.  She welcomed Christ into her life in an unfathomable way.
With all our concerns about our society and world and about our own families and personal circumstances, it is difficult to follow the Theotokos’ example of hearing and obeying the word of the Lord.  It is easy to be distracted any time of year, but especially in the very busy weeks between now and Christmas.  Nonetheless, we must follow her example for, if we are not careful, our attention will be diverted from the reason for the season, from the birth of our Savior.  We will not become better temples of the Lord by letting controversies, work, school, parties, shopping, or anything else, keep us from focusing on the one thing that is needful.  In the midst of all these distractions, we must focus on Christ and welcome Him into even the dark and painful areas of our lives.  We must refuse to allow earthly cares, no matter how appealing they are, to keep us from entering into the temple, to distract us from following the Theotokos in uniting every dimension of who we are to Christ.
That will be possible, however, only if we make a renewed commitment to prayer, which includes attending services faithfully and praying at home each day. It is also includes praying silently whenever we have the opportunity.  So instead of obsessively fueling this or that fear, worry, or grudge, we should focus our minds on the Jesus Prayer as we call for Christ’s mercy from our hearts.  Instead of damning others with whom we disagree or who have offended us, we must ask God to bless and have mercy on them.  Our Lord refused to become an earthly king or to define Himself in conventional worldly categories.  He said that we must love our enemies, and He prayed from the Cross for His Father to forgive even those who had crucified Him.  His Mother prepared to receive Him through prayer and purity in a way that had nothing to do with conventional assumptions about power and influence in that time and place.   Likewise, we must make humble prayer the cornerstone of our life in order to find the strength to reject the false gods of our age and to choose “the one thing needful…that good part, which will not be taken way.”  Anything else is idolatry.
Even as we grow in prayer this Advent, we must remember that hearing the word of God and keeping it also has a lot to do with cleansing ourselves from all that is not holy, from all that does not belong in a temple.   Thoughts, words, and deeds that we are ashamed to offer to Him for blessing should have no place in us.  We should shut our eyes and ears to whatever inflames our passions.  We should turn our attention away from thoughts of self-righteousness, anger, envy, and lust, and from all unholy temptations.  We should go out of our way to love and bless our enemies and those whom we are inclined to think the worst of.    We must become holy temples of the Lord by following the Theotokos’ example of purity and obedience as we grow in our participation in God’s holiness. That is why this season is a time for repentance, for confessing our sins in humility, for being assured of God’s forgiveness, and then getting ourselves back on the right course.
It is also a time for eating a humble and simple diet that requires us to place limits on how we satisfy our stomachs and taste buds.  We are all addicted to satisfying our self-centered desires in one way or another, and fasting is a tool for giving us strength in healing our passions and reorienting our desires to God in a healthy way.  The point is not legalism or that God simply wants us to be hungry of unsatisfied, but that we need to humble ourselves before the Lord as we gain the strength to offer every dimension of our lives to Him.  Fasting is a powerful tool for helping us grow in holiness as more faithful living temples of Christ.  Unless we have been advised by our spiritual father or physician not to fast from rich food, we should all make use of this tool for the healing of our souls.
The weeks of the Nativity Fast are a time of joyful preparation to receive Christ at His birth.  They provide us an alternative to the angry and anxious ways of our culture.  And on this Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, they call us to follow the example of someone very different from the ones people usually think are most important in life.  We celebrate the Theotokos’ entry into the Temple because that was the beginning of her personal formation as the one human being in all history who agreed to give life to Christ as His Mother, to become His Living Temple in a unique and astounding way.   She was not an empress or from a wealthy or powerful family, but a young girl who focused on the one thing needful to the point that, by God’s grace, she became the New Eve through whom the Savior was born.  God still works through humble, faithful people like her to accomplish His gracious purposes.  My prayer for us all is that we will use the weeks of the Nativity Fast this year to follow her holy example.  There is surely nothing more important that we could do for the salvation of the world, for the healing of our souls, and for preparing ourselves for the joy of Christmas.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Good Samaritan and the Great High Priest: Homily for St. John Chrysostom and the 8th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 7:26-8:2; Luke 10:25-37

There are some people who think that worshiping God in beautiful liturgical services distracts us from serving our neighbors and accomplishing His purposes for us in the world.  There are those who say that focusing on prayer, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines wastes time and energy that could be better used in helping others.  Today we commemorate St. John Chrysostom, whose life and ministry demonstrate that we do not have to choose between liturgical life and practical service, for true worship and prayer enable us to make all dimensions of our life in the world an entrance into the heavenly kingdom through Jesus Christ, our eternal High Priest.

            St. John Chrysostom remains famous for his powerful preaching and interpretation of the Scriptures, his doctrinal and moral soundness, and his association with the Divine Liturgy.  Originally from the Church of Antioch, he became the Archbishop of Constantinople, where he imposed needed discipline on the clergy and boldly criticized the abuses of the rich and powerful.  He died in exile due to the harsh treatment he received for denouncing the corruption of a Byzantine empress.   His life of faithfulness was not easy, and his example of holiness shines all the more brightly as a result.

            In a society still influenced by pagan traditions that completely disregarded the needs of poor and suffering people, St. John stressed the importance of serving Christ in them.  Through his preaching and support of philanthropic ministries, he demonstrated that those commonly viewed as worthless and undeserving were those with whom our Lord identified Himself. He taught that, in the face of unmet need, it was impossible to be in communion with Christ without ministering to His hungry and sick body in daily life.   He knew that the Lord calls us all to be neighbors to one another, refusing to pass by on the other side when we can be of help in practical ways.  

            In this respect, our Savior’s ministry was clearly made present in St. John’s life.  Christ refused to allow the lawyer to narrow down the list of people whom he had to love as himself in order to find eternal life, and St. John proclaimed the same message.  Even as today’s parable criticizes the religious leaders who passed by on the other side, St. John denounced distorted forms of spirituality that separate true faithfulness from how people live in the world, especially in relation to meeting the urgent needs of others.

            The character of the good Samaritan is, of course, an image of Christ in many ways.  The same religious leaders who rejected and despised Him ignored the true needs of the people before God.  Purely out of love for us, Christ came to bind up our wounds as those corrupted by sin and enslaved to death.  Out of compassion, He nourishes us back to health with His own Body and Blood and anoints us with holy oil for forgiveness and strength.  He makes us members of the Church, the inn where we continue our recovery through His ongoing grace and mercy through the Holy Mysteries. He Himself forgives our sins every time that we humbly repent in Confession.  The only limits to our healing are those which we place on ourselves, for there is no boundary to His transforming love for those He created in His image and likeness.  

            The vocation of a bishop is to manifest the fullness of Christ’s ministry.  As a bishop, St. John was an icon of Christ mostly obviously in presiding as a high priest over the church’s celebration of the Divine Liturgy.  Our Lord is the true High Priest Who has ascended into heaven at the right hand of the Father, where He ministers eternally in the Heavenly Temple.  We participate mystically in that heavenly worship whenever we celebrate the Divine Liturgy.  When we do so, we join ourselves to His one offering through the Cross, by which He conquered death and brought us into the blessed eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  In Him, we dine as guests at the Heavenly Banquet when we receive the Eucharist.  We truly become participants in and communicants of life eternal in His Body, the Church.

            As St. John made clear through his preaching and witness, we must never think that worship, offering, and communion are somehow limited to what we do during the liturgical services of the Church.  If we limit them in that way, then we will not truly worship Christ, offer ourselves to Him, or commune with Him for the healing of our souls.  If we do so, we will become like the hypocritical religious leaders in today’s parable who failed to see that they encounter our Lord in every needy human being, in every neighbor who bears His image and likeness.  Perhaps they ignored the victim of the robbers because they were hurrying off to fulfill their religious duties in the Temple.  Perhaps we do even worse by ignoring the needs of our spouses, children, parents, and neighbors due to our own self-centeredness or obsession with our work, hobbies, or routines.  Perhaps we do even worse by passing by on the other side because we think that people with this or that problem deserve what they get.  Perhaps we do even worse by thinking that other people’s difficulties are theirs alone and have nothing to do with us.  Perhaps we do even worse by becoming so addicted to satisfying our cravings for pleasure that we find it impossible to serve anyone other than ourselves.

            By offering Himself on the Cross, rising in glory, and ascending into heaven, our Lord overcame the corruption of the entire creation.  He did so as the New Adam Who has made it possible for us all to fulfill our original vocation to become like God, to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.  As the God-Man, He offered every dimension of Himself for our salvation.  Through His eternal High Priesthood, He calls us to ever greater participation in eternal life.    While the eucharistic worship of the Divine Liturgy manifests our communion with Him most profoundly, it should be obvious that so great a salvation may not be limited to any sphere or segment of our lives.  No, if we are truly in communion with Christ, then we must bring every dimension of our lives into right relationship with Him.  We must offer not only bread and wine, but all our blessings back to Him so that we will faithfully play our part in making His salvation present in the world.  We must join our time, energy, resources, and relationships to His High Priestly offering so that they will all become signs of His healing of our corrupt humanity.

We must offer not only bread and wine, but ourselves to the Holy Trinity in union with Christ.  He is the true High Priest through whom we become participants in the eternal worship of the Heavenly Kingdom.  Such eternal glory is made present in the Divine Liturgy, but He also calls us to make present His blessing and healing of this broken world in all our thoughts, words, and deeds.  He calls us all to become like the good Samaritan, binding up the wounds of our neighbors and refusing to narrow down the list of those whom we must learn to love as ourselves.  We will do so, not by abandoning the services and disciplines of the Church, but by embracing them for our own healing.  By repenting of our sins in Confession and communing with Christ in the Eucharist, we will be strengthened to offer ourselves to Him in daily life and to resist any temptation to pass by on the other side of the needs any neighbor.  We will gain the spiritual clarity to see that we are always celebrating a liturgy of one kind or another; we are always offering ourselves to something or someone.  Like St. John Chrysostom, let us worship our great High Priest in how we live in the world each day of our lives.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Just Reach Out in Humble Faith: Homily for the 7th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Luke 8:41-56
Even in a small parish like ours, it is not hard to see that people are different from one another in many ways.  We have different interests, personal backgrounds, and opinions on all kinds of things.  We do not all look or dress alike. But what we have in common as Orthodox Christians is far more profound than any of that.  Our salvation is not in any conventional human characteristic or endeavor, but in the healing mercy of Jesus Christ.   
            In today’s gospel passage, two very different people approached Him in humble faith and received new life as a result. Jairus was a ruler of the synagogue, an upstanding man in the Jewish community.  We do not know the name of the other person, but she had little in common with Jairus.  She was a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, and had spent all her money on treatments that did not help her. She was not only poor, but also considered unclean because of the flow of blood.  As a result, she would have been alone, for anyone who had physical contact with her would also become unclean.  She could not even enter the Temple or have a normal social life.  For twelve years, she had lived as someone cut off from God and from everyone else. 
            Jairus sought out the Lord and asked Him to heal his daughter, who was dying.  But the woman could not even do that.  She knew how others viewed her and perhaps she even viewed herself as a miserable, isolated, unclean woman not worthy of the attention of the Messiah.  She did not ask Him to lay hands on her for healing, for that would make Him unclean also.  She may have thought that He would have refused to heal her for that very reason.  She was understandably embarrassed to have a public discussion with Christ about her medical condition.  But she had enough faith and hope in Him to reach out and touch the hem of His clothing in the middle of a large crowd.  Perhaps she could get what she wanted without drawing attention to herself.  
            And when she did reach out to Him in that way, she was healed.  She had not made Christ unclean or been refused or humiliated by Him; instead, He had made her well. Of course, she was terrified when the Savior asked, “Who touched me?”  She kneeled before Him in humility, shaking with fear, and confessed to Him-- and to everyone else--that she was the one.   Who knows just what was going through her mind in that moment when the Lord said, “Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well.  Go in peace.”   
            Did you notice that, before her healing, she had not said anything to Christ, not even identifying herself to Him?  She never asked Him for anything, probably because she was too embarrassed and afraid to do those things. But she still did what little she could, at least reaching out to Him in faith.  The Son of God knew who had touched Him, of course, but asked who it was in order to give her an opportunity to confess her faith, to make clear to herself and everyone else  that His healing mercy extended even to her.  In doing so, He showed that His abundant mercy extends even to those so broken and discouraged that they can just barely bring themselves to reach out to Him. 
            If we are honest, we will recognize ourselves in her humble example.  Who is not embarrassed and discouraged due to some long-term struggle, some weakness or burden that we have virtually lost hope of overcoming?  We may have experienced an embarrassment or humiliation so profound that we can barely acknowledge it to ourselves, much less to God or to other people.  For whatever reason, we may have come to believe that we are unclean and unworthy of His mercy or of healthy relationships with others.  It may seem impossible to find the words to express our sufferings either in conversations with those closest to us or in prayer.   Like that poor woman, we may feel alone, unworthy, and ashamed.
            When that is our situation, we must follow her example of touching the hem of His garment, of reaching out to Christ for help as best we can.  Even as He did not embarrass or reject her, He will not turn us away.  He will respond graciously, as He always does to humble, sincere people who come to Him with faith, love, and repentance.   Instead of us somehow making Him unclean, He will work through our faith to bring healing, mercy, and strength.
            Jairus approached the Savior differently, openly asking Him to heal his dying daughter.  But his faith was then put to a very difficult test.  The girl died, but the Lord said that she was only sleeping.  Everyone ridiculed Christ for that statement, but Jairus somehow believed the astonishing word of the Lord: “Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well.” 
            How hard it must have been for Jairus and his wife to hear this news and to believe in the Lord’s promise.  Their daughter had just died and the mourning had already begun.  It was time to get ready for the funeral, and here was Christ denying the obvious. Their faith was put to the test, but they somehow still believed.  And the Lord did as He said:  He brought the girl back to life.
            This healing was not as simple as Jairus had hoped.  He was probably the kind of person used to getting what he wanted.  If anyone could expect the help of the Messiah, it was an upstanding leader of the synagogue.  But just as Abraham’s faith was tested by the command to sacrifice Isaac, his faith was tested when his daughter actually died.  It is one thing to heal the sick, but quite another to believe that someone can raise the dead. But probably with great fear and doubt, Jairus still managed to believe.  He trusted Christ as best he could.  And through that little bit of faith, the Lord showed His power over the grave and His unfathomable mercy for His suffering sons and daughters.
            The differences between Jairus and the bleeding woman in social standing and reputation were ultimately irrelevant for how they stood before the Lord.  The key point is that they did not stand; instead, they kneeled before Him in humble faith.  Human characteristics and differences are ultimately irrelevant when it comes to our ability to follow the example of these two people.  Though we will all do it differently in some ways, we can all open the wounds and sorrows of our lives to Him for healing as best we can in humble faith.  We may still doubt, but there is no doubt that He will hear us and respond as is best for our salvation, for the healing of our souls.   We must not judge ourselves or others as though it were up to us to determine who is worthy of Christ’s blessing.  Let this sink in:  None of us is worthy or deserves anything from Him.  Our hope is not in ourselves or what anyone owes us, but in the gracious mercy which He gives to all who reach out to Him from the depths of their souls with even a small bit of humble faith.

If you ever despair of the possibility of being healed and transformed by our merciful Savior, remember the woman who merely touched the hem of His garment and the man who somehow trusted that Christ could bring his daughter back to life.  If you ever think that sin and death will have the last word about you, turn to the One Who went to the Cross, the tomb, and Hades in order to bring us into the eternal joy of His resurrection.  If we come to Him in humble faith, presenting all our wounds for His healing as best we can, He will not send us away.  Instead, He will heal our souls by His gracious mercy and make us already participants in life eternal.  

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Learning to See and Serve Christ in Poor Lazarus: Homily for the 5th Sunday of Luke

Luke 16:19-31
It is tempting to think that those who seem to have it all in this world are God’s favorites whose success is a reward for holiness and virtue.  It is appealing to think that God’s kingdom is simply an eternal manifestation of the arrangements of this world, of life as we know it, where the powerful usually lord it over the weak and the rich almost always seem to get their way.
            The parable of Lazarus and the rich man powerfully warns again that temptation, for it shows that those who love, worship, and serve only themselves ultimately become blind to Christ as they encounter Him in their poor and needy neighbors.  It shows that God’s reign is a great reversal where the humble will be exalted, blessed, and comforted, while the high and mighty will be put down.  The issue, of course, is not simply how much money one has, but whether we have opened our souls in humility to personal union with the Lord such that His mercy, love, and holiness have become characteristic of us.  The issue is whether we have been healed of the ravages of sin, whether our spiritual vision has been filled with light that overcomes the darkness within us.  Ultimately, the question is whether we have become living icons of Jesus Christ.
            The rich man ignored the clear teachings of Moses and the prophets on his obligation to care for his poor neighbors.  By literally stepping over the wretched beggar Lazarus on his front porch time and time again, he blinded himself to the humanity of one created in the image and likeness of God and with whom Christ identified Himself as “the least of these my brethren.”  He ignored God every time that he ignored his neighbor.  This blindness became so characteristic of the rich man that, once he departed this life, he was unable to behold the brilliant glory of God and could perceive only a tormenting flame.  St. Isaac the Syrian referred to the sufferings of those in Hades as “the scourge of love.”  In other words, God’s love remains eternally, but some become so distorted by self-centeredness, disregard for their neighbors, and hatred of God that they are incapable of experiencing being in the presence of the Lord as anything other than the torment of “bitter regret.”  They suffer the consequences of their own self-imposed rejection of a relationship with Him.  
            We do not yet have the eyes to see it, but everything that we say, do, and think in this life shapes who we are before God, both now and for eternity. That is especially true in matters relating to other people, particularly those who are needy, inconvenient, and easy to overlook.  Whether we liked it or not, our Lord has identified Himself with them.  If we say that we love and serve Him while disregarding the poor, sick, and lonely, we are simply deceiving ourselves.       
            Our Lord brought salvation to the world by lowering Himself even to the point of death on the Cross, burial in a tomb, and descent into Hades.  He went to the place of the dead in order to look for fallen Adam and Eve and to set them, and all the departed, free from the slavery to sin and death that had so distorted their ancient glory as those created to become like God in holiness.  Having lowered Himself out of love, Christ rose in glory and brought them into the eternal presence of God. 

            We will take our place in this narrative of salvation by manifesting in our own lives the descent of the Savior into a world corrupted by sin and death out of love for others. We will find the healing of our souls as we learn to see, serve, and love Christ in the people we encounter every day.  The point is not to attempt to use God in order to get what we want in this life or the next, but instead to find the fullness of life in Him by joining ourselves to the selfless offering that Lord has made on the Cross for the salvation of the world.  We will have good hope of rising with Him in glory when we serve Him in the Lazaruses we encounter daily. Already today, right now, we may participate in the great reversal of God’s Kingdom by blessing those who are last in the world as we know it.  In serving them, we serve Jesus Christ.  When we call out for His mercy as we struggle to live faithfully in this way, we will behold a measure of the divine glory and find ourselves already participating in the eternal Reign of God. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Good Witness of Becoming Our True Selves: Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Luke 8:26-39
If you are like me, you often do not recognize yourself in your own words, thoughts, and deeds.  Sometimes we see how we fall short in an instant, while other times it becomes clear to us in retrospect, perhaps even years later.  Regardless, it is so easy for us all to be so consumed by anger, pride, lust, envy, and other disordered desires that we lose control of ourselves and act more like a bundle of inflamed passions than like a person created in God’s image and likeness.  And then when we calm down and come to our senses, we are understandably ashamed and embarrassed.  It is a great blow to our egos to recognize how easily our sense of self disintegrates before the passions that so often run wild within us.
            When we recognize this difficult truth about ourselves, we can understand at least a bit why the man in today’s gospel lesson wanted to leave his hometown and follow Jesus Christ.  He had been so filled with demons that he said his name was Legion.  He had not lived a recognizably human existence, for he was naked, in a cemetery, and without family or friends.  Everyone was terrified of him, and even shackles and chains could not restrain him.  He had become a monster and people fled from him in fear.  But after the Lord delivered him from the forces of evil, this fellow was clothed and in his right mind.  The transformation was so shocking that his neighbors were terrified to the point of asking Christ to leave town. 
            Imagine how this poor man felt at that point.  Even as he must have been overjoyed at his deliverance, he knew that everyone he encountered was well aware of his miserable past.  They had seen him as a crazy, dangerous, and evil person and had wanted nothing to do with him.  Instead of simply thanking Christ for delivering him, these people asked the Lord to leave their region.  They were deeply disturbed by what had happened.  Of course, this man was at the center of the controversy and he wanted to put it all behind him.  So he wanted to follow the One Who had given him back his life and his true identity.
            That is not what the Lord had in store for him, however, for He told him to stay in his town and tell everyone about what God had done for him. Perhaps that was because there could have been no greater witness to the good news of Christ’s salvation than the living testimony of someone who had so obviously been set free from the forces of evil, who had so obviously been given back his life as a human being.   The people of that region did not understand Who Christ was or what it meant to encounter Him in their lives.  They had been simply afraid of Him.  But perhaps through the persistent witness of someone who had been so wretched and depraved and then became a healthy and whole person again, their eyes would be opened.  Perhaps then they would come to see that they too needed the blessing of the One Who restored “Legion” to his true self. 
            Surely, one of the reasons that many people do not take Christianity seriously today is that they do not encounter people who lives are visibly different because of their commitment to Jesus Christ.  Many in our culture equate being a Christian with simply being a good citizen or a nice person.  Many have realized that it is quite possible to be a good citizen and a nice person without being a Christian. Some who claim to be Christians do not attend a church of any kind.  Some who do attend services do not live in ways different from anyone else in our culture.  If we water down our Orthodox Christian faith to the point that it concerns only what we do for a couple of hours on Sunday, we will fit right in with the dominant trends of our culture that lead people not to take Christ seriously.  If our participation in the Body of Christ does not strengthen, heal, and transform us for lives of holiness, then we will not bear witness to what happens when human beings become their true selves through the blessing of our Savior.
            St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” In other words, those who are filled with the Holy Spirit and healed of their passions will live in such a way that their example will draw others to the Lord.  They will exist as human persons healed, fulfilled, and transformed.  They will move from being “Legion” to being themselves in God’s image and likeness.  They will become living icons of our Lord’s salvation.  Whether we like it or not, we all bear witness to Jesus Christ every day in all that we say and do, whether for good or bad.  Family, friends, coworkers, and classmates probably know that we are Orthodox Christians, and they likely take pretty seriously the example that we give them.  If we identify ourselves with Christ and do or say this or that, then that is what we encourage them to believe about our Lord.  If we do not become living icons of holiness, then we are sending the wrong message to everyone we encounter.  If we do not bear powerful testimony by how we live each day of the healing power of the Savior, then we are being unfaithful witnesses to Him.
            Contrary to popular opinion, we do not fulfill a religious obligation simply by attending services on Sunday morning, though we obviously should do so.  For Orthodox Christians to think about fulfilling or meeting perfectly what God desires for us by a particular action is a contradiction in terms, for our Lord teaches that we are to “be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) To become a partaker of the divine nature by grace is an infinite journey, a process of healing and transformation for which there is no upward limit, for God is infinitely holy. (2 Pet. 1:4)  Instead of imagining that we are mastering a skill or checking off a box, we must remember that our calling is truly to become like God in holiness.  No matter where we are on the journey, we have an infinite distance yet to go.  And if we ever think that we have arrived or completed the course, we should think again.
            Remembering that the Savior told the man to stay in his village and proclaim the good news, we must embrace the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life with integrity if we are to offer faithful testimony to our Lord.  We must fast and deny ourselves if we are to have any hope of living in a way that shows that human beings are called to something higher than slavery to self-centered desires.  We must forgive those who offend us and reconcile with those from whom we have become estranged if we are to model an alternative to the anger, fear, and hatred so powerful in the world today.  We must open our hearts to God in prayer on a daily basis if we are to find the strength to become our true selves in Christ as opposed to a bundle of inflamed passions.  We must regularly receive the Holy Mystery of Confession in order to find healing from our sins as we prepare to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord which enable us to participate even now in the banquet of heaven, the complete fulfillment of all things in Christ. And then we must make a liturgy of every moment of our lives, offering ourselves and all our blessings back to the Lord for Him to use as is best for the salvation of the world. 
            Whenever we are embarrassed to do so out of shame for our failings, weaknesses, and ongoing struggles, we must remember that formerly demon-possessed man.  He obeyed Christ by staying in a place where he did not want to be, among people who probably were not comfortable around him.  Still, he obeyed and proclaimed the good news by his words and deeds.  If we are truly in Christ and want to bear faithful witness to Him, then we must swallow our hurt pride and do the same.