Sunday, July 31, 2016
Sunday, July 24, 2016
Sunday, July 17, 2016
Purity of Heart and of Life: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in the Orthodox Church
Titus 3:8-15; Matthew 5:14-19
Have you ever found yourself devoting too much time and energy to matters over which you have no real control? It is easy to give in to that temptation today because there are so many deeply troubling things going on in the world, in our nation, and in our families. In our age of the internet, social media, and 24-hour television news, it is not hard to become obsessed with very large questions about terrorism, politics, and other matters. The reality, of course, is that there is not much that we can do as particular people to change the course of world events. Though we have much more influence on family and friends, we still usually cannot make people do what we want. Often we struggle even to make ourselves do this or that. It is a pity, then, for us to waste our lives in pretending that our will must be done.
Jesus Christ did not even attempt to rule the world, or any of its inhabitants, by conventional means. He did not accept the dominant narratives of His day about how to solve big problems. He was not a member of the competing factions of the Herodians, the Zealots, the Pharisees, or the Sadducees. Instead, He took an entirely different path, calling His disciples to be the light of the world, which meant that their lives were to shine with holiness such that others would give thanks to the Father for them. They would share in His holiness, not by relaxing or disregarding the requirements of the Old Testament law, but by fulfilling them. For example, they would not only refrain from committing murder, but from anger and insult. They would not only refuse to commit adultery, but would purify themselves from lust. They would not limit their vengeance to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but would turn the other cheek when insulted and love, forgive, and bless their enemies. They would seek to be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect.
Whether in first-century Palestine or today, to live that way is to be the light of the world. It is to shed light amidst the darkness such that others will give thanks for our witness and be drawn to the Lord. It is also to be out of step with what is easy and conventional. It is to take a difficult and demanding path that is not nearly as popular as the ways of those who tell people what they want to hear. Many of the Jews had wanted a successful political and military leader who would wage a holy war against the Romans, but our Savior called people to a Kingdom not of this world. He praised the faith of a Roman centurion, said good things about the hated Samaritans, and offended representatives of all the different factions of His own people. There was nothing conventional or expected about His ministry and teaching.
Today many in our cultural want a vague spirituality that requires virtually nothing of them and simply provides a coping mechanism for helping them feel better about themselves. Some want a faith that serves whatever political agenda they happen to like. Whatever kinds of religions those would be, they have nothing in common with the way of a Lord Who called people to take up their crosses and follow Him, not to pamper themselves by giving in to every self-centered desire for pleasure or power. Such forms of spirituality are not the light of the world. No, they are simply “the world” which is already darkened by those who want to make God in their own image and likeness. They are doing the same thing as did the Pharisees and the other groups who refused to accept Christ’s message.
The Lord said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them…Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Contrary to popular opinion, Christ did not tell His followers simply to have certain feelings or hold particular opinions, and then live however they wanted. He did not teach some kind of generic spiritual path focused merely on reducing stress or becoming a productive member of society. No, He called for a purity of heart that would be visibly displayed in how people lived their lives every day, especially in regard to the most common and most difficult challenges that human beings face. That kind of purity means loving, forgiving, and blessing even those who have wronged us and our loved ones most deeply. It means keeping our hearts free from addiction to pleasure and self-centered desire, and disciplining ourselves in living accordingly. It means learning to see Him even in those whom the world tells us are not our people, those unworthy of our care or concern. It means modeling a way of life that shines with holy glory amidst all the darkness and brokenness that surround us.
St. Paul reminded St. Titus to encourage his people to focus their time and energy on doing good deeds and helping people in urgent need. He warned against getting caught up in “stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile.” The particulars of our distractions are different, but the point is still the same. To be faithful to Jesus Christ requires devoting ourselves to living as He taught and modeled. To be faithful to Him also requires believing the faith handed down in His Body, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit since Pentecost. Faith and faithfulness are two sides of the same coin. If we allow ourselves to be distracted by anything from living and believing as our Lord taught, we will lose the ability to become the light of the world. Whatever kind of religion we pursue, it will be a form of the darkness and corruption that the world already knows all too well.
We remember today the 630 Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, who affirmed that Jesus Christ is one Person with two natures, being fully divine and fully human. They recognized that only the God-Man is able to make human beings participants in the divine life by grace. We cannot use the excuse that the Lord’s teachings are impossible for human beings, for our struggles and weaknesses are no stranger to Him. His gospel is not designed for disembodied spirits, but for those who live in the same world in which He was tempted, faced fierce opposition, and was killed by His enemies. Remember that He prayed for them from the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And then through His glorious resurrection, He brought light and life even to the darkest tomb.
Our only hope to become the light of the world is for His divine glory to illumine us. For that to happen, we must refuse to be distracted from serving Him faithfully in the matters that really are up to us in our daily lives. Whether His light is in us is revealed especially in how we treat our enemies, those in need around us (especially those we are inclined to ignore, neglect, or fear), and how we respond to the self-centered desires for pleasure that threaten to darken our hearts in so many ways. When we find ourselves worrying obsessively over matters that are well beyond us, we should persistently turn the eyes of our souls back to Him in prayer, calling for His mercy on all concerned. And then we should get back to doing the good deeds that so obviously need to be done on behalf of our families, our neighbors, and our parish. Then we should also get back to guarding our hearts from corrupting influences, refusing even to pay attention to tempting thoughts.
The more that we direct our time and energy to serving Christ in our immediate circumstances, the less inclination we will have to allow darkness into our hearts. The more faithful we are in living this way, the more His light will shine through us to the world. And the more those who are sick and tired of the world’s darkness will be drawn to the light as they “see your good works and give glory to your Father Who is in heaven.” That is what it means to be the light of the world and a sign of its salvation.
Saturday, July 9, 2016
The Divine Strength of Those Who Are Full of Light: Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Matthew and Commemoration of St. Joseph of Damascus in the Orthodox Church
2 Timothy 2:1-10; Matthew 6:22-33
There are some who think that the way of Christ is a crutch for the weak, a source of support for wimps, cowards, and losers to make themselves feel better about their wretched condition. Of course, that attitude reflects only the weakness of those who are spiritually blind, who are enslaved to their own lust for power and refusal to show mercy to their neighbors in their suffering. Instead of embracing the darkness by worshiping the false gods of domination and vengeance, faithful Christians open themselves to the divine strength that can make even our most bitter challenges points of entry into the blessedness of the Kingdom.
It should go without saying that we all know pain, sorrow, and the lack of peace all too well. Terrorist attacks in our own country and abroad, wars seemingly without end, murder and other forms of violence and injustice, racial and political strife, the sufferings of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and elsewhere who are persecuted for their faith and forced to leave their homelands, our own loss of loved ones, and other difficult personal problems tempt us today to allow darkness to take over souls. It is easy and often appealing to fill our hearts with hatred, fear, and despair by accepting the lie that we will find salvation by damning others, returning evil for evil, and abandoning hope. But to do so would be to turn away from the victory over death and sin that Christ accomplished through His cross and empty tomb. It is also to repudiate the transforming power of the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost, Whose fruits are “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” As St. Paul wrote, “Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:22-24)
In order to crucify our corruption and open the eyes of our souls to the brilliant light of Christ in the midst of all the temptations that beset us, we must have the dogged determination of soldiers, athletes, and farmers. St. Paul used those examples with St. Timothy because they are all very demanding undertakings that require daily discipline, sacrifice, and perseverance. No one can succeed in those vocations by taking it easy, giving in to self-centered desires, or giving up out of fear. He told Timothy to “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” That is not because it is somehow pleasing to God for us to suffer, but because living a faithful Christian life requires us to struggle for the healing of our souls and in the service of our neighbors, especially as we resist the temptations that threaten to consume us. There will be some pain involved, for we must take up our crosses in obedience to the way of our Lord. Our faith requires pressing on in faithfulness each day, regardless of the cost.
Today we commemorate St. Joseph of Damascus, a priest who was martyred during anti-Christian riots in 1860. In the midst of violent attacks by mobs that killed 2,500 people, he jumped from rooftop to rooftop in order to hear confessions and serve Communion to elderly and sick people who could not leave their homes. He recounted to them the lives of the martyrs in preparation for what was to come. After the cathedral where Christians had gathered was burned with those trapped inside perishing, St. Joseph roamed the streets looking for others to whom he could minister. He consumed what remained of the Lord’s Body and Blood before a mob hacked him to death with axes, after which his body was dragged through the streets and thrown in the city dump.
No doubt, the vicious persecutors felt powerful on that day, but they were actually the weakest of all, enslaved to their passions and totally blind to the basic humanity of their neighbors, not to mention to the merciful way of the Lord. Christ said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” The example of St. .Joseph of Damascus shines in brilliant contrast to the darkened souls who rushed to murder him and so many others. He did not try to run away from certain death or think only of himself or his family. He “share[d] in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” as he ministered as best he could to His people. He, like all the martyrs, shines with light as an icon of the great strength that the Lord provides to sustain us through even the greatest challenges of life, even through death itself.
Most Christians do not become martyrs in the sense of literally being killed for their faith. Christ calls us all, however, to die to our tendency to embrace the darkness of sin and passion instead of His holy light. We may all do that in response to the seemingly small challenges and temptations that we face daily. For whether we acknowledge it or not, we face every day of our lives a more subtle version of the test faced by the martyrs. Namely, will we refuse to abandon our Lord? As the Savior said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Christ tells us here that worshipping money, wealth, and possessions is a form of idolatry that turns us away from serving Him. No, that is not a temptation only felt by extremely wealthy people, for He then says “do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink; nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not the soul more than food, and the body more than clothing?” We worship a false god whenever our souls are so darkened that we no longer trust in the Lord’s mercy to sustain us through life, but instead become obsessed with establishing and protecting ourselves on our own terms and by our own methods. That is not a path to peace, but only to worry and fear. As the Lord taught, “And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his stature?” He is the One Who has conquered death, but we still worry as though everything were up to us, as though we could solve all our problems and those of our families and the world. That is simply an illusion that appeals to us because the eyes of our souls are not yet fully illumined with the light of Christ. And giving in to it leads only to idolatry, anxiety, and disappointment.
Christ said, “[D]o not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” None of us can predict or control fully what will happen in the world, our families, or our own lives. But we do know that if we purify our hearts and souls with the dogged determination of soldiers, athletes, and farmers, we will gain the spiritual clarity and strength that are necessary to serve Christ through whatever challenges we and our loved ones will face. We will avoid the appealing temptation to surrender in weakness to our passions, anxieties, and fears when we mindfully reject the thoughts and desires that encourage us to place our commitment to anyone or anything before our commitment to the Lord. When we look to St. Joseph of Damascus and all the martyrs, we will remember that the path we follow is not one of responding in kind to those who threaten us or being overwhelmed by fear, but instead one of courageously seeing first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness. That is how, even in the midst of all the darkness that surrounds us, we may become radiant with the divine glory and filled with holy light as a sign of the salvation of the world.