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.