Sunday, December 24, 2017

Born to Raise the Image that Had Fallen: Homily for the Sunday Before Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40; Matthew 1:1-25
In spite of what we may like to think, the story of our lives did not begin on the day of our birth, but extends back across the generations to those from whom we have inherited so many traits that make us who we are.  Knowing about the heritage of our families can give us a sense of rootedness, a healthy acceptance that we are not our own creators.  Ultimately, of course, we trace our origins back to the Lord Who created us in His image and likeness by breathing life into our first parents. 
            As we all know from personal experience, not everything passed down in families is healthy or holy.  That is because we all participate personally in the consequences of humanity’s refusal to become more like God in holiness.  Due to their disobedience, Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise into the world of corruption that we know all too well.  We have followed them in serving our own self-centeredness instead of God.  We have followed them into slavery to the distorted desires that we call the passions.  Instead of freely becoming more like God in holiness, we suffer the consequences of being held captive to sin and death. 
            On this Eve of Christmas, we must remember that Jesus Christ “is born now to raise the image that had fallen aforetime.”  In other words, He is the New Adam Who fulfills our original calling to become like God in holiness.  Indeed, He is truly God and truly human, and thus able to restore us to the sublime dignity for which He breathed life into us in the first place.  In Him, we inherit the blessedness of Paradise, for He comes to heal every dimension of our corruption and to unite us to Himself in holiness.
            We may wonder, however, if there really is healing for us who suffer the effects of our own sins and of the brokenness of others.  We may despair of ever experiencing the fulfillment of our calling to become like God because pride, anger, lust, and other passions seem so deeply rooted in our souls.  We may lose hope of ever finding peace amidst the battles that rage in our minds, hearts, and relationships.
            If our struggles were simply about us as isolated individuals left to our own devices, we would have good reason to despair.  Today, however, we remember that God worked across the generations from Abraham to the Virgin Mary and Joseph, her betrothed, to prepare for the birth of the New Adam.  Since King David served as a model for the Messiah, he figures prominently in the Lord’s family tree.  Remember, however, that he was guilty of adultery and murder, which the genealogy indicates by listing Bathsheeba as “the wife of Uriah.”  Along with this reference, the names of Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth are surprising because they are all women who bring to mind scandalous episodes involving matters such as prostitution or intermarriage with Gentiles. 
            Our Lord’s family heritage was certainly not comprised of perfect people.  They experienced all the spiritual and moral brokenness common to humanity in our world of corruption.  Nonetheless, they looked forward in faith to the coming of the Messiah.  Despite their sufferings and imperfections, God worked through them to prepare for the Virgin Mary to become the Theotokos when she accepted the outrageous calling to become the Mother of God, the living temple of the Savior.  In a manner beyond understanding and not tainted by passion of any kind, she conceived and gave birth to the Son of God as a virgin.  Joseph, her elderly protector, turned away from his earlier doubts and faithfully played his unique role in caring for both mother and Child.
In the God-Man born at Christmas, we have received the fullness of the promise for which the Old Testament saints longed in faith.    By becoming one of us, He has raised the fallen image and made us “partakers of the divine nature” by grace. The disciplines of the Nativity Fast have helped us to know why we need a Savior Who comes to us in this way.  By devoting ourselves for forty days to intensified prayer, fasting, and generosity to the needy, and by preparing conscientiously for Confession, we have come to see our own spiritual brokenness a bit more clearly.  These practices have shown us that we need more than a set of rules or a good example to follow.  Like all those enslaved by the fear of death and our own distorted desires, we need to be born again in the New Adam.  We need to be healed from the spiritual maladies that have taken root in our souls so that we will participate personally in the fulfillment that Christ works when He becomes a human being for our salvation. 
None of  us, however, is yet fully healed.  We all have a long way to go—an infinitely long journey—in order to become like God in holiness.   Instead of becoming discouraged at how far we are from fulfilling this high calling, we should remember that we fit right into the Lord’s family tree.  Those who prepared for His coming often fell short, even to the point of committing murder, adultery, and idolatry.  If He can work through such people to prepare His way, then it should not be surprising that the Savior came to call, not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
Who needs to be reborn except those who are spiritually dead?  Who needs to be set free from captivity except those who are enslaved to sin?  Who needs a New Adam if not all the children of the first Adam, all human persons who have fallen short of the glory of God and earned the wages of sin, which is death?  Christmas is not a feast focused on rewarding the righteous, for who could possibly have merited or deserved the unbelievable miracle of the Son of God becoming a human being?  He fulfills the ancient vocation of all people to become like God in holiness not because any of us have somehow earned that astounding blessing, but instead on the basis of His love for sinners.
Even before the Incarnation, King David found forgiveness for committing murder and adultery.  If already before the promise of the coming of the Messiah was fulfilled, God was so gracious to a repentant sinner, how much more must we trust that the mercy of the Savior born at Christmas will extend also to us? Many people struggle with a prideful form of shame that paralyzes them when they catch a true glimpse of their own spiritual state.  When they do not live up to their own illusions of perfection, they cannot accept that—like everyone else—they  have sinned and need the Lord’s healing mercy.  So instead of humbly repenting and trusting in His grace as they stumble forward in obedience, they insist on relying on their own power and ability.  That results in worshiping a god of their own imagination, not the Lord Whose family tree included scandalous sinners of all kinds. 
The Son of God was born “to raise the fallen image,” which means to restore our beauty as living icons radiant with His holiness.  No matter the present shape of our souls, the New Adam makes it possible for us to be fulfilled in His likeness, to become truly human as He always intended us to be.  Nothing but our own prideful will has the power to keep us from entering into the divine joy of Christmas for our salvation.  In Christ, we have all inherited by faith the fullness of the promise passed down for so many generations through the children of Abraham.  As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Savior, let us all receive Him into our hearts with humility, knowing that He came to save us who were lost.  If you think that you do not deserve that great blessing, then you are absolutely right.  No one does. That is why the Savior was born.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Choosing to Enter the Banquet: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Colossians 3:4-11; Luke 14:16-24
Think for a moment about the choices that we make.   Each day of our lives, we decide to do this instead of that.  Sometimes we are pleased with our choices, but other times we look back on our decisions and wonder what we could possibly have been thinking at the time.  All too often, we choose poorly and end up the worse for it.
            Today’s gospel lesson describes people who made the foolish choice of excusing themselves from a great banquet, a glorious celebration that anyone would want to attend.  Their excuses for doing so are mundane:  buying land and animals and being married.  In light of their refusal to attend, the master of the house insisted that his servants bring the blind, lame, and maimed from the streets to the party. Then he told them to go out “to the highways and hedges” and bring those passing by into his house so that it would be filled.  
            We read this parable on the Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ as we remember the choices that the righteous people of the Old Testament made across the centuries in preparing for the coming of the Savior.  This line of Hebrew patriarchs and prophets who prefigured or foretold the coming of Christ leads to the Theotokos, who freely chose to welcome the Messiah into her life in a unique way as His virgin mother.  But even as we remember their faithful decisions, we must also recall false prophets, wicked kings, and numerous other characters in the Old Testament who chose poorly.  Like the people who excused themselves from the great banquet in the parable, they made idols out of the things of this world and worshiped their power, possessions, and pleasure instead of the one true God. 
            Those who rejected the Savior did exactly the same thing, for they could not accept a Messiah Who challenged the self-righteous religious pride that fueled their power over others.  They could not serve a Lord Whose kingdom was not an earthly one of conventional political or military conquest.  They had no interest in a Savior Who told them to take up their crosses and follow Him.   Since they worshiped themselves and the things of this world, they literally hated the One for Whom the righteous of the Old Testament had prepared across the centuries.   
      In the midst of their rejection of the Messiah, it became clear how God would bless the entire world in fulfillment of the ancient promise to Abraham.  (Gen. 22:18)  Though often ignored, Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah envisioned all the nations being drawn to God’s Temple. (Isa. 2:2)  To use the imagery of the parable, we Gentile Christians are the blind, lame, and maimed found in the streets, the strangers brought in from the highways and hedges so that the master’s house will be full.  As St. Paul teaches, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.”  Through faith in our Savior, we are all the children of Abraham, rightful heirs to the fulfillment of the promise.
            Today’s parable reminds us, however, that it is not enough merely to be invited to accept the great blessings that are ours in Christ.  “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  Like those who shut themselves out of the great celebration because of their obsession with the earthly cares of everyday life, we face the choice of how we will respond to the invitation that is ours through Christ to enter into the great joy of His heavenly banquet.  In order to answer the call, we must avoid the poor choice of convincing ourselves that whatever daily responsibilities we have are somehow more important than participating personally in the eternal life that our Savior was born to bring to the world.  Instead, we must view the challenges of our lives as opportunities to enter more fully into the holy joy of our Lord.
            In order to “appear with Him in glory,” we must follow the advice of St. Paul to the Colossians “to put to death what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”   He warns us clearly against what happens when we look for our fulfillment as human persons simply in the things of this world.  As those created in God’s image and likeness, we will remain slaves to our self-centered desires as long as we worship what can never satisfy us.   That is a path that leads to such spiritual blindness that, like the characters in the parable, we will actually think that the common concerns of life are good excuses for not uniting ourselves to Christ in holiness.   That is the way of “the old nature” corrupted by slavery to death, which is powerless before deeply ingrained tendencies to “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.”
            Let us be perfectly honest.  We all know from personal experience what happens when we embrace evil thoughts, act according to our disordered desires for pleasure and power, and speak out of anger and self-righteous judgment.  We all know what results from making our possessions and relationships false gods.   We all know what happens when we make our life an offering only to ourselves. To choose to indulge our passions is nothing but a path to greater slavery to them.  It is to enter into a captivity that ultimately leads only to despair and the grave.  It is to separate ourselves from God, from one another, and even from our own true selves.
            We pray often in services that we will live the rest of our lives in peace and repentance.  That is not a petition for others to stop bothering us so that all our problems to go away, for the problems are deeply rooted in our own souls.   As St. Paul knew, we will find peace only when we deliberately embrace “the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.”  In other words, we must mindfully pursue the healing of our souls by offering our daily cares and our deepest desires to the Lord.  Instead of allowing them to become excuses for disregarding Him, they must become opportunities to enter more fully into the joy of His Kingdom.  That is how repentance leads to peace.
            The forefathers and foremothers of the Lord prepared the way for His salvation through lives that were by no means easy.  The Old Testament makes clear that they struggled with every problem known to humanity in our corrupt world. Despite their challenges and failings, those who accepted the invitation to prepare for the coming of the Messiah remained faithful to the Lord through repentance.  If those who looked forward to His coming in hope did so, how much more of an obligation do we have as those who have received the fullness of the promise?  Indeed, we enter mystically into the Heavenly Banquet at every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, nourished by His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  Christ offered Himself fully for our salvation and, if we are truly in communion with Him, then we must offer ourselves to Him each day of our lives.  That is the only path to peace for those created in His image and likeness.
            In the coming days, let us all mindfully prepare to welcome the Savior at Christmas by refusing to think that we have more important things to do.  Following the example of the Old Testament saints in their preparation for Him, let us respond enthusiastically to the Lord’s invitation to the great feast of His Incarnation.  He is born to bring every dimension of our life and world in the holy joy of His Kingdom. Absolutely nothing is worth excluding ourselves from that tremendous celebration.  There is still time to get ready, even for us who are blind, lame, and maimed in so many ways.  Let us make good use of it for our salvation.       

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Putting on "The Whole Armor of God" in Order to be Set Free: Homily for the 27th Sunday After Pentecost and the 10th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 6:10-17; Luke 13:10-17
There are times when we do as little possible in order to meet a requirement that is not very important to us.  There are other times when we do our very best because it really matters.  Some requirements can be checked off easily with little effort and do not change us in any significant way.  Those that require dedication from the depths of our souls, however, will transform us profoundly. 
St. Paul, who suffered and struggled so much in his apostolic ministry, knew that faithfulness to Jesus Christ requires complete and life-changing commitment.  That is why he instructed the Ephesians to “Put on the whole armor of God” so that they would be able to resist their many temptations.  The challenge was not to fight against human beings, but against the spiritual forces of evil that so easily corrupt even the best intentions of people in the world as we know it.  If we want to deflect “the flaming darts of the evil one,” we need the shield of faith, as well as “the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” That is how we ground ourselves in God’s truth, righteousness, and peace so that we will be able to resist the corrupting power of evil in our souls.
To view the Christian life as a battle for which we need the full armor of God is very different from thinking that religion is about emotion, politics, or simply being a decent person.    The point is not to make ourselves feel a certain way, to gain worldly power, or even to become moral.  Instead, our faith calls us to participate personally in the healing of the human person that Jesus Christ was born to bring to the world.  As we await the coming fulfillment of God’s Kingdom, answering that call requires a difficult and constant struggle. Even though Christ has conquered death in His glorious resurrection on the third day, none of us has yet fully embraced His victory over the corrosive effects of sin.  Regardless of whether our temptations are obvious or subtle, we must all engage in a struggle against the paralyzing forces of evil in our own souls.   This is not a matter of going through the motions to meet a minimal standard, but a calling to invest ourselves fully in an ongoing battle through which we hope, by God’s grace, to be transformed in holiness as partakers of the divine nature. 
The woman whom Jesus Christ healed in today’s gospel lesson certainly was transformed.  She suffered from a kind of paralysis because she had not been able to stand up straight for eighteen years.  She was stooped over and had probably lost all hope of ever being healed.  The Lord saw her in that condition in the synagogue and restored her to health, saying “Woman, you are loosed.”    Since it was the Sabbath day on which no work was to be done, the leader of the synagogue criticized Christ for breaking the Old Testament law.  He responded that people care for their animals on the Sabbath, so how could it possibly be wrong to heal “this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen years”?   That response silenced His critic.
There is no indication that the woman asked the Lord to heal her; instead, He took the initiative when He saw her that day in the synagogue.  He took the initiative in extending His merciful love toward her in a way that was not minimalistic or perfunctory.  His healing transformed and empowered her to live as a healthy human being in a way that she had not been able to experience by her own strength. In the very Jewish context of a healing on the Sabbath in a synagogue, the Messiah described her as “a daughter of Abraham,” a rightful heir of the blessings promised to Abraham and his descendants.
Yesterday the Church celebrated the conception of the Theotokos by St. Anna.  She had been stooped over by her inability to conceive a child, which was an especially deep wound for daughters of Abraham through whom God’s promises of blessing were to be fulfilled from generation to generation. But the Lord heard Joachim and Anna’s prayers and gave this elderly, faithful couple a daughter through whom the Savior would be born.  By loosing Anna from barrenness, God blessed her in a way that ultimately extended the promises to Abraham to the entire world.  For now all who have faith in Christ are rightful heirs to their fulfillment.     
In these weeks of the Nativity Fast, we prepare to celebrate the loosing of all people, and of the entire creation, from being stooped over and corrupted by the power sin.  Left to our own abilities, we will remain bound to our infirmities of body, soul, and spirit.  We will be unable to straighten ourselves up, much less to conquer death.  We will be unable to heal our own distorted natures.  The glorious good news of this season is that the Son of God has made our healing possible by becoming one of us, uniting humanity and divinity in His own Person.  Because of the Incarnation of the God-Man, we are all set free to become spiritually fruitful by the power of His grace. We are all loosed from our barrenness.
If we have any spiritual insight at all, we will see that embracing that healing is no small or easy undertaking.  Too often, we become like the ruler of the synagogue who hypocritically interpreted the rules in a way that ignored the profound importance of healing a beloved daughter of Abraham.   We settle for that in our own lives when we think that any tendency, weakness, or habit is so powerful that Christ cannot set us free from slavery to it.  Regardless of how powerfully we are tempted, no power in heaven or earth can make us sin unless we choose to do so.  As we prepare to welcome Christ at His Nativity, we must remember that He became a human being in order to unite us to Himself in holiness.  So in order truly to celebrate Christmas, we must be in the process of being loosed from the paralyzing power of sin in our lives.  We must be growing in our ability to live faithfully as sons and daughters of Abraham who are not defined by our present weaknesses and infirmities, but by the healing mercy of our Savior.   We must be on the road to victory over spiritual barrenness as we welcome the Messiah more fully into our lives and play our unique roles in the salvation of the world.  
Of course, doing so requires constant vigilance against temptation.  It requires putting on “the whole armor of God” through the sacramental life of the Church as we devote ourselves to prayer, repentance, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and keeping a close watch on our thoughts, words, and deeds.  Otherwise, there will be areas of our life where we are unprotected and weak against the forces of corruption, especially those that have taken root in our own souls and operate with such subtlety that we hardly even notice them.  If we settle for just enough religion to make us socially respectable or feel better about ourselves, we will simply go through a few motions as we let down our guard and become further weakened in our ability to resist gratifying our self-centered desires. We will then become even more stooped over by corruption and blind to the many ways in which we do not see our suffering neighbors as every bit as much the unique children of God as we are.  Weakness leads to more weakness, and will make us even less fertile in welcoming the Savior into our lives and world.
In the remaining weeks of Advent, let us do all that we can to cooperate with our Lord’s gracious will to loose us from the spiritual barrenness that holds us back from being united with Him in holiness.  Let us “put on the whole armor of God” so that we will not settle for some watered-down view of religion that totally misses the point of why Christ was born.  Let us accept the blessing that is ours as daughters and sons of Abraham through faith in Him.  Surely, there is no better way to prepare ourselves to welcome the Savior at Christmas.    

Sunday, December 3, 2017

His Light Illumines our Darkness as We Prepare for Christmas: Homily for the 26th Sunday After Pentecost and the 14th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 5:8-19; Luke 18:35-43

It is not hard to find darkness in our world or in our own souls.  Sometimes we may feel as blind as the beggar in today’s gospel reading.  He knew all about darkness and was reduced to sitting by the side of the road and living on whatever people gave him.   His blindness defined his identity and shaped every aspect of his life.  We know his name as Bartimaeus from the parallel account in Mark 10:46-52.

            Somehow, however, this unfortunate man had not given up hope entirely, for he cried out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” when he heard that Christ was passing by.  Others told him to be quiet, perhaps because they thought his situation was hopeless and did not want the Lord to be distracted from more important things.  But he responded by calling out even more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”   Christ heard his pleas and asked what must have seemed like an obvious question, “What do you want me to do for you?”  The man said “Lord, let me receive my sight.”  Then the Savior enabled him to see, saying “your faith has made you well.”  So Bartimaeus followed Him and gave thanks to God.

            As we continue preparing during the Nativity Fast to celebrate our Lord’s birth at Christmas, we all have a lot to learn from this persistent and humble blind beggar.  Because of our sins and passions, the eyes of our souls are not fully clear and receptive to the brilliant light of the glory of God.  In other words, the darkness that we have welcomed into our souls profoundly weakens our ability to unite ourselves to Christ in holiness.  Try as we might, we cannot triumph over the corrupting force of our own spiritual blindness simply by our own resolve.  We need the healing mercy of the Lord to open the eyes of our souls to His light.  We need His grace in order to know and experience Him from the depths of our souls.  In this sense, we are all blind beggars before Him.

            Bartimaeus called out to the Savior as the Jewish Messiah by saying “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And he refused to shut his mouth when others told him to; indeed, he cried out all the more.  His example shows that the path to salvation requires falling before the Lord in humility, acknowledging our inability to heal ourselves as we ask for mercy that we do not deserve or control. We must do so persistently, refusing to become discouraged or to give up when we do not immediately get what we want or when our own thoughts and other people tell us we are simply wasting our time.  That is when we must devote ourselves even more to the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”   That is when we must use the awareness of our brokenness, weakness, and pain to open our hearts to Christ even more in humility.

            Through such struggles, we will gain insight on the state of our souls.  We will see the darkness within us a bit more clearly.  Our usual delusions and distractions will become less vivid as we begin to see the contrast between our own wounds and weaknesses and the healing to which Christ calls us.  That is how we will gain the spiritual clarity to answer His question “What do you want me to do for you?” in a way not driven by the self-centered desire simply to get what we want on our own terms.  That is how we will learn to resist the idolatrous temptation to use God or religion to achieve worldly goals. For the point of regaining our sight is ultimately to come to know and experience the Lord more fully from the depths of our souls by His grace as we grow in holiness.  As those created in the divine image and likeness, nothing else will ever truly satisfy us.   

            As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, doing so requires constant dedication and vigilance in our world of darkness.  Tragically, we all allow its corruptions to take root in our souls in one way or another by taking “part in the unfruitful works of darkness,” instead of recognizing them for what they are and turning away from them.  It is so appealing to make false gods out of money, possessions, pleasure, people, and thinking that our will must always be done.  It is so easy to hate and condemn our enemies, to place our trust in worldly kingdoms of whatever kind, and to become blind to Christ’s presence in those who need our help. It is so hard to turn the other cheek when insulted, to go the extra mile when put upon, and to stay on guard against the temptations that attack us so strongly in our weakest spots.

            Both the trends of our culture and our own passions encourage us simply to welcome the darkness into our souls. Why not simply shut our eyes to the light and give in?  Why not simply surrender to whatever desires or thoughts we have?  Why not accept that that is simply who we are?  Of course, those were the same temptations that St. Paul opposed in Ephesus, by saying “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead and Christ shall give you light.”  He tells us to wake up because, regardless of the particulars, what seems like a pleasant nap in the bed of sin is actually the path to the grave, for death is the wages of sin.  What is at stake is not simply a matter of taking it easy and pleasing ourselves, but of turning away from the light of Christ as we choose the darkness of the tomb over the brilliant light of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

            We must stay focused on the truth of our situation; namely, that the only alternative to never-ending darkness is to follow the path of the blind beggar who persistently and humbly called out for the Lord’s mercy.  Because of his faith, Bartimaeus received his sight.  He did not do the easy thing of accepting his blindness or listening to those who told him to be quiet.  No, he pressed forward in doing all that he could to open his darkened eyes to the light.  That is precisely what we must do every day of our lives, and especially in this Nativity Fast as we prepare ourselves to receive Christ at His birth. For to welcome Him anew into our lives, we must have eyes cleansed of the darkness of sin and able to behold, to the extent that we are able, His divine glory as He becomes one of us for our salvation.  He is born to restore the sight of all of us who have fallen into blindness and become slaves to darkness because of our sins.  The only fitting way to celebrate Christmas is to know and experience Him more fully from the depths of our souls as we grow in holiness.  Otherwise, we will miss the point of the season entirely.

By God’s grace, we will have such a Christmas if, during the weeks of Advent, we refuse to be lulled to sleep by indulgence in our passions and instead follow St. Paul’s guidance to be “filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.”  In other words, we must devote ourselves to prayer on a daily basis and keep the words of the Jesus Prayer on our lips and in our hearts.  We must refuse to accept or dwell on thoughts that we know will only blind us to the light, and instead fill our minds with holy things as we open our hearts to God. We must speak and act “as children of light” even when we are sorely tempted to gratify our familiar self-centered desires. We must shut our eyes and ears to entertainment and media that inflame our passions and wed us more closely to the darkness. That obviously includes pornography, but also extends to obsessive watching of the news, athletics, or anything else that fuels anger, hatred, anxiety, or other unhealthy attachments.
            When we stumble and fall back into the darkness, we must cry out all the more like Bartimaeus for the Lord’s mercy as we open ourselves to His light as best we can.  Through our struggles, we will know our dependence upon His healing mercy even more.  We will also find that the only thing we truly want from Him is the restoration of our sight, the cleansing of the eyes of our souls.  We want to know and experience Him as we share more fully in His blessed eternal life. The Savior is born at Christmas to make us radiant with the divine glory as He illumines the darkness of the world and of our souls.  Now is the time to wake up and prepare our hearts for Him.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Getting Ready for the Birth of a Merciful Savior, Not of Self-Righteous Legalism: Homily for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost and the 13th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 4:1-7; Luke 18:18-27

In one way or another, many of us are tempted at times to reduce the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ to a list of rules to be obeyed simply by our own willpower.  When we think that we live up to them, we pat ourselves on the back for being good people who have supposedly earned God’s favor.  When we think that others do not live up to them, we feel justified in looking down upon them for apparently not being as righteous as we are.  Of course, no matter how appealing such an approach to religion may be, it has nothing to do with the Savior born at Christmas. Indeed, it is a complete rejection of why the Word became flesh.
The rich young ruler in today’s gospel lesson approached the Savior simply as a rabbi, a teacher of the Jewish law.  He thought that he had always obeyed God’s commandments and wanted to know if there was anything else he should do in order to be sure of eternal life. That is when Christ gave the young man a commandment which He knew he lacked the spiritual strength to obey:  “One thing you still lack.  Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”  Because the man was enslaved to loving his wealth, he was very sad to hear these words.  When the disciples were astonished at the Lord’s teaching that it is so hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God, He assured them that “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
Through this conversation, the Lord challenged the rich man’s assumption that he had met God’s requirements as though they were a simple checklist of right and wrong behaviors.  That is how He helped the fellow confront the superficiality of thinking that he could become worthy of eternal life by simply following the rules. The man surely had not mastered Christ’s interpretation of the Old Testament law in the Sermon on the Mount, in which He taught that those who are guilty of anger and insult are guilty of murder and that those guilty of lust are guilty of adultery.  Christ called His disciples to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect. By that standard, this young man obviously needed his eyes opened to the truth of where he stood before God, Who calls us to a holiness that transcends what humans may achieve by seeking to obey laws to the best of their ability.  The Savior did that by giving him a commandment that he lacked the strength to obey due to his love of money.
Like the rest of us, the rich young ruler was not able to conquer the corrupting power of sin in his life by simply trying to follow a set of instructions through his own willpower.  Through His Incarnation as the God-Man, Christ makes it possible for us to share in His fulfillment of our calling to become like God in holiness.  The Savior has done what no mere teacher of the law could ever do by uniting humanity with God for our salvation.  He became fully one of us in order to triumph over death, the wages of sin, and make us partakers of the divine nature by grace. 
Those who distort the faith into a simple moralism of obeying laws inevitably have a very superficial understanding of what it means for human beings to share personally in the holiness of God.  They are at great risk of falling into the spiritual blindness of hypocritical self-righteousness in which they interpret religious or moral laws in a way that makes it easy on themselves and very hard on others in a way similar to the Pharisees who rejected Christ.   Slavery to pride, anger, and other passions are the inevitable results of such perversions of the gospel.  In contrast, St. Paul called the Christians of Ephesus “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  Because “grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift,” we must each embrace the humility of those who know that they are recipients of great mercy.  We obviously must cooperate with God’s grace as we struggle to live faithfully, but we never earn or merit salvation simply on the basis of our accomplishments. 
It would be tragic if we limited the relevance of Christ’s conversation with the rich young ruler only to the world’s billionaires, as that would let the rest of us off the hook.  So leaving the question of great wealth aside, we should ask ourselves when we are most tempted to despair of salvation.  What commandment of Christ opens our eyes to our spiritual weakness, to our attachment to our self-centered desires? What in our lives makes it clear that, without God’s gracious help, we will shut ourselves out of His Kingdom?  How are we falling short of leading a life worthy of our high calling?  
A great deal is at stake in how seriously we consider these questions.  For if we think that we are already righteous because we assume we obey the commandments or live moral lives, we would probably be better off not celebrating the Nativity at all. For in such a state of mind, we would have no idea Who the Child in the manger really is or why He was born.  Contrary to the implicit assumptions of self-righteous legalists, He does not come to reward or congratulate us for earning eternal life by our own willpower, but instead to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, raise the dead, and call sinners to repentance.  Only if we gain the spiritual clarity necessary to see ourselves as those most profoundly weakened and corrupted by the ravages of sin will we be able to enter into the great joy of Christmas.  Only if we know in our hearts that we will never earn admission to the Kingdom of God by our own merits will we be prepared to receive Him more fully into our lives at the feast of His Incarnation.  For if we are blind to our own need for a Savior to bring us into His eternal life by grace, we will not have the eyes to behold the glory of the Word become flesh. 
Thanks be to God, the blessed weeks of the Nativity Fast provide an opportunity to open our souls to the truth of why we need the One born at Christmas, the God-Man Who unites divinity and humanity in Himself.  The spiritual disciplines of these weeks help us greatly in this regard.  When we devote more time and energy to prayer, we learn that our minds wander and everything else often seems more important than opening our hearts to the Lord.  When we set out to fast, we easily become obsessed with food, thinking more about excuses, exceptions, and loopholes than about humbly reorienting our hearts toward the Lord as we restrain our self-indulgence. When we give even small amounts of our resources and attention to the needy, we usually learn how selfish we are with our love of our possessions and our time.  No, we are not anywhere near as holy as we may like to think.  When we prepare conscientiously to confess and repent of our sins during Advent, it will become clear to us why we need the God-Man for our healing, not simply a teacher to give us more laws that we inevitably fall well short of obeying.
Our great hope, of course, is not in our ability to do anything by our own power, but instead in the mercy of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, Who lowered Himself beyond our comprehension to become not only a human being, but One born in profoundly scandalous, humble, and dangerous circumstances.  His infinite humility calls us to receive Him with lowliness and meekness, knowing that the measure of our lives is not in what we call our accomplishments, but in our openness to the healing of our merciful Lord Who stops at nothing in order to bring us into eternal life.  What is impossible with human beings really is possible with the One Who was born, Who died, and Who rose again in glory for our salvation.  He brings hope for healing to us all, which is why He was born at Christmas.  


Sunday, November 19, 2017

Preparing to Welcome Christ like the Theotokos by Entering into the Nativity Fast: Homily for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost and the 9th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 2:14-22; Luke 12:16-21
            It is now 36 days until Christmas, and there will soon be much in our culture trying to convince us that the season is really about indulging ourselves in food, drink, and whatever else money can buy.  Consequently, we will all face temptations to live the next several weeks as though there were no higher purpose to our lives than to find pleasure in the things of this world.
That, of course, is precisely what the rich man did in today’s gospel reading.  His only concern was to eat, drink, and enjoy himself because he had become so wealthy.  But when God required his soul, the man’s true poverty was revealed.  The possessions of this life pass away and cannot heal our souls.  His horizons extended no further than the large barns he planned to build in order to hold his crops.  So before the ultimate judgment of God, he was revealed to be a fool who had wasted his life on what could never truly fulfill one who bore the divine image and likeness.
Though we are not as rich in the world’s goods as he was, we will face a similar temptation in the coming weeks to ignore the spiritual gravity of the birth of our Savior for the sake of the annual round of parties, presents, and other earthly cares associated with the holiday season.  If a good Christmas is defined for us simply by the quality of our food and drink, our presents, and our reunion with family members, then we are fools in the sense of thinking that the passing pleasures of this life are more real, more important, and ultimately more satisfying than is the salvation brought to the world by the incarnation of the Son of God.  Food, fellowship, and a desire to give to others are not, of course, wrong in and of themselves; they are certainly God’s good gifts.  The problem is that, due to our spiritual weakness, we so easily make them idols instead of remembering that they are blessings to be received and offered back to God in holiness.  Our challenge is to keep them in their proper place as signs of our joy at the birth of the Lord; they themselves are not the reason for our celebration.
That is why we all need an extended period of spiritual discipline in order to prepare ourselves to behold the true glory of Christmas. The Church calls us to use these blessed weeks of the Nativity Fast in order to get ready to enter into the great joy of Christ’s birth, which we will begin to celebrate on December 25. We devote ourselves to fasting, prayer, and almsgiving for forty days in order to gain the spiritual clarity to celebrate His Nativity as the salvation of the world. In order to do that, we must refuse in this time of year to settle for a pleasant cultural celebration when the eternal blessedness of God’s Kingdom is fully open to us.  Unless we prepare our hearts in a disciplined way to receive Christ at His birth, we will easily become distracted by indulgence in pleasures that fuel our passions and weaken us spiritually.  When that happens, we will become like the rich fool who let his desire to eat, drink, and be merry blind him to the ultimate meaning and purpose of his life before God.
This Tuesday we celebrate a feast that helps us avoid that error, for we commemorate the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple.  Her elderly parents Joachim and Anna offered Mary to God by taking her to live in the Temple in Jerusalem as a young girl, where she grew up in prayer and purity as she prepared to become the Living Temple of the Lord in a unique way as His Virgin Mother.  The feast obviously points to the good news of Christmas, as it is the first step in Mary’s life in becoming the Theotokos who gave birth to the Son of God for our salvation.
Joachim and Anna had a long and difficult period of preparation to become parents, as they had been unable to have children until God miraculously blessed them in old age to conceive.  They knew that their daughter was a blessing not simply for the happiness of their family, but for playing her part in fulfilling God’s purposes for the salvation of the world   Their faithfulness throughout their years of barrenness prepared them to offer her to the Lord.  They knew that their marriage and family life were not simply about making them happy on their own terms, but were blessings to be given back to God for the fulfillment of much higher purposes.
In becoming the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary followed the example of her parents.  She was prepared by a life of holiness to agree freely to become our Lord’s mother, even though she was an unmarried virgin who did not understand how such a thing could happen.  When she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” this young Palestinian Jewish girl bravely made a whole, complete offering of her life to God.  She did not ask what was in it for her, how this would fit into her life plans, or whether she could count on financial support.  Unlike the rich fool in the parable, God was more real and more important to her than any of those things.   She did not think of her life in terms of acquiring enough possessions to enable her to eat, drink, and be merry.  Instead, she acted as a true temple of God, offering every dimension of her life to Him.  She found her joy in personal union with the Lord in a unique way, in opening and offering herself to Him in every dimension of her being.  The Theotokos did not lay up treasures for herself on earth, but was unspeakably rich toward God.
St. Paul taught the Gentile Christians of Ephesus they too were part of a holy temple “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone…”  Though they had been “strangers” to the heritage of Israel, they are now “built into” the living temple of Christ’s Body, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Here is a reminder that, through His great Self-offering on the Cross, our Savior has enabled us all to enter even now into the blessed joy of eternal life through personal union with Him. Absolutely nothing holds us back other than our choice to remain more like the rich fool than like the Theotokos.
So in the coming weeks of the Nativity Fast, let us remain squarely focused on becoming more like her in welcoming Christ into our lives fully and without reservation.  We will do that by attending to the Lord each day in focused prayer and Bible reading.  We will do that by fasting from rich food and other forms of self-indulgence that threaten to weaken us spiritually.  We will do that by denying ourselves in order to help others with our attention, service, and resources.  Through these disciplines, as well as through Confession and repentance, we will prepare ourselves to embrace more fully our true identity as His living temple when we celebrate His birth at Christmas.  That is how we will learn not to be so consumed with the outward trappings of the season that we end up missing the point.
For Christ was not born to give us a reason to have a massive cultural celebration of self-indulgence, but to unite us to Himself in holiness.  He came to fulfill the deepest desires of those created in His image and likeness for sharing in His eternal life.  He came to make us rich toward God. During the blessed weeks of the Nativity Fast, let us dare to do something countercultural by rejecting the temptation to use the season as an excuse to gratify our self-centered desires and instead focusing on living faithfully as His holy temple like the Theotokos.  That is how we may avoid the error of the foolish man in today’s parable as we prepare to welcome the Savior into our lives more fully this Christmas.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

"Go and Do Likewise" as Our Response to Evil: Homily for the 8th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 9:6-11; Luke 10:25-37

            In a world of mass shootings, terrorism, and constant strife between nations and competing groups of all kinds, it is tempting to narrow down the list of people we care about.  By limiting our concern only to those we think deserve it, we try to protect ourselves from going beyond the easy habit of loving only those who are like us and love us in return.  The problem, however, is that shortening our list of neighbors in this way is a complete rejection of the good news of our salvation.
            When a lawyer tried to find a loophole to limit the requirement to love his neighbor as himself, Jesus Christ told the parable of the good Samaritan in response.  After having been attacked by robbers and left half dead by the side of the road, a Jewish man was ignored by religious leaders of his own people.  But a Samaritan, whom the Jews certainly did not view as a neighbor, stopped to help him, bound up his wounds, took him to an inn, and paid for his lodging, even promising to return in order to pay for any additional costs as the man recovered.  In response to the Lord’s question concerning who was a neighbor to this fellow, the lawyer answered rightly: “The one who showed mercy on him.”
In other words, the true neighbor was the hated Samaritan.  Christ concluded the parable by saying “Go and do likewise,” which meant to become like that Samaritan.  In other words, He told the lawyer to love as himself even those who hated and rejected him, even members of ethnic and religious groups he had learned to view as his enemies.  Not only did the lawyer fail to find a loophole in the requirement of love for all his neighbors, he found himself facing a much more demanding standard than he had ever considered. For the Lord responded to his question in a way that made clear his obligation to treat as a neighbor even those usually thought of as despised strangers and enemies.
The Savior used this parable to call us to participate personally in His merciful love for all corrupt humanity, for the Samaritan is surely an image of our Lord coming to heal us from the deadly ravages of sin.  Stripped of the divine glory like Adam and Eve cast out of paradise and bearing the wounds of our own transgressions, we have become slaves to death, the wages of sin.  Religious rituals and laws were powerless to restore the spiritual health of those who bear the image and likeness of God.  So the One Who was rejected as a blasphemer and even accused of being a Samaritan (John. 8:48) became one of us in order to conquer death and make us participants by grace in His eternal life.  The oil and wine of the parable represent the Holy Mysteries through which Christ nourishes and heals us.  His Body, the Church, is the inn where we regain our strength to grow in holiness. He will return in glory to raise the dead and fulfill His Kingdom.
“Go and do likewise” is not an abstract legal or moral command, but a truthful statement that those who are in Christ will manifest His mercy in their own lives.  Those who participate already in His eternal life will become living icons of His love even to those who hate and reject them.  The point is not to reduce our relationship with God to being nice to others, which usually means little more than helping our friends and trying to have warm feels about humanity in general.  It is, instead, that those who are being healed by the ravages of sin through the mercy of Christ will no longer be blinded by the passions and fears that make it so appealing to limit our list of neighbors to those who measure up to our standards.  Christ died and rose again for the salvation of all people, including those who called for His crucifixion and literally nailed Him to the Cross.  He enables those who are truly in personal union with Him to become radiant with the divine glory in a way that overcomes the darkness that so easily separates people, and groups of people, from one another.
That is why St. Paul reminded the Corinthians that “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.”  There are no limits to the merciful love of our Savior.  We must relate to our neighbors not on the basis of how we happen to feel about them or how much moral virtue we can muster, but instead on the basis of the boundless grace we have received.  The Apostle knew that “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  The more fully we open our lives to the healing mercy of His grace, the more He will work through us to bless the world.  So instead of limiting our list of concerns out of fear that we will run out of steam, we must unite ourselves so fully with the Savior that His merciful holiness becomes characteristic of our lives.  Then we will say with St. Paul “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.”
Some people today find it hard to believe in God in light of all the problems of the world, the divisions between people, and especially horrible acts of wickedness like mass murder in churches and other public places.  It is understandable why, in the face of such suffering, some will ask “Where is God?”  Here we must remember that Jesus Christ came to a world of sin and death to heal our wounds and grant us the spiritual strength to manifest His love to all who suffer.  He did not rain down wrath upon evildoers, but as the God-Man entered into our brokenness and pain to the point of death, burial, and Hades, over which He triumphed gloriously in His resurrection.  The same hateful wickedness that led people to crucify Him wounds human beings to this day, and none of us is yet fully healed from its malign effects.  Surely, every form of human depravity imaginable will remain in this world of corruption until He returns and fulfills His Kingdom.  But until then, He works through His Body, the Church, to bind up the wounds of those He died and rose again to save.   
Our response to horrific acts of evil is to obey Christ’s command “Go and do likewise.”  His Kingdom comes not through the coercive powerbrokers of the world as we know it, but through the healing of human souls and communities in which broken, imperfect people extend to others the same mercy we ask for ourselves.  His divine mercy is not limited to people we like or admire or to any nation, race, or group.  Even as the Lord offered Himself on the Cross for the salvation of the entire world, we must refuse to live as though anyone in His image and likeness is not a neighbor whom He calls us to love and serve, even as He has loved and served us. 
At the end of the day, our answer to those who doubt God’s presence in the world is primarily practical, not abstract or theoretical.  It is to love our neighbors as ourselves in a way that foreshadows the blessedness of a Kingdom in which there are no hated foreigners.  It is for our common life to become a sign of our Lord’s merciful love for everyone He came to save.  It is to become living icons of the indiscriminate love of our Savior, for He came to bless us all who like the man in the parable have been beaten, stripped, and left for dead by the side of the road.
For that to happen, we must invest ourselves in the abundant grace of our Lord such that His life becomes present in ours.  When that happens, our lives will be living proof that He is still at work binding up the wounds of suffering humanity.  By treating everyone as a beloved neighbor, we will provide the world a much needed sign of hope for an alternative to the pointless strife and divisions that so easily blind us to the humanity of our enemies. Yes, God is with us in Jesus Christ as the Samaritan was with the man who was victimized in the parable.  The only question is whether we will be with Him in refusing to narrow down the list of neighbors whom we are to love as ourselves.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Showing Others the Mercy We Have Received: Homily for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost and the 5th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 6:11-18; Luke 16:19-31
          In Paris in the 1930s and early 40s, there was an unusual Orthodox nun whose ministry was focused on showing the love of Christ to destitute and broken people who lived on the streets in misery.  During the Nazis occupation of Paris, she and her companions risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.  Eventually, they were arrested and sent to concentration campus.  That is where Mother Maria Skobtsova, now known as St. Maria of Paris, died for the Savior Whom she served in her neighbors on Holy Saturday in 1945 only a few weeks before the liberation of the camp, by some accounts taking the place of another prisoner in the gas chamber that day.
St. Maria of Paris comes to mind as the complete opposite of the rich man in today’s gospel lesson.  That man was such a slave to self-centeredness that he spent his time and resources buying the finest clothing and funding great banquets for himself every day.  His needy neighbor Lazarus was at most a nuisance to him, a diseased beggar in front of his home whose only comfort was when the dogs licked his open sores.  The rich man, however, ignored Lazarus, and at most stepped over or around him whenever he went into his house.  His heart was hardened and he had no compassion even on a fellow Jew living in such squalor.  He must have denied him even the crumbs from the table on which he enjoyed his fine meals.
By disregarding his poor neighbor, the rich man showed that he worshiped only himself, not the God of Israel.  The Old Testament makes quite clear the obligation of the Hebrews to care for their needy neighbors, but this man lived as though he were his own god.  So after he died, he experienced the brilliant glory of God as a burning flame, which reflected how he had been overcome by darkness to the point of becoming totally blind to the dignity of Lazarus as one who bore the image and likeness of God.  It is no small thing to live that way, for those who treat the living icons of the Lord as worthless creatures also reject Him and bring condemnation upon themselves.
That is why Father Abraham said in this parable about the brothers of the rich man that “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”  In other words, those who have ignored what has already been clearly revealed have made themselves so blind that they will be unable to recognize even the greatest miracle of all, the resurrection of One who rises from the dead.
This parable points, of course, to the spiritual blindness of those who rejected Jesus as the Messiah of Israel.  Those who had disregarded the clear teachings of the Law and the Prophets to the point that they had ignored meeting the most basic needs of their neighbors lacked the spiritual clarity to see much at all of God’s truth, including the profundity of the Savior conquering death through His glorious resurrection on the third day.   Those so wedded to the idolatry of serving only themselves and ignoring the needs of others were in no position to recognize and receive their own Messiah.
That recognition is a reminder of why St. Paul was so critical of the Judaizers who would have required Gentile converts to Christianity to be circumcised in obedience to the Old Testament law.  As he put it, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”  Something as minuscule as the requirement to obey a particular command for a surgical procedure pales before the need of humanity for healing, transformation, and fulfillment in God.  Other rules involving diet or the kind of activities done on a certain day cannot conquer death, the wages of sin.  They cannot turn corrupt human beings into living icons of holiness.  As St. Paul knew as a former Pharisee, their scrupulous observance easily leads to a prideful self-reliance in which people believe that they are made right with God simply by doing this or that by their own power.   Such an attitude is nothing but glorying in oneself, in rejoicing at how holy we think we have become simply by following the rules.
How completely different, however, is the attitude of those who look not to themselves for justification, but to the Cross.  “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”  By recognizing that the ultimate healing of our humanity comes through the Self-offering of the God-Man on the Cross, St. Paul destroys the rationale for thinking that Gentile converts must first obey the Jewish law before becoming Christians.  Instead of self-justification, the basis of our relationship with Christ is His gracious mercy available to all who respond to Him with humble faith and repentance.  The focus here is not on ourselves or what we can accomplish in any way, but on His holy love that stops at nothing, not even the Cross, to bring us into right relationship with Him through grace.
As Orthodox Christians who confess that we have received the fullness of the faith through His Body, the Church, how should we live in relation to the Lazaruses of our world and lives?  If the Hebrews of old had an obligation to bless their needy neighbors, how much more do we as the new creation in Christ Jesus have an obligation to become living icons of His love and care for every human being we encounter?   We must not do so with a self-centered spirituality that would view helping others as a way for us simply to fulfill a religious obligation or build up credit with God.  No, we must do so as a new creation, as simply a natural outgrowth of being those who take “glory…in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  He offered Himself on the Cross for the salvation of the entire world.  If we are truly in communion with Him, then Christ’s outrageous love for fallen, broken, corrupt people like us must come characteristic of our lives.  We who have received His mercy must show His mercy to others.
If we do not, then we are more spiritually blind than the rich man in today’s parable.  He was held accountable to the Old Testament Law and Prophets, but we have received the fullness of the promise in the God-Man Who rose from the dead on the third day for our salvation.  He offered Himself “on behalf of all and for all,” and if we are in communion with Him, then we must also be in communion with our needy, annoying, and frustrating neighbors, and ultimately all those to whom we may become a sign of His salvation in any way.  The point is not to view other people as an opportunity for us to perform our spiritual duties, but to offer ourselves to them in sacrificial love.  Like St. Paul, we should take glory only in the Cross of our Lord, which we do by joining ourselves to His great Self-offering on behalf of all who bear His image and likeness.
The One Who has risen from dead invites us to participate in His way of living in the world for its salvation, its fulfillment, and its ultimate good.  Those who answer that invitation will look something like St. Maria of Paris as they give themselves away for the sake of others.  They will not disregard the Lazaruses of this world out of selfishness, but will instead learn to love and serve them as Christ has loved and served us.  If we are truly a “a new creation” in Him, how could our lives be otherwise?  If we claim to have received the Lord’s gracious mercy, how can we not show that same blessing to others?   So let us offer ourselves to our neighbors even as He has offered Himself for us.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Finding Healing Through the Humble Faith that Overcomes Shame: Homily for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost and the 7th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 2:16-20; Luke 8:41-56

The lives of many people are shattered by the burdens that they carry due to their own sufferings and those of their loved ones.  When those closest to us are troubled, we are troubled also.  When our lives come to revolve around persistent problems that strike at our hearts, it is easy to lose our hope and trust in God.

            The woman who had been bleeding for twelve years had spent all her money on physicians who could not heal her.  Because of her condition, she was considered unclean, which meant that she could not enter the Temple or have a normal social life.  Anyone who touched her would also become unclean.  She was chronically ill, impoverished, and isolated.  After twelve years of such problems, it would not have been surprising for her to have lost all hope for the healing of her body and her relationship with others, as well as with God.

            Somehow, however, she had both the courage and the faith to reach out and touch the hem of Christ’s garment as He passed through a crowd of people.  She was understandably too embarrassed to walk straight up to the Lord, explain her condition, and ask for His healing.  So she did what she had the strength to do, hoping she could secretly be relieved of her affliction.  When she did that, her bleeding stopped immediately, so she got what she wanted.  But because Jesus Christ is not merely a human being with healing powers but the Son of God, He knew what had happened.  By saying “Who touched me?,” He challenged her to grow in faith by recognizing that the point of this miracle was not simply to get what she wanted.

Instead, He gave her the opportunity to fall down before Him, confess in the hearing of a large crowd what her malady had been, and how she had been healed.  Of course, being put on the spot like that terrified the woman and she trembled with fear.  But through this difficult experience, she was transformed.  Not only her body, but also her soul, were healed.  She died to the damage that came from focusing only on her own problems and the need to protect herself from the rejection and ridicule of others. She was delivered from her shame at not having the life that she understandably wanted.  Shame is a form of pride that holds us captive to the illusion that everything is up to us.  When we cannot accept in humility that there are matters beyond our control and that we cannot solve our own problems, we easily become obsessed with doing all that we can to hide these truths from others and even from ourselves.

This blessed woman was not, however, totally paralyzed by shame, because she had the humility and faith to identify herself publically once she knew that the Lord was aware what had happened.  He did not directly command her to do that, but she knew that was the proper response to His question when “she saw that she was not hidden.”  Her secret was out, at least to the Lord.  The isolating power of embarrassment died in that moment, and she gained the strength and freedom of a truly humble person by telling the whole story in public.  That is when the Savior said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” 

With these words, the Lord confirmed that she was no longer defined by her illness or her inability to heal herself.  She had died to her old life as an anonymous outcast suffering from a condition that cut her off from personal relationships with other people and from God.  Through humble faith, she embraced her true identity as a beloved daughter of the Lord who was dependent upon His mercy.  In order to do that, she surely had to muster every ounce of courage in overcoming her fear.  That is how she gained the spiritual clarity to see who she really was before God:  not simply a bundle of medical symptoms or an example of social isolation, but His beloved child and the recipient of His grace.

St. Paul refers in today’s epistle reading to a similar kind of death, for he writes that he “died to the Law, that I might live to God.”  Earlier in his life, Paul had thought that meticulous obedience to the Old Testament law, as interpreted by his fellow Pharisees, put observant Jews in right relationship with God.  But after the Risen Lord appeared to Him on the road to Damascus, Paul became a Christian and ultimately a great champion of God’s mercy extending to all who have humble faith in Jesus Christ.  St. Paul had to die to relying upon whatever righteousness he could earn for himself by legal observance, for that approach could never overcome the power of sin.  He had to die with Christ in baptism to his illusions of earning his own righteousness in order to rise up with the Lord into eternal life.  That is why he says “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.”

If we think that we stand before God based on whether we perfectly obey a law simply by our own ability, we may easily become slaves to shame and guilt because we will never be at peace with how we never measure up to what we think God requires.  We will likely view Him as a harsh, impersonal judge who is eager to condemn and reject us.  We will likely become obsessed with how unclean we are before Him, and perhaps do all that we can to hide the truth of our corruption from others and even from ourselves.  We may become as miserable and isolated as the woman with the flow of blood.  Recognizing that some things are simply beyond our control can be quite scary.

The good news is that Jesus Christ taught us to view God as “Our Father.”  Through Him, we are not anonymous defendants before a court of law or individuals simply on our own, but beloved sons and daughters.  As much as I hope that we all love our own parents, they are not the models for our understanding of the Heavenly Father.  It is the other way round, for Christ has shown us the Father.  Recall the parable of the prodigal son, in which the father eagerly awaits the return of his wretched son and restores him fully to the household with great joy.  How sad it would have been if the self-absorbed shame of that young man had kept him from returning home to a right relationship with his father.  He was blessed by his father’s mercy well beyond anything that he deserved or could have achieved.

In Christ, we are all sons and daughters of such an outrageously merciful Father in heaven.  It will be tragic if any of us allows our problems, or those of our loved ones, to keep us from responding to His mercy with humble faith.   Shame or embarrassment that keeps us from doing so reflects the pride of not accepting the truth about who are in relation to Him.  It is impossible to earn the status of son or daughter, for that is a gift based on a relationship initiated by parents.  Christ calls us not to either measure up or run away in shame, but humbly to open even our deepest and most painful wounds to Him for healing with the recognition that we are not our own saviors.

That will not mean that every sickness will be cured, all broken relationships will be restored, or that we will simply get what we want.  It will mean, however, that our weaknesses will become opportunities to die to the misery that comes from the self-centered perspective that we relate to God and other people only in terms of what we achieve, earn, or deserve.  It will mean that, if we have only the faith to touch the hem of His garment, Christ will enable us to grow in the humble trust of sons and daughters for their Heavenly Father.  It will mean that He will grant us the strength to see that literally nothing other than our own refusal can keep us from knowing the holy joy of His beloved children.  As the woman healed from the flow of blood demonstrates, His healing mercy calls us to die to our pride, shame, and self-reliance. That is how we too will find healing for the deepest pains of our lives.

Monday, October 23, 2017

"Often Disappointed, but Seldom Surprised": Thoughts on Sexual Harassment and a Culture of Depravity

        “Often disappointed, but seldom surprised.”  That old saying came to mind upon hearing of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against a leading figure in the American film industry. Alas, it is commonplace for mainstream films today to present the bodies of women as visual commodities to be bought and sold for the voyeuristic pleasures of men.  Moviegoers are so used to nudity and “strong sexual content” that most have become desensitized to what is going on:  presenting the exposed bodies of women as entertainment.  In earlier ages, men had to sneak into disreputable places to see such displays.  Now they are easily available in the privacy of their homes via the screens of computers, televisions, and the phones in their pockets.  And it is not considered scandalous to show in regular cinemas films that not long ago would have been rated X.      
            I once saw a brief interview with the film mogul in question in which he said that a particular film had “good sex” that people wanted to see.  Think about that for a moment.  The holy act of two people becoming “one flesh” has been reduced to a bit of entertainment to be sold.  It is not hard to give the clear impression in a film that a couple have gone to bed together and to leave it at that when necessary for the plot.  There is no reason to show the graphic details of their intimate union other than to inflame the passions of viewers.  Even as we hear of gratuitous vulgarity thrown into the dialogue of films so that they will merit a rating that will draw in more customers, the same is surely true of “strong sexual content.”   
            That should not be surprising in a culture with no higher standard for sex than the consent of individuals.  Many believe and act as though there were nothing sacred or even particularly profound in the intimate union of man and woman or in the dimensions of their bodies traditionally treated with modesty.  If they can be used to sell movie tickets and advertising, nothing else matters.   When actors agree to expose themselves and engage in sexually explicit scenes, they do so in the same way that they sign a contract to perform in any production.  It boils down to an commercial exchange.
            Perhaps some may view scenes of nudity and intercourse without being phased.  At least most men, however, will find their passions aroused in one way or another.  Many men, women, and children will make what they see their standard for how their bodies, and those of others, should look and how they should act sexually.  Regardless of what we intend, unrealistic and unhealthy expectations work their way through such images into our minds, souls, and relationships in a fashion that makes real intimacy more difficult.  What is fake then becomes the standard for what is real with the predictable results.  What is as intimate as life gets becomes impersonal and a matter of commercial exchange for mass entertainment.
            Should it be surprising that women typically bear the brunt of living in a society that celebrates that kind of entertainment?  As the “Me Too” campaign on social media has shown, sexual harassment and assault are epidemic.  In an age that has rejected the holiness of sex and of virtually any intrinsic moral restraints on the pursuit of pleasure, it is tragically predicable that many men will use their typically greater physical strength and economic power to take advantage of women.  The passions of men for domination and pleasure are sadly often so dominant that the fragile restraint of consent is too weak to stand in the way.  Legal standards often do not serve as a firewall to protect the intrinsic dignity of human beings, but as mere procedural hurdles to be ignored, overcome, or maneuvered around with the help of a good lawyer.  Unfortunately, they often fail to keep people enslaved to their passions from doing terrible things.
            These observations are not excuses or justifications for this horrible state of affairs, of course, but a description of the low point to which we as a culture have fallen.   Those who say that the sexual revolution has not harmed consenting adults are fooling themselves.  In a culture that has abandoned the holiness of sex and marriage and treats the bodies of women as commodities for entertainment according to the demands of the marketplace, too many men will distort or ignore the requirement of consent in order to get what they want.  
            I cannot imagine that there is a decent man alive who does not regret many of his actions, words, and thoughts in relation to women.  The passions that drive men to treat women as objects of desire to be used and dominated run deep within our corrupt souls.  No one has earned the right to be self-righteous in this area of life, which is surely one reason that Jesus Christ said that those guilty of lust are guilty of adultery.  No one is in the position to cast the first stone, for we have not achieved purity of heart or become perfect as our Father is perfect.  
That is also true for women, who also experience lust and in our culture are consuming pornography at increasing rates.  By focusing on the failures of men and the impact of cultural trends on their behavior, I do not mean to give the impression that women are free of such temptations in this area of life, but will leave it to others to comment on the particular challenges faced by women.     
Criticism of depraved cultural standards is not a matter of the pure pointing a finger at the sinners.  It is, instead, a recognition by those who struggle against their own distorted desires that we all are in this together.  Because of our common brokenness, norms and practices of decency are crucial to form men of decent moral character, as well as to protect women from harassment, assault, and otherwise being treated as less than a person in the image and likeness of God.
Men and women formed by the practices of pornography and promiscuity will be the weaker and the worse for it.  It is hard to see how even basic standards of decency may exist in a society in which young boys now routinely become addicted to pornography on their cell phones and the entertainment industry lives by some mixture of “strong sexual content” and graphic violence.  Those formed in the habit of viewing women’s bodies as objects for gratification in media of whatever kind will likely fail to develop the character necessary to respect even the requirement of consent.    
            I recently heard a brief radio news report on BBC that celebrated a certain pornographic magazine having its first “transgender woman” on its centerfold.  A female commentator spoke in glowing terms about how this publication used the public display of nudity to empower women.  The reporters spoke enthusiastically of the choice of this particular model as a great step forward in sexual liberation.  Leaving discussion of “transgender issues” for another time, I will simply comment that when dominant cultural voices lionize publications the only purpose of which is to make money by fueling the lust of men with images of the objectified bodies of women, what can be the expected outcome but a society with even weaker moral vision and less ethical strength to resist practices that lead to a culture of harassment and abuse?  That hardly sounds like liberation to me.
            In the current cultural context, the Church must form men who gain the purity of heart necessary to treat every woman they encounter with the honor due a living icon both of our Lord and of His Holy Mother.  The dominant culture will not help us with that, which is where the ascetical and sacramental life of the Church comes in. If there were ever a time for the Body of Christ to become a sign of hope for the salvation of the world in the troubled relationship of man and woman, it is now.