Sunday, August 27, 2017

Grace Overcomes Shame: Homily for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost and the 12th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians. 15:1-11; Matthew 19:16-26
We all need a good wake-up call from time to time.  It is easy to shut our eyes to the truth and to become blind to what is actually going on in our lives.  On the question of where we stand in relation to God, it sometimes takes a real shock to wake us up.  And once our eyes are opened a bit to truths we do not particularly like, we have to be careful not to run away in shame and despair.
            The rich young ruler in today’s gospel text had apparently fallen into the illusion that he had perfectly obeyed God’s requirements.  He must have had a very superficial understanding of them, of course, to say that he had already mastered them.  We know from Christ’s interpretation of the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount that they call us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.  And who can claim to have achieved that?  The Lord shocked this fellow out of his illusions of holiness by giving him a commandment that he would find impossibly hard to obey.  “Sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  The Savior gave him this test because the man loved his wealth so much.  He went away in sorrow because his eyes had been opened to how he was devoted more to himself and his money than to God and his neighbors.  The Lord did not condemn him, but told the surprised disciples that “with God all things are possible,” even the salvation of someone so strongly tempted to the idolatry of wealth.
            St. Paul had something in common with the superficial righteousness of the rich young ruler, for he had been a Pharisee who had persecuted the Church.  He had been an expert in the kind of self-righteous, hypocritical legalism that Christ so clearly rejected.  The Lord opened his eyes to the truth by blinding him on the road to Damascus, and He then empowered Paul for a ministry no one could have anticipated for a former Pharisee as the apostle to the Gentiles. The Lord had made Paul an apostle by miraculously appearing to him, even though Paul knew that he in no way deserved such a high honor.  Indeed, he referred to himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). But instead of being paralyzed by shame, Paul accepted that “by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain.”  He knew that whatever he accomplished was not somehow his own achievement, but the grace of God working through him.
            St. Paul recognized that the grace he had received was not something he had earned or deserved in any way.  Grace is a divine energy of our Lord; it is His healing mercy that we receive through faith, repentance, and love.  To receive grace is to share in His life as much as is possible for human beings.  When we think of our salvation in those terms, the focus moves from what we can accomplish by our own power and toward what our Lord is doing through us.  Of course, we must cooperate with His gracious presence in our lives, but we must never fall into the fantasy of thinking that the healing of our souls is simply or even primarily about what we can accomplish by trying really hard according to our own designs.
            St. Paul learned that decisively when the Lord appeared to him in blinding light on the road to Damascus.  How could he have taken credit for such a miracle?  And Paul must have wondered often how he had been blessed to move from being a persecutor of the Church to one of its greatest leaders.  In today’s epistle lesson, he reminds us to have the humility to accept the reality of our lives as he did.  “But by the grace of God I am what I am” writes Paul.  He knew that his life in Christ was not a reward for perfect behavior, but a sign of the Lord’s great mercy even for the chief of sinners.  Perhaps that is why, unlike the rich young ruler, Paul did not go away in sorrow when he recognized the weakness and brokenness of his soul.  Instead, he used this awareness to open himself in humility to the Lord Who died and rose again in order to save people who could not save themselves.   
            If we pay attention at all to the prayers, services, teachings, and readings of the Orthodox Church, we will know that we are nowhere near mastering what God requires of us.  Our vocation to holiness is infinite, for we are called to become radiant with the transforming energies of our Lord, shining like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory.   And since the fullness of that transformation means being perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, this is obviously not a goal that we can ever say that we have met. Whenever we need a guard against self-righteousness, we do not have to look very hard in order to find it.
            Many of us, however, do not struggle so much with self-righteousness as with despair.  When we hear such high descriptions of a holy life or learn about the good example of the Saints, we may be overcome with shame at the brokenness of our lives and with a sense of hopelessness that we could ever become pleasing to God.  We may become just like the rich young ruler who could not accept the severe tension between Christ’s command and his own desires and habits.
To do so reflects a subtle form of pride, for shame is essentially the hurt pride of not being able to get over ourselves.  It is a form of distorted self-love that cannot humbly accept that we all stand in constant need of the Lord’s mercy as the chief of sinners.  It is a refusal to forgive ourselves for not being perfect on our own terms.  It is the obsession of judging ourselves by our own standards.  And since the focus remains squarely upon us and not on Christ, it is not surprising that this kind of shame leads to despair.  As long as we are paralyzed by self-love, we will never open ourselves to the healing mercies of our Lord.  And there is no way that we can conquer the power of sin and death in our lives by our own ability.
            St. Paul shows us a far better way to respond to our deep regret about our sins and personal brokenness.  If anyone had reason to despair of finding healing in Christ, it would have been this former Pharisee and persecutor of the Church.  But instead of judging himself by his own standards, Paul used the awareness of his grave sins to open himself to receive the unfathomable mercy of the Lord, which extended even to the likes of him.  He gave up self-righteous illusions about making himself worthy and instead relied on the mercy of the One at work through him.
“With God, all things are possible,” even for someone like St. Paul to become radiant with holiness by grace. The same is true for the rich young rulers of the world, for those who have had their illusions of perfection shattered, and for those who cannot imagine how God’s mercy could ever extend to them.  To become like Paul, we must crucify our shame and despair, confessing with that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). That is really the only way to get over ourselves and in humility to become participants in His great victory over sin and death.  If we choose obsession with our own failures instead of humble faith in the Lord’s mercy, we turn away from the healing of our souls that the Savior extends to those who come to Him with faith, repentance, and love. How tragic it would be for us to reject Him out of the wounded pride that is our shame.  How truly blessed it is to say with Paul that “by the grace of God I am what I am,” even as we trust in the divine mercy that we definitely do not deserve.  That is the only way not to walk away in sorrow when we see the truth of where we stand before the Lord.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Transfigured in Humility: Homily for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost and the 10th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 4:9-16; Matthew 17:14-23

It is always easier to identify other people’s weaknesses than to take a close look at our own.  That is primarily because of our pride, our addiction to self-centeredness that makes us not want to give up whatever exalted illusions about ourselves have taken root in our souls.  It is perhaps the most subtle of temptations, for we can become proud even of how well we think that we confess and repent of our sins. 

            St. Paul blasted the pride of the factions in Corinth by reminding them what a true apostle looked like.  Instead of basking in religious glory, true servants of the Lord looked like fools, weak and dishonored by earthly standards.  Just think for a moment about St. Paul’s life, from his astounding conversion to Christianity to his constant suffering for the Church and ultimately his death as a martyr.  He must have appeared insane to most people in his time and place.  But it was because of the true humility of putting faithfulness to Jesus Christ first in his life that St. Paul could say with integrity to the Corinthians that they should imitate him.     

            In our gospel reading today, the Lord challenged the wounded pride of the disciples, who were disappointed that they had lacked the spiritual authority to cast out the demon and heal the boy.  Imagine how humbling it must have been for them to hear the Messiah say, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you?  How long am I to bear with you?”  He set them straight by saying that they had no faith, not even as much as a tiny mustard seed.  Instead of wondering why they could not work miracles, they needed to humble themselves through prayer and fasting if they were to be transfigured such that they would gain authority over the powers of evil.  

            As we conclude our celebration of the Transfiguration of the Lord today, our Scripture readings remind us of the dangers of presuming that we already shine brightly with the light of Christ.   Too often we assume that success according to some worldly standard is the same thing as holiness.  But when we take a close look at the lives of the saints, we do not see merely a good life according to passing cultural expectations of whatever kind.  Instead, we see people who embody humility in ways that should make us all earnestly confess and repent of our pride.

Since we are preparing through fasting to celebrate the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, it is especially fitting today to remember her extraordinary example of humility and obedience.  The Theotokos agreed to become the Virgin Mother of the Son of God, something that made absolutely no sense according to normal ways of thinking in our world.  She became His Temple in a unique way when Christ was in her womb, and then she loved and served Him throughout His life and ministry, including through His death and resurrection. She is the first and model Christian.  At the end of the Mother of God’s earthly life, the Apostles were miraculously assembled in her presence. St. Thomas, however, arrived three days late.  When her tomb was opened for him to pay his last respects, her body was not there.  Even as she was the first to accept Christ into her life, she was the first to follow Him as a whole, complete person into the Kingdom of Heaven.  She leads the way for us as Christians in this world and in the world to come.

We pray and fast in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition because we want to become more like her.   There is surely no better way to become transfigured by the gracious divine energies of our Savior than to imitate His Mother.  She grew up in purity in the Temple at Jerusalem, where she was fed by angels.  She is the epitome of the prayer and fasting that the Lord said His disciples needed in order to open themselves to His divine power.  That is how she developed the spiritual clarity and strength to say “yes” to the astounding message that she was to become the Virgin Mother of the Son of God.  Of course, her story makes no sense according to the conventional standards of the world.  Even more so than St. Paul, the Theotokos is a “fool for Christ’s sake” because many people then, as now, scoff at her virgin conception of the Savior.   The same is surely true about the miraculous characteristics of her Dormition.

 The question that we all face is whether we will proudly cling to our own illusions about ourselves and our place in the world as we stand before the holy mystery of Jesus Christ, the Son of God Who shines eternally with brilliant light that we do not yet have the eyes behold.  His glory is not yet obvious to us.  That is why it requires faith to fall before Him in humble repentance as we open ourselves to His gracious healing power from the depths of our souls through prayer and fasting.

In order to turn away from self-centeredness to Christ-centeredness, we must become fools who devote time and energy each day to commune with a Lord we do not see with our eyes in the world as we know it.  So we must pray.  We must go against society’s expectations and our own desires by regularly refusing to indulge our taste buds and stomachs with the richest and most satisfying foods. In other words, we must fast.   We must act in ways that will appear crazy in the eyes of many people today, such as reserving sexual intimacy only for marriage as blessed in the Church and refusing to consume pornography or any other media or entertainment that inflames our passions.  We must give generously to the poor, forgive our enemies, welcome the stranger, and refuse to allow stupid distinctions between people—such as politics or race-- to keep us from treating every human being—from the womb to the tomb-- as one created in God’s image and likeness.  No matter what may be popular or appealing, we must sacrifice to live as those being transfigured in holiness by God’s grace.

We must come to terms with the fact that doing so is never easy and will always be a struggle.  There is much in all of us that prefers the darkness of sin to the light of holiness.  We would often rather be miserable in prideful isolation than embrace the healing mercy of Christ in humility.  We would often prefer forms of religion accommodated to worldly success and well-being than to the kind of sacrificial obedience that we see in the Theotokos, St. Paul, and all the saints.  But at the end of the day, we have to decide whether we would rather be part of a “faithless and perverse generation” that cowers in fearful weakness before the corruptions of evil in our lives or like the young Palestinian Jewish girl who changed the history of the universe by bravely saying “yes” to a calling that seemed, and still seems, insane by the standards of the corrupt world.

Let us conclude our celebration of the Transfiguration by opening ourselves to the strength and holiness of our Savior, which shone so brightly throughout the life of the Theotokos.  In order to do that, we must humbly focus on uniting ourselves to Christ as we disregard temptations to self-centeredness in any form and to worrying about the conventional wisdom of our society.  If we want, by God’s grace, to shine with holy light, we must first become fools who, through prayer and fasting, simply want to love and serve our Lord with every ounce of our being.  In other words, we need to become like His Mother, the first and model Christian who has shown us how to welcome the Savior into our lives and to follow Him into the glory of the heavenly Kingdom.  Remember this:  To follow her example is to be transfigured.  


Monday, August 7, 2017

Seeing is Believing: Homily for the Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church

2 Peter 1:10-19; Matthew 17:1-9
           Seeing is believing.  It is one thing to hear an interesting story or to entertain a bright idea. It is far different, however, to encounter an event or to participate in a situation such that we know its truth and are changed as a result.  That is precisely what the apostles Peter, James, and John experienced on Mount Tabor when they were enabled to behold the divine glory of Jesus Christ, Who shone brightly with light as the voice of the Father identified Him as His beloved Son.
St. Peter writes in today’s epistle reading that he did not proclaim “cleverly devised myths” about Christ, for those who beheld the Transfiguration “were eyewitnesses of His majesty.”  The gospels make clear that the disciples were not looking for a Messiah Who was truly divine, but for a righteous national leader like King David.  Peter famously rejected the Lord’s prediction of His crucifixion and denied Him three times.  He was restored as the chief apostle and went to his death as a martyr, not because he had made up stories about a crucified and risen Lord, but because the Savior had revealed Himself to Peter as truly the Son of God.  And he surely did not understand the full meaning of the Transfiguration when it occurred, as it was not until after the resurrection that Christ “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” (Lk 24:27)   Indeed, the Lord said to Peter, James, and John, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is risen from the dead.”  It was only from the perspective of the resurrection, which no one anticipated, that the disciples could understand what it meant for Christ to be the Son of God.
The truth revealed at the Transfiguration may not be conveyed simply in words or ideas.  It had to be seen, heard, and experienced in a way that made Peter, James, and John participants as whole persons in the divine glory. The Lord graciously opened the eyes of their souls, filling them with the divine energies such that they could catch a glimpse of His holy majesty.  He enabled them to hear the voice of the Father, and like Moses before the Burning Bush, they fell on their faces “and were filled with awe.”  As is shown by the disappearance of Moses and Elijah, He enabled them to see His superiority to the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament. They did not simply have thoughts or feelings about Christ; no, they truly experienced Him from the depths of their souls as the Son of God.
The change that occurred that day was not in the Lord Himself, Who is eternally radiant with the divine glory in a way beyond our comprehension.  The change was in the disciples, for Christ opened the eyes of their souls to behold His infinite holiness, to the extent that they were able as human beings.   If we observe this feast simply by celebrating the doctrinal teaching of Christ’s divinity or the great mystical experience of the apostles, we will have excluded ourselves from the full meaning of this event.  For as in all feasts of the Church, the point is not simply to look back at what happened long ago.  It is, instead, to enter into the eternal truth that is revealed.   And on this great day of the Transfiguration, the only appropriate way to celebrate is to cooperate with the gracious divine energies of our Lord so that we also will behold His divine glory.  That means that we too must become transfigured through personal union with the Son of God such that His eternal majesty permeates our existence, making us shine brightly like an iron left in the fire.
As with Peter, who rejected the Lord’s prediction of His death and then denied Him three times, we might well prefer another kind of religion with expectations not quite so high.  Shining with the uncreated light may be more than we want to pursue.  It may be more appealing to follow an imaginary King David in waging war against those we consider our enemies and to set up a social order that rewards those we think are righteous like ourselves.  Maybe we would prefer someone pretending to be Moses or Elijah who would provide instructions that we think good people like us can easily follow on how to live differently from those we like to condemn.  Such sentiments are terrible misinterpretations, of course.  These Old Testament saints never pointed to some easy kind of self-serving religion, but were misinterpreted in first-century Palestine by those who worshiped an earthly kingdom or their own self-righteousness.  If we go down that path, we will end up repudiating Christ as surely as did those idolaters.
The only fitting way to celebrate the Transfiguration is by embracing as fully as possible the countless opportunities that we have to grow in holiness as we open the eyes of our souls to participate in the glory of God by grace.  I have a warning for you, however.  If the thought ever occurs to you, “Gosh, I’m becoming really holy now,” pay it no attention at all and instead say the Jesus Prayer or at least focus your mind on something other than your own deluded thoughts until it goes away.  The more transfigured we are in holiness, the more aware we will be of our sinfulness and the infinite distance between our current spiritual state and the perfection to which our Lord calls us.  The path to shining with light begins with a humble, honest acceptance of the darkness in our lives.  The path also continues along that route.  That is precisely why we need to be transfigured so that we, who are filled with darkness, will become radiant with the brilliant light of the Lord.  But we must be prepared:  the more you step into His light, the more obvious the spots of darkness will be.  The better focused the eyes of our souls are, the more we will be aware of our need for His healing and strength.
A very common temptation, then, is to give up.  Why pray, when our minds wander?  Why fast, when we become obsessed with food?  Why come to Confession, when we fall right back into our familiar sins?  Why try to do anything pleasing to God, when it does not give us what we want?  Well, that is the problem.  As long as we think about getting the spiritual results that we want on our schedule and in our own way, we will not be transfigured in holiness.  We will, instead, remain captive to some form of idolatrous spiritual pride that will blind us to the truth of where stand before the Lord.
If we want to enter into the joy of this great feast of our salvation, we must persistently walk into the light by opening the eyes of our souls to the blinding glory of our Savior.  We will often not like what we see in ourselves as a result, but by stumbling forward as best we can, constantly calling out for His mercy, the Lord will change, strengthen, and purify us.  In ways that we cannot yet understand, He will make us “a lamp shining in a dark place” that gives light and hope to a world that so desperately needs to be healed by union with His gracious divine energies.  The message of this feast is not to lose heart, but to press on in faithfulness.  For the darkness is simply the absence of light and a sign that we have yet more room to embrace the blessed life of Christ.
We celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord already knowing of His resurrection, by which He has illumined even the tomb.  Let this sink in:  There is no darkness in our souls or in our world that our crucified and risen Lord cannot make radiant with His gracious divine energies.  We must, however, do our part by opening the darkness in our lives to His healing light.  Even as we stumble and fall, we must continue to do so with abiding trust in His mercy for blind sinners such as ourselves.  For though we do not yet have the eyes to see it, that is how our gracious Lord will make us shine with holy light for our salvation and that of the entire world.  Let us join St. Peter, then, in living as “eyewitnesses of His majesty.”  For seeing is believing.