Sunday, September 17, 2017

Finding Healing Through Sacrifice: Homily for the Sunday After the Exaltation of the Cross in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 2:16-20 ; Mark 8:34-9:1
Today we continue to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  It may seem strange that we devote certain periods of the Church year especially to the Cross because it is so characteristic of our entire life in Christ.  No matter what else is going on in the Church or in our own lives, we are never done with the Cross, for our Savior calls us—just as He did His original disciples—to take up our crosses and follow Him each and every day.  That is not a command limited to certain days or periods, for it is a calling that permeates the Christian life.      
            Our Lord’s disciples, like the other Jews of that time, had apparently expected a Messiah who would have had nothing to do with a cross.  They wanted a successful ruler, someone like King David, who would destroy Israel’s enemies and give them privileged positions of power in a new political order.  So they could not accept His clear word that He would be rejected, suffer, die, and rise again.  When St. Peter actually tried to correct Him on this point, Christ called him “Satan” and said that he was thinking in human terms, not God’s.  To place the pursuit of worldly power over faithful obedience was a temptation Christ had faced during His forty days of preparation in the desert before His public ministry began.  Then that same temptation came from the head disciple, and the Lord let St. Peter know in no uncertain terms that He must serve God and not the powers of this world. To place worldly success over sacrificial obedience was, and is, simply the work of the devil. 
              The Savior told the disciples what they did not want to hear:  that they too must take up their crosses and lose their lives in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  The same is true for us, for whatever false gods we are tempted to serve cannot conquer sin and death or bring healing to our souls.  To serve them is to become their slaves and to receive nothing in return but weakness and despair.  The word of the Cross is that we too must lose ourselves in the service of the Kingdom in order to participate personally in our Lord’s great victory and blessing, both now and for eternity. 
            Though we do not like to acknowledge it, true holiness contradicts conventional standards of success in our corrupt world.  The way of the Cross judges all nations, people, and cultures, and makes clear how they fall short.  The witness of the martyrs from the origins of the faith right up until today in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere makes that especially clear.  But let us not think that taking up the cross is reserved only for those called to make the ultimate sacrifice.  For He calls every one of us to become a living martyr by dying to our sinfulness, to how we have wounded ourselves, our relationships, and our world.  To turn away from corruption in any of its forms is to take up the cross.  We do not want to hear it, but if we want to share in the joy of Christ’s resurrection, we must first participate in the struggle, pain, and sacrifice of crucifixion.
           That does not mean convincing ourselves that we are being persecuted for our faith whenever someone criticizes or disagrees with us.  It does not mean having a “martyr complex” in which we sacrifice in order to gain sympathy from others.   We must never distort our faith into a way of getting what we want from others, a habit of feeling sorry for ourselves, or a means of justifying hatred or resentment towards anyone for any reason.  If we crucify others even in our thoughts for whatever reason, we turn away from the true Cross. Instead, our calling is to follow the example of our Lord in forgiving even those who hate and reject us.  
          The One Who offered up Himself calls us to crucify our own sinful desires and actions, the habits of thought, word, and deed that lead us to worship and serve ourselves instead of God and neighbor.  That is very hard to do in a culture that celebrates self-centeredness and self-indulgence.  In the name of being true to ourselves, many today justify everything from adultery and promiscuity to abusing and abandoning their own children. If any of their desires goes unfulfilled, many feel justified in falling into anger, hatred, and even violence toward those who offend them.  Many people are such slaves to their own desires that there is no limit to their wrath when those desires are not met.  Of course, this is simply a form of idolatry, of worshiping ourselves instead of the One who went to the Cross for our salvation.      
            If we are honest, we will confess that living that way simply makes us miserable, ashamed, and even more enslaved to our passions.   Contrary to popular option, it is a path toward ever greater weakness, not toward strength of any kind.  It may seem possible to gain the whole world for a time by living that way, but those who do still end up losing their souls.    
Saint Paul said of himself, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.”  By dying to his sins, St. Paul became a living icon of the Lord.  Our Savior’s glorification of humanity was made present in his life.  He became truly himself in the divine image and likeness by sharing in the Lord’s death and resurrection.  The same is true of all the Saints, of all those who have manifested in their own lives the holiness of our Lord, whether they died as martyrs or not.      
In our culture, it is not hard to find false substitutes for taking up our crosses and following our Lord.  We may think that simply expressing ourselves is somehow really virtuous.   But true holiness is much more demanding than stating an opinion, “liking” a post on social media, or putting a bumper sticker on our car.  For example, it is much harder to give of our time, energy, and resources to help a troubled or needy person than it is to agree with the idea of helping others.  It is much more difficult to live a life of chastity and purity as man and woman in our decadent culture than it is to call for moral decency in society or to criticize others whose struggles we do not know.  Most of us have more than enough work to do in purifying our own hearts before we start worrying too much about how others are doing.
Regardless of how correct we may be on any issue or problem, words and thoughts alone will not help us die to the power of sin in our lives, especially if they inflame passions such as self-righteous pride or judgment toward particular people.  In order for our faith to be more than a reflection of how we think or feel, we must act in ways that require self-sacrifice and help to purify our hearts.  We must actually follow Christ in our daily lives by taking up our crosses.  
We may do so by enduring sickness or other persistent personal challenges and disappointments with patience, humility, and deep trust that the Lord will not abandon us.  There is no “one size fits all” journey to the Kingdom, no legal definition, even as the Saints include people of so many different life circumstances and personalities.  Regardless of our situation, we all have the opportunity to bear our crosses in relation to the particular challenges that we face. Most of us do not need to go looking for spiritual challenges; if we will open our eyes, we will see that they are right before us.   
Christ calls us all to live as those who are not ashamed of His Cross.  That means that we must take practical, tangible steps every day in order to die to the corrupting influence of sin so that we may participate more fully in the new life that our Savior has brought to the world.  If we do not, then we deny our Lord and His Cross.  If we do not, we worship the false god of self because we refuse to place obedience to the way of the Savior over obedience to our own self-centered desires.  Our ultimate choice is not between this or that opinion or idea, but between uniting ourselves to our Lord in His great Self-Offering and simply serving ourselves. One is a path to life, while the other leads only to the grave. 
 If we ever think that we are serving the Lord faithfully when we are not sacrificing to bear our crosses, then we should think again.  We must not commemorate the Cross only in certain periods of the Church year, but every day of our lives in how we live, how we treat others, and how we respond to our temptations, weaknesses, and chronic challenges.  The Savior offered Himself in free obedience on the Cross for the salvation of the world, and it is only by taking up the cross of dying to sin’s corruption in our lives that we will share in the great victory that He worked through it. He conquered death in His glorious resurrection on the third day. We will participate personally in His great triumph only if we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him.  That is what it means to be one of His disciples.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Becoming a New Creation Through the Cross: Homily for the Sunday Before the Elevation of the Holy Cross & the After-Feast of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 6:11-18; John 3:13-17
Most people probably think of birth and death as totally different and unrelated things.  We often associate one with great joy and hope, while the other is simply a sorrowful ending.  If we think simply in terms of our experience in this world of corruption, then it makes sense to view them in that way.  But if we place them in the context of what our Lord has accomplished through His Cross, then we will understand them very differently.
            Today we continue to celebrate the Nativity of the Theotokos even as we anticipate the feast of the Elevation of the Cross later this week.  That we magnify the Cross should not be surprising to anyone who knows anything about Christianity, for it is through His great Self-Offering on the Cross that our Savior took the full consequences of sin and death upon Himself, and thus conquered them in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  His death is our entryway into the new life of the Kingdom, into the “eighth day” of the new creation.
The importance of the birth of the Virgin Mary may be a bit more obscure, however. Perhaps the place to begin understanding the importance of her birth is with our first parents, Adam and Eve.  By choosing to satisfy their own prideful desires instead of fulfilling their calling to become ever more like God in holiness, they ushered in the cycle of birth and death that has enslaved every generation.  But instead of leaving us captive to corruption, God prepared across the centuries to restore us to the ancient dignity for which He created us in the first place. Joachim and Anna were a righteous, elderly Jewish couple who, like Abraham and Sarah, longed for a child.  God heard their fervent prayers and gave them Mary, whom they dedicated to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem.  That is where she grew up in preparation to become the Living Temple of the Lord when she miraculously contained Christ in her womb.
We call Mary “Theotokos” precisely because the One Whom she bore is truly divine, the eternal Son of God.  We call her the New Eve because she gave birth to the New Adam in Whom our calling to become like God in holiness is fulfilled.  As the God-Man, He united humanity and divinity in Himself, making it possible for us to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  The first Eve chose her own will over God’s and gave birth to those enslaved to death, beginning with Cain and Abel.  The New Eve said “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word” and gave birth to the One Who conquered death. 
As St. Paul knew, Christ’s healing of our fallen humanity is so profound that we become through Him “a new creation.”  The references to Adam and Eve are especially fitting in this context, for we cannot understand the gravity of our healing if we do not recognize the depths of our sickness.  Unlike the Judaizers who wanted Gentile converts to be circumcised, St. Paul saw that corrupt humanity, whether Jew or Gentile, was enslaved to death, the wages of sin.  Our problem is not so slight that we need only a few rituals or rules to improve us.  No, as the Savior told Nicodemus, we need to be reborn.  We need to move from death to life.  That is why Christ offered Himself in free obedience on the Cross:  in order to raise us up from the tomb as participants in the eternal life for which He breathed life into us in the first place.  He did not come to condemn the world, but to save it—and all of us-- as a new creation.
The good news of Christ’s salvation is so glorious that we do not want to leave out any dimension of how He has set right all that has gone wrong with humanity across the ages.  We want to tell this beautiful story in full detail--past, present and future.  Since He had to be a real human being in order to save real human beings, Jesus Christ had to have a mother.  At one level, that is simply a fact of what it means to be human.  But as we know from St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, He also had to have a mother who freely welcomed Him into her life.  He had to have a mother who chose to obey God’s calling to her, even though she could not have possibly known all that her agreement would mean.  Mary did not know how a virgin could become pregnant and give birth while remaining a virgin.  Well, who does?  But her humble, trusting obedience played a crucial role in how salvation came into the world.  He could not have been the God-Man unless he was born of a woman.  He could not have become the Second Adam were it not for the consent of the New Eve.
The Theotokos’ birth resonates beautifully with so much Old Testament imagery.  She was miraculously conceived by an elderly couple whose barrenness represents the pain and despair of a world enslaved to sin and death.  Joachim and Anna could not overcome childlessness by themselves, even as we cannot overcome the grave by our own power.   God’s blessing on their intimate union in conceiving the Theotokos is a sign of the healing of the frustrations of the relationship between man and woman, which also result from the rebellion of our first parents.  Like Abraham and Sarah, they had to wait for a very long time, but finally God gave them a child. As Hannah did with Samuel, they gave the child to God in the Temple, where she grew up in preparation to receive Christ into her life in a unique way as His Living Temple. The promises to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ and extend to all with faith in Him.  The Theotokos’ birth is a crucial dimension of how God prepared for the fulfillment of those promises.  We cannot tell the story of Christ without also telling hers.
 If we want the best example of what it means to become “a new creation” in Him, we need only look to her as the first and model Christian who, like St. Paul, did not “glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”  Nothing about the Theotokos’ life was a conventional religious accomplishment that drew the praise of others at the time.   She is the mother of One Who was crucified as a blasphemer and a traitor. She saw Him on the Cross with her own eyes.  As St. Symeon told the Theotokos at Christ’s presentation in the Temple, “a sword will pierce your soul as well.” (Luke 2:35) But it was precisely through the horror of the Cross that the Savior brought the world into the new day of the Kingdom.  He makes us “a new creation” not by giving us mere rules and rituals by which we can try make ourselves worthy or respectable, but by enabling us to become participants in the great victory He won through His crucifixion and resurrection.
In order to accept that high calling, we must be willing to die to all that holds us back from playing our role in fulfilling God’s purposes for the new creation.  Like Joachim and Anna, we must be prayerful and patient.  Like the Theotokos, we must say “yes” even when we cannot have a full understanding of what it will mean to obey.  In all things, we must unite ourselves to the Lord in His great Self-Offering on the Cross, and refuse to base our lives on anything or anyone else.  We should remove from our lives anything that we cannot offer to Him for blessing.  We should welcome into our lives every opportunity to become more like Him in holiness.  In other words, we should move in Him from death to life.  The point is not to become conventionally religious or morally impressive, but to embrace the salvation He worked on the Cross that extends to you and me, as well as to the rest of the world.   For His death truly is our life, our birth into the new creation of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Rejecting Self-Centered Idolatry Through Love for Christ and Our Neighbors: Homily for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost and the 13th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 16:13-24; Matthew 21:33-42
                      As with anything else in life, it is possible to make religion simply a means of getting what we want.  Self-centeredness is a subtle temptation that so easily distorts even our highest commitments.  We must be constantly on guard against making everything about ourselves, for otherwise we will easily fall into a form of idolatry in which we attempt to use God and everyone around us for our own purposes.
That is what the tenants did in our Lord’s parable of the vineyard.  They did not own the vineyard, but were leasing it out with the arrangement that the landlord would get his fruit at harvest time.  But when he sent servants to collect the fruit, the tenants beat and killed them.  They did the same thing to the next group of servants that he sent, and ultimately killed the landlord’s son because they wanted to take his inheritance.  In other words, they wanted not only all the fruit, but the vineyard itself.  They showed no respect for anyone and would stop at nothing to fulfill their greedy desires.
Christ spoke this parable against the Sadducees and Pharisees in the days leading up to His crucifixion.  Right before this parable, St. Matthew reports that the Lord said that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of God before those who had so terribly distorted the faith of Israel for the sake of their own power.  He had also recently cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem by chasing out those who had made God’s house a den of thieves. The religious leaders of the Jews rejected Him as the Messiah, handing Him over to crucifixion by the Romans, because He was a threat to their influence, status, and goals.  In doing so, the Lord foretold in the parable that they were rejecting the corner stone, the very foundation, of their life in God.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul calls the Gentile Christians of Corinth to a very different way of life. They were not physical descendants of the Hebrews of the Old Testament, but had become their spiritual heirs through faith in Christ.  The promises to Abraham have been extended and fulfilled in our Lord, Who is the Savior of all Who turn to Him with humble faith and repentance. As those grafted into the olive tree of Israel, the Gentile Christians stood on the one true foundation of Christ, the true Corner Stone, in Whom even strangers and foreigners have become “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” (1 Pet. 2:9)
St. Paul exhorts them to “be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, and be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”  As a former Pharisee, he knew how easily even the best religious teachings and practices may be distorted by self-centeredness, pride, and a desire for power over others.  The Corinthians had massive spiritual problems, but he holds up to them the example of “the household of Stephanas” in their devotion “to the service of the saints.”  He reminds the people to obey and honor those who embody such faithfulness.  He stresses the importance of keeping love for Christ at the heart of their common life: “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.”  St. Paul knew that the Corinthians desperately needed good examples to follow, even as he knew how the faith could be so easily distorted by those driven by self-love instead of love for Christ.  He instructed the Corinthians to be on guard against anything that distracted them from loving God with every ounce of their being and loving their neighbors as themselves.   And, of course, the Lord Himself had taught that, if we love Him, we will keep His commandments.  (John 14:15)
The contrast between the selfishness of the tenants in the parable and the way of life to which Christ calls us could not be more stark.  On the one hand, we encounter those who are so consumed with selfishness and disregard for others that they will even kill innocent people.  The Lord spoke this parable against those who rejected and crucified Him in the name of their religion and nation.  They were the respectable religious leaders of their day and enjoyed their position and influence.  They wanted a Messiah who served their agendas, and they could not tolerate One Who showed compassion to sinners, blessed Gentiles and Samaritans, and proclaimed a Kingdom not of this world in which “the last will be the first, and the first will be last.” (Matt. 20:16)   So just as the tenants in the parable killed the son of the landlord in order to get what they wanted, those who had corrupted the faith of Israel conspired to kill the Son of God.
Here we have a reminder of where the self-centered distortion of religion inevitably leads: to an idolatry so profound that it rejects the true God.  It not only refuses to worship Him, but does its best to reject Him completely, to make Him totally irrelevant to how we live our lives.  The danger, of course, is that it is so easy to keep up the illusion that we are serving God even as we reject Him, when we do so in the name of religion. That is why the idolaters of every generation who place nation, race, or any group or goal before the way of Christ may actually believe that they serve the Lord in Whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) In reality, however, we turn away from Him and bring judgment upon ourselves when we proclaim our righteousness even as we fail to see His image and likeness in every human person.  Like the Sadducees and Pharisees of old, we will end up rejecting the true Corner Stone of our life in God if we live that way. 
His Eminence, Metropolitan JOSEPH, has directed all the parishes of our Archdiocese to take up a collection this month for the victims of Hurricane Harvey.  The lives of millions of people have been disrupted by the storm and thousands have lost their homes and livelihoods.  It has been inspiring to see so many average people in boats and trucks doing what they can to rescue complete strangers out of the goodness of their hearts.  Even though our parish is small and can barely meet its own budget, we must all do what we can to give sacrificially to love and serve Christ in those who have become “the least of these” as a result of this great disaster.
Of course, we are not billionaires who can give massive amounts and meet great needs.  Instead, we are like the disciples with their few loaves and fish before a hungry multitude of thousands.  Like them, we simply have to offer to Him what we can, trusting that He will make it an abundant blessing in ways that we never could by our own power.
We must also remember the impact upon ourselves of making whatever small donations we can to help our needy neighbors.  The Church has always known that almsgiving is a powerful tool for fighting self-centeredness, for helping us learn to redirect our love from ourselves to the Lord and our neighbors.  It is a way of investing ourselves in the life of the Kingdom and of offering ourselves for the fulfillment of God’s purposes in the world.  In doing so, we guard against the selfish distortion of religion that we see in those who rejected Christ in the first century and those who reject Him today by worshiping nation, politics, race, money, or any other human goal.  By offering even a small portion of our resources out of love for Christ in our neighbors, we open ourselves more fully to the eternal life of the One Who offered Himself on the Cross for the salvation of the entire world.   He is love, and we unite ourselves more fully to Him when we put off serving our own desires in order to meet the needs of others with humble faith.
So unlike the tenants in the parable, let us offer the fruit of our labors to the Lord out of obedient love.  That is how we will find healing from the self-centeredness that can so easily turn religion into nothing but idolatry.  If we do not want to end up rejecting Christ in the name of a corrupt religion, we must follow St. Paul’s advice: “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, and be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.”