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.