Sunday, January 28, 2018

Praying to God or to Ourselves?: Homily for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee in the Orthodox Church

2 Timothy 3:10-15;   Luke 18:10-14

The most dangerous temptations are usually the most subtle ones.  Most people have the good sense to see that murder, for example, is obviously wrong and to avoid it.  But when we do not sense the danger of falling into evil at all, we are more likely to let down our guard.  That is usually when we are most susceptible to spiritual corruption. 
            The Pharisee in today’s parable was apparently not aware of his most serious temptations.  He was going into the temple to pray, and his prayers indicate that he lived an exemplary life.  He was honest in his dealings with others, faithful to his wife, and obedient in fasting and tithing.  His outward appearance was that of a righteous man.  Probably in any time and place, most people would think that his standing before God was secure. That is obviously what the Pharisee thought. 
Unfortunately, he not only thought about himself, he actually prayed to himself.  When he thought that he was addressing God, he was simply praising himself for what he had accomplished.  His prayer was so self-centered that it was a form of idolatry, of simply thanking himself for being so good.  That there is nothing of true prayer going on here is shown when the Pharisee judges others in order to make clear his own virtue.  To thank God that he is “not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” is to fall into the prideful self-righteousness that our Savior so strongly condemned throughout His ministry.  It is a form of spiritual blindness that shuts our eyes to the truth about where we stand before God.
What a shocking contrast the parable gives us with the prayer of the publican, the tax collector whom the Pharisee condemned.  Remember that tax collectors in that setting were Jews who worked for the occupying Roman government and made their living by charging more than was required.  They were traitors and thieves, and certainly not among the righteous of Israel.  This tax collector also went to the temple to pray, but in an entirely different way from the Pharisee.  He had such a strong sense of his own sinfulness that “standing far off, [he] would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”  This despised, wretched man truly opened his heart before the God Who is Holy, Holy, Holy.  And he knew that before such a Lord, all that he could do was to call for mercy as he acknowledged the disaster that he had made of his life.  That his approach to prayer is superior to that of the Pharisee is shown by Christ’s comment at the end of the parable:  “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Today we begin the Lenten Triodion, which means that Great Lent, the year’s most intense period of spiritual discipline, will begin in a few weeks.  During the coming season of Lent, we will prepare to follow our Lord to His cross and glorious resurrection at Pascha.  The kind of prayer that we need in Lent, and every day of our lives, is that of the tax collector.  The kind of prayer that we must avoid in Lent, and every day of our lives, is that of the Pharisee. 
If we pray like the Pharisee, we will never enter into the deep mystery of salvation through our Lord’s death and resurrection.  If it were possible to make ourselves so righteous by our own actions that our prayers would be nothing more than self-congratulation as we condemned others, then we ourselves would have already conquered sin and death. Indeed, we would be gods worthy of our own worship.  Whatever religion that would be, it is certainly not Orthodox Christianity.  Such attitudes clearly have no place in our prayers at any time. A key lesson to learn from the bad example of the Pharisee is that we must be careful to direct prayer to God, not to ourselves.  Our prayers must not be offered to a false god we have made up in our minds in order to feel better about ourselves or help us get what we want.  No, the Lord is infinitely holy and “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) As God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” (Isa. 55:8)  We must never make the mistake of thinking that whatever is pleasing to us is necessarily pleasing to Him.    
The Pharisee made a false god in his own image who would never hold him accountable to the truth and who could never heal his soul. The tax collector did something far more challenging and quite scary, for he exposed his soul to the true God.  When Isaiah had a vision of the Lord in His heavenly temple, he said “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Isa. 6:5)  The tax collector responded in the same way as he prayed that day, for he knew the infinite distance between God’s holiness and his own sinfulness.  He was not praying to an idol of his own imagination who told him what he wanted to hear.  In that moment, he allowed everything about his life to be called into question by encountering the One Who is Holy, Holy, Holy.
            We should never been surprised when it is a struggle to pray, especially when our minds wander in our private prayers or in services.  There is much of us that does not want to be fully exposed to the infinite holiness of the Lord.  It is much easier to stay wrapped up in our own thoughts and obsessed with our preferred pastimes and daily cares than to encounter God.  But to do so is to risk ending up in the same place as the Pharisee.  For if we neglect genuine prayer, we are essentially telling God and ourselves that we are fine as we are. That, of course, is exactly what the Pharisee did when he gave thanks that he was so much better than his neighbors, especially the tax collector.  It is a form of spiritual pride that inevitably leads to judging others, which further weakens us spiritually.
            Instead of turning away from prayer because it is difficult, we must use our struggle to pray for growth in humility.  When we do not want to pray, when our minds wander, and especially if we start to judge or recount the wrongs of others in our thoughts, we should cry out like the tax collector “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” as we turn our attention back to the Lord.  It is really impossible to pray without humility, for to be fully present before God requires us to accept the truth that we are in constant need of the divine mercy and healing.  The more fully we open our hearts to the Lord in prayer, the more we will see the absurdity of setting ourselves up as the self-righteous judges of others.  Remember what He taught about taking the huge plank out of our own eye before being concerned with the tiny speck in someone else’s. (Matt. 7:3-5)
No matter how outwardly upright our lives may appear to be, the words of the Jesus Prayer always state the truth about how we stand before God:   “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  This is a prayer to the Savior, not simply a mantra or phrase to help us become mindful or reduce stress.  When we focus on those words as we open our hearts to Christ in humility, we follow the example of the tax collector in today’s parable.  He knew that he deserved nothing from God except the misery and brokenness that resulted from his many sins.  But by exposing himself as a sinner, with no excuses or distractions, he opened himself to the infinite mercy of the One Who died and rose again for our salvation.  That is how we must learn to pray this Lent, and every day of our lives, if want to return to our homes justified, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  


Sunday, January 14, 2018

In Communion with Christ and One Another: Homily for the Leave-Taking of and the Sunday After Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 4:7-13; Matthew 4:12-17

It is certainly possible to have a letdown after the holiday season.  Though it has its own stresses, a time of year filled with parties, rich food, and visiting with loved ones appeals to most people, if only as a cultural observance. The same is surely true for those of us who celebrated the Savior’s birth at Christmas and His baptism at Theophany.  We enjoyed the beautiful services with their joyful hymns and familiar readings, as well as the blessing of the holy water.   As the season of Theophany concludes today, we may have a sense of loss that this special time of year is coming to a close.  That is understandable, but we will have missed the point entirely of this great feast if we think that we should now simply forget about it and get back to life as usual.
             Today’s gospel reading tells us what the Lord did after His baptism, at which it was revealed that He is the Son of God and a member of the Holy Trinity.  He went to “Galilee of the Gentiles,” an area where Jews lived in a culture with such strong Gentile influence that it was called a place of darkness.  The Lord went there in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”  Christ went there to begin preaching openly as He said “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
             The miraculous events that occurred at the Lord’s baptism were not ends in themselves, as though all had been completed when the voice of the Father declared “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased” and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove.  The truth about Him had been revealed, and the Savior blessed the waters and restored the entire creation when He lowered Himself into the Jordan for baptism by John.  Even with their cosmic significance, these extraordinary events were preparatory for the Lord’s public ministry.  They showed that He is the Light Who shines on those who live in darkness, who remain captive to the fear of death and blind to His divine glory.  In order for people to benefit from the revelation that He is truly the Son of God, they had to respond to His call for repentance.  Christ proclaimed the good news in order for them to be able to respond to Him with obedient faith.
             St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that the One Who ascended into heaven is the One of Who first “descended into the lower parts of the earth.”  The same Lord Who lowered Himself to Hades after His death then rose up in glory and ascended into heaven.  At His baptism, He also descended into the dark waters of the Jordan, into the physical creation itself which had been “subjected to futility” because of human sin. (Rom. 8:20)   The wages of sin is death, and the Savior took upon Himself the full consequences of our estrangement from God in order to conquer them and bring us into the holy joy for which He created us in the first place.
           After the Savior’s resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit, Who descended upon the Lord in the form of a dove at His baptism, fell upon upon His disciples as flames of fire upon their heads, enabling them to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and to minister boldly and prophetically in His Name.  Christ’s followers became the Church, His Body, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The point of this great blessing was not for them to rest content with their personal religious experience, but to strengthen all the members of the Body in their ministries “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  The Lord provided them with spiritual gifts in order to strengthen the Church in faithfulness as they drew the world to salvation, not for their own glorification.
            As we conclude the season of Theophany today, our focus should not be on regretting that we are back at work or school or that the beautiful trappings of the holiday season have come down.  It should also not be on how we have fulfilled a religious duty by focusing on the spiritual truth manifested at Christ’s baptism:  that He is truly the Son of God and member of the Holy Trinity.  Instead, our focus must be on becoming ever more brilliant epiphanies of the Light of Christ in our darkened world.  We do not do that as isolated individuals or on the basis simply of our emotions, our opinions, or even our morality.  No, we do that when we live our lives faithfully as members of Christ’s Body, the Church.  We must use our gifts “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” There is no other genuinely Christian way of life.  
             Contrary to popular opinion, the Christian life is a life in community, a shared existence, and an experience of communion with God and one another.   It is not something that can be pursued apart from the Church.  When we celebrate the revelation of the Holy Trinity, we proclaim that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons Who share a common divine nature.  “Father” and “Son” are relational terms, and it is through the Holy Spirit that we are brought by grace into intimate communion with the Lord.  As St. Paul taught the Galatians, the Father has adopted us through the Son, making us sons and heirs through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.  (Gal. 4:4-7)  Our calling is nothing less than to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  (2 Pet. 1:4)
          Should it be surprising, then, that growth in the Christian life is also relational and communal?  We share in the eternal life of our Lord, not as isolated individuals, but as members of Him and of one another.  That is why our common life must become an icon that images the eternal love of the Holy Trinity, if we are to grow in holiness.  Anything less falls terribly short of manifesting what we celebrate at Theophany.    
After His baptism, Christ called the people to repent and get ready for the coming of God’s Kingdom.  We must repent of thinking that we can serve Him faithfully apart from using our gifts, whatever they may be, for the edification of His Body, the Church.  God has given us different strengths and abilities, and we must offer ourselves to Him and to one another to build up His Body if we are to have any hope of attaining “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
Our calling is nothing less than to become an epiphany of the communion of divine love shared by the members of the Holy Trinity.  We have certainly not ascended into heaven, but we have died to sin in being baptized into the death of the One Who is now seated at the right hand of the Father. We have put Him on like a garment, being clothed in the robe of light.  We are Christ’s Bride, the Church, and He is the Bridegroom.  In receiving Communion, we become one flesh with Him through union with His Body and Blood.  We are also one flesh with one another, with all who commune with Him, for we are members of the same Body.     
So after celebrating Theophany, we simply cannot go back to life as usual.  In order to respond faithfully to the revelation of the Holy Trinity, our common life must shine with the light of God’s salvation in our darkened world. There is no other genuinely Christian form of witness, no other way to attain to “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” than to love and serve our Lord in one another. That is how the worship of the Trinity will be made manifest in the life of our parish. as we build up the Body of Christ.  That is how we will obey the Lord’s command:   “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”


Monday, January 8, 2018

Homily for the Synaxis of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John in the Orthodox Church

Acts 19:1-8; John 1:29-34
            In one way or another, we all struggle with the temptation to be self-centered.  Even helping others can become primarily a way to draw attention to ourselves or to meet our own emotional needs.  Many view religion in this way, trying to use even God to help them get what they want.  That, of course, is simply a form of idolatry.
Today we commemorate someone who completely rejected such distortions of the faith:  the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John.  We do so immediately following the day of Theophany, for it was St. John who baptized Jesus Christ.  As the Lord came up from the waters of the Jordan, the voice of the Father proclaimed “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well-pleased” and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove. (Mat. 3:16-17)  In the context of the Savior’s baptism by John, the Holy Trinity is revealed, thus making clear that Christ is truly the eternal Son of God, the Light shining in a world darkened by sin and death.
When people asked John if he were the Messiah, he clearly declared that he was not.  He said of himself that he was simply “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  Make straight the way of the Lord.” (Jn 1:23)  When Pharisees asked why, then, he was baptizing people, John responded that One was coming “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.”  (1:27)  The coming Messiah, he said, “is preferred before me, for He was before me” as the eternal Son of God.  John “came baptizing with water” so that “He might be revealed to Israel.”
Obviously, John was not focused on himself or achieving any worldly goals. He apparently had quite a following as Matthew’s gospel states that “Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mat. 3: 5-6)  His message had a wide appeal and attracted even Pharisees, Sadducees, tax collectors, and soldiers.  He certainly did not tell those powerful groups what they wanted to hear, as he mocked the religious leaders as “a brood of vipers” and asked “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  (Mat. 3:7) He told the tax collectors and soldiers to stop abusing their authority by taking advantage of others. (Lk 3:12-14) He told his Jewish audience not to rely on their descent from Abraham, but actually to repent. (Lk. 3:8) Given his fearlessness, it is not surprising that John was ultimately beheaded by the ruler Herod Antipas for denouncing his immorality.
He was obviously a charismatic figure who knew how to get people’s attention.  The Forerunner, however, did not use those skills for his own glory; indeed, he directed his own followers to become the first disciples of the Lord.  As he explained to some who seem to have viewed Christ as a competitor to himself, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30).  The Baptist compared himself to the bridegroom’s friend at a wedding.  The friend is happy for the groom, but he is hardly the center of attention. (Jn. 3:29)
This great prophet was a truly humble man who, instead of focusing on his own agenda, was completely dedicated to fulfilling the calling that God had given him.  His vocation was so important that Luke begins his gospel by telling us of his conception by the elderly, barren couple Zechariah and Elizabeth immediately before describing the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.  As the Archangel Gabriel declared to doubting Zechariah, John “will…go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Lk 1: 17-18) When the pregnant Theotokos visited the pregnant Elizabeth, the not-yet-born John leaped in the womb as his mother “was filled with the Holy Spirit” and proclaimed to the Virgin Mary “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  (Lk. 1:41-42)  The Theotokos responded with The Magnificat:  “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior…” (Lk. 1:46ff.)  These passages show that John was obviously going to play an extremely important role in revealing Christ’s salvation to the world.
It would not be easy for any human being to fulfill such a high calling, which is surely why John grew up in the wilderness and devoted his entire life to strict asceticism.  For example, he famously wore a simple garment of camel’s skin and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey.  Through decades of humbling himself through self-denial before God, he gained the strength to resist whatever temptations he faced and to calm whatever passions beset him.  That was how he gained the humility to see that his gifts were not for his own glory, but to enable him to serve God.  That was how he acquired the vision to see the Holy Spirit descend upon the Savior as a dove at Christ’s baptism.  That was how he developed the spiritual clarity necessary to speak prophetically in bold, outrageous ways, even to the point of laying down his life.
John the Baptist fulfills Old Testament prophecy as an angelic messenger of the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.  Unlike all who went before, he lived to see the One Whom he proclaimed.  Through his life of radical obedience, he became a fitting vehicle for the manifestation of the Trinity when he reluctantly dared to baptize the Son of God.
We learn from the Forerunner’s example that it is no small or easy thing to bear witness to Jesus Christ.  If we seek to use our faith to get what we want in this world on our own terms, no matter what that is, we will have nothing in common with John at all.  If we refuse to fight our passions, guard our thoughts and words, and put others before ourselves, we will never gain the strength necessary to decrease in self-centeredness so that Christ’s healing presence will increase in us.  If we are not fully present before God in prayer each day and united with His Body, the Church, in worship on Sundays and feast days, we will lose the ability to serve God instead of ourselves. If we do not deliberately prepare the way of the Lord in our own lives, then we will be of no use in pointing others to the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.
As we continue to celebrate Theophany, we must follow the example of St. John in order to become epiphanies of the salvation that the God-Man has brought to the world.  By becoming one of us and lowering Himself into the waters of the Jordan, our Savior has sanctified the entire creation, making it possible for us to be restored to the ancient glory of His sons and daughters as we put Him on like a garment, a robe of light, in baptism.   The revelation of the Holy Trinity through Christ’s baptism shows that every dimension of our life in this world may become radiant with the divine glory. The blessing of water demonstrates that every bit of creation, and of ourselves, may be set right and brought to fulfillment according to God’s gracious purposes.
In order to find a model of how to prepare ourselves to embrace the full meaning of Theophany, the Church directs our attention today to the Holy  Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John.  He was not powerful in a conventional sense in his time and place.  He did not tell anyone what he or she wanted to hear.  He did not embody what was popular or easy.  But through his humble, obedient life of self-denial, he acquired a holy strength that not even death could destroy.   That strength was not his own creation, but a quality of the Lord Whose divine glory shone brilliantly from the dark waters of the Jordan.
John prepared the way; now we must continue on the straight path in our own lives.  The more that we follow the Baptist’s example, the more open our lives will be to the healing of the God-Man Who was baptized in the Jordan for our salvation.  If we have put Christ on in baptism, then we must live in the world each day as those who have died to sin and risen up in Him to a new life of holiness.  That is how we too may become epiphanies of God’s glory.