Sunday, February 25, 2018

Healing for Holiness: Homily for the First Sunday of Great Lent (Sunday of Orthodoxy) in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40; John 1:43-51

It is a common temptation to believe that religion is about subjective matters that have little to do with how we actually live in “the real world.” Many believe that, as long as a faith helps us to feel better about ourselves in light of our daily challenges, it has fulfilled its purpose.  Today we commemorate the Sunday of Orthodoxy and the restoration of the holy icons in the Orthodox Church after the period of iconoclasm.  We will not process around the church after Liturgy today in order make ourselves feel a certain way; no, we will proclaim the salvation of the world in the God-Man Who became fully human for our salvation.  He calls us to nothing short of “see[ing] heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”

That might sound like an escapist vision of wanting to leave the world in the pursuit of mystical experience; but remember that Christ’s salvation is about fulfillment, not escape.  He became one of us, with a body that could be seen and touched, in order to bring every dimension of the human person, and of the entire creation, into the joy of His Kingdom.  He makes it possible for us to share in His eternal life, not by abandoning the world or any genuine dimension of our human existence, but by becoming icons of their restoration in holiness. 

The Saints depicted in icons are examples of human beings who have done precisely that by becoming radiant with the divine glory by grace.  Like an iron left in the fire, their participation in the divine energies has illumined and transformed them.  As described in our reading today from Hebrews and displayed in their lives across the centuries, those who have entered into the holiness of God have suffered mightily for Him.  Regardless of whether they literally died as martyrs, they all died to self by taking up their crosses as they followed the Lord Who offered Himself fully on the cross for our salvation.  They opened themselves to share in His gracious fulfillment of our ancient vocation to become holy. They behold the heavenly glory because they are living icons of what it means to be truly human in God’s image and likeness. 

Lent calls us to follow their example as we follow our Lord to His Passion, through which He set us free from bondage to sin and death.  Our response to Him is not simply a matter of how we feel, but concerns every aspect of our lives, for the God-Man has united the fullness of human existence with divinity.  He calls us to offer every dimension of ourselves to Him for fulfillment in holiness. In Lent, we do that by undertaking practices that quickly reveal how much room there is for healing in our souls.  Our struggle to pray, fast, forgive, give, and otherwise reorient our lives to the Kingdom makes clear what poor living icons of Christ we have become because of our sins.  In humble recognition of the weakness revealed by our Lenten disciplines, we open ourselves to receive the gracious strength of the Savior to turn away from captivity to our self-centered desires. Following the same path as the Saints, we must repent in order to be transformed by the healing mercy of Christ.  God did not create us for anger, lust, or the love of money and power, but to become like Him in holiness. His healing will show itself practically in how we love our enemies, serve those in need around us, and stand vigilant against thoughts and desires that threaten to corrupt us in soul and body.

The Son of God offered Himself for the salvation of the entire world.  His saints have shared in His life by their faithfulness amidst all the daily challenges that we face in this world of corruption. Like them, we may “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” as we embrace our true identity as His living icons.  To be united with Him in the world as we know it is the only path for our fulfillment as human persons created to be like Him in holiness.    Let us use the remaining weeks of Lent to become more beautiful icons of Christ so that we, too, will have the eyes to behold His divine glory.  That is not a path for escaping the world, but the only road to its and our salvation in the Kingdom of Heaven.    

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Transformed by Christ's Mercy: Homily for Forgiveness Sunday (Cheese Fare Sunday) in the Orthodox Church

Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21
          Today we stand right on the edge of Great Lent, for the weeks of preparation to follow our Savior to His Passion begin tomorrow.  We have already been challenged to prepare with the Sundays of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment. Now it is the Sunday of Forgiveness, when we are reminded that we must forgive one another if we hope to receive God’s forgiveness for our sins.
Every time we pray the Our Father, we say “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Christ teaches in today’s gospel lesson that “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  It is impossible, of course, to earn God’s forgiveness or put Him in our debt by anything that we do.   Before His infinite holiness, we stand in constant need of mercy and grace.  At the same time, it impossible to open ourselves to receive His mercy and grace if we do not extend the forgiveness of which we are capable to those who have wronged us.
If we ask for the Lord’s forgiveness and refuse to forgive others, we are in the false position of those who want something for themselves but will not give it their neighbors.  That is a form of selfishness that reflects a lack of love for those in whom we encounter Him every day of our lives.  It is a form of idolatry in which we imagine that we are serving a false god who simply does our bidding rather than a Lord Who calls us to die to self as we share more fully in His life.  Forgiveness is not some kind of commodity that can be hoarded greedily.  It is ultimately a divine energy of the Lord in Whom we participate by grace.  If we refuse to forgive others, we refuse to be healed, transformed, and illumined like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory.  We refuse to be truly in communion with Christ; indeed, we refuse Him.  But if we forgive, even as we acknowledge the imperfection of our efforts to control our thoughts, words, and deeds toward those who have offended us, we open ourselves in humility to become more like our Savior in holiness by the power of His grace.
Like the rest of the Christian life, forgiveness is not simply a matter of how we feel about God, our neighbors, or ourselves.  It is not about whether thoughts of past wrongs or future fears pop into our heads.  It is not about whether we particularly like someone else. Forgiveness occurs when our vision of those who have wronged us is clarified or restored such that we see them not in terms of past wrongs, but as those who bear the image and likeness of God.  Only our inflamed passions keep us from seeing our neighbors this way, for pride tempts us to hold on to anger and judgment that quickly condemn anyone who has ever dared to cross us.
The “quarreling and jealousy” that St. Paul associates with “the works of darkness” will never end in our own souls  if we do not find healing from such distorted desires.  That process of healing is a way of speaking about putting “on the armor of light,” of “put[ting] on the Lord Jesus Christ, and mak[ing] no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”    “Flesh” in this sense refers to our corrupt humanity, enslaved to death and the war of the passions within us. Adam and Eve were cast from Paradise when they stripped themselves naked of the divine glory by their prideful disobedience. They diminished themselves to a life focused on “mak[ing]..provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” We do not have to look very closely at our world or into our own souls in order to see that we have followed our first parents on a path out of Paradise.  When their son Cain murdered his brother Abel, it became abundantly clear how powerful the passions are at destroying human relationships as God intended them to be, even within our own families.
If we are truly in Christ, the New Adam in Whom all the corruptions of the first Adam are set right, we must be in the processing of healing from the self-centered desires that separate us from Him and one another.  The weeks of Lent provide us with profound opportunities to open even the darkest corners of our lives to His brilliant light.  But no matter how strictly we fast, how fervently we pray, or how generously we give to the needy, we will be unable to receive God’s forgiveness if we do not forgive one another.  That is the clear teaching of Christ in today’s gospel lesson.
What greater sign is there of our brokenness than how easily we offend, harm, and disregard one another?  Indeed, we often enjoy doing so and come up with all kinds of reasons to justify hateful thoughts, words, and actions toward others.  At Forgiveness Vespers this evening, we will personally bow before one another as we ask for and extend forgiveness to everyone in the parish. We begin our journey toward the deep mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection with humility and reconciliation.  Since none of us has lived as faithfully as possible, we have all weakened one another spiritually, for we are members of one Body in Christ. Now is the time to grant to one another the forgiveness that we ask from the Lord as we prepare to follow Him to the ultimate manifestation of His forgiving love in the cross and empty tomb.
Instead of wasting time and energy by judging others or holding grudges this Lent, we must focus on participating as fully as possible in the restoration of the human person that Christ has brought to the world.  Since we have put Him on in baptism, we must live in a way that reflects and reveals His mercy and blessing.  The Lord is very clear about what this means:  If we want forgiveness for our sins, we must forgive others for their offenses against us.  The prodigal son had no claim to restoration as a son, and he knew that, but the overwhelming love of his father healed the deep wounds that the young man’s behavior had caused.  If we want to open ourselves to the unfathomable mercy of our Heavenly Father, we must become channels of that same mercy to others, despite our unworthiness. If we are truly “partakers of the divine nature” by grace, our Lord’s forgiveness will become characteristic of who we are. (2 Pet. 1:4)  Like an iron left in the fire takes on the qualities of the fire and conveys heat and light to other objects, those who truly share in Christ’s life will share what they have received with others, especially those they are tempted not to forgive.
Like prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, forgiveness requires a commitment of the will to do what is pleasing to God and is probably not immediately appealing to us.  Like these other practices, forgiveness is a teacher of humility because it reveals our weakness.  Like the healing of any passion, embracing forgiveness is a journey that begins with actions of thought, word, and deed that hardly seem sufficient to the task.  God is gracious, however, and accepts the small acts of which we are capable.  We cooperate with His grace as we do what we can to turn our attention away from the remembrance of past wrongs, to hold our tongues when we are tempted to remind people of their failings, and to say “I forgive you” even when we have a long way to go in fully embracing the meaning of those words.
That should not be surprising, of course, because forgiveness is our participation in God’s forgiveness.  Before His infinite holiness, we cannot claim to have mastered forgiveness or to have accomplished anything simply by our own power.  For us who are so accustomed to the darkness, it will be uncomfortable to open our eyes just a bit to the brilliant light.  For us who are so addicted to our self-centered desires, it will seem impossible not to gratify them.  But when we know our own weakness, then we will know how much we need His gracious strength, which conquers even the tomb. This Lent, let us open ourselves to the Lord’s grace by showing His mercy to others, especially those who have offended us.  There is no other way to follow Christ to His Passion and the brilliant glory of His Kingdom.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Fasting to Serve Christ in "The Least of These": Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgement (Meat Fare Sunday) in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2; Matthew 25:31-46

            Today we continue to prepare to follow our Lord to His cross and empty tomb at Pascha.   Great Lent begins a week from tomorrow, and it is time for each of us to get ready to embrace the spiritual disciplines of the season in a way appropriate to our spiritual strength and life circumstances.  Since fasting from rich food and giving generously to the needy are characteristic practices of Lent, the Church directs our attention today to passages of Scripture that place them in their proper context.
            When St. Paul wrote to the confused Gentile Christians of Corinth, he had to remind his audience of former idol worshipers to restrain their liberty in what they ate for the sake of their weaker brothers and sisters in Christ.  Pagan temples were a good source of cheap barbeque in Corinth, and some new converts might be led back to paganism by the sight of a fellow believer eating meat that had been sacrificed to a false god. St. Paul warned that scandalizing someone in that way was a sin against the Lord and wrote that “if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.”  Notice that the problem was not with the food itself, but with how eating it might harm someone else.  He called the Corinthians to limit their freedom for the sake of others.   
            As we prepare to give up eating meat after today until Pascha, we must keep squarely in mind that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any kind of food.  The problem is not with what is on the menu, but with how we use food in ways that weaken us spiritually.  Remember that, in the biblical narrative, humanity’s estrangement from God is first manifested in relation to food.  Our unruly appetite is a prime example of our enslavement to our own desires, of our addiction to getting what we want when and how we want it. That is a form of idolatry as dangerous as that which threatened the faithfulness of the Corinthians. It may even be more dangerous because it is so subtle, as few people today think of their eating habits as being spiritually significant. 
Especially in a society where food is plentiful and relatively cheap, it is so easy to get in the habit of eating in a self-centered, indulgent way that is not healthy spiritually or physically.  The more deeply ingrained the habit of satisfying our taste buds and stomachs becomes, the weaker we become in our ability to resist other self-centered, indulgent desires.  That makes it harder to put the needs of others before our own or to control what we say or do for the sake of others.  We do not fast in Lent because some foods are unholy, but in order to learn to redirect our deepest desires to God.  Our fulfillment is in Him, not our bellies. Since every human being bears His image and likeness, we should fast in a way that strengthens us in our ability to serve Him in our neighbors, especially those we are inclined to overlook and disregard.  Not only is fasting a powerful tool for the healing of self-centered desire, it will also save us some money on our grocery bill that we can then give to the poor.
          The Lord makes the connection between our spiritual health and generosity to our needy neighbors quite clear in His parable of the Last Judgement.  The ultimate standard of eternal destiny here is how people treated Him in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner.  Neither those on His right nor on His left had any idea of the spiritual significance of their actions, but His identification with “the least of these My brethren” is so real that whatever they did, or did not do, to the miserable people they encountered throughout their lives, they did or did not do, to Him.
Hunger, thirst, disease, crime, and all other forms of human misery as we know them in our world of corruption are symptoms of our estrangement from God.  Instead of living as those made in His image and likeness, we have all followed in the way of the first Adam in prideful, self-centered indulgence.  That is why we are inclined to obsess about fulfilling our own desires while ignoring the basic needs of our neighbors.  The habit of stuffing ourselves with rich food weakens our ability to put others before ourselves in any area of life.  If we want to become those who serve Christ “in the least of these,” we must learn that our lives—including our money, time, and energy-- do not amount to a grand offering to ourselves.  No, we must learn to refuse to gratify many of our inclinations so that we will be able to offer ourselves in holiness to the Lord Who is present in our suffering neighbors.  
Unfortunately, we are usually so weakened by our self-centered desires that we do not treat other people with the dignity of living icons of the Savior.  The problem is not that we fail to work out in our minds that Christ is present to us in a particular person, but that we lack the spiritual strength necessary to serve them as we should. This is the same kind of weakness that we experience before our favorite foods and beverages; before we know it, we have consumed too much. It is the same kind of weakness that we have when we are angry and find it virtually impossible not to lash out.  It is the same kind of weakness that makes it to so easy to choose just about anything over prayer.    The problem is not with our ideas about what is true, but with our souls.
 Lent hits us where we live and there is much in us that does not like that.  But what path other than that of self-denial will enable us to follow Christ to the cross and to embrace the joy of His resurrection as the fulfillment of our existence?  If we do not learn to deny ourselves in humility as we serve our neighbors each day, then how can we truly claim to be united with Christ, Who offered Himself for the salvation of the world?  If we are in Him, His sacrificial love must become characteristic of us in how we live the point that we may say with St. Paul “It is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.” (Gal. 2: 20) 
Even as we fast in a way appropriate to our spiritual maturity and life circumstances, we should think of serving “the least of these” in the same way.  To give up because we cannot meet our imagined ideal of perfection is simply an excuse not to pursue the healing of our souls. We can all pray for those who suffer, provide friendship and support to someone who is lonely and troubled, and treat neighbors with love. We can all become a blessing to someone who needs us.  We can all restrain our self-indulgence in order to grow in generosity.  Instead of doubting the significance of what we can do, we must remember that the Lord accepts even the small offerings we are able to make in humility and blesses them to serve His Kingdom abundantly.
Remember also that we will never gain the strength to serve the Lord faithfully in people who are not close to us if we have not learned how to serve Him in those who are close to us, especially our spouses, children, and family members.  The opportunities for finding healing from self-centeredness are unlimited in the common life of man and woman together with their children and extended families.  That is why brides and grooms are crowned for martyrdom in the Orthodox wedding ceremony.  If we are not sacrificing ourselves out of love for those with whom we are “one flesh,” how will we ever be able to do that for others?  Regardless of marital status, most of us do not have to look far for opportunities to serve Christ in those we know quite well.
          The same is true of our life together in the Body of Christ, for we are all “one flesh” in Him. Doing what we can to bear one another’s burdens and to provide relief of whatever kind for the problems that we face is how we serve the Lord together.  For all our challenges, this little parish has embodied His love in powerful ways both for our members and complete strangers.  If we serve Christ faithfully in His Body the Church even in what seem like the small ways that are available to us, we will advance in dying to our illusions of self-centered individuality and embrace more fully our true identity as members of Him and one another. 
Let us fast this Lent in ways that will free us from bondage to the self-centeredness that causes so much human misery and keeps us from serving our Savior in “the least of these.”  Let us serve one another in the life of this parish and in our families in ways that prepare us to enter a Kingdom in which “the last shall be first, and the first last.” (Mark 20:16)    Let us never forget that what we do, or do not do, to the people we are inclined to ignore, we do to the Lord Himself.   Let us repent by gaining the spiritual strength to reorient our lives to serving Christ in all those who bear His image and likeness.  That is how we, by God’s grace, may have good hope of entering into the Kingdom of Heaven.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

Courageous Humility and Repentance: Homily for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 6:12-20; Luke 15:11-32
Last Sunday, we focused on the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee.  You will remember that the Pharisee was so filled with pride that he prayed to himself in praise of his virtues as he condemned the tax collector, who was so aware of his sins that the only prayer he could muster was a humble plea for God’s mercy from the depths of his heart.  As we prepare for the intensified spiritual disciplines of Lent, it is clear whose example we must follow:  that of the tax collector who returned to His house justified.
            Today we turn our attention to our Lord’s parable of the prodigal son. This young man was focused only on himself at the beginning of the story, which is certainly a form of pride.  His father meant nothing to him at that point other than as a source of money which he could use to indulge himself in the pleasures of the flesh.  That is why he asked for his inheritance and left his family and homeland.  Before long, however, the young man was humbled by the consequences of his way of living when the money ran out and he was simply a stranger in a strange land in the midst of a famine.  He was so miserable that he actually envied the food of the pigs which he was hired to tend there.  Truthfully, he had lived like a pig and now he ended up with them in their filth.   
            At that point, the young man came to himself, recognizing that even the hired servants of his father were well fed.  By suffering the consequences of his actions, his eyes were opened to how he had treated his father; he knew he was no longer worthy to be his son.  He wanted only to become a servant in his family’s home and rehearsed his apology to the old man as he undertook the long journey home.  The prodigal son certainly grew in humility through that process.  He made no excuses for his behavior and knew that he would be lucky to be taken back into the household as a servant.
            His father’s reaction was, of course, entirely different than he had anticipated.  The old man must have scanned the horizon for him every day, for he saw his son when he was still a long distance away.  The father then ran out to greet the son.  Before the young man could finish his rehearsed apology, the father did what was unthinkable:  He fully restored this miserable wretch of a son.  He threw a party and celebrated because “this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
            Pride takes different forms.  Some like the Pharisee think that they are so much better than anyone else and become blind to their own sins.  Others insist on being so self-reliant that they would rather remain isolated in misery than to ask for mercy that they do not deserve and cannot control.  Some would prefer to continue suffering the consequences of their actions than to risk exposing themselves to the healing grace that is beyond their power.  Some who are quite well aware of how miserable they are prefer simply to wallow in the corruption of their sins than to acknowledge that they need help well beyond what they themselves can provide.
            In contrast to that form of pride, there is the courageous humility of the prodigal son.  Think for a moment how he must have felt.  He had no idea how his father would react to him.  By taking the long journey home, he might have been setting himself up for final rejection and condemnation.     Thankfully, he was not so enslaved to being in control or completely self-reliant that he chose the isolation of perpetual suffering over the possibility of even a low level of reconciliation with his father.  He was no longer the self-centered fool who had insulted and abandoned his father in order to waste his inheritance on prostitutes.  No, he had developed the eyes to see the gravity of what he had done to himself and to those who loved him. He risked what little shred of dignity he had left by going home, apologizing, and facing the consequences of actions. His only hope was in his father’s mercy. It took courage for him to face the old man under those circumstances.
            By taking that difficult trip home, the prodigal son put himself in the place to receive the father’s overwhelming love, forgiveness, and restoration.  The father was not interested in exacting justice or requiring the son to pay a penalty.  He did not condemn or embarrass him or even remind him of the bad things he had done. No, he simply welcomed his son back into the family with joy beyond what anyone would have expected.  
            If we take the spiritual disciplines of Lent at all seriously, we will gain a deeper level of insight into how we have used our Heavenly Father’s blessings selfishly for the satisfaction of our own distorted desires.  We will see how we have weakened and diminished ourselves to the point that we have become slaves to pride, anger, lust, gluttony, and many other passions.  We will know that we have debased ourselves to the point that we deserve the full consequences of our actions, hardly being recognizable as those called to become like God in holiness.   
            Through our struggle to pray, fast, give to the needy, confess and repent of our sins, and heal broken relationships with our neighbors this Lent, we will open our eyes at least a bit to what we have done to ourselves in turning away from the blessed life for which our Lord made us in His image and likeness.   That is how we will begin the long journey home to a Father Whose love is not a matter of mere justice in the sense of giving us what we deserve.  If that were the case, there would be no hope for any of us.  Christ used this parable to encourage those who know their guilt and brokenness not to give up hope.   Repentance is precisely the long journey home that the prodigal took in order to return to his father.  It is the journey that we all must take this Lent.   
            If we have any doubt about the mercy of our Heavenly Father, we need only remember that Lent is preparation for following our Lord to His cross and empty tomb.  What greater expression of the infinite mercy of God for sinners could we possibly want?  Christ has taken the full consequences of all human sin upon Himself in order to deliver us from them in His glorious resurrection.  By normal human standards, that is far more outrageous than the response of the father in today’s parable.  We are not speaking here merely of exceptional human kindness, but of the One Who spoke the universe into existence submitting to death at the hands of those He came to save, descending to Hades, and then rising in glory in order bring us into the fullness of the holy joy for which He created us. 

            In Lent, we prepare to journey in Him from death to life, from suffering the consequences of our self-centered addictions to our passions to full restoration as the beloved sons and daughters of the Lord through His glorious resurrection.  So like the prodigal son, let us come to ourselves and return to our Father with true humility.  Without excuses of any kind, let us open ourselves to the great of joy of those who were dead returning to life, of those who were lost being found. That is what the coming weeks of Lent are all about.  Let us use them courageously for our salvation.