Saturday, March 31, 2018

It's Not About Getting What We Want: Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 4:4-9; John 12:1-18

Sometimes we have to wonder what people mean when they call themselves Christians.  So much is said and done today, and has been across the centuries, by those who identify themselves with the Lord with their words, but not with their deeds.  As a guard against self-righteousness, we must criticize ourselves first along these lines, not others.  If the spiritual of disciplines taught us nothing else this Lent, they should have made clear how hard we find it to deny ourselves for the sake of the Lord and the neighbors in whom we encounter Him.  Unfortunately, we usually find it far more appealing to worship ourselves than the One Who offered Himself fully on the Cross for our salvation.
To follow Jesus Christ to His Cross requires what is not appealing at all, for we must take up our crosses and die to self.  How much easier it is to worship the false gods of this world—such as power, pleasure, and wealth—than to join ourselves to His Self-offering “on behalf of all and for all.”  How much easier it is to hail Christ as a conquering King when we think that He has come to give us everything that we want on our own terms.  How subtle the temptation is to look to Him for the blessing of whatever we happen to want, which we assume must be holy and good simply because we want it.  The crowds in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday longed for a new King David to give them what they wanted by defeating the Romans militarily and establishing an earthly kingdom.  In the short space of a few days, however, the same crowds that called out “Hosanna!” would shout “Crucify Him!” once it became clear that this Messiah was not interested in giving them what they desired.  He came to save the world, not to satisfy the wishes of any group wanting to use religion to gain power over others.   
Holy Week is not about getting what we want; it is not even about our prayer, fasting, almsgiving, or repentance.  It is, instead, about the Lord Who purely out of love for us took upon Himself the full consequences of our enslavement to the fear of death in order to deliver us through His destruction of Hades and glorious resurrection on the third day.  The One Who spoke the universe into existence submitted to being nailed to the Cross and left to die as a despised blasphemer and traitor.  He mourned for us all when He wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, before raising him up.  Then He Himself condescended to enter into the tomb as a corpse, as one of the countless dead, in order to bring Adam and Eve into the eternal joy for which He created them in the first place.   He lowered Himself in order to raise us up to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The crowds on Palm Sunday were right to shout “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!”  But they were wrong to think that His kingship was of this world and according to the standards of earthly princes, politicians, and military leaders.  The Savior entered Jerusalem on a humble donkey.  He did not respond in kind to the attacks upon Him, and He certainly did not tell the powerful or anyone else what they wanted to hear.  He did not gather an army or strategize on how to become popular or influential.  Instead, He freely offered Himself as the Passover Lamb in order take away the sins of the world and deliver us from death.  He did not bring suffering upon others, but entered into it Himself.
In order to follow Christ to His Cross and empty tomb, we must disorient and inconvenience ourselves this week.  We must get out of our usual routines and go against our ingrained habits and preferences.  As much as possible, we must turn away from slavery to our earthly cares in order to focus on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.”  As St. Paul put it, “The Lord is at hand.”  This week is the time to refuse to abandon Him as He suffers and dies for us.  It is the time to do the very strange thing of following a Lord Who looks like a complete failure and disappointment according to conventional expectations.  But it is precisely through His apparent weakness that the Savior manifests a strength that vastly overwhelms even the worst that the corrupt powers of this age can do.  For He rises triumphantly over them on the third day.
This coming week is the time to unite ourselves to Christ as He offers Himself in free obedience for our salvation.  We celebrate His entrance as the Messiah into Jerusalem today not in the sense of welcoming a new earthly ruler, but as the One Who opens the eternal blessedness of the Kingdom of God to us all.  He does so not simply as a great spiritual teacher or religious leader, but as the eternal Son of God Who spoke the universe into existence.  Not even the Cross, not even Hades, not even the tomb, can hold Him captive. 
Because of the great profundity and mystery of the Lord’s Passion, it will take time and energy for us to open our hearts to Him this week. Our faith is not about abstract ideas that we can grasp in an instant, but true spiritual knowledge and experience in which there is always infinite room for growth.  In order for us to embrace more fully the deep truth of Holy Week, we must abide with Christ, mindfully refusing to turn away even as He is rejected, condemned, tortured, killed, and buried.  The sobering reality of this week is that there is no other way to prepare to behold the brilliant light of the Savior’s resurrection than to face the darkness that led to the Cross, a darkness still all too present in our world and in our own souls. There is so much that tempts us to look for our fulfillment in the false gods of power, pleasure, and wealth. The best way to overcome the threat of such blindness this week is to turn the attention away from ourselves and to the Lord Who stopped at nothing, not even the pit of Hades, in order to make us participants in His eternal life.

As He hung on the Cross dying, this Messiah prayed to the Father for the forgiveness of the religious and civilized people who thought that killing Him was a godly and patriotic thing to do.  We cannot understand that kind of love rationally, which is precisely why we need Holy Week.  We need to enter into the deep mystery of our salvation so that we will not reject our Christ in His Passion, but instead follow Him faithfully.  That is how we will prepare to embrace the unfathomable joy of His great victory from the depths of our souls throughout this blessed week.   “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel.” 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Lent is About Offering, Not Achieving: Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 6:13-20; Mark 9:16-30

            The most dangerous temptations are usually the most subtle ones because we think we are doing something good even as we are not. When it comes to the spiritual disciplines of Lent, we must be especially on guard against the temptation to make the season simply about ourselves.  If our focus is simply on the quality of our prayers, our fasting, our almsgiving, and our repentance, we will miss the point of this season without even noticing it.    For Lent is not about achieving a new “personal best” in our religious observance, but about preparing to follow Christ to His Passion.  As the Lord told His disciples at the conclusion of today’s gospel reading: “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.”
            There is no way to enter into the great mystery of His Self-offering without offering ourselves to Him in those for whom He offered Himself.  He died and rose again for the salvation of the world; and if we want to take up our crosses and follow Him, we must gain the spiritual strength to offer ourselves for the blessing and healing of the people we encounter daily.  We serve Him in them, and cannot say truthfully that we love God unless we love and serve them.  Love in this sense is not a sentimental feeling, but an offering of ourselves for their and our good.  
                 In today’s gospel reading, the Lord bemoaned the spiritual weakness of the disciples because they were unable to deliver the boy from the power of evil.  He identified their lack of faith, prayer, and fasting as the reason they were not able to help him.  The point was not that they had simply failed to keep up their spiritual disciplines, but that they had failed the young man by not developing the strength to offer themselves for his salvation.  In this way, of course, they had also failed Christ.    
            All of us have relationships in which we are just like those disciples.  We lack the spiritual health to offer ourselves to others for their healing and blessing.  Whether in our own homes, at work, or in passing encounters with strangers, we treat and speak to others in ways that have little in common with our Lord’s Self-offering for the salvation of the world.   We do that because we have not offered ourselves to Christ in humble faith and repentance for the healing of our souls.  Consequently, we serve our own self-centered desires more than the needs of our neighbors.
            The boy’s father cried out with tears to the Savior, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”  Humbled by his son’s suffering and his own inadequacy to help him, this man was not trying to use religion to glorify himself in any way.  With painful honesty, he confessed his imperfect faith to the Lord for the sake of his son.  His concern was not about himself, but about his boy.  He was not afraid to expose his deep pain to Christ, and that was when his son was healed.  
            In the remaining weeks of Lent, we must be on guard against the temptation to view our spiritual disciplines in self-centered ways, as though they were simply exercises in religious self-improvement.   Instead, we must use them to unite ourselves more fully to the Savior’s Self-offering for the salvation of the world.  As we pray, fast, and repent, we open ourselves to the Lord’s gracious healing of our souls, by which He will enable us to manifest His blessing to the people we encounter every day.
We must pray fervently and persistently for Him to heal them according to His mercy, not according to our own desires or limited understanding of what is best. Fasting will strengthen our prayer as we refuse to satisfy our own self-centered wills in order to make room for Him to empower our souls.  We must repent by treating and speaking to our spouses, children, parents, friends, and coworkers in ways not governed by our passions, but by His love. Remember that love in this sense is not simply about warm feelings, but about offering ourselves and others to Christ for their and our salvation.  It does not mean telling people what they want to hear or granting requests that diminish them or us as God’s children. It does mean relating to others in a way that helps all concerned to open their lives to Christ’s healing and blessing.
            When we recognize that we lack the spiritual strength to relate to our neighbors in this way, we must make the plea of the father our own:  “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”  Through such painfully honest humility, we will turn our attention away from how well we think we are doing in our Lenten observance and toward following our Lord in dying to self for the sake of others.  For this blessed season of repentance is not focused merely on making us more religious, but on enabling us to enter into the awesome mystery of the Savior’s Passion. We must offer ourselves in repentance in order to follow Him to His great Self-offering.   Christ said to the disciples, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.” That is where Lent leads, and it has nothing to do with self-centered religious observance. It has everything to do with dying to self for the sake of others. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Not Being Ashamed of the Cross: Homily for the Adoration of the Holy Cross (3rd Sunday of Lent) in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 4:14-5:6; Mark 8:34-9:1

Today we do something that makes no sense at all apart from the resurrection of our Lord, for we adore the Cross on which He died.  The Romans executed traitors on crosses in order to make an example of what happened to people who dared to oppose them.  Death on a cross was a long, painful process in which the victim was helpless before his tormentors and displayed to the world as a pathetic failure by every human standard.  After having been betrayed by Judas, denied three times by Peter, and handed over to the pagan Romans by the corrupt leaders of His own people, the Son of God was nailed to the Cross and left to die.  Had He not risen in glory on the third day, no one would think of it as anything other than a horrible means of death.
             Because the Savior freely offered Himself for the salvation of the world on the Cross, we adore it today as a weapon of peace and a trophy invincible, for by the Cross He has conquered death and made us participants in life eternal.  Unlike all the kingdoms and weapons of this world, the Cross alone does not perpetuate our slavery to the fear of death.  It does not invite us to believe that the false gods of power, pleasure, and wealth are our only hope and must be defended at all costs.  It does not promise salvation through the shed blood of our enemies.  No, the Messiah shed His own blood as He entered into death in order to destroy it by rising in glory from Hades and the tomb.  Instead of causing others to suffer, He accepted the horribly painful end of His earthly life for our sake.  And as He died, He even prayed to the Father for the forgiveness of those who killed Him.    
             Christ had warned His disciples that if they were ashamed of Him, He would be ashamed of them.  He said that as He taught them to take up their own crosses and lose their lives out of faithfulness to Him.  Not to be ashamed of the Savior Who died on the Cross requires that we take up our own crosses as we die to all that separates us from sharing in His eternal, holy life.
           Now that we are halfway through Lent, the challenges posed by our spiritual disciplines should have opened our eyes just a bit to how far we still have to go in not being ashamed of our Lord.  We have a long way to go in emptying ourselves out of love for our neighbors, including those that are difficult to love.  We have a long way to go in gaining strength to deny our own desires in order to put the needs of others before our own.  We have a long way to go in putting aside our own pride in order to offer ourselves to Him in free obedience.  
            Through the Cross, Christ shows us that true life does not come through responding in kind to our enemies or making the protection of our own interests the highest good.  He demonstrates that true power often looks like weakness according to the standards of our corrupt world.  He calls us to destroy the idols we have welcomed into our hearts as we join ourselves to His great Self-offering for our salvation.  
            In the remaining weeks of Lent, we must stop being ashamed of the Cross in how we live.  We must save our lives by losing them in the service of our Lord and those in whom we encounter Him daily.  We must crucify the passions and habits of thought, word, and deed that keep us enslaved to the fear of death.  As we prepare to follow Him to His Passion by prayer, fasting, generosity to the needy, and forgiveness, we must learn to bear our own crosses, for the only way to life is through dying to the distorting power of sin in our souls.  We do that through humble repentance every time that we gain the strength to say “no” to ourselves in order to say “yes” to God.
There is no way around this uncomfortable truth:  To save our lives, we must lose them.  Instead of being ashamed of the Cross, we must bear witness to the One who offered Himself fully on it for our salvation by how we live each day.  That means to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him as we struggle to die to all that would separate us from embracing the blessed, eternal life that the Savior has brought to the world.  There is simply no other way to be a Christian and to prepare ourselves to enter into the holy joy of Pascha.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Overcoming Paralysis Through Humble Repentance: Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 1:10-2:3; Mark 2:1-12

            Imagine how you would react if you went to the doctor to be cured of a disease and were told in response “Your sins are forgiven.”  You would probably look for another physician pretty quickly.  We seek medical care in order to regain our health, not to be forgiven for wrongs we have done.  How sad, then, when we approach Christ wanting only forgiveness without the healing of our souls. 
            Jesus Christ’s deliverance of the paralyzed man demonstrates that we should not ask of Him only forgiveness in the sense of being let off the hook for breaking a law.  The Savior did not come to settle a legal account with fallen humanity, but to restore us as the unique persons He created us to be in His image and likeness.  He came mercifully to release us from bondage to our own idolatrous self-centeredness and all its corrosive effects.  To accept His healing, however, we must open our weak souls to His healing strength.  We must accept through humble repentance the grace by which He enables us to rise up from the comfortable bed of our passions to walk forward in holiness.
            If we had only a written law or a set of expectations for how God wanted us to live, perhaps it would make sense to want only forgiveness for how we had not met those standards.  But since our Lord is the God-Man in Whom humanity and divinity are united in one Person, He enables us to participate personally, in every dimension of our existence, in His salvation.  Though we are by nature human beings and not God, His gracious divine energies enable us to share in His eternal life in ways that heal, restore, and fulfill us as those called to become like Him in holiness.  That, of course, is what it means to become fully human.
            Today we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas, a great bishop, monastic, and theologian of the 14th century.  He defended the experience of hesychast monks who, through deep prayer of the heart and asceticism, were able to see the Uncreated Light of God that the Apostles beheld at the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor.  St. Gregory taught that we know God by participating in His gracious divine energies as we are transformed in holiness in every aspect of our existence.  The point is not simply to have ideas or feelings about God, but to experience true personal union with the Lord. 
            If we have pursued the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and forgiveness with any seriousness at all, we will have learned something about our own weakness.  These practices reveal how hard it is to control our own thoughts, words, and deeds. Struggles with physical health, family relationships, and life circumstances also show us that we are much like the paralyzed man in our inability to overcome so many of the problems that we encounter.  The ultimate paralysis, of course, is death itself, which our Lord conquered in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  As we prepare to follow our Savior to His Passion, we must know our own weakness in order to receive His glorious strength.  
Christ calls us, like the paralyzed man, to rise, take up our bed, and walk forward in a life of holiness; that is how we accept His merciful healing.  There no way to find deliverance from all the maladies that keep us enslaved to sin and death other than to receive His grace by confessing our sins and doing what is necessary to reorient lives toward Him.  If we do not obey His command, we will remain stuck in the comfortable bed of weakness and only become more paralyzed.  In the remaining weeks of Lent, let us all embrace the Lord’s strength by pressing forward in repentance as we open even the weakest, darkest dimensions of our lives to His healing light.  That is how we will find not only forgiveness, but also our fulfillment as unique persons in the process of becoming radiant with the holiness of God by grace.  That is what it means to be healed and to become truly human in His image and likeness.