Saturday, June 30, 2018

Freely Receive, Freely Give: Homily for the Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian, Martyrs in Rome, & the Fifth Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 12:27-13:8; Matthew 8:28-9:1

            It is understandable why many people are tempted to think that the quality of their lives boils down to how much money they have.  The necessities of life are not free, and we have to be good stewards of our resources in order to care for ourselves and our families. Too often, however, this truth is taken out of context and securing our livelihood becomes a false god.  Far more important, of course, is the need to be good stewards of our spiritual health, for no one else can unite us more fully to Christ through prayer, fasting, generosity to the needy, and vigilance over the thoughts of our hearts. We ourselves have to cooperate with the Lord for our salvation.
            Unlike matters concerning money and what it can buy, however, we never purchase God’s mercy.  We are never partners in a contract with the Lord such that He owes us this amount of grace for that good deed.  No, the healing of our souls comes from Christ’s gracious sharing of Himself with us.  Of course, we must open ourselves to receive Him through humble, faithful obedience, but we are never customers to whom something is owed when we stand before the Lord.
            On Friday, the Church celebrated the feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul, for which we prepared through the Apostles Fast.  When the Lord sent out the twelve Apostles, He said to them, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying, give without pay."  (Matt. 10:8)  Contrary to those who would distort Christian faith and ministry into a means of gaining worldly power and wealth, the Apostles are living icons of the selfless mercy of Christ, Who offered Himself freely for the salvation of the world.  He came to heal and restore every human person whom He created in His image and likeness.  The One Who conquered death for our sake through His glorious resurrection on the third day also healed the sick and gave sight to the blind.  Purely out of love for His suffering children, Christ blessed wretched, suffering humanity by restoring us both spiritually and physically.
            That is precisely what the Savior did for the two demon-possessed men in today’s gospel lesson.  They had lived a miserable life in the tombs and no one would come near them out of fear.  As Gentiles, they had no claim on the ministry of the Jewish Messiah.  Nonetheless, He had mercy on them, casting out their demons and restoring them to a recognizably human existence.  Obviously, there was no way that these two men could have earned or deserved what the Lord did for them.  The change in them was so real and shocking that the people of the area actually asked Christ to leave as a result.
            This kind of gracious ministry that transforms people’s lives continued in the work of the Apostles and has extended even to the present day in the life of the Church, the Body of Christ.  The Holy Spirit continues to empower Christians to manifest the divine love as described in today’s epistle reading:  “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.”
            Contrary to much popular opinion, Christ-like love is not merely a matter of feeling or emotion, but of selfless commitment for the sake of a neighbor.  It requires offering ourselves to other people in ways that manifest how the Savior offered Himself for us.  It is a quality of a relationship in which persons grow in union both with the Lord and with one another.  By sharing His life with us, Christ enables us to become truly human by becoming more like Him in holiness. He shares a common life with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and those who are members of His Body are also members of one another united in love.  Even as He came to save all who bear His image and likeness, He calls us to display His love in a way that invites all to embrace the fullness of their healing in Him.
            That is precisely what Saints Comas and Damien did in the third century as holy unmercenary healers.  They were physicians and brothers from a rich family who gave away their wealth and devoted themselves to healing both human beings and livestock.  God enabled them to work miracles, and they refused payment for their services, asking only for their patients to have faith in Christ.  Ultimately martyred in Rome, these saints provide a powerful example of what it means to embody selflessly the Lord’s love for suffering humanity.  
            Such ministries have continued throughout the life of the Church.  For example, Sts. Mother Maria Skobtsova, Fr. Dmitri Klepinin, and their companions literally laid down their lives in Nazi-occupied France to protect Jews from the Holocaust.  They died for Christ in concentration camps because they disobeyed unjust laws in order to love and serve Him in their neighbors.  Before World War II, St. Maria had sacrificed greatly to organize an extensive series of ministries to serve impoverished people in Paris who lacked the basic necessities of life.
            Like Sts. Peter and Paul and the other Apostles, these saints did not expect or receive earthly glory for their ministries.  Instead, they all died as martyrs who were never considered successful by conventional standards.  Even as the Lord’s Cross appears foolish from the perspective of the world, so did their lives and deaths.  We must learn from their righteous examples not to worry about whether the way of genuine Christ-like love for our neighbors wins the praise of others or helps us succeed according to the standards of our culture.  Like them, we must learn that serving Jesus Christ is not a path to glory in the kingdoms of this world, but instead is how we may open ourselves to the blessedness of the Kingdom of God.  We will not enter that Kingdom according to what we think we deserve or what we think God owes us, but by the same divine mercy that we must embody as channels of blessing to our suffering brothers and sisters. 
            Remember that, after Christ delivered the Gaderene demoniacs, the neighbors were so terrified that they asked him to leave their region.  We may have similar experiences when, like Him, we show outrageous mercy to hated foreigners, scandalous sinners, and chronically needy people whom we are tempted to despise or at least ignore.  We may have similar experiences when, like Sts. Cosmas and Damien, we do not order our lives around making money, but instead around the demands of loving others without expecting anything in return.  We may have similar experiences when, like Sts. Maria Skobtsova and Fr. Daniel Klepinin, we extend the love of Christ outside the four walls of the Church to serve vulnerable people, regardless of nationality, politics, religion, or anything else.     
            As those who call upon the mercy of the Lord for ourselves, we have an obligation to show that same mercy to others.  If we are united with the Savior, His gracious life must become evident in our lives.  He did not come to give us what we deserve, but to unite us to Himself in love by His grace.  If we are to have any part in the Savior, we must become living icons of His undeserved mercy for the healing and transformation of all He came to save.  That is how we, too, may become fully human in God’s image and likeness.


Monday, June 25, 2018

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

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the most unusual and important people in the history of our faith:  St. John the Baptist.  He has the titles of prophet, forerunner, and baptist because he fulfilled all three roles, speaking the word of the Lord as he prepared the way for the coming of Christ, calling God’s people to repentance and baptism, and even baptizing the incarnate Son of God at the very moment when the Holy Trinity was revealed by the voice of the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove upon the Lord in the Jordan.  Even before St. John was born, he pointed to Christ, leaping in the womb of St. Elizabeth at the arrival of the pregnant Theotokos, who contained within her the Savior of the world.  
            John’s own birth was miraculous, as his parents were an old, childless Jewish couple.  We’ve heard that story before with Abraham and Sarah.  But even though Zacharias was a priest actually serving in the Temple when the Archangel Gabriel brought the news that Elizabeth would bear him a son, he did not believe the message.  “How shall I know this?  For I am an old man and my wife advanced in years,” he said. Zacharias used the exact same phrase that Abraham did in Genesis to question how he could know that God would make him the father of a multitude in the promised land.  Zacharias surely knew the story of Abraham, and he should have welcomed this wonderful news with faith and joy.  Instead, he doubted and was disciplined by losing the ability to speak until John was born.
            There had also been silence, no prophetic word from the Lord in Israel in hundreds of years, since the time of Malachi.  Now Zacharias the priest has no voice.    The evil King Herod was not really Jewish and ruled in collaboration with the pagan Romans.  Those holding the three offices fulfilled in Christ of prophet, priest, and king were vacant, silent, or illegitimate.  Now it was time for God to prepare the way for the coming of the true Messiah by means of a prophet like Elijah who would turn the hearts of the people back to the Lord.
            And what a prophet St. John was:   An ascetic who lived in the desert, subsisted on a diet of locusts and honey, and fearlessly called religious leaders, soldiers, tax-collectors, and even King Herod to turn from their sinful ways and to live righteously.  He eventually lost his head for criticizing the immorality of the royal family.  It’s not surprising that one sent to prepare the way for Jesus Christ was killed by those who loved their own power more than God.
            St. Elizabeth hid herself for the first five months of her pregnancy until Christ was conceived, for all the events surrounding John’s birth were preparatory to the coming of the Savior.  Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke as a prophetess to the pregnant Theotokos even as John jumped within her:  “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”   Zacharias himself came to believe the Archangel’s message, receiving his voice back when he wrote on a tablet to confirm that the baby should be named John, even though none of his relatives had that name.
            In his song of praise after the John’s birth, Zacharias blessed God for the salvation that would come in Jesus Christ in fulfillment of the original promise to Abraham.  He must have had some time to ponder what he and Elizabeth had in common with Abraham and Sarah during those months when he could not speak, and he finally saw the connection.  He would die a martyr when Herod’s troops could not find John to kill him in the slaughter of the innocents, when the king had all the little boys of Bethlehem and the surrounding regions murdered.  Elizabeth miraculously hid herself and John in a cave from this terror; after she died forty days later, the boy grew up in the wilderness, fed by angels and protected by God. 
            There’s certainly nothing about John the Baptist that is business as usual.  Not his ministry, his conception, his parents, or what was going on around him.  And that’s precisely the point we should ponder today, for God’s ways are not our ways, His salvation and blessing are not merely spiritually-charged extensions of our own habits, plans, and preferences.  He calls us to a Kingdom not of this world in which barren old married women give birth to great prophets and a righteous virgin carries the Son of God in her womb.  He overthrows political and religious leaders with little babies, pregnant women, and confused old men.   He prepares the way for the Messiah with a prophet who lived anything but a conventional or comfortable life. 
            The same God who worked in such outrageous ways through St. John and his parents continues to operate in our lives, our church, and our world.  And He calls each of us to do what Zacharias originally failed to do:  to believe and obey that salvation and blessing  really are for us, that we have a unique role to play in how the Lord redeems and heals His good creation, here and now, today, in our generation.
            Too often, we have sold ourselves and God short.  We have assumed that our faith does no more than support our prejudices and preconceived notions, and those of our society.  We have rested easy with our faith making us a bit more religious and perhaps less stressed out before life’s challenges.  Too rarely, however, have we taken Christ at His word to make us living icons of the Kingdom, participants in the divine nature by grace.  Yes, our Savior wants to make us perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, to make us shine like irons left in a holy fire.  He wants us to forgive those who have wronged us; to love our enemies; to care for Him in the needy, miserable, and outcast; to refuse to worship the false gods of power, wealth, and pleasure; and to treat everyone who bears His image and likeness with the same love that we would show to Him.
            John the Baptist is a reminder that we won’t be transformed by following business as usual.  We need a radical change, a spiritual rebirth, a new dependence on and openness to the power of a God who does not operate according to our preferences and agendas.  Instead of coming up with the usual excuses as to why we can’t believe and live as Christ taught, it’s time to be shaken out of our complacency. It’s time to recognize that what has brought us weakness, despair, and sorrow will simply continue to make more of the same.  A little bit of convenient religion on the margins of our lives may produce socially respectable people, but not those who manifest the heavenly kingdom even as they live in a corrupt world.
            The Jews of the first century desperately needed a wake-up call, and did they ever get one in St. John the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist!  We still need his shocking message and witness.  And even as Zacharias eventually came to his senses, we can too.  The Lord wants to replace our spiritual barrenness with an abundance of new life as a sign of the salvation of the world.  Let’s take Him at His word and live accordingly.  That’s the best way to celebrate the birthday of St. John.         

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Idolatry Leads to Anxiety: Homily for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost and the 3rd Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 5:1-10; Matthew 6:22-33
Ours is an age of anxiety.  Many people are overcome with worry about matters large and small.  Some certainly do need the help of physicians and psychological counselors in order to cope with their fears.  The sickness of our souls remains, however, at the very heart of all our collective and personal brokenness.  If our souls are not healthy, we will never find the peace that truly satisfies us as God’s children who bear His image and likeness.   
The Lord spoke of the health of our souls in terms of vision: “The eye is the lamp of the body.  So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”   Christ taught that, if our spiritual vision is clear and focused, we will see ourselves and our problems in light of God’s kingdom.   Then we will be able to serve our one true Master and gain strength for being at peace, regardless of the circumstances of our lives.
If our spiritual vision is clouded and unfocused, however, we will not have the strength to see our problems and challenges in light of the Kingdom.  We will instead stumble in the darkness to the point that we make the passing things of this life our constant obsessions, which is a path only to greater worry, anxiety, and fear.  For example, many people make money and possessions false gods for which they will sacrifice just about anything.  Jesus Christ teaches that we are not to worry about our food, drink, and clothing.  Instead, we are to trust that our Heavenly Father knows that we need these things.  “Seek first His kingdom and righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
This teaching does not condemn reasonable provision for a decent life for ourselves and our families.  It does not deny that the necessities of life are God’s good blessings.  Instead, it gives us a clear example of how spiritual blindness enslaves us to idolatry, which leads only to constant worry.  Poverty, hunger, and famine are always possibilities in our world.  Economic depression, natural disaster, war, crime, disease, and disability are obvious threats to having adequate food, clothing, and shelter.  There is simply no way that we can protect ourselves completely from such dangers.  If we make the physical necessities of life our gods, we cannot avoid being consumed by worry about them. That kind of idolatry inevitably fuels anxiety.     
If the eyes of our souls are gaining clarity and focus, however, we will not blindly view life’s necessities as the highest good, and neither will we make the lack of them the greatest evil.  Instead, we will be illumined with the light of Christ to the point that we will see even the worst circumstances of life in this world as opportunities to serve our one true Master.  We will already participate in God’s reign as we learn to trust more fully that our Heavenly Father will provide what we need in this life and beyond. 
            When we struggle to see that God cares for us in the midst of our challenges, we must remember St. Paul’s example of using suffering and difficulty for growth in holiness:  “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance character, and character, hope.”  Not simply wishful thinking, Paul’s hope is grounded in “the love of God …poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit Who was given to us.”   Christ died for the ungodly, including us, and has sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts and souls to enlighten us with the glory of the Kingdom.  In this context, our difficulties and needs are opportunities for gaining greater healing for our souls.  We must use these tribulations to gain greater spiritual strength, clarity, and vision by growing in trust, humility, and patience.
When we are overcome with worry about any problem or threat in life, we must use our weakness as an opportunity to gain greater spiritual strength:  as a reminder to guard our thoughts as we turn our attention from obsessing about what we cannot change to an earnest, humble plea for the Lord’s healing mercy.  That is how we will open ourselves to greater participation in His life and, thus, find true peace.   
Some lose the joy of life because of worry fueled by the love of money; others become miserable because of domination by anger, fear, lust, gluttony, self-righteousness, or other passions.   These and all our other habitual sins are symptoms of our spiritual blindness, of our darkened souls which keep us from seeing ourselves, others, and the entire creation in the glorious light of the Kingdom.   As long as we remain in the dark, we will never see anything clearly and easily stumble and fall.  
            Those who are sick do not need relief only for their symptoms; they require healing from the causes of their disease. They need therapy that goes to the heart of the matter. We will find that kind of healing in the spiritual life by:  opening our souls to the light of Christ through daily prayer; reading the Bible and the lives and teachings of the Saints; and watching our minds and mouths to reject thoughts and words that are not pleasing to God.  We will find it by fasting in order to humble ourselves before the Lord and gain strength in refusing to be enslaved to selfish desires.  We will find it by taking confession on a regular basis as we embrace the mercy of the Lord through sincere repentance. We will find it by:  forgiving those who have wronged us and asking forgiveness of those we have wronged; giving generously of our time, attention, and resources to those in need; and attending the Divine Liturgy regularly as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ as often as possible.
This way of life is for our healing; it is for our good.  It is what is necessary for us to open our darkened souls to the brilliant light of Christ as we learn to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.  It is how we may gain the clarity and strength to serve our one true Master as we come to place our problems, fears, and worries in the context of trust in a Lord Who has conquered even death itself for our salvation purely out of love for His sons and daughters.
Regardless of the form that darkness takes in our lives, we must not despair.  Instead, we must use our weakness and pain as reminders to open ourselves to the light of Christ as best we can.   Stumbling around with our eyes closed is a good way to become disoriented and hurt ourselves.  All of us have probably learned from experience that nothing but brokenness, pain, and worry come from embracing spiritual blindness.  Since God created us in His image and likeness, we will never find ultimate satisfaction by looking for fulfillment in the passing things of this world.  Doing so will only make us miserable and weak.
Let us, then, open ourselves to the healing light of Christ, trusting that He will respond graciously to even our small, faltering steps to put our lives in the context of His Kingdom.  That is the ultimate cure for our worries.  If we trust primarily in ourselves and what we can get by using worldly things according to our own designs, we will inevitably be consumed by anxiety and fear.  But if we gain the spiritual clarity to behold all things in the light of His glory, we will know peace from the depths of our souls.  The One Who dwells in our hearts has conquered even death itself and made us participants in His eternal life.   He delivers us from slavery to the fears that are rooted in our blindness.  He makes it possible for us to experience already the joy of heaven even as we live and breathe in this world with all of its and our problems.  As the Lord said, “Seek first His kingdom and righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Everyday Holiness: Homily for the Sunday of All Saints in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:33-12:2; Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30

            If you are like me, sometimes when you read the lives of the saints you shake your head and think, “I could never do anything like that.” Many endured horrible tortures to the point of death because they refused to deny Christ.  Others denied themselves food, clothing, and shelter in ways that seem beyond the strength of human beings.  Some accepted insult and abuse while forgiving their tormentors and turning the other cheek in a fashion that seems not of this world.  As today’s epistle reading reminds us, the Old Testament saints endured such trials purely in anticipation of the coming of the Savior.  Most of us, who have received the fullness of the promise in Christ, cannot fathom how we could be nearly as faithful as was this cloud of witnesses who point us by their examples and prayers to commend our lives to Christ.

            On this Sunday of All Saints, we commemorate all those who have united themselves to the Lord to the point that they have become radiant with His holiness by the power of the Holy Spirit, including those whose are not formally canonized as saints by the Church.  The canonized saints are like the members of the hall of fame who stand as shining examples of obedience to the Lord. We celebrate them because their lives are such vivid icons of what it means for a human being to become a partaker of the divine nature by grace.  We do not know the names of all the saints, of course.  Not all who are illumined with the divine glory are known publically as such; of course, the point of holiness is never simply to draw attention to oneself.  It is, instead, to be faithful in offering our lives to Christ. Only He knows the names and number of those Who have done that, for He alone knows our hearts. 

            If we want to join their number, then we must attend carefully to Christ’s teachings today in the gospel reading.  “Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father Who is in heaven; but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father Who is in heaven.”  No doubt, these words concern the importance of remaining faithful to the Lord even in the face of fierce persecution.  Martyrs and confessors continue to refuse to deny Him, regardless of the physical abuse they suffer in many countries around the world.  But we would let ourselves off the hook by thinking that this teaching refers only to those who lives are literally at risk for being faithful Christians.  We must also ask whether we acknowledge Him before our neighbors every day of our lives in what we say and do. It is only our pride that makes us think that true faithfulness must be dramatic and spectacular.  Most of us struggle to be faithful even in our routine trials and temptations.  We will fail to unite ourselves to Christ in holiness if we fail to see that the most common challenges that we face are our opportunities to acknowledge that we belong to Him, and not simply to ourselves. 

            The Savior said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.”  There is nothing wrong, of course with loving our parents or our children, but if we are to become radiant with the holiness of God, we must keep even our strongest loves in proper order.  We must remember that our parents, children, and spouses are gifts of God to us. His love is obviously the ground of all love worthy of the name.  Our calling is not to worship people or make them ends in themselves, but to relate to them in a way that fulfills God’s gracious purposes for them and us.  If we make false gods out of others, we will make them miserable and probably drive them away. And since God created us in His image and likeness, we will learn the hard way that we will never find fulfillment in anyone but Him. 

            “People pleasing” is quite dangerous because it is ultimately a self-centered form of idolatry in which we crave the approval of others to the point that we will sacrifice anything for it.  Instead of offering even our most prized and intimate relationships to the Lord for His healing and blessing, we end up offering ourselves to others, willing to compromise our faithfulness for the sake of giving whomever we want to impress what we think they want.  That is not taking up our crosses, but sacrificing our obedience to the Savior in order to serve lesser gods.  And since what drives this attitude is our self-centered desire for the approval of others, it is ultimately a way of worshiping ourselves.

The Lord said that, “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My Name’s sake, will receive a hundred fold, and inherit eternal life.” That is not only a promise for those who have physically given up their families and possessions, but also for those who have made the less dramatic sacrifice of putting Christ first in how they treat and speak to their spouse, children, family members, and friends.  It is a promise for those who have denied themselves in order to have more time, energy, and resources to share with the poor, sick, and lonely.  It is a promise for those who turn away from self-centeredness by offering themselves to the Lord in daily prayer, regular worship, and conscientious fasting.

Too often we think that holiness occurs only within the context of the four walls of the Church.  If we are to take up our crosses and follow Christ, we must also learn to see the infinite opportunities of dying to self out of love for Him and our neighbors in our daily lives.  That means we must take a painfully honest look at ourselves.  For example, we may enjoy filling out minds with entertainment—such as news, social media, video games, film, etc.--that only inflames passions of worry, fear, hate, envy, and lust.  If so, we need to turn away from it as we focus on the words of the Jesus Prayer or at least something else that does not inflame our passions.  If we cannot learn to make such small sacrifices, we will never have the strength to make larger ones. 

Regardless of our age, we likely are close to people whose values and way of life are apparently not consistent with obedience to Christ.  Even as we must not condemn them personally, we must resist the subtle temptation to compromise our faithfulness to the Lord in what we say and do in order to gain their approval.   It is one thing to show everyone Christ’s love as best we can, but another to fail to acknowledge Him by engaging in conduct and conversation that contradict our primarily loyalty to Him.  That would be a form of putting other people, and ultimately ourselves, before God, which is a path only to greater weakness for them and us.  We must all discern mindfully and prayerfully whether we are acknowledging Christ in situations where it is much easier to act and speak as though He were not our Lord.  We must all be willing to take up the cross of obedience to Him even if it means that we will be met with disapproval.

“Many that are first will be last, and the last first.”  The Savior’s statement applies to all who have put Him first in their lives, for doing so requires sacrificing much that the world worships.  It is obviously the case for martyrs and confessors to this very day, but also applies to everyone who sacrifices, even in small ways, in order to seek first the Kingdom of God.  When we direct our time, energy, and attention to serve Christ, His Church, and our neighbors in whom He is present, we take a lower place in the estimation of the world.  When we refuse to sacrifice ourselves on the altars of conventional accounts of success and happiness, we embrace the humility of Christ.  Even when we do so in seemingly ordinary ways, we take step in running “with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.”  That is how, we too, may join that great cloud of witnesses who have become radiant with the holiness of our Lord. Nothing dramatic or spectacular is required, but only true faithfulness.