Saturday, July 28, 2018

Staying Grounded on our True Foundation: Homily for "St. Timon Sunday" in the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America and the 9th Sunday After Pentecost and the 9th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 3:9-17; Matthew 14:22-34
          Many people today do not have a solid foundation for their lives.  We live in a time and place where it is very tempting to forget that there is more to life than getting what we want, on our own terms and when we want it. The problem, however, is that if we live simply to satisfy our own immediate desires, we risk destroying ourselves and those we love.
Saint Paul told the church at Corinth in today’s epistle reading that they were God’s temple, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ.   As we know from his letters to the Corinthians, they had fallen into so many terrible problems because they had not been living like that at all.  Prideful divisions, gross immorality, and confusion about the most basic Christian beliefs and practices had profoundly weakened them.  They were in as dangerous a position as St. Peter in today’s gospel lesson when he focused more on the wind and the waves than on the Savior.  He began to sink because he had stepped off the foundation of faith into the abyss of fear and doubt.  The Lord said, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” as He rescued him from drowning.
A common distortion of Christianity today is to think that the faith is all about helping us get what we want in this world on our own terms.  That may mean that we want to feel a certain way about ourselves, to be entertained, or to have a better social life.  It may mean that we want a religious justification for doing whatever we want to do or to use God to achieve a political or national goal.  Regardless of how appealing such aims may be, we must never substitute them for the one true foundation, our Lord Jesus Christ.  If we try to use Him as a means to do our own will, we will turn our backs on our true identity as God’s temple and instead fall into the bottomless pit of worshiping ourselves.  If we step away from Him as our true foundation, we will begin to sink just like Peter.
Today, however, we have an opportunity to live more faithfully as God’s temple, built on the foundation of our Savior.  That is because we observe “St. Timon Sunday” in our Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America, as we begin to take up a collection for the relief of our brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran in Syria. St. Timon certainly built solidly on our true foundation as one of the seventy apostles sent out by the Lord and one of the original deacons mentioned in Acts (Acts 6:5).  He was the first bishop of what is now the city of Bosra, and he died as a martyr.  He played a key role in evangelizing a region where our Lord Himself often ministered (Matt.4:25) and where St. Paul took refuge after he escaped from Damascus following his conversion. (Gal. 1:15-18)   Especially as Antiochian Orthodox Christians, we must give thanks for how St. Timon’s ministry enabled the Church to flourish in ways from which we benefit to this very day.  God used his work, along with that of so many generations of faithful Christians in the Middle East, to bring us into the fullness of the faith in the Orthodox Church.
This past week over 200 people died in terrorist attacks in Sweida, where the cathedral of the Archdiocese is located. Under the guidance of His Eminence, Metropolitan Saba the Church continues to do all that it can to minister faithfully and to help those in need. Probably at least half a million people have died in Syria since the start of the present conflict seven years ago, and millions have become refugees or internally displaced persons.  Many clergy and laity have become martyrs and confessors. We continue to pray in every service for Metropolitan Paul and Archbishop John, who were abducted in 2013.
Though they are far away geographically, we are members together in the Body of Christ with our suffering brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran.  Differences in language, culture, and nationality are completely irrelevant when it comes to the Church as God’s temple, for we share a common life and foundation in Jesus Christ.  “St. Timon Sunday” gives us an opportunity to turn away from the self-centered illusion that our life in Him should focus on fulfilling our own personal needs and desires.   Remember that the Savior came “not to be served, but to serve.” (Matt. 20:28) St. Timon offered his life for the flourishing of the Church even to the point of death as a martyr, and we enjoy the blessings of his ministry to this very day.  We will ground ourselves more squarely on the one true foundation of our Lord as we embrace His love and mercy by prayerfully making whatever offering we can over the next weeks to help the Church in Syria.  In doing so, we will show our gratitude to those who have shared the Orthodox faith with us.
It would be possible, of course, to look at the ongoing violence in Syria and conclude that nothing we do would make any difference.  Perhaps responding to such large conflicts is a matter for nations, armies, and international organizations, not the members of small parishes.  Accepting that temptation, however, would make us just like Peter when he was so distracted by the force of the wind and the size of the waves that he took his eyes off Christ, lost faith, and began to sink.   He had lost his foundation at that point, and we will lose ours if we allow any problem or challenge in life to turn us away from humble trust that the Lord remains with us, bringing good out of evil even to the point of conquering death itself.  If we really believe that, then we will make our small offerings to Him each day of our lives, offering ourselves for Him to do with as He sees fit to manifest His love, mercy, and holiness in our world of corruption.
In other words, we must always live as God’s temple, the Church, which is a place of sacrifice.  Our Lord offered Himself for the salvation of the world and we unite ourselves to His great Self-Offering in every celebration of the Divine Liturgy.  The bread and wine that we offer become His Body and Blood, which we receive for the healing of our souls.  If we commune with Christ, then we must live as those in communion with Him as we make every aspect of our life in this world a sign of His salvation.  His Kingdom, of course, does not come through conventional worldly power, but through the faithfulness of those who humbly ground their lives on Him as their one true foundation.
No one thought at the time that our Lord’s crucifixion and burial had any great significance for the future. The deaths of martyrs like St. Timon seemed pointless and foolish to most observers.  As St. Paul wrote, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18)  Through what seemed like the predictable end of yet another failed Messiah, the Savior conquered death through His glorious resurrection.  Now we must have faith that He will use our small offerings to heal and bless the suffering people of our world as a sign of His Kingdom.  That is true not only as we donate on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Syria, but as we take the steps we have the strength to take for the healing of our own souls.  No matter how fierce the winds and the waves may be, we must remain grounded on Christ as our true foundation through humble faith.  That is the only way not to sink like a stone.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Importance of Being Faithful in Small Things: Homily for St. Mary Magdalene on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost and the Eighth Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 1:10-17; Matthew 14:14-22

It is very easy for us to overlook the importance of small, routine things that do not seem remarkable at all.  It is much more appealing to focus on larger matters that we think have great significance.  The problem, of course, is that it is in the seemingly insignificant details of daily life that our true character is formed and revealed.  If we overlook the small challenges we encounter each day, we will ignore what matters most.   

Today we commemorate Saint Mary Magdalene, who has the exalted title of Myrrh-Bearer and Equal to the Apostles.  After the Lord had cast seven demons out of her, Mary became one of the women disciples who supported Him and the twelve apostles from their own resources. (Luke 8:1-3).  She remained with the Lord at His crucifixion and was one of the women who saw the stone rolled away and heard from the angel the good news of the resurrection when they went to the tomb early on the morning of Pascha. St. John’s gospel records that the risen Christ appeared to her as she wept at His empty grave. She was the first to proclaim His resurrection when she told the unbelievably good news to the apostles that she had actually seen the Lord. (John 20:11-18)  Mary Magdalene continued to preach His resurrection for the rest of her life, even to the Roman Emperor Tiberius, to whom she gave a red egg with the words “Christ is risen!”  She then went to Ephesus to minister with St. John the Theologian, where she died peacefully.

St. Mary Magdalene was prepared for her uniquely glorious role as a witness and preacher of the Lord’s resurrection because of her daily faithfulness to the Savior during His earthly ministry.  He had set her free from domination by the forces of evil and she then followed Him with deep devotion, doing what she could to help Him and the apostles.  The daily details of doing so were surely not glamorous, comfortable, or easy. The Savior had “nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9:58) and the apostles left behind their livelihoods, possessions, and families to follow Him.  Like them, Mary surely adopted a transient way of life as they went with Him from town to town and shared in the many challenges of the ministry of the Kingdom.

In the ultimate time of crisis when Christ was nailed to the cross and all seemed lost, Mary bravely stood by Him as He died.  She went to the tomb in the early hours of Sunday morning in order to do the sad work of anointing His dead body as a final act of love. At the time, those actions probably did not seem like grand gestures that would secure her memory as anyone particularly important. They were simply the acts of faithfulness and love that were still available to her. She sought nothing for herself other than to serve the Savior, even when He was dead and no one expected the tomb to be empty.  She did not serve herself at all, but only her Lord.  That is how she was made worthy to see and speak with the risen Christ, and then to proclaim the good news to the apostles.        

Throughout the period of her life in which she followed Christ, Mary probably often felt like the disciples in today’s gospel reading.  They had thousands of people to feed with only five loaves and two fish.  They felt greatly inadequate in the face of the needs of a hungry multitude.  As a woman who had been possessed by demons and was then following Christ in His itinerant ministry, Mary knew that she was not in charge or at the center of attention.  Accomplishing large or impressive goals was surely not her aim.  All that she could do was to offer her seemingly insignificant life to the Lord as best she could, which included supporting His ministry from her resources and learning from Him as she followed along each day, regardless of the challenges.

In our gospel reading, the Lord took, blessed, and broke the bread, and then gave it to the disciples to distribute to the people.  Miraculously, there was so much food that thousands had enough to eat with twelve basketsful left over.  Christ did not require the disciples to figure out the logistics of how to feed so many people.  He did not insist that they do something really spectacular. All that He required was that they faithfully offered the small amount that they had to Him.  His blessing did the rest.

   That is precisely how Mary Magdalene lived her life and became a glorious saint.  The Lord did not require her to do something impressive on a grand scale, but only to be faithful to Him each day in the circumstances that she faced.  Mary knew that she owed everything to the Lord Who had delivered her from demons, and then she offered herself to support Him and the apostles in their ministry as best she could.  And when seemingly small acts of devotion like staying with Christ as He died and then going to the tomb to anoint His dead body enabled her to become the first to witness and proclaim His resurrection, there was surely no one more surprised than Mary Magdalene.

We should learn from her holy and humble example not to ignore, reject, or diminish the importance of the seemingly small opportunities for serving Christ that we have each day.  Our lives do not go from one exciting and spectacular adventure to another.  Familiar routines and responsibilities fill our days.  God calls us to offer ourselves to Him faithfully and fully as we are, not as we fantasize about how we would like our lives to be.  Fantasy remains precisely that, an escape from reality.  If we do not take advantage of the small opportunities for serving Christ that we encounter each day in unremarkable ways, then we will never truly offer our lives to Him. 

The obedience to which the Lord calls us probably will not seem especially noteworthy.  Devoting a few minutes each day to prayer and Bible reading, for example, requires only a small offering of our time, energy, and will.  The same is true for just about every spiritual discipline of the Christian life, from attending services to fasting, taking Confession, and helping someone in need.  We often magnify those offerings in our imagination to the point that we welcome excuses not to make them because we think that they will be so extraordinarily difficult.  When we face that temptation, it is helpful to remember that God does not sternly require an exalted level of spiritual perfection in everything that we do.  We simply need to offer ourselves to Him as best we can in our daily challenges, such as: holding our tongues when want to speak out of anger and judgment; turning our attention away from entertainment, conversations, and thoughts that inflame our passions; and limiting our self-absorption in order to become sensitive to the needs of others.  Likewise, He calls none of us to fulfill every ministry of the Church, but does call us all to use our gifts in strengthening the Body of Christ.   

The same Lord Who fed thousands with a tiny bit of food feeds us with His own Body and Blood in every celebration of the Eucharist.  Those who commune with the One Who offered Himself for the salvation of the world have an obligation to offer every dimension of their lives for union with Him in holiness.  That is precisely how Saint Mary Magdalene became a Myrrh-Bearer and Equal to the Apostles, the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection.  She did not set out to do something great, but simply to make a faithful offering of her life to the Lord. Let us follow her blessed, holy example as we serve Christ with humility in the routine matters of our lives each day.  These are the actions that reveal who we are before God.  

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The World Needs Light, Not More Darkness: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in the Orthodox Church

Titus 3: 8-15; Matthew 5:  14-19

It is not hard to find examples of Christians whose behavior disappoints and scandalizes us.  Whether people we know personally or simply those we know about, it is easy to find ourselves thinking that others hardly seem to be “the light of the world.” There is a powerful temptation, of course, to point our finger at others for not beaming radiantly with the holy light of our Lord.  Before we even begin to think about how our neighbors are doing, however, we must first take a painfully honest look at our own souls.  For when we see ourselves clearly in the brilliant light of our Lord’s holiness, the darkness within us will become quite apparent.  Instead of welcoming into our hearts judgmental thoughts about how others are filled with darkness, we must focus on exposing our own diseased souls to the healing presence of the Lord.  Otherwise, we will become just like the hypocritical, self-righteous judges who rejected the Savior.  

            Most of us are very good, however, at finding ways to hide in the darkness.  Like the people St. Paul described in his letter to St. Titus, we would rather focus on foolish arguments and disputes that “are unprofitable and futile.”  Instead of investing our time and energy in “good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need,” we obsess about problems beyond our control and fall into fantasy about the wickedness of those we consider to be our enemies and the bad things that might happen to us in the future. This way of thinking is simply an invitation to weaken ourselves spiritually to the point that we will shed no light at all in our darkened world.  It leads to shutting the light of Christ out of our souls in ways that result inevitably in slavery to the darkness.  When we live that way, we will be anything but a lamp that draws others to give glory to God.   Instead, we will scandalize and disappoint our neighbors by our poor witness for Christ.

            Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.  They proclaimed that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human, one Person Who unites in Himself both divinity and humanity.  They were not concerned with abstract points of theology, but with the pressing need to reject false teachings that made it impossible to proclaim how the Son of God could bring corrupt human beings into eternal life.  Apart from a Savior Who is both fully divine and fully one of us, we would remain lost in the darkness of this world.  We need the God-Man to bring us into His light.

Unfortunately, there remains much within us that would rather hide from the light of Christ.  In contrast to His brilliance, we do not want our darkness to be exposed.  Consequently, we often would rather that He were merely a great religious personality, moral teacher, or political leader than the God-Man.  Then we could more easily convince ourselves that we are already holy because we serve some cause that operates according to the corrupt standards of our world of darkness.  Or we could rest easy that we have this virtue or have done that good deed, which at least makes us better than whoever we view as our enemies.  How dangerous and subtle is the temptation to blind ourselves to the truth about where we stand before God by convincing ourselves that we are on the side of the angels because we have built ourselves up by putting others down.  If there is no higher standard than how we think we compare to others or how we serve what is popular in our time and place, then it will not be hard to convince ourselves that we really do not need much of a Savior.

If we go down that road, however, we will never become the light of the world.  Our lives will not be different from what is conventional in our society.  Instead of becoming radiant with the holy light of Christ, we will simply embody the darkness that the world already knows all too well.  There is already too much so-called Christianity that does precisely that. No matter what we say we believe, we must unite ourselves to Christ in holiness in order to avoid turning the faith into some kind self-serving religious ideology that will illumine no one.

In complete contrast to such idolatry, the Savior called His disciples to embody a righteousness that exceeded that of the hypocritical religious legalists who had distorted the faith of Israel in order build up their own worldly power.  He fulfilled the Old Testament law in a way that demanded purity of heart, that invited people to become “perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matt. 5:48)  Instead of congratulating themselves for not murdering others, His disciples were to find healing for the anger and hatred that are at the root of broken human relationships.  Instead of resting content with avoiding physical adultery, they were to turn away from lust and all unholy sexual desire.  Instead of believing they were justified in responding in kind to their enemies, they were to love and forgive them.

Christ could speak to His disciples in this way because He is not simply a teacher giving them a code of conduct that they could interpret according to conventional standards.  No, He is the God-Man and described what it means to share personally in His life, to be become radiant with His holy light like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory.  Our Savior, fully divine and fully human, invites us to nothing less than that.

No wonder, then, that as we see ourselves more clearly in His light, we will become more aware of the darkness that remains within us.  That experience often presents the temptation to distract ourselves from the uncomfortable truth that we need healing beyond what we had previously imagined and that we cannot give ourselves.  Some abandon the spiritual life at this point, thinking that there is no hope for them at all.  Others fill their minds with “stupid controversies” that “are unprofitable and futile” as ways of taking their attention off their own brokenness.  For example, being constantly angry at others or identifying the faith with worldly agendas that do not require the healing of the soul are appealing ways of ignoring our need for growth in holiness.

Far better, however, is to use every glimpse of the darkness in our souls for our salvation by opening ourselves more fully to the healing light of Christ.  Frequent use of the Jesus Prayer, regular Confession, and embracing the humility expressed in the prayers of preparation to receive the Eucharist are powerful means of gaining the strength to offer our brokenness to the Lord for healing.  The same is true of asking forgiveness of those we have wronged, forgiving those who have wronged us, fasting according to our spiritual and physical strength, and going out of our way to serve the lonely, sick, and needy. 

Ultimately, our choice is either to remain in the darkness or to enter more fully into the light of the God-Man.  He alone can transform us from those blinded by our usual distractions to those who shine like an illumined city on a hill as a sign of the world’s salvation.  So instead of finding ways to excuse or justify ourselves, let us have the courage to see our darkness in His light and to refuse to let anything hold us back from being illumined until we shine brightly with the Light of the world, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

What We Have in Common with the Great Martyr Procopius and the Paralyzed Man: Homily for the Sixth Sunday After Pentecost and the Sixth Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 12:6-14; Matthew 9:1-8
           It is tempting to fall into pessimism about ourselves.  We know our own personal failings quite well and often find it difficult to sustain hope for our own healing.  One of the many reasons that the example of the Saints is so important is that they are living proof that there is hope for us all in Jesus Christ. Just as He enabled the paralyzed man in today’s gospel lesson to stand up, carry his bed, and walk home, the Lord can strengthen us for a life that shines with holiness.
We remember today Saint Procopius, a high-ranking Roman officer originally named Neanias who was on his way to persecute Christians when he saw a glowing cross in the sky and heard the Lord say to him, “I am Jesus, the crucified Son of God. By this sign that you saw, conquer your enemies and My peace will be with you.”  Disobeying his military orders, Neanias went with his soldiers to Jerusalem. For confessing Christ and refusing to worship the pagan gods, he endured terrible tortures.  While in prison, the Lord appeared to him again, baptized him, and gave him the name Procopius.  He then taught other prisoners the faith and prepared them for martyrdom; their example drew Procopius’ pagan mother to join them in making the ultimate witness for Christ.  When Procopius himself was brought to the place of execution, he prayed for widows, orphans, the poor, and especially the flourishing of the Church before being beheaded.
It is easy for us to forget how absolutely shocking the transformation of the pagan Roman officer Neanias into the Great Martyr Procopius must have been in that time and place.  He had served the Emperor Diocletian in his ferocious campaign against Christians, whom the Romans saw as traitors because they refused to do their civic duty in worshiping the gods believed to protect the empire.  Then Procopius completely turned his back on the religion and way of life that he had known.  He broke the unjust laws of Rome, abandoned his esteemed military position, and took a path that he knew would lead to torture and execution. He now served a Lord Whom the Romans had crucified as a traitor. Procopius’ conversion was every bit as shocking as that of St. Paul, who himself had been a strident persecutor of Christians until the Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus.
Like the paralyzed man in today’s gospel reading, Procopius before his conversion had been stuck in a place of profound weakness.  He had been enslaved to blindly following the laws and customs of his society to the point of persecuting the followers of the Lord as hated traitors.  He had been enslaved to idolatry and the fear of death, and lacked the spiritual health necessary to see the cross of Christ as anything but shameful.  But when the Lord appeared to Him, he embraced the strength necessary to conquer his true enemies. He no longer saw his true enemies as alleged opponents of Rome, but as own sins that had wedded him to serving false gods.  When he responded with obedience to the Lord’s command, Christ strengthened him further through baptism in which he died to sin and rose up into a new life of holiness.  The Savior did for Procopius just what He had done for the paralyzed man, forgiving his sins and enabling him to become a shocking witness of the power of His mercy and grace.
Though we often overlook it, Christ has done the same for us all in baptism as He did for the formerly paralyzed man and Procopius.   As St. Paul wrote, “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom. 6:4)  By putting on Christ like a garment in baptism, we have died to the corruption of sin and been restored to the ancient dignity of those who bear God’s image and likeness.  Our sources of strength as members of Christ’s Body extend to receiving personally the fullness of the Holy Spirit in Chrismation.  In receiving the Eucharist, we are nourished with the Savior’s own Body and Blood to live in communion with Him.  In Confession, Christ Himself forgives our sins and heals the damage we have done to our souls.
The Lord does not call everyone to become a literal martyr or to rise up from being physically paralyzed.  He does, however, call and enable each of us to serve Him as faithfully as we can, given our current state of spiritual health and life circumstances.  That is why St. Paul wrote in today’s epistle reading, “having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.”  We do not all have the same strengths and abilities, and God calls people to serve Him in different ways.  Regardless of the particulars, our common calling is clear:  “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, and serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
If fulfilling those commands seems beyond your ability today, do not despair. We must never excuse ourselves from living faithfully because we still have lots of room for growth in holiness.  It is a form of pride to insist that we will serve God only on our own terms of imagined perfection.  Perhaps the formerly paralyzed man later stumbled and fell under the weight of his bed or because his legs were not used to walking. What is important is that he still moved forward. The martyrs surely struggled to overcome the natural human fear of torture and death in making the ultimate witness for Christ, but they still died for Him.  And we must take our small, faltering steps toward the healing of our souls as best we presently can, calling humbly upon the Lord to sustain us by His strength and make up what is lacking in our souls.
We will never know His strength, however, if we do not wrestle with our own weakness.  If we abandon prayer because our minds wander, we will never grow in our ability to turn away from distracting thoughts as we stand before the Lord.  If we give up trying to forgive people who have wronged us because of bad memories about them, we will never learn to turn away from obsessing about the wrongs of others.  If we simply accept that we are slaves to our desires for food, sex, money, or the praise of others, we will never grow in our ability to direct our hearts to their ultimate fulfillment in God.  Even when we cannot possibly see how we are making any progress at all in the Christian life, we must do what we are capable of doing to serve the Lord faithfully.  That is how, in our weakness and humility, we may open ourselves to His strength and healing.
There is a reference to St. Procopius in the Orthodox marriage service, in which the bride and groom wear crowns of martyrdom.  That is because he prepared his fellow prisoners to become martyrs.  This reference shows that marriage is to be a witness of mutual fidelity and self-sacrifice as a couple makes their life together an icon of the Kingdom of God.  Even though divorce is common and all marriages have their struggles, husbands and wives may still offer themselves to God and one another in ways that serve as an epiphany of our salvation in Christ.  Divorce, widowhood, and singleness present other very profound opportunities for dying to self and pursuing growth in holiness.
Regardless of marital status or any other circumstances, we may all bear witness in our own lives to Christ’s healing mercy as we die to the power of sin and embrace more fully the new life He has brought to the world. Remembering the holy example of the Great Martyr Procopius, let us all obey the Savior’s command to the paralyzed man to rise, take up our beds, and walk.  That is what He expects of us every day of our lives.