Sunday, August 26, 2018

On Tending the Vineyards of our Lives: Homily for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost and the 13th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 16:13-24; Matthew 21:33-42
I sometimes hear from my students that they think that Jesus Christ was a very nice person who never said anything harsh or critical about anyone.  Those who say that are certainly poor students, for the gospels make quite clear that our Lord spoke prophetic words of judgment to those who corrupted the faith of Israel in their quest for worldly power through hypocrisy and self-righteousness.  As we interpret the parable in today’s gospel reading, we must recognize that its message applies not only to those of generations long past, but also to us.

            Our reading from St. Matthew’s gospel follows the Savior’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  After being hailed by the crowds as the conquering Messiah Who would cast out of the Romans and establish an earthly kingdom, He told the chief priests and Pharisees that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of God before them, for they had disregarded the preaching of St. John the Baptist, even after notorious sinners had repented in response to his teaching.  They were like sons who had promised to work in their father’s vineyard, but then did not keep their word.

By virtue of their knowledge, teaching, and ministry, the religious leaders of the day had a deep obligation to serve God faithfully.  They had, however, become so corrupt that they were like the false prophets and wicked rulers described so often in the Old Testament.  Their predecessors had worshiped foreign gods, exploited the poor and weak, and killed those who dared to criticize them or stand in their way.   Christ identified His opponents in the days leading up to His crucifixion with those of previous generations who had thought nothing of murdering righteous people who truly spoke the word of the Lord.  He foretold His own death at the hands of those who would not even respect the Son of God in Whom all the promises to Abraham are fulfilled.  The chief priests and Pharisees knew that the Savior had told this and others parables against them, but they did not arrest Him at that time because they were afraid of the crowds of people who thought that He was a prophet.

            Because they rejected Him, the Lord said in the verse immediately following this reading, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (v. 44) Here He points to the coming of the Church in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, for those with no ancestral connection to Israel are now “grafted in” as branches of the olive tree whose roots extend back to the covenant with Abraham.  (Rom. 11: 17)  St. Paul warned Gentile Christians not to take pride in their status in relation to Jews who had rejected the Messiah, for “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.” (11: 20-21)

            By faith in Christ, we have become the new tenants of the vineyard “who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”  Remember that that is precisely what the original tenants refused to do.  Instead of tending the vineyard and offering its fruit to their rightful owner, they wanted everything for themselves and even killed the son of the owner in order to take his inheritance.  We must read this passage as a reminder that embracing our membership in the Body of Christ requires offering all the blessings of life to Him.  It requires a refusal to distort our faith into a way of excusing ourselves from the exacting demands of accepting our high calling as those who have inherited by grace the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham in our Savior.  He is the vine and we are the branches, which means that we are organically united to Him and one another.  Our entire life in the world, then, must be taken up into His great Self-Offering on the Cross for our salvation.  Instead of being enslaved to getting what we want, we must die to self-centeredness as we learn to offer all the blessings of this life back to the Lord for Him to bless and multiply for the growth of His Kingdom as He sees fit.

            If we do not, we will fall into the same spiritual trap as the chief priests and Pharisees who rejected the Lord and handed him over to the Romans for crucifixion.   Instead of humbly accepting the great blessings of the law and the prophets, they used them to gain worldly power over other people.  They corrupted them in order to condemn the sins of others, while failing even to acknowledge their own.   They blinded themselves spiritually to the point that they not only failed to recognize their own Messiah, but actually wanted Him dead because He was such a threat to their desires.  We will do the same thing if we attempt to identify our Lord’s Kingdom with a nation, a race, or a culture; doing so makes it inevitable that we will see those who stand in the way of our worldly agendas as God’s enemies to be hated and condemned.  We will then become blind, not only to our own sins, but also to how even those the world tells us are our enemies bear the Lord’s image and likeness.  We will fail to see that how we treat them as Christ’s living icons is how we treat Him.    

As the Lord said in the parable, ‘“The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.’”  Of course, He was speaking of Himself.  As St. Paul wrote to the Gentile Christians of Ephesus, “You are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone,  in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (Eph. 2:19-22)  The Hebrews of old were accountable for being faithful to what had been revealed to them.  Now we, who have the fullness of the promise and share in the life of Christ by grace, are responsible to a much higher standard.  We are responsible for living as those solidly grounded on the one true foundation of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, in Whose Kingdom the racial, national, and political divisions of this world are irrelevant.

If we do not so live, however, the consequences are as clear as the prophetic word He spoke to the chief priests and Pharisees:  Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” ( v. 44)  If we do not share in the life of Christ, we will revert to being strangers and foreigners from the Lord’s vineyard.  We will have as little life in us as branches that have fallen off the tree.   

The only way to avoid such a fate is to live daily as those in communion with Christ.  The fruit of the vine finds its fulfillment in the wine that becomes His Blood.  We must offer all the fruits of our lives to the Savior in order to enter into the joy of His Kingdom.  Such an offering requires dying to self out of love for God and neighbor in a way that destroys self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and the tendency to use religion for worldly gain of any kind. It requires being so solidly rooted in the Lord that we become living icons of His holiness and grace, especially to those we find it very hard to love and serve. Though none of us is worthy of this high calling, it remains our vocation as new tenants of the vineyard to “give Him the fruits in their seasons.”  It is how we must live as those whose only foundation is the Savior Who fulfilled and extended the promises to Abraham even to people as unlikely as you and me.    

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Humble Faith, Not Legalism: Homily for the 12 Sunday After Pentecost, the 12th Sunday of Matthew, and the After-Feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos

1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Matthew 19:16-26

A common temptation for religious people is to fall into a form of a legalistic self-righteousness.  It is appealing to assume that what God requires may be boiled down to a simple code of behavior such that those who obey it earn a reward, while those who do not merit condemnation.  People who are not religious may certainly have their own forms of legalistic self-righteousness, but our immediate concern is to address our own temptations.  For the prideful attitude that we have somehow fulfilled all that God requires of us is simply deadly for the Christian life.
            The Jews of first-century Palestine typically viewed people like the rich young man in today’s gospel reading as those who were very pleasing to God.  Not only does the man claim that he has obeyed the Old Testament commandments, but his wealth was understood to be God’s blessing upon him as a righteous person.  That is why the disciples were astonished when Christ said that it was very hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Perhaps this man was like a Christian today who lives according to the teachings of his church and is successful in his business and family life.  He was a model citizen of his community and surely knew that.

            The distance between conventional religious and cultural success and finding eternal life remains great, nonetheless.  Perhaps that is why the rich young man asked the Lord what he needed to do in order to gain eternal life.  He must have sensed that something was missing or that there was more required to enter into the Kingdom.  That is when the Savior gave him a challenge well outside of the man’s comfort zone:  “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  Since he loved his possessions, he went away sorrowful.  For the Lord gave him a requirement that exposed his deep love for material things and the status and comfort that they provide.

He revealed the man’s spiritual weakness and brokenness by challenging him personally and powerfully.  Remember that the Savior identified the greatest commandment as:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your mind…And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  (Matt. 22: 37-39) By giving away his beloved wealth to the poor and leaving behind his privileged position to follow Christ, the man would show that he truly loved God and neighbor.  Given his particular spiritual maladies, those steps were necessary for his healing.  He lacked the strength, however, to obey that command, which is why he went away in sorrow.  This fellow’s recognition of his weakness, however, did not necessarily cut him off from the hope of eternal life, for as Christ said, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

The contrast between this rich man and St. Paul is stark.  As he wrote in today’s epistle passage, St. Paul knew that he was “unfit to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”  Elsewhere he refers to himself as the chief of sinners upon whom God had mercy as an example of His overwhelming grace. (1 Tim. 1:15-16)  Before his conversion, Paul had been “faultless” in obeying the Old Testament law and a zealous Pharisee. (Philippians 3:6)  He had come to recognize, however, that the confidence he had had in his own religious achievements was simply garbage to be left behind when he embraced the true righteousness of God through faith in Christ.

As someone who had previously persecuted Christians, St. Paul simply acknowledges that “by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain.”  He did not go away sorrowfully when the Lord appeared to him in blinding light on the road to Damascus with the words, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4)   He obeyed and said, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” before being baptized and beginning his very unlikely ministry at the constant risk of his life.  Instead of trying to build on whatever righteousness he had achieved by obeying the Old Testament commandments, he threw himself entirely on the mercy of the Lord, trusting that the One Who died and rose again for the salvation of the world was able to heal his soul in ways that he had never been able to do through his own conventional religious observance.

St. Paul died as a martyr and his ministry involved deep struggles of so many kinds, including imprisonment, beatings, narrow escapes from death, and arguments with those who sought to corrupt and weaken the churches he had established.  Who would not look at this former Pharisee who became the great apostle to the Gentiles and say, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”? His unique and exalted ministry which has so profoundly shaped the Church to this day was not simply the achievement of a gifted religious personality.  It was the gracious blessing of God at work through a person who had no illusions about his own brokenness and weakness, who had learned not to trust in his own ability to earn anything from God.  His humility made it possible for God to work in him what Paul could never have accomplished on his own.
The Savior’s exacting statement to the rich young man was an invitation to acquire the same spiritual clarity about his life.  By revealing to him the weaknesses of his soul, Christ opened his eyes just a bit to the inadequacy of viewing his relationship with God in terms of a list of legal requirements to be checked off.  He needed much more than the legal advice of a rabbi who could clarify the expectations.  His inability to demonstrate his love for God and neighbor by obeying Christ’s command showed that he needed healing that he could not give himself.  He needed the God-Man Who conquers death through His glorious resurrection and makes us participants by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity.  He fulfills our ancient vocation to become like God in holiness by healing our souls in ways that a set of legal or moral standards never could.

Those who are so strongly tempted to trust in their worldly accomplishments and comforts, or in the admiration of others for their supposedly exemplary lives, often need a bold, shocking message or course of events to wake them up from their complacency.  If we will open the eyes of our hearts just a bit to the light of Christ, however, we will see that none of us may claim to have mastered God’s requirements or to earn our way into the Kingdom based on our good deeds.  Our calling is not simply to be religious or moral people, but truly to become brilliant with the divine glory.  Before such a high calling, we must not go away sorrowful due to our inadequacy, but should instead fall on our faces and voice the Jesus Prayer from the depths of our hearts.  We must obey as best we presently have the strength to do, using the awareness of our weakness to open ourselves more fully to our Lord’s grace through our humility. 

As we continue to celebrate the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, we should look to her as the best example of a humble, obedient person united to Christ in love.  She became the Living Temple of the Lord in a shockingly unconventional manner when she accepted the Savior into her life as His virgin mother. She did not go away in sorrow upon hearing the message of the Archangel, but said, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.  Let it be to me according to your word.”  She served Him the rest of her life, even standing by His Cross and going with the other women to anoint His body on the morning of Pascha.  In her “falling asleep,” she shows us that such a life of loving obedience leads to the Kingdom of Heaven, not through legalism, but by humble, complete receptivity to the grace of her Son, in Whom all things are possible.  Let us all follow her example for the healing of souls.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Personal Transfiguration in Holiness: Homily for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost, the 11th Sunday of Matthew, and the After-Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ

1 Corinthians 9:2-12; Matthew 18:23-35

There is a lot going on the life of the Church this time of year.  Even as we continue to celebrate our Lord’s Transfiguration, we prepare by fasting to observe the Feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos during the coming week.  In order to enter into the good news proclaimed through these feasts, the eyes of our souls must be cleansed so that we will be able to behold and participate in the brilliant divine glory of our Lord.  We must become radiant with God’s gracious divine energies as we follow the Theotokos in uniting ourselves more fully to the Lord in holiness.  She was the first to receive Christ when she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” in response to the message of the Archangel that God had chosen her to become the virgin mother of His Son.  As we celebrate at her Dormition or “falling asleep,” she was also the first to follow Him as a whole, embodied person into the Kingdom of Heaven, for her tomb was found empty three days after her death.      
             The Theotokos provides the best model of what it means for a human being to be transfigured by personal participation in the grace of God.  She freely chose to accept the Savior into her life in a unique way as His mother, and she knew the pain and joy of offering herself fully to the One Who conquered death by His own death and glorious resurrection.  She counted for nothing in the eyes of the kingdoms of this world, but gained the unique dignity of the Mother of God, His Living Temple, when she contained Him in her womb.  The Theotokos then made the rest of her life an ongoing offering to the Lord.  How fitting, then, that her own death became an icon of the promise of eternal life for those united to Christ in holiness. 
             Unfortunately, the world has too much religion that does not lead people to transfiguration in holiness.  If we think that Christianity provides simply theological ideas, moral precepts, or directions about how to conduct religious services, then we will fail to behold and participate in the glory of our Lord.  For all of those aspects of religion, as laudable as they may be, can be affirmed and practiced in ways that do not make us “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  Christ revealed His divine glory to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor so that they would know He is truly God and the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament.  The voice of the Father proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well-pleased.  Hear Him.”  (Matt. 17:5)
             Unlike a prophet or teacher of law, the Savior did not come to provide instructions that would make us a bit more pious or moral.  The One Who revealed His divine glory in brilliant, blinding light came to make us shine in holiness like an iron left in the fire.  He came to transform us so that we may participate personally in His gracious divine energies in fulfillment of our basic human calling to become like God in holiness.  The Savior called His disciples to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matt. 5:48)  He cited the Psalms: “You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High.” (Psalm 82:6; Jn. 10:34)  While we remain human persons by nature, Christ enables us to become like Him by grace.  That is why theosis is an eternal process, for God’s holiness is truly infinite. 
            The point of our faith is not, then, simply to gain forgiveness for ourselves or anything else that we might want.  Like the wicked servant in today’s gospel reading, we will shut ourselves off from participating in the gracious mercy of the Lord if we think that forgiveness is something we may receive without being transformed personally.  That fellow begged for more time to pay his unbelievably large debt, and his master responded with shocking mercy, for he forgave the debt completely.  But instead of sharing the mercy that he had received, the servant then refused even to show patience with a fellow slave who owed him much less.  He then had the second fellow put into prison until he could pay.  When word of his actions reached the master, he had the first servant put in jail until he could repay the entirety of the massive amount he owed.  Christ concludes the parable with these challenging words, “So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
            The Lord said that because refusing to forgive others is a clear sign of our refusal to become like God in holiness.  If we ask forgiveness for ourselves without extending it to others, we show that we are not interested in sharing in the life of our Lord by grace.  We demonstrate that we are not offering ourselves for transfiguration in holiness.  Instead, we become idolaters who worship a god in our own image who we think will give us what we want and make no demands that do not suit us.  Such corrupt views of religion will bring only greater darkness to our souls and enslave us further to passions such as hatred, judgement, and the refusal to forgive.  They make it impossible for us to be transfigured in holiness.
This temptation is especially dangerous because it is often appealing to convince ourselves that religion and the rest of life are entirely separate realms. We like to think that we meet our obligation to God by doing explicitly religious things at church or keeping a rule of prayer, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines.  Of course, we should offer ourselves to God in these ways.  They are vital means of opening ourselves to greater participation in the life of our Lord.  We will err grievously, however, if we hypocritically seek the mercy of the Savior while refusing to embody His mercy toward others whom we encounter in everyday life.  It is simply impossible to unite ourselves to the One Who said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” from the Cross if we refuse to show mercy toward those who have offended us. If we try to do that, we will be in the false position of those who want one thing from God while giving the complete opposite to our neighbors.
The illumination and healing of our souls is an eternal process, for our goal is very high:  to become like God in holiness.  We should not despair when memories of the wrongs of others come to mind, when we have harsh feelings toward those who have wounded us, or when we cannot imagine how we could be reconciled with others with whom we have a broken relationship.  These are signs that we live in a world of corruption and need further healing for our souls.  Our choice is either to open our hearts to Christ for greater participation in His mercy or to harden them by embracing hatred and judgment.  The process of our transfiguration must begin by opening the darkened places in our hearts to His brilliant light as best we presently can.  We do that when we pray for God to bless our enemies and to forgive our sins by their prayers.  We do that when we mindfully refuse to dwell on the wrongs of others or to speak ill of them.  We do that when we go out of our way to help them.  As we struggle to show them the same mercy that we ask of Christ, we will grow in humble awareness of our own brokenness and dependence upon His grace for our healing.
This is the path that we must all follow if we are to become transfigured in holiness through personal participation in the life of our Savior.  In her Dormition, the Theotokos shows us that such a life leads to the eternal joy of the Kingdom of God. In order for us to follow her holy example, we must begin with the humble forgiveness of those who know that they are never in a position to condemn others.  Instead, we must become living icons of the brilliant mercy that we have received. That is how we may become truly human in God’s image and likeness by participating personally in the Savior’s healing of our corrupt humanity.