Saturday, September 22, 2018

Blessings Demand Self-Denial: Homily for the Conception of the Forerunner and Baptist John and the 1st Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 4:22-27; Luke 5:1-11
           It is a heavy burden for married couples not to be able to conceive and bear children.  That is true today in our society, and it was certainly the case for Jewish couples in the first century.  Zechariah and Elizabeth had waited a very long time for God to bless them with children, and they had likely given up hope at their advanced age.  When the Archangel Gabriel told the priest Zechariah, as he was serving in the Temple, that God had heard his prayer and they would have a son named John who would be a great prophet, Zechariah responded with skepticism.  He asked “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.” (Lk 1:18) Instead of remembering how God had done something quite similar for Abraham and Sarah in their conception of Isaac, Zechariah doubted.  As a result, he could not speak until the birth of his son.
When months later the pregnant Theotokos visited the pregnant Elizabeth, the older woman recognized the Savior and His Mother, exclaiming “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  John even leaped in her “womb for joy” when they arrived.  (Lk 1: 42) After Elizabeth gave birth, “her neighbors and relatives…rejoiced with her” in response to God’s great mercy and blessing to the woman who had been barren. (Lk 1:58) When it was time to circumcise the baby on the eighth day, Zechariah wrote that the child’s name was to be John.  That was when his speech was restored and he proclaimed “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Lk 1:76-79)  Things had turned out very differently for Zechariah and Elizabeth than they, or anyone else, had expected.
In today’s gospel reading, Peter, James, and John had worked hard all night trying to catch fish, but they had landed none at all.  They were not even in their boats, but were instead washing their nets as they put things in order to call it quits.  And that is precisely when Jesus Christ, who had been in the boat as he taught the people who were on the shore, told Peter to do what must have seemed completely pointless: “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”  Despite his understandable doubt, Peter obeyed and caught so many fish that their nets were breaking and their boats started to sink.  That must have been quite a sight, and it was so extraordinary that Peter kneeled before Christ and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” The Savior responded, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.”  At that point, Peter, James, and John “left everything and followed Him.”
The reaction of the disciples shows that they knew Christ had blessed them for something larger than their own immediate satisfaction.  Notice that they did not simply take all those fish to market in order to make a lot of money.  They did not ask the Savior to become a partner in their business as a fishing guide.   No, they left it all behind in order to offer their lives to the Lord, even to the point of death as martyrs.
The same is true of Zechariah and Elizabeth, for the miraculous conception of their son did not occur so that they would have someone to care for them in their old age or extend their family line.  A couple of years later, Herod’s soldiers murdered Zechariah when they were trying to kill John after the birth of Christ.  Elizabeth died forty days later, and their son grew up in the wilderness as he prepared for his unique ministry of calling Israel to repentance in preparation for the ministry of the Savior.
The examples of Zechariah and Elizabeth, as well as of the fishermen, remind us of the importance of persistent faith and obedience.  All had seemed lost both to an elderly couple without children and to professional fishermen who knew that even their best labors had failed.  It made perfect sense for Zechariah and Elizabeth to despair of ever having children.  It was entirely understandable why Peter, James, and John had gotten out of their boats and begun to wash their nets.  Likewise, it is not at all surprising when we despair of ever finding healing from habitual sins that have held us captive for years, perhaps as long as we can remember.  It may seem only reasonable to think that our broken relationships will never be healed or that we will never have the strength to respond to the persistent challenges of our lives in ways that bless others and bring peace to our own souls.  It may seem entirely rational to give up and accept our spiritual barrenness as simply the way life is.
To do so, however, would be to abandon our Lord, Who against all experience and knowledge of how the world works, rose from the dead after three days.  It would be to step outside the blessed story of how God has brought salvation through an unlikely cast of characters that includes elderly, infertile couples and rough fishermen.  They did not have perfect faith, for Zechariah doubted the message of the Archangel and the disciples misunderstood the Savior until He opened their eyes after His resurrection.  But despite their clouded spiritual vision, they stumbled along with the obedience of which they were capable.  After decades of frustration, the elderly couple offered themselves to receive the blessing of a child. After a long night of empty nets, Peter and his partners let them down one more time into water which they could not imagine contained any fish.  Against all odds and contrary to everything they had learned to expect in the world as they knew it, these people had the surprises of their lives when they opened themselves to receive the Lord’s blessings through persistent obedience.
The conception of John the Baptist and the miraculous catch of fish were not instances of people trying to use God to make them happy on their own terms.  Zechariah and Elizabeth died when their son was quite young, and John the Baptist was killed for fulfilling his prophetic ministry.  Christ used the great catch of fish to call Peter, James, and John to abandon their nets and follow Him as “fishers of men” in drawing others to the salvation of the Kingdom. Their great blessings were also callings that required profound self-denial.
We must learn from their holy examples that the same is true of our lives.  God does not bless us in order to make us happy on our own terms, but in ways that require obedience for the healing of our souls.  We should all count and give thanks for our blessings every day, even as we prayerfully discern how to use them to fulfill the Lord’s purposes for the salvation of the world.  That will require the persistent faith and obedience of those who know that our lives are about something far more profound than satisfying our self-centered desires.  It will require a refusal to give up when all appears to be lost and we can see no sign that anything will come from casting out our nets just one more time.  It will require the humility to see that the story of our lives is not all about us, but about what our Lord is doing through those who lack the ability to save themselves.  There is no other way to open our souls to the blessing of the One Who alone can turn our barrenness into abundance and fill our empty nets to the point of breaking as He draws us into the new life of the Kingdom.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Struggle to Take Up the Cross: Homily for the Sunday After the Exaltation of the Cross in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 2:16-20; Mark 8:34-9:1
          In some ways, people today are too familiar with the image of the cross.  Some wear it as just another a piece of jewelry or otherwise use it to symbolize values or organizations that have nothing to do with the cross through which our Lord conquered death.  Unfortunately, those who confess its true spiritual significance can easily rest content with beliefs about the cross without actually obeying the clear instructions of our Lord that we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him. Celebrating the Exaltation of the Cross with integrity requires that we confess truthfully with St. Paul:  “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
The Lord’s Self-Offering on the Cross for the salvation of the world is unique and all encompassing.  As we chant when we especially celebrate the cross, “Before Thy Cross, we bow down and worship…”  We must not respond passively to the cross, however, as though all the work has already been done in a way that requires nothing of us.  For the only way to share in the Savior’s life is to enter personally into the deep mystery of His sacrifice.  He offered Himself fully and in free obedience to the point of death, burial, and descent into Hades in order to conquer the corruption to which we had enslaved ourselves.   In order to embrace the liberation and healing of our Crucified and Risen Lord, we must die to all that holds us back from embodying the fullness of His great victory.  That means offering ourselves without reservation for union with Christ in holiness as we become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.
In the world as we know it, doing so requires a perpetual struggle of the soul.  The fight is not against other people and certainly not against God.  Instead, it is a battle with ourselves because we have all accepted the lie that true fulfillment comes from our own will being done.  In one way or another, we have all come to identify with our self-centered desires such that we think we could not exist without gratifying them.  Consequently, to put the demands of loving God and neighbor first in life requires us to deny ourselves and to abandon our well-settled habit of living in the service of our passions. We must all be “crucified with Christ” in the sense of dying to the corruptions that keep us from sharing in the Savior’s restoration and healing of the human person in the divine image and likeness.
The Lord’s command to take up our crosses, deny ourselves, and lose our lives has nothing to do with appeasing an angry Father by our suffering.  It is not concerned with the pointless task of trying to earn forgiveness by paying a debt or meeting a legal obligation.  Instead, it is about doing what is necessary to find healing.  In order to regain physical health, we may have to do some painful and difficult things at times, like having surgery, going to physical therapy, or changing our diet.  Those are not punishments, but simply what is necessary for us to regain our health in light of our particular physical condition.  If we want to get better, we will put aside our preferences and accept the inconvenience.
The same thing is true for us spiritually.  Offering ourselves to the Lord for the healing of our souls in whatever circumstances we face is how we take up our crosses.  From the origins of the Church to this very day, that has meant literal martyrdom for those who refuse to deny Christ when the powerful of this world kill them as a result.  For all who unite themselves to Christ, there must be some form of martyrdom as we die to self-centeredness by putting faithfulness to the Lord and service to our neighbors before satisfying our own desires.  If we do not take up our crosses in the challenges that we face daily, whatever they may be, then we show that we are ashamed of Christ and of His Cross.  We show that we want no part of Him and prefer to gratify our own desires instead of offering ourselves for the service of His Kingdom.
Like Peter before He denied the Savior three times, we may well believe that we would never do such a thing.  Like Peter, however, we may have such a poor understanding of the Messiah we serve that we will be unprepared when our eyes are opened to the truth.  Today’s gospel passage comes right after Peter tried to correct the Savior when He predicted His death and resurrection. The Lord said to him in response, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”   Peter had likely envisioned the Messiah as a successful military leader who would defeat the Romans and give the Jews a powerful earthly kingdom.  The idea of following someone like that appealed to his pride, for being the chief disciple of the new King David would bring riches, power, and glory.
When the Savior made clear that the religious leaders of Israel would reject Him, that He would be killed, and that He would rise from the dead, Peter was horrified to the point that he tried to set Christ straight.  That is when the Lord said in no uncertain terms that to reject the cross was the way of the devil, the way of completely rejecting His ministry for the salvation of the world.  Remember that Satan had tempted Christ in the desert by promising Him worldly power if He worshiped him.  Now Peter provided the same temptation.  That is when Christ told the disciples that they would have no part in Him if they did not also take up their crosses. In this light, it is not surprising that Peter later denied He knew the Lord three times after His arrest and abandoned Him at His crucifixion.  At that time, he and the other disciples were ashamed of a Messiah Who died on a cross.
Likewise, we show that we are ashamed of our Lord when we refuse to take up our crosses.  Our lives are filled with opportunities to turn away from prideful self-centeredness as we put the needs of those around us before ourselves.  Instead of indulging in gluttony, greed, hatred, envy, or other passions, we must redirect the energy of our souls to blessing our neighbors.  Remember that the Lord did not go to the cross for His own benefit, but for ours.  We will offer ourselves more fully to Him as we offer ourselves to serve those in whom He is present to us each day. If we do not, we will show that we are ashamed of our Lord.
The same is true whenever we refuse to keep a close watch on our hearts.  The ancient idols of sex, money, and power are worshiped openly in our culture, and we must be ready to embrace the cross of rejecting their powerful temptations.  Today reserving sexual intimacy for the union of husband and wife in marriage is widely considered archaic and oppressive.   Pornography is easily available and generally accepted, even though it is poisonous in so many ways.   Money and what it can buy often become the measure of our lives, regardless of what we say we believe.  Many people today seem to take pride in hating those with whom they disagree about politics and in self-righteously and hypocritically condemning them.  Nothing could be more contrary to denying ourselves and taking up our crosses than to embrace such temptations in our hearts.  Nothing could be more deadly to our souls.
Thankfully, there was hope for Peter and there is hope for us also through our Lord’s great victory over sin and death on His Cross.  Let us celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross by showing that we are not ashamed of His Self-Offering for our salvation.  No matter the circumstances of our lives, let us deny ourselves as we embrace the crosses of our lives.  That is how we may all enter into the joy of the Kingdom.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

A New Creation Through the Cross: Homily for the After-Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos and the Sunday Before the Elevation of the Cross in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 6:11-18; John 3:13-17
Our worst arguments are often with the people closest to us, especially members of our own family.  Perhaps the more we have in common with others, the easier it is to disagree about how things should be done and about what is really most important.  That is true not only in our families and marriages, but also when it comes to religion.
            In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul argues against fellow Christians of Jewish heritage who thought that Gentile converts had to be circumcised in obedience to the Old Testament law before becoming Christians.  He rejected that practice because those who put on Christ in baptism become “a new creation” through faith in the One Who fulfilled the law through His Cross.  By conquering death, the wages of sin, through His resurrection, the Savior has made it possible for all people to participate in His salvation.  As He said to Nicodemus in today’s gospel reading, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” 
            Even as we look ahead to the Elevation of the Holy Cross this coming week, we continue to celebrate today the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos, remembering especially her parents, Sts. Joachim and Anna.  These commemorations remind us that the God-Man Who vanquished Hades for our salvation had a human ancestry, which was necessary for Him to be both a human person and the particular human person in Whom all the promises to Abraham were fulfilled.  His grandparents Joachim and Anna were not like the people Paul opposed in his letter to the Galatians, for their role in the coming of the Messiah was not based on what they had achieved by their own ability to obey a law.  Instead, it was the complete opposite, for they lacked the ability to conceive and bear children, which was understood as a requirement for fulfilling their role in the ongoing life of the Hebrew people.  As a childless couple, they despaired of their place among the righteous of Israel.
            In their weakness and pain, however, God heard their prayer and miraculously blessed them in old age with a daughter, whom they offered to the Lord by taking her to live in the Temple as a three-year old. That is where she grew up in purity and prayer as she prepared to become the Living Temple of the Lord, the Theotokos who would contain the Son of God in her womb as His Virgin Mother.  Joachim and Anna had not relied on their natural ability to conceive children, for they were old and barren.  Instead, they trusted in the Lord’s mercy to bless them as He had blessed Abraham and Sarah. And He not only blessed them in that way, but with a daughter who would give birth to the Messiah in Whom the ancient promises to the Jews would be fulfilled and extended to all with faith in Him.
            Of course, even the strictest obedience to the Old Testament law could not conquer death.  The cycle of birth and the grave had reigned ever since the corruption of our first parents.  The “wages of sin is death,” and the law was powerless to fulfill our calling to become like God in holiness as "partakers of the divine nature." The path out of slavery to corruption was not in the human ability to obey rules and regulations to some extent; instead, it is found in the merciful love of God Who blessed an elderly, righteous Jewish couple to have a daughter named Mary.   She, in turn, would become the recipient of a unique and unbelievably gracious blessing as the Virgin Mother of the God-Man, the Second Adam, Who would set right and fulfill all that the first Adam had gotten wrong.  The Theotokos is the New Eve through whom Life came into the world.  Her birth is already a foreshadowing sign of our salvation.  
            In the Savior’s conversation with Nicodemus, who was at that time a legalistic Pharisee, He did not speak merely of obedience to a law that could make people more religious or moral.  No, He spoke of life, saying “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  The reference here is to an event described in Numbers 21:8-9, when the Hebrews were saved from deadly snake bites when they looked at the bronze snake held up by Moses in the desert.  Christ does not focus in this passage on Moses as the one through whom the Ten Commandments were given.  Instead of portraying him in terms of the law, He describes him as foreshadowing His victory over death through being lifted up on the Cross. Of course, the Savior’s Passion does not save people merely from poisonous snake bites on a certain day, but enables us to share in the eternal life of the Kingdom of God for which He created us in His image and likeness.
            To unite ourselves to Christ by faith also has a connection to the Cross.  St. Paul wrote, “far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”  Truly to believe in Jesus Christ is not merely to have ideas or feelings about Him, but to be united to Him in holiness, to participate personally in the salvation that He has brought to the world.  In order to do so, we must take up our crosses as we die to whatever holds us back from offering ourselves to Him in humble obedience.
Joachim and Anna certainly bore their cross of the pain and embarrassment of childlessness.  When they were miraculously blessed in the conception and birth of Mary, they offered her to grow up in the Temple.  After decades of disappointment, they knew that God’s blessing was not their private possession, but for them to offer back to Him for the accomplishment of something much larger than their own personal happiness. They surely bore a cross in leaving their young daughter in the Temple, and years later she obeyed the strange message of the archangel in agreeing to become the Virgin Mother of the Son of God.  As St. Symeon declared to the Theotokos at her Son’s presentation in the Temple, “a sword will pierce your own soul also.”  (Luke 2:35)  Her cross was to see Him die on His after being rejected by the leaders of His own people.
            As members of Christ’s Body, the Church, we are quite fortunate to be in a position to reap the blessings of the faithful obedience of Joachim and Anna and of their daughter the Theotokos. We have become “a new creation” in the Lord Who releases us from the spiritual barrenness of bondage to sin and death that had enslaved humanity since the corruption of Adam and Eve.  Through His Cross and glorious resurrection, He has brought life to our world of death in a way that obedience to the law could never have accomplished.
It is only by taking up our crosses that we may unite ourselves to His.  It is only by dying to the old ways of death that we may live faithfully as His “new creation.”  “For God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”  Let us celebrate the birth of the Theotokos as a foreshadowing sign that His gracious mercy extends to all who, like her and her parents, offer their lives to Him in humble faith.  That is how we may participate personally in His great victory over sin and death for our salvation.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

How to Accept an Invitation to a Great Wedding Feast: Homily for the 14th Sunday of Matthew and the 14th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 1:21-2:4; Matthew 22:2-14

          It is entirely possible to view participation in the life of the Church as a burden, as just another obligation that we have to fulfill. When we think that way, just about everything else in life seems more appealing than worshiping God.  Of course, the more we neglect the spiritual life, the less interest we will have in it.   Before we know it, we can easily shut ourselves out of the joy of the Kingdom because we think that we have more important things to do.
The Savior spoke the parable in today’s reading today from St. Matthew’s gospel against religious leaders who had become so obsessed with their own desires for worldly power that they rejected the Messiah in Whom all God’s promises to Abraham were fulfilled.  The prophet Hosea envisioned the relationship between God and Israel as a marriage, and weddings were great celebrations of God’s faithfulness in blessing the Jews from generation to generation.  It is not surprising, then, that Christ often compared the Kingdom of God to a wedding feast. His first miraculous sign in St. John’s gospel was at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.  He is the Bridegroom and the Church is the Bride.  The book of Revelation also describes the fulfillment of the heavenly reign as a marriage banquet.
How tragic, then, that the religious leaders who should have been in the best position to enter into the joy of spiritual union with Christ refused to do so.  They were like the guests invited to the wedding in the parable who “made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.”  In the parable, the king then sent his servants out into the streets to invite whomever they could to the celebration, “both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
The Savior points here to the Church in which the distinction between Jew and Gentile is overcome, for He invites everyone to enter into the great joy of the heavenly banquet.  His fulfillment of the human person in God’s image and likeness is not reserved for those of a particular ancestry or nationality.  It is not reserved for those who have never fallen short of doing what is pleasing to God.  If that were the case, it would have nothing to do with us.  The good news is that, even as the king in the parable wanted the banquet hall to be filled, Christ came to save the entire world and turns no one away who responds to Him with humble faith, love, and repentance.
It is one thing to believe that as a theological concept.  It is very different and more difficult, however, to embrace this truth spiritually.  The knowledge of God is not a matter of having the right thoughts or words, but of being united with Him from the depths of our souls by participation in His grace.  When we find ourselves despairing of God’s forgiveness and mercy for our personal brokenness, we must open our hearts to His healing mercy.  Instead of being paralyzed by shame, which is simply hurt pride, we must cultivate daily the mindful prayer of the heart:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  Instead of allowing obsessive guilt to keep us focused on how we have failed our illusions of perfection, we must focus on His mercy as we become fully present before the Lord through prayer.
The point here is not to feel a certain way or try to get something from God, but to share in His life as we become more fully human.  As those created in God’s image and likeness, we do that by becoming more like God in holiness.  This is a journey of humility in which we do not hide our weakness and pain, but instead use them as opportunities to unite ourselves more fully to Christ as we offer even the dark and corrupt dimensions of our lives to Him for healing beyond our own ability.
“Many are called, but few are chosen.”  Those words end the parable right after the king ordered that the man without a proper wedding garment be thrown out of the celebration.  In that time and place, the host provided guests with the proper attire.  This fellow, after being invited to the great banquet, did not respond with decent gratitude and respect toward his host.  He refused to put on the garment, but apparently wanted the benefits of being at the party on his own terms.  Thus, he excluded himself from the celebration.
We enter into the Body of Christ through baptism, in which we put Him on like a garment.  “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” wrote Saint Paul. (Gal. 3:27)  That is only the beginning of the Christian life, however, and we must attend mindfully to living each day as those who are participating in the Kingdom of God by grace.  If we do not, then the entire life of the Church will leave us cold and we will find basic spiritual disciplines to be burdens we would rather do without.   If we define what is truly important in life as fulfilling our usual set of daily obligations, satisfying our self-centered desires, and finding ways to distract ourselves from truths we do not want to hear, then  we will always think that we have better things to do than to unite ourselves to Christ.  At most, we will become like that man who wanted the benefits of being a wedding guest without accepting even the most basic expectations of the invitation.  He was completely focused on himself, and shut himself out of the great celebration as a result.
In order to avoid his fate, we must recognize that the Body of Christ is not here to give us what we want on our own terms.  Instead, it is in His Body, the Church, that the Savior shares His life with us and makes it possible for us to enter into the joy of heaven even as we live in a world of corruption with all our daily cares. The Divine Liturgy is not a beautiful ceremony for our entertainment or a means of escape from reality, but truly an invitation to participate already in the joy of the heavenly banquet as we struggle to live faithfully each day.  We must live out the truth of the Liturgy in everyday life, making our most mundane gifts and challenges opportunities to unite ourselves more fully with the Savior’s great Self-offering for the salvation of the world.
We cannot do that simply by being present for the Divine Liturgy, however.   We must offer the daily liturgy of our lives by: praying and reading the Scriptures each day; fasting regularly as a way of humbling ourselves before God; and reaching out to become a sign of God’s blessing to the needy and lonely.   We must keep a close watch on our thoughts, mindfully refusing to allow self-centeredness in any form to capture our hearts.  We must open our souls to Christ for healing through regular use of the holy mystery of Confession, for that is how we are assured of the Lord’s mercy as we name and repent of our sins.
If we neglect these disciplines, we should not be surprised when life in the Church seems more like a burden than blessing to us.  If we want to enter into the joy of the great wedding feast that is the Kingdom of God, we must prepare our hearts, souls, and minds for something far more profound than a religious or cultural event that gives us what we want on our own terms.  We must truly unite ourselves to Christ in holiness if we want to participate in the salvation of the human person that He has brought to the world.  That is what it means to become truly human as someone created in God’s image and likeness as we wear the wedding garment of the kingdom of heaven.