Saturday, October 27, 2018

Faith Beyond Words: Homily for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost and 7th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 6:11-18; Luke 8:41-56

What does it mean to have faith?  What do we want from religion?  What can we hope for from God?  These are the kinds of questions that we tend to overlook because they threaten to take us out of our comfort zones.  Many people do not want to think about “the big questions” too much because they can easily make us uncomfortable and require us to change what we believe and how we live. They call us into question.

            In today’s gospel reading, the faith of Jairus and his wife was put to the ultimate test when Jesus Christ said of their daughter, “Do not fear; only believe, and she shall be well…[and]  Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.”  We do not know exactly what Jairus had believed about the Lord other than that he knelt before Him and asked Him to come to his house, where his daughter was dying.  It was one thing to believe that this rabbi had the spiritual power to heal the sick, but probably something quite different to trust that He could raise the dead. 

            The gospel passage does not quote any of Jairus’ words.  It does not tell us explicitly how he and his wife responded to the Lord’s challenge to believe that she would be returned to life and health.  These events probably rocked them to the depths of their souls.  Perhaps they could not find the words to respond to what was going on in that moment.  But they had enough faith to go into their house with the One Who had promised to save their daughter if they believed and did not fear.  Even though the mourning and weeping had already begun, they offered Him the faith of which they were capable at that moment.  Their trust enabled them to receive a miracle well beyond all reasonable expectations.

            The same is true of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years.  She had spent all her money paying physicians who could not help her. Her malady was medically incurable at that time, and also made her ritually and socially unclean.  The passage does not tell us just what she believed about Christ, but only that she reached out and touched the hem of His garment in a crowd so large that she hoped she could do so without drawing attention to herself.  She must have had some level of faith that even that small gesture would open her to receive healing through Him.  That is what happened, but when the Lord announced that someone had touched Him, she knew that her secret was out.  That is when she “came trembling, and falling down before Him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched Him, and how she had been immediately healed.”  When she openly confessed what Christ had done for her, He said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”      

            Both the bleeding woman and Jairus faced circumstances so dark that they could not reasonably expect to be delivered from them.  In the usual course of events, incurable chronic disease and death cannot be overcome.  That these challenges were so profound is reflected by the fact that these characters speak so little in this passage. They did not use words to state clearly what they believed about Christ.  The woman did not say anything until after she had been healed, which came through the only gesture of faith that she had the strength to make:  secretly touching the hem of the Savior’s garment.  And once she was healed, she spoke only after she had been found out.  Though Jairus had asked Christ to come to his house where his daughter was dying, our gospel passage does not record him asking for her to be raised after her death.  He and his wife probably struggled in stunned silence to believe that the Lord could fulfill such an astounding promise.

            It is often difficult, if not impossible, to put into words our deepest fears, hopes, and loves.  There are so many dimensions of life that are too profound for precise definitions.  All the more is that the case for God, the infinitely holy “I AM” Who is beyond our knowledge and control.  Orthodox theology teaches that we are completely ignorant of God’s essence, but know God as He has revealed Himself to us in His divine energies.  While we may use words to make true statements about God, genuine spiritual knowledge requires participation in His life.  That participation requires faith in the sense of opening and offering ourselves to Him from the depths of our souls. That kind of participation transforms us into “partakers of the divine nature” by grace as we become more like God in holiness. 

            In our epistle reading, Saint Paul described this fulfillment of the human person as becoming “a new creation.”  He opposed the Judaizers who wanted Gentile converts to be circumcised in obedience to the Old Testament law before becoming Christians.  As a former Pharisee and expert in Judaism, he knew that such practices do not conquer death or release people from bondage to sin.  But through His Cross, the Savior has done precisely that and made it possible for us to participate personally in His eternal life.  Not a matter of legal observance or having certain ideas or feelings about God, the healing of our souls comes through faith.  That is how we pursue the journey to become more fully human in God’s image and likeness.

            We may be tempted to think that faith is something we have already mastered, for hopefully we believe the words we say in the Nicene Creed and in the prayers and worship of the Church.   At some level, we have entrusted ourselves to Christ.    But the goal of becoming “a new creation” is not one that we may ever say we have accomplished or completed.  To become like God in holiness is an eternal, infinite journey.  It requires, as St. Paul writes, to embrace a crucifixion of oneself in relation to the world.  That means dying to the corrupting effects of sin in order to enter more fully into the new life of the risen Lord.  Not much spiritual insight is required to see that we all have a long way to go on that journey.   

            Jairus and the bleeding woman remind us by their examples that we need a faith much deeper than words, ideas, or feelings.  To become “a new creation” in Christ, we must reach out to Him as best we can for the healing of our chronic and seemingly incurable diseases of soul and body.  Even when all seems lost for us or our loved ones, we must struggle to obey the command:  “Do not fear; only believe.”

We will probably lack the works to describe how the Lord is present and what He is doing in our darkest moments.  Faith does not require complete rational comprehension; if it did, we would not call it faith.  At the end of the day, faith is about uniting ourselves to Christ in His great Self-Offering on the cross.  He did not conquer sin and death with ideas or words, but by offering up Himself purely out of love.  If we are becoming “a new creation” in Him, then our lives must be characterized by sacrificial, trusting obedience from the depths of our souls, especially when despair seems to make much more sense than hope in the world as we know it.  The clearer our spiritual vision becomes, the more we will see that faith requires something much deeper than knowing the right words or following the rules.  It requires the humble trust of those who desperately want health instead of sickness, who want life instead of death.  The Lord accepted the secret touch of the bleeding woman and the stunned obedience of Jairus.  And He will accept our faith also, if we simply do what we can to entrust our lives to Him from the depths of our souls and leave the rest in His hands.        

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Mindfulness in the Garden of our Souls: Sunday of Holy Fathers of Seventh Ecumenical Council & Fourth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15
           If the Lord’s disciples had trouble grasping the meaning of the parable of the sower, we should not be surprised if we do also.  Unlike them, we do not live in an agricultural society in which people were familiar with planting seeds and growing crops.  In that time and place, there was no doubt that life itself depended on the success of raising plants to maturity.  That is still the case today, of course, but most of us are far removed from the actual production of our food. We probably have more experience with trying to keep grass alive and green during our hot and dry summers than with growing crops to eat.    As frustrating as lawn care can be, just imagine how the common people of first-century Palestine felt when they cast their seed on the dry, rocky ground.  They knew that their lives depended on at least some of those seeds taking root and growing to fruitful maturity.
Though we usually do our best to ignore it, the same matters are at stake for us in the Christian life.  Jesus Christ is the Word of God become flesh for our salvation.  As the God-Man, He has restored and fulfilled the unique glory of the human person in God’s image and likeness.  He has shared His life with us such that we may become radiant with the divine glory through personal union with Him.  The Savior was born into the same world we inhabit with all its corruptions, distractions, and sorrows.  His ministry drew large crowds at times, yet all but a handful of His closest followers had abandoned Him by the time of the crucifixion.  Christ’s preaching and healing had touched so many, but only a few remained faithful to the end, especially the women who stood at the foot of the Cross and then went to anoint His dead body on Sunday morning.  That was when they saw the stone rolled away from the tomb and heard the unbelievably good news of His resurrection. In their steadfast faithfulness, they were in a unique position to bear good fruit for the Kingdom of God.
Our challenge is to respond to Christ like those myrrh-bearing women whose obedience made it possible for them to become the first recipients of the news that the Lord had conquered death.  This is a high calling, for left to our own devices, we would remain like dry, rocky soil that grows only weeds.  Had the Savior come simply with a set of religious instructions, we would surely have misinterpreted and disobeyed them.  Even if we followed them, we would still be enslaved to death.  But since He has vanquished the grave and made us participants in His life by grace, the Lord has enabled us to flourish in His image and likeness as we become our true selves by sharing in the divine life.
Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which met in Nicaea in 787.  The Council defended the practice of venerating icons, distinguishing between the worship given only to God and the honor given to images of our Lord, His Mother, and the Saints.  The honor given to the image ultimately goes to the one represented in the icon.  The Council’s decrees concern not only the use of religious imagery, but also the deepest truths of our salvation.  Apart from the mystery of the Word made flesh, there would be no icons.  For the Son of God had to become a human person with a body like ours in order to be seen and touched, in order to inhabit our world.  He had to have a real human body in order to be born, die, and leave an empty tomb after His resurrection.  His icon reminds us not only of the truth of the incarnation, but of how He has made it possible for us to fulfill our basic human calling to become like Him in holiness.
Farmers do not harvest a bumper crop by accident, for they must remain vigilant against threats of all kinds as they prepare the soil, plant the seeds, provide them water and fertilizer, and protect them from weeds, pests, and bad weather.  The same will be true for us as we seek to grow to fruitful maturity in the Christian life.  The healing of our souls will not happen by accident, but requires a daily struggle against temptation in all its forms, especially those associated with “the cares and riches and pleasures of life.”  It is so easy to direct our desire for fulfillment to anything except God.  The results of doing so for the health of our souls, however, will be as disastrous as those for a crop when farmers decide they have something better to do than to stay on guard.  Even if we initially made a good beginning, we can easily fall away, wither, and die.
In order to bear good fruit for the Kingdom, we must remain focused on sharing more fully in the life of Christ.  That is how we become better icons of Him, how we embrace the fulfillment of our humanity in God’s likeness that He has brought to the world.  Mindfulness is essential, for unless we keep a close watch on our thoughts, we will easily fall prey to distractions that turn our attention away from “the one thing needful” of hearing and obeying the Word of God. (Lk 10:42)  We do not want to become like those St. Paul mentioned in today’s epistle reading, inclined to fill their minds with “stupid controversies…[that] are unprofitable and futile.”  Instead of wasting their time, energy, and attention, he teaches that they should “apply themselves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful.”
Mindfulness is simply staying focused so that we see clearly what we are thinking, desiring, saying, and doing.  It is entirely possible to live in the world with all our daily cares, but nonetheless to recognize the truth about our thoughts as we turn our attention away from those that are contrary to sharing more fully in the life of Christ.  We face the same challenge with what we say and do, but our thoughts and desires should be our most fundamental concern for they lead to our words and deeds.  As we cultivate the habit of recognizing that pride or anger, for example, is rearing its ugly head in what we think or want, we should turn our attention and energy to the Lord in a humble prayer for strength in rejecting the temptation.  Instead of being shocked or upset that we have any thought or desire, we should simply refocus on doing what we know we should be doing for the healing of our souls in the service of God and neighbor.
If we do not grow in mindfulness, we risk having unholy thoughts and desires grow like weeds in our hearts.  They can easily choke the spiritual life out of us as they lead to deeds and words that make it impossible for us to become better icons of Christ, unless we later come to our senses and turn away from them.  As with a garden, it is much better, of course, to keep a clear eye on the weeds from the beginning, mindfully doing what it takes to prevent them from becoming a serious threat.  Once they have taken over, the job is much more difficult.
Focused prayer from the heart in silence fuels mindfulness, for it is through being fully present before the Lord that we gain the spiritual vision to know the truth about ourselves.  We must turn off our media and screens, shut our mouths, and stand before Him without distraction on a daily basis. That is the first step in gaining the spiritual clarity to discern the particulars of how to become “those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”  Mindfulness is essential for cultivating the garden of our souls for the Kingdom as we become more fully ourselves in the image and likeness of God.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Healing our Weakness Through His Strength: Homily for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost and the 3rd Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9; Luke 7:11-16

          People often go to extraordinary lengths to hide their weakness from others and even from themselves.  Out of insecurity and fear, we do our best to appear before our neighbors as self-reliant and strong, even when that is very far from the truth.  Perhaps we think that, if we can fool others, we can even fool ourselves.

One of Saint Paul’s greatest virtues was his honesty about his weakness.  The risen Lord had appeared to him on the road to Damascus and enabled him to become the apostle to the Gentiles.  Paul wrote so much of the New Testament and helped the Church understand the most basic truths of the faith in times of great controversy.  Instead of glorying in his accomplishments, however, he boasted only in his weakness.  He openly acknowledged how he had previously persecuted Christ in His Body, the Church.  Indeed, Paul wrote that the Lord had mercy on him as a sign that He truly came to save sinners, of whom he was the very worst.  (1 Tim. 1: 12-16) After mentioning his mystical experiences in prayer, the apostle told the Corinthians that he was given “a thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble which the Savior would not remove.  “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.”  Consequently, Paul concluded that he “will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

The strongest evidence of human weakness is surely death, the consequence of our common estrangement from God due to sin.  The widow of Nain in today’s gospel reading was all too familiar with death, for she had lost both her husband and her only son.  When Christ saw her weeping in the funeral procession, he “had compassion on her,” touched the bier on which the young man’s corpse was being carried, and commanded the dead fellow to get up.  Then the Lord returned him to his mother; she had her son back.  That certainly got the attention of the neighbors, for “Fear seized them all; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited His people!’”

Right after this miracle, we read in Luke that followers of St. John the Baptist came to ask the Lord if He was truly the long-awaited Messiah. He responded, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them.” (Luke 7:22)  Notice that the Lord showed that He was the Messiah by how He healed suffering human persons in their weakness.  Purely out of His gracious love, the Lord showed compassion by sharing with them His glorious strength, even to the point of raising people from the dead.  Through the Cross, He Himself entered into death in order to release us all from captivity to the grave through His glorious resurrection on the third day.  By sharing fully in our weakness, He has made it possible for us all to participate in the eternal blessing of His strength.

In order for us to do that, however, we must reject the lie that we are already healthy, strong, and self-sufficient.  Due to our pride, we usually find it much easier to ignore or hide from our weakness than to acknowledge it.  Most of us have many years of experience doing precisely that, even to the point that self-justification for just about everything we say, do, or think has become second nature.  We have become experts in distracting ourselves from attending to the wounds of our own souls by blaming others when we should take responsibility.  We often fill our minds and schedules with just about anything that turns our attention away from our own need for the healing mercy of Christ.

Fortunately, the Church calls every one of us to spiritual disciplines which promise to open our eyes, at least a bit, to the truth about the health of our souls.  When we offer our hearts to God in prayer daily, we acknowledge that we need the Lord’s presence and strength at all times.  We remind ourselves that each day is a blessing from God to be lived thankfully in accordance with His gracious purposes.  Our minds typically wander in prayer, which should make clear our spiritual weakness and need for greater vigilance in uniting ourselves with the Lord.    By regularly focusing our minds on the words of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” as we open our hearts to Him, we confess our brokenness and need for healing that we cannot give ourselves. By embracing the challenges of the daily struggle to pray, we will grow in humility.  It is simply impossible for us to recognize our spiritual weakness and receive the strength of our Lord without a settled habit of prayer.

The same is true of the practice of humbly confessing our sins.  St. Paul did not shy away from calling himself the chief of sinners, and he publicly recounted how he had earlier persecuted the Church and was unworthy to be an apostle. (1 Cor. 15:9)   In addition to acknowledging and repenting of our sins each day in prayer, we must all take advantage of the great blessing of sacramental Confession on a regular basis if we want to find healing for the weakness of souls.  At least during each of the four penitential seasons of the Church year, we should name our sins to the Lord as we stand before His icon, and then kneel as we are assured of His forgiveness through the prayers of an unworthy priest who himself also goes to Confession.  Taking Confession regularly and conscientiously fuels our humility by keeping our spiritual vision focused on our constant need for the Lord’s mercy.  As we name our sins aloud and receive assurance of forgiveness if we are truly repentant, we embrace more fully the Savior’s victory over the corrupting power of sin in our lives.  All of us spiritual weaklings need this sacrament for the healing of our souls. The less we think we need it, the more we actually do.

Even when we are not in a penitential season, the Church calls us to fast from the richest and most satisfying foods on almost all Wednesdays and Fridays.  From the first century, Christians have kept these days of fasting in commemoration, respectively, of the Lord’s betrayal and crucifixion.  Just a bit of self-denial for out taste buds and stomachs will hit most of us pretty hard and right where we live.  Our difficulty in fasting will quickly reveal our weakness in controlling our self-centered desires, including our resistance to denying ourselves even in very small ways.  Fasting is a teacher of humility which will help us see our true spiritual state more clearly.  It will also remind us that we find our true strength, life, and fulfillment in Christ, not in satisfying our bodily appetites however we please.  And by eating a simple, inexpensive diet on fast days, we will have more resources available to share with the poor and needy in whom we encounter our Lord.

The same Savior Who raised the son of the widow of Nain and who made a great saint out of “the chief of sinners” also wants to make us shine brilliantly with His grace.  The more that we offer ourselves to Him honestly in our weakness, the more that His healing strength will become effective in our lives.  Let us pray, confess, and fast as we unite ourselves to Christ for the healing of our weak souls.  That is the only way to enter in the joy of His resurrection.