Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Nativity Fast as a Cure for Foolishness: Homily for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost and the 9th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 4:1-7; Luke 12:16-21

We may have a hard time identifying with the rich man in the parable from today’s gospel lesson.  He had such an abundance of grain and other possessions that he did not have room to store them; he needed to build larger barns in order to hold all his wealth. Once he did that, he planned simply to relax and enjoy himself for the rest of his days.  He was so wealthy that he did not have to worry at all about providing food, clothing, and shelter for his family or paying his bills.  In first-century Palestine, someone with such riches would have been rare indeed, and I doubt that anyone in our parish is in such comfortable circumstances today.
            We may be tempted, then, to think that this parable has nothing to do with us.  What does it have to do with people who struggle to make ends meet even though they work as hard as they can?  What does it have to say to people who have to follow a budget and wonder how they will ever pay off their debts?  Actually, it has a great deal to say to all of us, regardless of our financial circumstances.  That is because the man’s problem is not that he is rich, but that he is self-centered.  Notice that in the parable he speaks only of himself, of his possessions, and of his plans.  He had become the measure of his own life.  When God requires the man’s soul, however, it becomes clear that to live that way is simply to be a fool, for it amounts to laying up treasures for oneself in this world instead of becoming rich toward God. 
            No matter what our financial circumstances are, we all bear God’s image and likeness.  That means that we will find fulfillment only in becoming more like Him in holiness, only by embracing the healing of our souls in Jesus Christ.  Such a life is never one of self-centeredness.  It is instead a life of communion with the Lord and all the neighbors in whom we encounter Him.  It is a life in His Body, the Church, in which we flourish as members of one another, not as isolated individuals.  That is how we participate by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity, Three Persons Who share a common life as one God. 
            Nonetheless, it is difficult to turn away from the self-centered individualism that can so easily lead to the spiritual poverty of the rich fool.  We may not invest our lives in the accumulation of riches and possessions, but that does not mean that we are free from the temptation to live simply for ourselves.  For example, we may judge everything in life according to our own preferences, as though there is something wrong if our will is not done in family life, work, school, or anywhere else.  Without even realizing it, we then end up judging others based on how useful they are in doing our will.  When they do not obey us, our passions become inflamed against them.  The more we relate to our neighbors in that way, the more we will want our will to be done and the more we will become blind to the dangers of putting ourselves before others.  Consider what kind of an impact that can have on our relationships with our neighbors, who bear the image of God as much as we do.  Consider also its impact on our own souls.  No matter what we believe, to live that way is to commit the idolatry of serving our own sovereign will above all else.  It is simply to lay up treasures for ourselves instead of becoming rich toward God.
            Treasures can take many forms, of course.  We can invest our time, energy, and sense of self-worth in any of our activities or in the service of any of our traits or abilities, including how we look, how we feel, or how well we do literally anything. There is nothing wrong with giving any worthwhile endeavor or necessary concern the attention it deserves.  The problem is when something becomes primarily a tool of self-centeredness.  That means making an idol out of it, instead of offering it to God for Him to bless in fulfilling His purposes for it and for us.  The point is God’s glory, not ours.  
            In the parable, it is no surprise that the man whose life was simply about acquiring wealth wanted to spend the rest of his days indulging in food, drink, and pleasure.  All of his energy and attention had been focused on getting more of what he wanted for himself.  The more that we gratify our self-centered desires, the stronger a hold they have over us and the more we become their slaves.  The more settled the habit of getting what we want, the harder we will find it to limit our desires in any area of life.  In the eyes of our corrupt world, a life of conspicuous self-indulgence may make someone look like a great success.  Slavery to the passions, however, is hardly a path for fulfillment for those who bear the image and likeness of God. 
We are now in the Nativity Fast, the 40-day period of abstaining from the richest and most satisfying foods as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior at Christmas.  The weeks of Advent are also a time for confessing and repenting of our sins, generosity to the needy, and intensified prayer.  This season warns us that the Messiah is coming and we must be ready to receive Him.  Because we are all so much like the foolish man in the parable, we need a challenge to our usual obsession with ourselves in order to prepare to celebrate the Lord’s birth.  Otherwise, our Christmas will simply be about us enjoying ourselves to the point that we become blind to its having any greater significance than “eat, drink, [and] be merry.”   Though it is odd to say in our culture, we need to make Advent a time of intentional spiritual discipline if we are to gain the health necessary to receive the great richness in God that the Savior was born to bring. 
            Otherwise, we will continue investing ourselves in ourselves, especially in the illusion that we are isolated individuals who will find fulfillment in getting whatever it is we want on our own terms.  As appealing as that way of life may sound, it is simply a path to weakness and despair.  It is neither suitable nor satisfying for those called, as St. Paul put it, “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  We simply cannot find the healing of our souls or relate to one another as Christ commands if we make gratifying our own desires the measure of our lives.  There is no greater threat to the peace of our souls or of our relationships with others than self-centeredness rooted in pride.
            Even as we fast this Advent from rich food, let us fast from serving our own selfish desires, as we take steps to put the needs of others before our own preferences.  Let us confess and turn away from habits of word, thought, or deed that only strengthen the illusion that our lives are our own, and especially those that keep us from truly loving our neighbors.  Let us give generously of our time, energy, and resources to help those who will not help us achieve any of our goals in this world, but in whom we encounter and serve our Savior.  Instead of sacrificing everything to serve our own sovereign will, let us offer ourselves to the Lord for the accomplishment of His gracious purposes for our lives and for our neighbors. 
            The Nativity Fast calls us to become rich toward God as we prepare to receive Christ at His birth.  We should all use these weeks to invest ourselves in Him, for He alone brings fulfillment to those who bear His image and likeness.  We would be fools to give our lives to anyone or anything else, including ourselves. 


Sunday, November 11, 2018

To be Healed by the Good Samaritan: Homily for the 8th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Luke 10:25-37

            It is tempting to use religion to help us feel better about ourselves. Too often, we want to make God in our own image and let ourselves off the hook from anything that challenges us to do something different from what we want to do. It can be very appealing to try to use God for purposes other than the healing of our souls.

That is the attitude that Jesus Christ rejected in today’s gospel reading. After describing how the Old Testament law required loving God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself,” the lawyer wanted to justify himself by narrowing down the types of people he had to love.  That is why he asked “And who is my neighbor?”  He wanted to limit what God required of him.  That way, he could assume that he was a righteous man.

The Lord’s parable does not, however, place any limits on what it means to love our neighbor.  He tells us about a man who was robbed, severely beaten, and then left on the side of the road to die. Obviously, anyone who saw him in that condition would have an obligation to help him.  All the more is that the case for the religious leaders who were going down that same road.  They surely knew that the Old Testament law required them to care for a fellow Jew in a life-threatening situation.  Like the lawyer, however, they must have come up with some excuse not to treat him as a neighbor.  We do not know exactly what they were thinking, but they somehow justified passing by on the other side without helping him at all.

Ironically, a Samaritan is the one who treated the unfortunate man as a neighbor.  The Samaritan did not limit his concern to his own people.  He did not restrict the demands of love in any way.  Even though he knew that the Jews despised and had nothing to do with Samaritans, he responded with boundless compassion to the fellow’s plight.  He was not calculating how little he could do and still think of himself a decent person.  No, he spontaneously sacrificed his time, energy, and resources to bring a man who was a stranger and a foreigner back to health.  Even the lawyer got the point of the story, for he saw that the one who treated the man as a neighbor was “The one who showed mercy to him.”

The Lord used the story of the Good Samaritan to teach us about what it means to share in His life. Purely out of compassionate, boundless love, Christ came to heal us from the self-imposed pain and misery that our sins have worked on our souls.  He came to conquer our slavery to the fear of death, which is the wages of sin.  Like the Samaritan, He was despised and rejected.  In the parable, the religious leaders were of no help to the man who was robbed, beaten, and left to die.  They passed by and left him in the condition in which they found him.  Likewise, the legalistic, hypocritical religious leaders who rejected the Messiah were of no spiritual benefit to those who needed healing from the ravages of sin.   Laws can be interpreted and applied however someone sees fit, but they lack the power to heal anyone, much less to raise the dead.  At their best, they tell us what to do, but still lack the power to enable us to obey them.

Christ has brought salvation to the world, not by merely giving us a code of conduct, but by making us participants in His divine life by grace.  By becoming fully human even as He remains fully divine, He has restored and fulfilled the basic human vocation to become like God in holiness.  Only the God-Man could do that.  If we are truly in communion with Him, then His boundless love must become characteristic of our lives.  Among other things, that means gaining the strength to love our neighbors as ourselves by showing them mercy.  Doing that even for those we love most in life is often difficult because our self-centeredness makes it hard to give anyone the same consideration we give ourselves.  When it comes to particular people we do not like or to members of groups we perceive as threats or enemies, learning to love them as the Savior has loved us may seem impossibly hard.

Here it is helpful to remember what the Samaritan in the parable did for the robbed and beaten man.  He administered first aid, took him to an inn, paid the innkeeper to care for him, and promised to pay for any additional expenses when he returned.  Christ does the same for us in baptism, the Eucharist, and the full sacramental life of the Church, which is a hospital for our recovery from the ravages of sin.  Through the Church, He also calls us to spiritual disciplines that help us gain the strength to convey His mercy to our neighbors by loving them as we love ourselves.

In order to be able to do that, we must seek healing and strength for a life in communion with Christ through the ministries of His Body, the Church.  People who are recovering from severe injuries must cooperate with their physicians and therapists in order to become well.  They must take their medicine and dedicate themselves to exercises, stretches, and other disciplines in order to regain health and function.   We must approach the Christian life in a similar way in order to grow in our ability to manifest the Savior’s compassionate love to our neighbors.

This is not an optional calling only for those want to become especially holy.  No, it is a basic dimension of the Christian life.  However we treat “the least of these,” the most miserable and difficult people we encounter, is how we treat our Lord.  St. John the Theologian taught, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar.  For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, Whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

It is, of course, much easier to view the Church as simply a social club, a place of beauty, or where we go to feel better about ourselves.  To think that way, however, makes us like the lawyer who tried to limit the requirement of loving his neighbors in order to justify himself.  If we limit the significance of the Church to serving our desires, then we are trying to use God to get what we want.  To do so is to fall into a dangerous form of self-centeredness that is blind to the true meaning of the Savior’s compassion.  He makes us members of His Body in order to share His life with us, in order to perfect us in love in His image and likeness.  He has come to heal us, but we must cooperate with His therapy if we are to grow in spiritual strength.

For example, we do not receive the Eucharist in order to fulfill a legal obligation, but for “the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.”  If we receive Communion, we must live in communion with Christ by conveying His compassionate love to our suffering neighbors.  We do not take Confession for legalistic reasons, but to be healed from the damage our sins have done to our souls.  All the holy mysteries of the Church strengthen us for a life of ever-greater union with Christ, which will bear fruit in how we treat the people we encounter every day.  Even as He offered Himself fully on the Cross for our salvation, there is no limit to the offering that He calls us to make of our lives for the sake of others.  Those who have received His mercy will extend that same mercy to their neighbors, no matter who they are.   The Lord’s words at the end of the gospel reading apply directly to us:  “Go and do likewise.”

Saturday, November 3, 2018

What's at Stake in How We Treat our Neighbors: Homily for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost and the 5th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 2:4-10; Luke 16:19-31
           A few days ago, seven Coptic Christians were killed in Egypt as they were going on a pilgrimage to a monastery.  A week ago, eleven Jews were killed as they worshiped in a synagogue in Pittsburgh.  Houses of worship of whatever kind are increasingly targets for violence and vandalism.  Many of the perpetrators of such terrible deeds are motivated by distorted religious beliefs that lead them to think that God wants them to hate, kill, and assault people of other faiths or ethnic identities.  Nothing, of course, could be more contrary to the way of Christ, for how we treat other people is how we treat Him.  Whether we are finding the healing of our souls through sharing in His life is shown by how we treat others, regardless of who they are or what they believe.   Each person we encounter bears His image.
Today’s gospel reading describes a man who found the meaning and purpose of life in rich food and expensive clothes.  He was so absorbed in gratifying his self-centered desires that he had become blind to the humanity of poor Lazarus, a miserable beggar who wanted only crumbs and whose only comfort was when dogs licked his open sores.  There could be no greater contrast than the difference in life circumstances between these two men.
After their deaths, their situations were reversed.  The rich man had spent his life rejecting the teachings of Moses and the prophets about the necessity of showing mercy to the poor.   As such, he had done his best to turn away from God and weaken himself spiritually.  In life, he had made himself unable to recognize even the basic humanity of Lazarus as one who bore God’s image.  Consequently, after his death he was blind to the glory of God and perceived the divine majesty as only a burning flame that tormented him. When the rich man asked Father Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them of the consequences of living such a life, the great patriarch responded, “‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
It would be hard to overstate the importance of that response.  We all have the ability to make ourselves blind to the most obvious teachings about how we are to treat our neighbors.  Since every neighbor is an icon of God, how we treat them reveals our relationship to the Lord.  Christ taught that what we do “to the least of these,” to the most wretched people, we do to Him.  If we spend our lives hating and disregarding the people around us, we will become those who hate and disregard our Lord.  That way of life is so corrupt that it will make us blind to the good news of our salvation, to our Lord’s victory over the power of sin and death in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  It is a way of shutting ourselves out of the joy of the Kingdom.
If we want examples of where that path leads, just look at those who have become so spiritually blind that they think it is good to despise and kill others in the name of God.  They are not that different from the rich man in the parable, who stepped over starving, bleeding Lazarus every day as he served only his desires for pleasure and self-indulgence.  He had lost the ability to see Lazarus as a neighbor and lived accordingly.
Terrorists and murderers may seem very different from self-centered people who ignore the needs of others, but the roots of their spiritual problems are the same.  They lie in the passions, in our slavery to the distorted desire to find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in anything other than God.  It is impossible for us to have spiritually healthy relationships with anything in creation if we make idols out of them.   Since we are all made in the divine image and likeness, we will never find peace or satisfaction when our lives revolve around pleasure, possessions, power, revenge, or anything else but the Lord.  The more we give our lives to them, the more we will be their slaves and the more we will justify doing anything to gratify them.  The resulting spiritual blindness leads only to more blindness, more corruption, and more depravity.  When we lose the ability to see any human person as an icon of God and a neighbor in whom we are called to serve Jesus Christ, we become just like the rich man in the parable.
St. Paul taught the Ephesians that the very ground of their life was “God, Who is rich in mercy…[and] even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…”  They did not somehow earn God’s favor by doing enough good deeds by their own power, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God.”  The apostle also teaches that those who have received His grace are “created in Christ Jesus for good works…that we should walk in them.”
A life that displays the love of Christ in relation to our neighbors is not something that we achieve simply by trying to follow a rule.  Instead, it is a sign of being healed from slavery to our passions by the grace of God.  Healing comes to our corrupt souls through our Lord’s mercy, which we cannot earn and do not deserve.  The point of the Christian life is not simply to follow laws or develop virtues based on our own ability.  It is instead to be transformed personally by the gracious divine energies to the point that the boundless love of our Lord becomes characteristic of who we are as we live and breathe in this world.
If we know that we are being saved through the undeserved grace of God, despite our sins, we must manifest that same grace in relation to our neighbors, especially those we are inclined to hate, condemn, or disregard.  Jesus Christ modeled such a gracious life by ministering to the despised Samaritans and Gentiles, and even praising the faith of a Roman centurion as being superior to that of anyone in Israel.  (e.g., Lk 7:9)  When some of the disciples wanted to pray that fire would destroy a Samaritan village that had rejected them, the Lord refused and corrected them for having the wrong spirit. (Lk. 9:54-55)  He died for the salvation of those who crucified Him, and even prayed for their forgiveness from the cross.  Throughout His ministry, the Savior rejected the temptation to become the expected nationalistic ruler who would serve passions for revenge and domination against enemies and foreigners.  He refused to become a conventional worldly leader by hating and destroying people for being of a different faith and ethnicity.  He had nothing to do with the dark paths that continue to lead people to such spiritual blindness to this very day.
If we recognize the love and mercy that the Savior has extended to us, despite our past and present sins, we will understand that our lives must become icons of His love and mercy to our neighbors.  If we are not being transformed by the Lord’s grace in a fashion that leads us to serve Him in the Lazaruses of our lives, including our enemies, then we risk becoming ultimately like the rich man in the parable.  If we blind ourselves to His presence in the suffering and difficult people around us every day, then we will prefer slavery to the passions over the great victory that our Lord has achieved through His glorious resurrection on the third day.  How we treat others manifests whether we are finding the healing of our souls.   Since we have received grace, let us show grace to our neighbors, no matter who they are or what they believe.  Otherwise, we will reject the gracious Lord Who has made even “strangers and foreigners” like you and me into “fellow citizens of the saints and members of God’s household.”  (Eph. 2:19)