Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Long Journey Home of Repentance: Homily for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in the Orthodox Church

St. Luke 5:11-32

The relationship between parents and their adult children can be difficult, especially when young people assert their independence for the first time.  Though it is not always the case, tensions often seem strongest between parents and children of the same sex; that is, between fathers and sons and between mothers and daughters. Perhaps that is because they often have so much in common and see themselves in one another.

The parable of the Prodigal Son focuses precisely on such a relationship.  A young man asked his father for his share of the inheritance, which the father gave him.  The son’s request amounted to telling his father he wished he were dead so that he could inherit his share of the estate.  The old man meant nothing more to him than a source of cash to fund a decadent lifestyle in a foreign land.  The young man did his best to end their relationship and apparently had no intention of ever returning home. He treated his father so shamefully that we would expect neither of them to want to have anything to do with the other ever again.  Members of families become estranged to this day over much less.

When the money ran out, the son found himself living in a time of famine in a strange land where the best job he could find was feeding pigs.  He was so hungry that he envied the pigs their food.  Given the Jewish context of the parable, this detail shows that he had fallen to the most miserable state imaginable.  That is when he “came to himself” and realized that even his father’s hired hands had more than enough to eat. He resolved, “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ The son had learned his lesson the hard way and saw the gravity of what he had done.  He had broken his relationship with his father beyond any repair he could imagine.  The most he could hope for would be to return as a mere servant.  

The father, however, was not concerned at all about what the son deserved for his actions. He must have looked out into the distance every day with the unlikely hope that his son would eventually come home.  That is when he saw the prodigal still a long way off “and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”  That was a shocking response, both to the son and to anyone else who happened to see it.  In response to the young man’s confession, “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”  the father  said, “‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’”  In response to the complaint of the older brother about the injustice of restoring and even celebrating the prodigal, the father reiterated his reason for rejoicing:  “for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

            The Church directs our attention to this parable as we continue our preparation for the season of Great Lent, which in turn prepares us to follow Christ to His victory over death in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  As we anticipate the intensified repentance of the coming weeks, we must learn to see ourselves in the young man who was so enslaved by self-centered desire that he thought nothing of breaking off the most fundamental relationship of his life.  He acted not as a son in a life-giving relationship of love, but as an isolated individual out to get what he wanted for himself.  Nothing else and no one else mattered.  We do the same thing whenever we do not live according to our great dignity as those created in God’s image and likeness as His own sons and daughters.  Instead of finding true fulfillment by purifying our hearts as we reorient our disordered desires toward union with the Lord in holiness, we think, act, and speak in ways that degrade and weaken us.  We may not envy the food of pigs, but when we wallow in pride, anger, lust, slander, and other passions, we become barely recognizable as God’s beloved children.  By trying to live outside of a relationship with Him, we turn away from the very foundation of what it means to be a human person.

            The young man in the parable finally “came to himself” and realized both how needlessly miserable he was and that he had no right to be called his father’s son.  By embracing Lenten disciplines such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and forgiveness with integrity, we will have no lack of opportunities to come to ourselves as our illusions of religious self-sufficiency fall away.  Our minds will wander, our stomachs and taste buds will protest, our attachment to money will flare up, and we will find it very appealing to hold grudges and say nasty things about others.   We may notice all kinds of strange, tempting thoughts and desires popping into our minds.  When such struggles arise, we may be tempted not to complete the Lenten journey. 

Just as stretching and strengthening a weak, constricted muscle is painful, taking steps to reorient our lives to Christ will make us feel our lack of spiritual health.  The more clearly we see the true state of our souls, the more we will know that we have rejected our Lord in ways too numerous to count due to our own self-centeredness.  The point is not simply that we have broken a law or done something wrong.  It is much more serious, for we have made ourselves unworthy and undeserving of being called His sons and daughters.

            The father in the parable is, of course, an image of our Heavenly Father, Who “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  (Jn. 3:16)  The old man restored his son fully with fine clothing and a joyful celebration, saying that “my son was dead, and is alive again.”  The young man had made himself dead to his father by taking his inheritance and ending his relationship with him.  As we come to ourselves through the spiritual clarity gained through the struggles of our Lenten repentance, we will come to know that we have done the very same thing in relation to God.  We have wanted His blessings for ourselves and then made Him irrelevant for so many dimensions of our lives.  We have acted as though God were dead. In order to save us from the path leading only to the grave, the Savior entered into death, the wages of sin, in order to bring us into eternal life through His resurrection.  Only One Who did so could restore us, who were enslaved to death, as His sons and daughters.

            We should not dismiss Lent’s call to repentance out of fear that we will not perform any spiritual discipline well enough to earn God’s mercy.  The son in the parable earned nothing from his father; his restoration was worked purely through gracious love.  Likewise, Lent is not about earning anything from God at all, but instead about helping us prodigal sons and daughters come to ourselves as we take the long journey home to union in holiness with our Lord.  No matter how miserable and wretched we have made ourselves  as we have tried to shut Him out of our lives, He reaches out to us, calling us to cooperate with His gracious will to restore and fulfill us completely as those who bear His image and likeness.  The disciplines of the coming season provide us with opportunities to open our souls more fully to the healing mercy of the Savior.  He rose from the dead in order to bring us up with Him from the grave of our sins to the blessed eternal fellowship of the Kingdom.  The least we can do is to make good use of Lent as we come to our senses and begin the long journey home to Him.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Preparing for Lent with Humility: Homily for the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican in the Orthodox Church

2 Timothy 3:10-15; Luke 18:10-14

            The Savior said, “He who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  These words speak directly to each of us, for we all follow in the path of our first parents in refusing to live in a manner worthy of people created in God’s image and likeness due to our pride. Our great dignity means that we will become more fully ourselves only as we become more like God in holiness.  True humility requires recognizing how far we are from fulfilling such an infinite goal.  It is only through humility that we will be able to participate in the joy of the true exaltation of our Lord’s glorious resurrection.

It is certainly possible to use religion, or anything else, to distract us from humbling ourselves before God. Like the Pharisee in today’s parable, we can make prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other virtuous actions ways of blinding ourselves to the truth.   How appealing it is to magnify our own accomplishments in contrast to what we see as the failings of others.  When we engage in that kind of self-congratulation, it becomes impossible truly to offer our lives to the Lord. Instead, all that we say and do becomes simply an act of self-worship, a form of idolatry.  The Pharisee in the parable may have used the word “God,” but he was really praying only to Himself.

Anyone who has ever tried to pray in a focused way will understand why he did that.  We usually find it extremely difficult to be fully present before the Lord, whether during services or in our private prayers.  Profound humility is required to open our hearts to the One Who is infinitely “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  When even a glimmer of the brilliant light of the Divine Glory begins to shine through the eyes of our souls, the darkness within us becomes quite apparent.  The temptation is strong to shift our attention to whatever we think will hide us from that kind of spiritual nakedness.  To focus on how good we think we are, especially in comparison with others, is an appealing way of changing the subject as we become ever more blind to the true state of our souls.

The Publican was an easy target of criticism for the Pharisee.  Tax collectors were Jews who collected money from their own people to fund the Roman army of occupation.  They collected more than was required and lived off the difference.  Consequently, the Pharisee believed that he was justified in looking down on someone who was both a traitor and a thief.  Ironically, this tax collector would not have disagreed.  He knew he was a wretched sinner, and his only apparent virtue was his humble acknowledgement of this true spiritual state.  Standing off by himself in the temple, this fellow would “not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’”

Despite his miserable way of life, the tax collector somehow mustered the spiritual strength to expose his soul to the blinding light of God in prayer from the depths of his heart.  He knew that this was not a time for excuses or changing the subject.  No, it was time simply to accept the truth.  Christ said that the Publican, not the Pharisee, went home justified that day.  The difference was not who had done more good deeds or obeyed more laws; it was, instead, who had the humility that is absolutely essential for  opening our souls to the healing mercy of Christ.   Without such humility, pride will destroy the virtue of everything that we do.  With it, there is hope for us all.

In just a few weeks, we will begin the spiritual journey of Great Lent, the most intense period of repentance in the life of the Church as we prepare to follow our Lord to His Cross and empty tomb.  There could be no greater sign of the folly of exalting ourselves and condemning others than the Passion of Christ.  He brings salvation to the world in a way completely contrary to prideful self-congratulation that hides from the truth.   What could be more humble than for the eternal Son of God to empty Himself, take on the form of a servant, and become obedient to the point of death for our salvation? (Phil. 2:7-8)  St. Paul wrote, “Therefore God also has highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11)

It is only by knowing the depths of our brokenness that we will be able to embrace personally the heights of the Lord’s humble, suffering love, which is well beyond our full rational comprehension. That is why we need to devote ourselves to prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and other forms of repentance in the weeks ahead.  If we do not, we will likely fail to gain the spiritual clarity of the tax collector, who was aware only of his sin and need for God’s mercy. We will never enter into the deep mystery of our salvation if we do not open the eyes of our darkened souls to the light of Christ so that we may see our true state before Him.

The Church calls us to pray daily and with special intensity during Lent.  Instead of congratulating ourselves for whatever apparent success may have in doing so, it is better to remember that our struggles in opening our souls to God reflect our weakness and need for strength that we cannot give ourselves.  They provide an opportunity to pray the Jesus Prayer or otherwise simply to turn our attention back to the Lord the best we can with a sense of our need for His mercy.  In contrast, the worst thing we could do when struggling in prayer would be to become like the Pharisee who reminded God of his good deeds and condemned the tax collector.  It would be better not to pray at all than to do so in such an idolatrous way.

Our struggle to pray provides great opportunities for growth in humility, as do our difficulties in fasting, forgiving, showing generosity, and otherwise reorienting our lives to God.  Given our spiritual brokenness, we will usually find it much easier to eat whatever we want, hold grudges, be selfish, and otherwise serve only ourselves than to resist our self-centered desires as we open our lives to Christ in humility for healing.  To do so, however, is simply a path to greater blindness and weakness.  It is a way of degrading ourselves, of refusing to live according to the truth of who we are called to become in God’s image and likeness.

Likewise, it is possible to perform all spiritual disciplines in a corrupt way that serves only our pride, especially when we use them to condemn others.  As we begin our preparation for Great Lent this year, we should all be on guard against the temptation of self-exaltation in any form.  For if anything we do could earn God’s favor and make us so much better than others that we would be justified in condemning them, there would be no Lent because there would have been no need for our Lord to conquer death through His cross and resurrection.  The weeks of preparation for Holy Week and Pascha are necessary because we cannot save ourselves by religious or moral practices.  Our only hope is to participate in Christ’s exaltation by uniting ourselves to Him in humble faith.  The coming season will provide us with many opportunities to do precisely that.  If by the end of Lent, we see ourselves as clearly before God as did the tax collector and ask only for mercy from the depths of our souls, we will be well prepared to follow our Lord to Jerusalem, where He showed, once and for all, how humility leads to exaltation.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Patient, Humble Faith for the Healing of our Souls: Homily for Hieromartyr Charalampos, Bishop of Magnesia and the 17th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

2 Timothy 2:1-10; Matthew 15:21-28
            Good parents know that, while it may be easier to do things for our children, it is often best to let them learn by doing themselves.  They will not do everything well the first time, but neither did we. Children whose parents make everything easy for them will not become mature, capable, or self-confident.  Part of growing up is learning to handle the frustration of not getting it all right immediately.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus Christ responded to the request of the Canaanite woman for the healing of her daughter in a way that she surely found frustrating.  When she, as a Gentile, called on Him as the Jewish Messiah or “Son of David” to cast out the demon, He did not answer her at all.  Then the disciples made the situation even more tense by begging Him to send her away.  That is when the Savior said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  In response to those words, she knelt before Him and said, “Lord, help me.”  Christ then truly put her to the test by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  In other words, He was reminding her that she was not a descendant of Abraham and, according to the conventional assumptions of the day,  had no claim on the blessings brought by the Messiah.
That is when the Canaanite woman uttered a profound theological truth:  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  She acknowledged that, if those promises applied only to those of Hebrew heritage, she had no more claim on them than dogs had to the food of their owner.  Those dogs would not have been beloved pets, but more like scavengers that the Jews viewed with caution.  Nonetheless, even dogs could lick up the crumbs that fall from the table.  In other words, she knew better than our Lord’s disciples that the ancient promises were for the benefit of all.  The Lord praised her great faith and healed her daughter when she put the request in those terms.
We probably find it hard to understand why Christ responded to this woman’s pleas as He did.  Had He immediately granted her request and not referred to her as a dog, we would be more comfortable with the story.  In order to understand this conversation, we have to remember that He was guiding a particular person to grow in her faith.  Like a good parent or teacher, He did not do all the work for her or make things too easy.  Instead, He challenged her to face head-on who she was in relation to Him.  He prodded her to grow into a mature understanding of how the blessings of His ministry could extend to her and her fellow Gentiles.  That was not only a truth she needed to learn, but that His disciples needed to see enacted before their very eyes as He praised the faith of a despised foreigner and delivered her daughter.
The Savior put this woman to the test and she responded with humble faith.  She did not take offense due to hurt pride when He seemed to ignore her and then gave the impression that she should go away and stop bothering Him.  She did not deny that, as a Gentile, she had the standing of a dog, an unclean animal that was not really part of the family, in the eyes of the Jews.  Indeed, her great expression of faith is based on the acceptance of that lowly designation.  The Savior’s response enabled her to see clearly who she was in relation to Him and how shocking it was that His mercy extended even to the Gentiles.  Christ surely spoke to her in this way because He knew she had the spiritual strength to respond as she did for her own benefit and that of her daughter and the disciples.  And since we are focusing on her story today, the account of this woman’s humble faith benefits us also.
It is tempting for any group of people to forget or ignore the truth about where they stand before the Lord.  The Roman Empire persecuted the early Christians because the Romans believed that they were civilization itself.  They charged those who refused to worship their gods with treason and hatred of humanity, for they believed that those gods protected their realm.  There was no higher good for them than to preserve their way of life.  How tempting it remains for nations and other groups hypocritically to identify themselves with all that is good and to use that identification to justify hating and condemning others.
We commemorate today the Hieromartyr Charalampos the Wonder Worker, a bishop who endured terrible tortures at the hands of the Romans at the advanced age of 113 before being beheaded at the beginning of the third century.  His example and miracles brought many to believe in Christ.  St. Charalampos embodied the humble faith shown by the Canaanite woman, for he did not abandon the Lord when loyalty to Him resulted in horribly brutal treatment and even death.  Like other martyrs, he accepted being viewed as an enemy by his own rulers for the sake of the Savior, Who Himself had been executed by the Romans as “the King of the Jews.” They carried out such executions in order to make clear what happened to people who dared to challenge their authority and unique place in the world.
Obviously, St. Charalampos and the other martyrs faced difficult trials through which they demonstrated their faith.  Their path was certainly not easy and required profound patience, as well as the humility to accept being treated much worse than a dog.  Through their suffering, they bore witness not only to how the Lord’s salvation extends to Gentiles with faith in Him, but also to His great victory over death in His resurrection on the third day.  The Savior’s resurrection was not a mere concept to them, but the ultimate truth of their lives, which they embraced by literally taking up their crosses and following Him through the grave to the empty tomb.
While God does not call us all to become martyrs in that sense, He does call us to cultivate the humble faith which they and the Canaanite woman so clearly possessed.  In order to do so, we must reject the temptation to think that we stand before God on the basis of any worldly characteristic or accomplishment, whether as particular people or as members of a group of any kind.  Making power and success in this world the highest good was the basis of the idolatry of the Romans.  By refusing to deny Christ even to the point of death as traitors to Rome, the martyrs obviously did not worship the false gods of this world.  By accepting that she was an outsider to the people of Israel even as she begged for Christ to heal her daughter, the Canaanite woman showed that the ultimate meaning and purpose of her life was not defined by conventional distinctions between people, nations, or religions.  Instead of building themselves up over against others by the corrupt standards of earthly power, these holy people embraced the selfless way of Christ, Whose Kingdom is not of this world. Their examples demonstrate that how we stack up according to human standards does not give anyone a greater or lesser claim on the Lord’s mercy than anyone else.
Like them, we must not give up when difficult circumstances test our faith.  It is precisely through our disappointments, struggles, and persistent challenges that we will grow in our understanding that the life in Christ is not about getting what we want on our own terms or schedule or achieving any earthly goal.  It is, instead, about finding the healing of our souls as we share more fully in the eternal life of the Savior as the particular persons He created us to be.  Our paths will not be identical to those of St. Charalampos or the Canaanite woman, but we must look to them as examples of the persistent, humble faith in Christ through Whom “many will come from the East and the West to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matt. 8:11)

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Presenting Our Talents in the Heavenly Temple: Homily for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost and 16th Sunday of Matthew in the the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 6:1-10; Matthew 25:14-30

            Today we continue to celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, when the Theotokos and St. Joseph the Betrothed took the forty-day old Savior to the Temple in obedience to the requirements of the Old Testament law.  This is a feast in which we celebrate how the Child born at Christmas has fulfilled the hopes of the children of Abraham and extended them to all people with faith in Him.  Righteous Simeon held Christ in his arms and proclaimed, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.  The elderly Prophetess Anna also “spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”  The Old Testament temple and priesthood were preparatory signs of the coming of the Great High Priest Who offers Himself for the salvation of the world.  He has fulfilled the law and the calling of every human person to become like God in holiness, for He has joined humanity to divinity in Himself as the God-Man.   

            In order to celebrate this feast properly, we must go beyond speaking words about what Christ has done, as true as those words are.  We must present and unite ourselves to Him personally, making every dimension of our life an entrance into the heavenly worship of the Kingdom.  For our Savior is the One “Who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and Who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.” (Heb. 8:1-2)  Everything that we think, say, and do in this world may participate already in heavenly glory through Christ, when we unite ourselves to Him in holiness.  In order for that to happen, we must obey St. Paul’s instruction:  “We entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain…Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”  If we are not offering ourselves to the Lord today, then we are refusing the only opportunity we have to share more fully in His life.  The past is gone and we have no idea what the future will hold.  We must be good stewards of the opportunities available to us right now, if we want to find the healing of our souls.

            As the parable in today’s gospel reading makes clear, we must invest ourselves more fully in the life of Christ. The point is not what particular challenges and opportunities we have on a daily basis, but whether we are responding to them in a way that serves God’s purposes for us, our neighbors, and our world. The servants who invested their talents such that they produced more were exalted.  The servant who, out of fear, buried his talent in the ground and produced nothing lost what he had and was cast out.  The point was not how much they began with, but what they did with what they had.  Regardless of the circumstances of our lives, we all face the same challenge to enter more fully into the blessed life of the Kingdom.  “Now is the day of salvation” for us all because the ultimate question is whether we are uniting ourselves to Christ in the present reality of our lives.  If we are doing so, then we are becoming more fully the people God created us to be in His image and likeness through the eternal ministry of our Great High Priest.  If we are not, we are refusing to cooperate with our Lord’s gracious invitation to share in the life of the Kingdom. That is a path that leads only to greater spiritual weakness. 

            In the parable, the man with one talent hid it in the ground because he was afraid of his master. Notice that the master said that the servant, at the very least, could have put the talent in a bank and produced a little bit of interest for him. We may be tempted to refuse to give our time, energy, and abilities to serve Christ because we are afraid that He will not accept our offering. We may think that we will fail at what we have set out to do or perhaps somehow look foolish in the eyes of others.  We may feel weak or guilty or otherwise believe that opening some area of our lives to the Savior will result only in harsh condemnation. 

            Remember, however, that the master in the parable would have accepted even a small amount of interest from one talent put in the bank.  He told the unfortunate servant that the proper response to his fear was at least to do something productive, not to be paralyzed by anxiety or shame.  On the one hand, it could be understandable why we would hesitate to unite ourselves to the Lord.  It can be painful and embarrassing to acknowledge the truth about our own brokenness and need for healing.  Since God is infinitely holy and we most surely are not, the temptation not to expose ourselves to Him is powerful.  We like to think that it would be better to avoid the pain of condemnation, failure, or hurt pride by keeping the Lord—and a recognition of the truth about our lives-- at arm’s length.  Consequently, we bury our talent in the ground as we refuse to offer and open ourselves to Christ.   

            The problem, of course, is that the assumptions driving the fears that  keep us from being good stewards of our talents have no basis in reality.  The Master Who calls us to offer our lives to Him is Jesus Christ, Who endured crucifixion, death, burial, and descent into Hades for our salvation.  Purely out of love for us, He offered up Himself in order to conquer the grave in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  In His earthly ministry, the Savior had mercy on every repentant sinner who came to Him, including St. Peter who denied Him three times before His crucifixion.  He healed diseases of all kinds, cast out demons, and even raised the dead.  There is no reason to let fear of rejection deter us from humbly offering ourselves to Him for the service of the Kingdom.

            If we wonder what it would mean for us to be good stewards of our talents, all that we need to do is look around us.  Christ said that He “came to serve, not to be served” (Matt. 20:28) and there is no shortage of ways to serve Him in our parish, in our families, and in our neighbors, friends, and acquaintances.  To the extent that we help even the lowliest person, we serve our Lord.   We must also be good stewards by devoting our time, energy, and attention to prayer, reading the Bible, studying the lives and teachings of the saints, and gaining strength in resisting our self-centered desires by fasting and other forms of self-denial.  We must deliberately invest ourselves in daily practices that enable us to offer ourselves to Christ.  If we do not, our focus will remain simply on ourselves, and especially on fulfilling our passions in ways that further enslave us to them.

At the end of the day, we must offer ourselves to something or someone.  Remembering how Christ has fulfilled the ancient prophecies of the Old Testament, let us unite ourselves to Him as our Great High Priest by making each moment of our lives a point of entrance into the eternal liturgy of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Righteous Simeon and the Prophetess Anna waited decades for the Messiah.  Since He has already come, let us give our whole lives to Him.   That is the only way to be good stewards of our gifts as we refuse “to accept the grace of God in vain,” but instead do all that we can to cooperate with Him for the healing of our souls.  Anything less amounts to burying our talents in the ground and refusing to invest ourselves in the service of the Kingdom.