Saturday, April 20, 2019

Accepting the Tension Between Our Expectations and God’s Fulfillment: Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 4:4-9; John 12:1-18
          In religion or anything else, we get used to whatever we get used to.  We tend to take for granted whatever becomes normal, expected, and routine in our lives.   Once we learn to see ourselves and the world in a certain way, it is easy to become blind to even the most obvious truths that challenge our perspective.
The chief priests and Pharisees certainly missed the point of our Lord’s raising of Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb.  They were so afraid of losing their own position and power that they were unable to recognize Him, as Lazarus’ sister Martha did, as “the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”  The Savior showed that He is “the resurrection and the life” by resurrecting Lazarus, but all that the religious leaders could see was a threat to themselves.  Though they had the great blessings of the Old Testament law and the worship of the Temple in Jerusalemthey made themselves blind to a Messiah Who was different from what they had expected.
We see something similar in the crowd’s reaction to the Savior’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  They received Him as the Messiah everyone anticipated, a conquering military hero ready to liberate Israel from the defilement of Roman occupation.   “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!”  The irony is that Christ arrived not as a fierce warrior, but peaceably on a humble donkey.   When in the following days it became clear that He is the Prince of Peace Whose Kingdom is not of this world, the same crowds yelled “Crucify Him.” The Roman governor Pontius Pilate quickly saw that there was no reason to do so, but as a practical administrator, he could tolerate the death of an innocent man more easily than civil unrest.
Irony abounds in the events leading to the Savior’s Passion.  Raising a dead man somehow made people want to kill Him.  Those who praised Him enthusiastically on Sunday called for His death on Friday.  He died as a failed Messiah, rejected by Jewish religious leaders and abandoned by His disciples.  When the women went to His tomb, they did so in order to complete the proper burial rituals for the deceased.  They did not expect to find the stone rolled away and the grave empty; neither did they anticipate the astonishing message of the angel.    The tension between what anyone thought of Jesus Christ and Who He revealed Himself to be in the final days of His earthly ministry are truly shocking and beyond normal human comprehension.
Our challenge in the coming week is to enter into the tension between our conventional expectations and the Lord’s strange victory over death through His Cross and empty tomb, for it is through that tension that He has brought salvation to the world.  If we approach His Passion as simply part of a story that we take for granted because it is so familiar and we have watered it down to fit our sensibilities, we will miss the point of this week entirely.  Instead, we must learn to see that we have far too much in common with those who wanted a Messiah to serve their interests in this world.  Those who sought Christ’s death were highly religious, upstanding members of their society, but they were ultimately idolaters of their own will.  We must not shy away from facing the truth that we are often very much like them.  As well, we are not much different from those who denied and abandoned the Savior when things did not go as they had hoped. There is much within us that wants to run away from the dark night of the Cross and the grave.
Even though it goes very much against our inclinations, we must struggle to abide with Christ as He offers up Himself for our salvation to the point of death.  We must resist the temptation simply to disregard Him because we do not like what His Passion reveals about our need for healing that we cannot give ourselves.  We must behold Him in the tomb, facing the astonishing mystery of the death of the God-Man, of the Eternal Word of God Who spoke the universe into existence, if we are to share in His great victory over Hades and death itself.  We must dare to disorient ourselves from our usual schedules and preoccupations, turning away from the temptation to make the world our god and to use religion for our own self-centered purposes.
As we follow our Lord to His Passion this week, we will come face to face with the profound tension between our ways and God’s ways.  We will not merely have thoughts and feelings about what happened long ago, but will instead enter mystically into Jesus Christ’s great Self-Offering for our salvation.  We will encounter personally the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world in a way that calls us into question from the depths of our souls.  The more fully we open ourselves to the unfathomable mystery of the God-Man Who enters into death, the more we will die to the prideful illusions that so easily blind us to the truth about who we are and Who He is.  We will see that conventional religion that helps us get what we want on our own terms in this world is powerless to deliver us from the clutches of death.  Such distorted religion is precisely why the chief priests and Pharisees rejected their Messiah and insisted on His crucifixion.  It is precisely why they chose death over life.  That is a tragic irony that we must avoid, if we are to share in the eternal life of our Savior, Who triumphs over the worst that corrupt human powers and death itself can do.
Throughout the coming week, we will have the opportunity to open the eyes of our souls to the brilliant light of the glory of God, shining from the empty tomb.  But in order to do so, we must first endure the pitch black midnight of the God-Man hanging on the Cross purely out of love for you, for me, and for everyone He created in His image and likeness.   Let us do so in obedience to the instructions of St. Paul in today’s epistle reading:  “[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  Regardless of what else is going on in our lives in the coming week, there could be nothing more important than opening our hearts to the Savior Who offered up Himself for our salvation.  He alone is able to bring us all from the dark pit of despair into the blinding light of His Kingdom.   Now is the time to “lay aside all earthly cares” and to attend to Him.  “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!”

Sunday, April 14, 2019

There is No Shame in Repentance: Homily for the Commemoration of St. Mary of Egypt and the 5th Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 10:32-45
          It has never been hard to find examples of people using religion to get what they want in this world.  It is usually easy to see when others do that, but much harder to recognize when we fall prey to the temptation of trying to use God to fulfill our self-centered desires.  The harsh truth is that doing so is simply a way of worshiping ourselves, no matter what we say we believe.
In today’s gospel lesson, James and John understood Christ’s prediction of His death and resurrection so poorly that they asked for the places of highest honor in His Kingdom, which they surely imagined would be an earthly political realm. The Lord told them that they did not know what they were asking, for to be exalted in His Kingdom would require sharing in the cup and baptism of His great Self-offering for the salvation of the world. It would require “becoming the servant of all.  For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
The Savior taught His confused disciples that His way is completely different from the path of earthly rulers who seek to exalt themselves by lording it over others.  He suffered at the hands of precisely such authorities who could not tolerate any threat to their power.  By ascending the Cross, descending to Hades, and rising from the tomb, Christ revealed the pathetic weakness of those who use the fear of death to serve their own fleeting glory upon the earth.  To attempt to use His Kingdom to fulfill self-centered desires for power, pleasure, or any other worldly goal is to miss the point entirely of why our Great High Priest offered Himself as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. By uniting ourselves to Him in holiness, we become participants by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity, not people who are successful in making the world their god.
Today we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt, who found healing in Christ from notorious addiction to sexual pleasure, which is another form of the idolatry of making the world our god.  Through decades of intense asceticism in the desert, she found healing from domination by lust and became a glorious saint.  She did so not by pursuing the false glory of the world, but by becoming radiant with the glory of God through humble repentance.
Addiction to gratifying our self-centered desires, no matter what they are, distorts the beauty of our souls as those who bear God’s image and likeness.  We must remember, however, that Christ’s mercy extends to even the most corrupt sinner who comes to Him in humble repentance.  Zacchaeus turned from his love of money by returning more than what he had stolen and by giving generously to the poor.  In contrast to the self-righteous Pharisee in the parable, the tax collector humbly begged for God’s mercy and found it.  The prodigal son came to himself and was restored beyond his expectations.  The disciples ultimately abandoned their desire for worldly power and became martyrs, including St. Peter, who had denied the Savior three times.  St. Paul went from being a fierce persecutor of Christians to the apostle to the Gentiles.  St. Mary of Egypt, who began as a horribly depraved person, ended up as such a model of sanctity that we celebrate her memory each Lent without shame or embarrassment. We learn from these examples that there is always hope for the healing of our souls, regardless of the mess we have made of our lives.   Our faith is not in a simple moralism in which the good succeed and the bad fail, but in a Lord Who has conquered the enslaving power of sin and death.  He came to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
The healing of human persons in such remarkable ways is not accomplished by the conventional politics or ethics of this world, regardless of whether religion is somehow invoked to support them.  Such transformation is, instead, a sign of Christ’s victory through His Passion.  His selfless service for our sake knew no bounds and stopped at nothing, not even Hades and the tomb, in order to deliver us from the despair to which we had enslaved ourselves.  He freely entered into the full consequences of our corruption in order to heal and triumph over them.  He did so not for His own sake, but for ours.  “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
As we begin the last week of Great Lent, let us be on guard against the temptation to use any aspect of our faith for self-glorification.  If our prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other spiritual disciplines become means of merely accomplishing our goals or of making us think that we have achieved some level of righteousness, they will do us more spiritual harm than good.  They are, instead, simply ways of opening ourselves to the healing mercy of Christ so that we will become more like Him. The more that His life becomes ours, the more we will find strength to take up our crosses as we follow Him into a Kingdom not of this world. The more that we take our eyes off ourselves and serve our neighbors in humility, the more we will find the healing of our souls.  Lent is almost over.  Let us use the coming week to follow the example of St. Mary of Egypt, and of all the saints, in becoming more truly human in God’s image and likeness. Christ did not reject them and He will not reject us, if we come to Him as they did in humble repentance.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Brutally Honest Humility, Not Self-Reliance: Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 6:13-20; Mark 9:17-31
              Self-reliance has its place, but also its limits.  Deep problems that we cannot overcome by our own abilities show us that we are not as powerful as we had imagined.  The father in today’s gospel reading had learned through bitter experience that he could not relieve his son’s suffering, which was why he asked Jesus Christ to cast out the demon. The man was apparently not sure that the Savior could do so either, for he said “if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.”  When Christ responded, “If you can believe, all things are possible for him who believes,” the father was brutally honest, saying “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”  Not only did the man know that he could not relieve his own son’s suffering, but also that his faith was far from perfect and mixed with doubt. When the Savior cast out the demon, the scene was so disturbing that most people who saw it thought that the boy had died.  Imagine how terrified the father must have been.
The disciples’ concern in that moment seems to have been only for themselves, for they wondered why they had not been able to deliver the young man.  When Christ told them it was because “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting,” He made clear that they lacked the spiritual health to do so.  They had neglected the most basic practices for the healing of their souls and consequently were powerless in the face of such great evil.  As the Lord said, they were part of a “faithless generation.”
The disciples, who had the benefit of literally following Christ in His ministry and hearing His teaching daily, had not yet embraced genuine faith in Him.  However, the Lord delivered a child from the deadly clutches of evil through the honest, imperfect faith of his father.  The deep pain and challenge presented by his son’s suffering over the years had humbled the man.  He knew that no version of self-reliance could help in this situation.  He had faith, but was not ashamed to admit that it left much to be desired.
If we are making use of the disciplines of Great Lent with integrity, we will develop at least a bit of the spiritual clarity shown by the father in our gospel lesson.  The constant struggle to pray, whether at home, church, or elsewhere, reveals our weakness in controlling our own thoughts and turning away from distractions as we open our hearts to God.  The more that we open our hearts and see our true spiritual state, the more we know our own need for healing beyond what we can accomplish by our own power.   Our difficulty in fasting shows how little control we have over our desires for pleasure and getting our own way.  The more that we seek to orient our lives to God, the more aware we will become of the weakness of our faith and of how devoted we remain to the false gods of this world, including especially our own will.
The irony is that the only way to find strength is by acknowledging our weakness.  The greater our spiritual clarity, the more we will know the infinite distance between the present health of our souls and the fullness of our calling to become like God in holiness. The only way to climb The Ladder of Divine Ascent, as described by St. John Climacus in his advice to monks, is to embrace the brutally honest humility of the father who was not ashamed to acknowledge the brokenness of his faith even as he cried out with tears on behalf of his demon-possessed son.
As we continue the Lenten journey, we must remember that this season is not about us and what we think we can achieve spiritually by relying on our own willpower or virtue to perform acts of religious devotion.  Spiritual disciplines are not exercises in self-reliance, as though we earn something from God by being diligent in performing them.  Instead, they are simply ways of helping us share more fully in the life of Christ as we grow in recognizing our sinfulness and opening ourselves to receive His healing mercy.  No amount of piety could conquer the power of death and make a path for us to participate personally in the eternal life of God by grace.  Only the God-Man, in His full Self-offering on the Cross, could do that. Lent is preparation to unite ourselves to Christ in His Passion, for “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.” He is the eternal High Priest Who “has gone as a forerunner on our behalf” into the Heavenly Tabernacle where He intercedes for us eternally (Rom. 8:34).
The healing of our souls is found by sharing in the life of Christ.  We will be able to unite ourselves to Him in holiness only when we know the weakness of our faith as we turn away from self-reliance and receive His mercy from the depths of our souls.  The disciplines of Lent are teachers of humility that should help us “commend ourselves and one another, and all our life, unto Christ our God.”  He accepted the imperfect faith of the father of the demon-possessed boy, and He will do the same with us if we come to Him in the same humble spirit.  Doing so is really the only way to prepare to follow the Savior to His Cross and empty tomb.