Saturday, July 27, 2019

Learning from the Example of Saint Timon and the Orthodox Christians of Syria: Homily for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost and the Sixth Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 12:6-14; Matthew 9:1-8
          Today is “St. Timon Sunday” in our Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America, when we make an offering in support of our brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran in Syria. Under the guidance of His Eminence, Metropolitan Saba, the Archdiocese does all that it can to show the love of Christ to the victims of the brutal conflict of the last several years.  The support provided by our Diocese has helped to fund a medical clinic and a pharmacy, and to make possible future plans for a kindergarten, a youth camp, and a monastery. Tragically, hundreds of thousands have died from the violence and millions are refugees or internally displaced persons. The human cost of such devastation is beyond calculation.  Of course, we continue to pray in every service for Metropolitan Paul and Archbishop John, who were abducted in Syria in 2013.
We commemorate St. Timon today as one of the seventy apostles sent out by the Lord and one of the original deacons mentioned in Acts (Acts 6:5).  He was the first bishop of what is now the city of Bosra, and he died as a martyr for Christ.  He played a key role in evangelizing a region where our Lord Himself often ministered (Matt.4:25) and where St. Paul took refuge after he escaped from Damascus following his conversion. (Gal. 1:15-18)   Especially as Antiochian Orthodox Christians, we must give thanks for how St. Timon’s ministry enabled the Church to flourish in ways from which we benefit to this very day.  God used his work, along with that of so many generations of faithful Christians in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, to bring us into the fullness of the faith in the Orthodox Church.
In St. Timon’s ministry, as well as in the witness of Orthodox Christians in that part of the world across the centuries, we find a clear example of obedience to St. Paul’s teaching in today’s epistle reading:  “Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  Since the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Christians in the region have carried a heavy cross as a “tolerated” minority community typically enduring persistent discrimination mixed with periods of brutal oppression. Throughout history and in our own time, many Middle Eastern martyrs and confessors have refused to deny Christ, regardless of the cost.
The ministries of the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran extend benevolence to anyone in need, as is typical of philanthropic efforts of the Orthodox Church, such as International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC).  True Christians are not tribalistic and concerned only with the needs of people like them, either religiously or in other ways.   Even as God’s love extends to all, those who are truly in Christ will share His love with everyone, especially those they are inclined for whatever reason to view as enemies and strangers.   “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” is a difficult teaching to obey, but remains a fundamental characteristic of the Christian life in all times and places.
Instead of responding in kind to their persecutors, the Christians of the Middle East continue to show their enemies the love of Christ.  In this regard, our brothers and sisters in Syria provide a powerful example of following the Lord’s instruction to the paralyzed man in today’s gospel reading:  “Rise, take up your bed and go home.”  Christ’s restoration of the man’s ability to walk was a sign of His forgiveness of the man’s sins, of the healing of the corruption of his soul.  The Lord commanded this fellow to get up and move on with his life by taking steps that were probably difficult for someone used to being paralyzed.
It is easy for anyone, including Christians, to remain paralyzed by fear, hatred, and resentment against those who have wronged us.  In a fallen world in which Cain murdered his brother Abel, we find it strangely appealing to define ourselves over against those we consider “the other.”  Whether as particular people or members of groups, we so often find ways to justify treating them as the embodiment of evil while we pat ourselves on the back for our great virtue.  Since we each confess ourselves to be the chief of sinners in preparation to receive Communion, that attitude toward anyone is a sign of a spiritual disease for which we need healing.  The ministries of the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran, and more generally the witness of Christians in the Middle East, stand as clear examples of refusing to remain paralyzed by the corruptions of sin.  For instead of seeking vengeance for historic and contemporary wrongs, or at least ignoring the sufferings of those who are not part of the Christian community, they take difficult steps to love all their needy neighbors as Christ has loved them.  In doing so, they move forward in a life of holiness and provide a brilliant icon of the peaceable reconciliation of the Kingdom of God.  They take the steps they can to embrace the healing of the human person that the Savior has brought to the world.
It is possible, of course, to look at any large problem and to think that nothing we could do could possibly make much of a difference.  Part of the reason that we may think that way is our own pride, for we assume that only something really great and impressive is worthy of our attention.  That is also a way of excusing ourselves from the responsibility to rise up from our comfortable bed of spiritual weakness to take the faltering steps we are capable of toward the Kingdom of God.  The Christians in Rome to whom St. Paul wrote were not powerful, wealthy, or famous.  Nonetheless, he called them to be faithful in how they treated one another and those outside the community of faith.  Despite what our prideful thoughts tell us, our calling is not to be in charge of the world and somehow to make history turn out right according to our own designs.  It is simply to be faithful in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If we refuse to offer our time, talents, and energy to serve Christ and our neighbors because we are waiting for a greater or more prominent opportunity, we will be in the same situation as the paralyzed man would have been had he refused to get out of his bed.  It requires humility to accept the circumstances of our lives as the context in which we will find our salvation.  And if we are not faithful in small things, we will never learn to be faithful in larger ones.
On “St. Timon’s Sunday,” we have the opportunity to offer what we can to God for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Syria. This is our opportunity to obey St. Paul’s instructions to “contribute to the needs of the saints” and give “in liberality.” Our participation in this offering over the years has enabled the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran to minister to the great needs of the residents of the area in practical, tangible ways such as a medical clinic and a pharmacy.  This offering is also our opportunity to rise up from our beds of self-centeredness in gratitude as we give in support of those from whom we have received the great blessing of the Orthodox Christian faith.
If we are truly in Christ, we will not define ourselves essentially in terms of nationality, politics, race, class, or any other merely human distinction, but as members of His Body, the Church, in which such matters are irrelevant.  If we are finding the healing of our souls in Christ, His love toward enemies, foreigners, and anyone in misery will become characteristic of us.  We will pursue the path to His Kingdom by taking the humble steps we can toward becoming more like Him in holiness as we follow the example  of St. Timon and the many generations of Middle Eastern Christians who have taken up their crosses in faithfulness to Christ and love toward their neighbors.  By sharing our resources with them even in small ways, we will open our hearts more fully to the Savior Who not only forgives our sins, but empowers us to become living icons of His merciful love.  Let us use this opportunity to serve Him in our brothers and sisters in Syria for our salvation.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

On Serving One, Not Two, Masters: Homily for the Great Martyr Kyriaki of Nicomedia and the Third Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 3:23-4:5; Matthew 6:22-33
          Today we celebrate the memory of the Holy Great Martyr Kyriaki, who gave the ultimate witness for Jesus Christ by refusing to worship pagan gods and giving up her life after suffering brutal persecution from the Roman Empire.  A beautiful young virgin, Kyriaki came from a wealthy family, but she refused the offer of marriage to the son of a magistrate who wanted their money.  The magistrate then denounced the family as Christians to the Emperor Diocletian.  Even when offered great riches and marriage to one of the emperor’s relatives if she would worship the pagan gods, Kyriaki refused and miraculously survived horrible tortures from four different rulers.  The Lord appeared to her and healed her wounds.  The next day her prayers destroyed a pagan temple, and the wild beasts to which she was later thrown would not attack her. Kyriaki gave up her soul right before she was to be beheaded.
If we want a powerful example of obedience to Christ’s teaching that one cannot serve two masters, we need to look no further than the witness of the St. Kyriaki.  She had wealth from her family, great beauty, and a way to become powerful, prominent, and even wealthier by worshiping false gods.  The eye of her soul was so pure, however, that she knew Christ not as a religious figure from the past, but as God.  Because she was filled with the divine light, she saw clearly that the blessings of this life must not become idols that would turn her away from the Lord.  Because they are His gifts to us, she knew that we must offer them and ourselves faithfully to Christ, recognizing that there is nothing more important than seeking “first His Kingdom and His righteousness.”
The witness of St. Kyriaki provides an especially vivid portrait of what is at stake in recognizing that we cannot serve two masters.  It is not hard at all to see that she faced a clear choice between the Lord and the things of the world.  Where we tend to fall into trouble is when our choices are less clear, when the contrast between faithfulness and idolatry is not as stark.  In our time and place, it is unlikely that someone will straightforwardly promise us great wealth and power if we will deny Christ and worship another god.  It is far more likely that we will endure subtle temptations to put fulfilling our self-centered desires before obedience to the Lord.  Because the eyes of our souls are not pure and clear, there is much darkness in our hearts.  We lack the spiritual vision clearly to see ourselves and all the circumstances of our lives before God.  Without recognizing what we are doing, we often blindly stumble into worshiping the false gods of pride, pleasure, and possessions.  Instead of learning to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” with the trust that “all these things shall be yours as well,” we easily fall into the trap of serving idols even as we think that we are being faithful to the Lord.
Saint Paul reminded the Galatians that to be in Christ as children of God is not a matter of obeying a mere code of conduct.  Through baptism, we put on Christ like a garment such that the distinctions between people as we know them in this world lack ultimate spiritual significance.  Christ adopts us as His children by faith and heirs to the ancient promise to Abraham, regardless of the outward circumstances of our lives. The transformation does not concern simply outward behavior, but goes to the heart.  The ultimate question for us all is whether we are becoming radiant with the gracious divine energies of God from the depths of our souls.  If we are, then we will gain the spiritual clarity to discern when temptations arise that would turn us away from faithfulness to the Lord.  That is how we will learn to see clearly when a false master threatens to turn us into idolaters.
We must be especially on guard, then, against the temptation to equate faithfulness to Christ with simply doing this or that good deed or holding an opinion on any issue.  It is possible to check off all the right boxes in terms of our behavior or ideas, but still to make our faith simply a means of trying to get what we want on our own terms in this world. Throughout history in ways small and great, many have fallen prey to the temptation to use Christianity to serve their own pride and desire for power, pleasure, and possessions. It is possible to distort even the most obvious dimensions of true discipleship into ways of serving ourselves and our agendas over those we consider our, and perhaps even God’s, enemies.
As St. Paul taught, being in Christ may not be reduced to outward obedience to a religious or moral law.  It is, instead, to be so united with Him in holy love that the eyes of our souls are filled with His brilliant light as every dimension of our life becomes radiant with His gracious divine energies. The more illumined we are in Him, the more we will see ourselves and all the blessings and challenges of this world in relation to Him.  This is not a healing that we can earn or give ourselves, for we are justified by faith in a God we not cannot control or make in our image.  We must, however, cooperate with our Lord’s mercy as we deliberately open our darkened souls to the healing light of Christ.
Doing so requires that, like St. Kyriaki, we make sacrifices that demand something of us.  She did not become a glorious saint by doing what was easy or popular or somehow figuring out how to consider herself a Christian while worshiping false gods just a bit.  No, she bravely drew a line and refused to cross it, no matter what.  If we want to acquire the spiritual vision necessary to seek first our Lord’s kingdom and righteousness in a world full of temptations, we must all mindfully turn away from thoughts, words, and deeds that we have made false gods.  We must recognize that we have been trying to serve two masters and that we must make painful choices in order to offer ourselves to Christ for healing.
In order to discern what those choices are, we must mindfully embrace the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life, such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, regular confession of sins, and asking for and extending forgiveness to others.  We must be vigilant against wasting our time and energy in entertainment, conversations, relationships, or other activities that threaten to enslave us even further to our own self-centered desires.  Like St. Kyriaki, we must dare to be out of step with cultural trends that present the good life as being contrary to denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following our Savior.  His way has never been easy or popular, though many continue to identify themselves with Him while making the world their false god.  Instead of trying to use Christ to raise ourselves up over against anyone or any group, we must simply be faithful as we keep the eyes of our souls wide open to the presence of the Lord.  The more He illumines us with His holy light, the more we will be able to recognize, name, and reject the particular forms of darkness that threaten to blind us to the glory of His kingdom.  By pursuing this path faithfully, we will learn to see all the blessings and challenges of life in light of Christ as we turn away from worshiping false gods and serve Him as our true Master. That is how we too may follow along the path of the Holy Great Martyr Kyriaki and all the saints.