+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. Our Lord said, “The eye is the lamp of the body,” teaching that if your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be filled with darkness. He further emphasized how great that darkness will be. The first thing to understand is that Jesus was not speaking of physical sight, but of spiritual sight, or what we might call one’s perception of life. One can have either a Christian perception, a Christian “lens” through which he views, interprets, and understands life rightly, or he can have a worldly perception, a darkened lens, which leads him to misunderstand and misinterpret all things in life, including even the Christian faith and himself as a human being. Much of this world’s narrative is driven by a darkened perspective affecting us all. It is a basic Christian teaching that we all initially come to Christ with a bad eye and full of darkness, needing purification that we might be divinely illumined to become children of the light, freed from delusion. Not all who enter the spiritual hospital find this healing quickly. This is often because the darkened perceptions and opinions we have formed through having bad eyes masquerade as “wisdom,” or “our deeply-held beliefs,” or even as merely “just the way things are.” In other words, many of us don’t even know that we are darkened in our thinking. We assume we have a good handle on things and imagine ourselves to be far more Christian in our ideas and practices than we may actually be. This is a serious problem. An extreme example can be seen in those churches that muddy every traditional Christian doctrine and moral teaching, that reject the need of repentance (“Be who you are!”), and that advocate every so-called “progressive” social issue under the banner of inclusiveness and love. The spirit of anti-christ is alive and well in such churches. In our own individual lives, other examples can be found. I’ll divide these into two basic types, the first being wrong opinions and the second being wrong formation. When it comes to opinions, we’ve all got them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing unless our opinions are just wrong and we are unwilling to change them. We can be so prideful when it comes to defending our own personal thoughts and opinions, and it is this pride that often leads into some very unchristian behavior. If we come to the Church for spiritual healing and illumination, we ought first to be willing to lay aside our own ideas and be taught by Christ. A wise man will learn to always mistrust himself and lean not on his own understanding, but on the wisdom of God. If we do hold strong opinions, why not keep them to ourselves rather than inflict them on others? How often do we read in the scriptures—if indeed we read the scriptures—that we should strive to be of one mind with one another, united with God in Christ? How often are we instructed to avoid quarreling and disputes, disagreements and arguments, to lay aside our own self-interests in order to embrace our unity in Christ and in the faith delivered once, for all? Where in the scriptures are we encouraged to be “free thinkers” or to go “against the tide” in the Church, or to “stand up for ourselves” in opposition to one another? The Christian spirit is one of humility and gentleness and submission to one another in Christ. We may hold to some very strong opinions about theology or politics or social issues or even that most volatile issue of all, how to raise our own families. And some of those opinions may be good, and others maybe not. In either case, I would caution us about forming opinions too quickly, too unwisely, or voicing them too loudly. Allow God time to heal your eye, so that your opinions might come from our Holy Tradition and a Christian spirit, and not from a darkened intellect, or from ego, or from the vain philosophies of this fallen world. Embrace humility, listen deeply, speak little, and gain much. Now it could be that I have already offended some who might be thinking, “Father wants us all to think like he does and be good little cookie-cutter Christians!” If that’s the case, you may have misunderstood my meaning. One thing I will add is that in the early stages of our Christian journey, we will all tend to think first in terms of our individualism and our so-called responsibility to ourselves, rather than the Body of Christ and our true responsibility to one another. To get from here to there is a process called right formation. We come to Christ rather badly formed. This is what our Lord referred to as the “darkness” within us. A bad eye leads to bad thoughts and opinions, which in turn leads to bad formation. As we act on the ideas that have little or nothing to do with Christ, we shape our souls in wrong ways, and quite likely the souls of those around us as well. To be properly spiritually formed in Christ should be the desire and pursuit of every person in the Church. However, this is not always the case as some Orthodox people seem to have no concept of spiritual formation. Somehow, and perhaps we know how, it is possible for people to go years in the Church and remain untouched by the experience. Like a marriage that never quite “takes” and the two remain two rather than becoming one, Orthodox Christians can be married to Christ but never be formed in His image, never be truly united to Him. We can remain just as worldly and clueless in our thoughts and actions as any person who doesn’t know the Lord. To paraphrase Strother Martin from Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure of formation,” or rather, a wrong formation in accordance with the world, and not a right formation in accordance with Christ. How can spiritual formation fail? Most often because a person never fully engages the faith or lives their Orthodoxy intentionally. That might be because we just don’t pay attention, or it might be because of the little compromises we sometimes make with our faith. We might compromise our prayers, our tithe, the fasts, church attendance, our thought life, our moral actions, our lifestyle choices and so on. We are often so willing to settle for less than for more of God. We might never study our faith or seek to be informed by it. We may flee from the Cross in our lives, always seeking an easier way. Our little compromises can lead up to one big failure in our life, a failure that none of us would choose, if we took the time to think it through. Now of course we are all sinners and fail God in many ways. But the biggest failure of all would be to prevent the formation of Christ within us by negligence or compromise. Fortunately, the solution is easily available. It’s called repentance. Take seriously the instructions the Church gives as if they were the very words of life, falling from the lips of Jesus Himself. Gather them up and take them into your heart and allow them to change you. The daily laying aside of ourselves and a humble obedience to Christ is the medicine that will heal our eyes and fill our bodies with divine and everlasting light. +To the Glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Abandoned Mind
Put on your miner's caps, light 'em up and follow me. These timbers are old, the walls are crumbly, and the roof could cave in at any minute. Stay together and watch your step. We're about to enter...The Abandoned Mind!
Saturday, June 27, 2015
Sunday, May 24, 2015
+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. On this day the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in the year 325. It is very revealing of the state of modern Christendom that only a small minority of people appreciate the importance of this ancient council or the vital contributions made to our faith by the Fathers who attended it. These men were the instruments God used to keep the Church from falling headlong into Christological error, and yet they are either marginalized or maligned by so many of our fellow believers today. I couldn't count all the times I've heard people claim that the Nicene Council was entirely unnecessary because the Almighty God doesn’t need the help of men to preserve His Truth. Of course this completely ignores the all the facts of what actually did happen, and substitutes an airy-fairy, hyper-spiritualized fantasy of what God could have done. Make-believe seems more important than reality to some people. Others say that the Nicene Council was one of the worst things to ever happen to Christianity, as it supposedly allowed Constantine to seize control of the Church, blend it’s teachings with paganism, and form the dreaded Roman Catholic church, to the eternal rue of true believers (i.e. Non-Catholics) everywhere. Again, this scenario is simply another fantasy, not reflecting truth or genuine history in any way. Yet, it is widely-accepted without question and perpetuated in churches everywhere. The fact that there exists within so much of contemporary Christendom a pronounced preference for make-believe over reality and fantasy over historical fact should come as no real surprise to us, since this has become the preferred method for deciding what is true throughout the world in general. It seems there is no longer a strong trust in external canons for objectively measuring the truth of personal belief. Church doctrines—regardless of denomination—are increasingly regarded with suspicion or even outright contempt by modern people. Even the authority of the Bible is eroding in the minds of many. A generation ago the phrase, “The Bible says…” still carried a measure of weight with folks. They at least knew that the Bible contained truths that were genuine, whether they liked them or not. But today, and especially among the so-called Millennial generation—said as those born after 1982, and who are leaving Christianity in droves—the Bible is seen less-and-less as authoritative or as bearing any relevance to modern life. The Bible has been reduced to being “your Grandpa’s book,” and thus filled with dusty, old values and out-dated morals that are increasingly in opposition to modern sensibilities. Of course, the Bible has always been a bit in opposition to modern sensibilities, regardless of the age. St. Paul pleaded with the newly-converted Christians of his day to refrain from fornication and sacrifice to idols, which were very common. The old idea of correcting our behavior to align with the teachings of the Church has largely been replaced by the call to condemn Christian teachings and live however we please. And so if these things have been superseded, what are the new canons of faith and practice that have replaced them? All things objective and external are being replaced by all things subjective and internal. It is feelings that mostly guide people in deciding what is true today. If I feel good about something, it must be true. Conversely, things that make me feel bad, or make me unpopular with my friends, must be wrong. When surveyed as to why they are leaving Christian churches these day, many Millennials answer that they found their churches to be judgmental, anti-gay, and in some cases, too doctrinal. Perhaps that is true in many cases. But it could also be that many folks take their cues from a fallen and worldly culture whose values and narratives they have absorbed without question. If you have accepted the argument that being opposed to gay marriage is equal to gay-bashing, hatred, and the denial of equal rights to all, well then, what decent person wants to a part of that scene? If since grade school you’ve been indoctrinated in value-free sex education that purposefully delinks sex from commitment and emphasizes freedom, experimentation, and personal gratification above all, then what use will you have for church morality, which, we are told, only makes people feel guilty? (Guilt makes me feel bad and therefore must be wrong.) We understand that people don’t like to be told what to believe or what to do with their own bodies. Resisting such commandments is what the progressive spirit calls “freedom.” And yet if we look a little closer we see that there is very little freedom involved here, and far more bondage. People are being told what to believe, with much greater force than any church wields. If you do not toe the line drawn by the forces of political correctness, you risk alienation, hatred, economic retaliation, and persecution. It is true that the persecution endured today by Christians who stand up for their faith is far from the level of being burned at the stake. While some people have lost jobs or had their businesses destroyed by others who found their beliefs unacceptable, most suffer little more than social tension from those who consider them hateful or out-of-step. But even that little bit of pressure makes many Christians fold like a shirt on wash day. People clam up and refuse to bear witness to the truth. Worse yet, they may call their own church’s teachings into question, rejecting them with an air of moral superiority, and perhaps even reject their church itself to find something more in line with their own feelings. I personally believe that as the culture of the world continues to “progress” away from traditional values, the Christians who still hold these values will face stronger and more focused persecutions. I don’t envision ISIS-type beheadings; honestly, we are not worthy of such holy martyrdom. But I can easily see punitive lawsuits being brought against churches that refuse to do gay weddings, for example. There is no “live and let live” sentimentality in the hearts of activists! The goal is to make Christians conform to the new “freedom.” Many churches will fold simply because the parishioners who now barely contribute enough to keep the lights on will not wish to fund expensive legal defenses. When faced with the challenge of mortgaging their own homes to defend their faith, many Christians will undergo a sudden transformation of conscience to decide they no longer wish to be a part of the so-called “hate community” of Christianity. However, I can also see real good coming from all this. The “white-picket fence” Christians and those who were never quite comfortable with their church’s teachings will fade away. In their place will arise the kind of Christian who is willing to suffer for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s. Perhaps these will be the ones who already feel a bit out-of-place in the white bread world: the tattooed hoards, the lower-income families, the minorities and so forth. The people who have often had a hard time fitting into upper-middle class Christianity and even into Orthodoxy itself may well become the Church of the future. I’m not a prophet and I really don’t know what is to come. And neither should my comments be taken as an “old guy” rant against the young folks of today. Sadly, much of this apostasy was initiated by people of my generation, and the Millennials have merely inherited the bitter fruit of our stupidity. One thing I do know is that the more uncomfortable we become with the teachings of the Church, the less we have in common with God. The Christian faith is supposed to be challenging. It is supposed to knock down what is false in us and form us in the Truth. The Holy Fathers knew this, which is why they fought so hard to preserve our faith. While much of the world and even many Christians may choose to live in the fantasyland of their own feelings, we should choose to live in our Holy Orthodox Faith and allow it to form, inform, and transform us in opposition to the world. +To the Glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Thursday, January 22, 2015
+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. Today’s gospel lesson is a teaching about gratitude. Ten lepers were miraculously healed by Jesus Christ, but only one returned to thank Him. Most of us have heard of leprosy and know that it was an especially terrifying disease in the ancient world. Not only could its physical effects be horrible, but people who contracted it became utter social outcasts, forbidden to enter any city or even to draw near to any healthy person, lest they spread their infection. This is why the gospel tells us that the ten lepers stood “afar off” from Jesus. They were not allowed to come any closer. The Jewish laws were very strict about this: no leper was allowed to enter the synagogue to hear the scriptures read or enter the Temple to make sacrifice for their sins. This effectively meant that any Jew who had leprosy was cut off from the life of Israel, and seemingly, from any hope of salvation. A Jewish leper was sick and alienated from his people and loved ones, and even alienated from God. For this reason, this horrible disease has been employed as a metaphor for sin, which also disfigures humanity, and alienates us from one another and from God. Now we return to our gospel lesson in which nine Jews and one Samaritan shout at Jesus from the legal distance to have mercy upon them and heal them. Being a country preacher with a pretty decent set of pipes Himself, our Lord Jesus shouted back to the lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” This was a reference to Leviticus 14, which prescribed that any leper whose disease had been healed should present himself to a priest who would follow a prescribed procedure to verify healing and pronounce the patient “clean” and able to reenter normal society. On their way back, they were suddenly and completely healed of their leprosy. It is certain that all ten men knew immediately of their healing. But only the Samaritan stopped and turned back to Jesus to give thanks and worship Him. Thus only to this one man did Jesus say, “Go in peace. Your faith has made you well.” Does this imply that the leprosy returned to the other nine men because they didn’t give thanks? I seriously doubt it. Men are often cruel in that way, but God is not. Those men were likely healed of their leprosy for the rest of their natural lives. But their ingratitude, their utter lack of thankfulness to Jesus, was a worse disease from which they might never have recovered. We could argue that the nine were simply being obedient, following our Lord’s instructions to go show themselves to a priest. But Golly Bill, knowing that they had just been miraculously healed by the Prophet they had besought, knowing that their lives and families and all good things were being returned to them, couldn’t they have taken just a moment to show some gratitude? It seems so. And for their neglect of this, they did indeed receive back their lives, but did not find the eternal salvation that was granted to the Samaritan alone. Now imagine receiving healing from Jesus Christ, but not His glorious salvation. How is this possible? By the great love of God for us, we may indeed be granted release from disease, or sin, or addiction, or some other terrible thing, but if we lack the proper gratitude, we can wind up making our situation far worse than it was before. Jesus once said to a person He healed, “Go, and sin no more, lest something worse befall you.” What could be worse except condemnation for a lack of gratitude and repentance in acknowledgement of the gift that was given? Anyone who receives a great deliverance is happy. But happiness is not the same thing as gratitude. Happy is, “Woo-hoo! Now I can go out and really live life and do what I want!” Gratitude, on the other hand, is much more sober. It is the recognition that a life restored by God is a life that is owed to Him. This applies to all of us, whether we see ourselves as having had a great deliverance or not. All of us have been washed of the disease of sin, which is an even greater miracle than healing from leprosy! We have all been given a new life, a life of regeneration and of restoration to God and to one another. We have all been given a second chance at real life by our gracious God, with the promise of even better things to come. But having received all this, are we properly grateful to the Giver of Life? What percentage of our new life do we devote to learning and doing the will of God, as opposed to just living? As the scriptures instruct, do we seek to discover what is pleasing to the Lord? Do we try to live in such a way as to make God happy? Or are we mostly concerned with our own happiness? When we make plans for our future do we think, “How can I put myself in the best position in life to serve God?” or only, “What can I do to really enjoy the rest of my life?” Do we glorify God with our finances, making regular sacrifices with thanksgiving, or do we withhold our offerings to spend on things which please us more? Do we look for ways to serve our parish, or only criticize those who do serve for not doing things better? Do we see the needs of others and help, or only their faults and judge? Are we prayerful, supportive, quick to forgive, and encouraging, building up the parish with love and hope? Or are we too busy living our own lives to notice those around us? We can see why gratitude to God is so important. Without a deep recognition of the gracious and unmerited gifts He has granted us, we can too easily take them for granted as if we were owed a good life and the best of all things. My brothers and sisters, God owes us nothing, but we owe Him everything. Truly no one of us would ever mean to be ungrateful, just as the nine lepers probably did not mean to be ungrateful. They simply were, because they were too focused on their own lives and the enjoyment that awaited, and did not stop to think of God. We must remember God and show our gratitude in how we serve Him and always seek to please Him and put Him first in our lives. +To the Glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
"Do unto others..."
+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. The Lord said, “As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” We are more accustomed to the version, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” a maxim dubbed The Golden Rule since at least the mid-16th century. It is said that this rule can be found in many of the world’s religions, though frequently encountered in the reverse form of, “Do not do to others what you would not want done to you.” While this is not bad, Christ’s version is clearly better, for it calls us to actively reach out and do the good to others that we might want done to ourselves. In other words, we shouldn’t just “do no harm” to others—though that’s a good start—but we should actively, proactively do good. Furthermore, our Lord went so far at to say that we must do good even to those who do not do good to us! “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” He asked. “Love your enemies, and do good,” He insisted, “and you will be sons of the Most High.” Unfortunately, a whole lot of people seem to live by another rule: “Do unto others AS they do unto you.” Is this how we live? Are we nice to others as long as they’re nice to us, but turn on those who seem to turn on us? Do we find ways to justify our wrath, adding up all the offenses of the other—not just the latest one—until he or she begins to look like the devil incarnate? Do we ever make a pretense of forgiveness but harbor a resentment inwardly simply that rots in our souls? Sometimes people do us real harm. Even then we must find a way to forgive, perhaps with the help of intervention. Far more often however the injuries we receive from others are simply wounds to our pride and our oh-so-sensitive egos. And yes, we can be very sensitive, Being good to us in modern terms seems to mean always agreeing with us in every personal opinion, always supporting us and being sympathetic to us in every situation, always validating our thoughts and feelings with complete empathy, listening carefully and with full support. In other words, always show respect to us, and never, ever slight us in any way. Quite obviously this is nearly impossible to maintain in the real world, unless we pick our friends very carefully, loving those who love us, and excluding or even blacklisting those who simply don’t make the cut. That’s a hard thing to accomplish successfully in most parishes or anywhere else for that matter! Obviously as well, this is a far cry from what Christianity teaches us. As Christians, we are not to be so self-centered, so delicate, so sensitive of criticism, of correction, or even of rebuke. We are in fact taught to welcome all reproaches as being beneficial to our souls and instructive to our repentance. We are to understand that we are fallen, together with all our thoughts and opinions, and seek the wisdom of the Church and our elders to guide us, and the experience of normal human interaction and even struggle to bring us growth. The gospel never promises us that people—even Christian people—will always be good to us, or treat us the way we like. In fact, doesn’t it pretty much warn us that the opposite can and will happen, even in the Church? Most people treat us no better or worse than we treat others. The gospel never tells us to defend ourselves in the face of poor treatment, or that we have any right to be indignant or justify our anger over an offense. Instead it tells us to love people, to be long-suffering, patient, and forgiving. How quickly we can forget this when someone says something we don’t like, or steps on our toes, or simply isn’t as nice as we think they should be toward us. Suddenly, all Christian sensibility is abandoned and we harden our hearts toward the one that we ought to love and forgive. The reason we do this is not necessarily because of hypocrisy, but more likely because the passion of anger seizes us and we want to vindicate or justify ourselves at the expense of our offender. Nobody is ever so bold as to say, “I have the right to hate so-and-so because he insulted me!” Instead, we couch our anger in more socially-acceptable terms like, “I’m deeply concerned—and want you all to know—that so-and-so has proven to be very insensitive and doesn’t seem to realize how hurtful he can be.” My, how noble we can make ourselves seem even while we are being terribly petty! What does our Holy Orthodox faith teach us about such matters? Are we taught to merely disguise our wrath, and attack our offender discretely? Are we taught to pretend to forgive, but warmly nurse a grudge as if we were somehow the Holy Innocent, most wrongly and viciously offended? No. We are taught to blame ourselves and absolve the other person completely. Let me repeat that. We are taught to blame ourselves and absolve the other person completely. How does this solve the problem? Usually, it solves it entirely. The person who takes offense at others will never know the peace of Christ, who defended Himself against no man. The person who blames himself and never holds resentment against another, who prays “Lord have mercy upon me, and through the prayers of my brother or sister, save me, a sinner,” will gain the peace that places him above all human turmoil. We can never gain peace by defending ourselves, by trying to change people or situations or circumstances to be more to our liking. We can only gain peace by dying to ourselves, and by loving every other human being far more than we love ourselves. Is this even possible? Yes, it is. The moment we decide to take the very next conflict with another, and instead of defending ourselves, accept it as an opportunity for repentance, we are on our way. Do we truly love others with the love of Christ, or do we love ourselves above Christ and all others? This is never revealed in the good times, but in those difficult times when we must lay aside our hurt or disappointment, and put love with warmth and true compassion to work for our brother or sister who has offended us. “Love your enemies and do good, and you will be sons of the Most High.” +To the Glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Monday, August 25, 2014
The Unforgiving Servant, again.
+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. We just heard the parable of the Unforgiving Servant who would not release a fellow servant from a small debt, though his master had just released him from a colossal debt of his own. His utter lack of mercy evoked the wrath of his master, who had him thrown in prison until he should pay back every cent. The parable concluded with our Lord saying, “So also shall My heavenly Father do to every one of you, if you do not forgive you brother from your heart.” The meaning of this parable should be abundantly clear: God has forgiven us completely, so we in return must completely forgive others. Perhaps I could end the homily here and call it a day, but I think there are a few more things that need to be said. First, when trying to understand this parable we should always take it at its simplest and most obvious interpretation and avoid overthinking it, which can lead to some serious theological problems. A similar passage occurs in Matthew 6, following the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, at which point Jesus immediately said to His disciples, “For unless you forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.” Taken together these two verses clearly show that to live in the forgiveness of God we must share that forgiveness with others. If however we go beyond that clear and simple meaning and begin to overthink these passages, then we might start imagining God’s forgiveness to be a sort of whim which He can extend or withdraw at any moment. As long as we remain on God’s “good side” and forgive everyone, He will show us mercy, but if we fail to forgive anyone, His wrath will jump on us like ugly on an ape and our forgiveness will be yanked away in a fit of divine rage. I seriously doubt that this is what these verses are trying to teach us about God or His forgiveness. Our parable clearly showed the master of the Unforgiving Servant as being enraged at him. But remember that this was a parable expressed in human terms with human characters. Our Lord did not necessarily mean it to be an exact representation of God’s disposition. In fact, throughout His ministry Jesus revealed God as much more merciful and long-suffering than this. We need to understand that the forgiveness of God is a constant, much like the love of God. God always loves, and God always forgives. He cannot do otherwise. But man must choose whether to live in communion with God, His forgiveness, His love, or not. If man chooses not to love, he is not in communion with God, who is love. If man chooses not to forgive, he is not in communion with the God who forgives. So when Jesus says if you do not forgive, neither will you be forgiven, it doesn’t mean that God is going to abruptly change His character and stop loving or forgiving you. It simply means that you have entered into a state of existence in which God’s love and forgiveness and even His very life is rejected by you and can no longer benefit you. I hope we can see the difference in this. If we fail to see that difference, then we might start thinking that the forgiveness of God is entirely conditional and therefore perhaps ours can be as well. If someone doesn’t show forgiveness or ask forgiveness, then maybe I don’t have to forgive him. If he doesn't love me, then I don’t have to love him. This is all nonsense. But this kind of thinking can happen when we overcomplicate things that don’t need to be. Let’s just keep it simple and live in the forgiveness of God, sharing it with all. Another thing we need to note is that Jesus made a particular point of saying that you must forgive from your heart. Have you ever noticed that your Savior seems very, very interested in your heart? The Law of Moses was a bit more focused on external things, such as in the commandments to not commit murder or adultery. But Jesus drove that message deeply inward, teaching that bearing hatred toward your brother was equal to murder or that lusting after a woman was the committing of adultery in your heart. He commanded the Pharisees (and through them, all of us) to not just be clean outwardly, but to first clean the inside of the cup (that is to say, the heart) that the outside might be clean also. Further He declared, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” What this means in terms of forgiveness is that it must truly come from the inside, cleansing and freeing the human heart from all lingering resentment and hurt. This is not an easy thing. Until we reach that all-important point in each of our lives at which we decide to internalize our Christian faith and live it from the inside out, we will generally settle for showing an outward forgiveness, while still harboring hard feelings inside. We should not settle for living the appearance of a Christian life, but strive to live it in reality. We’d like to believe that we forgive all people, but the truth is revealed in the things that come out of our heart. Do we speak ill of the other person in unguarded moments? Do we rejoice when bad things happen to the other or are we angry or jealous when he/she enjoys good things we don’t think that they deserve? These embarrassing moments are among the little tips that show whether our forgiveness is from the heart, or only from our desire to outwardly appear forgiving. But there is more we should consider here. Like God, who is always merciful, whom the scriptures describe humanly as “slow to anger and quick to forgive,” do we strive to create an internal atmosphere that lends itself to quick and natural forgiveness and a certain resistance to anger? Let me explain what I mean. In the normal course of our daily lives, things happen. People around us often behave less than perfectly, and speak or act in ways that can potentially give us offense. In such cases, are we quick to take offense? “What did you say? Oh, you hurt my pride; you questioned my integrity; you undermined my authority; you made me feel foolish; you violated my boundaries; you showed me a lack of respect, etc. etc. and so forth.” What is our normal response to such grievous offenses? “You need to apologize to me and appease my indignation by begging my forgiveness!” Oh for goodness sakes! Who do we think we are? Why is it so easy for us to climb on our high horse and act more important than God Almighty? We carelessly offend one another all the time. So what? Why can’t we try to truly be more like God and practice long-suffering and forbearance and mercy? Must we smack down every careless or hurtful word against us like a frenetic game of Whack-A-Mole? Must we treat our closest friends and family like enemies when say or do things we don’t like? Can’t we just show love toward one another and mercy instead of wrath? The answer to that is no, probably not…unless we strive to create within ourselves an atmosphere of forgiveness. We need to humble ourselves before God and all men. We need to begin thinking of ourselves as the least important of all, and our opinions as unworthy of even being voiced. We need to become slower at speaking or offering correction or even constructive advice to others, and quicker to listen quietly, respectfully, and prayerfully. Without a doubt, we need to cultivate a much higher regard for others and a much lower regard for ourselves. And when other people give us offense, we need to forgive them immediately without fanfare or pretense, and without demanding anything further from them. Just forgive your offender as God forgives you, and love him/her as God loves you both. The world teaches us how to be self-important; how to be defensive and soundly defeat all who dare challenge us. The world cannot teach us how to be like Christ, meek and lowly of spirit. Only He can teach us that, as we leave behind our vanity and pride, and seek the godly virtues of humility, forbearance, mercy, long-suffering, and love. I pray we would all let Jesus be our Teacher, and learn from Him how to forgive one another and every person from the heart. +To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Monday, September 09, 2013
+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” --John 3:16, no doubt the most famous verse of the bible, and with good reason. This verse combines so many important elements of our Christian faith: the love of God, the giving of His Son for our salvation, the necessity of believing in Him, and the resulting deliverance from death and the gaining of eternal life that such belief brings. And on the other hand, we can learn almost as much about our Christian faith from what this verse doesn’t say as from what it does. For example, it doesn’t say that God so loved the world that every day He just rocked back and forth in heaven with warm and fuzzy feelings for us. No, every mushy love song ever written may define love as mere feelings, but John 3:16 defines love as action: “For God so loved the world that He gave…” What sort of people would we become if we limited our love to feelings and stopped short of action on behalf of others? Furthermore, it does not say God so loved the world that He first poured out the fullness of His wrath upon His Son so that His deeply-offended personal sense of justice would be satisfied and He could finally tolerate our presence in His kingdom. Are you kidding me? What kind of monster would such a god be who put strict and unyielding justice above mercy, or wrath before love? Would you even want to serve such a god? What sort of people would we become if we imitated this god? No, John 3:16 reveals to us the true God. The God who so loved the world that He gave His Son, not demanded for His own purposes, but gave purely for our salvation and eternal life. A God who willingly set aside what was just--and even allowed INjustice to occur--in order for love to triumph. A God who acted to save us at great personal expense when we could not save ourselves. What sort of people might we become if we imitated this God? As well-known as John 3:16 is, how many folks can recite from memory John 3:17? This little verse standing in the shadow of its big brother has quite a bit to teach us as well. It reads: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” Another word for condemn which is found in some translations is the word judge. Whichever word is used we can see that it was not the purpose or the ministry of Jesus Christ to judge and condemn the world, but purely and simply to save the world. Now we all know that there will come a Day of Judgement when, according to the scriptures, the books will be opened and all our deeds laid bare. A question we might ask is what are these books of which the prophecies speak? Are there literally dusty books in heaven in which God records our every deed, saving them up for some “Gotcha” moment at the end? (“Rut-roh, I see you drank a cup of tea before liturgy one morning; bad on you!”) According to some of our holy fathers, this is not likely the case. If you think about it, once again, what kind of god would scrutinize our deeds in this way and keep such records as if only looking for reasons to condemn us? Instead, let us consider another possibility suggested to us by these same fathers. Could it be that the books which are opened and laid bare are our very own souls? It is our souls which bear the marks, not of divine score-keeping, but of our own deeds or misdeeds in life. They either reveal, in the beautiful and elegant calligraphy of the Holy Spirit, the fruits of our repentance and obedience to Christ, or else they show forth the coarse marks and ugly stains of the sins we would not allow to be erased. For this reason, God provides every means in the Church for our sins to be blotted out and overwritten with the sweet image of Christ on every page of our souls. God does not want any person to be taken by surprise on that Day of Judgement but to open our own books now, that is to say, examine our own souls daily, and cooperate with the Spirit to cleanse and purify them. St. Paul wrote, “If we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged.” I believe this is what the holy apostle is referring to; this need to judge ourselves--our thoughts and words and deeds--every moment, and even to condemn what is wicked in us, that God can correct us and set us right before the final Judgement. Jesus said, I did not come to judge or condemn the world. If we follow Him as we should, neither will we. But at the same time, we will judge ourselves correctly and even condemn our own deeds that our repentance might be made perfect. You see, there is a right and proper place for judgement in the Christian life. It is never, however, to judge others. We are always to judge ourselves and never one another or any other person in this life. What sort of people would we become if we chose to live this way? I tell you first of all, our parish would be a place of divine and holy peace. There would be no quarreling or striving, no gossiping or scandal, no hurt feelings or pettiness, no taking of sides in issues, no them vs us. The devil could never be able to rear his ugly face among us, spreading conflict or controversy. People would be quick to forgive one another, paying attention to their own repentance while overlooking the sins and failings of others. Love would reign as we would give preference to one another and serve one another, instead of expecting or even demanding that we be recognized or validated. We would always walk in meekness and gentleness of spirit, seeking what is best for the other, while gladly accepting less for ourselves. If there is any lack of any of these good and precious things among us, it is absolutely because we are not judging ourselves rightly, but judging others instead. When we judge others instead of ourselves, we bring sorrow into the parish, we sow seeds of struggle and pain. When we judge ourselves instead of others, we bring joy and harmony and healing to all. The choice is ours. What sort of people will we become? What sort of parish, and indeed, what sort of families shall we build for ourselves? In what condition shall the books of our souls be when they are opened on that Great and Terrible Day of Judgement? It is here, among one another our brothers and sisters, that such decisions are made and the books are written for all eternity. May God have mercy on us all by helping each of us to judge only ourselves. +To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Monday, April 29, 2013
+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. Today is the glorious Feast known as the Triumphal Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem, or simply, Palm Sunday. Yesterday our Lord Jesus Christ raised His friend Lazarus from the dead as a foreshadowing of the universal resurrection of mankind. Today, He rides the foal of a donkey into Jerusalem amidst the praise of the multitudes who cry out “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who cometh in the Name of the Lord!” The word hosanna means save or savior or possibly even Lord save, and its use indicates that the crowd recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah sent by God to save His people Israel. Unfortunately, the Jews did not understand the nature of that salvation Christ came to bring. Expecting a conquering political hero who would free Israel from Roman rule and oppression, their hopes were utterly dashed when they saw Him arrested and beaten and put to shame before the hated Roman authorities. This was not the sort of Messiah they wanted, and their shouts of praise would soon turn to cries of “Away with Him! Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” This rejection of Christ was by no means unexpected. It had been foretold by the prophets, and was portrayed even by the mount that Jesus had chosen to ride into Jerusalem. Have you ever wondered why He didn’t choose a horse or a camel or even a full-grown donkey, but instead the foal of a donkey, or in other words a very young animal? The donkey is an animal well-known for its stubbornness and frequent refusal to obey its master’s will and commands. Some of our holy fathers saw in this a portrayal of the nation Israel, which had so long and so often opposed God. Foreknowing the Jews’ final rejection of Him, Christ entered the Holy City on a new animal, young and not yet rebellious, representing the Gentiles, to whom the kingdom of heaven would soon be given. These two things--the Jews’ false expectations for Messiah which led to their bitter disappointment and rejection of Him, and their stubbornness toward God to the very end--offer much by way of instruction for us today. First, we must note that it is a trait of fallen humanity, by no means exclusive to the Jews, that we so want what we want in this life we can even become angry with the Almighty God when we don’t get it. Isn’t that true? At the very least, people can grow deeply disappointed with God when things don’t turn out the way they expect or feel they deserve. We can begin to doubt God’s goodness or perhaps even lose our faith if prayers seem to go unanswered and dreams remain unfulfilled. This reaction reveals a dark attitude in the human heart. It’s as if we expect God to be subservient to our earthly desires. God must give us what we want to keep us happy or else suffer our rejection. The problem here is not with God’s goodness or divine plan but with our expectations, which are often far too low. If we consider Israel once again, we see that all they wanted from God was political independence. God’s desire was to grant them eternal life. The Jews knew the prophecies that Messiah would set the captives free, but they could only think of their present situation with the Romans, not humanity’s far greater captivity to sin, death, and the devil. Our hopes nearly always tend to be focused on the things of this life, and rarely take into consideration that God has something eternal and infinitely better for us. Following along with this short-sightedness and the disappointment with God it causes is another dark trait of the human heart: rebelliousness. When we allow our hopes to remain fixed on this life and make no sincere effort to raise them any higher, we inevitably find ourselves at war with God. The scripture says that he who loves the world is at enmity with God. A battle of wills takes place in which we might resist our very salvation from this world of sin and death as we fight blindly and desperately to create our own little paradise here and now. Certainly this was the error of ancient Israel, but we might often fall into this as well. How do we express this rebellion? Well there’s a wide range. Sometimes people just leave the Church to go do as they please. Sometimes people stay in Church but ignore any serious Christianity to do as they please. And then there are others who remain in Church with some desire for salvation, but settle into a kind of listless, foot-dragging, subtle yet persistent resistance of God’s will. Perhaps they refuse to make any real, sustained struggle against their sins to pursue sanctification. Perhaps they neglect prayer. Maybe they miss worship because they’re too busy to come to Church. We might call these traits sloth or weakness, but these terms can disguise the underlying principle that we still want what we want and will fight God with a sort of passive-aggressive rebellion while claiming to be only poor, weak little sheep. Perhaps we are not always sheep, but sometimes donkeys. If we often claim to be slothful or weak, shouldn’t we take a closer look into this to determine if we could actually do a bit better? Are we simply expending too much energy resisting God; energy that would be better spent on taking up our cross to follow Jesus? The great historical irony of Palm Sunday is how quickly the people turned from worshipping Christ to crucifying Him. And all this because He did not give them what they expected. Are we any better or more noble? Likely not. Thus our salvation will come from the same thing that saved the many believing Jews who did confess faith in Christ, namely, to accept the will of God however it manifests itself, and abandon our trust in anything of this world to fix it instead on the kingdom to be revealed. Soon enough we shall all taste of death, and on that day all earthly hopes and dreams will perish with us. But those who have fixed their hope on Jesus Christ will rise again to eternal life. This is the reality that we encounter and experience even now, during Holy Week. In the days to come we will journey with Christ through every event leading up the the Cross and even through death itself, to be raised with Him gloriously on Holy Pascha. Holy Week is not a long, exhausting “passion play” in which we are the actors. It is our Christian reality. As we are joined to Christ through Holy Baptism, His sufferings and death, His resurrection and glorification become ours. This is true all year long, but is especially renewed during Holy Week. Let us therefore not fear dying to ourselves, dying to this world, nor even dying itself. Jesus Christ lives! And we must die to live with Him forever. +To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.