Saturday, August 19, 2006

"Not But by Prayer and Fasting"

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

From our Gospel Lesson this morning (Matthew 17:14-23), we heard the story of a demon-possessed boy that the apostles could not heal. By this point they had been granted authority by our Lord to cast out demons and heal all manner of sickness and disease, but this case stymied them and they were unable to do a thing. After the tumult had died down and the crowds dispersed, the somewhat humbled apostles took the Lord aside and asked Him privately why they could not cast out the demon. Our Lord gave them two reasons: 1) they lacked sufficient faith, and 2) they lacked the ascetic foundation of prayer and fasting necessary to overcome evil.

These two principles were well understood by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who taught that a proper faith energized by prayer and fasting gains the power to overcome all evil; not only the evil that works upon us from the outside, but the evil that operates within ourselves as well.

Let us begin by examining these two forms of evil. The evil which works upon us from the outside comes not only from demonic influence and direct temptation, but also from a fallen world that has unwittingly embraced this influence and expresses it through all manner of depraved philosophies and activities. In Western society this is most commonly expressed as gross materialism, the philosophy that this world and its pursuits are all there is and all that matters. In America this philosophy is expressed in everything from humanist secularism to our lust for material goods and earthly pleasures.

Americans have surely given themselves over to the driving need to buy, to own, and to possess. The happiest moments in many people’s lives are when a sound investment pays off, or they have bought themselves some new toy or that darling new pair of shoes. For many of us, our lives are littered with things we have bought to bring us happiness at the moment, and which now gather dust in closets, garages, and rented storage.

Tithing Christians are not immune to this either, since we often tend to rationalize that once we have given to God His ten percent, the rest belongs to us to spend as we please. We forget that everything belongs to God, and that we are appointed to be stewards, not owners. Each expense should be carefully considered with His kingdom in mind. Some of us learn this rather late after a lifetime of foolish and selfish spending, but I suppose it is better to learn late than never at all. Perhaps it is to such slow learners that our Lord says, “Sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”. Our gracious Lord thus provides us with the means to correct our errors of materialism and return to a more modest and kingdom-oriented manner of living.

But America’s embracing of evil does not end with the idolatry of wealth and its fleeting pleasures; it spreads out to encompass every form of stimulation or fantasy, every manifestation of personal gratification or selfishness, and anything which provides a welcome distraction from the fear of death and the certain awareness of the pending judgment. These external forms of evil resonate within us so well because we each have our own internal evils which crave them. We often call these evils “the sinful passions” and it is important that we understand the nature of these.

According to the Holy Fathers of the Church, man was originally created with only one passion: the pure and sinless passion for God and for Him alone. Imagine for a just moment the sheer bliss of being motivated only by this one passion; of being single-minded and truly loving God with all your heart, mind, and soul. Imagine not being distracted by a thousand other thoughts and cares, but rather, of having your whole life shaped and defined by this one overwhelming love for God. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Can’t you just envision the peace that this would give you; the relief of no longer being conflicted in soul or hopelessly drawn by things which only take you away from God? Imagine the joy of such a whole and united life in which no temptation could be strong enough to divert you from the pursuit of your one true love.

When we picture that wonderful thought in our minds for just this moment, doesn’t it grieve you that there are so many forces at work in you right now that seem to prevent that? For a second we fondly picture being made one with God. But only for a second, before that sweet hint of bliss is polluted by the thought of all the other affections and cravings and inclinations that we would have to give up. We’ve allowed so many other things to take the place of God in giving us life and joy, and yet they do not give us that life and joy at all but only pain and sorrow. Even knowing this, we still pursue them and lay aside God whom we desperately wish we could love. If ever there was a time when our cold, unfeeling hearts might warm or our dry eyes might moisten with tears, it is when this thought comes to the forefront of our minds, however briefly, and reveals to us how truly fallen we are.

Man may have been created with a single pure passion, but when he fell that one passion was shattered into a hundred different pieces. Each of the pieces still functions—each still craves, desires, needs—but they are all lying about in a mess on the floor, each now pointing toward a different object. One craves this, another desires that. They are no longer one, and no longer predominantly oriented toward God. To make matters worse, by our own willful sins we have often taken the larger pieces and smashed them into even smaller bits, thus making it even harder to orient ourselves back to God.

Dear God! Who can save us from this dreadful brokenness and paste our pieces back together, so that instead of the agony of conflict and the torment of being drawn every which way in our lives, we can be drawn back to God with oneness of intent and purpose? Is this not the true and actual meaning of salvation, a word which literally means “wholeness”, “oneness”, or “healing”? Christ came not just to forgive our sins, but to heal the brokenness they have caused and still cause in us.

But if this is so, and we are in Christ, why are we still conflicted? Why are we still driven by strong urges which cause us to deny God? Why are we often so lukewarm in our love for Him, or so willingly turn away from Him for some other, insignificant love? It is because our healing, our salvation, is not yet complete. The very inconsistency of our behavior should reveal that truth to us. We are not yet whole and single-minded in our pursuit of God. There are many false loves that must be defeated in us so that those broken bits of driving passion can be reclaimed and recalibrated back toward God. Our lives are like a jigsaw puzzle of an unknown image, and all apart before us. It is hard to get started on it, but only when we slowly and painstakingly begin to fit the pieces back together does the face of Jesus begin to take shape, and then we learn what our lives are all about and we make haste to joyously fit the remaining pieces in place.

With the help of God, we need to participate in putting ourselves back together. And just like in this morning’s Gospel, there are certain spiritual obstacles in our lives that can only come out through prayer and fasting. These may not be demons, but they are the result of demonic influence in the world around us which we have absorbed. They are the result of our following and loving things that are not from God and do not lead to God, but have brought us much harm. The ascetic disciplines of the Church—of learning how to pray continuously, of fasting, of abstinence in some things, of moderation in others, of refraining from evil and doing good, of renouncing fleeting sinful pleasures for the lasting joy of loving God, of rejecting this fallen world and its lusts for the kingdom of heaven—these are the very things that can drive out the bad from us and begin to unite our many little passions into one powerfully motivating passion for God.

Do you think this is impossible for you? Are you too shattered to pursue your own wholeness? Think of all the many men and women of the Church who were just as torn as you, but finally came to the place in their lives where they chose to sacrifice all for God and only then discovered He was right there helping and guiding them. We all seek peace and contentment, but only those who pursue God will find it; everyone else is cheated along the way and in the end.

Internal conflict and double-mindedness, confusion and chaos, craving things which further shatter our souls and leave us in ever-deepening sorrow—these are not from the God who loves us. Let us pursue the one true and everlasting joy of knowing and loving God, and discover the uniting of our fragmented passions and the healing of our broken humanity along the way.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 8/20/2006 3:26 PM , Blogger E Rica said...

Great sermon. I loved the jigsaw puzzle analogy.

At 8/20/2006 9:51 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

We all are looking at a mirror darkly Eremitike.

Nice sermon Ere.

At 8/20/2006 9:55 PM , Blogger Sean said...

That was my favorite part too! :D I loved the mental picture you drew of our once-whole passion for God being shattered like a fallen jigsaw puzzle, with each piece still yearning for closeness, but not necessarily to God anymore - plus the further deviation that results from that.

The paragraph starting with "Man may have been created with a single pure passion..." is incredibly well stated and makes me just shake my head in frustration at the truth of it, but also greatly inspires to begin to put the pieces back together, one by one.

It also gives hope to the whole bleak situation that our souls are in, because at least for me, it reminded me that we don't have to become perfect overnight. It is a continuing and gradual process that really can only be done piece by piece. And even if we progress just a small bit each day, we're on our way to re-focusing our passion towards God.

One thing I noticed was that it was longer than most of your homilies, but you kept expanding and bringing up new and better points that it really didn't detract at all from the homily. In fact, the length really was justified by the quality of the content.

You mentioned a few hypothetical "imagine this" situations, and they all really hit home. Like those instances of feeling close to God, where a piece of the puzzle is coming together, and then it's snatched away again by the cares and concerns of the world. Then you explain why this is, and tie it all back in with the gospel.

And it ends back on the strongest point - the jigsaw puzzle that is our lives. I must say this was one of my favorite homilies of yours. Great job Dad! :)

At 8/21/2006 6:56 AM , Anonymous Bruce said...

Father,Why is it my puzzle has more pieces than most?

At 8/21/2006 10:46 AM , Blogger Aaron said...

i'm happy and sad it was my week to listen to the sermon. Glad you posted it, now sara can see how off I was in my retelling.

Thanks for ministering to us Father.

At 8/21/2006 5:08 PM , Anonymous Yumi said...

Father bless.

I too loved this sermon, Father. The jigsaw puzzle analogy was a wonderful and helpful visual tool for me. I was so fortunate to hear your sermon this week (many thanks to Erica!).

Thank you for a wonderful homily.

At 8/21/2006 11:18 PM , Anonymous Mr.Tubbs said...

Following our conversation on Saturday...

Reading this confirms that I have indeed made a wise choice.

At what point do we stop chasing after the things that we know will ultimately end in death and begin to totally and completely pursue God?

This question has been the picture that I have been staring at for the last 25 years. Trying to deconstruct to puzzle form with absolutely no success. When all the while the "real" broken pieces lay only inches from my fingers.

The moral of the story is, open your eyes and seek Truth or you just might get what you've been focusing on.

God Bless you Father Michael.

God have mercy on us.


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