Saturday, September 23, 2006

Are you ready?

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

From this morning’s Gospel Lesson (Luke 5:1-11) we heard our Lord’s famous invitation to the fishermen, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men”. When I was growing up, my Dad loved fishing and sometimes took me along. However, there was a rule in our house that said, “You catch it, you clean it!” No one was allowed to have the fun of fishing and then just come home and dump the catch in the kitchen sink for the woman of the house to clean. Come to think of it, it was probably my Mom who made that rule! At any rate, if you caught a fish, you were responsible for cleaning it and making it ready for the table.

The Church takes similar responsibility for her “catches”. When someone comes to faith in Christ, the Church assumes the obligation to “clean” that person and make them fit for the Lord’s Table. When you consider the “catch” she must work with (i.e. you and me), you realize what a tremendous work it is that the Church must accomplish over the course of our lifetimes! We come to Christ confused and darkened in our thinking, strangers to God, and in love with the lusts and pleasures of the flesh. Even within the Church we find ourselves reluctant to change that, and tend to resist our own healing. We must overcome that and allow the life of the Church to purify us and grant a measure of noetic illumination so that we might enter into a true communion with the Blessed Trinity, lest we forever remain strangers to God. The long and difficult work of the Church therefore is to help make us ready for heaven.

With that thought in mind, I have a question for you. How do you know if you are ready for heaven? Should the Lord appear at this very instant, would He know you as a friend of God ready to enter His kingdom, or view you as a stranger? Is there some way to find this out beforehand so that we might better prepare ourselves?

Actually, there is. According to many of our Holy Fathers, you can find out right now if your soul is ready for heaven. According to them, all you have to do is visit heaven and see. OK. How do we do that, and can I get a return ticket just in case I find out I’m not quite ready?

Well of course what the Holy Fathers are speaking of is the Church. The Church is the outpost of heaven on earth, and the place where the eternal divine worship of heaven takes place on our plane. What we do here is a mirror of what is continually happening in heaven. If you want to find out if you are ready for heaven, simply go to church and see how your soul reacts to the experience.

If you come to church with expectation and hope—having done the best you could in the previous week to glorify God in your life; actively denying yourself for the sake of obedience to God; preparing yourself with watchfulness and vigilance, with prayer and fasting—then perhaps you are ready for heaven, and when you enter into church, your soul will ascend into the heavenlies and will find itself right at home in the joy and contentment of the worship of your God.

However, perhaps this is not your experience. When I was a little kid I always wanted to fly like Superman and yet, despite having a really cool cape improvised from one of my Mom’s bath towels, I never seemed to get off the ground very far. I would leap and jump but in the end, gravity always seemed to win and I remained disappointingly earthbound.

Is this your experience in worship? Do you have trouble getting off the ground? Perhaps you wander in without any particular sense of expectation or direction, having not taken the time to prepare yourself for a heavenly experience. Rather than ascending into heaven, you many find yourself stuck here on earth, with your mind wandering all over the place, distracted by the children or the people around you, or thoughts of what you’re going to do this afternoon. If you have not properly prepared yourself, you may find that you become bored and restless, or feel like the services are simply way too long. According to the Fathers, these are the unmistakable indications that our souls are not yet ready for heaven.

The thing of it is, we need to pay attention to these indicators and realize that the problem is not with the Church’s worship but with us. We are the ones whose eyes are clouded by the cares of life, or fussy concerns with our comfort or convenience. We may not yet behold God in the way that causes the heavenly hosts to cry out to Him unceasingly, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come!”

Does that sound rather boring and repetitious? It is not, and I’ll tell you why. What the heavenly hosts are experiencing is the continual unfolding of God’s self-revelation. God is limitless, and with each new revelation of His love, His mercy, or the beauty of His divine being, the hosts of heaven are amazed anew and cannot help but cry out to Him with voices of praise never ending. They very much enjoy a dynamic experience of God, and their praise is spontaneous and genuine, not mindless like a broken record.

You see, if we are too inconsistent in our Christian life to pursue God, we are very likely missing out on seeing Him as the hosts of heaven do. We fail to behold His beauty and majesty. Because of this, we do not understand the worship of heaven and can’t relate to it. We find it tedious, monotonous, and boring. Perhaps then we skip matins, come late to liturgy, and can’t wait to leave. We may have become typical Orthodox Christians in that regard, but according to the Fathers, we are still very far from being true Orthodox Christians.

If we want to be able to enter into heavenly worship on Sunday, that work really needs to begin on Monday. It is important that we pay attention to the details of our Orthodox life all week long, learning to pray as the Church teaches us, keeping the fasts, praying over our meals, and building an awareness of the presence of God in our lives through daily thanksgiving to Him. It is important that we read the scriptures and Orthodox books so that we can have something else in our heads besides our own thoughts all the time. It is important that we be vigilant, lest laziness overtake us, and watchful, lest we succumb to secret or careless sins.

In other words, Orthodoxy should become for us a way of life; the guide and definition of how we experience God and come to know Him. By this way of life we can be cleansed of every impurity and be granted a degree of illumination that allows us to begin to see God in our lives and experience His living presence. When this begins to happen, the worship of heaven will start to reverberate much more within our being. The “work” of worship will become less tedious and more joyous. We will stop being indifferent or coming to church late, because we will be eager to enter into heaven itself in the divine services.

Let us not forsake this work, for brothers and sisters, God loves us and desires that we know Him and share in His divine life. Let us work toward that goal until zeal for the Lord’s house consumes us and we find true joy in His worship and develop souls that are right at home in heaven. Blessed be the Lord who graciously grants us this opportunity!

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

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sunday after The Elevation of the Holy Cross

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

Today is the Sunday after the Elevation of the Holy Cross and as you heard, our Gospel Lesson (Mark 8:34-9:1)expounds upon the role of the cross in the daily life of the believer. The first thing I would like all of us to notice about this passage is that Mark specifically tells us that Jesus gathered all the people around Himself, together with His disciples, to teach them about taking up their own crosses to follow Him. What this means is that the message of the cross is not some esoteric teaching intended for a few insiders, but applies to all people who would become followers of Christ.

What does it mean to take up one’s own cross to follow Christ? We should be clear on this, because sometimes when we speak of having some cross to bear, we may mean that as some unpleasant burden that has been placed upon us, seemingly to keep us from enjoying life as we feel we otherwise could. We might lament, “Oh, if only this person behaved differently, or this situation could improve, or I had a better career or a bigger house, or I were married or if I were single, or if I could (fill in the blank), my life would be better. But this is my cross to bear (sigh)”.

The problem with that view is the treacherous implication behind it that if the circumstances of our lives could just be tweaked a little bit, if certain people or situations could just be a little different, then we could finally be happy. Where did we ever get such a foolish idea? We are a fallen, dying people living in a similar world. What makes us ever think that we could find happiness under such conditions? Yet isn’t it true that we spend way too much of our lifetimes vainly pursuing just that, trying to manipulate and improve the circumstances of our lives to bring us happiness, even while we are slowly dying. It’s as if we think (and if we are honest perhaps we will admit that we do think this way) that life should be good, and if we could only free ourselves from these crosses God has placed upon us, it would be.

Let us go back and examine the text of the Gospel a little more closely. Jesus never said, “Bear well the cross that I place upon you”. Rather He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me”. God does not place any cross upon you. The burdens and difficulties we face in life come from that same reality that we are fallen people in a fallen world; a reality that we constantly seem to want to ignore or work around as if it weren’t true. The cross we are asked by Christ to take up is entirely different and completely voluntary. This is the cross that, if you will, lifts us up to the viewpoint that allows us to see this world as it truly is and discover the need to die to it and its vain pursuits, so that we might begin at last to come alive to God.

The language that Jesus uses in regard to this is rather shocking. He does not tell us that we need to be sick of this world. He doesn’t say that we need to run a little fever and have a scratchy throat. He says we must die to this world. Now He’s not talking about throwing ourselves off a bridge or the like, but something actually much more difficult. He is asking us to first of all recognize how much we invest in this temporal existence; how much time and effort we spend in trying to make a bad situation good, trying to make ourselves happy and content and secure in a dying world in which no such thing is guaranteed or even truly possible. He wants us to see that most of our choices and decisions in life are not based upon the will of God, but upon whatever pleases us. Our perceptions are upside down and backwards. We find sin pleasurable rather than repulsive and spend many happy hours pursuing our own destruction. At the same time, our souls heave with great weariness at the thought of prayer or spiritual reading or doing works of charity or even of coming to church. His words to us are shocking and vivid because extreme action is called for on our part to break away from our attachment to this world and its path of death, in order to find the path of life.

The cross represents both of these things. It is not only a symbol of death, but also the greatest symbol of life. Only those who take up their own crosses and daily crucify themselves to this world and its deceptions and its endless lusts will find the doors of the kingdom of heaven opened to them, and life pure and everlasting before them. The voluntarily self-denial and death to this world of the cross is the only way to find the abundant life promised by Jesus.

And so, how do we learn to die to ourselves and come alive in Christ Jesus? Have you ever asked yourself that question? If you haven’t, that would be a good place to begin. Instead of being swept through life like driftwood on a river, or perhaps a log headed for the sawmill, each of us should slow down and make the time to ask ourselves, what am I doing to take up my cross and crucify myself to the world so that I might live for Christ? What am I doing to make Jesus Christ the most important person in my life?

Are you busy with the work of cleaning up your soul through repentance, so that Jesus might have a fitting place to reside within you? Are you expending the time and great effort required to learn how to pray and become a person of prayer, rather than a person caught up in a whirlwind of external activity? Are you taking the time to read the bible and especially the gospels so that the mind and will of Christ can begin to be formed in you until you begin at last to view life itself in the context of the gospel revelation? Have you come to the realization that your life is not really yours at all, but is on loan to you from God, and is meant to be spent not on your pleasure, but on His? Have you begun to challenge your own personal “comfort zone” in order to extend yourself more to others in service, in fellowship, in strengthening them for the building up of our holy community, as well as making yourself available to help those outside our parish?

These are all good ways to begin that process which leads away from a self-centered existence toward being centered on Christ and the life He calls us to live. The more we consciously pursue these things, the more we awaken to the realization that our life truly does not belong to us, but to God, and that a selfish existence spent only tending to our own cares is the worst kind of life imaginable.

Because God loves us, He asks us to die to that life so that we might find the true life of joy and abundance. Each of us must make that choice to take up our own cross daily and walk the difficult and narrow path that leads to life eternal in His kingdom. May God help us to remember and put this ever before us.

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

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Brawny Man

OK, this blew me away.

Check out the site below. Watch the episodes that are linked on the left of the page. You'll be glad you did.

At first I thought it was a joke; a kind of "Survivor" ripoff with a paper towel theme. But as I watched each episode, I found I really enjoyed them. There is humor, but a whole lot more.


Sunday, September 03, 2006

Servants of God

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

Our Gospel Lesson this morning (Matthew 19:16-26) features the familiar story of the wealthy man who came to Jesus saying, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” Jesus told him to keep the commandments of God, and when he answered that he had, Jesus further informed him that he still lacked one thing: “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” At this the man went away sorrowful, for he owned much.

Many Christians probably overlook this passage thinking that the instruction to sell their possessions doesn’t apply to them. However, if we take a deeper look we can find an underlying principle here that very much does apply to each of us. That principle is this: to be a follower of Jesus Christ each of us must learn to detach ourselves from the love of possessions and the false sense of security they arouse, and develop an attitude of surrender in regard to everything we own, counting it all as ultimately belonging to God and not to us.

A few weeks ago in my last homily I briefly touched on the idea that we are called by God to be stewards of earthly things, not owners of them. What is the difference between the two? A steward is someone who acts as an administrator of another’s wealth or goods. This wealth does not belong to him but he has been entrusted with it by the owner and is responsible for utilizing it in accordance with the owner’s will, also understanding that he is accountable to that owner and will answer to him. For the Christian this means that there is only one true owner of all things in life and that is God. However difficult this concept may be for good capitalists to grasp, the reality is that whatever degree of wealth a person has attained in this life has been allowed by God. We tend to think that we worked for it, we earned it; God had nothing to do with it. Such an attitude can cause us to behave very foolishly with that which God has entrusted to us.

The one inescapable truth in life is that we are only here for a very brief time. We are to use that precious time and anything else that God entrusts to us for His glory, in the service and care of others, and in the pursuit of our salvation. We are to think of ourselves not only as stewards but also as pilgrims traveling through this world on our way to the next. The image of a pilgrim is one of a person unhindered by an excess of worldly goods or cares. He is a traveler and therefore goes light, carrying only that which he needs. Should he acquire more than he personally needs, he gives the excess away to fellow pilgrims rather than burden himself unnecessarily.

The bible gives us many such images, yet most Christians set these examples aside and prefer to model themselves after the rich fool who built great storehouses and contented himself that he many goods laid aside for years to come, but then suddenly died.

This basic principle that the wealth and goods we temporarily have under our control are not our own but God’s goes hand-in-hand with another basic Christian idea, namely that our very lives do not belong to us, but to God. The scriptures tell us that we were bought with a price, and having been purchased by God, are no longer our own masters in life, but have God as our master.

I have a very important question to ask you: Do you see yourself as having been bought by the blood of Christ and belonging now to God? Do you consciously and deliberately live each day as if you were the servant of God, and your life and everything you have in your care is now the property of your new Master to do with as He pleases? Do you consider yourself accountable to God in every area of your life, and are meticulous to seek out and be obedient to His good and sovereign will with this truth in mind?

Once again I fear that many Christians fail in this regard and frankly refuse to become servants of God. There exists within each of us an unwillingness to lay down his life and renounce all things for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s.

Our fallen nature rebels against servitude, demanding that we retain control of our lives. We want to decide when, where, and how much of our lives we will give to God, and what we can acceptably hold back from Him. We tend to react badly when we are told what to do, whether by the scriptures or by holy tradition, or by those in authority over us in the Church. Let us just say that if we are given a general instruction to tithe, or to roll out of bed earlier on Sunday to come to matins, or perhaps are given some penance by our father/confessor, we may or may not follow this, depending on how we feel. If we fudge with the fast or our rule of prayer or some other aspect of our Orthodox Christian life, we justify this on the basis that these things are hard for us and therefore, apparently, optional.

But is this the attitude of a good and faithful servant of God? Do we habitually parse things out in our minds a little too much in order to justify doing what we want? In His infinite mercy, God provides us with many assaults on our stubborn will, in order that we might learn to submit to Him, since our first and ultimate sin is rebellion against God Himself. In His wisdom, He provides us with imperfect rules and imperfect men to follow, not for us to judge them and determine if they are worthy of our obedience, but rather that we would simply learn the saving grace of obedience itself.

What I find interesting about today’s Gospel Lesson is that when the rich man was given an instruction that he didn’t wish to follow, he didn’t pretend to be obedient, he simply walked away with great sorrow. He knew that to follow Christ meant he would have to obey Him, and at tremendous personal cost. Perhaps he needed to go think about that for awhile. By contrast, we don’t necessarily go anywhere, but perhaps secretly turn away from Christ in our hearts. We still come to church, but we just don’t obey Him. This is a very sad state, and people who live that way have absolutely no joy.

Yes, there is much in this Gospel story that applies to us. We too are called to surrender everything to our Master; to commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God. And just as it was hard for the rich man to obey, so it is often hard for us. But nobody promised us that it would be easy. No one ever said the Christian life would be anything other than one of surrender and struggle to be obedient to God. The only promise that we have is that if we do these things, we will find joy and life eternal in God’s kingdom. God is a good and just Master, and obedience to Him is rewarded way out of proportion to the sacrifice made. If we lay everything down at the feet of Christ, we will gain back a thousand times as much and more. If we measure out our obedience to Him on a tiny scale, we will lose all, and even what we now have will be taken from us.

Let us take these words to heart and reflect on them, and learn to surrender our lives completely unto Jesus Christ our Lord.

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