Saturday, October 21, 2006

Deviled Ham

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

What an unusual gospel lesson (Luke 8:26-39) this morning! With its spooky setting near the tombs, the violent monster on the rampage, and of course the customary mob of frightened villagers running around, it sounds more like a Frankenstein movie than something from the scriptures. But as wild as this story may seem, let us not forget that it is indeed from the holy gospels and therefore is a sacred lesson, given to us for our enlightenment and our salvation.

God would have us know that the spirit creatures we call demons are not make-believe or superstition as many today claim, but are very real and are motivated by an incredible hatred of humanity. Their only desire is to destroy human beings whenever and however possible. Whether by inciting men to wage wars, religious persecution, legalized abortion or euthanasia, by luring people into the depths of disgraceful immoral behavior, or by deceiving them with false teachings concerning God, Christ, and salvation, the demons’ warfare against humanity is constant, relentless, and obviously very effective.

Amazingly, they accomplish all of these things while remaining entirely powerless. Whatever power they may have held at one time was forever stripped from them, together with their glory, when they were cast down from heaven. They now operate only through dark suggestion, manipulation and deception, but apparently these tools are enough as there are many people who are quite willing to believe the lies and allow themselves to be led by evil. The demons have no power against those who recognize and resist them, but they can easily lead the spiritually unwary into a degrading life that will eventually rob them of all human dignity and leave them as darkened creatures not unlike the demons themselves.

This is what we saw in the case of the Gadarenes demoniac. We aren’t told how he wound up in this deplorable condition, but likely he had for some time engaged in a sinful lifestyle suggested by the demons until at last he became enslaved to them. By the time Jesus met the man, he no longer even had a human identity, but called himself “Legion” after the many demons that possessed him.

Obviously a person doesn’t wind up like this overnight. There is a process that must take place. We teach that salvation is a process through which we become ever more and more like God and therefore ever more authentically human, since to be human means that we are made in God’s image and are designed to grow in His likeness and share in His glory. Damnation might be described as the exact same process, only in reverse. Instead of becoming more like God and therefore more human, the damned become ever less like God and ever less human. Bit by bit the image of God that defines humanity is obliterated until little remains, and the person becomes defined by the very evil he has pursued.

The first step of this negative process is a willing participation in sin. No one becomes evil or possessed of evil unless they voluntarily choose it and comply. Along the way, the conscience—which objects loudly to that which leads the soul away from God—must be willfully rejected, wounded, and eventually defeated. We might say therefore that the conscience becomes the first victim, the first aspect of true humanity to be lost on the downward path away from God.

I mention the conscience because this gives us a point of reference to measure our life’s direction. Most young children are fairly tender-hearted and have a more easily-accessible conscience. As some grow through the teen and young adult years however, they perhaps learn to set aside their consciences to engage in things that they know better than to do. Years after that, some still bear the emotional and spiritual scars of those experiences, and find themselves trying to recover some of the lost innocence and tender-heartedness of their youth in order to find their way back to God.

Perhaps some of us find ourselves still waging war against our consciences even today. Perhaps we are still engaged in some sort of activity or habitual behavior that is degrading and threatens our progress toward full humanity and the restoration of God’s image in us. If so, I urge you to stop fighting your conscience, run to the confessional, and work toward the nurturing and recovery of that tiny little voice within you that guides you so faithfully toward God.

Sometimes we may claim that we are addicted to such-and-such a behavior. What this really means is that we have given ourselves over to something wrong and have allowed it to gain mastery over us. Not only have we given it mastery, but here’s the kicker, we allow it to maintain its mastery over us even as we object to being its slave. The real master is our own will, because evil has no power of its own. If we oppose evil with our will, evil is powerless over us and will be defeated. If we attach the power of our will to evil, virtually nothing can defeat this combination and we can easily become the slaves of our own fallen and misdirected will.

This is illustrated in the most bizarre incident of this story of the Gadarenes demoniac. When the demons, terrified of Christ’s genuine power, begged to be cast into the herd of swine, what happened? The swine could not stand the presence of the demons within them, and hurled themselves into the sea to be drowned. Even pigs will not tolerate the spiritual filth that men accept so easily. Isn’t that ironic? And notice that the demons could do nothing to stop the swine. A mere pig’s will is strong enough to overcome the powerlessness of the demons.

If a pig can defeat a demon, doesn’t that make you stop and think about the power that you must possess to defeat evil? No, you don’t have to drown yourself to accomplish this. But you can use your God-given will—infinitely stronger than a pig’s will, and by far more powerful than any demon—to proclaim your freedom in Christ Jesus and begin to live as one who is truly set free from sin, death, and the devil. This freedom is a part of our inheritance as the children of God. As members of our Father’s household, the Church, we have access to many things which can help us discover that freedom and enjoy it. We only need to desire our healing, and be willing to change our direction to gain it.

The people of the nearby village were apparently unwilling to make any changes in their lives. After seeing what had taken place, they begged Christ to leave them, and so He did. They chose the darkness of sin over the light of His presence. God only knows what happened to them in the end. When we choose our sin over Christ, are we not also directing Him to leave us because we do not wish to change and cannot bear His light? Believe me, this is one request that you don’t want Jesus to grant!

Though we may often resist Christ, we have the power to use our will differently. Let no one believe that they cannot change. We need only to follow our good conscience and incline our will toward God who is good, and the only Lover of mankind. Let us keep making that choice to find the dignity and freedom that can be ours.

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

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Sower and the Soils

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

You may have noticed in this parable of the Sower and the Soils (Luke 8:5-15) that our Lord gave far more attention to the seeds that did not grow, than to those that actually did. Perhaps the reason for this is that there’s nothing unusual about seeds that grow. Although it may indeed seem quite miraculous to us that something as tiny as say, a little apple seed, can grow into a large tree producing bushels and bushels of fruit for many years, the fact is that this is what God designed seeds to do. I find that encouraging because remember, we aren’t really talking about agriculture here; the “seeds” in this parable represent the word of God. The implication is that when the word of God like a tiny seed finds its way into the rich ground of a receptive soul, phenomenal growth and development is designed to take place, yielding much spiritual fruit over time.

Thus our Lord turns our attention to the seeds that did not grow and we find that the fault was not at all with the seeds, but with the ground they found themselves in. As powerful as the word of God is, as great as its potential is to bring forth spiritual fruit unto salvation, nevertheless there remain at least three conditions of the human heart that can actually block that miraculous power and prevent it from fulfilling its divine purpose.

In the first example, our Lord describes some of the seed as falling alongside the road where it was trampled underfoot by men, allowing the devil to come along later and snatch it away. A road is a place of great activity; upon it you can find busy people rushing from one place to another. The seeds of the word of God are trampled here because everyone is in such a hurry that they never take notice of what is underfoot.

Doesn’t this describe life for many of us? We are always busy, always in a hurry; every day seems to bring endless demands on our limited time to the point that we scarcely notice that we have become too busy for God. We rush through our prayers or perhaps don’t pray at all. We can’t remember when the last time was that we read the bible. And as for taking the time to quietly sit down and practice even just a few minutes of silence in the presence of God…well, our hyper-active souls just can’t sit still that long; we feel as if we are wasting time when there is so much else to do.

As a result of our so seldom making time for God, the devil comes and snatches away our opportunities, pecks away at any lingering desire for spiritual things, and eventually removes every trace of whatever seeds were sown in our hearts by God.

The second example in the parable pertains to seeds that fell upon rock and sprang up, but quickly withered away because there was no moisture. Seeds and the young plants they produce need water to grow. Our Holy Fathers tell us that “prayer is the water of the garden of the soul”. Furthermore, our gardens are very thirsty and must be watered daily. Some folks treat their souls as if they were rock gardens: low maintenance, never needing the water of prayer. The truth is that’s exactly what they wind up with: souls full of rocks; nothing living, nothing growing, nothing reaching upward toward God. Without daily prayer there is no spiritual life. Our souls need that water of interaction with God.

In the third and final example, our Lord speaks of thorns which sprang up and choked out the word of God in the hearts of some people. He tells us that these thorns represent the cares, the riches, and the pleasures of this world which extinguish the spiritual life, allowing no fruit to come to maturity.

How might we know if such thorns entangle our lives, preventing us from bearing spiritual fruit? The answer is: they do. If we aren’t already painfully aware of that fact, then we simply aren’t paying enough attention to our spiritual lives. The more inward-directed Christian will begin to see that he has many desires and loves in his fallen heart which are antithetical to the Christian life and must be renounced and removed. The inattentive Christian will simply be overgrown and destroyed by these things. To continue the garden analogy, not only do they require water, but gardens also require constant care and weeding. If you’ve ever left a vegetable garden for two weeks in the summer while you went on vacation, you likely were shocked at what you found when you returned. Your tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants likely wilted and disappeared under a jungle of weeds, and you were left with more of a disaster than a garden.

So it is with the garden of our souls. As we have seen, if we do not water the garden daily with prayer, it will not grow. If we do not make times of spiritual quiet and contemplation of God, times when we simply sit and listen for His guiding, then we will never be aware of God in our lives and will rush past Him daily. And if we do not tend our souls by uprooting the many passions and false loves in them, they will be overcome by these things and perish.

You know, when our Lord first delivered this parable, He only explained its hidden meaning to a small handful of His closest followers. To the rest of the hearers it remained an unintelligible fable. He did this, not because He is mean, but simply because most people just really don’t care about the things of God. Why should our Lord bore them with information they don’t want to hear? Most people have no interest in this parable or in understanding how it applies to them. They have no desire to expend any effort in the pursuit of a spiritual life. They have no real interest in knowing God. Many of these people are religious, but their religion is more of a sentimental or cultural thing than any sign that they have actually been born again by the Spirit of God. It’s painful to realize how well this describes so many Orthodox Christians today.

In the hearts of so many of our people there exists so little desire for God. Most parishes don’t bother to offer services during the week because no one will come. Many Orthodox homes have no icons or prayerbooks. A large percentage of our people still make a habit of coming late to liturgy. And many of our young people don’t understand why they are made to go to church, and can’t wait until they are old enough to stop. My brothers and sisters, this is terrible. We need to understand that this parable of our Lord’s very much applies to us. We are the ones who may indeed be neglecting the gardens of our souls and are preventing the word of God from taking root in us to bear its fruit.

This parable is very much a personal message from God to each of us. If we choose to pay attention to it and follow the wisdom it shares, we can not only transform our own lives and those of our families, but even our parishes across the country. I believe God wants his Church in this country to have more life and to bear more fruit, don’t you? I also believe this is possible if we will each receive the seeds that God sows into our souls, water them with prayer, slow down to pay attention, and root out of ourselves every weed and thorn which doesn’t belong in us.

Let the true lovers of God hear, and may God’s word not suffer neglect at our hands, but be nurtured unto fruitfulness.

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

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Do unto others...

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

Our Gospel Lesson (Luke 6:31-36) opens with what could be called the basic rule for success in the Christian life. We might even call it the “Golden Rule” as indeed it was known by generations of Sunday School children, in the form of: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

As we contemplate these words, we should remember that this is not merely a lesson for kids. These are the words of our Lord Jesus Christ. They are His commandment to each of us regarding how we should live and deal with others at all times. As such, it is our obligation--if we are to live as true Christians--to engage in some deep soul-searching and an ongoing watchfulness over ourselves to determine how well, or even if at all, we are fulfilling this important commandment of Christ.

I hope that by this stage in your life with Christ you have discovered that it is our normal, yet entirely unnatural, tendency to go through life in kind of a whirlwind of external activity, something like that cartoon character the Tasmanian Devil. We tend to live our lives in a very outward manner, and seem to give so little time to interior contemplation and reflection on such things as how well we are keeping our Savior’s commandments. If we do not make the time for such reflection, among the many bad things that inevitably will happen to us is that we will only grow more and more sloppy in our dealings with others and will easily be able to ignore or justify just about any sort of mean or evil behavior toward them.

That’s not to imply that we are an insensitive people; far from it. We are all very sensitive when someone has neglected us, or slighted us, or done us some wrong, real or imagined. Our senses are very finely tuned in that direction. We just aren’t very good at sensing when we have neglected, slighted, or wronged others. God help the person who has not paid enough attention to our needs! That seems to us to be a nearly unforgivable wrong. But if we don’t have the time for someone else’s need, well, that’s not our fault; that person simply needs to grow up and not be such a baby about things.

One of the ways in which we often get ourselves in trouble is with our mouths. Now I know that nobody here at St. Barnabas ever gossips, right? None of us would ever dream of speaking against someone to another person, and we all wear our halos rather self-assuredly on that issue. However, we do like to talk about people; to share news about them with others, especially if it’s really juicy and for some strange reason makes us feel so much better for sharing it. If we are slightly envious of a certain person, or else look down upon them, or if they have given us some mild offense in the distant past, we find it so much easier to justify our loose tongues and relish the immensely satisfying feeling of righting that wrong over and over again at every opportunity.

Over time we may find our halos rusting a bit and our circle of friends shrinking, because frankly, they get tired of us running our mouth all the time and they don’t want to wind up as our next victim. We respond by saying that they are “cliquish” or a bunch of snobs, and we don’t need friends like that anyway. That Tasmanian Devil never stops spinning; spinning through life and spinning the truth. We seldom take the time to look deeply inside ourselves to see what it is that we are doing wrong and work to change that. It’s so much easier to blame others than to blame ourselves.

But whether we are the gossiper (as we all have been, at one time or another), or the one being gossiped about (ah, sweet justice!), our action needs to be the same in either case: we need to shut up, and begin forgiving and begin loving. We all need to slow down a bit in our lives and begin looking inward at our own souls. Our Lord has told us that the very sins we judge others for are the exact same ones that live in our souls as well. Do you believe this, or does our Lord not know what He is talking about? And if what He tells us is true, how vile is it that we judge others or talk about them over the same sins that we ourselves possess?

Our speech is only one indicator of what is going on inside of us. Very often the things we talk about reveal to everyone around us the true state of our souls. All of us need to turn inward and continue the cultivation of an interior life with God. We need to engage in reflection and repentance, which always go together. It is always reflection and repentance; never reflection and “Oh joy! I just discovered another new virtue within me that I didn’t know I had!” No, if you are engaged in a genuine interior life, you will soon become a frequent flyer at confessional airlines. If you never come to confession, or go only once or twice a year under compulsion, then you haven’t yet cultivated a healthy inner life. Sorry if you don’t like to hear that, but it’s true. If you habitually avoid confession, there is only one of two possible things happening inside of you. Either you are ignoring your sins and living completely on the outside, or else you are pathologically bound up with guilt over your lack of repentance and thus are allowing your sins to become infected and fester like untreated wounds. Either way, if you persist in this, you will die.

You’ve often heard me say that the Church is a spiritual hospital. A lot of us check in to that hospital, but refuse treatment, refuse to see the doctor. We all know that we are spiritually ill, but part of that illness leads us to think that we can either deal with it on our own, or else that we are doing the right thing by just feeling bad all the time. Neither of those is preferable, especially when we can begin healing with God’s help and work toward removing those awful wounds from our souls.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Ultimately the fulfillment of this commandment of our Lord comes about when we begin to see our own sins and realize that we are truly no better than anyone else. When we face the reality that we are in fact rather dreadful on the inside, and have as our only hope the forgiveness and mercy and healing of God, then we can begin to see that those around us are in the exact same condition and have the exact same hope.

Would we crush their hope by making them feel worse? Would we gossip about them, or avoid them, or deny them our forgiveness, friendship, and love? Or when we begin to see ourselves as sinners counting so much on the love of God and the love of others in the Church, can’t we see how important it is that we give whatever love we have to them in return? I am reminded of the words of my most favorite saint, the one whose spirit has touched me so deeply in my life, St. John the Theologian, who wrote: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love”. Is this not the ultimate expression of the Golden Rule, to love one another as God loves us?

My brethren, let us all slow down a bit in life, look inside ourselves to begin the work of our repentance, and learn to love one another as God loves each of us. By this, we shall not only find our healing, but also become the truest and deepest of friends with one another in God’s kingdom forever!

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