Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Beheading of the Glorious Prophet and Forerunner John

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

Tonight we commemorate the Beheading of the Glorious Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. This feast compares to Great and Holy Friday of Holy Week on which we see that the Son of God who came into the world full of grace and truth, was rejected and put to a most cruel death by those who despised truth and found it to be an unwelcome intrusion into their lives of falsehood. In tonight’s Feast St. John the Baptist is also put to a terrible death merely for speaking the obvious truth to those who did not wish to hear it.

The wicked Herodias deeply resented the saint’s rebuke of her adulterous relationship with Herod, the brother of her husband. With the blind hatred of those who are given over to the love of evil, she utterly refused the grace of repentance and instead eventually found a way to have the Baptist murdered and his blessed head mocked as the bloody centerpiece of her depraved social gathering.

Thus the two greatest men in the history of our poor, sad world were both put to horrible deaths for the same exact reason, namely that they came bringing the light of truth into a world of men who much prefer the darkness of falsehood and sin.

As we know, Jesus praised John highly, saying that of those born of women there is none greater than he. Let us understand that John was not merely called “great” but the “greatest” precisely because he was a man of absolute truth, who bore witness to the One who is Truth perfectly, not only in his preaching but in fullness of his life. In John there was no deceit or falsehood; no conflicting motives or wayward desires. Filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, John was born into the world as one who by word and deed together could bear an unsullied witness to the truth, and thus could serve as a faithful guide pointing all of mankind to Jesus, the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.

With the celebration of this blessed Feast it is fitting for us to pray to the Baptist, that by his intercessions we too might become lovers of truth. As the intercessions of the Theotokos are coveted by those seeking purity of soul, so it is right for seekers of truth to ask for the help of St. John that they might also be led into the fullness of truth and gain his courage to stand for it at whatever cost. Our world has certainly not become more enlightened with the passage of time, or more tolerant of those who come bearing God’s truth. Perhaps more than ever, we are a people who need John’s intercessions to help us face the coming darkness and the perilous times that lay ahead.

I’m sure we are aware that many of the world’s nations consider themselves “Post-Christian” in orientation, as the influence of Christianity has declined to be temporarily replaced by secular humanism. It’s my personal opinion that this situation won’t last for long as nature abhors a religious vacuum. Already the religion of Islam is making tremendous gains in Western Europe and many of its cultures are on the brink of dramatic change within a generation or two at most. Our nation, increasingly guided by secular progressives, is also engaged in the steady removal of every influence traceable to its so-called “Judeo-Christian” foundation. God only knows what awaits us if this movement succeeds, though I doubt if it will resemble what even its authors hope for. If some people today feel oppressed by Christians who allegedly “seek to impose their morality on others,” just wait until Islam possibly becomes the dominant religion of America. They will wish for the “good old days” at that point!

Nevertheless, the decline of Christianity in this country is not primarily the fault of secular progressives, but of the Christians themselves. It is the Christians who have mostly stood by while the leaders of their various denominations watered-down the faith in an effort to “fit in” with the changing culture. Christians are supposed to season and transform the cultures they find themselves in, but the exact opposite has been allowed to happen here. The salt of American Christianity has lost much of its flavor, and will soon be trampled underfoot by men. Far from becoming less religious, America is simply becoming less Christian. Whatever the religion of the future may be, is not something that I am looking forward to seeing.

It is important to remember that nations and governments that protect the rights of Christians are historically something of an anomaly in this fallen world. More frequently the people of God have found themselves persecuted, either by countries that flat out reject Christianity, or by those that nationalize schismatic or heretical forms of it to the exclusion of Orthodoxy. The sudden emergence and spread of genuine Orthodox Christianity in America at a time when its other forms of Christianity are waning is an interesting development, and perhaps a sign that God requires yet one more people who will witness to His truth in these latter days by the shedding of their own blood.

Orthodox Christians have traditionally been grist for the martyr’s mill, and although I sincerely hope that each one of us will be allowed to live long, happy, and prosperous lives, we should at least consider the fact that this is by no means guaranteed to us. It is good for us to feel a certain tension and lack of ease with this world, and to cultivate the sense that we are strangers and aliens in a land increasingly hostile to our faith and presence here.

Few things illustrate this better than the remembrance of the holy martyrs. Thus on this commemoration of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, I ask us to reconsider and recommit our lives to Jesus Christ our Lord. How often the blessed scriptures encourage us to do exactly this, and to rouse ourselves constantly against our sleepy devotion and selfish ways! Let us renew our efforts to embrace Holy Orthodoxy more completely, to deny ourselves what is false and wrong, and to be conformed to the truth of the gospel. Our world will do all that it can to undermine this in our lives and in the lives of our children. Let therefore labor all the more to stir one another up to faith and love in Christ, even as the world around us grows steadily darker.

Through the intercessions of the Glorious Forerunner and Baptist John, O Christ our God, have mercy upon us and save us. Amen.

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

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Lovers or Haters of Truth?

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

This morning’s Gospel Lesson [Matthew 21:33-42] centers on Christ’s parable of the longsuffering vineyard owner whose wicked tenants had murdered the many servants he sent to collect his fruits, until finally they murdered even his own son. Jesus was speaking of God’s vineyard, Israel, whose people had so often rejected Him and had persecuted and killed the prophets that were sent to correct them. Finally God sent His only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth, to save His people from their sins, and yet those who were haters of truth conspired together to put Him to death.

With the telling of this parable it became clear that the words of the most recently murdered prophet, St. John the Baptist, were about to be fulfilled. The fearful judgment of God was at hand, and already the ax was laid at the root of the tree called Israel.

Notice that even in these crucial last moments, the merciful God refused to pronounce a judgment against His people, but allowed them to pronounce their own. Jesus asked, “What do you suppose the landowner will do when he comes?” And the people responded, “He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and let out his vineyard to other tenants, who will pay him the fruits in their seasons!” So be it. Within a single generation of these words, utter destruction came upon Jerusalem, and the kingdom of God was taken from the Jewish people and given over to the Gentiles.

This is obviously not a politically-correct passage of scripture, and its meaning is sure to bring offense to many, even today. Yet it is a story which must continue to be told, for the grace of God is not the “property” of any group of people. The New Testament scriptures also contain stories of Christian churches rebuked and of lampstands removed by God because of their disobedience to the truth, and the people’s turning away from God. The lesson seems clear that we who call ourselves “God’s people” must never assume that our status is chiseled in stone and cannot be revoked. God of course is faithful and cannot deny Himself or His promises. But the same cannot be said of us or of any people. Only those who love the truth and desire to be conformed to it will find the kingdom of heaven as their home.

When Jesus stood bound before Pontius Pilate, He said to the king, “I bear witness to the truth, and everyone who is of the truth hears My voice”. As the ultimate demonstration of a person who simply does not get it, Pilate could only stupidly respond, “What is truth?”

Most people today seem to agree with Pontius Pilate. The prevailing philosophy, mindless though it may be, is that truth is relative, truth is whatever you want it to be, and your preferred truth can be no better or worse than my preferred truth. If no one can be entirely wrong, then it logically follows that no one can be entirely right either. Thus the one misstep on this dance floor of relativism is to assert that your truth is the one absolute truth. By contrast, the highest virtue is to simply “agree to disagree” so that you can keep your truth and the other fellow can keep his and everyone can continue the dance uninterrupted by the annoying thought that this is complete and utter nonsense. This sounds like the perfect description of contemporary Christendom.

Centuries ago, the efforts of men to reform the corrupted Roman Catholic church went completely awry, and Western Christendom was plunged headlong into the murky sea of relativism. With the bible replacing the Church as the sole guide to faith and practice, every man became his own pope and parsed the scriptures to decide his own doctrinal positions and in short, his own truth.

Today this is portrayed as the absolute right, even the solemn responsibility of the individual Christian. We are told that we must not follow any church, but only the bible as we read it. The fact that this clearly doesn’t work and has led to the catastrophic collapse of Western Christendom into division, error, and rancor, is simply ignored. The principle remains sound, you see. Even if no two people can fully agree, each man must still find his own truth.

Is this Christianity? Do you think it is purely coincidental that this spirit of relativism which casts off the Church as the pillar and foundation of the truth, rejects the work and operation of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the saints over centuries, and appoints each man as his own spiritual guide, just happens to align perfectly with Satan’s deepest desire to dethrone God and set himself up as absolute ruler? Fallen man is naturally inclined toward the devil’s suggestions. That doesn’t change the instant a person comes to belief in Christ. Putting a bible in a new convert’s hands and telling him that he will now be led by the Spirit into all the truth is something that holds tremendous appeal to the ego of man. It’s hard to resist the giddying idea that you can become the equal of popes, bishops, and saints that went before. In fact—listen to this, dear Christian—you will be even greater than these, for they foolishly followed the traditions of the Church, but you, O wise one, follow the bible only.

Led away by the flattering suggestions of the devil and his own enormous pride, man readily accepts the arrogant notion that he alone will be right where so many before apparently went wrong. Even if the entire early Church believed one thing, and he has been persuaded to believe another, he will never for a moment doubt his own opinions, but will brazenly pronounce the early Church as apostate. A person ensnared in such delusion does not sincerely want to know the truth, but only to defend his own positions. Thus he must ignore or denounce the Church and the writings of its many saintly fathers, and wrap himself up in the pious cloak of “bible only”.

In ancient Israel, the haters of truth had Christ put to death in order to continue their lives without His interference. In our day, the haters of truth put His Church to death, so that they can pick and choose their own beliefs without interference. If anyone, including you or me, would dare to call ourselves lovers of God, we must prove that by becoming lovers of truth, and not merely lovers of our own opinions. The path to God is not through human ego or pride, but through deliberate submission to the life and faith of the Church preserved by God.

The seeker of truth must first acknowledge that he knows nothing, and that he cannot depend upon himself alone to find the fullness of truth. While this suggestion may appear scandalous to many, there is another, more ancient word for it, called “humility”. People today are puffed up with their bible opinions and argue angrily with one another continually. But the humble man, in coming to Christ, also allows Christ to lead him into His Church, and does not oppose the Lord’s efforts to do so. In the Church man eventually learns to lay aside his own ego and to seek purity of the heart over knowledge of the head. Only in this way does he prepare himself to receive the genuine knowledge of truth, which is a spiritual revelation given by God, and not something gained by man’s own intellectual study.

The humble are careful to submit themselves to God, finding in their obedience deliverance from the devil’s many snares. This is the path that we should follow, the same tried-and-true path worn deep by millions of holy people before us. Follow the traditions of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and you will know the truth that will set you free and bring about your certain salvation.

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

Friday, August 24, 2007

Croc-ey, mate!

Yeah, so I tagged along with my wife as she went clothes shopping the other day. Generally she will do nearly anything to avoid my company on such excursions, since like most men I utterly fail to grasp why it can take a woman nearly an hour to decide between two virtually identical shirts whose only alleged difference is a color variation so imperceptible to the naked eye it would likely require something as sophisticated as a NASA computer to tell them apart. If she feels rushed by me during her selection process she will invariably pick the wrong shirt, which won’t be discovered until she is wearing in front of her mirror at home with that “I should have gotten the other one” look on her face.

After many years of careful observation I have finally come to the conclusion that shifting back and forth on my feet like a spoiled five-year-old boy and whining, “I gotta go pee!” only annoys her, and thus I have tried to find better ways to amuse myself during her grueling selection process. With precious few possibilities available to me in a woman’s clothing store, this usually boils down to me grabbing some particularly gaudy and ridiculous item of apparel off the rack to try on right there in order to strike a silly pose for her and ask, “Does this make me look fat?” With an appropriately goofy hat or sweater this can often provoke a small chuckle from her. That makes it all worthwhile and I’m good for at least another several minutes as I revel in my own comedy. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that this stunt has also resulted in my being banned for life from every store in the entire Victoria’s Secret chain. It would appear that people who work in women’s lingerie shops are not as fun-loving as one might otherwise be inclined to imagine.

At any rate, on our most recent shopping adventure, and with no lace-lined, liquid-filled, super push-up brassieres to converse with (Clerk: “Sir, why are you talking to the bra?” Me: “I’m complaining to upper-management. Get it? Upper-management? Har!”) I cast my bored eyes around the store and spotted a small display of Crocs sandals.

To the uninitiated, Crocs are a sort of rubbery-resin clog-type sandal that is available in a wide range of colors, none of which you would particularly want to display on your feet. Here is a small sampling of some of the colors they come in:

Feeling fairly certain that donning a pair of these loopy loafers would produce the desired comic effect without requiring yet another call to my bail-bondsman, I slipped on a pair in so-called “Army Green” to model for my better half. The instant my feet found themselves inside these sandals, my mouth involuntarily exclaimed, “Whoa! These things are comfortable!” I’m not kidding; I have never tried on a pair of shoes that felt more heavenly than these. They make your favorite and well-worn bedroom slippers feel like a two-sizes-too-small stiff pair of rental bowling shoes by comparison. Of course Crocs aren’t as attractive as most rental bowling shoes, but hey, you can’t have everything. I left my own shoes behind on the floor and walked around the shop in the Crocs for a bit just to see if my first impression was mistaken. If anything, they felt more comfy the longer I wore them. My poor feet were practically singing for joy. I was in fact so caught up in my bipedal rapture that I failed to notice my wife had walked up to eye the grotesque things on my feet. “Nice shoes,” she observed dryly, “Are you going to get them?” “You actually like these?” I asked in astonishment, stupidly oblivious to her sarcasm. “Well they’re a bit different, but then so are you,” she said, and with that the deal was done. I left the shop $29 poorer, but with tootsies feeling like a million bucks.

I wore those Crocs for two days straight but then had to set them aside to wear something more appropriate for Wednesday night Vespers. My feet were quite unhappy to leave their comfortable new home, and so the next day they carried me back to the shop to buy another pair in “Clergy Black”, or at least that’s what I call this new color. I wonder if I am the only priest to wear a cassock and Crocs to church. This much I know: if word gets out about how gosh-darned comfy these ugly sandals are, I probably won’t be the only priest to wear them for very long.

Get a pair, mate. Croc-ey, you’ll love ‘em!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Why do you call Me good?

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

“Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” This is what our Lord Jesus said to the wealthy young man in today’s gospel lesson. [Matthew 19:16-26]

Why did our Lord say this? Was He denying His inherent deity as the Son of God? I recall a conversation I once had with a Jehovah’s Witness at my front door who tried to use this verse as “proof” that Jesus couldn’t possibly be God. Talking to me as if I were a slow-witted child he asked, “Now, you believe that God is good, right?” Yes, I agreed, God is good. “That’s right!” he said. “And so if God is good and Jesus said ‘don’t call Me good’ then how can Jesus be God?”

The guy seemed very pleased with himself until I pointed out that he had deliberately misread the verse. Jesus didn’t say, “Don’t call Me good” but instead had carefully asked the young man, “Why do you call Me good?” I then asked him if he thought it was right or wrong to call Jesus good. He wasn’t sure what to say, so I continued, “I think we would both have to agree that Jesus is good. That’s why mournful sinners were drawn to Him, that’s why righteous people loved Him, that’s why even His enemies were forced to invent false charges against Him at His trial. We can’t even say that Jesus was relatively good in comparison to the rest of humanity, because the scriptures testify that there was absolutely no sin or unrighteousness in Him whatsoever. Jesus was and is entirely and completely good, with a goodness utterly indistinguishable from God’s goodness.”

I then concluded, “If Jesus is undeniably good, and we both agree that only God is good, then who must this Jesus be?”

Well I’m sorry to say that the unhappy man at my doorstep lost interest in our discussion after this and soon left. But returning to our gospel lesson, we can see that Jesus was by no means denying His deity to the rich young man, or His goodness. If anything, He was confirming it. Reading this verse correctly we can see that our Lord was simply trying to make this man slow down and put the pieces of the puzzle together as to who this “good Jesus” must truly be.

And why would He do that in this particular case? There were many people who came to Jesus, mostly asking for healing, and He usually healed them with only a brief word about the importance of faith or of living without sin. But here Jesus spoke of much more, granting a sort of “mini-Theophany” by way of a subtle revelation of His divinity. Why did He do this? The answer might be found in the fact that this young man’s request was different from anyone else’s. He came, seeking not physical healing, but salvation.

“What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” Please notice the wisdom in our Lord’s response. He first spoke of the need to follow the commandments of God, or in other words, of the necessity to not bring further harm to one’s soul by doing those things which are contrary to eternal life. Many Christians today have a rather cavalier attitude about sin, feeling that as long as they are forgiven their actions are more or less irrelevant. But the effects of sin aren’t marked on some scoreboard in heaven, but upon our souls. Righteousness matters, and the commandments of God are important to us, or else Jesus wouldn’t have said so.

Now this young man claimed to have kept all the commandments from his youth. This was apparently not a false boast, for we are told in Mark’s account that Jesus looked upon him and loved him when he said this. From Matthew’s gospel we can see that the young man was even further blessed to recognize that the commandments alone were not enough to save him, and so he asked with urgency, “What do I still lack?”

Have you ever thought to ask God, “Lord, what do I still lack?” Most of us would rather tell God what we think is missing from our lives, and be miserable until He gives it to us. But what a bold thing it is to ask, “Lord, what do I still lack?” We can begin to see why Jesus loved this man. And indeed, here was a fellow about as ready as any person could be to receive the answer from Jesus Christ as to what he needed to gain eternal life.

And Jesus told him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven. And come, take up the cross, and follow Me”. At this command, the man became sad and went away grieving, for he had great possessions.

Our Lord knew He was asking a difficult and unexpected thing of this young man. That is why He first graciously allowed the man a certain spiritual insight into His divine authority. “It is not simply your ‘good teacher’ asking this of you; it is your good God. Follow Me in both life and death, and you will live in My kingdom forever.” The inescapable tragedy of this story is that even with this kind and wonderful revelation, the man still turned his back on Jesus and walked away.

Before we are tempted to think that Jesus was too harsh, notice that the young man didn’t go away angry or offended. He went away grieving. You see, when people think they are being treated unfairly they generally get mad. But when they are asked to do what they know is right, but find that they are unwilling to make the sacrifice, their souls are filled with sorrow.

This is a grief that many Christians know all too well. There may be some impediment in our lives that we know Christ has asked us to give up, to leave behind, or to walk away from that we might follow Him in freedom. Or perhaps there is some good thing He has asked us to do that we are simply unwilling to obey. No matter how much we try to excuse, justify, or distract ourselves, that thing remains as a kind of barricade between us and our good Jesus. Sorrow of soul is the natural result, and this seems to be what was taking place in this young man’s heart.

My brethren, we were created to enjoy an unhindered communion with God, though the path to that through our spiritual darkness is long and difficult. If we must mourn in this life, let it be over our present fallen condition, tempered with hope in God’s mercy and healing. Let us not needlessly add to our sorrow by any stubborn refusal to follow Jesus and obey Him. If we will be careful to do what is right, one day our mourning will be turned into joy, our tears into laughter. We can trust the good Jesus, our God, to save us and have mercy upon us.

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