Sunday, January 25, 2009

Zacchaeus Sunday

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

Anyone who’s been an Orthodox Christian for more than a year knows that the Sunday of Zacchaeus can only mean one thing: that Great Lent is rolling around once again, and we are at the beginning of our preparations for it. This year, Lent begins on March 2nd. Our fasting begins one week before, and our Sunday gospel lessons over the next month will also point us toward Lent with different themes to help us ready ourselves for this holy and saving season.

The purpose of Great Lent of course is to help prepare us for that great Feast of feasts, the highest and holiest day of the Christian year, Great and Holy Pascha, the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, which we also celebrate as the resurrection of all the faithful who are united unto Him through faith and the new birth of water and the Spirit.

And speaking of faith, Pascha demands plenty of it. Not so much to believe in the resurrection of Christ, for there is more than ample proof of this in the history of the Church and the world itself. If Christ had not been raised from the dead, the previously defeated and disillusioned apostles would never have found reason to spread the good news to the ends of the earth, enduring persecution and martyrdom joyously for the sake of truth. Indeed, there would have been no “good news” to spread! And what group of men would be so willing to suffer and die for a known lie if the resurrection had simply been made up by them? Had not Christ been truly raised, promising resurrection to life eternal in His kingdom to all who follow Him, there would have been no Church, no transformation of the Roman empire, and no saints or holy martyrs such as we see by the millions.

No, the difficulty of Pascha is not to believe in the resurrection of Christ as an historical reality, but rather, to believe in it as a personal reality. The difficulty is to believe that we ourselves can be raised with Christ to newness of life, both in this world, and in the world to come.

And why is that so difficult for us? Is it not because we are bound to this world as it is, to our flesh and its fallen desires? We are in this world, and all too often of this world, and are guilty of loving this world more than God. The simple things that the Church asks us to do to enter into communion with God--to pray, to fast, to come to the services, to tithe and give alms, to purify ourselves from fleshly lusts and passions and attain the enlightenment of our souls, to commend ourselves and one another and all our life unto Christ our God--these things often take a backseat to other interests, other loves, other desires. We often say, “I’m too busy to [Fill in the blank: say my prayers, go to church tonight, read my bible, visit this person, help that brother or sister],” but what we mean is, “I don’t have the desire to do those things right now. There is something else I desire more at this moment, at this stage, at this opportunity”.

It is in fact these misdirected desires that make it so hard for us to see ourselves as anything other than the perpetual fulfiller of them. We work so hard our entire lives to have the nice career, the nice house, the nice car, the nice family with every material need met, the nice nest egg, the nice retirement. We so seldom ask ourselves what it is all for or to where it is all leading us. We are like the grimy little guy shoveling coal faster and faster into the insatiable fire of the engine that is speeding toward a destination unknown to him and to which he may not even wish to go.

Spurred on by our desires and the irrational instinct to fulfill them, we become a people no longer in control of our own lives, but enslaved to impulses we never question, but only obey.

Isn’t it true that we sometimes feel as if our lives are simply out of control? Do we sometimes seem that we are on a path that we didn’t choose, or are trapped by events we didn’t foresee or wish for? Do we sometimes regret that we didn’t follow God more closely, or choose His ways more consistently over our own ways? When you look back on your life, especially as a Christian, you probably have a mix of both regrets and joys. Have you noticed that everything you now see as a regret was at one time born of your own willfulness and your own insistence on fulfilling your desire no matter what? By contrast, every joy came from those moments when you crucified your desire and set aside willfulness to humbly accomplish God’s will or whatever was best for others. When we follow our fallen desires they inevitably lead to emptiness and sorrow. But when our desire is to follow Christ and obey Him, joy and life eternal is always the result.

The theme of Zacchaeus Sunday is the theme of desire for God. Little Zacchaeus so wanted to see Jesus Christ that he laid aside his dignity to scramble up a sycamore tree to gaze upon Him. When Jesus saw this desire in the little man’s heart, and knew that it was so different from every other desire he had ever held, He called Him down and entered into his house, bringing salvation. Zacchaeus discovered the true desire of men’s hearts that day. As the composer Bach called it, “Jesus, the Joy of Man’s Desiring”. Oh, we have so many desires, but only one of these leads us to true and everlasting joy, the desire for Jesus Christ.

Filled with the Joy that eclipses every other and shows them to be lacking, Zacchaeus pledged half his possessions to the poor and the four-fold repayment of all those he had defrauded by false taxation. For a man who had so loved money, this was a remarkable, even miraculous, change of heart. But having found Jesus, Zacchaeus knew that no other love could ever satisfy him, nor could any other desire bring him such contentment. This is the love and desire that needs to be born in our hearts, that Jesus might also enter in to us, bringing salvation.

And this is why we need Great Lent. We normally approach Lent with dread, because it compels us to do things which are against our present desires. There are services nearly every night of the week, which challenge our desire to stay at home after work and relax. There is the most intense and unrelenting fasting of the church year. We are called to be more faithful in our giving, especially of alms and works of mercy. Lent also directs us inward toward more consistent prayer and repentance, an effort that is always a struggle for us because we don’t generally like what we find within ourselves and prefer to live externally. In a word, Lent is hard, because it seems to call upon us to exercise a love for God that we may not yet fully possess.

But that is why we need Great Lent. Lent is not for the super-devout; it is for ordinary sinners like us. It does not assume that we have a great love for God, but only assumes we have at least some small desire to love God. Lent gives us, not what we want, but what we need. It helps us break the habit of willfulness and the stubborn pursuit of our misdirected desires, to embrace God’s way and God’s will over our own. Lent leads us to find freedom from the endless pursuit of many desires to discover the one true desire of man’s heart.

With so much at stake in a culture hostile to our faith and to our way of life, let us pledge to keep Lent faithfully this year. Let us fill our church at the times of prayer and let us lead our families in observing Lent at home. And may God light in us that flame of desire for Jesus Christ that will help us at the end of Lent to joyously celebrate our resurrection with Him at Great and Holy Pascha.

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

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Was No One Found to Give Glory to God?

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

In our gospel lesson this morning [Luke 17:12-19] we heard that as our Lord entered into a certain village, He was met there by ten lepers who stood afar off, beseeching Him for healing. For the ancients, leprosy was a frightful disease. It manifests itself as white patches on the skin, often with running sores, and the loss of parts of the body which become necrotic. A leper was considered “unclean” by the Jews and disenfranchised from the community, lest the disease be spread. A leprous Jew could never enter the Temple, nor even come near to any other person. He was truly an exile among his own people.

To the Church Fathers, leprosy represented a deeper spiritual meaning. It is a metaphor for our sins, which make us unclean and separate us from communion with God.

The lepers stood afar off, in accordance with the Law, but cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Seeing these lepers, Jesus simply instructed them to go show themselves to the priests. And it came to pass, as they went, they were cleansed. Notice that He commanded the men to go to the priests before they were actually healed and while their flesh was still filled with the disease. The only reason for a leper to go to the priests was to reveal that he had already been healed, and to have this healing properly verified according to the detailed commandments prescribed in Leviticus 14. Our Lord’s command to them was therefore most unusual, to say the least.

What must have been in the minds of these miserable people as they walked away from the Lord? Did some dare imagine they might still receive healing? Did others merely assume that the prophet Jesus wanted nothing to do with them and for this reason sent them away? Were they disappointed with His response or feel that they should have received better treatment? We may never know, but these are certainly human thoughts and reactions, aren’t they? Nevertheless, as the lepers made their way to the priests, they soon discovered--perhaps with considerable amazement--that they had been healed. What happened next is the focal point of this entire lesson.

Finding themselves healed, nine of the former lepers continued on to the priests, while one of them, a Samaritan, ran back to Jesus to praise God and thank Him for his healing. Seeing this, Jesus said to those around him, “And what of the nine? Was no one found to give glory to God except this foreigner?” Clearly, Jesus was speaking to the Jews around Him, and to us who read this story, of the grievous sin of thanklessness.

The most basic and essential function of man is to adore his Creator and to offer Him thanks continually. Failure to do so causes man to forget that he is God’s creation, uniquely made in God’s own image with a profoundly exalted and heavenly calling, and turns him away from this toward a meaningless existence as a creature of flesh only. Thanklessness in the face of God’s mercies was the sin of the ancient Israelites over and over, it was the sin of the Jews at Christ’s time (which prevented them from recognizing Him as the promised Messiah), and it is certainly the sin that most plagues us Christians today as well.

Every other sin that we commit proceeds from our lack of thanksgiving to God. When we neglect prayer, when we skip Orthros or other services of the Church because they’re just “inconvenient” to us, when we don’t prioritize our finances to pay our tithes to the parish or give alms to the poor, when we are utterly fixated on our earthly existence and mostly forget God in the pursuit of our endless wants and needs, when we forsake the purification of our hearts to instead indulge in unclean desires and actions, when we quarrel with others or gossip or lie, when we are constantly critical of people or complaining of situations, when we are miserable over our lot in life and feel that God has abandoned us, cannot all these sins be traced back to the root of thanklessness and the spiritual blindness and alienation from God that it causes?

When I take confessions from those who are so troubled by many concerns in life, I often counsel them to begin practicing thanksgiving. This is not an easy thing to do, and it is often the last thing a person wants to instructed in, for we tend to be so miserable in our sufferings and perhaps cannot even conceive of being otherwise. Nevertheless, I might tell them that as you are on your way and chance to notice a pretty flower growing along the sidewalk, remember that God put that there for you to enjoy. And as you reflect on that tiny gift given to you by the Almighty Creator who orders the entire universe and all that it contains, try to open your eyes and see the nearness of your God and His love for you in even the smallest details. There’s an old saying that if God seems far away, which one of you moved? God is very near to us at all times, but we in our lack of simple thanksgiving so often fail to see this, despite all the evidence that surrounds us daily.

How many a parent has been in an argument with a teen-aged child and remarked, “You know, you should be more thankful for what you have,” only to be met with rolling eyes and the sarcastic response, “Oh, right! Thankful that you won’t let me do anything and that you’re ruining my entire life?” Well, we act just like that poor, distressed teenager sometimes, being self-centered, focused only on what we are being denied instead of all the good things already given to us, and neglectful of thanksgiving.

I’ve sometimes wondered if people have listened to my little flower story and left the confessional thinking “What a silly priest!”. But did not our Lord also instruct those enslaved by worldly concerns and anxiety to behold the lilies of the field, or the tiny birds that God lovingly feeds, and to learn from these of His care for all living things? We may indeed be fallen and broken people living in a fallen and broken world, but that world is still filled with the love of God, everywhere present, but perhaps concealed from all but the thankful.

In reflecting on our gospel lesson, we might be tempted to think that while it was nice for the Samaritan to give thanks to God, the nine Jews are also to be praised for their obedience if nothing else, in continuing on to the priests as Christ instructed. Yet from our Lord’s reaction we can determine that their motives were not pure. In hastening on to the priests to fulfill the legal requirements, they only wanted to return as quickly as possible to an ordinary life, and to put all memory of this behind them. Perhaps some of these were even among those who later called out for Christ’s crucifixion. That might seem nearly impossible, but remember that a thankless man is a man who is most of all blind to God and cannot see His ways.

No, it wasn’t merely “nice” of the Samaritan to give thanks to God. By his action of thanksgiving he received, not just the healing of his body, but the blessing of Jesus and the healing of his soul as well. Let us also seek such blessing and healing in our lives, by learning through practice to give thanks to God in all things.

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