Sunday, October 25, 2009

If Pigs Fly, Would That be "Swine Flew"?

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

Today our gospel lesson from St. Luke’s account [8:26-39] describes the healing of a man possessed by many demons. How many times have we heard this story read over the years? A lot, to be sure. We might wonder why this passage, or others very similar to it, are placed before us by the Church so often and so regularly. Be assured that we are not reading about graveyards and demons because it is the week before Halloween. As always, the Church puts these scriptural stories before us because they are needful to our salvation. There are details of great importance in this text that we need to pay close attention to, lest we succumb to things far scarier than ghosts and goblins.

The story opens with Jesus arriving at the country of the Gergesenes (sometimes referred to as the Gadarenes). This was a region truly on the outskirts of Jewish civilization at that time. Located along the Eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, it was largely a Gentile region with a small Jewish population. Christ obviously came to preach to the Jews there, since His ministry was mainly to the children of the house of Israel. What He found when He arrived in this region however was a Jewish people quite out of touch with their religious heritage, and heavily compromised by their close association with the Gentiles. The people there were raising pigs. Although today we appreciate pork as “the other white meat,” both lean and delicious, to observant Jews, pigs were unclean animals with which they were forbidden to have contact. Obviously, the Jews living in the Gergesenes felt that the economic benefits of raising pigs to sell to the Gentiles far outweighed any silly little religious rules against such things. Forget pleasing God; there was money to be made!

This could be our first clue as to why this passage is important to us and to our salvation. Of all the reasons that may cause a person to compromise his faith and obedience to God, the love of money is right up there at the top. To make their fortunes, some people are willing to to anything they think they can get away with, even if it brings harm to others, including swindling seniors out of their retirement investments, or selling drugs or pornography. Others choose the more legal route of grossly overcharging clients for goods or services rendered. But even if we don’t engage in any of these practices, there are other ways for us to put the love of money above the love of God.

The most common way is to neglect the poor. Jesus tells us that if you have two cloaks, give one to the brother who has none. He doesn’t say that this would simply be a nice idea. He says in no uncertain terms, do it. How often do we obey that commandment? Most of us have more clothes in our closets than we can comfortably wear at one time. Do we ever think that we have too much; that we should share with those who have less? Maybe we think, “Hey, I earned my cloaks; I deserve them. Why should I give one of my cloaks to the bum who spent his all money on wine?” Well, maybe because that bum is your brother; more importantly, he is Jesus, and he is cold. Is that not a good enough reason?

Another way for us to put the love of money above the love of God is to neglect the temple of God. I’m sure you remember the story of the widow’s two mites. Jesus and His disciples were present in the Temple when the rich folks were making their offerings. Along came a poor widow who contributed two mites, the smallest coins. Jesus alerted His disciples and told them that this poor widow had contributed more than all of the others combined, for while the rich gave of their excess, she sacrificially offered all that she had to live on. But that’s just the beginning of the story. As they walked around the Temple, some spoke of the great adornment of the place, with all its gold and precious stones. Jesus immediately informed them that all they were looking at would soon be cast down, foretelling the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70AD.

Now think about this for a moment. Jesus had just praised a woman for sacrificing all that she had for a Temple that He knew would be destroyed in just a few decades. Wasn’t this unfair of Him? Shouldn’t He have rushed in to stop her saying, “Look I appreciate your good intentions, but save your money; this place won’t be here much longer”? Absolutely not! Jesus taught through this that the faith relationship of the person to God, and the willingness of a person to make sacrifice, is what matters more than any earthly concern. The widow received praise from God for her action, and eternal life for her faith. This was of far more value than any personal suffering her sacrifice certainly caused her.

Often we lack this kind of faith when it comes to our giving. Smitten by the fear that we might not be left with enough, we sometimes withhold our tithe from the parish and rely on our brothers and sisters to keep the doors open and the lights on. Either by making full tithes, or smaller “widow’s mite” offerings as they are able, many of our dear friends are seeking to honor God and to keep the parish going by paying the bills and contributing to the alms fund we use to help the needy, both within our own parish and outside as well. It is wrong to leave this work to others only. Each of us needs to step up to the plate and take upon ourselves the responsibility of making sacrificial offerings to God.

We often forget the importance of making tithes and offerings to God when we are so focused on our own financial woes in this dreadful economy. Forgetting these things, we become slightly less Christian, even slightly less human, and become hoarders rather than givers, selfish rather than selfless.

Becoming less human is exactly what today’s gospel lesson is all about. The man possessed by the legion of demons likely had turned his heart away from God long before the demons gained domination over him. Due to his close proximity to the swine, and their mention in the story, it is not a stretch to assume that he had once been among the Jewish men who had conveniently set aside their faith to make their living as pig-farmers. This compromise, combined with all his other passions, likely opened him up to further demonic persuasion, and to eventual possession.

As we know, Christ intervened in his life, bringing healing and restoration. But following this, all the other people from the village came out and begged Jesus to depart from them. They did not want to deal with the holiness and high standard of godly living that He came to impart to them. “Go away; leave us with our demons and the filth we choose,” they begged of Him. And the most frightening part of all--more scary than any Halloween story--is that He heeded them, and departed from them exactly as they had asked. If we honestly want nothing to do with Jesus and His difficult demands on our lives, He will respect that choice and leave us. What He leaves us to is a hell of our own making. A torment in which we will never receive what we want. Even our swine will run off and drown themselves and leave our desires unfulfilled. Only by listening to Jesus and making the decision to obey Him will we find lasting satisfaction and contentment in everything that is eternally good.

Perhaps this is the meaning behind our gospel lesson this morning. May God help us to find the courage to overcome our own fears, both financial and otherwise, and to gladly invite Jesus into our village, into our parish, our homes, and our lives, in order that He might bring restoration and healing to us all.

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

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Heavenly Family

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

Our gospel lesson this morning [Luke 10:16-21] gives us a brief account of the seventy men whom our Lord Jesus Christ personally hand-picked, spiritually-empowered, and sent out as apostles to preach the word, to cast out spirits, and to bring healing to all. (The word apostle means one who is sent) This passage holds a special significance for our parish, because our patron saint, Barnabas, was among these very special men chosen by our Lord.

According to the kontakion we sing in his memory, Barnabas was first among the Seventy, meaning that he was preeminent among them, being a good man and full of the Holy Spirit. As our hymn tells us, he was found worthy to accompany the great St. Paul on his missionary journeys, and through his wise preaching, brought many to to the knowledge of Jesus Christ as Savior. Barnabas also spent more than a year in the city of Antioch, teaching the church by word and example, and together with Paul, laid the solid and lasting foundation which we still enjoy today as present-day members of the Church of Antioch.

Have you ever considered that in addition to whoever else in the world St. Barnabas prays for, he surely intercedes continually for our parish and for each of us, his spiritual children? No doubt his pastoral concerns include that we would grow strong in faith and love and spiritual understanding, and also that we might be found fruitful in the good works which glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. We should never forget this connection we share with this missionary-apostle who still labors from heaven to draw many into the knowledge of Christ. This parish will not always have the same hierarchs, the same priests and clergy serving it, but it will always have St. Barnabas to watch over it, to guide and protect it, and I think to imprint upon it his special qualities of encouragement and love.

As we ponder these things, it is good to bear in mind that we give glory to God and honor to our patron saint when we show the same concern for our parish community that they do. We must never forget that the local parish is far more than a group of reasonably nice folks who get together occasionally for religious services and coffee. The parish is truly a holy community, a dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit who gives life to all who are united to Christ within it. It is a heavenly family whose Father is God, and rightly therefore are we called brothers and sisters in the Lord. Our membership here is not by chance or accident, but by the good will and choice of God, who hand-picked each of us and brought us to this place as living stones to be fitted together as a holy temple, as one Body which is Christ, that we may find our common salvation in Him.

If I understand the New Testament scriptures correctly, salvation is a corporate experience, meaning that it takes place for us in the context of the Body, and specifically, in the local parish to which we have been called. We like to say that the Church is the normal means that God has provided to save mankind. This does not imply that God cannot save the thief on the cross or those vast numbers of people who, either by ignorance or ideology, reside outside the communion of the Church. It merely means that God, who is not the author of confusion, has established an outpost of sanity in a fallen and quite insane world, a place where truth is taught in fullness and everything necessary for man’s illumination, salvation, and glorification can be found.

This is often a difficult concept for Americans to grasp. Although we are still a mostly church-going nation (or at least claim to be whenever religious polls are taken), we have largely redefined “church” to make it a place of fellowship and study, rather than the place where salvation is encountered, worked out, and experienced. As a result, Americans see church as optional. You can fellowship with your Christian buddies on the golf course and you can study your bible at home, so why bother with church? What we’ve done is to remake church in our image and according to our preferences. What we’ve lost is the traditional Christian understanding of the Church as the household of God, the pillar and foundation of the Truth, the place where God forms us together into the fullness of the stature of Christ. We Americans have forgotten the central role of Church in God’s plan of salvation.

This affects every one of us. Constantly each of us faces the struggle to overcome our individualistic leanings and to remind ourselves that the parish is central to our communion with God. In old Russia and Greece, villages were built around the Church as a reminder that the parish was central to the life of the people. In America, our towns are built around shopping malls and soccer fields, with churches found along the edges of communities. We can only guess what that reveals about us.

Our daily priorities reflect whether or not the parish (and thereby God) is central to our lives. Do we pray, and teach our children to pray, and instruct them in the Orthodox faith by word and by personal example? Do we make the motto “Church First” a hallmark of our family life, by attendance, by financial support, by service, by concern for the well-being of all, and by living righteous, holy lives for the benefit of our brothers and sisters in Christ? When we pray, do we take upon ourselves the needs of others in the parish and pray for them as if they were our own needs? Do we ask for the intercessions and help of St. Barnabas and share the same love for his parish that he holds for us within his heart? If not, then this is exactly what we should be doing in order to please God by resisting our fallen and self-centered approach to life.

I don’t think there’s anything more difficult, and at the same time more rewarding, than serving one’s parish. God designed it that way you know, because it’s exactly what we need to prepare each of us for the community of heaven. It’s hard to deny ourselves our “independent lives” and live to serve others. When we make out the family budget and decide where to allot each precious dollar, it’s hard to think “Church First” and write that tithe check to honor God and help our community. When the parish needs volunteers, it’s hard to commit to driving all the way back to church to clean toilets or set up tables for some event. When we are offended or have a conflict with someone in the parish, it’s hard to think of the other person as more important than ourselves and make the choice to serve him or her in love. It’s hard to accept the sometimes unpleasant circumstances in our lives as being allowed by God that we might learn humility and patient trust in Him. In times of temptation, it’s hard to remember that we actually owe right living and holiness to one another, and thus must deny ourselves indulgence in sin. It’s hard to come to confession and be reconciled to the community, especially if “community” is something we don’t often concern ourselves with. It’s hard not to think of ourselves as the center of our own existence and fight the selfish desires that emanate from that fallen and bitter orientation.

The very fact that these things are hard demonstrates the direct bearing they have on our salvation. And where else but in the parish do we shine the light on these fallen traits in ourselves, and thereby discover our fundamental need of repentance?

I’m sure you know as well as I do that when we humans face things that are hard, we have a tendency to avoid them, or rationalize our way around them. We don’t always have the presence of mind or the determination in our hearts to see these challenges as coming from God for our salvation. In this way, life’s many opportunities to trust God and draw near to Him can pass us by. These things are easy to neglect and yet it’s parish life and the intercessions of our patron saint that keep them before us and graciously give us always one more opportunity for repentance and change. God loves us very much, and so does St. Barnabas, and they do everything to help us. Let us learn to unite ourselves to that great and abiding love, and take on the challenges that will join us to one another in gaining the glorious salvation that takes place within this holy community.

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

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council

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

Today the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, who met together in the year 787 to defend and describe the proper use and veneration of the Holy Icons (Images).

Icons have been a part of the Christian experience since apostolic times. St. Luke is in fact credited with being Christendom’s very first iconographer. According to ancient tradition, he crafted an image of the Theotokos and Christ-child that was blessed by her, and later used as the basis for the “Vladimir Mother of God” icon which is still very popular today. Images and various Christian symbols adorned the catacombs of the first centuries, and later the churches of the Constantine-period and far beyond.

Yet despite such early and widespread use and endorsement, there has always been a small percentage of people in every generation who stubbornly opposed the use of holy images within the Church. There are many such people even today in the Christian traditions outside of Orthodoxy. Such people invariably resort to the Old Testament to argue that Christian icons are a form of “graven image” expressly forbidden by the Second Commandment. Despite the fact that the Old Testament lawfully included profuse imagery--including the brass serpent Moses held aloft to symbolize Christ crucified, the architecture of the earthly Temple which was modeled after its antitype in heaven, and the golden cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant--for some reason Christian icons are singled out by some as “violations of scriptural commandments” and those of us who use them are uncharitably branded as “foolish idolators” who blindly follow “the teachings of men” rather than the pure word of God. I’m sure we have all heard such accusations.

While being in full agreement that icons should never be worshipped, the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council defended the proper use of them within the Church on the basis that through the incarnation of the Son of God, the invisible and immaterial God added to His existence a visible and material human nature which could now rightfully be depicted by human art. In short, Christian Iconography exists solely because of the incarnation of Christ! This is why attempts to use the impartial revelation of the Old Testament to argue against the fuller revelation demonstrated in New Testament iconography is mistaken and invalid.

Icons prove that God became man, bringing glorification to humanity. The Christ-figure portrayed in the icons is not a ghost or an illusion, nor merely an ordinary man. He is the God-man Jesus Christ, the Blessed Second Person of the Holy Trinity, truly incarnate and divinely glorified in the flesh for our sakes and for our salvation.

The Holy Fathers taught that icons are not merely useful to the Church, but in fact essential to preserving the full understanding of the incarnation and our glorious salvation against the many heresies that continually assail these beliefs. The icons not only depict God incarnate, but they also show the saints deified by their union with Christ as partakers of the divine nature, which indeed is both the promise and potential shared by all of us who are joined to the glorified humanity of Christ through the new birth of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism.

The spirit of error denies the essential importance of iconography, claiming that Christian truth can be preserved by words alone. That’s simply false. The Holy Images convey truth on a different level than written or spoken words, and at the same time combine with them to present truth in a more full and complete way. Interestingly enough, most heretics who deny the deity of Christ are perfectly content to use the Church’s bible to teach their falsehoods. But they do not use the Church’s icons. There is something a bit too “divine” in the portrayal of the Theotokos and her Child, in the image of Christ glorified, or in the images of the saints filled with God. Such an unmistakable sense of divine presence and holiness which the icons convey does not lend itself well to the empty teachings of those who deny the deity of Jesus Christ, and for this reason the heretics condemn icons and refuse to have them in their buildings. The paint and wood of icons do “make real” the incarnation in a way that the paper and ink of books alone cannot.

The Holy Fathers defined exactly how icons should be used by the faithful. Forbidding the worship of them, the Fathers taught that honor or veneration should be offered through them to the saints they depict, and by this action, adoration and worship offered to God alone, who by His divine condescension took our flesh to make sainthood possible. I have heard people say that it is wrong to venerate the saints because such practice supposedly detracts from the glory that should be given to God. This makes no sense. If you praise a piece of art for its beauty, are you not giving honor to the artist who created it? When we give honor to the saints who were pleasing to God, we give glory and worship to the very God whose transforming grace made them saints. Those who portray God as envious of the honor given to His saints are misguided and have an incomplete and distorted view of God. “I am the LORD, and My glory I shall not share with another!” thunders their God from the pages of the Old Testament [Isaiah 42:8]. In contrast, Jesus prayed to His Father concerning His saints, “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, even as we are one” [John 17:22, emphasis added].

To refuse honor to the saints is to deny the incarnation of the Son of God and our blessed union with Him, by which He is pleased to share His glory with men. It is a denial of the very means of our salvation and the humility of God in the sharing of His life and glory with us. It is an action not rooted in love, but in the vain imaginings of men who esteem their opinions as possessing greater weight than the teachings of the Church. As we heard in our epistle lesson this morning from Titus 3, such men are sinful, subverted, and self-condemned and are sternly admonished by the Church to repent.

To Orthodox Christians, a church building adorned with icons is as meet and right as the walls of a healthy, happy home adorned with the photographs of many loved ones. The icons remind us of our larger family, and of the common inheritance we share with them all. They make this a warm home, bright and welcoming to all who enter under its roof. Though we were once strangers to God, we have been made a family with all the saints in every generation and with one another by the love of our heavenly Father and His kindness toward us. It is of the greatest importance therefore that we show this same love and kindness toward others, and especially toward those who are so convinced that we are wrong.

The Holy Icons vividly demonstrate the love of God. They leave no question that God has done everything divinely possible to raise man up to a position of great dignity and holiness. Perhaps the best thing we an do for modern day critics of the Holy Icons is to become ourselves living icons of God’s love and kindness. As they harshly demand of us biblical justification for our practices, and in many cases shut their minds to our answers, what more can we do but to show them the love of our Father and be kind to them as He Himself is kind to all? It is not our obligation to convince people, but to love them as God does, and thus become true and living icons of our Lord Jesus Christ. May this be the path we choose.

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