Sunday, September 25, 2011

Inconvenienced by Jesus

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. From our gospel lesson on this First Sunday of Luke, we heard the story of a miraculous catch that brought the fishermen to faith in Christ. Occurring very early in our Lord’s ministry, this is the miracle that might not have happened if Simon Peter hadn’t been so tolerant of Jesus’ demands. As we heard, the fishermen had returned from a long and fruitless night of work and were finishing up the task of washing and stowing their nets prior to going home, when Jesus approached, asking to use one of their boats as a platform from which to preach to the multitude which had gathered there. These men were no doubt exhausted and really looking forward to a hot meal and a warm bed, but their interest in hearing the Rabbi speak on this day was greater than their love of sleep, and so they welcomed Him aboard and put out a small distance from the shore. When Jesus had finished speaking, He turned to the bone-weary fishermen and said, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch”. I almost can’t imagine a worse suggestion to make at such a time! These poor men had already bent over backwards to accommodate Jesus, and now instead of simply thanking them and letting them go home as they desired, He was seemingly asking to go on a fishing adventure for His amusement. In his fatigue, Simon Peter blurted out, “Master, we toiled all night and caught nothing!” He quickly regained his composure however, and in a more measured tone concluded, “At Thy word I will let down the nets.” He did the right thing, but you can tell he wasn’t very happy about it! Jesus appeared to have no idea how greatly He was inconveniencing His hosts or imposing upon their good will. If He had wanted to go fishing, couldn’t He have shown up the night before, or at the very least arrived before they had washed and put away their nets for the day? The fishermen had been kind enough to allow Him the use of their boat, but now it seemed as if He was only wanting to waste their time and energy. How many of us would have tolerated such a pushy request? I think we are a very gracious people for the most part, but we are also a people with rules. We really don’t like to be prevailed upon, or taken advantage of, and we’re very sensitive to demands on our time. It’s quite possible that we might have gently asked this Rabbi to be reasonable and come back later in the evening when we would be happy to take Him fishing. Wouldn’t that have been a good compromise? By politely offering this, we would have protected ourselves from any further imposition, and at the same time, entirely missed the miracle that would have changed the course of our lives! What a price to pay for refusing to be inconvenienced by Jesus! Many years ago I had the good fortune to spend considerable time with an elderly English monk by the name of Fr. Lazarus Moore [OBM]. During one of our many conversations which he was kind enough to endure, I put forth the following question: “Father, how can we know the will of God in our lives?” I suppose I had an idea that some basic foreknowledge of God’s will was necessary in order for us to follow it. The answer that Fr. Lazarus provided indicated that such foreknowledge is very seldom needed, provided we are willing to follow a simple guideline. He told me, “When we were in the monastery, they gave us a little rule: whenever somebody asks you to do something for them, make every effort to do it even if you don’t want to, for in this way we often find ourselves doing God’s will instead of our own.” What a brilliant little rule! How do we know the will of God in our lives? Very often we don’t in great detail, for at least two reasons. One is that we may lack the purity of soul and discernment of spirit to have that proverbial “direct line with God” that one might need for such information. Another major reason is that God simply doesn’t tell us His will ahead of time in every situation. Here’s the thing: He actually withholds this information out of mercy toward us. Consider our gospel lesson for example. Would it have been better for Jesus to tell the fishermen who He was and what He was about to do before making His unusual request? “Look, I am the Son of God, having dominion over the heavens and the earth, and you must obey Me, for I will cause the fishes to rush into your nets in vast numbers.” Such information--though perfectly true--would have been very unkind of our Lord to reveal. It would have changed the situation from one of persuasion to one of coercion, effectively forcing the fishermen to do His will without allowing them the freedom to make their own decision on the basis of their own good will. God never forces His will on us, which is exactly what He would be doing if He revealed it in lavish detail every day. Instead, He allows us the freedom to discover His will through our being open to the people and situations that He brings into our lives daily. God does not want slaves whose only choice is to obey Him or incur His wrath. He wants us to become a people of open hearts, willing to love and to serve and to go that extra mile with others, even when it is inconvenient for us to do so. Make no mistake, it is often inconvenient to love and to serve and to be open to the many unplanned and unexpected things that come our way. This is where the conflict with our own personal “rules” is frequently encountered. We do like our day to go a certain predictable way, and we dislike interruptions to our routine or unusual demands by others. As such, we are not generally very open to the will of God intruding into our lives. We like order--I’m afraid mostly our order--and aren’t keen on anything that threatens this. What I’m suggesting here is that anyone who would follow Christ simply cannot afford to live this way. If we insist on life going according to our rules, we will always miss the will of God and the many little miracles that might change the course of our lives, directing them toward heaven. It would be good for us to adopt the prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow which says in part, “O Lord, grant me to great the coming day in peace. […] Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that thy will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by thee.” There is a bit more but this gives us the general idea. The good archbishop reminds us that the will of God is revealed to us every day, but seldom forcefully or directly as if on tablets of stone. More often it is gently revealed through the people and the situations that God allows the day to bring. If our eyes are closed to this revelation, our hearts will likewise be closed to the will of God. We will never see the presence of Christ in any difficult person or inconvenient situation. We will only see the difficulty, and will fight against it. This is where the brilliance of Fr. Lazarus’ little monastic rule shines through. Whenever someone asks you to do something for them (And we might add, whenever some circumstance or burden is placed upon you) make every effort to do it or see it through even if you don’t want to, for in this way we often find ourselves doing God’s will instead of our own. Notice that this little rule doesn’t require us to possess the insight of a saint, just an open mind and heart, and a willingness to comply more than complain. This is hard enough for us, but no one ever said that being a disciple of Christ would be easy. It is assumed that we must wrestle with our own will a bit in order to follow Christ actively. If we look through the scriptures we can easily find countless examples of people--from Abraham to Moses to Jonah to Simon Peter himself--who discovered the will of God only by doing what they did not want to do. Why should it be any different for us? Is our life more precious, our routine more sacred that we simply can’t afford to be inconvenienced by Jesus? I would suggest that we can’t afford not to be! This life is simply too short for us to focus all of our attention and energy onto it. We must serve our God while we can that we might find life everlasting in Him. +To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Take Up Your Cross

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. On the Orthodox Church calendar, today is the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. From St. Mark’s gospel we heard the familiar call of our Lord, “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me”. St. Luke’s account adds the word “daily” to indicate that this action of self-denial and of taking up our cross to closely follow after Christ requires our constant attention and devotion. It doesn’t take a saint to realize that our abiding unchristian impulse is to have our own way in all things, to impose our will on people and situations, and to become angry or frustrated when things don’t go exactly as we want them to. This fallen self-will is what we must crucify in order to follow Christ, and it is truly a difficult, daily task. The way of the cross, of following Christ through voluntary self-denial, is indeed such a difficult way that very few people who call themselves “Christian” actually live it. Entire denominations have been built on the foundation of human self-will, offering the freedom to choose your own doctrine, morality, and whatever else you may prefer. Orthodoxy does not permit this of course, so the most common human response to it is nominalism. We have the true faith; we may not necessarily live it. In one sense this is no better than being a follower of your own do-it-yourself religion, for we can feel that we are completely within the will of God even while we are having nothing to do with Him whatsoever. The more comfortable we are with our daily life and the choices we make, the more comfortable we are with our Christianity, the less likely it is that we are actually living as Orthodox Christian believers and taking up our cross to follow Christ. Comfort and the Cross do not go hand-in-hand and are in fact mutually exclusive. As fallen human beings, we quite naturally want to have our own way. We prefer being in our comfort-zone, doing what we like, and most especially defending our will and our choices against all who might oppose them. Self-will is the source of all human conflict in the world and certainly in the church as well. We recognize this, but are so adept at justifying our own positions that we almost always feel it is the other person who is at fault and behaving in an unchristian manner. If only those other people wouldn’t be so stubborn and see the wisdom of our opinions about how things should be run around here! The conflicts suffered by the willful are endless. Yet how often do we see that the cure for this is to stop being willful? Rather than challenging ourselves to take up our cross and crucify our self-will at the first sign of conflict with others, isn’t it true that we will try to battle our way through to victory, or failing at this, will settle into a kind of passive-aggressive quiet resentment? Perhaps we think that our cold and stoney silence is a “Christian” response. Our lack of Christian spirit is exposed however the very next moment the matter is brought before us and the conflict resumes again. The New Testament epistles are filled with passages on Christian unity, since the apostles knew that if the Church cannot find peace, what hope has the world? The advice they give is for each of us to adopt the mind of Christ and set aside our own will to do what is best for others. We cheerfully agree with this rule, but often insist that our will is the absolute best for others. We might even hear ourselves saying, “I’m only thinking of what is best. I’m not just trying to have my own way here”. Yet if that were true, why do we often feel such resentment when our ideas aren’t followed? Why do we feel wounded or withdraw our support when things don’t go the way we want them to? We should take to heart the words of St. Paul to the Philippians by which he said, “Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.” Is this not the way of Christ? Don’t those words fill your heart with a sense of peace? Don’t they reflect the other-worldliness that characterizes true Christianity, rather than the strident, have-my-own-way-at-any-cost attitude that so characterizes life in this world? In the effort to take up our own cross daily to follow Christ, we should at the very least resist the urge to impose our will on others, and fight any inclination to withdraw ourselves from them when we don’t get what we want. We should strive to see every conflict in life not as a contest of wills, but as an opportunity from God to crucify our own self-will in Christian meekness. We should also remember that the cross we are asked to bear is personalized for each of us alone. I cannot resolve my conflicts with others by expecting them to ascend my cross while I continue to do as I please. I must voluntarily crucify myself. I must change, I must repent of that which causes conflict between myself and others. Only when I am firmly nailed to my own cross will the world know peace. Until we accept this truth, we will constantly repeat the error of trying to make life better by changing the actions and attitudes of the people around us. This will never succeed. You and I must accept the responsibility for our own repentance. The saints teach us that when we finally see ourselves as the source of all conflict, of all troubles, of all suffering and sorrow in others, then we are presented with the opportunity to change all that by changing ourselves. As long as our focus is on changing others, we only increase their suffering and contribute nothing to the redemption of the world. When we begin to change ourselves, we bring the presence and peace of Christ into the world. It is said that the Elder Paisios was asked his opinion about a certain war that was being waged at the time. The Elder hung his head in sorrow and replied, “It is my fault”. A startled visitor exclaimed, “What? How can you say that this distant war is your fault?” The Elder quickly responded with all sincerity, “If only I were more holy, perhaps this war would not have been fought”. This was a common attitude among the saints, who saw all human conflict as being rooted in their own sins. How different this is from the view of the unenlightened, who see all conflict as being the fault of others and never as their own. Perhaps we can see from this what we need to do to bring Christ into our world. Whether we are speaking of our place of work, our families, our neighborhood, our parish, or the wide-world itself--and whether they know it or not--everyone is waiting for us to take up our cross and follow Christ. If you’re counting on anyone else to make your world a better place while your cross remains unoccupied, you have a false hope and are actually doing harm to your neighbor. Peace in our families, in our church, in our lives, and in our world actually begins with us choosing the way of the cross and the voluntary canceling out of our self-will that it demands. You’ll notice that our Lord did not say, “If any man would come after Me, let him assert himself, stand up to others, fight for his rights, and follow Me”. Such actions, while very common in our society, do not represent the way of Christ. We must stop forcing our will upon life, God, and the people around us. We must die to ourselves in order to become alive in Christ. “He who loses his life for My sake shall find it”. If we choose the path of self-cancelation, God does not leave us canceled out, but raises us up to life everlasting. This is the mystery of the Cross and the path of true life. +To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.