Saturday, March 31, 2018

It's Not About Getting What We Want: Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 4:4-9; John 12:1-18

Sometimes we have to wonder what people mean when they call themselves Christians.  So much is said and done today, and has been across the centuries, by those who identify themselves with the Lord with their words, but not with their deeds.  As a guard against self-righteousness, we must criticize ourselves first along these lines, not others.  If the spiritual of disciplines taught us nothing else this Lent, they should have made clear how hard we find it to deny ourselves for the sake of the Lord and the neighbors in whom we encounter Him.  Unfortunately, we usually find it far more appealing to worship ourselves than the One Who offered Himself fully on the Cross for our salvation.
To follow Jesus Christ to His Cross requires what is not appealing at all, for we must take up our crosses and die to self.  How much easier it is to worship the false gods of this world—such as power, pleasure, and wealth—than to join ourselves to His Self-offering “on behalf of all and for all.”  How much easier it is to hail Christ as a conquering King when we think that He has come to give us everything that we want on our own terms.  How subtle the temptation is to look to Him for the blessing of whatever we happen to want, which we assume must be holy and good simply because we want it.  The crowds in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday longed for a new King David to give them what they wanted by defeating the Romans militarily and establishing an earthly kingdom.  In the short space of a few days, however, the same crowds that called out “Hosanna!” would shout “Crucify Him!” once it became clear that this Messiah was not interested in giving them what they desired.  He came to save the world, not to satisfy the wishes of any group wanting to use religion to gain power over others.   
Holy Week is not about getting what we want; it is not even about our prayer, fasting, almsgiving, or repentance.  It is, instead, about the Lord Who purely out of love for us took upon Himself the full consequences of our enslavement to the fear of death in order to deliver us through His destruction of Hades and glorious resurrection on the third day.  The One Who spoke the universe into existence submitted to being nailed to the Cross and left to die as a despised blasphemer and traitor.  He mourned for us all when He wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, before raising him up.  Then He Himself condescended to enter into the tomb as a corpse, as one of the countless dead, in order to bring Adam and Eve into the eternal joy for which He created them in the first place.   He lowered Himself in order to raise us up to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The crowds on Palm Sunday were right to shout “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!”  But they were wrong to think that His kingship was of this world and according to the standards of earthly princes, politicians, and military leaders.  The Savior entered Jerusalem on a humble donkey.  He did not respond in kind to the attacks upon Him, and He certainly did not tell the powerful or anyone else what they wanted to hear.  He did not gather an army or strategize on how to become popular or influential.  Instead, He freely offered Himself as the Passover Lamb in order take away the sins of the world and deliver us from death.  He did not bring suffering upon others, but entered into it Himself.
In order to follow Christ to His Cross and empty tomb, we must disorient and inconvenience ourselves this week.  We must get out of our usual routines and go against our ingrained habits and preferences.  As much as possible, we must turn away from slavery to our earthly cares in order to focus on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.”  As St. Paul put it, “The Lord is at hand.”  This week is the time to refuse to abandon Him as He suffers and dies for us.  It is the time to do the very strange thing of following a Lord Who looks like a complete failure and disappointment according to conventional expectations.  But it is precisely through His apparent weakness that the Savior manifests a strength that vastly overwhelms even the worst that the corrupt powers of this age can do.  For He rises triumphantly over them on the third day.
This coming week is the time to unite ourselves to Christ as He offers Himself in free obedience for our salvation.  We celebrate His entrance as the Messiah into Jerusalem today not in the sense of welcoming a new earthly ruler, but as the One Who opens the eternal blessedness of the Kingdom of God to us all.  He does so not simply as a great spiritual teacher or religious leader, but as the eternal Son of God Who spoke the universe into existence.  Not even the Cross, not even Hades, not even the tomb, can hold Him captive. 
Because of the great profundity and mystery of the Lord’s Passion, it will take time and energy for us to open our hearts to Him this week. Our faith is not about abstract ideas that we can grasp in an instant, but true spiritual knowledge and experience in which there is always infinite room for growth.  In order for us to embrace more fully the deep truth of Holy Week, we must abide with Christ, mindfully refusing to turn away even as He is rejected, condemned, tortured, killed, and buried.  The sobering reality of this week is that there is no other way to prepare to behold the brilliant light of the Savior’s resurrection than to face the darkness that led to the Cross, a darkness still all too present in our world and in our own souls. There is so much that tempts us to look for our fulfillment in the false gods of power, pleasure, and wealth. The best way to overcome the threat of such blindness this week is to turn the attention away from ourselves and to the Lord Who stopped at nothing, not even the pit of Hades, in order to make us participants in His eternal life.

As He hung on the Cross dying, this Messiah prayed to the Father for the forgiveness of the religious and civilized people who thought that killing Him was a godly and patriotic thing to do.  We cannot understand that kind of love rationally, which is precisely why we need Holy Week.  We need to enter into the deep mystery of our salvation so that we will not reject our Christ in His Passion, but instead follow Him faithfully.  That is how we will prepare to embrace the unfathomable joy of His great victory from the depths of our souls throughout this blessed week.   “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel.” 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Lent is About Offering, Not Achieving: Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 6:13-20; Mark 9:16-30

            The most dangerous temptations are usually the most subtle ones because we think we are doing something good even as we are not. When it comes to the spiritual disciplines of Lent, we must be especially on guard against the temptation to make the season simply about ourselves.  If our focus is simply on the quality of our prayers, our fasting, our almsgiving, and our repentance, we will miss the point of this season without even noticing it.    For Lent is not about achieving a new “personal best” in our religious observance, but about preparing to follow Christ to His Passion.  As the Lord told His disciples at the conclusion of today’s gospel reading: “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.”
            There is no way to enter into the great mystery of His Self-offering without offering ourselves to Him in those for whom He offered Himself.  He died and rose again for the salvation of the world; and if we want to take up our crosses and follow Him, we must gain the spiritual strength to offer ourselves for the blessing and healing of the people we encounter daily.  We serve Him in them, and cannot say truthfully that we love God unless we love and serve them.  Love in this sense is not a sentimental feeling, but an offering of ourselves for their and our good.  
                 In today’s gospel reading, the Lord bemoaned the spiritual weakness of the disciples because they were unable to deliver the boy from the power of evil.  He identified their lack of faith, prayer, and fasting as the reason they were not able to help him.  The point was not that they had simply failed to keep up their spiritual disciplines, but that they had failed the young man by not developing the strength to offer themselves for his salvation.  In this way, of course, they had also failed Christ.    
            All of us have relationships in which we are just like those disciples.  We lack the spiritual health to offer ourselves to others for their healing and blessing.  Whether in our own homes, at work, or in passing encounters with strangers, we treat and speak to others in ways that have little in common with our Lord’s Self-offering for the salvation of the world.   We do that because we have not offered ourselves to Christ in humble faith and repentance for the healing of our souls.  Consequently, we serve our own self-centered desires more than the needs of our neighbors.
            The boy’s father cried out with tears to the Savior, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”  Humbled by his son’s suffering and his own inadequacy to help him, this man was not trying to use religion to glorify himself in any way.  With painful honesty, he confessed his imperfect faith to the Lord for the sake of his son.  His concern was not about himself, but about his boy.  He was not afraid to expose his deep pain to Christ, and that was when his son was healed.  
            In the remaining weeks of Lent, we must be on guard against the temptation to view our spiritual disciplines in self-centered ways, as though they were simply exercises in religious self-improvement.   Instead, we must use them to unite ourselves more fully to the Savior’s Self-offering for the salvation of the world.  As we pray, fast, and repent, we open ourselves to the Lord’s gracious healing of our souls, by which He will enable us to manifest His blessing to the people we encounter every day.
We must pray fervently and persistently for Him to heal them according to His mercy, not according to our own desires or limited understanding of what is best. Fasting will strengthen our prayer as we refuse to satisfy our own self-centered wills in order to make room for Him to empower our souls.  We must repent by treating and speaking to our spouses, children, parents, friends, and coworkers in ways not governed by our passions, but by His love. Remember that love in this sense is not simply about warm feelings, but about offering ourselves and others to Christ for their and our salvation.  It does not mean telling people what they want to hear or granting requests that diminish them or us as God’s children. It does mean relating to others in a way that helps all concerned to open their lives to Christ’s healing and blessing.
            When we recognize that we lack the spiritual strength to relate to our neighbors in this way, we must make the plea of the father our own:  “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”  Through such painfully honest humility, we will turn our attention away from how well we think we are doing in our Lenten observance and toward following our Lord in dying to self for the sake of others.  For this blessed season of repentance is not focused merely on making us more religious, but on enabling us to enter into the awesome mystery of the Savior’s Passion. We must offer ourselves in repentance in order to follow Him to His great Self-offering.   Christ said to the disciples, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.” That is where Lent leads, and it has nothing to do with self-centered religious observance. It has everything to do with dying to self for the sake of others. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Not Being Ashamed of the Cross: Homily for the Adoration of the Holy Cross (3rd Sunday of Lent) in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 4:14-5:6; Mark 8:34-9:1

Today we do something that makes no sense at all apart from the resurrection of our Lord, for we adore the Cross on which He died.  The Romans executed traitors on crosses in order to make an example of what happened to people who dared to oppose them.  Death on a cross was a long, painful process in which the victim was helpless before his tormentors and displayed to the world as a pathetic failure by every human standard.  After having been betrayed by Judas, denied three times by Peter, and handed over to the pagan Romans by the corrupt leaders of His own people, the Son of God was nailed to the Cross and left to die.  Had He not risen in glory on the third day, no one would think of it as anything other than a horrible means of death.
             Because the Savior freely offered Himself for the salvation of the world on the Cross, we adore it today as a weapon of peace and a trophy invincible, for by the Cross He has conquered death and made us participants in life eternal.  Unlike all the kingdoms and weapons of this world, the Cross alone does not perpetuate our slavery to the fear of death.  It does not invite us to believe that the false gods of power, pleasure, and wealth are our only hope and must be defended at all costs.  It does not promise salvation through the shed blood of our enemies.  No, the Messiah shed His own blood as He entered into death in order to destroy it by rising in glory from Hades and the tomb.  Instead of causing others to suffer, He accepted the horribly painful end of His earthly life for our sake.  And as He died, He even prayed to the Father for the forgiveness of those who killed Him.    
             Christ had warned His disciples that if they were ashamed of Him, He would be ashamed of them.  He said that as He taught them to take up their own crosses and lose their lives out of faithfulness to Him.  Not to be ashamed of the Savior Who died on the Cross requires that we take up our own crosses as we die to all that separates us from sharing in His eternal, holy life.
           Now that we are halfway through Lent, the challenges posed by our spiritual disciplines should have opened our eyes just a bit to how far we still have to go in not being ashamed of our Lord.  We have a long way to go in emptying ourselves out of love for our neighbors, including those that are difficult to love.  We have a long way to go in gaining strength to deny our own desires in order to put the needs of others before our own.  We have a long way to go in putting aside our own pride in order to offer ourselves to Him in free obedience.  
            Through the Cross, Christ shows us that true life does not come through responding in kind to our enemies or making the protection of our own interests the highest good.  He demonstrates that true power often looks like weakness according to the standards of our corrupt world.  He calls us to destroy the idols we have welcomed into our hearts as we join ourselves to His great Self-offering for our salvation.  
            In the remaining weeks of Lent, we must stop being ashamed of the Cross in how we live.  We must save our lives by losing them in the service of our Lord and those in whom we encounter Him daily.  We must crucify the passions and habits of thought, word, and deed that keep us enslaved to the fear of death.  As we prepare to follow Him to His Passion by prayer, fasting, generosity to the needy, and forgiveness, we must learn to bear our own crosses, for the only way to life is through dying to the distorting power of sin in our souls.  We do that through humble repentance every time that we gain the strength to say “no” to ourselves in order to say “yes” to God.
There is no way around this uncomfortable truth:  To save our lives, we must lose them.  Instead of being ashamed of the Cross, we must bear witness to the One who offered Himself fully on it for our salvation by how we live each day.  That means to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him as we struggle to die to all that would separate us from embracing the blessed, eternal life that the Savior has brought to the world.  There is simply no other way to be a Christian and to prepare ourselves to enter into the holy joy of Pascha.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Overcoming Paralysis Through Humble Repentance: Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 1:10-2:3; Mark 2:1-12

            Imagine how you would react if you went to the doctor to be cured of a disease and were told in response “Your sins are forgiven.”  You would probably look for another physician pretty quickly.  We seek medical care in order to regain our health, not to be forgiven for wrongs we have done.  How sad, then, when we approach Christ wanting only forgiveness without the healing of our souls. 
            Jesus Christ’s deliverance of the paralyzed man demonstrates that we should not ask of Him only forgiveness in the sense of being let off the hook for breaking a law.  The Savior did not come to settle a legal account with fallen humanity, but to restore us as the unique persons He created us to be in His image and likeness.  He came mercifully to release us from bondage to our own idolatrous self-centeredness and all its corrosive effects.  To accept His healing, however, we must open our weak souls to His healing strength.  We must accept through humble repentance the grace by which He enables us to rise up from the comfortable bed of our passions to walk forward in holiness.
            If we had only a written law or a set of expectations for how God wanted us to live, perhaps it would make sense to want only forgiveness for how we had not met those standards.  But since our Lord is the God-Man in Whom humanity and divinity are united in one Person, He enables us to participate personally, in every dimension of our existence, in His salvation.  Though we are by nature human beings and not God, His gracious divine energies enable us to share in His eternal life in ways that heal, restore, and fulfill us as those called to become like Him in holiness.  That, of course, is what it means to become fully human.
            Today we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas, a great bishop, monastic, and theologian of the 14th century.  He defended the experience of hesychast monks who, through deep prayer of the heart and asceticism, were able to see the Uncreated Light of God that the Apostles beheld at the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor.  St. Gregory taught that we know God by participating in His gracious divine energies as we are transformed in holiness in every aspect of our existence.  The point is not simply to have ideas or feelings about God, but to experience true personal union with the Lord. 
            If we have pursued the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and forgiveness with any seriousness at all, we will have learned something about our own weakness.  These practices reveal how hard it is to control our own thoughts, words, and deeds. Struggles with physical health, family relationships, and life circumstances also show us that we are much like the paralyzed man in our inability to overcome so many of the problems that we encounter.  The ultimate paralysis, of course, is death itself, which our Lord conquered in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  As we prepare to follow our Savior to His Passion, we must know our own weakness in order to receive His glorious strength.  
Christ calls us, like the paralyzed man, to rise, take up our bed, and walk forward in a life of holiness; that is how we accept His merciful healing.  There no way to find deliverance from all the maladies that keep us enslaved to sin and death other than to receive His grace by confessing our sins and doing what is necessary to reorient lives toward Him.  If we do not obey His command, we will remain stuck in the comfortable bed of weakness and only become more paralyzed.  In the remaining weeks of Lent, let us all embrace the Lord’s strength by pressing forward in repentance as we open even the weakest, darkest dimensions of our lives to His healing light.  That is how we will find not only forgiveness, but also our fulfillment as unique persons in the process of becoming radiant with the holiness of God by grace.  That is what it means to be healed and to become truly human in His image and likeness.  



Sunday, February 25, 2018

Healing for Holiness: Homily for the First Sunday of Great Lent (Sunday of Orthodoxy) in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40; John 1:43-51

It is a common temptation to believe that religion is about subjective matters that have little to do with how we actually live in “the real world.” Many believe that, as long as a faith helps us to feel better about ourselves in light of our daily challenges, it has fulfilled its purpose.  Today we commemorate the Sunday of Orthodoxy and the restoration of the holy icons in the Orthodox Church after the period of iconoclasm.  We will not process around the church after Liturgy today in order make ourselves feel a certain way; no, we will proclaim the salvation of the world in the God-Man Who became fully human for our salvation.  He calls us to nothing short of “see[ing] heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”

That might sound like an escapist vision of wanting to leave the world in the pursuit of mystical experience; but remember that Christ’s salvation is about fulfillment, not escape.  He became one of us, with a body that could be seen and touched, in order to bring every dimension of the human person, and of the entire creation, into the joy of His Kingdom.  He makes it possible for us to share in His eternal life, not by abandoning the world or any genuine dimension of our human existence, but by becoming icons of their restoration in holiness. 

The Saints depicted in icons are examples of human beings who have done precisely that by becoming radiant with the divine glory by grace.  Like an iron left in the fire, their participation in the divine energies has illumined and transformed them.  As described in our reading today from Hebrews and displayed in their lives across the centuries, those who have entered into the holiness of God have suffered mightily for Him.  Regardless of whether they literally died as martyrs, they all died to self by taking up their crosses as they followed the Lord Who offered Himself fully on the cross for our salvation.  They opened themselves to share in His gracious fulfillment of our ancient vocation to become holy. They behold the heavenly glory because they are living icons of what it means to be truly human in God’s image and likeness. 

Lent calls us to follow their example as we follow our Lord to His Passion, through which He set us free from bondage to sin and death.  Our response to Him is not simply a matter of how we feel, but concerns every aspect of our lives, for the God-Man has united the fullness of human existence with divinity.  He calls us to offer every dimension of ourselves to Him for fulfillment in holiness. In Lent, we do that by undertaking practices that quickly reveal how much room there is for healing in our souls.  Our struggle to pray, fast, forgive, give, and otherwise reorient our lives to the Kingdom makes clear what poor living icons of Christ we have become because of our sins.  In humble recognition of the weakness revealed by our Lenten disciplines, we open ourselves to receive the gracious strength of the Savior to turn away from captivity to our self-centered desires. Following the same path as the Saints, we must repent in order to be transformed by the healing mercy of Christ.  God did not create us for anger, lust, or the love of money and power, but to become like Him in holiness. His healing will show itself practically in how we love our enemies, serve those in need around us, and stand vigilant against thoughts and desires that threaten to corrupt us in soul and body.

The Son of God offered Himself for the salvation of the entire world.  His saints have shared in His life by their faithfulness amidst all the daily challenges that we face in this world of corruption. Like them, we may “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” as we embrace our true identity as His living icons.  To be united with Him in the world as we know it is the only path for our fulfillment as human persons created to be like Him in holiness.    Let us use the remaining weeks of Lent to become more beautiful icons of Christ so that we, too, will have the eyes to behold His divine glory.  That is not a path for escaping the world, but the only road to its and our salvation in the Kingdom of Heaven.    

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Transformed by Christ's Mercy: Homily for Forgiveness Sunday (Cheese Fare Sunday) in the Orthodox Church

Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21
          Today we stand right on the edge of Great Lent, for the weeks of preparation to follow our Savior to His Passion begin tomorrow.  We have already been challenged to prepare with the Sundays of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment. Now it is the Sunday of Forgiveness, when we are reminded that we must forgive one another if we hope to receive God’s forgiveness for our sins.
Every time we pray the Our Father, we say “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Christ teaches in today’s gospel lesson that “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  It is impossible, of course, to earn God’s forgiveness or put Him in our debt by anything that we do.   Before His infinite holiness, we stand in constant need of mercy and grace.  At the same time, it impossible to open ourselves to receive His mercy and grace if we do not extend the forgiveness of which we are capable to those who have wronged us.
If we ask for the Lord’s forgiveness and refuse to forgive others, we are in the false position of those who want something for themselves but will not give it their neighbors.  That is a form of selfishness that reflects a lack of love for those in whom we encounter Him every day of our lives.  It is a form of idolatry in which we imagine that we are serving a false god who simply does our bidding rather than a Lord Who calls us to die to self as we share more fully in His life.  Forgiveness is not some kind of commodity that can be hoarded greedily.  It is ultimately a divine energy of the Lord in Whom we participate by grace.  If we refuse to forgive others, we refuse to be healed, transformed, and illumined like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory.  We refuse to be truly in communion with Christ; indeed, we refuse Him.  But if we forgive, even as we acknowledge the imperfection of our efforts to control our thoughts, words, and deeds toward those who have offended us, we open ourselves in humility to become more like our Savior in holiness by the power of His grace.
Like the rest of the Christian life, forgiveness is not simply a matter of how we feel about God, our neighbors, or ourselves.  It is not about whether thoughts of past wrongs or future fears pop into our heads.  It is not about whether we particularly like someone else. Forgiveness occurs when our vision of those who have wronged us is clarified or restored such that we see them not in terms of past wrongs, but as those who bear the image and likeness of God.  Only our inflamed passions keep us from seeing our neighbors this way, for pride tempts us to hold on to anger and judgment that quickly condemn anyone who has ever dared to cross us.
The “quarreling and jealousy” that St. Paul associates with “the works of darkness” will never end in our own souls  if we do not find healing from such distorted desires.  That process of healing is a way of speaking about putting “on the armor of light,” of “put[ting] on the Lord Jesus Christ, and mak[ing] no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”    “Flesh” in this sense refers to our corrupt humanity, enslaved to death and the war of the passions within us. Adam and Eve were cast from Paradise when they stripped themselves naked of the divine glory by their prideful disobedience. They diminished themselves to a life focused on “mak[ing]..provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” We do not have to look very closely at our world or into our own souls in order to see that we have followed our first parents on a path out of Paradise.  When their son Cain murdered his brother Abel, it became abundantly clear how powerful the passions are at destroying human relationships as God intended them to be, even within our own families.
If we are truly in Christ, the New Adam in Whom all the corruptions of the first Adam are set right, we must be in the processing of healing from the self-centered desires that separate us from Him and one another.  The weeks of Lent provide us with profound opportunities to open even the darkest corners of our lives to His brilliant light.  But no matter how strictly we fast, how fervently we pray, or how generously we give to the needy, we will be unable to receive God’s forgiveness if we do not forgive one another.  That is the clear teaching of Christ in today’s gospel lesson.
What greater sign is there of our brokenness than how easily we offend, harm, and disregard one another?  Indeed, we often enjoy doing so and come up with all kinds of reasons to justify hateful thoughts, words, and actions toward others.  At Forgiveness Vespers this evening, we will personally bow before one another as we ask for and extend forgiveness to everyone in the parish. We begin our journey toward the deep mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection with humility and reconciliation.  Since none of us has lived as faithfully as possible, we have all weakened one another spiritually, for we are members of one Body in Christ. Now is the time to grant to one another the forgiveness that we ask from the Lord as we prepare to follow Him to the ultimate manifestation of His forgiving love in the cross and empty tomb.
Instead of wasting time and energy by judging others or holding grudges this Lent, we must focus on participating as fully as possible in the restoration of the human person that Christ has brought to the world.  Since we have put Him on in baptism, we must live in a way that reflects and reveals His mercy and blessing.  The Lord is very clear about what this means:  If we want forgiveness for our sins, we must forgive others for their offenses against us.  The prodigal son had no claim to restoration as a son, and he knew that, but the overwhelming love of his father healed the deep wounds that the young man’s behavior had caused.  If we want to open ourselves to the unfathomable mercy of our Heavenly Father, we must become channels of that same mercy to others, despite our unworthiness. If we are truly “partakers of the divine nature” by grace, our Lord’s forgiveness will become characteristic of who we are. (2 Pet. 1:4)  Like an iron left in the fire takes on the qualities of the fire and conveys heat and light to other objects, those who truly share in Christ’s life will share what they have received with others, especially those they are tempted not to forgive.
Like prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, forgiveness requires a commitment of the will to do what is pleasing to God and is probably not immediately appealing to us.  Like these other practices, forgiveness is a teacher of humility because it reveals our weakness.  Like the healing of any passion, embracing forgiveness is a journey that begins with actions of thought, word, and deed that hardly seem sufficient to the task.  God is gracious, however, and accepts the small acts of which we are capable.  We cooperate with His grace as we do what we can to turn our attention away from the remembrance of past wrongs, to hold our tongues when we are tempted to remind people of their failings, and to say “I forgive you” even when we have a long way to go in fully embracing the meaning of those words.
That should not be surprising, of course, because forgiveness is our participation in God’s forgiveness.  Before His infinite holiness, we cannot claim to have mastered forgiveness or to have accomplished anything simply by our own power.  For us who are so accustomed to the darkness, it will be uncomfortable to open our eyes just a bit to the brilliant light.  For us who are so addicted to our self-centered desires, it will seem impossible not to gratify them.  But when we know our own weakness, then we will know how much we need His gracious strength, which conquers even the tomb. This Lent, let us open ourselves to the Lord’s grace by showing His mercy to others, especially those who have offended us.  There is no other way to follow Christ to His Passion and the brilliant glory of His Kingdom.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Fasting to Serve Christ in "The Least of These": Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgement (Meat Fare Sunday) in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2; Matthew 25:31-46

            Today we continue to prepare to follow our Lord to His cross and empty tomb at Pascha.   Great Lent begins a week from tomorrow, and it is time for each of us to get ready to embrace the spiritual disciplines of the season in a way appropriate to our spiritual strength and life circumstances.  Since fasting from rich food and giving generously to the needy are characteristic practices of Lent, the Church directs our attention today to passages of Scripture that place them in their proper context.
            When St. Paul wrote to the confused Gentile Christians of Corinth, he had to remind his audience of former idol worshipers to restrain their liberty in what they ate for the sake of their weaker brothers and sisters in Christ.  Pagan temples were a good source of cheap barbeque in Corinth, and some new converts might be led back to paganism by the sight of a fellow believer eating meat that had been sacrificed to a false god. St. Paul warned that scandalizing someone in that way was a sin against the Lord and wrote that “if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.”  Notice that the problem was not with the food itself, but with how eating it might harm someone else.  He called the Corinthians to limit their freedom for the sake of others.   
            As we prepare to give up eating meat after today until Pascha, we must keep squarely in mind that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any kind of food.  The problem is not with what is on the menu, but with how we use food in ways that weaken us spiritually.  Remember that, in the biblical narrative, humanity’s estrangement from God is first manifested in relation to food.  Our unruly appetite is a prime example of our enslavement to our own desires, of our addiction to getting what we want when and how we want it. That is a form of idolatry as dangerous as that which threatened the faithfulness of the Corinthians. It may even be more dangerous because it is so subtle, as few people today think of their eating habits as being spiritually significant. 
Especially in a society where food is plentiful and relatively cheap, it is so easy to get in the habit of eating in a self-centered, indulgent way that is not healthy spiritually or physically.  The more deeply ingrained the habit of satisfying our taste buds and stomachs becomes, the weaker we become in our ability to resist other self-centered, indulgent desires.  That makes it harder to put the needs of others before our own or to control what we say or do for the sake of others.  We do not fast in Lent because some foods are unholy, but in order to learn to redirect our deepest desires to God.  Our fulfillment is in Him, not our bellies. Since every human being bears His image and likeness, we should fast in a way that strengthens us in our ability to serve Him in our neighbors, especially those we are inclined to overlook and disregard.  Not only is fasting a powerful tool for the healing of self-centered desire, it will also save us some money on our grocery bill that we can then give to the poor.
          The Lord makes the connection between our spiritual health and generosity to our needy neighbors quite clear in His parable of the Last Judgement.  The ultimate standard of eternal destiny here is how people treated Him in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner.  Neither those on His right nor on His left had any idea of the spiritual significance of their actions, but His identification with “the least of these My brethren” is so real that whatever they did, or did not do, to the miserable people they encountered throughout their lives, they did or did not do, to Him.
Hunger, thirst, disease, crime, and all other forms of human misery as we know them in our world of corruption are symptoms of our estrangement from God.  Instead of living as those made in His image and likeness, we have all followed in the way of the first Adam in prideful, self-centered indulgence.  That is why we are inclined to obsess about fulfilling our own desires while ignoring the basic needs of our neighbors.  The habit of stuffing ourselves with rich food weakens our ability to put others before ourselves in any area of life.  If we want to become those who serve Christ “in the least of these,” we must learn that our lives—including our money, time, and energy-- do not amount to a grand offering to ourselves.  No, we must learn to refuse to gratify many of our inclinations so that we will be able to offer ourselves in holiness to the Lord Who is present in our suffering neighbors.  
Unfortunately, we are usually so weakened by our self-centered desires that we do not treat other people with the dignity of living icons of the Savior.  The problem is not that we fail to work out in our minds that Christ is present to us in a particular person, but that we lack the spiritual strength necessary to serve them as we should. This is the same kind of weakness that we experience before our favorite foods and beverages; before we know it, we have consumed too much. It is the same kind of weakness that we have when we are angry and find it virtually impossible not to lash out.  It is the same kind of weakness that makes it to so easy to choose just about anything over prayer.    The problem is not with our ideas about what is true, but with our souls.
 Lent hits us where we live and there is much in us that does not like that.  But what path other than that of self-denial will enable us to follow Christ to the cross and to embrace the joy of His resurrection as the fulfillment of our existence?  If we do not learn to deny ourselves in humility as we serve our neighbors each day, then how can we truly claim to be united with Christ, Who offered Himself for the salvation of the world?  If we are in Him, His sacrificial love must become characteristic of us in how we live the point that we may say with St. Paul “It is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.” (Gal. 2: 20) 
Even as we fast in a way appropriate to our spiritual maturity and life circumstances, we should think of serving “the least of these” in the same way.  To give up because we cannot meet our imagined ideal of perfection is simply an excuse not to pursue the healing of our souls. We can all pray for those who suffer, provide friendship and support to someone who is lonely and troubled, and treat neighbors with love. We can all become a blessing to someone who needs us.  We can all restrain our self-indulgence in order to grow in generosity.  Instead of doubting the significance of what we can do, we must remember that the Lord accepts even the small offerings we are able to make in humility and blesses them to serve His Kingdom abundantly.
Remember also that we will never gain the strength to serve the Lord faithfully in people who are not close to us if we have not learned how to serve Him in those who are close to us, especially our spouses, children, and family members.  The opportunities for finding healing from self-centeredness are unlimited in the common life of man and woman together with their children and extended families.  That is why brides and grooms are crowned for martyrdom in the Orthodox wedding ceremony.  If we are not sacrificing ourselves out of love for those with whom we are “one flesh,” how will we ever be able to do that for others?  Regardless of marital status, most of us do not have to look far for opportunities to serve Christ in those we know quite well.
          The same is true of our life together in the Body of Christ, for we are all “one flesh” in Him. Doing what we can to bear one another’s burdens and to provide relief of whatever kind for the problems that we face is how we serve the Lord together.  For all our challenges, this little parish has embodied His love in powerful ways both for our members and complete strangers.  If we serve Christ faithfully in His Body the Church even in what seem like the small ways that are available to us, we will advance in dying to our illusions of self-centered individuality and embrace more fully our true identity as members of Him and one another. 
Let us fast this Lent in ways that will free us from bondage to the self-centeredness that causes so much human misery and keeps us from serving our Savior in “the least of these.”  Let us serve one another in the life of this parish and in our families in ways that prepare us to enter a Kingdom in which “the last shall be first, and the first last.” (Mark 20:16)    Let us never forget that what we do, or do not do, to the people we are inclined to ignore, we do to the Lord Himself.   Let us repent by gaining the spiritual strength to reorient our lives to serving Christ in all those who bear His image and likeness.  That is how we, by God’s grace, may have good hope of entering into the Kingdom of Heaven.