Sunday, March 31, 2013

St. Gregory Palamas and the Healing of our Paralysis: Homily for the Second Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 1:10-2:3
Mark 2:1-12
            Think for a moment how you would feel if you went to the doctor with a serious health problem and were simply told medical facts about your condition and that you were an interesting case.  You would probably not be happy at all because you go to a physician to be healed, not simply to learn truths that in and of themselves do not restore you to health.
            On this second Sunday of Great Lent, we remember a great saint who knew that our salvation is not in mere ideas about God, but in true participation in His life by grace.  St. Gregory Palamas lived in the 14th century in the Byzantine Empire.  A monastic, a bishop, and a scholar, he defended the experience of hesychast monks who in the stillness of deep prayer beheld the divine light of the uncreated energies of God.  In ways that go beyond rational understanding, they saw the divine glory as they participated in the life of God by grace. 
            Against those rationalists who said that such a thing was impossible, St. Gregory insisted that we know the Lord by being united with Him in prayer and holiness.  Jesus Christ has joined humanity and divinity and dwells in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We truly become partakers of the divine nature when we know by experience the presence of God in our lives.  
            That is precisely what happened to the paralyzed man in today’s gospel lesson.  The Lord did not simply convey ideas to Him, but instead shared His divine energies by restoring him to health, both spiritually and physically.  At the root of all human corruption is our sin, which weakens and sickens us all, and the Savior showed His divinity by forgiving the man’s sins.  Christ then enabled the man to rise up and walk as evidence that He has the authority to forgive sins as the Son of God.
            This healing also shows what it means to be infused with the gracious divine energies, for the paralyzed man experienced freedom from bondage and a miraculous transformation of every dimension of his life.  He did not simply hear words or receive a diagnosis, for the Lord healed him inwardly and outwardly.
            This miracle speaks to us all, of course, because we are sinners paralyzed by our own actions and those of others.  We have made ourselves so sick and weak that we do not have the strength to eradicate the presence of evil in our lives.  Just think for a moment of how easily we fall into words, thoughts, and deeds that we know are not holy.  Our habitual sins have become second nature to us; left to our own resources we are no more able to make them go away than a paralyzed man is to get up and walk. 
            The good news is that Jesus Christ comes to every single one of us with forgiveness and healing.  Too often, we are willing only to ask for forgiveness, but not to rise, take up our beds, and walk.  In other words, we fail to see that being infused with the gracious divine energies is not a matter of simply being excused from paying a penalty or declared not guilty; instead, it is truly a calling to become who we are created to be in God’s image and likeness.  It is to be healed from all the ravages of sin and to shine with the light of holiness as we participate by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity.
            No, we do not have to become monks and nuns in order to do that.  But we do need to do everything that we can to open ourselves to the healing energies of God.  When we pray, fast, give to the needy, and practice forgiveness and reconciliation, or any other act of truth faithfulness or repentance, we do so in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, alive and active in us.   Even the smallest bits of “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” that we experience are the fruits of the Spirit’s presence.  (Gal. 5:22)  We should cherish them as such and do what we can to help them grow and become characteristic of our lives and personalities. 
            The truth is that if we want to know Christ’s healing and strength, we have to obey His commandments, for He calls us all to get up and move forward in a holy life.  In order to do that, we have to welcome and cooperate with our Lord’s mercy.  Think again of going to the doctor yourself.  We’re glad to hear that there’s a cure for our ailments, but that knowledge will do us no good unless we participate in the treatment.  We have to take our medicine and do our therapy if we want to benefit personally. 
            How sad it would have been for the formerly paralyzed man to have disobeyed the Lord’s command and simply stayed in bed.  How sad that we so often do precisely that in our refusal to cooperate with Christ’s healing and mercy by obeying Him.  As we continue our Lenten journey, let’s remember that in every aspect of the Christian life we experience the gracious divine energies of the Lord.  The Son of God has joined Himself to every dimension of our human existence and the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts.  We do not have mere signs and symbols of salvation, but God Himself.  The only limits to His presence, power, and healing in our lives are those that we keep in place.  This Lent, let’s leave our sick beds behind and do all that we can to participate more fully in the healing mercy that the Savior brings to each and every one of us.  That’s the best way to prepare to behold the glory of His resurrection.         


Why Orthodox Young People Fall Away: A Prophetic Word from Fr. Steven Salaris

Concerning the 60%

Fr. Steven C. Salaris, MDiv, PhD
Fr. Steven C. Salaris, MDiv, PhD
Source: Orthodoxy Today
By Fr. Steven C. Salaris
Last year, I attended a clergy gathering where we had several “workshops” discussing the importance of Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF), ministry to college students, and what I call “The 60%.” This term derives from a recent study revealing that 60% of college students never return to church after college. This sad data applies to Orthodox Christians, too. When discussing this with others, my scientific brain (I’m a former biology professor) wanted data to back up the claim. I wanted to identify the reasons why our youth leave. Bad idea! I felt like a McCain supporter at an Obama rally! No one wanted to discuss the issues. It was easier to lament about the symptoms than to address the cause(s) head on. There was also a lot of finger-pointing at those workshops; however, when you point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at you!
So why do 60% of our college youth leave Orthodoxy? This is a difficult question to answer. It requires some serious scientific investigation. In the discussion that follows, I have implemented the scientific method of which I am so familiar. After spending time making observations and asking some tough questions, I have come up with several hypotheses. Some will apply specifically to our Orthodox Church, others will apply to Christian churches in general. Most of the hypotheses are corollaries to the warning God gave in Exodus, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (20:5b-6). (We would do well preaching about that verse more!). Another hypothesis is related to how we educate our youth. Here are my hypotheses.

Hypothesis 1: Linguistic and cultural ghettos that masquerade as “Churches” are contributing to “The 60%”

Orthodoxy has been in America for over 200 years. Yet too often our parishes live with the notion that the Church’s primary function is to be an ethnic preservation society. Far too many people go to church not to encounter Christ, the Son of the living God, but to talk in or listen to foreign languages and eat ethnic foods. Why do we attempt to spiritually raise our children in an atmosphere of dead liturgical languages and the equally dead cultures from which they came? Gee, Toto, we’re not in Byzantium (or Tsarist Russia) anymore!
Be honest, we worship in dead liturgical languages that laity, chanters, priests, and bishops do not understand. Our insistence on using these languages is like keeping a body alive on a ventilator long after brain death has occurred. Nonetheless, we continue to offer incense to the idol of “spiritual language” while not gaining a substantive understanding from what we hear. Sure, sending our children to Arabic/Greek/Russian school might make grandma happy, but they will still be unable to understand the liturgical languages they hear in Church.
Even when we do use English, many Orthodox Churches speak in what I call “liturgical ebonics” – an old variant of Shakespearian English that uses “Thee, Thy, Thou, Thine” pronouns and archaic verb tenses. Imagine the relief our youth feel attending a non-Orthodox church service that uses proper modern English. Dost thou not get it that this silly talk edifieth not our children! Sts. Cyril and Methodius understood using the language of the people! The evangelists to the Alaskan Native American people understood it. Why don’t we?

Hypothesis 2: Enmity in our churches is contributing to “The 60%”

“Enmity” is a word that means “positive, active, and mutual hatred or ill will.” Churches are full of it! – including the Orthodox. It would be great if we hated evil, sin, and the devil; instead we hate each other. Jesus tells us that we are to love one another as he has loved us. Too often we fail. When we fail we are hypocrites. How can Johnny learn about Christian love when mom has not spoken to “that person” in the parish for fifteen years? Yes, mom says, Jesus teaches that we have to love our neighbor as ourselves and that we must forgive seventy times seven, but how dare “that person” change grandmother’s baklava recipe at the Church festival! Years ago, I stood in a food line at a Greek festival and watched two men of that parish cursing and yelling at each other while nearly coming to fisticuffs. Great witness for the Gospel, huh? Add to this parish splits, gossip, back-biting, the way personality disordered parishioners treat the priest, vituperative general assembly meetings, etc., is it any wonder that our youth flee once they are free?

Hypothesis 3: Lack of stewardship is contributing to “The 60%”

We don’t regard the Church as the pearl of great price or a treasure buried in a field. Instead we treat the Church like a street beggar. In many of our parishes, clergy and stewardship committees hold out their hands hoping (and begging) that parish families will pay their “minimum dues.” Why must I hear of parishes with hundreds of families that by mid-year don’t have enough money to pay the electric bill or the priest’s salary? Why must I hear about priests and their families who are expected to live in substandard housing, send their children to substandard schools, drive junk cars, and depend on food stamps? This is scandalous! Even worse, this is oftentimes expected by parishioners who are quite generous to themselves. Why do churches depend on endless fundraisers and festivals for income? The answer to these questions is simple: Too many parishioners do not value the Church. Once the message that the Church is valueless is internalized by our youth (don’t be fooled, it is internalized), they will eventually turn their back on the Church. Our children will seek something of more enduring value as determined by family and society. Isn’t that frightening?! We must pass on to our children, by our example, the principle that the Church is worth the stewardship of our time and talents above all else.

Hypothesis 4: Failed models of Christian education are contributing to “The 60%”

With all due respect to those that have worked so hard in Christian education, it is time we admit that our Protestant-derived models of Christian education have failed. Like us, the Catholics and Protestants also have their own 60%. If the current model for Christian education doesn’t work for them, it will not work for us. Christian youth come out of years of Sunday school and still don’t know the basics of their own faith. I know of students educated in Catholic schools that think the Holy Trinity is Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I know Orthodox Christians who think that the Holy Trinity is God, Jesus, and Mary. An organic living knowledge and internalization of the Orthodox Christian faith cannot happen in 45 minutes on a Sunday by cutting and coloring paper doll clergy and iconostases. There was no Sunday School in the early Church and yet families – parents and children – were martyred together bearing witness to the Christian faith (read the life of the early second-century martyrs Sophia and her three children…if you dare). Perhaps a radical re-thinking and new approach to Christian education needs to be developed by those who specialize in the field.

Hypothesis 5: The lack of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is contributing to “The 60%”

The Church is like a fig tree with lots of leaves. The leaves are things we get passionate and obsessive about – icons, facial hair (on men), chanting, vestments, ethnic nationalism, calendars, choirs, rants about ecumenists and liberal deconstructionists, spirituality, pseudo-spirituality, and all the rest of the fodder that one can find on “Orthodox” blog sites. However, if the tree doesn’t bear fruit then it is doomed to whither. I am going to be bold and identify the “first fruits” of the Church as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Some people might think that sounds a bit “Protestant,” but in fact it is entirely Orthodox. Our relationship with Jesus Christ is so deep, intimate, and personal, that He feeds us with this very own Body and Blood in the Eucharist (beginning for many of us when we are babies). That “first fruit,” that intense personal relationship with Christ, should then yield the fruits of repentance and spiritual growth in the lives of every Orthodox Christian. If we are unable to bear these “first fruits,” our youth and our Churches will wither.
What is next? In the scientific method, after making observations, asking questions, and developing a hypothesis comes experimentation where the hypothesis is rigorously tested. In this short article, I have only gone as far as formulating some hypotheses concerning “the 60%.” To go any further will require specialists in the Church to do the experiments and analyze the data. When all this is done, the conclusions will either support or reject the hypotheses. If, however, the appropriate studies do support the hypotheses, how will the Church respond – with action or apathy? The Lord says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repentance starts with self-examination – I am calling for the Church to do just that here and now. If it is determined that something is wrong, then true repentance requires a change. If we respond with apathy, then the 60% phenomenon will continue and our sins will continue to be visited upon our children generation after generation until the Church is no more. If we respond with proper action and change based on love, prayer, grace, self-sacrifice, and joy, then Christ and His Church – the very kingdom of heaven – will be a seed planted in the good soil of our children’s hearts and souls that will grow and bear fruit one thousand-fold until “the 60%” is no more.
Fr. Steven C. Salaris, M.Div., Ph.D. is the pastor of All Saints of North America Antiochian Orthodox Christian Mission in Maryland Heights, Missouri.
Originally posted on March 1, 2009.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Rod Dreher on Lenten Fasting in the Orthodox Church

Quieting the Body’s Clamor

Rod Dreher
Rod Dreher, a senior editor of The American Conservative, is the author of the forthcoming memoir “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.”
MARCH 28, 2013
While most American Christians are celebrating Easter, we Eastern Orthodox believers will just be getting into our Lenten rhythms. Please, brothers and sisters, be kind; as you feast on ham, we are struggling through a strict vegan diet. Orthodox Lenten fasting is hardcore.
Hardcore, and hard – but it’s a good kind of hard, and not only because you inevitably reach the end of the fast feeling physically better. The Orthodox fast makes you realize how much of a slave you are to bodily passions, and the effect that has on one’s spiritual and moral awareness.
It compels a mindfulness about eating that escapes many of us in the everyday. Lent always reminds me how impulsively (and therefore unhealthily) I eat, and how rarely I deny my appetite for food or anything else.
The Orthodox fast makes you realize how much of a slave to the bodily passions you are.
More importantly, it makes me conscious of my privilege. During Lent, I grinch because I can’t have a hamburger. Then I think about how most of the world survives on much less than I have. Lent always makes plain the distance between what one wants and what one needs -- and not only when it comes to food. This is why Orthodoxy also insists on Lenten almsgiving.
Many Christians forget that Lenten fasting is not about pious dieting. Without charity and change of heart, fasting is in vain. After all, say the Orthodox fathers, even the demons do without food.
Done in the right spirit, Lent is a powerful means to heal damage inflicted by daily life in our wealthy, narcissistic, anti-ascetical culture. Orthodox fasting in particular is an exhausting discipline, but it is a merciful yoke. By the time you reach its Paschal end – O tofu, where is thy sting? – you wonder how such a burden could have left you feeling so strangely light.

Askesis in the Midst of a Consumer Society: A Homily from India

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Askesis in the Midst of a Consumer Society (Lk 16:22-23; 31)

By Anonymous - Posted on 30 September 2011
H.G. Dr. Youhanon Mar Demetrios
(A speech delivered by Met. Dr. Youhanon Mar Demetrios(Asst. Metropolitan, Diocese of Delhi) at STOTS, Nagpur)
Parables were used by Jesus to shock his audience into a changed mindset and lifestyle commensurate with the requirements of the Kingdom of God. The demands of this Kingdom meant that one had to demolish cherished and prized beliefs and adopt an attitude and course of action that clearly demonstrated a difference. We can see one such instance in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in St.Luke 16:19-31, a parable that belongs to the unique traditions of this gospel. Two verses are especially important for us: vv. 22-23: “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side”; and vs.31: “He [Abraham] said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
What was shocking about this presentation was the inverted state of affairs in Jesus’ parable. Wealth and riches were interpreted as enjoying God’s blessings. So one would expect to be the case in the light of the instances in the Old Testament. Abraham as enjoying God’s blessing as a consequence of which his flocks and wealth multiply exponentially; similarly Jacob too is blessed and his assets increase. Job is blessed by God so that after his trials by Satan his wealth and holdings are increased “twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10). So it comes as a rude shock to see that in the parable the rich man is sentenced to Hades, and there is no obvious sin he has committed for this situation. In fact, there is a good side to the rich man’s character- at least he permits the poor man Lazarus to live outside his house. Most of us would be incensed to have such a socially outcast person take up living quarters beside our beautiful bungalows; we would immediately call up the local police to have such a person evicted from the vicinity of our house!
But what Jesus castigates through this presentation is the self-oriented life-style of the rich man. He is described as being dressed “in purple and fine linen”, indicative of the level of his luxury, since purple was extremely expensive and clothes dyed in it were usually reserved for royalty and nobility. In addition, it is stated that he “feasted sumptuously every day” even as the poor man Lazarus tried to sustain his life by eating the crumbs and morsels that fell of the rich man’s table. Herein was the culpable act of the rich man! He had forgotten that his wealth and assets had been entrusted to him for the use and upliftment of those who were disadvantaged, especially people like Lazarus. It was in his obvious disregard of his social obligations that the rich man was found guilty. Righteousness before God was not a matter of a vertically correct set of spiritual exercises, but to be worked out also in the horizontal actions of those who had been marginalized.
This was the meaning behind Jesus’ conclusion to the parable, underscoring the ineffectuality of a dead person appearing and preaching to his relatives while they disregarded the teachings of persons like Moses and the Prophets. For, what constituted an important aspect of the teachings of the Law, symbolized by Moses and the prophets was that the God of Israel was a God who had a special concern and care for the widows, the orphans, the poor, the destitute and the aliens. This was a God who was different from the gods and goddesses of Canaan in that He was the god of the rich, the powerful and the privileged. His character was that He was specially designated as the God of the lost, the least and the last! It was this socially responsible relationship that God demanded of his people and one that was important in the Kingdom of Heaven.
We live in a context of unbridled consumerism. Our lives become an unending cycle of purchases and acquisitions of the latest model or latest gadget that appears on the market. It is no longer in what is needed that patterns our lifestyle, but in how our happiness is maintained by our latest acquisition. Our youth lives to sport the latest in handsets and fashions. Merely having a good mobile handset is not sufficient-it has to be the latest 3G enabled model! And this too is disposed off when yet another newer model appears in the market in about four to six months! Clothes must not merely be fashionable, but must sport the tag of a leading brand! And so the treadmill of our acquisitive life continues to roll on!
This is where the Orthodox understanding of askesis is of importance for the Christians in general, and especially for those of us who are or will be in the ministry. Askesis is generally translated as asceticism, the renunciation of the world and all that pertains to it. However, this is not its actual meaning; rather it implies a careful and considered participation in the world, taking only what is necessary for life so that God’s creation can be shared with everybody. It means that one must learn to live with the basics and eschew a life of consumption that blinds us to the needs of those who are disadvantaged in our society. Our wealth and assets are given to us so that we can exercise good stewardship of what God has given us, to be aware of a distributive justice in our use of resources. In this way we become good stewards of the resources that God has entrusted to our care.
It is not only in the individual sphere that this principle of askesis is to operative. About a decade ago, the General Assembly of the St. Thomas Orthodox Vaidika Sanghom suggested to the Holy Synod that there should be an emphasis of the use of a parish’s resources for the benefit of the local society as a whole. The assets of the parish were to be utilized for the development of the people in the vicinity of a parish, without prejudice to their religion, caste, gender or creed. And the Holy Synod had accepted this suggestion and decided that all parishes should implement this programme. Sad to say in spite of the passage of a decade we still have not implemented this programme and it continues to stagnate at the programme level. And thus we can see our parishes being part of this consumerist culture, with its resources and assets being expended on itself. We are more concerned to raise funds for the development of church buildings, rebuilding churches, erecting golden flagstaffs and the like. In comparison, how much effort do we expend in raising funds for the welfare of the poor, the illiterate and the sick who are eking out an existence in the shadow of our churches? How many parishes set apart a part of their yearly budget for the care and welfare of the disadvantaged in their localities? In adopting such a course of action are we not guilty of the sin of omission, the very sin for which the rich man was consigned to Hades?
In a few years’ time many of you will be responsible for parishes, appointed as vicars. It is my hope that this message will percolate down to your parish level so that it does not merely stay a devotional address but is translated into action. Let your parishes become a harbor of refuge for those who are distressed and who seek the comfort and solace of the church. May the churches become an oasis of comfort for those who are burning in the heat of life’s problems; may the parishes become havens where people will seek refuge from economic and other forms of relief. Only then can we fulfill the mandate Jesus has given us and enable us to realize the demands that are placed on us, as required by the Kingdom of God.
The reverse of the parable’s clarion call for this re-aligned priority in accordance with the Kingdom’s demands is God’s judgment. Just as the judgement was leveled against the rich man for the callous disregard of his social obligations so also the judgement is imminent against us if we fail in our duty to reorder our priorities. True, the Church has done much, and is doing significantly much to ameliorate the condition of our brothers and sisters who are disadvantaged in our society. However, when measured against the magnitude of the problem that we face in India, there is much to be done. What we have achieved appears painfully little in our context where poverty, illiteracy, deprivation, ill-health, malnutrition and a host of other problems exist. We would be inviting God’s judgement on ourselves if we are blind to our responsibilities in such a context. Indeed, we have Moses and the prophets with us to teach us and warn us of our duty and obligations. Can we turn a deaf ear to their message and remain blind to the mission that Christ has given us as individuals and as a Church?
We have heard the message now. Let us rise to act so that the parable becomes meaningful in our lives. He who has ears, let him hear!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew

Pope Francis, has made it clear. He will continue the work toward the day when the two lungs of the Church, East and West, breathe together again
On March 20, 2013 Pope Francis addressed the ecumenical guests who had attended his installation. He began with warm words to the Orthodox brethren, specifically addressing Patriarch Bartholomew, "First of all, heartfelt thanks for what my Brother Andrew told us. Thank you so much! Thank you so much!" The two had met in a private meeting. The Patriarch of Constantinople expressed his hope that the two could meet in Jerusalem later this year and issued an invitation of historic significance.  
Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis
Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - First, I want to share my heart with my readers.  I long for the full communion of the Orthodox and Catholic Church.  I pray daily for the full communion of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. I do so because I believe it is the will of God that "All May be One" (John 17: 21). 
I am also persuaded that the healing of the division between the two sister churches would unleash a profound renewal of the entire Church at the dawn of this new missionary age. I believe that the gifts found in the whole Church will enrich both East and West and assist us in the One mission which we must face together in our One Lord.
I believe that as the West implodes under the fierce ravages of what His Holiness Benedict XVI called a Dictatorship of Relativism it is only the fullness of truth revealed in Jesus Christ which can save the West from its own demise. The West needs the Church, in the strength of its full witness, East and West, to become its soul in an age which is lost because it has lost its moral compass. 
As a revert, one who returned to my Catholic faith as a young man, I walked the way home by way of the early Church Fathers. Had I not had been baptized a Catholic of the Latin Rite; I might have become an Eastern Christian. As the decades of my life have unfolded, including my theological studies and ordination to the Order of Deacon, my vision and theological viewpoint have become  profoundly Eastern. So too is my worship. I have long prayed with icons and love the Divine Liturgy. However, I cherish the unity that comes with the Chair of Peter.
Let me be clear, I am deeply and happily ensconced in the Roman Catholic Church. I am glad that I have authorization to serve the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Church. For a number of years I had the privilege of regularly serving the Divine Liturgy and I miss it. I love the Liturgy, East and West, however I find the depth of the Mystery is beautiful captured in the Liturgy of the East.
There is a Latin maxim that addresses the centrality of worship in the life, identity and mission of the whole Church; "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi". It means that the law of prayer or worship is the law of belief and the law of life. Or, even more popularly rendered, as we worship, so will we believe and live! 
Worship is not an add on for a Catholic or an Orthodox Christian. It is the foundation of Catholic and Orthodox identity; expressing our highest purpose. Worship reveals how we view ourselves in relationship to God, one another and the world into which we are sent to carry forward the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ. How the Church worships is a prophetic witness to the truth of what she professes.
Good worship becomes a dynamic means of drawing the entire human community into the fullness of life in Jesus Christ, lived out in the communion of the Church. It attracts - through beauty to Beauty. Worship informs and transforms both the person and the community which participates in it. There is reciprocity between worship and life.
Finally, I long for the full communion of East and West because my oldest son is an Orthodox Christian. He, his wife and their children are all practicing Orthodox Christians. The more I visit them these days the more I appreciate the beauty of the interweaving of faith and life which comes with Eastern Christianity and its practices. Yet, the more painful our separation at the Altar, the Eucharistic Table, also becomes. I believe the pain gives me a glimpse into the very heart of the Lord who longs for our unity.
So, I watch for every sign that the two lungs of the One Church are beginning to fill with the one breath of Divine Life, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit alone can animate the One New Man, Jesus Christ, to heal the division which has gone on for too long in His Body. I watch with the eyes of living faith. Some say I see these developments with  "Rose Colored glasses". If I do see through the color of rose, it is because the color symbolizes the hope which comes from faith in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus. It is also because of my bedrock conviction concerning His one plan for His One Church.
The move toward full communion between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches is prompted by the Holy Spirit. I maintain it is the most important development of the Third Christian Millennium. It has extraordinary implications for the West, indeed for the whole world, at a critical time in history. I believe it will continue and result in the healing of the wounds which for too long have separated the Church. I believe that Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew have begun to travel down the road together.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Become a Living Icon: Homily for the Sunday of Orthodoxy

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40
St. John 1: 44-52
            At the end of Liturgy today, we will parade around the church carrying our icons in celebration of the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which commemorates the restoration of icons to the church after the period of iconoclasm many centuries ago.  We do so because Icons are not mere works of decorative art to us; they are windows to heaven which remind us that the Son of God really has become one of us, with a visible human body, and that we are called to become like the saints whose images are portrayed in them.   For we are all icons of God, created in His image and likeness.  Jesus Christ is the new Adam  Who has restored and healed every dimension of our fallen humanity, and brought us into the very life of the Holy Trinity.  It may help us to think of Lent as a time to make ourselves better icons of the Lord.
 When we recall the great saints of the Old Testament mentioned in today’s reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews, we are humbled by their faithfulness, obedience, and humility.  But even they “did not receive the promise, God provided something better for us that they should not be made perfect apart from us.”  As hard as it is to believe, we have been blessed beyond them, for God’s promises in Jesus Christ were not fulfilled in their lifetimes; they hoped for what they did not receive, but their lives were still icons of faithful anticipation of the Messiah. 
We live many generations after the New Testament saints Peter, Andrew, and Nathanael encountered Jesus Christ.  And the Lord’s promise to Nathanael, “you shall see the heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” is the fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of the Old Testament.  In Jesus Christ, humanity and God are united; no longer shut out of paradise, we are raised to the life of the Heavenly Kingdom by our Lord.  Our destiny is not for the dust and decay of the tomb, but for life everlasting because of His glorious third-day resurrection.
In Lent, we take small, humble, imperfect steps to open ourselves to this new life in Christ, to become better living icons—living images—of what it means for human beings to share in God’s salvation.  The point of Lent is not to punish ourselves or simply to make us feel guilty, miserable, or deprived.  Instead, the purpose of our spiritual exercises is to help us share more fully in the promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  We want His holiness, love, mercy, and blessing to reshape every dimension of our lives, to be evident in how we go through the day, in how we treat others, in what we say, think, and feel. 
And the more we grow in His image and likeness, the more we will become our true selves.  Icons portray particular human beings whose lives have shown brightly with the holiness of God.  The unbelievable truth is that, in Christ Jesus, we may do the same.  No matter our age, health, occupation, family circumstances, personality quirks, or anything else, we too may become living, breathing manifestations of our Lord’s salvation when we open ourselves to His healing mercy through prayer, fasting, forgiveness, generosity to the needy, and all the various forms of spiritual nourishment given through the life of the Church.  
There could be no greater optimism about us than what we proclaim on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  We not only carry icons, we are icons.  We not only venerate icons, we are called to become living proof of what happens to a human being who enters into the eternal blessedness of God, even as we walk around Abilene.  Let this sink in:  What the Old Testament saints hoped for, we possess.  This Lent, let’s take Jesus Christ as His word, and prepare—with humility, persistence, and mindfulness- to “see the heaven open and angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”  For that is the good news of our salvation.       

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Where Your Treasure Is, There Will Your Heart Be Also": Homily for Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church

 Romans 13:11-14:4

 Matthew 6:14-21 
            If all of your money is in a certain bank or investment, you will be very concerned about that bank or investment.  Your treasure is there, and your heart will follow.  If you invest your time, energy, and effort in any relationship or any activity, you will value it highly.  You give your life to it, and your heart follows.
            We are all given a blessed opportunity during Lent to invest our lives in God and our neighbors.  For the treasure of our lives is our love, our attention, our time, and our actions.  Too often, that treasure is wasted, is squandered, on matters of no importance at all.  We use our minds to hold grudges and our lips to condemn others.  We use food and drink simply for pleasure in ways that weaken us spiritually and physically.  We fixate on money as though it is the measure of our worth and, no matter how much or how little we have, we are never satisfied.   Our hearts follow our treasure.  So we come to love putting others down and building ourselves up.  We come to love pleasing ourselves in whatever way possible.  And, of course, we come to love material possessions more than God and neighbor.
            As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, it is time to wake up from our slumber.  For without acknowledging what we are doing, we have all been stumbling in the dark, spending ourselves  on that which cannot satisfy us, wasting life itself on the bad dreams of our passions.  Yes, it’s time to wake up, for Lent is like an alarm clock reminding us to stop throwing our lives away and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.”
            We need to pay attention to St. Paul’s warning.  For too long, we have used our time, energy, and attention to fulfill whatever self-centered desires we have.  Instead of focusing on forgiving those who have wronged us, we have remembered the offenses of others and fantasized about how to get even.  Instead of using food or other pleasures with self-restraint so that they have their proper place in our lives, we have indulged ourselves and become their slaves.  Instead of using our financial resources to help the needy and support the ministries of the Church, we have selfishly loved our money and possessions.  In other words, we have learned to love what we treasure:  ourselves and the things that help us get what we want.
            Jesus Christ calls us to a different kind of life, of course.  He calls us to invest ourselves in Him, to offer our time, energy, possessions, relationships, and bodily appetites for the healing, fulfillment, and transformation of the Kingdom.  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  If we want to be pure of heart, if we want to love God with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves, we must learn to treasure the new life that Christ has brought to the world.  We do that by taking deliberate, intentional steps to redirect our hearts to Him, by investing the treasure of our lives in the ways of the Kingdom.
            If there is anything that takes focused effort, it is forgiveness.  How easy and seductive it is to brood over the wrongs other have done us, to judge them  again and again in our minds, and to make ourselves feel better by comparing ourselves with those on whom we like to look down.  But when we do so, we simply make provision for the flesh and fulfill its lusts.  We sink deeper and deeper into a spiral of self-righteous delusion.  We end up wasting the treasure of our lives and damaging our hearts.  

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Serving Christ in the Poor: Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meat Fare Sunday) in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 8:9-9:2
St. Matthew 25:31-46

              I would like for us all to think for a moment about what actions on our part could separate us from God.   We probably think of something really dramatic, like denying our faith, worshipping a false god, or committing murder or another flamboyant sin--probably one that we’re not likely to commit.
            On this Sunday of the Last Judgment, however, we read that the standard of judgment is how we treat the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.  To the extent that we serve these needy people, we serve our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  And to the extent that we neglect them, we neglect Him.  Christ says to the righteous, “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”  And He says to those headed for punishment, “In that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
            We learn from this passage that our relationship with God is manifested—is shown—in our relationship to the people we encounter every day.  The Christian life does not require us to perform extraordinary displays of asceticism and piety, but instead to become living icons of our Lord’s love and mercy in the mundane details of our lives, in our interactions with others, in our use of time, energy, and all our gifts and resources. 
            St.  John wrote in his Epistle, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”   He also writes, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?  My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.”
             It is easy to be a Christian in word and tongue only, especially in West Texas where it usually costs us nothing to say that we believe in Jesus Christ, for that’s just a matter of words which are rarely challenged here.  It is quite a challenge, however, actually to be so united with Christ that we convey His love and mercy to everyone we meet, especially those who are needy and inconvenient.  That’s a very high standard of holiness.  And it goes beyond mere calculation.  For the righteous people in our gospel text apparently were not aware that they were caring for the Lord when they cared for those in need.  They did not figure out in their heads, “I need to treat this person well because in him I serve Jesus Christ.”  Instead, they spontaneously showed love and mercy.  Their actions reflected who they were.
            Most of us are probably a long way from meeting that standard of holiness.  Instead of overflowing with Christ-like love and mercy toward the needy, inconvenient, and annoying, all too often we look for excuses not to help others because we have more important things to do.  And we are too busy and don’t have enough resources.  Other people’s problems are their fault and their concern, not ours.  Of course, these are simply excuses and lies that we tell ourselves due to our laziness and self-centeredness. 
            The truth is that we don’t have to be wealthy in order to visit the sick and lonely, to help a child learn to read, or to volunteer as a tutor or mentor to a refugee.  Even a homebound person can send a note or email message or make a phone call.  We all have old clothes to give to the Salvation Army or Good Will.  Until our Lenten fasting kicks in, many of us will have enough iron in our blood to give the gift of life; yes, literally to save someone’s life by donating blood.  I imagine that all of us have the resources to put at least something in the “Food for Hungry People” containers during Lent.  No matter how young or old we are, we interact with people who need our friendship, our encouragement, and our prayers.  Instead of ignoring them, we all have the ability to treat them as we would like others to treat us, especially if we were sick, unemployed, alone in life, or in jail.
            It sounds so easy, but we all know hard it is in practice.  And that’s why we need the spiritual practices of Great Lent, such as fasting, prayer, almsgiving, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  For when we humble ourselves before God and our neighbors in these ways, we open our lives to His strength, power, and healing.  When we turn our attention from self-centeredness to God-centeredness, we gain experience in saying No to ourselves and Yes to Him.  We wake up at least a bit from the deceptive illusions we have accepted about ourselves and other people, and begin to see ourselves and them more clearly.
            We don’t have the eyes to see it, but even the person who irritates us bears the image of God.  That group of people whom we are inclined to ignore or hate or condemn is made up of those for whom Christ died and rose again; yes, they too are living icons of our Lord.   And, no, the world will not end if our plans, schedules, routines, and agenda are put on hold or replaced by those a Kingdom not of this world.   And since our goal is to enter that Kingdom, we shouldn’t be surprised when we are called to put the needs of others before our own preferences or when it is a little bit uncomfortable to do so.
            St. Paul was right that “food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.”  He was responding to the question of whether Christians in his day should eat meat from animals that had been sacrificed to pagan gods.  St. Paul thought that the relevant consideration was how eating or not eating that meat affected other people.  If recent converts from paganism were scandalized by the sight of a Christian eating meat from a pagan temple, that’s a sin against one’s weaker brother and against Christ.  “Therefore, if food makes by brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”  
            Let’s remember that we fast and undertake other spiritual disciplines in Lent so that we won’t cause others to stumble, so that our passions will be healed by our Lord’s mercy and we will then be in a position to become channels of His love to our neighbors.  Let’s face it, we’re not there yet.  Our anger tempts other people to anger.  Pride, envy, lust, self-righteousness, gluttony and other passions distort our relationships with other people, even those we love most.  We tempt them to sin because of our infirmities and corruptions.  That’s unfortunately inevitable, because none of us is fully healed; none of us is beyond the distortion and weakening that our sins have worked on us. 
              As we prepare for our Lenten journey, we should keep in mind that fasting is not first of all about food, but a tool that can help us fight deep seated passions that keep us from seeing and serving Christ in our neighbors.  A bit of almsgiving won’t change the world, but it will change us by giving us practice in attending to the needs of others in how we use our resources.  Prayer isn’t magic, but in order to grow in union with Christ we must get in the habit of at least giving Him our attention.
            If we want to become like the righteous in today’s gospel passage, if we want to be so filled with the love of Christ that we share His mercy with everyone we encounter, we need to take our medicine, we need therapy for the healing of our souls.  That’s what Great Lent will soon provide us:  a time to turn away from everything that keeps us from recognizing Christ in our neighbors and to learn to love Him in them.  As our Savior said, “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”    Let’s use Lent to become the kind of people who already know the joy of the Kingdom of God.  

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Homily for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 6: 12-20
St. Luke 15: 11-32                
            Today is known in the church as the Sunday of the Prodigal Son.  Now just two weeks from the beginning of Great Lent, we are reminded today of who we are: beloved children of God who need to come to our senses and return to our loving, forgiving Father.  No matter what we have done, no matter how we have diminished ourselves, no matter how broken we have made our relationship with God, He patiently awaits our return, runs to greet us, and welcomes us back into His family with joy and celebration.
            We can be sure that the prodigal son in today’s gospel didn’t think that his father would react that way to him.  After all, he had asked his father for his inheritance, which was like telling the old man that he should drop dead so the son could have his money.  The son traveled far away, quickly wasted his money with partying and immorality, ended up as a servant taking care of pigs, and was so hungry that he wished he could eat the pigs’ slop.
            Then the young man came to himself, realized how miserable his life was, and decided to return home in hopes of becoming a servant to his father.  He realized that he had sinned against his father, that he wasn’t worthy to be called his son anymore, and wanted only to be a hired hand.  No self-respecting father in that time and place could be expected to do more for such a rebellious and disrespectful son.  The young man would have been fortunate to have been taken back into the household even as the lowliest servant. 
            But the father won’t hear of it.  In a way that must have shocked everyone, he runs to greet his son, embraces and kisses him, gives him fine clothes, slaughters a calf, and throws a big party.  The father did not judge, condemn, or reject his son; instead, he rejoices that a beloved child who was lost has returned home, that one who was dead to him has been restored to life.    
            This story of the prodigal son should shape all the repentance that we do in our lives, whether in Lent or not.  For it reminds us Who God is and who we are.  As in this parable, there are no limits to our Lord’s mercy, no restrains on His compassion or forgiveness.  Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ was born, baptized, taught, worked miracles, was crucified and resurrected, and ascended into heaven for our salvation.  He came as the Second Adam to restore us as the children of God, to put us in our proper place in the family of heaven as those created in the divine image and likeness.
            Despite what some of us may be tempted to believe, the Father is not a harsh, stern, hateful judge who is out to get us.  Likewise, the Son did not come to condemn and punish, but to save.  We should have no fears about Him rejecting our repentance, no matter what we have done.  He accepted and blessed everyone who came to Him in humble repentance during his earthly ministry, including tax-collectors, a woman caught in adultery, Gentiles, the demon-possessed, and His own apostles who denied and abandoned Him.   Christ even prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified Him.  His abundant mercy and compassion extend to us and to all who call upon Him from the depths of our hearts.
            This story also holds a mirror up to us.  It reminds us that, like the prodigal son, we have foolishly rejected our true identity as the beloved children of God.   We have chosen our own pride, our own self-centered desires, our habits and preferences, over a healthy relationship with our Heavenly Father.  And we have born the consequences of our decisions and actions by making ourselves and others miserable.
            St. Paul reminded the Corinthians that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  How horrible, then, for them or us to use our bodies in immoral ways for sexual intimacy outside of marriage.  Our bodies are members of Christ and destined for the life of the heaven, and we harm and diminish ourselves when we view them simply as instruments for pleasure.  The union of man and woman is for growth in holiness and love through the blessed covenant called marriage, which is an image of the relationship between Christ and the Church in which husband and wife wear the crowns of the Kingdom.  When man and woman join their bodies in other ways, they choose their passions over holiness and the glory of their identity as God’s children.  The misery of disease, broken hearts and families, scarred childhoods, and the horror of abortion are often the results.      
            This was also the problem of the prodigal son.  He abandoned his father in order to make his life one wild party, and ended up in a pig sty so wild with hunger that he envied the food of the swine.  And since the Jews considered pigs to be unclean, the Lord makes clear that this fellow had truly hit rock bottom.
            No matter what our particular set of temptations may be, we should all admit that we are in the place of the prodigal son.  We have not lived faithfully as the sons and daughters of the Lord.  We have chosen our own will over God’s, we have asked for our inheritance—namely, whatever  good things we can get —and then used them however we pleased.  In thought, word, and deed, we have often done our best to live as though God is dead, as though He is no longer our Father and we are no longer His children. 
            Lent is the time set aside in the church calendar to come to our senses, to recognize the truth of what we have done to ourselves, and begin the journey back to the Lord.  But we have a major advantage over the prodigal son.  We know that our Heavenly Father wants nothing more than to restore us to His family.   He wants nothing more than to forgive, heal, and bless us; to return us to our proper dignity as sons and daughters of the Most High.
            You see, Lent is not about getting God to change His mind about us; instead, it is about us changing our minds and lives in order to return to God.  No amount of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving will alter anything about the Lord; but these tools are useful in helping us see the truth about our sinfulness and in opening our lives to the mercy which Jesus Christ always extends to repentant sinners.
            But we have to be careful here.  Some of us hear words like “sinfulness” and “repentance” and immediately think of God as harsh, unforgiving, and out to punish us.  We may be terrified of God and think that He wants us to be miserable.   So we obsess about our failings, judge ourselves as hopeless cases when we aren’t perfect, and end up taking the joy out of life. 
The good news is that God did not create us for a joyless life of despair, but to share in the blessedness of His life.  The eternal Son of God became one of us to heal our broken humanity and bring us into the joy of the Kingdom.   We pray, fast, give alms, and forgive our enemies as ways of embracing His healing, of accepting His gracious transformation of our lives.
Like the man in the pig sty, we also need to come to our senses, see the truth about God and ourselves and act accordingly.  It is only our own stubborn refusal which holds us back from entering into the joy of the Lord.  Let’s use this coming Lent to get over that stubbornness, swallow our pride, and return home to a Father who loves us more than we can even imagine.  He has sent His only begotten Son to restore us to the dignity of His beloved sons and daughters.  This Lent, let us run home to Him.