Saturday, May 25, 2013

Homily for the Sunday of the Paralytic in the Orthodox Church

             Christ is Risen!
            On this fourth Sunday of the season of Pascha, we remember Jesus Christ’s healing of the paralytic, the paralyzed man who had not been able to move for 38 years, probably his entire life.  He had seen others healed miraculously in a nearby pool of water, but he had no one to help him get there when the angel stirred the water. So he was stuck, unable to move, unable to heal himself, and unable to receive God’s blessing.
            This event occurred during the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which commemorated the giving of the law through Moses.  The Lord Jesus saw this poor man, lying near one of the gates to the temple area, and He simply asked him if he wanted to be healed.  When the man explained that he had no one to help him into the healing pool, Christ said, “Rise, take up your bed and walk” and he did so.   This healing occurred on the Sabbath day, when the Old Testament law indicated that no work was to be done, so some of the Jews criticized the man for walking around carrying his bed on that day.  
            In response to their questions, we find out that this man did not even know Jesus Christ’s name; he could not identify the One who healed him.  But then the Lord found him and said, “See, you have been made well.  Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”
            During this season of Pascha, when we remember Christ’s victory over death and sin, we want to become like this man who took up his bed and walked, who entered into a new life made possible by the mercy of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.    We want to participate in the blessing that Christ’s resurrection has brought to the world and to be transformed and healed by it.  For like this man, we are too often paralyzed when we face difficult and painful life circumstances before which we feel powerless.  We cannot snap our fingers and change our world, other people, or even ourselves.  We cannot raise the dead, heal diseases, or otherwise make our problems go away.  We are weakened by our habitual sins, our passions, or disordered desires and habits that keep us from experiencing the joy, peace, and freedom of life eternal.
            Like this poor man, we have a law, a set of religious commands, but we often lack the strength to move ourselves to obey them.   Sometimes we have carried burdens in our souls for thirty-eight years or longer; perhaps we cannot even imagine ourselves without anger, hatred, greed, lust, pride, self-righteous judgment, sloth or other sins that we know all too well.  How often have we said, “I won’t act that way anymore.  I won’t do this, I won’t say that, I won’t think this way.  I won’t treat him or her as I have before. ” But all too often, we lack the strength to change; the disappointing truth is that we are paralyzed by our sins and weakened by a lifetime of giving in to temptation.  We may even have accepted the excuse that that is simply who we are and there is no point in even trying to change.    
            The good news of Pascha, however, is that the Risen Lord calls every single one of us to “Rise, take up your bed and walk.”  His blessing is not for a select few, but for the whole world: all the living and the dead.  The Lord has mercy on those who do not even know His name, like the paralyzed man.  He asks only whether we want to be healed, for He never forces us.  And to those who will accept His mercy, the Lord promises  the strength to rise, take up our beds and walk; in other words, He enables us to live a new life.  
            We have to be ready, however, to carry our beds even on the Sabbath day, for reminders of our sins, weaknesses, and of the imperfection of the world will still be with us.   Very often these are our own thoughts to which we pay too much attention; for we find it impossible to believe that we really have been forgiven, that what is done is done, that the Lord’s mercy has brought us into a new way of living.  How often we carry a burden of guilt and fear that paralyzes us, that freezes us in the past and makes us think that we are fooling ourselves to imagine that Christ’s victory is also ours.  And how often we become obsessed with whatever challenges and difficulties we face, blowing them out of proportion until we think that they are even more powerful and real than the Lord Who has conquered sin and death. 
            Yes, the formerly paralyzed man had to carry his bed, the reminder of his illness; but the miracle was that he could actually do that:  he had the strength to stand up, walk, and carry something.  And we are all given the ability in Jesus Christ to make progress in our lives, to become more like God, to grow in holy joy by using even our most difficult struggles as opportunities to trust more fully in the Lord, to take up our crosses, be purified of our passions, and to shine more brightly with the light of Christ.    
            Through our Savior’s cross, joy has come into the all the world.  And it is through our patient, faithful endurance of whatever trials, tribulations, and temptations we face that we will open ourselves to the joy, to the strength, to the life that has conquered even death itself.
            We cannot triumph over all our troubles by sheer will power, but we can do what we can do.  Each day, each moment, each hour, we can walk as best we can in the right direction—in other words, we can refuse to lie down again in our bed of weakness and despair.  We can do our best to pay no attention to negative and unhealthy thoughts; we can treat others as we would have them treat us; we can keep our mouths shut when we are tempted to judge or condemn others; we can focus our energies on changing what we can change in our lives and relationships—and leave the rest in God’s hands.  In other words, we should not think we are either totally paralyzed or completely healthy.  We are somewhere in between, and the same Lord who conquered death itself constantly invites and enables us to greater strength and wholeness, to the joy of those who know that they really can move—step by step—more fully into the brilliant light of the Kingdom.          
            Fortunately, we do not have to wrestle with these problems as isolated individuals.  We are blessed to participate in the life of Christ as members of His Body, the Church.  And in the sacrament of confession, we are assured of God’s forgiveness and exhorted to give no further care to the sins which we have confessed.  The paralyzing burden of our sins is lifted at confession; no, that does not mean that we are never tempted again or that we do not have to live with the consequences of our actions, but it does mean we hear the voice of Christ and feel the touch of His hand as He says, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.”  The sins which you have confessed are behind you.  Do not return to them.  Go forward with your life to the glory of God.  Go and sin no more.
            The point here is not legalism, but healing.  For if we really want to be made well, we must open the paralysis of our souls on a regular basis to Christ  the Great Physician, Who is present to us in His Body, the Church.  And every time that we take confession, Christ in effect says to us, “See, you have been made well.  Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” 
            No one forces us to sin or to cower in fear before the difficult challenges of life; but it seems inevitable that we will at times be overcome by our passions and our problems.  We are often like someone healed of paralysis who cannot escape the habit of staying in bed or cope very well with the challenges and struggles of his new life.  So we lie down again in our bed of habitual sins and weaknesses.  But fortunately for us, the Lord is merciful.  He always asks us, “Do you want to be healed?”  And if we respond with truthfulness and humility, He has compassion on us, and assures us of His forgiveness and strength.
            So we rise, take up our bed, and walk.  We may fall back into our paralysis, weakness, and fears more times than we can count.  We may fall down ten thousand times, but Christ is always there to raise us up and give us a share in His eternal life.  We probably do not see it in our own lives, but through this journey of humble repentance we do find healing.  The course of our struggle is upward; the paralysis decreases; our souls are strengthened as we struggle to press forward in faithfulness; the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
            And this is a vital part of the good news of Pascha.  Despite the setbacks, despite the temptations, despite the burdens and obstacles that we and others place on our path, the glorious new day of God’s kingdom has dawned.  Christ has raised all humanity, including us, from sin and death.  No, our sharing in Christ’s salvation is not something magical that happens in an instant; like everything in creation, it takes time.  And that is not because of God, but because of us.
            So let us not only say “Christ is Risen!” this Paschal season; let us rise with Him, getting up from whatever sins have weighed us down, finding the strength in His resurrection to overcome our paralysis and weakness, to refuse to be shackled by fear, and move step by step, day by day, into the joy of His Kingdom.  Now is the time to take up our beds and walk in the brilliant light of the empty tomb, for Christ is Risen!


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Homily for the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus in the Orthodox Church

Christ is Risen!
            We have now been celebrating our Lord’s victory over death for two weeks.  We will continue to do so for a few more weeks, saying “Christ is Risen” many times.  But we can’t let our celebration of Pascha stop there. For we want to live the new life that the Lord has brought to the world; we want to participate in His victory over sin, death, and all that separates us from life eternal.  And we can learn an important lesson in how to do that from those who were at the empty tomb on Easter morning, from the first witnesses of the resurrection who were told by the angel, “He is Risen.  He is not here…Go tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”
            These first witnesses to our salvation were all women who went to the tomb with oil and spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus Christ.  So we call them the myrrh-bearing women and we sing about them in Orthros virtually every Sunday.  These holy women obviously did not expect the resurrection. And they were surely heart-broken, afraid, and terribly disappointed that their Lord had been killed.  But they had the strength to offer Him one last act of love:  to anoint His body properly for burial, to pay their last respects.  And as they were doing so, these women-- Mary the Theotokos, Mary Magdalen, two other Mary’s, Johanna, Salome, Martha, Susanna and others whose names we don’t know--  were the first to receive the greatest news in the universe, the resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.   
            We remember along with these blessed women two men:  Sts. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, prominent Jewish leaders who were also secret followers of Jesus Christ.   Joseph risked his position and possibly his life by asking Pilate for the Savior’s body.  Nicodemus, who understood the Lord so poorly in a conversation recorded near the beginning of St. John’s gospel, came to faith and joined Joseph in wrapping the Lord in linen with spices and placing Him in a tomb.
            Like the myrrh-bearing women, these men must have been terribly sad and afraid.  Their hopes had been cruelly crushed; their world turned upside down; not only had their Lord died, He was the victim of public rejection, humiliation, and capital punishment.  Nonetheless, these women and men did what had to be done, despite the risk to themselves from the authorities and their own pain.  They served their Christ in the only way still available to them, by caring for His body.
            Before Jesus Christ’s death, He washed the feet of His disciples in order to show them what it meant to serve in humility as He did.  The myrrh-bearers weren’t present that evening, but they followed the Lord’s example of service better than anyone else.   Their selfless devotion to Christ put them in the place where they would be the first to receive the good news of the resurrection, the first to share in the joy of Pascha.  We have a lot to learn from them, as well as from Joseph and Nicodemus.  For if we want to live the new life of our Lord’s victory over death and corruption in all its forms, we must do as they did by serving in humility.
            The good news is that we have no lack of opportunities to serve Christ, in His Body, the Church, whether by giving someone without transportation a ride to church, maintaining our building and grounds, cleaning and beautifying the church temple, teaching Sunday School, chanting, hosting coffee hour, serving on the parish council or at the altar, reading the epistle in liturgy, inviting others to visit our services, or otherwise doing what needs to be done for the flourishing of our parish.  We should not be shy in answering the call to serve Christ in His Body, the Church. 
            We are also reminded of the importance of humble service in the Church by today’s passages from Acts in which the first deacons were ordained to oversee the distribution of bread to the needy widows who were supported by the Christian community.  The word deacon means “servant,” and we read that, after the deacons began their ministry, “the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”  Perhaps the passage reads that way because humble service is the very backbone of the Church, an essential part of our faithfulness and growth as Christ’s Body. 
            Of course, we don’t encounter the Lord only in the visible boundaries of the Church.  For every human being is an icon of Christ, especially the poor, needy, and miserable.  In that we care for the least of these in society, for prisoners or refugees or the lonely or mentally ill, we care for Him.  In that we neglect them, we neglect Him.  The myrrh-bearers didn’t disregard Christ’s body in the tomb, and neither should we disregard the Lord’s body hungry, sick, poorly clothed, abused, or otherwise suffering in our world.  It’s not hard to find the Lord right here in Abilene in people who need our service and attention.  We should all do that we can to serve Christ in our needy and neglected neighbors.  That’s why our parish supports Pregnancy Resources of Abilene, buys presents for a family at Christmas, and supports the “Food for Hungry People” collection during Lent.   
            And so that we don’t let ourselves off the hook too easily, we should remember that this kind of service extends to each of us in how we treat those closest to us on a daily basis. Husbands and wives are to submit to one another in Christ; the relationship between man and woman is an image of the relationship between Church and the church; husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her.  Christian marriage is to be an icon of the kingdom of God in which husband and wife serve Christ in one another in the thousand small details of making a life together. And whether we are married or not, we have children, relatives, friends, and neighbors in whom we are to love and serve the Lord selflessly.    
            On this Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, we need to ask ourselves if we really want to grow in the new life that the Risen Christ has brought to the world.  If so, we must prayerfully discern whether we are serving the Lord as we encounter Him daily in His Body, the Church, in our neighbors, and in our families.  For if we want to be transformed by the gloriously good news of the resurrection, we must not be distracted by our fears, doubts, prejudices, self-centeredness, or just plain laziness.  Instead, we must do what needs to be done in order to show love to Christ and all those for whom He died and rose again.  No, this isn’t a glamorous or easy path; but it’s the only one that will bring us with the myrrh-bearers to the joy of the empty tomb and the true meaning of Pascha as the deep truth of our lives.   Then we will participate personally in the blessedness of the Lord’s victory over sin and death, for Christ is Risen!        

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Homily for Thomas Sunday in the Orthodox Church

John 20: 19-31
Acts 5: 12-20
Christ is Risen!
          We have only begun our celebration of Pascha, of our Lord’s victory over death in His glorious resurrection on the third day.   Perhaps one of the reasons that Pascha is a season of forty days is that it takes us a good while to let the good news sink in.  For not only is Christ raised from the dead, we are too.  Now not even the tomb is not a shadowy place of separation from God, but an entry way to the Kingdom of Heaven where the departed are in the presence of the One Who has conquered death.  And the Risen Lord calls every human being to life eternal, including you and me.
          For Jesus Christ is raised with His Body as a whole, complete human being who is also God.  We share in His resurrection already through our participation in His Body, the Church.  We are nourished with His glorified, risen Body and Blood each Divine Liturgy in the Holy Eucharist.  Our mortal bodies receive the medicine of immortality when we are nourished by the One Who has conquered the grave.  We put on His Body through baptism, are filled with the Holy Spirit in Chrismation, and in all the other sacraments and ministries of the Church we share ever more fully in the new life that Pascha has brought to the world.  “Pascha” means Passover; Jesus Christ is our Passover from death to life; and our entire life in His Risen Body, the Church, is an ongoing participation in the new day of the Kingdom that He has begun, which should transform every dimension of our lives, seven days a week.
          We can certainly see something new in Christ’s followers in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  In the gospels, the disciples misunderstood the Lord and often lacked the power to minister effectively in His name.  They even doubted the testimony of the women who heard of the resurrection from the angel at the tomb.  But in Acts, they perform so many signs and wonders that the sick trust that they will be healed by the mere shadow of St. Peter falling on them.  Multitudes of sick and demon-possessed people sought out the apostles, and they were all healed.
          A confused, weak, and often divided group that included fishermen, a tax-collector, and a zealot; which collectively ran away in fear at the crucifixion; and the leader of which denied the Lord three times, is now a powerhouse of miraculous healings and bold preaching.  What has happened to them? 
          The answer is clear:  Christ has conquered sin and death in their lives.  He has filled them with the Holy Spirit.  He has empowered them to manifest His new life and ministry.  “Peace be to you.  As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”  The salvation which Lord came to bring now lives in them.  He lives in them.  Christ is the vine, and they are the branches.  They are members of the Body of which He is the Head.  His victory over sin, the grave, and all human corruption is now theirs.  And you can see the change in their lives.
          And even as we live and breathe and go through our routines at work, school, home, and in this parish, the same is true of us.   Christ’s victory over sin and corruption are ours, too.  We probably find that hard to believe.  We have not seen the Risen Jesus as the apostles did, but remember what Jesus said to St. Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 
          Just as doubting and fearful disciples became faithful, bold preachers and wonderworkers, we are also called to know the power the Lord’s resurrection in our lives.  We may want to excuse ourselves from this high calling, however.  In contrast with the brilliant light of Pascha, we may see the darkness and brokenness in our lives all too well.  Christ has conquered sin and death, but we all still bear their wounds; and sometimes we wonder if this glorious news of life eternal really applies to us with all our struggles, pains, and weaknesses.    
          But didn’t you notice that when the risen Lord appears to His disciples, His glorified body still bears His wounds?  Christ  was not raised as a ghost or a spirit, but as a whole human being with a body.  His horrible wounds were part of Who He freely chose to become as a human being for our sakes, and He arises victorious with them.  He has taken these wounds upon Himself purely out of love for us and has used them to defeat evil and death.
          Of course, we must not deny the truth about lives; we should not pretend that all is well when it is not.  Our growth in holiness is an eternal journey, and we certainly have not yet arrived.  But we must recognize that Christ rose again to bring the dead to life, to heal our wounds and transform all who are created in His image and likeness; and, yes, that includes all of us.  The good news of Pascha is that we are no longer held captive by sin and death.  Sin only has the power in our lives that we allow it to have; the same is true of the fear of death, violence, suffering, and all the other works of darkness that can so easily dominate us.      
          When the Risen Lord breathes on His apostles and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” we are reminded of the creation of Adam in Genesis.  The divine breath gave us life to begin with, but with our sin and corruption we have rejected that life and preferred death instead.  Now the same Lord Who created us has conquered death on our behalf.  The Second Adam breathes on humanity again, bringing life once more to the first Adam and restoring us to our original dignity.   And this time He gives us an ongoing remedy for our sins:  the ministry of forgiveness through His Body, the Church.  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
          This apostolic ministry continues in the Church through the Sacrament of Confession.  Even though we fall away time and time again from the new life in Christ, He extends the joy of His resurrection to us by forgiving us, restoring us to the life of the Kingdom, healing our spiritual diseases, and helping us grow ever more like Him.  No, Confession is not negative, for it is the good news of the Savior’s victory over death applied to us personally, to the wounds and scars of our lives that we rarely expose to anyone else.  Through our humble confession, Christ conquers the evil in us and empowers us to life with the joy and confident hope of those who have passed over the slavery of sin to the glorious freedom of the children of God.   No, Confession is not only for Lent, and we should all make regular and conscientious use of this Sacrament—not out of legalism or excessive guilt, but as a therapy to help us enter more fully into the joy of the Lord.
          No matter how difficult our struggles are or how weak we feel before them, let us rejoice today in the resurrection of Christ.  No matter how far short we have fallen from faithfulness in any way, let us embrace the new life brought to the world by the empty tomb.  For Christ’s resurrection is good news for people just like us.  Though His Body, the Church, and His Body and Blood in Holy Communion, and the ministry of forgiveness, we are all to passover from death to life.  The light really has overcome the darkness.  Now the challenge is for each of us to live in the joy of Christ’s resurrection, to make His victory ours, and to recognize that nothing separates us from Him other than our own stubborn refusal to share in His great triumph.   So I challenge you—and myself-- to celebrate Pascha by not only saying “Christ is Risen,” but by living the new life that His empty tomb has brought to the world and to each of us.
Christ is Risen!     

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

IOCC Meeting with the Patriarch of Antioch

IOCC Dignitaries Meet with Patriarch John X

IOCC's Executive Director and Board Chair with Patriarch John X (Photo: George Antoun/IOCC)IOCC's Executive Director and Board Chair with Patriarch John X (Photo: George Antoun/IOCC)International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) reports:
It was a holy and historic day in Beirut. More than 1,000 hierarchs, clergy and lay people packed the incense-filled nave of Saint Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral on February 17, 2013, including both the President and Prime Minister of Lebanon, as well as government officials from the U.S., Russia, and other countries around the world.
Joining them were International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) Board Chairman, Michael “Mickey” Homsey, and IOCC Executive Director, Constantine Triantafilou, who had both traveled from the United States to attend at the invitation of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East. All were there to witness the same milestone, the first Divine Liturgy served by His Beatitude, John X, the newly elected Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East.
His predecessor, Patriarch Ignatius of Blessed Memory, spent more than three decades serving as the spiritual father of the Orthodox faithful in Syria. Patriarch Ignatius’ leadership provided a wellspring of inspiration and comfort to Orthodox Christians throughout the Middle East, especially during troubled times. Without His Beatitude’s grateful assistance, IOCC's humanitarian efforts in the region would not have been fully realized.
Both Homsey and Triantafilou had met with Patriarch Ignatius during a visit to Syria last year shortly before his repose, during which they were humbled to receive His Beatitude’s blessing for IOCC’s ongoing humanitarian work in Syria, and his praise for the organization serving as a beacon of hope for so many struggling families.
Now before them stood a new spiritual father, chosen by the grace of God and His Church peers to serve as a leader and a visionary to His Antiochian Orthodox flock. Before this momentous weekend, Homsey and Triantafilou had only known of His Beatitude’s years of illustrious service in Europe ministering to people of diverse languages and cultures. They had been less certain of Patriarch John X’s familiarity with the humanitarian work of IOCC in Syria, which began in 2002 on small projects to rehabilitate schools, hospitals and orphanages.
Later in 2007, IOCC began providing tuition assistance, school supplies, tutoring and personal care kits to thousands of Iraqi refugee schoolchildren and disadvantaged Syrian schoolchildren as well as their families. Assistance expanded to vocational and business training for Iraqi refugee men and women resettled in Syria when conflict forced them to flee their own country. Most recently, IOCC has responded to the humanitarian crisis brought on by the conflict in Syria with assistance reaching more than 425,000 Syrian children, women and men displaced in their own country or living as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Armenia and Iraq.
Homsey and Triantafilou were honored with an invitation to meet Patriarch John X for a private audience at the Patriarchal residence at Balamand University on the Saturday before Divine Liturgy. Homsey recalled the encounter vividly. “What struck me most about our meeting was how much His Beatitude knew about the work of IOCC and our long-standing relationship with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch," said Homsey. “We spoke at length of the tragic humanitarian situation in Syria and His sincere desire to continue supporting IOCC’s mission to assist, without discrimination, all who are in need.”
They discussed the situation in Syria, which grows grimmer and more desperate each day. More than six million Syrian people have been affected by the bitter two-year conflict, and nearly four million people are now displaced in their own country, displaced from homes, jobs, and schools destroyed by the violence. IOCC and its church partner inside Syria, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East are among the very few lifelines that the Syrian people have to the outside world.
“In spite of all this,” said Homsey, “I was moved beyond words when His Beatitude stated that no matter the difficulties, the Christians will not leave the Middle East. His resolve serves as an inspiration and comfort to all Orthodox Christians who look to Antioch, and the sacred sites of Christianity throughout Syria and the Holy Land as the fountain from which our faith flows.”