Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Come and See": Homily for the Feast Day of St. Andrew the First-Called in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 4:9-16
John 1:35-51 
                 Today we celebrate the Feast of Saint Andrew.  We remember him in the Church by the title   “the First-Called” because he has the unique privilege of being the first person Jesus Christ called to follow Him as a disciple and an apostle.  Think about that for a moment.  He is the first link in the chain, the very first living stone of the foundation upon which the Church stands to this very day.  Like his brother Simon who came to be known as Saint Peter, St. Andrew was a fisherman, a simple, hardworking man who left behind the life that he had known in order to follow the Lord in the ministry of the Kingdom for which he ultimately gave his life as a martyr.
                Today’s gospel text provides a very rich account of the calling of the first disciples.  Andrew was been a follower of St. John the Baptist who had clearly identified Christ by saying “Behold, the Lamb of God.”  Who knows what Andrew understood about Him at that moment, but the Forerunner’s words indicate that this Savior is the Passover Lamb Who will bring eternal life to a dark and dying world through His crucifixion and glorious resurrection.  In response to the question of where He was staying, the Lord replied “Come and see.”
Sight is a prominent theme in St. John’s gospel, which later gives us the account of the healing of the eyes of the man who had been blind from birth.  The ultimate point is not physical sight, of course, but spiritual vision.   To know Jesus Christ is not simply to accept abstract truths about Him, but to have the spiritually clarity to behold His glory and to participate personally in His life.  He called His first disciples truly to know Him from the depths of their souls, even as He invites and enables us to do today.
             St. Andrew’s immediate reaction to his visit with the Lord was to share the good news with his brother, saying “We have found the Messiah.”  From the very origins of our faith, there is a genuine evangelistic impulse to share with others the blessing and joy that we have found in Jesus Christ.  Just think how important it was that Andrew told his brother Peter about the Lord, for Peter went on to become the head disciple and the first bishop of both Antioch and Rome.  Likewise, to this day, we never know what God has in store for anyone in working out His purposes in the world.  Simon Peter was surely an unlikely character for such an exalted role, but the Scriptures and history of the Church show that God often uses precisely such seemingly ill-suited folks for His glory.   Yes, that includes you, me, and others whom we may find inconvenient, annoying, or unimportant.  God apparently sees us differently.
              The Lord then called St. Philip, who in turn shared the good news with St. Nathaniel, who asked if anything good could come out of Nazareth.  In other words, was this the right kind of Messiah who met the expectations of the Jewish people?  As we see in all the gospels, our Savior was neither a nationalistic military champion nor a religious legalist.  He was very different from what most people expected and wanted in that time and place.  Nonetheless, Nathaniel was so impressed that Christ saw him sitting under a fig tree that he exclaimed “You are the Son of God!  You are the king of Israel!”  It apparently was not very hard to impress Nathaniel.  But the Lord responded “You shall see greater things than these…you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
Notice the reference to sight yet again, for the Lord calls us to personal participation in and knowledge of God.  That is what it means to behold the glory of heaven.  Jesus Christ was not simply an especially gifted religious leader who knew surprising truths about people.  He was not merely a charismatic personality with a new teaching.  No, He is truly the Lamb of God Who fulfills the promises to Abraham in the Old Testament and extends them to all people who respond to Him with faith, love, and repentance.   He calls the entire world to be transfigured by His grace, to be illumined by His holiness, and even to become participants in the heavenly Kingdom.
It is amazing how much deep theology appears in these few verses about the calling of St. Andrew.  Perhaps that is because the same spiritual matters are at stake in every generation, in all times and places, when Christ calls human beings to follow Him.  Of course, His original disciples and apostles have an exalted and memorable role in the life of the Church.  No one would deny that.  But at the same time, the same Holy Spirit Who illuminated them on the day of Pentecost dwells in us and continues to bring us into the holiness of God.  Christ still calls us to follow Him.  He nourishes us with His own Body and Blood, making us personal participants in His salvation.  He is still the Lamb of God Who opens the eyes of human souls to heavenly glory beyond our expectations.   He calls and enables us to follow Him just as He did for the very first disciples.
Perhaps that is part of the reason that the Church tells the story of the coming of Christ every year during the Nativity Fast (Advent).  We return again and again to the young Virgin Mary entering the temple in preparation to become the Theotokos who gave birth to the incarnate Son of God.  We recount the unique roles of St. Joseph the Betrothed, the lowly shepherds, and the Gentile wise men in relation to His birth.  We remember the Hebrew prophets who foretold and prepared the way for Him, culminating with St. John the Baptist and Forerunner.  Even though we know the story quite well, the point is not simply to remind ourselves of historical details.  No, it is to invite us again and again to  “come and see,” to participate personally and fully in His healing of our corrupt, broken lives.  It is to “see the heavens opened, and angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”  It is to hear and respond to a life-changing call just as St. Andrew did as the very first disciple and apostle.
Unfortunately, familiarity often breeds contempt and it is so easy to think of this time of year as simply another round of parties, meals, shopping, travel, and family routines.  But we will miss the point entirely if we allow the unspeakable glory of the birth of the Savior to become just another instance of the same old thing, of life as usual.  We must not allow our habits and schedules to obscure the truth that He is infinitely holy.  Fortunately, the Church gives us the Nativity Fast each year as an opportunity to prepare to participate more fully in the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God for the salvation and fulfillment of every dimension of who we are in His image and likeness.  Each year, He calls us to “come and see” Him at least a bit more clearly, to know and follow Him at least a bit more faithfully.
Of course, these are infinite and eternal callings in which there will always be room for growth.  Even the great saints do not congratulate themselves on their holiness, but instead see their sins more clearly because their spiritual vision is so keen that they recognize more than the rest of us how far they are from being perfect as their Heavenly Father is perfect.  When the goal is literally to behold, participate in, and manifest God’s eternal glory, which of us can claim to have mastered that?   Which of us can claim already to follow Him so faithfully that we do not need to fast, pray, give alms, and repent so that our spiritual eyes will be more clearly focused on the truth of Who Christ is and Who He calls  us to become? 
If, like St. Andrew, we want to play our unique role in the salvation of the world, we must embrace the spiritual disciplines of this season with faith, humility, and repentance.  In order to become credible living icons of His salvation, we must be healed and transformed in holiness as the unique people we are.  Andrew told his brother Simon Peter about Jesus Christ and Philip did the same with Nathaniel.   Who knows if just anyone could have done that?  And who knows today whether anyone else can fulfill the roles God intends for you and me in our particular circumstances?
 Regardless, we will not be able to follow Christ faithfully without opening the eyes of our souls to His divine glory.  No, we do not all have to become monks and nuns in order to do that.  We just have to take the small steps of which we are capable, being mindful and deliberate about prayer, fasting, generosity, repentance, and reconciliation. The same Lord Who called and enabled an unlikely group of fishermen to become great evangelists, disciples, and apostles wants to do something equally amazing with us.   During the season of preparation to celebrate His birth, the least we can do is to cooperate.       


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dr. David C. Ford's Review of Toward a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage and Sex by Fr. Philip LeMasters

Especially in light of the vast confusion about gender issues in our contemporary society, I believe this very excellent book needs to be read by everyone - and especially by Orthodox pastors, to help guide them in their ministry to their flocks.  It presents the clearest understanding of marriage as being only ever possible between one man and one woman that I've ever seen. It also beautifully explains why marriage is the only proper, secure, mutually enriching setting for sexual intercourse, in which deeply meaningful spiritual as well as physical oneness can be experienced.
 Fr. Philip bases his presentation upon a profound understanding of the Orthodox sacramental worldview, in which every dimension of the material realm is inherently good, even after the Fall, because it's all been made by our All-Gracious LORD Who loves mankind.  He bases his very positive understanding of marriage, including marital relations, in this context.  So how much more profound and awesome is the Orthodox understanding that for Christians, every marriage is called to be a living image of Christ's love for His Body, the Church - with husbands and wives giving tender self-sacrificial love to each other in ways that reflect how Christ loves His Church and gives Himself for Her.
An extra bonus in this book is the best explanation I've ever seen for why our Church does not and cannot invite non-Orthodox Christians to partake in the Eucharist.  An exceptionally clear explanation of the Orthodox understanding of birth control within marriage is also given, including a very balanced and insightful assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman Catholic approach to this issue.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Temple of the Rich Fool: Homily for the After-Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 2: 14-22
Luke 12: 16-21
            Have you ever thought about the similarities and differences between barns and temples? Usually when we think of barns, we think simply of places to house farm animals or to store crops.  We normally do not think of them as having much spiritual significance. The rich man in today’s gospel lesson thought of his barns only in terms of his business, which was so successful that he looked forward simply to relaxing, eating, drinking, and enjoying himself.  Unfortunately, he did so to the point of making his possessions an idol.  He was rich in things of the world, but poor towards God.  He was ultimately a fool, for he based his life on what was temporary and lost his own soul.  His barn became a temple only to himself.

            We live in a culture that constantly tempts us to follow this man’s bad example.  More so than any previous generation, we are bombarded with advertising and other messages telling us that the good life is found in what we can buy. Whether it is cell phones, clothing, cars, houses, entertainment, food, or medicines, the message is the same:  Happiness comes from buying the latest new product.  During the weeks leading up to Christmas, this message is particularly strong.  We do not have to become Scrooges, however.  It is one thing to give reasonable gifts to our loved ones in celebration of the Savior’s birth, but it is quite another to turn this holy time of year into an idolatrous orgy of materialism that obscures the very reason for the season.
            We are not really near Christmas yet, as Advent just began on November 15.  Today, as we continue to celebrate the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, we are reminded of the importance of preparing to receive Christ at His birth.  Instead of looking for fulfillment in barns and the money they produce, we should follow her into the temple.  Sts. Joachim and Anna took their young daughter to the temple in Jerusalem, where she grew up in prayer and purity in preparation to become the living temple of God when she consented to the message of the Archangel Gabriel to become the mother of the God-Man Jesus Christ.   The Theotokos was not prepared for her uniquely glorious role by a life focused on making as much money as possible, acquiring the most fashionable and expensive products, or simply pleasing herself.  No, she became unbelievably rich toward God by focusing on the one thing needful, by a life focused on hearing the word of God and keeping it.

            In ways appropriate to our own life circumstances, God calls each of us to do the same thing.  And before we start making excuses, we need to recognize that what St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians applies to us also:  “[Y]ou are no longer strangers and sojourners, but…fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in Whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in Whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”  In other words, to be a Christian is to be a temple, for the Holy Spirit dwells in us both personally and collectively. The only way to become a better temple is to follow the example of the Theotokos in deliberate, intentional practices that make us rich toward God, that open ourselves to the healing and transformation of our souls that Christ has brought to the world.  We must participate personally in His holiness if we want to welcome Him anew into our lives at Christmas.    

            The rich fool became wealthy by investing himself entirely in his business to the neglect of everything else.  In contrast, the Theotokos invested herself so fully in the Lord that she was able to fulfill the most exalted, blessed, and difficult calling of all time as the Virgin Mother of the Savior.  In order for us to follow her example by becoming better temples of Christ, we also have to invest ourselves in holiness. The hard truth is that holiness does not happen by accident, especially in a culture that worships at the altar of pleasure, power, and possessions.  So much in our world shapes us every day a bit more like the rich fool in our gospel lesson, regardless of how much or how little money we have.  Many of us are addicted to electronic screens on phones, computers, and televisions.  What we see and hear through virtually all forms of entertainment encourages us to think and act as though our horizons extend no further than a barn.  In other words, the measure of our lives becomes what we possess, what we can buy, and whatever pleasure or distraction we can find on our own terms with food, drink, sex, or anything else.  We think of ourselves as isolated individuals free to seek happiness however it suits us.  No wonder that there is so much divorce, abortion, sexual immorality, and disregard for the poor, sick, and aged in our society.   Investing our lives in these ways is a form of idolatry, of offering ourselves to false gods that can neither save nor satisfy us.  The barn of the rich fool was also a temple, a pagan temple in which he basically worshiped himself.  If we are not careful, we will become just like him by laying up treasures for ourselves according to the dominant standards of our culture and shut ourselves out of the new life that Christ has brought to the world.  

            We cannot control the larger trends of our society, but we can control what we do each day.  During this Nativity Fast, no matter the circumstances of our lives, we can all take steps to live more faithfully as members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone.  In other words, we can intentionally reject corrupting influences and live in ways that serve our calling to become better living temples of the Lord.  Yes, we can stop obsessing about our barns and enter into the temple of the one true God. 

The first step is to set aside time for prayer. If we do not pray every day, we should not be surprised that it is hard to pray in Church or that we find only frustration in trying to resist temptation or to know God’s peace in our lives.  We also need to read the Bible.  If we fill our minds with everything but the Holy Scriptures and the lives of the Saints, we should not be surprised that worry, fear, and unholy thoughts dominate us.  Fasting is also crucial.  If we do not fast or otherwise practice self-denial, we should not be surprised when self-centered desires for pleasure routinely get the better of us and make us their slaves.  We should also share with the poor.  If we do not give generously of our time and resources to others in need, we should not be surprised when selfishness alienates us from God, our neighbors, and even our loved ones. This is also a time for humble confession and repentance.   If we refuse to acknowledge and turn from our  sins, we should not be surprised when we are overcome by guilt and fall into despair about leading a faithful life.  No, the Theotokos did not wander into the temple by accident and we will not follow her into a life of holiness unless we intentionally reorient ourselves toward Him.

None of us will do that perfectly, but we must all take the steps we are capable of taking in order to turn our barns into temples.  Remember that the infant Christ was born in a barn, which by virtue of His presence became a temple.  The same will be true of our distracted, broken lives when—with the fear of God and faith and love—we open ourselves to the One Who comes to save us at Christmas.  The Theotokos prepared to receive the Savior by attending to the one thing needful, to hearing and keeping His word.  In the world as we know it, that takes deliberate effort, but it remains the only way to be rich toward God. And that is why Christ is born at Christmas, to bring us into His blessed, holy, and divine life which is more marvelous than anything we can possibly imagine.  As the Lord said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”     



Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Christlike Foolishness of Fellowship with Sinners: Homily for the Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist in the Orthodox Church


1 Corinthians 4:9-16
St. Matthew 9:9-13
            Most of us do not want to play the fool, to appear to others as though we have lost of our minds and should not be taken seriously.  As we begin the period of the Nativity Fast, however, it is important to remember that Jesus Christ brought salvation to the world in what appeared to most people at the time as an unbelievably foolish way. When the eternal Son of God became a human being, He was born in the humble setting of a barn to a virgin mother.  We have heard the story so many times that it no longer shocks us, but imagine how it looked to the leaders of the Jewish people at the time who wanted a powerful, respectable political and military leader as the solution to their problem of being occupied by the Roman Empire.  They also expected their deliverer to be a strict teacher of religious law who would bring earthly blessings upon the righteous and judgment upon Gentiles and sinners.    
            No, Jesus Christ did not fit their expectations either at His birth or throughout His public ministry.  On this feast day of St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, we remember that He called Matthew, a tax collector, to be His disciple.  As we remember from the story of Zacheus, tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Romans, collecting more than was required from their own people and living off the difference.  Righteous Jews viewed them as a traitors and thieves and would have nothing to do with them.  No one would have expected the Messiah of Israel to call a tax collector to follow Him as a disciple, but that is precisely what the Lord did.  If that were not foolish enough, He also ate with tax collectors and sinners, which in that time and place was away of participating in their uncleanness.    In the eyes of the Pharisees, Christ defiled Himself and broke the Old Testament law by doing so.   For the Messiah to act in such ways was worse than foolishness; it was blasphemy and a sign that He was not a righteous Jew, let alone the one anointed to fulfill God’s promises to Abraham.    
            In response, the Lord made clear that His apparent foolishness demonstrated a much deeper wisdom than that of His self-righteous critics.  He said that sick people, not healthy ones, are in need of a doctor’s care.   He said that He came to call not the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.  Think about it for a moment.  Who requires healing, the sick or the well?  Who needs to repent, those who are already faithful or those who are not?  Christ quoted the Old Testament (Hosea 6:6) in reminding His opponents that God desired mercy and not sacrifice.  In other words, He related to others in ways that embodied the divine compassion toward corrupt and broken people.  He came to help and heal them, to help and heal us.  As so many of the Old Testament prophets proclaimed, religious ceremonies are worthless for those who refuse to show God’s mercy to the human beings they encounter every day.  That is precisely what Jesus Christ did in associating with tax collectors and sinners in a way that made Him look like a fool in the eyes of many.
            Saint Paul wrote about the ministry of the apostles that they were fools for Christ’s sake.  Before Christianity was popular, established, or well-known anywhere, they left everything behind for a ministry that led to poverty, persecution, and death.   Like the countless martyrs of Christian history throughout the centuries and in places today such as the Middle East, the apostles certainly appeared as fools to the vast majority of people in their time and place.  Why risk your life for the memory of an obscure Jewish rabbi?  Why not burn some incense to Caesar, convert to the religion of a conquering foe, or join the Communist Party?  Why throw your life away for the sake of this foolishness about Jesus Christ?
            It is easy for those of us who face no real persecution for our faith to romanticize the plight of the confessors and martyrs who suffer and die for the Lord.  It is more difficult, however, for us to recognize that Christ calls us to be fools for His sake in our lives and our culture every day.  He scandalized the self-righteous by calling St. Matthew to follow Him and by associating with people of bad reputation.  Christ did not endorse their sins, but He risked His own reputation in order to lead them to repentance and healing.  He showed them the mercy of God by calling them to a new life.  Likewise, it may seem foolish to some when we show hospitality, kindness, and friendship to the tax collectors and sinners of our day, to those whose behaviors and styles of life are quite different from the paths to holiness that we seek to pursue as Orthodox Christians.  Judging and condemning particular people for any reason is never our place; when we do so, we judge and condemn only ourselves for our pride and self-righteousness, for being like the Pharisees who criticized Christ for keeping company with disreputable people.  
            Let’s be clear.  The point is not to abandon the teachings and practices of our faith or to say that all ways of living are equally good and holy.  The Lord called His disciples to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, and He expects the same of us.  Part of that righteousness, however, is not to abandon human beings, our loved ones, friends, and acquaintances, when they lose their way and even when they make terrible decisions about how to order their lives.  Christ calls us to treat others as He treats us.  Our Savior looked like a fool to many when He kept company with people known to be sinners, and we should not be afraid to follow His example in order to maintain relationships that serve as signs of God’s steadfast love to broken and confused people whose burdens we never know fully.  If they do not experience a measure of the love of Christ through us, then where will they experience it?  If they know Christians as those who want nothing to do with them, they will likely never be drawn to the healing and life of the Kingdom.  Why would they?  What good news do we offer by abandoning them?
Of course, we must be careful not to get in situations that we cannot handle.  Sometimes relationships end or become so unhealthy that we have to abandon them for the good of all concerned.  Those are extreme circumstances and we need to be careful in them.  But when it is possible to overcome the stereotypical distinctions between the righteous and sinners of our day in order to show Christ’s compassion even to the most unlikely people, we should not refuse to do so for fear of looking foolish. The Lord certainly had an unlikely circle of acquaintances and we should not be afraid to follow His example.  
            In order to have the spiritual strength and clarity to discern how to become a healing presence in relation to other people, we all need the spiritual disciplines of the Nativity Fast, such as prayer, fasting, repentance,  generosity to the needy, and reconciliation with enemies.   Yes, these also appear foolish to our culture, especially in a time of year so focused on self-indulgence and material possessions.  And here is the great irony, for this season is fundamentally one of preparation to receive Christ Who, both at His birth and throughout His ministry, looked like a fool according to the conventional religious stands of His day.  But through what appeared to be foolish, He made—and continues to make-- saints out of tax-collectors,  prostitutes, adulterers,  murderers, Gentiles, and other unlikely characters.  So in the weeks before Christmas, let us embrace our calling to live in what may seem to be foolish ways that will draw others to the celebration of the birth of the Savior not only on December 25, but in their hearts and lives every day of the year—no matter who they are and no matter how seriously they have lost their way.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Homily on St. Nektarius the Wonderworker of Pentapolis: The Importance of Commemorating and Asking for the Prayers of the Saints of the Orthodox Church

 Ephesians 5:8-19  
Luke 8:41-56 
              It is hard to learn how to do anything without a good example of how to do it. Teachers, coaches, managers, and others who give us assignments often have to model how to do what they ask of us.  Without clear examples, most of us will not succeed in getting the job done. That is why it is so important for us to study the lives of the saints, the great examples of what it means for Christians to live holy lives.
            Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate St. Nektarius of Pentapolis the Wonderworker, who exemplifies St. Paul’s advice to the Ephesians to “walk as children of light” and to do “what is pleasing the Lord” with purity in the midst of a corrupt world that is so full of darkness and temptation.  St. Nektarius was a Greek born in the middle of the 19th century.  He became a monk, a priest, and ultimately a metropolitan.   Despite Nektarius’  childlike innocence and humility, his rapid rise to prominence in the Church roused the jealousy of others who were not so virtuous.  They made false accusations against him, which resulted in his losing his position and being unable to find suitable work.  So he accepted the humble place of a provincial preacher, led a theological school, and gave generously to the needy even as he lived in poverty.  He oversaw the building of a women’s monastery, provided  spiritual direction to many, and devoted himself to intense prayer during which he was sometimes seen elevated above the ground.  His personal holiness was such that his prayers healed the sick, cast out demons, and ended a drought.   The saint’s enemies continued to circulate vicious rumors about him, but Nektarius never defended himself and instead simply forgave them.   His relics were found to be incorrupt after his death, and sicknesses of all kinds—especially cancer-- have been healed through his intercessions.
            We certainly ask righteous people we know today to pray for us because we trust that God will hear their prayers.  That is a good and ancient practice.  In the same way, asking for the prayers of saints such as St. Nektarius is an intrinsic part of the Christian life.  The word saint means “holy” and the saints are those in whose lives the holiness of God is powerfully evident.   They are now part of that great cloud of witnesses that inspires us to run the race in obedience to Jesus Christ. (Heb. 12:-1-2)  As described in the Book of Revelation, they intercede for us around the heavenly throne.
            Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and the saints’ physical remains or relics are often incorrupt or preserved from decay.  Their bodies manifest the holiness evident in their lives, which is why the bones of the prophet Elisha raised a dead man in the Old Testament.  (2 Kings 13:21) Handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched St. Paul healed the sick and cast out demons in Acts. (19:12) Remember that Jesus Christ rose from the dead with a glorified body.  Our hope for life eternal is the resurrection of the whole person—body, soul, and spirit.  So it should not be surprising that the physical bodies of holy people are often conduits of our Lord’s blessing to the rest of us who also have physical bodies.  That has been the experience of the Church since the very beginning of the faith.
            To remember and honor the saints, as well as to ask for their intercessions, is ultimately to give thanks and praise to God, for their great virtues are His gifts.  If we want evidence of the truth of the Gospel , of our hope to participate personally in the holiness and eternal life of our Lord, we should look to the saints, whose lives are truly living icons of His salvation.  They are like our hall of fame, the greatest examples of what it means to be fully open and receptive to God’s presence and power in our lives.  Like the Thetotokos, the greatest of the saints, they always point to Christ, inviting us to give ourselves to Him.  As we say so often in our services, “Calling to remembrance our all holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and one another and all our life unto Christ our God.”  The saints are certainly not distractions from faithfulness to the Lord.  The very opposite is true, as they inspire us by their examples and prayers to take up our crosses and follow Him, even as they did.
            We need that inspiration because, as St. Paul reminded the Ephesians, it is so easy to be spiritually asleep.  It is so easy to fail to be alert to the temptations all around us and especially that we have allowed to take root in our hearts due to our own laziness.  Even as the person who has drunk too much wine tends to let his guard down and find it hard to control himself, we too easily become drunk with our own passions or self-centered desires.    We too often think, act, and speak foolishly, participating in “the unfruitful works of darkness” because they are popular, appealing, and all too familiar.
 If we define a good life by what is celebrated in popular culture--in movies, television, music, the internet, advertisements, or what most think of as the “conventional wisdom”—we will be lulled into thinking that we are doing just fine spiritually no matter we believe or how we live.  If we pay too much attention to popular versions of religion in our culture, we will hold ourselves to no higher standard than whatever makes us momentarily happy or serves whatever political agenda we may like.  If we fill our minds with graphic images of sex and violence in the name of entertainment, we will no longer consider a life of purity to be desirable or even possible.  The more comfortable we become with gratifying every desire, the more we will excuse ourselves from pursuing holiness in the relationship between man and woman as though that is somehow outdated and irrelevant.
That is precisely why we need to remember the saints, not as distant historical figures, but as fellow members of the Body of Christ, as our friends and personal examples, as holy people for whose prayers we ask every day of our lives.  If we hold ourselves to the standard that they set in faithful service to Jesus Christ, we will be less inclined to let ourselves off the hook by having expectations no higher than those of our darkened and corrupt world.  When they become our spiritual companions, we will be less likely to think of ours as a lonely and impossible path.  Every temptation we face, they faced.  Every virtue we seek to cultivate, they developed in their own lives.  Every pain or difficulty that we encounter, they know.   They are examples of how to live faithfully in a world where there is nothing new under the sun.  
We should commemorate St. Nektarius of Pentapolis the Wonderworker by living as he did in faithfulness to our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. Let us wake up spiritually and “walk as children of light,” refusing to conform ourselves to the darkness and instead keeping our eyes on the prize of finishing the race.  The saints have shown us how to do that and now they cheer us on to victory through their intercessions.  As Orthodox Christians, we must take full advantage of their example, their intercession, and their companionship.   They are shining lights of what it means to be truly human in Jesus Christ and they invite us to join them.  By God’s grace, we can.  The only question is whether we will choose to do so.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Poor Man Has a Name: Homily on Lazarus and the Rich Man in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 2:16-20
Luke 16:19-31
            During our mission trip to Guatemala in July, we met children from very poor and broken families that could not care for them.  The kids who live at the Orthodox orphanage are surely among the most fortunate needy children in that part of the world, for they have food, clothing, shelter, education, and the love provided by the nuns and staff.  Too often children in such circumstances are simply abandoned and left to face whatever cruel fate awaits them due to disease, starvation, or abuse.  They are truly “the least of these.” Their names are not known and their lives and deaths are not thought to be very important in the eyes of the world.   
            How completely shocking it is, then, that our gospel text gives us the name of the desperately poor and miserable Lazarus, but leaves out the name of the rich man.  This detail shows us that God’s kingdom is not like worldly kingdoms, not like human society as we know it.  For the kind of wealth that makes people famous in this life counts for nothing in the next.  And the kind of humility, the kind of complete trust in God that the poorest of the poor are in the best position to have, counts for little in today’s world; yet, it is only by that kind of humble trust that anyone will enter the kingdom of God.
            No, the point is not that all the rich will be damned and all the poor will be saved.  Instead, it is that there are strong and deep temptations associated with focusing on wealth, possessions, and success in this world. For if we love ourselves, our riches, and our status more than God and neighbor, no matter how much or little we have, we will shut ourselves out of the kingdom.  The name Lazarus means “One who has been helped,” and those whose miserable life circumstances do not encourage them to trust in money, power, or success are in a good position to learn that their help is in the Lord, in His mercy and love.
            The rich man never learned that lesson, however.  He wore only outrageously expensive clothes and had a great feast every day.  He must have known about the poor beggar Lazarus.  He probably stepped over or around him every time he went in or out of his house.   Here was a dying man, lying on the ground, whose only comfort was the stray dogs who would lick his open sores.  All that Lazarus wanted were the crumbs that fell from the man’s table, you might say his garbage. But the rich man was so greedy and thoughtless that he apparently denied him even that.   Our Lord is quite clear about the consequences of such a life.  This man showed no mercy; he demonstrated no love for his wretched neighbor. Consequently, he cut himself off from the mercy and love of God.
            His eternal suffering shows the reality of what it means to refuse to respond to our calling to live as those created in God’s image and likeness.  This man would not be like Christ in any way.  He showed what he thought of the Lord by treating his neighbor, surely one of “the least of these” who also bore the divine image and likeness, literally like trash.  And when he called for mercy from Father Abraham, he made no confession and did no repentance.  He cared only for himself and his brothers, and obviously had no concern for obeying Moses and prophets who had made clear the obligation of the Jews to care for the poor.
            As we say in the prayers of the Church, we will all need mercy before the judgment seat of Christ.  We err, however, if we think of the Lord’s mercy as being available only in some arbitrary way at some point in eternity.  For we encounter Him every day in our neighbors, especially the poor, wretched, and inconvenient:  the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  We participate in His mercy by showing mercy to them.  The rich man in the parable shaped himself decisively in unholy ways by his behavior; in contrast, we may shape ourselves decisively in holy ways by our behavior.  We never earn God’s mercy, but we will ultimately make offerings of our lives to God or to something else.  We will either worship and serve Him or ourselves.  Perhaps the Lord’s eternal judgment will be more a confirmation of who we have become than a shocking decree from out of the blue.
            God knows our hearts and we can hide nothing from Him, either today or at any point in the future.  Our faith as Orthodox Christians goes to the heart, to the depths of who we are, but also reminds us that we are always in relationship with other people who are also the children of God.  We encounter Him in them.  Who we are in relation to Jesus Christ is shown each day of our lives in how we treat others, especially those who need our help, attention, and friendship, as well as our enemies.  A Christianity that ignores “the least of these” is not worthy of the name.  Every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.  We bring judgment upon ourselves whenever we treat our neighbors, no matter who they are or how they have offended us, in ways that do not manifest the divine love and compassion.
            Contrary to popular opinion, the Christian life is not about feeling, emotion, or sentiment.  No, it is a commitment, a sacrifice, an offering of ourselves to God. As St. Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.”  Surely, those who live that way will bear witness to the mercy of Christ by showing that same mercy to other people. 
            The Nativity or Advent fast starts on November 15 as we prepare to welcome Christ at His Nativity on December 25.  During those forty days, we should plan on giving the money that we save by eating a humble diet to those who do not have the basic necessities of life, as we have done as a parish for Syrian refugees and needy people in our own community. Think also of the crumbs from our tables, the small bits of time and energy, that we are all able to give:   to the sick and lonely who need visitors or at least a note or a phone call; to children who need tutors and mentors; to pregnant women in difficult situations who need our support to help them welcome their babies; and to the countless other people in our own neighborhoods who need God’s blessing in their lives in tangible, practical ways.
            The hard truth is that, if we are not sharing our lives and blessings with others in some way, we will become just like the rich man who was too caught up with his own pleasure to worry about poor Lazarus.  We know where that path leads.  The good news is that Christ has shown us a better way which is open to us in every generation, in every walk of life, no matter how rich or poor we are.  For the money and power of the world will fade away; they do not last.  Only one thing lasts, and that is the selfless love of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ Who has conquered sin and death.  And we all have gifts and abilities that may become channels of His blessing and mercy to a world of people like Lazarus, whether their wounds are physical or spiritual or emotional. 
            We do not have to save the world; Christ has already done that.  We just have to be faithful:  to trust, believe, and follow our Savior in how we treat others.  He turned no one away empty-handed and neither should we.  If we claim His mercy and love for ourselves, we must do likewise for all who bear His image and likeness.  We must be Christians not merely in name, but also in how we live, even when it is inconvenient.  Then we will become living icons of the salvation that Jesus Christ has brought to a world of sin and death, and the Lazaruses of the world will know that they too are the children of God.  And together with them, we will all share in the mercy of a Lord Who raises the dead, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and makes even the most miserable people guests at His heavenly banquet.