Sunday, July 26, 2015

Offering our Loaves and Fishes for the Diocese of Bosra-Hauran: Homily for St. Timon Sunday

Galatians 3:23-4:5:Matthew 14: 14-22
            Today is “St. Timon Sunday” in our Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America, when we take up a collection for the relief of our brothers and sisters in Syria as we remember Timon, one of the seventy apostles sent out by Jesus Christ and one of the original deacons mentioned in Acts 6:5.  St. Timon was the first bishop of what is now known as the city of Bosra in Syria.  He played a key role in evangelizing a region where our Lord Himself often ministered (Matt.4:25) and where St. Paul took refuge after he escaped from Damascus following his conversion (Gal. 1:15-18).
          Millions of Syrians today are refugees in other countries or displaced persons in their own land.  The basic services that we take for granted, such as health care,   education, and access to adequate food and shelter, are simply not available in much of the country.  The physical, psychological, and social damage from the ongoing conflict—in which over 200,000 people have died– cannot be overestimated in its horrible effects on millions of men, women, and children, all of whom bear the image and likeness of God.
          Many of us feel overwhelmed even by the struggles we face in our own souls and families.  In our own nation, we encounter so many problems and difficulties that do not seem likely to go away anytime soon.  So it would be easy to give in to the temptation to think that such a grave and complicated situation as the crisis in Syria is simply far too large and deep for the members of our small parish to address.  We may be tempted to despair of being able to do anything helpful at all for a land so far away and with so many needs.
          When we feel that way, we must remember how our Lord fed thousands of hungry people at the end of a long day in a deserted place.  He blessed the tiny bit of food that the disciples had collected, five loaves and two fish, to feed everyone with a substantial amount left over.  By any conventional way of looking at what it would take to feed thousands, such a small offering would be nowhere near sufficient.  Someone in charge of organizing a meal for that many people would be insane to suggest that five loaves and two fish would be sufficient.  The disciples knew that, so they asked Jesus Christ to send the people away to buy their own food.  Due to their own sense of inadequacy, they wanted to leave the hungry people to take care of themselves.  But He would not let them off the hook so easily and challenged them to offer what little they had in faith.
          So that is what they did.  Then, looking up into heaven, the Lord blessed, broke, and gave the few loaves back to the disciples, and they in turn gave them to the crowd.  Miraculously, everyone had more than enough to eat; twelve baskets full of bread were left over after several thousand people had had dinner.  What seemed so small, so insignificant, so inadequate, was more than enough because of the blessing of our Savior.
          So much in our lives is just like that, a seemingly insignificant offering that could not possibly make much of a difference.  We take up a collection each year and pray every Sunday for the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Bosra-Hauran.  Our parish does what it can to help our own members when times are tough, to donate each year to “Food for Hungry People” during Lent through our Archdiocese, and to support Pregnancy Resources of Abilene in their work for pregnant women and their children in our own community. Likewise, our members undertake many seemingly small tasks for the flourishing of our parish, from cutting the grass to bookkeeping, from teaching Sunday School to giving someone a ride to church.  Most of us cannot imagine that the amounts of time and energy we invest in prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other forms of service really amount to much in comparison with the great needs of our society and world.  They probably seem barely worth mentioning and nothing out of the ordinary.
          From a purely human perspective, that is true.  But we must remember that our Savior has united humanity and divinity in Himself.  He has made it possible for humble human beings to participate by grace in His abundant life. Of course, we ourselves do not have the power to fix all our own personal problems, much less to end wars or feed thousands.  Fortunately, He does not call or expect us to do so.  All that He asks us to do is to follow the good example of the disciples in offering what little we can to Him for blessing with the faith that He will do with it what is best.
          That kind of offering is at the very heart of our worship in the Orthodox Church, for our spiritual fathers have always seen the Lord’s miraculous feeding of thousands with the loaves and fishes as a sign of the Eucharist, of Holy Communion.  A few loaves of bread and a cup containing wine and water might make a decent snack by themselves, but not a satisfying meal even for one hungry person. But in the Divine Liturgy, God blesses the little bit of bread and wine that we offer to Him.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, they become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the menu of the heavenly banquet.  We receive back from Him so much more than we offered.  It is not a mere meal, but true communion with our Lord, the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.
          For this blessed miracle to occur, we have to do our part, making our small offering with the fear of God and faith and love. We have to supply the bread, wine, and water for the Eucharist.   These offerings are essential, for He requires that we do our small part, just as the disciples had to offer what little they could gather to feed a multitude of hungry people.  With His blessing, our tiny gifts become infinitely more than what they would have been on their own.
          Our whole life, then, should become an icon of the Divine Liturgy, of offering every bit of who we are to God for Him to bless and use as He pleases.  It does not matter whether we think that we have an impressive or large offering to make.  God knows our hearts and He will accept our humble gifts and multiply them to accomplish His purposes for a suffering and needy world.  That is true whether we are talking about giving money for the relief of refugees, devoting time and energy to prayer, or struggling to resist any temptation.  He is able to make our small investments of whatever kind to bear abundant fruit for the Kingdom as a sign of the salvation of the world.
          It is simply a temptation to think that our offerings of resources, time, energy, or anything else are too insignificant for our Lord to bless.  Remember that He has always worked through what appears at first weak and insignificant, such the cross by which He conquered death itself in His glorious resurrection.  He uses imperfect, conflicted people like us to do His work, as He did throughout the unfolding story of the Bible.  He calls us, like He called the disciples, simply to obey as best we can in our present circumstances and to leave the rest to Him.
          So in the spirit of the loaves and fishes, let us offer up what resources we can to help our suffering brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Bosra-Hauran.  Doing so is part of our ongoing calling to offer our humble lives to the Lord, trusting that the same God who blessed St. Timon’s ministry in an obscure corner of the world will do the same with our offering to His glory.  If we feel inadequate to meeting the needs of Syria, then remember how the disciples must have felt with their few loaves and fish before a hungry multitude, and what abundance the Lord produced from their small collection.  May this be true for all of us, each day of our lives, as we struggle to offer ourselves to Jesus Christ for His blessing for the salvation of the world and of our own souls.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The God-Man Makes Us Holy, Not Merely Nice: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council

          Someone told me this week that there must be more to being a Christian than just being a nice person.  The fellow who said that knows that Jesus Christ calls His followers to something much more profound than being friendly, decent, or thoughtful. Those personality traits are not the sole possession of any religion, and our Lord did not rise from the dead in order to make us pleasant people who fit especially well into our, or any other, society.  Christ sets His and our sights much higher, calling us to become lights shining in stark contrast to the darkness of the world. 
            That is surely why He sets the bar so high for His disciples.  He did not “come to abolish the law and the prophets” of the Old Testament, “but to fulfill them.”  So those who “shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven” are those who obey the commandments and teach others to do so.  And, likewise, those who relax God’s requirements and teach others to follow their example “shall be called least in the kingdom of Heaven.”
            The Savior wants us to shine with holiness such that we become the light of the world, illuminating it with goodness so that all will give glory to God.   So it is not enough to refrain from the physical act of murder; we are to be healed of the passion of anger, which is at the root of murder.   It is not sufficient to avoid the physical act of adultery or other sexual sins; we are to be free from bondage to lust in all its forms.  It is not enough to limit our revenge to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We are to turn the other cheek, blessing our enemies with the same love that we have received from Him.  The ultimate goal of these commandments is nothing short of: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  If that is who we become in Christ, imagine what a blessing we would be to the world as living proof of His salvation.  That is a calling much higher than being merely nice.
            Today we remember the 630 holy and God-bearing fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in the year 451.  They made clear that Christ is fully God and fully human:  one Person with two natures. They rejected the views of the Monophysites who claimed the Lord has only one nature, a divine one.  If that were the case, we could not participate in His divine life—for we are simply humans--and it would be hard to see how Christ’s death and resurrection had much to do with us.  Today’s commemoration is not simply a reminder about Church history; it is a proclamation of the Gospel, for Jesus Christ must be both fully God and fully human in order to bring us into eternal light and life as our Savior.
            Indeed, He is the Light, the eternal Son of God who becomes fully human while remaining fully divine.  That is how He makes it possible for us to shine with His holy glory even as we live and breathe upon the earth as flesh and blood.   He fulfills all the foreshadowing and preparation of the Law and the Prophets, for God was never primarily concerned with Old Testament rules about outward behavior or the sacrifice of animals.  Instead, they pointed the way to the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, to the One who triumphs over sin and death itself.   And now He makes it possible for us to share in His glorious, brilliant light as partakers of His divinity by grace.
            The God-Man Jesus Christ is our perfection, our salvation, our theosis.   He has joined humanity and divinity, has conquered sin and death, and made us creatures of the earth participants in His life. Our task is to open the dark corners of our lives to His light, to stop hiding in the night of sin and instead to do all that we can to become more radiant living icons of the divine glory.          In order to do that, we must embrace our identity as members of the living Body of Christ. That means growing in holiness, finding healing for our passions, and turning away from the darkness as we enter more fully into the light of the Kingdom.    Our goal is nothing short of perfection, full personal participation in the eternal life of God by grace.
            We will not advance toward that high goal by accommodating ourselves or our faith to whatever strand of popular culture we happen to like.  At the end of the day, simply being nice and decent by any worldly interpretation falls short of our high calling.  We need the God-Man to save us, not simply a moral teacher or good example. We must humble ourselves before Him by refusing to water down our faith into a comfortable cultural agenda of any kind.   
            So in a world of addiction to self-indulgence, we must fast and learn to say “no” to our self-centered desires for pleasure.  In a society of violence, hatred, and revenge, we must love, forgive, and bless our critics and enemies.  In a time of disregard for the weak, helpless, and inconvenient, we must sacrifice to serve all who bear the divine image and likeness from the womb to the tomb.  In an age when we are distracted and busy, we must take the time and effort to pray, to read the Scriptures and the lives of the saints, and to keep a close guard on our thoughts.  And whenever we stumble on this path, we must do the radically countercultural act of refusing to make excuses and humbling ourselves by sincere confession and repentance.  Above all, we must not compromise the high vision and calling that our Savior gives us.  As the God-Man, He has shown us how to radiate His light in our darkened world, and it is surely not by relaxing His commandments.  Easier paths may make us nice, but they will not make us holy.
            We must be on guard against everything that distracts us from following Him, including becoming obsessed with pointless arguments.  In St. Paul’s letter to St. Titus, he notes that some Christians preferred to spend their time in foolish, unprofitable, and useless arguments which led to nothing but division.  Apparently, not much has changed in two thousand years! St. Paul teaches that it is much better to use such wasted time and energy in actually doing good works, meeting the urgent needs of people, and bearing fruit for the Kingdom.  In other words, it is better to focus on living the basic Christian life than it is to distract ourselves with what ultimately amounts to nonsense.
            We certainly have a lot of nonsense in our day.  In our age of the internet, social media, smart phones, video games, and 24-hour television, we probably have more opportunities for distraction, endless arguments, and inflamed passions than any other generation in human history.  So we must be on guard not to waste our lives on habits that sap time and energy we could use as fuel to become lamps burning brightly with the light of Christ.   If we will focus on getting the basic practices of our faith established in our daily lives, we will find strength for keeping other habits in their proper place.  Unfortunately, too often we put other things first and then find that we have very little power to focus on what is really important. If we have already wasted our fuel, we should not be surprised when we do not have enough left to burn brightly ourselves as lamps of holiness.

            We can avoid these problems by simply doing what we know we should be doing already. Come to church; receive the Holy Mysteries with proper preparation; pray, fast, and take confession; repent of any wrong that you do; give to the needy; serve the weak; forgive those who have wronged you and ask forgiveness of those you have wronged; fight your passions; watch your thoughts, your mouth, and whatever else you have trouble controlling.  Focus your energy on living the basic Christian life and you will have much less time for pointless disputes and other spiritually unhealthy endeavors.  Do all of this with sincere faith, hope, and love, and you will become much more than merely nice.  Your light will shine before others such that they will see your good works and give glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

Sunday, July 12, 2015

How to Become a Living Relic: Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church


Romans 12:6-14

Matthew 9: 1-8
             Last Sunday I went to liturgy in an Orthodox parish in Rome that meets in a vacant Catholic church.  After the service, the priest showed me the bones of early Christian martyrs kept there in a cabinet. Rome was the capital city of an empire that put so many to death for their faith in Christ and their refusal to worship the emperor and other false gods.  Whether in great cathedrals or humble parish churches, the relics of saints are never far away in such a place.  They are tangible signs of holiness.
            From as early as anyone can tell, Christians preserved the bones and other relics of saints and martyrs.  That may appear to be an odd practice, but remember that in the Old Testament a dead man came back to life when his body was put in the grave of the Prophet Elisha and touched his bones.  God worked many miracles through the touch of the hands of the Apostles in Acts—and even through the aprons and handkerchiefs of St. Paul and the shadow of St. Peter. Such events remind us that God, Who created us from the dust of the earth, calls us to holiness in every dimension of our existence—body, soul, and spirit.   
            In today’s gospel reading, our Lord demonstrates His divinity by doing something tangible and practical for a paralyzed man who could not move his own body.  Not only did He forgive the man’s sins, but He gave evidence of His authority to do so by enabling this fellow to “rise, take up your bed, and go home.”  Those who saw it marveled and glorified God. Christ made him a living witness through the healing of his body of the salvation that He has brought to the world.  Our Lord did not simply give him ideas, rules, or feelings.   He enabled him to manifest visibly the blessed life of the God-Man as a whole, complete person.  Everyone could plainly see the difference Christ made in this man’s life.    
            Likewise, Saint Paul exhorted the Romans to become living evidence of Christ’s salvation, regardless of their particular gifts.  In words that still apply to us directly today, he wrote: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, and serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” 
            In this passage, St. Paul urges the Roman Christians to become like that formerly paralyzed man whom Christ healed and told to get moving.  He called them to specific practices and actions that do not come easily to human beings in our spiritually and morally corrupted state, and which were certainly counter-cultural in their time and place. They lived in a proud, violent, and cruel society that thought nothing of abandoning unwanted children to die and treating slaves, the poor, and foreigners as far less than human.  The slaughter of human beings was popular entertainment in the Colosseum. The decadence and immorality of pagan Rome remain legendary.
            In contrast to the conventional attitudes and behaviors of their day, the early Christians did what it took to show the world something radically new.  As we know even from the writings of those who persecuted them, they lived the Christian life in practical, tangible ways that got the attention of their neighbors and drew many of them to the Lord.  For example, they rescued infants others had abandoned to die and raised them as their own.  They risked and even gave up their lives to care for the sick during plagues.  They did not define themselves or others by divisions such as Jew, Gentile, slave, and free. They modeled purity in the relationship between man and woman in stark contrast to their mainstream culture. Persecuted literally to the point of death, they prayed for their tormentors and laid down their lives like their Savior.  They actually lived and died this way with bodies just like ours.  And their witness is a key part of how the Church grew, spread, and flourished throughout the Roman Empire and around the world.
            Had these early Christians thought that their faith concerned simply their ideas or feelings, the story would have been very different.  Had Christ simply forgiven the sins of the paralytic and not visibly restored his health, that story would have been very different.  Perhaps one of the reasons that so many in our culture do not take the faith seriously is that too many Christians do not rise up from their spiritual and moral weakness actually to live in ways that stand in clear contrast to the dominant customs and habits of our time.  If we do not live as clear examples of what happens when a human being puts on Christ and becomes a partaker of the divine nature, then why should we think that anyone will take our faith seriously, let alone be drawn to it?  No, we must actually live the life of Christ and the Saints in our own flesh and blood if we are to bear faithful witness. 
            Talk is cheap, even when it is about religion or morality; but taking up the cross is costly, personal, and real.  The early Christian witness was fundamentally a matter of how people lived their lives in sharp contrast to what was popular and easy.  It required discipline and sacrifice.  They explained and defended their faith with integrity because they practiced what they preached in a fashion that attracted others to a new life.  They modeled holiness to the point of death and drew others to join them.  They knew that tangible, distinctive practices for how we live our lives as Christians are absolutely essential for calling the world to its salvation.
            Like the martyrs of long ago and today, we must do the hard work of growing in holiness if we are to have any hope of becoming living witnesses of Christ’s healing and blessing of humanity.  If we are not doing that, we have no standing to speak a critical word about any aspect of the moral and spiritual corruption of our society and world.   Whenever we preach what we do not practice, we bring judgment upon ourselves and give others a bad impression of our faith.   

            The relics of saints are about as tangible as you can get, for it is easy to handle pieces of bone or cloth.  Our calling is to make our own lives relics of holiness that are visible signs of the salvation of the world.  Fulfilling this calling requires more than words, feelings, good intentions, or saying we support a cause of whatever kind.  We must actually live as those united with Christ in sharp contrast with a world that still worships false gods and thinks that those who refuse to do so are deluded and dangerous. The way to convince skeptics and opponents is rarely by words alone, but more fundamentally by obeying the command of Christ to the paralytic to rise up from the weakness of sin and move forward in the blessed life for which He created us from the dust of the earth.  We must be faithful to Him in our own flesh and blood in our daily lives if we want to entice others to marvel, give glory to God, and enter into the life of the Kingdom.