Sunday, April 30, 2017

Serving Even When We Do Not Get What We Want: Homily for the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women in the Orthodox Church

Acts 6: 1-7; Mark 15:43-16:8

Christ is Risen!          

We live in a time in which it is easy to think of ourselves as isolated individuals whose purpose in life is to get whatever we happen to want. Personal freedom is a great blessing from God, but since Adam and Eve we have abused it by thinking and acting as though fulfilling our immediate desires is the only thing that really matters. Our Lord Jesus Christ conquered the corrupting consequences of that prideful, selfish attitude in His glorious resurrection.  Raising us up with him from slavery to all the distortions of our souls that root in the fear of death, He has restored our true identity as His beloved sons and daughters, making us members of His own Body.

            Today we celebrate those who, in moments of great personal crisis, did not think only of themselves, but instead ministered to the Body of our Lord with selfless love.  With broken hearts and in terrible shock and grief, the Theotokos, Mary Magdalen, two other Mary’s, Johanna, Salome, Martha, Susanna, and others whose names we do not know went early in the morning to the tomb of Christ in order to anoint His Body.  They had not anticipated the resurrection and expected to find Him in the grave like anyone else who had died.  By doing what they could to show one last act of love to the Savior, the myrrh-bearing women opened themselves to the tremendous blessing of being the first to hear from the angel the good news of the resurrection. 

            Along with them, we also remember today Joseph of Arimathea, who bravely asked Pilate for the Body of the Lord and took Him down from the cross with his own hands.  Nicodemus helped Joseph bury Him.  These were both prominent Jewish leaders who surely risked a great deal by associating themselves with One Who had been rejected as a blasphemer and publically crucified as a traitor. 

            In the events of our Lord’s Passion, none of His followers had received what they had wanted or expected.  John was the only disciple to stand at the foot the cross, for the others had run away in fear.  Peter, the head disciple, had denied the Savior three times.  They were disappointed and shocked that their Messiah had failed to satisfy them by setting up an earthly kingdom; instead, He had been killed by His enemies.  They believed that death had been the final word on Jesus of Nazareth.  And probably out of a mixture of fear, disappointment, and the belief that He could do nothing else for them, they simply fled.

            The myrrh-bearers, along with Joseph and Nicodemus, were surely just as grieved as the disciples. They had not gotten what they had wanted either.  But they resisted the temptation to think only about themselves.  Notice that they responded very differently from the disciples because they still kept their focus on serving Jesus Christ as best they could.  And that meant doing the sorrowful task of giving their departed Lord and friend a decent burial.  They probably all put themselves in danger by identifying publically with One Who had just been crucified.  They must have all struggled not to be paralyzed by fear and pain.  Still, they found the courage and strength not to focus on themselves, but on showing love to Christ as best they could.

            Our reading today from Acts describes something similar in the early years of the Church’s life. The Christians in Jerusalem had shared all things in common and provided food daily to the widows.  A problem arose when the widows of Greek cultural heritage complained that they were being neglected. We know from Acts and many other New Testament writings that disagreements and struggles between different groups of people have existed in the Church from its earliest days.  Instead of the apostles attempting to solve the problem directly, they created the office of deacon, which literally means “servant.”  The community chose seven men to fulfill the role of servants who would directly manage such practical issues in the Church.  Following their ordination and ministry of service, we read that “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”

            These first deacons have a lot in common with the women and men we commemorate today, for they also cared for the Body of the Lord when they served the Church.  They addressed the physical needs of the members of the Body of Christ, directly entering into what must have been a stressful situation of conflict in the Church.  Instead of leaving the problem to others or ignoring it, they took it on.  By undertaking that ministry, they may not have been getting what they had wanted.  If they had thought that the Church would be a place of perfect peace or that they could devote themselves to cultivating spiritual experiences on their own terms, they may have been surprised to find themselves organizing a fair distribution of food to the widows.  Regardless of anything else, they accepted their new ministry and performed it faithfully for the flourishing of the Church.

            As we continue to celebrate our Savior’s great victory over death on this Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, it should be clear that the new life He has brought into the world requires our active faithfulness, regardless of whether we think that we are getting what we want. The first Christians definitely did not get what they wanted at the Lord’s Passion, because He had something far better in store for them.  It would have been much easier to follow a Messiah like King David who would establish a great earthly reign and give them worldly power.  It was infinitely more difficult to take the dead Christ down from the cross, bury Him in a tomb, and then go to anoint the Body still bearing the wounds of torture and crucifixion.  But it was through the courageous, humble, and loving service of those actions that a certain group of women opened themselves to receive the unbelievably good news of the resurrection.

            We should learn from their holy example that the way to participate in the joy of the empty tomb is in serving Our Lord in His Body.  It is in putting aside our preferences in order to love Him in the members of the His Body, the Church.  That includes addressing all the practical challenges that any parish faces:  from cutting the grass and teaching Sunday School to chanting and caring for the needy.  And since the Savior identified Himself with every person in need, this calling extends to every area of our lives and every person we encounter.  As the apostles knew when they ordained the first deacons, no one can perform every ministry in the Church.  No one of us has to do it all.  But we must all use our gifts to do what needs to be done for the flourishing of the Church, even if it is not what we would prefer to do.  In other words, all of us need to get over the self-centered individualism that so easily leads to making God in our own image and judging Him by our own standards.

            Just as Joseph, Nicodemus, the myrrh-bearing women, and the first deacons did not flee when their hopes were dashed, we must not abandon His Body the Church when our desires go unfulfilled, when our problems do not go away, and when God does not give us everything we want.  Like them, we will participate more fully in the joy of eternal life by getting over ourselves and doing what needs to be done in loving and serving our Lord in our parish, our neighbors, and our families.  Pascha is not about fulfilling the plans and desires of individuals, but about how something far greater, and totally unexpected, came into the world through their bitter disappointment.  If we will love and serve Christ even in the midst of our most difficult struggles in life, then we also will be healed of our prideful selfishness and become more fully who our Lord has enabled us to be through His glorious resurrection.  We will then be in the place where it is possible to hear the good and completely surprising news that what He has in store for those who love and serve Him is far better than anything we can ever come up with on our own, for Christ is Risen!   

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Belief in the Resurrection Requires Commitment: Homily for the Sunday of St. Thomas the Apostle and St. George the Great Martyr in the Orthodox Church

John 20:19-31
As we continue to celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, we remember today how Thomas was transformed from a skeptic into a believer, and ultimately into a martyr who gave the ultimate witness for His Savior’s great victory over death.  Since Thomas was not present when the risen Christ first appeared to the disciples, he doubted their testimony.  That is why we know him as “doubting Thomas,” but we should also remember how the apostles had doubted the testimony of the women who first heard the news of the resurrection from the angel.  No one had anticipated the Lord’s rising, and the news of someone’s resurrection from the dead after public crucifixion and burial for three days was simply outrageous.
People of that time and place were more familiar with death than most of us are today.  In comparison with our society, their infant mortality rates were much higher, their lifespans were usually much shorter, and they themselves prepared the bodies of their loved ones for burial. They knew all about death.  As well, they knew that Roman soldiers were seasoned professional experts in administering a long, painful execution.  Joseph of Arimathea removed the Lord’s dead body from the cross and, with the help of Nicodemus, buried Him.  The women went to the tomb very early on Sunday morning in order to anoint the Savior’s dead body.  None of them had any illusions about what death meant.  There could have been nothing more shocking to them in the world than the unexpected and unbelievably good news that “Christ is risen!”  And quite understandably, Thomas did not believe in the resurrection until the Lord appeared to Him, still bearing His wounds, and invited Him to touch His Body.  Then Thomas confessed the risen Christ as “My Lord and my God!”
We should not be surprised that many people today continue to doubt the truth of Christ’s resurrection.  Such a unique and astonishing event is a great challenge to accept, for it is contrary to what we know about death in this world.  But perhaps it is precisely the difficulty of believing in the resurrection that invites us to deep, personal faith in our Savior’s great victory over the grave.  We do not need much faith in order to agree that water freezes at a certain temperature, as a little experimentation with a thermometer will remove all doubt.  We do not need much faith in order to believe that it is better to lead a morally decent life than one characterized by dishonesty and murder.  In one way or another, virtually all cultures and religions teach that.  But if we are going to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God Who rose victorious over death and made even the grave an entryway to the eternal life of the Heavenly Kingdom, then we need the kind of faith that takes root to the very depths of our souls. 
That kind of faith is not like the rational certainty that we have about the temperature at which water freezes.  Instead, it is the kind of faith that requires trust in giving our lives to that which is not obvious; it requires profound commitment and sacrifice.  For example, the love of spouses for one another and for their children is not a rational theory based on objective experimentation or historical research.  It is known only through experience; it becomes real through a thousand acts of putting one another and the children before themselves.  It changes them.  It requires a kind of martyrdom, of dying to self for the sake of others.  There is a depth of love in marriage and family that it is simply impossible to know and experience without such sacrifice.   
The same is true of our knowledge of the Lord’s resurrection.  To say the least, it would be very hard to give an account of the origins of Christianity without Him actually rising in glory.  A few questions make this point clear.  For example, why would His followers have made up such an unbelievable story about a dead man, and then gone to their deaths out of faithfulness to a lie about a failed Messiah?  Why would they have concocted a story in which women, who were not viewed as reliable witnesses in that culture, provided the foundational testimony to such an astounding miracle?  Had they made up the resurrection, why would they have included in the gospels so much material that describes how they totally misunderstood Christ’s prediction of His own death and resurrection and then abandoned Him at the crucifixion?  Apart from the truth of His resurrection, the rise of the Christian faith makes no sense.
Nonetheless, many skeptics will, like Thomas, still be doubtful that something so contrary to our experience of the world actually happened.  Here we must remember that Thomas came to faith not due to rational arguments or historical research, but because of seeing the risen Lord before His own eyes.  Since we live after the Ascension, we do not see Him in that way today.  But the root meaning of the word martyr is “witness,” and from the very origins of the faith countless people have given the ultimate witness to the Savior’s victory over death by going to their deaths out of faithfulness to Him.  All the apostles, with the exception of John, did so.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  Their powerful example has, and still does, bear witness to the truth of Christ’s resurrection.  In them, we see the Savior’s victory over death with our own eyes.
Today we also commemorate the Great Martyr George the Trophy-Bearer, a respected soldier who boldly denounced the Roman emperor Diocletian for persecuting Christians.  For refusing to worship pagan gods, St. George endured horrible tortures and laid down His life for Christ.  From the apostolic age to today, countless Christians have done what St. George did in showing steadfast personal commitment to the Lord literally to the point of death.  They do so because they know the truth of Christ’s resurrection, not as an abstract idea or merely something that they accepted as having happened long ago, but as the real spiritual experience of participating in eternal life.  They see the Body of Christ, the Church, bearing witness to a life that shines brilliantly in holiness in contrast to the darkness of the world.  Even when they died as a result, the early Christians cared for the sick with contagious diseases.  They rescued abandoned children, gave generously to the poor, and pursued chastity in the relationship between man and woman. They refused to worship other gods, even when that led to certain torture and death. They loved and forgave their enemies, even as the persecuted Christians of the Middle East do to this very day in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and many other countries.   
            We may not be physical martyrs in the sense that they are, but we still must bear witness to the resurrection of Christ.  We do that by providing evidence of His victory over death in how we live our lives.  Thomas came to faith when He saw the glorified Body of the Risen Lord.  We must live as those who have passed over in Him from slavery to sin and death to the glorious freedom of eternal life.  Our lives must shine brightly with the holy joy of the resurrection if anyone is to believe that “Christ is risen!”
Indeed, we ourselves will not truly believe that glorious news unless we personally rise with Him from death to life, from sin to holiness. True faith in the risen Lord is not a mere idea, but requires deep personal commitment and self-sacrifice.  His astounding victory is neither a rational concept nor just another truth of the natural world known by experimentation.  To know His resurrection is to know Him, and that requires dying to self out of love from the depths of our souls.  It requires a form of martyrdom, an offering of our flesh and blood to the One Who makes us mystical participants in His Flesh and Blood in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist.  Even as we receive Him as our Lord and our God, let us bear witness to His glorious resurrection in how we live each day.  That is the only way to follow Thomas in moving from doubt to true faith.  It is the only way to say with integrity “Christ is risen!”

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Time to Offer Ourselves to the Savior Who Offered Himself for Us: Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 4:4-9
John 12:1-18

Sometimes it is not enough to have ideas or speak words, no matter how true they are.   There are circumstances that require us to act in order to respond properly to them.  There are challenges in life that we must enter into personally if we are really going to engage them.    They require us to invest ourselves in them fully; otherwise, we end up fooling only ourselves.
Palm Sunday is like that.  Jesus Christ had to enter into Jerusalem, being hailed as a conquering hero after raising Lazarus from the dead, in order to fulfill His ministry as the true Passover Lamb Who takes away the sins of the world.  That was the only way to make clear the radical difference between the anticipated earthly king of the Jews and the One Who reigns from the Cross and a tomb that ultimately cannot contain Him.  The Savior did not simply think about going from being celebrated as a righteous military leader to being killed as a blasphemous traitor within the short space of a few days.  He actually experienced it in order to set us free from the fear of death and make us participants in His eternal life.  He did so purely out of love for us.  When He wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, He was mourning for us all who are enslaved to the misery of corruption and decay in all its forms. Christ’s love is not limited to a feeling or an idea, for He literally laid down His life in order to restore us to the holy joy for which He created us in the first place.    
That kind of love requires commitment, action, and self-sacrifice.  The Lord offered Himself completely, without reservation of any kind, to set right all that had marred and distorted our original beauty as those created in God’s image and likeness. He rejected the temptation to play to the desire of the crowds for a conventional ruler, and instead won His great victory in the most shocking way possible through His own rejection, death, burial, and resurrection.  He entered into it all in order to heal, bless, and save fallen humanity, indeed the entire creation.    
The Savior had raised Lazarus from the dead, thus showing that He is the resurrection and the life.  Lazarus’ sister Mary prophetically anointed Christ for burial, even as those who saw Him as a threat to their power plotted to kill both Him and Lazarus.  In contrast, the One Who offered Himself as the true Passover Lamb sought no earthly power at all.  Even as the crowds welcomed Him with shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!” in hopes of liberation from Rome by a ruler like King David, this Messiah rode into town on a humble donkey.  He is not a fearsome warrior, but the Prince of Peace.
Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem not merely as a great human being, but as the Son of God.  Being fully aware of the rejection, torture, and death that would come in the next few days, the eternal Word Who spoke the universe into existence went into Jerusalem as a lamb led to the slaughter.  He knew exactly what He was doing and what others would do to Him.  Out of love for us, He intentionally offered Himself as a ransom in order to set us free from slavery to the fear of the death and all its malign effects.   
            Our Lord is not some kind of distant god who delights in making others suffer.  He is not a typical political or national leader who wants only to build up his own power and glory.  He is not a self-righteous legalist keeping score of who deserves punishment or a reward.  Instead, He freely takes upon Himself the worst and most painful dimensions of life in our world of corruption in humility beyond our understanding.  The same Son of God Who wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus will Himself lie in a tomb and descend even to Hades in order to look for His ancient friends Adam and Eve, lifting them up from the pit and bringing them to the blessedness for which He made them in His image and likeness.  In doing so, He sets us all free from slavery to sin and death.  
            That is how Jesus Christ has enacted our salvation, how He has accomplished it through His own flesh and blood.  It is an understatement to say that His death and resurrection required His personal participation.  He gave Himself fully, without reservation of any kind, in order to save us.  And if we want to know His salvation, if we want to know Him, that will require our personal participation also.
Holy Week invites us to participate personally in the deep mystery of the Savior’s great victory on our behalf. Through the services of the Church, we participate mystically in the triumphant entry of the Prince of Peace into Jerusalem, even though He triumphs in a way that still makes no sense according to the standards by which we usually live our lives.  This week we will prepare to receive the Bridegroom when He comes to invite us into the joy of the Kingdom. We will receive His Body and Blood as He institutes the Holy Eucharist on the night in which He was betrayed.  We will follow Him as He is rejected, abused, and crucified—as He dies, is buried, and descends to Hades.  We will sing dirges at His tomb and then stand in awe when that same tomb is empty and He arises in glory.
Holy Week enacts truths so profound that merely describing them with words or thoughts does not do them justice.  In order to enter into them, we must participate personally as whole, embodied persons who bow down and worship His Passion.  That means changing our schedules and routines as much as humanly possible in order to invest ourselves in the services of the Church.  It means not taking our Lord’s great Self-offering and victory over death for granted as an idea or a course of events that we already understand.  It means investing ourselves in Him by turning from our usual excuses, obsessions, and distractions to focus on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.”  As St. Paul put it, “The Lord is at hand.”  So we should “have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”   
Now is the time to lay aside our earthly cares as we make faithfulness to our Savior the highest priority of our lives this week.  He did not shrink from going to the Cross for us, and we must not abandon Him by saying that we already know what happened two thousand years ago or simply have better things to do.  No, we must enter into the deep mystery of our salvation by investing ourselves as fully as possible in the journey of our Savior from the welcoming crowds of Sunday to those that yelled “Crucify Him!” on Friday.  We must kneel in humility at the foot of the Cross and sing lamentations at His grave if we are to have the eyes to behold the brilliant glory of a Savior Who rises in victory.  This week is one of those times not to rely on mere thoughts, feelings, or good intentions.  It is a time to act, to be committed, and to refuse to ignore the One who conquers death and Hades for our salvation. It is a time to offer ourselves to the Lord Who offered Himself for us purely out of love.  

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Selfless Service Over Self-Centered Desire: Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 10:32-45
            Human beings have an amazing capacity to miss the point, to become blind to truths that should be obvious.  We often do that because we become so preoccupied and distracted with our own agendas and desires that we ignore everything else.  That is especially the case when the truth goes strongly against our inclinations by telling us what we do not want to hear.
That is what James and John did when they asked for choice positions of honor right after Jesus Christ had told them that He was to suffer, die, and rise from the dead.  They were apparently so consumed by their desires for prominence and power that they refused to hear the Lord saying that He was nothing like an earthly king.  They boasted of being prepared to follow the Savior without having any idea of what that would mean.  He responded by making clear that the path to true greatness was to follow His way of selfless service.  “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” 
As we begin the last week of Lent, it should be clear to us all that we have not earned a place of honor in God’s reign.  If we have practiced the spiritual disciplines of Lent with any integrity and honesty, we will know primarily our own weakness and brokenness.  By revealing how easily we are distracted and how enslaved we are to our self-centered desires and habits, they show us that we cannot heal our own souls.  And if we have not devoted ourselves to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving at all in the previous weeks of Lent, we should confess that in humility and thus gain a greater awareness that we stand in constant need of the Lord’s gracious mercy. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 
Regardless of how we have approached Lent so far, we must not become paralyzed with a sense of obsessive guilt for not living up to a standard of perfection, for not making ourselves worthy of the mercy of Christ.  To do so is simply a form of self-centered pride, for it is impossible to earn grace as a reward for good behavior.  Becoming great among the Lord’s servants means laying down our lives for others, lowering ourselves by placing the needs and interests of others before our own.  That is the opposite of a self-centered obsession to prove that we are worthy of anything. 
Today we remember St. Mary of Egypt, who had lived a grossly immoral life, but then gave herself up in repentance for decades in the desert, where she became a remarkably holy saint.  Instead of continuing to gratify her addiction to sexual pleasure, she died to self by rejecting everything that was a hindrance to the healing of her soul through incredibly rigorous repentance for the rest of her long life.  She knew that such disciplines did not somehow put God in her debt, but were ways of opening herself to receive the gracious healing of the Lord, which we never deserve.   
St. Mary of Egypt was not like James and John in trying to use the Savior to get what she wanted.  Instead, she freely obeyed a divine command to turn away from fulfilling her obsessive desires by uniting herself to the One Who offered His life as a ransom to free us all from slavery to sin and death.  Our Lord’s disciples ultimately found victory over their passions in different ways, for they had to learn that greatness in the Kingdom comes through selfless service to the point of suffering and death, not by yearning after what the world calls power and success. 
In the remaining days of Lent, we all have the opportunity to embrace our Lord’s way of selfless service in relation to those we encounter on a regular basis in our families, in our parish, at work, at school, and in our larger communities.  We all have the opportunity to confess how we have enslaved ourselves to self-centered desires and then to take the steps we can to turn away from them.  We all have the opportunity to fill our minds with holy things and give less attention to whatever fuels our unholy passions.   We all have the opportunity to follow the example of St. Mary of Egypt in doing what it takes to find the healing of our souls.  If our Lord could make a great saint out of her, then how can anyone remain paralyzed in guilt?   Our great High Priest offered Himself on the Cross and rose in glory on the third day in order to save sinners, to restore all who bear His image and likeness.  Thanks be to God, that includes even people as broken as you and me. In the coming week, let us open the eyes of our souls to this glorious truth through selfless service, humble prayer, and genuine repentance.