Sunday, December 28, 2003

The Parable of the Great Supper

(Luke 14:16-24) (December 28, 2003)

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Luke, our Lord Jesus Christ is speaking in a parable. Parables are given for our instruction; and, if we want to learn from the parable, we have to be able to recognize who we are among the persons described in the parable.

In the parable of the Great Supper, we meet “a certain man,” who is giving the supper, and his servant. The fathers tell us that the “certain man” is God the Father, the Lover of mankind; His servant is Christ, who, “not counting equality with God as something to be grasped, made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men”; and the “great supper” is the divine economy of God for our salvation through the Incarnation. We also see two groups of people: those for whom the feast had been prepared; and those who were not originally invited to come to the feast. The parable concludes with its “punch line” - “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

You know the story. Those who had originally been invited to partake of the feast, whose presence was expected, send word that they cannot - or will not - come, even though they are now summoned to do so. Christ, the servant of God, has come to them, and tells them that “all things are now ready” - “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But their desires for wealth, and for pleasure in this world, are more important to them than is participation in the feast of our salvation, and so they do not come. In their place at the table, we find those who have been brought in from the streets, and from the highways and hedges. These are those who travel a way other than the one true path appointed by God; a way of lawlessness; a way of false beliefs; a way of sin. Sin is a great hedge that separates us from God. The servant of God is sent to them, not merely to invite them, but to “compel” them to come to the great supper. Now, this does not mean that they were forced to attend against their will, for God does not violate our freedom to choose whether or not we will believe. Rather, the servant of God is sent with great power to preach and proclaim and demonstrate the word of truth, so that those of us who were mired in false beliefs and doing unspeakable things might be persuaded to leave these behind, and walk instead the road of the life that is pleasing to God, doing the will of God instead of continuing to practice our sins. “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Where do we find ourselves in this parable? Brothers and sisters, we are either among those who love the things of this world more than we love God; or we are among those who have recognized the great generosity of God’s mercy, and have been “compelled” to come to the feast by the persuasive power of the love of God for us. In this, we can begin to grasp what the saying at the end of the parable means: “many are called, but few are chosen.” God calls many - that is to say, everyone -- to take part in the great feast of salvation. But who are the “chosen?” The chosen ones are those who open their hearts to receive the grace of God; and who yield themselves to doing the will of God in and through and by the power of God’s grace. The chosen ones are those who live to fulfill the will of God, obeying His commandments, loving God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and loving their neighbor as they love themselves. When we live in this way - when we live the life of the Orthodox Church and faith - we live by God’s grace; and His grace will bring us to take part in the “great supper” of God’s salvation.

Brothers and sisters, the day is past, and evening is at hand - it is “suppertime.” Let us not be one of those who loves the things and pleasures of this world above God. Let us choose to trust in God, and the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Let us submit ourselves to God, living a life of prayer and fasting and alms-giving and spiritual struggle, in humility and love. Let us choose to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; and to accept the free gift of God’s grace; so that we may be partakers of the delights of His Mystical Supper now, and in the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

St. Herman of Alaska

(December 25, 2003)

Our holy father Herman of Alaska became a monk at the age of 16. He entered the monastic life at the Holy Trinity - St. Sergius monastery near St. Petersburg, probably through the St. Sergius Lavra, a dependency of the monastery, located in Moscow, near the place of Fr. Herman’s birth. After 5 or six years, he went to the monastery at Valaam. There, he was guided by the abbot, Blessed Nazarius, and he found in the brotherhood and the ascetic life of the community a true joy, which he truly loved.

I do not doubt but that St. Herman would have rejoiced to have been able to have lived all his life at Valaam. But Abbot Nazarius, charged with choosing monks to send to Alaska to tend to the flock growing there among the Russian trappers and traders and the native peoples, chose Fr. Herman to be one of ten missionaries. In 1794, they left Valaam to make the trip east across all of Russia, and then to take ship from Kamchatka for Alaska. Fr. Herman settled on Spruce Island, about two miles from Kodiak Island. He named his home, “New Valaam.” He was part of a missionary effort that saw thousands baptized, with churches and schools being built. St. Herman in particular loved children, and built an orphanage for them.

St. Herman lived the ascetic life of Valaam. At first, he lived in a “cave” that was little more than a hole he dug in the ground. Even after the Russian-American Company built him a small cabin to use as his cell, he kept the cave for the day of his burial. His bed was a board covered with deerskins; his pillow, a few bricks. He used another board atop his body, calling it his blanket - this in Alaska! By regular prayer, and fasting, and struggles with his passions, and with the demons, he was transformed. He could perform great feats of physical strength; he needed little sleep, and even less food. He would give away to those in need all the food and other gifts people brought to him. He also performed healings, and was seen to have power over the elements - floods, fire, wind, rain, and so on.

St. Herman taught that, “A true Christian is made by faith and love towards Christ.” He also taught, “A true Christian is a warrior fighting his way through the regiments of the unseen enemy to his heavenly homeland.” He said, “The vain desires of this world separate us from our homeland; love of them and habit clothe our soul as if in a hideous garment. … We who travel on the journey of this life and call on God to help us ought to divest ourselves of this garment, and clothe ourselves in new desires, in a new love of the age to come, and thereby to receive knowledge of how near or how far we are from our heavenly homeland. But it is not possible to do this quickly; rather, one must follow the example of sick people who, wishing the desired [health], do not leave off means of curing themselves.” When he died, the people living nearby spoke of having seen the light from Spruce Island go out; they knew that Fr. Herman had departed from this life.

Brothers and sisters, our holy father Herman was not created from something different from us. We share together in one human nature - the same human nature that our Lord Jesus Christ took on when He became Incarnate. We have been baptized into the same life of Christ; we have received the same Holy Spirit in chrismation; we partake of the same grace in the holy Mysteries. If the fruits of our lives do not begin to compare with those of the life of St. Herman, it is not because he was made different from us; but rather that he made different choices. As God grants us time, as St. Herman has taught, “…let make a promise to ourselves, that from this day, from this hour, from this minute, we shall strive to love God above all, and to fulfill His holy will.”

Holy father Herman, pray to God for us. Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Darkness and the Light of Christ

(Luke 13:10-17)(December 21, 2003)

One of my favorite times to be in church is in the evening. There’s something about the way the church is lit when only candles and oil lamps are lit. There’s a soft glow, and a warmth; and somehow it just seems to encourage us to come to God in prayer. Of course, when the lights are on, or when the sun is shining brightly, that’s a good time to be in church, too. At those times, you have to work pretty hard to miss the majesty and the grandeur of the glory of God. It’s right to worship and rejoice in the light. But still, there’s that special time of praying by lamplight…

Darkness seems so powerful. Most of us, at one time in our lives, were afraid of the dark. And even now, in the darkness, bad things seem to get even worse. And yet, for all its appearance of power, the light from one little candle has the power to drive away the darkness. It may not be much light at all, really - but even the smallest candle in the midst of the darkness brings us good cheer. And, where we may have feared to have to walk about in the darkness, with that small amount of light, we have a much better chance of finding our way.

Today is December 21st. It’s an interesting day. It’s the day in the year when the daylight is shortest, and the night is the longest. Over the last three months, the days have been getting shorter; the nights, longer. Now, logically, we know that this process will reverse after today; but still, there is the symbolism, even the threat, that the power of darkness might yet overcome the light. I guess that’s why I’ve always been fascinated with this day - the day when darkness, symbolically, is at its height.

Among other things, Satan, we are told, is the Prince of Darkness. So, maybe there’s some reason to be wary of the dark, after all. And if we consider today, this day when the darkness is at its greatest in the cycle of the year, and then look at the world around us, and the culture in which we live, it’s not hard to draw a parallel conclusion - the darkness around us, a spiritual darkness, is growing stronger. Behaviors which, a generation ago, were not spoken of, are seen today in movies and on television and even on the streets. There are things described in some forms of popular music that are truly shocking - except that we have become so hardened and calloused that we scarcely take notice, or even find enjoyable. Would anyone disagree that there is a general increase in lawlessness taking place around us? Here’s but one example. Who can safely drive the speed limit on the roads and highways anymore - except, of course, when there’s a police car nearby. Then, we’re all law-abiding. But as soon as it is out of sight, zoom! We are all participants in one way or another with bending, or breaking, the law; and every time we do so, the darkness around us grows a bit stronger.

The fathers tell us that we are born in darkness, and dwell in the shadow of death. But when we are baptized and chrismated, something happens. Our Lord Jesus Christ, Whose life is the light of men, gives us new life in Him. His Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot comprehend it. In a way, each of us becomes a candle; not much, by itself, and yet, as the small candle drives away the physical darkness, so, too, does the Light of Christ in us drive away the power of spiritual darkness. This happens first of all for ourselves; and we can see the way in which we should walk, where before we were blinded by the darkness. Then, as we grow brighter, we can become a light for others, showing them the way as well. Gathered together, as we are here, we can shine forth brightly in the world - or not. When we sin, we are, once more, walking in the darkness, hiding the light of Christ in us. But when we repent, and confess our sins, and turn once more to walking in the ways that are pleasing to God, the light shines forth once again. Our Lord Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

How do we shine ever brighter? How can we reveal more of the light of Christ? By living an increasingly Orthodox life. By prayer, and fasting, and alms-giving, and struggling to overcome our passions, and to put in their place their opposing virtues. As we draw nearer to God in prayer, we come closer to the uncreated Light of His glory; and, as we have said, the darkness cannot endure where the light is present. As we fast, we grow in the strength we need to fast from our passions, and so turn from our sins. As we give alms, we set ourselves free from those things, material and spiritual, that would hold us in the world with its darkness. As we pursue virtue, we take care to preserve the light of Christ, and not to hide it, or, God forbid, extinguish it by returning to a life of sin.

Brothers and sisters! We have been given the Light of the life of Christ. Let us this day, the day of darkness’ seeming triumph, dedicate ourselves once more to be bearers of the light, not only for ourselves, but that we may become beacons shining forth in the darkness, to reach those who still dwell in darkness, and the shadow of death. May our Lord makes us to be candles in His service, to drive away the darkness in our lives, and in this city - that by our being bearers of the Light, their souls may be saved; and ours with them.

The Orthodoxy of the ‘Super-Correct’

(Luke 13:10-17) (December 21, 2003)

Anyone who has spent any time reading the Orthodox bulleting boards on the Internet is familiar with what we might call, “The Orthodoxy of the ‘super-correct’.” It is possible to take all the instructions and rules given for living the Orthodox life, and to construct from these a “checklist” or set of “rules and regulations” - and anyone who does not live up to each and every one of these is subject to being judged, even condemned, as not being an Orthodox Christian.

We see this “holier than thou” attitude in today’s Gospel reading. Our Lord heals a woman who has been suffering from a crippling physical ailment for 18 years. He does so on the Sabbath. The ruler of the synagogue, remembering - rightly - the commandment given by God to Moses, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,” rebukes the people who have beheld the miraculous healing of the suffering woman by our Lord. But, while correctly recalling the words of the commandment, the ruler of the synagogue has no idea of the purpose at its core: that the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath. That is, our lives are not meant to be consumed by the cares and labors of the world exclusively; but we are meant to make time to remember God, and to contemplate Him - to spend time with Him, worshipping, praying, and giving of ourselves to Him. The “sabbath rest” is to lay aside all earthly cares; and to refrain from thoughts and acts of evil.

We need to understand the instructions and directions of the Orthodox life in the same way. These are not so much rules and regulations or laws to be obeyed for their own sake - after all, we have been set free from the law. Rather, all of these are meant to guide us to a way of life in which we do indeed rest from our sins and passions, and instead seek that which is pleasing to God - for what is pleasing to God is also saving to our souls. The rules of prayer, and fasting, and alms-giving, and of the spiritual struggle against our sins and weaknesses are not standards by which we judge ourselves, much less judging others - these are tools to be used by each of us to construct a new life, in which we are being rebuilt, our labors directed and strengthened by God, to reveal more and more the image of God, and the life of Christ, that are already ours by virtue of our baptism and chrismation. It’s not the rules; it’s the life.

Brothers and sisters, let us not seek to be super-correct about keeping every little rule and regulation of the Orthodox life. Let us not be so scrupulous in fasting, for example, that, when we read the label of the product in the store, and find that the second to last ingredient of 27 or 28 different things is sodium caseinate, which is derived from the stomach of a cow, and so not “lenten” - even though everything else is acceptable - that we put it back and buy something else instead. There’s nothing wrong with this, mind you; but we must ask ourselves at such moments whether we are bringing the same energy and effort to bear in refraining from our sins - especially those that we must repeat each time we make our confession. There’s no point in avoiding gelatin - made by boiling cow hooves, and so “not lenten” - if we continue to be filled with pride, or greed, or lust, or envy, or jealousy, or gluttony, or sloth. There’s no point in reading our prayers each morning and evening if we don’t hear the words, if our only goal is to “get it over with.” There’s no point in being “correct” about all the details if our hearts remain unchanged; if we do not love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and if we do not love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Yes, we must keep the sabbath - but we must understand that we do so rightly not by adherence to the list of rules, but by adhering to the list of rules for the love of God; that we might make a sabbath rest of refraining from evil. When we do so, confessing our faults, and striving (by God’s grace) to be transformed, we are set free from the crippling affliction of our sins, as the suffering woman was set free. Our Lord Jesus heals us, and puts His hands on us, to empower us to do, with Him, the works of virtue.

Brothers and sisters, let us truly be Orthodox - not by worrying about whether we are keeping all the rules, but rather by focusing on doing what is pleasing to God, and beneficial to others. Let us renew each day our commitment to the disciplines of the Orthodox life, so that we might be transformed from who we are to become the people God wants us to be - sharing with God and each other in a relationship of love, so that, by saving our souls, we might enter the sabbath rest of the kingdom of heaven.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

“This night, thy soul shall be required of thee.”

(Luke 12:16-21) (December 14, 2003)

“This night, thy soul shall be required of thee.”

Is there anyone who can hear these words, and not feel at least a little bit nervous? Yes, we trust in the mercy of God; but are we ready, right now, to go into His presence? What if you were to die tonight, and found yourself standing in the presence of God? What would you say? What would you do?

This parable about the rich man is meant to instruct us, so that we can be prepared for that moment when we depart this life and stand before God to be judged. Now, as we look at the parable, we see a man who is rich and successful. He’s just completed a very profitable harvest (and there’s the impression that this is not the first time this has happened to him), so much so that he requires more space to store the harvest than is available to him. He is now planning what to do to provide for the future, and how he will enjoy the benefits of this wealth. From the point of view of our culture, this man is someone we’d like to know, if we couldn’t actually be him. He’s looking forward to a long and comfortable life.

But there’s a problem. “This night, thy soul shall be required of thee.” According to the fathers, God is saying that the angels will come for this man and demand (that’s the word in the original Greek) that he surrender to them his soul. But he does not want to give his soul, for he loves this life, and claims the good things of this life as his own.

The angels do not require the soul of the righteous man, because he has already committed his soul to God, and has done so freely, with joy and gladness. For the righteous man, the body is a light burden, easily laid aside. But the sinner has made his soul fleshly, something in substance like the body, and like the earth, making it difficult to separate from the body. This is why it must be demanded of him, as debt collectors treat those who refuse to pay what they owe. But the souls of the righteous do not need to be collected; their souls are already in the hands of God.

The fathers also tell us that we do well to remember that we will, one day, die; and that each of us should always give thought to the condition of our soul. Wise? Or foolish?

He who lays up treasure for himself is foolish. He is never happy; never satisfied; he is darkened by the love of wealth, and the light of divine knowledge does not penetrate. Ultimately, death overtakes him, his plans unfinished, his soul unprepared. The rich man does not consider that he had received his wealth from God; and so he contemplates what to do with his riches only from a worldly, and selfish, point of view.

He who lays up treasure for the poor and for God is rich towards God, and does not deprive God of what is His. He trusts in God to provide for his needs, even if he were to give away all that he has. If the rich man had considered that the wealth he had received had come from God, he might have realized that he was meant to serve as a steward for God. Then, rather than planning to build barns to hold his goods, he might have thought of the poor. He might have made their stomachs his storehouses, and so built up riches for God, for he who feeds the poor feeds God.

God has entrusted riches to us. We need to examine ourselves: what is our attitude towards the good things we have received in life? Do we give thanks for these to God? Or do we consider that we are entitled to what we have because of who we are, and what we’ve done? Do we use what we have - or, at least, a portion of it - for those in need? Or do we only take our own wants and needs into consideration? If we use it only for ourselves (and don’t be fooled: if you’re not giving up something in order to give for the needs of others, you don’t get it yet), we are like the rich man - we are foolish. If, however, we are doing what we can to use wisely the riches God has entrusted to us, and caring for the needs of others with the understanding that we are stewards of God’s bounty, we lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven.

Brothers and sisters, we do not know the hour of our departing this life; only God knows the day and the hour. Let us not delay, but dedicate ourselves, and all our life to the love and service of God; and put this into action by loving and serving each other, and those in the world around us. Let us embrace the Orthodox life of prayer, and fasting, of spiritual struggle and the giving of alms, so that we may entrust our selves and our souls to God, and be set free of all that would hold us in this world.