Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Rich Man and Lazarus: How Much is "Enough?"

(Luke 16:19-31) (22nd Sunday after Pentecost)

How much is “enough?” How much do we have to have of the things of this world to be satisfied, and put aside the pursuit of “more?” What level of income do we need to be content? How much is “enough?”

Some people have their definition of “enough.” At least one candidate for the presidency of the United States has said that the “magic number” is $200,000. That’s enough; and, if you’re earning more than that amount, you don’t need, and don’t deserve, a tax break. Now, I don’t think there’s anybody here today that needs to worry if that actually becomes the number! But when we hear these types of questions being raised in the public forum, we should also be asking ourselves, how much is enough?

OK, so there’s no one here above the $200,000 a year income level. But I’ll also bet that there also isn’t anyone here below the poverty level, either - which means that, in terms of the whole world, each one of us is rich. So: do we have “enough?” If everyone has food on the table, and a roof over their heads, and clothes on their back, and time to relax, and access to medical care, and things like that - can’t we say that we have “enough?”

This is important, as we can see from the Gospel reading today from St. Luke, the Apostle and Evangelist whose memory we celebrate today. We are shown the opposite ends of the spectrum: from the very rich to the very poor. The rich man certainly has enough: he is dressed in fine clothing, and eats sumptuously every day. Presumably, he is in good health. In contrast, we see also the poor man, Lazarus, who is outside the rich man’s gate, begging for food. He is ill, covered with sores, and so weak that he is unable to keep the dogs from coming and licking his sores. Lazarus has nothing; he is so needy that he would accept the crumbs from the rich man’s table gratefully, as a blessing. We need to ask ourselves: Of the two men depicted here, to whom does my life bear a closer resemblance - Lazarus, or the rich man?

The Gospel doesn’t tell us that there is anything wrong with being rich. The rich man does not find himself in a place of torment because he was rich; but rather because of what he did, and did not do, with the riches entrusted to him by God. How do you think the story might have turned out if the rich man, finding Lazarus at his gates, had brought this beggar into his home, fed him from his table, called the physicians, and nursed him back to health? Do you think he would have found himself departing this life into a place of torment, or into a blessed repose?

Maybe that’s too extreme, to have brought this sick beggar into his home. What if the rich man had provided that Lazarus should be taken to a hospital, or other place where he could have received food, and shelter, and medicine, and care? What if the rich man had said, “You know, I have enough that I can spare something to care for this beggar’s needs?” Do you think he would have found himself departing this life into a place of torment, or into a blessed repose?

Where might we find Lazarus today? Maybe on the street corners, holding a cardboard sign? Maybe he is downtown, sleeping on the grass? Maybe in line at a soup kitchen or the food bank or the thrift store or the clinic?

What have we done to help Lazarus today? Have we brought food, or money, to a food bank or soup kitchen? Have we given from our excess shoes and clothing to those who collect our donations to give to those in need? When was the last time you checked the box on your electric bill to give a dollar to help those who can’t afford to pay their bill? When was the last time you gave some spare change to the Lazarus on the street corner?

Now, there’s no doubt that there are more people and organizations asking for our help than we can give an answer to - no one of us can do it all alone. But do you know that, when we fast, a part of the reason for eating simpler foods is precisely to be able to have more that we can give to help to feed those who are in need? Not so easy to do when we are “fasting” by eating shrimp or lobster, in place of chicken, or of pork. I think, all too often, we lose sight of this aspect of the fast.

But what’s really at issue is the attitude of our hearts towards using the resources God entrusts to us, both to meet our own needs, and those of others. That’s why we have to determine how much is “enough.” For it’s possible to always be wanting more, and so never have anything to give for others; or it’s possible to realize that we probably already have enough, and more; and from this we can take the steps to meet the needs of those around us - feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and visiting the sick, and those in prison - and in the process, saving our souls.

How much do you need to truly be happy? Brothers and sister, for the sake of your souls, please consider: how much is “enough?”

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Parable of the Sower: Preparing the Soil for Planting

Everyone knows this parable, right? Our Lord Jesus Christ even gives the interpretation to His disciples: the seed is the word of God, and the Sower is the Son of God. Some seed falls on the path, and is carried away by the demons. Some seed falls among the rocks, and sprouts, but ultimately withers when things get tough. Some seed falls among weeds, and sprouts, but gets choked out by the cares and concerns of life. Only the seed that falls in good soil bears fruit – and the harvest is the point, not the planting! Yet, although 3/4s of the seed fails, that which falls in good soil brings forth returns of 30, or 60, or 100 times again what was planted.

The challenge for us, then, is to prepare our hearts to be the good soil, so that what God plants in us may bear fruit to the glory of His name, and the salvation of our souls. It’s an exercise in spiritual gardening, if you will; taking the steps necessary to do all we can to achieve the best harvest possible.

To break hardened ground, the farmer uses a plow. To break our hardened hearts, we use the plow of the ascetic life: breaking the ground by prayer, and fasting, and virtuous struggle against our passions. God also helps, sending us circumstances meant to break our reliance on ourselves, on our wit and strength alone, and to break our pride, and our selfish and self-centered lives. Broken, humbled, we are one step closer to becoming good soil.

The ground is softened by our tears of repentance, and by confession of our sins and offenses; and by the giving of alms to those in need. God also helps, sending us knowledge, awareness of our sins, even as He gives us victory over many of these. He pours out His love and mercy upon us, and gives us light to behold His hand at work blessing and protecting us, softening us by His grace and love. Repentant, cleansed, we are one step closer to becoming good soil.

The ground is fertilized by our study of the word of God, by the teachings of the Fathers, and by worshipping the Lord. These nutrients, drawn from the lives of the saints before us, help the crop we should yield to be rich and strong. God also helps, blessing us with awe and joy as we find in the lives of those who have gone before us the examples of living a life close to God, walking with Him; and so we, too, are drawn to do the same. He feeds us and strengthens us by the Holy Mysteries, and especially those of His Body and Blood, so that we can bear more than we’d ever thought possible. Enriched, made wise, we have become the good soil for planting. And, being good, we are ready to receive the seed of the word of God, and to sprout and grow, and, by patient endurance, to bring forth fruit pleasing unto God, and beneficial to many for the salvation of their souls.

Brothers and sisters! God has given this opportunity to us. Let us embrace the ascetic life of the Orthodox Church. Let us fast, and pray, and struggle towards the virtues. Let us weep in repentance, and give alms to others. Let us feed ourselves with the Holy Scriptures, and the teachings of the Church, and the lives of the saints, and the most holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ. Let us do all this, that we, too, may be good soil for God, and bear fruit for Him, to the glory of His name, and the salvation of our souls.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Hatred and Love; Why It Is So Difficult to "Love Your Enemies"

Last week, as you’ll recall, we heard our Lord’s instruction to us: “Love your enemies.” This is not the “natural” response that we, in our fallen state, would ordinarily make to those who hate us, and wish us evil. This is why it is important for us to remember, on the one hand, the commandment to love our enemies, and to do good to those who hate us, and bless those who curse us; and, on the other hand, to also remember the great love that God has for each of us, even though we are sinners. Love invites love; hatred invites hatred. By the way: the opposite of love is not hate; the fathers tell us that the opposite of love is indifference. Hatred is love gone bad, love pulled inside out, love that has been twisted around into something no longer recognizable as love.

Why is it so difficult to love our enemies? Could it be that we hate our enemies because we fear them? Fear can take love and distort it into hatred. Of course, we fear our enemies because we perceive them to be a threat to us: they threaten what we think and believe; they threaten our way of life; and, above all, they threaten us with death.

Here again, we are called to remember the God we serve, the Lord in Whom we put our trust and hope. In today’s Gospel reading, our Lord Jesus enters the town of Nain; and, as He does so, He encounters a woman whose life has been touched by death. Her husband is dead – she is a widow – and now she is on her way to the cemetery to bury her only son. Her world has collapsed; she has lost those who loved her the most to death; and now she is alone. Our Lord, seeing her, has compassion upon her. He tells her, “Weep not”; and then He commands her son to arise. Our Lord shows here, as with Jairus’ daughter, and with Lazarus, that He is the Lord, with power of life and death – a power He will reveal most fully by His own resurrection from the dead.

Why, then, do we fear death? Our Lord Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Think of the troparion for today: “He hath trampled down death by death; the first-born of the dead hath He become. From the belly of hades hath He delivered us, and hath granted to the world great mercy.” Because He lives, so, too, shall we live a life without death, a life without end. Death no longer is the end of existence, or the entry into the place of shadows. We are not to fear death, which has no dominion over us; rather, we are to fear the great and terrible Day of the Lord, when we shall stand before the throne of God, and give an account of our lives, and be judged for our actions, and enter into either blessedness or condemnation for eternity. But death? It is only the doorway from this life into the world to come. As Orthodox Christians, we should not fear death.

And if we do not fear death, what power does an enemy hold over us? They may, indeed, kill the body – but so what? Death will one day come for us all; unless the Lord returns before we depart this life, we shall all fall asleep to this life, to awaken in the Kingdom of heaven. Does the means of that departure make any difference – especially if we are living as Orthodox Christians, aware of the reality of the end of this life, preparing by confession and repentance for that moment when we stand before the heavenly King to be judged? So: If our enemy cannot do any more than accomplish our transition from this world into the world to come, is there any reason to fear death? And if we do not fear death, is there any reason to fear our enemy? And if we do not fear them, is there any reason why we cannot love them, and so fulfill the command of God?

Brothers and sisters: Let us put our hope and trust in the Lord Who raised the widow’s son from the dead. Let us follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who did not fear death, but accepted death on our behalf, that we who are joined to Him by faith and grace may show Him forth in our lives as well, by loving those who hate us, by doing good to those who are our enemies. Let us seek to be filled with love for God, and the love of God for each other, and for all the world; so that, no matter what may happen to us in the days to come, we may be faithful servants of God, loving as He loves, without reservation, without hesitation – to the glory of His Name, and the salvation of our souls.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Protection of the Theotokos

One of the major concerns on the minds – and hearts – of many people today, as we prepare to elect the next President of the United States, is that of the safety of this country, and of her people. Which candidate will do a better job of providing security? Which candidate will be a better job of protecting the American people?

As Christians, we are citizens of the Kingdom of heaven, as well as being citizens of an earthly realm. As such, we heed the wisdom of the holy Prophet King David, who wrote, “Trust ye not in princes, nor in the sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.” This is not to say that we are not to use wisdom in fulfilling our duty as citizens of this land, when we select our national leader. But we are meant to remember that our hope is not of this world; and the kingdom for which we hope is not of this world.

On this day in the year 911, the faithful people of God were in Church in Blachernae. During the All-night Vigil, the holy St. Andrew the fool-for-Christ had a vision, together with his disciple, Epiphanius. They saw the most holy lady Theotokos in prayer for the protection of the people of the world; and as she prayed, surrounded by apostles and martyrs and virgins and angels, she held her veil out as a covering for the people, as a sign of her protection for those who love and obey her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We keep this day as a remembrance of this vision, to honor the most holy Mother of God, and to give thanks to our Lord for hearing, and answering, her prayers for us.

Brothers and sisters! Let us lay aside all earthly cares, and give thanks to God, Who has saved us. Let us yield ourselves to Him and to His service, calling upon Him to have mercy on us; and calling upon the most holy Theotokos to remember us, and to help us, in her holy prayers.

Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior, save us!

October 1/14, 2004

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

"Love Your Enemies"

(Luke 6:31-36) (19th Sunday after Pentecost)

Is there any command that our Lord Jesus has given to us that is more difficult to keep than this one: “Love your enemies?” “Now wait just a minute here, Father,” I can hear you say. “Are you telling me that I have to love someone like Osama bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein?” Well, actually, yes - that’s entirely true. Whether our enemies are persons such as terrorists who have declared their hatred for our country and threatened our lives, or are less well-known - someone at work or school who has taken a dislike to you, and tries to make your life difficult or miserable - it doesn’t matter. Our Lord has commanded us to love our enemies, and to do good to those who hate us, and to bless those who curse us, and to pray for those who abuse and persecute us.

Certainly it is easier to love those who love us, and do good to those who help and support us, and to be generous with those who will repay us for our generosity - and yet we don’t even manage to do these things on a regular basis, do we? Husbands and wives argue, children and parents disagree disagreeably, brothers and sisters squabble and fight; neighbors have disputes, bosses and employees argue, co-workers can’t always agree; and these are people we know, are often close to - and, when it comes to our families, these are people we probably love. But even then, our pride, our greed, our selfishness, our laziness, our envy - all the base, horrible things in us come out and are expressed to each other in words and deeds that wound both them, and ourselves. How, then, can we possibly even begin to love our enemies?

“With man, this is impossible; but with God, all things are possible.” We have to keep this truth in mind as we contemplate doing the impossible, keeping the commandments of our God, of striving to be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. We need to recall God’s love for us. St. John the Theologian writes, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” St. Paul writes, “But God shows His life for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” We know of our Lord’s love for us from the Cross, and His words as He was dying there: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

If we will keep in mind this great love that God has for each and every one of us, unworthy as we are, as unlovable as we make ourselves before Him (and each other) by our many and great sins, and by our wickedness, we have hope that we may find within ourselves the ability to do what we are commanded, and to love everyone, as God loves everyone. We say this at each Divine Liturgy: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” The whole Divine Liturgy is a celebration of God’s love for us, and an invitation for us to show our love for God and our love for each other. The whole Divine Liturgy works to so fill us with the love of God as we are gathered in His presence that, as we then go forth into the world, we are overflowing with this love, and show this love to the whole world. We do this by our patience with the faults of others; by our generosity to the needs of others; by forgiving them, by praying for them, by loving and caring for them, by being merciful to them. We do this by striving to love our enemies; and, when we fail to do so, we repent, and confess our faults, and ask forgiveness - even of our enemies.

I don’t know how this works itself out on the world stage. I don’t know if it is possible for a nation to act in this way. And yet I can’t help but wonder how the world might have been changed if, after the terrorist attacks of 9-11, we had responded, after remembering and honoring and burying our dead, we had coolly, calmly, set about rebuilding that which the terrorists had destroyed, not striking back by declaring a war in which force meets force; but by saying, in words and deeds, “You cannot defeat us. No matter what you do, you shall not change our way of life. We shall prevail, and you shall not stop us.” I do not know if such a thing could be done when considered at the level of a nation, of a people. But I do know this: If we take our Lord’s words seriously, and remember that we are not to fear those who can only kill the body, but not touch our souls, but rather fear Him Who has the power to cast the soul into eternal condemnation, and if we seek to be filled with the forgiving and patient love of God, we will draw closer to keeping His commandment to love our enemies. May God grant us this grace, and make us vessels of His love.

Monday, October 04, 2004

What Shall It Profit a Man?

(Mark 8:34-9:1)(18th Sunday after Pentecost: 20 Sept/3 Oct, 2004)

What’s your aim in life? What are your goals? What do you hope to achieve? Riches? Fame? Power? Or maybe it’s just to be comfortable, to have everything you need to enjoy life, and take it easy. If we think only in worldly terms, seeking riches, or fame, or power, or just being comfortable, as long as we don’t hurt anyone, or break the law, make sense. But in the Church we learn that the only goal worth having is to save our soul.

Here’s what our Lord said: “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” In a way, He is asking us, “Why do you work so hard to gain wealth, or fame, or power, or anything else that the world has to offer, instead of focusing on the one thing needful?” The way in which we do this is given in this same Gospel passage: we must take up our Cross, and follow our Lord Jesus in the way He directs.

So: What does it mean to take up our Cross? For our Lord, it was literally true: As He went to His death, He carried the instrument of His execution upon His back. For the Great-martyr Eustathius, it meant being tortured and killed, together with his family, for having left the service of the emperor to be a servant of the King of kings and Lord of lords. For the martyrs Prince Michael of Chernigov and his counselor, Theodore, it meant being beheaded by the Tatars for having failed to participate in a ritual meant to honor their pagan idols.

There are places today where Christians are at risk for practicing their faith; where they are still at risk of being tortured, even killed, because they will not give up their faith in Christ. They, too, know what it means to take up their Cross, and follow Him. But none of us are at risk of torture or death in this land. None of us here are in danger of being thrown into an arena with wild beasts, or placed inside a white-hot brazen ox, or of facing death in any way, simply because of our Christian faith.

Maybe it’s because it isn’t a “life or death” situation that we have so little commitment to living our faith. If today, we were at risk of being arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and killed for the “crime” of being a believer, for saying, “I am a Christian,” we wouldn’t be so complacent, so neglectful, of living and thinking and acting as Christians. If you’re afraid of being noticed, afraid of being taken, afraid of torture and death for your faith, you don’t stand out, you follow the crowd, you do what everybody else around you is doing. We don’t have to fear these things - -at least, not as yet – but isn’t that how we tend to live? We don’t want to be noticed; but, if you are carrying a Cross, you can’t help but be noticed.

Let me ask you this: When it’s time to have lunch, where you work, at your school, do you start by giving thanks to God, and blessing your food? Do you make the sign of the Cross, as we all should? If not, why not? Surely you don’t think someone there is an informer, waiting to turn you in to the police because you are a follower of Christ? What, someone may laugh? Someone may stare? Someone may think less of you, someone important is some earthly way – a boss, a friend, a teacher, a love interest? Why is it you won’t carry your Cross?

Let me ask you this: When everyone else is doing something you know in your heart is terribly wrong, because it would be displeasing to God, what do you do? Do you take a stand, and say, “This is wrong?” Do you just disappear? Or do you just go along, hoping that God will forgive your sin? Why is it we don’t carry our Cross?

It’s fear of rejection; fear of being different; fear of being ridiculed; all these things keep us from carrying the Cross, and following our Lord Jesus in the way we are called to go. Somehow, we think, that, if we pray, and fast, and give alms, and struggle against our sins and passions and weaknesses, we will not be able to get the things we desire – and almost inevitably the “things” are things of this world. But what does it profit us to gain the whole world, if, by doing so, we lose our souls thereby?

Brothers and sisters! There is a way appointed for us: to take up our Cross, and follow our Lord. Every time we pray, we carry the Cross. Every time we fast, we deny ourselves. Every time we give alms, we set ourselves free; and every time we fight against giving in to our sins, we pick up the Cross, and follow our Lord. We have a way of life that makes us different; and a way of life that gives us power, even the power to accept a martyr’s death. Let us pray, and fast, and give, and struggle; let us live and speak and think and dream of the kingdom of God, and our Lord Jesus Christ, daring to be in, but not of, the world. Let us dare to be different, for our Lord’s sake. Let us each take up our Cross, and follow Him; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.