Sunday, February 27, 2005

Running Away from Home

(Luke 15:11-32) (Sunday of the Prodigal Son)

Did you ever run away from home? Probably not; most of us don’t. That doesn’t mean we didn’t think about it! I know I planned to, more than once. And just because you grow up doesn’t mean that the risk is over. Children! Sometimes your parents want to run away from home!

Occasionally, someone will run away from home to escape a difficult, or even dangerous, situation. More often than not, however, those who run away – and the vast majority of those of us who thought about it, but didn’t actually do it – are not running away from a painful or abusive situation. No, what motivates us in this circumstance is the desire to run away from the rules and regulations that our parents have established for us. Oh, sure, these were fine when we were young, and didn’t know anything about life; but now, we’re older, and we know what we’re doing – and who are they to think they should be in control of our lives? So we decide to leave, and get away from these unfair and oppressive rules for living that restrict us, and show no respect for us as individuals.

We see this happening in the parable of the Prodigal Son. While the elder son is righteous, and accepts his father’s authority, the younger son is rebellious, and wants to go his own way. With an arrogance born of his pride, he demands his share of his father’s estate; and, having received it, he leaves his father’s house, and departs into the world, to live life as he thinks best. And, after all, he knows what he’s doing – right?

It doesn’t take very long for him to throw away all that he had; and suddenly life looks quite different to him. The friends he had have disappeared, now that he can no longer indulge himself, and them, in wild living. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow, we die”; and on the morning after, he finds himself alone and in need. Once the son of a prosperous father, an heir to a valuable estate, he now must take a job feeding pods to swine. But there’s something good in this humbling experience: he comes to his senses, and realizes that the way of life to which his father had held him was not meant to oppress him, but rather to protect and prepare him for life. In his humility, he decides to go home; and, recognizing that he is unworthy to be considered a son any longer, he plans to ask to be considered simply as one of the hired servants.

I’m pretty sure his father expected his son to do what he did. If it had been up to him, he would have stopped his son from leaving; but, knowing that this would only have made matters worse, and would have needed actual coercion, the father allowed him to leave – but never stopped loving his son, never stopped caring about what was happening to him, never stopped worrying about his health and safety and well-being. Well, that’s what parents do, after all. So, when he found his son was heading home, his love for his son led him to run to embrace him while he was still a long way from home; and this same love led to the forgiveness of his offenses, and the son’s restoration to his rightful place in the family.

OK, so, maybe we didn’t run away from home, in the physical sense of having left our parent’s home. But, when it comes to our home in heaven, we must admit that we have, indeed, run away from home; and for the same reasons as did the Prodigal Son: We didn’t want to live by our Father’s rules. Knowing without a doubt that we knew what we were doing – and that what we wanted was just fine, despite the fact that our Father had said otherwise – we left His home, and went out to make our way in the world. But we went far away, and lived a life of sin; and we continue to do so now. But our Father’s love for us is undiminished, unchanged, unbroken; and it is His deep and genuine desire and hope that we will yet come to our senses, and repent of our foolishness, and turn away from our sinful and death-directed lives, and seek to come back to His household once more.

Brothers and sisters: We stand here today in our Father’s house. Sunday dinner is being prepared, and will be served soon: the foretaste of the great wedding banquet, the Holy Mysteries of our Lord Jesus Christ’s Body and Blood. There’s a place at the table for every one of you; and God our Father desires each of you to repent, and prepare yourselves, and come to the feast, and partake of His love. “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore, let us keep the feast”; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

On Being Humble

(Luke 18:10-14) (Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee)

We all know what we’re supposed to understand from this parable: We are to be humble, as was the publican; and not proud, as was the Pharisee. The Fathers teach us that humility is a virtue, while pride is the root and essence of sin. They also tell us that we must be careful when we think we are righteous; because when righteousness, which brings us closer to God, takes pride as a companion, it no longer raises us up, but casts us down, and makes demonic what had been God-like in us. So, we’re all going to be humble; right?

We all know what the word means. The question, the challenge we face, is to put this knowledge into action. The apostle James wrote, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up.” (Jas. 4:10) But just how do we humble ourselves?

We certainly don’t learn how to be humble from our culture. I’m not a fan of country music, but I can appreciate the thought expressed by Mac Davis in the song, “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.” That could be our theme song. To a certain extent, we can begin the task of setting aside our pride and becoming humble by employing the “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy: that is, if I act as if I am humble, even if I don’t feel that way or think that way, I might one day become truly humble. I’m not sure how this will come to pass, apart from the grace of God delivering humility to me as a complete set – but what am I to do, if this strategy doesn’t work? And I have to be honest with you: no matter how hard I’ve tried to be humble, and to remind myself that I am not worthy, and that the person who just cut me off in traffic is more deserving than I am, when push comes to shove, I fail the test. Isn’t there anything we can do?

From The Arena, a book of instruction for monastics written by Bp. Ignatiy (Brianchaninov), we learn that holy monks, remembering our Lord’s words, “I tell you the truth, what you did to one of the least of these My brethren, you did to Me,” did not stop to consider whether their neighbor was worthy or not of their respect or service. Rather, their efforts were directed toward making sure that they did not fail to see that their neighbor is the image of God; and that what we do to or for that person is done to or for Christ.

Think about that for a moment. That person who just cut you off, or otherwise offended you in word or in deed – what are you thinking, what are you saying, about them? Something about their lack of intelligence, good manners, proper hygiene, personal appearance, or family background? Would you say those things to or about our Lord? Or would you be too embarrassed to repeat those words or thoughts in His presence? See, we have to realize that when we offend another, or wrong another, in thought, word, or deed, we have offended our Lord Jesus Christ; we have done wrong to Him. There is, the Fathers tell us, a profound connection between love and humility: love for our neighbor is preceded by humility; hatred for our neighbor is preceded by criticism and condemnation – and these are rooted in our pride.

If we focus on “being humble” in the “fake it ‘til you make it” school of thought, we are still concentrating on ourselves. If, instead, we learn to see everyone else as an icon of Christ, and to respond appropriately, we will find humility without even looking for it; for Christ Himself did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, but humbled Himself, taking the form of a servant; to the extent of accepting death on the Cross for our salvation. Can we, who are made in His image, and after His likeness, do any less in our dealings with each other? If we are to be at all successful in bringing to life His image in us, we must be willing to consider everyone else as being Christ to us, and see no one’s sins but our own, and, like the publican, pray, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Brothers and sisters: We who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. We have within ourselves Christ, the hope of glory. Let us not seek glory; not even the glory of being thought to be humble; but rather, let us seek to see and serve Christ in everyone else, giving ourselves in the service of others, as He gave Himself to save our souls.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

"The Fall and Rise of Many"

(Luke 2:22-40) (The Meeting of Our Lord)

People sometimes ask which translation of the Bible is the one they should use. I always tell them to check and see how the version they’re looking at translates Isaiah 7:14 – the prophecy about the birth of our Lord that is quoted in Matthew 1:23. If the passage in Isaiah makes reference to a “virgin,” the translation is probably OK; but if it says, “a young woman shall conceive,” put it down and find another one. A little bit of background: The word used in the Hebrew text is “almah”; which means, “a young woman capable of bearing a child, who is either a maiden or newly-married.” The word used in the Greek text is “parthenos”; which means, “virgin.” The two words are essentially the same; but there is a bit more ambiguity to the Hebrew, if what you are looking for is a way around the prophecy.

St. Matthew took his quote from the prophet Isaiah from the version found in the Septuagint, which is the Greek version of the Old Testament that was translated over one hundred and fifty years before the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Septuagint” means “seventy”; and it refers to the number of experts whose labors produced the Greek text.

One of these expert translators was the Righteous Simeon; who, when he came to the passage in Isaiah referring to the virgin who would conceive and bear a son, was troubled, and was going to replace the word, “virgin,” in the text with the phrase, “young woman,” when an angel of the Lord appeared to him to tell him that the prophecy was true, and should be left unchanged. To confirm this, the angel said, by the will of God, Simeon would not die until he had seen the prophecy fulfilled.

Thus it was that, when the infant child was brought to the Temple with His mother, the Theotokos, to fulfill the law, the righteous Simeon recognized Him, and gave thanks that his wait was completed. He also made a prophecy: “This Child is set for the fall and the rising again of many in Israel.”

The fathers tell us that this prophecy of the righteous Simeon speaks of the downfall of those who do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and our Savior; while those who do believe will rise from the dead, partaking of His resurrection. They also tell us that we can understand this prophecy as meaning that, for those who are in Christ, He will bring about the fall of evil things in our souls, and the rising up of good things in their place. Fornication and lust shall fall; chastity shall rise to take their place. Greed and envy will fall; generosity shall rise to take their place. Doubt and unbelief will fall; faith will rise to take their place. Pride and anger shall fall; humility and meekness shall rise to take their place.

Do you see what this means for us? No matter what sins or passions particularly bedevil and beset us, these are not greater than He Who is in us. If we will meet Him, He will raise us up, both from death, and from the sins and passions in us that lead us down into death. The truth is, He is already within us (who have been baptized) for us to meet Him; and if we will endeavor to bring our lives closer to His own by following and practicing the disciplines of the Orthodox faith: prayer, fasting, giving alms, and struggling, He will meet us and join us in working towards our salvation.

Brothers and sisters! The righteous Simeon rejoiced to see the Holy One of Israel, and held Him in his arms. Let us know that, by His grace, we hold Him within ourselves; and let us also rejoice to know that, if we will believe, He will raise us up, delivering us from our sins, and from death itself, granting us to always be with Him in His kingdom, in life without death.

Go Climb a Tree!

(Luke 19:1-10) (37th Sunday after Pentecost)

Everyone can picture how this story starts, right? A man goes to see an event, but can’t, because he’s too short to see over the crowd. So he climbs a tree to take a look; and lo and behold, the person at the center of attention spots him in the tree and tells him to come down quickly, because he’s going to stay at the short guy’s house. Not only is he short – he’s also quite unpopular, because he’s a tax collector. In fact, he’s the chief tax collector for his area. The celebrity’s visit makes quite an impact on the short tax collector: because he gives half his wealthy – which is apparently considerable – to the poor; and promises to restore four times what he took unlawfully from anyone.

Chances are, nobody here works as a tax collector; and the number of people here who would climb a tree to see a parade or other event is probably pretty small; as is the chance of having a celebrity call you and tell you that they are coming to visit your house. Sure, it could happen… But it isn’t likely. So what are we to make of this story about Zacchaeus and our Lord Jesus Christ?

Publicans – tax collectors – were reviled, for the most part in the time of our Lord’s Incarnation, because they not only made their living at the expense of others; they usually did so by stealing, collecting more than they were required to obtain, and keeping the extra amount. As such, Zacchaeus, as the chief publican, was chief in wickedness. When we are engaged in sins and wickedness, or even when we are just deeply attached to this material world, we become very small spiritually – and then we can’t see for the crowd of the passions and the entanglement of worldly concerns that have grown up around us. As such, we can’t, by ourselves, see Jesus – we can’t see Him present and active and moving in our midst; and we won’t recognize the things done in His name, done for the love of Him Who so loves us, as being Christian actions. Something must change – something in us must be transformed.

By the grace of God, something happens to arouse us from our slumber, from our focus on this world and its pleasures and pursuits, stirring us to see. It is then that we begin to recognize that we are unable to see on our own, and we try to climb to a higher place. In doing so, we can see the Lord, Who has already seen us – and He warns us to come down, that is, to be humble, lest we fall in our pride, and so are lost. If we will humble ourselves, He says, He will come to abide with us.

If we will do so – if we will allow Him to enter under the roof of our souls, and dwell in us, and cleanse us of all impurity, we have hope that we can begin to be set free from pride, and our passions, and our material possessions. Indeed, being set free of them, we can begin to use them as God has intended, not only for ourselves, but on behalf of others as well: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, visiting the sick, and those in prison; and providing as well for the worship of God and the needs of the church.

Our Lord comes to us when we humble ourselves, and, in humility of spirit, confess our sins, and admit our weakness, and our wickedness, and humbly ask Him to help and save us. As He is present in our lives, we see the need to be transformed, to be cleansed of our sinful ways and habits – and so we take up the broom of the Orthodox way of life: praying, and fasting, and giving, and working to replace our passions with virtues: courage, prudence, righteousness, and self-control. When we fail, and fall, we repent, and confess, and put our trust and hope in Him once more. In this way, as did Abraham of old, who believed God, as had his faith counted unto him as righteousness, we leave the house of our father, the devil, and the wickedness of his domain, and enter into the house – that is, the family – of Abraham. Once in his house, we, also, become sons of Abraham, and find salvation for our souls.

Brothers and sisters! Although we may be spiritually short because of our sins, we have the opportunity to stand tall for the faith! Let us repent, and confess our sins. Let us leave behind our sinful ways, and work to put right what we have done wrong. Let us begin by desiring to see Christ; and, when He calls us to be humble and open our hearts to Him, let us be quick, indeed, to respond.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia

(Matt. 15:21-28) (36th Sunday after Pentecost)

I became an Orthodox Christian because I believe the Orthodox faith is the highest and best expression of the Truth. I became an Orthodox Christian because I believe the Orthodox Church is the Church established by our Lord on the Day of Pentecost. But I chose to enter the Orthodox faith and Church through the Russian Church to a very large degree because of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, whose memory we celebrate today. More on this in a moment…

In the reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew today, we see a Canaanite woman come to our Lord, beseeching Him to have mercy on her, because a demon is tormenting her daughter. At first, He ignores her. When His disciples plead her case, He tells them that He was sent only for the “lost sheep of Israel.” She comes near to Him and worships Him, asking once more for mercy; and He calls her, in effect, a dog. A dog!

I don’t know about you, but where I grew up, them’s fightin’ words! Call me a dog, will ya? But she doesn’t get upset. In fact, she agrees with the description; and points out the truth: Yes, children eat their bread at the table; but the dogs eat the crumbs that fall on the floor. To the children, the crumbs are nothing; but to the dogs, the crumbs are a great deal, indeed.

Dogs are considered to be unclean. By calling the Gentile woman a dog, our Lord is making a clear statement: The Gentiles are unclean. The Canaanite woman stands for the nations of the wicked that were driven from the Promised Land as the people of Israel came there at the end of the Exodus. They were driven out so that they would not pervert the Israelites with their idolatrous ways. Yet this woman, by her humility, obtains what she desired; her faith has taken her from being a dog under the table hoping for a crumb to being a child of God, seated at the banquet table of the great Wedding Feast in heaven. In Christ, such things are possible.

If we were honest about it, most of us would have to say that the same thing is also true of us: by the way we live, we show ourselves to be nothing more than dogs. We make ourselves unclean by our sins, when we are meant to be children, seated at God’s table. In truth, we are children; but we are acting like dogs. Yet even so, God does not withhold His blessings or His presence or His mercy or His love from us. Today, God is calling us to faith. Today, God is calling us to transformation. Today, God is calling us to repent, and confess, and come back to the table, and take part in the feast – not eat the scraps on the floor! And the only thing we need is faith.

What kind of faith are we talking about? Certainly, it is the faith of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. No one knows how many there were; no one knows how many thousands suffered; no one knows how many died, save God alone. Some were arrested because they were clergy; some were taken because they were leaders; some were dragged off because they refused to be silent when confronted with the monstrous evils of the Bolshevik regime; and some were taken for no other reason than they would not give up their Church and faith. Like us, none were perfect; like us, some struggled greatly with sins and temptations that defile the soul. But though they were treated like dogs, they did not become dogs; their faith sustained them through torture and starvation and suffering, and death, to win a seat at the high table in the Kingdom of God. They shine forth today as glorious examples of what the children of God can do if they will but have faith.

Take a look at the world around us. Can you honestly say that there will not be a time when we, as Christians, will not have to take a stand against some monstrous evil being allowed, or even required, by the government? Do you honestly think that Christians will never be hated, and therefore denounced, because of the things we believe and do? As I learned of the persecutions of the faithful in Russia, in the prisons, in the camps, and in the killing fields, I looked at myself, and found myself to be lacking. There was nothing in my experience of the life of the faith that was mine as part of the western church that I felt would equip me to face the challenges that had confronted millions of Christians in the USSR. When I found the Orthodox Church and faith; when I found how it had shaped and strengthened the New Martyrs and Confessors, I knew I had found a way to be filled with what I lacked. If I will follow the Orthodox way of life; if I will pray, and fast, and give alms, and struggle, I can be like those who are celebrated today. If you will fast, and pray, and struggle, and give, you, too, can be like the New Martyrs and Confessors. If we will be faithful, and live the life they lived, perhaps, if it is needed, we can also face death as they did; and if not us, our children, or our children’s children.

Brothers and sisters, let us keep the faith. Let us come to the table, and there receive the Bread of life, the Body of Christ, that is ours because we are among the children of God. Let us eat the Bread, and be made strong by it, to live the Orthodox faith and life; and bear witness thereby that Christ is in our midst, and nothing, not even arrest, imprisonment, torture, or death, can take the Truth away from us..

Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, pray to God for us!