Sunday, July 31, 2005

"Picking and Choosing" and Obedience

(6th Sunday after Pentecost) (Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils)

Earlier this week, I read a news report about how nine women were supposedly ordained as priests and deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. These “ordinations” were performed by three other women who, in 2003, were supposedly consecrated as bishops; and took place on board a tour ship cruising the St. Lawrence River between the United States and Canada, so that, according to the participants, they were not in the jurisdiction of any particular diocese, either Canadian or American. Of course, the Church of Rome does not recognize any of these women as having valid orders as a bishop, priest, or deacon.

Why do I mention this? Among other reasons, I found the explanation offered by one of the women who claims now to be a deacon to be, in many ways, a statement about our culture today. She said, in effect, “I consider my ordination to be valid, even though it violates the law of the Church, because it is an unjust law.” In other words, if I think something is immoral or unjust – or maybe even merely unfair – I am not required to be obedient; I can do what I think is right, even if it is the Church that has said otherwise. This, of course, is a recipe for anarchy.

In a parallel example of this type of thinking – and it is, I think, an important development, as it has shaped the thinking of our culture to produce the perhaps extreme example of the supposed ordinations – we should consider the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura, and its accompanying teaching that everyone is capable of understanding the Bible by himself or herself, without the need for the guidance of anyone, or of any religious body. This, too, is a recipe for chaos; and, in part, goes a long way to explain how one book can be interpreted in thousands of ways, all different to one degree or another – as evidenced by the myriad number of denominations among the Protestants. In the Phoenix area Yellow Pages, for example, if you look under "Churches" you'll find 104 different listings. That's not 104 churches; that's 104 different kinds of churches! The saying, "Every man his own Pope" -- that is, everyone may read and interpret Scripture for himself -- has led to the development of this cultural mindset in which we think we can choose which laws we will obey, and which we will set aside.

These are not Orthodox ways of thinking. We are not free to disregard or disobey a law simply because we think it is unfair or unjust. We are not free to read and interpret Scripture in any way that seems to make sense to us. This is not to say that we must obey an unjust or immoral law. Indeed, if keeping God’s requirements means that we must break the law of the land, then break it we must; and if keeping the law of the land means that we will violate what God has commanded, then we must not obey that law. Of course, we must also acknowledge that these actions have consequences; but, of course, the martyrs and confessors show us what we must do! Nor am I saying that we are not supposed to use our minds – which, after all, are given to us by God – to think and reason about the Scriptures. Of course we are supposed to think about what we read in the Bible! But we do so within the teaching of the Church – and this keeps us from going astray.

Today we commemorate the holy fathers of the first six Ecumenical Councils. At these councils, heretical teachings were considered and rejected, and the understanding of the Orthodox faith was made deeper and richer as a result. But how do we know we can rely on the decisions of these councils? We know that what was determined at these councils because we know that the Holy Spirit guides the Church – but how do we know that the Holy Spirit was present at these councils?

Among other things, we can know by the quality of the lives of the fathers gathered there. Because they were men of prayer, because they kept the feasts and fasts, because they gave to those in need, because they struggled to live in a God-pleasing way, and because they taught others, ourselves included, to do the same, we know that they had turned to God, and away from this world. We know that their pursuit of holiness caused them to draw near to God; and He enlightened them so that they could see the true path to follow, and the right way to live and think and worship God. We see the teachings of the Bible carried out in their lives; we see the life of Christ made manifest in them; and so we know that we can trust what they have said to us, and follow it, even when we do not fully grasp why this is so, when the world says that what we believe is unjust or unfair.

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: The wealth of the teachings and life of the Church is ours today because of the efforts made on our behalf by those who have gone before us. Let us fast and pray; let us give alms, and struggle to do what is pleasing to God, uprooting our sins, and putting in their place the godly virtues, so that those who follow us in the faith will be blessed as we have been blessed, with an unbroken line of faith and way of living, to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Holy fathers of the first six councils, pray to God for us!

(For a related discussion, please see Women's Ordination and the Catholic Church at my other blog, "Observations from an Empty Well.")

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Why Do We Live As Swine?

(Matthew 8:29-9:1) (5th Sunday after Pentecost)

Of all the possible images connected with the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, perhaps the most vivid would be that of the herd of swine, possessed by demons, rushing down a cliff, going to their destruction in the sea. While it isn’t very flattering, I also can’t help but think that each of us, in our sins, is more or less a member of that herd of swine – for, as we persist in our sins, we are also rushing to our own destruction. The difference, of course, is that we have chosen the path that leads to death; while the swine had their destruction imposed on them from without. It’s not a pretty picture.

Why do we live this way, as if we were swine? The fathers tell us that this is because Christ is not ruling and guiding our lives. He’s present, but we’re not listening to Him; instead, we’re following the suggestions of the demons. These fallen angels hate us, and seek our destruction. When we sin, and defile the image of God in us, we give them cause to celebrate. When we repent, and confess, and embrace the way of life we learn in the Church, they are defeated; while we have hope for the salvation of our souls.

We are not meant to live like swine; we are called to be saints. Remember that a saint is someone who shows, by the quality of their life, the transforming power and presence of God. Take, for example, the Great-martyr Euphemia, whom we celebrate today. She refused to engage in pagan worship; and was tortured; and by her steadfast faith led two soldiers to Christ – and they were also martyred. Consider also the righteous Olga, Princess of Russia. She was the grandmother of St. Vladimir, the enlightener of all Russia. Surely the example of her life, and her prayers, played a part in St. Vladimir’s own conversion, and the transformation of the people of the Russian land.

We, too, are called to be saints; but when we live like swine, and not like the saints, whom do we serve? What example do we give? We have been given the life of the risen Lord, Jesus Christ, in our baptism, and, in our chrismation, the power of the Holy Spirit to manifest this life, to the glory of God and the salvation of souls. We have been given the way to develop and deepen the life of Christ in ours, through prayer, and fasting, the giving of alms, and the spiritual struggle to overcome our passions, putting godly virtues in their place. But, when we sin, when we persist in that fallen way of life, we are like the townspeople who come to our Lord after the herd of swine has perished in the sea. They did not beseech Him to stay with them; rather, they begged Him to leave them alone. We have to ask ourselves, as we consider our sins, “Is that what I want – for the Lord to leave?”

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: the Lord is in our midst, and He longs for us to dwell with Him, that He might lead us to His heavenly kingdom. We must choose whether we will follow Him, or beg Him to leave us to live – and die – as swine. May Christ our God, through the prayers of the Great-martyr Euphemia, the righteous Olga, princess of Russia, and all the saints, have mercy on us, that we will choose to repent, and confess, and follow as our Lord Jesus Christ leads us home; and that we will follow the Orthodox way of life, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Children of the Kingdom

(Matthew 8:5-13) (4th Sunday after Pentecost)

Here’s the bottom line on today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew: An outsider has more faith than the children of the kingdom. The centurion is praised by our Lord, and held up by Him as an example, to warn those who think they are the children of the kingdom that, in effect, their seat at the table is not guaranteed – that there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth among many who thought that they were “in.” We need to be careful, because, today, it is not the scribes and Pharisees who are at risk; rather, we are the children of the kingdom – and the warning is thus meant for us. What, then, must we do to be saved?

The answer is found in the Gospel; it can be summed up in one statement made by the centurion. Let’s take a look at the sequence of steps that leads us to the answer.

The centurion has a servant who is dying, and he desires that the Lord heal his servant. He knows it is not necessary for the servant to be brought into the physical presence of the Lord, for the Lord can heal the servant with a word. The Lord does not merely grant the centurion’s request, but offers to go with the centurion to his house. The centurion replies that it is not any more necessary for the Lord to come to the servant than it is for the servant to come to the Lord. His authority is such that His commands will be obeyed, without regard to His physical location.

The key is how the centurion begins his declaration of faith in the Lord’s power to heal: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof.” By declaring that he was a sinner, and therefore not worthy to have the Lord enter into his dwelling place, he gained not only the healing of his servant, but also a place in the household of God, a place of glory in the kingdom of heaven.

The mistake that so burdened the scribes and the Pharisees was that they thought that, as they were the children of Abraham, they were automatically going to receive the reward that Abraham received – a place in the kingdom of God. But, as our Lord tells them at another time, “The Lord is able to raise up children of Abraham from these stones.” Our mistake is very similar. We think, because we have been “born again,” baptized into Christ, that we are automatically heirs of the promise. We must recognize that our failure to “put on Christ,” evidenced by our sins, makes us unworthy, unless we repent of our sins, and confess them, and do all we can to assist in the transformation of our being, through prayer, and fasting, the giving of alms, and the struggle to uproot our passions and establish the godly virtues in their place. If we think we are worthy, we will not examine our lives, or confess, or repent – and so we will be at risk of finding ourselves cast into the outer darkness, and the torments that will follow for all eternity.

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: Let us ask God for grace to examine ourselves; and for grace to repent and confess our sins, and our own unworthiness. We must be honest about who we are; even as we do not give up the hope that God loves us, and desires not the death of sinners, but that all should come unto Him and be saved. Let us give thanks for God’s love and mercy, that He accepts us even as we are unworthy, making us clean once more by our confession – that He may enter under the roof of our lives, and dwell with us, that we may live with Him forever.

St. Sampson the Hospitable

(Matthew 6:22-33) (3rd Sunday after Pentecost)

Most of us know, when our Lord says, “You cannot serve God and mammon,” that “mammon” means “money” – or “riches” or “wealth”; especially as a negative influence upon our spiritual life and development. The fathers warn us that wealth tends to drive us away from God. This concept really isn’t that hard to understand: for wealth makes it possible for us to enjoy the material pleasures of this world, tying us to the things and ways of thinking of this world – and making us neglect the ways of the kingdom of heaven, and our pursuit of these ways in our own lives. Of course, having some makes us want more – and we can become greedy, which makes a bad situation even worse.

Wealth, the fathers tell us, is a curse. Of course, most of us would respond as does the main character of the story, “Fiddler on the Roof,” who says of such a curse, “May God smite me with it – and may I never recover!” It takes a special person – a saint, actually – to correctly understand the purpose of God’s giving wealth, and to respond properly, in a God-pleasing manner. One such saint is commemorated today: St. Sampson the Hospitable.

He was born into wealth in Rome, and raised with the best that money could buy. As he completed his education, he studied medicine, and became a doctor. As a physician, he treated the bodily ailments of those who came to him; and, as a Christian, he treated their spiritual illnesses, encouraging everyone to do everything in their power to live according to the requirements of the Christian faith. When he moved to Constantinople, he lived in a small house, using his wealth to give alms and medical attention, including medicine, to all who suffered in body, mind, or spirit. When the Patriarch heard of his virtue, he ordained St. Sampson to the priesthood.

When the Emperor Justinian became ill with what his doctors thought was an incurable disease, he sent for St. Sampson after having prayed to God, and having seen the saint in a dream, revealed as someone who could heal the Emperor. St. Sampson did nothing more than place his hand on the diseased place, and the Emperor was healed. When he was offered an immense sum of money, St. Sampson refused, replying that he had left silver and gold for the sake of Christ. The Emperor insisted on doing something to thank St. Sampson; and so the saint asked that a home be built for the poor. There, St. Sampson took care of the poor and needy until the day of his repose (which we mark today) in the year 530 A.D.

How do we fulfill the requirements of our Christian faith, as St. Sampson urged everyone to do? We do so by “putting on Christ,” into Whom we have been baptized. We are faithful servants of the Lord when we make Him known, in word and in deed, through our testimony to Him in the way we live our lives: showing forth mercy and patience and forgiveness, and virtue, and love – and confessing our sins, and repenting, when we have fallen short of the mark. We use the tools given to us to achieve the goal of showing forth Christ in our lives: prayer, and fasting, and the struggle to acquire spiritual virtues in place of our passions – and by giving alms. We remember the needs of the Church, and give to help satisfy these needs; and we remember those in need around us, and we give to help satisfy their needs. We give as St. Sampson gave – without thought of reward, except for the treasure laid up for us in heaven. This is how we fulfill the requirements of the Christian faith.

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: Let us always remember that the material blessing of this life we enjoy are gifts of love from God to us. We are meant to use these gifts wisely, to benefit not only ourselves, but others as well. Let us pray, and fast, and give alms, and struggle, that we may show forth Christ in our lives, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Venerable father Sampson, pray to God for us!

Saturday, July 09, 2005

What is a "Saint?"

(All Saints of Russia) (July 3, 2005)

As we noted yesterday, the Church year now underway in the season after Pentecost is marked by the celebration of saints. Last Sunday was the Feast of All Saints; yesterday, we remembered and celebrated St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco; and today we celebrate the Feast of all the saints of the Russian land. By the way, I know that the icon we have for the feast isn’t really the icon for all the saints of Russia, but for the New Martyrs and Confessors. Well, we don’t have the other one; and the saints on the icon here are among the saints of Russia! I’m convinced that, had it not been for the example of the saints of Russia across time and space, and for their prayers, that the New Martyrs and Confessors would not have been able to endure the persecution they suffered not so very long ago. We, who are Orthodox Christians following the traditions of the Church of Russia, are also heirs of this great tradition of faith and practice, and are of one household with such saints as St. Sergius of Radonezh, and St. Seraphim of Sarov, and St. Olga. She was the grandmother of St. Vladimir, the Enlightener of Russia; and no doubt was a great influence upon her grandson by the example of her life, and by her prayers. Of course, Russia is not alone in having so great a cloud of witnesses as her saints; for example, many churches today celebrate all the saints of Mt. Athos, in Greece. But the saints of Russia are a significant part of our heritage, and we do well to commemorate them this day.

What is a saint? That’s not a question that can be answered easily, or quickly. In one sense, we can begin with the Greek word hagios, which can be translated as “holy” or as “saint.” Its meaning conveys the sense of something that is different, not of this world. So a saint is someone who lives, not according to the ways of this world, but rather by the way of heaven. We can also grasp what it means to be a “saint” by looking at the icons of saints. See the halo – that circle of gold behind their head? That isn’t some sort of gold tiara given by God to those who are holy; rather, it is the only way the writer of the icon can show the truth – that is, that the uncreated light of the glory of God is shining forth from that person. This is because a saint is someone who has labored to bring into reality the potential created in us all at our baptism and chrismation. A saint is someone who has “put on” Christ – has drawn near to God in prayer and fasting; has left this world with its possessions and pains and pleasures behind, and so grown in likeness to Christ that, when we see them, we see Him, in the uncreated light of His glory, as was shown forth on the mount of Transfiguration.

It’s sometimes said that there are two kinds of people in the world: sinners who think they are saints; and saints who think they are sinners. We can get an idea about where we fall on this spectrum by deciding which group is ours. Do you pray enough? Fast enough? Give enough? Struggle enough against your sins and the passions? If we answer, “yes” to any of these questions, guess what: we’re sinners who think we’re saints. The saints aren’t perfect; even as they attained a level of perfection beyond what most of us will achieve, they saw their sins in greater detail than most of us could bear. The saints, like us, never stopped sinning; but, unlike most of us, they grieved deeply over even the slightest of things; while we are quite often blind to serious flaws and faults, and the hurt we do to others, to ourselves, and to our relationship with God.

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: Let us love God more than we love ourselves. Let us turn our hearts and minds away from the things of this world, and all that binds us to it, and set our desires instead on the way of life that is pleasing to God, beneficial to the salvation of our souls, and which will let some of the light of Christ shine forth from us to encourage those around us, both among those who are of the household of faith, and those who are searching for what we have been given in the Orthodox Church and faith and way of life; to the glory of God, and to the salvation of our souls.

All saints of Russia, pray to God for us!

Saints in Our Midst Today

(The Feast of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco) (July 2,2005)

Right now, we are in the midst of a number of celebrations of the saints. Last Sunday was the Sunday of All Saints; today we celebrate St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco; and tomorrow, all the saints of Russia. But this is appropriate as we begin the season after Pentecost, for saints, among other things, reveal the great glory and greater mercy and grace of God. They make known to us the reality of God’s grace and mercy; they make known to us the truth that the Day of Pentecost was not merely an event that took place “long ago and far away.” The truth is that the Holy Spirit is always and continually present in the Church and in the world – and in us. We are also called to be saints.

There are people alive today who remember when St. John was present in his earthly life, when they saw him serve the Divine Liturgy, and the other services of the Church. They saw this holy man of God in their midst, preaching the Gospel of our salvation in words and in deeds, caring for his flock, visiting the sick and the troubled and the poor and the needy. They may have seen a miracle; they may have been blessed by a miracle. Not everyone recognized him as a saint while he was with them; indeed, some opposed him, and tried to have him removed as their bishop. But today, he is greatly loved and revered; and no one I know of who has been to his relics at our cathedral in San Francisco has not been moved – and this includes people who are not – at least, not yet – Orthodox Christians. It is amazing, that we can be in the presence of this holy man of God even today; and all who call upon him for his prayers are answered.

There are saints in our midst today – maybe even here, in this part of the body of Christ known as Holy Archangels Orthodox Church. If there aren’t, there should be! If there aren’t, it is because we are not willing to make the struggle, to take the steps necessary to live more fully the life given to us in our baptism, the life in which we are guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit given to us in our chrismation, the life nourished in us when we receive the wondrous grace of God in the Holy Mysteries – the same mysteries which strengthened and sustained our holy father John of Shanghai and San Francisco – the same mysteries by which he was sanctified. Do we not, when we receive in worthy fashion, prepared by confession and repentance and prayer and fasting, receive the same grace in the same mysteries? If we do – and we do – it stands to reason that our lives should more closely resemble the life of our holy father John. If the resemblance is missing, who is responsible, except each one of us?

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: Let us love God more than we love ourselves. Let us love the ways He has appointed for us to keep more than we love the things and pleasures of this world. Let us pray, and fast, as did St. John; let us give to the poor, and did St. John; and let us struggle against our sins, as did St. John, calling upon him to help us to do what he has done, and does even now, showing forth in himself, and in us, the life of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ.

Holy hierarch, Father John, pray to God for us!