Tuesday, September 27, 2005

By This Sign Conquer

(The Exaltation of the Cross) (John 19:6-11a, 13-20, 25-28a, 30b-35)

It is said that the Emperor Constantine, as he was preparing his troops for the battle that would make him the ruler of the western part of the Roman Empire, had a vision of a Cross of brilliant light superimposed upon the sun; and he heard a voice say to him, “By this sign you will conquer.” He ordered his men to put the sign of the Cross on their shields; and he was, indeed, victorious in battle that day. The Emperor, a pagan at that time, later issued the Edict of Milan, which ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire; and he would also summon the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 to put to an end the dissension in the Church aroused by the heretical teachings of Arius. He became a Christian as his death drew near; and the Church recognizes him as St. Constantine the Great.

When the Empress Helena, Constantine’s mother, went to Jerusalem to find the Cross of our Lord, it was discovered that the site of our Lord’s Crucifixion had been covered by a temple to the Goddess Diana. Excavating the site, three crosses were found. How would it be possible to determine the True Cross? The Patriarch Macarius was able to discern a way. As a funeral procession passed by, he directed that the person being taken to be buried be placed on each cross. With the first two, there was no effect; but, when the corpse was placed on the Cross of our Lord, life was immediately restored to that person. After that, a woman who was ill was placed on the Cross, and she was healed. In this way, the True Cross was revealed, and was venerated by all as the precious and holy life-giving Cross..

We may not ever see a vision. We may never hear a voice tell us anything. But we must know this: By this sign, the sign of the Cross, we are able to conquer in every battle that we face. The sign of the Cross wounds the demons, and drives them far from us; and so, when we are tempted, we have as part of our defensive arsenal the sign of the Cross. When we are afraid, we make the sign of the Cross, remembering that we do not achieve anything by our own strength, but only by the strength of Him Who dwells in us. When we have sinned, we make the sign of the Cross, remembering Him Who died on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins, and so we can be helped to repent and confess. By this, by confessing and repenting, and by using the power of the sign of the Cross in our own lives, we too conquer death; we, too, are raised from death to life by the power of the holy and life-giving Cross.

Brothers and sisters: As we keep this solemn feast day, let us give thanks that our Lord Jesus Christ gave Himself for us on the Cross; and let us give thanks that, in the sign of the Cross, we have a weapon to use against the demons, against our weakness, and against our sins, that we might have life, and have it in abundance.

What is This Thing Called Love?

(14th Sunday after Pentecost) (John 3:13-17)

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

What is this thing called love? Most of us would probably define love as a feeling: whether as an attraction to someone, or of affection, or of caring for someone. In our culture today, we talk about love as a feeling that can be overwhelming, and irresistible. Elvis said, “I can’t help falling in love with you.” But love based on feelings can be deceptive: what happens when the attraction fades, when the circumstances change; what happens “after the love is gone?” Is this the love that St. John the Theologian was talking about when he wrote of God’s love?

I’ve heard it said that the Greeks had five different words that we translate into English as “love.” I don’t know about five; but I am familiar with three: eros, which denotes “sexual love”; philos, which is usually translated as “brotherly love,” or, perhaps, that love that exists between friends – a “friendly love,” which is not sexual in nature; and agape, which might be defined, in one word, as “benevolence” – to be full of good will towards another, and to show this good will in word and in deed. In a way, eros and agape are opposites: both generating very strong thoughts and feelings, but where eros is physical or sexual, agape is spiritual, rather than physical. Eros is the type of love that makes you feel as if you will die if it isn’t expressed or returned; but only agape can describe the love for another that makes it possible for us to die on their behalf. It is this love, agape, which St. John the Theologian speaks of to tell us of God’s love for us.

St. Paul writes in a similar way, “But God shows His love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) This love is not a “feeling” – it is a choice. God, for whatever reason, despite our rejection of Him, despite our unworthiness, despite the fact that our sins have made us unlovely, and unlovable, chooses to love us; and in that act of love, gives that which is truly lovely, and truly loveable, His only-begotten Son, so that we might be transformed from enemies of God into His friends; transformed from being sinners into saints; transformed from a death-directed existence into persons who will live a life without death, dwelling in His kingdom in an unbroken and unending relationship of love so intense that we cannot begin to speak of it. Speaking for myself, I think we can only begin to appreciate the fire of God’s love for us by grasping the intensity of love as eros; and somehow moving from its sexual intensity to a spiritual intensity, as agape. The intensity of the love that attracts us to each other, bonding men and women together as husbands and wives, leads us from a love that begins by filling a need within us to becoming a love in which we can give all that we have, and all that we are, for the benefit of the person we love – taking this love beyond husband and wife, and becoming the love that exists between parents and children; from which then can flow love for our extended families, and our family in Christ – and ultimately to love for God, so that we can fulfill our Lord’s commandment to love the Lord our God, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

So there is good news for us: we are loved. Each and every one of us is loved by God. No matter what you have done, no matter how you have sinned, God loves you, and desires that you share with Him in a relationship of love; which will never end, never grow cold, never be dull. It is not a feeling; it is a choice that God has made, to offer Himself to us in love; and a choice we must make, to offer ourselves to Him in love. This is the only reason for us to pay attention to His commandments, to keep His laws: not as a duty; not to avoid punishment – for these reasons cannot give us the strength to persist when the way becomes difficult. We can only hope to succeed in following the path of the life of prayer and fasting and giving and spiritual struggle because we choose to love God more than we love the pleasures of this world, and the momentary and illusive and ultimately empty pleasures of our sins.

Brothers and sisters: Let us love one another, as Christ loved us, and gave Himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God. Let us love God with all the fullness of our being; and let us love and care for each other, choosing to do so with the love of God, and no thought of gain or advantage for ourselves. By doing so, we find God’s love for us; and so be set free to love Him, and each other, in return.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Tending His Vineyard

(13th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 21:33-42)

When our Lord speaks in parables, He is using familiar imagery to allow us to see more deeply into the reality of our existence. In today’s Gospel reading, He tells a story about a man who, in today’s terms, makes an investment by planting, and making other improvements to, a vineyard. He then rents his property, and goes to a far country. As the harvest time comes, he sends his representatives to collect the rent, deferred until the harvest is in. But instead of paying the rent, the tenants drive off the representatives, beating one, stoning another, and killing another.

Now, at this point, we would have called the police – probably even before this point. But the property owner decides that he will send his son as his representative, thinking that the people who had done business with him would respect his presence in the person of his son. Instead, the tenants say among themselves, “Look, here is his son. Let us kill him, and take this property, which is his inheritance.” And so they seize the son, drag him out of the vineyard, and kill him.

Of course, we recognize that the son who is killed is our Lord speaking about Himself, the Son of God; He is speaking of His own death. The deeper truth, then, is that this is a parable about the world. The fathers tell us that the man who plants the vineyard is God Who, in His love for man, calls Himself a man. The vineyard is the Jewish people, planted – that is to say – established by God in the land He promised to them. The hedge may be understood to be the Law He gave to guide them, or the holy angels He set to guard them. The winepress is the altar; the tower is the temple. Those who tend the vineyard are the teachers of the people, the scribes and Pharisees. We are also meant to understand that the “far country” to which the owner departs represents the long-suffering patience of God, when evil increases, and it seems that God is absent. The representatives who were sent are the prophets; and the son sent, of course, is His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The tenants, who were meant to receive the Son on behalf of the vineyard, the people of God under the old covenant, crucified Him; and as a result, they were destroyed; and the vineyard was rented to new tenants, to the apostles, and to those who teach the apostolic faith.

Thus, on the one hand, we have received the inheritance spoken of; but, on the other hand, we are also responsible for delivering to the landlord His portion of the fruit of the vineyard. There are a number of levels we should understand in what we are meant to give to the Lord. Probably the most obvious is in terms of rent: when we pay rent, we are doing so in money; and so we can see the need to give our tithe to the church, and to make offerings for the needs of others. Money, of course, is usually the result of our labors, using our time and our talents; and so these, too, are meant to be placed at the service of the Lord. Among the demands upon our time is the need for prayer, and to gather to worship the Lord. Finally, at the deepest level, we are speaking of love: for all our giving of money or time or effort, all our prayers, all our worship, are empty and meaningless is not rising from a love for the Lord Who loves us, and without love for each other – a love that is patient and long-suffering and forgiving of offenses, and understanding of weakness. We have been planted as a vineyard in God’s love. We have been surrounded and protected by the hedge of God’s love. We have been raised up to see visions of the heavenly country by the tower of God’s love. We have in our midst the altar where God shows His love for us by giving Himself for us, and giving Himself to us in the bread and wine that He blesses to be His Body and Blood. And we have each other, a vineyard to be cared for in love – love for God, and for each other.

Brothers and sisters, the vineyard of God: Let us love one another, as Christ loves us, and gave Himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God. Let us worship God, giving thanks for His love; and let us care for each other, as we are His Body; and let us love those who have not yet been joined to Him, that, by seeing our love, they may see Him, and so come to Him, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Is Anybody Reading These?

OK, so, it's not like I'm not going to continue to write sermons -- at least, not as long as I am permitted to serve as a priest in the Church. And, having written them down (which I do to clarify my thoughts, such as they are, and cut down on the amount of rambling that takes place while actually preaching!), it really doesn't take much time to post them here; nor does it cost anything, as this is a free site. (I do have Scottish blood in my background after all. Not cheap -- thrifty!)

Still, there's no need to consume bandwidth if no one reads these poor and humble offerings. Even so, I guess I'm betraying some level of pride in wanting people to read these sermons, and even more, to comment on them...

Comments, anyone?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

(11th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 19:16-26)

Four years ago today, terrorists attacked New York City and Washington, D.C. Thousands of people were killed. We are still living with the aftermath today.

Two weeks ago today, Hurricane Katrina came ashore in the central Gulf Coast. Hundreds of people were killed; perhaps thousands. We will be living with the aftermath of this storm for years to come.

If nothing else, the remembrance of these events should stir us to consider anew the question with which the rich young man approaches our Lord Jesus Christ: What good thing shall I do, that I may inherit eternal life? This is in keeping with the instruction we have from the Fathers, who teach us that we must, without becoming obsessed with the idea, be ever mindful of the reality that each of us will, one day, depart from this life, and come into the presence of God, to give an account of how we lived, and be judged on that basis.

Who among us can say, with the rich young man, that we have kept all of the commandments of God from our youth? Who among us is not concerned at all about the things of this world, about ease and comfort that requires us to have many things? Such people are exceedingly rare. Now, you might say, “Father, I’m not rich.” Well, maybe you’re not like an actress I read about recently who, when she travels, requires a hotel room for her shoes, in addition to the suite she stays in (at a price of $3,500 a day); and who, while waiting for her luggage at an airport, had her purse stolen from her – with $200,000 of jewelry in it. OK, no one here is rich in that sense; but, in comparison to most of the people who have lived, and most of the people living now, we are rich: we live more comfortably, with more convenience and leisure, than most people have ever experienced. It is the material prosperity of our country and culture that leads people to hide in packing crates and shipping containers, or to walk through the desert, in an attempt to enter this country, and partake of the lifestyle we take for granted, all the while thinking that we need more before we can call ourselves, “rich.”

What must I do to inherit eternal life? Our Lord gives the rich young man the bottom line: Give up all that you have to benefit those in need, and follow me. Some of us are called to this ascetic path today – to give up everything, and follow Christ. Most of us are not capable of doing this in a literal way: if nothing else, we have others who are dependent upon us to provide them with the things necessary for life; we are not free to sell everything we have, and enter a monastery, or devote ourselves entirely to ministering to those in need. But we must still follow Christ; and we have, in the Orthodox way of life, the path and the means to do this. We must pray; we must fast; we must struggle against our passions, and labor to replace them with their opposing virtues – and we must give, so as to set ourselves free, at least in some way, from our possessions. We are called to give our tithes for the support of the Church; and we are called to make offerings for those in need – such as those who have lost everything in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Maybe we can’t yet part with every earthly possession; but we can make tithes and offerings, and so begin to do at least part of what is needed to allow us to follow Christ, rather than depart from Him in sorrow, as did the rich young man, whose possessions, we are told, were great.

Brothers and sisters: We do not know at what hour our life in this world will come to an end; and so we must develop in ourselves a sense that urgent preparation is needed, lest that day be today, and we be found lacking in what God requires of us. What must we do to inherit eternal life? We must confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and God, and Savior; and this, not only in word, but also in deed. We must direct our lives so that what we say and what we do testify alike to the reality that Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives, and we are His servants. As His servants, we must do what He does: live without sin, and confessing our sins when we fall; we must be patient, and merciful, humble; we must love our neighbors, and so desire their salvation that we are willing to give of ourselves, of our time, our talents, and our treasures – that the hungry may be fed, the naked clothes, the homeless sheltered, and the sick and the prisoners be comforted. Our Lord calls us, as He called the rich young man: Be free of all your earthly possessions, and come, and follow Me.