Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Guilty of Being Unfaithful

(15th Sunday after Pentecost) (John 8:3-11)

The final reading from the Gospel today is the account of the woman taken in adultery. She is brought before our Lord by the scribes and the Pharisees, who are as much interested in trying to destroy our Lord’s credibility as with the transgression of the woman who had sinned. If the Lord said that she should be executed according to the Law of Moses, they could accuse Him of being hard-hearted, and so drive a wedge between Him and the people who were drawn by His loving nature. If, on the other hand, He somehow excused her sin, they could accuse Him of rejecting the Law of Moses, and so claim He was an enemy of God. The Lord knew the trap they laid for Him, of course, and He goes to the heart of the matter: He says, “Let those who are without sin cast the first stone.” Of course, everyone was aware of their own sins, and how much they deserved to be punished for the same; and so they did not stone the woman, but departed. When He asked her who had condemned her, she replied, “No one”; and our Lord said, “Neither do I accuse you. Go, and sin no more.”

Every time we sin, we are not only guilty of our sin but, in a way, we, too, are guilty of adultery – spiritual adultery, if you will. Think about it. Adultery is the act of being unfaithful in the marriage relationship, in which husband and wife become one – and to be with another is an insult and an injury to that state of oneness. Now consider this: Aren’t we called to relationship with the Lord? Aren’t we meant to be one with Him? Yet every time we seek our own way, every time we seek pleasure or comfort or anything else from the world, we are being unfaithful to the One Who has called us to be His, having already made Himself ours by His Incarnation and by His Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. We are guilty of being unfaithful; and so we deserve to die.

Yet where are those who would condemn us? Our conscience tells us that we have sinned; and may God protect us against so deadening ourselves to our conscience that we no longer care about our sins, and the pangs of our conscience as a result. So we accuse ourselves; and the only other accuser who matters is Satan, the enemy of our salvation. He will accuse us of our sins at the time of judgment; and accuses us to ourselves now, to make us ashamed and unworthy, so that we might hide from God, as did Adam and Eve in Paradise, after they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By these accusations, he tries to make us fear to enter the presence of God, and to drive us into despondency and despair.

At such times, we need to remember that our Lord does not, and will not, accuse or condemn us. It is His great desire to forgive us, that we might be restored to relationship with Him. If we confess our sins, and repent, He forgives us; and He strengthens us in the amendment of our lives, so that we can pursue His instruction to go and sin no more – knowing as He does, of course, that we will, in all probability, sin again. When we do, again, we have hope, and so repent and confess, and so go on with Him in the journey through life.

Our venerable mother Theodora was an adulteress, having done so because of a fortune-teller. She repented of her sin, cut her hair, put on men’s clothing, and entered a monastery under the name of “Theodore.” While there, she was falsely accused by a harlot of having had relations with her, and fathering a child. Driven out of the monastery, she lived in the desert for seven years, raising the harlot’s child as her own. The abbot then received her back, and she lived in the monastery for another two years, before departing this life. It was only then that the monks learned her secret; and when her husband learned, he, too, became a monk, living in the cell that had been hers. Among other things, we are meant to see that amendment of life is possible, by God’s grace, and by our living in an Orthodox manner: by confession, by repentance, and by an ascetic life: praying, fasting, giving, struggling, and, above all, living a life of love – not love as the world defines it, which was the doorway into her sin – but with the love that our Lord showed to the woman taken in adultery: forgiving and patient.

Brothers and sisters, we have been unfaithful, we have departed from our Lord in our sins. Let us return to Him, and repent, and seek His mercy and help, that, as was our venerable mother Theodora, we, too, may be transformed, and leave the world behind, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Are You Worthy to Enter?

(14th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 22:1-14)

When you came into the temple today, what were you thinking about? Did the thought that you were entering a holy place cross your mind? Did you give any thought to your sins, and ask whether you were worthy to enter into this holy place?

Today we celebrate the holy hieromartyr Babylas, and the holy prophet of God, Moses. You may remember that Moses, who led the people of God out f slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea on dry land, to the mountain of God, where he received the tablets of stone on which God had written the Ten Commandments; who led the people through the desert for forty years, to the very boundary of the land God had promised to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and to their children. But God did not allow Moses to enter into that land, because of his sin, because he disobeyed God at Meribah-Kadesh. We are speaking about Moses, the prophet of God. If he was unworthy to enter the promised land, who had been in the very presence of God, do we dare think of ourselves that we are worthy to enter His presence?

The holy hieromartyr Babylas the archbishop of Antioch. The pagan ruler of that land decided that he would enter the church; but Babylas, who was at prayer with the people in the church, met the ruler outside the doors, and would not allow him to enter, because the king was not a Christian. The king left, but ordered that Babylas be arrested and tortured. Three young boys, the hieromartyr’s spiritual children, who had stayed with the saint for love of him, were each beaten, the number of blows they received being determined by their age, and then they were beheaded. After their execution, St. Babylas, bound in chains, was also beheaded. They were all buried together. Later, the relics of St. Babylas were moved to the city of Daphne, and were buried in a small chapel, near a temple to Apollo, with a statue that foretold the future. When the Emperor Julian the Apostate came to consult the oracle of the temple about his planned war against Persia, the statue said it was impossible to prophesy, because of the dead buried nearby. The Emperor ordered the relics of St. Babylas to be exhumed, and returned to Antioch. When the relics were unearthed, fire fell from the heavens, destroying the temple to Apollo. Julian was defeated in his war, and met his death, ending his persecution of the Faith and the faithful. We must realize that, when we sin, and turn our backs on the Orthodox way of life, and turn our hearts to worldly things, we live as pagans, and we become apostates. If a pagan was denied entrance to the temple, and the actions of an apostate caused a pagan temple to be destroyed by the hand of God, do we who are sinners dare to come into this holy place, and into the very presence of God?

We are given instruction in this by the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew. We are among those invited to the wedding feast of the Son of the King; but we must be clothed in the garment He provides for us, and not in the garment we make for ourselves. In this, we must understand that the garment He provides for us is the life of Christ, which we put on at the time of our baptism. It is a garment of purity, and a garment of honor; yet when we sin, we stain its purity, and we soil the honor with the filth of our lives. What is meant for our glory, we turn into filthy rags – and if this state of affairs does not change, we, like Moses, like the pagan king, will be denied entry into the promised land, and the presence of God. We will find ourselves cast into darkness, with weeping, and waling, and the gnashing of teeth.

What, then, are we to do? God, in His mercy, has provided for us a way to restore the garment of the life of Christ to purity and honor. We have the opportunity to repent of our sins, and to confess them to God. In return, He has promised us the forgiveness of our sins, and the removal of the wall that separates us from Him. When we confess and repent, and struggle against our sins, rather than giving ourselves over to them, He is with us, and helps us; and we grow more and more into the likeness of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in Whom is no sin, no shadow, no stain. And when we embrace, and live, the Orthodox way of life we gain victory over sin and death, victory over our weaknesses and wickedness, and are transformed into the image of God, and the likeness of Christ.

Brothers and sisters, while we have life, we are to have hope. While we yet live, we are to fight the good fight. Let us repent of our sins, giving thanks to God for His mercy, for His allowing us to come into His presence, and to receive His blessing. While we yet live, let us repent, and live the Orthodox life: praying and fasting, giving alms and offerings, struggling to overcome our passions, and sharing with each other the love of God – to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Monday, September 11, 2006

In a Blessed Falling Asleep...

(The Dormition of our Most Blessed Lady Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary)

At the end of the funeral service in the Orthodox Church, and at the end of every pannikhida, which is derived from the funeral service, we hear intoned the prayer, "In a blessed falling asleep, grant, O Lord, eternal rest unto Thy departed servant..." In a way, we are asking that the person being remembered be granted the mercy that the most holy Lady Theotokos received at the time of her departing from this life. We would also do well to ask God for the same mercy in our own lives, and for such a falling asleep for ourselves when our time in this life comes to an end.

What lesson can we learn from the celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, and from contemplation of the icon of the feast? It is as if we could say, "In a blessed falling asleep, O Theotokos, thou didst teach us not to fear death, but to put our trust in thy Son, Who has trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, He has bestowed life."

The Fathers of our faith teach us that we should be ever-mindful of the truth of our departing this life, and coming into the presence of God. Let us, then, embrace the Orthodox way of life: of prayer, and fasting, of giving alms and offerings, of struggling to overcome our weaknesses and passions; loving God, and showing forth that love to one another, both among the company of the faithful, and to all those we meet in the world around us, who are also made in the image of God -- and let us follow the example of our blessed Lady, and trust in the love and mercy of God, to the glory of His name, and the salvation of our souls.

Most holy Theotokos, save us!

Laboring in the Vineyard: Defeating our Pride

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

The Parable of the Vineyard, which is today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, is the second of two parables taught by our Lord to the scribes and Pharisees when they confronted Him, questioning the source of His authority after He had driven the moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem. You’ll recall that He did not respond directly to their question, which was meant to either separate Him from His followers, or give them grounds to arrest Him for insurrection. He then gives two parables, based in vineyards. The first involves a father who asks his two sons to work in his vineyard. One says he will do so, but does not; while the other says he will not, but then repents, and goes to do as his father asked. The second parable is the one we heard read today.

Today we also commemorate the life of St. Moses the Black. An Ethiopian, he escaped from a life of slavery, and became a robber. His size and physical strength were such that the robbers made him their leader; but his conscience was suddenly awakened, and he repented of the crimes he had committed. He left the band of robbers, went to a monastery, and became a monk, entirely obedient to the rule of the monastery and to his spiritual father. Through asceticism, by fasting, by spending nights standing in prayer, and through serving others by hauling water for them from a distant well, he struggled for six years against lustful thoughts and desires, and was finally healed miraculously by his spiritual father, St. Isidore. Ordained a priest in his old age, he established a monastery. The monastery community grew to number 75 monks, as well as St. Moses. Foreseeing an attack by barbarians, he warned his brothers to flee to safety; but told one that he would not do so, for, having lived a life of violence, he would die by violence, and so he would stay at the monastery. He was killed, with six other monks, run through with a sword.

It is pride that leads us into all of our sins: to make promises that we do not keep, to take what has been entrusted to us by God to use in His service and use it for our own benefit, to consider ourselves entitled to what God has given – and so we become guilty of killing His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who was cast out of the vineyard and put to death on Golgotha, outside the city wall of Jerusalem. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem, His vineyard; and the ministry of His truth, which had been given to the Jews, was given instead to the apostles, and to their heirs, the bishops, and to all who teach the Orthodox faith. It is pride that makes us rebel against God; and we rebel every time we give ourselves over to our passions, every time we give ourselves over to our sins.

St. Moses knew the deadly power of pride. When a certain prince heard of the saint, and desired his counsel, St. Moses fled from his monastery. While fleeing, he unexpectedly came upon the prince and his party, who asked him where to find the cell of Abba Moses, not knowing that he was the very monk they sought. He replied, “What can he do for you? He is a foolish man, given to lying, and an unclean life.” The prince was astonished. When he arrived at the monastery, he asked for St. Moses, only to be told that he was not there. They then reported what had happened in their encounter with the monk on the road; and were astonished again, after giving a description of the monk, to learn that the monk who had spoken so harshly was, in fact, St. Moses himself. But, by God’s grace, this all gave great spiritual help to the prince, who then departed, rejoicing.

How different we would be if we could say of ourselves that we are foolish, and liars, and living unclean lives! Where, then, would there be any room for our pride? If we could admit our folly, and lying, and uncleanness, we could not then consider ourselves to be better than others; nor could we think we had any merit before God. To defeat our pride would be a great step, indeed, toward the salvation of our souls; and would change us, and how we deal with others.

Brothers and sisters, beloved by God! If we live in our pride, we are like those to whom the vineyard was entrusted, assaulting and ignoring the prophets, and killing the Son. All we can expect, if we will not swallow our pride, and repent, and confess, is destruction, and eternal damnation. But if we will fast, if we will pray, if we will give generously from what God has given us, and if we will defeat our pride and humble ourselves, following the example of our venerable father, St. Moses the Black, then we can be of help to others, even as we live to the glory of God, and to the salvation of our souls.

As Long As We Are Rich...

(12th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 19:16-26)

Today we celebrate the life and repose of the Apostle Thaddaeus. He was not one of the twelve apostles. He was one of the seventy, who were sent, two by two, by our Lord to the cities and towns He intended to visit. They were sent to heal the sick, and to proclaim to the people that the kingdom of God has come to them. On their return, they reported, with rejoicing, that even the demons were subject to them by the power of the Name of our Lord. After His resurrection and Ascension, our Lord sent Thaddaeus to the court of King Abgar, to whom the Holy Napkin that bore the icon of our Lord’s face had been sent, to heal him of his leprosy. Only a small spot of leprosy remained on the king’s face; and when the apostle baptized him, even that was cleansed. The king had the apostle preach to the people; and when they saw their king had been healed, and heard of our Lord Jesus Christ, they put away their idols and embraced the Orthodox faith. The holy apostle would also preach the Gospel of our salvation across Syria and Phoenicia before departing to his reward in heaven.

Each of us has a similar opportunity. We can be of service by proclaiming the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ. With words, and with the very character of our lives, we can make a statement to those around us, preaching with our lives the power of our Lord Jesus Christ to deliver those who turn to Him from the things which hold them in this life, and to bring them to a new life in Him, a life that will not end with death, as does the worldly life we are so inclined to hold on to, even as it slips away.

The reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew gives us a powerful instruction in how we can make a statement to the world around us, if we are willing to receive it. I say, if we are willing, because it is not an easy one to accept – at least, not in our culture, for it directly opposes a central value of our culture. Our Lord tells His disciples – and that includes us, if we are His faithful followers – it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Obviously, such a thing is impossible – and the Fathers tell us how to understand why this is so.

As long as we are rich – which is to say, we have more than we need – while others do not even have the barest necessities of life, it is not possible for us to enter the kingdom of heaven. Have you ever stopped to consider this? We all have so much – food, clothing, a place to live, the means to travel, comforts and distractions and entertainments… And our culture teaches us to want more, to get more things, to seek more pleasures, and so to work harder, or to use credit to buy what we can’t afford, and to convert what we want into being something we need, so that we can justify our desires.

Our Orthodox faith teaches us that we should view the abundance with which we have been blessed not as the “just reward” for our labors, but rather as a bounty that God, in His mercy, has entrusted to us, so that we may provide not only for our own needs, but for others as well. This is the comfort the disciples receive when they ask our Lord, “Who, then, can be saved?” They did not ask this because they were rich, for they were not wealthy in material things. Our Lord tells them that salvation by our efforts alone is impossible; but that, for God, all things are possible. And so the fathers tell us that the mere act of beginning to turn away from our greed, and to begin to discipline our flesh with regard to denying it what it wants – which we do by turning to God, and adopting the Orthodox way of life – we are responding to God, Who will bless us and help us to reduce what we think we need to be happy, and successful, and fulfilled. By God’s grace, if we seek it, our eyes are opened to the excesses of our own lives, and to the needs of others around us, and to the way in which we can employ what God has entrusted to us as His stewards, as His servants. When we recognize that the wealth belongs to God, and not to us, we can approach it differently, use it differently – and so those whose needs are addressed are helped; and we gain hope for the salvation of our souls because we have not used the wealth for ourselves alone, but have shown mercy, and the love of God, by denying ourselves and reaching out to help others. God can – and does – act through us as we yield ourselves to Him, together with what we have, which He has given to us – and so He acts to save our souls.

Brothers and sisters: When we turn aside from the ways of the world, when we bring a godly understanding to the use of wealth, we make a powerful statement, an apostolic proclamation, of the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, dwelling in our midst. This can give hope to those who are trapped by the things they own, who are weighed down by their desires for more. Let us open our eyes to those in need, and open our hearts to use what we have on their behalf – to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Settling Accounts

(11th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 18:23-35)

In the Gospel reading today, St. Matthew records the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ in the parable of a king settling accounts with his servants. We hear of a servant whose debt was so great that it could not be paid, and of how he obtained mercy from the king. The Fathers tell us that, in this parable, we are the man who owes ten thousand talents – we are the servant with a debt that cannot be paid.

Consider how the king will settle this man’s account – that is, how the King will deal with us, when we stand before Him to give an accounting for our lives. If we are honest, we must admit that God has blessed us richly, starting with the gift of life itself; and the gift of His love, and all the blessings we have received, materially and spiritually, even though we have given nothing of any value or good to God in return. We have not used the blessings and gifts we have received wisely; and so we have incurred a debt that cannot be repaid. In the parable, the king orders that the debtor be sold, along with his wife an children. When the king’s servant I sold, he will no longer belong to the king, but to another master – and so, as the parable is telling us about God our king, this is to say that sinners will be sold to another master. In fact, sin is already our master; and beyond the sin is Satan. The debtor’s wife stands for his flesh, the companion of his soul; while the children of the debtor, the Fathers tell us, are the evil deeds committed by us in body and soul. Being tormented is actually an act of mercy – for the purpose of the suffering that results is not destruction, but the salvation of the spirit.

We also learn something important about the King. He does not desire the death or punishment of the sinner. His aim is the settlement of accounts, and the carrying out of justice. As a result, when the servant asks for more time to repay what he owes, the King – that is, God – responds even more generously than He was asked to do – for He forgives the debt entirely. When we ask Him to forgive our sins, He does so. The consequences of our sins, and the impacts of our evil deeds may continue; but at the moment we confess and repent, our sins no longer testify against us, no longer are added to the account which we must settle.

Of course, human nature – that is to say, fallen human nature – being what it is, we all tend to be a bit, shall we say, ready to quickly justify our own sins, but quick to condemn others for the same thing. We see this in the servant whose unpayable debt was forgiven. When he meets another of the king’s servants who owes him a mere pittance by comparison, he demands payment; and when the second servant in unable to pay, seizes him by the throat – that is to say, without mercy – and has him thrown into prison until the debt was paid. To make the point even more clear, the words by which the second debtor sought mercy were the exact words the first servant had used to obtain mercy from the king. But the servant whose debt was forgiven by the king did not have mercy on his fellow servant, and so revealed to all his hardness of heart. The end result was that his immense debt was reinstated, and he was given over to torment until the debt was paid – and, as it was not possible for him to make such repayment, this means that his torment will be unending, eternal.

Among other things, this should give us additional insight into a part of the Lord’s Prayer, where we say, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” We have already established that it is God’s desire to forgive the repentant – but we must repent from the heart. Not only that. Our repentance must be accompanied by a change of heart; and the evidence of this is that we who desire to be forgiven have also learned to forgive. Indeed, forgiveness is such that we no longer condemn others for their sins, but pray for the Lord to have mercy on them – learning from His example, as He suffered on the Cross, praying for mercy for those who were responsible for His suffering and death.

Brothers and sisters: We do well to repent, and seek the mercy of God, and the forgiveness of our sins. We do well to amend our lives, and turn away from our sins, as a form of expressing our gratitude to God. We will also do well to forgive others their offenses against us, and to pray for them, and to show them mercy – not just so that we may also be forgiven, but that we may labor to make our hearts more closely resemble the heart of God, and love with His love – to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.