Sunday, September 20, 2009

Racism and Our Mission of Love

In the readings today from the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. John the Theologian, we hear the theme of love. We are told of God’s love for us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” We are taught that the greatest commandment is to love: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” We are also commanded to love one another.

From a cultural point of view -- which is to say, from the world’s point of view, as opposed to the heavenly perspective – the word “love” many times means eros; erotic love, associated with sexual desire. Used properly, this is a gift from God, drawing a man and a woman closer to each other, making them one in holy matrimony, and establishing them as a family, as children may become, as it were, the fruit of their love. Less often, “love” might mean philos; brotherly love, which also binds us together for our good as a family – whether as having the same parents, or grandparents; and also in a larger sense, being of “one blood,” the blood of Christ, being children of God, and so brothers and sisters together. But here the evangelists are speaking of agape; the unselfish love that God has for us, and which we are called to serve as fountains on behalf of all the world. It is a love that thinks more of others and less of self; it is the love that sacrifices for the benefit of others, without thought of reward or repayment. It is the love that made it possible for our Lord Jesus Christ to endure suffering and death on the Cross for our salvation.

Perhaps you have heard some of the controversy that has been taking place during the national debate over the proposal to reform health care insurance in our nation. Ordinarily, the sermon doesn’t usually address topics of current events; but the theme of the readings from the Gospel today directly addresses these events, and so it is helpful to speak of them. It has been suggested that some of the opposition to the plan being advanced by President Obama arises as a result of racism. It is, it seems, an aspect of human nature – fallen human nature – to distrust, and even to have an irrational hatred, for those who are different. Racism, of course, is a response to a perceived difference based on the color of your skin. We are all aware of the cultural aspects of racism in American history and society: of those of African origin who were unwillingly brought to this country as slaves – an action that was acceptable in the minds of many because they were considered to be inferior. After slavery ended, the hatred and discrimination continued. You don’t need to go far outside the doors of the church here to see this: At one time, few, if any, “white” people lived south of Indian School Road; while those sometimes called, “persons of color” – blacks and Hispanics – were only permitted to buy property south of there, including this neighborhood, and surrounding ones. By God’s grace, things have been changing; but according to some, this controversy is a reminder that there is still work that needs to be done.

Drawings from Josiah C. Nott and George Gliddo...Image via Wikipedia

Brothers and sisters, let us not be mistaken. Those of us who have been joined to Christ by baptism, and who partake of the holy Mysteries of His Body and Blood are one with Him, and are one family in Him. The relative presence or absence of melanin – the pigment that produces the color in our hair, and in our skin – is not of any significance. That is to say, there are not three races, as was once thought and taught: there is one race, the human race. Every person, regardless of the color of their skin, is a human being, made in the image and after the likeness of God, and therefore worthy of respect, dignity, honor, and love – of agape, the sacrificial love of the Cross. It is not always easy to overcome the thoughts and habits of the culture in which we grew up; but we are called to do so as children of God, and as disciples, followers, of our Lord Jesus Christ. We each need to remember that we, those baptized, the Body of Christ, share in the priesthood of all believers: to minister to the world, to show all the world the love of God for us in Jesus Christ, in what we say, in what we do – in how we treat each other.

Let us examine ourselves for any signs that we do not yet love with the love of God, and ask for grace and strength to bring this love to a world which still needs to hear the good news of salvation, so that they also may receive the love God has for each of us, so that He may be glorified, and we may be blessed to fulfill our mission of unselfish love.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Dressing for the Feast

In a way, it could be said that the “theme” today is about clothing. This is the day on which the Church celebrates the deposition of the cincture of the Theotokos; and in the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we hear how, as the guests are gathering for the wedding feast, there is one who is found to be improperly dressed for the feast, and so is cast out of the banquet hall into torment.

The canon of the Feast says, in Ode 7 of the first canon, ”The Queen of all, having departed for the mansions of heaven, has left behind her cincture as a treasure for the king of all cities, and by it we are saved from the invasions of enemies, visible and invisible.” It is said that, at the time of the Dormition, the most holy Lady Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary gave her cincture – a belt, or sash, worn around the waist, helping to keep closed the outer garment being worn – to the Apostle Thomas. Some time later, it was taken to the city of Constantinople, placed in a special casket, and kept in a church dedicated to the Mother of God. So it remained until the ninth century, when Zoe, the wife of Emperor Leo, fell into a sickness in her soul. As the result of a vision, she asked that the cincture be placed upon her; and when this took place, she was healed.

The treatment of the man who lacked the proper garment is given to us as a warning – indeed, one of many in that particular parable. There are several groups of people mentioned: those who were originally invited to share in the celebration; those who were invited to take their place; and those who were compelled to attend, without regard as to whether or not they desired to do so. At the time our Lord is telling the story to His disciples, the first group, who had been invited but were found to be unworthy, and whose city was destroyed, was clearly the Jews, to whom God had given the revelation of Himself and the Law, and the promise of the Messiah – Who had now come, but was not accepted by the people who claimed to be awaiting Him. The group invited to take their place at the feast were the Gentiles, who were not Jews but were truly seeking God in response to His call to them; while the group that had to be forced to attend was made up of those who had little or no desire to find God, or to leave behind the ways of the world.

We need to be aware of this; and to realize that the first group today – the group that is invited to the feast – is the Church. Indeed, the Church is the Bride of Christ, the Son of the King, Who is God the Father, the host of the feast. The treatment of the first group, related in the parable, concludes with the destruction of their city; which took place on August 4th in the year 70 A.D., when the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in response to the revolt by the Jews. We also need to know that the wedding garment, the means by which we are properly admitted to the celebration, is our baptismal robe. You may recall that, in the service of Holy Baptism, we pray several times asking the Lord’s grace and mercy so that the newly baptized person may be blessed and empowered to keep their baptismal robe clean and unstained by sin; and that, when we fail to do so, we are able to have the stains and filth of our sins removed, washing (as it were) our robes through the mystery of repentance and the confession of our sins. If we forget these things; if we neglect the way of life we learn from the Church, we are at risk of finding ourselves to be improperly attired, and, like the man in the parable, at risk of being tied hand and foot, and cast out into the darkness, into an eternal existence outside the light of the love of God – and the knowledge of our loss will certainly cause us to weep and wail and gnash our teeth.

We can draw wisdom as well from considering the cincture of the Theotokos. If we think of it only in worldly terms, it has little or no real value to us. It’s only a length of rope, or of cloth, or of leather. Even if it was made of gold, it still has only a fixed value – it is not unlimited. But if we think of it spiritually, we find it is a gift of incalculable value: a source of healings, and a token of God’s love for us, and of our connection with the Church of the saints who have completed their course, and have entered into their rest, with the Lord today in Paradise.

Brothers and sisters, let us not follow the ways of the world, nor seek its wisdom; but rather let us ask God for the grace and strength we need to turn away from the world, and to pursue the heavenly way of life. Let us confess our sins, and ask that our baptismal robes be made clean once more; and let us not neglect to come to the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, for the holy gifts offered today are a foretaste of that great wedding banquet, to which we are all invited. May God grant that each of us, and all Orthodox Christians, will be welcomed at that feast, coming with rejoicing and properly dressed; and that our preparations for the feast will cause others to desire to attend as well, so that their souls, with ours, will be saved.

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