Homily: Forgiveness

Sunday, February 18 (O.S., February 5), 2017: Cheesefare Sunday; Sunday of Forgiveness Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of Bliss; Apodosis of the Meeting of the Lord. Holy Martyr Agatha (251). Martyr Theodoula, and Martyrs Helladius, Macarius, Boethos, and Evagrius (304). St. Theodosius, Archbishop of Chernihiv (1696).

Ss. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: Romans 13:11–14:4
Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Forgiveness is the Christian tradition’s response to not only the petty annoyances of everyday life and the conflicts that corrode our relationships with family members, friends, and colleagues. It is also our response to systemic social injustice and the naked manifestations of evil.

In the Gospel, our Lord calls us to forgive all from to the most innocuous to the most horrific of harms. If I don’t understand this, if I don’t understand that I must always be ready to forgive and to counsel forgiveness, I’ve missed the point not simply of today’s Gospel reading but of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The world will often scoff at the Christian’s call to forgive. This happens not because forgiveness is seen as hard–though it is often so hard as to require heroic virtue from us–but because forgiveness undercuts the sinful heart’s desire to “lord it over” others (Matthew 20:25, NKJV).

This temptation to exercise power isn’t limited to “the rulers of the Gentiles.” It is a common human failing. This why in His response to the bickering of the Apostles over who is the greatest among them, Jesus says “whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28, NKJV).

And yet we need to be careful. We need to understand what forgiveness is and, maybe more importantly, what it isn’t.

When I forgive someone, I lay aside, I give up, my desire to punish them for an offense. To the unforgiving heart, it doesn’t matter if the offense was great or small, real or imagined, intentional or inadvertent. What matters to the unforgiving heart is that someone–indeed, anyone–suffers. To the unforgiving heart, someone must be punished.

Not punishing those who harm us isn’t the same as saying the offense didn’t happen or that it didn’t matter. Nor does forgiveness rule out restitution.

No, what forgiveness does is create a space, it creates the opportunity, for the offender to repent, for restitution to be made and for the reconciliation of those who are estranged.

Sadly, we have all of us had the experience someone who is always willing to remind us of our shortcomings and failures. There are those who see in the failures of their neighbor an opportunity to shame the person, to use their neighbor’s weakness as a way “lording it over” the person.

When this happens, I’ll speak simply for myself here, I resist acknowledging my fault. The more the other person tries to shame me, the less willing I am to examine myself and so to repentant.

This isn’t simply because I am a sinner, though I am, but because shame cripples us.

To forgive then means more than not punishing someone; it also means refusing to shame the person who has harmed me. I do this so that he or she is free to undertake the hard and necessary work of self-examination.

As I said a moment ago, forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation. These are, however, very different actions. While I am always free to forgive, reconciliation requires the cooperation of the other person.

Even assuming a mutual willingness to reconcile, circumstances may prevent this from happening. Once lost, trust in an intimate relationship can be hard to re-establish. Or maybe the harm caused is not simply personal but social–I wound not only my neighbor’s heart and so our relationship but his reputation. This is why gossip is so deadly. It can destroy a person’s place in the community.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we prepare to begin the Great Fast and our journey to greet the Risen Lord Jesus, we are commanded by that same Lord to forgive. While last week we told to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the lonely, sick and imprisoned, today we are told to do only one thing. To forgive.

Let us repent the desire to “lord it over” others.

Let us repent of our fantasies of revenge.

Let us repent of our desire to punish or humiliate those who have harmed or offended us.

Let us, in a word, forgive.

Forgive me a sinner!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Growing in Love

Sunday, February 11, 2018 (O.S., January 29): Meatfare Sunday; Sunday of the Last Judgment; God-bearer(107). Martyrs Romanus, James, Philotheus, Hyperechius, Abibus, Julian and Paregorius (297) Martyrs Silvanus, bishop of Emesa, Luke the Deacon, and Mocius (Mucius) the Reader (312). St. Laurence, recluse of the Kyiv Caves and bishop of Turov (1194).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, Madison WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

Reflecting on his love of tragedies and of the grief he feels when a character in a play suffers, St Augustine says he did this not because he loved sorrow but because he wanted to think of himself as the kind of man who feels pity at the sufferings of others. He wanted to think of himself in other words as merciful.

After all,he asks himself, “what kind of mercy is it that arises from” fiction? The audience isn’t asked “to relieve” the suffering they see on the stage “but merely … to grieve.” The more we sorrow, the more we applaud. In fact, he says the “insanity” is so perverse that if we don’t go away feeling bad, we feel cheated. Perversely, if we grieve at the fictitious suffering we shed “tears of joy” (Confessions, III:2).

Writing some 15 centuries later, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would refer to the insanity Augustine saw in himself as “cheap grace” describing it as “the grace we bestow on ourselves.” “Cheap grace,” he says, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship, 44,45).

Whether we call it “insanity” or “cheap grace,” St Paul in his epistle condemns it. Because of sin, there is in me a tendency to selfishness, to deal sharply with God as I seek to minimize what He asks of me. Like Augustine, I want to feel mercy but not act mercifully. Or, to return to Bonhoeffer, I want to be forgiven but not asked to repent.

As we look forward to the beginning of the Great Fast, the Church asks us to reflect once again on St Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.” This isn’t a rejection of fasting but a sober reminder of its limits. Indeed of the limits of all of our efforts.

Many of us, whether we Christian or not, fall into the same trap as Augustine. We imagine that it is enough if we feel bad for others. We think it is enough to have the right feelings or to hold to the right opinions. If our heart is in the right place, it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do.

I desperately want to be judged not by what I do but by what I feel. In the grip of this madness, I think my words and actions don’t matter as long as they “come from a good place.” I want, in other words, “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

This was the spiritual illness that afflicted the Corinthians. They thought their liberty meant they could do as they please without any thought to the consequences of their actions for other people.

As important as fasting is for the fathers of the Church, it is only a means to an end. I fast in order to overcome my selfishness so that, in turn, I am able to love.

And just as “cheap grace” isn’t really grace but a counterfeit, love without sacrifice isn’t really love. True love isn’t just sacrificial, it longs to sacrifice. If I love you, I want what is best for you. And if what is best for you is costly for me? I am glad to pay that cost and more.

St Maria of Paris reminds us that “The way to God lies through love of people.” Reflecting on the Gospel we just heard Mother Maria goes on to say that

At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead, I shall be asked did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.

The reason that I will be asked this, and nothing else, is because

About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe (The Pearl of Great Price, 29-30).

Not all of us are called, as Mother Maria was, to open a hostel for the poor. But, as the Gospel makes clear, whatever our state in life, all of us are called to care for those in need as best we can. St John Chrysostom says even the poor are called to care for rich by speaking a kind word or offering a prayer.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Everything we do in the Church is done for one reason, and one reason only. To heal the human heart of the selfishness that is the defining quality of sin.

As selfishness recedes so too will fear.

As fear recedes, your desire to love will grow.

As the desire to love grows, your willingness to love sacrificially will also grow.

And as your willingness to love grows, you will begin to discover more and more opportunities to love!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Self-Knowledge & the Knowledge of God

Sunday, February 4 (O.S., January 22), 2017: Sunday of Prodigal Son; Apostle Timothy of the Seventy (ca. 96). Monk-martyr Anastasius the Persian (628). Martyrs Manuel, George, Peter, Leontius, bishops; Sionius, Gabriel, John, Leontus, Parodus, presbyters; and 377 companions in Bulgaria (817). Martyr Anastasius the Deacon of the Kyiv Caves (12th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius, Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

modern1St Antony the Great taught that to know God, I must first know myself. For St Antony and the fathers of the Church, self-knowledge is the road to the intimate, experiential knowledge of God. If we think about this for a moment it makes sense. God’s first revelation for Himself to me is, well, me.

Created as we are in the image of God, we are each of us also a revelation of God. This is why self-knowledge is the way to God. God reveals Himself to me.

The readings this morning make clear to us the importance not simply of self-knowledge but accurate self-knowledge. Too frequently, I allow a partial or even false self-understanding to influence my behavior. The Church in Corinth is an example of this.

Many in Corinth embraced to Gospel but they misunderstood what it meant to be free in Christ confusing it with permission to engage in immorality. While they knew themselves as free they didn’t understand the nature of freedom.

Seen in this light, St Paul telling the Corinthians to “flee sexual immorality” is nothing more or less than asking them to remember who they are. And who are they? They are temples of the Holy Spirit called to “glorify God” not only in words but in their deeds. In effect, the Apostle tells the Church at Corinth become who you are!

The obstacle to this, to become who I am, is there for us to see in the Gospel.

Like many of us, the young man in the parable has a picture in his head of who he is. It’s important to keep in mind that the young son doesn’t say to his father, “Give me my inheritance so I can waste it on prodigal living with harlots and loss living.” No, and like many of us at 18 or 19, he asks for what is his so that he can strike out on his own. It is only when he acts on this self-image that he discovers its wrong.

The son discovers what all of us at one point need to discover, what the Christians in Corinth discovered, that freedom doesn’t mean the absence of responsibility. Rather, Christ makes me free precisely so I can embrace my responsibilities.

Again, it is likely that the young man didn’t want his inheritance to spend it on riotous living. But, and again like many college students, he discovered that his new, independent life, brought with it new burdens for which he simply wasn’t prepared.

He didn’t strike out on his own to live a life of immorality. Instead, he slowly succumbed to ever greater temptations until he discovered that lost he was no longer free. Little by little, his freedom evaporated until he found himself envying the pigs the garbage they ate.

In that moment, he saw not only the depths to which he sunk but, in coming back to himself as the parable says, he understood that freedom exists so that we can serve others.

Having come back to himself, he rises from his humiliation and returns to his father. But now, rather than being a demanding son, he returns as a servant. Like God the Son in His Incarnation, the boy lay aside what is his by right. Like Jesus, he “empties himself and takes the form of a servant” (see Philippians 2:7).

Finally, the boy sees himself as he is. He comes to understand that it is in service to others, in the practical works of charity, that we find ourselves. In Christ, God has made us free not, as Paul reminds the Corinthians, for immorality but charity. We are made free for sacrifice and it is in and through our sacrifices that we find not only God but our neighbor and ourselves.

What about us? What must we do?

If we would find God and learn to love Him and our neighbor, we must first turn inward. And, looking at ourselves as we must, first of all, accept ourselves as we are. This doesn’t mean saying that everything we see in ourselves is good–much of it isn’t–but that we don’t turn a blind eye toward what we see.

Without self-acceptance, there can be no repentance, no reform our lives, and so no growth in love for God or neighbor.

It may sound strange but the key to the kind of self-acceptance that leads to repentance and growth in charity is rooted in gratitude. If I would grow in the knowledge of God and love for my neighbor, I must first thank God for the gift of my life. And not only this. I must also thank Him for the knowledge of my failures as much as for my successes.

When God reveals my sinfulness to me He is also at the same time revealing His love for me, His willingness (with my co-operation) to heal what is broken in me, to restore me to a greater wholeness of being.

Listen again to St Paul’s words: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” In revealing our sinfulness to us, God shows us the way forward from bondage to sin to the freedom and joy that are the “fruits of the Spirit” (see Galatians 5:22-23).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God asks us today not only to know ourselves but to do so so that we can become who He has created us to be. This morning through St Paul’s words to the Corinthians and Jesus’ parable, God says to each of us, lay aside your sin, stop listening to the lies sin tells you about yourself, lay aside the fear that sin brings and find the courage to become who you are!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: The Poverty of the Son

Sunday, January 7, 2018 (December 25, 2017, OS): The Nativity of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ; The Adoration of the Magi: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Mission, Madison WI

Epistle: Galatians 4:4-7
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

Christ is Born!

Poverty, economists remind us, is always relative. We need to avoid the temptation of thinking of poverty only in monetary terms. Limiting poverty to merely the absence of material wealth, we risk overlooking the fact that it is in the nature of human beings to be poor.

What I mean by this is that, in the beginning, when God “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7), He created Adam in need. We see this in the Hebrew word translated as “living being” or sometimes “living flesh,” nép̄eš a word that connotes “neediness.” It is sometimes used to describe things like a flute or the throat, things that function–are only themselves if you will–because they are empty.

As it comes from the hand of God, it is in Adam’s nature to be poor.

Far from being a hardship, this original poverty means that all that humanity has, all that Adam and all of his descendants have, we have as a gift of God. My natural talents, my spiritual gifts, my family, and my very existence all these are God’s gift to me even as all that you have is likewise His gift to you.

When in the hymnography of the Church we hear that the Son becomes poor for our sake. This isn’t primary referring to material wealth. If Jesus was born in a palace with the Theotokos lying in a bed of finest linen, attended by the best physicians and with midwives who washed the Newborn Child with water poured from vessels of gold, we would still say that the Son was born in poverty.

The simple reason for this is that to be human means to be empty or, if you will to be poor. And while Adam rejects his own poverty, his own radical dependence on God, in the Incarnation the Son freely embraces all this “for us and for our salvation” as we say in the Creed.

In the faith of the Church, humanity’s poverty is a fitting vehicle for the revelation of God. Our poverty reflects the supra-abundance of the divine nature.

And this, in turn, means that Jesus not only reveals the Father to us, He reveals us to ourselves. To say that humanity is created in the image of God means that we are created according to the pattern of Jesus Christ Who is Himself the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” St Paul goes on to say of Jesus that

…by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything (Colossians 1:15-18, NKJV).

In becoming Man, the Son doesn’t cease to be God, He doesn’t cease to be the one through Whom all things are created and in Whom all “all things are held together.” Rather, in taking on our humanity, the Son takes on our poverty, our dependence on God. And as we see in the events of Holy Week, He also takes on our vulnerability to our indifference and cruelty.

It is God’s embrace of poverty that troubles “Herod the king … and all Jerusalem with him.” St John Chrysostom says that Herod and Jerusalem are troubled because like the Hebrew children in the desert they are in the grip of “idolatrous affections.” Once again they are more inclined toward “the fleshpots of bondage” than the offer of that “new freedom” that allows them to cry out “Abba! Father!”

Chrysostom goes on to say that Herod and all of Jerusalem “were on the point of having everything going their way.” Even though “they knew nothing” yet about the Incarnation, if they only “formed their judgments … on the basis of self-interest,” the fact that the mighty Persians came to worship this Newborn King should have strengthened their faith in God and their hope for liberation from Roman tyranny. That they were troubled the saint says means that their hearts were dull and marred by envy, (“The Gospel of Matthew,” Homily, 6.4 in ACCS: NT vol Ia: Matthew 1-13, pp. 22-23).

Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” this same envy that often mars our own spiritual lives.

Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” we are tempted to prefer the passing riches of man to the poverty of God.

Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” like Adam, we are troubled because we reject the poverty that the Son willingly embraces.

And yet, for all that we fail, there is hope. As I said a moment ago, Jesus not only reveals the Father to us but us to ourselves. We see simultaneously in the Face of Jesus both God the Father and our own deepest identity.

To embrace the poverty of the Son doesn’t mean to become materially destitute. Rather it means to put all that we have at the service of glorifying God and reconciling humanity to the Father and with itself

As Orthodox Christians living in America, we are members of a painfully small community. As a new mission, we are the smallest Orthodox community in the city of Madison.

But given our location on the Isthmus, we have been given the great blessing of being at the heart of not only Madison but of the whole state of Wisconsin.

God has set us aside as witness of His love to the most powerful voices in our city, our state and really in the nation. In calling us, God has blessed us and will continue to bless us if we remain faithful.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the required fidelity consists merely in this: to imitate the willing poverty of the Newborn Christ Child.

Christ is born!

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Spiritual Reading & Gratitude

Sunday, December 31 (December 18, OS): 30th Sunday after Pentecost: Sunday before Nativity, of the Holy Fathers; Martyr Sebastian at Rome and his companions (287); St. Modestus, archbishop of Jerusalem (4th c.). Ven. Florus, bishop of Amisus (7th c.); Ven. Michael the Confessor at Constantinople (845).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrew 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40
Gospel: Matthew 1:1-25

By divine grace, the broken men and women we hear about in today’s Gospel are all fit together as part of what St Augustine calls the divine catechesis. From Adam onward, Augustine says, God was slowly leading and purifying humanity until in the person of the Theotokos we are able to say “Yes” to Him and undo the disobedience of our First Parents.

As He has done from the beginning, God continues to for broken people together. Where once this was done to prepare humanity to receive His Son, now we are fit together as members of the Church. Once the Father fit broken people together to receive Christ. Today, He not only fits them together to become members Christ but to become alter Christus, or “another Christ.”

Having been joined to Christ’s Body the Church through Baptism, Chrismation, and Holy Communion, we are called by the Father to share in the Son’s work of reconciling humanity to God and so overcoming the power of sin and death in their lives and our own.

The practical question before us is this: How do we, personally, fulfill our great calling?

We have the sacraments, the worship of the Church and the ascetical disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor. These are–or at least should be–a part of every Christian’s life. But I want to focus this morning not on these but on another discipline much loved by the fathers of the Church. Spiritual reading.

When Augustine first meets St Ambrose, he is quite impressed that the bishop of Milan is sitting at his desk reading the Scriptures. The practice in the ancient world was not to read the Bible but to listen to it being read. But Ambrose doesn’t listen to Scripture, he reads it. Astonishing as this is to Augustine, he is even more impressed that Ambrose is reading silently. He is concentrating s intensely on the task at hand that he is reading without moving his lips!

The regular, even daily, reading of Scripture is the foundation of all spiritual reading. It’s also something that is often neglected. St John Chrysostom tells his listeners “to persevere continually in reading the divine Scriptures” because “it is not possible, not possible for anyone to be saved without continually taking advantage of spiritual reading” of the Bible.

He goes on to say that

Reading the Scriptures is a great means of security against sinning. The ignorance of Scripture is a great cliff and a deep abyss; to know nothing of the divine laws is a great betrayal of salvation. This has given birth to heresies, this has introduced a corrupt way of life, this has put down the things above. For it is impossible, impossible for anyone to depart without benefit if he reads continually with attention (On Wealth and Poverty, Saint Vladimir Press, pg. 58-60).

Together with the Scriptures, we can also read the Church Fathers. Their works are the biblical commentaries of the Orthodox Church. In their words, we discover not only the meaning of Scripture but also how it can apply to our lives.

With Scripture and the fathers, we can also add philosophy as well as the findings of the sciences. Again, this is something that the fathers recommend to us. Reflecting on the place of “pagan,” that is “secular” learning, St Basil the Great says “Just as it is the chief mission of the tree to bear its fruit in its season, though at the same time it puts forth for ornament the leaves which quiver on its boughs, even so, the real fruit of the soul is truth, yet it is not without advantage for it to embrace the pagan wisdom, as also leaves offer shelter to the fruit, and an appearance not untimely” (“Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature,” III).

Basil expands this to include not only philosophy and the sciences but also the great myths and poetry of the ancient world. In these, we find examples of both the virtues that lead to salvation and the vices that keep us from the Kingdom of Heaven. He goes so far as to say that when reading pagan literature we should we should “receive gladly those passages in which they praise virtue or condemn vice” (“Address,” IV).

Key to profitable spiritual reading, as St Basil suggests, is gratitude. I need to read with a grateful heart. To the grateful heart examples of vice are as profitable as virtue. The latter gives me examples to emulate, the former to avoid.

As I read with gratitude, my tendency to prefer my own judgment to the judgment of God will wane. This, in turn, will make it possible for me to recognize myself, my failures and successes, my vices and virtues, in what I read.

And slowly I begin to see how, like the ancestors of Christ, God has fit my brokenness into His plan of salvation not only for me but all humanity.

And, if I am inclined to do so, this growth in self-knowledge and understanding allows me to grow in a gracious and appreciative knowledge and understand others.

My brothers and sisters in Christ!  Spiritual reading helps us cultivate the habit of gratitude to God for even the smallest hint of His grace. Yes, like all humanity we are broken. Through spiritual reading, however, we learn to be open to the traces of grace not only in the things we read but in our lives and the lives of those we meet daily.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: In Christ is All

Sunday, December 24, 2017 (December, 11 OS): 29th Sunday after Pentecost. Tone 4; The Sunday of the Holy Forefathers; Ven. Daniel the Stylite of Constantinople (490). Martyr Mirax of Egypt (640). Martyr Acepsius and Aeithalas at Arbela in Assyria (VII). Ven. Luke the New Stylite of Chalcedon (979). Ven. Nicon the Dry of Kyiv Caves (1101).

Epistle: Colossians 3:4-11

Gospel: Luke 14:16-24

The violence and compulsion that always seem to travel along with the Kingdom of God are wholly of my own making. Let me explain.

1211to1217sundayofforefathersSt John Chrysostom tells us that when we hear about God’s anger, we shouldn’t think that God’s anger is like our own. I get angry because I am offended or afraid. Even when my anger is righteous, there is something sinful mixed in. My anger always reflects my over-attachment to my own will, to my own plans and projects.

For God, however, “even if He punishes even if He takes vengeance, He does this not with wrath, but with tender care, and much loving kindness.” This why Chrysostom concludes that when we sin we should be courageous and “trust in the power of repentance.” Why? Because God doesn’t react out a sense of His own wounded dignity but rather “with a view to our advantage, and to prevent our perverseness becoming worse by our making a practice of despising and neglecting Him.” While it may feel like an affront or even a punishment, what God does, He does not to “[avenge] Himself on account of our former deeds; but because He wishes to release us from our disorder” (An exhortation to Theodore after his fall,” 1, 4).

The more I have rebelled against God the more His will feel to me like an act of violence. The more I give my heart over to created reality rather than to God, the more it feels like, in the words of today’s parable, that God is “compel[ling]” me to “come into [His] house.

The more I love the creature more than the Creator, the more it will always feel as if God is compelling me, forcing me to do His will. The violence, however, is not committed by God.

Rather, I am the one who commits violence against myself. It isn’t God who violates my freedom or wounds my dignity. I do these things to myself when I resist His grace. When I refuse to, as St Paul says, “put to death” all that is earthly in me, I make Adam’s transgression my own and become my own worst enemy.

This is why it is important at times simply to stop. To take the time to keep silent, to pray and reflect on my life. I need to remind myself of all the ways in which I prefer the creature to the Creator and my own will to the will of God. To avoid harming myself I must, in the words from the Liturgy, live a “life of repentance.”

We need to pause at this point to avoid making the mistake of thinking that to prefer the Creator to the creature or the will of God to my own will, means to ignore the personal and work demands of everyday life. Nothing could be further from the truth!

In fact, what we need to do is learn to see the demands made on us in light of the Gospel. The obligations that make up life are an intrinsic part of the everyday asceticism that God asks of us. Our daily obligations, the myriad little and great tasks of my life, must be seen within the wider context of the “Grace, mercy, and peace” that comes “from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love” (2 John 1:3, NKJV).

Here’s the great blessing that I often overlook in my short-sighted pursuit of my own will.

Apart from God, even the very best thing in my life will, even those things and people that bring me the greatest sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, will eventually become sources of bitter disappointment and division.

In Christ, the people and tasks in my life, my successes as well as my failures, all these become sources of healing, reconciliation, and communion.

In Christ, that is undertaken with a spirit gratitude to God, everything in my life becomes a moment of divine grace.

And as if this wasn’t enough…

In Christ, all that we do not only glorifies God but also is a step along the way to becoming more fully the man or woman God has created us to be.

Reflecting on the Magnificat, St Ambrose of Milan points out that “the human voice can[not] add anything to God.” Even the best of my accomplishments or the purest expression of my love, adds nothing to God. But, Ambrose reminds us, still we can say that God is “is magnified within us” because when “the soul does what is right and holy, it magnifies… God, in whose likeness it was created and, in magnifying the image of God, the soul has a share in its greatness and is exalted” (Commentary on Luke, II, 19.26-27).

My brothers and sisters in Christ, when we “put off the old man with his deeds, and … put on the new man,” the myriad tasks and relationships of our lives take on a lasting and eternal character.

Likewise, as we set aside our own sinfulness–that, is through repentance–we are “renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created” me, we become more fully the men and women who God has created us to be.  And it is in this that we find the justice and peace and the mercy and love that is always escaping even the best of our merely human intentions.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: A Witness to More

Sunday, December 17, 2017 (December 4, OS): 28th Sunday after Pentecost. Tone 3; Great-martyr Barbara and Martyr Juliana at Heliapolis in Syria (306). Ven. John Damascene (776). Ven. John, bishop of Polybotum (716).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, Madison WI

Epistle: Colossians 1:12-18/Galatians 5:22-6:2
Gospel: Luke 17:12-19/Mark 5:24-34

Leprosy in the Scriptures is a symbol of human sinfulness.

Just as leprosy makes the person more prone to infection and decay because it numbs the body’s ability to feel pain, sin deadens the heart’s sensitivity to the presence of God. It isn’t so much that the person denies God’s existence but that he or she is indifferent to God.

The heart’s indifference doesn’t harm God. It does, however, harm us. Indifference to God condemns the person to the kind of social isolation that we see in the Gospel this morning. St. Dorotheos of Gaza explains why.

He says that God is the hub of a wheel on which we are spokes. The closer we draw to God, the closer we draw to each other. Likewise, the further I am from God, the further I am from you.

“This is the very nature of love,” the saint writes.

The more we are turned away from and do not love God, the greater the distance that separates us from our neighbor. If we were to love God more, we should be closer to God, and through love of him we should be more united in love to our neighbor; and the more we are united to our neighbor the more we are united to God (Discourses and Sayings, p. 139).

Because we are social beings, in separating us from God and our neighbor, sin also separates me from myself. Sin makes me not only a stranger to myself but my own worst enemy. “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” says St Paul. When I look into my own heart, I realize that “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:19, 23, NKJV).

For all the good we see around us–and there is real and substantial goodness to be seen if only I am willing to see it–we live in a community that fosters indifference to God. This is why God has called us to establish a parish on the Isthmus.

Left unchecked, the secularism that is advanced by the institutions like the UW-Madison or groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation is corrosive to the human heart and civil society.

Please note I said “unchecked secularism.” The separation of church and state that is the hallmark of the American Experiment is a precious safeguard of human conscience and the ability of the Church to structure her internal life and her external witness according to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

The problem arises when secularism is imposed. This might happen by law as it did during the Soviet era. In Madison, however, what typically happens is social pressure is subtly (and sometimes, not so subtly) brought to bear to silence or marginalize believers.

Our mission has a mission: to offer a gentle but faithful witness to the presence of God. We offer this witness not only for the sake of others but also for our own. Let’s look at each in turn.

Reflecting on his own experience, St Augustine comes to see that what is true for his life, is true for all of us. He says to God “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (The Confessions, I.1). While most of those we met will not become Orthodox Christians, we shouldn’t minimize the positive effect we can have on others. Apart from God, the human heart will not know lasting peace.

The fathers are clear: “what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world.” Even if most will not come, in this life at least, to faith in Christ, God nevertheless will our witness to help heal the restlessness that afflicts those around us.

To be sure, there are times when this will feel like a thankless task because “the world …hates the Christians, though in no wise [are they] injured, because [we] abjure pleasures.”  But just as the “soul is imprisoned in the body, yet keeps together that very body … Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they keep together the world. … God has assigned [us] this illustrious position” and it is “unlawful for [us] to forsake” it (The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, VI).

This brings us to our next point. Our witness here is not simply for the sake of others but our own salvation as well.

Created in the image of God, we never really become fully ourselves until–like Christ–we give ourselves away in love for the sake of others. So many Orthodox Christians experience unnecessary suffering in their spiritual lives because for all that they love God and the Church they fail to serve others.

The fact is, we never really will possess the Gospel and the peace that St Paul describes in the second epistle this morning, until we hand that faith on to others;”if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

My suffering is unnecessary and pointless to the measure that I fail to bear witness to Christ. The less willing I am to work for your salvation, the less willing I am to see you liberated from sin, the more I am enslaved to sin and the more my own salvation is in doubt.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! What a great honor God has given us by calling us to establish a parish here on the Isthmus!

We get to bear witness to a way of life that is deeper, satisfying to the human spirit.

We offer a witness that tempers a life of mere professional, academic or social success by reminding people that, as good as all these can be, there is more–much more–to life than these.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Practical Atheism

Sunday, 3 December (November 20, OS) 2017: Forefeast of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple. Ven. Gregory Decapolites (816). St. Proclus, Archbishop of Constantinople (447). Martyr Dasius (303). Martyrs Eustace, Thespesius, and Anatolius of Nicaea (312). Hieromartyrs Nerses and Joseph; and John, Saverius, Isaac, and Hypatius, bishops of Persia; Martyrs Azades, Sasonius, Thecla, and Anna (343).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians  5:8-19
Gospel: Luke 12:16-21

The man in the parable is not condemned for being wealthy. He isn’t condemned for his labor practices or how he treats the environment.

No, he’s condemned for being a fool, for saying “in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1, NKJV).

Since we’re pointing out why the man wasn’t condemned, it’s worth saying that he wasn’t condemned because he failed to keep the Law, withheld wages from his workmen or neglected the poor.

Jesus gives no indication that the man failed in the external observances of the Law. But the external demands of the Law never penetrated into the man’s heart. Much less did his religious observances come from his heart because, in his heart “There is no God.”

The man in the parable is condemned for his practical atheism. “Practical atheism is not the quote-we-find-the-most-terrible-form-of-atheism-not-in-the-militant-and-passionate-struggle-against-the-nikolai-berdyaev-338034denial of the existence of God, but complete godlessness of action; it is a moral evil, implying not the denial of the absolute validity of the moral law but simply rebellion against that law” (Borne, Étienne (1961). Atheism. New York: Hawthorn Books, p. 10).

In other words, the man lived as if God did not exist.

We sometimes fail to appreciate that the difference between the City of God and the City of Man is not the absence of virtue or goodness in the latter. There is goodness in the City of Man even as there is virtue in the heart of the unbeliever. We fail in our evangelical vocation if we deny the presence of goodness outside the Church.

My own willingness to acknowledge good in the culture or virtue in the lives of unbelievers is as serious a moral failing as in any unwillingness on my part to recognize evil. Any indifference, or worse hostility, on my part to the Good, the True, the Beautiful and the Just–wherever they are found–is a sign of my own lack of repentance, of the hardness of my own heart. And if left uncorrected it will certainly result in my hearing the same word as the man in the parable: “Fool!”

The difference between the City of God and the City of Man, between the Church and the World, isn’t the absence of goodness in the latter and its presence in the former. The difference rather is that in the City of God any experience of truth, goodness, beauty or justice is received with gratitude as a gift coming from the hand of an all-loving and good God.

The temptation we face as Orthodox Christians living in America–a land of unparalleled wealth and opportunity for the Church–is that we become indifferent, or even hostile, to the gifts God has given us in establishing His Church in this land.

Rather than thanking God for material blessings, we can succumb to envy or greed.

Rather than thanking God for liberty and economic freedom, we can give ourselves over to sloth and fail to cultivate the life of virtue that these blessings make possible for us personally and as Church.

We can’t forget that our witness to Christ and the Gospel is found less in condemning error and more in our embracing the goodness we see around us and redirecting it to God.  In a word, we begin to fulfill our evangelical witness when we thank God for the goodness, the truth, the beauty and the justice we see, however faint, in the City of Man.

When we do this, we invite those who live in the City of Man to renounce their citizenship and become instead citizens of the City of God. Let me offer one example.

Our Founding Fathers, valued freedom of conscience not because they were moral relativists or indifferent to religious truth or divine revelation. In the American Experiment, the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution–freedom of religion, speech, the press, and assembly–are all ultimately in the service of obedience to God as He reveals Himself in the depths of the human heart.

While this may sound like relativism, and to be honest it is often used to justify moral or religious indifference, what do we hear in the kontakion for Transfiguration? The Disciples beheld the glory of God “as far as they could see it.” God conforms His revelation to our, personal and unique ability, to receive Him.

Ultimately, to live a life of practical atheism, to be a fool in the biblical sense, is to live a life of delusion. This is why the Apostle Paul tells us to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.” He doesn’t say avoid people who sin. What he says is that we are not to sin. “[D]o not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.”

In the Scriptures, drunkenness is symptomatic of spiritual delusion. I can become as drunk on ideas and fantasies as I can on wine. In fact, I can become more intoxicated by my own fantasies and plans than on alcohol.

It is spiritual delusion (prelest) that leads to the condemnation of the man in the parable. He created a fantasy world in which he equated the real but relative good of material wealth with eternal life. “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’”

These are the words of the practical atheist. And it is this that St Paul tells us to expose as shameful by the light of the Gospel.

But before I can expose this in others, I might root this out from my own heart. And so St Paul tells me, tells us, this morning:

“Awake, you who sleep,
Arise from the dead,
And Christ will give you light.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us awake from sleep! Let us embrace the Good, the True, the Beautiful and the Just that we see around us and give glory to God.

And let us be bold in saying to those who live in the City of Man that the good things in their lives all come from the hand of God and invite them to join us in thanking God in the sacrifice of the Altar.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: What to Expect from a Priest

November 26 (November 13, OS), 2017: 25th Sunday after Pentecost (Tone 8): St. John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople (407); Martyrs Antoninus, Nicephorus, and Germanus of Caesarea in Palestine (308). Martyr Manetha of Caesarea in Palestine (308).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 4:1-6/Hebrews 7:26–8:2
Gospel: Luke 10:25-37/John 10:9-16

Image result for john chrysostomToday the Church commemorates our father among the saints, John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople. Just as Pope St Gregory the Great (Gregory Dialogos) is the model pastor in the West, Chrysostom is the model in the East. What each man taught about the priest’s duties is as relevant today as it was when it was written. Gregory’s  Pastoral Rule helps the priest understand how he is to care for the myriad personalities and characters he will encounter in his ministry. John’sOn the Priesthood offers the priest insight into the importance of his office and why he so felt inadequate to the task. As he says “the priesthood is offered to me… exceeds a kingdom as much as the spirit differs from the flesh” (III.1)

Chrysostom here is not being romantic or sentimental. Much less is he speaking out of pride. Rather, he is keenly aware that though “the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances.”.This is why he says the priest “ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers” (III.4).  The spiritual purity of the priest is not simply for his own sake but for the salvation of all those he meets. The priest should live he says in such a manner as “to gladden and to enlighten the souls of those who behold” his service (III.14).

The saint makes two observations that I think are especially important.
First, the priest must realize that he will face judgment from those around him. Everyone he meets is “ready to pass judgment on the priest as if he was not a being clothed with flesh, or one who inherited a human nature, but like an angel, and emancipated from every species of infirmity” (III.14)

Often the priest–and those responsible for forming and guiding him–will seek to avoid this judgment by feigning indifference to society. Or, he might adopt a false intellectual simplicity that professes ignorant of secular learning or the practicalities of everyday life. But, as St John reminds us “ the Priest ought not only to be … skilled in many matters, and to be as well versed in the affairs of this life as they who are engaged in the world,… yet to be free from them all more than the recluses who occupy the mountains” (VI.4)

In other words, the priest must be as well educated and experienced in worldly matters as his congregation while at the same time remaining detached from them. Purity of heart not a substitute for the priest being poorly educated or “so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good” (Oliver Wendell Holmes).

With this in mind, let’s turn briefly to today’s readings.

St Paul describes himself as not simply “a” prisoner but “the priest of the Lord.” He understands that true freedom is found not in willfulness but in obedience to God. And so he tells the Ephesians to be “worthy” of their calling as Christians. They must be humble, gentle, longsuffering, patient and loving with each other to maintain “the bond of peace.” It’s worth noting two things here.

First, Paul is concerned not with the evangelical witness of the Church, not with how the Ephesian treat outsiders. Rather, his concern is with what happens in the Church. However the world thinks of us, we must love each other.

Second, to return to the priesthood, the defense and strengthening the bond of peace, the love we have for one and other, is the fundamental work of the priest. Everything that I do a priest is or should be, in the service of you growing in love for each other.

This means the priest’s primary obligation is for the health of the parish. Like the Samaritan in the Gospel, he is called to bind up wounds and offer comfort to his parishioners. But, again like the Samaritan, he isn’t called to heal them but to bring them to Christ our High Priest and (as we say in the Unction service) “the Physician of our souls and bodies.”

The prayer, the education, all that the priest has, he has to point his flock to Christ. It is in this way that he comes to share in the priesthood of Christ.
And what is true for the priest, is also true for the laity. By virtue of baptism, all Orthodox Christians are members of the “royal priesthood” of all believers (see 1 Peter 2:9). All that the Christian has is in the service of drawing others to Christ.

But where the ordained priesthood draws others to Christ through the sacraments, the laity draw others to Christ by progressively sanctifying the world. This means bringing the family, the work world, education as well as cultural and politics into ever closer conformity to Christ.
We miss the point if we think we can fulfill our baptismal vocation simply by voting for this or that candidate. Likewise, we misunderstand what Christ has called us to do if we imagine we can limit ourselves to cultivating our own garden. While the exact mix will be different for each of us at different times in our lives, our baptism calls us to sanctify both our own hearts and the world around us.

Like me conclude by returning once more to what you can–and should–expect from the priest, from me.

Because the priest is first a Christian, he too has an obligation to grow in holiness and to sanctify the world. This is why, as Chrysostom says, the priest must be as knowledgeable about the world as any layman. The priest who either through lack of education or indifference is ignorant of culture, politics or the myriad struggles that make up the daily lives of his parishioners is frankly failing not simply as a priest but, more fundamentally, as a Christian.

It is only because he takes seriously his baptismal vocation to grow in holiness and sanctify the world, that a man can be ordained to the priesthood. A priest who neglects his baptismal vocation is incapable of helping the laity fulfill their vocation.

Often the priest will ask us to pray for him. We should. But, if I may speak personally, you must also expect me to help you discern and fulfill your vocations. You have a right to require from me assistance in growing in holiness and in sanctifying the world. If I fail you in this, I fail as a priest.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, help me to succeed!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Friendship

Sunday, September 10, 2017: Sunday before Holy Cross; Menodora, Metrodora, & Nymphodora the Martyrs, Poulcheria the Empress, Afterfeast of the Nativity of the Theotokos

Ukrainian Orthodox Mission of Madison

Epistle: Galatians 6:11-18
Gospel: John 3:13-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

From the Church’s earliest days, there were Christians who cared more about the opinions of others than the Gospel. St Paul refers to these sad and deluded people in the epistle when he calls out “those who want to make a good showing in the flesh … in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.”

What about me? If those who knew not only the Apostles but Jesus we’re tempted why do I think I’m immune from preferring the good opinions of others to the Cross?

The sin Paul is describing is “vainglory.” Usually we think about vanity as undue or excessive concern for our appearance. While this can be part of vainglory, concern for appearance is more the result of pride–of having an excess view of my own worth.

Vainglory doesn’t cause me to look in the mirror but at my neighbor. At it’s core vainglory is about winning your good opinion of me no matter what the cost to myself. Or, and this is important, in the gripe of vainglory your opinion of me can come to matter so much that to I become willing to degrade and destroy you to win your approval.

In its effect on my relationship with you, vainglory is the opposite of friendship.

While there are different kinds of friends, for Christians friendship includes both emotional intimacy and a willingness to self-sacrifice for the good of my friend.

In the events leading up to His crucifixion and especially on the Cross, Jesus reveals Himself to be not just our Friend but the best of friends. At the Last Supper He tells His disciples that they are no longer His servants but His friends: “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).

Think about this for a moment.

Jesus is telling His disciples, and telling us, that we have the same intimacy with God that He has had from all eternity. The Creator and Judge of the Universe is no longer far away from us. Not only has He drawn close to us, in Jesus Christ we are drawn close to Him. God hasn’t only become your Friend, you are invited to become His.

We call Jesus our Friend as well because of His willingness to suffer and die for us. To free us from the power of Sin and Death, He “gave Himself up” for us. Even more than intimacy, it is the willingness to sacrifice for the good of the beloved that is the basis of all friendship.

And vainglory?

It is the refusal of friendship and a parody of intimacy. And in the place of self-sacrifice for the sake of the other, vainglory sees people as objects to be used and abused; to be forgotten and replaced.

Understanding the difference between vainglory and friendship helps understand importance of St Paul’s words to us this morning.

It isn’t just that there were those in the early Church who downplayed the Cross or compromised the Gospel. Yes, they did these things. But they did something far worse. In denying the Cross they  turned their back on friendship with God.

Sad as it is that there are those, even in the Church, who don’t want to be friends with God, there is something sadder still.They don’t know that friendship with God is possible. 

Aristotle says that a “friend is a second self.” More than that, though, a friend is someone whose very presence in our lives helps us to become more fully ourselves.

What is true of our friendship with each others, is even more the case in our friendship with God.

The more we are aware of God’s love and presence in our lives, the more we come to realize our own value. And, along with this, we come to understand the true, incalculable worth of the people we meet everyday.

St Seraphim of Sarov would greet everyone he met by saying “My joy! Christ is risen!” For the saint every person he meet, every conversation he had, was an experience of the joy and happiness of Pascha.

When I deny the Cross, when I seek the good opinion of others at the cost of friendship with God, I rob myself of joy. This is what St John Chrysostom means when he say “if a man does not injure himself, no one else will be able to harm him.”

To “glory … in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and “crucified … to the world,” means not only that I stop harming myself. It means I set out on the path to that joy that comes from friendship with God and with you.

So many people, again, both outside and inside the Church, are weary and dejected because they are lonely. They don’t know that God is their friend and that He wants them to be His friend.

And good friend that He is, God not only wants us to be His friend, He wants us to be friends with each other. God, if I may speak in this way, delights not only in our friendship with Him but with each other.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has created us in such a way that there “No medicine is more valuable, none more efficacious, none better suited to the cure of all our temporal ills than a friend to whom we may turn for consolation in time of trouble, and with whom we may share our happiness in time of joy” (Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship).

So let us, as we say before the Creed, “Love one another, so that with one heart and mind,” so that we can bear witness to God’s friendship for all!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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