Remembering God

SDecember 2 (O.S., November 19) 2018: 27th Sunday after Pentecost; Prophet Obadiah (9th c. B.C.). Martyr Barlaam (304). Martyr Heliodorus (273). Martyr Azes, and with him 150 soldiers (284). Ven. Barlaam and Monk loasaph, prince of India, and St. Abenner the King, father of St. loasaph (4thc.). Ven. Hilarion of Georgia, wonderworker of Thessalonica (875). Ven. Barlaam, abbot of the Kyiv Caves (1065).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison WI

Epistle: Ephesians 6:10-17

Gospel: Luke 12:16-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Sometimes what Jesus doesn’t say can be as important as what He does say. The parable we hear this morning is a case in point.

The Rich Fool is not condemned for his care and skill as a farmer; he is a good workman “and the worker is worth his wages” (see Luke 10:7; 1 Timothy 5:18). And anticipating a great harvest, he carefully assesses the cost and not only lays a foundation but successfully builds his barns (see Luke 14:28-29).

All of this is to say that, in a different context, the farmer’s actions are not only prudent but commendable. In his actions at least, the farmer is the model of the “wise and prudent steward” who being trustworthy in small things, is judge able to be faithful in great things as well (see Luke 16:1-13).

Nor is there any indication that the farmer failed in his obligation to pay tithes or care for the poor. Jesus doesn’t say of the farmer what He says to the scribes and Pharisees, the hypocrites who “pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (see, Matthew 23:23).

Nor is the farmer condemned for the mere fact that he is wealthy.

No by all outward appearances, the rich farmer is a good man and an observant Jew. But God doesn’t judge by appearances (see 1 Samuel 16:7), God knows not only what we do but what is in our hearts (see Jeremiah 17:10, Proverbs 21:2, 1 Corinthians 2:11).

And in his heart, the farmer is a fool. In his heart, this otherwise good man and obedient son of the Law says “there is no God” (Psalm 14:1, Psalm 53:1). Tragically, the Rich Fool loses his salvation, he suffers condemnation, not for what he does but for his forgetfulness of God.

Like the Rich Fool, we are all of us tempted to live as if there was no God. We are all of us inclined to a life of “practical atheism.”

We sometimes imagine that our evangelical task is to correct theological errors. While the teachings of the Church are important, they are in a sense secondary. What is primary is that people remember God.

I know from my own life, it is easy enough to go through my day forgetful of God, to live the life of practical atheism that I mentioned a moment ago.

Living in Madison, we encounter everyday men and women who are generous of heart and who work tirelessly for the betterment of others. Whatever else might be said of the Madison in general and the University in particular, the practical love of neighbor is at the very center of both.

And yet, how many of our neighbors live not such much indifferent to God as unaware of His presence in their lives? As a consequence, they never know that they are loved by the Creator of the Universe?

St John Chrysostom says that when Jesus calls us the “salt of the earth” (see, Matthew 5:13) He means this: While He has redeemed the world by His death and resurrection, it belongs to us keep the world falling back into corruption. We are not the redeemers of the world, we are not called to save anyone.

What we are called to do, is to remind people of the presence of God in their lives. By our words and especially are deeds (see, James 2:14-22), we are witnesses to not simply the presence of God in human affairs but His great love for each and every single human being.

To be faithful to our calling we need to remember not only that everyone we meet is loved by God but that, turning now to the epistle, the opponent in our evangelical work is not other people but the enemy of souls. We “do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” St Paul reminds us, “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

When we remind people of God’s presence and love in their lives, we oppose no one but the devil who with his fallen angels seeks to distract humanity from experiencing God’s love. In his envy of us, the enemy of souls makes himself the opponent of patience, kindness, and courtesy in our hearts, our families, and society.

In opposing the distractions of the devil, we become not only leaven for a more just and humane society (see, Luke 13:20–21) but coworkers with God for the salvation of the world (see 1 Corinthians 3:9).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We have one task and one task alone: To remind people of the loving presence of God not simply in the life of all we meet. We are called to remind people that God dwells in each human heart.

By our witness, we invite people to enter into their own hearts and there find there the God Who from before the beginning of the world loves them and called them, even as He has called us, to live lives that are”holy and without blame” (see, Ephesians 1:4).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Mercy is Inconvenient

November, 25 (O.S., November 12), 2018: 26th Sunday after Pentecost.St. John the Merciful, patriarch of Alexandria (620); Ven. Nilus the Faster of Sinai (451); Prophet Ahijah (Achias) (960 B.C.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 5:8-19
Gospel: Luke 10:25-37

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Here’s the thing about being merciful; it’s often inconvenient.

Saying this isn’t cynical. Mercy to be merciful means meeting the actual needs of the person. What can make this inconvenient is that other people rarely have problems according to my timetable.

All of this is to say, that mercy to be merciful requires a real death to self.

This death reflects the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Jesus doesn’t impose Himself on us; He respected our freedom going so far as to accept our will for Him even though it cost Him His life.

The call to be merciful is nothing more or less than a call to participate personally in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Acts of mercy are, in other words, part of how each of us picks up our cross and follows Jesus as His disciples and witnesses.

It is important to keep in mind the sacrificial nature of mercy because mercy can take many forms. This means that how you practice mercy and how I practice mercy don’t necessarily resemble each other.

Look at the Samaritan in today’s Gospel.

In his situation, mercy meant pausing in his travels, binding up the wounds of a stranger, and carrying him to an inn where he could care for him.

This doesn’t mean, as Jesus makes clear, that caring for the stranger means the Samaritan must ignore the business that put him on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho; mercy for the stranger doesn’t mean the Samaritan must neglect his own affairs. Because he had to complete his travels, the Samaritan pays the innkeeper to care for the stranger until he returns.

Even then in this one instance, mercy takes different forms. The Samaritan cares for the stranger personally. He also hires a caregiver when the stranger’s needs were greater than the Samaritan’s abilities (if not his resources). Both, however, are acts of mercy. Both are sacrificial.

Realizing that mercy takes many forms highlights the failure of the priest and the Levite. They didn’t necessarily have to do all that the Samaritan would do. But as Jesus makes clear, they had an obligation to alleviate–if only in small measure–the stranger’s suffering.

Not only did the priest and the Leviate make the perfect the enemy of the good, they make the good the enemy of the good enough. They prefer to do nothing than to do even a little.

Unlike the Samaritan, the priest and the Levite were important men in the Jewish community. No doubt, their indifference to the needs of a stranger reflected this fact. They had things–important things I’m sure–to do.

This is the other reason why being merciful is so often inconvenient.

Putting my neighbor’s needs first means putting on hold if only temporarily, my own projects and plans. While I might be willing to do this if the need is great enough, mercy is so much harder when the need is minor or my ability to do good is small.

Given how little I can usually do, given how small the sacrifice required and so how little the reward or sense of satisfaction, to be truly merciful requires a humility I often lack. How much easier it would have been for the priest or the Levite to make a sacrifice which even if it wasn’t great in the eyes of others, would have at least been great in their own eyes.

But it is precisely these small acts of mercy that, turning now to the epistle, that exposes the darkness of sin. It is by our humble good deeds, our small, seemingly inconsequential acts of mercy, that we reveal the vanity of the “unfruitful works of darkness” as St Paul describes this world’s addiction to its own plans and project.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The question is this: Am I, are you, are we, willing to be faithful stewards and witnesses of God’s mercy when doing so seems foolish, or even pointless, in the eyes of the world?

Are we, in other words, willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus as His disciples even in those moments when there is no reward or when our ability to do good or alleviate human suffering is minimal?

Are we, in other words, willing to be neighbor to others as Jesus is neighbor to us?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Forgiveness is Our Witness

November 18 (O.S., November 5), 2018: 25th Sunday after Pentecost. Martyrs Galacteon and his wife Episteme at Emesa (253). Apostles Patrobus, Hermas, Linus, Gaius, and Philologus of the Seventy (1st c.). St. Gregory, archbishop of Alexandria (9th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 4:1-6
Gospel: Luke 8:41-56

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We don’t this morning need to look outside the Church to find those who hold Jesus in contempt. We need only to listen to the Gospel. It isn’t the Jewish authorities (e.g., John 8:41Matthew 9:34, Luke 11:15) or the Romans (Matthew 27:27-31, John 19:15) who ridicule Jesus.

No, today we see that it is His disciples and His closest friends, Peter, James, and John who treat Jesus with contempt.

For the fathers of the Church, one sign of the truthfulness of the Gospels is that while they agree in substance they often disagree in the details. St John Chrysostom says that while we should “strict[ly] heed … the things … written,” in Scripture, apart from the “good tidings” of “ God on earth, man in Heaven,” the biblical text is nothing but “words … without substance” (Homily on Matthew, 1.2-3).

St Augustine argues that if the Gospels were forgeries if the message they proclaim was false, then the authors would have seen to it to agree in all the details. Instead “each Evangelist believed it … his duty to recount what he had to in that order in which it pleased God to suggest it to his memory.”

he goes on to say that the difference in order and emphasis “detracts in nothing from the truth and authority of the Gospel.”  Why? Because “the Holy Spirit, … permitted one to compile his narrative in this way, and another in that” in order that the reader, noticing the differences, might “with pious diligence … and with divine aid” seek the meaning underlying the text (The Harmony of the Gospel II:12.28).

So, with Chrysostom and Augustine in mind, what are we to make of the apostles ridiculing Jesus?

First, I think it testifies to the truthfulness of the Gospels. Just as forgers would harmonize the details, anyone who wanted to boost the prestige of the Church would not highlight the failures of the apostles. But St Luke is concerned not with the protecting the reputation of the apostles but demonstrating the authority of Jesus over the powers of sin and death.

Second, I think in recounting the apostles’ bad behavior, St Luke reminds us that from the very beginning, the life of the Church was marked by a certain, internal conflict. And how could it be otherwise? Then, as now, the Church is a communion of sinners working out our salvation together “in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

This helps make sense of why St Paul tells the Ephesians to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Read St Paul enough and it becomes clear that the life of the New Testament Church was often marked by conflict. The Apostle is forever reminding the first Christians to forgive each other (e.g., Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:12, 13); to value charity more than miracles (1 Corinthians 13:1-3) and, this morning, to guard the unity of the Church.

As conflict-ridden as this suggests the Church was, what is extraordinary, Tertullian says, is that the Gentiles looking at the early Christians a community of men and women noteworthy for their mutual charity; see “how they love one another.” The pagans lived in an honor-based culture where even the smallest offense often resulted in violence and death. It wasn’t this way for Christians. Christian forgave each other. And while the pagans because of their love of honor were “animated by mutual hatred,” Christians because of their mutual love were “ready even to die for one another” (The Apology, 39.7).

Like the world around us, the life of the Church has always been marred by conflict. But where those in the world respond to strife with hatred and even violence, Christians forgive one another.

The hallmark of the Church is not the absence of conflict but our eagerness to forgive each other even as Jesus forgives us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Just as the truthfulness of Scripture is not found in a forced agreement among the Gospel, the credibility of the Church is not found in a forced and false peace that denies our moments of disagreement.

The integrity of our witness is found in our willingness, eagerness even, to respond with mutual forgiveness to the inevitable moments of misunderstanding, hurt feelings and yes sharp conflict. It is this, our willingness to forgive one another and nothing else, that reveals the power of the Gospel and our commitment to Jesus Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

God’s Love Revealed in Us

November 11 (October 29), 2018: 24th Sunday after Pentecost. Virgin-martyr Anastasia the Roman (256). Ven. Abramius the Recluse (360) and his niece St. Mary, of Mesopotamia (397). Martyrs Claudius, Asterius, Neon, and Theonilla, of Aegae in Cilicia (285). Ven. Anna (known as Euphemianus) of Constantinople (826). Ven. Abramius, archimandrite of Rostov (1073). Ven. Abramius, recluse of the Kyiv.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission,  Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 2:14-22
Gospel: Luke 8:26-39

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Based on how they treated the demoniac, the Gadarenes are not unkind people. Rather than drive him out of their land–or worse, kill him–they made an effort to keep him from harming himself or other people.

The “chains and shackles” they used to restrain him, however, were insufficient. Freed from his restraints, the man is “driven by the demon into the wilderness.” It is here, away from the constraints of civilization that he finds Jesus and the disciples.

The fundamental kindness of Gadarenes is important because it testifies to what St Justin Martyr will teach toward the end of the second century. Just as God prepares the Jewish People through the revelation of the Law, He prepares the Gentiles through philosophy and a love of virtue.

But just as the Law was only a preparation, so too the love of virtue. Both prepare the human heart to receive Christ but neither is, in itself, sufficient. One must still personally and freely welcome Christ.

When we look at the Old Testament as a preparation for the Gospel one of the things we notice is the materiality of God’s grace.

In the beginning, as the late Fr Alexander Schmemann points out, divine grace takes the form of food and drink: “every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food” (Genesis 1:29, NKJV). And even though we rebel against God and are expelled from the Garden, God continues to share His grace with us through the good things of the earth.

Slowly through the centuries, God teaches us the goodness of creation. By steps, we learn that the creation is part and parcel of divine grace. Creation in each of its parts, a physical manifestation of God’s mercy and love. The goodness of creation anticipates the Incarnation of the Son.

What do we learn from creation?

We learn of the goodness of marriage and family life; the joy of seeing our children’s children grow to maturity (see Psalm 126:6, Proverbs 17:6).

We learn the joy of wine–new and old; of festivals and feasts.

And we experience the blessing of wealth, of social prominence and political power. And yes, we even learn the goodness of military might and victory of our enemies when they are also the enemies of God.

But together with this, we learn the limits of creation. Good though all these things are, their goodness is circumscribed. These smaller good things point beyond themselves to the singular Good of Jesus Christ.

Make no mistake though. God prepares us to receive Christ by teaching us the real goodness of creation. Before humanity able to receive Christ, however, we had to learn the joys and sorrows of marriage and family life. We needed to learn the possibilities, limits, and temptations of wealth and power before our hearts are open to receive our Savior.

All that God gives the Jewish People, He gives, as St Paul tells us, to break “down the middle wall of separation” between humanity and God and to create from humanity the Church, the “dwelling place of God in the Spirit” in creation.

And just as God slowly teaches this to the Jewish People through the Law, He teaches these same lessons to the Gentiles through philosophy and their love of virtue.

So why, if God has done all this, do the Gadarenes not receive Christ but instead ask Him to leave? Why of they afraid of He Who is the fulfillment of all the good things in their lives?

The answer is hidden in the heart’s secret place. We can’t say with any certitude why the Gadarenes behaved as they did. What we can do though is suggest a possible answer.

Sometimes in the spiritual life, we become so impressed, so enamored, with the grandeur of God’s revelation that we miss the smaller moments of His grace. This shouldn’t surprise us. It is something that frequently happens to each of us.

We are often so overwhelmed by events in the world around us–say in the political realm–or by all that we need to do in our professional or personal lives, that we miss the small moments.

Let me suggest this. Jesus comes to us in the small moments; He speaks to us not in a loud voice but “a gentle whisper” that we, that I, often fail to hear.

Given all this, it isn’t a surprise that the Gadarenes fail to receive Christ. So focused are they on the large things of life, they miss the small occasions of divine grace and mercy that make up their lives and indeed each human life. Even the life of one possessed by the demons.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The smallest act of grace in your life is, well, you. Before God reveals His love to you in the grand sweep of your life or even the myriad events that make up that life, He reveals His love for you in a way that is so intimate that you easily overlook it.

You see God’s first word of love to you is you.

The most basic revelation of God’s love for you is you. God’s love for you was first revealed to you when He knitted you together in your mother’s womb (Jeremiah 1:5, Psalm 139:13-18).

The Gadarenes turn away from Christ because they don’t know this about themselves.

And just as with the Gadarenes, we still today turn away from Christ because we haven’t yet come to know that our lives, in all its details, are the first revelation of God’s love for us.

Like the Gadarenes, we turn away from Jesus not because of this or that element of His teaching or witness. No, people turn away from Jesus because they don’t yet know who they are. In not knowing that their life a sign of God’s love for them, they don’t know who they are.

Who are they? Who are we? For all our shortcomings and failures, we are the revelation of God’s personal and superabundant love in Jesus Christ for the whole human family.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

How Easy To Be Merciful

November 4 (OS October 22), 2018: 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. Tone 6. Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Abercius, bishop and wonderworker of Hierapolis (167). 7 Holy Youths (“7 Sleepers”) of Ephesus: Maximilian, Jamblichus, Martinian, Dionysius, Antoninus, Constantine (Hexakustodianos), and John (250). Martyrs Alexander the bishop, Heraclius, Anna, Elizabeth, Theodota and Glyceria, at Adrianopolis (2nd-3r dc.).

Epistle: Ephesians 2:4-10
Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

For mercy to be merciful, it must be effective.

Speaking to the wealth Christians in his community, the Apostle James makes this very point when he takes them to task for not caring for the needs of their poorer brothers and sisters in Christ. Good intentions and good words need to be followed up with effective action:

If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (2:15-17, NJKV).

This, however, isn’t simply a matter practicality or utility. Rather the need for mercy to be effective is rooted in the actions of God.

St Paul tells us that God doesn’t simply overlook our sins; He overcomes the power of sin and death in our lives (see, Romans 8:2) and as we hear this morning makes us “alive together with Christ.”

Mercy, in other words, is a matter of prudence. The merciful heart is first aware of the need and then acts to provide the good thing that is lacking.

Look at the rich man in the Gospel. He is aware of Lazarus’ need. And how could he not?  Lazarus “laid at his gate.”

The rich man is not condemned because he failed to lift Lazarus out of poverty. He is not condemned because he failed to bring Lazarus into his home and give him a seat at this table.

No, the rich man is condemned because he failed to give Lazarus “the crumbs which fell” from his table. He is condemned because he failed to show even the mercy of the dogs who “came to lick” Lazarus’ sores.

To say that our mercy must be effective doesn’t obligate us to great things. We are only called to do what he can, however little that might be.

Again, the rich man is not condemned for failing to lift Lazarus into the middle class. No, he is condemned for not easing, even if only temporarily, the sting of poverty.

What about us? How merciful is our mercy?

Relative not simply to the New Testament era but even within the lifetime of our grandparents and parents, we live in an unimaginably wealth age. Even within my lifetime, we have become so much wealthier.

When I an infant, I slept not in a crib but a dresser drawer. In the first year or so of their marriage, my parents didn’t own a refrigerator. They used a literal “icebox.” When I began elementary school my great-grandmother still cooked on a wood burning stove.

And now? Now all but the poorest of the human family now are richer than the rich man in the Gospel.

Prosperous as we are, what then are we to do?

Given all that, in principle, we could do, all the needs we could, in theory at least, meet, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Our prosperity and the freedom it provides can paralyze us.

But the standard we hear in the Gospel is not that we must do great things but only that we do the small things we can do.

Our mercy, in other words, must not only be effective but humble. What might an effective but humble mercy look like?

Social scientists tell us that the most effective way for churches to help the poor is not so much by giving money or things. Rather, as communities rooted in the shared moral vision of the Gospel, churches have the unique ability to help not only the poor but all those on the margin of society. Churches do this by making room for them in their midst.

We help not primarily through material means but by inviting and making room for others here in our worship this morning. We help others by changing ourselves and our community by inviting and integrating others into our life together in Christ.

Let’s be clear.

We are not in the inner city. Given our location on a university campus, we are generally not confronted with the effects of generational poverty.

Based on where God has placed us, we are called to be merciful to those who for all their great talents and abilities, are often as lonely and isolated in their own way as was Lazarus in his. Not all poverty is material. Often it is social, moral and spiritual.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! It is our primary task to open our hearts and community to those who don’t know the “kindness” of God. It is our task, our vocation as a community, to help others see that they too are the God’s “workmanship, created in Jesus Christ for good works.”

That this our other Lazarus is a student, professor or staff member at a major research university doesn’t diminish the importance of what God has called us to do.

To do this effectively and humbly, all we must do is what Christ calls us to do. We make at least a little room in our lives for those we meet. What could be easier, simpler than this?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Chaste Affection

October 28 (O.S., October 15) 2018: 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. Ven. Euthymius the New of Thessalonica, monk of Mt. Athos (889). Martyr Lucian, presbyter of Greater Antioch (312). Martyrs Sarbelus and Bebai (Barbea) of Edessa (2nd c.). St. Sabinus, bishop of Catania (760). Hieromartyr Lucian, presbyter of the Kyiv Caves (1243).

Epistle: Galatians 6:11-18
Gospel: Luke 8:5-15

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Jesus frequently describes the Kingdom of God has hidden or overlooked.

Though the Kingdom of God is among us (Luke 17:21), it is also a treasure buried in a field. It is “a pearl of great price” the value of which is unknown by its owner (Matthew 13:44-46).

As for the members of the Kingdom, though “many are called,” they are few in number (Matthew 22:14). A subject of the Kingdom is “a lost sheep” that requires the Shepherd to leave the 99 in order to find. We are likewise, “a lost coin” that causes its owner to extravagantly light all the lamps to sweep the house (Luke 15:3-10).

We overlook the Kingdom of God because we search for it in the world around us when in fact it “is within,” in the one place we are least likely to look. Our own hearts (Luke 17:20-21).

For the fathers of the Church, the hidden or obscure character of the Kingdom of God was deliberate. God hides the Kingdom. He hides His presence among us and, as we hear in today’s Gospel, His does this not out of malice but to capture our attention. God speaks in a “whisper in the wind” (1 Kings 19:11-13) not to frustrate us but to woo us.

In human words, God speaks to us in words of chaste affection. This divine flirtation is chaste because God respects our limitations. Unlike the old gods, He doesn’t impose Himself on us. God is not Zeus, the human soul is not Leda.  For all that God loves and desires us to draw close to Him, He is not impatient.

But what about us? What about me?

Like everyone else, the great secret I keep is this: I am better able to hear words of condemnation than affection. Scorn bothers me less than love because love calls me to be not just better but my best self.

And again, this is true not only for me but all of us.

We are all of us intimidated by love, by that invitation to become our best selves through sacrifice. And if this is true in our relationships with each other, it is even more so in our relationship with God.

When finally we surrender to God, we become not only our best selves, we find a true and lasting freedom that even death can’t undo. But this lasting freedom means I must give up to the illusory independence this world offers me.

So God woos us. He flirts with us. He slowly and patiently reveals to us not only His great love for us but also are true and lasting dignity.

And what is true for each of us here today, is true for all humanity.

St Justin Martyr tells us that God is seminally present in all cultures. Just as He reveals Himself through the Law to the Jews, He reveals Himself through philosophy to the Greeks.

And just as God was present among those ancient peoples, He is here among contemporary men and women. But His presence is, as always, hidden.

It is our tasks, our vocation, to reveal the hidden presence of God to all we meet. This, not mere correction, is the evangelical mission of the Church. We are called to leave the Liturgy this morning, go out into the world, and find Christ there waiting to greet us hidden in the hearts of those we meet.

To do this we must find the presence of the Kingdom of God in our own hearts. This inward turn is only possible if we cultivate silence in our lives.

First, we must cultivate silence around us. Turn off the tv, the radio. Not only no video or no music but also no books. Just silence.

As silence grows around us, we become able to listen to our own hearts.

What we hear first is that incessant, internal monologue that reminds us–again and again–that we are unworthy of love. What this monologue fails to say is that we are unworthy of love because, whether human or divine, love is always a free gift. We are never worthy of love because love is given freely or not at all.

Slowly we learn to cultivate inner silence, we learn first to ignore and then stop our internal monologue. And when we do, we begin to hear the quiet whisper of God’s chaste affection for us.

It is at this moment that we become able to hear God’s word to us.

It is at this moment that we become able to speak as God speaks to us. First to ourselves, then our brothers and sisters in Christ, then our neighbor, and finally God.

It is in silence that we learn to speak those words of chaste affection that are the sum and only content of our evangelical witness.

It is this word spoken out of silence, that those we meet need to hear from us.

It is this word spoken out of silence, that allows us to love with a chaste affection that respects the weakness of others in a manner that doesn’t break “the bruised reed,” that doesn’t “quench the smoldering wick” (Matthew 12:20).

It is this word spoken out of silence that “binds up and heals” the wounds of those we meet (Psalm 147:3).

And it is this, our word spoken out of silence, that allows others to find Christ in their hearts.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! All those we meet need from us words and deeds of chaste affection. Without these words, these deeds, they cannot find the presence of Christ in their own hearts.

And us? Me?

If I fail to speak in a chaste and affection manner? Then their condemnation is on my head.

Why? Because these words and deeds of chaste affection that are the fruit of silence are not only for the salvation of the world. They are for our salvation as well.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

As Mary For Us

Sunday, October 14 (O.S., October 1), 2018: 20th Sunday after Pentecost: THE PROTECTION OF OUR MOST HOLY LADY THE THEOTOKOS AND EVER-VIRGIN MARY; Apostle Ananias of the Seventy (1st c.). St. Romanus the Melodist of Constantinople (556). Martyr Domninus of Thessalonica (4th c.). Martyr Michael, abbot in Armenia, and 36 Fathers with him (790).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison WI

Epistle: Galatians 1:11-19; Hebrews 9:1-7
Gospel: Luke 6:31-36; Lk. 10:38-42; 11:27-28

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today the Orthodox Church commemorates the Prokov, the Protection of the Theotokos. The facts of the event are these. Under attack from pagan invaders, the residents of Constantinople prayed to God to be delivered from their enemies. In response, the Mother of God appears and spreads her cloak over the faithful praying in the church as a sign of her protection.

For many Christians, including some Orthodox Christians, events like this in the life of the Church are hard to understand. To some, they even seem nonsensical. Why, some wonder, is it the Mother of God and not her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who acts?

While there are no doubt different motivations for asking this, a central one is our tendency to compartmentalize our lives.

Most of us think of our Christian life as private; as somehow separate from the rest of our lives. We’ve lost the sense that being Christian while personal is anything but private. Our life as Orthodox Christians is–or at least is meant to be–a life of public witness.

We are able to wall off our spiritual life in this way because we think that the spiritual and material exist in separate spheres. How often do I imagine that my actions don’t reflect–much less affect–my heart or character? “He’s not bad, he just does bad things.”

This separation of life into unrelated spheres reflects a deep misunderstanding of the Incarnation and so of what it means for us to be “fully alive” in St Irenaeus’ happy phrase.

In Jesus Christ, we not only overcome the power of sin and death (see Romans  8:2; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57) but also the conflict between the different dimensions of life. This means that in Christ, the public and private, the material and the spiritual, are brought into harmony, each supporting and deepening our openness to grace. This is possible because in Christ, the chasm sin creates between the created and Uncreated is bridged.

Just as God uses human words in the Scriptures to reveal Himself, He also can–and does–use human actions and the whole material world to do the same. Think of the sacraments. God uses human words, deeds, and the material world to pour out His grace on us.

In the sacraments, our experience of grace is not mediated; it isn’t hidden in creation. Rather, as St Paul suggests in the first epistle, even as it was to him on the road to Damascus, in the sacraments grace is given to us directly. The communion of the Uncreated and created in Christ doesn’t diminish or compromise the integrity of either.

And just as in Christ, the sacraments are a real encounter of divine life and a real human encounter at one and the same time.

Though related, this is different from humanity’s experience of grace in the Old Testament. As we hear in Hebrews (10:1), before the coming of Christ, the things of God were shadows of what was to come. This is why, as we hear in the second epistle, things done under the Old Law must be redone. Shadows are fleeting, they pass away.

This reflected no deficiency on God’s part, no lack of grace given to Israel.

What it does make clear is that humanity’s communion with God was not yet perfect. This would only happen with the coming of Christ. It is only in and through Jesus Christ we become able to give ourselves over fully to God Who has first given Himself over fully to us.

To ask the Mother of God to intercede for us–to say nothing of our celebration of her protection of Constantinople, takes nothing away from God. Instead, it shows that we who are in Christ are not only in communion with Him but act along with Him Who acts along with us.

This is why, looking to the first Gospel, we can be told not simply to love those who love us but to love our enemies and do good to them. In Christ, human love while still human is no longer simply human.

Christian love now shares in God’s love. Just as the chasm between the Uncreated and created is bridged and the different dimension of our life are brought into harmony, so too the divisions and hostility that afflict the human community can now be transcended.

Simply put, we can now love sacrificially even those who would do us harm. We can freely and generously (though not without grace and personal struggle) do good to those who do us evil. We are called and made able to be a source of protection, healing, and eternal life even those who would attack us, wound us, humiliate us, and kill us.

As the Mother of God is for the fearful citizens of Constantinople, we, you, me, can be for all those we meet.

All of this though, to look at the second Gospel, is only possible if–like the Virgin Mary–I hear the word of God “and keep it.”

There is nothing mysterious about this. Like Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, I must draw close to Jesus as His disciple. It isn’t a matter of being active or not but of prayerfully discerning the will of God for my life and then acting on it in an equally prayerful obedience.

Or, if you’d rather, to be for you as Mary is for us all, I must discern my vocation and be faithful to it.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Like the Mother of God, we each of us has a vocation, a work that God has given us personally to do.

And like the Mother of God, for each of us, part of that work is to help others discern and pursue their own vocations.

All the grace we have been given as Orthodox Christians have no other purpose than this.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Becoming Fire!

October 7 (O.S., September 24), 2018: 19th Sunday after Pentecost. Holy Protomartyr and Equal-to-the-Apostles Thecla of Iconium (1st c.). Ven. Coprius of Palestine (530).

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9
Gospel: Luke 5:1-11

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The first two chapters of Genesis introduce us to the God Who is both Redeemer and Artist of Creation.

Rather than Aristotle’s impersonal Unmoved Mover or the Enlightenment’s somewhat more personal but nevertheless detached Watchmaker, as portrayed in Genesis God is intimately involved in the shaping and ordering of Creation.

Day after day, God orders the primordial chaos. To those who lived at the time, this ordering of chaos would not have been understood abstractly.

In a world beset with the chaos of disease and famine, war and accidental death, God’s actions at the Creation would have been proof that the God of Moses was worthy of human obedience. This God above all the gods of the time was victorious not only over the passing chaos of daily life but the cosmological chaos that always threatened to overwhelm humanity.

And when God creates His finest creation–humanity–He doesn’t do so like the other gods from a distance or with violence. Rather, He reaches down in love to His creation and forms Man out of the dust, the mud, of the earth.

We can see in this a foreshadowing of the Incarnation. As St Augustine points out (City of God, 24), the One Who gives us physical life by His breath will later breath upon the apostles and disciples granting them the power to forgive sins and so great us life everlasting (see John 20:19-25).

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

What God creates first, is more manikin than Man. It is only when God mixes His Spirit with His this model of a man that the mud of the earth becomes, as we read in Genesis, “a living being” (Genesis 2:7). This means that to be human means to be a creature who shares, participates, in the divine life (compare 2 Peter 1:4).

The Hebrew word translated as “living being” is nephesh. It is a word often used to describe things like a flute or the throat. It has the connotation, in other words, of things that are only themselves when they are empty so they can be filled with breath. It’s only with breath, that the flute makes music or the throat words.

For the human to be nephesh means that, from the beginning, we are only ourselves when we are filled with the Spirit of God. This is the context with which we can understand St Paul’s boast that in human weakness, divine grace is perfected.

The power of the Gospel is only made real in the lives of those who have come to accept and embrace with gratitude their absolute dependence on God. This means as well, that I am most fully myself only to the degree that I depend on God. And it is this dependence on God that makes possible for us to do the mighty works of God.

Look at St Peter in the Gospel.

After a hard night of failure, Jesus comes to him and asks to be rowed out into the lake. Of all the things Simon wanted to do that morning, going back on to the water was likely not one of them.

But out he goes.

And when Jesus is finished preaching? He tells Simon to row out to the deep part of the lake and let down his net.

Not surprisingly, Simon doesn’t want to do this. After all, he not Jesus is the fisherman. And while he was willing to provide Jesus a platform to preach, rowing out on the water and dropping his net means revisiting the scene of his failure.

We need to understand, Simon’s failure wasn’t an abstraction for him. Failing to catch fish the night before, means he goes hungry this morning. And not only Simon.

His wife and children will have no food this morning. And he will have no fish to trade. This means he has failed not only his family but his village as well.

And so for Simon to hear Jesus, this rabbi, this carpenter, and his friend, to say “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch” means to be asked to revisit the scene of his failure as a husband, a father and a member of the community.

To do as Jesus asks is humiliating for Simon. The successful catch comes at the cost of Simon surrendering all his notions of who he is and what it means to be a good husband, father, Jew, and man.

Rather than responding with anger, he confesses his sinfulness. In that moment of miraculous success, Simon realizes how little room he has in his heart for God.

It is precisely at the moment when he realizes his weakness, that Simon the fisherman becomes Peter the Apostle who’s preaching will set the world on fire!

We are called to live the same life as Peter and Paul. If we embrace our dependence on God if we root out all the things in our life that we cling to instead of God, then like Peter and Paul, we can not only set the world around us on fire, we can become ourselves fire!

And what does fire do but shine and burn?

We can become light and warmth for a world grown cold and dark because of sin. And far from being used up or destroyed in the process, we will become more and more the persons who God has created us to be.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Jesus says to each of us today, “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

Today, Christ calls us to fulfill His desire for the world!

Today, Christ calls us to be His disciples, His witnesses!

Today, Christ calls us to become who we are!

Today, Christ calls us to become fire!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Grateful Faith

September 30 (O.S., September 17): 8th Sunday after Pentecost. Sunday after the Exaltation. Afterfeast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Martyrs Sophia and her three daughters: Faith (Vira), Hope (Nadia), and Love (Lyubov), at Rome (137). Martyr Theodota at Nicaea (230) and Agathoklea. 156 Martyrs of Palestine, including bishops Peleus and Nilus, the presbyter Zeno and others (310).

Epistle: Galatians 2:16-20
Gospel: Mark 8:34-9:1

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We are, the Apostle Paul tells us, not saved “by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.” To be more accurate, we are saved by the personal faith of Jesus Christ, by His faithful obedience to His Father. Or as Paul says in another place: “not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” Philippians 3:9, KJV).

Our faith then is in Him Who is always faithful, Our faith, my faith and yours, derives from the faith of Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t mean that our faith need not be personal. Too often, Orthodox Christians imagine that conformity to the Tradition of the Church is sufficient for salvation. But it simply isn’t enough to be carried along by Holy Tradition like a stick in a stream.

Faith to be faith must be personal or it isn’t faith. Think about the words we say before receiving Holy Communion. “I believe O Lord and confess, that you are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the first.”

More importantly, for faith to be personal it can’t be limited to only one aspect of the work of Christ. Think about it for a moment. A meaningful relationship, a relationship that is truly personal, is one in which we embrace and accept the whole of the other person.

Who has ever, to take only one example, built a happy marriage by focusing on one aspect of their spouse’s personality to the exclusion of the rest? We love the whole person or we don’t love at all.

This means that to have faith in Jesus Christ means to love Him not only as Redeemer but also Creator. St Irenaeus the Great says that when God the Father created the heavens and the earth, He did so with His right and left hands, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

To have faith in Jesus Christ as both Redeemer and Creator means to see creation as coming from the hand of a loving God. As Orthodox Christians, we believe that Creation, both as a whole and in all its parts, is a revelation of His love. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20, NKJV).

Not only does God reveal Himself to us in Creation, in creating us He endows our lives with meaning. While it is still incumbent on me to live a life worth living, I create such a life from the natural talents and spiritual gifts God gives me.

My talents were given me at the moment of my creation in my mother’s womb; my spiritual gifts are given to me in Holy Baptism and are sustained and deepened through the other sacraments and the life of prayer.

To have faith in Jesus Christ, then, means to have confidence that my own life is meaningful and that God has called me to mix my freedom with His grace to live a life that is profitable. Such a life is, as we have seen, one that serves your salvation and so that my own as well.

More broadly, and this is harder, to have faith in Jesus Christ not only as Redeemer but Creator, means to accept the circumstances of my life as His gift given to me for His glory, my salvation, and the salvation of the world. To have faith in Jesus as Redeemer and Creator means to accept each moment of life as a sacrament of His grace to be received with the same thanksgiving with which I receive Him in Holy Communion.

I should pause here and make an important distinction. To receive each moment in thankfulness as a sacrament of God’s grace, doesn’t mean to remain passive in the face of evil.

It means rather that I must understand that when I see evil around me or in me, God is calling me to fight–or at least resist–sin and the harm it does. it is only when we are confident that each moment of life is filled to overflowing with God’s grace, mercy, and love, that we are able to stand against the myriad manifestation of sin in human affairs.

Make no mistake. Only the grateful and faithful Christian heart can hope to resist successfully the blandishments of sin.

This is what it means, to turn to today’s Gospel, to pick up our cross and follow Jesus as His disciples.

And again, make no mistake, to carry the cross in faith and gratitude requires from us a real death to self.

How much easier it is to think of life as something wholly of my own creation.

How much easier it is to think the meaning of my life, the terms of success or failure, of virtue or vice, are wholly my own to determine, keep or ignore.

How much easier it is to think that my life is simply mine.

But my brothers and sisters in Christ! Like Jesus, our lives are not our own! He lived to do the Father’s will and so save humanity from the powers of sin and death.

And you? Your life, like Jesus’ life, like mine life, is God’s gifts to you to be received with thanksgiving and lived in faith. We do this not only for our own sake but in fidelity to the example of Christ, for the salvation of the world.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Virtues Hard & Soft

September 23 (O.S., September 10) 2018: 17th Sunday after Pentecost. Sunday before the Exaltation. Afterfeast of the Nativity of the Theotokos. Martyrs Menodora, Metrodora, and Nymphodora (305). Synaxis of the Holy Apostles Apelles, Lucius, and Clement of the Seventy. Martyr Barypsabas in Dalmatia (2nd c.). Blessed Pulcheria, the Empress of Greece (453). Sts. Peter (826) and Paul (9th c.), bishops of Nicaea. Ven. Paul the Obedient of the Kyiv Caves (14th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission

Madison, WI

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Old Testament background of the today’s Gospel is this.

Because the Hebrew children “spoke against God and against Moses … the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, and many … died” (Number 21: 5,6, NKJV).

Stories like these are important because they remind us that God is not only a God of mercy and love but justice and vengeance. In this case,  God punishes His People because of their lack of gratitude and faith.

It isn’t so much that we forget this. It is reather that many of us simply ignore the demands of divine justice in favor of “cheap grace.” We don’t want to think that God punishes the unrepentant.

I don’t want to think God would punish me.

And yet, the whole of the New Testament, the whole dispensation of divine mercy, makes no sense if we neglect divine justice.

The “soft virtues” like compassion, mercy, and forgiveness depend on the “hard virtues” of justice, courage, honor, and duty. To see why this is, let’s return briefly to the events in the desert.

Even though they have blasphemed God and slandered him, Moses puts this aside and intercedes on behalf of the Hebrew children when they come to him in repentance (Number 21:7). As events unfold we see that both repentance and forgiveness requires real strength of character. Both require a willingness to look unflinchingly at human sinfulness and the terrible harm it inflicts on us.

And this is true whether I am the one who has sinned or been sinned against. There can be no forgiveness if I refuse to accept the harm inflicted.

And so, Moses makes “a bronze serpent” and puts “it on a pole” so that “if a serpent had bitten anyone when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” There is healing for those who have the courage to repentant.

Healing requires that I first have the willingness to look at the evil in my own heart and acknowledge the harm I have brought on myself and others by my sins.

Jesus draws a parallel between the Cross and the bronze serpent in the desert. To look at the Cross with faith means this: To acknowledge that it is not simply for my sins that He dies. It is rather because of my sins that Jesus suffers crucifixion.

To put the matter more directly, Jesus is not crucified by the Jews or the Romans but by me, by my sins.

This is a hard saying which is why I need the “hard virtues.” I’m tempted to turn away, to want mercy and forgiveness without self-examination and repentance. I want to be loved by God but resist loving Him if doing so requires that I acknowledge my own unlovable qualities.

There are many ways in which I seek to sidestep the necessity of repentance. The events in the early Church that the Apostle Paul alludes to in his epistle to the Galatians highlights one such way.

Since the Fall, humanity has been divided against itself. This happened in the early Church. Then the dividing line was drawn between those who demanded the Gentiles keep the Law of Moses and those who, like Paul, said that this was not only unnecessary but impossible. “For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.”

Like some in the early Church, I am all too willing to divide the human family into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Maybe my preferred categories aren’t theological. Maybe I prefer to think in terms of “liberals” versus “conservatives,” or “Democrats” versus “Republicans.” Or maybe just “them” and “us.”

The categories don’t matter.

What does matter is that the “good guys” are on my side. The real problem, I tell myself, is those other guys. Those “liberals” or “conservatives,” those “Democrats” or “Republicans.” Not “us” but “them.”

And yet, Solzhenitsyn points out, the line between good and evil runs not between people but through each human heart. If I forget this if I insist on dividing the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” do something worse than fail to acknowledge the presence of evil in my own heart.

If I remain on this path, I quickly come to a point where–to maintain the illusion that evil is “out there” in “those people”–I turn against those who were until only just a moment ago were my allies, my fellow “good guys,” my friends.

To refuse to look on the Cross without repentance is to condemn myself to a life of isolation in which each person I meet is not my friend but my enemy. Absent repentance, the world around me is filled with nothing other than “bad guys” intent on my harm.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Compassion, mercy, love, forgiveness, all these require from us a real effort. There is no “soft virtue” that isn’t the fruit of a “hard virtue.” Likewise, there isn’t a “hard virtue” that doesn’t bear fruit in a “soft virtue.” Both, in fact, require the other and one without the other is simply a to write “Christian” what is actually a vice.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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