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

Profitable Servants

September 16 (O.S., 3) 2018: 16th Sunday after Pentecost; Hieromartyr Anthimus, bishop of Nicomedia. Martyrs Theophilus deacon, Dorotheos, Mardonius, Migdonius, Peter, Indes, Gorgonius, Zeno, the Virgin Domna, and Euthymius (302). St. Theoctistus (467), fellow-faster with St. Euthymius the Great. St. Phoebe, deaconess at Cenchreae near Corinth (1st c.). Martyr Basilissa of Nicomedia (309). Hieromartyr Aristion, bishop of Alexandria, in Syria (3rd c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission

Madison, WI

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 6:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

Like shepherds, merchants were held in low repute by most of the ancient world.

A shepherd was all but synonymous with “thief.” Alone with the flock, shepherds (who were frequently hirelings), could easily help themselves to a lamb or a sheep. If confronted, he could claim the animal either wandered off in the night or was killed by wolves.

Given this background, it would have been jarring for people to hear Jesus refer to Himself as the “Good Shepherd.” Contrary to all expectations, Jesus says of Himself that He is a shepherd Who will protect the flock and be faithful in His accounting to the Owner.

But to his listeners, this would have sounded as nonsensical as Jesus calling Himself an “altruistic thief”!

As with calling Himself the “Good Shepherd, ” Jesus referring to His disciples to be “profitable servants” inverts cultural expectations.

In the ancient world, hard cash was rare. Most of the economy ran on barter. Given the limited viability of bartered goods, profit like that in the parable was unheard of. While some individuals had more than others, the fabulous wealth like that of the profitable servants could ordinarily come only from corruption.

The truly wealthy, those who had large reserves of gold for example, were wealthy because they were able to exploit political connections. Emperors, governors, government bureaucrats, soldiers, tax collectors could all become wealthy because they all had the ability to exploit and extort others.

So when Jesus calls us to be “profitable servants”?  This would have been as jarring as when He called Himself a Good Shepherd.

And yet,  Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are called to be His profitable servants.

Just as there is a way to be a good shepherd (John 10:11-18), there is a way to be a profitable servant.

We have all of us had the experience of feeling cheated. At some point, we all of us wonder if the merchant or the car dealer, the mechanic or contractor hasn’t been dishonest with us.

On the other hand, we have also all had the experience of making a purchase in which we felt truly cared for. It’s not for nothing that we use the phrase “goods and services” to describe the myriad economic exchanges we make daily.

The morally good way to acquire profit isn’t simply to meet the customer’s desires or needs. No, the morally good merchant, tradesman or professional also gives evidence of caring for us personally; of caring sincerely for our well-being and dignity.

Just as in the economic realm, the morally and spiritually profitable servant is the one who serves others, who fosters the well-being of his or her neighbor. This is the life to which we are called this morning by Jesus.

And like the servants in the Gospel, we all have talents that can be put at the service of others. For many of us–and this is important–those talents include technical knowledge. We are (or are preparing to be) scientists, professors, attorneys, business people, health care professionals, and teachers.

We all of us have technical expertise and in our baptism, Jesus has called us to put these not just at the service of others but to use them for their salvation. Whatever trade or profession, the skills we possess are meant to help others come to know and follow Jesus Christ as His disciples and witnesses in the Orthodox Church.

Let me pause for a moment here and say something that may sound harsh.

I think often the clergy fail to value properly the technical knowledge and expertise of the laity. Clergy tend, if I’m honest, to reduce the evangelical witness and pastoral life of the Church to the theology and the precincts of the church. While the fathers, the Creed, the Liturgy, the sacraments and the worship of the Church are all essential to life in Christ, they don’t exhaust what it means to be an Orthodox disciple of Christ.

Whether clergy or not, we minimize the technical knowledge of the laity because we fail to appreciate the evangelical witness that is inherent to excellence in the trades and professions. Through the service the laity–the service all of you–provide daily in the workplace and the home, others are being prepared to receive Christ.

How does serving others, prepare their hearts to receive Christ? In many ways.

Think, for example, of the sense of gratitude you have when someone goes even a little bit beyond what’s required by their job. The server in a restaurant or checker in a grocery store who takes an interest in your day. The tradesman or salesperson who puts your needs before his or her own economic interest. The physician or teacher who speaks to you not simply as a patient or as a student but as someone he or she truly values and appreciates.

All of these experiences can lift us out of our selfishness and foster in us an experience of gratitude. Over time, these experiences lead us to seek the Source of this goodness we see in others. And we come to want ourselves to be kinder.

All of these experiences, in other words, can inspire us to faith in Jesus Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! In baptism, God has given each of us, given each of you, talents that allow you to be profitable servants. Through the everyday exercise of these talents, God has called you to prepare the hearts of all you met to receive the Gospel.

God has called you, in other words, to be profitable servants through your service of others.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Free to Love

September, 9 (O.S., August 27): 15th Sunday after Pentecost; Ven. Poemen the Great (450). St. Hosius (Osia) the Confessor, bishop of Cordova (4th c.). St. Liberius, pope of Rome (366). Ven. Poemen of Palestine (602). Martyr Anthusa. Hieromartyrs Pimen, Kuksha, of the Kyiv
Caves (1114).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 4:6-15
Gospel: Matthew 22:35-46

Glory to Jesus Christ!

St Paul tells us that the God Who created the Universe has come to dwell in our hearts. This is what it means to be Orthodox Christians; we are the people in whom God dwells.

All of this reveals as well, the dignity of each and every single human being. To be human means to be a potential dwelling place for God.

Human dignity and the nobility of the Christian vocation are both revealed and accomplished through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. In the waters of Baptism, we discover what it means to be truly human. We are most fully ourselves when we are incorporated into the Church and so become each of us personally and all of us together, the dwelling place of God.

Because God has come to dwell in our hearts, we don’t need to look around us to find Him. He is not somewhere “outside” us. He is rather in our hearts and all we need to do to find God is to turn inward.

The problem is that when I turn inward and I look in my own heart, it isn’t just God that I find.

St. Macarius the Great says that while the human “heart itself is but a little vessel” it contains “dragons and … lions; … venomous beasts and all the treasures of wickedness.” He goes on to say that there are in my heart as well “rough and uneven ways” and dangerous “chasms.”

More importantly, however, is that in our hearts we find as well “God, … the angels, the life and the kingdom, there light and the apostles, there the heavenly cities, there the treasures” of grace. There is in each human heart all that is good and life-giving as well as all that is evil and death-dealing. There are in each of us “all things.”

We all know this about ourselves. Or at least, we know part of this.

We all know that our hearts contain ugly things and this is why we hesitate to turn inward.

I don’t want to see the ugliness in my own heart. And so to avoid seeing what I don’t want to see, I create an image of myself.

I build this self-image, idol really, from what others say about me and the bits and piece of everyday experience.

The problem is, this isn’t me. It is an idol of my own creation.

So what is the alternative? What are we, as Orthodox Christians to do?

We must look into our own hearts.

This turning inward to find God is hard. It requires a fair measure of courage because it means seeing the evil and shame I would prefer to forget. But if I can keep from turning away, I remain faithful in my inward turn, I will find God and experience His love for me.

On Holy Saturday while His body laid in the tomb, Jesus descends into Hell and takes it captive as we hear in the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom. We must never forget that Jesus reigns not only in Heaven but also in Hell.

In coming to dwell in our hearts, Jesus makes His throne in that hell we create in ourselves.

If we turn inward and look at those things that most shame us, that cause us the most pain, if we turn and look at our darkest secret and our most serious sins, we will find Jesus there waiting for us with His arms open to embrace us with love.

In the Gospel, Jesus says that it is just this love that sums up the whole of the law. As Jesus loves us, sacrificially and without reservation, we are called to love not only our brothers and sisters in Christ but all who we meet and even ourselves.

This love that God has called us to demonstrate begins in our love for God. To love others as Jesus loves me, I must give myself over to Him without reservation.

This is the great mystery of the Christian life.

To give myself over to God in love means that I must be willing to accept His love for me. When I refuse to acknowledge my own sinfulness when I turn a blind eye to the darkness in my own heart, I am in that moment turning away from God’s love for me, I am fleeing my King’s Throne.

And when I do this, what then? With what am I left with that false idol I created of myself.

And remember, like you, I built this idol.

And not only do I know it’s false, I also know that the more tenaciously I cling to it and the more this is the face I present to the world, the more I become a stranger to love.

As for the second of the commandments–that we love our neighbor as ourselves–this sums up the evangelical witness of the Church. Our calling is to smash idols not with violence but by seeing through them by our willingness to love people as they truly are.

Secure in God’s love for us, we are able to look fearless at the sin and darkness in not only own hearts but in our neighbor. And seeing this, we don’t turn away but reach out with the same love God has for us.

In doing so, we realize that our love for them isn’t ours alone but also God’s.

Though we add nothing to God’s love, nevertheless when we join ourselves to God we are able to lift, if only a little, the burden of shame that binds not only our neighbor but also ourselves.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Is there anyone you hate so much that you would see them enslaved by the same self-hatred that afflicts you? Longing as you do to be freed from the crippling burden of shame, would you deny such freedom to others?

Longing as you do, to love and to be loved, would you deny this to others?

Longing as you do to drop the mask you wear daily, would you deny this to others?

God has given us in baptism three great gifts. The first is to know that we are loved by the Creator of the Universe, that He has come to dwell in our hearts.

The second gift is like the first. To return that love to the God Who loves us.

Third but by no means least, the courage to love others as God loves us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lay Vocation

September 2 (O.S., August 2) 2018: 14th Sunday after Pentecost. Afterfeast of the Dormition; Prophet Samuel (6th c. B.C.); Martyrs Severus, Memnon, and 37 soldiers at Plovdiv in Thrace (304).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission

Madison, WI

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 1:21-2:4
Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Like last week’s parable of the wicked tenants, the parable we hear this morning is directed at us. We are those who have been invited to the Wedding Feast of the King’s Son. We should see in each of the three groups warnings about the challenges we face in our Christian life.

First are those who, as we hear in the parable, make light of the invitation. Second are those who respond with hostility, and even violence, to the King’s invitation. Most tragic of all, however, are those who come to the banquet but hold themselves apart from the celebration. Let’s look at each in turn.

At least in America, open hostility to the Gospel is, thank God, relatively rare. But especially in an academic context like UW, it isn’t uncommon to encounter individuals who dismiss the Gospel as somehow incompatible with being an educated person.

For others, and this is the second category, the Gospel isn’t simply the superstition of the intellectual unsophisticated. Rather life in Christ is seen as oppressive, a social ill that needs to be eradicated or at least limited to the private sphere.

These first two groups are fellow travelers. The quiet contempt of the first emboldens the second even as the second confirms the first group’s feelings of intellectual and cultural superiority.

To be fair, while the hostilities are ultimately unwarranted and represent a serious distortion of the tradition of the Church, Christians are not always the best example of the truth of the Gospel. My own lapses in charity do more to undermine the credibility of the Gospel than the polemics of the so-called “new atheists.” Far too often my personality or my behavior isn’t as a bridge between the others and Jesus Christ but a wall. At times it seems my concern is not to live in such a way that reveals Jesus to the world but to hide Him from others.

If those who hold the Gospel in contempt or who persecute Christians are wrong, we who believe in Jesus Christ would do well to consider how our own actions and attitudes contribute to the situation.

This brings me to the third group: those who accept the invitation but who hold themselves apart from the Kingdom of God.

We will leave to scholars the debate about whether or not the ungrateful guest failed to come dressed properly or whether he refused the gift of a wedding garment. For the fathers of the Church, this is a secondary concern. Their primary concern is with the garment as a symbol of the grace of Holy Baptism.

All of us who have been “baptized into Christ, have put on Christ” as St Paul tell us (Galatians 3:27). Having been clothed in divine grace, what then? Do I take seriously my own vocation to be a son or daughter of God? Do I know what it means to fulfill my baptismal vocation? Do I even know that I have such a vocation?

For many Orthodox Christians, indeed for the vast majority of Orthodox Christians, the answer to these questions is “No.” This doesn’t, however, so much reflect indifference or hostility on their part but a lack of information.

For most Orthodox Christians, life in Christ begins and ends with participation in the Divine Liturgy. Without in any way minimizing the centrality of the Liturgy, life in Christ is much broader and deeper than the passive attendance at Liturgy.

Putting on my social scientist cap for just a moment, I suspect that the reason so few Orthodox Christians make attendance at Liturgy and the reception of Holy Communion a priority is because the clergy–bishops, priests, and deacons–have neglected the spiritual formation of the laity. We–the clergy–don’t take seriously the vocation of the laity that each of us received at baptism.

But we all of us have a vocation!

At our baptism, God gives each of us gifts to use for His glory, the salvation of the world and our own growth in holiness. God has called each of us to be co-workers with Christ for the salvation of the world (1 Corinthians 3:9). And we gain our salvation through our faithful response to the grace poured out in our lives not only once at baptism but daily, hourly, moment by moment.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! How many Orthodox Christians, how many of us, know concretely that we have been called by God to work for the salvation of the world? How many of us realize–much less act on–that the vocation of the laity is far more than serving on a parish council, teaching church school, or singing in the choir?

All good things those they are, they don’t exhaust what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. We all of us have a vocation that was given in to us Baptism.

This vocation is nourished by the Eucharist.

This vocation s healed and strengthened by the other sacraments and the liturgical and ascetical life of the Church.

In the coming weeks, will look at that vocation in more detail. For now, though, ask God in your daily prayers to reveal to you the contours and content of your own baptismal vocation.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Detachment

August 26 (O.S., August 13), 2018: Afterfeast of the Transfiguration; Martyrs Anicetus and Photius (Photinus) of Nicomedia (305); Hieromartyr Alexander, bishop of Comana (3rd c.); Martyrs Pamphilus and Capito.

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 16:13-24
Gospel: Matthew 21: 33-42

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukranian Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Notice in the parable that Jesus doesn’t accuse the tenants of being unfruitful. These are not individuals who neglect the work they’ve been given to do. The conflict arises precisely because they are productive workers who anticipate a bountiful harvest.

Surrounded by beauty and wealth, the tenants became envious. They didn’t forget they were tenants. Rather, their unhappiness with their status cause them but envied the owner.

Or rather, their envy causes them to feel unsatisfied with the work they’ve done.

Whenever in the Gospels we hear about a rich harvest, we are meant to think about the evangelical mission of the Church. And this is what the parable is about.

On one level, Jesus is inditing the Jewish authorities not only of His time but all those in Israel who persecuted the prophets. As the heirs of those who for generation after generation rejected those God set over them, it isn’t a surprise that the authorities of His time will reject Jesus and turn Him over to the Romans for execution.

On another level though, the parable is directed to the Church; to us.

There is an unfortunate tendency for Christians to forget that we aren’t the owners of divine grace. Much less are we the source of the divine life that God pours out on His people by the power of the Holy Spirit through the sacraments.

No, we are stewards of grace.

It is our task, our calling, and great honor, to discern the presence and the shape of that grace in our own lives and the lives of those we meet.

Again, we are the stewards of grace.

Sometimes though I am tempted to forget this. When I do, there is a subtle (or maybe not so subtle) shift in my attitude.

I allow envy to take hold of my heart. As it does, my relationship to the things of God and to the People of God becomes corrupt. Over time, envy gives way to a proprietary attitude. Like the tenants in the parable, I come to think I own the Church.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis points out that one of the devil’s tricks is to get us to ignore the vast difference between “my boots” and “my God.” Many of us forget, for example, that “my parish” is more like “my God” than “my boots.”

This temptation is all the stronger when, as the parable highlights, the evangelical mission of the Church is bearing fruit. How easy it is for the priest or the lay evangelist to confuse his efforts with the grace of God. It is this that Jesus condemns in the Gospel.

And He condemns not only the attitude but those who hold to it. We must not, our Lord tells us today, allow a proprietary attitude to take hold in our hearts. To guard against this I need to foster a sense of detachment.

Detachment doesn’t mean indifference but an awareness that everything and everyone in my life comes to me as God’s gift to me for His glory, my salvation and the salvation of the world.

Detachment means always struggling against the temptation to confuse “my God,” “my spouse,” “my child,” “my vocation,” and yes, “my church,” with “my boots.”

Detachment, in the final analysis, means remembering that I am not the owner or source of grace but its steward.

Important here, as well, is that I remember that I am only one steward of grace among many. Detachment means that I am aware that God has entrusted me with only one part of His Kingdom.

Whether large or small, great or humble, our responsibilities are limited.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We are all of us always tempted to envy in the spiritual life. We are all of us always tempted to think that we own the things of God.

We need to be on guard against this attitude, we need to remain detached. To accomplish this we must, as St Paul tells the Corinthians, “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Self-Emptying Peace

August 19 (O.S., August 6) 2018: 12th Sunday after Pentecost. The Holy Transfiguration of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.

Epistle: 2 Peter 1:10-19
Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

On the feast of the Transfiguration, we sing that the disciples saw the divine glory “as far as they could see it.” 

One sobering implication of this is that the only limiting factor on divine grace is human freedom. Put in its starkest terms, the only constraint on God’s grace and mercy is, well, me.  St John Chrysostom makes a similar point.image

After reminding us that “the blessings and gifts of God are irrevocable” he goes on to say that because God respects human freedom, my “recalcitrance” can “frustrate even the intention of God.”

While God doesn’t change, from a human point of view, my lack of repentance can “overthrow” the mercy of God (“Homily on St Matthew,” 61.4, ACCS NT, vol Ib, p.88).

Thankfully, not only does God respects human freedom, He conforms the revelation of His love to our ability to receive it. And all this He does this, as the kontakion says, for our benefit.

This means that God in Jesus Christ makes Himself small so that in Christ, we can grow great. How do we grow in greatness? Through our proclamation of the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15).

Preaching the Gospel needn’t mean standing on a street corner telling people about Jesus. It need not mean, in other words, telling people about Jesus. But it does mean working to bring the world around us into an ever greater conformity to the Gospel.

Doing this excludes absolutely any coercion on my part. I can’t manipulate or browbeat others into believing the Gospel. Much less can I use physical force. I can’t even use social pressure, I can’t shun those who don’t believe.

So how can I peaceably proceed?

We heard last week that in His incarnation the Son “empties Himself.” It is just this self-emptying we see when Jesus reveals His glory to Peter, James, and John. Our Lord doesn’t overwhelm His disciples.

He is able to do, or rather, not do this for two reasons.

First, He knows His disciples, their strengths, and limitations. There is nothing abstract in how Jesus relates to Peter, James, and John.

Second, Jesus is free in Himself. He isn’t moved by concern for His reputation. Much less does He suffer from those internal compulsions–that internal dialog–common to us as fallen men and women.

Of the two qualities, it is the second of these–Jesus’ freedom–that is decisive. Not only is His humanity wholly united to His divinity. The former is the vehicle (if I may speak so) for the latter.

Far from obscuring His divinity, Jesus’ humanity is the means by which His divinity is revealed. If it seems otherwise, it is because of my own sinfulness. To borrow from the troparion for the feast, in my fallen state I can’t bear the glory of His divinity as it shines through His humanity.

And so, I close my eyes to the beauty that is before me.

All this means that to grow great, to become more fully who God has created me to be, something in me needs to change. Paradoxically, I must change to become who I am.

And if I don’t? If I refuse to change? Again paradoxically, by staying the same I increasingly become who I’m not.

The change I need to make is this. I must empty myself of all those things in my life I cling to and depend upon rather than God. This is the meaning of repentance. I lay aside everything in my life that is not God.

If we stop here, the Gospel sounds monstrous. And, let’s admit it, many Christians present the Gospel is just these terms, as wholly negative. They deform the Gospel presenting as they do as a series of renunciations without any commensurate gains.

But this simply isn’t true. The loss we experience in following Christ, pale in comparison with the gains.

As we lay aside everything in our lives that isn’t God, as we empty ourselves after the example of Jesus, we discover a deeper, more enduring attachment to those things that we a moment ago surrendered.

On the other side of the self-emptying to which Christ calls us, we discover that is He, His love, that unites us to each other and to the whole creation.
Whether person or project, the tie that binds us is not our own affections.

What unites us to each other, to the work that fills our days, and to the whole human family is not our own passing thoughts and feelings but God’s grace and love for us.

Like the Transfiguration, conforming the world to the Gospel is not first and foremost a matter of changing others but changing ourselves. To borrow from the late Fr Alexander Schmemann, I must learn to see the light of Christ’s love as it shines throughout the whole of creation.

It is only illumined by the Divine Light that I am able to avoid the myriad great and small acts of violence that undermines the Gospel and instead bring the world into ever greater conformity to Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God in Jesus Christ conceals His glory, He limits Himself so that we can reveal Him as “the Radiance of the Father!”
He makes Himself small so that we can become great.

And proclaiming the Gospel? Conforming the world to Christ? These are one and the same. Two ways of saying the same thing we hear today in the Gospel.

“Lord! It is good for us to be here!”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Rights & Forgiveness

Sunday, August 12 (O.S., July 30), 2018: 11th Sunday after Pentecost. Apostles Silas and Silvanus of the Seventy and those with them: Crescens, Epenetus, and Andronicus (1stc.). Hieromartyr Polychronius, bishop of Babylon (251), and Martyrs Parmenius, Helimenas (Elimas), and Chrysotelus presbyters, Luke and Mocius deacons, and Abdon, Sennen, Maximus, and Olympius. Hieromartyr Valentine, bishop of Interamna (Terni) in Italy (273). Martyr John the Soldier at Constantinople (4th c.).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 9:2-12
Gospel: Matthew. 18:23-35

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

unforgiving20servant2

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Over the years I have heard more than one Orthodox Christian tell me that “human rights” is foreign to Holy Tradition. Discussions of rights, so the argument goes, is a “Western” innovation. At best it is an import, at worse a heresy that undermines the Gospel.

“Christians,” as one bishop told me, “don’t have rights. We have responsibilities!”

Evidently, St Paul didn’t get the memo. In today’s epistle, the Apostle explicitly appeals to his rights as an apostle. And these rights aren’t unique to Paul. All the apostles have the right “to take along a believing wife” and “to refrain from working” so that they can devote themselves to the preaching of the Gospel. He concludes by asking the Corinthians: “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?”

That Paul and Barnabas give up these rights doesn’t mean these rights don’t exist. If anything, it serves to highlight their importance and acceptance in the life of the early Church.

We need to distinguish between what Paul is talking about and the various contemporary theories of human rights. The latter, it must be said, sometimes is used merely as a justification for sinful behavior.

But the Scriptures establish an objective standard of justice in our relationships with each other. Far from abolishing or dismissing the demands of justice, the Gospel fulfills them. “Do not think,” Jesus tells His disciples, “that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17; see also Romans 3:31).

Like Paul and Barnabas, we are free to lay aside our rights. But if we do so, we must do it freely and for the right reason.

The Apostle is instructive here.

Following his example, no one can demand from us that we lay aside or surrender that which is ours by right. And when we do lay them aside, we do so not to be “nice” but for the salvation of others.

Put another way, no one can coerce you into giving up your rights. Nor should they penalize or punishment you for demanding that which is yours by right.

Not only must we rule out any external coercion, we need to be on guard against any internal compulsion. The demands of just not only places limits on our relationship with each other, it also sets out the moral limits of my relationship with myself.

If I lay aside my rights, I must do so not only free from external coercion and internal compulsion but only in the service of the salvation of others. I must not lightly give up my rights. This point is frequently misunderstood–or worse, dismissed–by many of us.

Jesus tells us that “if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). Morally, no one can compel us to do what we can only do freely.

How, though, do we reconcile this with today’s Gospel? Doesn’t Jesus tell me that I can’t inherit the Kingdom of God unless from my heart I forgive those who have harmed me?

To understand what Jesus is telling us we need to remember that forgiveness frees us from the resentment that often accompanies the injustice committed against us. It is only through forgiveness that we find the moral freedom that we see in St Paul.

Compare Paul to the wicked servant. Even though he has benefited from the generous mercy of his master, the servant is unwilling to extend even a small measure of forgiveness to his fellow servant.

St John Chrysostom points out that while “the blessings and gifts of God are irrevocable” by my “recalcitrance” I can “frustrate even the intention of God.” But it isn’t God Who changes. My desire for vengeance only “appears to overthrow” the mercy of God.

The great tragedy is that through his lack of forgiveness the wicked servant inflicts a greater evil on himself than he does on his fellow servant. He loses or rather rejects, the friendship of his master. In doing this, this he loses as well as the respect and affection of his fellow servants.

Like the wicked servant, there are those who think human rights “ free” them from the Gospel.

Like the wicked servant, their adherence to the demand of justice and their own rights is really a conceit; a way of avoiding the demands of the Gospel.

Like the wicked servant, I all too easily cling to my rights not from a sense of my own dignity or the demands of justice but because of the hardness of my own heart.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Like the wicked servant, it is my own inhumanity to others, my own lack of mercy, my own lack of a gentle spirit and a forgiving heart that separates me from God and so my neighbor. The tortures the parable promise are really self-inflicted.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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