Forgiveness Sunday

Sunday March 1 (O.S., February 17), 2020: Cheese-fare Sunday; Sunday of Forgiveness; Commemoration of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise; Great Martyr Theodore of Tyro (306); Ven. Theodore the silent of the Far Kyivan Caves (XIII); St. Mariamne, sister of the Apostle Philip (I); St. Nicholas Planas, priest in Athens (1932).

Epistle: Romans 13:11-14; 14:1-4
Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21

St Paul reminds us this morning that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” It is tempting to think that it is nearer because, well, we are older. Understood in this way, his observation that “the night is far gone, the day is at hand” might evoke in us a certain anxiety. Hurry, we might say, time is running out.

While understandable, salvation is nearer not because we are older but because God is ever drawing closer to us. It isn’t that we are moving toward God but that God is always moving toward us. In each moment, God draws nearer, revealing a bit more of Himself to us and of His great love for us.

Our repentance and our asceticism have no other goal than–to borrow from St Dionysius the Areopagite–to make our hearts more expansive, to make of ourselves ever larger vessels but always filled to overflowing with divine love.

The problem of sin is that it makes my life small. It narrows my vision, constricts my life, making me less able to receive God’s love for me and so making me less than who God has called me to be. Sin, if I make speak this way, makes me boring and stupid.

This is why the Apostle tells us to welcome those “weak in faith” but not to argue with them. This isn’t because we aren’t to preach the Gospel but we do so through hospitality not polemics. We must first demonstrate by our lives what it means to love God and to be loved by Him. Only then can we correct errors and explain the faith to those who have themselves accepted this love.

Jesus tells us in the Gospel that we do this primarily through our willingness to forgive others “their trespasses” against us. When we do this, we imitate God the Father Who is always eager to forgive us.

After saying this though, the next thing Jesus says might seem like a tangent.

When I fast, I shouldn’t draw attention to myself. My fasting, like whatever good I do in this life, must be done “in secret.” But while fasting in secret is easy enough, how can I forgive in secret? The next verses, I think, explain what Jesus means.

What we are called to do, we are called to do freely, out of love for God and neighbor.

Too often I find myself instead tempted to engage in good deeds in the hope of winning the favor of God or my neighbor. My charity, my asceticism, even my prayer, can too easily become transactional–I do in order to get.

And so Jesus reminds us, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If I fix my heart on earning your good opinion of me or on winning God’s favor, it’s not God or you I care about but my own ego. When I try to earn love–when I make being loved an item on my to do list–I reveal that I have radically, possibly fatally, misunderstood love.

Love is a gift that God gives to us and we to each other. While it can be received or lost, it can never be earned. Love that is not freely offered and freely received is simply not love.

When we look into our own hearts, when I look into my own heart, I realize how little I understand love. And so the Church asks us at the beginning of our preparation to receive our Risen Lord on Pascha to ask for forgiveness and to offer forgiveness to each other.

We do this not because we have done bad things or hurt each other–though in a fallen world this is unavoidable even if not frequently unintentional–but for the simple reason that we misunderstand love.

But we are made for love!

When we misunderstand love, we misunderstand ourselves, our neighbor and God.

When we misunderstand love, we fail to be who God has created us to be.

When we misunderstand love, we fail each other and become instead impediments to salvation.

When we misunderstand love, we fail to witness to the Gospel and instead forge chains out of its life-giving words

When we misunderstand love, we fail to know God and worship instead an idol of our own creation.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! For all this, and more, forgive me a sinner!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Hidden in Christ

Sunday, February 23 (OS February 10), 2020: Meat-fare Sunday, Commemoration of the Awesome Judgement; Hieromartyr Charalampos, Bishop of Magnesia and Martyrs Porphyrius and Baptus, (202); St. Anna, wife of Yaroslav I (1050); Ven. Prochorus of the Near Kyivan Caves (1107); Martyrs Ennatha, Valentina and Paula of Palestine (308); St. Scholastica, sister of St. Benedict (543).

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

This past week the daily Epistle and Gospel readings have focused on two themes.

The epistles have emphasized the primacy of charity–of love–in the Christian life. As for the Gospel readings, these have recounted the events of Holy Week. Taken together, the epistles remind us of Jesus Christ’s great love for each of us. They remind us as well that it is the same sacrificial love to which we are called.

Let me make this stronger.

Love that is not sacrificial is not really love. However if we stop here we risk misunderstanding the life to which we are called. To know what it means to love sacrificially we need to turn to today’s readings.

St Paul reminds those troublesome Corinthians, that while fasting and the ascetical life are important, they are not the point of the Christian. The goal, as we’ve heard all week in the readings, is to love others. And, by love, Paul means to do that which is best for our neighbor.

Often in my own spiritual life I get undone because I assume–wrongly as Jesus tells me in the parable–that to love others means I must do great things. After all, if my love for you must be sacrificial, don’t I need to do something big? This isn’t what Jesus asks of us today.

Rather our Lord asks us to do small acts of kindness that St John Chrysostom says are within the reach of all of us. Indeed, one needn’t even be Christian to know that you ought to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirst, clothe the naked or visit those who are sick or imprisoned. All of these are the actions of any morally decent human being.

So where is sacrifice? It is this: rather than doing great things to win the praise of others, or even to bolster our own sense of self-worth, we are called to live a life “hidden in Christ” as St Paul tells the Colossians (3:3). The humility of our love should be such that it is easily overlooked not only by the world but, as the response of both the sheep and goats suggest, by us as well.

Put slightly differently, we are called to engage in quiet acts of simple charity for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do. This means that need to be indifferent, detached, from not only your opinion of my actions but of my own as well.

And doing the morally good thing because it is good changes me. Too frequently get things backwards. I don’t do good things because I am a good person. I become a good person by doing good. It is the habit of small acts of charity that purifies my heart. If I wait for my heart to be pure, my intentions to be right, then I’ll never act.

The sheep in the parable simply loved others without any thought of reward. The goats, however, did good but did so to earn a reward; their good deeds, their charity, was transaction. They did something to get something.

Sheep love others, goats love only themselves.

While the good we do is easily overlooked, we shouldn’t underestimate its effects in the aggregate. It was through small, easily overlooked acts of charity, that the early Church overcame the Roman Empire. The Church conquered the Empire not by force of arms by making it the Church.

Everything the Church has accomplished, it has accomplished by the habit of daily acts of personal charity. The Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union, all of these persecuted Christ and the Gospel. And all of these fell not through military might but by Christians who lived faithful lives hidden in Christ. It is the Cross, not the sword, which overcomes the world.

The Church has triumphed in this life when Christians have embraced a life hidden in Christ. We will triumph as a parish, to say nothing of finding our own, personal salvation, by likewise living a life hidden in Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To do this we need only take our eyes off ourselves and fix them on Jesus Christ. Look to Jesus and allow Him to direct you in the ways you should go.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

God Searches for You!

Sunday February 16 (O.S., 3), 2020: Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Afterfeast of the Meeting of the Lord. Holy and Righteous Symeon the God-receiver and Anna the Prophetess. Prophet Azarias (X B.C.). Martyrs Papius, Diodorus, Claudianus (250). Martyrs Adrian and Eubulus (308-309). Martyr Blaise of Caesaria (III).

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

One of the things that never ceases to surprise me is not simply the number of people who don’t know that they are loved by God but those who will argue that God can’t possibly love them.

For some, God’s love is something to be earned. Seeing themselves as failures, they think God’s love is reserved for successful people. God loves, their thinking goes, the sleek and the strong, the competent and well liked. Being none of these (at least in their own minds), they conclude that God doesn’t, and can’t, love them.

Others see themselves as unlovable because of their moral failures or even minor shortcomings. It is their sin that closes the door to God’s love for them. And that door, now closed, can never be reopened.

To those who have never experienced God’s love for them, life is lonely and plagued with anxiety and the fear that, eventually, others will come to see them as they see themselves. As fundamentally unloved and, what is worse, unlovable.

In response to this we have the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The context of the parable is important. Immediately before He tells the story of this rather sad and broken family, the Pharisees and scribes had been criticizing Jesus for “receiv[ing] sinners and eat[ing] with them.” It is in response to these complaints that Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son (see, Luke 15:2, 3).

Rabbi Abraham Herschel in God in Search of Man says that we perish not “for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”

The source of wonder is this. God loves us, each and ever single one of us.

And, following from this, it isn’t me who goes looking for God but God Who in Jesus Christ comes looking for me. And not just me. God comes looking for you and everyone.

This is what the son discovers “when he came to himself” and returned to his father.

When he does, the son is surprised to find that his father is there waiting for him. The father has left his house and gone in search of his son. The father went in search of his son, before the son goes in search of his father.

And not only does father just go in search of his son. He goes eager to find him and ready to restore him. The father wants nothing more than to return the son to his place in the household.

In this the father reflects what God has done for each of us in Jesus Christ.

In Christ and through the sacraments, God goes out to meet us. Unlike the father in the parable, however, God doesn’t simply restore us to our former place. Instead He calls us, He calls each of us, His children in this life and promises us a greater intimacy and dignity in the life to come.

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1 John 3:2-3).

Let me pause here for a moment and return to the first verses of the parable.

At least in the beginning, the family that Jesus holds up as a type of the Kingdom of God is anything but admirable.

The youngest son is so greedy, he wishes his father dead. Failing that, he lays claim on his inheritance as if his father were already dead.

And what can we say about the father? At best, he is overly indulgent. It would, however, be more accurate to call him weak. He knows his son and so knows that in giving in to the boy’s demands he is colluding with his riotous living.

Then there is the eldest son. What can we say about him except he is so committed to duty, so willing to be obedient, that he has no charity for his younger brother or ability to share in his father’s joy.

What changes the family is this: the father’s willingness to go in search of his son.

As with parable, so to with us and with the Church. What transforms us is not primarily our repentance but God the Father going in search of us. We are changed because, wonder of wonders, God desires to draw us to Himself even while we, even while I, flee from Him.

No matter how I seek to justify it, no matter how resigned I am to it, when I deny that God loves me, I’m fleeing from God. Like Adam after the Fall, I hide from God.

But try as I might, I can’t hide from God! And neither can you!

God always comes for you!

God is always eager to love you!

God is always drawing you closer to Himself!

It is this–God searching for us–that transforms us personally and as a community.

It is this–God searching for us–that makes it possible for us to be who He has created us to be rather than who the world, our own sin or neurosis, tells us we are.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today God comes in search of you! Go and meet the God Who out of His great love, comes to find you!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Atheist In All But Name

Sunday, January 26 (O.S., January 13), 2020: 32nd Sunday after Pentecost Sunday after the Theophany; Martyrs Hermylus and Stratonicus (315); Martyr Peter of Anium (309-310; St. James bp. of Nisibis (336); St. Hilary, bp. of Poitiers (368)

Epistle: Ephesians 4:7-13
Gospel: Matthew 4:12-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Apostle Paul reminds us that God has not simply blessed us but done so in abundance, “to the measure of Christ’s gift” as he says. St John Chrysostom says that to the gift of salvation given in Baptism, “having God as our Father, our all partaking of the same Spirit–these are common to all,” says we each of us also given the gifts needed “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,” as we await the coming our Lord Jesus Christ in glory.

Everyone here today, in other words, has not only been called but equipped, for the work of building up the Kingdom of God on earth in anticipation of the coming of that same Kingdom in glory. We have each of us been called and made able to work not just for our own personal salvation but for the salvation of the world. This means that we have each of us been called, set aside and been given grace to live sacrificially so that others can come to know Christ and to know themselves in Christ.

Unfortunately, too frequently we adopt the secularism that Fr Alexander Schmemann identified as the besetting failure of Orthodox Christians in America. We are often quite sincere in our affirmation, Schmemann says, of “the need for religion.” We even “give it a place of honor and cover it with many privileges.” But while we look to religion (including the Gospel) to “supply life with ethical standards, with help and comfort, we often fail to expect the Gospel to “transform life” to radically change us, our lives and those we love.

As a practical matter, this means that as an Orthodox Christian I can believe “in God and in the immortality of the soul” even pray daily “and find great help in prayer.” But between my morning and evening prayers everything that I do, is done without any awareness of “the fundamental” truths of the Gospel, “of Creation, Fall, and Redemption.”

Taking Fr Schmemman’s criticism to heart means that whether I am an Orthodox Christian or not, whether I am a priest or layperson, whether I pray daily or not, I live as if I were an atheist.

This is why Chrysostom tells us to “pay attention” to what St Paul says. We have not been given spiritual gifts “according to our own merit.” And, if we had, “then no one would have received” what at all God has given in abundance.

St Paul goes on to list some (though by no means all) the gifts that have been given. “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” but again, all for the purpose of “equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

When I live as if I were an atheist, I make a mockery of the Gospel and show myself to be a fool.

Actually, I reveal that I am worse than a fool. I leave unclaimed the reward that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. In refusing to love sacrificially, I don’t only love a little, I refuse to love at all.

And when I refuse to love? What then? Simply put, I enslave myself to my own desires.

Either I worship God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit or I worship the idol of my own plans and projects. The latter means living always dependent on constantly shifting circumstances and the whims of others. And it is precisely from this state that, as we hear in the Gospel, Jesus comes to free us.

We are “the people who sat in darkness” who have been invited to see “a great light.”

We are those “who sat in the region and shadow of death” upon whom Christ the divine “light has dawned.”

“To repent,” says Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), “ is not to look not downward at my own shortcomings but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God I can yet become.” The fruit of repentance is to see myself, to see you and all creation as God sees us.

It is from this vision that we get the desire, the strength and the ability to no longer live “as if” God didn’t exist. It is from this vision that we become able to sacrifice not just fearlessly but also prudently.

The latter is often sadly lacking. Practical atheism is not simply living as if there was no God. It is also living as if, the moral and material limits God places on creation were optional for us.

Swept away by the romance of the Gospel, I fail to ask what God wants from me. And so I fail to ask what is the next step along the way. It is the absence of the vision of God, of seeing as God sees, that causes me to worship my own plans and projects.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today God invites us, invites me and you, to lay aside the life of practical atheism, of living as if God did not exist. And, its place, He offers us a share in His life and His vision.

He offers us the gift of Himself and the ability to live and love as He does. It is this that is true freedom, it is this what love means and what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Doubt: It Ain’t What I Think

Sunday, January 19 (OS January 6), 2020: The Holy Theophany. The Baptism of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Epistle: Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7
Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Something interesting happens in the conversation between John and his younger cousin. John is hesitant to baptize Jesus. “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” Can you not hear an older cousin or sibling say just these words to his junior?

But rather than arguing with him, Jesus responds gently. “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

By His answer to John, Jesus transforms a moment of doubt into an occasion of faith. And not only this. John’s willingness, weak as it is, to do what Jesus asks becomes a revelation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. As we hear in the troparion for today, “When You were baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, worship of the Trinity was revealed.”

Through the gentle touch of grace, doubt becomes faith and an experience of the overwhelming and all-encompassing love of God.

Living as we do in an age when we confuse faith in God with what we believe about God, it is easy to also confuse doubt with a lack of intellectual understanding or certitude. And yet, doubt is different.

In the Reform Orthodox Jewish prayer book, there is a lovely prayer. “I thank You O Lord for doubt, for by doubt You reveal to me the limits of my faith.” To doubt is not only an experience of the limits of my faith but, as we see in the Gospel, an invitation to grow in faith.

I think it is more helpful to think doubt not as the lack of certitude (intellectual or emotional) but as a distraction. I doubt not because I don’t understand God or because I don’t love God but because at the moment I take my eyes off of God.

The fact is, God is always more than my understanding of Him. And however much I love Him, because He is Infinite there is always more of Him to love if I can speak that way. Doubt is symptomatic of my shifting my attention from God but on the things of this world.

For St John the Baptist, the cause of his distraction was his fixation on his own limited understanding of righteousness and his own role in the coming of the Messiah. St Paul warns St Titus of doing something similar telling him that “ the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy.”

Paul goes on to say that we are saved through Holy Baptism–that is, “through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior”–and for this reason, have become “heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

What we have received, we have received from above, from the Hand of God. And what we are to become, is beyond our ability to conceive because it too comes to us from above.

Given this, it isn’t surprising that at times I lose my way because I have lost my focus on Jesus Christ and the Kingdom. As I struggle to be faithful, to live in hope, and to accept in thanksgiving the gift that I and you and all of us who are in Christ have been given, it is little wonder that now and then we fall short and are distracted.

We are distracted precisely because the gift is more than we can imagine. The gift is beyond what we can receive. And so, inevitably, I run up against the limits of my faith, hope and love of the God Who, as St Gregory Palamas says, “is not only beyond our knowing but our unknowing as well.”

Whether in ourselves or others, we should judge doubt gently.

The reason why is that one of the great tricks of the Enemy is to confuse us. He whispers in our ear that questions and struggles are signs of our sinfulness. They might be. And at times, to speak only for myself, they are.

But even when they are, God uses our doubts as occasions for repentance, for growth in holiness and for a deepening of our love for Him and an awareness of His love for us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! When we doubt, when we encounter the doubts of others, let us at that moment fix our eyes every more firmly on Jesus Christ.

Let us, by all means, confess with John that we do not understand. And if we do, we will hear that same gentle word of encouragement that John hears today from Jesus. “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

It is in saying this, that God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit transforms our doubt into a deeper faith by revealing not things about Himself but revealing more fully Himself.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Persecution of Christian in America

Sunday January 12 (OS: December 30) 2020: Sunday Nativity Afterfeast (30th Sunday) Holy Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King, James the Brother of the Lord. Sunday after Nativity

Epistle: Galatians 1.11-19

Gospel: Matthew 2.13-23

Christ is born!

As both today’s readings make clear, the Church has been subject to persecution from the beginning. While there have been times of relative peace, there has never been a time–even in a formally “Christian” culture or nation–where the Church, the City of God, was free from the hostile intentions of the World, of the City of Man.

This makes a certain rough sense.

As Herod and his son Archelaus knew, the Church is a fatal threat to “the rulers of the Gentiles,” to those who desire nothing more than “lord it over” others. The powerful of this World are all too eager to “exercise authority over” those who they should instead serve (Matthew 20:25, NKJV). It was precisely this contrast between the two cities that led to the growth of the Church.

Christians, for example, preached a new and unique doctrine of chastity. Powerful men in the ancient world were free to take sexual pleasure where, how, and from whom they wished among those of lesser status. Adultery was a crime for women but acceptable for men. Masters could abuse their male as well as female slaves and teachers their students.

In contrast, the Christian doctrine of chastity not only highlighted the dignity of women, slaves, and children, it offered them a life free from acts of intimate abuse. Those men who embraced the Gospel understood that following Christ required that they refrain from the casual violation of others that their peers readily and habitually practiced.

By the integrity of his life, the Christian man was an unbearable reproach to the selfishness of those around him. He and he alone refused to degrade others as he himself had once been degraded. With the Christian, the cycle ended.

In addition to this, the Church offered Roman society another, equally radical, different standard for the exercise of political authority. While it is sometimes said that the first Christians were pacifists or practiced non-violence, this is inaccurate. At best it is an anachronism. While Christians were willing to suffer violence, they were not pacifists.

Beginning with Cornelius the Roman centurion who, along with his family, is baptized St Peter baptize there is a long history of Christians who served with distinction in the Roman military (see Acts 10). What was unique about these Christian warriors was their refusal–often at the cost of their own lives–to harm the innocent.

Yes, they served the Empire but not at the expense of the Gospel. In this, as with the Christian doctrine of chastity, they stood in stark contrast to their comrades-in-arms. Christian soldiers were eager to defend the innocent but refused to lift their sword against them.

And there are more examples.

Christians adopted unwanted infants left to die in the wilderness. They did this even when food was scarce and each new mouth increased the likelihood of hunger or even death for themselves or their children.

And when the plague struck, the wealthy together with all those who could afford to do so, fled the city for the relative safety of the countryside. Christians however not only stayed but cared for the sick. Willingly Christians risked their own lives to ease the suffering of those who in normal circumstances despised them.

In all of these ways and others too numerous to mention, Christians were a threat to the willingness of the powerful to abuse and neglect others when circumstances allowed or fancy desired.

Today and especially in America, Christians imagine ourselves persecuted. While there are times when we are met with prejudice, it is frequently the case that we have brought this on ourselves. Rarely, are we the object of derision because of our fidelity to the Gospel or the witness of the early Church.

More often than not, we find ourselves complaining not because of persecution or prejudice but because we want to be exempt from the natural consequences of the political process of give and take, of public disagreement and debate, and the many tradeoffs that come with making policy and enforcing law.

Whether we are on the left or the right, American Christians often seem eager to off-load our obligations to the government. This is why we are so quick to criticize as immoral those who disagree with us politically. We are asking the State to do for us, what we should instead be doing for Christ. This being so, how can a believer help but think a person sinful for disagreeing?

While the State has a role to play, it belongs to those of us who are in Christ to lead by example in areas such as philanthropy and morality. But when we look around, outside of a handful of seminaries, there are precious few Orthodox schools and no Orthodox hospitals–to take only two examples. We have, I’m afraid, failed to lead.

I said a moment ago that many Christians in America–and including Orthodox Christians–complain that we are persecuted. Looking at the history of the early Church it’s hard for me to agree with this. As I said, it seems more a matter that we are simply experiencing the natural costs and consequences of participating in American political life.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, Christians in America are not persecuted; if only we were. If only we were accounted worthy to suffer because we lived as the first Christians did.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Be of Good Cheer Little Flock

Sunday, January 5 (OS December 22) 2020: 29th Sunday after Pentecost. Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, of the Holy Fathers; Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ; Holy Ten Martyrs of Crete (III): Theodulus, Saturninus, Euporus, Gelasius, Eunician, Zoticus, Pompeius, Agathopus, Basilides, and Evaristus (250); St. Niphon, bp. of Cyprus (IV); St. Paul, Bishop of Neo-Caesaria (IV); St. Nahum of Ochrid, enlightener of the Bulgarians (910); Nativity fast, wine and oil allowed

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Geneology of Christ according to St. LukeSometimes we think of Christmas as the end of the story. This is, in a certain sense, reasonable. The last almost 40 days have after all been a preparation to celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ.

In another sense though, Christmas is only the beginning. It is the opening movement in a series of events that will see the Child grow into a Man, preach the Gospel, “heal the brokenhearted, … proclaim liberty to the captives, … recovery of sight to the blind, … set at liberty those who are oppressed” and “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4 18, 19, NKJV).

And as the fathers are keenly aware and quick to point out, Christmas Day announces the eventual death of Christ on the Cross, His three days in the tomb, and His resurrection from the dead.

In a similar way, the events of Christmas Day lead to all the good things that today we take, if not for granted, then as natural. Think of all the great accomplishments of Western culture; not only art, philosophy, and literature, but science, politics and economic development. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that in spite of all our failures and enduring sinfulness, these are all the fruit of Christmas.

One can see this not simply in the great Christian cathedrals or lives and writings of the fathers and the saints. We can see this not only in art or liturgy but around us today here in Madison.

A great university, a vibrant (if frequently contentious) tradition of political involvement and philanthropic concern. All of these are at the fruit of the Christmas, the result of generations of men and women who united themselves to Christ in baptism, nourished themselves in Holy Communion and followed Him as His disciples and evangelists.

There is nothing good around us today, that doesn’t owe its existence in large part to the Gospel.

To be sure, this debt is often overlooked or when it isn’t actively denied. But for all that, the roots of not just Western culture or America but Madison are firmly planted in the Gospel.

As I mentioned a week or so ago, we live in politically and culturally contentious times. Whether this is more or less than at other times is an interesting question but rather beside the point. Whatever times we live are always marked by conflict, by the knee jerk willingness of partisans on each side to think the other side is if not actively evil, then benighted or simply foolish.

In this, our time is no different than the time into which Jesus was born. That time, like our time,  was disfigured by violence and contempt for others.

It is into that world, which is our world still today, that Jesus comes and preaches repentance, the forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of humanity with God and so with itself.

And like those times, our own times can seem overwhelming. Like the disciples in the early hours of Pascha, we are tempted to hide if not from “fear of the Jews” (see John 20:19) then, well, pick the person or group you fear most and so love least.

But now, as then, Jesus comes to stand in our midst, granting us His peace, breathing upon us the Holy Spirit and sending us out to proclaim the Gospel (John 20:21-23). Because you see, whether it is Christmas or Pascha, the Annunciation or Pentecost, the Gift, and the Call, are the same.

We are given not a word about Christ or even a share in His life. We are given at Christmas and every day, Christ Himself. And having received Him, He tells us what He told the disciples. “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Look around you.

Everything you see is the fruit of not just of Christmas but of that “little flock.” All around us we see the fruit of those in the Old Testament who lived in hope for His coming and those in the New Testament and throughout the history of the Church down to this day and in this place who in faith followed Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We are that little flock not because we are few but because the Church always seems small in the face of human sinfulness. To us today, Jesus says as He did to Israel, never despair, never give up hope.

And He says to us today, as He did His disciples, do not be afraid, rather be “of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Not Good Enough But Really Good

Sunday, December 15 (O.S., December 2), 2019: 26th Sunday after Pentecost. Prophet Habakkuk (VI c. B.C.). Martyr Myrope of Chios (251). Sts. John, Heraclemon, Andrew, and Theophilus of Egypt (IV). St. Jesse, Bishop of Tsilkani in Georgia (VI). St. Athanasius, “the Resurrected”, of the Near Kyivan Caves (1176). Ven. Athanasius, recluse, of the Far Kyivan Caves (XIII). St. Stephen-Urosh IV, king (1371).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 5:9-19

Gospel: Luke 18:18-27

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Though he doesn’t use the word, in the opening verses of today’s Epistle the Apostle Paul calls us to be discerning. We are, he says, to seek out “the fruit of the Spirit,” Specifically, “goodness, righteousness, and truth” not only because these are good in themselves but because they help us know and so do what “is acceptable to the Lord.”

Doing the will of God requires first that we hold ourselves apart from sin, from “the unfruitful works of darkness.” If we do, we will become in St John Chrysostom’s phrase “a lamp” that naturally “exposes what takes place in darkness.”

We need, I think, to pause here and consider carefully the larger context within which the Apostle is making his argument.

Paul’s primary concern is to encourage us to engage in the evangelical work of the Church. Like the Apostle Andrew, whose feast was Friday, we are called to call others to Christ. Contrary to what we frequently see both outside the Church and (what is worse) within the Church, this can’t be done in a mechanical fashion.

What I mean is I can’t simply memorize a script or a series of bullet points to be repeated when the opportunity presents itself. When I do this, the other person becomes merely an excuse for me to exercise my own ego.

What then should we do instead?

St Jerome tells us “No one is prepared to admonish sinners except one who does not deserve to be called a hypocrite.” In saying this, he is simply repeating what Paul has just told us. To succeed in calling others to Christ, I must first cultivate in my own life the fruits of the Spirit by repenting from sin.

But here’s the thing about the evangelical work of the Church. Whatever the response of the other person, calling others to Christ will naturally bring to light my own shortcomings, my own sinfulness.

This is why after admonishing the Ephesians to be the light that exposes the darkness of sin, St Paul says to them

“Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.”

He says this not to those outside the Church but to those within. The hardest part of fulfilling the evangelical work of the Church, is this: Whatever else may or may not happen, telling others about Jesus Christ will always expose my sinfulness.

Very quickly the evangelist learns that he is the one who must awaken from the sleep of sin.

This is why the work can’t be mechanical. I can’t hide behind the Gospel. If I do, my witness will ring hollow. Or, and this much is worse, the other person will imitate my hypocrisy, my own lack of repentance, confusing this with life in Christ.

This is why, turning to the Gospel, Jesus tells the ruler to sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow Him. This is not a condemnation of wealth or the wealthy. It is instead a warning to all of us.

We all have our idols. We all have things in our life that stand in the place of God.

For the rich man, it was obedience to the commandments. Knowing himself to be a good man, he gave himself permission to not be a better man. He didn’t want to be really good but only good enough. There was nothing sacrificial in his good deeds. His wealth afforded him the luxury of looking good so that he didn’t have actually to be good.

St Ignatius of Antioch warns us to avoid just this state when tells the Romans he doesn’t “want merely to be called a Christian, but actually to be one.” The ruler wanted to be called good without actually becoming good because true and lasting goodness requires sacrifice.

This is why when Jesus tells him to sell all he has, to give to the poor, and because His disciple the man is distressed. He doesn’t want to make the sacrifice that goodness requires. His adherence to the moral law, much like some adhere to the teachings of the Church, is merely mechanical.

Watching all this and hearing Jesus say “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” the crowds and above all the disciples are themselves distressed.

St Cyril of Alexandria observes that the disciples “possessed nothing except what was trifling and of slight value.” But whether we have much or little, he says, “the pain of abandoning is the same.”

Whether Christ calls us to give up wealth or prestige, whether we are called to give up family or friends, we are ALL called to sacrifice. Whatever we had before Christ, indeed whatever we had even a moment ago, we are all called to a sacrificial life of “obedience and good will.” Though we come from “different circumstances,” St Cyril say, we are to practice “equal readiness and willingly” to follow Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Though our sacrifices our different, our calling is the same; To witness to Christ. And just as we have a shared vocation, we have a shared joy.

That joy is this: That in becoming light, in illumining the darkness, we become able to see the true beauty of creation and, what is more important, the real and lasting dignity in Christ to which all humanity is called.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Salvation is Found in the Church

December 1 (OS November 18), 2019: 24th Sunday after Pentecost. Martyr Platon of Ancyra (266); Martyr Romanus the deacon of Caesarea (303). St. Barulas the Youth of Antioch (303). Hieromartyr Zacchaeus the deacon and Alphaeus the reader, of Ceasarea in Palestine (303).

 

SS Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 2:14-22

Gospel: Luke 12:16-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Apostle Paul tells us that salvation is not simply a matter of our personal faith. Much less is salvation the fruit of our virtues, that is to say, being a morally good person.

To be sure personal faith and morality are both important and have their own role to play in the Christian life. But salvation is first and foremost being incorporated into the Body of Christ, that is the Church, through Baptism. This is why St Paul tells us that we “are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

The household of God, as he goes on to say, is a visible community “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” with “Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”

In the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, salvation is the restoration of communion between God and humanity. The chasm between humanity and God caused by sin is overcome in the Incarnation. In taking on our humanity, the Son re-establishes in His own Person communion between God and the human family.

Again as St Paul tells us Jesus Christ is “Himself is our peace.” He “has broken down the middle wall of separation” that kept us from God and, in so doing, “create[d] in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, … reconciling us] … to God in one body through the cross.”

This is why we believe as Orthodox Christians that salvation is found in being a member of the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and it is where we “who were afar off” from God discover and make our own what in Philippians (4:7) Paul calls “the peace of God.”

But what then are we to make of personal faith and the life of virtue?

It is a mistake for me to think that having been incorporated into the Church by baptism, nothing more is required of me. Nothing could be further from the truth. The parable Jesus tells me this morning is warning to about the dangers of such self-satisfaction.

The rich man’s great material wealth leads him to believe that he has all that he needs for a happy life. “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’”

What he fails to understand, says St Ambrose of Milan, is that the “things that are of the world remain in the world and whatever riches we gather are bequeathed to our heirs.” And, as he goes on to say, what “we cannon take away with us” when we die are not really ours.

The only thing that I can take with me in death, the saint says, is virtue. “Virtue alone is the companion of the dead, mercy alone follows us.”

Having been united to Christ in baptism we are now “one Body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5). It is this message of unity, of the human family reconciled both to God and with itself, that we preach.

It is not enough to be reconciled with God alone because sin ruptures not only my relationship with Him but you as well.

This means that our membership in the Church is only the starting point. It is, to be sure, essential. But as Orthodox Christians, we do not believe that salvation is a strictly private affair. Sin separates me not only from God but from you as well and so I must be reconciled to both you and God. It isn’t one or the other but both together and one only with the other.

The life of the Church is often contentious. The reason is that we are called not to like each other, though thank God we do, but to love each other. And not only to love each other but to forgive each other.

Our Lord’s expectation is that there will be times when Christians will hurt each other; we will give offense, we will disagree.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To say, as we do, that salvation is found in the Church is to say that salvation begins the Church. The life of the Church is not the goal of life in Christ but only the starting point.

So let us begin!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Become Good!

Sunday, November 17 (OS 4), 2019: 22nd Sunday after Pentecost; Ven. Ioannicius the Great of Bithynia (846). Hieromartyrs Nicander, bishop of Myra, and Hermas, presbyter (1st c.). Ven. Mercurius, faster of the Kyiv Caves (14th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Galatians 6:1-18
Gospel: Luke 8:41-56

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We saw last week that we are naturally attracted to goodness. This why in the moments of their greatest need, both Jarius and the woman with the issue of blood reach out to Jesus. Goodness is naturally attractive to us. This is all the more true in the moments of our greatest need.

It is however not enough to be attracted to the Good. Loving what is good is only possible to the degree that I become good myself. This is why St Paul tells us that “if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

Jesus has called each of us personally to be both gentle and effective in our love for others. We are each of us called, personally and by name, to become good.

It is easy to correct someone else. But whether we do it bruskly or, as Paul tells us, gently if we don’t do it in a way that helps lift the burden of error from another, then we are no better then the scribes and the Pharisees who Jesus condemns for “bind[ing] heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay[ing] them on men’s shoulders; but … not mov[ing] them with one of their fingers” (Matthew 23:4, NKJV).

Too frequently, as one of my youth ministry students pointed out this week, Christians–and this includes Orthodox Christians–are better know for what we are against than what we are for. If I’m not careful, and sometimes even when I am, I can slip into merely criticizing others. It is easy to tell others they’re wrong; it’s much harder to help liberate them of whatever error is constraining their freedom.

Recently, I was asked to sign a public letter written by a friend of mine who pastors a large, Evangelical church. In the letter, my friend criticizes a proposed change in public policy.

I won’t be signing because as I read it, I realized three things about it.

First, I share my friend’s concerns. Whatever our theological differences, I think morally his concerns are legitimate. Public officials are pursuing a fundamentally unjust policy.

Second, as I read the letter, I also realized that it offered no practical way forward. The letter failed to acknowledge that while the policy was immoral, the underlying concern was legitimate. The policy was pursuing a morally good goal but with morally dubious means.

Third, the takeaway from the letter is that “we” are right and “you” are wrong. True after a fashion but in any case, not helpful.

Jesus Christ has called us not only to love what is good but to be good ourselves. To be good means to help others become themselves good. We are called to help lift from people the burdens that bind them and to heal the wounds that make goodness elusive for them.

Some of these burdens are moral, others material or social. Whatever the burden, our task is to lighten it, to help others become free from what constrains them.

In this process, God has given us among other things the sacrament of confession. When I notice in myself an indifference to what is good or an inclination to criticize rather than help I need to bring these things to confession.

Loving the good makes me good but becoming good means repenting and rooting out my own sinfulness. let me go back to my student’s observation. If I am to be an effective witness for Jesus Christ, it isn’t enough for me to condemn sin in myself or others.

I must also free myself from my own sin so that I can, in turn, help others free themselves from theirs. In this, the sacrament of confession holds pride of place.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us not only love the good but become good ourselves!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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