Just Talk to God

Sunday, April 14, 2019: 5th Sunday of Great Lent; Venerable Mary of the Egyptian.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-14/Galatians 3:23-29
Gospel: Mark 10:32-45/Luke 7:36-50

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Unlike contemporary morality that tends to be guilt-based, the biblical moral vision is shame-based. While shame has a bad reputation for us today, in the Scriptures and so the fathers of the Church, shame is what I feel when, intentionally or not, I am unfaithful to the demands of my station in life.

A guilt-based moral system, on the other hand, is concerned with my own internal moral standards. In such a system, I don’t feel bad when I fail to meet the expectations of those around me–again this is the origin of shame. Instead, I feel guilty when I violate my own conscience.

While it’s tempting to pit one moral system against the other to live a morally and emotionally healthy life, I really need both.

A shame-based morality reminds us that we have a role to play in the community; we matter to those around us. Above all, we matter to God.

This, in turn, points us beyond societal norms and l toward our personal vocations. Each of us has been called by God to a unique way of life and task that only we can fulfill.

And so, I feel ashamed precisely when I fail to fulfill the obligations of my vocation (see Genesis 3:7).

Assumed here, however, is that I understand my vocation and it’s obligations. In broad strokes, this is what it means to have a rightly formed conscience. I must know what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ, a faithful husband, a faithful priest. And I need to be able to differentiate all these from what people tell me it means to be a Christian, a husband, or a priest.

But knowing isn’t enough. A vocation is not an intellectual exercise but a way of life.

And so I need to internalize what being Christian, a husband, and a priest. I simply can’t go through the motions. Christian, husband, and priest are not simply the roles I play. They express or should express, who I am.

This is why shame needs guilt! It isn’t just that fail to meet the standards of others–even God. In failing to be faithful to God, I have failed myself as well.

Put in a more positive light, I am only mostly fully myself when I am being faithful to the life to which God has called me and when I work to fulfill the tasks He has given me.

There is great power in knowing and being personally faithful to the demands of my vocation. To see this we need to look no further than to the saint who we commemorate today: St Mary of Egypt.

St Mary was as extravagant in her repentance as she was in her sin. The difference is this. While her sinful excesses brought her no peace, her severe asceticism did.

But the peace St Mary experienced came not from the severity of her asceticism; she didn’t experience peace because her asceticism was hard but because she was faithful to what God asked of her.

Mary’s peace came from freely embracing her ascetical vocation. It was her acceptance of the life to which God called her that gave her the strength to endure the trials she underwent in the desert.

Like Mary, we find peace neither in merely conforming to God’s will nor having the right values. True peace, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” that guards our “hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:7, NKJV) comes only when we are faithful to our personal vocations.

At this point, you might ask: How do I know the life to which God has called me? How, in other words, do I know what my vocation is?

A vocation begins in the sacraments–above all baptism. It is nourished in Holy Communion. And in those moments when we fail to be faithful, we are restored in Confession.

As indispensable as are the sacraments (and the whole of the liturgical and ascetical life of the Church for that matter) in helping us discern and live our vocation, they are not in and of themselves enough.

To know what God wants from me, to know what He wants for me, I must have a life of personal prayer.

By this I mean not only attending service, reading Scripture or saying the prayers in the prayerbook. As important as these all are, there must come a moment when, like Moses, I speak to God “as one man speaks to another” (compare, Exodus 33:11). To know my vocation, I must ask God to reveal to me His will for me.

And here’s the thing. Many of us are hesitant to ask. The reason is easy to understand. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

Asking God what He wants from me, isn’t a matter of looking for some objective fact about my life. No, it means opening my heart to God. I can no more rely on simply on the formal prayer of the Church than a husband can limit his conversations with his wife to quoting Shakespeare’s sonnets!

I must, in other words, speak to Jesus Christ as my Friend; as Someone Who loves me and wants what is best for me.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we come to the end of the Great Fast and begin our final journey through Holy Week to Pascha, we should each of us take some time to speak directly to God.

And when we do, we should ask Him simply and directly, “God what do want from me?”

We don’t need to worry about how it sounds. Our words might be awkward and stumbling. But God hears and receives our words with delight!

And He will answer! He will honor our request and answer our question if only we will ask!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Preparing for Joy

Sunday, March 17 (O.S., March 4), 2019: Triumph of Orthodoxy; St. Gerasimus of the Jordan (475). St. Julian, patriarch of Alexandria; (189); St. James the Faster of Phoenicia (Syria) (6th c.); Martyr Wenceslaus, prince of the Czechs (938); Blessed Basil (Basilko), prince of Rostov (1238).

Epistle: Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40
Gospel: John 1:43-51

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

If our willingness to forgive others is evidence of the truth of the Resurrection, that God in Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death and forgiven us our trespasses, then joy is the evidence of the sincerity of our forgiveness. To see this, we need to distinguish joy from its cousins pleasure and happiness.

Pleasure is a bodily experience while happiness is a psychological one. For example, I get pleasure from eating ice cream and I am happy that I have eaten it.

Joy, however, is different. Joy is the conviction that no matter what happens to me, no matter what I suffer or how I fail, God will bring good out of this.

Joy says with the Apostle Paul, “we know that all things work together for the good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NKJV). That is to say,

…to those who have united themselves to the God Who has united Himself to them,

…to those who love their neighbor because they love God,

…to those who forgive because they have been forgiven,

…God brings good out of all they experience.

And the good that God brings is not simply for those of us who are believers. The good that God brings for us is not for us alone but for those around us.

We see this in the saints of the Old Testament who endured suffering as they waited for the Messiah. They hoped for the gift we received.

We see this as well in the saints of the New Testament who, like Andrew, having personally encountered Jesus were eager to share their new found joy with others.

Without joy, without the conviction that as Julian of Norwich says that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,”  life becomes unbearable.

And life becomes unbearbale whether we fail or succeed.

If I fail, the absence of joy drives me to despair. How can what I have done be undone? How can my failures be made right?

If I succeed, the absence of joy drives me to anxiety. Will I succeed tomorrow? Will the things I’ve done today be undone tomorrow?

Faced with a joyless life I flee to a life of pleasure; I pursue happiness. Only to realize that happiness like pleasure is fleeting. Like an addict, if I pursues pleasure I quickly discover that what felt good yesterday, flees less good today. The same with happiness.

And so when my life is joyless, I soon give up trying to feel good. Since pleasure and happiness are fleeting, I instead work to avoid pain. But this too proves to be an illusion:

The days of our lives are seventy years;

And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,

Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow;

For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.ut this too proves to be an illusion (Psalm 90:10).

Where then is joy to be found? How then do I foster a life of joy?

We need–I need–to first realize that joy is not pleasure or happiness; it is neither bodily or psychological but spiritual and as such it is a gift from God. St Paul tells us that together with love, peace ,patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23).

Of these, the only one that is at least partially within our power is self-control. To grow in joy, I must first master myself. This is the purpose of the ascetical of the Church.

Slowly, year after year, as I take on the Church’s proscribed ascetical disciplines, I grow in self-control. While never denying the fundamental goodness of pleasure and happiness, the Church’s ascetical tradition teaches me the limits of both.

But the Church’s offers more than simply a lesson of the limits of pleasure and happiness. From the moral tradition of the Church, I learn the virtuous ways to experience pleasure and happiness.

Ultimately though, I find–we find–the source of joy in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. Personal prayer and ascetical effort good though they are are insufficient for the joyful life.

Likewise, as good as they are, the liturgical life of the Church–the daily cycle of service, the devotional services and even the Divine Liturgy itself–is insufficient.

We find joy in the sacraments; it is born in the waters of baptism, nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion and restored by Holy Confession when we fall into sin.

The season of the Great Fast is nothing more or less than our preparation for joy!

Not simply the joy of Pascha, not simply the joy of the One Day, but of a life of joy!

During the Great Fast we intensify our prayer and ascetical efforts so that we can remove from our lives anything that quenches the Spirit. We abstain from evil, examine our lives carefully, attend closely to the Scriptures, so that we can recognize and “hold fast to that which is good” where ever we may find it (see, 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us prepare ourselves for the joyful life that Christ stands ready to give us and, through us, to the world!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

 

The Joy of Judgment

Sunday, March 2 (OS., February 18) 2019: Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meatfare Sunday); St. Leo the Great, pope of Rome (461). St. Agapitus, bishop of Synnada in Phrygia (4th c.). St. Flavian the Confessor, patriarch of Constantinople (449). St. Cosmas, monk, of Yakhromsk (1492).

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

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Every year when we come to this Sunday, my attention is drawn to the kontakion for the feast. Every year we are reminded by the Church that there will come a day for all of us when “the books will be opened and all secrets disclosed.”

This day when the book of my life is opened and all my secrets are revealed is the Last Judgment. And, as both the Scriptures and the icon of the feast make clear, all of this will be public.

It isn’t just, in other words, that the book of my life and my secrets will be known by Jesus; He already knows me better than I know myself. No, on that Great and Last Day, the whole of my life–the virtuous and the vicious–will be laid out for the angels and all humanity to see.

From one perspective, the dread and anxiety that I, or really any of us, feel at the thought of standing naked before all creation is understandable. As we’ve talked about before, all of us have done things about which we are naturally and justly ashamed. This what St Paul means when he says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NJKV).

But if we are honest with ourselves, there is no real comfort in the universality of sin and shame. As will hear next week, after their transgression our First Parents “knew that they were naked” and in reaction “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings” to hid not from God but from each other (Genesis 3:7).

However understandable is the dread I experience at the prospect of the Last Judgment, my fear is itself the consequence of sin. Like Adam and Eve in the moments after the Fall, it is because I am still unrepentant that I fear being known not only by God but by you as well.

In a fallen world, we spend immense amounts of time, energy and wealth hiding not only from God and each other but from ourselves. We craft believable, but ultimately false, images of ourselves. We work so hard to remain unknown and unseen even by those to whom we are closest.

The tragedy of all this is that the only real consequence of hiding is that we are lonely.

Seen from this perspective, far from being something to fear the Last Judgment is something to be desired. Rather than flee from the Judgment which is to come, we should prepare for it with joyful anticipation. To know the judgment of God and is to know the fullness of His love!

The Last Judgment is the moment in which finally all the lies we tell ourselves and all the shame that cripple us melt away in the fire of God’s love. It is the moment in which, finally, we are known and loved for who we are and not who we pretend to be.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which we are finally able to love others for who they are rather than who we want them to be.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which the power and glory of God’s supra-abundant love are made clear for all to see.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which we together with all creation are illumined by that love.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which we will come to know not only God but ourselves and each other.

If all this is true, why am I still afraid?

Because my love is still immature, still imperfect. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

This is why, turning to the Gospel, Jesus reminds us that we will be judged based on how we care–or don’t–for others. It isn’t enough to have faith since ”Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (James 2:19).

St James is unstinting in his condemnation of what the philosopher Etienne Gilson calls “piety without technique.” The Apostle’s clarity is brutal the kind of faith that says to the poor, hungry and naked, “‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’” but doesn’t “give them the things which are needed for the body is the faith of demons. And so he says faith that “does not have works, is dead”  (James 2:16, 17).

We must be cautious here.

St Paul tells us our faith is not about what we eat or drink but about what we freely do out of love for Christ and our neighbor. A few chapters after today’s epistle, he reminds the Corinthians that while miracles have their place, what matters most is the wisdom that reveals the secrets of the human heart and moves the unbelievers to fall down on their faces to “worship God.” Our works must not only be practical but be inspired by the divine wisdom that transforms unbelievers into disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ who go on to “report that God is truly among you” (see 1 Corinthians 14:25).

All that we do–the sacraments, the services of the Church, our personal prayer, our asceticism and yes, our good deeds–have only one goal. We do all these things to strip away the lies and the shame that would kill love.

As these things fall away, we grow in wisdom and become a bit more who we will be revealed to be at the Last Judgment.

And on that Day?

On that Day, we will be clothed in Divine Glory as were Adam and Eve before the Fall.

On that Day, our beauty will be there for all creation to see.

On that day, we will thank God not only for the gift of our own lives but the lives of all humanity.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we prepare to begin the Great Fast, let us not lose sight of the fact that we are getting ready not simply to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ but moving toward the Last Judgment, for that Great Day when “God will wipe away every tear” and when “there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things” the lies and the shame of sin, will “have passed away.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Entering Into Freedom

Sunday, February 24 (O.S., February 11), 2019: Sunday of Prodigal Son; Hieromartyr Blaise, bishop of Sebaste (316). St. Theodora, wife of Emperor Theophilus the Iconoclast (867).

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 4:6-15
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Even when we are able to free ourselves from a purely negative view of repentance as turning from sin and come to embrace the more positive view of turning toward God, we still are prone to underestimate the depth of what it means to repent. At its core, repentance is an epiphany of human dignity and our entrance into a life of freedom.

Even in its first moments, repentance is an affirmation that sin doesn’t have the last word about what it means to be human. We are none of us our sin; we are none of us determined by those moments of shame we all experience over the things we do and we fail to do.

But just as we are not our sins, neither are we are good deeds. If sin brings with it feelings of shame, my good deeds can become occasions of pride and foster in me an indifference–and even open contempt–for my neighbor. We need to look no further than the elder brother in today’s Gospel.

This young man is in many ways a good son. As he says to his father, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.”

Tragically, it is his very moral goodness that becomes the cause of his contempt for his brother’s repentance and so his father’s forgiveness: “yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!”

When we look more closely at repentance we discover that human dignity is not dependent on what we do or fail to do. None of our qualities–whether they are good or bad–determine our dignity.

So what does?

Here we need to move from a consideration of human dignity to human freedom. Like the prodigal son, who we are, our dignity and our identity, flow from our Father’s embrace.

…the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

Through repentance, we become increasingly detached from confusing our dignity and our identity with discrete actions or qualities. Just as I am more than my sins or my good deeds, neither am I my sex, my education, my wealth or position in society or the Church. While all of these are important, none of them exhaust human dignity. We are all of us more than the aggregate of our qualities.

Detached from the things of this life, we come to realize that our true worth is found first in God’s love for us and then subsequently our love for Him.

And because God is Infinite, neither His love for us nor our love for Him is ever exhausted. To love God is to go “from Glory to Glory” in St Paul’s phrase (see 2 Corinthians 3:18).

This phrase is a special favorite of St Gregory of Nyssa. For the saint, heaven is a life of infinite progression as we grow ever more in love with God. Because God is Infinite because He is superabundant love, we can never have an exhaustive love or knowledge of God; there is always, if I can speak this way, more of God to love, more of Him to know.

And so repentance is the gateway to a life of true beatitude, the true and lasting which is found in God’s love of us and our love of Him.

We should pause here for a moment and consider, what is true for us as Orthodox Christians, is also true for every human being. Whether Orthodox or even Christian, whether an unrepentant sinner or a repentant saint, everyone we meet is loved by God and so–like us–someone somewhere along the path to glory.

Or as St Maximus the Confessor says, if we love God, we can’t but love our neighbor as ourselves even if we “are grieved” by his lack of repentance.

You have not yet acquired perfect love if your regard for people is still swayed by their characters – for example, if, for some particular reason, you love one person and hate another, or if for the same reason you sometimes love and sometimes hate the same person (First Century of Love, #70).

Repentance reveals to us our true dignity as creatures who called to freely, that is to say, personally love the God Who has first loved us and Whose love makes our love possible.

And having come to see this in ourselves, repentance makes it possible for us to see this in others.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The true and lasting dignity of the human person is found in our ability to respond freely to God’s love. All that we do in the life of the Church–and especially in the Great Fast that is about to begin–has no other goal than to help us discover this freedom not only in ourselves but in all who we meet.

When we enter the “doors of repentance” we enter into the realm of God’s never-ending and superabundant love for us and all we meet. As we prepare to enter the season of the Great Fast, let us make ready to lay aside all things and so we can embrace the God Who today and everyday embraces us in love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Human Violemce

Sunday, January 13 (OS., December 31, 2018) 2019: Sunday Nativity Afterfeast and Leavetaking (33rd Sunday) Holy Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King, James the Brother of the Lord.

Epistle: Galatians 1:11-19
Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23

Christ is Born!

St Matthew’s account of our Savior’s birth is drenched in violence. For example, in his attempt to end the life of the newborn Messiah, Herod orders the slaughter of all the male children under the age of two.

Horrific as this is, there is something even more horrible that we hear in the silence of the Apostle’s account.

While Matthew quotes the Prophet Jeremiah about the depth and breadth of the parents’ sorrow, he gives no indication that they defended their children. If the mothers–and especially the fathers–of Jerusalem didn’t open the doors children’s’ killers, they certainly didn’t bar the door either.

Matthew gives us no indication that the parents resisted the slaughter of their own children. Instead, it appears as if the parents of Jerusalem, even if unwillingly, stood by and allowed their sons to be slaughtered.

Why would they do this?

Herod’s murderous order and the cooperation of soldiers makes a certain rough sense. They had positions in society that they wanted to protect. Herod especially was a man of great wealth and power because he cooperated with the hated Romans.

But why did the parents and the whole of Jerusalem not rise up in rebellion? Why did they stand aside an allow this great evil?

In the verse immediately prior to those in today’s Gospel we are told that when Herod heard about the birth of the Messiah “he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3, NJKV).

As he so often does, St John Chrysostom goes to the heart of the matter. “Since Herod was king, he was naturally afraid both for himself and for his children. But why was Jerusalem troubled?”

After all the coming of the “the Savor, Benefactor and Deliverer” would be to the advantage not only of Jerusalem and the Jewish People but all humanity.

And, after all, it would be a great honor for the Savior to be born of Jewish woman; not only Mary but the whole of the Jewish People would be vindicated for their fidelity to God.

So why was Jerusalem afraid? Why did they passive cooperate with what Holy Tradition says was the murder of some 14,000 infants?

Chrysostom says they behaved as they did because they were gripped by the same “idolatrous affections” that caused the Hebrew Children to turn away in the hearts from God after their liberation from Egypt many centuries ago.

As horrible as was the killing, as oppressive as was Rome in ways great and small, submission to the Empire offered wealth to some and at least the illusion of security to all.

It is tempting to look back at Matthew’s account of betrayal and violence and think that we have somehow grown beyond such things. While I can’t speak for others, I know this isn’t the case for me.

No, I’m not violent but how easily have I become attached to my position as a priest in the Church. I wouldn’t raise my hand against others but how easily come cutting words to my lips or rise malicious thoughts in my heart.

The difference between Herod, the citizens of Jerusalem and me is one of degree. Like Herod “and all Jerusalem with him,” my heart is often troubled when God makes even the smallest request of me.

Like the Galatians, I “bite and devour” my neighbor by my lack of charity (Galatians 5:15).

Like Saul on the road to Damascus, I “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14).

Like Saul, I do all this because I am more attached to the gifts than the Giver. I  love the things of God more than God Himself.

Or maybe U imagine that what I have, what I have accomplished, I have done simply on my own. Even divine grace I twist into something that I deserve, as something that is mine by right rather than from God’s love for me.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has blessed each of us with spiritual, intellectual, social and yes, material, gifts. When we forget that what we have we have as God’s gift to us, when we imagine that what we have, we have by right rather than grace, then, at that moment, we too become capable of great violence.

In His Incarnation, Jesus Christ has saved us not simply from condemnation in the life to come but freed us from the violence we see not only in the Scriptures but all around us. The fact that this violence is usually social and emotional rather than physically should not lull us into imagining that violence doesn’t mar our lives and doesn’t dwell in our hearts.

But having acknowledged this, we need not despair. Rather, we turn to Christ with repentance for our sins and gratitude for His many gifts.

If we do this, then when in response to the festal greeting “Christ is Born!” our response “Glorify Him!” will be more than words. Our glorification of Christ will have the power to transform our lives and the lives of all we meet.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Remembering God

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

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison WI

Epistle: Ephesians 6:10-17

Gospel: Luke 12:16-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Mercy is Inconvenient

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

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look at the Samaritan in today’s Gospel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Forgiveness is Our Witness

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

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

God’s Love Revealed in Us

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

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission,  Madison, WI

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do we learn from creation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

How Easy To Be Merciful

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

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

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

For mercy to be merciful, it must be effective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about us? How merciful is our mercy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s be clear.

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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