Tag Archives: Hebrews 9:11-14

Homily: It’s About Our Vocation

March 25 (O.S., March 12), 2018: Fifth Sunday of the Great Lent; Venerable Mary of Egypt.
St. Theophanes the Confessor of Sigriane (818). Righteous Phineas, grandson of Aaron (1500 B.C.). St. Gregory the Dialogist, pope of Rome (604). St. Symeon the New Theologian (1021).

Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-14
Gospel: Mark 10:32-45

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today the Church commemorates our mother among the saints, Mary of Egypt.

Thinking this week about St Mary’s life, I found myself wondering what I would have said to her if after her baptism she came to me asking for advice. What, I wondered, would I say to a newly illumined Christian who said to me that as penance for her sins, she was going and to live by herself in the desert for the next 50 years or so?

To be honest, I would in likelihood have discouraged Mary. I would have told her that in baptism her sins had been forgiven and there was no need for her to do penance.

If she persisted, I might have suggested she involve herself in the parish for a few years to become settled in the faith. I might say that if in a few years she still wants to leave the world, she should consider entering a monastery.

And hopefully, after giving me a respectful hearing, Mary would dismiss everything I said and walk right out into the desert. Yes, the right thing for the newly illumined Mary to do would be to ignore me.

She should ignore me not because what I told her was wrong theologically but because my advice was imprudent. Prudence is a virtue we often ignore because we mistakenly identify it with caution or timidity.

Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth!

Prudence is another word of “wisdom” or “discernment.” It is the virtue that looks at all the options in front of me and helps me discern what God is asking of me. Then, having determined my destination, prudence is the virtue that helps me discern the steps along the way to fulfilling God will for my life.

My advice to the newly illumine Mary of Egypt would be wrong because it wasn’t discerning. I didn’t ask the most important question: What is God calling to this woman to do? What is her vocation?

Instead, my words reflect what is an all too often occurrence in parishes. We don’t ask the vocational question–what is God calling this person to do. Instead, we ask the very narrow administrative question: How does this person fit into my plans for the parish?

This isn’t to denigrate administration which St Paul lists among the various gifts God gives us for building up the Church (see, 1 Corinthians 12:28). But the first question we must ask is what does God want from us, personally? What, in other words, is our personal and unique vocation?

Many Orthodox Christians reject the idea that we have personal vocations as “Protestant.” And yet, our Lord is clear: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you” (John 15:16, NKJV).

Many people are spiritually adrift because they have no sense of their vocation, of what it is God has chosen and appointed them to do in this life. So without a sense of their own calling, the life of the Church becomes a series of distractions.

They might become focused on attending services, evangelizing, or debating the fine points of theology. Or, just as likely, they might be swept away by fundraising, ecclesiastical gossip, or the moral failings of others.

Without a sense of my own vocation, of what God has called me to do, the richness of Holy Tradition overwhelms me even as the behavior of others becomes for me a constant source of distraction.

What I don’t have is what we see in the life of St Mary of Egypt: Peace.

Read Mary’s vita and it becomes clear that for all the deprivations and hardships she suffers in the desert, she is at peace. Think, for example, of the lion that anoints the saint’s feet after her death.

At peace with God, Mary is at peace with the creation. Not only that she is a source of peace for others. The lion who guards her body doesn’t attack Abba Zosimas but helps him dig the saint’s grave. And when they are done? “Then each went his own way. The lion went into the desert, and Abba Zosimas returned to the monastery, blessing and praising Christ our God.”

St Mary is at peace with God, at peace with creation, at peace with others and, by the end of her life, at peace with herself.

God in numerous ways had guarded my sinful soul and my humble body. When I only reflect on the evils from which Our Lord has delivered me I have imperishable food for hope of salvation. I am fed and clothed by the all-powerful Word of God, the Lord of all. For it is not by bread alone that man lives. And those who have stripped off the rags of sin have no refuge, hiding themselves in the clefts of the rocks.

So what does this mean for us?

Simply this, the first task of the spiritual life is to discern God’s will for us. What, in a concrete sense, has God called me to do? What life has He called me to live?

Holy Tradition–the Scriptures, the fathers, the teachings and services of the Church, the life of personal prayer–all of this helps guide us as we discern our vocation.

Here I think it is worth saying a brief word about the place of the parish priest. Basically, what’s my job?

The priest isn’t called to tell us what God wants from us but to help us discern for ourselves our vocation. In my own experience as a priest, this has largely turned out to be a “negative” task. What I mean by this, is that it usually means reminding people of the limits of the Christian life.

As a practical matter, this means telling people what we can’t do if we wish to be faithful to Christ and the Gospel. As for what they should, I’ve found it best to remain silent.

The reason for my silence is straightforward. In any given situations, there are myriad good things a person can do. While we have very clear guidance about what we shouldn’t do, we have great liberty in deciding which of the many good possible deeds we will do.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has given each of us a great freedom to create from our lives something beautiful for Him! What this will look like is different for each person. Indeed, it will look different for each person as he or she moves through life.

But as long as we remain faithful to Christ and the Gospel, we can be certain that God will reveal Himself to us and the life to which He has called us.

May God through the prayers of St Mary of Egypt reveal our vocations to each of us and grant us the grace to be, like our holy mather, faithful to the work He gives each of us to do!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

“To do the right deed for the wrong reason”

Sunday, April 2, 2017: Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt; Titus the Wonderworker, Theodora the Virgin-martyr of Palestine, Amphianos & Aedesios the Martyrs of Lycia

Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-14
Gospel: Mark 10:32-45

James and John make a mistake common to many of us who are disciples of Christ. With best of wills, they allow the world to frame their understanding of what it means to follow Christ.

Because Christ is the fulfillment of all human longing, this misapprehension of what it means to follow Christ isn’t wholly wrong. Like heroes in pagan myths, they are willing to die with their friend. Jesus affirms their sincerity and promises them: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Jesus accepts their willingness to offer their lives in His service.

But there is something slightly off in the apostles’ commitment to Jesus.

Their sacrifice is mixed with selfishness; the divide rightly, but offer wrongly as St. Ambrose of Milan says of the heretics.

They understand that following Jesus means losing one’s life. But they lose their life in the hope of worldly glory. They’re willing to die not for what God asks of them but for what they ask of God.

Not unsurprisingly, their request is a cause of indignation and division among the apostle who are, as the Gospel unfolds, as equally covetous. Not just James and John but all the apostles are angling for prominence in the life to come. The indignation of the other apostles reflects their own “eschatological aspiration” to inherit power in the life to come.

And so Jesus must correct not only James and John but all the apostle.

All are in need of purification of heart because all have allowed the standards of this world to corrupt their relationship with Jesus.

All are guilty of wanting to “lord it over” the others and to demonstrate that they are “great men” by exercising authority over others.

And all of them need to be reminded that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” because all are immature in their faith.

All of us who are in Christ, begin more enamored of the world than of Jesus Christ. It’s only slowly, over time, that through the Holy Spirit God is able to reform and transform us so that in purity of heart we can bear fruits worthy of repentance (see Matthew 3:8 and Luke 3:8). It is only slowly that I come to be able to say in small measure what Jesus says of Himself: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

We here pause for a moment to reflect on two things.

First, selfishness and immaturity don’t in and of themselves negate the sincerity and nobility of the heart’s initial willingness to sacrifice for Christ. Yes, especially at first, our motives are mixed. But the fundamental goodness and God-pleasing nature of the heart’s commitment to Christ remains.

We can’t ever forget or deny that human sinfulness is real. But neither that sin is neither the first nor the last word about our lives. Even if we are in Hell, we are still we are loved by God. Sin will hamper a person’s ability to know or respond to God’s love but sin can’t undo God’s love for even the most unrepentant sinner.

However muddled at any given moment, James, John and the other apostles love Jesus. More importantly, they are loved by Jesus and nothing, not foolish questions, not their betrayal, not their denial, not their abandonment of Him can diminish Jesus’ love for them.

And so, the second thing.

Jesus, and not the world, is our standard. Yes, sometimes, like James and John, I forget this. There are times when, like the apostles, I make the world and not the Cross to become my standard for being a Christian. There are times when I pursuit power or success rather than intimacy with Christ and service to my neighbor.

It’s important to point out that my self-glorification can happen as easily under the cover of ministry as it can in a so-called secular setting. In his play Murder in the Cathedral T.S. Eliot puts these words in the mouth of Thomas a Becket “To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Becket calls this “last temptation … the greatest treason.” In the hands of those who succumb to this last and greatest temptation, the Gospel and the Name of Jesus Christ are weapons that kill rather than cure. We have all of us met the person, layperson or clergyman, for whom the Gospel is a means to dominate others. The particulars might change–the angry preacher, the gossipy parishioner–but the substance remains.

Rather than cutting away sin through the gentle application of the Gospel, the angry priest wounds. Rather than speaking a word of encouragement, the gossip tears down and destroys reputations and relationships. Whatever is done, is done for the person’s own self-aggrandizement. As for the Gospel, it is merely a cover, a self-justification and an excuse to kill rather than cure.

There is another way in which I “do the right deed for the wrong reason.” This is when I take the world’s disapproval as evidence that I’m doing God’s will. This is as simplistic as it is self-serving. Yes, there are times when the world is my enemy. At other times, though, even if the world is not exactly my friend, it is at least a temporary ally.

In either case, it isn’t the world’s rejection or acceptance that is the standard of the Christian life. The only standard is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ and our willingness to be for others as He is for us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, today we commemorate our mother among the saints Mary of Egypt whose life we hear every year at this time. Extreme as she was in her sin, she was more extreme in her asceticism. But greater than both was her love of God and conformity to the example of Christ.

St. Mary reminds us that we ought not to prefer anything to the love of Christ Who is the standard and content of our preaching, our witness and our lives as Orthodox Christians to Whom be glory and honor forever, amen!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Sacraments of God’s Mercy

Sunday, April 17, 2016: Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, Symeon the Holy Martyr & Bishop of Persia, Makarios, Bishop of Corinth, Agapetos of Rome

Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-14
Gospel: Mark 10:32-45

The epistle this morning ends with a call to make ourselves worthy of the mercy of God. We are told that Jesus has “purify[ied] your conscience from dead works” so that we are not only willing but able “to serve the living God.” The transformation of our conscience is contrasted with “the purification of the flesh.” While it’s tempting to denigrate or minimize the latter in favor of the former, I would be wrong to do so. Both in salvation history and in my own personal spiritual life, the process of salvation begins with the outward man and only slowly moves inward to the heart.

But I need to be careful.

The relationship between the salvation of the body and the salvation of the soul are not opposed to each other. Nor is their relationship with each other is linear. While subjectively, we begin with fostering bodily virtues, in fact given the intimate—and essential—connection of body and soul, physical and spiritual virtues grow up together or not at all.

Body and soul feel foreign to each other because of the disruptive consequences of Adam’s sin. The body wars against the soul, and the soul against the body (see Romans 7:23; Galatians 5:17; 1 Peter 2:11), because of sin. This lack of harmony between the material and spiritual aspects of human life is contrary to the original unity of human life as created by God. So by His death and resurrection poured out in sacraments, Christ first restores us to our original unity—not only in ourselves but also socially in the life of the Church—and then transfigures us.

This means that we no longer are trapped in dead work. We are freed from that freedom and life diminishing spiral that is our own sinfulness. Instead, we are able to serve the living God; we are able to that life in which we go “from glory to glory” growing ever more like our God and so become ever more who God has created us to be.

All this is to say that Christ makes it possible for us to love.

Turning to the Gospel we see both the terrible cost that was paid for our salvation—”the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him”—and the inability of the disciples to grasp the meaning of the gift that they, and we, are given. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. …Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” As Jesus’ response makes clear, not only James and John but all the disciples want to be “great men” who “lord it over” others. They want to be powerful and not merciful. This is why Jesus tells them “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all.”

But again, I need to be careful.

Far from being merely a matter of being nice (much less merely compliant), being the servant and the slave of all means imitating Jesus Who came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” Just as Jesus is faithful to the Father’s will, so too with me; I need to be obedient to God’s will for me.

And like Jesus, it is God’s will for me—and for each of us—to be sacraments of the Father’s mercy.

To be a sacrament of God’s mercy means first to renounce and resist the myriad ways in which I pursue power and control over the lives of others. We have no better example of this than the saint we commemorate today, St Mary of Egypt. Having repented of a life in which she sought to humiliate others, she instead wholeheartedly pursued Christ. The fruit of this was that she was able, at the end of her life, to be a source of mercy for Fr Zosimas. After burying the saint

…Zosimas returned to the monastery glorifying and blessing Christ our Lord. And on reaching the monastery he told all the brothers about everything, and all marvelled on hearing of God’s miracles. And with fear and love they kept the memory of the saint.

Like Mary of Egypt, we are called instead to help others find Christ and, in Christ, find themselves. It is our commitment to help others discern and fulfill God’s will for their lives is what keeps our mercy from becoming mere sentimentality. This means that I pray for you not because doing changes you but because it changes me. As I pray for you—at least if my prayer issincere—I come to see you as God sees you.

This means that I come to see you—as hopefully I come to see myself—in light of the wisdom found in Scripture, the fathers and the teaching of the Church. This might sound fearsome, or even judgmental—and certainly this can and has been deformed in these ways—but if undertaken in the humility that is commanded in the Gospel, it allows us to sees each other as we are seen by Jesus.

Look again at the Gospel. James—who will be a martyr for Christ (Acts 12:1-2)—and John—the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 19:26)—seem more than willing to exploit their relationship with Jesus. They do this not only for their own advantage but do so in a way that is detrimental to their brother disciples.

And yet, Jesus doesn’t shame them. Jesus doesn’t humiliate them or respond with angry words. Instead, He calmly and directly asks them if they have soberly considered the consequences of their request. Only then, when they have affirmed their willingness “to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” does He correct them.

Too often we equate mercy with correction. But think about the Gospel. Following the example of Jesus, the merciful person is the one who invites me to a take a moment of sober self-reflection. Amendment of life, to say nothing of faith, only comes as the fruit of this graced experience of self-knowledge and self-acceptance.

To be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful doesn’t mean I spend my time pointing out the moral or theological errors of others. This isn’t the example of Jesus in the Gospel. This isn’t the life-giving fruit of Christian discipleship but the poison of the Gentiles who would exercise authority over others.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we come now to the last Sunday of the Great Fast and look forward to Holy Week and Pascha, let us examine ourselves and root out anything within us alien or hostile to our vocation to be sacraments of God’s mercy for others. In doing this we not only become a blessing to others, we also secure our own salvation.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory