Tag Archives: Matthew 15:21-28

Homily: Called to Heal Others

Sunday, January 29, 2017: Sunday of the Canaanite Woman; Removal of the Relics of Ignatius the God-bearer, Laurence the Recluse of the Kiev Caves, Ignatius and Nicandrus of Sinai

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 6:16-18; 7:1
Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28

The word for church in Greek is ecclesia. It means the gathered. From before the last words of the New Testament were written, this idea of the Church as those called out from the world and gathered together into Christ, had a Eucharistic meaning. We read, for example, in the Didache, “…as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom” (¶ 9; compare, Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Ephesians 4:4-6).

Thank about this for a moment. How do we get bread?

Wheat is planted and cultivated, it harvested and threshed, it made into flour, then mixed with water and yeast and finally baked. From the scattering of the seed to the breaking of the bread, there is a multi-step process. And of course, before all this, the ground needs to be prepared.

The point is that wheat doesn’t just become bread any more than grapes just become wine. Both require that human labor and ingenuity be mixed with divine grace. It only then that bread and wine can become through prayer and the invocation of the Holy Spirit the Body and Blood of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  While there are differences to be sure, the bread and wine on our tables and the Body and Blood of Christ on the Altar, are both the fruit of human labor and divine grace.

And the Church is like this as well.

The Church is the fruit of divine grace mixed with human labor and ingenuity. This is why the fathers call the Church a theandric community. Like our Lord Jesus Christ, the Church is both divine and human. Divorce one from the other and whatever you have, it isn’t the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Seeing the evidence of human labor and ingenuity in the Church is easy. Walk into almost any Orthodox church and you are overwhelmed by its beauty. Icons, vestments, incense and singing all combine to glorify God.

If we take a step back, we realize that the church we are standing in was designed and built by human hands even as it was financed and paid for by human labor.

All of this testifies not only to the potential of human labor but also to the heights of human dignity. We are created in God’s image and called to glorify Him in our lives. The latter is done as much in the myriad actions that make up our everyday lives as in the liturgical worship of the Church. Both are needed.

But why, if what we do every day is so important, are we called out of the world? Shouldn’t we be called to the world? No. We are called out because the world is fallen, marred by human sin. It has become, in Paul’s phrase “unclean.”

The uncleanness of the world is this: through human sinfulness, through my sinfulness, creation is deformed and is an instrument of human rebellion. King David says in the Psalms of our tendency to sin: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands (115:4, NKJV). The Prophet Isaiah makes the same diagnosis. Reflecting on Israel when it abandoned God he says that “Their land is also full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made” (2:8, NKJV).

Christ calls us out from the world—and to purified—because we have fallen horribly in love with our own abilities.

Tragically, we hear the echo of this even among Orthodox Christians. How easily we fall in love with “our church,” or our position in the parish, or even the pew in which we sit or the place where we stand. This why St Paul tells that, having received the promise of salvation through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”

We can find no better example of what this means than the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel.

One of the fathers said that in coming to Tyre and Sidon, Jesus left the unbelief of the Jews in search of faith among the Gentiles. In like fashion, the Canaanite woman “left behind idolatry and an impious life” in search of Jesus (Epiphanius the Latin, “Interpretation of the Gospel,” 58 in ACCS, NT vol Ib: Matthew 14-28, p. 27). St Augustine says this woman is “a figure of the Church” and an icon of humility. “The more humble a person,” he says, the more “receptive and full he becomes” of divine grace, mercy and love (“Sermon,” 77.11-12, in ACCS, NT vol Ib: Matthew 14-28, p. 31).

St John Chrysostom goes right to the heart of the matter. So deep is her humility and faith that when Jesus calls the Jews “children,” she calls them “master.” Such is her wisdom, the saint says, that she doesn’t say “a word against anyone else. She was not stung to see others praised, nor was she indignant to be reproached.” All she wants is for her daughter to be “made whole.”

It is because of her faith, humility and wisdom that the woman “contributed not a little to the healing of her daughter” (“The Gospel of Matthew,” Homily 52.3 in ACCS, NT vol Ib: Matthew 14-28, p. 30).

All that we do in the Church, the whole of our labor and creativity, has the same goal as the Canaanite woman. We are called aside by God and purified by His grace, in order that—with Him—we can “contribute not a little” to the healing of others.

Our task is first and foremost to stand before the Altar of God and intercede on behalf of not only the Church but the whole world. This is why, in the Great Litany and again in the Anaphora, we pray for bishops, priests, deacons, monastic and indeed to all the faithful in all the Churches of God. In these prayers, we also pray for the President of the United States, all civil authorities and the armed forces.

And our prayer isn’t a vague, humanistic sentiment; we don’t just wish people well or have good thoughts for them or send them good energy. No, we prayer that all the members of the Church grow in their faith and come to love Jesus Christ and their neighbor more fully.

And to this prayer, we add our fervent request that the whole world—including the civil authorities—come to that same great faith in Jesus Christ that we saw in the Canaanite woman.

My brothers and sisters in Christ!

We have been called by God to imitate the example of the Canaanite woman. Everything we do in the service of the Gospel begins here, in our fidelity to the example this unnamed woman. We are called, like her, to contribute “not a little” to the healing of others.

Let us begin!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Be Who God Has Called You to Be!

Sunday, February 14, 2016: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost & Seventeenth Sunday of Matthew

Venerable Auxentios the priest of Bithynia; Venerable Abraham and Maron of Syria; New-martyrs Nicholas of Corinth and George the tailor of Mitylene;

Venerable Cyril, Equal-to-the-Apostles and enlightener of the Slavs.

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1
Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28

The Epistle this morning calls us to conversion, to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.” This is not, it is important to emphasize, merely a one-time event. As we hear in the Divine Liturgy, conversion is a life-long process; we ask God to help us live lives of “peace and repentance.” So while conversion has a beginning, a first moment, it never ends.

It is also important to emphasize that conversion is not merely negative; it is fundamentally positive. Continual conversion leads, naturally and spontaneously, to wholeness of being. As I lay aside my sinfulness, I remove from my life the obstacles to the fruits of the Spirit “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23, NKJV); through conversion I become myself.

When God looks at the human person, He does so with great, really boundless and superabundant love. God sees in each of us great goodness we don’t initially see in ourselves. And while the world will not see us so, God sees each of us as beautiful.

This doesn’t mean, however, that God fails to see my sinfulness. He does but, again, He doesn’t see my sin the way in which the world does. Much less does He see it as I do.

For the world, human failure is a cause of shame and the excuse to degrade and exploit another human being. In a fallen world, any weakness—real or imagined—becomes an occasion for humiliation and to assert control over a person made in the image of God. For the world, weakness—real or imagined, moral or intellectual, physical or social—breeds fear and dread.

It is not this way with God.

When God sees our sinfulness, what He see is where we fall short of who He has created us to be.

Where the world sees ugliness, He sees hidden beauty.

Where the world see weakness, He sees the possibility for greater strength.

Where the world sees shame, He sees undisclosed dignity.

Again and again, when the world proclaims our death, He announces the death of death and our resurrection to divine life in His Son, our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.

So when Paul tells the Corinthians to cleanse themselves of defilement and to perfect holiness in the fear of God, he is calling them to a life of transcendence. Building on the fruit of divine grace poured out in the sacraments and received in faith, the whole of the ascetical life is nothing more or less than growth in our personal likeness to God. Conversion is how we go from “glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18); how we become ever more like God and so become ever more who we are most truly.

Repentance means to lay aside the lies and half-truths on which I have based my life and instead become who God has created me to be. Conversion is to see myself as God sees me and to live in gratitude, joy and sacrificial love, the life He has called me from all eternity to live.

And all this God sees in each of when His gaze falls upon us.

Just as we need to understand what repentance really and truly means, we also need to understand something about out ourselves. Or maybe, it is better that I speak only about myself.

I am enamored with my own sinfulness.

My sin has become a “second nature” to me. So firmly do I cling to my own sinfulness—and so firmly does it bind me—that this call to love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control doesn’t just frighten me, it can at times repeal me. Who I am most truly, my true self as Thomas Merton calls it, can be repugnant to me.

Knowing this helps us understand the seemingly harsh response Jesus gives to the woman in the Gospel. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

No doubt, Jesus’ words stung the woman. No doubt, they were painful to hear and to hear spoken publicly surrounded by those who she knew despised her. What really makes these words so painful though is that before she heard Jesus say them, before they rang in the ears of those who held her in contempt, the woman had said them to herself. And not once but over and over again.

The tragedy of sin, of this second nature that I cling to so tenaciously, is that it tells me I am unloved, indeed that I am unlovable. Sin blinds me to God’s mercy and love for me.

First sin tells me that my moral failings are of no consequence—”You’re only human after all.” But when I succumb to sin’s blandishments the message changes. Again and again, I hear that God won’t, can’t, forgive me because my sins are too great. And besides, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Sin becomes habitual in me when I come to believe that my failure matters more than God’s mercy and love. And this isn’t simply my struggle; it is the secret we all carry around in our own hearts. To be unrepentant is to say to myself, again and again, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Having become for me a “second nature,” my sinfulness distracts me from God and so from myself. I have come to imagine God’s mercy is for everyone but me.

But like the woman in the Gospel, it the mercy of God that makes me who I am. Before all else, we are all of us the recipients of God’s mercy, His forgiveness and love. No matter how much I would believe otherwise, what matters most about me—about all of us—is God’s love for me, for you, for us.

I simply get things backwards. I imagine that what I do—for good or ill—is who I am. While decisions and actions matter, they don’t matter most of all. What matters most for all of us is that we are loved by God.

Because I don’t know this, I get another thing backwards.

I don’t need to repent to experience God’s love; I need to experience God’s love to repent. Again, what matters most, is not what I do for God but what He has done for me in Jesus Christ.

My brothers and sisters, still for a moment your own, internal monologue—the voice that says to you “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And as you silence the lie, look in your hearts. When the niggling voice of self-condemnation speaks, ignore it and look more deeply within.

As you look in your own heart, you will find there, underneath what you think of yourself, what others think of you (they are in the end the same), you will find Christ waiting for you.

By baptism, He lives in your heart. In confession, He lifts the veil of sin and shame so that you can see Him face-to-face. In Holy Communion, He joins you to Himself and to His Body the Church, freeing you from slavery to sin and death giving you back to yourself.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, be who God has called you to be!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory