Tag Archives: mercy

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

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

Rights & Forgiveness

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

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

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

unforgiving20servant2

Glory to Jesus Christ!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Apostle is instructive here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What is Freedom For?

Wednesday, April 04 (O.S., March 22), 2018: Great Wednesday; Hieromartyr Basil of Ancyra († 363); Martyr Drosis the Daughter of the Emperor Trajan (104-117); Venerable Isaac the Founder of the Dalmatian Monastery at Constantinople († 383); Martyrs Callinica and Basilissa of Rome; Venerable Martyr Euthymius of Constantinople; Hieromartyr Euthymius of Prodromou on Mt Athos († 1814).

Matins: John 12.17-50
Sixth Hour: Ezekiel 2.3-3.3
Vespers: Exodus 2.11-22
Vespers: Job 2.1-10
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 26.6-16

The choice before me is laid out in stark terms.

Like the Harlot, I can come “in tears” and cry out to God “In Your compassion and love for mankind, deliver me from the filth of my evil deeds!”

Alternatively, I can imitate “deceitful Judas” and allow my greed to draw me away “from intimate companionship with Christ.”

When, as Orthodox Christians, we emphasize the importance of human freedom (and all the rights and privileges that we have come to expect as Americans) our concern is in defending is the ability of the soul to imitate either the Harlot or Judas. Human freedom is not for us an end in itself. It is rather for something.

Immediately, freedom is for repentance. I must be free to examine myself, to know myself not simply in terms set by the culture but by Holy Tradition. Our freedom in the first instance is in the service of accurate self-knowledge.

As I grow to know myself, I am confronted with a choice.

Recognizing my vices as well as my virtues, what will I do? Will I struggle against my sins through the cultivation of virtue? Or will I, again like Judas, give myself over to despair?

A despairing soul will only infrequently commit suicide like Judas (Matthew 27:5). More often despair hides under the guise of another sin. Again, Judas is instructive.

The fallen apostle is mentioned nine times in today’s Matin service. In order, he is called “deceitful” and “burning with love of money” He is a man who “drunkenly runs” to betray his Friend (Kathisma 15).

He is called “envious,” “ignorant and evil.” A “miserable man,” a “traitor” blinded by “greedy avarice” into becoming a “traitor.” (Ode 9).

Judas is “scheming” and “enslaved to the Enemy” by his “terrible … slothfulness.” Twice we hear of “the wretchedness of Judas” (Praises).

Despair cloaks itself in all these seemingly lesser sins.

This, however, raises a question. If freedom is for repentance, what is repentance for? Again Judas is instructive.

Judas stands in bold contrast to the Harlot. While she spreads “out her hair” to dry the feet of Jesus that she has washed with her tears (Matthew 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9; Luke 7:36–50; John 12:1–8), Judas spreads “out his hands to lawless men.” What the Harlot does, she does “in order to receive forgiveness,” she is repentant. And Judas? He only puts out his hand “to receive some silver” (Matthew 26:14-16, Luke 22:1-6).

As freedom is for repentance, repentance is for forgiveness. And not just forgiveness in a formal, juridical sense. But, as we hear in the service, the forgiveness that “raised Lazarus from the tomb after four days” (Aposticha).

All of this is expressed in the Hymn of Kassiane that we sing toward the end of Matins:

..accept the fountain of my tears,
O You, Who gathered the waters of the sea into clouds!
Bow down Your ear to the sighing of my heart,
O You, Who bowed the heavens in Your ineffable condescension!
Once Eve heard Your footsteps in Paradise in the cool of the day,
and in fear she ran and hid herself.
But now I will tenderly embrace those pure feet
and wipe them with the hair of my head.
Who can measure the multitude of my sins,
or the depth of Your judgments, O Savior of my soul?
Do not despise Your servant in Your immeasurable mercy!”

God stands ready to accept our repentance. He stands ready to receive us who run to Him and extend to us His “immeasurable mercy.”

So, then, what is freedom for? It is so that we can receive the mercy of God and then offer that mercy to others.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Be Faithful Today, Don’t Worry About Tomorrow

Sunday, August 20, 2017: 11th Sunday of Matthew; Samuel the Prophet, Holy Martyr Luke of Bouleutos, Afterfeast of the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary, Stephen, First King of Hungary, Hierotheos, Bishop of Hungary

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

St Paul chastises the Corinthians for failing to do for him and for Barnabas what they have done for “the brothers of the Lord and Cephas.” Paul is clear. As apostles, he and Barnabas have a “right to our food and drink” and “to be accompanied by a wife.”

This means that the church has an obligation to provide for the apostles. And make no mistake, Paul is talking here about the material and financial support the church is obligated to provide the apostles. “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim upon you, do not we still more?”

Yes, Paul chooses to not make “use of this right,” so as not to place “an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” But his sacrifice while it frees the Corinthians from their financial obligations, calls them to an equally high standard of generosity and service.

Using himself as an example, he sketches an expectation of self-sacrifice for all Christians. Though “free from all men,” St Paul willingly makes himself “a servant to all.” He does this so that he can “become all things to all men” in the hope that he might “save some.”

In other words, he makes these sacrifices “for the gospel’s sake” and with the hope that the church will make similar sacrifices so that they might also receive the “imperishable crown” of salvation (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-27).

At no time, though, does St Paul deny or minimize the demands of justice; he doesn’t pretend the Corinthians don’t have concrete obligations toward both him and Barnabas. Yes, he gives up these rights but he does so in obedience to his own obligation to preach the Gospel and draw others to Christ.

Paul doesn’t ask the Corinthians to forsake justice. Rather, by freeing the Corinthians from their obligations toward him, he calls them in turn to a higher moral standard. LIke Paul, they are called by God to preach the Gospel.

To see what it means to be freed from our obligations, let’s turn to the Gospel.

In the parable, the king absolves his servant of a debt that can’t possibly be paid. As the story makes clear, this new freedom obligates the servant to be merciful to others. When he fails in this, his

As the story makes clear, this act of forgiveness obligates the servant to be merciful to others. When he fails in this, his lord condemns him to prison “till he should pay all his debt.”

The sobering part of the parable, however, comes next. Turning to His listeners Jesus says “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

The genius of Orthodox spirituality is that it is so wonderfully human. The fathers, the saints, and the spiritual writers of the Church are all united in their understanding that we grow in holiness. Just as it does physically and emotionally, socially and vocationally, it takes time to mature spiritually. What Paul says of himself, applies to us all.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).

 

Our life in Christ is a call to grow in holiness. We don’t need to worry about meeting what God will ask of us tomorrow, or next week, or a year from now. Rather, we only need to do what God is asking of us today secure in the knowledge that by God’s grace what we do today, will prepare us for what is asked of us tomorrow. Do “not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will” bring with it not only new demands but the grace and new-found freedom we need to say yes to God (see Matthew 6:25-34).

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we don’t need to worry, much less despair, of our ability to do what God calls us to do. God only asks of us today the sacrifice we can make joyfully, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

It is through our fidelity to the daily demands of our personal vocations and the life of the Church, that we are able to grow ”from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). And it is through our daily sacrifices, freely offered, that we will all someday “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” (Ephesians 4:13).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Justice & Mercy Have Kissed

Sunday, May 15, 2016: Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women; Pachomius the Great, Achillius the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Larissa, Barbaros the Myrrhbearer of Kerkyra, Andrew the Hermit & Wonderworker

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7

Gospel: Mark 15:43-47; 16:1-8

Christ is Risen!

Sometimes you will hear Orthodox Christians contrast what they call our “therapeutic” understanding of salvation with the “forensic” model in the West. There are two problems with this.

First, it reflects a basic lack of understanding of the broad sweep of how the Church—East and West, Greek and Latin—have understood salvation. To say that our own understanding is exclusively, or even primarily, therapeutic is simply factually wrong. Beginning with the New Testament, the tradition of the Church uses both therapeutic and forensic imagery to explain salvation and our new life in Christ.

Second, and more serious problem, is that people make this contrast because they see justice and mercy as opposed to each other. How often have we heard—or said—we are the Church of mercy, not justice?

Now if by “justice” we mean revenge, then this is true as far as we go. We are not a community that seeks revenge. And we don’t because while vengeance belongs to God alone, God in Jesus Christ makes clear that He doesn’t seek revenge against us for our sins. Instead, He offers us forgiveness and healing.

But, as the readings this morning make clear, justice and mercy presuppose each other and both are essential to our life in Christ. Let me explain.

We read in Acts of the Apostles of a conflict, one rooted in differences of ethnicity, language and culture as it happens, that arose in response to how the Church cared for two groups of widows. While both groups were Jewish converts to Christianity, the Greek-speaking widows complained that they were not being treated as well as were the Hebrew-speaking widows. There “arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (v. 1). That the daily distribution of food is an act of charity, of mercy if you will, it doesn’t prevent the Greek-speaking members of the community (“the Hellenists”) from complaining that they are being treated unjustly. Far from invalidating the demands of justice, mercy presupposes justice.

If I disregard or violate the demands of justice, my actions simply are not merciful. To see this, look at Hellenists’ complaint and, more importantly, from the Apostles’ response. The Apostles don’t say to Hellenists that their complaints are an offense against mercy. There is, in fact, a real injustice being committed and resolving it is necessary for mercy to reign in the Church.

Notice, as well, how the Apostles resolve the situation. Again, while they take the complaint seriously, they are also clear that God has not set them aside to care for the philanthropic life of the Church but to preach. “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables” (v. 2). So what do they do instead? They create a new ministry within the Church to oversee “this business” (v.3).

This is an odd response if the Church is only concerned with mercy. When faced with a real sin against justice, the Apostles don’t call people to repentance or to pray more. No, what they do is add a level to the hierarchy of the Church. Like Moses in Exodus, the Apostles realize that they can’t do what God asked them to do—preach the Gospel and govern the Church—on their own. They need help to govern the Church, they need help to be faithful to their own vocation: “brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (vv. 3-4).

It’s also worth noting, if only in passing, how the Apostles went about ordaining the first deacons. They didn’t impose leaders on the Church. Instead, they consulted the faithful. Fulfilling the demands of justice requires that we actively collaborate with those whose lives our decisions effect. In other words, if mercy requires justice, justice requires that we respect the autonomy of others. We are to relate to each other as co-workers in Christ each with our own proper area of competence and responsibility.

But justice prepares the way for mercy in another way.

It would have been enough, turning now to the Gospel, if the disciples had buried Jesus in “the potter’s field” (see Matthew 27:3-9, NKJV). This is all that justice demanded of them. But notice what happens. The disciples, having been instructed in what justice demands, do more than justice requires. Instead of doing the minimum they freely offer what only mercy can provide—the sacrifice of themselves on behalf of another.

Look at Joseph of Arimathea. John’s Gospel describes him as “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38, NKJV)). Fearful though he is, he nevertheless went “to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mark 15:43, NKJV). He then proceeds to purchase “fine linen” in which to wrap Jesus and places His Body “in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mark 15:46). Together with “Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night,” he anoints the Body “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39). Two fearful men become courageous disciples who, like the Lord Jesus Christ, are willing to stand before Pilate and testify to the Kingdom of God.

Likewise, with the Myrrh-bearing women. “Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, ‘Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?'” (Mark 16:2-3, NKJV) When in mercy they go to the Tomb they discover that “Christ is Risen from the dead” and that “Death has been trampled down by death!” Justice prepares them to be merciful and mercy reveals to them the glory of the Resurrection.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, far from being opposed, justice and mercy require each other. Without mercy, the pursuit of justice becomes harsh and unyielding; without justice, however, mercy becomes mere sentimentality and leads me to collude with evils great and small.

But justice and mercy are meant to support each other. More than that, they prepare us to receive Christ and to shape our lives according to His commandments (John 14:15). To paraphrase today’s prokeimenon, justice and mercy must kiss. This happens when I take to heart the words of the Prophet Micah “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NIV).

In the words of our father among the saints, Herman of Alaska “”for our good and for our happiness, let us all make a vow: at least from this day, this hour, this very minute, we should strive to love God above all else and do His will!” Let us, in other words, commit ourselves to act justly, to love mercy and work humbly with our God!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregorydr

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

Be Merciful!

Sunday, February 21, 2016: Sunday of the Pharisee and Publican; Venerable Timothy of Symbola; Eustathios, archbishop of Antioch; Zachariah, patriarch of Jerusalem; George, bishop of Amastris

St George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Grand Rapids, MI

Epistle: 2 Timothy 3:10-15
Gospel: Luke 18:10-14

The Apostle Paul sets an intimidating standard for me as a priest. He tells Timothy, to quote what Paul says not once but twice in another place, “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1). This is an intimidating standard because the Apostle is saying that it’s not only does his “teaching” proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No, the whole of Paul’s life is nothing more or less than a testament to “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). His behavior and his goals, his patience and love, his steadfastness in persecution and suffering are all part of his witness to Christ and the sign of Paul’s apostleship.

After saying this about himself, Paul turns to the young bishop Timothy and says do as I have done; “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Timothy, like Paul, is called to make of his life “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God.” This is Timothy’s “reasonable service”: that he refuse to “be conformed to this world” and instead “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” so that not only in the life to come but also in the ebb and flow of this life he testify to the “good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2, NKJV).

A lofty standard for the priest to be sure but not simply for the priest. It is also the standard for all Christian. Like Paul, like Timothy, by virtue of our baptism God has called each of us to be His disciples and so also set each of us aside to be His witness, His apostles, for a world that desires a love they don’t know and without us can only glimpse. We are like Paul and Timothy called to be disciples of Christ and apostles, that is witnesses, to God’s love for the world poured out in Christ and Him crucified.

Turning to this morning’s Gospel, it is an unbearable tragedy that all too often the Gospel is used not to liberate people from the powers of sin and death but to shame and degrade them. Yes, when this happens it is an abuse of the Gospel and a betrayal of Christ and a sin against that love that God has shown us. And yet, it happens again and again.

All too easily I fall into the role of the Pharisee in today’s Gospel. Too often by my attitude and actions I say “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Self-satisfaction fills the space in my life that God would have filled by those three things that last, faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13, NKJV).

Tragic as all this is, if I stop here in my self-evaluation I fail not only my neighbor but also myself. You see the Pharisee condemns the tax collector because his own repentance is incomplete. Reading the text quickly we might think that the Pharisee knows his virtue but not his sinfulness. This is true, but only to a point. Origen says “the Pharisee … boasted with a certain wicked self-conceit” (Against Celsus, III:64). As important as it is for me to know my sinfulness, it is more important still to know “the greatness of God” and, like the publican, to continually ask Him for His mercy. As an observant Jew, the Pharisee knew his obligations under the Law. This is why he fasts twice a week and pays tithes. And it is likewise why he thanks God that he isn’t “like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

We mustn’t think that the Pharisee’s gratitude and piety aren’t real, they are, it is rather a matter that they are deficient because he lacks mercy.

Mercy is often misunderstood. It isn’t a matter of saying that sin doesn’t matter or isn’t important. Mercy isn’t getting a free pass on my sinfulness; it isn’t as if God says that my moral failures don’t matter. No, God by His great mercy (to return to Origen) makes up for “our deficiencies” and supplies “what is wanting” in us (Against Celsus, III:64). To ask for divine mercy, is to confess my weakness, my deficiency, before God.

And having experienced God’s mercy for me, I want to offer that mercy to others.

While the Pharisee is, no doubt sincerely, grateful for what he has received from God, he fails to see the true depth and expanse of his own need. His self-conceit is that he believes that the process of repentance is over for him. He sees in himself no need, and in the tax collector no possibility, to go “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). The Pharisee is far from St Gregory of Nyssa‘s observation that to become like the God Who is perfect and Who never changes, we must change “and change frequently.”

For all that he is grateful, the Pharisee is nevertheless in the grip of despair. His life, his view of himself and of his neighbor, is wholly static and so inescapably self-satisfied. There is in the Pharisee no awareness of his own deficiencies, his own need for the mercy of God “which always heals what is infirm and completes what is lacking” (Ordination of a Presbyter). And not seeing this in himself he can’t see this in others. So though he is grateful, his gratitude is insufficient because it lacks hope and charity. In his own way, the Pharisee is the embodiment of what the Apostle James warns against: “faith without works is dead” (see, James 2:14-26).

Turning from the Pharisee and the Apostle Timothy, what do the readings say to me about my own spiritual life on this, the first Sunday of the Triodion, the beginning of our preparation for the Great Fast?

Of all the things that could be said, I think the most important is this. God has called me, called each of us, to bear witness to the life, death and resurrection of His Son and our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. This witness isn’t just a matter of having the correct faith but being always aware of God’s mercy in our lives and the lives of those around us. This awareness is the wellspring of our charity for others.

Love requires that I must not succumb to either moral indifference or theological triumphalism. The latter assumes that, having received the Gospel in its fullness, the demands of charity are fulfilled by offering a summary of the Creed or a lecture in Church history. Cruel as this is, the former is worse since it fails to see deficits, and so the suffering they cause, as real.

To be a witness of God’s love and mercy I must be prayerfully open and obedient to the deficiency that God would complete in the moment. What I mean is that to give food to the thirsty, to give a drink to the hungry, isn’t mercy and so isn’t charity. At best it is well-meaning but incompetent; at worse it is the same self-conceit that blinded the Pharisee to his own need for repentance and that killed his love for the Publican before it born.

One person needs from me the kerygma, another a glass of water. This person needs a kind word, this one a stern word. But to respond in mercy to all of them, I need the repentant hope of the Publican but also to the faith of the Pharisee (see, Matthew 5:20). It is only in this way that I can bear an effective witness to the love of God poured out for all mankind in Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead.

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