Tag Archives: Morality

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

Holiness is the Goal

Thursday, March 22 (O.S., March 9), 2018: Thursday of the Great Canon of St Andrew; New Hieromartyrs Priests Michael, Alexis, Demetrius, Sergius, Sergius and Deacon Nicholas, Venerable Martyrs Ioasaph, Natalia and Alexandra († 1938); Martyr Urpasianus of Nicomedia († c.295); Venerable Cæsarius, brother of St Gregory the Theologian († c. 369); Martyr Philoromus; Righteous Tarasius of Liconium; Martyr Philoromus; Albazinian Icon of the Mother of God called “The Word Was Made Flesh” (1666).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 42:5-16
Vespers: Genesis 18:20-33
Vespers: Proverbs 16:17-17:17

Once again Isaiah reminds me that God isn’t “good” in the way I typically think of goodness.

Isaiah begins by telling us about God redeeming His people. In words that Jesus will quote at the beginning of His ministry (Luke 4:18), we are told that God has made the Jewish people “a light to the nations.” Through them, He will “open the eyes that are blind,” He will “bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,” and liberate “those who sit in [the] darkness” of sin.

In response, creation and the whole man-made world join in sing “to the LORD a new song.” The sea roars together with “all that fills it,” roars in praise of God. Then “the coastlands and their inhabitants” join in the song together with “the desert” and the “cities.” All “lift up their voice,” all “sing for joy,” and “shout from the top of the mountains” their gratitude to God.

At this point, things quickly take what might seem to us to be a dark turn.

“For a long time,” God says, “I have held my peace.” God has “kept still and restrained” Himself in the face of human sinfulness and disobedience. Now though, God cries out “like a woman in travail.” God gasps and pants as He makes ready to destroy.

I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbage; I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools. And I will lead the blind in a way that they know not, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them.

We see something like this in God’s response to Sodom and Gomorrah.

God is intent on destroying these cities because their sin is “great and … very grave.” Abraham negotiates with God to spare the cities for the sake of ten righteous individuals. But as we discover a bit later (Genesis 19:12-29), the cities don’t have even ten good people between them and so they are destroyed.

God’s isn’t good the way I understand goodness.

God isn’t the aggregate of moral goodness. Rather, God is holy–He is sovereign and as Lord of All is over all that is. As the Creator of the universe, He is the source of moral goodness but moral goodness itself is only a shadow, a veiled revelation of God (see Hebrews 10:1, Colossians 2:17).

And so we come again to the importance of Wisdom.

Wisdom not just as practical and moral guidance–though it includes both. As we hear today, Wisdom is the “fountain of life.”

Wisdom fosters in us “a lowly spirit” (humility) and willingness to “heed” God (obedience). The wise heart is discerning and speaks in a way that is both “pleasant” and persuasive. Like Jesus, the wise speak and teach with an authority that comes not simply from moral goodness but the disinterested freedom of holiness (Matthew 7:9, Mark 1:22 and Luke 4:32).

And wisdom levels, or better transcends the often arbitrary distinctions with which we divide ourselves off one from the other as we jockey for power and control. “A slave who deals wisely will rule over a son who acts shamefully, and will share the inheritance as one of the brothers.”

Christians are called not simply to be morally good but holy. We are called to share (as we can never tire of repeating) in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). In fact, everything we do as Christians has only one goal: to become like God, not just good but holy.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Natural Law & the Christian Life

Sunday, August 16, 2015: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost & Eleventh Sunday of Matthew; After-feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos; Recovery from Edessa of the Icon of Christ Not Made by Hands: ‘The Holy Napkin’

EPISTLE: 1 Corinthians 9:2-12
GOSPEL: Matthew 18:23-35

Some Christians, even some Orthodox Christians, will reject out of hand the objective character of moral life. Some base their rejection of natural law on an appeal to our freedom in Christ. In doing this they that our liberty is not license to do as want but so that we can do God’s will (see 1 Peter 2:16; Galatians 5:13).

Others will point out that Christians are called to participate in the divine natural (2 Peter 1:4). Here again, though, we need to be careful that we not overlook what the Apostle Peter actually says. Yes in Christ, we have “escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust”—including the tendency to use morality to control others or exalt ourselves—but this is “for this very reason” that in “all diligence” we foster the life of real virtue (v. 5) to which we must add “knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (vv. 6-7).  Echoing a theme that we hear not only in Paul this morning but also James (2:8-26), St Peter goes so far as to say that “he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins” (2 Peter 1:8).

While he doesn’t use the language of natural law, the Apostle Paul certainly affirms the notion. This natural moral law—while not sufficient for our life in Christ—does exist and obedience to it prepares the human heart to receive Christ (see Romans 1:18-32). In today’s epistle the Apostle goes beyond what he says in Romans.  As does Jesus in the Gospel, Paul appeals directly to this natural moral sense not simply as a preparation for the Gospel but as normative for the life of the Church. He says that he and Barnabas have a “right to our food and drink” and, like the other Apostles, “the right to be accompanied by a wife.” His argument though isn’t just based on the Gospel or his apostolic office. As he makes clear in the subsequent verses, these are rights that we know not only from revelation but also human experience.

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?  Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit?  Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?  Do I say this on human authority?  Does not the law say the same?  For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.”

There is a harmony between natural law and the moral teaching of Scripture. Contrary to what we might think, the latter—revealed morality—doesn’t minimize or negate what we know from natural law. Rather they are related analogically. What I mean by this is that while there are differences between them, they also share a striking similarity.

We can understand something of the Kingdom of God by looking at everyday experience. To be sure, everyday life isn’t  sufficient—we are always dependent on divine grace poured out in the sacraments, the Scriptures and Holy Tradition—but we ought not make the perfect the enemy of the good. And an understanding and obedience to the “laws of nature and nature’s God” dependent not on revelation but reason is a good, if imperfect, thing.

Turning to the Gospel, Jesus draws a parallel between an earthly kingdom and the Kingdom of God. He doesn’t dismiss or negate the demands of earthly justice—a debt owed is a debit that must be re-paid. He also makes clear that, in the affairs of men, justice is not the only concern.

Even among the powerful of this life justice can, and often is, tempered by mercy. Forgiveness is not unheard among the children of men. Justice, mercy and forgiveness are available in sufficient measure in this life so that we can see in them if not “the very image of the things to come” at least “a shadow” (see Hebrews 10:1).  Again in all this it is important to remember that natural morality points beyond itself to Christ Who is Himself the “substance” of the things to come (Colossians 2:17).

So what does this mean for our own spiritual lives?

There is a tendency among some Orthodox Christians, and let me be frank it is a Gnostic tendency, to dismiss or minimize everything that happens on the other side of walls of the church as unimportant, a distraction and even sinful. Concretely this takes the form of reducing the Christian life to attending liturgical services. Now the Church’s liturgy is essential to our life in Christ. So too however, are the Scriptures, the Fathers, philanthropy and evangelism. And all these must be found in us together with prayer and ascetical struggle. These are the essential elements of a fully developed Christian spiritual life. None of these, however, can come at the expense of the rest of life. The spiritual life in not an escape from this world; it is rather about our personal transformation and the redemption of the world.

As we are transformed, we are able to transform the world around us. Marriage and family life, the life of commerce and work, the arts and sciences, and every single human encounter becomes, for the heart transfigured by grace, a sacrament of God’s presence, a revelation of His grace and of His love for mankind.

The words of the ever memorable Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh about the person are equally applicable to natural law. He writes

One does not help a person by discerning what is wrong, what is ugly, what is distorted. Christ looked at everyone he met, at the prostitute, at the thief, and saw the beauty hidden there. Perhaps it was distorted, perhaps damaged, but it was beauty none the less, and what he did was to call out this beauty.

To embrace the natural law, to be faithful to it personally and in the life of the Church, is to do nothing more or less than to embrace with joy those often obscure glimpse of beauty in the world of persons, events and things. Seeing this natural beauty is to live as God meant us to live, it is a preparation for faith in Christ and, most importantly, for the life of the world to come. Amen.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory