In Each Moment, Trust in God

Sunday, June 17 (O.S., June 4) 2018: Third Sunday after Pentecost; Synaxis of Halych Saints; Synaxis of Odessa Saints; Saint Metrophanes, First Patriarch of Constantinople (325).

Epistle: Romans 5:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 6:22-33

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Thinking is so much easier than praying.

It’s easier to have good thoughts about God or my neighbor than it is to stand before God in prayer. It is likewise easier to make plans for God than it is to give myself over to God. Hardest of all though, is to learn to trust God not just in the big things–which after all, come only now and then–but in the myriad little things that make up my daily life.

And yet, that daily, hour by hour, minute by minute, trust in God is precisely what Jesus asks from us. He asks us to have the same trust in Him that He has in the Father. And this is hard.

Most Orthodox Christians in America, thank God, don’t worry about food or drink or clothing. This doesn’t mean we don’t have our own worries. Neither wealth nor poverty frees us from concerns that distract us from the Kingdom of God. Whether rich or poor, hungry or full, naked or clothed, we are all subject to worries that cause us to make small compromises.

For most of us here this morning, these compromises in and of themselves, are rarely significant. Most are minor, petty even. But in the aggregate, they tend to blind me to the presence of God in my life.

And yet in each moment, God offers Himself to me and to each of us. At times, He offers Himself to us in the good things He bestows. But there are other times when He offers Himself to us through the good things He withholds or even takes away.

Whether God offers Himself to us in what He gives or what He takes, in each moment God nevertheless offers us Himself. It is up to each of us–you and me–to accept God’s offering of Himself to us. We do this by offering ourselves back to Him. I must entrust the whole of my life to God.

This is what it means, turning briefly to the epistle, to live by faith. It isn’t a matter of denying the bad things that happen to us. We are simply lying to ourselves when we pretend that everything is really alright when it really isn’t.

To live by faith means to be willing to receive the God Who offers Himself to us by entrusting our lives to Him in each moment of our life. To live by faith means to respond to God’s sacrifice in Jesus Christ by freely offering my life back to God in every moment of my day.

Like I said, praying is harder than thinking. But trusting, trusting is harder than prayer. It requires from us real effort. It is tempting when I don’t get what I want, or when I lose what I have, to turn bitter against God. It’s tempting when life is disappointing, to lay the blame on God and to turn my back on Him.

Thinking of my own life, and especially of the things I hope to get but never did, I can’t help but wonder. What did I want then that matters more than who I have in my life today? What sacrifice did God ask of me yesterday, that was so great, so onerous, that I would prefer that you not be in my life today?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! St Paul tells us to “rejoice in suffering.” He says this not because suffering is good–it isn’t–but because our sacrifices make clear to us the true worth of what God gives us in every moment of every day. Himself.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Grace is Promiscuous

Sunday, June 10 (O.S., May 28), 2018: 2nd Sunday after Pentecost; All Saints of Ukraine and North America.All Saints of the Holy Mount; Ven. Nicetas, bishop of Chalcedon (9th c.). St. Eutychius, bishop of Melitene (1st c.). Martyrs Heliconis (244). Hieromartyr Helladius, bishop in the East (6th-7th c.). St. Ignatius, bishop of Rostov (1288).

Epistle: Romans 2:10-16/Hebrews 11:33-12:2
Gospel: Matthew 4:18-23/Matthew 4:25-5:12

imageRead St Paul quickly and you’ll miss what he’s saying.

Yes, we all have sinned; on this, there can be no debate. Based on the evidence of my own life, it is simply a lie for me to suggest otherwise.

I know that I have sinned and that I have fallen short of the glory of God. The Apostle, however, introduces a distinction here that (like I said), I might overlook if I just read him quickly.

Yes, we all have sinned but this isn’t primarily why we fall short of the glory of God.

We fall short because we are creatures. Sin complicates this, it makes rigid an observation that should inspire us to humility in the presence of God, gratitude for His grace, and a desire to give ourselves over in love ever more fully to Him.

Instead what we do, what I do, is look for reasons to condemn my neighbor for his shortcomings while being willing to excuse my own. Basically, “you” fall short of the glory of God because of sin; “I” fall short of the glory of God for perfectly understandable–and so excusable–reasons.

Paul anticipates my self-justification. After pointing out that all have sinned and that all have fallen short of the glory of God, he reminds us of something else we too easily forget or overlook. God has inscribed His law in each human heart.

If sin is ubiquitous, divine grace is promiscuous.

There is no human heart that has not been touched by God’s grace. And as firmly as we are in the grip of sin, we are held more firmly–and more gently–by divine grace. Sin has neither the first word nor the last word in our lives.

Though sin would have us believe otherwise, our lives are acts of divine grace. No matter how terrible the sin, no matter how hard the heart, no matter how unrepentant the sinner, God is there wooing us, inviting us back to our one true homeland.

Sin cannot undo the fact that we belong to God and our sustained by His grace.

Today the Church celebrates an interesting feast. Last week, we celebrated all the saints of the Church–known and especially unknown. Today, we celebrate all the saints–again known and unknown–of a particular place. While the feast is the same throughout the Church, the locality changes.

Like politics, holiness is local. And so today Orthodox Churches throughout the world celebrates the saints of their nation, the saints of their place. Today we profess and proclaim in our liturgical life that God’s grace has touched the hearts of those who have gone before us in this place wherever this place might be.

So what does this mean for us?

It means this: Today we thank God not simply for the saints of North America, or the United States. No today, we thank God for the saints known and unknown, of Wisconsin, Madison, and even the Isthmus.

The challenge this places before us is this: How has God’s grace touched this place–Madison–and these people who live here?

This isn’t an idle question. Much less is it mere sentimentality, of telling ourselves “Let’s all feel good about where we live.” We are not asking the question because we the spiritual equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce or the tourist board.

Rather we ask the question because Jesus has commanded us to imitate Him. Just as He called Peter and Andrew, James and John, and made them “fishers of men” He has also called us to be His disciples, apostles, and evangelists.

And He has called us to do this here. Not in North America, or the United States or Wisconsin, or even Madison but here, on the Isthmus.

This means, to return to St Paul, that Jesus has gone before us and by His grace and love for mankind prepared the hearts of each person we meet here. Again, if sin is ubiquitous, divine grace is promiscuous; God has poured out without measure or consideration His grace into the life of each and every single person.

Our task? Our task is to discern what God has done. And so we ask:

How has God prepared the people of this place to receive the Gospel that they might be saved?

How has God prepared the people of this place to participate in the sanctification of the world?

How has God prepared the people of this place to join us in conforming society evermore closely to the Gospel?

How has God prepared the people of this place to become part of that great cloud of witnesses?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! At the Divine Liturgy we sing the Beatitudes. These outline for us how we are to go about fulfilling the task we’ve been given. We will at another time look at these in more detail.

For now though, let us draw encouragement and comfort from our Lord’s promise that if we are faithful to Him, He will bless and sustain us even when the world turns against us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Today, We Are Called to Surrender

Sunday, June 3 (O.S., May 21), 2018: First Sunday after Pentecost; All Saints; Holy Equals-to-the-Apostles Emperor Constantine (337) and Helen, his mother (327). St. Cassian the Greek, monk (1504).

Epistle: Hebrews 11:33-40; 12:1-2
Gospel: Matthew 10:32-33; 37-38; 19:27-30

Glory to Jesus Christ!

There’s something odd about the spiritual life.

Generally, we think about life as a process of acquisition. As we grow older we gain knowledge and skills, friends and possessions. Taking St Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews as our guide to the spiritual life, however, points us in a different direction.

For the Apostle, the spiritual life is not about acquisition but, as he says, “laying aside every weight and sin” which would keep us from running “with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Especially at the beginning to follow Jesus, “the pioneer and perfector of our faith” will often feel like a series of loses.

Jesus Himself alludes to this in His words to the disciples:

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

Hearing this, and with his usual self-effacing subtly, St Peter replies “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?”

If Paul would have me lay aside my sin, Peter reminds me that I must lay aside not only sin but “everything.” That is to say, I can’t love anything or anyone more that Jesus. Even those relationships that are the foundation of human life and have been with us from the beginning–father, mother, son and daughter–must be surrendered.

And in their place, I am called to take up my cross and follow Jesus unreservedly.

As I said, especially in its first moments, the spiritual life often feels like a series of losses.

What is lost, however, is not “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands”–these are returned to us “a hundredfold” and with “eternal life” as well. The command to pick our cross and follow Jesus is not a command to hate our family, to despise the work we do, or to turn against our native land.

It is rather to give all these things their proper weight and value relative to God. What feels like a loss, isn’t really; it is an incalculable gain. Now we have all these things in Christ. And that which is in Christ will last forever.

When I stop demanding from family, or work, or country, or myself for that matter, what only God can provide, I am free to delight in these same things. The real sorrow of being a sinner is that my selfishness keeps me from loving family, work, country and yes, even myself, as they really are and as God would have me love them.

Instead of loving my friend, I am infatuated with my thoughts about my friend. The same thing happens in the other relationships and tasks that make up my daily life. They are idols of my own creation rather than what they really are meant to be for us: Messengers and channels of God’s love.

The problem, to put it directly, isn’t that I love father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, house, work, country or myself but that I fail to love them all. What I must give up to follow Jesus are my selfish illusions about life. I must give up the comforting half-truths I tell myself to avoid accepting responsibility for my actions.

Once we make this initial sacrifice something wonderful and awe-inspiring happens. We find by God’s grace an unimaginable willingness and ability to love. Saying “Yes!” to God allows us to in turn say “Yes!” to all creation.

When I stop seeking my own will and instead seek the will of God, I discover what it is to love because I discover what it is to be loved by the God Who created me.

It is because they experienced God’s love for them that the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, the saints,

…conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection.

Torture, mocking, scouring, imprisonment all these and worse paled in comparison to the saints’ love of God that followed naturally and in abundance from their experience of God’s love for them.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today we are called by God to surrender everything so that we can receive those things that last: faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13)!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we can receive the peace that “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7)!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we can receive the many gifts contained in the One Gift of Holy Spirit which received a short time ago!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) the source of all good things!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we become saints!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What Gifts Have You Been Given Today?

Sunday,May 27 (O.S., May 14), 2018: Eighth Sunday of Pascha, Pentecost-Trinity Sunday;
Martyr Isidore of Chios (251). Martyr Maximus, under Decius (250). Ven. Serapion the Sindonite, monk, of Egypt (542). Ven. Nicetas recluse of the Kyiv Caves (1109). St. Leontius, patriarch of Jerusalem (1175).

Epistle: Acts 2:1-11
Gospel: John 7:37-52; 8:12

What must that first Pentecost have been like for the disciples and apostles?

Just 10 days ago they saw Jesus ascend into heaven. However joyful that was, it means that–once again Jesus has left them. And the pain of that loss is beginning to make itself felt. As their memories and love for Jesus wane, their fear of the Jews takes hold growing ever stronger.

And so they hide. They return to the upper room where they celebrated their last Passover with Jesus.

And they wait for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to them that they will be clothed with power from on high.

And as they wait, they wonder. What have they gotten themselves into? Jesus is gone. And, out there, are the people who crucified their friend.

And didn’t Jesus tell them, that they too will be hated? If they crucified Jesus what would they do to his disciples?

And then, FIRE!

Tongues of fire appear and come to rest on the heads of the disciples!

And suddenly, in an instant, fearful men and women become fearless preachers of the Gospel!

And, wonders of wonders, not only do they proclaim the Resurrection, their words are understood by those who don’t speak Aramaic.

At first, they are accused of being drunkards. But just as faith retreated and fear asserted itself, now skepticism gives way to faith. Thousands believe and are baptized.

And then what?

What must it have been like on the day after Pentecost when the disciples and apostles to woke up and realize–however faintly–the enormity of what they did?

Or rather, what God did through them.

What must it have been like to wake up the day after Pentecost and realize that now you were responsible for preaching a Gospel that will in short under turn the world on its head?

What must it have been like to realize that you were now leaders of thousands of new believers in Jesus Christ?

Make no mistake. The apostles were right to be worried.

These weren’t wealthy or powerful. They were illiterate men and women living on the margins of a society that was itself on the margin of a vast, wealthy and powerful empire that, for all its grandeur, was cruel.

The disciples and apostles weren’t anyone’s idea of leaders. Least of all, their own.

And yet, God choose them to be His witnesses to the world. It fell to these poor, illiterate, marginal men and women to renew the human family grown old and rigid because of sin.

Today these men and women receive the “Gift of the Holy Spirit” even as we did at chrismation. In this One Gift we, like them, received many gifts.

And all gifts contained in the Gift have one purpose: To draw others to Christ. To renew the whole human family by the renewal of each human person heart.

Unlike the disciples on that first Pentecost, the Church is now rich and even powerful.

And yet, like the disciples of that first Pentecost, for all that we have gained materially and culturally, we too are poor.

Or maybe better, we too have been given a task that–apart from the gift of the Holy Spirit–is beyond the abilities of even the most talented among us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The task given to the disciples on that first Pentecost is given to us today. Their vocation, their calling, is ours as well.

And like the disciples on that first Pentecost, God pours out His Spirit on us today and every day making up by His grace what is lacking in us.

And all this He does for one reason, and one reason only: To renew the human family by restoring each human heart to communion with Himself through His Son our Lord Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit!

So let us take up the task we have been given!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

You Say “Dogma” Like It’s A Bad Thing

May 20 (O.S., May 7), 2018: Seventh Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council; Afterfeast of the Ascension; Commemoration of the Apparition of the Sign of the Precious Cross over Jerusalem in 351 A.D.; Martyr Acacius the Centurion (303).

Epistle: Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
Gospel: John 17:1-13

Dogma has a rather bad reputation.

Not wholly without reason, we associate being “dogmatic” with rigid and merely formulaic thinking. A “dogmatic” thinker doesn’t think at all. Instead, he parrots what he’s been told.

The first thing I should point out is that there is more than a little justice to this criticism of dogma. There are many individuals, including many Orthodox Christians, who seem to resist ever having a new thought. For these people–did I mention some of these are Orthodox Christians?–the old answers are sufficient not so much because they are true (even if they are) but because they are old.

Clinging to the old answers, the old ways, simply because they are old has the advantage of being easy. And there is, to be sure, comfort in knowing what we believe and how we are to live.

But excluding anything that might challenge my beliefs and practices isn’t a good thing. I do this because I’ve fallen into the trap of holding on to the old answers, the old ways, and the received views because they are old rather than because they are true.

It is as dangerous to accept tradition simply because it is old as it is to reject it for the same reason.

In the tradition of the Orthodox Church, “dogma” is not a matter of what is old but what is true. As the word itself suggests in Greek (dogmatika) means clear or right thinking. The “dogmatic” person, in other words, is the one who thinks clearly and rightly.

This has two, important, applications.

We must think dogmatically about the Gospel not because we are slaves to external authority but because the Gospel is true.  It is when we fail to think dogmatically about the Gospel that we become slaves to our emotions or to passing social fads.

Most of all though, our thinking about the Gospel must be dogmatic because our thinking about the Gospel must be guided by the truths.

It is all too easy, as St Paul warns about in today’s reading from Acts, for me to be swept away by glib preachers. In every generation, there are in Church “fierce wolves” who speak “perverse things in an attempt “to draw away the disciples” from Christ. For all that they offer an appealing face to their listeners, these are cruel individuals who in their pursuit of power and control over others will be unsparing in their lies and half-truths.

We need to think clearly lest, when these false witnesses appear in our lives, we are seduced by their charm or confused by their lies.

Such clear thinking, and this the second point, is not simply a matter of theology. Yes, we need to know the Scriptures–is there any Orthodox Christian who doubts this? And yes, we need to know the Creed and the basics of the faith.

But our clear thinking, our dogma if you will, must embrace not only the truths of the faith but also of creation, of human life and society and of our own identity in Christ. Divorced from these, our theological thinking will sooner or later (and usually sooner than later) devolve into heresy. When this happens, our community in Christ becomes a cult that apes the Church and in which the things of God are distorted and put at the service of binding us to the fierce wolf’s cruel control.

In Holy Tradition, the truths of the Gospel are not opposed to those of philosophy. Likewise, sacraments and science are not enemies but rather, in Christ, divinely bestowed gifts give to us for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

Faith and reason, in other words, are not opposed but–to paraphrase St Maximus the Confessor–the two wings by which the soul ascends to God.

To be sure not all Orthodox Christians have the same intellectual gifts. Nor do we all share the same interests.

But whatever might be our personal differences in our abilities and interest, theology and philosophy, sacraments and science, faith and reason, are all God’s gifts. To think dogmatically, that is to think clearly, is to understand that each element in the pair compliments and deepens our appreciation and understanding of its partner.

All this is possible because Jesus Christ is not simply a good man but God become Man. In Christ, the Eternal Word of God speaks in human words. He Who together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, creates the universe, drawing it from us “nothingness into being,” creates and shapes the creation with human hands and according to the insights of a human intellect.

All this He does without loss of His divinity.

As truly God, He creates even as truly Man He shapes the creation. He Who as the Word of God from All-Eternity is beyond what our minds can grasp, as truly Man speaks words we can comprehend though never exhaust.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! In the Incarnation, human life, human thought, human labor, and human society are come to share in Divine Life, Divine Thought, Divine Labor and the Divine Society of the Most Holy Trinity.

To think dogmatically is to see the revelation of God not only in the pages of Scripture but in the Book of Nature.

To think dogmatically is to overcome the chasm sin would place between faith and reason, science and sacrament, created and Uncreated.

To think dogmatically is not to cling to the old answers because they are old but rejoice in them because they are true.

To think dogmatically is to see that in each moment “all things are made new in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

To think dogmatically, means to think clearly, because we think with “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:6), “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), and so conform ourselves to His example (see Romans 8:29) for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory