Homily: Be Nice, Don’t Judge

Sunday, January 28 (January 15, OS): Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee; Venn. Paul of Thebes (341), and John Calabytes (450); Monk-martyr Pansophius (249-251); Ven. Prochorus and Ven. Gabriel (XI)

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

For the world the Christian life is reduced to two “virtues:” be nice and don’t judge. The second of these–not judging–is in the service of the first, being nice. Nice people don’t judge and judgy people aren’t nice.

And yet, when we look closely at these we discover that those who tell Christian to not be “so judgy,” are themselves willing to make all manner of moral judgments.
The fact is, life requires us to make moral judgments. Failing to do so doesn’t lead to “being nice” but to moral anarchy in which life is anything but nice–must less, justice and peaceful–for any of us.

The wealthy and the strong, the clever and the cruel, might be able to live–and even thrive–in a world without moral judgment. But especially for those who are poor or weak, sick or infirm in body or mind, such a world is anything but nice. It is Hell on earth.

“But,” I hear people responding, “doesn’t Jesus tell us in the Gospel that we aren’t to judge?” (Matthew 7:1-3) Isn’t this what the parable we just heard tell us?

The moral problem in the parable is not that the Pharisee makes moral judgment but what does with these judgments. Everything he says about the tax collector (who tradition tells us is Zacchaeus whose conversion we heard about last week) is true; he is a tax collector.

As for the others that the Pharisee mentions–”extortioners, unjust, adulterers”–all of these are certainly sinful. All of these are not just sins but serious and deadly sins that can rob a person of Heaven (see 1 John 5:17).

Where the Pharisee goes wrong is not in making moral judgments about others but in reducing people to their sins.

We have all of us at one time or another been in the situation where someone takes the opportunity of our failure to shame and humiliate us. This is done by the other making our offense the only thing that matters about us.

This is what the Pharisee does with the tax collector. He sees this man not as his neighbor, not as Zacchaeus a fellow Jew who is also loved by God and struggling to keep the Law. No. He is only a tax collector.

Looking a bit closer at the text, we see that not only does the Pharisee reduced his neighbor to their sin his life he does so in a way that works to his advantage at the expense of the other.

It is from this we must abstain.

We must not reduce people to their sins or indeed to any single aspect or even discrete constellation of characteristics. We must even abstain from, as the Pharisee does with himself, reducing people to their virtues real though they are.

The Pharisee is able to reduce people to their sins because he sees himself only in terms of his own virtue. Like his own virtues and good deeds, his neighbor’s sin is all that matters for him. And the deeper and wider truth of the other? This is lost.

We are none of us all bad or, for that matter, all good.

We are all of us a mix of “wheat and weeds” and will remain so until the Last Judgment (see Matthew 13:24-30). In this life while we must make discrete moral judgments about not only our actions but the actions of others as well, we must never confuse this judgment–true though it may be–with who the person is in the eyes of God.

St Paul is maybe the best illustration of what it means to see people in their fullness; to see them as God sees them.

The Apostle to the Gentile holds himself up to the Churches as an example to be imitated. “I urge you,” he tells the Corinthians, “imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:16, NKJV). He does this not once but twice! “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

But notice what Paul doesn’t say.

He doesn’t say imitate his virtue.

He doesn’t say imitate his actions.

Instead, he reminds St Timothy that he has “carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, [and] afflictions.” Paul never hides his struggle whether they come because of the persecution of others (for example, Acts 9), unforeseen events (Acts 27:27-28:5) or his own sinfulness (2 Corinthians 12:6-8).

For St Paul, it is the whole of the Christian’s life–his virtues as well as his vices, his successes ever much as his failures–that serve as a witness to Christ (2 Corinthians 4:7).

He knows that he–and we, you and me–will sin: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). He knows that sometimes to Gospel is preached out of “envy and strife” even as at other times it is preached “from goodwill.” While the “former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains” he says the latter do so “out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel.”

But no matter why the preacher preaches–”way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached” and Paul rejoices (Philippians 1:15-18, NKJV).

To be a Christian means to understand that “all things work for the glory of God” (Romans 8:28). This makes it possible for us, like St John Chrysostom, to give glory to God for all things, not just good things.

And this gives us the courage to look at our neighbor–and ourselves–and see them (and ourselves)with God’s eyes. We are, in other words, able to love the person no matter how good or wicked they might be.

To get to this place, however, requires a particular kind of response from us to divine grace.

I fall into Pharisee’s sin not because of anything you’ve done. I fail to love you as you are because instead of seeing you, encountering you, I listen instead to my own, internal monologue, that constant running conversation I have with myself about, well, myself.
This internal monologue drowns out your voice and the Voice of God.

This internal chatter leads me to misunderstand God as well the world of persons, events, and things that make up my daily life.

And even though I’m the author of the monologue, it even causes me to misunderstand myself.

It is this last thing that is the source of all my moral failure and so silencing the monologue and cultivating a habit of inner silence, is how I cooperate with God as heals me of my sin.

The world tells us that as Christians we must “be nice” and “not judge” Let us take up their challenge but not on their terms but on those of the Gospel!

As we cultivate inner silence we become more and more able to see ourselves and others as God see us. It was because he cultivated inner silence that St Seraphim of Sarov was able to greet everyone he met by saying “My Joy! Christ is Risen!”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Imagine what it would mean for your life and for the people around you if you thought of everyone a source of joy and a living revelation of the Resurrection of Christ!

You would be, as the world say, “nice” and not “judgy.” In fact, you would be unimaginable more than nice and do so much more good than simply not being judgy.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: The Poverty of the Son

Sunday, January 7, 2018 (December 25, 2017, OS): The Nativity of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ; The Adoration of the Magi: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Mission, Madison WI

Epistle: Galatians 4:4-7
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

Christ is Born!

Poverty, economists remind us, is always relative. We need to avoid the temptation of thinking of poverty only in monetary terms. Limiting poverty to merely the absence of material wealth, we risk overlooking the fact that it is in the nature of human beings to be poor.

What I mean by this is that, in the beginning, when God “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7), He created Adam in need. We see this in the Hebrew word translated as “living being” or sometimes “living flesh,” nép̄eš a word that connotes “neediness.” It is sometimes used to describe things like a flute or the throat, things that function–are only themselves if you will–because they are empty.

As it comes from the hand of God, it is in Adam’s nature to be poor.

Far from being a hardship, this original poverty means that all that humanity has, all that Adam and all of his descendants have, we have as a gift of God. My natural talents, my spiritual gifts, my family, and my very existence all these are God’s gift to me even as all that you have is likewise His gift to you.

When in the hymnography of the Church we hear that the Son becomes poor for our sake. This isn’t primary referring to material wealth. If Jesus was born in a palace with the Theotokos lying in a bed of finest linen, attended by the best physicians and with midwives who washed the Newborn Child with water poured from vessels of gold, we would still say that the Son was born in poverty.

The simple reason for this is that to be human means to be empty or if you will to be poor. And while Adam rejects his own poverty, his own radical dependence on God, in the Incarnation the Son freely embraces all this “for us and for our salvation” as we say in the Creed.

In the faith of the Church, humanity’s poverty is a fitting vehicle for the revelation of God. Our poverty reflects the supra-abundance of the divine nature.

And this, in turn, means that Jesus not only reveals the Father to us, He reveals us to ourselves. To say that humanity is created in the image of God means that we are created according to the pattern of Jesus Christ Who is Himself the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” St Paul goes on to say of Jesus that

…by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything (Colossians 1:15-18, NKJV).

In becoming Man, the Son doesn’t cease to be God, He doesn’t cease to be the one through Whom all things are created and in Whom all “all things are held together.” Rather, in taking on our humanity, the Son takes on our poverty, our dependence on God. And as we see in the events of Holy Week, He also takes on our vulnerability to our indifference and cruelty.

It is God’s embrace of poverty that troubles “Herod the king … and all Jerusalem with him.” St John Chrysostom says that Herod and Jerusalem are troubled because like the Hebrew children in the desert they are in the grip of “idolatrous affections.” Once again they are more inclined toward “the fleshpots of bondage” than the offer of that “new freedom” that allows them to cry out “Abba! Father!”

Chrysostom goes on to say that Herod and all of Jerusalem “were on the point of having everything going their way.” Even though “they knew nothing” yet about the Incarnation, if they only “formed their judgments … on the basis of self-interest,” the fact that the mighty Persians came to worship this Newborn King should have strengthened their faith in God and their hope for liberation from Roman tyranny. That they were troubled the saint says means that their hearts were dull and marred by envy, (“The Gospel of Matthew,” Homily, 6.4 in ACCS: NT vol Ia: Matthew 1-13, pp. 22-23).

Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” this same envy that often mars our own spiritual lives.

Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” we are tempted to prefer the passing riches of man to the poverty of God.

Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” like Adam, we are troubled because we reject the poverty that the Son willingly embraces.

And yet, for all that we fail, there is hope. As I said a moment ago, Jesus not only reveals the Father to us but us to ourselves. We see simultaneously in the Face of Jesus both God the Father and our own deepest identity.

To embrace the poverty of the Son doesn’t mean to become materially destitute. Rather it means to put all that we have at the service of glorifying God and reconciling humanity to the Father and with itself

As Orthodox Christians living in America, we are members of a painfully small community. As a new mission, we are the smallest Orthodox community in the city of Madison.

But given our location on the Isthmus, we have been given the great blessing of being at the heart of not only Madison but of the whole state of Wisconsin. God has set us aside as witness of His love to the most powerful voices in our city, our state and really in the nation. In calling us, God has blessed us and will continue to bless us if we remain faithful.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the required fidelity consists merely in this: to imitate the willing poverty of the Newborn Christ Child.

Christ is born!

+Fr Gregory