Don’t Murder Love

Sunday, March 10 (O.S.: February 25), 2019: Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise (Forgiveness or Cheesefare Sunday).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Romans 13:11-14; 14:1-4
Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Slapping me on the shoulder, my friend Rabbi Joe once told me, “I like you, Fr Gregory! You think like a Jew! You forgive everything but forget nothing!”

I’m not exactly sure what Rabbi meant but I’ll defer to his judgment as to what it means to be Jewish. What I can say is that forgiveness is central to both Judaism and Christianity.

For Orthodox Christianity, forgiveness is the evidence of the truth of the Gospel that

Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death,

And upon those in the tombs Bestowing life!

Jesus tells us not only to forgive our enemies and love those who persecute us (see Matthew 5:44) but that we are to do so “seven times seventy time” (see Matthew 18:22).

And when He appears to His disciples after the Resurrection He grants them the power to “bind and loosen” (Matthew 18:18) the sins of others: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).

In all this, we should lose sight of the fact that we are able to forgive because we have been forgiven by God.

For most of us, most of the time, the sins we forgive, like the sins for which we need forgiveness, are usually petty. We are all of us primarily perpetrators and victims not of great injustices but minor annoyances. We are slowly “nibbled to death by ducks” rather than quickly killed by the sword.

This is why in her wisdom, the Church asks us to begin the season of the Great Fast by participating in the Rite of Mutual Forgiveness. We have all of us sinned against each of us even if only in mostly minor ways.

There is a caution that is important here.

The formality of the rite–”Forgive me a sinner!” “God forgives!”–is appropriate when the offense is minor and so easily forgiven and forgotten.

But if the offense is serious, if we were the victim or perpetrator of some great injustice, the formality of the rite is inappropriate. Simply saying “Forgive me a sinner!” would work against forgiveness and undermine reconciliation.

In the case of a serious offense, the formality of the words would not unreasonably be seen as a way of minimizing the harm and of forgetting the past without working to build–or rather, re-build, trust.

In the case of a serious offense, the formality of the Rite of Forgiveness erodes whatever trust is left between us. It says to the one I have harmed that I don’t take seriously the offense I’ve given and so I don’t take seriously the harm he has suffered.

As I said, the Rite of Forgiveness isn’t meant to undo “deadly sins” (see 1 John 5:17) but the myriad minor infractions we all of us commit and suffer daily. The latter can be easily forgiven, while the former requires not only that I go to Holy Confession but that I seek to make right personally and practically the wrong that I’ve done.

But today, today we approach each other with a generous, forgiving and repentant heart for the small offenses we have given and received.

But this doesn’t undermine what I said a moment ago. Our mutual forgiveness is evidence of the truth of the Resurrection, that the power of sin and death have been overcome (see Romans 8:2).

For all that any single offense is minor, in the aggregate, they are as deadly as any single serious sin.

The sad truth is that just as love between a husband and wife, to take only one example, can be killed by one instance of adultery, it can be ground down and destroyed by daily indifference. And like in marriage, infidelity in the spiritual life need not be dramatic to be deadly.

Thinking back almost 30 years later to my friend the late Rabbi Joe, I think what he meant to say was that, a good Jew (and so a good Christian), must always be ready to forgive but never at the expense of denying the harm we do to each other.

Without forgiveness, the harm we do by even the smallest offense is multiplied, eroding trust and affection until love is murdered. Not only is this is something we can never forget, it is something we need to remember.

Let me speaks now simply for myself.

I need to remember this.

I need to remember this not to justify holding grudges but as a reminder of my need to forgive.

I need to remember that even small offenses, over time, will kill love.

Above all, I need to actively seek and extend forgiveness not just for serious sins but also the myriad small and petty offenses of daily life.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Forgive me a sinner!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Human Violence

Sunday, January 13 (OS., December 31, 2018) 2019: Sunday Nativity Afterfeast and Leavetaking (33rd Sunday) Holy Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King, James the Brother of the Lord.

Epistle: Galatians 1:11-19
Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23

Christ is Born!

St Matthew’s account of our Savior’s birth is drenched in violence. For example, in his attempt to end the life of the newborn Messiah, Herod orders the slaughter of all the male children under the age of two.

Horrific as this is, there is something even more horrible that we hear in the silence of the Apostle’s account.

While Matthew quotes the Prophet Jeremiah about the depth and breadth of the parents’ sorrow, he gives no indication that they defended their children. If the mothers–and especially the fathers–of Jerusalem didn’t open the doors children’s’ killers, they certainly didn’t bar the door either.

Matthew gives us no indication that the parents resisted the slaughter of their own children. Instead, it appears as if the parents of Jerusalem, even if unwillingly, stood by and allowed their sons to be slaughtered.

Why would they do this?

Herod’s murderous order and the cooperation of soldiers makes a certain rough sense. They had positions in society that they wanted to protect. Herod especially was a man of great wealth and power because he cooperated with the hated Romans.

But why did the parents and the whole of Jerusalem not rise up in rebellion? Why did they stand aside an allow this great evil?

In the verse immediately prior to those in today’s Gospel we are told that when Herod heard about the birth of the Messiah “he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3, NJKV).

As he so often does, St John Chrysostom goes to the heart of the matter. “Since Herod was king, he was naturally afraid both for himself and for his children. But why was Jerusalem troubled?”

After all the coming of the “the Savor, Benefactor and Deliverer” would be to the advantage not only of Jerusalem and the Jewish People but all humanity.

And, after all, it would be a great honor for the Savior to be born of Jewish woman; not only Mary but the whole of the Jewish People would be vindicated for their fidelity to God.

So why was Jerusalem afraid? Why did they passive cooperate with what Holy Tradition says was the murder of some 14,000 infants?

Chrysostom says they behaved as they did because they were gripped by the same “idolatrous affections” that caused the Hebrew Children to turn away in the hearts from God after their liberation from Egypt many centuries ago.

As horrible as was the killing, as oppressive as was Rome in ways great and small, submission to the Empire offered wealth to some and at least the illusion of security to all.

It is tempting to look back at Matthew’s account of betrayal and violence and think that we have somehow grown beyond such things. While I can’t speak for others, I know this isn’t the case for me.

No, I’m not violent but how easily have I become attached to my position as a priest in the Church. I wouldn’t raise my hand against others but how easily come cutting words to my lips or rise malicious thoughts in my heart.

The difference between Herod, the citizens of Jerusalem and me is one of degree. Like Herod “and all Jerusalem with him,” my heart is often troubled when God makes even the smallest request of me.

Like the Galatians, I “bite and devour” my neighbor by my lack of charity (Galatians 5:15).

Like Saul on the road to Damascus, I “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14).

Like Saul, I do all this because I am more attached to the gifts than the Giver. I  love the things of God more than God Himself.

Or maybe U imagine that what I have, what I have accomplished, I have done simply on my own. Even divine grace I twist into something that I deserve, as something that is mine by right rather than from God’s love for me.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has blessed each of us with spiritual, intellectual, social and yes, material, gifts. When we forget that what we have we have as God’s gift to us, when we imagine that what we have, we have by right rather than grace, then, at that moment, we too become capable of great violence.

In His Incarnation, Jesus Christ has saved us not simply from condemnation in the life to come but freed us from the violence we see not only in the Scriptures but all around us. The fact that this violence is usually social and emotional rather than physically should not lull us into imagining that violence doesn’t mar our lives and doesn’t dwell in our hearts.

But having acknowledged this, we need not despair. Rather, we turn to Christ with repentance for our sins and gratitude for His many gifts.

If we do this, then when in response to the festal greeting “Christ is Born!” our response “Glorify Him!” will be more than words. Our glorification of Christ will have the power to transform our lives and the lives of all we meet.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Remembering God

SDecember 2 (O.S., November 19) 2018: 27th Sunday after Pentecost; Prophet Obadiah (9th c. B.C.). Martyr Barlaam (304). Martyr Heliodorus (273). Martyr Azes, and with him 150 soldiers (284). Ven. Barlaam and Monk loasaph, prince of India, and St. Abenner the King, father of St. loasaph (4thc.). Ven. Hilarion of Georgia, wonderworker of Thessalonica (875). Ven. Barlaam, abbot of the Kyiv Caves (1065).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison WI

Epistle: Ephesians 6:10-17

Gospel: Luke 12:16-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Sometimes what Jesus doesn’t say can be as important as what He does say. The parable we hear this morning is a case in point.

The Rich Fool is not condemned for his care and skill as a farmer; he is a good workman “and the worker is worth his wages” (see Luke 10:7; 1 Timothy 5:18). And anticipating a great harvest, he carefully assesses the cost and not only lays a foundation but successfully builds his barns (see Luke 14:28-29).

All of this is to say that, in a different context, the farmer’s actions are not only prudent but commendable. In his actions at least, the farmer is the model of the “wise and prudent steward” who being trustworthy in small things, is judge able to be faithful in great things as well (see Luke 16:1-13).

Nor is there any indication that the farmer failed in his obligation to pay tithes or care for the poor. Jesus doesn’t say of the farmer what He says to the scribes and Pharisees, the hypocrites who “pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (see, Matthew 23:23).

Nor is the farmer condemned for the mere fact that he is wealthy.

No by all outward appearances, the rich farmer is a good man and an observant Jew. But God doesn’t judge by appearances (see 1 Samuel 16:7), God knows not only what we do but what is in our hearts (see Jeremiah 17:10, Proverbs 21:2, 1 Corinthians 2:11).

And in his heart, the farmer is a fool. In his heart, this otherwise good man and obedient son of the Law says “there is no God” (Psalm 14:1, Psalm 53:1). Tragically, the Rich Fool loses his salvation, he suffers condemnation, not for what he does but for his forgetfulness of God.

Like the Rich Fool, we are all of us tempted to live as if there was no God. We are all of us inclined to a life of “practical atheism.”

We sometimes imagine that our evangelical task is to correct theological errors. While the teachings of the Church are important, they are in a sense secondary. What is primary is that people remember God.

I know from my own life, it is easy enough to go through my day forgetful of God, to live the life of practical atheism that I mentioned a moment ago.

Living in Madison, we encounter everyday men and women who are generous of heart and who work tirelessly for the betterment of others. Whatever else might be said of the Madison in general and the University in particular, the practical love of neighbor is at the very center of both.

And yet, how many of our neighbors live not such much indifferent to God as unaware of His presence in their lives? As a consequence, they never know that they are loved by the Creator of the Universe?

St John Chrysostom says that when Jesus calls us the “salt of the earth” (see, Matthew 5:13) He means this: While He has redeemed the world by His death and resurrection, it belongs to us keep the world falling back into corruption. We are not the redeemers of the world, we are not called to save anyone.

What we are called to do, is to remind people of the presence of God in their lives. By our words and especially are deeds (see, James 2:14-22), we are witnesses to not simply the presence of God in human affairs but His great love for each and every single human being.

To be faithful to our calling we need to remember not only that everyone we meet is loved by God but that, turning now to the epistle, the opponent in our evangelical work is not other people but the enemy of souls. We “do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” St Paul reminds us, “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

When we remind people of God’s presence and love in their lives, we oppose no one but the devil who with his fallen angels seeks to distract humanity from experiencing God’s love. In his envy of us, the enemy of souls makes himself the opponent of patience, kindness, and courtesy in our hearts, our families, and society.

In opposing the distractions of the devil, we become not only leaven for a more just and humane society (see, Luke 13:20–21) but co-workers with God for the salvation of the world (see 1 Corinthians 3:9).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We have one task and one task alone: To remind people of the loving presence of God not simply in the life of all we meet. We are called to remind people that God dwells in each human heart.

By our witness, we invite people to enter into their own hearts and there find there the God Who from before the beginning of the world loves them and called them, even as He has called us, to live lives that are”holy and without blame” (see, Ephesians 1:4).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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

Forgiveness is Our Witness

November 18 (O.S., November 5), 2018: 25th Sunday after Pentecost. Martyrs Galacteon and his wife Episteme at Emesa (253). Apostles Patrobus, Hermas, Linus, Gaius, and Philologus of the Seventy (1st c.). St. Gregory, archbishop of Alexandria (9th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 4:1-6
Gospel: Luke 8:41-56

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We don’t this morning need to look outside the Church to find those who hold Jesus in contempt. We need only to listen to the Gospel. It isn’t the Jewish authorities (e.g., John 8:41,  Matthew 9:34, Luke 11:15) or the Romans (Matthew 27:27-31, John 19:15) who ridicule Jesus.

No, today we see that it is His disciples and His closest friends, Peter, James, and John who treat Jesus with contempt.

For the fathers of the Church, one sign of the truthfulness of the Gospels is that while they agree in substance they often disagree in the details. St John Chrysostom says that while we should “strict[ly] heed … the things … written,” in Scripture, apart from the “good tidings” of “ God on earth, man in Heaven,” the biblical text is nothing but “words … without substance” (Homily on Matthew, 1.2-3).

St Augustine argues that if the Gospels were forgeries if the message they proclaim was false, then the authors would have seen to it to agree in all the details. Instead “each Evangelist believed it … his duty to recount what he had to in that order in which it pleased God to suggest it to his memory.”

he goes on to say that the difference in order and emphasis “detracts in nothing from the truth and authority of the Gospel.”  Why? Because “the Holy Spirit, … permitted one to compile his narrative in this way, and another in that” in order that the reader, noticing the differences, might “with pious diligence … and with divine aid” seek the meaning underlying the text (The Harmony of the Gospel II:12.28).

So, with Chrysostom and Augustine in mind, what are we to make of the apostles ridiculing Jesus?

First, I think it testifies to the truthfulness of the Gospels. Just as forgers would harmonize the details, anyone who wanted to boost the prestige of the Church would not highlight the failures of the apostles. But St Luke is concerned not with the protecting the reputation of the apostles but demonstrating the authority of Jesus over the powers of sin and death.

Second, I think in recounting the apostles’ bad behavior, St Luke reminds us that from the very beginning, the life of the Church was marked by a certain, internal conflict. And how could it be otherwise? Then, as now, the Church is a communion of sinners working out our salvation together “in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

This helps make sense of why St Paul tells the Ephesians to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Read St Paul enough and it becomes clear that the life of the New Testament Church was often marked by conflict. The Apostle is forever reminding the first Christians to forgive each other (e.g., Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:12, 13); to value charity more than miracles (1 Corinthians 13:1-3) and, this morning, to guard the unity of the Church.

As conflict-ridden as this suggests the Church was, what is extraordinary, Tertullian says, is that the Gentiles looking at the early Christians a community of men and women noteworthy for their mutual charity; see “how they love one another.” The pagans lived in an honor-based culture where even the smallest offense often resulted in violence and death. It wasn’t this way for Christians. Christian forgave each other. And while the pagans because of their love of honor were “animated by mutual hatred,” Christians because of their mutual love were “ready even to die for one another” (The Apology, 39.7).

Like the world around us, the life of the Church has always been marred by conflict. But where those in the world respond to strife with hatred and even violence, Christians forgive one another.

The hallmark of the Church is not the absence of conflict but our eagerness to forgive each other even as Jesus forgives us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Just as the truthfulness of Scripture is not found in a forced agreement among the Gospel, the credibility of the Church is not found in a forced and false peace that denies our moments of disagreement.

The integrity of our witness is found in our willingness, eagerness even, to respond with mutual forgiveness to the inevitable moments of misunderstanding, hurt feelings and yes sharp conflict. It is this, our willingness to forgive one another and nothing else, that reveals the power of the Gospel and our commitment to Jesus Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory