Homily: Forgiveness

Sunday, February 18 (O.S., February 5), 2017: Cheesefare Sunday; Sunday of Forgiveness Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of Bliss; Apodosis of the Meeting of the Lord. Holy Martyr Agatha (251). Martyr Theodoula, and Martyrs Helladius, Macarius, Boethos, and Evagrius (304). St. Theodosius, Archbishop of Chernihiv (1696).

Ss. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission

Madison, WI

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Forgiveness is the Christian tradition’s response to not only the petty annoyances of everyday life and the conflicts that corrode our relationships with family members, friends, and colleagues. It is also our response to systemic social injustice and the naked manifestations of evil.

In the Gospel, our Lord calls us to forgive all from to the most innocuous to the most horrific of harms. If I don’t understand this, if I don’t understand that I must always be ready to forgive and to counsel forgiveness, I’ve missed the point not simply of today’s Gospel reading but of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The world will often scoff at the Christian’s call to forgive. This happens not because forgiveness is seen as hard–though it is often so hard as to require heroic virtue from us–but because forgiveness undercuts the sinful heart’s desire to “lord it over” others (Matthew 20:25, NKJV).

This temptation to exercise power isn’t limited to “the rulers of the Gentiles.” It is a common human failing. This why in His response to the bickering of the Apostles over who is the greatest among them, Jesus says “whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28, NKJV).

And yet we need to be careful. We need to understand what forgiveness is and, maybe more importantly, what it isn’t.

When I forgive someone, I lay aside, I give up, my desire to punish them for an offense. To the unforgiving heart, it doesn’t matter if the offense was great or small, real or imagined, intentional or inadvertent. What matters to the unforgiving heart is that someone–indeed, anyone–suffers. To the unforgiving heart, someone must be punished.

Not punishing those who harm us isn’t the same as saying the offense didn’t happen or that it didn’t matter. Nor does forgiveness rule out restitution.

No, what forgiveness does is create a space, it creates the opportunity, for the offender to repent, for restitution to be made and for the reconciliation of those who are estranged.

Sadly, we have all of us had the experience someone who is always willing to remind us of our shortcomings and failures. There are those who see in the failures of their neighbor an opportunity to shame the person, to use their neighbor’s weakness as a way “lording it over” the person.

When this happens, I’ll speak simply for myself here, I resist acknowledging my fault. The more the other person tries to shame me, the less willing I am to examine myself and so to repentant.

This isn’t simply because I am a sinner, though I am, but because shame cripples us.

To forgive then means more than not punishing someone; it also means refusing to shame the person who has harmed me. I do this so that he or she is free to undertake the hard and necessary work of self-examination.

As I said a moment ago, forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation. These are, however, very different actions. While I am always free to forgive, reconciliation requires the cooperation of the other person.

Even assuming a mutual willingness to reconcile, circumstances may prevent this from happening. Once lost, trust in an intimate relationship can be hard to re-establish. Or maybe the harm caused is not simply personal but social–I wound not only my neighbor’s heart and so our relationship but his reputation. This is why gossip is so deadly. It can destroy a person’s place in the community.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we prepare to begin the Great Fast and our journey to greet the Risen Lord Jesus, we are commanded by that same Lord to forgive. While last week we are reminded today to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the lonely, sick and imprisoned, today we are told to do only one thing. To forgive.

Let us repent the desire to “lord it over” others.

Let us repent of our fantasies of revenge.

Let us repent of our desire to punish or humiliate those who have harmed or offended us.

Let us, in a word, forgive.

Forgive me a sinner!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Growing in Love

Sunday, February 11, 2018 (O.S., January 29): Meatfare Sunday; Sunday of the Last Judgment; God-bearer(107). Martyrs Romanus, James, Philotheus, Hyperechius, Abibus, Julian and Paregorius (297) Martyrs Silvanus, bishop of Emesa, Luke the Deacon, and Mocius (Mucius) the Reader (312). St. Laurence, recluse of the Kyiv Caves and bishop of Turov (1194).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

lastjudgement8

Reflecting on his love of tragedies and of the grief he feels when a character in a play suffers, St Augustine says he did this not because he loved sorrow but because he wanted to think of himself as the kind of man who feels pity at the sufferings of others. He wanted to think of himself in other words as merciful.

After all, he asks himself, “what kind of mercy is it that arises from” fiction? The audience isn’t asked “to relieve” the suffering they see on the stage “but merely … to grieve.” And the more we sorrow, the more we applaud. In fact he says the “insanity” is so perverse that if we don’t go away feeling bad, we feel cheated. But if we grieve at the fictitious suffering we shed “tears of joy” (Confessions, III:2).

Writing some 15 centuries later, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would refer to the insanity Augustine saw in himself as “cheap grace” describing it as “the grace we bestow on ourselves.” “Cheap grace,” he says, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship, 44,45).

Whether we call it “insanity” or “cheap grace,” St Paul in his epistle condemns both. Because of sin, there is in me a tendency to selfishness, to deal sharply with God as I seek to minimize what He asks of me. Like Augustine, I want to feel mercy but not act mercifully. Or, to return to Bonhoeffer, I want to be forgiven but not asked to repent.

As we look forward to the beginning of the Great Fast, the Church asks us to reflect once again on St Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.” This isn’t a rejection of fasting but a sober reminder of its limits. Indeed of the limits of all of our efforts.

Many of us, whether we Christian or not, fall into the same trap as Augustine. We imagine that it is enough if we feel bad for others. We think it is enough to have the right feelings or to hold to the right opinions. If our heart is in the right place, it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do.

I desperately want to be judged not by what I do but by what I feel. In the grip of this madness, I think my words and actions don’t matter as long as they “come from a good place.” I want, in other words, “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

This was the spiritual illness that afflicted the Corinthians. They thought their liberty meant they could do as they please without any thought to the consequences of their actions for other people.

As important as fasting is for the fathers of the Church, it is only a means to an end. I fast in order to overcome my selfishness so that, in turn, I am able to love.

And just as “cheap grace” isn’t really grace but a counterfeit, love without sacrifice isn’t really love. True love isn’t just sacrificial, it longs to sacrifice. If I love you, I want what is best for you. And if what is best for you is costly for me? I am glad to pay that cost and more.

St Maria of Paris reminds us that “The way to God lies through love of people.” Reflecting on the Gospel we just heard Mother Maria goes on to say that

At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead, I shall be asked did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.

The reason that I will be asked this, and nothing else, is because

About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe (The Pearl of Great Price, 29-30).

Not all of us are called, as Mother Maria was, to open a hostel for the poor. But, as the Gospel makes clear, whatever our state in life, all of us are called to care for those in need as best we can. St John Chrysostom says even the poor are called to care for rich by speaking a kind word or offering a prayer.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Everything we do in the Church is done for one reason, and one reason only. To heal the human heart of the selfishness that is the defining quality of sin.

As selfishness recedes so too will fear.

As fear recedes, your desire to love will grow.

As the desire to love grows, your willingness to love sacrificially will also grow.

And as your willingness to love grows, you will begin to discover more and more opportunities to love!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Self-Knowledge and the Knowledge of God

Sunday, February 4 (O.S., January 22), 2017: Sunday of Prodigal Son; Apostle Timothy of the Seventy (ca. 96). Monk-martyr Anastasius the Persian (628). Martyrs Manuel, George, Peter, Leontius, bishops; Sionius, Gabriel, John, Leontus, Parodus, presbyters; and 377 companions in Bulgaria (817). Martyr Anastasius the Deacon of the Kyiv Caves (12th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius, Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

modern1St Antony the Great taught that to know God, I must first know myself. For St Antony and the fathers of the Church, self-knowledge is the road to the intimate, experiential knowledge of God. If we think about this for a moment it makes sense. God’s first revelation for Himself to me is, well, me.

Created as we are in the image of God, we are each of us also a revelation of God. This is why self-knowledge is the way to God. God reveals Himself to me.

The readings this morning make clear to us the importance not simply of self-knowledge but accurate self-knowledge. Too frequently, I allow a partial or even false self-understanding to influence my behavior. The Church in Corinth is an example of this.

Many in Corinth embraced to Gospel but they misunderstood what it meant to be free in Christ confusing it with permission to engage in immorality. While they knew themselves as free they didn’t understand the nature of freedom.

Seen in this light, St Paul telling the Corinthians to “flee sexual immorality” is nothing more or less than asking them to remember who they are. And who are they? They are temples of the Holy Spirit called to “glorify God” not only in words but in their deeds. In effect, the Apostle tells the Church at Corinth become who you are!

The obstacle to this, to become who I am, is there for us to see in the Gospel.

Like many of us, the young man in the parable has a picture in his head of who he is. It’s important to keep in mind that the young son doesn’t say to his father, “Give me my inheritance so I can waste it on prodigal living with harlots and loss living.” No, and like many of us at 18 or 19, he asks for what is his so that he can strike out on his own. It is only when he acts on this self-image that he discovers its wrong.

The son discovers what all of us at one point need to discover, what the Christians in Corinth discovered, that freedom doesn’t mean the absence of responsibility. Rather, Christ makes me free precisely so I can embrace my responsibilities.

Again, it is likely that the young man didn’t want his inheritance to spend it on riotous living. But, and again like many college students, he discovered that his new, independent life, brought with it new burdens for which he simply wasn’t prepared.

He didn’t strike out on his own to live a life of immorality. Instead, he slowly succumbed to ever greater temptations until he discovered that lost he was no longer free. Little by little, his freedom evaporated until he found himself envying the pigs the garbage they ate.

In that moment, he saw not only the depths to which he sunk but, in coming back to himself as the parable says, he understood that freedom exists so that we can serve others.

Having come back to himself, he rises from his humiliation and returns to his father. But now, rather than being a demanding son, he returns as a servant. Like God the Son in His Incarnation, the boy lay aside what is his by right. Like Jesus, he “empties himself and takes the form of a servant” (see Philippians 2:7).

Finally, the boy sees himself as he is. He comes to understand that it is in service to others, in the practical works of charity, that we find ourselves. In Christ, God has made us free not, as Paul reminds the Corinthians, for immorality but charity. We are made free for sacrifice and it is in and through our sacrifices that we find not only God but our neighbor and ourselves.

What about us? What must we do?

If we would find God and learn to love Him and our neighbor, we must first turn inward. And, looking at ourselves as we must, first of all, accept ourselves as we are. This doesn’t mean saying that everything we see in ourselves is good–much of it isn’t–but that we don’t turn a blind eye toward what we see.

Without self-acceptance, there can be no repentance, no reform our lives, and so no growth in love for God or neighbor.

It may sound strange but the key to the kind of self-acceptance that leads to repentance and growth in charity is rooted in gratitude. If I would grow in the knowledge of God and love for my neighbor, I must first thank God for the gift of my life. And not only this. I must also thank Him for the knowledge of my failures as much as for my successes.

When God reveals my sinfulness to me He is also at the same time revealing His love for me, His willingness (with my co-operation) to heal what is broken in me, to restore me to a greater wholeness of being.

Listen again to St Paul’s words: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” In revealing our sinfulness to us, God shows us the way forward from bondage to sin to the freedom and joy that are the “fruits of the Spirit” (see Galatians 5:22-23).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God asks us today not only to know ourselves but to do so so that we can become who He has created us to be. This morning through St Paul’s words to the Corinthians and Jesus’ parable, God says to each of us, lay aside your sin, stop listening to the lies sin tells you about yourself, lay aside the fear that sin brings and find the courage to become who you are!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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.

publicanphariseeAnd 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

6887711922_19d97768b5_bChrist 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