Virtues Hard & Soft

September 23 (O.S., September 10) 2018: 17th Sunday after Pentecost. Sunday before the Exaltation. Afterfeast of the Nativity of the Theotokos. Martyrs Menodora, Metrodora, and Nymphodora (305). Synaxis of the Holy Apostles Apelles, Lucius, and Clement of the Seventy. Martyr Barypsabas in Dalmatia (2nd c.). Blessed Pulcheria, the Empress of Greece (453). Sts. Peter (826) and Paul (9th c.), bishops of Nicaea. Ven. Paul the Obedient of the Kyiv Caves (14th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission

Madison, WI

Epistle: Galatians 6:11-18
Gospel: John 3:13-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Old Testament background of the today’s Gospel is this.

Because the Hebrew children “spoke against God and against Moses … the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, and many … died” (Number 21: 5,6, NKJV).

Stories like these are important because they remind us that God is not only a God of mercy and love but justice and vengeance. In this case,  God punishes His People because of their lack of gratitude and faith.

It isn’t so much that we forget this. It is reather that many of us simply ignore the demands of divine justice in favor of “cheap grace.” We don’t want to think that God punishes the unrepentant.

I don’t want to think God would punish me.

And yet, the whole of the New Testament, the whole dispensation of divine mercy, makes no sense if we neglect divine justice.

The “soft virtues” like compassion, mercy, and forgiveness depend on the “hard virtues” of justice, courage, honor, and duty. To see why this is, let’s return briefly to the events in the desert.

Even though they have blasphemed God and slandered him, Moses puts this aside and intercedes on behalf of the Hebrew children when they come to him in repentance (Number 21:7). As events unfold we see that both repentance and forgiveness requires real strength of character. Both require a willingness to look unflinchingly at human sinfulness and the terrible harm it inflicts on us.

And this is true whether I am the one who has sinned or been sinned against. There can be no forgiveness if I refuse to accept the harm inflicted.

And so, Moses makes “a bronze serpent” and puts “it on a pole” so that “if a serpent had bitten anyone when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” There is healing for those who have the courage to repentant.

Healing requires that I first have the willingness to look at the evil in my own heart and acknowledge the harm I have brought on myself and others by my sins.

Jesus draws a parallel between the Cross and the bronze serpent in the desert. To look at the Cross with faith means this: To acknowledge that it is not simply for my sins that He dies. It is rather because of my sins that Jesus suffers crucifixion.

To put the matter more directly, Jesus is not crucified by the Jews or the Romans but by me, by my sins.

This is a hard saying which is why I need the “hard virtues.” I’m tempted to turn away, to want mercy and forgiveness without self-examination and repentance. I want to be loved by God but resist loving Him if doing so requires that I acknowledge my own unlovable qualities.

There are many ways in which I seek to sidestep the necessity of repentance. The events in the early Church that the Apostle Paul alludes to in his epistle to the Galatians highlights one such way.

Since the Fall, humanity has been divided against itself. This happened in the early Church. Then the dividing line was drawn between those who demanded the Gentiles keep the Law of Moses and those who, like Paul, said that this was not only unnecessary but impossible. “For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.”

Like some in the early Church, I am all too willing to divide the human family into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Maybe my preferred categories aren’t theological. Maybe I prefer to think in terms of “liberals” versus “conservatives,” or “Democrats” versus “Republicans.” Or maybe just “them” and “us.”

The categories don’t matter.

What does matter is that the “good guys” are on my side. The real problem, I tell myself, is those other guys. Those “liberals” or “conservatives,” those “Democrats” or “Republicans.” Not “us” but “them.”

And yet, Solzhenitsyn points out, the line between good and evil runs not between people but through each human heart. If I forget this if I insist on dividing the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” do something worse than fail to acknowledge the presence of evil in my own heart.

If I remain on this path, I quickly come to a point where–to maintain the illusion that evil is “out there” in “those people”–I turn against those who were until only just a moment ago were my allies, my fellow “good guys,” my friends.

To refuse to look on the Cross without repentance is to condemn myself to a life of isolation in which each person I meet is not my friend but my enemy. Absent repentance, the world around me is filled with nothing other than “bad guys” intent on my harm.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Compassion, mercy, love, forgiveness, all these require from us a real effort. There is no “soft virtue” that isn’t the fruit of a “hard virtue.” Likewise, there isn’t a “hard virtue” that doesn’t bear fruit in a “soft virtue.” Both, in fact, require the other and one without the other is simply a to write “Christian” what is actually a vice.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Profitable Servants

September 16 (O.S., 3) 2018: 16th Sunday after Pentecost; Hieromartyr Anthimus, bishop of Nicomedia. Martyrs Theophilus deacon, Dorotheos, Mardonius, Migdonius, Peter, Indes, Gorgonius, Zeno, the Virgin Domna, and Euthymius (302). St. Theoctistus (467), fellow-faster with St. Euthymius the Great. St. Phoebe, deaconess at Cenchreae near Corinth (1st c.). Martyr Basilissa of Nicomedia (309). Hieromartyr Aristion, bishop of Alexandria, in Syria (3rd c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission

Madison, WI

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 6:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

Like shepherds, merchants were held in low repute by most of the ancient world.

A shepherd was all but synonymous with “thief.” Alone with the flock, shepherds (who were frequently hirelings), could easily help themselves to a lamb or a sheep. If confronted, he could claim the animal either wandered off in the night or was killed by wolves.

Given this background, it would have been jarring for people to hear Jesus refer to Himself as the “Good Shepherd.” Contrary to all expectations, Jesus says of Himself that He is a shepherd Who will protect the flock and be faithful in His accounting to the Owner.

But to his listeners, this would have sounded as nonsensical as Jesus calling Himself an “altruistic thief”!

As with calling Himself the “Good Shepherd, ” Jesus referring to His disciples to be “profitable servants” inverts cultural expectations.

In the ancient world, hard cash was rare. Most of the economy ran on barter. Given the limited viability of bartered goods, profit like that in the parable was unheard of. While some individuals had more than others, the fabulous wealth like that of the profitable servants could ordinarily come only from corruption.

The truly wealthy, those who had large reserves of gold for example, were wealthy because they were able to exploit political connections. Emperors, governors, government bureaucrats, soldiers, tax collectors could all become wealthy because they all had the ability to exploit and extort others.

So when Jesus calls us to be “profitable servants”?  This would have been as jarring as when He called Himself a Good Shepherd.

And yet,  Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are called to be His profitable servants.

Just as there is a way to be a good shepherd (John 10:11-18), there is a way to be a profitable servant.

We have all of us had the experience of feeling cheated. At some point, we all of us wonder if the merchant or the car dealer, the mechanic or contractor hasn’t been dishonest with us.

On the other hand, we have also all had the experience of making a purchase in which we felt truly cared for. It’s not for nothing that we use the phrase “goods and services” to describe the myriad economic exchanges we make daily.

The morally good way to acquire profit isn’t simply to meet the customer’s desires or needs. No, the morally good merchant, tradesman or professional also gives evidence of caring for us personally; of caring sincerely for our well-being and dignity.

Just as in the economic realm, the morally and spiritually profitable servant is the one who serves others, who fosters the well-being of his or her neighbor. This is the life to which we are called this morning by Jesus.

And like the servants in the Gospel, we all have talents that can be put at the service of others. For many of us–and this is important–those talents include technical knowledge. We are (or are preparing to be) scientists, professors, attorneys, business people, health care professionals, and teachers.

We all of us have technical expertise and in our baptism, Jesus has called us to put these not just at the service of others but to use them for their salvation. Whatever trade or profession, the skills we possess are meant to help others come to know and follow Jesus Christ as His disciples and witnesses in the Orthodox Church.

Let me pause for a moment here and say something that may sound harsh.

I think often the clergy fail to value properly the technical knowledge and expertise of the laity. Clergy tend, if I’m honest, to reduce the evangelical witness and pastoral life of the Church to the theology and the precincts of the church. While the fathers, the Creed, the Liturgy, the sacraments and the worship of the Church are all essential to life in Christ, they don’t exhaust what it means to be an Orthodox disciple of Christ.

Whether clergy or not, we minimize the technical knowledge of the laity because we fail to appreciate the evangelical witness that is inherent to excellence in the trades and professions. Through the service the laity–the service all of you–provide daily in the workplace and the home, others are being prepared to receive Christ.

How does serving others, prepare their hearts to receive Christ? In many ways.

Think, for example, of the sense of gratitude you have when someone goes even a little bit beyond what’s required by their job. The server in a restaurant or checker in a grocery store who takes an interest in your day. The tradesman or salesperson who puts your needs before his or her own economic interest. The physician or teacher who speaks to you not simply as a patient or as a student but as someone he or she truly values and appreciates.

All of these experiences can lift us out of our selfishness and foster in us an experience of gratitude. Over time, these experiences lead us to seek the Source of this goodness we see in others. And we come to want ourselves to be kinder.

All of these experiences, in other words, can inspire us to faith in Jesus Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! In baptism, God has given each of us, given each of you, talents that allow you to be profitable servants. Through the everyday exercise of these talents, God has called you to prepare the hearts of all you met to receive the Gospel.

God has called you, in other words, to be profitable servants through your service of others.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Free to Love

September, 9 (O.S., August 27): 15th Sunday after Pentecost; Ven. Poemen the Great (450). St. Hosius (Osia) the Confessor, bishop of Cordova (4th c.). St. Liberius, pope of Rome (366). Ven. Poemen of Palestine (602). Martyr Anthusa. Hieromartyrs Pimen, Kuksha, of the Kyiv
Caves (1114).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

St Paul tells us that the God Who created the Universe has come to dwell in our hearts. This is what it means to be Orthodox Christians; we are the people in whom God dwells.

All of this reveals as well, the dignity of each and every single human being. To be human means to be a potential dwelling place for God.

Human dignity and the nobility of the Christian vocation are both revealed and accomplished through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. In the waters of Baptism, we discover what it means to be truly human. We are most fully ourselves when we are incorporated into the Church and so become each of us personally and all of us together, the dwelling place of God.

Because God has come to dwell in our hearts, we don’t need to look around us to find Him. He is not somewhere “outside” us. He is rather in our hearts and all we need to do to find God is to turn inward.

The problem is that when I turn inward and I look in my own heart, it isn’t just God that I find.

St. Macarius the Great says that while the human “heart itself is but a little vessel” it contains “dragons and … lions; … venomous beasts and all the treasures of wickedness.” He goes on to say that there are in my heart as well “rough and uneven ways” and dangerous “chasms.”

More importantly, however, is that in our hearts we find as well “God, … the angels, the life and the kingdom, there light and the apostles, there the heavenly cities, there the treasures” of grace. There is in each human heart all that is good and life-giving as well as all that is evil and death-dealing. There are in each of us “all things.”

We all know this about ourselves. Or at least, we know part of this.

We all know that our hearts contain ugly things and this is why we hesitate to turn inward.

I don’t want to see the ugliness in my own heart. And so to avoid seeing what I don’t want to see, I create an image of myself.

I build this self-image, idol really, from what others say about me and the bits and piece of everyday experience.

The problem is, this isn’t me. It is an idol of my own creation.

So what is the alternative? What are we, as Orthodox Christians to do?

We must look into our own hearts.

This turning inward to find God is hard. It requires a fair measure of courage because it means seeing the evil and shame I would prefer to forget. But if I can keep from turning away, I remain faithful in my inward turn, I will find God and experience His love for me.

On Holy Saturday while His body laid in the tomb, Jesus descends into Hell and takes it captive as we hear in the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom. We must never forget that Jesus reigns not only in Heaven but also in Hell.

In coming to dwell in our hearts, Jesus makes His throne in that hell we create in ourselves.

If we turn inward and look at those things that most shame us, that cause us the most pain, if we turn and look at our darkest secret and our most serious sins, we will find Jesus there waiting for us with His arms open to embrace us with love.

In the Gospel, Jesus says that it is just this love that sums up the whole of the law. As Jesus loves us, sacrificially and without reservation, we are called to love not only our brothers and sisters in Christ but all who we meet and even ourselves.

This love that God has called us to demonstrate begins in our love for God. To love others as Jesus loves me, I must give myself over to Him without reservation.

This is the great mystery of the Christian life.

To give myself over to God in love means that I must be willing to accept His love for me. When I refuse to acknowledge my own sinfulness when I turn a blind eye to the darkness in my own heart, I am in that moment turning away from God’s love for me, I am fleeing my King’s Throne.

And when I do this, what then? With what am I left with that false idol I created of myself.

And remember, like you, I built this idol.

And not only do I know it’s false, I also know that the more tenaciously I cling to it and the more this is the face I present to the world, the more I become a stranger to love.

As for the second of the commandments–that we love our neighbor as ourselves–this sums up the evangelical witness of the Church. Our calling is to smash idols not with violence but by seeing through them by our willingness to love people as they truly are.

Secure in God’s love for us, we are able to look fearless at the sin and darkness in not only own hearts but in our neighbor. And seeing this, we don’t turn away but reach out with the same love God has for us.

In doing so, we realize that our love for them isn’t ours alone but also God’s.

Though we add nothing to God’s love, nevertheless when we join ourselves to God we are able to lift, if only a little, the burden of shame that binds not only our neighbor but also ourselves.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Is there anyone you hate so much that you would see them enslaved by the same self-hatred that afflicts you? Longing as you do to be freed from the crippling burden of shame, would you deny such freedom to others?

Longing as you do, to love and to be loved, would you deny this to others?

Longing as you do to drop the mask you wear daily, would you deny this to others?

God has given us in baptism three great gifts. The first is to know that we are loved by the Creator of the Universe, that He has come to dwell in our hearts.

The second gift is like the first. To return that love to the God Who loves us.

Third but by no means least, the courage to love others as God loves us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lay Vocation

September 2 (O.S., August 2) 2018: 14th Sunday after Pentecost. Afterfeast of the Dormition; Prophet Samuel (6th c. B.C.); Martyrs Severus, Memnon, and 37 soldiers at Plovdiv in Thrace (304).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission

Madison, WI

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 1:21-2:4
Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Like last week’s parable of the wicked tenants, the parable we hear this morning is directed at us. We are those who have been invited to the Wedding Feast of the King’s Son. We should see in each of the three groups warnings about the challenges we face in our Christian life.

First are those who, as we hear in the parable, make light of the invitation. Second are those who respond with hostility, and even violence, to the King’s invitation. Most tragic of all, however, are those who come to the banquet but hold themselves apart from the celebration. Let’s look at each in turn.

At least in America, open hostility to the Gospel is, thank God, relatively rare. But especially in an academic context like UW, it isn’t uncommon to encounter individuals who dismiss the Gospel as somehow incompatible with being an educated person.

For others, and this is the second category, the Gospel isn’t simply the superstition of the intellectual unsophisticated. Rather life in Christ is seen as oppressive, a social ill that needs to be eradicated or at least limited to the private sphere.

These first two groups are fellow travelers. The quiet contempt of the first emboldens the second even as the second confirms the first group’s feelings of intellectual and cultural superiority.

To be fair, while the hostilities are ultimately unwarranted and represent a serious distortion of the tradition of the Church, Christians are not always the best example of the truth of the Gospel. My own lapses in charity do more to undermine the credibility of the Gospel than the polemics of the so-called “new atheists.” Far too often my personality or my behavior isn’t as a bridge between the others and Jesus Christ but a wall. At times it seems my concern is not to live in such a way that reveals Jesus to the world but to hide Him from others.

If those who hold the Gospel in contempt or who persecute Christians are wrong, we who believe in Jesus Christ would do well to consider how our own actions and attitudes contribute to the situation.

This brings me to the third group: those who accept the invitation but who hold themselves apart from the Kingdom of God.

We will leave to scholars the debate about whether or not the ungrateful guest failed to come dressed properly or whether he refused the gift of a wedding garment. For the fathers of the Church, this is a secondary concern. Their primary concern is with the garment as a symbol of the grace of Holy Baptism.

All of us who have been “baptized into Christ, have put on Christ” as St Paul tell us (Galatians 3:27). Having been clothed in divine grace, what then? Do I take seriously my own vocation to be a son or daughter of God? Do I know what it means to fulfill my baptismal vocation? Do I even know that I have such a vocation?

For many Orthodox Christians, indeed for the vast majority of Orthodox Christians, the answer to these questions is “No.” This doesn’t, however, so much reflect indifference or hostility on their part but a lack of information.

For most Orthodox Christians, life in Christ begins and ends with participation in the Divine Liturgy. Without in any way minimizing the centrality of the Liturgy, life in Christ is much broader and deeper than the passive attendance at Liturgy.

Putting on my social scientist cap for just a moment, I suspect that the reason so few Orthodox Christians make attendance at Liturgy and the reception of Holy Communion a priority is because the clergy–bishops, priests, and deacons–have neglected the spiritual formation of the laity. We–the clergy–don’t take seriously the vocation of the laity that each of us received at baptism.

But we all of us have a vocation!

At our baptism, God gives each of us gifts to use for His glory, the salvation of the world and our own growth in holiness. God has called each of us to be co-workers with Christ for the salvation of the world (1 Corinthians 3:9). And we gain our salvation through our faithful response to the grace poured out in our lives not only once at baptism but daily, hourly, moment by moment.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! How many Orthodox Christians, how many of us, know concretely that we have been called by God to work for the salvation of the world? How many of us realize–much less act on–that the vocation of the laity is far more than serving on a parish council, teaching church school, or singing in the choir?

All good things those they are, they don’t exhaust what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. We all of us have a vocation that was given in to us Baptism.

This vocation is nourished by the Eucharist.

This vocation s healed and strengthened by the other sacraments and the liturgical and ascetical life of the Church.

In the coming weeks, will look at that vocation in more detail. For now, though, ask God in your daily prayers to reveal to you the contours and content of your own baptismal vocation.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

 

 

Detachment

August 26 (O.S., August 13), 2018: Afterfeast of the Transfiguration; Martyrs Anicetus and Photius (Photinus) of Nicomedia (305); Hieromartyr Alexander, bishop of Comana (3rd c.); Martyrs Pamphilus and Capito.

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 16:13-24
Gospel: Matthew 21: 33-42

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukranian Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Notice in the parable that Jesus doesn’t accuse the tenants of being unfruitful. These are not individuals who neglect the work they’ve been given to do. The conflict arises precisely because they are productive workers who anticipate a bountiful harvest.

Surrounded by beauty and wealth, the tenants became envious. They didn’t forget they were tenants. Rather, their unhappiness with their status cause them but envied the owner.

Or rather, their envy causes them to feel unsatisfied with the work they’ve done.

Whenever in the Gospels we hear about a rich harvest, we are meant to think about the evangelical mission of the Church. And this is what the parable is about.

On one level, Jesus is inditing the Jewish authorities not only of His time but all those in Israel who persecuted the prophets. As the heirs of those who for generation after generation rejected those God set over them, it isn’t a surprise that the authorities of His time will reject Jesus and turn Him over to the Romans for execution.

On another level though, the parable is directed to the Church; to us.

There is an unfortunate tendency for Christians to forget that we aren’t the owners of divine grace. Much less are we the source of the divine life that God pours out on His people by the power of the Holy Spirit through the sacraments.

No, we are stewards of grace.

It is our task, our calling, and great honor, to discern the presence and the shape of that grace in our own lives and the lives of those we meet.

Again, we are the stewards of grace.

Sometimes though I am tempted to forget this. When I do, there is a subtle (or maybe not so subtle) shift in my attitude.

I allow envy to take hold of my heart. As it does, my relationship to the things of God and to the People of God becomes corrupt. Over time, envy gives way to a proprietary attitude. Like the tenants in the parable, I come to think I own the Church.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis points out that one of the devil’s tricks is to get us to ignore the vast difference between “my boots” and “my God.” Many of us forget, for example, that “my parish” is more like “my God” than “my boots.”

This temptation is all the stronger when, as the parable highlights, the evangelical mission of the Church is bearing fruit. How easy it is for the priest or the lay evangelist to confuse his efforts with the grace of God. It is this that Jesus condemns in the Gospel.

And He condemns not only the attitude but those who hold to it. We must not, our Lord tells us today, allow a proprietary attitude to take hold in our hearts. To guard against this I need to foster a sense of detachment.

Detachment doesn’t mean indifference but an awareness that everything and everyone in my life comes to me as God’s gift to me for His glory, my salvation and the salvation of the world.

Detachment means always struggling against the temptation to confuse “my God,” “my spouse,” “my child,” “my vocation,” and yes, “my church,” with “my boots.”

Detachment, in the final analysis, means remembering that I am not the owner or source of grace but its steward.

Important here, as well, is that I remember that I am only one steward of grace among many. Detachment means that I am aware that God has entrusted me with only one part of His Kingdom.

Whether large or small, great or humble, our responsibilities are limited.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We are all of us always tempted to envy in the spiritual life. We are all of us always tempted to think that we own the things of God.

We need to be on guard against this attitude, we need to remain detached. To accomplish this we must, as St Paul tells the Corinthians, “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory