Homily: Become Good!

Sunday, November 17 (OS 4), 2019: 22nd Sunday after Pentecost; Ven. Ioannicius the Great of Bithynia (846). Hieromartyrs Nicander, bishop of Myra, and Hermas, presbyter (1st c.). Ven. Mercurius, faster of the Kyiv Caves (14th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Galatians 6:1-18
Gospel: Luke 8:41-56

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We saw last week that we are naturally attracted to goodness. This why in the moments of their greatest need, both Jarius and the woman with the issue of blood reach out to Jesus. Goodness is naturally attractive to us. This is all the more true in the moments of our greatest need.

It is however not enough to be attracted to the Good. Loving what is good is only possible to the degree that I become good myself. This is why St Paul tells us that “if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

Jesus has called each of us personally to be both gentle and effective in our love for others. We are each of us called, personally and by name, to become good.

It is easy to correct someone else. But whether we do it bruskly or, as Paul tells us, gently if we don’t do it in a way that helps lift the burden of error from another, then we are no better then the scribes and the Pharisees who Jesus condemns for “bind[ing] heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay[ing] them on men’s shoulders; but … not mov[ing] them with one of their fingers” (Matthew 23:4, NKJV).

Too frequently, as one of my youth ministry students pointed out this week, Christians–and this includes Orthodox Christians–are better know for what we are against than what we are for. If I’m not careful, and sometimes even when I am, I can slip into merely criticizing others. It is easy to tell others they’re wrong; it’s much harder to help liberate them of whatever error is constraining their freedom.

Recently, I was asked to sign a public letter written by a friend of mine who pastors a large, Evangelical church. In the letter, my friend criticizes a proposed change in public policy.

I won’t be signing because as I read it, I realized three things about it.

First, I share my friend’s concerns. Whatever our theological differences, I think morally his concerns are legitimate. Public officials are pursuing a fundamentally unjust policy.

Second, as I read the letter, I also realized that it offered no practical way forward. The letter failed to acknowledge that while the policy was immoral, the underlying concern was legitimate. The policy was pursuing a morally good goal but with morally dubious means.

Third, the takeaway from the letter is that “we” are right and “you” are wrong. True after a fashion but in any case, not helpful.

Jesus Christ has called us not only to love what is good but to be good ourselves. To be good means to help others become themselves good. We are called to help lift from people the burdens that bind them and to heal the wounds that make goodness elusive for them.

Some of these burdens are moral, others material or social. Whatever the burden, our task is to lighten it, to help others become free from what constrains them.

In this process, God has given us among other things the sacrament of confession. When I notice in myself an indifference to what is good or an inclination to criticize rather than help I need to bring these things to confession.

Loving the good makes me good but becoming good means repenting and rooting out my own sinfulness. let me go back to my student’s observation. If I am to be an effective witness for Jesus Christ, it isn’t enough for me to condemn sin in myself or others.

I must also free myself from my own sin so that I can, in turn, help others free themselves from theirs. In this, the sacrament of confession holds pride of place.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us not only love the good but become good ourselves!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Be Kind

Sunday, November 3 (OS October 21), 2019: 20th Sunday after Pentecost; St. Hilarion the Great of Palestine (371); Martyrs Dasius, Gaius, and Zoticus at Nicomedia (303); Ven. Hilarion of the Kyiv Caves, First Ukrainian Metropolitan of Kyiv (1067).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Madison, WI

Epistle: Galatians 1:11-19

Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

Glory to Jesus Christ!

As He often does, this morning Jesus tells us a story. There are in this story two men: an unnamed rich man and a beggar Lazarus.

Of all the figures we meet in the parable of Jesus, Lazarus is the only one who is named. All the rest go on named. They are types of human affairs but devoid of personal identity.

Lazarus is named because suffering, like love, is always personal. Even when suffering strips me of my dignity, the loss is always a personal loss. It is Lazarus in all his personal uniqueness that lies outside the rich man’s gate hungry and sick.

As for the rich man, he uses his wealth to hold himself apart from Lazarus. He uses his wealth to depersonalize Lazarus but, in so doing, the rich man strips himself of his own dignity. His indifference to Lazarus’ humanity comes at the cost of his own.

And so we have the nameless rich man, an impersonal type and Lazarus whose humanity shines through even in the midst of his suffering.

This Gospel is one of St John Chrysostom’s favorites. Again and again, he comes back to it in his homilies as a priest and later as the Archbishop of Constantinople.

Looking at the relationship between Lazarus and the rich man, the latter is condemned not because he failed to bring Lazarus into his home. His condemnation isn’t the result of an unwillingness to share his table with Lazarus.

Rather he is condemned because he fails to show Lazarus the mercy shown him by “the dogs came and licked his sores.” It wasn’t because he failed to host Lazarus at a great feast but because he failed to feed him “with the crumbs” from his table. It wasn’t because he didn’t offer Lazarus wine but that he didn’t give him the same favor he asked for himself. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.”

Chrysostom says the rich man is condemned because he failed to relieve, however fleetingly, Lazarus’ suffering. The rich man was condemned not for failing to make Lazarus rich but for failing to be kind.

It is this kindness that is at the heart of our evangelical witness and mission here on the Isthmus.

St Paul in his epistle the Gospel he preaches comes not from man but from God. This isn’t meant to undermine the importance of the Church. Far from it in fact!

After preaching the Gospel with great success for three years in Arabia, the Apostle goes to Jerusalem. The fact that he received the Gospel from Jesus Christ doesn’t mean Paul can do without the Church.

St John Chrysostom says in traveling to Jerusalem, St Paul reveals the depth and breadth of his humility. He doesn’t enter Jerusalem like Cesaer but quietly. He doesn’t seek out the praise of the Church but a quiet meeting with Peter and later James the brother of our Lord.

He who was called by Christ in humility seeks to be confirmed by Peter.

Here we need to pause and ask ourselves, how does Peter receive Paul? He doesn’t castigate Paul for having persecuted the Church. Instead, he receives him as a brother. Rather than shame for the great harm he has done, Peter extends the hand of friendship.

Both in Paul’s humility and Peter’s reception of Paul, we see what it means to respond with evangelical kindness.

When people come to us, we need to open wide the doors of the Church. Far from responding with polemics or words that shame them for past deeds, evangelical kindness demands we lift from their shoulders the burdens that bind them.

To do this requires the humility of both Peter and Paul.

Like Paul, the Gospel we have received comes not from man but God. And, again like Paul, far from separating us from the Church, from those who have gone before us in the faith, the Gospel binds us ever more tightly together.

Like Peter, we must be always willing to receive freely and without demand anyone who comes to us no matter how imperfect and lacking their repentance. After all if, like Paul, they have been chosen by God how can I turn them away?

Brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us learn from Peter and Paul and the failures of the rich man! Let us practice simple kindness. Let us make kindness our daily rule for how we will respond to those God brings to us.

Let us simply be kind and so win the souls of those burdened by sin.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Asking for What We Don’t Want

Sunday, October 27 (OS., October 14), 2019: 19th Sunday after Pentecost; Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787); Martyrs Nazarius, Gervase, Protase, and Celsus of Milan (1st c.); Hieromartyr Silvanus of Gaza (311); Ven. Parasceva (Petka) of Epibatima, Thrace, whose relics are in Iasi, Romania (11th c.). St. Mykola Sviatosha, prince of Chernihiv and wonderworker of the Kyiv Caves (1143).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9/Hebrews 13:7-16

Gospel: Luke 8:5-15/John 17:1-13

St Augustine in his Letter to Proba observes that when we pray, we ask for what we don’t want. He means by this that when I ask God for mercy or forgiveness, or as we hear in the second Gospel this morning, joy, what I’m asking for is what I understand by mercy, forgiveness, or joy. 

In asking, then, I ask for my will to be done not God’s. I ask for something I don’t want because I ask for something I don’t understand. 

St Paul alludes to this when he tells the Corinthians that the mysteries of heaven are “not lawful for a man to utter.” This isn’t because God forbids us to speak of His “grace and love for mankind” (see Titus 3:4). It is rather that no matter how eloquent the speakers, human words fall far short of reality.

So much of the frustration I experience in the spiritual life comes from my tendency to confuse my understanding of God with God Himself. Again, I ask for what I don’t want because I don’t understand that for which I ask. And when God gives me that for which I ask rather than that I imagined I wanted, I’m disappointed and am tempted to become embittered ask Him for answering my prayer!

The reading for Hebrews is helpful here. We are told to remember those “who have spoken the word of God” to us. We remember and reflect on the lives of the martyrs, the fathers, and the saints because like us they asked for what they didn’t want.

But unlike us, unlike me, they received with joy and thanksgiving that which they were given but didn’t want because it outstripped their understanding.

The lesson of those who have gone before us is this: YesI ask for that which I don’t want because I don’t understand that for which I ask. But if I ask with humility, if I ask aware of my own limitations, my own lack of understanding of God’s will, I can receive with joy what God would give me.

I must, in other words, learn to stand before God with open hands and an open heart. This is what it means to be, as we heard in the first Gospel, to be that “good ground” that “yielded a crop a hundredfold.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Everything we do as Orthodox Christians has only one goal. To help us hear the word of God with a noble and good heart” so that we can “keep it and bear fruit with patience.”

Today God stands ready to give us what we don’t want. But what we don’t want is immeasurably better than that for which we ask.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Ukrainian Autocephaly and Responsibility Toward the Faithful

(OrthodoxiaNewsAgency)

Excerpts from the intervention of His Eminence Metropolitan Ignatius of Demetrias, Chairman of the Synodal Committee for Inter-Orthodox and Inter-Christian Relations During the Extraordinary Session of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece

(12th October 2019)

Your Beatitude Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, Brothers in Christ,

The Synodal Committee for Inter-Orthodox and Inter-Christian Relations, which I am honored to chair, explicitly followed the mandate of the Standing Holy Synod of the Church of Greece. In this light, I would like to summarize the prevailing perspectives during the Committee’s discussions, drawing your attention to the following five points:

1. The Ukrainian Orthodox people

As His Beatitude pointed out in his opening address, we are concerned with the Orthodox people of an independent state, which Ukraine constitutes today. We are dealing with millions of Orthodox faithful, who have historically suffered from policies of either Poland or Russia. Therefore, our focused discussions on the validity of Ordinations and the stance of Bishops must take into account the existence of millions of believers for whom we are responsible.

As the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece underlined, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the declaration of independence of Ukraine, the latter requested that its local Church be granted the status of autocephaly, in accordance with the pattern of the other Autocephalous Churches. This original request was a genuine one. The fact that it was co-signed even by the current Metropolitan Onufriy is a strong indication that it was a comprehensive request, in the sense of reflecting the desire of the entire people and the hierarchy, so that they would achieve independence from subservience to the Russian hierarchy. Unfortunately, this general request was not answered adequately and the issue remained pending. Nevertheless, we are dealing with an independent Ukrainian state, a people with a particular identity, to which the Orthodox faith has also contributed.

2. The role of the Russian Orthodox Church

I think that it is also appropriate to explore the role of the Russian Orthodox Church. And I insist on the term ‘Russian Orthodox Church’, inasmuch as experience has unfortunately demonstrated that our brothers give priority to the adjective ‘Russian’ over the adjective ‘Orthodox’. Regretfully, this is a reality that has been already observed since the fall of Constantinople. In fact, while the Russian Orthodox Church had every opportunity to resolve the issue by taking steps towards autocephaly, or at least by proposing a solution that would be acceptable to the Ukrainian people, it sadly failed to do so. Despite a long-lasting dialogue of nearly thirty years on the matter, the Russian Orthodox Church did not want to provide any solution. Meanwhile, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had also contributed to this dialogue in an effort to show its support. However, after Russia’s invasion of Crimea, all of these efforts collapsed. Today, no one believes that the Russian Orthodox Church could provide any solution that would prove satisfactory to the Ukrainian people. Such a view clearly belongs to the past. No solution will ever emerge from that side.

Indeed, not only did the Russian Orthodox Church fail to present any solution, but its attitude during the preparatory process for the Holy and Great Council of 2016 was moreover completely negative. As we all know, autocephaly was among the questions discussed during this preparatory process. Thus, in the 1980s, the Ecumenical Patriarchate even appeared to consent to a relativization of its own privileges. Accordingly, adhering to a strict process, the Ecumenical Patriarchate requested pan-Orthodox consensus for the granting of autocephaly.

During the pre-conciliar meetings leading up to the Holy and Great Council of Crete, we were asked to address the question of signatures consenting to autocephaly. There was no further discussion on the text itself, which had already been agreed upon. This was without a doubt precisely the point that demonstrated the contention of the Russian Orthodox Church and its obsession with refusing the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s proposal. The proposed process followed the precedent of granting autocephaly to the Church of Greece and adopted the terms ‘determines’ and ‘codetermines’, signifying that the decision is ‘determined’ by the Ecumenical Patriarch and ‘codetermined’ by the rest of the Primates.

We attempted to explain to the Russian Orthodox representatives that once the Ecumenical Patriarch had signed the decision, it could not be questioned. On the contrary, Autocephaly would already have been granted. Nevertheless, the term ‘codetermine’ still implies a powerful action because it indicates participation in the actual decision. Nevertheless, the persistent contentiousness of the Russian delegation was inconceivable. Allow me to share with you that I personally reminded the senior representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, ‘The Ukrainian issue is at hand. Do you not see this? Can you not comprehend what will happen?’ In response, he invoked his Patriarch’s insistence that he should not retreat from his position on this matter. I am not quite sure whether his claim was legitimate after all. Today, it might even be questioned.

The Russian opposition arises in the context of the international theological dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. In this regard, it emanates from the unwillingness on the part of the Russian side to accept any concept of primacy in the Eastern Church. This is the heart of the problem. For it seems that the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church believe that, if the Ecumenical Patriarch had signed [the Tomos of] Autocephaly in the proposed manner[1] during the process of granting autocephaly, then they would somehow accept that ‘there is a Primate’. This remains a problematic point for the Russian Orthodox Church.

As a result, the question of granting autocephaly was not discussed at the Holy and Great Council of 2016. Had it been discussed there, there would have been no issue today. Not only was it not included in the agenda, but the Russian Orthodox Church also chose not to participate in the Council, invoking the absence of the Patriarchate of Antioch. We believe that it could in reality have also played a part in Antioch’s participation in the Council. If the Russian Orthodox Church had participated in the Council, we firmly believe that it would have been able to ensure and record in the proceedings the pledge of the Ecumenical Patriarch not to proceed with granting autocephaly without its consent.

3. The Ecumenical Patriarchate and its obligation

The Ecumenical Patriarchate considers that it was obligated to take action. With very few exceptions, everybody recognizes that it had and still has the right to grant autocephaly, a privilege that the Holy and Great Council certainly did not deny. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is concerned about the ecclesial and spiritual life of the faithful that I mentioned. For that reason, it provided a solution to a problem that could not otherwise possibly be solved. It acted in a particular way, because this is precisely the ministry of the Patriarchate, its task within Orthodoxy.

Granting autocephaly is a prerogative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which in the case of Ukraine does not negate the ecclesial entity headed by Metropolitan Onufriy and the Russian Orthodox presence in Ukraine. The status of these does not change; they are neither excommunicated nor led to schism. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has not broken communion with them. On the contrary, it is they who have broken communion with it. The Ecumenical Patriarch continues to commemorate Patriarch Kirill according to the diptychs. Thus, he continues for his part to be in communion with Onufriy, while at the same time offering the possibility of ecclesial communion to the Ukrainians belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. No one can dispute this prerogative of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

4. The Church of Greece and its unity

Let us turn now to our own Church of Greece. Herein lies the most vital point, Your Beatitude. I agree with you when you cite Article 3 of the Greek Constitution [which concerns relations between Church and State] that we safeguard and do not wish to change.

As the President of the Hellenic Parliament has rightly pointed out, Article 3 does not merely concern the relationship between State and Church, but it also relates to the unity of our Church with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This is a unity that we cannot call into question or permit to be jeopardized in any way because it involves the unity of the Body of our Church and our hierarchy, especially since a considerable number of our hierarchs in the so-called ‘New Lands’ belong spiritually to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and only administratively to the Church of Greece. We should never become embroiled in a conflict with the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the Ukrainian issue because this would lead to our own division, our own problematic relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Why would we ever do that?

5. Geopolitical developments and national matters

Without doubt, the current situation also has geopolitical dimensions. We recognize our own responsibility today. For better or worse, no autocephaly was ever granted with reference to intra-ecclesiastical factors alone. It always had to do with geopolitical developments as well. I am sorry if some do not understand what is happening in our time: where we belong and how responsible we are for the outcome.

What the Russian Orthodox Church will do after the recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church by the Church of Greece is up to the Russian Orthodox Church. In any case, it always operates in a way inappropriate to an ecclesial ethos and is not respectful of the autocephaly and independence of our Church. This will be demonstrated if it decides to break communion with us, which in turn will prove precisely that we must maintain our own unity, support the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and – as you have rightly argued, Your Beatitude – recognize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. If we maintain unity, we will be able to overcome any omissions and correct any mistakes; whereas if we are divided, we will never be able to contribute to that which all of us desire, namely the oneness and unity of the Orthodox Church.

Thank you.