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

Homily: What to Expect from a Priest

November 26 (November 13, OS), 2017: 25th Sunday after Pentecost (Tone 8): St. John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople (407); Martyrs Antoninus, Nicephorus, and Germanus of Caesarea in Palestine (308). Martyr Manetha of Caesarea in Palestine (308).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 4:1-6/Hebrews 7:26–8:2
Gospel: Luke 10:25-37/John 10:9-16

Today the Church commemorates our father among the saints, John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople. Just as Pope St Gregory the Great (Gregory Dialogos) is the model pastor in the West, Chrysostom is the model in the East. What each man taught about the priest’s duties is as relevant today as it was when it was written. Gregory’s  Pastoral Rule helps the priest understand how he is to care for the myriad personalities and characters he will encounter in his ministry. John’s On the Priesthood offers the priest insight into the importance of his office and why he so felt inadequate to the task. As he says “the priesthood is offered to me… exceeds a kingdom as much as the spirit differs from the flesh” (III.1)

Chrysostom here is not being romantic or sentimental. Much less is he speaking out of pride. Rather, he is keenly aware that though “the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances.”.This is why he says the priest “ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers” (III.4).  The spiritual purity of the priest is not simply for his own sake but for the salvation of all those he meets. The priest should live he says in such a manner as “to gladden and to enlighten the souls of those who behold” his service (III.14).

The saint makes two observations that I think are especially important.
First, the priest must realize that he will face judgment from those around him. Everyone he meets is “ready to pass judgment on the priest as if he was not a being clothed with flesh, or one who inherited a human nature, but like an angel, and emancipated from every species of infirmity” (III.14)

Often the priest–and those responsible for forming and guiding him–will seek to avoid this judgment by feigning indifference to society. Or, he might adopt a false intellectual simplicity that professes ignorant of secular learning or the practicalities of everyday life. But, as St John reminds us “ the Priest ought not only to be … skilled in many matters, and to be as well versed in the affairs of this life as they who are engaged in the world,… yet to be free from them all more than the recluses who occupy the mountains” (VI.4)

In other words, the priest must be as well educated and experienced in worldly matters as his congregation while at the same time remaining detached from them. Purity of heart not a substitute for the priest being poorly educated or “so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good” (Oliver Wendell Holmes).

With this in mind, let’s turn briefly to today’s readings.

St Paul describes himself as not simply “a” prisoner but “the priest of the Lord.” He understands that true freedom is found not in willfulness but in obedience to God. And so he tells the Ephesians to be “worthy” of their calling as Christians. They must be humble, gentle, longsuffering, patient and loving with each other to maintain “the bond of peace.” It’s worth noting two things here.

First, Paul is concerned not with the evangelical witness of the Church, not with how the Ephesian treat outsiders. Rather, his concern is with what happens in the Church. However the world thinks of us, we must love each other.

Second, to return to the priesthood, the defense and strengthening the bond of peace, the love we have for one and other, is the fundamental work of the priest. Everything that I do a priest is or should be, in the service of you growing in love for each other.

This means the priest’s primary obligation is for the health of the parish. Like the Samaritan in the Gospel, he is called to bind up wounds and offer comfort to his parishioners. But, again like the Samaritan, he isn’t called to heal them but to bring them to Christ our High Priest and (as we say in the Unction service) “the Physician of our souls and bodies.”

The prayer, the education, all that the priest has, he has to point his flock to Christ. It is in this way that he comes to share in the priesthood of Christ.
And what is true for the priest, is also true for the laity. By virtue of baptism, all Orthodox Christians are members of the “royal priesthood” of all believers (see 1 Peter 2:9). All that the Christian has is in the service of drawing others to Christ.

But where the ordained priesthood draws others to Christ through the sacraments, the laity draw others to Christ by progressively sanctifying the world. This means bringing the family, the work world, education as well as cultural and politics into ever closer conformity to Christ.
We miss the point if we think we can fulfill our baptismal vocation simply by voting for this or that candidate. Likewise, we misunderstand what Christ has called us to do if we imagine we can limit ourselves to cultivating our own garden. While the exact mix will be different for each of us at different times in our lives, our baptism calls us to sanctify both our own hearts and the world around us.

Like me conclude by returning once more to what you can–and should–expect from the priest, from me.

Because the priest is first a Christian, he too has an obligation to grow in holiness and to sanctify the world. This is why, as Chrysostom says, the priest must be as knowledgeable about the world as any layman. The priest who either through lack of education or indifference is ignorant of culture, politics or the myriad struggles that make up the daily lives of his parishioners is frankly failing not simply as a priest but, more fundamentally, as a Christian.

It is only because he takes seriously his baptismal vocation to grow in holiness and sanctify the world, that a man can be ordained to the priesthood. A priest who neglects his baptismal vocation is incapable of helping the laity fulfill their vocation.

Often the priest will ask us to pray for him. We should. But, if I may speak personally, you must also expect me to help you discern and fulfill your vocations. You have a right to require from me assistance in growing in holiness and in sanctifying the world. If I fail you in this, I fail as a priest.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, help me to succeed!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory