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

Preaching the Gospel

Sunday, June 16 (O.S., June 3), 2019: Holy Pentecost-Trinity Sunday; Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Church.

Epistle: Acts 2:1-11

Gospel: John 7:37-52; 8:12

Today, our Lord Jesus Christ sends the Holy Spirit down on the disciples and apostles. Receiving the Spirit, those who were once frightened men and women boldly proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The disciples and apostles don’t proclaim the whole Christian faith in all its particulars. They don’t speak about sacraments and fasting, they didn’t engage others in debates about doctrine and church history. Instead, they proclaim the kerygma that Jesus is the Savior of the world.

While the rest of the teaching of the Church is important–essential in fact–it rests of the foundation of the kerygma. Unless and until a person understands, accepts, and believes that out of His great love for us God sent His only begotten Son into this world as a sacrifice for sin and that by His death and Resurrection Jesus has overthrown the powers of sin and death, the rest of the Gospel is mere moral philosophy. Without belief in the kerygma, what the Church teaches is at best only a set of interesting ideas that have no power to save.

Unlike the disciples on that first Pentecost, not only do we often fail to begin the evangelical work at the beginning–that Jesus loves us–we often speak to peoples whose hearts–unlike the hearts of the “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” in Jerusalem–are not ready to hear the Gospel.

At least some of the those in Jerusalem were able to accept the Gospel because their hearts had been prepared by the Law of Moses or the study of philosophy. These were men and women who already believed in God, who cultivated the life of virtue, and who had confidence in the ability of human reason to know the truth.

Today though many of the people–I dare say most–of the people we speak to have hearts that are not ready to hear the Gospel. They have an impoverished view of human reason and they think the moral life is a matter of opinion or preference that has only one standard: that we don’t hurt others.

As for the existence of God, the best we can say is that many–including many Orthodox Christians I’m sad to say–believe in a God Who asks nothing and offers nothing beyond a wanting us to be happy.

Added to all this we must overcome the moralism, bad preaching and erroneous theology that have become associated with the Gospel in our popular religious culture.

Like the disciples and apostles, we have each of us personally received the Holy Spirit not in part but in full. But the way in which we fulfill our evangelical vocation is different than how they did it. Before we can preach the Gospel, we must do the hard work of preparing the hearts of those to whom we would preach.

This work begins in friendship.

Not a calculating friendship that draws close to someone simply to make them Orthodox. We must rather be true friends–to unbelievers and believers alike. We must be committed to seeking what is best for them and we must respect their consciences. Many, most really, of those with whom we are friends will never commit themselves to Christ. Among those who already have, most will likely not become Orthodox.

Whatever they may or may not do, our task is above all else to love them. When and how someone responds to God’s grace is beyond us. This doesn’t mean we are indifferent to the salvation of our friends. It does, however, mean we must remember that while “one sow” it is often another who reaps (John 4:37). We have our role play in the salvation of the world. But frequently it is to prepare the heart so that someone else at some other time, can lead the person to Christ and His Church.

This is why, and this the second thing we must do, we must cultivate a life of prayer. We must pray not only for each other but for our friends and, yes, even our enemies and antagonists. It is much better, to borrow from St Paisios of Mount Athos, to talk to God about our friends than to talk to our friends about God.

To friendship and prayer, we must add respect for the ability of human reason to know the truth and a practical appreciation for the life of virtue. Too many Orthodox Christians I am sorry to say have made their own the world’s conviction that truth is really about power and that what really matters is not virtue but good intentions.

When we deny reason’s ability to know the truth and the necessity of living a morally good life–and please understand, these are two sides of the same coin—we set ourselves adrift in the sea of relativism. This doesn’t free us. Instead, it degrades us.

When “true” means “true for you” and the only moral standard is “don’t hurt others,” we don’t free ourselves from conflict or disagreement–these are always with us–but lose of the desire and the ability to resolve our differences. Absent reason and virtue all we are left with is our desires and so the unchecked pursuit of power.

It was this, the imposition of the strong on the weak, that the Gospel corrected. In Christ, I discover that power, authority, wealth are not for my own self-aggrandizement but of my service to my neighbor.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We have received in fullness they same Spirit as the disciples and apostles on Pentecost. And, like them, we are called to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the particulars of how we fulfill our evangelical vocation are different, the work is the same.

Like the disciples and apostles in Jerusalem, seeing the enormity of the task or the anger of those who disagree with us, we might be afraid. And realizing our fear and seeing the obstacles before us we might be tempted to remain silent and justify our silence by appealing to a false sense of humility.

But when we are overwhelmed by the work to which we are called, we should remember that–like the disciples and apostles–we have received not a portion of the Holy Spirit but the fullness of the Spirit so that, again like the disciples and apostles, we can preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2 ) to the world and so lead others to faith, to the forgiveness of their sins, and to becoming themselves shares in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and witness to the Resurrection.

Blessed Feast!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Boldness of Humility

Sunday, May 19 (OS May 6), 2019: 4th Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Paralytic; Righteous Job the Long-suffering (c. 2000-1500 B.C.); Martyrs Barbarus the Soldier, Bacchus, Callimachus, and Dionysius in Morea (362); Martyr Barbarus the former robber in Epirus (IX). Righteous Tabitha of Joppa (I). (moveable feast on the 4th Sunday after Pascha).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 9:32-43
Gospel: John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen!

Following the biblical witness, the fathers of the Church saw bodily infirmity–blindness, deafness, or in the case of today’s readings paralysis–as symbolic of humanity’s fallen condition. The Venerable Bede writes that “anyone who embraces the unstable joys of the present is as through flattened upon his bed, devoid of energy” trapped as they are by the “sluggishness” of “worldly pleasures” (Commentary of Acts of the Apostles, 9.33).

It’s important to say that neither Bede nor any of the fathers were denying the goodness of Creation or the delights that are to be found in this life. Marriage, to take only one example, is a sacrament of the Church and according to St Paul a revelation of the love Christ has for the Church (see Ephesian 5:32).

No, the problem is not the goodness of Creation but the human hearts indifference to God. As in any relationship, indifference today becomes hostility tomorrow.

It is this hostility born of indifference that leads some among the Jews to condemn the paralytic for violating the law by carrying his pallet on the Sabbath. They do this, St Augustine says, because to condemn the healing would have been to invite the rebuke they heard from Jesus at another time. “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5, NJKV)

Instead of criticizing Jesus–and so have their hypocrisy exposed–“they addressed the man, … as if to say: Even if the healing could not be delayed why command the work?” Even so, the question exposes their hypocrisy. Augustine says that to ask this is to invite a response that testifies to the divinity of Christ: “Why should I not receive a command if I also received a cure from Him?” (Tractates on the Gospel of John 17:10)

For the person, indifferent and even hostile to the presence of God brings with it a heavy cost. Unaware of God’s presence in their lives means as well that they live unaware of His great love for them and for the dignity to which they are called in Jesus Christ.

The full implications of what has happened will take the rest of the paralytic’s life to understand. But while his understand is immature, his experience of God’s love for him makes him bold!

When confronted the man doesn’t conceal the miracle. He doesn’t hesitate to proclaim that he had been cured “of his illness.” And when falsely condemned he did not ask “for pardon. Instead, he boldly confessed the cure. This is how he acted” and this is how we are called to act as well (St John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 37.2).

Both sin and love make us bold. But where the boldness of sin is fool hearted and rash, love’s boldness is courageous.

Look at St Peter.

At this point in Acts, he has already been arrested twice and beaten once. Stephen has been martyred, Saul is arresting and handing Christians over to the authorities, and “a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).

And yet, Chrysostom says, Peter walks about “like a general … inspecting the ranks.” Because of his great love for Jesus, Peter always

…goes about first. When an apostle had to be chosen, he was first; when the Jews had to be told that these were not drunk, he was first; when the lame man had to be healed, he was first; when the crowd had to be addressed, he was before the rest; when the rulers had to be addressed, he was the man; when Ananias had to be addressed, when healings were worked by the shadow, still it was he.

When “the situation is calm” the disciples “act in common.” But when “there was danger” Peter acts alone. In all of this he “did not seek a greater honor. When there was need to work miracles, he leaps forward, and here again he is the man to labor and toil” (Homilies on Acts of the Apostle, 21).

And when it is time for the Gospel to be preached to the Gentiles, Peter once again takes the lead in following the path Paul has blazed.

In the Christian economy, evangelical boldness the fruit of humility. Peter like Jesus, “Who conquered persecutors [here] below and reigns over angels [in heaven] above spoke … in a humble voice,” (St Ephrem the Syrian, Homily on Our Lord, 26.1) because the word he speaks is not his but God’s word to him for the life of the world (see, John 7:16, 12:49, 14:10).

To remain silent about the Gospel is not humility. We have all of us been given a word to speak; we are all of us in baptism called to be witnesses of the Resurrection and evangelists of the Gospel.

But a problem remains. If remaining silent when we are called to speak is not humility, how then are we to speak? In this as in all things, Jesus shows us the way.

Before He heal the paralytics Jesus asks the man “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus invites the man to cooperate with grace.

Jesus question reflects the humility of the Father Who never imposes Himself on us but woos us. In doing this He also makes clear “the cruelty of those … who were well” but who never lifted “their hand to help” the man but instead treated him “like an enemy” when he asked for help (Amphilochius of Iconium, Oration, 9).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Every day, we meet those who ask for our help in coming to know Jesus Christ; every day we meet those who even if they do so poorly ask us about the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.

Humility, to say nothing of love, demands we speak.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lies We Tell Ourselves #1: “We’re Growing!”

Over the next few days, I’ll post my slides and notes from the talk I gave recently in Grand Rapids for the Alance of Orthodox Christians:  “10 Lies Orthodox Christians Tell Ourselves.” Here’s the first thing we get wrong about ourselves.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

We’ve heard this a lot over the years that Orthodoxy is the fastest growing religion in America.   The numbers tell a different story. We’re shrinking. We aren’t shrinking any faster than the Catholic Church or the Mainline Protestant communities but we are shrinking.

We can add to these numbers the fact that some 60% of those baptized as infants will leave the Church by the time they’re 25. Of the young people who stay, only about 1 in 4 will attend Liturgy on a weekly basis.

And while exact numbers are hard to come by, converts—those who become Orthodox as adults—tend to leave the Church at the same rate as young adults.

Becoming Fire!

October 7 (O.S., September 24), 2018: 19th Sunday after Pentecost. Holy Protomartyr and Equal-to-the-Apostles Thecla of Iconium (1st c.). Ven. Coprius of Palestine (530).

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9
Gospel: Luke 5:1-11

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The first two chapters of Genesis introduce us to the God Who is both Redeemer and Artist of Creation.

Rather than Aristotle’s impersonal Unmoved Mover or the Enlightenment’s somewhat more personal but nevertheless detached Watchmaker, as portrayed in Genesis God is intimately involved in the shaping and ordering of Creation.

Day after day, God orders the primordial chaos. To those who lived at the time, this ordering of chaos would not have been understood abstractly.

In a world beset with the chaos of disease and famine, war and accidental death, God’s actions at the Creation would have been proof that the God of Moses was worthy of human obedience. This God above all the gods of the time was victorious not only over the passing chaos of daily life but the cosmological chaos that always threatened to overwhelm humanity.

And when God creates His finest creation–humanity–He doesn’t do so like the other gods from a distance or with violence. Rather, He reaches down in love to His creation and forms Man out of the dust, the mud, of the earth.

We can see in this a foreshadowing of the Incarnation. As St Augustine points out (City of God, 24), the One Who gives us physical life by His breath will later breath upon the apostles and disciples granting them the power to forgive sins and so great us life everlasting (see John 20:19-25).

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

What God creates first, is more manikin than Man. It is only when God mixes His Spirit with His this model of a man that the mud of the earth becomes, as we read in Genesis, “a living being” (Genesis 2:7). This means that to be human means to be a creature who shares, participates, in the divine life (compare 2 Peter 1:4).

The Hebrew word translated as “living being” is nephesh. It is a word often used to describe things like a flute or the throat. It has the connotation, in other words, of things that are only themselves when they are empty so they can be filled with breath. It’s only with breath, that the flute makes music or the throat words.

For the human to be nephesh means that, from the beginning, we are only ourselves when we are filled with the Spirit of God. This is the context with which we can understand St Paul’s boast that in human weakness, divine grace is perfected.

The power of the Gospel is only made real in the lives of those who have come to accept and embrace with gratitude their absolute dependence on God. This means as well, that I am most fully myself only to the degree that I depend on God. And it is this dependence on God that makes possible for us to do the mighty works of God.

Look at St Peter in the Gospel.

After a hard night of failure, Jesus comes to him and asks to be rowed out into the lake. Of all the things Simon wanted to do that morning, going back on to the water was likely not one of them.

But out he goes.

And when Jesus is finished preaching? He tells Simon to row out to the deep part of the lake and let down his net.

Not surprisingly, Simon doesn’t want to do this. After all, he not Jesus is the fisherman. And while he was willing to provide Jesus a platform to preach, rowing out on the water and dropping his net means revisiting the scene of his failure.

We need to understand, Simon’s failure wasn’t an abstraction for him. Failing to catch fish the night before, means he goes hungry this morning. And not only Simon.

His wife and children will have no food this morning. And he will have no fish to trade. This means he has failed not only his family but his village as well.

And so for Simon to hear Jesus, this rabbi, this carpenter, and his friend, to say “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch” means to be asked to revisit the scene of his failure as a husband, a father and a member of the community.

To do as Jesus asks is humiliating for Simon. The successful catch comes at the cost of Simon surrendering all his notions of who he is and what it means to be a good husband, father, Jew, and man.

Rather than responding with anger, he confesses his sinfulness. In that moment of miraculous success, Simon realizes how little room he has in his heart for God.

It is precisely at the moment when he realizes his weakness, that Simon the fisherman becomes Peter the Apostle who’s preaching will set the world on fire!

We are called to live the same life as Peter and Paul. If we embrace our dependence on God if we root out all the things in our life that we cling to instead of God, then like Peter and Paul, we can not only set the world around us on fire, we can become ourselves fire!

And what does fire do but shine and burn?

We can become light and warmth for a world grown cold and dark because of sin. And far from being used up or destroyed in the process, we will become more and more the persons who God has created us to be.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Jesus says to each of us today, “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

Today, Christ calls us to fulfill His desire for the world!

Today, Christ calls us to be His disciples, His witnesses!

Today, Christ calls us to become who we are!

Today, Christ calls us to become fire!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory