Mercy is Inconvenient

November, 25 (O.S., November 12), 2018: 26th Sunday after Pentecost.St. John the Merciful, patriarch of Alexandria (620); Ven. Nilus the Faster of Sinai (451); Prophet Ahijah (Achias) (960 B.C.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 5:8-19
Gospel: Luke 10:25-37

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Here’s the thing about being merciful; it’s often inconvenient.

Saying this isn’t cynical. Mercy to be merciful means meeting the actual needs of the person. What can make this inconvenient is that other people rarely have problems according to my timetable.

All of this is to say, that mercy to be merciful requires a real death to self.

This death reflects the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Jesus doesn’t impose Himself on us; He respected our freedom going so far as to accept our will for Him even though it cost Him His life.

The call to be merciful is nothing more or less than a call to participate personally in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Acts of mercy are, in other words, part of how each of us picks up our cross and follows Jesus as His disciples and witnesses.

It is important to keep in mind the sacrificial nature of mercy because mercy can take many forms. This means that how you practice mercy and how I practice mercy don’t necessarily resemble each other.

Look at the Samaritan in today’s Gospel.

In his situation, mercy meant pausing in his travels, binding up the wounds of a stranger, and carrying him to an inn where he could care for him.

This doesn’t mean, as Jesus makes clear, that caring for the stranger means the Samaritan must ignore the business that put him on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho; mercy for the stranger doesn’t mean the Samaritan must neglect his own affairs. Because he had to complete his travels, the Samaritan pays the innkeeper to care for the stranger until he returns.

Even then in this one instance, mercy takes different forms. The Samaritan cares for the stranger personally. He also hires a caregiver when the stranger’s needs were greater than the Samaritan’s abilities (if not his resources). Both, however, are acts of mercy. Both are sacrificial.

Realizing that mercy takes many forms highlights the failure of the priest and the Levite. They didn’t necessarily have to do all that the Samaritan would do. But as Jesus makes clear, they had an obligation to alleviate–if only in small measure–the stranger’s suffering.

Not only did the priest and the Leviate make the perfect the enemy of the good, they make the good the enemy of the good enough. They prefer to do nothing than to do even a little.

Unlike the Samaritan, the priest and the Levite were important men in the Jewish community. No doubt, their indifference to the needs of a stranger reflected this fact. They had things–important things I’m sure–to do.

This is the other reason why being merciful is so often inconvenient.

Putting my neighbor’s needs first means putting on hold if only temporarily, my own projects and plans. While I might be willing to do this if the need is great enough, mercy is so much harder when the need is minor or my ability to do good is small.

Given how little I can usually do, given how small the sacrifice required and so how little the reward or sense of satisfaction, to be truly merciful requires a humility I often lack. How much easier it would have been for the priest or the Levite to make a sacrifice which even if it wasn’t great in the eyes of others, would have at least been great in their own eyes.

But it is precisely these small acts of mercy that, turning now to the epistle, that exposes the darkness of sin. It is by our humble good deeds, our small, seemingly inconsequential acts of mercy, that we reveal the vanity of the “unfruitful works of darkness” as St Paul describes this world’s addiction to its own plans and project.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The question is this: Am I, are you, are we, willing to be faithful stewards and witnesses of God’s mercy when doing so seems foolish, or even pointless, in the eyes of the world?

Are we, in other words, willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus as His disciples even in those moments when there is no reward or when our ability to do good or alleviate human suffering is minimal?

Are we, in other words, willing to be neighbor to others as Jesus is neighbor to us?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

How Easy To Be Merciful

November 4 (OS October 22), 2018: 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. Tone 6. Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Abercius, bishop and wonderworker of Hierapolis (167). 7 Holy Youths (“7 Sleepers”) of Ephesus: Maximilian, Jamblichus, Martinian, Dionysius, Antoninus, Constantine (Hexakustodianos), and John (250). Martyrs Alexander the bishop, Heraclius, Anna, Elizabeth, Theodota and Glyceria, at Adrianopolis (2nd-3r dc.).

Epistle: Ephesians 2:4-10
Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

For mercy to be merciful, it must be effective.

Speaking to the wealth Christians in his community, the Apostle James makes this very point when he takes them to task for not caring for the needs of their poorer brothers and sisters in Christ. Good intentions and good words need to be followed up with effective action:

If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (2:15-17, NJKV).

This, however, isn’t simply a matter practicality or utility. Rather the need for mercy to be effective is rooted in the actions of God.

St Paul tells us that God doesn’t simply overlook our sins; He overcomes the power of sin and death in our lives (see, Romans 8:2) and as we hear this morning makes us “alive together with Christ.”

Mercy, in other words, is a matter of prudence. The merciful heart is first aware of the need and then acts to provide the good thing that is lacking.

Look at the rich man in the Gospel. He is aware of Lazarus’ need. And how could he not?  Lazarus “laid at his gate.”

The rich man is not condemned because he failed to lift Lazarus out of poverty. He is not condemned because he failed to bring Lazarus into his home and give him a seat at this table.

No, the rich man is condemned because he failed to give Lazarus “the crumbs which fell” from his table. He is condemned because he failed to show even the mercy of the dogs who “came to lick” Lazarus’ sores.

To say that our mercy must be effective doesn’t obligate us to great things. We are only called to do what he can, however little that might be.

Again, the rich man is not condemned for failing to lift Lazarus into the middle class. No, he is condemned for not easing, even if only temporarily, the sting of poverty.

What about us? How merciful is our mercy?

Relative not simply to the New Testament era but even within the lifetime of our grandparents and parents, we live in an unimaginably wealth age. Even within my lifetime, we have become so much wealthier.

When I an infant, I slept not in a crib but a dresser drawer. In the first year or so of their marriage, my parents didn’t own a refrigerator. They used a literal “icebox.” When I began elementary school my great-grandmother still cooked on a wood burning stove.

And now? Now all but the poorest of the human family now are richer than the rich man in the Gospel.

Prosperous as we are, what then are we to do?

Given all that, in principle, we could do, all the needs we could, in theory at least, meet, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Our prosperity and the freedom it provides can paralyze us.

But the standard we hear in the Gospel is not that we must do great things but only that we do the small things we can do.

Our mercy, in other words, must not only be effective but humble. What might an effective but humble mercy look like?

Social scientists tell us that the most effective way for churches to help the poor is not so much by giving money or things. Rather, as communities rooted in the shared moral vision of the Gospel, churches have the unique ability to help not only the poor but all those on the margin of society. Churches do this by making room for them in their midst.

We help not primarily through material means but by inviting and making room for others here in our worship this morning. We help others by changing ourselves and our community by inviting and integrating others into our life together in Christ.

Let’s be clear.

We are not in the inner city. Given our location on a university campus, we are generally not confronted with the effects of generational poverty.

Based on where God has placed us, we are called to be merciful to those who for all their great talents and abilities, are often as lonely and isolated in their own way as was Lazarus in his. Not all poverty is material. Often it is social, moral and spiritual.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! It is our primary task to open our hearts and community to those who don’t know the “kindness” of God. It is our task, our vocation as a community, to help others see that they too are the God’s “workmanship, created in Jesus Christ for good works.”

That this our other Lazarus is a student, professor or staff member at a major research university doesn’t diminish the importance of what God has called us to do.

To do this effectively and humbly, all we must do is what Christ calls us to do. We make at least a little room in our lives for those we meet. What could be easier, simpler than this?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Rights & Forgiveness

Sunday, August 12 (O.S., July 30), 2018: 11th Sunday after Pentecost. Apostles Silas and Silvanus of the Seventy and those with them: Crescens, Epenetus, and Andronicus (1stc.). Hieromartyr Polychronius, bishop of Babylon (251), and Martyrs Parmenius, Helimenas (Elimas), and Chrysotelus presbyters, Luke and Mocius deacons, and Abdon, Sennen, Maximus, and Olympius. Hieromartyr Valentine, bishop of Interamna (Terni) in Italy (273). Martyr John the Soldier at Constantinople (4th c.).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 9:2-12
Gospel: Matthew. 18:23-35

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

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Glory to Jesus Christ!

Over the years I have heard more than one Orthodox Christian tell me that “human rights” is foreign to Holy Tradition. Discussions of rights, so the argument goes, is a “Western” innovation. At best it is an import, at worse a heresy that undermines the Gospel.

“Christians,” as one bishop told me, “don’t have rights. We have responsibilities!”

Evidently, St Paul didn’t get the memo. In today’s epistle, the Apostle explicitly appeals to his rights as an apostle. And these rights aren’t unique to Paul. All the apostles have the right “to take along a believing wife” and “to refrain from working” so that they can devote themselves to the preaching of the Gospel. He concludes by asking the Corinthians: “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?”

That Paul and Barnabas give up these rights doesn’t mean these rights don’t exist. If anything, it serves to highlight their importance and acceptance in the life of the early Church.

We need to distinguish between what Paul is talking about and the various contemporary theories of human rights. The latter, it must be said, sometimes is used merely as a justification for sinful behavior.

But the Scriptures establish an objective standard of justice in our relationships with each other. Far from abolishing or dismissing the demands of justice, the Gospel fulfills them. “Do not think,” Jesus tells His disciples, “that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17; see also Romans 3:31).

Like Paul and Barnabas, we are free to lay aside our rights. But if we do so, we must do it freely and for the right reason.

The Apostle is instructive here.

Following his example, no one can demand from us that we lay aside or surrender that which is ours by right. And when we do lay them aside, we do so not to be “nice” but for the salvation of others.

Put another way, no one can coerce you into giving up your rights. Nor should they penalize or punishment you for demanding that which is yours by right.

Not only must we rule out any external coercion, we need to be on guard against any internal compulsion. The demands of just not only places limits on our relationship with each other, it also sets out the moral limits of my relationship with myself.

If I lay aside my rights, I must do so not only free from external coercion and internal compulsion but only in the service of the salvation of others. I must not lightly give up my rights. This point is frequently misunderstood–or worse, dismissed–by many of us.

Jesus tells us that “if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). Morally, no one can compel us to do what we can only do freely.

How, though, do we reconcile this with today’s Gospel? Doesn’t Jesus tell me that I can’t inherit the Kingdom of God unless from my heart I forgive those who have harmed me?

To understand what Jesus is telling us we need to remember that forgiveness frees us from the resentment that often accompanies the injustice committed against us. It is only through forgiveness that we find the moral freedom that we see in St Paul.

Compare Paul to the wicked servant. Even though he has benefited from the generous mercy of his master, the servant is unwilling to extend even a small measure of forgiveness to his fellow servant.

St John Chrysostom points out that while “the blessings and gifts of God are irrevocable” by my “recalcitrance” I can “frustrate even the intention of God.” But it isn’t God Who changes. My desire for vengeance only “appears to overthrow” the mercy of God.

The great tragedy is that through his lack of forgiveness the wicked servant inflicts a greater evil on himself than he does on his fellow servant. He loses or rather rejects, the friendship of his master. In doing this, this he loses as well as the respect and affection of his fellow servants.

Like the wicked servant, there are those who think human rights “ free” them from the Gospel.

Like the wicked servant, their adherence to the demand of justice and their own rights is really a conceit; a way of avoiding the demands of the Gospel.

Like the wicked servant, I all too easily cling to my rights not from a sense of my own dignity or the demands of justice but because of the hardness of my own heart.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Like the wicked servant, it is my own inhumanity to others, my own lack of mercy, my own lack of a gentle spirit and a forgiving heart that separates me from God and so my neighbor. The tortures the parable promise are really self-inflicted.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What is Freedom For?

Wednesday, April 04 (O.S., March 22), 2018: Great Wednesday; Hieromartyr Basil of Ancyra († 363); Martyr Drosis the Daughter of the Emperor Trajan (104-117); Venerable Isaac the Founder of the Dalmatian Monastery at Constantinople († 383); Martyrs Callinica and Basilissa of Rome; Venerable Martyr Euthymius of Constantinople; Hieromartyr Euthymius of Prodromou on Mt Athos († 1814).

Matins: John 12.17-50
Sixth Hour: Ezekiel 2.3-3.3
Vespers: Exodus 2.11-22
Vespers: Job 2.1-10
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 26.6-16

The choice before me is laid out in stark terms.

Like the Harlot, I can come “in tears” and cry out to God “In Your compassion and love for mankind, deliver me from the filth of my evil deeds!”

Alternatively, I can imitate “deceitful Judas” and allow my greed to draw me away “from intimate companionship with Christ.”

When, as Orthodox Christians, we emphasize the importance of human freedom (and all the rights and privileges that we have come to expect as Americans) our concern is in defending is the ability of the soul to imitate either the Harlot or Judas. Human freedom is not for us an end in itself. It is rather for something.

Immediately, freedom is for repentance. I must be free to examine myself, to know myself not simply in terms set by the culture but by Holy Tradition. Our freedom in the first instance is in the service of accurate self-knowledge.

As I grow to know myself, I am confronted with a choice.

Recognizing my vices as well as my virtues, what will I do? Will I struggle against my sins through the cultivation of virtue? Or will I, again like Judas, give myself over to despair?

A despairing soul will only infrequently commit suicide like Judas (Matthew 27:5). More often despair hides under the guise of another sin. Again, Judas is instructive.

The fallen apostle is mentioned nine times in today’s Matin service. In order, he is called “deceitful” and “burning with love of money” He is a man who “drunkenly runs” to betray his Friend (Kathisma 15).

He is called “envious,” “ignorant and evil.” A “miserable man,” a “traitor” blinded by “greedy avarice” into becoming a “traitor.” (Ode 9).

Judas is “scheming” and “enslaved to the Enemy” by his “terrible … slothfulness.” Twice we hear of “the wretchedness of Judas” (Praises).

Despair cloaks itself in all these seemingly lesser sins.

This, however, raises a question. If freedom is for repentance, what is repentance for? Again Judas is instructive.

Judas stands in bold contrast to the Harlot. While she spreads “out her hair” to dry the feet of Jesus that she has washed with her tears (Matthew 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9; Luke 7:36–50; John 12:1–8), Judas spreads “out his hands to lawless men.” What the Harlot does, she does “in order to receive forgiveness,” she is repentant. And Judas? He only puts out his hand “to receive some silver” (Matthew 26:14-16, Luke 22:1-6).

As freedom is for repentance, repentance is for forgiveness. And not just forgiveness in a formal, juridical sense. But, as we hear in the service, the forgiveness that “raised Lazarus from the tomb after four days” (Aposticha).

All of this is expressed in the Hymn of Kassiane that we sing toward the end of Matins:

..accept the fountain of my tears,
O You, Who gathered the waters of the sea into clouds!
Bow down Your ear to the sighing of my heart,
O You, Who bowed the heavens in Your ineffable condescension!
Once Eve heard Your footsteps in Paradise in the cool of the day,
and in fear she ran and hid herself.
But now I will tenderly embrace those pure feet
and wipe them with the hair of my head.
Who can measure the multitude of my sins,
or the depth of Your judgments, O Savior of my soul?
Do not despise Your servant in Your immeasurable mercy!”

God stands ready to accept our repentance. He stands ready to receive us who run to Him and extend to us His “immeasurable mercy.”

So, then, what is freedom for? It is so that we can receive the mercy of God and then offer that mercy to others.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory