Not Good Enough But Really Good

Sunday, December 15 (O.S., December 2), 2019: 26th Sunday after Pentecost. Prophet Habakkuk (VI c. B.C.). Martyr Myrope of Chios (251). Sts. John, Heraclemon, Andrew, and Theophilus of Egypt (IV). St. Jesse, Bishop of Tsilkani in Georgia (VI). St. Athanasius, “the Resurrected”, of the Near Kyivan Caves (1176). Ven. Athanasius, recluse, of the Far Kyivan Caves (XIII). St. Stephen-Urosh IV, king (1371).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 5:9-19

Gospel: Luke 18:18-27

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Though he doesn’t use the word, in the opening verses of today’s Epistle the Apostle Paul calls us to be discerning. We are, he says, to seek out “the fruit of the Spirit,” Specifically, “goodness, righteousness, and truth” not only because these are good in themselves but because they help us know and so do what “is acceptable to the Lord.”

Doing the will of God requires first that we hold ourselves apart from sin, from “the unfruitful works of darkness.” If we do, we will become in St John Chrysostom’s phrase “a lamp” that naturally “exposes what takes place in darkness.”

We need, I think, to pause here and consider carefully the larger context within which the Apostle is making his argument.

Paul’s primary concern is to encourage us to engage in the evangelical work of the Church. Like the Apostle Andrew, whose feast was Friday, we are called to call others to Christ. Contrary to what we frequently see both outside the Church and (what is worse) within the Church, this can’t be done in a mechanical fashion.

What I mean is I can’t simply memorize a script or a series of bullet points to be repeated when the opportunity presents itself. When I do this, the other person becomes merely an excuse for me to exercise my own ego.

What then should we do instead?

St Jerome tells us “No one is prepared to admonish sinners except one who does not deserve to be called a hypocrite.” In saying this, he is simply repeating what Paul has just told us. To succeed in calling others to Christ, I must first cultivate in my own life the fruits of the Spirit by repenting from sin.

But here’s the thing about the evangelical work of the Church. Whatever the response of the other person, calling others to Christ will naturally bring to light my own shortcomings, my own sinfulness.

This is why after admonishing the Ephesians to be the light that exposes the darkness of sin, St Paul says to them

“Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.”

He says this not to those outside the Church but to those within. The hardest part of fulfilling the evangelical work of the Church, is this: Whatever else may or may not happen, telling others about Jesus Christ will always expose my sinfulness.

Very quickly the evangelist learns that he is the one who must awaken from the sleep of sin.

This is why the work can’t be mechanical. I can’t hide behind the Gospel. If I do, my witness will ring hollow. Or, and this much is worse, the other person will imitate my hypocrisy, my own lack of repentance, confusing this with life in Christ.

This is why, turning to the Gospel, Jesus tells the ruler to sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow Him. This is not a condemnation of wealth or the wealthy. It is instead a warning to all of us.

We all have our idols. We all have things in our life that stand in the place of God.

For the rich man, it was obedience to the commandments. Knowing himself to be a good man, he gave himself permission to not be a better man. He didn’t want to be really good but only good enough. There was nothing sacrificial in his good deeds. His wealth afforded him the luxury of looking good so that he didn’t have actually to be good.

St Ignatius of Antioch warns us to avoid just this state when tells the Romans he doesn’t “want merely to be called a Christian, but actually to be one.” The ruler wanted to be called good without actually becoming good because true and lasting goodness requires sacrifice.

This is why when Jesus tells him to sell all he has, to give to the poor, and because His disciple the man is distressed. He doesn’t want to make the sacrifice that goodness requires. His adherence to the moral law, much like some adhere to the teachings of the Church, is merely mechanical.

Watching all this and hearing Jesus say “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” the crowds and above all the disciples are themselves distressed.

St Cyril of Alexandria observes that the disciples “possessed nothing except what was trifling and of slight value.” But whether we have much or little, he says, “the pain of abandoning is the same.”

Whether Christ calls us to give up wealth or prestige, whether we are called to give up family or friends, we are ALL called to sacrifice. Whatever we had before Christ, indeed whatever we had even a moment ago, we are all called to a sacrificial life of “obedience and good will.” Though we come from “different circumstances,” St Cyril say, we are to practice “equal readiness and willingly” to follow Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Though our sacrifices our different, our calling is the same; To witness to Christ. And just as we have a shared vocation, we have a shared joy.

That joy is this: That in becoming light, in illumining the darkness, we become able to see the true beauty of creation and, what is more important, the real and lasting dignity in Christ to which all humanity is called.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Without Repentance the Gift Condemns Me

Monday, March 19 (O.S., March 6), 2018: Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent; 42 Martyrs of Ammoria in Phrygia († c. 845): Theodore, Constantine, Aetius, Theophilus, Basoes, Callistus, and others; ; Hieromartyr Conon and his son Conon of Iconium († 270-275); Venerable Arcadius of Cyprus (4th C); Venerable Abraham of Bulgaria; Holy Hierarchs Evagrius the Confessor, Patriarch of Constantinople; Holy Hierarch Taranius, Bishop of Antioch; Venerable Fridolinus, Abbot of Sakingena; Martyr Gregorisus; Venerable Job, in Schema Joshua, of Anzer († 1720); Finding of the Precious Cross and the Precious Nails by the Holy Empress Helen in Jerusalem (326); Icons of the Mother of God: “Chenstokhov” (1st C), “Blessed Heaven” (14th C) and “Shestokovskoy” (18th C).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 37:33-38:6
Vespers: Genesis 13:12-18
Vespers: Proverbs 14:27-15:4

Reading the passage from Isaiah quickly, we might overlook the fact that–in both cases–God is merciful. Both kings suffer. The King of Assyria is defeated in battle, Hezekiah suffers a debilitating and–but for God’s intervention–fatal disease. The difference in outcomes between the two rulers is straightforward. Hezekiah repents, the Assyrian king doesn’t.

Repentance requires more than I’m sorry for my sins. This, after all, can be motivated as much by being disappointed with myself as easily as it can an awareness that I’ve strayed from God’s will. Often the sorrow I feel is more the former than the latter.

While sorrow is the opening moment of repentance, in the full sense I need to move past my distress. Repentance requires not bad feelings but a change of heart (metanoia). Not grief for my failure, but obedience to the will of God.

We have an example of obedience in Abraham.

God promises the patriarch that He will give him “the land of Canaan.” Abram (as Abraham is still called), we receive from God all the land he can see from where he stands. “Lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants forever.”

To this promise, God adds that Abram’s descendants as numerous “as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted.”

At God’s command, Abram walks “the length and breadth of the land.” Eventually, he comes to “the oaks of Mamre” pitches his tent and worships God.

The metanoia God seeks from me isn’t simply sorrow for my sin, it isn’t even obedience. What God seeks from me is my willingness to still myself and, like Abram, worship Him.

Material wealth, political power and military prowess, these are celebrated by the Old Testament as God’s blessings. The coming of Christ doesn’t undo any of this or any of the other blessings God bestows on His Israel.

What Christ does, is make available to us the wisdom without which material and social blessings become traps. As Solomon says

The wicked is overthrown through his evil-doing, but the righteous finds refuge through his integrity. Wisdom abides in the mind of a man of understanding, but it is not known in the heart of fools. Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.

It isn’t that the King of Assyria was a sinner and Hezekiah wasn’t. It isn’t that one man regretted and the other didn’t. It is rather that, like Abram, one man worshipped God and made God’s will his own.

Without the wisdom that comes from the “fear of the LORD” the blessings God give us remain fallow. Separated from a living awareness of God’s gifts as exactly that, His gifts to me, I begin to think of God’s blessings as my own achievements.

As gratitude withers, prides grows until “passion makes the bones rot.” and I become the man who “oppresses the poor” and “insults God.”

But Christians who reject or minimize material and social blessings are equally misguided. These are given to us so that we can share in God’s redemptive work. Like the man who uses them for his own selfish ends, the Christian who turns his back of these blessings–or condemns those to whom God has given them–and becomes one “who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Repentance Frees Me to Love

Sunday, March 18 (O.S., March 5), 2018: Fourth Sunday of the Great Lent; St John Climacus. Martyrs Conon, Onisius of Isauria (2nd c.). Martyr Conon the Gardener of Pamphylia (251). Virgin-martyr Irais of Antinoe in Egypt (3rd c.). Martyr Eulampius. St. Mark (5th c.). St. Hesychius (790).

Epistle: Hebrews 6:13-20/Ephesians 5:9-19
Gospel: Mark. 9:17-31/Matthew 4:25 – 5:12

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today we commemorate our father among the saints John Climacus or St John of the Ladder. The saint’s title is a nod to his work on the spiritual life The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Read in monasteries during Great Lent, the Ladder sketches out the 30 steps or “rungs” by which the soul ascends from repentance to the intimate communion with God in which we come to share in the divine life (see 2 Peter 1:4).

Though written for monastics, there is also a great deal of wisdom in the Ladder for those of us who don’t live in a monastery. For example, St John tells his reader “Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously.”

At first, this might seem less than encouraging. But this is only if we listen to the first half of what the saint says and ignoring the last half.

Yes, I will sin and I will sin daily. In fact, I’ll sin throughout the day in ways great and small. But this isn’t–or at least needn’t–be the whole story of my life. By God’s grace, we all have the ability to repent, to stand our ground “courageously”  when tempted to surrender to sin.

As does the whole of the Church’s tradition, Climacus places great importance on human freedom. Actually, after grace, human freedom is the only thing that matters for the saint (and Holy Tradition).

Simply put,

…no matter how much I’ve messed up,

…no matter how badly I’ve failed,

…no matter how serious the sins I’ve committed,

by God’s grace, I have the ability–the freedom–to begin again. And not just me. All of us can begin again.

When in the Divine Liturgy we ask God to grant us a life of “peace and repentance” what we are asking for is precisely this ability to begin again. To start over.

For many Christians, even those who are sincere in their love of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church, the idea of a “life of repentance” sounds dreary.

Such a life sounds wholly negative.

Such a life sounds as if it were focused solely on their shortcomings.

Such a life sounds like life with a nagging wife or an abusive husband.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

G.K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy) says that the because children are filled with an unbounded enthusiasm for life, they never tire of repetition. What was just done, they want to be done again. And “the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.”

God, however, Chesterton says is strong enough to bear repetition. Every morning God says to the sun “Do it again,” and again the sun rises.The “sun rises regularly” because God “never gets tired” of watching the sunrise.

Chesterton goes on to say that it isn’t from any necessity that compels God to make “all daisies alike.” And yet God, Who makes “every daisy separately” never tires “of making them” alike. “It may be,” Chesterton says, that God “has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

To live a life of repentance is to live a life in which we grow younger. It means to live a life in which we grow in innocence and the joy that only innocence can know.

To live a life of repentance means to remove from my life everything that compromises my freedom, that obscures from my eyes the beauty that God sees all creation and in each of us. Repentance frees me to love.

Though the world, and let’s be frank not a few Christians, see repentance as negative, St John Climacus and the Church’s tradition with him sees it as wholly positive.

You see, as I grow in my knowledge of God, as I grow in my obedience to Him, I begin to see creation as He sees it. This, after all, is what love does. To fall in love doesn’t just me I’m attracted to someone. To fall in love, to be in love means that I love what my beloved loves.

And to love God? To lay aside everything in us that would make it impossible for us to love Him? What does this mean?

If we love God, we don’t simply love what He loves. No, if we love God, we love as He loves, without qualification or limit.

Repentance changes us so that when we at creation, we the goodness and beauty that God sees.

Repentance, in other words, is how we grow in our ability to love God and so to love as God loves all that He has created.

And repentance means to see in ourselves the goodness and beauty that God sees in us. It is this experience that gives us, to return to St John’s advice, the courage to remain faithful in the face of our shortcomings and inevitable practical and moral failures.

No matter how successful I might be, no matter what accolades I receive, no matter how many people praise me, if I don’t know that I am loved by God I will feel myself to be a fraud and live a life of anxious striving.

If we truly love God, we won’t neglect the abilities God has given us but instead see them as they are. They are concrete means God has given us to grow in our love of Him and of each other.

A life of repentance is anything but a dreary. It is a wholly positive way of life in which we grow in our love for God, our neighbor and, yes, even ourselves as men and women who have first been loved by God.

My brothers and sisters in Christ!

We have been given a better way–the way of repentance. So let us from this moment on and by God’s grace and our own efforts remove from our lives all of love’s obstacles. Let us repent!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

When God Makes War

Wednesday, March 14 (O.S., March 1), 2018: Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent; Venerable Martyr Eudokia of Heliopolis († 160-170); Venerable Martyr Olga († 1937); New Hieromartyrs Priests Basil, Peter, John, Benjamin, and Michael, Venerable Martyrs Anthony, Anna, Daria, Eudokia, Alexandra, Matrona, Martyrs Basil and Hope († 1938); New Hieromartyr Priest Alexander († 1942); Martyrs Marcellus and Anthony; Martyrs Nestor and Tribimius (3rd C); Martyr Antonina of Nicæa, in Bithynia († c.284-305); Venerable Martyrius of Zelents († 1603); Venerable Domnina of Syria († c. 450-460); Venerable Agapius of Vatopedi.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 26:21-27:9
Vespers: Genesis 9:18-10:1
Vespers: Proverbs 12:23-13:9

God is always ready to come to our defense. “Would that I had thorns and briers to battle! I would set out against them, I would burn them up together.”

Eager to help us though He is, God will not help us against our will. God will not impose His grace on us. Immediately after these verses God says “let them lay hold of my protection, let them make peace with me, let them make peace with me.”

Before God exercises His power on my behalf He exercises it, if I can speak this way, against Himself. God restrains Himself. Or, in St Paul’s phrase, He empties Himself “and takes the form of a slave” (see Philippians 2:7, NRSV).

Even when God does exercise His authority, He does so with restraint. This can be hard to realize because often the Scriptures use images drawn from human warfare when it talks about God defending His people.

Today’s reading from Isaiah is a good illustration of how the image of warfare is used to discuss God liberating us from sin. But such language isn’t used without qualification. To do so would suggest that God was simply one warlord among others when He isn’t.

Referring to God’s response to the sins of Jacob and Israel the reader is asked to consider God has “smitten them as he smote those who smote them? Or have they been slain as their slayers were slain?” The answer is “No!”

Human rulers make war against their enemies to destroy them; God makes war against His enemies to heal them. “Measure by measure, by exile thou didst, contend with them; he removed them with his fierce blast in the day of the east wind. Therefore by this, the guilt of Jacob will be expiated, and this will be the full fruit of the removal of his sin.”

The false altars are pulled down and, in Christ, a new altar is erected so that we can “worship God in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24, NKJV).

But if God doesn’t impose Himself on us, if He respects our freedom and waits on our response to His invitation why do the Scriptures so often talk about God making war on His people, punishing them with sickness, poverty, harsh weather, exile and even death?

It often feels like God goes to war against me because I’m at war with myself. In my life, I am the enemy God must overcome.

Look at Ham. In exposing the shame of his father Noah, Ham is both his father’s enemy of and his own. I’m Ham. My willingness to harm you harms me. Making you my enemy, makes me an enemy to myself.

Solomon condemns the wicked man who “acts shamefully and disgracefully.” While the particulars differ, at one time or another, we are all this wicked man just as we are all Ham.

God doesn’t go to war against me. I have gone to war against myself in my refusal to love my neighbor. Like good deeds to “the slothful,” grace often feels to me like “forced labor.”

Like “the scoffer” I don’t “listen to rebuke,” I refuse to take God’s correction of me to heart. I do not repent of my sins. I war against God and neighbor and so war against myself.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Is God My Sanctuary or My Stumbling Block?

Monday, March 5 (O.S., February 20) 2018: Monday of the Third Week of Lent; Venerable Leo, Bishop of Catania in Sicily († c. 780); 34 Venerable Martyrs of Valaam, who suffered at the hands of the Swedes († 1578): Titus, Tychon, Gelasius, Sergius, Barlaam, Sabbas, Conon, Silvester, Cyprian, Pœmen, John, Samonas, Jonah, David, Cornelius, Nephon, Athanasius, Serapion, Barlaam, Athanasius, Anthony, Luke, Leontius, Thomas, Dionysius, Philip, Ignatius, Basil, Pakhomius, Basil, Theophilus, John, Theodore, and John; New Hieromartyr Priest Nicholas († 1938); Hieromartyr Sadoc, Bishop of Persia, and the 128 Martyrs with him († 342-344); Venerable Agatho, Pope of Rome († 682); Venerable Martyr Cornelius, Abbot of the Pskov Caves and his disciple, Venerable Bassian of Murom († 1570); Venerable Agatho, Wonderworker of the Kiev Caves (13th-14th C); Holy Right-believing Great Prince Yaroslav.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 8:13-9:7
Vespers: Genesis 6:9-22
Vespers: Proverbs 8:1-21

If I’m careful in my choice of companions, I can almost forget that ours is a fallen world.

When I limit my circle of acquaintances, I limit as well the different habits and ideas to which I’m exposed. I work hard to exclude anything that challenges my preconceived notions about the world of persons, events, and things.

Ultimately if I narrow down the people I know, and the places I go my self-image will be fixed and secure. And also, false.

Ours is a fallen world. Especially during Great Lent the Church in her wisdom reminds us of this in the readings given for our consideration. Again and again in the readings from the Old and New Testaments, I am reminded that not only do I live in a sinful world, I am myself a sinner.

Isaiah reminds me that to the sinner God is both “a sanctuary and a stone of offense, and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Which He is for me is wholly within my power to decide. If I am repentant, or even if as St Isaac of Nineveh says I at least want to repent, God is for me a sanctuary, a place of safety and retreat in which I can work out my salvation “in fear and trembling” (see Philippians 2:12).

While wrestling with God to understand His will is life-giving, wrestling to overcome His will is death-dealing. My lack of repentance doesn’t harden God’s heart against me but my heart against Him. This is death.

Isaiah lists the different ways in which I harm myself by resisting the will of God. I fall into superstitions.  I give ourselves over to rage. I have contempt for those I see as a threat to my agenda and plans.

It is from this that God would save us and keep us safe through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the “great light” that shines on us in the darkness of sin. But we, I, must be willing to see the darkness in me–and around me–that the Light illumines.

During the time of Noah, we refused to see our sinfulness. Though the evidence was all around us that society was “filled with violence,” we turned away, we refused to see.

Solomon puts it this way:

O simple ones, learn prudence; O foolish men, pay attention. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips. All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them. They are all straight to him who understands and right to those who find knowledge.

So I must ask myself this question: Am I willing to hear God? Am I willing to allow myself to be challenged? Am I willing to see the darkness around me and in me?

Or will I instead strive to control and manipulate life to keep the realization of my sinfulness at bay?

Is God, in other words, for me a sanctuary or a stumbling block (Leviticus 19:14, Psalms 140:9 (LXX), Matthew 13:41)?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory