Just Talk to God

Sunday, April 14, 2019: 5th Sunday of Great Lent; Venerable Mary of the Egyptian.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-14/Galatians 3:23-29
Gospel: Mark 10:32-45/Luke 7:36-50

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Unlike contemporary morality that tends to be guilt-based, the biblical moral vision is shame-based. While shame has a bad reputation for us today, in the Scriptures and so the fathers of the Church, shame is what I feel when, intentionally or not, I am unfaithful to the demands of my station in life.

A guilt-based moral system, on the other hand, is concerned with my own internal moral standards. In such a system, I don’t feel bad when I fail to meet the expectations of those around me–again this is the origin of shame. Instead, I feel guilty when I violate my own conscience.

While it’s tempting to pit one moral system against the other to live a morally and emotionally healthy life, I really need both.

A shame-based morality reminds us that we have a role to play in the community; we matter to those around us. Above all, we matter to God.

This, in turn, points us beyond societal norms and l toward our personal vocations. Each of us has been called by God to a unique way of life and task that only we can fulfill.

And so, I feel ashamed precisely when I fail to fulfill the obligations of my vocation (see Genesis 3:7).

Assumed here, however, is that I understand my vocation and it’s obligations. In broad strokes, this is what it means to have a rightly formed conscience. I must know what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ, a faithful husband, a faithful priest. And I need to be able to differentiate all these from what people tell me it means to be a Christian, a husband, or a priest.

But knowing isn’t enough. A vocation is not an intellectual exercise but a way of life.

And so I need to internalize what being Christian, a husband, and a priest. I simply can’t go through the motions. Christian, husband, and priest are not simply the roles I play. They express or should express, who I am.

This is why shame needs guilt! It isn’t just that fail to meet the standards of others–even God. In failing to be faithful to God, I have failed myself as well.

Put in a more positive light, I am only mostly fully myself when I am being faithful to the life to which God has called me and when I work to fulfill the tasks He has given me.

There is great power in knowing and being personally faithful to the demands of my vocation. To see this we need to look no further than to the saint who we commemorate today: St Mary of Egypt.

St Mary was as extravagant in her repentance as she was in her sin. The difference is this. While her sinful excesses brought her no peace, her severe asceticism did.

But the peace St Mary experienced came not from the severity of her asceticism; she didn’t experience peace because her asceticism was hard but because she was faithful to what God asked of her.

Mary’s peace came from freely embracing her ascetical vocation. It was her acceptance of the life to which God called her that gave her the strength to endure the trials she underwent in the desert.

Like Mary, we find peace neither in merely conforming to God’s will nor having the right values. True peace, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” that guards our “hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:7, NKJV) comes only when we are faithful to our personal vocations.

At this point, you might ask: How do I know the life to which God has called me? How, in other words, do I know what my vocation is?

A vocation begins in the sacraments–above all baptism. It is nourished in Holy Communion. And in those moments when we fail to be faithful, we are restored in Confession.

As indispensable as are the sacraments (and the whole of the liturgical and ascetical life of the Church for that matter) in helping us discern and live our vocation, they are not in and of themselves enough.

To know what God wants from me, to know what He wants for me, I must have a life of personal prayer.

By this I mean not only attending service, reading Scripture or saying the prayers in the prayerbook. As important as these all are, there must come a moment when, like Moses, I speak to God “as one man speaks to another” (compare, Exodus 33:11). To know my vocation, I must ask God to reveal to me His will for me.

And here’s the thing. Many of us are hesitant to ask. The reason is easy to understand. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

Asking God what He wants from me, isn’t a matter of looking for some objective fact about my life. No, it means opening my heart to God. I can no more rely on simply on the formal prayer of the Church than a husband can limit his conversations with his wife to quoting Shakespeare’s sonnets!

I must, in other words, speak to Jesus Christ as my Friend; as Someone Who loves me and wants what is best for me.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we come to the end of the Great Fast and begin our final journey through Holy Week to Pascha, we should each of us take some time to speak directly to God.

And when we do, we should ask Him simply and directly, “God what do want from me?”

We don’t need to worry about how it sounds. Our words might be awkward and stumbling. But God hears and receives our words with delight!

And He will answer! He will honor our request and answer our question if only we will ask!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

As Mary For Us

Sunday, October 14 (O.S., October 1), 2018: 20th Sunday after Pentecost: THE PROTECTION OF OUR MOST HOLY LADY THE THEOTOKOS AND EVER-VIRGIN MARY; Apostle Ananias of the Seventy (1st c.). St. Romanus the Melodist of Constantinople (556). Martyr Domninus of Thessalonica (4th c.). Martyr Michael, abbot in Armenia, and 36 Fathers with him (790).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison WI

Epistle: Galatians 1:11-19; Hebrews 9:1-7
Gospel: Luke 6:31-36; Lk. 10:38-42; 11:27-28

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today the Orthodox Church commemorates the Prokov, the Protection of the Theotokos. The facts of the event are these. Under attack from pagan invaders, the residents of Constantinople prayed to God to be delivered from their enemies. In response, the Mother of God appears and spreads her cloak over the faithful praying in the church as a sign of her protection.

For many Christians, including some Orthodox Christians, events like this in the life of the Church are hard to understand. To some, they even seem nonsensical. Why, some wonder, is it the Mother of God and not her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who acts?

While there are no doubt different motivations for asking this, a central one is our tendency to compartmentalize our lives.

Most of us think of our Christian life as private; as somehow separate from the rest of our lives. We’ve lost the sense that being Christian while personal is anything but private. Our life as Orthodox Christians is–or at least is meant to be–a life of public witness.

We are able to wall off our spiritual life in this way because we think that the spiritual and material exist in separate spheres. How often do I imagine that my actions don’t reflect–much less affect–my heart or character? “He’s not bad, he just does bad things.”

This separation of life into unrelated spheres reflects a deep misunderstanding of the Incarnation and so of what it means for us to be “fully alive” in St Irenaeus’ happy phrase.

In Jesus Christ, we not only overcome the power of sin and death (see Romans  8:2; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57) but also the conflict between the different dimensions of life. This means that in Christ, the public and private, the material and the spiritual, are brought into harmony, each supporting and deepening our openness to grace. This is possible because in Christ, the chasm sin creates between the created and Uncreated is bridged.

Just as God uses human words in the Scriptures to reveal Himself, He also can–and does–use human actions and the whole material world to do the same. Think of the sacraments. God uses human words, deeds, and the material world to pour out His grace on us.

In the sacraments, our experience of grace is not mediated; it isn’t hidden in creation. Rather, as St Paul suggests in the first epistle, even as it was to him on the road to Damascus, in the sacraments grace is given to us directly. The communion of the Uncreated and created in Christ doesn’t diminish or compromise the integrity of either.

And just as in Christ, the sacraments are a real encounter of divine life and a real human encounter at one and the same time.

Though related, this is different from humanity’s experience of grace in the Old Testament. As we hear in Hebrews (10:1), before the coming of Christ, the things of God were shadows of what was to come. This is why, as we hear in the second epistle, things done under the Old Law must be redone. Shadows are fleeting, they pass away.

This reflected no deficiency on God’s part, no lack of grace given to Israel.

What it does make clear is that humanity’s communion with God was not yet perfect. This would only happen with the coming of Christ. It is only in and through Jesus Christ we become able to give ourselves over fully to God Who has first given Himself over fully to us.

To ask the Mother of God to intercede for us–to say nothing of our celebration of her protection of Constantinople, takes nothing away from God. Instead, it shows that we who are in Christ are not only in communion with Him but act along with Him Who acts along with us.

This is why, looking to the first Gospel, we can be told not simply to love those who love us but to love our enemies and do good to them. In Christ, human love while still human is no longer simply human.

Christian love now shares in God’s love. Just as the chasm between the Uncreated and created is bridged and the different dimension of our life are brought into harmony, so too the divisions and hostility that afflict the human community can now be transcended.

Simply put, we can now love sacrificially even those who would do us harm. We can freely and generously (though not without grace and personal struggle) do good to those who do us evil. We are called and made able to be a source of protection, healing, and eternal life even those who would attack us, wound us, humiliate us, and kill us.

As the Mother of God is for the fearful citizens of Constantinople, we, you, me, can be for all those we meet.

All of this though, to look at the second Gospel, is only possible if–like the Virgin Mary–I hear the word of God “and keep it.”

There is nothing mysterious about this. Like Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, I must draw close to Jesus as His disciple. It isn’t a matter of being active or not but of prayerfully discerning the will of God for my life and then acting on it in an equally prayerful obedience.

Or, if you’d rather, to be for you as Mary is for us all, I must discern my vocation and be faithful to it.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Like the Mother of God, we each of us has a vocation, a work that God has given us personally to do.

And like the Mother of God, for each of us, part of that work is to help others discern and pursue their own vocations.

All the grace we have been given as Orthodox Christians have no other purpose than this.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Working Together

July 22 (O.S., July 9) 2018: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost. Hieromartyr Pancratius, Bishop of Taormina in Sicily (1st c.). Hieromartyr Cyril, bishop of Gortyna (250-252). Martyrs Patermuthius, Coprius, and Alexander (361). St. Theodore, bishop of Edessa (848).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Gospel: Matthew 14:14-22

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St Paul demands from us a humanly impossible standard.

We are, he says, to “all speak the same thing,” that “there be no divisions among” us, and that we “be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”

Reading on in the epistle, it is clear that the Church in Corinth fell shorts of this. The Church was so corrupted by dissension that their witness was to a “Christ divided” and a “Paul crucified”!

So deep–and presumably bitter–were the divisions that Paul actually thanks God for not baptizing people.

As he often does, Paul holds himself up as an example of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.”

While we should always be cautious in reducing conflict to a single cause, in referring to his own ministry St Paul gives us at least one, possible, explanation for the difficulties plaguing the Church in Corinth. Paul is faithful to the task to which God has called him. He isn’t called to baptize but to preach the Gospel. Not only is he called to preach, he is called to preach in a particular way.

St Paul doesn’t preach the “profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” by those who “strayed concerning the faith” (1 Timothy 6:20, 21, NKJV). No Paul preaches nothing “except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).  The Gospel he preaches is “a stumbling block” to the Jews and “foolishness” the Greeks foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23). But, as he reminds us this morning, “to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

St Paul is not counseling folly for folly’s sake. He isn’t anti-intellectual. He is, however, aware of the limits of human reason especially in response to God’s grace. “If human wisdom is at war with the Cross and fights against the Gospel,” St John Chrysostom says, “it is not right to boast about it. Rather, we should recoil in shame” (“Homilies of the Epistles of St Paul to the Corinthians,” 3.7 in ACCS, NT vol VIII, 1-2 Corinthians, p. 12).

The war between human reason and grace consists of my tendency to prefer my own thoughts and desires to the will of God. “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” Chrysostom says, “because it makes those who have it unwilling to learn more” (“Homilies of the Epistles,” 5.2, p. 17). It is my pride, not science or philosophy, that causes me to wage war against God. It isn’t what I know that causes me to turn from God but my misuses of what I have learned.

And having abandoned the God Who created me in His image for a god I create in my own, it follows naturally that I seek to refashion my neighbor in my own image and after my own likeness. It is this tendency to put God and my neighbor in a box that is the causes division in not only the Church but also the family and the nation.

Paul’s counsel to us is not that we abandon reason but pride. He isn’t telling us to be illiterate but humble. It is this reasonable humility that is absent among the Corinthians. They choose sides, one for Apollos, one for Cephas, another for Christ. While they are divided in the names to which they rally, they are united in their disregard for each other. Each one agrees on nothing except that his neighbor is his enemy.

Compare this to Jesus in the Gospel.

There is nothing forced or self-seeking in our Lord’s actions. Moved by his great love for each of us, He heals the sick.

And when it is time for the hungry to eat, Jesus doesn’t glorify Himself. Rather he invites the disciples to share in the miracle He is to perform. As God, He has no need for the disciples’ assistance. But He wants to show a “more excellent way” (see, 1 Corinthians 12:31). He wants to reveal to the disciples–and so to each of us–that we are His co-workers (see, 1 Corinthians 3:9).

This is what the Corinthians don’t know about themselves. That each one of them is a co-worker with Christ and so with each other.

This co-laboring, this working together, is not simply a practical standard. It is the defining quality of the Church because it is the central quality of God. Just as the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity work together, we who are in Christ must work together.

This doesn’t mean trying to fit each other into little boxes. Working together doesn’t mean I tell you what to do or you tell me what today. Rather, we are to help each other pursue the work God has called each of us to accomplish in this life.

When this happens, when each of us pursues our personal vocation and supports each other in doing so, there is abundance. And when we don’t? There is division.

God calls us to be His co-workers. He does this in the gifts He pours out on us in Holy Baptism.

But these gifts, given to us for God’s glory and our own salvation, also bind us to each other. This means that I can’t pursue my vocation without supporting you in yours. And this is true not simply for me but for you and for each of us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Unity in the Church is found in the gifts God has given each of us personally in Holy Baptism. These gifts bind us to Him and to each other in love. So let us exercise our gifts and, in so doing, love God and one each other.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Today, We Are Called to Surrender

Sunday, June 3 (O.S., May 21), 2018: First Sunday after Pentecost; All Saints; Holy Equals-to-the-Apostles Emperor Constantine (337) and Helen, his mother (327). St. Cassian the Greek, monk (1504).

Epistle: Hebrews 11:33-40; 12:1-2
Gospel: Matthew 10:32-33; 37-38; 19:27-30

Glory to Jesus Christ!

There’s something odd about the spiritual life.

Generally, we think about life as a process of acquisition. As we grow older we gain knowledge and skills, friends and possessions. Taking St Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews as our guide to the spiritual life, however, points us in a different direction.

For the Apostle, the spiritual life is not about acquisition but, as he says, “laying aside every weight and sin” which would keep us from running “with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Especially at the beginning to follow Jesus, “the pioneer and perfector of our faith” will often feel like a series of loses.

Jesus Himself alludes to this in His words to the disciples:

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

Hearing this, and with his usual self-effacing subtly, St Peter replies “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?”

If Paul would have me lay aside my sin, Peter reminds me that I must lay aside not only sin but “everything.” That is to say, I can’t love anything or anyone more that Jesus. Even those relationships that are the foundation of human life and have been with us from the beginning–father, mother, son and daughter–must be surrendered.

And in their place, I am called to take up my cross and follow Jesus unreservedly.

As I said, especially in its first moments, the spiritual life often feels like a series of losses.

What is lost, however, is not “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands”–these are returned to us “a hundredfold” and with “eternal life” as well. The command to pick our cross and follow Jesus is not a command to hate our family, to despise the work we do, or to turn against our native land.

It is rather to give all these things their proper weight and value relative to God. What feels like a loss, isn’t really; it is an incalculable gain. Now we have all these things in Christ. And that which is in Christ will last forever.

When I stop demanding from family, or work, or country, or myself for that matter, what only God can provide, I am free to delight in these same things. The real sorrow of being a sinner is that my selfishness keeps me from loving family, work, country and yes, even myself, as they really are and as God would have me love them.

Instead of loving my friend, I am infatuated with my thoughts about my friend. The same thing happens in the other relationships and tasks that make up my daily life. They are idols of my own creation rather than what they really are meant to be for us: Messengers and channels of God’s love.

The problem, to put it directly, isn’t that I love father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, house, work, country or myself but that I fail to love them all. What I must give up to follow Jesus are my selfish illusions about life. I must give up the comforting half-truths I tell myself to avoid accepting responsibility for my actions.

Once we make this initial sacrifice something wonderful and awe-inspiring happens. We find by God’s grace an unimaginable willingness and ability to love. Saying “Yes!” to God allows us to in turn say “Yes!” to all creation.

When I stop seeking my own will and instead seek the will of God, I discover what it is to love because I discover what it is to be loved by the God Who created me.

It is because they experienced God’s love for them that the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, the saints,

…conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection.

Torture, mocking, scouring, imprisonment all these and worse paled in comparison to the saints’ love of God that followed naturally and in abundance from their experience of God’s love for them.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today we are called by God to surrender everything so that we can receive those things that last: faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13)!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we can receive the peace that “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7)!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we can receive the many gifts contained in the One Gift of Holy Spirit which received a short time ago!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) the source of all good things!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we become saints!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What Gifts Have You Been Given Today?

Sunday,May 27 (O.S., May 14), 2018: Eighth Sunday of Pascha, Pentecost-Trinity Sunday;
Martyr Isidore of Chios (251). Martyr Maximus, under Decius (250). Ven. Serapion the Sindonite, monk, of Egypt (542). Ven. Nicetas recluse of the Kyiv Caves (1109). St. Leontius, patriarch of Jerusalem (1175).

Epistle: Acts 2:1-11
Gospel: John 7:37-52; 8:12

What must that first Pentecost have been like for the disciples and apostles?

Just 10 days ago they saw Jesus ascend into heaven. However joyful that was, it means that–once again Jesus has left them. And the pain of that loss is beginning to make itself felt. As their memories and love for Jesus wane, their fear of the Jews takes hold growing ever stronger.

And so they hide. They return to the upper room where they celebrated their last Passover with Jesus.

And they wait for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to them that they will be clothed with power from on high.

And as they wait, they wonder. What have they gotten themselves into? Jesus is gone. And, out there, are the people who crucified their friend.

And didn’t Jesus tell them, that they too will be hated? If they crucified Jesus what would they do to his disciples?

And then, FIRE!

Tongues of fire appear and come to rest on the heads of the disciples!

And suddenly, in an instant, fearful men and women become fearless preachers of the Gospel!

And, wonders of wonders, not only do they proclaim the Resurrection, their words are understood by those who don’t speak Aramaic.

At first, they are accused of being drunkards. But just as faith retreated and fear asserted itself, now skepticism gives way to faith. Thousands believe and are baptized.

And then what?

What must it have been like on the day after Pentecost when the disciples and apostles to woke up and realize–however faintly–the enormity of what they did?

Or rather, what God did through them.

What must it have been like to wake up the day after Pentecost and realize that now you were responsible for preaching a Gospel that will in short under turn the world on its head?

What must it have been like to realize that you were now leaders of thousands of new believers in Jesus Christ?

Make no mistake. The apostles were right to be worried.

These weren’t wealthy or powerful. They were illiterate men and women living on the margins of a society that was itself on the margin of a vast, wealthy and powerful empire that, for all its grandeur, was cruel.

The disciples and apostles weren’t anyone’s idea of leaders. Least of all, their own.

And yet, God choose them to be His witnesses to the world. It fell to these poor, illiterate, marginal men and women to renew the human family grown old and rigid because of sin.

Today these men and women receive the “Gift of the Holy Spirit” even as we did at chrismation. In this One Gift we, like them, received many gifts.

And all gifts contained in the Gift have one purpose: To draw others to Christ. To renew the whole human family by the renewal of each human person heart.

Unlike the disciples on that first Pentecost, the Church is now rich and even powerful.

And yet, like the disciples of that first Pentecost, for all that we have gained materially and culturally, we too are poor.

Or maybe better, we too have been given a task that–apart from the gift of the Holy Spirit–is beyond the abilities of even the most talented among us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The task given to the disciples on that first Pentecost is given to us today. Their vocation, their calling, is ours as well.

And like the disciples on that first Pentecost, God pours out His Spirit on us today and every day making up by His grace what is lacking in us.

And all this He does for one reason, and one reason only: To renew the human family by restoring each human heart to communion with Himself through His Son our Lord Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit!

So let us take up the task we have been given!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory