18 January 2016
Leprosy is a living death. It causes skin tumors, kills nerves, weakens muscles and harms vision, and all that is bad enough. But the leper had to leave his city and his family as well. He was cut off from his community.
Lepers had their own community…a community in which the old distinctions between rich and poor, Jew and Samaritan, slave and free really didn’t matter any more. That’s why the group of ten lepers who approached Jesus in today’s gospel was made up of 9 Jews and 1 Samaritan. Normally they’d have nothing to do with each other. But leprosy brought them together.
When Jesus commanded the ten lepers to go show themselves to the priests, he was fulfilling the Old Testament law. Leviticus 14 says that when a leper is cleansed, he should show himself to the priest. Funny thing was, in all the Old Testament, only one leper was ever healed…and he was a Gentile. That law lay fallow until Christ came, and it’s not a stretch to say that the reason it was written was precisely to point the priests to the coming of Messiah.
But today I want to focus on the importance of giving thanks in the Christian’s life. In the Gospel lesson, the Lord Jesus is surprised that only one of the ten who were healed, returned to give him thanks…and that man was a Samaritan. Nine of the ten took the gift the Lord gave, but forgot to give thanks. They went back to life as it was before. Only one came back. He alone entered a new life.
Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ, I wonder how often we forget to give thanks. I wonder if we realize how central thanksgiving is to the entire Christian faith. In Romans 1, Paul says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”
Did you catch that? The way to darkness begins by knowing God and yet refusing to honor him or give him thanks. Too often we curse the symptoms around us in our culture and don’t acknowledge the cause within us: a simple lack of gratitude.
But what do we have to give thanks for? We were not leprous. No…but we were born slaves to sin and Satan, living in death until Christ came and joined us to his death and rising in Holy Baptism. And that was just the beginning. He gave to us prodigals the robe of righteousness and his own signet ring, the seal of the Holy Spirit. He feeds us week by week with his own life-giving body and blood.
I’ve told you before that sins are of two kinds: power and pleasure. Sins of power are seen especially in anger; sins of pleasure are seen especially in lust. We get angry when we think we’ve been treated worse than we think we deserve. But what do we call it when we think we’ve been treated better than we deserve? Why, that’s nothing else but gratitude…and grateful hearts pour themselves out in thanksgiving.
And what about sins of lust? When King David committed adultery, the Lord tells him, “I gave your master’s house and his wives into your care, and if that had not been enough, I would have given you more.” In other words, David fell into lust because he was not thankful for what he had been given.
When we forget to give thanks, life begins to break down. For we were made for thanksgiving, as a candle is made for burning. Even the three holy children, cast into the fiery furnace, were saved by the child of the Theotokos as they gave thanks to God and praised him.
So important is thanksgiving that St. Paul told the Thessalonians, “…in everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” In everything. Are you healthy? Give thanks to God for your health; he’s given it to you. Are you ill? Give thanks to God, for sickness turns our minds to him. Are you well-off? Give thanks to God, who has given you more than you need, so that you may share it with those who have less. Are you poor? Give thanks to God, for he will teach you in poverty that he is able to supply all your needs. Do you struggle with sin? Give thanks to God, who is able to help you overcome? Have you overcome some sin? Give thanks to God, for he is the one who gives the victory. Is your family a source of joy? Give thanks to God, who brought you together. Is your family a cause of grief? Give thanks to God, who gives us the grace to love the unlovely, so that we might have insight into how he loves us in Christ.
In life and in death, in sickness and in health, in riches and poverty—in everything give thanks, for in giving thanks the darkness is lifted, our minds are illumined and, as is right, God is glorified in all things: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
25 October 2015
Today’s text is the story of the Gadarene demoniac: the man from whom Christ cast out a legion of demons. And I want to focus on three lessons it has for us.
First, the demonic is real. Too often I fail at the Christian life because I forget the nature of the conflict I’m in. St. Paul says, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” It’s easy for us to get distracted by the outward appearances, and miss what’s happening beneath the surface.
Sometimes the demonic is obvious. Anyone who saw this man, running naked around the tombs, resisting all attempts to restrain him, had to see a deeper, evil power at work in his life. There could be no confusion about that. And when, today, we see our brothers and sisters being beheaded, or subject to terrorist attack, simply because they confess Christ, it is obvious that the devil is alive and well.
But sometimes the demonic is more subtle. In fact, Satan does his best work in the dark, beneath the surface of our minds. Think how he enflames the passions of anger and lust: not just with violent video games and online pornography, but also with the little frustrations and distractions of daily life. Like termites eat the frame of a house, so the demons nibble away at the fabric of our culture and of our minds. See how he is active in the lives of the people of Gadara. They could handle the demoniac, as long as he stayed out of their sight in the cemetery. They had come to think of it all as somehow normal; they had found a way to live with it, until Jesus came.
And that brings us to our second lesson. How can we tell the presence and power and working of the devil? Consider what the demons had in common with the townsfolk. When Jesus lands, the demons approach him. “What do you have to do with us?” they ask him. “Have you come to torment us before the time?” In other words, the very presence of Christ is painful to them and to their work. They want nothing to do with him, and will go anywhere to get away: even into a herd of pigs.
What about the townsfolk? When they learn what Jesus has done, do they greet him with thanks for having healed the demoniac? On the contrary! They beg Jesus to get back into the boat and go. Go where? Anywhere, just so it wasn’t there.
We can spot the presence and power of the demonic by seeing whether the Lord Jesus is welcomed, or not. The man who was cured, begged Jesus to let him be with him. The townsfolk, and the demons, begged Jesus to go away.
That is why we must learn to call on the name of Jesus. The holy fathers teach us that the name of Jesus is a scourge of demons. One way to use that name is to learn the prayer of Jesus: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The name of Jesus is not magical; but it is personal and powerful. As an old hymn says, “Take the name of Jesus with you, child of sorrow and of woe; it will joy and comfort give you, take it then, where’ere you go.”
That’s why we come to the services of the Church. We come here broken and battered in our battle with the foe; but here the Triune God welcomes us, washes our wounds, clothes us with his grace and feeds us with the body and blood of Jesus.
Third, and last, though our battle is great, the outcome is not in doubt. We may despair when we see how wide and strong is the power of the demonic. We may wonder if anyone can be saved in this present darkness. But let us heed the words of St. John: “Greater is he who is in you, than he who is in the world.” Don’t let the terrors across the world, or the many times we fail, lead us to doubt or despair. If we have fallen, let us not stay prone. Let us rise and call on the name of Jesus. He does not despise a broken and contrite heart.
Don’t despair. The devil rages, because he knows his time is short. Just as Christ left Gadara to continue his ministry, so he continues to work today. Call on him…cling to him. He will cover us with his mercy and restore us to a right mind, by the power of his Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.
20 September 2015
“Mom, would you let me off a little way down the street from school?” “Dad, stop whistling that tune!” It’s not unusual for teenaged children to be ashamed of their parents. After all, parents like things that aren’t cool any more. They’re so…well…so much older and out of fashion. (Of course, that doesn’t apply if Dad grows a hipster beard, right?)
What happens when someone is ashamed of someone they know? It’s usually a case of two worlds colliding, with the embarrassed person in the middle. To use the teenaged kid example, there’s the world of home and there’s the world of school. Each of them plays by really different rules and follows really different goals. The kid torn between the home-world and the school-world is like the chameleon on scotch plaid.
Shame was a real issue for the people who first received Mark’s gospel. Some of them had a Jewish background; others were Gentiles, especially Romans. For both groups, a cross was an embarrassment.
To the Romans and Gentiles, the cross was an instrument of capital punishment. It would be like having a gallows, a gurney, or an electric chair at the heart of Christianity. In Rome there’s an anti-Christian graffiti from the third century. It shows a donkey on a cross and bears the inscription, “Alexamenos worships his God.”
To the Jews, the cross was even worse. It represented a divine curse, for Deuteronomy said, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” In the Jewish revolt, whole towns would surrender rather than see one of their citizens be crucified.
So it’s not hard to see why Christians might be ashamed of Christ and of his word—the word of the cross—in the first centuries. It was a message that just didn’t fit.
We’re at a time once more when the Cross of Christ doesn’t fit…a time when, once again, we’re confronted with the question: “Am I ashamed of Christ and his Cross?”
We are ashamed of the Cross when we buy the narrative that Jesus is just another great religious teacher…a guru, but not God in flesh. Just as during the days of his earthly ministry there were many prepared to admit him as Teacher, or Prophet, but not as God—so also today. No one bats an eyelid any more when the media refers to “Prophet Muhammed”—but just try saying “Christ God,” and see where it gets you!
We are ashamed of Christ when we endorse our passions and affirm them instead of fighting against them. “Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh and its desires,” St. Paul tells us. Yes, we should be concerned about new definitions of marriage and of sexuality—but the confusion in our culture just objectifies the confusion in our own hearts, homes and lives.
I know it isn’t easy to fight against the passions. But here, too, we can be ashamed of Christ and his Cross when we try to fight them in our own name and strength and power, instead of by the name of Jesus and the strength and power of the Cross.
I have a friend from high school who just this past week celebrated his 28th year of sobriety. He wrote, “Yesterday…I have been clean and sober for 28 years. That does not mean that I have been without difficulty and issues, but it does mean that I was better equipped to handle what came my way. The first thing I remember was God in my life, because I cried out to Him and my obsession to drink and get high was immediately lifted. That was and still is today the very most important part of my sobriety—that I gave my life to the Lord...”
We have much to be ashamed of, dear friends in Christ: the many ways and many times we have acted as if he is other than the center of our life…the times we have surrendered ourselves to our passions instead of fighting them…the times we have tried to fight them in our own power and wisdom and strength.
But let us never be ashamed of Christ our God and of his holy cross. Let the word of Christ’s Cross be the light for our feet and the lamp for our path. Let the word of Christ’s Cross be our weapon of peace and our trophy invincible. When the passions assail us, when our sins trouble us, when death itself looms, let our one boast be in the Cross of Christ. Let us never, never, never be ashamed of Christ our God, who loved us, and gave himself for us!