17 April 2015

Stoicism in three lines

Follow virtue.
Fight vice.
Forget about the rest.

30 March 2015

Homily for St. Mary of Egypt Sunday Lent 2015

            Can you be baptized with my baptism? Can you drink the cup I drink? So the Lord asked James and John, so eager to share in his glory…and when they said, “We can,” he assured them, “You will. You will.”
            Today, this fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate the life of our righteous mother Mary of Egypt, the great sinner. She lived life her way. She sought only pleasure. She delighted in corrupting the lives of others too…until she came into contact with the life-giving Cross of Christ. Confronted by the sign of Christ’s love, facing the power of the Cross, she saw her own sin in all its depths. She was baptized with Christ’s baptism, and journeyed out in the desert, beyond the Jordan, to learn the meaning of repentance. There she stayed for forty seven years, weeping over her sins and learning how to pray.
            The Church holds St. Mary of Egypt before us, to remind us that we can’t enter life on our terms. We don’t negotiate a settlement with Christ’s cross. The terms are clear and simple: unconditional surrender.
She also reminds us that no one need despair. There are no depths of sin you’ve committed that cannot be forgiven by the precious blood of Christ.  As St. Paul says in our epistle, “If the blood of bulls and of goats sanctified for the purification of flesh, how much more will the precious blood of Christ, who through the Spirit offered himself to the Father without blemish, cleanse your souls from dead works to serve the living God.”
            She also reminds us that repentance is a life-long pursuit. Forty seven years in the desert…and, she told Fr. Zosima, for the first seventeen she battled her passions daily. The Christian life isn’t simply a matter of an altar call, followed by a life of fixing other people; the Christian life is a daily dying to self…every day, until our last breath.
            That’s what it means to be baptized with Christ’s baptism: to drown our old man daily, by repentance, so that the new man might come forth…to learn to join our sin, in all its depths, to the cleansing waters of Christ’s baptism…that we might ignore the body, that perishes, and attend to the concerns of our undying soul.

            Yesterday we baptized little Margaret; this morning, for the first time, she receives the life-giving cup of salvation, the very body and blood of Christ.

When he was suspended on the Cross, Christ carried that blood through the greater and more perfect tent of his body, and entered once for all into the Holy Place.  Through the Spirit, the Son offered himself to the Father, and so restored us to fellowship with the Holy and blessed Trinity.  What he offered there for us, he gives here to us. And so we drink his cup.
            But that’s not all. His cup is also the cup of his sufferings. In the Garden he prayed, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but thy will be done.” Then he went from the Garden to the Tree of Life, that by his suffering he might ransom us from death, sin, and the devil.
            When he asked James and John if they could drink his cup, he was teaching them, and us, that we enter glory through suffering. James was to find that out a few years later, when Herod killed him with the sword. He was the first of the apostles to die for Christ. And John would learn it many years later, when he suffered exile for Christ’s sake.
            Just think of the other saints we commemorate today: “Martyr Mark, bishop of Arethusa; Martyr Cyril, Martyrs Jonah and Barachisios of Persia, and Eustathios the Confessor.” Or think of those 21 who recently lost their heads for confessing Christ.
            When we take on the Lenten disciplines, we learn to suffer willingly—we practice for martyrdom by dying to ourselves in little ways. When we embrace whatever suffering comes our way in our calling—as parents, or children, as workers or students, as neighbors and friends—we drink the cup of Christ’s suffering.
            For the mystery of suffering is this: Christ joins our suffering with his, and takes it up as his own. That is why he calls it our cross. That is why he could say to Saul, on the Damascus road, “Why do you persecute me?” Saul learned it, for much later in his life he could say, “All who strive to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

            Can you be baptized with his baptism, dear friends? Can I? Can we drink the cup he will drink? “With your help, Lord, we can,” we tell him; and he answers, “You will. You will.”

15 March 2015

Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent (Holy Cross Sunday) 2015

“No!” "No!" "No!" That’s a word that Fr. John and Kh. Darcy are hearing a lot of, these days. And so do the parents of every two-year old. It’s to be expected, for that’s when children begin to figure out that they’re different from their parents. And they need to learn to say “no,” because in a temptation-filled world, we want our kids not simply to go along with the crowd.  When a kid says “no,” they’re learning to be a human…they’re learning a survival skill.
            In today’s text, our Lord calls us to a higher life. He invites us to share his life, the divine life…the life we were made to live. And just like when we were learning to be human, so also in learning to share his life, we begin by learning to say “no.” But this time, we learn to say “no” to ourselves. “If anyone wants to be my disciple, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” the Lord says.

            Say “no” to ourselves. Ours is a self-absorbed culture. The most popular kind of picture is the “selfie.” I must confess to having taken my first selfie when we were in Poland this past summer, with an infamous statue of Lenin in the background. We are completely caught up in how we look…in what other people think of us. How many “likes” do our posts get? How many FB “friends” can I gather? It’s like living in a hall of mirrors. Turn anywhere and you see yourself.
            The same is true with our obsession with self-esteem. It’s a trap! High self-esteem, low self-esteem. It doesn’t really matter, because the heart of them both is “self.” And focusing on self is disorienting. Try an experiment some time. Look in the bathroom mirror. Just keep looking at your own eyes, and you will find the rest of the background gets dizzying and loses focus.
            Contrast that with the monastery I visit in Texas each February. I was struck, the first time I went, when I realized they have no mirrors. At first it’s jarring…but then it’s freeing. It doesn’t matter what I look like. It matters that I pray, and serve, and love.

            We deny ourselves so we can take up our cross and follow Christ. What does that mean? In part, it means to fight against our sinful flesh. “Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its sinful desires,” says Paul. Lent has a way of bringing our flesh out. We get crabby. Temptations are extra tempting. Are you tempted? Keep fighting! Have you fallen? Don’t despair; get up and fight again. We don’t lose unless we quit.
            In part, it means to embrace the suffering that comes our way as a result of our vocation. “I fill up in my body what lacks of Christ’s affliction on behalf of his body, the Church,” St. Paul said. Paul suffered in his apostleship. You suffer as parent, as child, as friend, as co-worker whatever hardship comes your way for Christ’s sake.

            Deny yourself…take up your cross and follow Christ. And just like the two year old learning to say “no,” this is a survival skill. The Lord Jesus says, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
            Beloved, the cross of Christ alone saves us. But the cross of Christ is never alone. We are saved by his cross, and saved through ours. Over and over again, the New Testament makes it plain. “Through many troubles we must enter the Kingdom of God.” “Don’t be surprised at the fiery trial that comes your way.” “Take your share of sufferings as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”

            Here’s an image to keep in mind. Each week we make the bread for the Eucharist. When the dough is ready, we press this seal, with the cross of Christ at its heart, into the dough. Then we bake it. When the bread is finished, it comes out with an exact stamp of the seal in it. The seal is not the stamp. But the seal conforms the dough into its image.
            Just so, the cross of Christ is not the same as our cross. His cross alone saves us. But his cross alone also marks us and seals us, and so our life is shaped according to his image.

            So as we mark this Holy Cross Sunday in Lent, let us prepare our hearts by learning to say “no” to ourselves. Let us receive in ourselves the image of the life-giving Cross of Christ by resisting temptation, and actively serving, and willingly suffering for Christ’s sake: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

25 January 2015

Homily on Zacchaeus--2015

            What was it that made Zacchaeus abandon all his dignity and shimmy up a tree like a ten year old boy? Remember, he was a man of status—not just a tax collector, but a chief tax collector.  He was a man of means—Luke tells us he was very rich.
            But all his status, and all his wealth, had left him a very lonely man. The other Jews hated him, because he fleeced them for the Romans. The Romans didn’t care for him, because he was a Jew. He had things. He may even have had people…but even then he wondered if they loved him or his money.
            This past week, I was tempted to buy a lottery ticket. The jackpot is up to some $220 million the last I noticed. We all think, don’t we, that life would go so much better if only we had a little more, and a little more. Money means power to do what we want. If we had more money, we could do good things for people we love, support causes we care about, and maybe even do something for ourselves.
            But if power and wealth were the point of life, Zacchaeus would have stayed on the ground. People who are full, don’t go to restaurants. People who are warm don’t turn up the thermostat.  And people whose lives are going well don’t abandon their dignity and shimmy up trees.
            The simple truth is this: having wealth cuts us off from other people and from God. There’s a reason that wealthy communities are gated communities. What is ours needs to be protected. So we cut ourselves off from others. And since God is found in the poor, when we cut ourselves off from them, we cut ourselves off from him.
            Zacchaeus’ life was missing something—or rather, someone. And that is why he climbed the tree: he wanted to see who Jesus was.
            For Christ himself was walking that way. And why was he walking that way? He himself tells us: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” That means Zacchaeus…and that means you and me, too.
            Consider Jesus Christ. From all eternity he lives in communion with the Father and the Spirit. Even when he took on flesh, he existed in the form of God. Comparing this wealth to human wealth is like comparing the sun to a sputtering match.
But Christ did not think it robbery to be equal to God. He hid his splendor. He emptied himself and took on the form of a slave, and was found in fashion as a man. In other words, he took all the riches of his deity and gave them freely for us. St. Paul told the Corinthians, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
He came to seek Zacchaeus. And so he stops beneath the tree and calls Zacchaeus down. “I must stay at your house today,” he tells him. He gives his richest gift—his personal presence—into the hand of this lonely man. Christ uses his wealth to make friends, by giving it away.
No wonder, then, that Zacchaeus gives away his wealth, and embraces a life of poverty! What, after all, is a sputtering match compared to the full warmth of the sun? Now Zacchaeus used his wealth to make friends. And how? He gave it away. By that act, Zacchaeus is restored to the community of faith. “He, too, is a child of Abraham,” Christ says.
Still today Christ seeks and saves the lost. He stops here this morning and invites himself as guest and host at our table. He feeds us with the richest of fare, his own life-giving body and blood. Let us, then, like Zacchaeus, loose our grip on things, so that we might cling to Christ. Let us learn to make friends for ourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when it fails they may receive us…

23 November 2014

Homily on the rich fool, 2014

Note: the word "fool" here is not "more," the word the Lord uses in Matthew when he says, "Whoever calls his brother 'fool' shall be liable to hell fire." The word here is "aphron," which means more literally, "unthinking."

            “You fool.” They were probably the last two words he ever expected to hear of himself. He was careful with his assets, crafty in his dealings. At a time when few could consider retirement, he had arrived. He told himself, “Soul, take your rest; you have goods laid up for many years. Eat, drink, be merry.” He had climbed the ladder of success, and was about to reach its top.
            But just there was the problem. He had climbed the wrong ladder. And now he heard God’s judgment: “You fool! This night your soul will be required of you; and who will enjoy all the things you have gained?” Then the Lord concludes, “So is he who lays up treasures for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
            It would be easy to read these words and see them applying to someone else—a Donald Trump, say, or a Bill Gates. They, after all, have lots of money. Like the man in today’s story, they’ve reached the heights of the ladder of success.
            But the Lord does not condemn the rich man because he reached the top of the ladder. He condemns the rich man because he climbed the wrong ladder. And whether our bank account is full or we struggle to make the next paycheck, we’re all alike in danger of that same condemnation if we’re climbing that same ladder.
            How can you tell if you’re on that ladder? Listen to what the rich man said. “Soul, take your rest; you have goods for many years.” He thought his life consisted in his possessions. Do we?
            Do we feel more secure when our bank balance is higher, and less alive when it’s not? Do we think, “If only I could gather more, then I could really live?” Are we elated when stocks rise, and depressed when they fall? Those are warning signs, my friends. They suggest that we might be climbing the wrong ladder. We’re not thinking right if we think that life is something yet to come.
            Moses says that we are like grass. Grass is beautiful, but it lasts only a day. “In the morning it flourishes and grows up; In the evening it is cut down and withers.” The fact is, tomorrow never comes. You and I are alive but one day: today. Let us not be always getting ready to live, and never living.  
When we lived in Canada we had a landlord named N___ P_____. We told him what a beautiful house it was we were renting, and he told us his story. He had married a nurse. They planned to work full time and pay off the house early, so that they could retire early and enjoy life. Then she got breast cancer, and died. “Don’t put off your life together!” he told Cindy and me. To live in the future is not to live at all.
            The man also thought that he was master of his possessions. They were his, and he could do with them what he wanted. And they were his—but he was God’s! He didn’t own himself.
We may say that we own things, but we really don’t. What we call “owning” is just the right to use them as we see fit. God puts his things into our hands, and gives us more than we need, so that he can test us. They don’t belong to us. They, and we, belong to God.
The holy fathers teach us that we make progress in the path of holiness when we keep two things in remembrance: death, and God. Those thoughts are like the guardrails that keep us on the path. When we remember death, we learn to humble our pride; when we remember God, we learn not to despair.
For the God we remember is the God who spoke these words: enfleshed God, our Lord Jesus Christ. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who, though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”  He emptied himself to fill us; he bore our sins to redeem us; he endured the cursed death of the cross that he might freely give us the blessed life of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Beloved, the tasks God sets out for this parish are great. None of them can be done if we climb the wrong ladder. They can only happen if we give up trying to be rich for ourselves, and learn, as Christ calls us to learn in this text, to be rich toward God.