25 January 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
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.
07 October 2014
There’s an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin complains to Hobbes. “Why should I be nice to other people?” he asks. “Sometimes I think I’m just good for nothing.” Hobbes answers, “I often think you’re good for nothing.” Before Hobbes’ funny line, Calvin raises an excellent question: “Why should I be good?”
The difference between the life of a disciple and that of an unbeliever is not in what they do. Sinners love, Christ says, and saints love. Sinners do good, and so do saints. Sinners lend, saints lend. Outwardly there’s little or no difference at all. And that’s thrown many people for a loop. Prominent atheist writers claim we can have ethics without God. And if by ethics they mean, “decent outward conduct,” they have a point. So if I can be just as good without Christ, then what’s the point of believing?
The answer’s simple:
Christ didn’t come to make us good;
he came to make us God.
So he says, in today’s text, “Lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High.”
What does it mean to be a “son of the Most High?” It means to be a member of the divine household, sharing the divine life, and light—and love. The acts are the same; but the expectation is completely different.
What do you expect when you’re good to someone? There’s an easy way to tell, but it can be very painful. When someone neglects me, ignores me, forgets to say “thank you”—how do I respond? If I act hurt or wounded, if I withdraw—indeed, if there’s any change at all in me toward them, then I didn’t lend expecting nothing in return.
And how do I love my enemies? If love is a feeling, it’s impossible. How can I feel good about people who are trying to hurt me or kill me? Only if love is a commitment, a decision to do good for another human being—only then can I truly love my enemies.
But how can I love enemies, and lend expecting nothing in return? Remember: Christ didn’t come to make us good; he came to make us God. If we tried to do it in ourselves we would fail, as miserably as the disciples did when they went fishing after Jesus’ resurrection.
But we are not in ourselves any more. Our old life, with all its expectations, died when we were baptized. “I have been crucified with Christ,” says Paul, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Of course, this isn’t automatic. Since I have been crucified with Christ, I must crucify my sinful passions and not feed them. Part of that crucifying is to remind myself, day after day, of my changed expectations. Gone must be the expectation to get something back for things I give. Gone must be the desire for vengeance on those who have hurt me or mistreated me.
And just there is the point of sharing God’s own life. He freely gives me all he has, in Christ his Son; only by releasing my grip on my possessions am I free to receive the gift of his care. Only by seeking and serving my enemies can I know the kind of love God has for me. Christ reconciled us to the Father while we were enemies, and dead, and blind; how could I not let go of the grudges I carry?
Christ calls us to great things, humanly impossible things, in our lives as individuals and our life together as a parish. But what is impossible with men is possible with God. Let us therefore, as Fr. John said last week, not receive the grace of God in vain, but hold it fast. Let us learn the love of God in practice here, so that we may be made perfect in love hereafter, through his grace and love for mankind always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
01 September 2014
In about 269 AD, an eighteen year old man attended liturgy in his Egyptian home town. His life was in turmoil. His wealthy parents had just died, leaving him a large estate and a sister to care for. Then he heard the words of today’s gospel, as if Christ had spoken directly to him. He went and provided for his sister, sold all that he had, and devoted himself exclusively to following Christ. His name was Anthony, and he is the founder of monasticism.
“Sell all that I have? I could never do that!” you might be thinking. It is a radical idea, isn’t it? Once and for all to give up control of anything and everything you have, and put yourself into the hands of God for everything, including food and shelter. For us there are bills to be paid, families to care for, obligations to be met. What would we eat? Where would we live? How would we dress ourselves against the heat and cold? If it weren’t for Christ’s warning—that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven—we’d just as soon write these words off.
And yet Christ’s warning stands. When the disciples express surprise, he doesn’t tone it down or soften it. He doesn’t make it more palatable. He doesn’t say, “JK. LOL.”
So what do we do with these words? In the first place, let’s reflect that sooner or later, we all give up everything we have. St. Paul reminds us, “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out.” So the issue isn’t, “Shall I give up my possessions or keep them?” We all give up everything we have. The issue is, “Shall I give up my possessions willingly or unwillingly?”
The rich young man that Jesus spoke to gave up his wealth unwillingly, when he died. Anthony gave up his wealth willingly, when he shared it all with the poor. The only difference is the will, but the will makes all the difference between heaven and hell.
Right about now, in sermons on this text, the preacher makes a point of saying that you don’t have to empty your bank account. And I suppose that’s true. But it’s also important to say that Christ isn’t kidding. I need to cut the ties I have to my wealth—such that if it should disappear, I wouldn’t miss it. And that, my friends, is very hard.
So the Church gives us a way to practice and prepare for the loss of our goods—a loss which is surely coming, by death or disaster. She invites us to cut the ties inwardly, to give willingly, generously, yes, and even cheerfully. “God loves a cheerful giver,” Paul tells us, and giving is cheerful when we remember that all we have is God’s gift anyway. When you give to the Church, you practice for death. You confess God’s faithfulness.
We talk about paying off our mortgage, getting land for a cemetery and a temple, so that Orthodox Christians will have a place to serve Christ while living and rest in peace when they die. My experience in Veliki Mosti this summer taught me that it can be done, because I’ve seen it. Whether it will be done, depends in part on each of us giving our first fruits as we are able.
But giving up our grip on wealth is only a preliminary. The point of it all is to follow Christ. “Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and come, follow me,” he told the rich young man.
What does it mean to follow Christ? It means something different for each human being. For Anthony, it meant years in the desert, in solitude and prayer. For Mother Maria of Paris, it meant working with poor and despised people, and sharing the fate of the Jews in World War II. For you it will mean something still different.
But all these different paths have one thing in common: to follow Christ means to die to ourselves that we might live to God and to others. “I have been crucified with Christ,” says Paul. “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
If, as Paul says, I no longer live, then I no longer own anything. All dead people are equally poor. All I have is Christ…but that’s enough. His blood covers my sin, his power is perfected in my weakness, his grace is sufficient for me; his life is mine, and mine is his.
We don’t follow Christ as a moral obligation. We follow Christ to learn from the inside, in some small measure, what it meant for him to seek and save us while we were lost. “God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners…dead…enemies of God…he gave his Son into death for us.”
Christ is calling you this morning. His call is personal, one-on-one. His call is inescapable. This is a time of crisis, a crossroads. You will not leave as you came. Will you hold on to things you think are yours, only to lose them later, or will you release them all and with open arms cling to the Lord who loves you?