06 July 2014

Homily for 6 July 2014

         Some years ago I considered entering the Army Reserves as a chaplain, to help supplement my income as a pastor. Very quickly I discovered the difference between life in the Army and life in the Church. The chaplain I was talking to, needed a form of some kind. “Corporal Smith!” he called out. “Yes, sir!” the corporal replied. “Get me form such-and-such,” the chaplain said. “Yes, sir!” the corporal said, and went immediately to carry out the command. I remember thinking, “Wow, would church be different if pastors could get that kind of response!”
         The man in today’s gospel understood the power of a word. Like any officer in any army from that day till our own, he needed only to express his will, and others would jump into action to make sure it happened. Armies rely on the power of a word.
         So it was that when Christ offered to come to his house, to heal his servant, the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come to my house; but say the word, and he will be healed. For even I am a man under authority, and I say to one man ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come,’ and he comes.”
         Consider his words. In the first place, he admits his own unworthiness. One of the other Gospels mentions that the Jews say, “He is worthy that you do this, for he loves our people and built us a synagogue.” He thought himself unworthy, and others thought him worthy. Most of the time, things are opposite: we think ourselves worthy, and others say, “Well, not so much.” What else explains how quickly we become angry?...how we complain when suffering is our lot in life?...when things don’t go the way we think they should?
If I truly believed I was not worthy, I would not grumble under suffering…I would be slower to get angry and frustrated…I would see each day, with all it brings, as a gift…I would learn to call on God fervently, from the heart, for help in all things.
Note, also, that the centurion compares himself only with Christ. When he says, “Even I am a man under authority, and my words are obeyed,” here’s what he’s saying. “If I am under authority and men obey me, how much more will sickness obey you, who are enfleshed God.” His words powerfully confessed the power of Christ to do what he willed.

         There wasn’t much that made Christ marvel. In fact, I could find only two such times. He marveled at the unbelief shown him in Nazareth, and he marveled at the faith of this Gentile centurion. With a word, he healed the servant.

         The Greek word for ‘word’ is logos. It also means ‘reason.’ Careful observers of our country and world may wonder whatever happened to it. Where did reason go, when we try to fix the problems of other countries, and neglect our own? Where did reason go, when we are giving our children 17 trillion dollars in debt and at the same time admitting more wards of the state? Where did reason go when our so-called war against radical Islam has resulted in the destruction of Christianity in the Middle East? I could go on and on; the examples are endless, both in our nation and, if we look closely, in our own lives.

         What, then, shall we do? There is precious little I can do with the world system as it lurches toward irrationality. But there is much I can do in my own life. To begin with, I can learn how precious and powerful is the Word of God. We Orthodox must be careful to cherish the written Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. If Protestants do no honor to the Scripture by a low view of the Church, it is also true that Orthodox do no honor to the Church by a low view of Scripture. Do we read it? Do we tremble at it? Do we seek to order our lives according to it? “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
         Further, I can learn from the centurion how to see myself. “I am not worthy.” As Solzhenitsyn reminds us, we were not put on this earth to become happy. In this brief time we live in the light, let us meditate on the love of God in Christ, how that he made us out of nothing, and when we had fallen he did not cease to do all things until he brought us to heaven, and gave us his kingdom to come.
         In a few moments, he gives us that kingdom once again in the chalice. He who healed the centurion’s servant with a word, now comes under the roof of our souls to feed us and nourish us and heal us and forgive us. Let us not take this great gift for granted, beloved, but let us receive it in humility and thanksgiving. As St. John Chrysostom says in his pre-communion prayer, 

“O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficiently pleasing that Thou shouldst come under the roof of the house of my soul for it is entirely desolate and fallen in ruin and Thou wilt not find in me a place worthy to lay Thy head. But as Thou didst humble Thyself from on high for our sake, so now humble Thyself to my lowliness.As Thou didst deign to lie in a cavern, in a manger of dumb beasts, so now deign to enter in to the manger of my beastly soul, and into my soiled body.And as Thou didst not disdain to enter and to eat with sinners in the house of Simon the leper, so now be pleased to enter into the house of my soul, humble and leprous and sinful.And as Thou didst not cast out the prostitute, the sinful woman who came to touch Thee, so have compassion on me a sinner who comes to touch Thee.And As Thou didst not abhor the kiss of her sin-stained and unclean mouth, do not abhor my mouth, worse stained and more unclean than hers, nor my stained and shamed and unclean lips, nor my still more impure tongue.But let the fiery coal of Thy most pure Body and Thy most precious Blood bring me sanctification, enlightenment and strengthening of my lowly soul and body, relief from the burden of my many transgressions, protection against every action of the devil, repulsion and victory over my wicked and evil habits, mortification of my passions, accomplishment of Thy commandments, increase of Thy divine grace, and inheritance of Thy kingdom.For I do not come to Thee in presumption, O Christ my God, but made bold by Thine unspeakable goodness, lest I stray far away from Thy flock, O Master, and become caught by the wolf of souls.Therefore I pray Thee, O Master, for Thou alone art holy, sanctify my soul and body, my mind and heart, my muscles and bones. Renew me entirely. Implant Thy fear in my fleshly members and let Thy sanctification never be removed from me.Be my helper and defender, guide my life in peace and make me worthy to stand at Thy right hand with all Thy saints.By the prayers and supplications of Thy most pure Mother, of Thy spiritual servants, the most pure angelic powers, and of all the saints who from all ages have been well-pleasing to Thee. Amen.”


         

13 May 2014

Homily: The man at the Bethesda pool (Jn. 5)

            A good artist usually begins a work with a sketch, or a series of sketches. He draws in outline what will later be detailed. He may outline in charcoal or pencil what will later have vivid color. The sketch is not the final product, but it gives an idea of how the work will look.
            In today’s text, the pool at Bethesda is a sketch of Holy Baptism. Consider, first, those who waited there. They were not healthy. They admitted themselves to be wounded, broken. Just so, we don’t call the mystery Holy Baptism because it is given to holy people; we call it Holy Baptism because it makes holy those who are broken and wounded by ancestral sin and all that they have added to it.
            Consider, second, that God used water to bring about healing. Throughout the Old Testament water was used for cleansing defilement. At first it was for ritual defilement. But as the time for Baptism drew nearer, God used the water of this pool to heal bodily disease. As the water of Bethesda cured the lesser, bodily ills, so Holy Baptism cures the ills of our souls, and restores us to life with God.
            Of course, it was not the water by itself that brought healing. It was the presence and action of the angel in and with the water that brought healing to the one who entered. And Holy Baptism is not merely an outward washing that symbolizes an inner commitment. Holy Baptism is God’s own act, and not merely an angel but God himself works in these waters, to join us to his Son by the power and operation of his Holy Spirit.
            At Bethesda, only one person could be healed when the waters were disturbed. This points us to the fact that baptism is a personal act, like birth and death. Each birth, each death is unique. But unlike Bethesda, as Chrysostom says about baptism, “though the whole world should come, the grace is not spent, the power is not exhausted, but remains equally great as it was before. Just as the sun’s beams give light every day, yet are not exhausted, nor is their light made less by giving so abundant a supply; so, and much more, the power of the Spirit is in no way lessened by the numbers of those who enjoy it.” 
            Think of that man, sitting by the pool, unable to move, no one else there to help him. Thirty eight years is a long time—thirty eight years ago Gerald Ford was President!—a long time, plenty of time to wait. But waiting time was not wasted time for this man. He had learned how to be patient. He thought on his own sin, yes; but he also made himself available to God by sitting at the pool.
            When, then, the Lord Jesus came to the pool and saw the man, he asked him, “Do you want to be healed?” That question might seem strange, at first, but it really isn’t strange to those who have struggled with a problem for a long time. There is always the danger that we can get used to dysfunctionality, that we come to prefer the misery we know, to the unknown problems that come from healing.
            The man replied, “I have no one to help me,” and Jesus said, “Pick up your bed and walk.” Immediately the man grew strong and went his way.
            When we sin after Baptism, we need not go to the font again. We believe in one Baptism for the remission of sins. Rather, we encounter Christ in the mystery of Confession. There, by the words of forgiveness he restores us to our baptismal purity.
            At first the man didn’t know who Jesus was—even when he had been healed. Did you notice where the Lord found him after his healing? He had gone to the Temple. Why? Because his years of waiting, and the marvelous miracle had taught him to make himself available to God. So also us, beloved, when we come to Vespers, and Matins, and Divine Liturgy week after week. We come to the Temple to make ourselves available to God.
So how is it with you this morning? Do you struggle with some issue of habit or passion? No matter how deep it is, no matter how long it’s been, there’s no need to despair. God gives us Holy Baptism to join us to the death and rising of Christ. And for those who fall after Baptism, he gives us the mystery of Confession. Do you want to be healed? This is the place, and now is the time when Christ moves among us. Let us make ourselves available to him, for he who promised is faithful. He will do what he said; we can rely on his promise, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
           

            

04 February 2014

Comments: a new policy

Note: I'm going to adopt a policy on my blog. Not that I get a lot of comments...and this may quash the ones I get.

From now on, I'm going to ask that those making comments either:

1. Use their correct names (no anonymous or nicknames); or
2. Send me an email at stoic 1348 at gmail dot com, explaining why they can't do 1.

Anonymous and nicknamed comments will be deleted.

My monastery, my typikon. Thanks for understanding.

Some preliminary thoughts on the Weedon lectures

I am slowly working through the two-part talk of that most eloquent orator, Rev'd Wiliam Weedon. No one can fault his rhetorical brilliance. It was not for nothing that he was once considered for a post as chief speaker on the Lutheran Hour. The press of duty (6 university-level classes plus priesting duties) prevents me from making a rapid rejoinder, and that is good. I need time to digest, reflect, filter and sort my thoughts. From what I have seen so far, he is saying in a rather lengthy way what Dr. Gil Meilaender told me once in a much more pithy way: "Once you give up the idea of a true visible church of God on earth, the problems are bearable."

In his presentation, Weedon refers to a post-communion prayer to the Theotokos. Let me note that I discussed that very prayer on this blog, back in the summer of 2008. Those who wish to, may check out those posts. At this point, two thoughts of a general nature underlie the response that is brewing. The response itself may not come for some time.

 1. The importance of context.
St. Irenaeus said of the first gnostics, "Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king."

Rev'd. Weedon is a skillful weaver of tessarae, both of the Scriptures and of the fathers, as anyone who visits his blog will testify. But as has been pointed out often, when one can cite the fourth century fathers on matters of salvation and ignore or reject them on matters such as the intercession of the saints, we may wonder if the little snippets cited are understood in their proper context.

2. Attending to facts before rushing to judgments.
In my introduction to philosophy classes, I teach students how to read texts. The first text we focus on is the Tao te Ching of Lao-Tsu. We typically spend an hour or so on the first sentence, "The Tao that can be trodden (lit. 'Tao'd') is not the enduring and unchanging Tao."

The first step in interpretation is simply to notice and pay attention to what is. For example, in the case of the Tao's first sentence, it is noteworthy that the word 'Tao' appears three times in the sentence. It is noteworthy that the subject and predicate are joined by a negative copula. Again, the word 'Tao' means 'way' or 'path.' I call these 'facts' (though, as Alasdair MacIntyre notes, the word 'fact' is not without its problems), because even a hostile observer will have to grant that they are, indeed, so.

One may move from that kind of observation to the second level, where judgments of an elementary kind are made. In the case of the first sentence of the TtC, the copula 'is not' may serve as a reasonable basis to conclude that, since the Tao of the subject is not the Tao of the predicate, we may infer, for example, that the Tao which can be trodden is not enduring.

Beginning students of philosophy find it hard to stay long on the level of fact. They rush to higher levels too quickly, and so their judgments tend to miss the mark. Truth falls victim to plausibility.

This rush to judgment is not unique to beginning students of philosophy. Yesterday the market went down 300 points. Here's a sentence from today's CNN report on the market: "Stocks in Asia and Europe suffered another battering early in the day, led lower by Japan as markets took fright at weak manufacturing data that sent U.S. stocks plunging Monday." The fact buried in that sentence is that U.S. stocks plunged Monday. But one must be skeptical when one reads it was weak manufacturing data that caused the plunge. Nassim Taleb has dealt with this issue in his fine books.

  I have always been impressed by the nimbleness of Rev'd. Weedon's mind. But as one who reads Hellenist philosophy for a living, and who has struggled with Plotinus a bit, allow me to be a little skeptical when I hear an exchange like this in his combox:
Trent Demarest said... I've heard that Pseudo-Dionysius is really far more influential in modern Orthodoxy than any of the great Eastern Fathers such as Chrysostom, the Cappadocians, etc.
2:19 PM Blogger William Weedon said... I'm not sure I'd put it so. Clearly the Plotinus that filtered through him was influential. Heath Curtis finally directed me to read him, and it was a bit of an aha. But both Chrysostom and the Cappadocians remain hugely influential, but the Orthodox emphasize different things in their writings than we do. Everyone (and I mean everyone) does a "pick and choose" job among the fathers, and that's to be expected. None of us believe that they were inspired. But we know that they were holy and we listen to them respectfully, even when we end up disagreeing with them (which, as Chemnitz rightly points out, THEY free us to do whenever they put forth an opinion that is not established out of the Sacred Scriptures).
I find it more likely that scholars like David Bradshaw, who have dealt with the text of Plotinus and of Dionysius for years, and who have a much more nuanced understanding of what the fathers made use of and what they rejected from Plotinus, get it right.

Weedon says that his issue with Lutheranism was an 'error' in its doctrine of the atonement. That is a dispute on the level of judgment, not of fact. He nimbly jumped to the conclusion that the Book of Concord contained a material error, and just as nimbly jumped back. Lutheranism is very powerful on the level of judgment...not so much on the level of fact.

I cannot speak for all those who left Lutheranism for the Church. For myself, one key thing was attending to the following FACT: the Lutheran Confessions DESCRIBE an actually-existing trans-parish entity. They do not PRESCRIBE. "Our churches teach," they say, not "Our parishes ought to teach." The trans-parish entity they describe, no longer exists. This is a fact. (Perhaps Rev'd. Weedon still remembers a conversation he had with Dr. Norman Nagel about that, concerning the non-existence anywhere of a Lutheran body with a quia subscription. Perhaps not.) Lutherans today use the Confessional writings in a way that goes against the text of those writings themselves: as moral ideals instead of as factual descriptions.

 The Reformation took place on western territory. It did not take place on Orthodox territory. This, too, is a fact of the sort I mentioned earlier--even Orthodoxy's detractors must recognize it.

Well, that's all I have time for now. I mean no ill toward anyone. Life is a difficult journey, and I am only too conscious of my own failings to speak in a triumphalist way. May Christ God, through the prayers of his most holy Mother and of all the saints, have mercy on us.

18 January 2014

A reply to Fr. Eckardt


It’s perhaps inevitable that some of the same issues that led a number of us out of Lutheranism and into the Church should continue to work on newer generations of Lutheran pastors and on those who remained. By no means least of these issues is the ongoing discussion of so-called “infant communion”—a misleading designation, since infants are not communed in the Church because they are infants, but because they are baptized members of the Church. As St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea;  and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” (1Co 10:1-4 NAU, emphasis mine.)
In the last few months, another kerfuffle about communion of the baptized  (hereafter COTB) has arisen amongst confessional circles of the LC-MS. I don’t take all defenses of the LC-MS status quo equally seriously. Publishing house blogs and radio-based grilling of guests are often propaganda, not rising to the level of needing response. But two documents are worth responding to. One is the recent set of theses by Prof. John Pless of the Ft. Wayne seminary. The other is a little article in Gottesdienst by the Rev’d. Dr. Burnell Eckardt. I hope to address the Pless statement at a later time, when I have more leisure. But I would like to make a few remarks about Dr. Eckardt’s article.
The article in question does not address the issue head-on, but uses it as an occasion to reflect on the status of preaching within Lutheranism. According to Eckardt, there are two new things about this iteration of the discussion. First, one young Lutheran pastor has, in his words, “gone off the reservation” and begun actually practicing COTB. Second, the rise of social media means that the discussion runs more swiftly than it has in the past.  Dr. Eckardt is correct about the swiftness of the debate. And it will be very interesting, from the outside, to watch what happens to the young pastor in question. If he is disciplined in some way, it may help others to recognize that Lutheranism has no place for their ilk. If he is not disciplined, it suggests just another fault line along which the LC-MS may eventually split. (I mean no offense to my friends who remain there.)
One of my Antiochian brothers and colleagues has suggested that preaching, not the Eucharist, is the heart and soul of Lutheranism, and that this is symptomatic of a systemic flaw, doctrinally and liturgically. My colleague cites AC Article 24, which says, “People go to Gottesdienst to hear the sermon.”
Fr. Eckardt claims that the citation is taken out of context. And in a formal way, he may be correct. Let us grant that the intention of AC 24 was not to show the sermon is central, but to set the sermon as a key element in “the devout use of the Sacraments.”
It’s noteworthy, however, what Eckardt himself grants. He grants that “there is a flaw in Lutheran sacramental piety, but it is not the fault of the Lutheran Confessions” (p. 16). He continues, “There are all too many Lutherans for whom the Sacrament is not of critical importance for faith, and their woeful lack of piety shows this sad reality for what it is, all too clearly” (p. 16). I don’t intend to criticize Lutherans for their sacramental piety or lack thereof; I merely cite the words of Dr. Eckardt here.
But I do want to make a couple of points about his article. First, no Orthodox priest or bishop could or would quarrel about the use and value of the homily in the context of the divine liturgy. We are, after all, the church of St. John the Golden-mouthed, and even on occasions when the priest presiding might not preach, the Vespers, Matins and Liturgy are full of distilled homilies called “kontakia,” and other theologically rich verses. Each Sunday morning, for example, we sing the words of Emperor Justinian: “Only begotten Son and immortal Word of God, who for our salvation didst will to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, who without change didst become man and was crucified, who are One of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit, O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us.”
Second, what my Antiochian brother is focusing on is not the statements Lutheran documents make about the centrality of the Eucharist, but rather their actual practice. Orthodox people and theologians have a delightful empirical bent, which was reflected at one time in the Lutheran confessional documents themselves.
I recall now-Metropolitan Elpidophoros speaking to a group of us about his work in Lutheran-Orthodox dialogue. When he wanted to know what Lutherans believe about the real presence of Christ, he didn’t get into deep discussion about confessional statements. He watched what was done with the reliquae.
One need only try a couple of thought-experiments to see whether, in fact, the Eucharist is the heart and soul of Lutheranism. Imagine a regular Sunday morning across the entire range of those who call themselves Lutheran. Let us narrow the universe of this discussion to that range of Lutherans who call themselves “confessional”—i.e. those who take a quia subscription to the Confessions seriously. Does that group of Lutherans, in fact and not in theory alone, mark the Eucharist on that given Sunday? A “heart” that does not, in fact, beat is not a heart in any meaningful sense.
Again, if on a given Sunday a parish did not mark the Eucharist in a Lutheran context, would the people who attended still claim that they had been to church? What if the sermon were omitted? It seems to me beyond dispute that of the two elements, sermon and Eucharist, sermon clearly predominates.  It is, in any meaningful sense, the heart of Lutheranism.
I recall a discussion a colleague of mine and I had with a visiting German Lutheran professor back in the days when I taught at a Lutheran seminary. The visiting scholar claimed that no one could properly distinguish Law and Gospel in less than 30 or 40 minutes of preaching. I replied that if I had thought through what needed saying, I could preach a decent Law/Gospel homily in under 10 minutes. As the visitor’s face began to redden, my friend said “I think the homily is so special we should only have one four times a year.” We had to work hard to calm the visiting German down and explain we were--mostly--joking.
The problem for many who remain in Lutheranism is that the confessional documents are no longer what they started out to be: a description of what actually takes place “on any given Sunday.” Note the claims of Augustana 24. They are not “we’d like to” or “we used to,” but “we do” and “we practice.” When Dr. Eckardt cites AC 24’s saying that “none are admitted except they be first examined,” does he forget that the examination in question was individual and private confession? It is ironic that for Lutherans, who pride themselves on the centrality of the Gospel, their confessions have changed from a description of evangelical practice to a Decalogue of distant memories.
Fr. Eckardt also addresses the question of whether the problems diagnosed are “systemic.” His claim is that “the best of Lutheran sacramental catechesis and piety demonstrates that they are not.” He cites AC 24 to support his case. Lutherans refuse to commune baptized infants because, he says, it is “…an integral part of what constitutes the dignity and use of the Sacrament, namely, instruction and examination.” If he worries that defenders of COTB are “charging the entire Western Church, including all of Lutheran history, with the same ‘sin’,” may it not be countered that he himself charges the Eastern Church and the pre-Fourth Lateran Council Western church with the opposite sin? Robert Taft, an eminent Roman scholar who has no axe to grind in this discussion, says “…the plain facts of history show that for 1200 years the universal practice of the entire Church of East and West was to communicate infants” (Liturgy in the Life of the Church).
Eckardt cites the plague of pietism as the cause for present Lutheran distress. Pietist movements did not simply affect Lutheranism; they also had an impact on Orthodox practice. But it is noteworthy how that impact differed. In Lutheranism, pietism led to an abandonment of the weekly Eucharist—making it so rare that, in the end, Luther’s statement of the importance of communing minimally four times a year was taken as a de facto maximum practice for many years. The Eucharist itself was offered only four times a year. In Orthodoxy, pietist strains led to less frequent communing on the part of the laity—but never to the abandonment of the Liturgy itself.  I leave it to the reader to judge which was a relatively minor and accidental impact, and which a major and substantial one.
It has now been a little over a decade when, after the Synodical Convention of 2001, I phoned a number of Lutheran pastors whose Internet posts suggested we were on the same wavelength. I asked them two questions: first, do you agree that the LC-MS has significant problems? All of them answered “Yes.” The second question was, “Do you believe these problems are accidental or genetic?” Nearly all of them said “genetic.” And nearly all of those men are now Orthodox.
Two men, an optimist and a pessimist, were sitting on a park bench. The optimist said, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” The pessimist sighed and answered, “I’m afraid you’re right.” The election of Matthew Harrison as president of the LC-MS instituted halcyon days for those who call themselves confessional Lutherans, like Dr. Eckardt. It doesn’t get any better than this. Whether in the end the optimist’s perspective or the pessimist’s perspective is correct, remains to be seen.

04 November 2013

Homily on the Rich Man and Lazarus


            It wasn’t like he didn’t remember the name. In Hades, being in torment, the rich man cried out, “Father Abraham, send Lazarus to dip his finger in the water and cool my tongue.” If, during his life of leisure he had been summoned to a police station, he could have picked out Lazarus from a lineup.
            The problem was, though he remembered the name, he didn’t remember Lazarus himself, when it counted. There lay the poor man at his gate, hungry, outranked not just by the rich man himself but by the rich man’s dogs—they, at least, got what fell from the table. But the poor man got nothing but the dogs’ mercy. They, at least, saw his wounds; they, at least, helped him the only way they knew, by licking his wounds.
            Why do you suppose the rich man forgot Lazarus? I think it was because he was buried already when he was alive. Elsewhere the Lord speaks of seed that gets choked by the cares and pleasures of life. Well, this rich man was buried by the things he had: covered by fine clothes, good food, a wonderful house, servants, pets—all those things he had, really had him. His mind was preoccupied with them. So it had no space for Lazarus. He couldn’t see the needs of his neighbor. He simply forgot.
            So Abraham says to him, Son, remember. Remember the good things you enjoyed in life. That was then. This is now.
            I have a sneaking suspicion that during his earthly days, the rich man didn’t think of all his fine clothing, and food, and all as good things. I think he probably experienced them as burdens, not as joys. He worked to gain them. He worried about losing them. And after a while, all the so-called “finer things” in life aren’t so fine. If you saw the movie “Citizen Kane,” you’ll remember the rich man’s last word was “Rosebud.” Everyone tried to figure out what that word meant; it was the name of the sled he had enjoyed when he was a child.
            I think that about the rich man, because that’s how I treat so many of the things I’ve gotten, over the years. They’re not fun. They’re just more to take care of, more to protect, more to worry about. If I’m not careful, I can grow attached to things instead of to my neighbor. How easy to forget…how hard to remember!
            And when I care for things more than I care for people, brick by brick I build a wall, shovel by shovel I dig a gulf and cut myself off. Note what Abraham tells him: “Those who would pass from here to you may not; and no one can pass from you to here.” Nothing traps us, nothing cuts us off more effectively  from God and each other than our own passions and desires.
            If we are to escape the rich man’s fate, beloved, we must remember, while there is still time. “Your life is given you for repentance,” says St. Isaac the Syrian, “do not waste it in vain pursuits.” And St. James says, “True religion and undefiled before God the Father is this: to remember the widows and orphans in their affliction, and to keep ourselves unstained by the world.” Now, while we are in the flesh, is the time to repent, to return, to remember.
            For God, in his mercy, has not forgotten us. In Exodus 2, it says, “Then the children of Israel groaned because of the bondage, and they cried out; and their cry came up to God because of the bondage. So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God acknowledged them.” The rest of Exodus shows what that remembering means. God sent Moses, who freed them from bondage and made them a people fit for God.  God’s delivering Israel, foreshadowed his great remembering, when he took on flesh for us in the Virgin’s womb, and served, and shared, and suffered.
While Christ suffered, on the cursed tree, the wise thief cried out, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your Kingdom.” He was assured, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” In Isaiah God says, “I will not forget you; you are engraved on the palms of my hands”—powerful words when we remember they come from one who is crucified for us and alive again.
            In this time and space, God remembers us. Let us call on him. Let us bring him our cries and our tears for all the ways we have forgotten him and our neighbor. Let us relax our grip on things, and on passions, so that we may receive him as he comes to us in his body and blood.
            “Do this in remembrance of me,” he says in a few moments, and by that he doesn’t mean “Think of long ago and far away,” but rather, “Here I am, as I promised. Remember whose flesh and blood you receive, and for what purpose.” Remember. Remember. Remember.

19 September 2013

Infant communion redux

The issue of infant communion (communion of the baptised) is apparently coming up once again in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Rev'd Todd Wilken talks about it on his blog and says, in part: "That is what is behind the push for Infant Communion, you know: a romantic fascination with Eastern Orthodoxy."

I find it intriguing that LC-MS apologists routinely refer to pastors' examining the Church in terms of "romance" and "infatuation" and the like. On the one hand, I don't care for such terminology, because it seems to imply that one's journey to Orthodoxy is a matter of mere emotional attachment and not of cold, sober reflection. In my case, for example, I studied the issues involved for 18 years, and read a wide variety of sources: Lutheran, other Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox. For seven of those years I served as a professor of systematic theology. I have a PhD. I think my intellectual bona fides are not lacking.

On the other hand, perhaps Wilken and his ilk are on to something. The Church engages us as a whole person. Orthodoxy is a lifestyle, not simply a confession, and the fullest response to the truth is not to write confessions but to worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and share the divine life imparted in the Mysteries to all the baptised faithful, of whatever age and attainment. God's grace is a gift, not an attainment.

The Church is open, and welcoming. Come and see!