07 October 2014

Why be good? Homily on Luke 6:31-36

            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

Homily on the Rich Young Ruler, 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?

10 August 2014

Homily for the Sunday after Transfiguration, 2014

Note: Our parish has a good problem. We're outgrowing the building we've owned since 2006. The growth hasn't been rapid, but it's been steady. We have a Sunday School class meeting in the utility room. We need to move forward. Our goal is to purchase land (5+acres) on which to build a permanent temple, and a cemetery for Orthodox Christians in the Grand Rapids area.

My wife and I were very encouraged by our recent trip to Ukraine. I hope to share that encouragement with the people of Holy Cross, as we work toward achieving our goals. Please remember us in your God-pleasing prayers!

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A few days ago we marked the Transfiguration of our Lord.
He took Peter, James and John up a high mountain, and showed them his glory.
            Moses and Elijah appeared with him in the splendor of his uncreated light.
                       The light shone, even through his garments,
                                       to teach us that all creation is meant for that light.
                       The light touched his wondering disciples,
                                       to teach us that God wills to share his light with us.

Today’s gospel takes place, not on a mountain but in the midst of the sea;
            not in peaceful surroundings, but in the heart of a storm.

After feeding the 5,000, Jesus commanded the disciples to get in their boat and head home.
            They went at his word,
                        but ran into a storm.
                                    The wind and waves tossed their boat like a toy.
“They rose up to the heavens, they went down to the depths;
Their soul melted away in their misery.
They reeled and staggered like a drunken man,
And were at their wits' end.” (Ps. 107)

Then it was they saw the Lord Jesus, coming to them, walking on the sea.
            What they saw, terrified them; but what they heard brought them comfort.
                        “Take heart,” he said, “don’t be afraid. It’s me.”
           
It’s not natural for men to walk on water.
                        But Jesus is the God-man.
                        All the divine energies were communicated to his humanity.
                                    He is not subject to nature; nature is subject to him.
                                    His body is true flesh,
                                    the water is true water—
                                                yet in that flesh, he treads on the water.
            “Where God wills, the ways of nature are overturned.”
or rather,
            Nature yields to him, as the clay yields to the potter.

What they heard brought them comfort…
            and what Peter heard, brought him courage.
Overcome by love for Christ, he cried out:
                        “Lord, if it is you, bid me come out to you on the water.”

That little boat was like the shelters we build for ourselves—
            shelters of money, or friends, or intelligence, or looks—
                        whatever or whoever makes us feel secure.
But Peter knew that it’s better to be with Christ outside our security
            than to be without him inside our security.
And so he heard Christ’s command:           “COME!”

He left the boat, and walked toward Christ on the water
            as if it were dry land!

Now when Christ walked on the water it was because he is the God-man.
But what about Peter walking on the water?

It was because those divine energies,
given to Christ’s humanity at the incarnation,
are given through Christ’s humanity to those who trust his word.
What is true of him by nature, becomes true of us by grace.

The Word didn’t become flesh to make us good.
            He became flesh to make us god—
             to share his divine energies, his divine life.

But isn’t that the way he’s always worked?
            St. Paul tells us, of Abraham,
“Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body,
now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old,
and the deadness of Sarah's womb;
 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief
but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God,
and being fully assured that what God had promised,
He was able also to perform." (Rom 4)
And so came Isaac, and through him all of Israel’s race.
So with the disciples in the wilderness, in last week’s gospel.
            They had only five loaves and two small fish,
            And had five thousand men to feed, plus women and children.
Yet they brought their resources to Christ.
            All were fed, and much was left over.

So with my friend Fr. Dimytro in Veliki Mosti.
            The government took his building away.
            The next Sunday, only seven people came to liturgy.
                        But he didn’t quit.
                        He believed that God would provide.
            And Cindy and I worshiped in the beautiful temple that they built.

Might it be true for us, too, in our place and time?
Do you, like me, cry out to the Lord to grant us land
            For a cemetery, and a lovely temple to worship him in?

Listen to what Fr. Dimytro wrote to us:

Most Dear Fr. Gregory,            Together with your wife, children, and parishioners, please accept best wishes from Fr. Dmytro from Velyki Mosti!
            We once again thank you for serving in our temple and also for the offering you made to God's temple.  All of our parishioners were very pleased with the way that you served, as well as your homily, which will be remembered for a long time to come.  We are sending you a copy of the plans for our temple.            On my own behalf, and on behalf of my parishioners, I want to encourage you and your parishioners with your intentions of beginning to build a temple of God for your parish.  Do not doubt for a moment that this is God's work!            The Lord doesn't give every generation this opportunity, to build a temple.  The building of a temple does a lot to unite parishioners together.  If it sometimes seems to people to be impossible, remember that with God, all things are possible. And often, miracles occur, as we observed more than once during the building of our temple: when problems arose with our funds or with the building materials, the Lord helped us in miraculous ways.  And also, words cannot express the joy of the people, when they have built and blessed a temple.            Our parishioners would always say to me, “Father, we have money and then it's gone.  It seems like at home, the money just slips through our fingers.  But what we give for the building of a temple, that lasts for many generations, for the glory of God.  And we know that we will be prayed for in this temple, for here prayers will be offered until the end of the age.”            Be bold, with God's help, and the Lord will always be with you!With respect,Fr. Dmytro and his flock

“Be bold, with God’s help, and the Lord will always be with you!”
and, “With God, all things are possible.”

I wonder if we haven’t gotten a little too comfortable
            in our cozy little boat.
I wonder if it isn’t time to step out and reach toward Christ.

I believe that we can do it…that we can build for God a temple,
            and a resting place for his faithful people.
And I am certain that in the process of stepping out,
            In love for Christ who loved us, and love for each other,
God will build for us a temple, and make us to be a living temple for him.

So how about it? Let’s step out toward Christ.
He will keep us safe amidst all the storms.
If we fall, he will raise us up.
            Let us be bold, with God’s help, and he will always be with us!


25 July 2014

Remarks in Veliki Mosti

Note: over the past few weeks, my wife and I were privileged to be in Europe, including western Ukraine, where we visited a number of exchange students we've hosted over the years. Last Sunday I was invited to speak after Liturgy at the Orthodox parish in Veliki Mosti, Ukraine. A number of non-Orthodox people from the town were present at the Liturgy to hear these remarks. (The name "Veliki Mosti" means "Big bridge;" I make a pun in the first full paragraph by speaking of "malinky most," or "little bridge.") 

I have many fond memories of our time in Ukraine, and especially in visiting with Fr. Dmitri from Veliki Mosti. He is truly a good shepherd of his flock, and I am grateful to count him as my brother in Christ and in the priesthood.

The remarks I made were not profound, but I put them forward because they were very well received and because they will serve as an ongoing reminder of a very precious day in my life.

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Dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ the Lord,

I bring you greetings from your fellow Orthodox Christians in the USA.

My name is Fr. Gregory Hogg, and I am an archpriest in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. My wife and I are here in Veliki Mosti because we are visiting our former exchange student Olah Ruda and her family. In a way, we are building a “malinky most” between our parish and yours. Later today, God willing, we will begin our homeward journey.

You are members of the Moscow patriarchate, and we are from Antioch, but the delightful thing about being Orthodox is that all around the world we are one Church, one body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. The “Moscow” and “Antioch” are just adjectives; the important word is Orthodox—right believing, right praying, right teaching.

With you we grieve at the conflict elsewhere in Ukraine...a conflict that has the devil’s fingerprints all over it. In such conflicts there are no winners, only losers.  What shall we seek in this conflict? Justice? When my children were young, sometimes one of them would complain that they were not being treated fairly, not being treated justly, over against their siblings. "Do you want to be treated fairly?" I would ask, and remind them of all that I did for them that I didn't do for the others. "If I treat you justly, I'll have to stop doing these things for you." So also with us. We don’t need justice. We need God’s mercy in this conflict and in the many other places that Orthodox Christians are threatened today, including the home of my church in Syria.

I am sad that some make use of this conflict to attack the Orthodox Church. They claim that to be Ukrainian is not to be Orthodox. But the Church is Christ’s kingdom, and Christ God told Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” To belong to the Orthodox Catholic Church is to belong to the church that is right-believing and scattered through every country of the earth.  Now more than ever we need the Orthodox Church to guide us through the troubled waters of the 21st century.

I was not born into the Orthodox Church. I was raised a Protestant, a Lutheran, and served as a Lutheran pastor and professor for 22 years. I came to Orthodoxy because, after an 18 year search in which I read Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox sources, I found here a faith that does not change.... A hope that helps people endure under persecution... A love that receives all people, even me.

Some of you come from Orthodox families. To you I would say that no one is born Orthodox. We are all converts through the water of Holy Baptism, the oil of Holy Chrism, and the sharing of Christ’s true body and blood. 

Some of you may not be Orthodox. To you I would say, take the challenge to study what happened to the Church Christ founded. St Paul says, “Remain in that standard you received; and if anyone is otherwise minded, God will make it plain to him.” I am living proof of those words. It took time, but God made it plain to me.


Thank you for receiving us so warmly into your beautiful home!