31 August 2015

Homily on Matthew 21.33ff

            When I was a kid, I loved to discover how things worked. And I got to be pretty good at taking things apart. Whether it was a piece of electronics, or some household object, I could soon have the whole thing in pieces in front of me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite so good at putting things back together.  Inevitably there’d be two or three pieces sitting there. when I was done. I had no idea where they went, but without them, the thing wouldn’t work. Even today, I dread those words “Some assembly required” when I buy something.

            It was a little like that for the Jewish leaders in today’s text. They thought they had all the pieces assembled right. Oh, to be sure, there were always tensions and troubles in their world. How to deal with the Romans…how to interpret strange sections of the Torah, (like that one about a healed leper showing himself to the priests when leprosy was incurable)…Then in the background there was their ancestors’ constantly falling into idolatry. But on the whole, they got the parts together and it all seemed to work.
            Then along came Jesus, and they didn’t know what to do. On the one hand, nobody could deny that he did miracles and wonders: raising the dead, casting out demons—even healing lepers, like that strange passage talked about.
            But on the other hand, he wouldn’t play by their rules. He went out of his way to heal on the Sabbath day. His disciples came from Galilee, a place crawling with Gentiles—all except for Judas Iscariot, of course. Try as they might, they couldn’t figure out what to do with him. He didn’t fit their plans, so they rejected him.
            That’s why he quoted the words of the Psalm to them, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” He knew what was in their hearts. Just as their fathers had killed the prophets, so they would strike at him. Something had to give…so they killed him. But God raised him from the dead, and revealed him to be his Son, and poured out his Spirit on those who trusted him.

            It’s easy to see that from our vantage point. But I wonder how many times we need to hear these same words. We work on building our lives. We try to put the pieces together. Most everything seems to fit. But sometimes we might see Christ as just another piece, and miss how he’s the key piece, the cornerstone. Or in some areas of our life we might try to get by without him altogether.
            I admire those who are able to build or remodel a building. You may know that buildings have two kinds of walls: weight-bearing and non-weight bearing. They both look the same from the outside, but they’re not. Here’s how to tell the difference. Knock the wall down. If nothing happens, then it’s a non-weight bearing wall. If the roof starts to cave in, you’ll know it was weight bearing.
            Where does Christ fit in your plans: for big things like your career and your marriage and the way you see life-issues like human sexuality and race issues and politics…and for little things like your day to day existence? Try the weight-bearing wall test. Take him completely out of the picture for that issue or act. If the whole thing still makes sense without him then, my friend, he is not a weight-bearing wall in your life.  Sooner or later, you will either repent or try to kill him altogether—to remove him from your life.
            But he will have none of it. The Jewish leaders muddled along for another 30 years before their world came completely down. You see, Jesus is Lord. He is the one in whom all things hold together. Through him you were made…indeed, you are central to him, for he left heaven and suffered and died and rose for you.  If he is not central to you, it’s not yet too late. Turn to him and trust him…not just for the big things but also for the little ones.
            He is the cornerstone to life and death. Everything else makes sense only when he is the key to all. Let us stop trying to have life on our terms, with our plans. Let us give our plans and our lives with all their parts into those hands which were wounded for us. He loves us, beloved; he will build of us something true and beautiful and good, for service in his Kingdom: of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

10 May 2015

Homily for the Woman at the Well 2015

            The whole of the Christian life consists of these two parts: to do the will of God, and to suffer for his sake.  Consider the life of our Lord Jesus Christ himself. He who is God, the giver of the Law, submitted himself to the Law for our sake. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law,” he told his disciples. “I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” And having kept the Law in its fullness, he willingly suffered its penalty for us and for our salvation. The wages of sin is death, but he gave himself as a ransom to death, in order to give us life.
            Consider also the Theotokos. When God revealed through Gabriel that she would bear his Son, she said, “Let it be to me according to your word.” And when her spotless Son was led to the tree, the words of Simeon were fulfilled, “A sword will pierce your own heart too.”
            Indeed, these two things have marked the lives of all the saints, from the beginning of the world till now: they did the will of God, and suffered for Christ’s sake.
            I bring this up, beloved, because at the heart of today’s gospel the Lord says something very strange: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”
            Now normally we think of food as something that gives us energy to work, or as a reward after we’ve done work. But here Christ says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.”
            How often, in my Christian life, do I say to myself, “As soon as I feel strong enough…as soon as my basic needs are met…as soon as I’ve got life going the way I want it to….then I’ll willingly do God’s will and gladly suffer hardship for Christ’s sake.” Day follows day, week follows week, and I’m still stuck in the same ruts, struggling with the same sins, getting older but no better, slipping into despair. Does this describe you, too?
            If so, maybe we have it backwards. Maybe we will find the meaning and satisfaction and purpose we so desperately long for, not by feeding our passions and focusing on our own desires, but by finding our delight, as Christ does, in doing the will of God and suffering for his sake.
            For the past month or so, I have been so caught up with preparations for our trip, and finishing the semester, that I’ve neglected my normal habit of walking a couple of miles a day. And how has that been working for me? I have less strength, less motivation, and have gotten less done.
            What’s true physically is also true spiritually. When things happen and my first question is, “How does this fit in with what I want?”—I inevitably get frustrated and angry and despair.            But when I learn to pray from the heart, “Thy will be done,” and embrace the things that come as from the hand of a Lord who so loved me that he embraced death for me—then I learn to live in peace and joy.

            My friends, Khouria and I will be away for much of the next three months. May I offer a challenge to you? Meditate on these strange words of Christ, and apply them to all that comes your way. Don’t desire that things go your way, according to your will; but embrace what happens as an expression of his will. When Christ kept these words, when he obeyed and suffered, it meant life for you and me. When we embrace them for ourselves, think what joy it will bring for us, and what life in Christ for others!

04 May 2015

Homily for the wedding of John and Ariana Coolidge

            The Gospel of John is not a story of “once upon a time;” it is a story of “once and for all time.” In its lines the eternal Word becomes flesh, on behalf of all and for all. And so it is fitting that at each Orthodox marriage, we read these words from John 2. For marriage, too, embodies timeless truth in human flesh. Marriage reveals the relationship between Christ and the Church. There are not two Christs or two Churches, but one Christ and one Church, joined in their distinctiveness, and dissimilar in their union.
            We see that clearly at the wedding in Cana. Two great hearts are present—Christ and his Mother, each with their own role to play. Mary is present as the intercessor, the pray-er. It is she who sees the need of the couple, and intercedes for them with her Son. “Son,” she says, “they have no wine.”
            Some might say that she’s unnecessary. After all, doesn’t Christ know all and see all? Yet it was his will to work through her prayer, that day in Cana. And since these words show timeless truth, it remains his will to work through her prayers… indeed, through the prayers of all his people.
            Christ is present, too, as the provider. He tells the servants to put water into pots. Then he makes that water, plain and pure, into the sweetest and best of wines. He works in a hidden way to accomplish his will. The servants pour but water; the steward tastes but wine. Only the disciples get the whole picture. Only they see that by Mary’s prayer, and by Christ’s provision, the water is turned to wine. Only they see Christ’s glory, and worship him.
            John and Ariana, it has been my privilege and joy to watch this relationship develop from its beginning. I knew you both, before you were together. I remember a breakfast at the truck stop on 76th, and a suggestion—“Why not just go out on one date, and see what happens?”
            Well—see what happens! See what happens through the prayers of Mary and the provision of Christ! Today he who made them male and female in the beginning, and who said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”—today he joins you together as husband and wife.
            And those two great hearts are not done with you. You will have those times when the wine runs low in your life together…when joy becomes struggle and maybe even heartache. If marriage were a merely a matter of two people and their willingness, it could not last in this broken world.  Did you notice that there are no vows in our wedding liturgy? Marriage is a threefold cord, for God the Holy Trinity works today to bring you together and join you as one. It is not of man who runs or wills, but of God who shows mercy.

So let me encourage you to invite Christ and his Mother to your home and life together. She will pray for you in those times when the wine runs low. She will teach you, as she taught the servants, “Whatever he says, do it!” And he who came to bring joy to that couple will bring to you as well, the wine of joy and gladness in his Kingdom, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

27 April 2015

Homily for the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women

            The story is told that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson once went camping. In the middle of the night, Holmes woke up Watson and said, “Watson, look up, and see the stars. What do you deduce from that?”
            “Well,” said Watson, “There are so many of them—billions, to be sure. Some of those stars must be like our sun. And some of those must have planets revolving around them. And some of those planets must be hospitable for life. And some of those planets hospitable for life must have life on them. So I deduce that we are not alone in the universe.”
            “You missed the main point!” said Sherlock. “From the fact that we can see the stars, we can deduce that someone has taken our tent!”
            Sometimes it’s easy for us, like Holmes, to notice all kinds of things that are beside the point…things that are true, and worthy of reflection—but things that miss the main point.
            Consider today’s gospel lesson. It begins with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus taking the Lord’s lifeless body from the tree and, with the women, quickly preparing it for burial in Joseph’s tomb. It ends with the angel, and the women running away from the tomb in fear and amazement.
            It is worth reflecting on the courage of Joseph and Nicodemus who, when all the apostles had run away, did what they could to honor one who, to all appearances, could show no kindness back to them. They carried a body, a corpse, to its final resting place.
            It is worth reflecting on the deep love the myrrh-bearing women had for their Lord. Like Joseph and Nicodemus, they stayed with Christ when all hope had died. They alone, of all his followers, showed him love when love no longer seemed to have a point. They prepared his body and, after keeping the Sabbath, they went with spices to finish the job they had started on Friday afternoon.
            Both of these are important. But neither of them is the central point of the text. The main point is not in what we see here, but in what we don’t see. Remember the Lord’s body, so lovingly taken down from the tree, prepared for burial and laid in the tomb, and made secure with a giant stone?
            Well, THE BODY IS GONE. THE TOMB IS EMPTY. And that’s the main point of our text. Hear the words of the angels: “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, Who was crucified. He has risen, He is not here; see the place where they laid Him.”
            The tomb is empty. On that fact, all agreed: the women, the disciples—even the enemies of Christ agreed. When, a scant fifty three days after his crucifixion the disciples proclaimed him risen, it would have ended everything if the rulers had simply produced the body. But they could not. What happened?
            Police who investigate crimes look for three things: motive, method, and opportunity. Some may say the disciples had a motive—though it’s hard to imagine pious Jews wanting to steal any body, much less their honored rabbi’s. But they had no method, and no opportunity, because the grave was guarded by Roman soldiers, and they themselves were in shock, scarcely able to plan anything.
            And the enemies of Christ had no motive. They wanted him gone, once and for all. They even set a guard over the tomb.
            The tomb is empty because, dear friends, Christ is risen from the dead, just as he said. As the angel said, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.”
            Because he is risen, the courage of Joseph and Nicodemus…the love shown by the myrrh-bearing women…indeed, all the things done for Christ’s sake from that day to this will never be forgotten. He is risen, and so the least thing we do in his service—even a cup of cold water—will be remembered by him in his Kingdom. So Paul could tell the Corinthians, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
            Because he is risen, the fear of the disciples—yes, and even the rebellion of his enemies—will not have the last word. Did you notice that today’s epistle concludes by saying, “A great number of the priests became obedient to the faith”? So if you struggle against your sin…if you fall…you need not despair. For he who died for love of you did not remain in death. He has redeemed you by his precious blood; he has overcome death and sin, the devil and the grave. Come to the tomb. See the stone, rolled away and useless. “Wherefore, O Women Disciples, do ye mingle sweet-smelling spices with your tears of pity? “The radiant Angel within the sepulcher cried unto the Myrrh-bearing Women: Behold the grave, and understand; for the Savior is risen from the tomb.” And so we rejoice today, for Christ is risen!

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.”