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!

24 July 2013

Nisi rite vocatus: Revisiting something I wrote a while ago

Apparently my former ecclesial body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, has rejected all attempts to affirm that only those "rite vocatus" may administer the sacraments--a claim its key confession makes. It brings to mind one of the "bread crumbs" I left behind before I left that body for the Church. I'm attaching it here, in part because some may not have seen it, and in part because it bears repeating. I do not mean to rub salt into the wounds of those who would try to be faithful Lutherans.

There is no Lutheran Church

Propositions concerning the Lutheran Church
1. The Augsburg Confession and those other writings assembled in the Book of Concord (1580) were initially the confession of a group of territorial churches in northern Germany.
2. These territorial churches were not merely congregations, but trans-parish entities, each united by the same administration and the same liturgy within itself, and all alike were trans-parish entities.
3. These territorial churches did not understand themselves as a new denomination, but as the continuation of the catholic Church in the west.
4. They intended their writings to be understood as an unalterable confession of faith, with which they would stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
5. These confessional writings constituted them not merely as a corporation, but as a living, organic entity, as “the churches of the Augsburg Confession.”
6. The principle of unity of the churches of the Augsburg Confession is the quia subscription to, and confession of, the articles of the Book of Concord. (To develop this point a bit: the principle of unity in Rome is the papacy. The principle of unity in the Pentecostal churches is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Other features may change, but the principle of unity is essential to each body and may not be changed without the body's being essentially changed. Remove the papacy, and Rome is no longer Rome. Remove the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, and pentecostalism is no longer Pentecostalism.)
7. This act of subscription and confession is not mere intellectual assent, but the ordering of the lives of congregations according to this principle of unity.

Propositions concerning change
8. There are two sorts of change: accidental and essential.
9. Accidental change occurs when a thing is modified, yet remains what it was before. For example, when someone paints a blue chair red, it changes (color), yet it remains what it was (a chair).
10. Accidental change occurs to living entities when they grow, move, or alter in any way which still allows one to say, "It remains what it was."
11. Essential change occurs when a thing is modified in such a way that it no longer is what it was before. For example, when a chair is run over by a steamroller, it is no longer a chair, but a pile of wood, or metal, or plastic.
12. Essential change occurs to living entities when they change in such a way that one can no longer say, "It remains what it was." For example, a human being changes into a corpse at death, or (if it were possible) the humans making up Frankenstein's monster were essentially changed when they were sewn together to make the monster.
13. It is not necessary fully to know or to understand the circumstances of a substantial change in order to affirm that such a change has taken place. All that needs to happen is to show that what was essential to the being of a thing has altered.
14. In the case of a living being which appears to have undergone substantial change (i.e. death), charity requires us to make efforts to restore quickly what was lost.
15. There comes a time when those making such efforts recognize that the patient has died.

Propositions applying the latter to the former
16. The churches of the Augsburg Confession have changed since the Book of Concord was adopted.
17. Some of those changes have been accidental: they grew, they moved etc.
18. Some of those changes have been essential--i.e. the principle of unity (the Lutheran Confessions) no longer describes any existing trans-parish entity.

Lutheran Confessions
a. "Churches" of the Augsburg Confession refers to trans-parish entities, i.e. territorial churches.
b. The true body and blood of Christ are present under the bread and wine.
c. Luther excommunicates a pastor who mixes consecrated wine with unconsecrated following the service.
d. Private confession ought to be retained. Practiced as the norm. No one is admitted to the Sacrament unless he is first examined and absolved.
e. Only those rightly/ritely called should administer the sacraments and preach.
f. The traditional usages of the Church *ought* to be observed, which may be observed without sin. Uniformity of liturgy within territorial churches (i.e. not merely a parish-by-parish decision).
g. The Mass (i.e. the historic liturgy) is maintained, observed with greatest reverence, and ceremonies exist to teach the unlearned.
h. The right to excommunicate belongs by divine right (a very strong phrase!) to the pastoral office, and the people are bound by divine right to follow them. (AC 28)   
i. Mary is and remains a virgin after Christ's birth (FCSD 8.24, added by Chemnitz to reject the Reformed Peter Martyr Vermigli's denial of the semper virgo).
j. Prayers for the dead are not forbidden, and are not useless. (Ap)
k. The Scripture principle ("The Word of God alone shall establish articles of faith") is maintained in tension with the catholic principle ("In doctrine and ceremonies, we have received nothing new against Scripture OR the catholic church"). These two principles are not, of course, two "sources" of doctrine.

a'. "Churches" refers to congregations, but not to trans-parish entities.
b'. Grape juice is offered in many places as an alternative.
c'. Plastic disposable cups are used widely, tossed out unwashed after the service.
d'. Private confession scarcely exists; in most parishes, not at all, in some parishes, just barely. Open communion the norm.
e'. Unordained laity do both (administer the sacraments and preach).
f'. The traditional usages of the Church *need not* be observed (NB: "ought" and "need not" are logically contradictory).
g'. The Mass is not maintained, reverence is discouraged by creative services (See, for  example, http://www.thefellowship.com /ow/outreachworship.html), and ceremonies are instituted to entertain the bored.
h'. The right to excommunicate belongs by divine right to the congregation, and the pastors are bound by divine right to announce such excommunications. (Blue Catechism)
i'. The semper virgo is at best a pious opinion.
j'. We must not pray for the souls of the dead (Blue Catechism).
k'. The catholic principle is gone.

Let me add another, from my own experience. I was a doctrinal reviewer for the new hymnal (now I won't be one much longer, when this gets to the eyes of others--but I digress). In reviewing the baptismal rite, I suggested that we ought to use Luther's 1526 baptismal rite as a paradigm of what constitutes a baptism from a Lutheran point of view. No-brainer, right? After all, that rite is even included in some editions of the BOC. I was overruled, and it was said that the 1526 rite carries NO normative significance for the Lutheran Church.

19. In some cases, these aberrations can be dated, and the scope of their acceptance be fixed--e.g. the abandonment of AC 14 happened in the LCMS in 1989. In other cases, these aberrations cannot be dated, and the scope of their acceptance cannot be fixed. But it is not necessary to explain *how* a thing dies in order to affirm *that* it died. We bury people without autopsies all the time.
20. Efforts to change these aberrations and return to the teaching of the Confessions have proved fruitless. The time has come to check the clock, note the time, and call the morgue.

21. The quia subscription to, and confession of, the doctrine of the Lutheran Confessions in its fulness is the principle of unity for the churches of the Augsburg Confession, and hence is essential for their existence.
22. There exists no trans-parish Lutheran entity which maintains a quia subscription to, and confession of, the doctrine of the Lutheran Confessions in its fulness.
23.  In the sense that the Confessors understood themselves as 'church'--i.e. a trans-parish entity united by a common confession--There is no Lutheran Church.

Revised April 22, 2005

21 July 2013

Homily on the centurion's faith

            Much of what our Lord Jesus did made others marvel. The disciples marveled when he calmed the storm with a word, and when he withered the fig tree. The people marveled when he cast out demons, and healed the sick. Even his enemies marveled when he avoided their traps with a clear and powerful answer.
            But only once in the Gospels do we ever read that Jesus marveled—and this is that text. “When Jesus heard
            Note first, that the centurion didn’t ask for himself. He was concerned about others…in this case, for his slave. Slaves had no status in Roman Israel. They were expendable, replaceable. But still the centurion cared for him.
            And not only for him! We read in Luke’s account that Jewish elders approached Jesus on behalf of the centurion. They told the Lord, “He is worthy for you to heal his servant. He loves our people, and built us a synagogue.”
            How refreshingly different from our culture’s self-absorption and victim mentality! Last year I read the book, “I’m Proud of You,” the story of Fred Rogers’ friendship with a Dallas sportswriter. The man’s life was turned upside down because he found in Mr. Rogers a person who was genuinely concerned about him. Friendship, for Fred Rogers, was about the other person. How about for us?
            When I focus on “me,” it only makes life harder. None of us lives to himself, St. Paul reminds us. When we turn our attention to our self, we miss the mark God sets for us. We sin. We can learn from the centurion. When we focus on others, and their needs, we find God’s deepest will for us. By losing myself, I find myself.
Earlier I mentioned that the Jewish elders told Christ that the centurion was worthy. And that’s the second thing about him. When the topic turned to himself, the centurion could only say, “I am not worthy.”  
            We live in a culture of victimhood. I am a victim when I think I’ve not been treated as well as I think I deserve. That leads to anger, and pain, and more hurt. It leads to nothing good.
            How much better to acquire true humility! True humility doesn’t come from comparing myself to others. True humility comes from comparing myself to God. When the words “I am not worthy” are spoken from the heart, it’s a clear sign we’re drawing near to God. Remember when St. Peter caught the great shoal of fish at Jesus’ word, he fell at his feet and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And when St. John, when he was old, saw the Lord Jesus, he tells us, “I fell at his feet as though dead.” When we pray, let us draw near to God in firm faith, because of who he is; and with deepest humility, because of who we are. “Lord, I am not worthy.”
True humility confesses an infinite gap between God and me. But firm faith confesses that God has bridged that gap in Christ…and that’s the third thing about the centurion’s words. He believed that Christ could act without needing to come to his house.
There’s an interesting comment made by one of the fathers on the Lord’s response, “Not in Israel have I found such faith.” Israel, as you know, was the other name for Jacob. In the Old Testament, when God appeared to Jacob at Bethel, Jacob said, “This is the house of God.” Jacob understood that God could appear at one place. But the centurion understood that Christ is everywhere present, and able to act by his word alone.
So come to him now, as he comes to you in his life-giving flesh and blood. Bring him the needs that press so hard on you—especially the needs of others. Lay aside your anger, your bitterness, that victim mentality that blocks his love. Come to him as you are, humble, unworthy of his mercy. Come to him with great faith, trusting that he who made all things from nothing can surely grant more than you could ever ask or think.  And he will work all things together for his glory and our good, who love him because he first loved us; in the name of the Father, Son,  and Holy Spirit. Amen.

16 July 2013

Raskolnikov's dream

From the Epilogue to Crime and Punishment:

"He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices."

16 June 2013

Sunday of the Fathers of the First Council

            In our day and in our country, when you don’t like something about your church, it’s no big deal. You just move on down the block and start a new one. It’s happening here in Dorr: there are little break-off groups from local congregations meeting, one at the township hall and another at Sycamore Elementary.  And all that makes sense, if church is something we create. No wonder that according to a recent Pew study, there are about 41,000 different denominations in the US today!
            But that’s not how they saw it in the early days of Christianity. Christianity became legal in 313 AD, and soon thereafter, a priest of Alexandria named Arius began to deny that Jesus is God. St. Paul had warned the Ephesians, “from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Why didn’t Arius just try to start his own church? Why did he try to upset the faith the whole world knew?
            It was everybody knew--even him-- that the church isn’t something we create. It’s something we receive from the hand of God, through the hands of those who served before us. Christ doesn’t have many bodies, but only one body. And that body isn’t some spooky spiritual thing. Just as, in the days of our Lord’s ministry you could point out his body, so also when he ascended into heaven you could point out his body, the Church. And the Church was one.
            It’s worth noting how the issue was dealt with. Arius didn’t try to start a new church.  Nor did all the other bishops  just ask the Roman bishop to tell them what to believe. No; just as happened in the time of the apostles, the leaders of the church got together to discuss the issue. And so, 318 bishops from all over the Christian world gathered at Nicaea.
            What was at stake was nothing less than eternal salvation. For if Christ is merely a good man, the first and greatest creature, then God remains infinitely distant from us and we are on our own.  You cannot give what you do not have, and if Christ is not true God, how could he give us the divine life and glory?
            Guided by the Spirit, the holy fathers proclaimed the truth: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, begotten eternally from his Father without mother, and begotten in time from his mother without father. Our God is not a vague force or power, an abstract concept.
            Nor do we call God “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” because we project earthly, human ideas onto that which cannot be known. We call God “Father” because he has been revealed to us by his Son made flesh. The Son poured out the Spirit from the Father onto us, to make us what we are: children of the Triune God. As we sing each Sunday morning in Matins: “God is the Lord and has revealed himself to us.”
            Eternal salvation is to know and love and live in the life of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As the Lord says in today’s Gospel: “And this is eternal life, that they know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou has sent.” And we know the Father through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit, as Paul says elsewhere: “No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”
            That one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is known in Christ’s one body: the Church. See how Christ prays in our Gospel: “Holy Father, keep them in Thy Name, which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as we are one. Just as Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one in essence and undivided, so also the Church is one. And just as Father, Son and Holy Spirit live one undivided life of love, so also with those joined together in one Lord, one faith and one Baptism.
            So let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Let us not grow cold in love, uncaring and insensitive to each other’s needs. But let us grow in prayer, in works of mercy, giving special honor to those who are weak and struggle. Let us not love in word only, but in deed and truth, and show ourselves to be children of the one true God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

10 June 2013

Homily for the Marriage of John and Nicole Schupra

            Today Christ visits your joy. Today he comes to help your gladness. Here, today, just as so many years ago at Cana in Galilee, he is present; and with him his holy apostles, eyewitnesses of his glory; and with him his most pure Mother, who sees your needs and intercedes for you.
            John and Nicole, today he who joined our first parents, joins you together as husband and wife. You will notice that you speak no vows; we offer only prayers, and God himself does the work. And there’s a reason for that.
            When a parent crosses icy pavement with their child, they don’t have the child take them by the hand, but rather they take the child by the hand. The parent’s outstretched hand holds better than the child could hold. Just so, today the risen Christ extends his hands to both of you. He takes your weak hands in his strong hand, and joins you together in one flesh.
            Marriage is God’s work, his doing. We don’t get to define marriage, any more than we get to define day and night, sun and stars, seedtime and harvest.  We receive it as a gift, his gift.
            Today is all joy; but it won’t always be so. There will come times when your resources fail, times when you are at wit’s end. Perhaps it will be the shadow of disease, or too much month and too little income, or the challenges of parenthood—I am no prophet; I don’t know what challenges will come, I only know that they will come.
            At those times you can rejoice that you have a swift defender and helper, the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary. Just as she was present at Cana, so she is present in your marriage. Just as she saw the needs of that couple, and presented them to her Son, so she will present to him your needs. Don’t be shy to ask her prayers and intercessions. She will intercede with motherly boldness to her Son and God.
            And at her prayers, he who made the water into wine, can and will turn the water of your struggles into the wine of his joy and gladness.
            Did you notice, in the Gospel, that only the apostles got the whole picture? The servants who filled the pots, poured only water. The master of ceremonies tasted only the best wine. But the apostles saw it all, the water become wine, and they believed. When Christ God does his work, he hides it from most, and shows his glory only to a few.
            For in the end, what is the point of marriage? Marriage is not simply an antidote to human passions, a divine cure for physical desires—though it is that. Nor is it simply companionship, having someone else to walk with together on the road to the cemetery. No; marriage is, most of all, a path of deification: a way we walk on the way to sharing God’s glory, his very life. You two are, in the words of St. Peter, “joint heirs of the grace of life.”
            Someone has well said that God writes straight with crooked lines. In all the twists and turns, the things you cannot even imagine now, he will be writing. For us, it remains only to receive and cherish this gift God gives, this union he creates…to present to him your needs, to serve him and each other with body and soul, and, with the apostles, to be eyewitnesses of his glory.
            Today, Christ visits your joy. Today he comes to help your gladness: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

27 May 2013

My theological autobiography

Here's a great excerpt from Alasdair MacIntyre's "Whose Justice? Which Rationality?":

"...the adherents of a tradition which is now in this state of fundamental and radical crisis (elsewhere identified as an epistemological crisis--my note) may at this point encounter in a new way the claims of some particular rival tradition, perhaps one with which they have for some time coexisted, perhaps one which they are now encountering for the first time. They now come or had already come to understand the beliefs and way of life of this other alien tradition, the language of the alien tradition as a new and second first language."

This, roughly, describes my life c. 1987-2000. MacIntyre continues:

"When they have understood the beliefs of the alien tradition, they may find themselves compelled to recognize that within this other tradition it is possible to construct from the concepts and theories peculiar to it what they were unable to provide from their own conceptual and theoretical resources, a cogent and illuminating explanation--cogent and illuminating, that is, by their own standards--of why their own intellectual tradition had been unable to solve its problems or restore its coherence. The standards by which they judge this explanation to be cogent and illuminating will be the very same standards by which they have found their tradition wanting in the face of epistemological crisis. But while this new explanation satisfies two of the requirements for an adequate response to an epistemological crisis within a tradition--insofar as it both explains why, given the structures of enquiry within that tradition, the crisis had to happen as it did and does not itself suffer from the same defects of incoherence or resourcelessness, the recognition of which had been the initial stage of their crisis--it fails to satisfy the third (elsewhere, described as showing a fundamental continuity of a new conceptual structure with the shared beliefs of the tradition in crisis). Derived as it is from a genuinely alien tradition, the new explanation does not stand in any sort of substantive continuity with the preceding history of the tradition in crisis.
In this kind of situation the rationality of tradition requires an acknowledgement by those who have hitherto inhabited and given their allegiance to the tradition in crisis that the alien tradition is superior in rationality and in respect of its claims to truth to their own. What the explanation afforded from within the alien tradition will have disclosed is a lack of correspondence between the dominant beliefs of their own tradition and the reality disclosed by the most successful explanation, and it may well be the only successful explanation which they have been able to discover. Hence the claim to truth for what have hitherto been their own beliefs has been defeated."

These paragraphs describe my life c. 2000-2005, and my conversion to the Orthodox Church.

24 February 2013

Homily for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, 2013

            Everything comes together at the moment of prayer. All our theology, all our piety, all our practice meet in that time we stand before God. Prayer reveals our hearts.
            It surely revealed the hearts of the Pharisee and the Publican. Both of them came to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee said, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men. I fast twice a week, and pay tithes of all I get."
            Pay attention to the Pharisee's prayer. In his heart, there were three things: God, himself, and other men. He paid his tithes--and there's nothing wrong with that, it's a good thing. He fasted twice a week, just as he was supposed to do.
            But all of that he did, so he could compare himself with others as he stood before God. "God, thank you that I am better than they are." He makes no request from God, he has no need of God; for him, God was there to see how good he was.
            Not so the prayer of the publican. While the Pharisee stood in a prominent place, the publican hid in a corner. While the Pharisee prayed sure of his goodness, the Publican prayed sure only of his misery.
            In his heart, there were only two things: God and himself. He mentions nothing that he has done. He comes to God in real need, deepest need. He doesn't manufacture his misery; he admits it.
            The holy fathers teach that there are only two with whom I deal in life: myself and God. Every other human, high and low, good and bad, rich and poor--but especially the poor--are but masks God puts on, covers under which he hides himself. When I exalt myself over them, as did the Pharisee, God will humble me. When I humble myself before God--both directly and when he hides beneath my neighbor--then he exalts me.
            The text tells us that the Publican went home justified, but not the Pharisee. There are some who say that being justified is a matter of being certain, of being sure in our salvation. The funny thing is, only the Pharisee was confident. The publican lived with the ongoing sense of his own need, his own unworthiness. "Be merciful to me the sinner" is his only word.
            If I am to receive God's mercy, I have to be content to think of myself as in misery. If I am to receive God's forgiveness, I have to accept the fact that I am a sinner. If I want his strength, I must admit that I am weak. If I want to be raised with Christ, I must accept that I am dead without him.
            That's not to say that I should wallow in my sin, rejoice in my misery, or turn my weakness or death into a substitute for the Pharisee's works, of course. The publican bemoans his condition; he doesn't brag about it. But neither does he cover it up with the fig leaves of his own actions. He admits it. He prays to be released from it. And he trusts that God will do it.
            Beloved, we are once again approaching Lent. We will renew our calls to get serious about prayer, and fasting, and tithing. These things are all good, but none of them give us good standing with God. God doesn't need our prayer, our food, our money.  It is for us that we fast, for us that we pray, for us that we give.
            This coming week is one of those few in the calendar that we fast from fasting. The Church wants us to flee the mind of the Pharisee, and take up the prayer of the Publican. Let us learn from him, how to be right with God! Let us learn from him to humble ourselves beneath God's mighty hand, that he may exalt us in due time.

01 January 2013

Homily for Sunday after Christmas (Matt. 2:13f)

“Peace on earth among those with whom he is well pleased.” So the angels sang on that first Christmas evening.

Where then was the peace, when Herod cast out his murderous net
            and killed thousands of young children?
Where was the peace when Zechariah, the father of the Forerunner,
            was cut down by Herod’s soldiers in the very Temple itself?
Where is the peace in our day, when children at school are killed,
 and innocent people die in conflicts around the world?
We are surprised and shocked when violence strikes.
But maybe, in the light of today’s gospel lesson,
we need to re-adjust our notion of peace.
Peace is not the absence of suffering, of conflict, of war.

The Church teaches us powerfully in the days just after Christmas. We remember the Protomartyr Stephen,  the 20,000 martyrs of Nicomedia, the 14,000 children killed by Herod.

Is it any wonder, when people hear of Christmas peace,
then see the bloodshed...the violence...the anger
all around and within us, that they question the message of this season?

Yet what they question…what they reject…is not the true and living God,
but an  idol of their own imagination,
an idol that takes a truth and bends and twists it out of shape.

For Christ himself told his apostles,
“Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth?
Not peace, I tell you, but a sword!”

And later he told them,
            “In the world you will have tribulation”
Eleven of the first twelve met violent deaths, because they followed him.

So in the light of what happened to the holy innocents, and to Zechariah, and to countless witnesses who followed Christ and suffered—why this violence? And what is this peace the angels spoke of?

The violence comes, because Christ’s nativity is a kind of D-Day,
an invasion of a place that once was free,
but had fallen under the tyranny of a usurper.

The enemies in this war are the Devil, the World, and our own sinful flesh:
            the devil—the tyrant and usurper, whose weapons are deceit and death;
            the world—the system he set up, run by fear;
            and our own flesh—the enemy within ourselves,
 who fears and serves the devil, and loves the broken world.

Between God and the devil,
the world as created and the world as fallen,
the new man we received in baptism and our sinful flesh,
there can be no peace.

No man can serve two masters. To love one, is to hate the other.

The Christian life is constant conflict with these three foes. We fight, we fall, we get up again. And again…as long as we live and breathe.

What, then, is this peace? Maybe it’s better to ask, “Who is this peace?”

St. Paul tells us elsewhere, “Christ himself is our peace, who broke down the wall dividing us from each other, and reconciled us both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.”

Look at his holy life. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He spoke with a Samaritan woman, outcast both from the Jews and from her own people. His love moved a rich man, Zacchaeus, to share his wealth willingly with the poor.

See his innocent death. Suspended between heaven and earth, arms outstretched in welcome, he spoke words of forgiveness for those who hung him there. He bought us for God by his holy precious blood.

Behold his glorious resurrection. He came to where the disciples were, cowering in fear. He showed them his hands and his side. Then he said, “Peace be to you.” He is our peace!

When he died, and rose, he defeated the devil in principle.

But what began in the Head, must be completed in the Body.
The servants are not above their Master;
it is enough for us to be like him.

So in this world we have tribulation.
We are conformed to the likeness of his death…
and yet we live,  
for we are joined to him who overcame death.
We face constant conflict, fear within and fighting without
yet we have peace,
for we are joined to Christ, who is our peace.

Is life, then, wearing you down?

Come to the Child of Bethlehem, whose coming brings us peace.
            Lay your troubles at his feet.
            Take his yoke upon you, and learn from him;
                        For he is meek and lowly in heart,
                        And in him you will find rest for your souls.