07 August 2017

Homily on Transfiguration 2017

            When I was ordained to the priesthood, someone told me a saying I often think about. It goes like this: “For the first year after ordination, the priest is afraid of the altar. After that, the altar is afraid of the priest.” The newly ordained priest is aware of taking on a new role: saying things he’s never said, doing things he’s never done. He’s very aware of the people, watching what he does. But more than anything, he is very, very aware of the awesome mystery which takes place through his hands and voice. The King of all comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts.
            After a year or so, it can become familiar, comfortable…routine. He will be tempted to change little things, to become perfunctory in his performance. And so the altar grows afraid of him. Every so often, when he least expects it, he remembers the hidden reality. You will know those times, when you see him weep a little.
            I thought of that saying when I read today’s Gospel lesson, the account of the Transfiguration of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. After the radiance, after Moses and Elijah speak with Christ, after the luminous cloud, after the voice of the Father saying, “This is my beloved Son—listen to him!”—after all that, Peter, James, and John fell to the ground. Then it was that Christ touched them and said, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”
            Now we misread Christ’s words if we think they mean that fear isn’t part of our faith. In a few minutes you will hear the priest say, “With the fear of God, in faith and love draw near.” St. Paul wrote, “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.” Every single time, throughout the holy Scriptures, when someone encounters the living God his first reaction is to be afraid. Solomon tells us “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and even the wise thief on the cross asked his companion who reviled Christ, “Don’t you fear God?” It is ours to fear; it is God’s to tell us, “Don’t be afraid.” When Christ’s words “Don’t be afraid” become unnecessary, there is something seriously wrong.
            Well might the three disciples fear. For in this life, and before the Resurrection, they beheld the hidden glory of Christ made manifest. They saw and heard Moses and Elijah. They entered the bright cloud and heard the voice of the Father. Say what you want about Veggie Tales, but when Christianity becomes all about tomatoes and cucumbers telling us to be good people, it’s no longer Christianity. God did not become man to make us good; he became man to make us God—to share his own divine splendor. And at Christ’s return, he will not take us to some immaterial place. This world will be transfigured in the radiant cloud of the Spirit, and the voice of the Father will direct us to his Son.
            The disciples had reason to fear, too, because of what lay ahead. When they came down from the mountain, they were heading toward Jerusalem and the cross. There they would see this radiant Lord naked, bloodied and bruised, pierced by nails and a spear. Instead of a bright cloud, there would be thick darkness. Instead of the Father’s voice, there would be silence. Instead of life, there would be death. When they beheld Christ’s suffering, they would understand that the one being crucified was the Lord of Glory.
We mark the Transfiguration of Christ today because today is forty days before the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross. For us, the rest of summer is marked by remembrance of Christ’s suffering for us.
And today is a big day in the life of Holy Cross. After liturgy, we will take a vote on whether to move from these cramped but comfy surroundings to a new place, with a new set of challenges. As the priest who started out this journey with some of you at a Lutheran church, and others of you at a school, and still others in these four walls, I want to tell you two things: First, be afraid. And second, don’t be afraid.
Fear God. It doesn’t matter what you want, or what I want. It matters what his will is. We don’t pray, “My plans be done,” but “Thy will be done.” Churches get off the rails when they try to tell God how to do his business. Learn from the Theotokos. When she said, “Whatever he says, do it,” to the servants at Cana, she was speaking from experience and teaching us how to live.
Don’t fear anything else. Don’t fear the distance, if we move. The drive would be longer for some, but we are united in love for God and each other. No one will be left behind. Distance is but an opportunity to show our love for those most affected. Don’t fear the future, if we stay. He who makes all things out of nothing, knows our needs more than we do. He will provide.

Following Christ means carrying a cross. So let us heed Moses and Elijah. Let us listen to the Father as he says, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” Listen to him in fear as he tells you, “Don’t be afraid.” He will never fail us. He will never forsake us.

25 June 2017

The healthy parish family

Some years ago, when we adopted our two daughters from Russia, I was searching for an Orthodox parish our eldest might go to. (She had been baptised Orthodox.) I was concerned for her smooth assimilation into American life, so I wanted to find a parish with a good youth program. I phoned the local Romanian parish and spoke with Fr. Anton. I explained the situation and told him, “I’m looking to find a parish with a good youth program.” There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. Then Fr. Anton answered, “We don’t shop for churches in Orthodoxy.”
Over and over again through the years, the wisdom of Fr. Anton’s remarks has remained with me. The church is not a commodity. It is not selling anything. Parishes are not in competition with each other.
What, then, is the church? Rightly understood, each parish is a family. What are the keys to a family’s health and success? It isn’t rocket science. Here are a few:
·      Healthy families are always open to gaining new members. When a baby comes home from the hospital, or a new member is added by adoption or marriage, healthy families open to make room for the new person. They are willing to undergo the temporary discomfort or awkwardness that comes with new life, and they give thanks to God for the new life. They are flexible, yet retain their own identity.
·      Healthy families aren’t focused on gaining new members at all costs. Growth should be natural. Those with problems where they are should be told to go back and work on those problems first, before coming. No one should be received without the blessing of their priest. Baggage must be left at the door.
·      Members of healthy families are committed to share a common life. Cal Ripken Jr., the man who broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak, was asked the secret of his success. “The key,” he said, “is mostly just showing up.” Joining a parish is committing to sharing a common life. That requires engaging with all sorts of different people. Some are outgoing, some are shy; some take part in lots of things and others mostly pray. All are essential; none is superfluous.
·      Healthy families commit to work through problems and challenges together. Everyone gets teary-eyed when they read of long-married couples who die on the same day. But stories have those endings only because the couple worked through many problems and challenges throughout the years.
·      Healthy families have differences. The goal, in a healthy family, is not to make everybody to be the same. The variety of persons is revealed in a variety of gifts and, sometimes, on a variety of viewpoints. Diversity is no threat, when we are all agreed to journey together.
·      Healthy families are ordered. There are husband and wife, parents and children, older and younger siblings. These roles are distinct and not interchangeable. Each lives for the other. Love is given and respect is returned.

Perhaps you can think of other things that healthy families share. I'd welcome your thoughts in the comments.

10 March 2017

The scandal of the cross

     Some years ago I attended a wedding between a man who had been raised as a Christian and a woman who had been raised as a Jew. The wedding was held in a nondenominational chapel. When the bride's father entered the space, the first thing he did was go to the altar and remove the cross. He could not abide being in a place that featured the cross--even if it had practically no theological significance in that place whatsoever.

     A few days ago I saw photos from a new Protestant 'church' building, posted on Facebook. The building is beautifully decorated; it has almost everything you could want. It even has beautiful art, like large poster-sized paintings of a lion and a lamb. But it's missing one thing which, to my mind, is the most important: it has no cross. It made me think back to that Jewish father. If his daughter were to be married now in most newer Protestant churches, it's likely he wouldn't have had to remove the cross. It was never there to begin with.
   
     What a contrast with apostolic Christianity. "God forbid that I should boast," said St. Paul, "except in the cross of Christ, by which I was crucified to the world, and the world to me." And again, he said, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."  In a little over a week, the Orthodox Church marks the third Sunday of Great Lent--the Sunday of the Holy Cross. Our little parish is blessed to have a relic of Christ's cross, given us by our bishop. Still today the cross is a scandal--a stumbling block--but now, not only to Jews but also to many who claim to be followers of Christ.

     We Orthodox glory in the Cross of Christ. We even speak to it in one of our prayers:

Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered; and let those who hate Him flee from His face. As smoke vanishes, let them vanish; and as wax melts from the presence of fire, so let the demons perish from the presence of those who love God and who sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross and say with gladness: Hail, most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, for Thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was crucified on thee, went down to hell and trampled on the power of the devil, and gave us thee, His honorable Cross, for driving away all enemies. O most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, help me with our holy Lady, the Virgin Theotokos, and with all the Saints throughout the ages. Amen.