20 January 2020
The lepers show us clearly the human condition. In two ways, all are alike; in one way, some are different. The question for each of us is, “Where am I in this story?”
All these men alike were lepers. All of them had a progressive, degenerative disease for which there is no human cure. Now it’s true that nine of them were Jews, and one a Samaritan. But in the face of their disease, the other ways men mark themselves as different had all faded away. All alike came to Christ, pleading for mercy.
Friends, we spend a lot of time showing how we’re different than other people. They’re a different color, or ethnicity. They hold a different political point of view. They root for the wrong team. But when we ponder the disease of death and of sin, what difference do all those distinctions make? Death and sin are no respecters of persons. And so it was with these ten.
So they cried out to Christ, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” The word for “Master” in Greek is epistata—a generic term for someone over you…rather like “boss.” They don’t call him “Lord.” They don’t call him “Son of David.” Just “boss.” It wasn’t what you’d call the deepest prayer, theologically.
Yet he hears their prayer, and answers them. “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” he tells them. They walk off in obedience, and as they walk, all of them alike are cured. And this is the second way they’re all alike. To all, alike, the Lord shows mercy.
So also with our human condition. God shows his mercy to all people. That doesn’t mean that everybody gets everything they want. Even Paul prayed to God to have a thorn in his flesh removed and was told, “No.” But God’s “no” was for a greater “yes;” the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is perfected in your weakness.” The prophet Jeremiah, seeing Jerusalem in ruins, could still say, “Through the LORD'S mercies we are not consumed, Because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness,” and again, “The Lord does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men.”
Alike in misery, alike in receiving mercy. But in one way, these ten were different. Only one of them, a Samaritan, came back to give Christ thanks. The Lord is surprised. “Were not ten cured? Where are the nine?”
Here he teaches us a powerful lesson. He himself had commanded all ten to go show themselves to the priests. The other nine were doing what he had commanded. But he commends the one who came back to say “Thanks!” Listen carefully to the lesson. The Lord values obedience highly; but he values thanksgiving more.
The Greek word for “thanksgiving,” by the way, is eucharisto. It’s no accident that the central act of worship for the Orthodox people of God is the Eucharist. Here we gather to give thanks to God. And we strive to make all our life a thanksgiving; as Paul says, “In everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ.” When we give thanks, we give God what he values even above obedience. When we give thanks, we put the troubles and problems of life into proper perspective. When we give thanks, we open our eyes to see the mercies of the Lord. So let us follow the example of the one; let us be people of gratitude. As Alexander Schmemann says, “Everybody who is capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and of eternal joy.”
30 August 2017
“What do you give to the man who has everything?” I remember that question from an ad campaign back in the ‘60s or ‘70s. The funny thing is, the ad had an answer—“Give him our product.” It made me wonder. If he had everything, wouldn’t he already have their product? The only right answer to the question, “What do you give to the man who has everything?” is “Nothing.”
The young man in today’s text was just such a guy…almost. He was rich; the text says he had “great possessions.” He was a decent person; when Christ says “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, honor your father and your mother, and love your neighbor as yourself,” he answers, “All these I have observed.” And we should take his answer at face value. He had one more thing going for him, that I’ve noticed only recently: he was young. He had time—and let me tell you, time is the most precious resource to have.
The only thing he didn’t have was eternal life. So he did what any decent young rich person might do: he went to Jesus and asked him how to get it. It makes sense. If you want to learn how to be a good student, ask one. If you want to get more money, ask a rich person how to do it. And if you want to have eternal life—go to Jesus Christ.
So he did. And Christ’s answer shattered him. “If you want to be perfect,” he says—and “perfect” doesn’t mean “sinless,” it means “complete”—“Go, sell all you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
There are some folks for whom Christ is like an item on a checklist. Education? Check. Money? Check. Family? Check. Decent behavior? Check. Christ? Check.
But Christ will have none of that. He will be Lord, or he will be nothing. When, earlier in Matthew he said, “Seek first the kingdom and all these things will be added to you,” he didn’t mean that life is kingdom plus other things. He meant, “Forget about all those other things and leave them to God.” When he said, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God’s mouth” he meant, “Man does not live by bread at all, but only by the word of God.”
We think that by having things, and decency, and education that we come closer to having life. But let’s be honest with ourselves. None of that satisfies. It always leaves the sense that something’s missing.
What’s missing is not something. What’s missing is someone—Jesus Christ. Remember what St. Paul told the Philippians: “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteous-ness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead… I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
At the end of every litany, we say “Let us commend ourselves, and one another, and our whole life, unto Christ our God.” The task before us is to empty ourselves of ourselves, that we may be full of Christ. Not even God can give something to the man who has everything. So we loosen our grip on our possessions, that Christ may feed us; we stop seeing ourselves as better than others, so that Christ may forgive us; we stop seeing our time as our own, so that Christ can use us. He feeds the hungry, he forgives sinners, he strengthens the weak, he raises the dead. So we must learn to see ourselves as hungry, as sinners, as weak, as dead. All the things we think we have are potentially useful; but they are only actually useful if we let them go, give them over to Christ. Keep holding on to them, and lose him. Let go of them, and receive him. “With men this is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.”
07 August 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
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.