Monday, October 19, 2009

"On Serpents and Scorpions" - Sermon for the Feast of St. Luke

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:

Today’s Gospel reading is set within the context of the appointment and sending of the Seventy Apostles which, because one strand of tradition within the Church records that the Apostle and Evangelist Luke - whose feastday we celebrate today - was one of the Seventy. That tradition also records that he was the companion of Cleopas when the two of them encountered the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, as we hear in the fifth of eleven Resurrection Gospel passages which are read in a cycle during Orthros on Sunday mornings. These Resurrection accounts are read since each Sunday is what the Church calls a “Little Pascha” and the service of Orthros is that service which contains by far the majority of the hymns and readings which explain the meaning of the particular day’s celebration.

The Seventy were sent out to every city and place just as we all are in order to do the work of Christ, to “heal the sick that are there and tell them, ‘the kingdom of God is near you.’” And this they did. We hear today that the Seventy returned rejoicing, saying, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” Now we might find such rejoicing strange, since we today don’t usually see demons everywhere acting as openly as they are described in the scriptures or the lives of the saints. But all that means is that they’ve gotten a lot more subtle, and they work quietly to manipulate us into sin and separation from God and from each other, playing upon the sick and diseased human nature we have inherited as the result of Adam’s sin. Instead of outright possession, they whisper suggestions into our ears, catering to the particular weaknesses of each individual.

But we do have a defense against them. Christ gives all of us the same promise he gave to the Seventy: “I have given you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy.”

Now it’s interesting that St. Theophylact of Ochrid, in his commentary on this passage, says that Christ is denoting two different ranks or types of demons when He says ‘serpents’ and ‘scorpions.’ He writes, “Those demons which strike openly and visibly are called serpents. For example, the demons of ... murder are serpents which incite a man to sin openly.” Or, to use another example well-suited to a college town, the demon of drunkenness is a serpent which incites men and women to sin openly. But a scorpion is a demon which would incite a person to a series of events which would lead up to one’s sinning openly. “For its sting is not visible,” St. Theophylact writes, “But instead in secret it urges a man to groom and pamper his flesh in order to cast him into a great fall.” Encouraging one’s despondency over something, or instead overly encouraging one’s mirth in something, such that one goes beyond the number of drinks that is proper use in moderation, well, that is the work of the scorpion. And if one listens enough to the scorpion, one finds him or herself face to face with the demon of drunkenness... and that demon makes a very bad back-seat driver. And the same principle applies in the case of other sins. Moreover, it is important to note that the scorpions’ attacks come through things which are not necessarily sinful in and of themselves, but are only so when taken to excess or for the wrong reasons.

So how do we fight these demons’ whispers, how do we take advantage of that power and authority Christ has said that He has given us? We’ve said that the demons prey upon our sick and diseased human nature. Well, how does a person fight a sickness and infection... swine flu, say, since that has been in the news so much of late? He or she fights it with good nutrition and medicine. The application of these things keeps the body sound and hale and drives out the disease.

For us as Orthodox Christians, the services and the sacraments of the Church are our food and medicine. To be healthy enough to combat the disease of the demons, the serpents and scorpions, we need to participate in them all the more often, as they are offered to us in the life of the parish. After all, how healthy would a person be who ate a meal only once a week? How much good would the medicine prescribed by the physician do if a person used it only sparingly? The hymns and readings for each day provide us with the spiritual nutrients and vitamins we need to keep us fit, and these are present in far more abundance in those services outside the regular Sunday liturgy... in Orthros, in Vespers, in Compline. Our participation in them strengthens us in communion one with another, so that we can help each other fight the battles with the demons. Let us then all fortify ourselves with this food, that we may all as human persons, body and soul, be saved and deified. Amen.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Had They But Waited" - Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

On this the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost the Church presents to us Christ’s parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard. Now historically, this story refers to the Old Testament kingdoms of Judah and Israel and how they behaved - or, rather, misbehaved - over the course of their covenantal relationship with God. The people were supposed to show forth in themselves the good fruit which God expected of them, but they did not. And when God sent his servants the prophets to them to call them to account for that lack and to recall them to the path which would produce such fruit, well, they were - as St. Theophylact Archbishop of Ochrid in Bulgaria notes in his commentary on this parable - “abused in various ways by the husbandmen, that is, the false prophets and false teachers of those times. One they beat, as they did to Micah when Sedek struck him on the jaw; another they killed, as they did to Zechariah [the father of the Forerunner St. John the Baptist] between the temple and the altar; another they stoned, as they did to Zechariah the son of Jodae the high priest.”

Metaphorically, however, the meaning of this parable extends to each and very one of us since we too live in a covenantal relationship with God; we too often fail to develop within ourselves and to show the good fruits of the Christian life - joy in living kindness, in giving selfless service to others (and in that giving receiving back multitudes of blessings). And while we don’t go around maiming or killing the people God sets in our path to call us back to the righteous life, we do what is perhaps worse, which is to make them of no account at all. For the persecution and the slaying of the prophets indicated that at least they were noticed. But how often do we, on the other hand, simply choose to ignore or to not take advantage of the people and the opportunities that God sends our way as our reminders and means to return to a fulfilling life and the producing of good fruits within it.

There are many different ways in which we can fall short of the mark and fail to produce this good fruit in our lives. I’ll focus on one particular way that is given us in the context of this parable. When the householder sent his son to the wicked tenants they said, “Come, let us kill him, that we may receive his inheritance.” What makes this reason truly astounding is that the whole goal of human existence in the life of God’s covenanted communities, the Old Testament Church and the New, is precisely to share in the inheritance of the Son of God. Theosis, deification, the sublime calling of humanity, means nothing else but that we are to become - as the Fathers say - by grace all that God is by nature, except in identity of nature. We are called to become gods by adoption, sons of God by adoption. So the irony is that the wicked tenants killed the Son for something they were already going to receive, had they but waited. And that’s the key to their mistake and ours as well, many times. We are impatient; we push for something way too soon, for which we are not yet ready. Because we jump the gun, we often end up seriously compromising or even ruining that good thing for which we should have waited.

Scripture records other stories of this: in the parable of the prodigal son, when he asks for his half of the inheritance, he was not stealing or taking anything that wasn’t already coming to him. But while Christ never says in that parable just why the prodigal wasted his substance in riotous living, it’s not hard to imagine that it was because he was immature, unable to contain his desires and manage his resources... he was not prepared to receive the inheritance he had claimed.

We see this very thing in the fundamental, primordial sin of all humanity. In the story of Creation and the Fall in Genesis, Adam and Eve are told not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, Now that Tree was right there in the middle of the Garden, in which everything had been created good and uncorrupt. So it too was good. And it can be presumed that they would have been given to eat of it when they were ready, since they were created to become exactly what Satan said they would when they ate of it: “You will become like God, knowing good and evil.” But they were not ready, and so striving for that godhood far too soon led to separation from God and enmity with each other, spiritual and physical death which was the result of - not a punishment for - their sin.

This is perhaps the hardest and most difficult way in which we can fall short of the mark and fail to produce good fruit in our lives. Things which are truly wrong and sinful are often easy to see, even if its not so easy not to do them nevertheless, But situations in which the goal itself is good but the timing is not right, that is hard because too often we let our desires for them get in the way of discerning when the time is truly right and when it is not. We need to pray earnestly to God, then speak with others, whether a spiritual father or mother, Christian brother or sister, or close and trusted friend, to take advantage of our personal prophets whom God sends our way and to share our situations, that we may gain wisdom and temperance along our path to living well and producing good fruit, that we may each of us as human persons body and soul be saved and deified. Amen.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Putting on Christ" - Sermon for the 26th of July, St. Parascevi

In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit:

When it comes to crafting a sermon, I begin with a lot of prayer. I read the epistle and gospel selections, look at the saint commemorated on this day, consider the specific part of the yearly liturgical cycle that we are in, and then pray to God to give me the right words to give to you His people. Then it’s a matter of waiting until He motivates me in a particular direction. This is usually by a “still small voice,” a quiet certainty of what to say. Usually, but not always, and today is a prime example of when God pretty much hits one over the head with a two-by-four, saying: “Deliver this message!”

We’re celebrating a Baptism today, and the epistle reading for today (which is the one for St. Parascevi and hence tied specifically to this date) has a great deal to do with what baptism means for us. In preparing for this sermon I was utterly blown away by the complete appropriateness of what we heard to what we are about to do, yet it just goes to reinforce the fact that for us as Orthodox and Christians, there really aren’t any such things as mere coincidences. God is in charge, and He guides all events – whether we’re talking about small things such as the week-long process of developing a sermon or large things such as the million-years-long course of evolution on this planet – so that we are presented with the opportunities to choose to cooperate with Him on the path to our deification, theosis of both body and soul.

St. Paul tells us today, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” This verse has special use in the liturgical services of the Church. It replaces the Trisagion – the Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal – in special Feastday Liturgies: the first Paschal Liturgy the morning of Holy Saturday, which in the ancient Church used to be the most common time for catechumens to be baptized; in the Theophany Liturgy celebrating Christ’s Baptism; and in the Liturgy for Christmas. It also occurs in the Baptismal Service right before the prokeimenon and epistle – which if you look closely you will see that it’s actually doing the same thing there, replacing the Trisagion, for Baptisms in the ancient Church were always done during the Liturgy, as entrance into the Church is perfected in Communion, and the service of Baptism pretty much retains the form of the ancient Baptismal Liturgy.

But what does it mean for us, to put on Christ?

St. Paul tells us today that “we are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,” and that we are “heirs according to the promise.” An heir is one who will share in what his or her parents are and possess. Therefore, we are all of us called to, as St. Peter puts it, become “partakers of the divine nature.” This is theosis, deification. St. Athanasius the great explains it very forcefully in his work, On the Incarnation: “God became man so that human beings might become gods.” Theosis is the doctrine that is unique to the Orthodox Faith and which sets Orthodoxy apart from every other form of Christianity. Now it may seem to be an over-the-top claim, that we are all to be gods, but it really isn’t. There is a way to understand it which preserves the sovereignty of the One God while acknowledging that we are called to be gods. The committee of Orthodox scholars who put together the Orthodox Study Bible expressed this important point: “St. John of Damascus, writing in the eighth century, makes a remarkable observation. The word ‘God’ in the Scriptures refers not to the divine nature or essence, for that is unknowable. ‘God’ refers rather to the divine energies – the power and grace of God which we can perceive in the world. The Greek word for God, theos, comes from a verb meaning ‘run’, ‘see’, or ‘burn’. These are energy words, so to speak, not essence words.” Or, to phrase it another way, the title “God” does not just refer to what He is – which we will never know or become – but also refers equally to what He does, a co-participant in which we are each one of us called to become.

Energies are the qualities of God which flow out from Him, from His essence (though they are not the essence), His love, compassion, mercy… His creativity – an important one, that, since when we first meet God in Genesis He “created the heavens and the earth – qualities which permeate the whole of the created universe. “Putting on Christ” is our appropriation of these energies in our life in the Church, our part in synergeia – cooperation with God – that we may actualize our intimate communion with Him and with each other. The potential for that intimate communion is given us in the Incarnation, when the divine essence and the human essence were inseparably united in the one person of Jesus Christ… which is perhaps another meaning to be found in the use of the hymn, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”, in the Liturgy for Nativity. It is the restoration of that intimate communion – expressed in the story of Genesis by Adam and Eve’s walking with God in the cool of the evening and which they lost for us by sin – that is our salvation, rather than the wiping out of a juridical debt or the appeasing of an angry God, the ever-deepening of it that is our deification.

It is that potential which we must appropriate and realize through participation in the Church, her life and mysteries. That is what little Lola will be called to do in just a little while; that is what we all have been called to do in our own baptism or chrismation, that our whole persons, body and soul, may be saved and deified. Amen.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Don't Worry; Be Happy" - Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There’s a phrase, which comes from a popular song, which goes like this: “Don’t worry; be happy.” It’s a phrase very much in vogue in thw world’s society today, so much so that it was pretty much the centerpiece in a slogan war which took place in England recently. Atheists there had taken out these huge ads on the sides of London buses, saying, “There is no God. Don’t worry; be happy and enjoy life.” And in a move led by the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain, Christians responded by taking out ads that said, “There is a God. Don’t worry; be happy and enjoy life.”

The Christian response to the atheists’ slogan is one very much on the spot, because the fact is that properly understood - and I stress, *PROPERLY* understood, the sentiment expressed in this snippet of song, this popular phrase, is very Orthodox, something which has a deep and profound meaning for us. And the way in which to properly understand it... that is the lesson given us in today’s Gospel reading.


Christ tells us today, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.” And He gives us an example which is meant to show the truth of that statement: the lilies of the field. “They toil not, neither do they reap, yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.”

Now I’ve sometimes wondered, and I’m sure this has occurred to others at some point in time, just how relevant this example is for us today. After all, science has revealed to us the inner workings of plants; any high school biology student is going to know that while lilies don’t toil nor reap, what they do is photosynthesize, They take sunlight, along with water and nutrients provided by the earth, and by that process provide energy for themselves while at the same time working to provide oxygen for the benefit of humans and animals on this planet.

But I would argue that our greater understanding of the biochemical processes at work within the lilies of the field actually makes the example far more relevant to us today, not less. For this complex biological process is something which God has set within each lily through the process of evolution. God has equipped them with the innate tools with which they can care and provide for themselves and their needs.

Now humanity is far higher in the scheme of things than lilies, yet the same principle applies. One of the important reasons we should not worry about our lives is precisely because God has set within each one of us various talents, gifts for doing particular things very well and with liking and joy, diverse callings for us to embrace. These are the innate things within us with which God has equipped us so that in the embracing of them we may work to care and provide for ourselves and our needs. This embracing of our innate gifts and our using of them is our cooperation with God’s grace and power - synergeia, working together - through which we accomplish God’s will in our lives and in the world.

That’s not to say that when we do the work which we enjoy and to which we are called everything will be coming up roses. All we have to do is pay attention to the news these days to see that, to see that unfortunately many people are unable to do the work which they enjoy and to which they are called. But even in these situations Christ’s exhortation, “Don’t worry” is applicable. Photosynthesis is an innate process which provides for the needs of the lilies, but it is not an isolate process, existing only within and unto itself. It uses sunlight, water and soil provided by God in creation. It cannot perform its function without those others. That principle applies to us humans as well, for the various talents we have and the work that we do should not only provide for our own needs but also serve for the aid of others, because we are ultimately not individuals but persons in community. I saw this demonstrated very forcefully in the Bread for Life program, particularly in the graduation this past week. All the people to whom has given the innate gift and love for the various aspects of the hospitality industry, with which they provide for themselves and their needs, also provided for five others, unlocking within those five their own innate gifts so that they may work and provide for their needs.


In the outside world Christianity, and Orthodoxy in particular, has often gotten a bad rep as a dour religion loaded with rules which prevent humans from realizing happiness. A popular song by Billy Joel has the line, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints; sinners are much more fun.” Indeed, this misperception is what provoked the atheists in England to put up their ads in the first place. But it *is* a misperception.

“Happiness” is actually very much central to our faith. The Greek word “makarios”, which is usually translated as “blessed”, also has - maybe primarily has - the meaning “happy”. “Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsels of the wicked.” as we say in the kathisma sung at Great Vespers on Saturday evening.

Today’s Gospel sums up Christ’s exhortations with, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things [daily provision about which we shouldn’t worry] will be added to you.” But what is the Kingdom of God?

First of all, it is the community of the Church and of the world, the venues in which we use our gifts and talents to provide for our needs and those of others. Fundamentally, though, it is a state of mind, a way of looking at and living in those communities. St. Theophylact of Ochrid in Bulgaria, in his commentary on today’s Gospel, says, “The Kingdom of God is the enjoyment of all that is good. This comes through righteousness.”

It is the enjoyment of all that is good. This means the proper enjoyment of all the things of the world which God has created, and we should enjoy the world... for though there is evil in the world, the world itself is not evil. It was created good by God and remains that even though it too shares the effects of the Fall, that is, decay and death. In the creation story in Genesis, after creating Adam and Eve, God shows them the Garden and gives them everything in it (save the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) for food, and by this shows them that they are to use and enjoy creation. We see examples of this as well everywhere in the Church, when sanctified matter is used in our enjoyment and feasting. Human relationships too are meant for enjoyment: Christ sanctified marriage and everything associated with it at the feasting in Cana of Galilee.

Proper enjoyment... the first part of today’s Gospel speaks of this, when it reminds us that we cannot serve two masters. When we forget that we are to enjoy the things of the world as part of our growing together in communion with each other and with God, when instead we make them our sole focus and absolutes in our lives, when we turn them into idols for which we sacrifice others and God – which in fact is what Adam and Eve did when they disobeyed God and partook of the forbidden tree - then that is sin. We are meant to be happy and to enjoy the world… but we must not be slaves to it.

So: “Don’t worry; be happy.” Let us enjoy life and enjoy the world knowing that it is God’s present to us, for which we return thanks to Him in serving and helping to provide for the needs of our brothers and sisters, that every human person, body and soul one and integral, may be saved and deified. Amen.