Spring 2014: Sermons for St. Stephen’s Course Directed Project 2

Part I: Spring 2014

Sermon 1: The Woman with a Disabling Spirit

Sermon 2: The Holy Innocents

Sermon 3: The Meeting in the Temple

Sermon(-ette) 4: A Brief Reflection on The Sunday of Orthodoxy

Sermon 5: “I Believe, Help My Unbelief”

Sermon 6: The Holy Apostle Thomas and Believing Doubt

Sermon 7: The Sunday of the Blind Man

Sermon 8: Is It for Oxen that God is Concerned?

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Sermon 1: The Woman with a Disabling Spirit

Jesus Healing the Woman with a Disabling SpiritThe Gospel of Luke 13:10-17

At that time, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.

Today’s Gospel lesson is, perhaps, not one of the best-known or celebrated of the stories in the four Gospels. The story of the healing by Our Lord Jesus Christ of the “woman with a disabling spirit” on the hallowed day of rest, the Sabbath, is found only in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Although very short, this lesson may have some very important lessons: lessons about Who Jesus the Christ Is; about what is the nature of the infirmity, sickness, and bound-ness which we all face; and about what the Incarnation of the Son of God means – a Mystery made present during the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth twenty centuries ago, but which is made real for us each time we gather as an assembly, especially when we gather to celebrate the Holy Eucharist – about, fundamentally, how we are called to be made whole, to be made ‘straight,’ to be released from bondage, to be healed, to have the opportunity to be that very reality which God created us to be, through the redemptive work of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. Among the holy Fathers of the Church who has left us some guiding wisdom on this portion of the Gospel of Saint Luke is Saint Cyril of Alexandria. Saint Cyril lived in the late 300s and the first part of the 400s A.D. He is best known in modern times for his writings and activities during the controversy over the Nestorian heresy, which emphasized the humanity of Christ to the detriment of his divinity – his Godhead. Not by coincidence, perhaps, Saint Cyril wrote commentaries on the whole Gospels of Saint Luke and Saint John. In his writing on the Gospel reading which we heard today, Saint Cyril draws our attention to some very key points in considering this rather short, even terse, and perhaps confusing passage. Saint Cyril’s commentary emphasizes that, in this incident, we may see that:

  • Human beings may be (temporarily) in bondage to sickness and suffering, and “held of  Satan”;
  • That this is not their natural state, as created and given by God, but a transitory condition, allowed in order for greater good to show forth;
  • That the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is fully God, and may accomplish healing by a word and a touch of His own volition (not by ‘prayer’ to another);
  • That often clinging to rules, even seemingly good and inviolable ‘religious law,’ may actually stem from envy and other passions, and may blind us to the very acts of God Himself, standing right in front of us, and performing A New Deed.

When we look at this passage at first glance, it may seem strange to us that this woman is described by Our Lord Jesus Himself as “a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years.” Saint Cyril explains this by saying that, …by what happened to her we have seen that Satan often receives authority over certain persons, such, namely, as fall into sin, and have grown lax in their efforts after piety. Whomsoever therefore he gets into his power, he involves, it may be, in bodily diseases, since he delights in punishment and is merciless. And the opportunity for this the all-seeing God most wisely grants him [Satan], that being sore vexed by the burden of their misery, men may set themselves upon changing to a better course.” Saint Cyril does not conclusively say (as also we hear in another Gospel story) that the woman’s suffering and infirmity was necessarily a result of “something she did wrong” – he affirms that, as near as we may know or understand, “God … permit[ed] it, either for her own sins, or rather by the operation of a universal and general law.” What bent this woman over? Whatever it was, it was evil, a reversal of the course of nature, a changing from the wholeness and fullness of health which God had given her, and for which she was created. [We know that psychological traumas, as well as physical burdens, can cause long-term physical consequences… perhaps some such cause had led to the ‘spirit of infirmity’ which crippled this woman for eighteen years…]? The next point, according to Saint Cyril, is that the Incarnation of the Word of God in the person of Jesus Christ was to right this wrong, to make straight that which was bent, to free from Satan’s captivity and to make it whole. “God, Who by His very nature is good, did not abandon us when suffering under the punishment of a protracted and incurable malady, but freed us from our bonds, revealing as the glorious remedy for the sufferings of mankind His own presence and manifestation in the world,” wrote the saint, and he tells us that, “He [Jesus]  came to fashion our state again to what it was originally,” and that “The Incarnation of the Word, and His taking upon Himself of human nature took place for the overthrow of death and destruction, and of that envy nourished against us by the wicked serpent, who was the first cause of evil.” In curing the woman, Christ was showing forth His very nature, and His very purpose – His divine “work.” in carrying out this work, the interpretations of the Sabbath law by those such as the ruler of the synagogue held no force. Also, the purpose of the Sabbath as it had been ordained by God was for rest – rest for man and for beast. Saint Cyril takes Jesus’ words about the ruler further, saying that, at least, this ruler would have cared for his beasts of burden, as allowed by the Law of Moses- but he [the ruler of the synagogue] ‘would have preferred the woman who was made straight,’ the image of God, a ‘child of Abraham,’ ‘to be bowed down after the manner of four-footed beasts, rather than that she should recover the form fitting for man.’ Saint Cyril sees healing as a form of true rest, the rest given by God – and this rest is granted by God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. See how simple and powerful Christ is in healing, having only to speak a word and to touch with His hand. In Saint Cyril’s exposition, this is sure proof of the Truth of Who Jesus Is –He does not pray to God, as did Moses, in whom the synagogue ruler was instructed, for healing, but He speaks a word, touches, as God, and what is bent, broken, wounded, held in bondage, is made right, whole, and straight. The very reason the ruler so protested was his denial, his lack of belief, and especially his envy,– and, ironically, in his own act of protesting, his loosening of the mouth, his letting his passions run free, he violated the Sabbath’s law, also. Saint Cyril of Alexandria instructs us that, in this scene, we see that, in the end, Shame fell then on those who had uttered these corrupt opinions: who had stumbled against the chief corner stone, and been broken; who had resisted the Physician, who had clashed against the wise Potter, when busied in straightening His crooked vessels: and there was no reply which they could make. The Physician, Potter, and Maker was acting according to His own will, carrying out that for which he had come to earth, our frail globe, incarnate as a man. The law is His subject, not His master, and was given by Him for rest and for healing. In a consideration of our own state, when we come to the Divine Liturgy, this is where we are, and the reality of the One Who calls us to His healing, His restoration of all things. At the beginning of the Liturgy, we bless the Kingdom of the One God in Trinity… and then, almost immediately, we bring with us and before God our condition: lost, sick, broken, sinful, ‘in the world,’ even if we are not of it. The entrance rites of the Liturgy call us from our varied lives and places to be in the very presence of our King, yet we do not leave the world behind, in some mystical trance or hour-long escape or flight of fancy. Instead, on the contrary, we bring ourselves, as God’s creation, from His creation, broken and marred and sometimes so blinded by our own diseases and captivity and envy that we cannot see what is before us, nor see ourselves for what we truly are, and what we are meant to be. But, nonetheless, in humble and broken hope, we come – we come in our brokenness, into the hospital of souls, into the presence of the Potter, and the Great Physician – For He wills to make us whole and straight.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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Sermon 2 The Holy Innocents

Holy InnocentsThe Gospel of Matthew 2:13-23

When the wise men departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaos reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Gospel lesson from Saint Matthew which we hear today is one that is truly difficult to comprehend, on the human level of understanding. Just after the joy of the celebration of the Birth of Christ, the culmination of our preparation, our expectation, and our remembering of the long ages before the Incarnation, the story of the Gospel narrative presents us with a vision of horror: the killing of a number of innocent children, who had committed no wrong, but seem to have, simply yet tragically, been “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” What meaning do we find in the story of the martyrdom – the slaughter – of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem? What does the Gospel recounting of this event tell us about God, His purposes, and the realm of human life? Many of the Fathers of the Church wrestled with this same question. In the face of the horror of the unjust killing of innocents by a tyrant – brutal, fearful, and mad – those who led the Church in its early centuries and who tried to make the scriptural story “make sense” to themselves and to their fellow Christians delved into this text from Saint Matthew’s Gospel, seeking to find the loving and merciful hand of God ever at work, even in the face of tragedy of the sense loss which made Rachel, mother of the people of Israel, to lament and wail (figuratively) because of the finality, the stark reality, the ultimate destruction and annihilation of Herod’s persecution. Many of the Fathers spend considerable time (and ink) on fathoming the fact that, despite his determined action, which comes through as both planned with calculating deliberation and spurred on by a maddened rage, all of the actions of Herod as powerful King were frustrated, doomed from the beginning, and inevitably come to nothing, due to the fact that Herod’s plans were running counter to God’s plan. One Third Century Christian author (Origen), writing against a now-otherwise-unknown detractor of the Faith, mentions that his opponent (Celsus) didn’t actually believe that this story happened, but emphasizes,

“That Herod conspired against the Child (although Celsus does not believe that this really happened), is not to be wondered at. For wickedness is in a certain sense blind, and would desire to defeat fate, as if it were stronger than it.”

Saint John Chrysostom, too, writing in the Fourth Century, emphasizes Herod’s fury, and the futility of his rage. The saint writes of the verse, ‘Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth’ [ethumOthE, εθυμωθη enraged]:

“Yet surely it was a case not for anger, but for fear and awe: he ought to have perceived that he was attempting impossible things. But he is not refrained. For when a soul is insensible and incurable, it yields to none of the medicines given by God. See for example this man following up his former efforts and adding many murders to one, and hurried down the steep any way. For driven wild by this anger, and envy, as by some demon, he takes account of nothing, but rages even against nature herself, and his anger against the wise men who had mocked him he vents upon the children that had done no wrong: venturing then in Palestine upon a deed akin to the things that had been done in Egypt.”

Saint John also notes, “[Herod was]…Attempting to slay that which was born, – an act of extreme idiocy, not of madness only; since what had been said and done was enough to have withheld him from any such attempt. For those occurrences were not after the manner of man. A star, I mean, calling the wise men from on high; and barbarians making so long a pilgrimage, to worship Him that lay in swaddling clothes and a manger; and prophets too from of old, proclaiming beforehand all this; – these and all the rest were more than human events: but nevertheless, none of these things restrained him. For such a thing is wickedness. It falls foul of itself, and is ever attempting impossibilities. And mark his utter folly.” The world at the time of the Birth of Christ in the flesh was no stranger to the powerful influence of evil, and the destruction that is done by those who hold earthly power. The world before that time and ever since has been scarred by the whim of worldly power wielded for evil purpose. In his book For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, the modern Orthodox writer Father Alexander Schmemann reflected, in the latter part of the Twentieth Century, on evil and on the Church as God’s response to evil. In trying to define what evil is, Father Alexander wrote, “It is indeed the presence of dark and irrational power. Hatred is not merely absence of love. It is certainly more than that, and we recognize its presence as an almost physical burden that we feel in ourselves when we hate. In our world in which normal and civilized men ‘used electricity’ to exterminate six million human beings, in this world in which right now some ten million people are in concentration camps because they failed to understand the ‘only way to universal happiness,’ in this world the ‘demonic’ reality is not a myth. And whatever the value or the consistency of its presentation in theologies and doctrines, it is this reality that the Church has in mind, that it indeed faces when at the moment of baptism, through the hands of the priest, it lays hold upon a new human being who has just entered life, and who, according to statistics, has a great likelihood some day of entering a mental institution, a penitentiary, or at best, the maddening boredom of a universal suburbia. The world from which the human being has received his life, and which will determine this life, is a prison. The Church did not have to wait for Kafka or Sartre to know it. But the Church also knows that the gates of this hell have been broken and that another Power has entered the world and claimed it for its true Owner. * So one modern Orthodox theologian meets head-on the problem of evil, and so he brings us back to remember the Ultimate Hope which is ours in the coming of Christ Jesus, Emmanuel, God-With-Us. In the Church, by entering in to the mystery of salvation, our darkness and the darkness of the world begin to be dispelled by The True Light. From the moment that we enter Christ’s Kingdom in Holy Baptism, we have the opportunity to see the Light begin to dawn, to shine into our lives with increasing radiance, as the day’s lengthening first begins to do during this holy season. ** In the season of the Nativity of Christ, we recall an event which changed history itself, changed even the very nature of human life on this planet, shattering the finality of death with the promise that all the suffering, all the evil, all the brokenness, all the annihilation which comes as the result of the evil in flawed human hearts, will be – indeed, are being – redeemed, transformed, recaptured, remade from that which is was corrupted into back into that which it was created and meant to be. The holy tradition of the Church tells us that 14,000 young boys lost their as-yet unfolded lives when Herod – through fear and rage – tried to destroy the Divine One and thwart the plans of God. Some 12 million people (including 6 million of the Jewish people) were made to be no more during the nightmare of Nazi Germany, by (as Fr. Alexander put it…) modern, advanced, scientific men who “used electricity,” and perhaps as many more slain by the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. In is no accident that the ancient hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” popular in this Christmas season, speaks of death’s dark shadows. The next-to-the-last verse of this song of hope cries out,

“O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,

  and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;

 disperse the gloomy clouds of night

 and death’s dark shadow put to flight!”

Death and darkness are still very much with us. We feel and experience in our lives, and encounter every day in the world about us, the reality and the discouraging weight of wrong, of loss, of death, of injustice. Senseless acts rob the young and the undeserving of life, limb, hope, and even the fleeting happiness with which our mortal human lives may be blessed. We may, from time to time, think of the shooting in Newton’s elementary school – or the earlier tragedy of Columbine’s high school – and still feel the wave of shock, helplessness, and horror which come in the wake of such darkness. In all things, though, the story of the entirety of the Scriptures, the whole narrative of God’s loving and merciful relationship with His people, with His own beloved creation, reveals that, behind it all, behind even the senselessness and repeated disappointments and desolations, God’s plan is still at work, and, in the end, even though it may be hard to see, right now, It is God who is in control. He came into our weakness and into this broken world, and did not escape tragedy, abandonment, sorrow, and death; but, rather, by embracing them out of love for all mankind, broke the shackles of their power, and transformed the gloom of night and the finality, the seeming “non-being” of death itself, into our entrance to life. With the Holy Innocents, may our lives be a partaking, in all things, of the Incarnation of Christ, and of His life-giving victory over death. A contemporary Christian song gives us these words, perhaps appropriate to today’s commemoration:

“When I go, don’t cry for me In my Father’s arms I’ll be The wounds this world left on my soul Will all be healed and I’ll be whole. Sun and moon will be replaced With the light of Jesus’ face And I will not be ashamed For my Savior knows my name.”***

May we remember, even in the darkest hour, Who we belong to, what He has done for us, and what His loving plan is for us: in this hour; in the age to come; and unto ages of ages. + Christ Is Born! Glorify Him! In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. [Amen].

* Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World (Kindle Locations 993-1002). St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition. ** (Northern hemisphere only) *** Jars of Clay, “All My Tears.” —————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Sermon 3 – The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Icon by Saint Andrew Rublev
Icon by Saint Andrew Rublev

– In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Today’s Gospel lesson from Saint Luke introduces us to another joyful feast of the Incarnation – of God becoming man, for the Life of the World. A father of the Church, Saint Cyril of Alexandria, who led the Church as a bishop in the 300s A.D., introduces his sermon on this occasion of joy by saying:

“Numerous is the congregation, and focused the hearers: – for we see the Church full: – but the one who speaks to you is but poor. He, nevertheless, Who gives to man a mouth and tongue, will further supply us with good ideas.”That seems appropriate!

On this day, Saint Luke’s gospel tells of the Presentation of the Christ-child Jesus in the Temple on the fortieth day after his birth, in order to fulfill the law. There are three key points which we may wish to take from this joyful feast:

  1. That God came among us as one of us, the same God who had created humanity, guided it, and always called His created people back to Him, through giving them the Law and the Prophets;
  2. That we He came to walk among us as one of us, He did not, although He Himself was God, refuse to submit to the very Law already set forth, but, in all humility and gentleness of heart, obeyed the Law to the full; and
  3. That Christ fulfilled the Law, and we are made perfect precisely through the obedience and humility of Christ, by being joined to Him by the adoption of Baptism.

Saint Cyril refers to the feast of the Nativity as: “[seeing] the Immanuel lying as a babe in the manger, and wrapped in human fashion in swaddling clothes but extolled as God in hymns by the host of the holy angels.” As we journey through the story of the life of Jesus, Saint Cyril says that, when we come to the telling of the story of Christ’s parents bringing Him to the Temple to do what the Law of Moses required, “today too we have seen Him obedient to the laws of Moses, or rather we have seen Him Who as God is the Legislator, subject to His own decrees.” The gospel lesson makes very clear that Mary and Joseph obeyed, in bringing Christ to the Temple, the Law prescribed in the book of Leviticus, which said that a woman who had given birth to a male child should not come to the sanctuary until both (1) a period of seven days of ritual separation had passed – after which the child was to be given a name, on the eighth day, at which time he was to be circumcised, the mark of the covenant made with Abraham, Moses, and all of the people of Israel; and: (2) thirty-three more days had passed, a further period of “purifying.” The Levitical Law specified: “And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her… This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.” (Leviticus 12:6-8, ESV) * As a side note, in the Orthodox Church, we still practice the rite of “churching” of a new child after 40 days, whether male or female. Saint Luke records in his gospel that the parents of Christ fulfilled the Law, doing so with the allowance made for those with little money, of “limited income,” as we might say, unable to afford a lamb for sacrifice, but bringing two birds, one to serve as an offering for sin, and the other as a burnt offering – a total sacrifice to God. Saint Cyril has an interesting interpretation of these two birds, the pigeon and the turtledove. He calls the pigeon the noisiest of birds, but says that the dove is mild and gentle, and that is how the Savior, Jesus Christ, is to us. He was gentle, soothing the world, and came like the promise in the poetic Song of Solomon: “The Voice of the Turtledove is heard in our land.” Saint Cyril thus makes the connection between the symbol of sacrifice which the birds prescribed by the Law represent and the True Sacrifice which Is Jesus Christ Himself. * Even in the matter of the ritual of circumcision, though Christ underwent it, Saint Cyril says that the meaning of this act of the Law was its foreshadowing of Christ, and its fulfillment in Him. Quoting Saint Paul’s assertion that, “circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing,” Saint Cyril) asks the rhetorical question, “would God require something that had no value – no purpose – a ‘thing of no account’”? His answer is that yes, God did command such a thing … but that the ritual contains the hidden manifestation of the truth. For on the eighth day Christ arose from the dead, and gave us the spiritual circumcision.” This “spiritual circumcision,” he says, is the very rebirth into new life in Christ which comes through Holy Baptism:

Just and Joshua (another form of the name “Jesus”) led the people of Israel through the waters of the Jordan River into the Promised Land, our baptism in Christ leads us into the Kingdom of God

            In the ancient Church, the feast of Epiphany or Theophany – which we celebrated at the beginning of last month – was one of the times in which new Christians were brought into the Church by the waters of baptism. The many hymns of that feast emphasize again and again the redeeming power of Christ and that through the material substance of water, his own baptism – another occasion of humble submission – made the way for us to also partake of the fullness of His fully-divine and fully, truly-human life, if we, also, submit and follow Him in humbleness of heart. And here we come to point number 3 of this great mystery, and one which it is so easy, in our fallible humanity to forget: The Law is over-and-done-with. It has accomplished its purpose, not through any action by us, but by the action of Christ, God-with-us, the very God-made-flesh. Saint Cyril of Alexandria’s preaching on the Presentation of Christ tells us that,

“Christ therefore ransomed from the curse of the law those who, being subject to it, had been unable to keep its enactments. And in what way did He ransom them? By fulfilling it.”

The Law and its curse are removed by their fulfillment by Christ… and how great a salvation, a redemption, to be freed from being subject to a Law that could not save, and that no mortal human could possibly obey. The modern Orthodox theologian Father Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory wrote on the loss of a sense of the sacred in the Twentieth-Century world. The nature of what “religion” is, exactly, and how this is different from what the Church is occupied much of Father Alexander’s reflection. When presenting the Mystery of the Church, he wrote that:

“Christianity… is in a profound sense the end of all religion… Nowhere in the New Testament, in fact, is Christianity presented as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. It was this freedom of the early church from ‘religion’ in the usual, traditional sense of this word that led the pagans to accuse Christians of atheism. Christians had no concern for any sacred geography, no temples, no cult that could be recognized as such by the generations fed with the solemnities of the mystery cults. There was no specific religious interest in the places where Jesus had lived. There were no pilgrimages. The old religion had its thousand sacred places and temples: for the Christians all this was past and gone. There was no need for temples built of stone: Christ’s Body, the Church itself, the new people gathered in Him, was the only real temple. ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.…’ (Christ said in Saint John’s Gospel). The Church itself was the new and heavenly Jerusalem: the Church in Jerusalem was by contrast unimportant. The fact that Christ comes and is present was far more significant than the places where He had been.”

            Referring these thoughts back to the teaching of Saint Cyril: How striking that a Fifth-Century bishop, teacher, and Father of the Church would view the Presentation of Christ in the very Temple of Jerusalem, which had for so long been the focus of where God’s people, Israel, met their God, as one of the very moments (along with other such moments in the life of Christ) in which the Temple, the Law, and all their rituals and prescriptions were fulfilled by The One (and only one) who could obey, fill, and fulfill them. Perhaps Father Schmemann echoes for our modern minds the same sentiment which Saint Cyril wrote about, and of which the Elder Symeon and the Righteous Anna raised up their aged voices to proclaim in song,

“My eyes have seen your salvation [a side-note: the Hebrew “Joshua,”translated “Jesus,” the name given the Child on that eighth day, means “Salvation”…]

that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

and for glory to your people Israel,” …that we may give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem, and of all the world.

            It can be far too easy to be caught up in what we think that the “Law” demands of us, and to try, vain as the attempts to do so may be, and even though we know that they are vanity, to gain some kind of favor or standing with the transcendent God by trying to fulfill them. I can really only speak of my own, repeated failings and vain attempts to do “better”, by (occasionally, and rarely…) “doing pious things,” to somehow try to “be righteous” under the strength of my own, sinful weakness, which usually follow right after having completely failed in that very thing. Saint Cyril speaks of those of the former Israel who “stumbled” upon the rock which Righteous Symeon spoke of, but also says:

“But many rose again, those, namely, who embraced faith in Him. For they changed from a legal to a spiritual service: from having in them a slave’s spirit, they were enriched with That Spirit Which makes free, even the Holy Spirit: they were made partakers of the divine nature: they were counted worthy of the adoption of sons: and live in hope of gaining the city that is above, even the citizenship of the kingdom of heaven.”

            The good news of the Gospel is that we do not have to be slaves to Law, but are invited to live free as adopted children of God. Christ has fulfilled all things. When we let go of our own attempts, and look to the example of His own humility and submission to God’s purpose – and follow Him in so doing, and thereby enter His life, through the path of His death and resurrection, participating in them by Baptism, in the Holy Eucharist, and in the daily mystery given by God which is this life, we may, truly, enter with Him into the joy of the fullness of the Eighth Day. Be glad and rejoice – for “the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land”.

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

* Schmemann, Alexander (2010-04-01). For the Life of the World (Kindle Locations 218-227). St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.

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Sermon 4: A Brief Reflection on The Sunday of Orthodoxy

Sunday of Orthodoxy

On this day, the first Sunday / Resurrection day after we have fully embarked upon the course of the Fast of Great Lent, with its emphasis on repentance, fasting, and renewal, we seem to immediately shift from the penitential mood to a jubilant celebration of victory for the Church and for the wonderful Good News of the incarnation of God in the flesh and all of His saving acts for us. The First Sunday in Great Lent is set apart to glorify what is known as “The Triumph of Orthodoxy,” when the upheavals (sometimes violent) of Iconoclasm, which tore the Church [and the society of the Byzantine (East Roman) Empire] during the Eighth and Ninth Centuries A.D., were finally (… eventually…) resolved, in the events leading up to, during, and after the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Many see the emergence of the attack on holy images as perhaps reflecting the influence of Islam, which was then rapidly expanding from Arabia, and engulfing militarily and culturally the long-Christian lands on the periphery of the Byzantine Empire; other emphasize that the debate over the role of icons in the Church was a continuation of the doctrinal wrestling with the nature of Christ which had gone on over the course of the previous four centuries (or longer). Many scholars see the outbreak of state-sponsored iconoclasm as stemming from the “Isuarian” emperors (actually Northern Syrian), Leo III and Constantine V, who both grew up in a tradition of the Church which tended to emphasize the humanity and earthly reality of Christ and were perhaps in favor of “purging” the Church from what some Syrian (and other) monks viewed as a slip into idolatry, with icons, indeed, perhaps sometimes being worshiped or taken almost superstitiously as talismans of protection or good fortune. After a council which claimed to be “ecumenical” had been called by the emperor and forbade icons as idolatry, the tide turned and the Seventh Ecumenical Council upheld the importance of icons in light of their importance for a true understanding of the nature of Christ: the incomprehensible, uncontainable, unimaginable God could be depicted, because he had deigned to take on our circumscribable human nature. Icons, too, as Saint John of Damascus (who wrote, ironically, from the relative safety of an area under Muslim, not Byzantine, rule…) serve to instruct the faithful, and the honor passed to the image is really given unto the ‘prototype’ – God himself, who became portrayable, and who is reflected in his saints, who are made in the image (ikon) of God and grew into the fulness of His likeness by holiness. The restoration of the icons is the “triumph of Orthodoxy” because it reveals the profound truth of the saving reality of the Incarnation of Christ: God-with-Us.

(NOTE: This short message originally appeared on the Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church website on the Sunday of Orthodoxy 2013, and was delivered as a brief homily for the Sunday of Orthodoxy 2014)

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I believe help thou my unbelief

Sermon 5: ” I Believe, Help My Unbelief”

The Gospel of Saint Mark 9:17-31
At that time, someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”

“I Believe; Help Thou My Unbelief”

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s gospel presents us with an image of Jesus doing “the work He was sent to do,” in a most striking miracle of healing. Throughout the gospels, the message and ministry of the healing power of Christ occur again and again, reminding us that fundamental to the reason for Jesus coming into this broken and hurt and ailing world was – and, is – to make whole, to restore, to heal.
The story of the Mute (or, “dumb”) boy has several striking features which speak to us particularly during this season of the Great Fast.
First, and perhaps most obviously (if no less important, for that), Jesus tells us, as He tells the disciples, some of our demons – personal, corporate, and otherwise, “can only come out by prayer and fasting.” This gives us insight into part of what we are doing in this season of repentance, prayer, alms-giving, and fasting. Like the Sabbath, the Great Fast was made for man, not man for it. What this means, though, is that the disciplines we focus on particularly at this time of year not only cleanse and prepare us for the joyful feast of Pascha and help us to focus on what is important for each day throughout the year. The recognition of our need for repentance, for a relationship with God through prayer, and our complete dependence upon The One God, the Holy Trinity, for our sustenance and our very life are also part of how we are healed, delivered from afflictions and demons, and restored to the wholeness which God gave us at birth, and wishes for us to have, again, with Him, for eternity.
It is interesting, on another note, that the “spirit” which possessed the boy in this gospel story is, at first, described as “dumb” – not capable of speaking – but is later in the passage addressed by Jesus as “dumb and deaf spirit.” The power of evil controlling the physical existence and capabilities of the boy not only made him unable to speak, but also, according to Our Lord, made him incapable of hearing as well. Had no one else – at least, among those in the crowd – noticed that the boy not only could not talk, but could not hear the speech of others, and could not hear the many sounds of the world around him, isolated from much of human experience…?
(Saint Matthew’s Gospel includes the story with slightly different details, describing the young man as “an epileptic,” – literally, “moonstruck” – emphasizing the controlling and destructive intent of the evil spirit, which had “often … thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him”).
We see in this passage a young and, in many ways, helpless person – but, as often occurs in the healing stories of Jesus in the gospels, the one in need of Jesus’ healing is not alone. He is with his father; his father brings him to Jesus, and does so even after the mixture of faith and disappointment which he apparently went through by bringing the boy to the disciples, and being disappointed in that first hope.
Throughout this passage, there appear two pairings of two seeming opposites: one is that of faith and doubt, the other is of hope and disappointment. In each case, though, the progress from faith to doubt, and from hope to disappointment, does not end with the dark note of despair and unfulfilled expectation. The cry of the father of the young man, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” follows the statement of Our Lord, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” In some versions of the original Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, which did not have the punctuation or capital letters which often help our modern reading comprehension +, this short passage of Jesus might be read two ways: “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes,” or, “‘If You can!’ [Believe]. All things are possible to him who believes.” The first might be understood as, “If you are believe, all things are possible to [you,] the one believing.”
A very subtle difference; while the one interpretation seems to make the fact of believing dependent upon the man’s ability, the other might suggest that when someone believes, having faith (perhaps even “no bigger than a mustard seed,” as Our Lord says elsewhere), “all things are possible”.
In either case, though, what follows next is quite clear: the man acknowledges his doubts, his fear, his sense of disappointment to Jesus, with the cry, “I do believe! Help my unbelief.” How often we find ourselves in this same situation! Even when we want to believe, when we are “able,” on an intellectual level, to believe, or when we feel like we should believe and trust in Christ, our past disappointments – real or imagined – hinder our belief and trust in God. We cannot “go it alone,” or always be perfect in faith and trust, and our minds know this, all to well. Perhaps this gospel is telling us that the very response we need to have in those times is to cry out, “I do believe! Help my unbelief” to the One who is able to strengthen our faith and make us able to come to the place where “all things are possible,” but through, with, and in Him – not on our own.
As a closing note, it is very significant, as commentators both ancient and modern have pointed out, that this story appears where it does in Saint Mark’s Gospel. The story is kind of “sandwiched,” if you will, between (1.) the story of Jesus’ glorious Transfiguration, when His garments appeared white with light and Moses and Elijah – representing the Law and the Prophets – appeared with Him, after which Jesus first told His disciples – to their shock and disbelief, one may imagine – that he would soon go through suffering and death – and (2.) the second time that Jesus revealed His life-giving, but sorrowful, suffering and execution, which occurs at the end of today’s passage.
Jesus tells the disciples, privately, at the end of this passage, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.” The story of the Transfiguration both shows forth the coming crucifixion of Jesus and His ultimate glory in the resurrection. Like the father of the possessed boy, the disciples and their Lord will move from expectation and hope to suffering, doubt, and even despair. And, like the disciples, and like the father in the story, the journey of Great Lent challenges us to keep persevering even when it seems like we “are not able,” when all our hope turns to darkness and shadows, when even our very Life (and lives) and even the Source of All Life and All Things seems to have been taken away.
In such times, may we remember that there are not just “two sides of the coin,” faith and doubt, nor hope and disappointment. Keeping in mind the promise of the Lord Jesus of the resurrection – “He will rise the third day” – let us remember that the “end of the story” is not death, doubt, and despair. Remembering the father of the afflicted boy, may we journey through the season of Great Lent mindful that we are seeking the promise of the Bright Pascha, even when we doubt. Let us cry out with him, even in doubt and the shadow of death to Jesus Christ, “the author and finisher of our faith *,” each day, in every hour,

“I believe! Help Thou my unbelief”.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

+  ο δε ιησους ειπεν αυτω το ει δυνασαι πιστευσαι παντα δυνατα τω πιστευοντι
*  Hebrews 12:2

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Sermon 6 The Holy Apostle Thomas and Believing Doubt

“Wonderful Doubt of Thomas!”

The Gospel of John 20:19-31

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them: “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him: “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.”

Eight days later, His disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said: “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to Him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.

“20:24-29   The doubt of Thomas is described in the Church hymns as “blessed,” for it was not a doubt of resistance to truth, but one that desperately desired a truthful answer—a “doubt which gave birth to faith” when the answer was revealed. In hymns of the Church, Christ says to Thomas, “Your doubt will teach My Passion and Resurrection to all,” and we affirm that his doubt “brought the hearts of believers to knowledge.” The conversion of Thomas’ doubt into faith led him to the clearest confession of Christ’s divinity, addressing Jesus as my Lord and my God (v. 28).” Nelson, Thomas (2008-06-17). The Orthodox Study Bible: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today’s World . Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

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

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

“A Doubting Thomas”…! How common this phrase has become in everyday speech. Maybe we have even used it ourselves about someone who seems to be always skeptical, unwilling to believe anything, or who will not commit to anything before being presented with so-called “empirical proof”. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the expression “doubting Thomas” as “one who is habitually doubtful,” saying, parenthetically, that the term’s origin is “[After Saint Thomas, who doubted Jesus’s resurrection until he had proof of it]”. Interestingly, perhaps, the use of this exact phrase seems to only date back, as far as I could find reference to a recorded first use, to 1883! Could it be that our modern attribution of doubt to the Holy Apostle Thomas (and to all those we might brand as “doubting Thomases”) is actually missing the very point of this story in Saint John’s Gospel…?

We may well wish to identify ourselves in this story with “the Ten,” those disciples who not only had the experience of being in the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus when he came into their midst unexpectedly, unannounced, and through “closed doors”, but who also, after this, did not find themselves in Saint Thomas’s position, asking to see the Lord’s body, feel it, and know beyond the shadow of a doubt (pun intended) that what was unbelievable was, in fact, true.

If we take a step back, though, and imagine what this sudden showing forth (or, epiphany) of the Resurrection must have been like for the one who was not there, maybe we will find that we might, in fact, have been much more likely to follow Thomas’ reasoning. Who among us has ever seen one dead come back from that seemingly final end? And who could do otherwise than disbelieve the possibility of such a thing, on a purely human level? Maybe we may see that we, ourselves, so often stand in the position of Saint Thomas, but, perhaps, we may also see that this is not a position of defeat, of despair, of that kind of soul-killing doubt which has no hope. As the Paschal Season unfolds, and the bright, over-brimming joy of the Lord’s resurrection reaches even into the dark corners of our souls and our psyches, where doubt seems often to gnaw away, and our fears, failures, hurts, and disappointments seem to mock our best intentions, may Saint Thomas’ story be to us as the very thing which the Gospel of John says that it is meant to be: “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

The songs of the Church suggest to us that Thomas’ doubt was, in fact, a blessed thing, a “doubt which gives birth to faith”. The hymns of Vespers include this interesting reflection on the Gospel story:

Thomas, called the Twin, was not with the Disciples, O Christ,

when You came to them through closed doors.

Therefore he doubted their word.

You did not reject him for his faithlessness.

When he saw Your side and the wounds in Your hands and feet,

his faith was made certain.

Having touched and seen,

he confessed You to be truly God, not only man,

crying: “My Lord and my God, glory to You!

From the crisis of the doubt he felt as the left-out one, the “odd man out” who had not seen the Risen Christ, and who had missed out on receiving The Gift of the Holy Spirit in the breath of Jesus a week before, Thomas became the first to shout forth the testimony of the very reality, incomprehensible as it may be to our human minds, which is the foundation of the Orthodox Christian Faith: Jesus Christ Is God and Man, Transcendent and human, Unknowable yet Personal, Beyond Our Conception but Closer than Our Next Breath. Lord, human master, and Creator, at one-and-the-same time. Another of the Vespers hymns calls out,

Most wonderful doubt of Thomas!

It brought the hearts of the faithful to knowledge.

And with fear he cried: “My Lord and my God, glory to Thee!”

How wonderful is the doubt which Thomas felt! It was not a doubt which simply gave up because of the impossibility of that which was too good to be true. Even though he had been absent from their assembly when that first, most overwhelming experience of the appearance of the Risen Christ came upon his friends, Saint Thomas was still in their midst when it mattered, when “his time came,” despite what must have been a series of days of confusion, mingling hope with the feeling that what he wanted to believe was true could not possibly be. He stuck by his friends, and by the hope in the community of Jesus, even when he must have felt that the very reason for their band of brothers and sisters was for nothing.

– [But,] What was he doing there on that second Lord’s Day if not being present out of the most faithful, if “doubting,” hopefulness? And the Lord Jesus met him “where he was,” coming to him where he needed to be met, fulfilling his wildest hopes and hopes-beyond-hopes, even if he seemed to have been “faithless” by comparison with the fortunate Ten.

I would guess that we all know what it feels like to wish that we could have more hope, more faithfulness, to “do more,” to be better, to be more like our brothers and sisters. So often we may feel like everyone around us has been given a full portion of grace, of that gift of hope, to have been breathed upon by the Christ when we were, for whatever reason, absent. Not there. Doing something else. (… and who knows, by the way, what Thomas was doing on that first Pascha Sunday? The gospel account simply does not say).

In his series of books The Chronicles of Narnia, Christian author C.S. Lewis tells the story of the life and hope in Jesus in a series of stories “for children,” which may be as applicable for “grown-ups” as for young readers. When the Great Lion, Aslan, a rather clear allegorical figure for Christ, meets the young people from “our world” on their second trip to the magical world of Narnia, everything is different from their first visit to this special place… which, in many ways, is not so different from ours, often ruled by tyrants and the cruel, sundered by wars and illusions and disparity. No one else can see the Lion but the youngest person, Lucy, at first, on this second visit. When, after the passage of time, and perseverance in following Lucy’s insistence that Aslan is guiding them – in fact, is right in front of them, showing the way – all the adventurers finally are able to see the Great Lion. When Lucy’s older sister, who we may think of as the doubter who so much wants to believe, finally can see (and thus comes face-to-face) with Aslan, the story tells us:

“…after an awful pause, the deep voice said, ‘Susan.’ Susan made no answer but the others thought she was crying. ‘You have listened to fears, child,’ said Aslan. ‘Come, let me breathe on you. Forget them. Are you brave again?’

‘A little, Aslan,’ said Susan.”

          “… A Little, Aslan…” ! If we could only keep in mind to say to Christ, “My Lord and My God! Give me just a little bit of bravery after my fears, which I listen to all too often. Breathe on me, if you will, when you will, and I will be brave a little, if only a very little, but maybe just as brave as I should be. Maybe not as brave as the other Ten, maybe not so brave as to never doubt or fear, but brave enough to forget my fear, the fear that This Couldn’t Possibly Be True, and little by little, I will begin to be transformed by your resurrection, to begin to start a new life.”

Brothers and Sisters, this is what Jesus offered to Thomas, and offers to each and every one of us, in all of our “Thomasness,” on this and on each and every new-dawning day. Be open to the Most Wonderful Doubt. Receive the breath when you and Christ are in the same place together – don’t be surprised if it happens in the company of your brothers and sisters, although you may have been absent, before, and be brave. Forget fear. And cry out,

“My Lord and My God!”

Christ Is Risen! Indeed He Is Risen!

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Sermon 7 The Sunday of the Blind Man

Icon of Christ Giving SIght to the Man Born Blind

The Epistle: St. Paul‘s Second Letter to the Corinthians 4:6-15

Brethren, it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

Since we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we too believed, and so we speak, knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into His presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

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

Christ Is Risen!

Brothers and Sisters, the Church places before us each Sunday – each day, actually – a treasury of riches to be explored, internalized, lived, and shared in the daily readings from the Scriptures. During Great Lent, we delved into the story of God and His people in the Old Covenant in the Prophets, in the book of Job, and in the book of Wisdom. During the Paschal Season, and through the rest of the year, a reading from the letters of the Holy Apostles and a reading from one of the Holy Gospels is placed before us, and before the whole body of the Church. Today’s Gospel lesson is one of the dramatic stories of a life-changing event which are given to us in the Season of celebration of the Resurrection of Christ – of the victory of Jesus – and with Him, His people – over death, sin, and nothingness.

Often sermons in Orthodox Churches focus mainly on the second of the two scripture readings during the Sunday Divine Liturgy. To be sure, the accounts of the incarnation, life, teaching, sufferings, death and resurrection told by Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John hold a special primacy of place as being the way in which we meet, in the Word, the person of Jesus. We have just experienced, through the re-telling and making “here-with-us” by the reading of the Gospel, the story of the Man who was Born Blind, and who found his sight through meeting Christ. The account is full of much to ponder. As we have just met the Incarnate Word in this story, I would like for us to “step back” and delve into, also, the reading from Saint Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Corinth. Let us look at the Epistle reading and see how, in fact, the Letters of the Holy Apostle Paul very powerfully, yet succinctly,  also convey to us The Gospel. Three points in the Letter to the Corinthian Church are also key to the story of the Blind Man:

  1. Light shines on us from Christ, Light out of darkness;
  2. Transcendent power belongs to God; we are but clay He works on and in and through; and
  3. (The nature of) The Spirit of Faith, the source of our resurrection.

The scriptures are full of imagery of light and darkness, from the very opening of the story of God and His people, the Creation as told in the Book of Genesis. We learn in the Creation narrative that, before God’s creating action began, everything was in darkness.

“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1:2-5 ESV).

Paul’s Letter reminds us of this passage, and also points out that God’s action in shining forth light did not just occur at that beginning of the Cosmos, but is also what has happened to all of us – each one of us, and all of us Christians, together, through His creating us, calling us into this life, and then making us new through the action of Jesus Christ – His coming to earth as a human, his suffering and death, and His resurrection. When we are Baptized and Chrismated the Light of Christ shines on us in a very real and special way – not a visible light, but an illumination which “shines in our hearts,” allowing us to become participants in the New Life in Christ, freed from darkness, the darkness of death and despair. The Blind Man’s sudden shift from a life in darkness to being called by Jesus “into the light” is an image of how this happened, not just once, but over and over again, to each of us.

There is a tradition within the Mystical Theology of the Orthodox Church in which a kind of “darkness” – not the darkness of night, nor the darkness of evil, which are absences of the good which we see and know as light, but the “darkness” of absolute un-knowability – is seen in relationship to the absolute and perfect transcendence of God: the fact that He simply “Is,” and His being and attributes are limitlessly far beyond what our limited and mortal human minds can comprehend. However, this type of “darkness” is always paired with the brightness of the light, that is, of the fact that God does choose to make Himself known to us, to show us His light.

In his work “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church”, the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky writes about what he called “Divine Darkness.” In writing about “Darkness and Light in the Knowledge of God,” Lossky opens by stating that, “in dealing with the knowledge of God, it is impossible to talk about darkness without talking about light simultaneously.” Quoting the early Father Saint Dionysius, Lossky conveys that Saint’s understanding that the “mysteries of theology”, or “words about God,” are “simple, unconditional, invariable, [and] are laid bare in a darkness of silence beyond the light.” The fullness of understanding God is beyond us, in silence, hidden, but God, nonetheless, in love, wishes, chooses, and acts to make Himself and His radiant Love known to us in the light of revelation: in the world in which we live, by the taking on of our earthly nature, our clay and mud and spittle, in His incarnation in the historical person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

One Orthodox Prayer Book introduces the First Hour prayers, prayed as the sun is rising in the morning sky (following Orthros), by saying:

“The first hour (hour one after the rise of the sun or 7:00 a.m.), has as its central theme the coming of the light in the dawn of a new day. The coming of the physical light reminds the Christian of the coming of Him Who is the Light of the World. The physical light is but an icon or image of Christ. Thus, the Christian begins the day by praising God for the dawn of the physical light as well as for the Light of the World which shines brightly in the face of Jesus. We pray that His light will guide us and show us the way for the day.” *

This passage hearkens back to the passage from Saint Paul’s Letter which tells us that we do, indeed, come to “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” That same passage, and the story of the Man Born Blind, though, also remind us that we, ourselves, can do nothing – in fact, would be nothing – without God, the Holy Trinity, having first acted. The treasure Saint Paul says is in “earthen vessels” (or, “jars of clay”) show that the radiant illumination of God comes to us in, and through, our fragile, broken, and finite human condition.

Like the Blind Man being healed by word, mud, and spittle, the smallest and the simplest things, in the hand of Christ our God, may transform, and can be transformed. The opening of the Blind Man’s eyes, and the Paschal mystery of “Passing Over” from death to life, hearkens to Saint Paul’s words to the Corinthian Church, in which those earthen vessels are prepared for life eternal with the Risen Lord Jesus Christ:

“… we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we too believed, and so we speak, knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into His presence.”

“The spirit of Faith” for Saint Paul, the belief which was written of and which we all share, is not merely a creedal formula or a set of doctrines. It is belief in someOne, not something, in Christ Himself as our Light, Perfection, Passover Sacrifice, and Resurrection. When Jesus seeks out and finds the now Illumined (or, “Enlightened”, formerly Blind Man, the Gospel account tells  us:

“[Jesus] said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of man?’ [The man] answered, ‘And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.’ He said, “Lord, I believe”: and he worshiped him.”

As we have heard in many other stories from the Gospels during the Paschal Season, that moment of Faith, True Faith, is key. It is a moment of transformation, of being filled with light. Like Saint Thomas, and like the father of the possessed boy, the man, after all this long account of miracle and misunderstanding, of controversy and debate, simply says to his Light-Giver, “I believe.”

Let us all, Brothers and Sisters, make this our affirmation, and our life, on each day of this joyous season of Paschal resurrection, and on each day of our lives in this temporary darkness, in the passing shadows of this world, as our earthen vessels are prepared to be radiant with Christ, in His light and in His joy.

– Christ Is Risen!

* (2001-01-01). My Daily Orthodox Prayer Book (Kindle Locations 491-495). Light & Life Publishing Company: http://www.light-n-life.com. Kindle Edition. Emphases added.

 Sermon 8: Is It for Oxen that God is Concerned?

 Christ

“Is it for oxen that God is concerned?  Does he not speak entirely for our sake?” (Sermon for Sunday, August 24)

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

This morning we might wish to focus on one short phrase within the Reading from Saint Paul’s letter and use it as a sort of a lens to investigate today’s Gospel reading. We may gain some insight from it into approaching the whole of the Holy Scriptures. In what seems to be a passage dealing with the mundane and earthly matters of what people expected of Paul and his associates as apostles and ministers of the Gospel – eating, getting paid, being married – Paul includes the striking phrase,

“Is it for oxen that God is concerned?  Does he not speak entirely for our sake?”

These two short phrases may call us to a realization of something that, sometimes, seems very easy to forget. Not just in this passage from his first letter to the Church at Corinth, but throughout all of his letters, the Holy Apostle Paul was addressing a situation which was very real and immediate to his audience, the new believers called to faith in Jesus Christ, especially those whom had heard the call through Saint Paul’s traveling, preaching and teaching. That situation was the somewhat strange – and often strained – situation of the relationship between the people of God, the Hebrews, and the Law of Moses which had been entrusted to them – and the New People who had become a part of the ‘Israel of God’ by being called, chosen, and adopted from all the nations. The full story of the scriptures of the Old Testament reveals the unfolding plans which God had to bring Israel, His nation – despite their fallings, failings, and rejections – back to Him. Not only that, but we see in the scriptures of the great prophets such as Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah that God was planning to call all of the nations into a special relationship with Him – a “covenant,” to use the word often used in biblical translations into English.

When we consider our Gospel lesson today, at first glance we see a difficult and challenging parable. It might help to remember that it’s one of a series of parables, sometimes called, “Kingdom Parables”. They’re stories which Jesus begins with, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”  The word, “parable,” itself comes from the Greek parabole; it’s a comparison or a juxtaposition, a ‘throwing beside’. In fact, the root is related to the root for “ballistics” – very literally, throwing some things out at us!  These stories may be expected to “throw us for a loop,” in a way, because rather than being a literal and straight-forward statement of fact, these stories are often used by Jesus to convey truth with unexpected and difficult imagery and language. Rather than saying simply, “forgive other people because God has forgiven you many things,” our Lord uses a story which brings home the point forcefully by throwing out what is unexpected.

In our Gospel today, the story told by Christ concerns two men: one is in debt for a hundred talents. Scripture commentators emphasize that a “talent,” whether the old Hebrew unit of money in silver or in gold, would be well over a year’s average wages, and so “ten thousand talents” was a debt so large that the man who owed the amount could never, ever hope to pay it back, even if was able to live a hundred lifetimes spent only in toil to pay off his debt. In contrast, the “hundred denarii” owed by the second man was no small amount of money, not just a pocketful of change one might spend for a meal in the marketplace, but was probably what an average worker in the Roman Empire of the day might expect to make in several months. Saving that much money to pay back a debt, while also paying expenses, of course, might be very difficult (as it still is, today!), but it was within the realm of possibility.

With this difference in mind, here is the juxtaposition with Jesus sets before His audience, then, as well as before us, today: one man was forgiven what he owed, which he could never possible hope to make good, due to his creditor’s mercy, freely and completely; this same man, though, although “free and in the clear” due to the mercy showed to him, showed no mercy, no compassion, no forgiveness to the man who might have paid him back. In fact, he never even gave the man a chance to do so. The Fathers of the Church tell us that this shows above all a spirit of being “vengeful” – holding grudges, refusing to let go of past “debts” or injuries done to us, and wishing to exact from another person what we think of as “justice” – “justice,” at least as we perceive it, or think that we are owed. That kind of “justice” is something very different from mercy, the mercy which God shows us.

The Golden-Mouthed Saint John Chrysostom tells us,

“Bearing in mind all these things, and considering the ten thousand talents, let us at least from now on hasten to forgive to our neighbors their few and trifling debts. For we too have an account to give of the commandments which we have been given, and we are not able to pay all, no –  no matter what we do. Therefore God has given us a way to repayment both ready and easy, and which is able to cancel all these things, I mean, not to be revengeful.”

Not being filled with a spirit of revenge is thus the way we both forgive and find our own forgiveness. Saint John Chrysostom even takes the matter further, giving it another “twist” or, parabolic “curve-ball,” saying that all the things the Unforgiving Debtor was doing really do, in fact, apply to us, and are meant to teach us. He says,

“Let us listen, the greedy, for even to us is the word spoken. Let us listen, also, the merciless, and the cruel, for not to others are we cruel, but to ourselves. When then you are thinking of being revengeful, consider that against yourself you are revengeful, not against another; that you are binding up your own sins, not your neighbors’”

This “twist” shows that, when we want to “get back” something from someone else, whatever it is we want – money owed, revenge, a sense of being “repaid” for some way in which we feel we have been hurt, we are hurting only ourselves.

The way past this – the only way – the Way to the Kingdom – is for us to realize the great debt that we owe to God, our Creator and loving Redeemer, for all of His infinite love and mercy to us, and to always have this in mind when we feel wronged. The “Kingdom of Heaven” pointed to in the parable is not just a matter of life-after-death, but Jesus rather calls us to embrace this Kingdom and its way right here-and-now, every day, every moment, even in every challenge, disappointment, and hurt.

Saint Paul, also, in his letters calls us to do the same, urging the Churches under his care:

“Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bear with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:12-13)

and:

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)

In doing so, we will be with Christ in His Kingdom – following His path of forgiveness, reconciling of wrongs, and, yes, often, even enduring sufferings, pain, the very cross and death – but, in so doing, following in the Way of Resurrection, into the fullness of life in the Kingdom: here, now, and in eternity.

Christ is In Our Midst!

The Scripture Texts

THE EPISTLE

(For the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)

The Lord is my strength and my song. The Lord has chastened me severely.

The Reading from the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. (9:2-12)

Brethren, you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.  This is my defense to those who would examine me.  Do we not have the right to our food and drink?  Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?  Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?  Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?  Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit?  Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?  Do I say this on human authority?  Does not the law say the same?  For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.”  Is it for oxen that God is concerned?  Does he not speak entirely for our sake?  It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop.  If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?  If others share this rightful claim upon you, do not we still more?  Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the Gospel of Christ.

THE GOSPEL

(For the Eleventh Sunday of Matthew)

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (18:23-35)

The Lord spoke this parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.  When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.  So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’  And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.  But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’  So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’  He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.  When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.  Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’  And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.  So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

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