Month: February 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
It is fundamental to the theology of the Orthodox Church that without humility we cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. That is, if we do not become humble, then we cannot be saved. We cannot be healed of the wounds of our sins. We cannot be forgiven. We cannot love God. We cannot be transformed by His grace. We cannot walk through the pearly gates and live with Him forever in the life to come.
Humility is critical to our whole project as Christians. Without it, we’re fakes and failures. With it, we are becoming saints. So if you care about really being an Orthodox Christian and not just saying that you’re one, you should care about humility and should be attempting it.
But there’s a problem. Ever since Adam and Eve thought to themselves, “You know what? We like our way better than God’s way,” human beings have not been inclined toward humility. We instead prefer pride. Pride is a really easy concept, summed up in one word: Mine. Pride is the root of all of our sins. Whether our sins are lust, greed, envy, laziness, anger, or gluttony, they all have the same fundamental motion to them: I want something to come to me. I want that person or thing or position to be mine. I want my place and feelings to be secure. I want my opinion, my voice to be heard. I want to get ahead and be Number One. Pride is to put myself first and you second. God may not even come in third.
We do it all the time. We do it when we cut someone off in traffic. We do it when we cheat on our taxes. We do it when we choose entertainment over worship. We do it when we eat more than we need. We do it when we buy bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger TVs, bigger vacations. We do it when we feast our eyes upon the stuff the neighbor has, the wife the neighbor has. We do it when we feast our eyes upon pornography. We do it when we just can’t be bothered. We do it when we look after our own gains without any care for others’ losses. We do it when we get angry because we don’t get our way. We do it when it just feels right, even though it isn’t right. We do it when we gossip or complain. We do it when we spend our time and expertise on what is temporary and not what is eternal. We do it when we tell people that we lead a pretty good life.
All of these things are pride. All of these things are about tending to my wants, about getting my way, about securing things for me, about making me feel better, about making me look good.
So that’s the problem. But there’s another problem. Our whole culture is set up to make this worse, to make it easier to tend to our pride like a piece of prized horticulture. Think about slogans like “Your way, right away” or “Get what you deserve” or “Have it your way.” Or what about “Self” Magazine or the website “MySpace”? Nearly every piece of culture that gets thrown at us in the modern world is about pleasing yourself, about tending to your own feelings, your own wants, your own desires, your own needs. And every year, we find out that we need new things that we somehow had lived for years without, that our grandmothers had never even heard of.
Even our academic culture is based around this idea. College is so you can get what you want out of life. High school, middle school and elementary school are about setting you up to go do that, too. And they all feed in to the quite frankly delusional idea that in America, any kid can grow up to be whatever he wants to be. But let’s be serious: It’s not true. Most of the time, even people who try and try and try and try cannot be whatever they want to be. There are limits.
There are some jobs that only a few people have the talent for. There are some places that only a few people will go. And it doesn’t matter how big you dream your dreams or believe in yourself or whatever. The record shows that only a few people will do it. In the 222 years since George Washington was elected, only forty-four people have become president of the United States. In fifty years of space exploration, only 518 people have actually been into outer space. In forty-eight years, only 267 people have ever made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And I’m sure that there are many who tried and tried and tried at these things, but just didn’t make it. Anyone who does happen to make it to such a level only gets there because of the grace of God, and that means that His will is involved, not just our own. It’s not just a matter of setting your mind to it and working hard.
Human beings are limited. Limits are part of who we are, and we’re fooling ourselves if we think that we are limitless. But our pride keeps us stretching for a kind of cheap immortality. Whatever makes me feel alive, feel good, feel secure—perhaps that will in some sense make me immortal. That’s what we’re after in all of this delusion and sin. Why? It’s because we fear death.
In Hebrews 2:15, St. Paul tells us that it is the fear of death which makes us “subject to bondage.” We have become enslaved because of our fear of death, whether it is in our conscious minds or not. “This sounds strange,” you may be thinking. “I’m not afraid of death!” If we don’t fear death, why do we do so much to put off entering worship, the one thing we know absolutely characterizes the afterlife? If we don’t fear death, why do we do so much to feel good, to feel alive, to feel secure? If we don’t fear death, then why do we always have to put ourselves first?
Why does the Pharisee in today’s Gospel pray “with himself,” “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men”? It is because he is reassuring himself that he is just fine, that he’s better than other people, that he follows all the rules, that he’s a good man, that he lives a good life. His quest for cheap immortality finds its fulfillment in pride. But it’s a dead-end! When your life is about yourself, then that’s all you get. And because you have limits, you can’t give yourself immortality. You’re going to die.
So what are we supposed to do? All of our coaching and advertising and teaching and even the military are saying, “Be all you can be!” They tell us that we have unlimited potential, if only we will work hard. But it’s clear that the Pharisee worked hard. He thought of himself as someone who was a good Jew, who was tight with God, who was better than other people. He even picked one out nearby: that rotten Publican.
The Publican, a man universally hated in his society, because he was a cheat who stole money while he collected taxes on behalf of the Romans, he shows us what the virtue we started out with is all about—humility. He stands at the back of the Temple, not out in the narthex so he doesn’t have to participate, but just inside. He cannot even lift his eyes up to God. He just stands back there and sobs, praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He knows he’s a sinner. He is not deluded into thinking he has no limits. He is not deluded into thinking he is immortal and has endless potential, if only he will try hard enough. He just wants mercy, and mercy is not something you ask for if you think you’re doing just fine.
You know, we sing “Lord, have mercy” a whole lot. It is our most basic prayer. We say it and sing it and pray it again and again and again. But what does it mean? Do we really mean it? If you think you’re doing just fine, then you shouldn’t pray it, because you don’t want mercy. You probably want a pat on the back, some sort of recognition, maybe a fancy certificate on the wall.
Mercy is for people who know they’re broken. “Mercy!” is the cry of the convict who knows he’s guilty, that he’s been caught red-handed, that the system isn’t going to help him. “Mercy!” is the cry of the soldier who’s been shot and needs help, who knows he’s going to die and that he can’t do anything to save himself. “Mercy!” is the cry of the sinner, the man who is humble before God, the man who knows that the Lord said “without Me you can do nothing,” the man who doesn’t need any recognition, doesn’t need to have his opinion heard, doesn’t need to be first in line, doesn’t need to get ahead, doesn’t need to have more and more stuff. Mercy is for those who are open, those who are ready to receive.
It’s a curious thing about pride. It leaves us all bound up tight within ourselves. The proud man has no choice but to get defensive. The proud man has no choice but to try to get his way. The proud man has to fight for his rights, fight for his prestige, fight for what we wants. He doesn’t want to be saved, because he’s saving himself. But the humble man is free. The humble man is free to receive with gladness what God has to give. The humble man will walk with his arms open into the embrace of his Creator and Saviour. The humble man will tap into the only true Source of immortality. And there, he really is without limits. There, he can be something much more wonderful than what he wants to be: he can be what God wants him to be, what he was made to be.
As we are now beginning our journey toward and then into Great Lent, that beautiful, poignant and powerful school of repentance, let us remember to humble ourselves before each other and before God, to learn to say from the depths of our souls “Thy will be done” and “Lord, have mercy.”
To our merciful God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
The following sermon has been preached by me in several slightly different versions a number of times over the years. This is the one I preached on December 27, 2009.
For the Sunday after the Nativity
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Christ is born! Glorify Him!
There is much confusion in today’s world. A great many things which have been taken for granted for centuries are all being called into question in our time. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? All of these things, so well-known to our forefathers, are now all up for grabs in a kind of almost universal cultural delusion, where if we pretend long enough like we don’t know, then eventually we discover that we really have forgotten. This is a relatively new state of affairs.
What is not new, however, is delusion. Since the Fall of Adam, mankind has been living under a veil of darkness, unable to see what God created him to see. But in this holy season we are now experiencing, a light is shining into the darkness. The people that sat in darkness have seen a great light! That light is the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God-man.
If we look at the world around us, the Incarnation almost seems like a non sequitur. Most of us are so busy trying to survive or trying to earn more or achieve more or get more that it almost sounds silly simply even to say it. It sounds even more irrelevant to ask why God would become man. For many of us, God is so far away and so irrelevant in our lives that the idea that He would become flesh and dwell among us might sound a bit interesting but really has nothing to do with us.
But here’s something that’s undeniably true: every one of us is dying. Whether by the slow decay of years or in a sudden and unexpected tragedy, each of us will someday come to experience the awful reality of our mortality. And when that moment comes, will we have taken hold of the Incarnation of Christ and held on tight, or will we have brushed it off as a nice story without any real meaning or power in our lives? So let’s consider for a moment what the Incarnation means, not just in terms of a story, but in terms of real theology. And in the Orthodox Church, all theology is practical theology, or else it is useless.
The Son of God, Who existed eternally before all creation, saw that His beloved creation had turned away from Him, had cut itself off from the Source of life. He saw that we were dying—physically, psychologically, spiritually. He saw that we were suffering, that we were alienated from our Maker and from each other. He saw that we were broken. He saw that we were sick and infected with the disease of sin and death. He saw that we were enslaved to the Devil. And looking upon our desperate condition, He chose to enter into it.
He chose to become one of us. He’s not merely like us. He doesn’t simply look like us or act like us. His humanity is not a fancy illusion. It’s real. He was really conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and by the power of the Holy Spirit took flesh from her just as we all did from our own mothers. Into the womb of that pure and holy young woman entered the very God of the universe, not just taking up His dwelling in her, but making her humanity His own. He stepped into time and into history. He stepped into the genealogy of mankind. He not only has a mother, but grandparents. And great-grandparents. And cousins. And so on. He’s really human, and not just a human, but He has become the human, the new Adam, the new prototype and template for every human person. Adam himself was made according to Christ, and now in Christ is human destiny fully revealed.
It is for this reason that St. Stephen whom we heard about today in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles can go gladly to his death, because He is going to the Christ by Whom and for Whom he was created. It is for this reason that when we read about the horrifying crime of Herod in today’s Gospel, we too weep with Rachel, the voice lamenting in Ramah, whose children are no more. It is because the face of Christ is imprinted on every human person from the moment of their conception.
The world is confused about this question today, so much so that in this country, it is legal to kill a child even within his mother’s womb. And more than 1/5 of all babies conceived in America are killed by abortion. The place that should be the ultimate in safety, warmth and intimacy becomes a battlefield, where there is a war being waged against the most innocent, the most helpless, the most vulnerable. In Belgium, a proposed law would make it legal for a doctor to take the life of a child who is less than a year out of his mother’s womb if he is regarded as “deficient,” even if his parents do not consent. Why? How can we do this? It is because we no longer look at human beings, even in the womb, and see the Christ according to Whom they were made.
No matter what the law says, it is still a great and horrific evil to murder a child, whether in the womb or out of the womb. Yes, the world is confused about what it means to be human, at what moment a human being suddenly changes from a blob of cells at the whim of inconvenience into a “someone” who should be protected by the law. But we Christians cannot take what is legal to define what is moral. We cannot let the government interpret for us the Scriptures and the revelation of God. As Orthodox Christians, no matter what political or economic theories or parties we prefer, it is incumbent upon us to work hard to stop the ocean of blood that is flowing from the wombs of women, by voting, by loving, by speaking the truth, by giving up our own convenience to save lives, heal the wounded, soften the jaded, and reach out to the desperate.
Because we as Orthodox Christians believe that a person is a person, whether in the womb or out, it is deeply inconsistent and hypocritical for us to say that murder of a 2 year old should be illegal but that the murder of someone in the womb should be legal. It is no more a “private” decision than is the decision of a doctor in Belgium to kill your infant baby, whether you want him to or not. Murder is murder, and it affects everyone in the community. That we have made it “safe,” “clean,” and “convenient” should horrify us even more. We have sanitized infanticide.
There are those who say that illegalizing abortion again will drive it into dark alleys. That is an interesting image to me, because it is precisely in such dark alleys that murders are so often perpetrated. How does bringing murder out into broad daylight, making it into a “respectable” and profitable profession, make it any better? If what is in the womb is a human person, and our faith says clearly that it is, then abortion is murder. Period.
Now, you may say that science doesn’t really tell us when the sacredness of humanity becomes present in the womb. You may say that many people in our society all believe that it’s just fine to kill an unborn child. You may say that philosophy has no clear answers for the definition of human identity. You might be correct in saying all those things.
But what is absolutely clear is what the Orthodox Christian faith has to say about this. From the Scriptures to the Fathers to all the saints throughout the whole 2000 year history of the Church, Orthodox Christians have always believed that the moment of conception is the moment of the spark of humanity, the moment when the face of Christ is present in a new, wonderful and unrepeatable way. There is absolutely no ambiguity in our tradition in this matter. You either stand with the Church or you stand apart from it. This is deadly serious. If you are Orthodox, then you believe this. If you refuse to believe it, then you are deliberately and of your own free will departing from Orthodoxy.
Since we know from the unanimous Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church that abortion is a deadly sin against a helpless human person, what do we say to the young woman who is in desperation? What do we do for the woman who conceived a child without thinking, or because of violence? The answer is that we do everything we can. It is not enough merely to say that abortion is a sin. Though they may not know it or admit it, those who abort their children are harmed forever by what they do, and while many do it merely out of convenience, the desire to have sex without family, many also do it because they believe they have nowhere else to turn. It is a curious thing that abortion clinics are often built in the poorest and most desperate of neighborhoods. These people know their target market.
For those who are thinking about abortion out of desperation, there are many things we can do. First, we can offer to help raise the child, to help provide for what she needs to be a mother or perhaps help to provide a mother and father who cannot have their own children. We can offer to provide for counseling to such women, so they know their true options. If you don’t want to do any of those things, ask yourself how much human life is really worth. We can do so much for them. Only think for a moment. The only thing holding us back is lack of love.
For a woman contemplating abortion or even one who has had an abortion, or perhaps for the man or other people in her life who encouraged or threatened her into it, shall we turn the awful face of condemnation? Shall we yell at them, blow them up, ostracize them, disown them, gossip about them? Absolutely not. Those who have committed and suffered from abortion need to be healed. They need to be loved. They need to be made whole again through the grace and love of Jesus Christ that we are equipped to give them. But no one can be healed if we refuse to admit that they have been wounded.
This is the truth of the holy Orthodox faith, that it really does reach right into the intimate and concrete depths of our souls, and yes, even into the very womb. If we believe it, if we claim the name “Orthodox” for ourselves, then we have to live it. It is not enough merely to mind our own business and not egregiously hurt anyone else. We have to take positive, active steps to reach out to others, to touch their lives, to become that miraculous presence of Christ for them. There’s always somewhere we can start. Make a donation to a crisis pregnancy center. Tell that young woman you know who’s pregnant and doesn’t know where to turn that you’re really there for her, and then love her and help her no matter what anyone says or thinks.
Why should we do this? It is because of the awesome reality of Christmas, because the God before all the ages became a human person. I wonder what the Virgin Mary would say to us if we told her that what was in her womb didn’t get full human rights until after she gave birth! Or in Belgium, it would be another 12 months! If it is true that Jesus Christ is fully human from the moment of the Annunciation, then we who were created according to Him as our template, according to the image of the invisible God, we are also fully human from that same moment, that holy miracle of conception, when God reaches into the intimacy of a man and woman and undertakes creation all over again. It’s the same for us as it is for Jesus.
The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is all around us, most especially and clearly in those who are baptized and chrismated as Orthodox Christians, those who partake of His Body and Blood and are adopted members of His family. The Lord told us that whatever we do to the least of His children, we are doing it to Him. If we help the poor man, we are helping Christ. If we comfort the desperate, we are ministering to Christ. If we save the life of an innocent child, we are giving to Christ. The same is also true if we hate, ignore, oppress, gossip about, sneer at, or kill. We are doing it to Christ.
In this holy and blessed season where we are drawn by the Church to contemplate the birth of our Saviour, the God-man Jesus Christ, let us also be drawn to see and to contemplate the intimate connection between Him and His creation. He created us, like a poet dreaming beautiful lines of holy poetry to make into persons, all reflecting something of Himself. But even more deeply than that, He became one of us. He bridged the gulf between the Creator and the creation, becoming part of His creation. And in doing so, He imparted to every human being, from the split second of their conception, the awesome dignity and majesty of being the children of God.
Let us therefore honor and worship Him, let us draw ever closer to Him, by becoming conduits of real, self-sacrificial love and grace for every person with whom we share this Earth, most especially the truly vulnerable and helpless.
To the Incarnate God-man, therefore, with His Father and Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
- A Song for Simeon
Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.
Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have taken and given honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come ?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.
Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.
According to thy word,
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.