Sun, 29 April 2018
Sunday of the Paralytic
Prologue: the Gospel only makes sense within its context.
Rules for living well:
The paralytic exhibits this way of life:
How is it even possible not to sin? It only makes sense within the context of Gospel: the Lord had the power to forgive sins, because He knew we would continue to sin even after He ascended into glory at the Ascension, He gave that power to the ministers of the Church;
“Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20: 21-23).
The paralytic was doing the best he could; Christ offered Him a better way that would not only heal him, but provided for his continual improvement.
We have to follow his example. We are trying hard to live a good life, but is it really the best we can do? Christ is offering the real path – our attempt to improve our lives should include listening to Him and following His instructions. When we mess up – and we will mess up – He has offered a way for us to recover and get back on track: we have to own our mistakes, repent, and get right back on track.
Tue, 24 April 2018
Bible Study #32: The Curse of Jericho
Warm up question:
The Curse of Jericho
From Origen. Don't Pollute the Faith.
This is what John also sounds with the trumpet of his epistle, saying, “Do not love the world or the things that are in the world.” And likewise Paul: “Do not,” he says, “be conformed to this world.” For those who do these things accept what is anathema. But also those introduce anathema into the churches who, for example, celebrate the solemnities of the nations even though they are Christians. Those who eagerly seek the lives and deeds of humans from the courses of the stars, who inquire of the flight of birds and other things of this type that were observed in the former age, carry what is anathema from Jericho into the church and pollute the camp of the Lord and cause the people of God to be overcome. But there are also many other sins through which anathema from Jericho is introduced into the church, through which the people of God are overcome and overthrown by enemies. Does not the apostle also teach these same things when he says, “A little leaven spoils the whole lump”?
Notice that the “solemnities of the nations” seem to be rituals associated with old gods. The dialogue about what previous symbols etc. can be incorporated and blessed and what can't is always interesting. For the Jews there were two mechanisms involved: 1) intentionally breaking commands that *God Himself* had given and 2) doing rituals and holding onto idols of foreign gods.
A Reminder on the Concept of Herem (taboo).
Joshua 7:1-5. What Happened at Ai – Episode I.
From Origin. The Tongue of Gold.
But let us also see what sort of sin this person did. He stole, it says, “a tongue of gold” and placed it in his own tent.
I do not think so great a force of sin was in that theft of a little gold that it defiled the innumerable church of the Lord. But let us see if a deeper understanding does not reveal the enormity and severity of the sin. There is much elegance in words and much beauty in the discourses of philosophers and rhetoricians, who are all of the city of Jericho, that is, people of this world. If, therefore, you should find among the philosophers perverse doctrines beautified by the assertions of a splendid discourse, this is the “tongue of gold.” But beware that the splendor of the performance does not beguile you, that the beauty of the golden discourse not seize you. Remember that Jesus [Joshua] commanded all the gold found in Jericho to be anathema. If you read a poet with properly measured verses, weaving gods and goddesses in a very bright tune, do not be seduced by the sweetness of eloquence, for it is the “tongue of gold.” If you take it up and place it in your tent, if you introduce into your heart those things that are declared by the [poets and philosophers], then you will pollute the whole church of the Lord.
St. John Chrysostom. How Bad for Us?
Where then there is such impiety as this going on, what dreadful calamity must we not expect? And to be assured how severe vengeance they incur who are guilty of such sins as these, consider the examples of old. One single man, a common soldier, stole the sacred property, and all were struck. You know, doubtless, the history I mean? I am speaking of Achan the son of Carmi, the man who stole the consecrated spoil.…
On account of all these things, let us take heed to ourselves. Do you not see these wars? Do you not hear of these disasters? Do you learn no lesson from these things? Nations and whole cities are swallowed up and destroyed, and myriads as many again are enslaved to the barbarians.
If hell does not bring us to our senses, yet let these things. What, are these too mere threats, are they not facts that have already taken place? Great is the punishment they have suffered, yet a greater still shall we suffer, who are not brought to our senses even by their fate.
Sylvian the Priest of Marsailles. How the Taint Works.
Joshua 7:19-26. The Confession and Punishment of Achen.
St. Jerome. Why so Harsh? The same reason that the nations were given over to the sword.
Joshua 8. What Happened at Ai – Episode II. They won. Completely. With tactics.
Teaching Point: Do what God instructs even when the end result is not clear.
Franke, J. R. (Ed.). (2005). Old Testament IV: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1–2 Samuel. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Malul, M. (1999). Taboo. In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, & P. W. van der Horst (Eds.), Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible. Brill; Eerdmans.
Sun, 22 April 2018
Ritual, Myrrhbearers, and Dealing with Insult to Injury
Notes (that I mostly ignored)
This is what happened to the myrrhbearing women: their beloved had been killed unjustly in a ignoble and humiliating way. They were heartbroken. Then when they went to begin the time-tested rituals – mingling myrrh with tears - that would guide them through their pain into acceptance and healing... the body was gone. They were deprived even of this comfort.
This is not part of our culture, so we don't get this. We receive it as data: the stone is rolled away and the body is gone. But for them, it was much more. Not an invitation to explore the mystery, but an insult to injury.
Anointing the body was the way their culture had developed to help people to help them handle death and to work through all the emotions and temptations that the death of a loved one brings. It's not just something to do – although Lord knows “keeping busy” is useful when we are struggling with strong emotions – it's therapy. A group of friends and family tending to the body of their beloved. There is something useful to be done. All traditional cultures do things like this. To us, it sounds morbid; but to them our way of dealing with death is as impersonal as our American way of dealing with dinner (i.e. not spending time preparing it; not gathering around a table; just getting calories in while do other things). Impersonal. Clinical. Heartbreaking. An opportunity to do something well – voluntarily surrendered.
The Myrrhbearers weren't just on the way to the tomb to make sure the body was buried properly, they were participating in a cultural ritual of love. Sacrificing their time and the best that they could find to honor the life of their beloved and deepening the connection they had with him.
They had their facts wrong, but they had everything else right; and this made all the difference for them... They become the apostles to the disciples – telling them of the Lord's resurrection.
[I want you to note that the disciples did not believe them. Could it be that this was because they gathered behind closed doors out of fear whereas the myrrhbearers ignored their fear and allowed love to make them brave?
Are we afraid for ourselves? Are we afraid for the Lord? Can anything good come from fear?]
The Myrrhbearers thought they knew who their Lord was, and they were wrong – He was so much more than they could have imagined. They thought that the temple of His body was dead and empty, something to be preserved; but it was alive, not needing their care, but demanding their awe and prompting them to action. They were able to make the transition from grief to joy – from funeral dirge to alleluia (as our funeral service says) because they were there for all right reasons, even though they had the facts wrong.
We need to make that same transition, not just when it comes to death, but when it comes to our mutual life in Christ here at St. Mary's.
There is a temptation for us to believe that there is no life in Church apart from the life we bring to it; that it is in need of our care; that we must preserve it. That it will decay unless we anoint it. We have our rituals that bring us closer together as we love this, our parish, a parish that offers the fullness of the Church, the Church being the Body of Our Beloved Lord Jesus Christ.
But that is not the kind of service that the Lord requires: He is not a corpse in need of embalming; but the Living God whose very presence here demands our awe and whose love must prompt us to serve the world He died to make whole.
We are called to emulate the women in today's Gospel as they transitioned from myrrhbearers to apostles; like theirs, our tears have to change from tears of sorrow into tears of joy.
If we are afraid, we will miss the Good News of the Resurrection and will only live in fear – behind closed doors. Ignoring all the news of a better way. Insult and injury will continue to pile overtop one another as we lose the never ending battle against disappointments.
Our tithes, our work in the kitchen, our music, all the efforts that we put into our parish life are no longer done to preserve a corpse – much less a building – but given in service of the living God who is present here and fills all things. A God who cannot die. A God who has called us to join Him as He transforms this world into a more fitting place for all his children.
Let us now continue making our transition from sorrow to joy through our ritual participation in our Lord's death and resurrection, the holy Eucharist.
Tue, 17 April 2018
Bible Study #31: The Battle of Jericho
Warm up question:
The Battle of Jericho (and this is the right time of year to remember it!)
Joshua 2: send in the spies and cue the harlot with the heart of gold
Joshua 3-4: the Ark allows the people to pass over the Jordan (read during Theophany)
Joshua 5: The Circumcision, the Passover, and The Angel (read on Holy Saturday)
Joshua 6: The destruction and cursing of Jericho
Sun, 15 April 2018
Trust, Magic, and the Meltdown on Aisle Three
One of the themes in today's Gospel reading is belief. We live in a world where it is hard to know what to believe. It's no longer just a matter of media spin, we cannot even agree on the facts themselves (example of gas attack). It threatens to drag us down into the hell of the man whom we heard declare last week; “what is truth?” (Pilate in John 18:38) Perhaps this is nowhere more true than when we are talking about belief in God.
Dealing with belief is hard; it has a lot of psychological baggage associated with it. Today I would like to deal with it in its purest form; not as a measurement of a person's relationship to a set of propositions, but as trust in a specific person.
Let's get even more specific and start with an example we can relate to, the example of a marriage and the trust between a husband and a wife. Even if we have never been married, we have experience with this. We know how good things are when it is there and we know how terrible – how bent, crooked, rough, and dry – things are when it is missing.
What does it mean when a husband believes in his wife? Does it mean he understands her? No. (As if!) It means that he trusts her. He knows that she is committed to her marriage and her family, that all of her decisions and actions are devoted to its health and protection, that she loves and sacrifices for it, and that they are part of the same team.
Again, it does not require that he understands her. There is always more to learn, and learning and the good listening and communication that contribute to it is important, but the main thing is trust. Without that, there is no relationship. [Recorder ran out of tape here, BTW] No peace. No real cooperation. No unity. Just, perhaps, coordinated loneliness. They are not an icon of the fulfillment of God's desire that we “all be one as He and His Father are one” (John 17), but an icon of the world's brokenness, its bentness, its roughness, and its dryness.
Similarly, we can look at the relationship of children with their parents and see the value of trust.
How wonderful is the relationship between mother and child! Love and sacrifice on the one side, and faith and obedience on the other. Has a child any other path to happiness than that of faith [trust] in its mother and obedience to her? Is there anything more monstrous than a child that has no faith [trust] in its mother, and does not obey her?
[Faith is the purest path to knowledge. Anyone who turns from this path becomes shameful and impure. Faith is the quickest path to knowledge. Anyone who turns from this path will lag on his way. Where there is faith there is counsel; where there is no faith, counsel is of no help. Where there is faith, there is dialogue; where faith is lacking, dialogue is also lacking; then doubt and temptation take the place of dialogue...
Oh what a sorry sight it is when two mortal men meet, both creatures of Him who also created the seraphim, and one speaks to the other to tempt him, and the one listens to the other with doubt! There is only one sorrier sight than this, and that is when a created man listens to the words of his Creator in the Gospel, and doubts them.]
p. 213-214, “Homily on the First Sunday after Easter” of Homilies by [St.]Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic”
What do good parents want for their children? A common answer is that parents want their children to be happy. We should be dubious about this: it is a trap. A better goal – and the one that our Father desires for us is that we be good [as He is good]. This is not about following rules, but about goodness, about sacrificing for what is right. About the development of virtue.
The parent may offer happiness as a reward for doing good. But happiness on it's own? No. That does not create trustworthy adults that are willing to sacrifice for their beloved – it creates selfish and superficial people who judge every transaction on the amount of happiness it brings them.
Come at concept sideways: magic. Magic involves is the manipulation of supernatural forces. The magician is the one who attempts to cajole, flatter, bind or bargain with them to get them to do what they want, often on behalf of a client. Magic, magicians, and their familiar spirits are all judged based on whether they deliver. It's transactional and selfish.
This is NOT the way the world is meant to work. The deeper magic is about relationships enjoyed NOT for what they deliver but for the enjoyment of love itself. It's about shared lives, grounded in mutual sacrifice and the development and exercise of virtue. It most certainly is NOT about manipulation.
To go back to the point about trust and belief, God is not judged by whether we can manipulate Him into giving us what we want or even what we believe is best for the world and its suffering people.
We cannot be like the tyrannical child that throws a fit in the grocery store because he is hungry; but rather like the good child that trusts that when the parents say a meal is waiting at home – it is there.
Let us enter now into the preparatory feast of our good Father.
Sun, 1 April 2018
Homily for Palm Sunday
How far are we willing to go for what is true?
How far are we willing to go for what is good (virtuous)?
How far are we willing to go for peace (not the cheap peace of appeasement, but the real peace of a battle well fought and a race well run)?
Imagine a world ruled by darkness. A place where there is no light. Where fear of the unknown and fear of injury have paralyzed people into inaction and have led them to accept all the injustices the rulers of the world of darkness impose on them. There may be some stories that some people tell about a bringer of light that would liberate them from the oppressive gloom; but in the meantime darkness reigns. For many, even the possibility of such a thing as light is outrageous; for them it is the myth and opiate of those who are too weak to accept the world as it really is. Of course, this attitude towards the light is the official dogma of the rulers of the darkness and they do what they can to mock and punish the dreamers and rabble-rousers who oppose it.
Then one day something miraculous occurs: the light-bearer comes.
As you can imagine, the first response was a jubilant awe. All those who had hoped for his coming ran to greet him. Children laughed and sang and delighted crowds thronged around him as he made his way into the city.
Today we are swept up in this same jubilation: it is Palm and Willow Sunday! We celebrate the coming of the Deliverer; after generations of oppression the source of Freedom has come into our midst!
But we know what comes next, not just because we know our history, but because we understand how things work: the rulers of this world – led by the prince of darkness, the deceiver – have no interest in freedom or light or truth or goodness. Quite the opposite. And what are these things – mere ideas - when compared to the reality and raw power of darkness and death? When so many of the oppressed preferred the peace of appeasement and the predictability of the status quo to the uncomfortable truths the light revealed and the challenge of difficult change that real virtue would now require.
The coming of the light threatened to expose not just the evil that had come to dominate the world, but the evil that resides in the heart of every man. No one can see this truth and remain satisfied with the world and themselves as they are. The choice is either change... or darkness. Is it any wonder that we preferred the darkness? That we cheered the hardest when we called out “crucify him, crucify him”? That we asked that the curse fall on us and on our children?
We are again at this same crossroads with the same choice to make: the light has come to a world of darkness. So I ask again:
How far are we willing to go for what is true?
How far are we willing to go for what is good (virtuous)?
How far are we willing to go for peace (not the cheap peace of appeasement, but the real peace of a battle well fought and a race well run)?
Sun, 25 March 2018
Homily on the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt (St. Mark 10:32-45)
What are you willing to sacrifice for a better life? To improve the lives of those around you?
The power of deferred gratification. Save now – for something big later.
But what if that wasn't what Christianity was about at all? What if it was less about sacrificing now for something I want later, and more about sacrifice as a means to become a better person now? What if living a life of sacrifice brought you a better life NOT because it allowed you to save up to get more and better stuff, but because it transformed you into a new person. Less broken, less needy, more joyful, more content, and more powerful?
What are we willing to sacrifice to become better people, to become what our tradition calls “new creatures” (2 Corinthians 5:17), a “new self” (Ephesians 4:24). That will, more importantly, allow us to bring comfort, healing, and joy to all those around us whose lives are bing ruined by a world that is often cruel, brutal, and merciless in its oppression?
As people who have accepted that Christ is the Son of God, what are we willing to give up that will charge that acceptance with the kind of supernatural power that will allow us to join St. Paul in saying that it is “no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me?”
It's sacrifice. That's why silly things like giving up food and more difficult things like offering a substantial portion of our income to the church and other charities and of spending a substantial amount of time in prayer, worship, and community service are all built into what early Christians called “The Way”, but that we call “Orthodox Christianity”.
Any thing worth having requires hard work. All good things require sacrifice. The sacrifice of Christ made the salvation of mankind – a very good thing – possible. We are meant to imitate him in that so that, as St. Paul said, we might “save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
This is what Christ meant when He said in today's Gospel; “whoever will be great will serve... and the one that desires to be first will become a slave.”
That is the way of Christ and it is The Way of the Christian. It will give us a better life and improves the lives of those around us.
May the Lord strengthen as we dedicate ourselves to sacrifice our time, our tithes, and everything we hold dear out of our love of God and desire to serve – and save - our neighbor.
Sun, 18 March 2018
A Meditation on St. John's “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”
The farmer's wealth is gathered on the threshing floor and in the wine press, but the wealth and knowledge of the monk is gathered during the evenings and the night hours while standing at prayer and engaged in spiritual activity. Step 20 (on vigil), 10.
When the day is over, the vendor sits down and counts his profits; but the acetic does so when the psalmody is over. Step 20 (on vigil), 18.
Stillness of the body is the knowledge and composure of the habits and feelings. And stillness of soul is the knowledge of one's thoughts and an inviolable mind. Step 27 (on stillness), 2.
What is Orthodox Tradition? Why is it important for us to immerse ourselves in the worship and rigors of Orthodoxy?
At the visible level, one that can be observed and studied by scientists, tradition is the accumulation of rituals and ideas that are directed towards a purpose. In the case of Orthodox Tradition, that purpose is the formation of good and strong human beings, good and strong families, and good and strong communities.
We know that, left to their own devices, children will go selfish and feral (spoiled, if you will); that family structures will morph into tyranny or disintegrate altogether, and communities will do the same.
On the other hand, good ideas and useful rituals allow humans, families, and societies a way out of this nasty and brutish life. Through Orthodox ritual and belief, the passions are tamed. The child learns self-control, the family finds grounding, and the community naturally brings safety, healing, and guidance to all its members. Beliefs and rituals that do these things are continually reaffirmed through our participation in them and those that prove counter-productive are adjusted. This is done slowly, and with a recognition that there is a wisdom in tradition that is seldom obvious to the impatient.
But there are other forces at play; there is an invisible level. God continually works through His prophets, His Christ, His Holy Spirit, and His Church to grant discernment to individuals, yes, but mostly to the community as a whole. The rituals and ideas of Orthodoxy are not just useful (although they are), they are inspired and strengthen by grace. Even more importantly, Orthodox Tradition is not directed primarily to the perfection of people, families, and communities, but to their salvation. To put it in theological language, we are not just learning to subdue our baser instincts, we are being saved and drawn deeper into infinite perfection through our life in Christ and Holy Orthodoxy.
If you look around, you cannot help but notice that all reasonably healthy, traditional societies have religious systems that have accumulated ideas and rituals that civilize their adherents. Because there is only one human race and we all have the same line between good and evil dividing our hearts, there is a lot of overlap in their ideas and rituals. Virtue is encouraged; vice is shamed and disciplined; and the unity of the good is proclaimed and celebrated. To the extent that we have become lax in our own devotion, we are encouraged by their witness.
But there is no need to go anywhere else to experience the one thing needful for every person, family, and community. It is found in its fullness in Holy Orthodoxy and its benefits can be enjoyed completely here at St. Mary's (and every other parish that was, is, or ever will be).
Let us immerse ourselves in that fullness now, as we continue our celebration of God's love for us, His people, and His world.
Sun, 11 March 2018
Homily on the Third Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.
Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.
Losing our life.
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
The whole lesson began with the words “if you would follow me (come after me)...”
May God strengthen us as we travel together along The Way.
Sun, 4 March 2018
Marriage as a Metaphor for Orthodoxy
Today we celebrate the life and teachings of someone who really got it – St. Gregory Palamas; he experienced God's love for him in a real and tangible way, and he reflected that love back at God and on all those around him.
That's what we are to do, as well. To open ourselves up to the deifying warmth and light of God; and then to send our thanksgiving and praise back up to Him and to use the energy of His grace to serve those around us.
The Good News of the Gospel is that this is made possible and real through the life, death, and resurrection of the God-man Jesus Christ.
Although this Gospel really is simple, it has been elaborated with so many words and celebrated, confirmed and taught (if not gilded) with so many rituals – and denied by so many lies – that it is understandable if we sometimes mistake and judge the cup rather than that which it holds.
Perhaps a metaphor will help.
I have met people who think they understand the joy and transformation that marriage can bring.
One set thinks they know it because, while not married, they have their own version of it called “pornography” or really any kind of sex outside of marriage. We cannot deny the reality of that experience, but I hope you realize that it has very little to do with the enduring joy of marriage. They will claim that they do not need to be married to experience the joy of sex; but even when it comes to that, they have settled for something less satisfying and less real. And while intimacy is a powerful and necessary part of marriage, it is hardly the primary source of the transformative joy that marriage provides. They think they get it, but they don't, and their improper understanding leads them to accept something less than they should.
A second set which is equally troubling think they understand marriage because they themselves are committed to the institution of marriage. They have had their ceremony, they wear their rings, and they share a house. But when you start speaking to them about the joy that comes from sharing a life with another person, you learn that their experience is quite different. They are living the rituals of marriage, but they are missing the thing those institutions is meant to hold and protect. They think they get it, but they don't, and their improper understanding leads them to accept something less than they should.
This is a great and wonderful mystery but, as with St. Paul, I speak not of marriage, but of the Church. (Ephesians 5:32)
St. Gregory Palamas fought against both of these misunderstandings about God.
One the one hand, there were people (like the Bogamils) who thought they could really experience God without the Church. This is like having sex without marriage; it may be real in some sense, but it is not healthy nor is it real in the way that a committed sacramental relationship with God in Church is real. They thought they got it, but they didn't, and their improper understanding led them to accept something less than they should have.
On the other hand were those who thought is was enough to participate in the rituals and sacraments of the Church. That the experience of God was not something that was possible, that union with Him through Christ was a metaphor for belief, and that the joy to be had through opening oneself up to the Divine Nature of God was a simple emotion and not a metaphysical or supernatural reality. They thought they got it, but they didn't, and their improper understanding led them to accept something less than they should have.
God is real and we were meant to become partakers of His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). We are Orthodox Christians. We have not settled for something less than we should. We are not just going through the motions when we pray and participate in the rituals of the Church; we are opening ourselves up to God. We allow His grace to heal and transform us, and then we offer and share this transforming grace with the world.