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18 minutes | Jun 12, 2022
Freedom fries and liberty sandwiches
ACTS OF THE APOSTLES 2:1-11WHEN THE DAY of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontos and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." It feels like just a few years ago, but I think we’re heading on two decades. It just a couples years before Thomas came home. Beth and I spent a week touring Paris with Beth’s sister Becky. I have to say Paris was amazing and that I’d go back in a heartbeat, but one of the most interesting parts of our trip - something that was a bit unique - was the timing. You see, it was 2003 and we landed in Paris on the same day that President George W. Bush launched the US’s invasion of Iraq. It was the beginning of our nation’s military response to 9/11, which you could say finally ended just last year with our withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US launched that invasion with support from an international coalition that included the United Kingdom, Poland, and Australia, but we weren’t in England, Poland, or Australia. We were in France. And France had taken a stand against our invasion.I remember seeing posters at bus stops with French headlines reading “Guerre Bush” or Bush’s War. I have photographs of the protestors outside the US Embassy and French police lining up in riot gear including bulletproof shields shields and batons, all standing at the ready, waiting to keep the peace by force if necessary. I don’t remember any personal trouble related to our presence as American tourists in Paris, but I do remember one time, as I was browsing a little gift shop, the owner of that shop had the radio playing. It was a talk show, and I couldn’t understand a thing, of course, because the announcer and his guest were speaking French, but then in the middle of his monologue, I heard two English words and I had to laugh because I knew exactly what they were talking about. Those words were: “Freedom Fries.”You see, in reaction to the French pushback to our invasion, some Americans had decided to shun anything French. And that included the most popular fast food side dish in America, French Fries. And so a small number of restaurants and the Congressional Cafeteria renamed French Fries as Freedom Fries. Forget the fact that French Fries were invented in America, that “French” in the name is a reference to a style of cutting, not the country. But who ever really started saying “Freedom Fries.” It was 100% a stunt. And a laughable one, at that.But 2003 was notthe first time Americans had decided to change the names of their foods to reflect their negative feelings about other ethnicities. Have you ever heard of “Liberty Cabbage” or “Liberty Sandwiches?” Well, in 1918, as America fought Germany in World War I, anti-German sentiment here at home led to the renaming of sauerkraut as “Liberty Cabbage” and hamburgers as “Liberty Sandwiches.” Those names didn’t stick, either. But unfortunately, this anti-German sentiment during World War I went even deeper than it’s 2003 equivalent, leading to the banning of German classes in schools and the speaking of German in public. It even led to prohibiting German preaching in German-speaking churches.Right here in Iowa, our Governor at the time, passed the “Babel Proclamation,” an executive order forbidding the use of any language other than English in public. This executive order, a gross and obvious infringement of the first amendment, was enforced by local municipalities who would fine violators. Fines were often in the $25 range, which would be the equivalent of about $450 today. Right here in Scott County four women were fined $225 (or $2,250 of today’s dollars) by the County Defense Council when they were heard speaking German to one another over their a party line. And if you’re too young to know what a party line is, when telephones were first invented they were shared by communities, not just households, and you could listen in on your neighbor. These women were fined for simply speaking to their friends and family in their native tongue.This proclamation was made, accepted, and enforced because people were afraid. In spite of the fact that these very same German immigrants had fled to America in an attempt to escape the oppression of the government that the US now fought, Americans feared what they could not understand. Iowa’s Governor Harding argued that his proclamation would "save the lives of American boys overseas by curbing sedition at home." His rhetoric was backed by none other than President Theodore Roosevelt who said in reference to the proclamation in Iowa: “America is a nation—not a polyglot boarding house ... There can be but one loyalty—to the Stars and Stripes; one nationality—the American—and therefore only one language—the English language.”I have to say I love the irony of the name of the “Babel Proclamation,” a reference to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Doubtless Governor Harding or his advisors chose this name to give the proclamation an air of Christian authority. But did Governor Harding or his advisors know that they were naming their proclamation after the bad guys in that story? That evil king Nimrod was able to gather all the people together in one place and attempt to build his sacrilegious tower specifically because all the peoples of Earth spoke one language. And did he stop to think that it was God who sent the various languages to make sure that humanity huddle together in this way again, but rather fulfill his commandment to be “fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.” By insisting that all Americans speak only one language, Governor Harding and Teddy Roosevelt were standing on the side of King Nimrod and the Tower of Babel. And they were standing against the will of God.I thought talking about separation caused by languages, fear of what we don’t understand, and the Tower of Babel would be a good place to start this morning, because many of our hymns see what happened at Pentecost as an answer to what happened at the Tower of Babel. For example, today’s Kontakion reads, “When the High One descended, confusing tongues, He divided the nations. And when He distributed the fiery tongues He called all to one unity.” I think it is important to remember that this miracle didn’t sudden make everyone understand Aramaic. It didn’t make everyone suddenly start speaking a single language like Hebrew or Latin. The very first miracle performed upon the descent of the Holy Spirit was to see the Church preaching and teaching in a variety of tongues.The passage read from Acts today begins with the disciples—the very same disciples who had fallen asleep in the garden of Gethsemane, who had fled in the face of persecution, who had hidden themselves behind locked doors when their Lord was hung on a cross—all gathered together and praying. Our icons always very stylistically show the twelve disciples or the twelve disciples and Mary, which is kind of how I always pictured it, but John Chrysostum makes the point and I think he is right that we are supposed to understand from the text that this was the entire 120 mentioned a few sentences earlier. So this group included not just the 12, but also Mary the mother of Jesus, Jesus’ brothers, and about 100 other disciples, men and women gathered together in prayer. And then suddenly a wind roars through the room, and tongues of fire come to rest upon each of these 120 individuals. As the Holy Spirit rests upon all these men and women in that upper room, we are witnessing the birth of the Church. Ezekiel had described the Glory of the Lord leaving the Temple in Jerusalem, and notice here that the Holy Spirit did not simply move into some central Christian Church. Instead, just as St. Paul would later describe, every person had become the Temple of the Lord. And just as Jesus had promised the woman at the well, the time had come for every person to worship in Spirit and in truth.After the apostles and disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit, only then are they moved to leave their silent prayer and begin proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. We are told that in the streets of Jerusalem that day were many devout people who had journeyed to Jerusalem from all over the world to celebrate Pentecost, the major Judean festival. The author of Acts goes out of his way to describe the very diverse audience: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Judeans and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.” Europe, Asia, and Africa are all represented in this list of visitors. This is a mix of Judean travelers; those who are not Judean, but simply interested in the Judean religion; and those with no Judean ties at all. And in a crowd like that, it would be most likely that all of these visitors would be trying to speak Greek, the most common language in the Greco-Roman world. And it would have probably been acceptable for the Aramaic speaking disciples to attempt to reach out to this crowd and do their best in Greek. But this was not enough for the birthday of the Church. Instead of insisting on Aramaic or Greek or Latin, the disciples miraculously begin to speak to each of these people in this crowd in their own n
23 minutes | Jun 6, 2021
Truths, half-truths, and lies
ACTS OF THE APOSTLES 16:16-34IN THOSE DAYS, as we apostles were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul and us, crying, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation." And this she did for many days. But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, "I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the rulers; and when they had brought them to the magistrates they said, "These men are Jews and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice." The crowd joined in attacking them; and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and every one's fetters were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out and said, "Men, what must I do to be saved?" And they said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, with all his family. Then he brought them up into his house, and set food before them; and he rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God.JOHN 9:1-38At that time, as Jesus passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." As he said this, he spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man's eyes with the clay, saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar, said, "Is not this the man who used to sit and beg?" Some said, "It is he"; others said, "No, but he is like him." He said, "I am the man." They said to him, "Then how were your eyes opened?" He answered, "The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and said to me, 'Go to Siloam and wash'; so I went and washed and received my sight." They said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I do not know. They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. The Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, "He put clay on my eyes and I washed, and I see." Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?" There was a division among them. So they again said to the blind man, "What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?" He said, "He is a prophet. The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight, and asked them, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?" His parents answered, "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age, he will speak for himself." His parents said this because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess him to be Christ he was to be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, "He is of age, ask him. So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, "Give God the praise; we know that this man is a sinner." He answered, "Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see." They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" He answered them, "I have told you already and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?" And they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." The man answered, "Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." They answered him, "You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?" And they cast him out. Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, "Do you believe in the Son of man?" He 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. Truths, half-truths, and lies. In this digital age, we have access to more information than the human race had ever dreamed possible, all of it lives right here in our pockets, and maybe half of it is true. Somehow we’re supposed to discern what the true from the false and make important decisions about how we live our lives base on what we learn. And while this may seem like an impossible task, it is not a new task. In fact, sorting truth from lies is something humanity has been struggling to do for ages. And today, on the sixth Sunday after Pascha, the Church offers us two stories that are themselves full up with these truths, half-truths, and lies. And in the life and actions of St. Paul and a blind beggar Jesus meets on the street, the Church will offer us two strong examples for how we might deal discern between them.The first story we heard this morning was of St. Paul and St. Silas in Philippi. Paul and Silas are doing their work, sharing the Gospel, when they begin to be pestered by a slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination. We are told that this girl’s owners make quite some profit off her ability to prophesy. She follows Paul and Silas around for several days we are told. And did you catch what she said about them? "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation." She, and the demon inside her, are proclaiming the truth.And why? St. John Chrysostum suggests that this demon was making these true claims to legitimate himself. The idea is, of course, that Paul and Silas will accept this high praise, because why wouldn’t you, and by accepting her words as true, she could then pass other things off as true. But notice Paul and Silas don’t accept this praise. St. Paul sees right through this game. We are told he’s annoyed by the girl. And recognizing the abusive situation this girl is in, how she is being simultaneously possessed by this demon and exploited by her owners, he does the only compassionate thing there is to do, he saves this girl from her evil spirt. And, of course, this act of compassion causes all kinds of issues. Because St. Paul hit these slave owners where it hurt, in their pocket book.In reaction, they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the town magistrates. And here we get a half-truth. These men couldn’t accuse Paul and Silas of healing their slave. That would give Paul and Silas credibility. So their accusation to the magistrates has absolutely nothing to do with the problem. They accuse Paul and Silas of being Judeans and causing the Romans to neglect their Roman duties. These are true facts, but they have nothing to do with the actual issue at hand. These particular facts were not chosen to get at the truth, but rather to stir up hate and anger. And they accomplished just that.The magistrates rip their clothes at the horror of it all. And the mob in the marketplace begins to beat Paul and Silas. These magistrates, even though it is their job to judge in situations like this, show absolutely no discernment. They don’t even really try. They were just sitting there, waiting to get whipped up by xenophobic rhetoric of these slave owners and then watch the mob go crazy. After the mob beats Paul and Silas, they are thrown into a prison to be kept until morning. But God has something else in mind. He sends an earthquake in the middle of the night that miraculously frees all of the prisoners. When the jailer realizes that all the gates have fallen open, he presumes all the prisoners have escaped. And he is just about to kill himself when St. Paul calls out from inside his cell that they are all still there.And this man, who moments before thought his life was over, does the most peculiar thing. He falls to the ground and asks Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” Now that’s a really odd question, if you think about it. “How can I be saved?” He had just been saved, from death, at his own hands. What kind of salvation is he asking St. Paul for? John Chrysostum writes: “Do you see how the wonder overpowered him? He wondered at Paul’s kindness; he was amazed by his boldness, in that he had no
17 minutes | Mar 28, 2021
What a show!
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (2:1-12) At that time, when Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that He was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and He was preaching the Word to them. And they came, bringing to Jesus a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now, some of the scribes were sitting there, reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in His spirit that they thus reasoned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you reason thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – He said to the paralytic – “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all. So that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” Today we read the story of the paralyzed man who was healed in Capernaum. It is also the day we remember St. Gregory Palamas, the 14th century priest and monk remembered for defending the Orthodox practice of hesychasm, or “stillness.” In preparing this for this short homily, I spent time reading St. Gregory’s homily on this same gospel passage, delivered just like this one, on the second Sunday of Lent. There was a moment as I was reading when St. Gregory talks about hearing two weeks ago about the Last Judgement, and then last week about Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise, and I realized that 700 years ago these same Sundays of the Triodion and of Great Lent were already in place. Little did he know that a couple centuries later he would be remembered specifically on this day. I am not going to tell his story today, but by way of honoring his memory, I will be leaning very heavily on the sermon he delivered on this day all those 700 years ago.All three synoptic Gospels contain this story and place it near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has come to Capernaum, a major city near the sea of Galilee. Capernaum functioned in many ways as Jesus’ home base. Matthew goes so far, when he tells this story, as to call Capernaum Jesus’ “own city.” So when Jesus arrives he is a known entity. He has already taught and healed in the streets and synagogues of Capernaum and almost immediately a crowd begins to form around him. Why? Why did the crowd form around Jesus?For exactly the same reason a crowd forms when a circus comes to town. For exactly the same reason there are lines around the block whenever the next Star Wars movie hits the theater. They want to see the show! For most of this crowd, Jesus is a performer. He tells stories, gives little lessons, and sometimes does magic tricks. Word of Jesus has begun to spread and the masses have gathered from far and wide to see the show.But now, for the first time in the Gospel story, we begin see a second tier form within the crowd. Before this point in all the Gospels, Jesus has only ever spoken about the scribes and Pharisees. He is not yet leveling his harshest criticisms, but he is calling upon his listeners to “exceed” their righteousness.And his growing audience also sees a difference between him and these prominent men. We are told they notice that Jesus speaks “as one with authority, not like the scribes and the Pharisees.” So, before this story, there has been talk of the scribes and the Pharisees, but this is the episode where they make their first appearance on stage.And with this entrance I’d like to pause for a moment to help translate this story for our modern ears. Because the scribes and the Pharisees really get a bad rap and we need to be careful not to target the wrong people with this smear. It must be remembered that Christianity really grew out of the religion of the Pharisees. From their understanding of the Old Testament to their understanding of the end times, especially the idea of a bodily resurrection, Jesus and his disciples had more in common with the scribes and Pharisees than any other sect of their day. The synagogues that Jesus and St. Paul taught in were run by the Pharisees. Men like Nicodemus are shown as converting within the Gospels and Pharisees like Gamaliel are shown as sympathetic. So when Jesus blasts off in the Gospel of John with his famous, “Scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites!” you must understand that he is saving his harshest criticisms for his own people. The Pharisees are not hypocrites because they disagree with Jesus, but because they essentially believe the same thing, but they do not act on it.And so, when Orthodox Christians read “scribes and Pharisees” in the Gospel, they should mentally translate it into something like “our Orthodox Priests and professors.” These were not the bad guys. These were not the occupying Romans or aristocratic Sadducees. To most in Jesus’ day, these were the good guys, the leaders, the people who should have known better. It would be as if I heard there was a new guy in town. He was Orthodox, he was one of us, but he didn’t even go to seminary, he just started talking as if he knew everything. And he was filling up the Tax Slayer Center. And then he started criticizing the Church and the Church leaders, he started criticizing me, calling on me and my colleagues to do more and to be more. Even if I agreed with him, I’d feel a little threatened. I’d want to go see what was going on. I’d be curious what this man had to say. I’d be curious what it was that the people loved so much. I’d be curious if he was the real deal, or if he was leading my people astray.So this is the context for our story. A huge crowd has formed around Jesus. And the crowd is full of Jesus’ super fans, but it has also now begun to attract some that might be a little more critical. And the crowd is so thick that a paralyzed man, a man who needs and wants Jesus’ help, is stuck outside.You get the irony, right? So many people just love to hear Jesus talk about loving God and neighbor that they can’t make room for this neighbor in need. How many of our Church’s are just like this, so wrapped up in our flowers and our festivals, our liturgies and our services, our fasts and our feasts, that the hungry and the poor can’t find a moment to get our attention. How many times do I have to hurry past the beggar on the street so I can make it to Church on time? And just as the Gospel’s critique of the Judean religious leaders needs to be read as a critique of our religious leaders, so to this critique of Jesus’ super-fans needs to be accepted as a critique of us. And we all need to hear these critiques, so we can learn from them.So the paralyzed man is stuck outside, but luckily he has some fantastic friends who decide to help him out. These four faithful friends go to extraordinary lengths to help this paralyzed man make it to Jesus. They climb up on the roof of the house and make their way over the crowd. They have to create a hole in the roof to get inside and then lower the man on his pallet into the midst of the room.And when this happens, I hope you can feel the anticipation and the excitement of this room. This is the moment the scribes and the Pharisees had been waiting for; the moment where Jesus will be shown to be the charlatan they already suspect he is. The crowd is excited. The faithful few are expectant.And Jesus sets out to perform his greatest miracle to date. He has cured the sick, he’s healed lepers, he’s exorcized the demon possessed, but in this moment h edoes something bigger than any of that. With every eye in the place focused on him, he looks at the man and says: “Son, your sins are forgiven.”Really? That’s it? Can you imagine what the people thought? Could there have been anything more disappointing to the crowds than that? Could there be anything more infuriating to the Pharisees? Reconciliation with God was their business! That is what the sacrifices and the temple were for. If this man can just come along out of nowhere and say, “Your sins are forgiven,” what does their role become? In a modern context, you need to hear them saying – “But he hasn’t been baptized!?! He hasn’t been chrismated!?! He hasn’t been to confession!?! Who are you to say that his sins have been forgiven? Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re God?!?”When describing the reaction of the crowd, St. Gregory Palamas says, “It seemed to the scribes that the Lord was unable to heal the paralysed man, so He had resorted to something obscure, forgiving him his sins. Just to pronounce words of forgiveness, especially in such an authoritative and commanding way, was of course blasphemy; but it was also something anyone could do.”And how about the paralyzed man and his friends. The Gospels don’t say, but I doubt he came out that day to have his sins forgiven. I think it’s pretty obvious they came that day in hope that he would be healed, that he would walk.But I also don’t think in this moment that he was disappointed. I suspect he accepted this gift. St. Gregory makes a point of calling out the particularly endearing term, “Son,” that Jesus uses. “What a blessed way to be addressed!” he writes. “He hears himself called ‘son’ and is adopted as the child of the heavenly Father. He is joined to God who is without sin, having immediately become sinless himself through the forgiveness of his sins.” Jesus doesn’t just recognize him, he adopts him as his own. And I’m just guessing, that a paralyzed man in the first century often felt a little ostracized and outcast, and that to be embraced in this way in front of a huge crowd would have been unbelievably emotional. I imagine he felt healed, in many ways, in all the most important ways, long before anything else happened.St. Gregory Palamas reminds us t
19 minutes | Jan 24, 2021
I once was blind, but now I see...
LUKE 18:35-43At that time, as Jesus drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging; and hearing a multitude going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, "Jesus of Nazareth is passing by." And he cried, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" And Jesus stopped, and commanded him to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?" He said, "Lord, let me receive my sight." And Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has made you well." And immediately he received his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God. Let me tell you the story of a blind man. Not a physically blind man, but a spiritually blind man. The man I would like to tell you about was born in 1725 and his name was John Newton. I don’t want to judge him too harshly, but using his own words, John Newton described himself as a wretch. And if you listen to the stories I am about share with you, I think you’ll be prone to agree.Now, I must say, that John Newton was not born a wretch. In fact he had been born to a kind, Christian woman in London who did her very best to love and provide for her boy and to give him religious instruction. Newton remembered her fondly, but unfortunately she passed away when he was just seven and his step-mother was not the same kind of woman. And then after some time with his step-mother, and some more time at a boarding school, finally, at the young age of eleven, John Newton joined his father at sea.As you could probably guess, growing up among the sailors was not work out well for John. He picked up many of the habits that sailors of his day were renowned for, drinking, gambling, and boy did that man have a mouth. And after about six years at his father’s side, the elder John Newton retired from the sea and the younger John Newton began his own career. He spent a short time as a merchant sailor, but his bad behavior got him into trouble and he was pressed into the service of the British Royal Navy. And then after attempting to desert his first ship, he was flogged, demoted, and transferred to a second ship, a slave ship. Even aboard this ship his behavior remained remarkably despicable. Martin Bernard writes that, “In a culture where sailors habitually swore, Newton was admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.” At one point Newton even plotted to kill the captain and was chained up amongst the slaves that they were carrying.Eventually Newton was abandoned by his shipmates in West Africa and for three years he himself served as a slave West Africa, at the service of Amos Clowe and his wife, the Princess Peye of the Sherbro people. John Newton would later write about his life in Africa, and specifically about slavery in West Africa, an institution he experienced firsthand. He describes a civilization organized into districts, governed by a council with representatives from each district, all maintaining a set of laws that prevented theft, fraud, and other crimes, and specifically included a prohibition on drawing blood, even from a slave.Slavery itself was generally penal in nature, saved for those who had broken laws too big to be satisfied in other ways, significant theft, murder or assault, the stealing of another man’s wife. Most of those who went into slavery could expect to come out some day, when the offended party had been satisfied or the debts had been worked off. Slavery in Africa was slavery as it had been practiced throughout most of human history.After a few years serving as a slave in West Africa, John was himself freed by another ship captain who had been sent by his father to find him. In one of his personal letters, he writes that he had grown so accustomed to Sierra Leon that he contemplated staying and only left on account of his childhood sweetheart Polly. It was on the return journey that his ship was caught up in a great storm and nearly sank. A crew member died in the storm that day and the rest worked for hours to keep the ship afloat. In this desperate moment, John Newton, a man whose foul mouth could literally make a sailor blush, exclaimed these words, “Lord have mercy on us!”Eventually the storm died down and John Newton took the helm, steering the ship for the next eleven hours, alone with his thoughts. That night, and then on into the tired and hungry days that followed, John Newton kept asking himself, “Why?” Why would the Lord save him? Why would the Lord save this man who had denounced God? And more than just denounce God, he had ridiculed the piety of those around him? Why, in that moment of desperation, would he call out to God, of all things? And why, why oh why, would God care to save a wretch like him.This event marked a turning point in John Newton’s life, though it would take a long time to bear fruit. A really long time. More than a decade, in fact. Newton made it home, married his lifelong sweet heart, and continued his work in the slave trade. Seven years later, at age 30, Newton suffered a rather serious stroke and decided that life at sea had become too difficult for him. He took a position at port and never sailed again.During those seven years at sea and then in his port work, Newton began to study the bible and read theology. By all accounts he began to watch his mouth and control his temper. Over time he quit the drinking and the gambling. He studied Latin and Greek and Syraic. Eventually his friends and acquaintances began to encourage him to join the clergy, which he eventually did, becoming an Anglican Priest. It was here that John Newton enjoyed his second life.John took to this life as a parish priest. His mouth, which had once made him the scourge of the southern seas, now brought him attention from the pulpit. But was not until 1788, 34 years after his work in the African Slave Trade, that John Newton finally began to speak about his own experiences. He wrote a pamphlet entitled, “Thoughts on the African Slave Trade.” In his introduction, he writes this:“If my testimony should not be necessary, or serviceable, yet, perhaps, I am bound, in conscience, to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent, or repair, the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessary. I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders.” As much as this pamphlet advocated for Abolition, it also served as John Newton’s public confession.His writings are difficult. I read his pamphlet this week and worried about how much to share. He describes humans being treated like cargo, stacked up on shelves just a few feet high, often stuck below decks for weeks at a time, hundreds of them, left to sit and live and lay and sleep in their own waste, chained together. Chained, as he describes, not left hand to right hand and left foot to right hand as would make the most sense, but right hand to right hand and right foot to right foot, so as to make most natural movements, even rolling over on your shelf, impossible. He describes living human cargo being thrown overboard when water ran scarce. He describes the regular, shall I say mistreating, of the slave women by the crew.And then, let me read one last passage from this pamphlet for you: “When the ships make the land, (usually the West-India islands,) and have their port in view after having been four, five, six weeks or a longer time, at sea…then, and not before, they venture to release the Men Slaves from their irons. And then, the sight of the land, and their freedom from long and painful confinement, usually excite in them a degree of alacrity, and a transient feeling of joy—The prisoner leaps to lose his chains. But, this joy is short lived indeed. The condition of the unhappy Slaves is in a continual progress from bad to worse. Their case is truly pitiable, from the moment they are in a state of slavery, in their own country; but it may be deemed a state of ease and liberty, compared with their situation on board our ships. Yet, perhaps, they would wish to spend the remainder of their days on ship board, could they know, before-hand, the nature of the servitude which awaits them, on shore; and that the dreadful hardships and sufferings they have already endured, would, to the most of them, only terminate in excessive toil, hunger, and the excruciating tortures of the cart-whip, inflicted at the caprice of an unfeeling Overseer, proud of the power allowed him of punishing whom, and when, and how he pleases.”In John Newton’s personal experience, slavery in Africa was pitiable, but could be considered “ease and liberty” when compared with what happened on the boats. And then, from what he saw and learned in the British Colonies, what happened to the slaves once they reached land was bad enough to make most of them want to get back onto the boats.At this point I should probably beg your forgiveness. This story of John Newton was really meant to be a short introduction to my sermon, a paragraph or two at most. But the more I learned about him, the more I was personally inspired. I am not sure if I was ever the kind of wretch that John Newton was, but I have plenty to repent for. And the more I learned about him and his life, the more I wanted to share. I think I was inspired mostly by his ability to truly repent, to completely change his ways in the middle of his life. It was hard to imagine a more radical transformation than this one, from an active slave trader to a vocal Abolitionist.Just as Jesus Christ once chose Paul, a Pharisee of Pharisees, a murderer of Christians, to spread his Gospel to the larger Roman Empire, so here also the Lord chose this foul-mouthed slave trader to speak on behalf of the Abolitionist cause. And it was his confession, specifically his confession, that helped pave the way for Britain to abolish the Atlantic Slave
20 minutes | Jul 26, 2020
It's St. Friday, I'm in love!
The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians. (3:23-4:5)Brethren, before faith came, we were confined under the Law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the Law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate; but he is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. But when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. Today’s epistle reading is taken from the third and fourth chapters of Galatians. I am not going to speak on that passage today, but there is a link which I would like to highlight between these chapters and the story I will be sharing today. In Galatians chapter 4, actually in the portion of the chapter we would have read yesterday on the liturgical calendar, Paul makes a comparison between Ishmael and Isaac, turning them into an allegory of the law and of faith. He specifically looks at the mode in which they were begotten. The first, Ishmael, was begotten by Abraham and an enslaved woman Hagar, because Abraham’s wife could not conceive. But Isaac was begotten by a miracle in his barren wife Sarah’s old age. For Paul this story presents a contrast between the law and faith; between humanity seeking to fulfill God’s plan in a worldly manner, and God fulfilling his own plan in the way He sees fit. Paul then quotes this passage from Isaiah: “Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which has a husband.”This passage from Isaiah would have been well known in Christian circles because it comes immediately after the suffering servant passages that are seen as prefiguring or prophesying Christ’s humiliation and death on the cross and they also speak to God’s mission to the entire world. I’ll read the full passage from Isaiah here: “Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of she that has a husband, saith the Lord. Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes; For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited. Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded; for thou shalt not be put to shame: for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more. For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called.”Pay attention to the phrases here: “More are the children of the desolate than the children of she that has a husband” and “you will forget the shame of your youth and will not remember the reproach of your widowhood for your Maker is your husband.” For the non-Christian world, the way to power was always through begetting more children. Whether it was someone to inherit your wealth, someone to help in the field, or soldiers to fill your army – fertility and children meant wealth and power. The world told women to seek salvation in finding a husband, and told men to find salvation in their wife. But for Christianity, salvation was not to be found in hearth and home.And this is a notion that you will find front and center in the life of St. Paraskeva of Rome, who we remember today. She lived in the Roman Empire during the second century, at a time when the empire was at its largest and most powerful. The Nerva-Antoinine dynasty, which began in the late first century and extended into the late second century, was in control and that particular dynasty includes such figures as Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. Outside of the early emperors like Julius Caesar and Augustus, and maybe some of the classically evil emperors like Nero or Domitian, these remain some of the most well-known emperors of all time. And this is because they ruled Rome at its height and for the most part they ruled it well.I think it is also important to share that there was some unrest during this time. Interestingly the seed for this unrest was planted much earlier, within reign of Augustus Caesar, in Judea, when the provincial governor Pilate had put to death that trouble maker Jesus who was called by his followers the Christ. Jesus the Christ was honestly little more than a blip on the radar screen of the Roman Empire, and his crucifixion had appeared to end the problem. And really, it wasn’t a Roman problem, it was a Judean problem, a squabble between two sects of Judeans. But since the squabble had been about which leader was going to supplant the Roman emperor, Pilate had needed to deal with it. None of their leaders should be thinking about supplanting the Roman emperor. Best to put a quick end to the whole thing.But then a generation later, there began to pop up groups of Christians in cities all over the empire. This un-nerved the Romans a bit. These Christians were no longer just Judeans, but many others had joined them, including some Roman citizens. They still referred to Jesus as the Messiah or the Christ, but they had added to this Lord and Savior and even God. To Romans, words like these are reserved for the emperor and the imperial line, and they are certainly not for agitators and dissidents. These Christians had come on the scene with sedition in Judea and now continued in their treachery by refusing to offer prayers and burn incense before the image of the emperor. Even though they did not participate in the Jewish Revolt, they were associated with it, and besides their behavior was clearly unpatriotic.The Romans threw all kinds of slurs at the Christians, including calling them atheists and cannibals and incestuous. The first was because of their refusal to recognize the Roman pantheon of gods, which included the emperor. The second was a slightly absurd and possibly intentional misunderstanding of the language surrounding the Eucharist. And while the third slander fell into that same category, a misunderstanding of Christian language where they recognized one another as brother and sister even as they married amongst themselves. But this last slur was exacerbated by the fact that Christians did not follow Roman social norms, often allowed master to sit at table with slave, men and women to speak with one another, and wives – who were largely considered the property of their husbands –to participate in their prayers without their husbands. All of this left a bad taste in the mouth of the Romans. It was clear something odd was going on. And this unease left Christians open to much scapegoating, with Nero and Domitian leading some of the more spectacular persecutions. This was all in the first century of the Christian era.But now we are in the second century and Christianity appears to be here to stay. It remains unpopular, even illegal, but it can no longer be disregarded. By some historical miracle we have a lengthy collection of letters from a provincial governor name Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan. It is really an amazing collection and offers more insight into the day-to-day work of governing the Roman Empire than is available for almost any other period. There are literally letters about everything from the building of aqueducts to the redirecting of sewers. And then there is one very famous letter where Pliny is just very confused about what to do with the Christians. His letter is a little humorous, if it is at all proper to find humor in such things. Pliny is like, “I had some Christians turned into me and when they refused to offer incense to your image I killed them like I was supposed to. And then some more were brought in. These recanted and worshiped your image, so I let them go. And then there were more brought in, and I was like, ‘How many of these Christians are there?’ So I did some investigating, arrested a couple of the women that appeared to be officiating in their services, and tortured them until they told me what they were up to. They told me everything about their prayer services and their common meals and that crazy superstition about Jesus the Christ, but other than that, I couldn’t really find any actual crime.” He adds the detail here that ever since he had started arresting and killing these Christians, there has been a lot more traffic in the pagan temples. You think? “But the real trouble is that these Christians appear to be everywhere, in the city and in the country side, and so before I go about killing so many that live my province, I thought I should check in with you.”Trajan replies that if a Christian is brought in to you and refuses to renounce his faith, then of course you need to kill them. But you are also right not to trouble yourself with hunting them down and arresting all of them. They’re just not worth the trouble. In this, Trajan instituted a kind of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy on Christians.And that’s the second century Roman Empire. Christianity has gone from a threat to power that must be stamped out, to a pesky sect that is too big to kill but we are hoping it goes away if we just ignore it. There are no great persecutions of Christians in the second century like those of Nero and Domitian in the first century or like that of Decius in the third century. There is one brief persecution that comes up under Marcus Au
17 minutes | Apr 13, 2020
Imagine 47 years of social distancing
Deacon Jared RSS The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (10:32-45) At that time, Jesus took His twelve Disciples, and began to tell them what was to happen to Him, saying, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles. And they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit upon Him, and kill Him; and after three days He will rise.” And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Him, and said to Him, “Teacher, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire” And Jesus said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” And they said to Him, “Grant us to sit, one at Thy right hand and one at Thy left, in Thy glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to Him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized. But to sit at My right hand or at My left is not Mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to Him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be servant of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” “O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust for power and idle talk. But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of integrity, humility, patience and love. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to condemn my brother or sister. For blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.” This is the prayer, attributed to St. Ephrem, that we Orthodox pray all of Lent. And today, on the last Sunday of Lent, we are offered two different stories, both about people who struggled with lust for power and idle talk, and who eventually learned humility and love.Let me begin with the story from our Gospel reading. In today’s reading from St. Mark Jesus tells his disciples, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles. And they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit upon Him, and kill Him; and after three days He will rise.” Now, as regularly happened, the disciples hear what they want to hear. Two weeks ago, Jesus began to teach these same things to the disciples, and we heard Peter rebuke his master, unable to accept that Jesus’ path to glory lead through suffering and death.Today we get to hear two disciples make the opposite mistake. James and John hear these same teachings and seem miss the suffering and death part. They hear Jesus claim to be the Son of Man, the promised Messiah, and want to get some special reward for following him all the way. They figure they got in early, they were loyal, and they should end up in a special position. With this in mind, James and John approach Jesus and ask to be seated with him in His glory, “one on Your right hand and the other on Your left.” Interestingly, when Matthew tells this same story, he places their request in the mouth of their mother. St. John Chrysostum suggests that “the request was theirs, and being ashamed, they put forward their mother.” I like this suggestion that James and John kind of knew they shouldn’t be asking this, but went ahead anyway. Or had their mom do it for them.Jesus doesn’t say no right away, but being the good and patient teacher, he responds by asking if they can “drink the cup” that He will drink. This is their test. It’s like he’s asking, “Have you been listening? Have you heard what I’m telling you is just about to happen to me? Do you think you can do that with me?” And they fail this test, saying, “Sure we can, no problem.” The cup of which he speaks, of course, is the cross. It’s not that many days from now when Jesus will pray that his might Father this cup from him. We are told this cup makes “his soul very sorrowful, even unto death.” That which grieves the Son of God, James and John take here very lightly.Jesus doesn’t even really scold them. Maybe the request is just so over the top that Jesus just decides its best to move on. Instead of scolding them for their pride, he in some way consoles them, telling them that they indeed will eventually drink the same cup, but it is not their time yet. “To sit at My right hand or at My left is not Mine to grant,” he says, “but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Of course, Jesus’ glory is the cross and the seats on his right and on his left will be taken by a pair of thieves. Neither James nor John are ready to drink of this cup. John will make it close, standing at the foot of the cross; James will flee and hide.Perhaps to assure us that James and John were not alone in their misunderstanding, that all of the disciples were equally foolhardy, Mark tells us that the disciples “began to be greatly displeased with James and John.” So if James and John are displaying lust for power, then here we have a clear display of idle talk among the disciples.It is not a pretty picture that is painted for us in this reading, so thank God the Church has another story to tell us this morning. This is the story of Fr. Zosimas and St. Mary of Egypt, quite simply one of the most compelling stories in the Orthodox Church.The story begins with Fr. Zosimas in a place not completely unlike that of James, John, and the other disciples. Fr. Zosimas has been living the life of a monastic since his youth and he doesn’t hesitate to tell people about it. His biographer, St. Sophronius, tells us that: “Zosimas used to relate how, as soon as he was taken from his mother's breast, he was handed over to the monastery where he went through his training as an ascetic till he reached the age of 53.” He would go around telling people this about himself. And more than that, we are told that, “he began to be tormented with the thought that he was perfect in everything and needed no instruction from anyone, saying to himself mentally, ‘Is there a monk on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there a man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?’” Notice, his biographer is not telling us that he is accomplished. His biographer is telling us that Fr. Zosimas thinks that he very accomplished. And he spends his time telling people about his accomplishments and thinking to himself about how perfect he is.But an angel is sent to answer his seemingly rhetorical question, and tells him that indeed there is a monastery near the River Jordan where Fr. Zosimas might learn a thing or two. And to his credit, Fr. Zosimas listened to the angel and headed off to find this monastery.It turned out that the monks at this new monastery were indeed “proficient in both action and contemplation” and Fr. Zosima was greatly inspired. When it came time for Lent, he learned the monks of this monastery spent their Lenten season alone in the wilderness. Their rule demanded that they take whatever they felt they might need for the journey and then spend their days alone in the wilderness. They were told that if they even caught sight of one another, they should move to a different part of the country. And then, when they would return, they we banned from talking about their experience. Their struggle was to be judged by God alone and they were not to “please men and fast before the eyes of all.” Fr. Sophronius tells us that it is for this practice that Fr. Zosima was sent to this particular monastery. And see how it so perfectly fit Fr. Zosima’s sins, his own lust for personal glory and idle talk were futile in this situation.And so, it is not suprising that Fr. Zosimas struggles with this rule. We are told that in spite of the specific rule to speak with no one, Fr. Zosimas harbored in his heart a secret desire “of finding some father who might be living there and who might be able to satisfy his thirst and longing.” And so he sets out looking for this ideal teacher. And after 20 days alone in the desert, Fr. Zosimas finds a woman living alone in the desert, old, naked, skin burnt dark. He does not know what to think of her, but when she greets him by name he instantly recognizes her sanctity. He throws himself on the ground and begs for her blessing. He gives her his cloak and the two begin to talk. Fr. Zosima asks St. Mary to tell him her story. But where Fr. Zosima had always been so quick to tell people his life story, St. Mary is humble and resists for quite some time. But she finally relents, and it is then that Fr. Zosimas is granted the spirit of humility.Mary had spent her early life as a true slave to sin. She would labor and beg alms in order to support her sinful lifestyle. On a whim, she fell in with a group of religious pilgrims heading to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life Giving Cross. She joined their pilgrimage with the specific intention of leading the pilgrims into sin for her own amusement. When they arrived at their destination, the pilgrims all went to enter the Church of the Holy Cross. It was there a mysterious force refused her entrance. At that moment, when she was told no, she found herself suddenly seized by a desire to see the True Cross. Seeing an icon of the Mother of God hanging outside the Church, she prayed in earnest for the first time in her life. She related to Fr. Zosima: “And so it was I saw the lifegiving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance. Throwing myself on the ground, I worshipped that holy earth and kissed it with trembling. Then I came out of the church and went to her who had prom
17 minutes | Mar 22, 2020
Take up your quarantine and follow me
Deacon Jared RSS ST. PAUL'S LETTER TO THE HEBREWS 4:14-16; 5:1-6BRETHREN, since we have a high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, "Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee"; as he says also in another place, "Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek."MARK 8:34-38; 9:1The Lord said: "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." And he said to them, "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” Today is a remarkably appropriate time to be asked to say something about the cross. Right now, in the middle of this COVID-19 crisis we have all been enduring a very difficult few weeks with many more likely to come. Any time you venture from your home, things just feel off. Businesses are shut down; the road traffic and foot traffic are sparse; events are cancelled; grocery store shelves are empty. And heaven forbid that you or someone in your family is sick, with COVID-19 or with anything else. The medical system is under great duress at this time. These are all very real crosses. And so it is pertinent that right here, in the middle of this COVID-19 crisis, the Church presents with this, the Sunday of the Holy Cross.Today we hear Christ say to the multitudes, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” If you want to call yourself a Christian, these are Jesus’ instructions – deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him. These are very difficult instructions. Jesus is not telling you to wear your cross necklace. He is saying that to follow him will mean to bear some very real crosses. I would like to talk right now about what this might mean for us today. I will start by offering a little context for these instructions from the Gospel of St. Mark.These instructions are set in the Gospel of Mark immediately following two of Peter’s most famous interactions with Jesus. The first is likely remembered as St. Peter’s proudest moment. Jesus asks his disciples who people are saying that he is, and they answer that people seem to think he is the second coming of John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the great prophets of old. He then asks his disciples who they say that he is and Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ!” Peter says here what all the disciples are thinking, or at least what they were likely hoping: “You are the long promised Messiah, the Christ, the Annointed One of God, sent to save Israel from her oppressors!” Jesus tells his disciples that they should keep this information to themselves, but at this time begins to explain to them what being the messiah is really all about. Mark says that Jesus explains that the Messiah, “must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”This teaching, of course, leads to one of Peter’s lowest moments. Not his very lowest, but close. This messiah Jesus is talking about is not the messiah Peter had been hoping for. Suffering? Rejection? Death? These were the things the messiah was supposed to end, not endure! And so Peter pulls Jesus aside to tell him just this. We are told he rebukes Jesus. Imagine the disciple so bold as to rebuke his master. And Jesus reacts to this quite strongly, saying, “Get behind me, Satan.” He adds that Peter is not setting his mind “on the things of God, but on the things of humanity!”We are told that Jesus then goes further, not just rebuking Peter, but gathering a crowd and telling them, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.” This great teaching he offers to the masses, because Peter is clearly not ready to accept it.None of the disciples understood that the way of the Christ would be the way of the cross, at least not yet. It would much later before they began to fully understand this mystery. In the Revelation of St. John, Christ is envisioned as “the lamb slain before time.” Take a moment to consider this image. Christ is not the lamb slain in the year 33. He is the lamb slain before time. For the Church, the crucifixion is not simply an event that happened to the Son of God on a day 2000 years ago, it is the final and full revelation of who the Son of God was, is, and always will be.St. Peter was not ready to let Jesus take up his cross, and he was certainly not ready to take up his own alongside him. And none of us should stand in judgement. How many of us would be ready to take on such a challenge? Right now so many in our country are so very afraid. What we face today is a very real cross, both the virus itself and the many hardships coming in its wake. So what does this notion of denying ourselves look like for us today? What does it mean for our interactions with our neighbors? With our co-workers? With complete strangers in the grocery stores?It would be pretty normal at this point, especially since the Sunday of the Holy Cross always falls right here in the middle of Lent, for me to discuss some of those crosses we voluntarily take upon ourselves during this season. By this I refer to the ascetic endeavors prescribed by the Church for our benefit – prayer, fasting, alms giving. The founders of our faith often refer to these in association with the notion of voluntarily picking up our crosses. In each of these acts we intentionally turn our backs to the things of this world and take the extra time, energy, and resources to strive for the world to come.But, of course, we know all too well right now that not all crosses are chosen. In fact, the founders of our faith suggest that it is the unbidden crosses that can be even more beneficial to us. I would like to talk a little bit today about what they mean.There is a quote from St. Mark the Ascetic that has always meant a lot to me: “Distress reminds the wise of God, but crushes those who forget Him. Let all involuntary suffering teach you to remember God, and you will not lack occasion for repentance.” I find this true in myself. It often takes distress for me to remember God. It is easy for me to forget God when life is good. So what will we do in the face of this crisis? Will we let this involuntary suffering help us to remember God? Will we transform this COVID-19 crisis into an occasion for repentance?St. Mark wrote in another place: “The mercy of God is hidden in sufferings that are not of our choice, and if we accept such sufferings patiently, they bring us to repentance.” Again we hear sufferings are a call to repentance, this time with an emphasis on the virtue of patience in the face of trial. St. Isaac the Syrian also wrote of the importance of virtue in the face of trial: “In proportion to your humility you are given patience in your woes; and in proportion to your patience the burden of your afflictions is made lighter and you will find consolation; in proportion to your consolation, your love of God increases; and in proportion to your love, your joy in the Holy Spirit is magnified.” I can’t help but think of Yoda in the Phantom Menace when I read this passage, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” St. Isaac is here offering up the opposite path: Humility leads to patience, patience leads to love, love leads to joy. This path to “joy in the Holy Spirit” begins with humility.In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, the assigned epistle reading for today, Paul talks about Jesus’ humility. He suggests that Jesus, the son of God, is particularly qualified to act as priest on our behalf, not because he is God, but specifically because he became human. He explains that when priests are chosen it is their weaknesses that allow them to function properly. He wrote, “Every high priest who is chosen from among the people…can deal gently with the ignorant and the wayward, since they themselves are beset with weakness. Because of this they are bound to offer sacrifice for their own sins as well as for those of the people.” Priests function properly, in Paul’s estimation, not because they are better than other people, but because they share the same weaknesses of those they represent. Thus, Paul says, in Christ “we have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Christ is showing us the way of the cross, the way that begins in humility.Jesus was born in humble circumstances and died in the most despicable of ways. He lived his life without a place to lay his head, taking nothing, giving everything. This is the humble messiah that Peter, when he was yet the disciple, when he was yet learning, was not ready to accept. What transformed Peter the unready disciple into St. P
15 minutes | Jan 26, 2020
For the wonder of seeing Jesus
Deacon Jared RSS LUKE 19:1-10At that time, Jesus was passing through Jericho. And there was a man named Zacchaios; he was a chief collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaios, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner." And Zacchaios stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost." I was very into the Lord of the Rings as a kid, long before most people even knew what it was. Only the real geeks read that stuff, those strange books about the dwarves, the elves, and the hobbits. And it felt a little odd when they finally made the books into a series of blockbuster movies, and suddenly most people, even those who never bothered to watch them, knew what a hobbit was. Those books, especially the main three, were never really children’s literature, but I think if found them so approachable when I was young because of the hobbits. As a child, it is easy to see yourself in their shoes. Well, in their furry feet – because hobbits don’t wear shoes.I remember reading in an interview with Tolkien that he got much of his inspiration for the hobbits – those pint-sized people who liked to eat, drink, and get into all kinds of mischief – from his own children. And as a fellow parent of four, I can see where he was coming from. I sometimes feel like I’ve been living in the Shire for the past 15 years.Those stories of Middle Earth are full of elven warriors, powerful princes, trolls, dwarves, dragons, and myriad other creatures ever more strange and dangerous. But none of those great warriors and princes are ultimately able to save Middle Earth. Rather all the machinations of these great and evil powers are ultimately undone by the work of this little, childlike race of hobbits. There is something very wonderful about that narrative, the small and the weak overcoming the large and powerful. And that’s likely why it’s a relatively common literary device. Think of the spider in Charlotte’s Web, the little tailor, jack and the beanstalk, the mouse and the lion; there is something that makes our hearts swell when we hear about the lowly, the innocent, the childlike, overcoming the great, the evil, and the powerful.The bible loves to use this device as well. We think immediately of the young David overcoming the giant Goliath; of Gideon’s small army standing up to the Midianites; we think of the slave-born Moses standing up to the Pharaoh. And because of this, I think when Zacchaeus is introduced to us in today’s story as being small in stature, we might be excused if we are a bit pre-disposed to recognize a potential protagonist. But other than single this note regarding his diminutive size, the initial description of Zacchaeus actually pushes us in the opposite direction. Zacchaeus is described as a chief tax collector and very wealthy. It was just one chapter earlier in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus had confronted the rich prince and had lamented to his disciples that it is harder for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to enter into the kingdom of heaven. So, sure, he’s a little guy. But there is a lot wrong with him.So, if we start with a bit of mixed image, the behavior of this rich and powerful little man doesn’t help clear it up. Because as we are introduced to Zacchaeus, he is scrambling around just trying to get a look at Jesus. We immediately ask ourselves what is this chief of the sinners doing trying to get a glimpse of Jesus? And then his behavior becomes even more inexplicable. When he can’t see, because the crowd is too tall, he scrambles up a nearby tree. Why would this wealthy man behave like this?And here’s where I’d like to suggest that Zacchaeus may share more than a little of the hobbits’ literary DNA. Luke describes Zacchaeus as mikros which was translated this morning as short, but it is exactly the same word Jesus uses when he instructs his disciples to “allow the littles ones to come unto me.” Luke is not saying Zacchaeus is a child, but I think his word choice here allows us to see something child-like in Zacchaeus’ behavior. After all, climbing trees is also a very childlike behavior.So, why is Zacchaeus climbing that tree? Why do children climb trees? They climb trees for no reason at all, right? They climb trees for the love of the tree, for the excitement of the height, and because the sky is always so much more beautiful when seen through the topmost branches of a good climbing tree. Kids climb trees for the wonder of what they might find. And that is exactly why Zacchaeus climbed his tree – for the wonder of seeing Jesus. He had nothing to ask of Jesus, he just wanted to see him. And it is this simple act, performed with a pure heart, that catches Jesus’ attention. Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.Thus, out of all the people swarming Jesus that day as he came into Jericho, Jesus choose this man, this little Zacchaeus, this chief of sinners, to lodge with. And notice Jesus doesn’t ask if it’s okay, he demands a place to stay. Jesus speaks to Zacchaeus like a parent would to his child, or like a lord to his servant – “Get down here immediately! I will be staying in your house today.” And Zacchaeus did not demand to be recognized as the powerful man that he was. He was not offended. Instead Zacchaeus responded just like a child, like a servant. He scrambles down the tree just as he was told and receives Jesus into his home with joy.This story is the last one Luke tells before he tells us of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Jerusalem will also welcome Jesus with great joy, receive him as their king. But that joy will not remain for long as Jerusalem and those who are in power there turn against their Lord and ultimately shout, “Crucify him!” Even here in Jericho we see foreshadowing of humanity’s looming betrayal. Luke tells us that, “when they saw this they all murmured, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’”But if we suspect that Zacchaeus may also be offering a superficial reception, the story shows us right away that this is not the case. Jesus was not mistaken when he had recognized great potential in Zacchaeus. Almost as if to prove the murmurers wrong, Zacchaeus immediately proclaims his repentance for all he has ever done. And this is not a lip service repentance, but the real deal. In front of all, Zacchaeus leaves everything behind.“Wait!” the bean counters among you are saying. I was paying attention! He only gave half of his stuff away. And if that is what you heard, you are listening with modern ears. And I’ll admit that I heard it that way until I was preparing for today’s sermon. And I ran into many sermons trying to figure out this dilemma, of why Jesus tells the rich prince to give away everything and then seems so pleased when Zacchaeus gives away half. So don’t feel bad, you’re not alone. Today being a tax collector is a legitimate occupation. You can work for the IRS and make a decent wage without stealing from anyone. It’s like being an accountant. There is nothing inherently sinful about being a tax collector.But when you start to read pre-modern sources, they have a very different view of tax collecting. Tax collectors were given a territory and an amount by their lord. They then went household to household collecting as much as they could. The only way a tax collector earned money was by collecting more than he needed. So by ancient standards, any money Zacchaeus had, and certainly any wealth he had accumulated, was considered ill-gotten gain. St. Theophylact, writing in the 11th century, reflects this older understanding when he writes: “Publicans get their livelihood from the tears of the poor.” So when these readers hear Zacchaeus offer to pay back four times what he had stolen, they immediately realize that he is offering to pay back his entire estate four times over.The other detail worth noting is that when Zacchaeus is offering to pay back at a rate of four-to-one, he is intentionally citing the Old Testament law. For instance, in Exodus, if you were caught stealing one of your neighbor’s sheep, you owed him four sheep in return. So what we should also recognize in this proclamation is a two-step declaration. Zacchaeus is both proclaiming his intention to fulfill the law of Moses by paying back anyone he cheated four times over. And then he is also recognizing the law of Christ, in fact placing it first, by taking half his estate and giving it to the poor.St. Theophylact describes it this way, “Even if we consider this with exactness, we will see how he has nothing left of his estate. For he gives half of his estate to the poor, and only half remains with him. Of this remaining half, he again gives four times to those he offended. Therefore, if the life of this elder of the tax collectors consisted of untruths, and he returns four times for everything that he acquired by untruth, then look how he lost everything. In this respect, he turns out to be philosophically above the Law, a disciple of the Gospel, since he loved his neighbor more than himself.”This promise to give away his entire estate four times over was not, of course, the work of a moment. This would be the work of a lifetime. And it was. Indeed, the Church tells us that Zacchaeus went on to be a disciple, an apostolic traveling companion of Peter, and eventually bishop of Caesarea in Palestine. This is doubtless why his name is remembered by the Church, and that of the rich prince is long forgotten.I think this is the point. When Luke tells the story of the rich prince in chapter 18 and then Z
16 minutes | Jan 12, 2020
Is it time for you to grow up?
We hear a lot about being born again, but are we supposed to remain babies forever?
17 minutes | Dec 1, 2019
What is spiritual blindness?
Deacon Jared RSS Luke 18:35-43And it came to pass, that as he was come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the way side begging: And hearing the multitude pass by, he asked what it meant. And they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried, saying, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me. And they which went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace: but he cried so much the more, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me. And Jesus stood, and commanded him to be brought unto him: and when he was come near, he asked him, saying, What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee? And he said, Lord, that I may receive my sight. And Jesus said unto him, “Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee.” And immediately he received his sight, and followed him, glorifying God: and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise unto God. Today’s Gospel begins with what might truly be called a “Gospel” message. The English word Gospel, a contraction of the phrase “Good Spell” which in Old English meant a “Good Tale,” would be more literally translated today as “Good News.” And that is precisely what today’s story begins with, a bustling crowd entering into Jericho as they discuss the good news of their day. The crowd passes by a blind man begging beside the side of the road, and this man asks the crowd what all the excitement is about. They reply that Jesus of Nazareth is on his way. This would be exciting news to anybody, but to the blind man, it is very good news.As the crowd continues to flow past him, the blind man cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those at the front of the crowd try to turn the blind man away, but he perseveres, repeating again, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” This time Jesus hears him and asks for the man to be brought before him. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus inquires. The blind man does not hesitate, but immediately asks that he might receive his sight. Jesus grants this man his sight, saying that it was “his faith” that had made him well. It wasn’t just the blind man’s belief that Jesus was a great healer, or even the action of crying out to Jesus, but it was his faithful perseverance that had saved him.Why does Luke include this story in his Gospel? Why does the Church read it to us today? Is it simply a miracle story, meant as one more proof that Jesus was indeed God and therefore worthy of our worship? Or is there a more practical message to be found in this story? With this story, more than many others, I think the latter is true. As we prepare right now for the coming of the Light into the world at Christmas, the Church is reminding us that we all live in darkness, that each one of us is blind. Not metaphorically blind, but really blind. We are surrounded by a spiritual reality that we in fact cannot see. We cannot see this spiritual reality because our spirit has become darkened, our heart has become blind. For the Eastern Orthodox Church, the promise that “the pure in heart shall see God” is very real, and thus spiritual blindness is a very real malady. In fact, it is one of the more serious maladies faced by humanity.So what is this “Spiritual Blindness” the Church is reminding us of today? In Orthodox teaching, “spiritual blindness” is a malfunctioning of what in Greek is called the nous and is generally translated into English as “the mind” or “the intellect.” It is the nous St. Paul is talking about in Romans when he teaches, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” In modern culture we tend to think of the mind as the source of our person. We say things like, “I think therefore I am.” We think of the mind’s role is to tell our body what to do. But this is not the Orthodox teaching at all. And increasingly, it is not the scientific understanding either.Indeed medical science has become much better in recent decades about understanding the effect of the mind on the body, and the effect of body on the mind. And while science has been a little slower to recognize how spirituality might play into creating a truly healthy person, even here we have had a bit of a renaissance with doctors recommending spiritual practices like meditation or yoga.It is interesting that Christian spirituality almost never enters into the conversation. And this is not science’s fault nearly as much as it is Christianity’s. To a great extent Christianity has offered little to the conversation. Practices such as confession, fasting, prayer, and meditation, once regular practices for Christians, have slowly disappeared from among the faithful. I think this is because the Western Church, along with Western culture, bought into the notion of the human person is a being made up of a body, a mind, and a spirit, three separate parts. And with this in mind, they’ve relegated themselves to saving the spirit and left the body and the mind to the doctors.But for Orthodox Christians, the human person is a unity. The body, mind, and spirit are aspects of the single human person, not parts that can be separated. When God came to save humanity, he came to save us body, mind, and spirit alike. This is why we believe is a bodily resurrection. And just as much as Jesus came to save both the physical and the spiritual, this is also the mission of the Church. We are here to help people both physically and spiritually, and in fact these acts are often deeply connected.So, from the Orthodox perspective, the proper role of the mind is not to direct human action, but rather to function as the gateway or “eye” of the heart. The heart or the soul is where the Orthodox Church seats the person. The Church teaches that a healthy mind both guards what enters into the heart and guides what comes out of the heart. A darkened nous - what the Church describes as “spiritual blindness” – is a nous that accepts evil thoughts and directs us toward evil words and actions.Now most of us think of these evil words and actions as “sins.” But the meaning of the word translated as “sin” would be more properly be translated as something like “missing the mark” or “falling short.” Thus, when these evil words and actions happen, they are not themselves “sin” but rather evidence that sin has corrupted our heart. As Jesus taught, “Every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit.” When the Church teaches that humanity has inherited their sin from generation to generation, it is this corruption of the heart she is talking about.Evagrius Ponticus, and St. John Cassian after him, codified a list of eight categories of evil thoughts or logismoi in the fourth and early fifth centuries. These are thoughts which the nous must try to keep from taking root in the heart, thoughts which would work to conform us “to the pattern of this world.” The list includes gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, vanity, and pride. You will most likely recognize some of these from the Western list of the “Seven Deadly Sins.” This is because Pope Gregory I adapted his list from that of Sts. Evagrius and John in the sixth century. Now when we hear about the “Seven Deadly Sins,” again, we think of a list of seven “very bad things we must not do.” But this is again to confuse the symptoms with the disease. Listen to how St. John Cassian describes a condition like dejection: “When [dejection] seizes our soul and darkens it completely, it prevents us from praying gladly, from reading Holy Scripture with profit and perseverance, and from being gentle and compassionate with our brethren.” He is clearly describing here a spiritual state of being, not a specific wrongdoing.Sins like anger, greed, gluttony, and vanity are every bit as much symptoms of a spiritual illness, symptoms of a heart corrupted by sin. When we begin to understand this, we can see why Jesus taught that to harbor anger in our heart is the same as to murder; to lust in our heart is the same as to practice infidelity; to hoard our wealth is the same as to steal. Realizing this truth can also help us to have compassion for our neighbors. In a legal system that conceives of behaviors as the problem, it is easy to punish or shun of the offender. But when we realize that many of the most offensive behaviors flow from sick hearts, hearts sick with a disease shared by all of us, this realization can help us find compassion as we strive to show love.So if the problem facing the mind is the onslaught of evil thoughts, is it safe to say that the mind is in some serious danger these days? Modern culture has created so many new and stunning ways to spread thoughts across the globe at a faster and faster rate. Life has become a constant barrage of headlines, tweets, and status updates. Some of the ideas we hear are good, some of them are bad, but when we get so many all at once, the task of discernment becomes difficult. And if our mind becomes overwhelmed, even the good ideas can become bad for us.I ran across a great passage, again by St. John Cassian, describing vanity, and illustrating how even seemingly good ideas can become damaging to the soul. “The vice of vanity is difficult to fight against, because it has many forms and appears in all of our activities – in our way of speaking, in what we say as well as in our silence, at work, in vigils and fasting, in prayer and reading, in stillness and in long-suffering. Through all of these it seeks to strike down the soldier of Christ. When it cannot seduce one with extravagant clothes, it tries to tempt them by means of shabby ones.” Here we see that even a seemingly good act like avoiding fancy clothes can become itself a temptation from the Evil One. And not all of these poisonous ideas, these evil logismoi, originate in our culture. The Church teaches that some logismoi, logismoi that seem to originate within us, are like arrows shot at us by the devil and his demons. These logismoi are often temptations to judge others, elevate ourselves, or to act out in anger. These tests often occur suddenly, and the Church suggests we to swat them away just as swiftly. For it is not when these temptations arise, but when they are allowed to settle into ou
17 minutes | Nov 25, 2019
Nevertheless She Persisted
The ninth century was a time of trial for many Christians in the eastern Roman empire, the lands today remembered as Byzantium. Once an empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Palestine, Byzantium was in the early stages a steady decline of influence that ultimately ended in their extinction.It had been in the 7th century that the rift between east and west began to take solid form. The Council of Trullo, accepted by the east but rejected by the west, codified many of the variant practices between east and west such as the celibacy of priests and the use of unleavened bread in the eucharist. And it wasn’t far into the future that this rift would become permanent.It was also in the 7th century that Islam took control of large amounts of territory in northern Africa and the Middle East, including the Holy Lands, that was previously under Byzantine control.Moreover, it was during the 8th and 9th century that the iconoclast controversy showed persecution of the Church, especially the monastic communities, by the Byzantine state.After centuries as the lead religion in the eastern Roman empire, the Church began to feel persecuted. The alliance between the Roman government and the Byzantine Church was proving to be temporary and unstable.It is in the midst of these trials, monks at the Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai in Egypt, deep in the heart of the Islamic empire, were granted a vision which led them to find the incorrupt body of St. Katherine the All-Wise of Alexandria, who lived and died in the pre-Christian, early 4th century empire, and had been buried centuries earlier on the mountain. The Egyptian monks were living in an un-Christian world after centuries of living in a Christian empire, and here was St. Katherine, a hero from another time, a time before there was a Christian empire. Likely because so many Byzantine Christians could see themselves in her story, the life of St. Katherine quickly became one of the most popular saints of all time. To this day the Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai is referred to at St. Katherine’s, Mount Sinai itself is labelled on maps as Mount Saint Catherine, and Katherine remains one of our most popular saint’s names.The story of St. Katherine reads almost like a fairy tale. We all know the outline of this story. It goes something like this: “Once upon a time a beautiful princess, nearly perfect in every way, was trying to find her perfect prince. The princess caught the attention of an evil ruler whose authority is threatened by her in some way and he tries to kill her. Ultimately, her perfect prince arrives on the scene, saves her, and they live happily ever after.” Sound familiar? Listen for these tropes in the story of St. Katherine. They are all there. Some of them are spot on. And others are turned on their head to show their absurdity in the face of Christian truth.St. Katherine is said to have been the most beautiful princess in all the lands surrounding Alexandria in Egypt. She is also said to have been very well-educated. This is not as strange as it sounds. Middle eastern culture at the time was actually relatively progressive, allowing women to be educated, own property, and have legal standing in ways that were not permitted in Greco-Roman society. Add this to her aristocratic roots and you can see where she might have had access to one of the greatest educations the world had to offer. In fact, her home Alexandria, famous as once being the home of one the greatest libraries in the world, was still largely considered the home to the world’s most influential thinkers. To be educated in Alexandria at that time would being educated at Oxford or Harvard today.So Katherine was beautiful and smart, and the as the story goes she could not find a man worthy of her. Princes from around the world sought her hand, but she had no interest in them. They doubtless told her that she was beautiful and said how much they appreciated her wisdom, but she remained unimpressed. She told her parents that until they could find a man as handsome and wise as she, she would prefer to remain unmarried. This was, of course, a worry for her mother and father who strongly desired for her to get married.Now Katherine’s mother was a secret Christian. At this crossroads in her life she sought council at a nearby monastery. The abbot invited her to bring Katherine to see him. Katherine speaks with the Abbot about her decision not to wed any who are not her equal in beauty and wisdom. The abbot does not scold her for her pride and arrogance or insist that she be obedient to her mother and father. Instead the abbot takes this opening to tell her that he knows of just such a prince and that he thinks he might be able to introduce them, though it might take a little work. Katherine is intrigued by this potential solution to her dilemma and agrees to whatever work might be necessary. The abbot offers her an icon of the Theotokos, tells her to pray to the icon unceasingly, and that if she does this the Theotokos will lead her to the promised wise and powerful prince.We are not told how Katherine feels about this task she has been given to do, but we are told that she prays all night to the icon until finally, in a dream, the Theotokos speaks. Mary says to the child in her arms, “Behold your handmaiden, Katherine.” And what do you think happens? Remember the many courtiers and all the praise they had heaped upon Katherine? The Christ-child does the exact opposite. He turns his head away from her in disgust, saying, “She is filthy and ignorant. I will have nothing to do with her.” Katherine was taken aback by this greeting. She returns to the abbot and relates her vision. The abbot explains that Christ is indeed the prince of whom he had spoken, but that this prince sees her interior rather than her exterior and that she has much work to do in her heart before she can be truly married to this prince.Inspired by this challenge, Katherine becomes a catechumen, studies, and is ultimately baptized, becoming a Christian. We are told that sometime after this, Katherine had a second vision where Christ again appeared to her, this time gifting her a ring, and that from that time forward she lived as if she were betrothed to Christ. Notice how this turns the fairy tale trope of the perfect princess marrying the perfect prince on its head. All Christians are called to find their true love and support in Christ alone. Spouses can help with this, but they are not the answer to all of life’s problems.One day after this the emperor came to visit Alexandria and in celebration of his arrival sacrifices to the Roman gods were ordered to be made by all. Many of the Christians refused to participate, and those that were caught resisting were tortured. This stirred Katherine’s conscience and she knew that as royalty she would be allowed to speak out in a way than the other Christians would not. And so she made her way to the court to confront the emperor about his treatment of her fellow Christians.Katherine is ultimately allowed to stand before the emperor, where she shows all due respect, prostrating herself before the emperor, before confessing her own Christianity and asking the emperor to cease his persecutions. Katherine goes on to recount to the emperor how many of the philosophers of the Greco-Roman tradition themselves reviled the Gods and how others considered them merely allegories, attempting to show that Christians were not alone in this notion.We are told that because of her eloquence that the emperor was speechless in response. But instead of learning from Katherine, he saw Katherine as a threat. Why was she a threat? For one of the simplest reasons. As Christ foretold, “It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The emperor was in love with his wealth and power, and Christians were a threat to his power. Christians did not honor the emperor as a god, but rather worshiped Jesus Christ as their Lord and God. Christians did not respect class or power, but rather masters and slaves ate at table together. In this way Katherine was a prime example of the threat of Christianity, a wealthy patrician willing to risk persecution on behalf of the poor.Rather than stop the persecutions, the emperor insisted that every philosopher in the region try to win this argument with Katherine. And remember this was Alexandria – there were philosophers on every corner! And so we are told that scores of them came out to debate with Katherine.We are also told that she bested all of them. And, of course, her strong comportment was in many ways due to her education. You could say God had been preparing her for this moment even before she knew who He was. In one of the versions of the story the Angel Michael visits Katherine before her ordeal and tells her that the Lord will give her the strength and wisdom to endure. Again, it is not a white knight on his steed who sweeps in to save her, but it is the Lord who gives her what she needs to face the emperor.But I want to tell you something more. Each of us are given opportunities to speak about our faith and we can often keep silent because we feel unprepared. I want to tell you that I don’t think she simply outsmarted these men. The truth is that these philosophers could throw facts and theories and histories and traditions at her until they were blue in the face, but none of that mattered. Katherine was not defending a theory or a tradition, she was witnessing to a personal experience. She had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and no philosophical theory can assail that. So, pray. Purify your heart. If you have a relationship with your Lord and God and Savior, when you come to these moments in your life, He will give you the words to say. And I’m telling you right now the words will not be about Trinitarian dogma or the two natures of Christ. They will be words of understanding, love, and compassion. These are the words that lead others to Christ. Katherine herself was not converted by dogmas. She was converted by a personal encounter with Christ.We are told that not only does Katherine withstand all of the philosop
19 minutes | Oct 27, 2019
A humble faith
Deacon Jared RSS ST. PAUL'S SECOND LETTER TO THE CORINTHIANS 11:31-33; 12:1-9Brethren, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed for ever, knows that I do not lie. At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped his hands. I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven -- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise --whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows -- and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.LUKE 8:41-56 At that time, there came to Jesus a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue; and falling at Jesus' feet he besought him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying. As he went, the people pressed round him. And a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years and had spent all her living upon physicians and could not be healed by anyone, came up behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment; and immediately her flow of blood ceased. And Jesus said, "Who was it that touched me?" When all denied it, Peter and those who were with him said, "Master, the multitudes surround you and press upon you!" But Jesus said, "Some one touched me; for I perceive that power has gone forth from me." And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace." While he was still speaking, a man from the ruler's house came and said, "Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more." But Jesus on hearing this answered him, "Do not fear; only believe, and she shall be well." And when he came to the house, he permitted no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child. And all were weeping and bewailing her; but he said, "Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But taking her by the hand he called, saying, "Child, arise." And her spirit returned, and she got up at once; and he directed that something should be given her to eat. And her parents were amazed; but he charged them to tell no one what had happened. I’d like to start today by looking at the words we just read from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. St. Paul relates the story of one who has experienced the heavenly paradise and heard the voice of God. This is generally considered to be Paul humbly speaking of his own experiences, trying to play them down by speaking of them in the third person. He goes on to say that his true glory is not in these visions, but rather in his weaknesses.I don’t know about you, but that is not where I find my glory. Paul said that he refrains from boasting about his connection to God, “So that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.” Again, who does that? Who among us goes to an important meeting without dressing up a little, practicing what we are going to say – hoping that whoever we are meeting will think more of us than we actually are. We all put up a little bit of a façade and sometimes pretend to be more than we are.But not Paul. Notice how he doesn’t even take credit for his humility. “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations,” Paul shares, “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.” St. Paul credits “a thorn in the flesh” for keeping him humble. It doesn’t matter in particular what this trouble was – St. John Chrysostum suggests he is referring to his frequent persecutors – but the point is that St. Paul finds purpose in it. He sees it as a gift from God to keep him humble.Now, he doesn’t wallow in the suffering, or seek it out. In fact, he asked the Lord repeatedly to remove this particularly difficult cup. But the response Paul received was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." And given that answer, Paul accepts the thorn.And in that an swer, we see first where Paul learns his humility. Paul is willing to live in humility, because his master lived in humility. Jesus’ power is “made perfect in weakness.” But I we should also admit that this is a very confusing teaching. There’s the obvious confusion involved in weakness being seen as power, but as Christians we surely have become used to that. That’s just the normal confusion we expect from our Lord - “the last shall be first,” “the meek shall inherit the earth,” there’s a definite pattern.But what are we to make of Christ’s power being made perfect in our weakness? Or being made perfect at all? Isn’t it already perfect? How can anything we do make anything about him more perfect? But this is not an isolated case, where we can think that perhaps Paul misspoke or maybe it’s an awkward translation. St. Paul wrote something very similar in his letter to the Colossians, “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the Church.” (Col. 1:24) For Paul, his own sufferings fill up “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” What could be lacking? What needs yet to be made perfect? I suspect the clue is in the next phrase, where Paul says he does this “for the sake of [Christ’s] body, which is the Church.” Christ’s power is made perfect in Paul’s weakness. Paul’s affliction fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. What are we to make of this?Jesus often liked to answer difficult questions with stories instead of direct answers, so by way of answering this question I would like to turn at this point to today’s Gospel reading. In this reading from the Gospel of Luke, a very prominent man is dealing with a very serious thorn in his flesh – his daughter is dying. We are told that this man’s name is Jairus and that he is the head of the local synagogue. Worried for his daughter, Jairus throws himself at the feet of Jesus and begs Jesus to come to his house and heal his daughter.It is worth noting, I believe, that Luke tells this story just one chapter after he has told the story of the centurion. The centurion sends his servants to ask Jesus to heal his ailing friend. And when Jesus offers to visit his house, the centurion says that he doesn’t need to bother with that, that he believes Jesus can heal his servant with a word. Jesus publicly commends the centurion for his faith saying, “I have not found such great faith in Israel.” And then he heals the servant with a word just as the centurion believed he could. So then in today’s story, by asking Jesus to come to his house, Jairus shows less faith than the centurion. But nonetheless Jesus heads toward his house.And as they go, a great crowd is packing in around them. This crowd has been building because of Jesus’ healing miracles and they are hoping to see a truly great miracle performed for this man they all know. What a show! And as this clamor builds and the crowd presses in on Jesus, he suddenly stops. Now take a moment to imagine the scene. Jairus’ daughter is dying. Jesus stopping at this moment in the story is like an ambulance suddenly flipping off its siren and lights and pulling to the side of the road. And not only does Jesus stop, but then he begins to sound like a fool. “Who touched me?” he asks. His disciples are unsure how to answer. “Um, Jesus, at least a half dozen people have touched you in the past 30 seconds. I think we should get going. Jairus’ daughter, um, she’s dying.” Jesus doesn’t move. He insists that somebody touched him, saying now that he felt power come out of him. The crowd is confused. The disciples are uncomfortable. Jairus must have been beside himself – did I mention his daughter is dying? Jesus seems to be waiting for something – something that must be pretty important.And then it happens. A woman who we are told was trying to hide finally realized that Jesus was not going to let her stay anonymous. Slowly, she came forward trembling. Trembling. I mean, she must have been scared. The whole procession is being held up for her. Everybody is staring at her, wondering what could be so important.Luke explains that this woman had been hemorrhaging blood for twelve years. Not only is this bleeding a terrible illness, but we should also understand that in this culture it would have rendered her ritually unclean. So there was a social stigma to this condition, as well. So here we have, socially speaking, the exact opposite of Jairus. An anonymous outcast is standing in the way of healing the prominent Jairus’ daughter.This woman had asked nothing of Christ – not his time, his touch, or even his gaze. She had merely touched his garment as he passed with the faith that this humble interaction could bring her healing. And it did. And just as he had commended the gentile centurion, so Jesus commends this woman for her faith before all the multitudes: “Daughter, your faith has made you well,” he says. “Go in peace.”Now, during this hold up, the worst happens. Jairus’ servants
14 minutes | Sep 29, 2019
The scent of eternal life
Deacon Jared RSS 2 CORINTHIANS 4:6-15Brethren, 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 believe, 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.LUKE 6:31-36The Lord said, "As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." What’s that smell? It smells like death. Did something die in here? We’ve all had that moment, right? The moment when your nose fills with something rotten and you do your best to hold your breath. Quick! Find it! Get it out of here! The smell of death and rot is the worst. So, did you know that’s what we all smell like? Or at least we’re supposed to.We read a passage today from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. To give some context to our passage, I’m going to jump just a bit earlier in the same letter. It is there that Paul says: “We are for God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved, as well as among those who are perishing. To the one we are the scent of death leading to death, and to the other the scent of life leading to life.” Now that’s special. We are called by God to bear the fragrance of Christ, and that fragrance is to some the stench of death, but to others the aroma of life. So, yes, to much of the world, we stink of death.This letter was addressed to Corinth, a very prominent city in the Roman world. Rome had largely taken control of Greece at the end of the Second Macedonian War, around 150 BC, by leveling Corinth and forcing Macedonia and their Greek allies to surrender. By the time Paul is writing, 200 years later, it has been rebuilt and is serving as the provincial capital of Greece for Rome. As such, it was a very metropolitan city, attracting Romans, Syrians, Egyptians, and Jews from around the empire. And as Paul attempted to bring all of these diverse peoples together within one church, it was likely inevitable that there would arise differing factions. This is perhaps why Paul dwells so much on themes of the proud being humbled and God’s preference for the weak. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul had written, “And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: So that no flesh should glory in his presence.” St. John Chrysostom points out in his commentaries on Corinithians that the Lord has always worked in this manner. He has always elevated the weak and toppled the strong. “In the Old Testament,” he wrote, “whole hosts were turned to flight by gnats and flies, wherefore also he called the caterpillar his mighty force; and in the beginning, by only confounding tongues, he put a stop to that great tower of Babylon. And in their wars, too, at one time, he routed innumerable hosts by three hundred men; at another he overthrew cities with trumpets; and afterwards by a little and poor stripling, David, he turned to flight a whole army. So then here also, sending forth twelve only he overcame the world; and those twelve persecuted and warred against.”So Chrysostom sees no change in the Lord’s behavior between the time of the tower of Babel and the days of St. Paul. God has always aligned himself with the poor and oppressed. This is in fact how the Lord introduced himself to Moses in the burning bush, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry; for I know their sorrows; And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land flowing with milk and honey.” The Lord hears the sorrows of his people.And indeed he saves his people, working in the process many of the miracles cited above, freeing the enslaved Israelites and creating a free people. But after they live in the land of milk and honey for a time, they forget who gave it to them and begin to beg for a king to rule over them. In answer to this, Samuel declares, “Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of all kingdoms, and of them that oppressed you: And ye have this day rejected your God, who himself saved you out of all your adversities and your tribulations; and ye have said unto him, Nay, but set a king over us.” To God, Israel’s longing for a king is essentially a longing to return to slavery. Eventually, God relents and allows Israel to have a king, and gives this king the mandate to care for his people.King David, the young stripling who had put armies to flight, rose to be one of the greatest of these kings. But even he was brought low. St. Paul alluded to one of his psalms in his letter this morning when he wrote, “I believed, and so I spoke.” This is an excerpt from Psalm 115. Let me read just a bit more from that text.“The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me. Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee. For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I believed, therefore have I spoken: I was greatly afflicted: I said in my haste, ‘All men are liars.’ What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all his people. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”In this Psalm, David realizes that “the Lord preserves the simple” and that he needed to be afflicted and brought low before he was in a place where the Lord could help him. We are often too proud. It is difficult for the Lord to show us the way when we believe we already know it.But when we are humble, when we are quiet, the Lord is able to work great things through us. St. Paul told us this morning, “Friends, it is the same God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who now has shone in our hearts…But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” In the same way that God raised up slaves to become a free people, and raised a stripling boy to become a king, he has placed his divine image within our earthen bodies. And as with the kings of old, this gift came with a responsibility.St. Paul goes on to say, “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.” Here we learn that it is specifically as we are persecuted that the image of God is most fully manifest in our body.For when Jesus was healing the sick and feeding the hungry and speaking the truth, the masses were more than ready to follow him. They paraded with him into Jerusalem shouting, “Hosanna! Glory to God in the Highest!” The world loves all of these things. And we are called to follow his example by feeding and healing and teaching. And it is easy to be excited about doing these great works. But when that same Jesus was captured, beaten, and mocked, those same masses cried out, “We have no king but Caesar!” It’s so much harder to follow our Lord’s example in the face of such crosses.But that is what we are called to do. And it is there that we take up the fragrance of Christ, the fragrance that is the stench of death to those who are dying but the aroma of life to those being saved. So what does Christ smell like to you? What do you see when you look at the cross? Is it an instrument of death or the tree of life?How we answer that question will have a lot to do with how we greet the crosses in our own life. If we cannot see the potential for life in the cross of Christ, we will have difficulty seeing it in our own crosses. Listen to the words of St. Mark the Ascetic: “It is a great virtue to accept patiently whatever comes and, as the Lord enjoins, to love a neighbor who hates you. The sign of sincere love is to forgive wrongs done to us. It was with such love that the Lord loved the world.” St. Paul says something similar to the Corinthians: “We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed. But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and di
15 minutes | Feb 10, 2019
Crumbs from your table
Deacon Jared RSS MATTHEW 15:21-28At that time, Jesus went to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon." But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." And he answered, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly. What would you do for your sick child? How far would you go? What kind of hardships would you endure to save your child? I think every parent here knows that they would do just about anything to save our children from harm. And that is precisely the situation presented in today’s Gospel. Today we meet a woman whose daughter, we are told, is severely possessed. This mother is in dire straits. We are told that she comes out of her lands to find Jesus. In Mark’s version of this meeting account, we learn that Jesus has intentionally hidden himself away and asked that no one share his location. But away from her home and with Jesus hiding himself, this desperate mother manages to find him anyway.And so it is that when she finds Jesus, she cries out to him, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” And we are told that Jesus does not say a thing. And this can be a difficult thing for us to understand, so this morning I would like to explain the encounter between this woman and Jesus.The church sees in this story an image of our own prayer life. First, it is the experience of every one of us that often, when we seek God, it seems that we find him hidden away. This can be meant in the most tangible of ways – the notion that we cannot see God or touch God. But it can also be in the less tangible ways. Doubtless there have been times in your life that God where you would say that God felt present. But I would also guess that for most of us, there have been other times, times when God feels a little more distant; and in those times we might tempted to question why we are praying at all. At these times, I am always reminded of a passage toward the beginning of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s book Beginning to Pray. It is a fabulous book. It is short, but powerful. I can’t recommend it enough. I will quote from it a few times this morning, but you should seek it out and read it if you haven’t. In the introduction, he says: “The day when God is absent, when He is silent - that is the beginning of prayer. Not when we have a lot to say, but when we say to God, 'I can't live without You, why are You so cruel, so silent?' This knowledge that we must find or die – that makes us break through to the place where we are in the Presence.” God’s silence brings us to the place where we are in His Presence. God’s silence is a test. Will we remain faithful? Or will we despair? God can only truly meet us when we are aware of our need for Him. And thus it is often crisis that fuels our faith, because crisis helps reveal to us that we are truly in need. And it is also crisis can make us willing to leave our comfortable homes and seek out a cure.The Church is unanimous that in this passage that Jesus is testing this woman. And furthermore, that he is testing her with the very specific intent of making a display of her great faith for all to see. The Gospels are very consistent about making a display of the faith of the Gentiles and contrasting this faith with that of the Israelites. Jesus compliments and rewards the faith of the blind Samaritan, the Roman Centurion, and this Canaanite woman. And whose faith does he criticize? The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and more often than not, his own disciples. When Peter can’t walk out to him on the water: “Oh you of little faith.” When the disciples are confused about his parables: “Oh you of little faith.” And when the disciples cannot heal a lunatic, Jesus names their entire generation as faithless and rebukes his disciples saying, “If you even had faith the size of a mustard seed you would say to this mountain move and it would move.”There is another great passage in Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray that speaks to the disciples lack of faith. It is his description of the story where the disciples are all in a panic as their ship is buffeted by a storm, as Jesus is sleeping below the decks. Metropolitan Bloom explains that, “Then at a certain moment they lose heart, and the storm that was outside comes inside – the storm is within them too. Anguish and death no longer simply circle round, they come inside. And then [the disciples] turn to Christ and do what we very often do with God: we look at God in time of stress and tragedy, and we are indignant that He is so peaceful. The story in the Gospel underlines it by saying that Christ was sleeping with His head on a pillow - the final insult. They are dying and He is comfortable. This is exactly what we feel about God so often. How dare He be blissful, how dare He be so comfortable when I am in trouble? And the disciples do exactly what we do so very often. Instead of coming to God and saying ‘You are peace, you are the Lord, say a word and my servant will be healed, say a word and things will come right,’ they shake Him out of His sleep and say 'Don't you care that we are perishing?' In other words, 'If you can do nothing, at least don't sleep. If you can do nothing better, then at least die in anguish with us.' Christ reacts, He gets up and says 'Men of little faith!' and brushing them aside, He turns towards the storm and, projecting His inner stillness, His harmony and peace, on the storm He says 'Be still, be quiet' and everything is quiet again.”Why do I emphasize this lack of faith so much? Because we must remember that we are the disciples in these storys – never quite understanding what is going on, often getting impatient and angry that God is not doing what we expected. Every one of these stories of the disciples is intended as a warning for us, for we here today are Jesus’ disciples. When life gets tough, does our faith shine through? Or does it prove to be less than a grain of mustard seed? And when we prove ourselves faithless, I promise you that Jesus find faith to display elsewhere. And I guarantee it will be found within those we least expect.So the woman’s first test is Jesus’ silence, but it is not her last test. When she proves that she cannot be stopped, Jesus finally responds. And Jesus responds with a very off-putting remark, the kind of remark this Canaanite woman was quite likely the expecting to receive from a Jewish Rabbi. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” She doubtless knew that Gentiles were largely considered unclean by Israelites, and even more so that it was unseemly for a woman to approach a man in public. But this woman courageously approached anyway, because she was in crisis.And when she is not deterred, he gets even harder. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And this would certainly appear to be his final word, but this concerned mother asked one more time. But more than asking again, she humbly bears the insult for the sake of her daughter. She doesn’t reply, “How dare you call me a dog!” She accepts this insult with grace and asks simply for the dog’s due. She asks for the crumbs. For she understands in her heart what the disciples could not comprehend – that just as a mustard seed can move mountains, that crumbs, when they fall from Christ’s table, have the power to save. Again, the Church portrays these Christ’s reproofs here as tests. I thought it would be good at this point to read you St. John Chrysostum’s take on this interaction: “Justly did Christ say, ‘For judgement I am come.’ The woman practices high self-command, and shows forth all endurance and faith….With this intent did Christ put her off, for He knew she would say this; for this did He deny the grant, that He might exhibit her high self-command. For if he had not meant to give, neither would he have given afterwards, nor would He have stopped her mouth again. But as He does in the case of the Centurion, saying, ‘I will come heal him,’ that we might learn the godly fear of that man…and as He doth in the case of her that had the issue of blood, saying, ‘I perceive that virtue has gone out of me,’ that he might make her faith manifest; and as in the case of the Samaritan woman, that He might show how not even upon reproof she desists: so also here, He would not that so great virtue in the woman should be hid. Not in insult were His words spoken, but in calling her forth, and revealing the treasure laid up within her.”As Chrysostum points out, to meet Christ is to meet our Judge. This is the same Lord who allowed Satan to test Job. Every struggle in life is a test, an opportunity to show our faith or our lack thereof. In the Lord’s prayer we say, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Another common translation reads, “Put us not to the test, but deliver us from evil.” Evil, hardship, these things are tests for our faith. This is the decision put before us time and again – Will this trial grow my faith? Or will it snuff it out? Again, I will read just a bit from Beginning to Pray: “To meet God face to face in prayer is a critical moment in our lives, and thanks be to God that He does not always present Himself to us when we wish to meet Him, because we might not be able to endure such a meeting. Remember the many passages in Scripture in which we are told how bad it is to find oneself face to face with God, because God is power, God is truth, God is purity. Therefore, the first thought we ought to have when we do not tangibly perceive the divine presence, is a thought of gratitude.”In our story today, the Canaanite woman did come face to face with God and she showed her true mettle. How many of us have allowed littl
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