Homily September 25

Homily September 25, 2022

How small we are, we humans.

Our pretensions are larger than the universe, but despite them small we remain.

A passing look into the heavens on a cloudless country night reveals a world so far beyond us we can hardly imagine it. Countless stars in countless galaxies in a void that even light must take decades to travel. And here we are on this blue dot in the darkness of space, scurrying about for what is really a small thread in the fabric of time.

How fragile we are as humans.

We fancy being rulers over the natural world and yet we can be dethroned by a virus smaller than our vision. We presume to master time and yet a single unplanned event can remove us permanently from the life we imagined.

The truth is that despite our braggadocio we often live at the whims of our environment, others, things we never could control, far away decisions, and twists of fate. Life humbles us, repeatedly.

Still, there is a great light shining in all of this.

The God who brought the farthest galaxies into being somehow, for reasons we cannot often fathom, loves us. Not afraid of our fragility, the shortness of our earthly lives, or the weakness of body and soul He chooses to place eternity within, to join us to Himself, and give us the grace to even contemplate approaching the holy, and holy things.

We are earthen vessels, literally made up of the same elements of this planet. Our immediate destiny is to one day decay and become part of the very soil from which we were taken in the time of Eden. Yet in the brief flash of life between then and now the One who brought everything into existence, Who is beyond existence itself, has come to us to live with and in us, and even to reveal His glory to the world in our mortality.

Perplexed, set upon, harried, limited, and challenged we walk this world and yet in the midst of it the Light unconquered shines from around us and within and grace beyond our imagination is revealed in bodies of flesh. We carry our crosses, bear the marks of suffering, and yet it is at that very place where God is revealed to, in, and through us and those who understand it begin to realize how the God who places eternity into our finiteness can also grant us a kind of invincibility.

We are not immune from the realities of the world, but we’ve been given the potential to transcend. We are not released from the obligation of the cross but by it we discover life eternal. In our humility we overcome the world. In our meekness we inherit all that is good. In our suffering we join ourselves to Christ and His resurrection is ours as well. And the sign of all of this is to reveal this not in great flashes of lightning, or angelic choirs, but rather by the life and light and grace of God being shown to the world at the very places where are most vulnerable, weak and challenged.

For the one who follows Christ this is an assurance and a foretaste of what is, and what is to come. We know the peace and grace that allows us to endure and even thrive in the world is from God because our own weakness reminds us that we could never generate this of our own accord. Each bit of brokenness transformed by God is His still, small, voice telling us “Yes, you are loved, I am with you, and even your darkness is not beyond my reach.” We are surrounded by the grace and glory of God but sometimes we only become aware of it in the fury of struggle.

God shining in our feebleness is a sign, as well, of what will one day be. We are being transformed. The world is being transformed. History is moving towards its Creator like an arrow flies to its point of impact. The grace and glory of God that shines through our limitedness reminds that one day it will be reality itself, eternal, glorious, and holy.

What a great mystery this is! What a profound contemplation of that which is real and true but beyond our ability to completely understand. God loves us. God chose to come to be with us. God desires to inhabit all of who we are with the glory of His presence, even in the places where we’ve been broken, where we’re most fragile, where the things that life has thrown at us join us to the sufferings of our Lord. The reality that we are earthen vessels and fragile in our humanity becomes, because of it, the very place where His grace and glory touch us and where we see the promise of what will one day be.

If for this alone, how could we refuse to worship such a God?

Homily September 4

Homily 9/4/22

It’s both simple and beyond comprehension, historical fact and eternally significant. An ancient story still shaping the present with the beauty of a flower and the dogged perseverance of a military force.

Over two millennia ago God became part of that which He created, entering the world in real time and space so that which He’d created could be restored. There had been stories, of course, of the gods visiting humanity in ancient legends. Often these tales were of beautiful women who had aroused their passions, oracles who captured human souls as mouthpieces, or visitations to procure vengeance on those who had insulted them or falsely worshipped.

This one was different. It was about pure love for humanity and a God who, rather than seeking to wreak vengeance or satisfy lust, came instead to join with human reality even to the point of enduring death. This visitation was no momentary flash but rather spanned over thirty years and could be seen, handled, listened to, written about, and observed in the flesh. The places where He lived and walked among us are with us still and every archaeologist’s shovel reveals more and more of the reality of His presence.

And after His death, resurrection, and ascension, the story of Jesus began to be carried around the known world. First orally and then in written form the details of His life, His teachings, and the path He called His followers to walk became known to an increasing audience. In some times and places miracles confirmed the veracity. In others the very life of the people who had embraced Jesus’ teachings became the witness.

It struck a powerful chord, especially among the slaves and common people of the Roman Empire. There was one God, not many, and this God came to the poor, broken, sinners, and outcasts with a message that they were loved, they could be forgiven, and everyone could be, by grace, brothers and sisters in Jesus’ family.  Unlike the often capricious and angry gods of the Empire the God presented to them in Jesus saw humans not simply as playthings but as deeply significant and infinitely valuable. This truth shook the powers that be who had invested their lives and their fortunes tied to whose gods legitimized their physical intimidation through the spiritual intimidation of their deities.

And from that time, across the generations and throughout the world that message, that truth, that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life, has endured, enlightened, saved, transformed, and brought humanity out of the shadows.

At times the message, the One who brought it, and those who followed it have been mercilessly persecuted. Kings, overlords, and oligarchs fear a kingdom that lives within the souls of its followers, the one place their money, their militaries, and their power can’t touch.

Others have tried to twist it with heresies and distortions to make it more palatable to their moment in history. Being products of time, however, and not eternity their moments pass because they neither have, nor can give, that which lasts forever. Everything not in union with God eventually suffers the same fate.

Sometimes in the allure of the present world the children of the Gospel sell away their inheritance and compromise it for the sake of moments applause. They’ve gone along to get along with the rewards of the moment valued more than the riches that cannot be taken away.

Sadly, as well, the leaders and teachers, the ones entrusted to accurately transmit and the live the reality of Jesus, sometimes fall away into disbelief, scandal, as their lives drift farther from the Source. They kiss the master but then leave Him to His murderers as the followers flee in every direction to save themselves.

All this and more has happened and will continue to happen even until the close of history. Darkness despises the light, virtue is vice’s worst enemy, and the evil one, who is brokenness himself spares no effort to subvert those who are being forgiven and healed as he knows his time is short.

Yet our Lord, our Savior, our God endures and the message of who He is, how He loves, and where, by grace, the whole world is one day going will not be denied. In the world you will have many troubles, our Lord says, but do not be afraid for I have overcome the world.

The hope we have been given, the reality of the One who came among so long ago and is with us still, has fought off every attempt to destroy it, every effort to compromise it, every persecution, every scandal, and continues to do so every day.  The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.

The stories told while sitting by the fires of long-ago Palestine, the stories of a Savior, of a God who loves, cherished by the witnesses and passed from person to person, writer to writer, are still fresh for the hungry souls of these days and the One who they speak of, Jesus, remains as He ever was, light of light, true God of true God. Staying true to that, and most especially to Jesus, the times, good, bad, or otherwise where the One who brought time into being directs, and in knowing this we have nothing, ultimately, to fear.

Sunday, August 28

Homily

August 28, 2022

One of the most freeing things in life is the realization you’re a sinner.

People don’t like to hear about their soft spots, their shadows, the places where they’ve been “less than” and the reality that perfection has more often than not been absent from their lives.

It’s embarrassing. It shatters carefully crafted illusions. It makes us deeply uncomfortable and terribly afraid to be exposed. Yet you and I both, just know it, somewhere deep inside where others don’t get a glimpse we see the spiritual cobwebs, the dust that somehow escaped our vigilant attempts at cleaning, and that funny smell we can never seem to get rid of no matter how much we try.

Some will despair over this, but if understood correctly and in the light of God’s grace this knowledge will set you free. Not free to sin or affirm every dark spot and hidden corner but rather the freedom that comes when you realize, often after much trial and error, that your hope will never be in some kind of self-improvement course or stalwart resolution but rather by casting yourself, as you are, into the see of God’s mercy, His love, and His grace.

The Psalmist says “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand…” and he was as accurate then as now. None of us would be able to give an honest account of ourselves before God if the standard was the infinite holiness of God.

Someone once said “If God were truly just all of us would end up in hell…” and there’s truth to that. But like the end of the verse, I just read there is more and that more makes all the difference.

Yes it says “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand…” but it ends “Yet with You there is forgiveness.”  The darkness inside can, at times, be great but for those who can accept it even greater still is God’s mercy and forgiveness and knowing that is transformative.

No, you don’t play games with God’s mercy and forgiveness, and sin with the idea that you can somehow balance the accounts because God is obligated to show you forgiveness. That’s very dangerous and kill a person body and soul.

But yes, the realization the burdens I’m not able to carry, the darkness I struggle to hide, the dirtiness within, has been taken on by the only One who could, namely God, is the only true, real, and eternal liberation ever available to our species while we live this life. Even in the face of many kinds of human inspired oppression the person who has come to understand that God, in love, has offered to carry every kind of broken humanity on Himself will always and ever be free.

This is magnificent beyond words and beyond the grasp of thought. There is no darkness greater than God’s love. There is no sin that’s God’s mercy can’t overcome. There is no brokenness that can’t be healed by God’s tender care. It doesn’t mean we magically are immune from the trials and tribulations, failures and fallings of our lives in this world, but rather that we have something higher, better, more blessed, and wonderful to carry us through and because of it none of that has any eternal claim on us.

If all of us truly recognized the grace we’ve been given it would break our hearts to sin because we could not bear to be even a little bit away from what God has given us. Sin would seem bizarre, tedious, and foreign to us, the senselessness of a person set free from prison but pining to be returned to jail. Grace, when properly understood, makes holiness pleasant, as Jesus says “a light burden…” and rest for our souls.

This great grace would also inspire us to share it with others, even those who’ve greatly harmed us. It would flow out of us not because what one may have done to us was good or right or pleasant but rather because as grace transforms us to draw closer to the likeness of our Creator it would, like it does for God, naturally flow out to even the most repugnant among us.

In realizing that we ourselves are daily, and sometimes minute by minute, recipients of God’s mercy we could do no less then give that to others as well. What was given to us in our undeserving call out to be shared with the undeserving of others. The sins that God has forgiven in ourselves remind us to be quick to forgive the sins of others. The pattern that God has initiated of offering grace even to those who violently hate Him is presented to us as a pattern for us as well, at home, at work, in life, in our parish. Once given grace ourselves we dare not withhold it from others if given the opportunity to share. Even when we call ourselves or others to accountability the whole effort must be done with the possibility of grace, forgiveness, and restoration in mind.

And the great miracle is this. When this becomes our practice not only is the object of our grace set free but the giver as well. Forgiveness releases both the one who shares and the one who receives. Forgiveness soothes the guilt of the one who injures and the pain of their victim. It is not force or vengeance that tears down the strong fortresses of evil but mercy. It is not retribution which ultimately brings peace but rather the light of mercy that shatters a dark night of the soul.

And in doing and being and sharing all that God in the overflowing of his love, mercy, forgives, and grace, has given us we become recreators of broken world but even more than that we become the children of God.

Sunday, July 31

Homily  July 31, 2022

Do you know why political campaigns produce negative ads?

They’re not to convince voters from the other candidates to reconsider their choices because of new, and damaging, information. They’re designed, instead, to keep their own people in line by using fear, personal fear of the other candidate, fear of their character, and fear of imagined consequences should they win. If they can’t herd you by their virtue as sheep dogs, they can at least try to keep you in the flock for fear of imaginary wolves.

We live in an age of “they” and “them” of people put into easy categories often because of superficial differences and membership in these often-imagined groups comes with presuppositions about a person’s history, their mindset, and their personality. How far we’ve come from the Rev. Martin Luther King’s admonition to consider each other not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. Now everyone has to belong to a group, and membership in that group whether by race, sexuality, politics, ethnicity, any host of things, even if requires a heaping pile of intellectual sloppiness to pound the square peg into a round hole, is all that matters.

There are powerful people who want it that way because it makes it so much easier to both sell to, and control, people who think in this manner. Fear of the other is the first tool of the propagandist and the last refuge of the scoundrel. It kills humanity from the inside but makes a lot of money for people who know how to exploit it. Old men use it to wage war and young men die because of it. Those who are conditioned to be reflexively afraid of the ”other” are easy prey for slaveowners.

But what if it was different?

What would it be like if we saw everyone else in the world as Christ sees them, as objects of God’s love, as those for whom our Lord sacrificed Himself, as not “other” but neighbor, not as members of any particular group but rather as a person created, regardless of their differences from us, in God’s image?

And what if we determined that because of this we would try to, in love, help them bear their burdens, we all have them, and give ourselves, even if we had legitimate personal reservations, to their betterment, to their thriving, and most especially to their ultimate salvation?

What really would happen if we tried our best not to judge the entirety of a person by one specific characteristic, even if our standard was legitimate? How different would the world be if we saw the person who lets their dog go to the bathroom in our yard with Jesus’ eyes? And how about that politician who makes our skin crawl, you know the one in the nasty ad? Are they my enemy or are they a potential neighbor, a fellow human, and an object of God’s love even if their behavior and votes seem grievous? And the person who sits next to us in church. Do we just disagree with them or are we trying to help them bear their burdens in the spirit and love of Christ?

I can tell you what would happen.

First there would be astonishment. We’re so used to living in the world at each other’s throats, emphasizing what is disagreeable and avoiding seeing each other’s humanity in the image of God, that being well, whole, and good, looks like abnormality. Imagine if in a political debate one of the candidates, upon hearing the other’s answer, would truthfully say “Well, you know you have a point there…”   We’re so used to fighting, to hating, to blaming, to holding grudges, that any kind of effort at reconciliation, healing, forgiveness, mercy, or even gratitude seems like maladjustment.  

Yet, that astonishment would be the seed of a joyful revolution because each gracious thought directed to the other, each act of kindness, each bearing of each other’s burdens in the spirit and truth of Christ would plant the possibility of something else, something better, in the heart of the world. Hating, bitterness, doing violence, not doing unto each other as we would have done to us, is unnatural, inhuman, and debilitating to body and soul.  

Serving the other lifts us up, humanizes us, and makes us whole.

You see, as Orthodox Christians we have a different basis for seeing the people around us. All the human definitions and categories are insufficient and often dangerous ways to see each other. What we are called to see is the image of God in everyone and every other label as secondary at best, perhaps a part of who people are but often a mere stereotype. This standard applies to everyone, even those who disagree with us and even those who would do us harm. This applies even in the church where there should be no Democrats or Republicans, no masked or unmasked, no distinctions or privileges based on wealth or position, and no ethnic or racial superiorities.

Yes, we do have our teachings, our moral standards, the high calling of God that we’re not to compromise in the winds of history but at the core of each of us, central to our identity and central to that high calling is a human being, made in the image of God, broken and challenged sometimes for sure, but also never completely extinguished. It is to that image that we appeal, it is that image we respect even in those who may hate us, and it is that image of God that makes all other categories, no matter how much the powers that be may insist, that turns everyone who we’re told is “other” than us into “neighbors” and even, by grace, brothers and sisters whom we can love and serve with the fullness of our heart.

And in seeing the image of God in everyone this is how we can bear each other’s burdens, and love, and be at peace, and let go of our fears.  Rather than tearing down in endless competitions we can build up. Forsaking old animosities, we can find peace. By choosing faith over fear, we can set ourselves free from those who control us by keeping us afraid. And by rejecting the darkness we can become children of the Light.

T0 Make Unhuman

Human beings have an instinctive, some would say “God given,” revulsion to killing other humans. It appears to be as ancient as we are and the vast majority of human cultures have seen such killing as among the ultimate offenses and apply penalties appropriate to the crime. Such is our instinct.

So those who wish war for whatever reason have a hurdle to overcome. War requires young, healthy, bodies to fuel its ambition and under normal circumstances those people aren’t primally directed to kill and for the comfort of those who send them. Thus, that basic taboo about taking human life must be overcome.

Here lies the work of the propagandist, government, corporate, ethnic, it really makes no difference because to move a normal human being to kill requires a single outcome, the dehumanization of the ones those in power wish to die. If it is deeply and inherently wrong somewhere deep inside the average human, then that is an obstacle that must be overcome so a generation will be willing to endure and inflict trauma for those who wish it.

Witness the horribly racist pictures of slant eyed, buck toothed, Japanese of WW2. Witness again the spiked helmeted Germans tossing babies on their bayonets and raping the innocent of WW1. The Vietnamese became “Charlie” or “Gooks”, people from the Middle East become “A-Rabs” and the list could go on. Almost any or everything goes if the powerful want to condition young minds to see the people they wish dead as something less than human and, by doing so, give them a pseudo-moral framework to justify the horrors they wish to make real. Every side plays the game. Sadly, it seems to be one of the great commonalities among us as a species. If the powerful want to keep or increase their power, they need willing bodies with willing minds shaped by and endless flow of information to overcome a sense of common humanity with the desire to kill.

Sometimes, of course, the programming won’t work, or it takes reinforcement. Witness the executions of French soldiers in WW1 who, seeing the slaughter and stupidity, refused to continue to perpetuate it. Witness, too, the moments of humanity in any war where people faced with the flesh and blood reality of things find ways, large and small, to be humans even as those above them try to keep them animals. Witness, as well, the veterans of long-ago wars who somehow, in reflection recover that which the state tried to strip from them, namely the understanding that the folks shooting at them were, in the end, just “Little people” doing what the “Big people” told them to do and even discovering friendships with those they had been told were not even worthy of life. Witness, finally, those who never recover, people for whom the programming “took” and never let go of its grip, people who spend the rest of their lives embittered at people they never met who were actually more like them than they ever knew.

One must kill in their heart before they can kill in the physical world and that death of the heart is probably the worst part of war and the place where war, even the “good” ones, most violates the Christian conscience. In war one must kill twice, first in the soul and then on the battlefield and even those who survive it all never quite leave that ugly place no matter how many parades are held or how shiny the headstones are kept.

Still, our basic humanity is strong because it is God given, it is part of the image of God that now even war can ultimately remove. And when war is upon us perhaps this is also where we can all agree. We can pray that somehow in a secret place in the heart those who instigate war and those who choose or are coerced into accepting it will have a tiny light inside that allows a single question “Why?” and from that “Why?” they’ll see what they are becoming, what they’ve been told to be often by those who are far away and very safe from where they are and their humanity will return.

The Pacifist Inside…

Growing up in the Plymouth Brethren, a loose confederation of “assemblies” deeply flavored by Anabaptist thought, the whole idea of war seemed remote to us. As I recall, it was considered a “worldly” thing, something the devout should be wary of and even though there were military personnel in our community, they were rare, mostly because of the draft, and I never recall a career military person among us for all the years I was one of the “Brethren.”

My father, who had actually enlisted in the Marines before he and our family joined the Brethren, made a sincere effort to keep us from the military and even forbid us from playing “war” with our friends because he didn’t want us to make a game of such things. Presumably he had seen enough and he often warned us about being “cannon fodder.” So even though there was a war going on in Viet Nam, without a TV and with a deep sense of trying to not be like the “world” the whole thing was distant from us.

Flash forward to seminary when the Evangelical Left was in an 80’s ascendancy. The Cold War was hot on our minds and the effects of things like war and hunger and global economics on the poor and disenfranchised of the world were front and center. Starting to experience an age when images of such things were not being carefully crafted by governments, the full picture started to emerge, especially of war. War is nothing like the movies, not even the graphic ones, and those who fight in them never really come back no matter how many parades we have.

One step forward to serving as a Chaplain in health care and taking care of the men who had been front and center, even in the “good” wars. I remember an older man speaking to me of how he was horribly wounded (he still had shrapnel in his body courtesy of the Nazi’s) and then had to wait for three days to get help because another soldier who came to his rescue was shot dead, fell on top of him, and he didn’t have the strength to get his decaying body off his own. Yet another sweet man, the kind you’d think of as your grandpa, breaking into tear as he recalled his buddy in the artillery spotting team here one moment and missing his head the next while they stood together. And then, my brother-in-law, a Navy corpsman who saw every bit of trauma there was to see in Viet Nam while his own government exposed him to Agent Orange.

That is war.

One last step forward to Orthodoxy where what I had seen in types and shadows before was given depth and dimension. The ancient Way is a way of peace

Now, when the TV tells me to hate, to wish the death of others, I think of those stories and more and how incongruent they are from the simple, earnest, messages of the Gospel in my childhood and the person of Jesus I try to serve today. I know much about war, at least from afar, because to be a student of history is, unfortunately, to be a student of war. None of it impresses me and I see nothing holy or ultimately good in it. Hell gets fed, the demons get their souls, and the only benefit is that it may delay the next one for a short time. Meanwhile everything God hold precious is trampled, including my own soul to the extent that I glory in it.

If I have to die, let it at least be in the pursuit of peace because I’m not sure that it would be good for me to face my Lord with another person’s blood on my hands and my only defense was “The TV told me to do it…”

There are times…

when I feel the urge to hide from the whole world and my imagination creates a mythical place far from everywhere, a place of peace and immeasurable quiet. And, for a moment, that “happy place,” which for me looks like a cabin by a small river at the edge of a woods, can be at least a temporary balm for those days when the world just seems too twisted to ever heal back into shape again.

It’s short lived, of course and my 4th floor apartment, nice enough with its view of the last remaining suburban corn field, rushes back the minute I open my eyes again. All I know, sometimes, though, is that I want to go somewhere or anywhere which isn’t whatever “here” is, a place far from voices, sales pitches, political yellers, and bad music made by thoughtless people.

Such a mystery it is, how God places people and times together. Of course, there’s never been a perfect time anywhere along the path of history so why should this “now” be the exception no matter how much I wish it so? Therefore, my only thought is that this time and this moment were somehow where I’m supposed to be and have become, in the great vastness of God’s design, the arena for my life and salvation. There will be no “long ago and far away” and perhaps no “happily ever after,” just responsibility to make the best of things and the promise of God’s presence as I try.

And I can survive if I remember the secret place of joy has never been “out there” so much as in a heart resting in God.

Too Fast…

I want things to happen too quickly. Good things, for sure, but at too fast a pace.

What difference would it make if even the very best happened but there was no love, no time to reflect, no humility and awe at things eternal? Rushed for the sake of rushed is still rushed, and incomplete, all the stress of an emergency without the actual event.

Slow down, good soul, slow down. Everything good need not happen to day. Recall that God leads but the devil stampedes and rest.

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