Great Lent: A time to see

In the beginning, God said, “Let there be light, and there was light” (Gen 1:3). This was before God had created the sun or the moon, those greater and lesser lights which He called into being not until creation’s fourth day. This first light had no physical source for its only source was the voice of God. A light with no created source and thus an uncreated light willed by God for His purposes. And yet, it belongs to creation for God called it into being as the “first thing”, the first principle of creation. When at the very beginning of creation God spoke light into existence, there were no eyes to see this light, for no creatures who can see had yet been created. Even angels (if they existed yet) have no eyes, for they are bodiless hosts. (Has God privileged humans to see what angels cannot?

Certainly an incarnate Word of God is more visible to us than them!) So this was an unseen light, and yet its existence was bright and clear and it pierced the lifeless darkness with its life-giving power. It is a light which darkness cannot overcome. As it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”- these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. (1 Cor 2:9-10) This unseen and uncreated light did not ever disappear because of darkness or sin, nor because the sun, moon and stars made it unnecessary. Even if it remained somehow hidden from human eyes and memory, it still lit the universe which God had made. Even if the serpent’s deceptive promise of opened eyes (Gen 5) caused us to lose sight of God’s spoken light, it still was there, though hidden and waiting for the right time to be revealed. For God’s creating is both about timing and visibility: in the beginning… light. And the fullness of time came, the right time to transfigure the world, a time for some to have their eyes opened to this uncreated and previously unseen light. And Jesus “was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (Matt 17:2). And the three disciples saw what God had prepared for those who love him – even the depths of God.

Lent is a time for us to do what it takes to see that to which we usually are blind – in ourselves (our own sins), in our neighbor (their needs, their god-likeness), and in God (light, life, love).

If you had only one favor to ask of God…

Monday, March 28, 2005 8:58 AM

On Saturday, I emailed you from the Book of Proverbs 6:16-19 thoughts on preparing for Confession. It happens in God’s wisdom that these things which the Lord hates are framed in language which involves our bodies:
Proverbs 6:16 There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, 19 a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.

We can also find in scripture some thoughts for how to cure sins which involve our bodies. For example:
Psalm 19:7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, enlightening the mind; 8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; 9 the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

Psalm 19 offers help for our soul, the mind, the heart, the eyes. The cure for sin is learning God’s law, decrees, precepts, commandments, ordinances and the fear of the Lord. So we are not just left with seeing our own sins, we also can find a medicine to apply to our selves – the scriptures. And we realize that learning the scriptures is not a cure which is instant, but rather is more like therapy, we must learn and practice over time and with some difficulty and perhaps even some setbacks.

But as we think about sin, and our bodies, we might also remember the words of our Lord Jesus. How seriously did Jesus consider sin to be?

In Matthew 5:29-30 Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

We can look at Proverbs 6 and see ways in which our bodies are involved in sin, and we see the radical conclusion of Jesus about what to do when our bodies are involved in sin. Obviously Jesus is speaking metaphorically and with exaggeration (and in the history of Christianity, the Church has condemned those biblical literalists who mutilated their bodies because of their literal reading of Matthew 5). Jesus point is we should take sin seriously. Sin should be more abhorrent to us than losing a limb, becoming crippled or blind.

Yesterday in the sermon, I asked the question, “If you were given the opportunity to ask any one but only one thing from God and He would promise to grant your request, would you ask for the forgiveness of your sins?”

God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to die upon the cross, to make it possible that this one miracle be granted – the forgiveness of our sins. Obviously God thinks forgiving our sins to be the most important thing He in His love can offer the world.

And He offers to the world through the Church in the sacrament of confession the opportunity for our sins to be forgiven. Will you accept that miraculous offer by coming to confession and freely offering your sins to Him in exchange for forgiveness and eternal life?

Christmas and Creation: Let there be light

Monday, December 27, 2004 10:31 AMIn the beginning God said: “Let there be light.”

God speaks (His Word) and the visible (Light) comes into existence.

God’s spoken Word can be seen, allows us to see, makes sight possible.

Even before anything else existed, even before anything was to be seen, God speaks light into existence. Remember the sun is not even created until the fourth day of creation. God calls into being light that has no visible source. This Light of God also existed before there was anything to shine on – to be seen. Even before anyone else was there to see, God’s light existed, and the ability to see pre-existed before any humans were there to see.

And today as we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate the feast of the Word of God becoming flesh – that is how John in his Gospel describes the birth of Christ.  Again God’s spoken Word, just like in the beginning, at creation, is made to be seen, is Light.

God’s Word is that which is to be seen, allows us to see, makes sight possible. God’s Word allows us to see and know God, and makes visible that which before was before invisible. For in Christmas we begin to see that God is Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Christmas is more than the sentimental story of a baby being born into poverty.
It is symbolically and really the same story of God saying “Let there be light.”

It is in reality the story of the Word becoming visible, incarnate, physical, flesh.   It is God speaking the Word into visible existence, or the visible itself into existence.

Our God does not put us either into non-existence or into darkness.  God is the giver of life and light, of light and existence, not of darkness or non-existence.

God spoke into the non-existence and said “Let there be light” and the Word became flesh.God speaks us into being, and overcomes the darkness, and gives us the light which knows no end.

God speaks at the beginning of creation and light comes into existence, but that isn’t enough for God, for not only does He will light into existence, He wills that His Word, His Light become flesh. The spiritual, life itself becomes increasingly incarnate and manifest, light becoming increasingly physical and human. Jesus Christ is the light of evening, the Light of the World, He is both Light and Life, and we see in Him God’s plan, will, intention.

God’s Word evolves from Light, to life, to human flesh. And in this we understand, the Light of God is not opposed to being human, but is its intention and destiny: God’s will and plan. God’s Word is not opposed to the flesh, but becomes incarnate – the Word becoming the flesh, and the flesh revealing the Word.

Christ is who and what God intended and intends for humanity to be.

God took on human nature – became enfleshed, incarnate so that humanity could be again united to God. Light became flesh so that God would always be visible to us.

The Word becomes flesh so that we might be able to see God not just with the eyes of our hearts but with the eyes of our flesh. So that we can once again see what God spoke from the beginning – the Light He called into being before there was any sun or stars. In Christ we can see that Light once again.

The Magi of the Christmas story in fact use the physical light (the star) in order to search for and find the Spiritual light, which God spoke into existence through His Word on the first day of creation.

This is why the greeting “Christ is born!” contains such a powerful message. We are affirming our conviction that God has indeed entered the world, entered the darkness in order to give us light and life.

Sinners and Yet Christian

Monday, December 20, 2004 11:24 AMYesterday, I received an email from someone asking a question about whether it was possible for someone struggling with a sinful temptation to still be a Christian. This person felt that if people knew what internal struggles of the heart over temptation he was having, people would judge him as not worthy of coming to Communion.

I do think that wrestling with one’s own desires, weaknesses, temptations, sins, is part of what being a Christian is about. I sent out an email yesterday in which I described fasting as process not product. The Christian life is process – a constant spiritual warfare in which, as St. Paul described it, we do things we don’t want to do and don’t do the things we know we should. But it is the struggle with our selves that is part of the Christian life. We aim to be victorious over our sins and temptations, but whether or not victory comes, we are to consciously choose the struggle.

It is not those who are confessing their sins and wrestling with temptation who are rejected by God, but those who do not admit to sinning who reject God’s offer for salvation.

If each of us was perfect – without even temptation – than none of us would need Christ.  Christ himself said he didn’t come to seek and call the righteous, the perfect, the sinless.  Rather He came for you and me and for all like us in the world who are sinners in need of His salvation.  I am in the Church not because I’m righteous but because God is merciful, graceful, forgiving and love.

In both scripture lessons from yesterday (Hebrews 11:9-40, Matthew 1:1-25) what is certain is that the long lists of men and women mentioned are not sinless people, nor people who are already perfect.  In fact the Hebrew readings says they were not perfect apart from us.

They each were mentioned not because they are sinless but rather because they were people of hope and faith despite their sins.   Godliness for humans  does not mean sinlessness (scripture clearly says there is no one who lives and does not sin).   Godliness means having faith and hope even when all else in the world seems hopeless and godless and sinful – including ourselves. The saints did not make sinlessness present in the world, but rather made hope and faith present in each generation, even in the darkest and most godless of times. If all that was needed to make us righteous was that we repented, then
again we didn’t need Christ – God in the flesh – to save us. But the reality is that repentance itself is not enough to save humanity from its illness. We need God united to human nature in Christ to heal the consequences of our own sins. Christ is essential to salvation and we would not be united to God without Him.

The Church is not the sinless and perfect people of the world, but rather consists of those who understand their need for God’s love and Christ’s salvation.    The Church is people who hope and have faith in God’s promises no matter what all and else in happening in the world.    The Church is the people of God who understand that salvation  is not given because we deserve it or earned it, but is fully a gift from God “while we were still sinners.”

Christ taught us to forgive, love, repent. He didn’t teach us to judge sinners, but rather modeled to us how to give hope and faith to the world – especially to sinners. Faith and hope are godly virtues. Faith and hope we can offer to the world despite our own sins – this is the Good News of Jesus Christ.

St. Paul said hope is looking for those things we don’t yet see, and faith is the assurance of things hoped for. If you can be a person of hope and with faith in the promises of God, than no matter what else is also true of you, you will be a child of God and a witness to Christ.

Christ is born!

Glorify Him with hope and faith that He indeed fulfills what God promised.

We all can repent, which doesn’t make us sinless, but does make present to the world hope and faith in God’s promises which are being fulfilled in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Christmas – Even When Disaster Strikes

Wednesday, December 29, 2004 8:59 AM
Today is 4th Day of the Christmas Feast. We also are still discovering today the total effects of the Asian Tsunami of a few days ago. The death toll today is listed at 58,000 – a staggering tragedy which has struck the earth. We do need to remember in our prayers all of the victims of this disaster. And some may be wondering about where is God in all of this – what good is Christmas in the face of such human suffering?

Remembering Christmas as a nice sentimental story of a baby’s birth and a special family with animals, angels and magi all celebrating, is a fairly modern development. Today for example in the Church we remember the 14,000 infants slaughtered by King Herod which is in Matthew’s Gospel a main part of the Magi story. And the Church has not forgotten this horrible murder, even if the event doesn’t fit well into modern ideas about Christmas. (How many ever send out a Christmas card with an image of the slaughter of the Innocents?) But the true Nativity story in the Gospel is also about an enraged and
threatened King Herod who causes the Holy Family to have to flee in terror for their lives because the King is committing a murderous genocide of young children.

Although we like to remember angels, shepherds, magi and animals, in Matthew’s Gospel the entire city of Jerusalem was troubled by the birth of Jesus (Matt 2:3-4). Matthew’s story is that many more people were unhappy and unhinged by this event than were made joyous by the news. And remember in Matthew’s Gospel that though Herod and the religious leadership discuss with the Wisemen where the King of the Jews is to be born, the only other time Matthew uses the title “King of the Jews” for Jesus is at His crucifixion. This title for Jesus used at His birth and at His death in Matthew’s Gospel is a death warrant, not a moment of celebration.

Yesterday in the Church calendar was also the commemoration of the 20,000 martyrs of Nicomedia. This is the story of a large number of Christians assembled to celebrate the birth of Christ who are murdered in a mass execution of Christians. This too is a Christmas story, though one we prefer not to recall at this time of year. It just doesn’t fit into our sentimentalized ideas of Christmas. But that is a choice we make – to remove the Christmas story from it’s context of human sin, tragedy, suffering, death – in order to
make it fit our ideas of what the story is about.

The birth of Christ is not merely a sentimental and warm story of a baby’s birth. It is the story of God entering the world in order to redeem humanity. But this event of our salvation is met with great resistance by some people in the world. The birth of Jesus is connected with human tragedy and the loss of life. We might prefer the sentimental and sanitized version of Christ’s birth, but the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ is completely related to human tragedy, suffering, the deaths of
thousands. We might feel the warmth of a “Merry Christmas” but the birth of Christ occurs in a world of tragedy and disaster, and brings God to our suffering. God does not stay away from human and earthly tragedy, safe in heaven and far removed from our plight and suffering. Rather, our God enters into our world, and accepts both the risk and the suffering of His creatures.

Christ’s birth was not intended to take us out of this world, but puts God in our world – in the midst of death, suffering, tragedy. The Nativity of Christ is not an event which anesthetizes us to pain and suffering or desensitizes us to the plight of those victimized by disaster. God does not hate this world, but so loves the world that He sends His own dear Son into the world to save the world. The victims of natural disasters or human warfare are not forgotten by God, nor judged by God as worse than anyone else. God comes into the world to give us hope – hope in the face of the true tragedies which strike the people of the earth. And the life God has bestowed upon us is not just about tragedy, there really is something more to the world, a bigger picture in which the suffering of life occurs. And the birth of Christ is part of that bigger picture in which we have faith and which gives us hope in the face of evil and disaster.

“Christ is born!” This greeting doesn’t take us out of this world, nor is it some kind of magic to protect us from the suffering of this world. Rather, it is intended to give us courage and hope in a world awash in evil, sin and tragedy. God loves the world and is endeavoring to save the world by changing the heart of each human being into the dwelling place of His love.

Disaster and Repentance

September 1 is New Year’s Day in the Orthodox Church Calendar. The Gospel reading for the day from Luke 4 includes these words:(:16-22) When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

As we begin the New Year, we are faced with the incredible destruction of Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing tragedy which hundreds of thousands of people face. Even once the waters reside, there will be countless people without homes, without jobs, without transportation, without basic necessities, without money, without hope.

And it makes it clear how much we need Christ “to bring good news to the poor” and “to let the oppressed go free” and “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus spoke his words some 2000 years ago, but today we see how important they are to us and to the people of the Gulf states. They and we as a nation need God’s favor more today than we ever have.

Some people ask, “Why does God allow this?”

The great prayer books of the Orthodox Church don’t answer that question, nor do they even pose that question. The prayer books all start with the assumption that if anything bad occurs, we need to repent. The prayers of the church do not point an accusing finger at God, nor do they put any blame on Him.  Rather they prayers are always a call for us to repent – to assume that if something bad has happened, perhaps we collectively or as individuals provoked God to allow the tragedy to occur. So no blame is assigned, no accusing finger is pointed. Rather, we are all simply called to beg God for His mercy, and
to unconditionally repent.

If it is the case that some one of us has provoked God’s anger, then the prayers ask God to also hear our repentance and forgive. The prayers do not blame other sinners, nor the non-Christians, nor unbelievers, nor the New Orleans profligates, nor the looters, but they call each and all Christians to repent unconditionally.

Some will protest, “But I didn’t do anything that would cause God to allow a disaster this terrible!” And I guess they can blame God for the problem.

For the rest of us, let us not worry about the sins of others (“Grant me to see my own sins, and not to judge my brother!”).

From your heart, on this Church New Year’s Day, repent of your sins. Make no excuse for them. Don’t downplay them by saying “Nothing I did was that bad.”

Offer sincere repentance without excuse, or explanation or defense.

Others may protest, “I don’t believe in a God who punishes for sin in this way.”

Whatever the cause of the disaster, we still are asked to repent of our sins.  It is what Jesus preached from the very first day of his ministry. The prayers do not blame God for the disaster. They constantly reaffirm the goodness of God and the compassion of His providence. And they offer an unconditional repentance to God – no excuse, we know we have sinned and show Your favor to us once again!

Perhaps God will be moved by the sincerity of your and our repentance and look in favor upon our land and our people, and will again shed His grace on us, and will comfort those oppressed by this hurricane and give them good news.