Taking up One’s Cross

At that time the Lord Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. [35] For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. [36] For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? [37] Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? [38] Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” [9:1] And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” [Mark 8:34-9:1] Sermon Notes

To follow Jesus means to move, not to become stationary. Lent is a sojourn. We are following Christ, moving toward the Kingdom of God. We are not trying to stay where we are, we are not trying to stay in Lent, we are trying to move in a direction, toward the Kingdom of God.

It has been said that you must be willing to walk with Christ in this life in order to be with Him in the Kingdom.

Jesus said, “take up their cross and follow me.” Notice the movement involved – we have to take up the cross, we can’t let it lie there and then we have to take it with us wherever Christ leads us and wherever we go. We are to carry that cross with us always – in the car, on the road, at home, at work, at school, in making business deals, in buying things for our home, or on the golf course. There is no place that we are not to carry our cross. Some of us wear a cross, which reminds us of Christ’s words. Each time we put that cross on, we should pray, “You said Lord, ‘take up their cross and follow me.’ My cross, O Lord, I take up, have mercy on me.”

We carry all kinds of burdens in life – worries, fears, troubles, sorrows, and problems, but Christ told us to take up only one thing, and that is our cross.

If we take up the cross, we always have direction in life no matter how lost we feel, how uncertain we may feel, how alone we may feel, how tired we may feel. In any moment if we remember the cross, we know we are to be following Christ, and thus by taking up the cross we always have direction – we know where we are and we know where we want to be and so we have to move toward that goal.

And when we take up the cross we give meaning to every moment of our lives and to every location we find ourselves in. For we can always answer the questions, “what am I supposed to be doing right now?” “Why am I here?” “What am I supposed to be doing?” We are supposed to be taking up the cross and following Christ. Every moment and every situation is thus given meaning and purpose. Are we happy? Sad? Bored? It is the right moment to take up the cross and follow Christ. That is what we are to be doing in the moment. It gives us direction and purpose at every moment of our life.

Taking up the cross implies ultimate things – issues of life and death, life after death, and eternity. It involves doing what is ultimately important. We can engage in so many things in life, things which are good and bad, and forget about Christ. In that we lose our souls, our lives, no matter what else we may gain or achieve. Or in taking up the cross in every moment, we realize our true purpose is to follow Christ, and nothing else is as important. We come to understand that all the other things we do in life, even the good accomplishments are each only of relative value. Things we worry so much about often are of limited value and duration, and we have before us the chance to do things of everlasting value in taking up our crosses and following Christ,

Lent is a sojourn. But so is taking up the cross. Cross bearing is not the goal but what we need to do along the way to the Kingdom. Lent itself is but the path we follow to the Kingdom. May God bless you in your travels. Take up your cross, don’t leave it behind for it is the reminder to you that in this moment, in this day, in this week or in this lifetime, you are to follow Christ to life.

Mary: Paradise of the New Adam

In Orthodox liturgical hymns Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, is poetically fertile ground for imagery which compares her to Paradise.     One reason for this is that Paradise was in Genesis 2 a garden of delight created by God as is – it didn’t grow into what it was, nor did it require landscaping to shape it.  It was planted by God in its mature state, and the first human was then placed in the already formed and perfected garden.  It was planted by God for the sole purpose of being the place where humanity enters into God’s world.   The first man was placed in this fully blossomed and fruited garden of delight to care for it.  All of the fruit of the garden was available to the man, but no fruit in the garden was the result of any fertilization process or seed, for God had called the garden into existence without using seed.

The parallel imagery to the Mother of God is obvious.  Like Paradise, Mary blossomed (became pregnant) and brought forth fruit (conceived and gave birth to a son) without the normal method of reproduction.  There was no fertilized seed, but there was fruit.  The original garden was the place where the first man entered God’s created world, and the Virgin’s womb became the garden where the new Adam (Jesus) entered God’s created world.  The first paradise was the place where humanity first disobeyed God, while the new paradise – the womb of the Theotokos – was the place where complete obedience to the will of God took place.   In the first paradise, humanity desired to be God which resulted in our losing our true humanity.   In the new paradise, God desired to become human, which resulted in our ability to participate in the divine life. 

Meditating upon the poetic language and imagery of the Mother of God as Paradise opened again, reveals to us the beauty which is the very context of the Feast of the Annunciation to the Theotokos.

The Beatitudes: The Opposite of our Image of Politicians

THE BEATITUDES from the Sermon on the Mount

The Lord Jesus spoke these words:

[3] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

[4] “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

[5] “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

[6] “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

[7] “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

[8] “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

[9] “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

[10] “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

[11] “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. [12] Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.   (Matthew 5:3-12, NRSV)

While reading the Beatitudes, I was struck by how they are just the opposite of how we think world leadership is to be or behave.  Worldly leaders are not poor is spirit but so excessively rich in a spirit of self-confidence, full of themselves, of egoism if not megalomania, of self-importance.   They are not people who mourn, but rather are constantly photographed as energetically waving, laughing, smiling, and enjoying life with nothing to grieve over.   They are not meek, but rather are powerful, aggressive, self-asserting, demanding, taking control of things, ordering others around, and expecting others to serve them.  They are not those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for often they are the very people who “have made it”, they have all they want and need, and see themselves as giving from their largess and not in need of anything – they see themselves as not in need of righteousness but as the ones who can dispense righteousness to others who are and will be dependent on them.   They are not merciful at all times, because mercy is seen as a weakness and they must govern from a point of strength and power and they must deal decisively with their opponents rather than ever giving the opposition an advantage they can only give from a position of power not one of mercy.  Peacemaking in world politics today is always seen as being derived from power and strength – it occurs by powerful leaders imposing their will on situations, by demanding and forcing obedience and acquiescence.  Certainly world leaders do not hold their power by being persecuted for righteousness sake, though they may see themselves as needing to persecute for righteousness sake.  They do not value being persecuted and can always justify persecuting others, especially opponents but also those who can’t defend themselves.  Being persecuted or reviled brings no joy to any self-justifying politician.  It serves only as the basis for launching an attack.

Christ’s words invite us to re-evaluate our ideas of power and leadership, of success and accomplishment, of security and self justification. 

OCA Accountability: The Scandal Revealed

 Some have asked for an overview of what is known about the OCA scandal, the current status of OCA finances, the current work of the Special Investigative Committee, and if there is a way to easily find all this information on the Internet.Probably the best Internet site for keeping up with these events is  OCAnews.org.   This is the independent news and opinion web page operated by Mark Stokoe.

You can also try to glean information from the OCA’s official web page:  oca.org.

The OCA Treasurer, Fr. Michael Tassos, released the unaudited 2007 OCA financial reports.  His comments and links to the reports themselves can be found at  http://oca.org/news.asp?ID=1496&SID=19.  He reports that for the 2nd year in a row the OCA lived within its budget.  He also reports most of the accounts in the OCA are now restored to good and proper order.   It does appear that the current Treasurer is doing a good job in disclosing full financial reports and in trying to get the OCA’s current finances is order.

The Synod of Bishops took action to place the Bishop of Alaska, Nikolai, on mandatory leave of absence while an investigation into the scandal and disorder there occurs.   You can read the Synod’s decision at http://oca.org/news.asp?ID=1485&SID=19.  Bishop Nikolai has refused to cooperate with the Synod and that story is currently unfolding.   You can read a great deal about those events at ocanews.org.   The Synod of Bishops has called for a special meeting to take place on March 27 to deal with the crisis in Alaska, and Bishop Nikolia says he will attend that meeting.

The Summary Report of the first Special Investigative Committee (which Archbishop Job headed, and then resigned from in protest) can be found at http://www.oca.org/PDF/NEWS/2007/2007-1213-metropolitans-letter/2007-1213-summary-report.pdf

You can read about the official response of the OCA to the Kondratick’s lawsuit against the OCA at http://oca.org/news.asp?ID=1478&SID=19.   If you go the links of the sworn testimony you will learn more about the financial scandal of the OCA and the involvement of various people at Syosset.

 One other place you can find documents related to Kondratick’s deposition and the charges which were brought against him in the church court can be found at  http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Orthodox-Forum/files/RSK%20Material/

On the same web page you can find the original allegations which Dn. Eric Wheeler made public in his whistle blowing effort that started the exposition of the sordid OCA financial scandal at   http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Orthodox-Forum/files/Dcn%20Eric%20Wheeler/

You can find an analysis of the church court documents released by supporters of Bob Kondratick  at  http://ocanews.org/news/KondratickDocumentsPublic1.15.08.html, then part 2 at http://ocanews.org/news/LettersAffidavits1.24.08.html.   

The latest information out of the Special Investigative Committee (SIC), headed by Bishop Benjamin,  is that they continue to meet and they claim they are interviewing everyone and that no one is off limits to their investigation.   A very brief news release is found at http://oca.org/News.asp?ID=1504&SID=19.   There was some indication that the current SIC may have a report available by summer on their findings.

All told, a great deal of information is now available about the OCA scandal, but it takes a bit of work to search for it on the Internet.    Disappointing is that to date the retired metropolitan Theodosius has not been held accountable for his role in the scandal (and the documents now available on line certainly indicate he should be questioned by any OCA investigative committee).  Additionally, Metropolitan Herman himself has not publicly offered any explanation of his role in all that went wrong in the central church administration.   

But certainly there have been some accomplishments in cleaning up the mess in the central church administration, with much of the thanks for these accomplishments going to Mark Stokoe and OCANEWS.org which has tenaciously fought to reveal as much information about the OCA as is possible and which is the only way there is going to be accountability for our central church.

Among the accomplishments:  a great number of policy changes were made in the central church administration, several safe guards and checks and balances have been put into place to help prevent future abuse of power and money, the central church administration has been reorganized and significantly downsized, the OCA is now living within its budget so no further debt is being incurred, new personnel are in office, some internal investigations have taken place, more reporting of central church finances and activities now takes place, more open discussion about the finances and leadership of the OCA occurs throughout the OCA, the Metropolitan Council has become a more active body in the leadership of the OCA, the Synod of Bishops has been forced to deal with some critical issues, greater accountability is now happening throughout the OCA.

Why have iconography in the Church?

Sunday of Orthodoxy, 2008

Hebrews 11:24-12:2                 John 1:43-51

“Seeing is believing” –  Hebrews 11:24-12:2

The Hebrews reading tells us about some of the saints of the Old Testament who “looked forward to the reward” (11:26).   They did not see this reward, for it remained beyond their lifetime, beyond their vision.   Christians, however, believe what the saints of the Old Testament longed to see became visible in Jesus Christ.  Iconography in Orthodox Churches allows us to see what the holy men and women of the Old Covenant longed to see but could not see.   Moses persevered “as if seeing him who is invisible” (11:27).   Again, for Christians the one who was invisible to the people of the Old Covenant, who Moses saw, is Jesus Christ.  No longer invisible,  Christ is God incarnate.  Iconography presents graphically to us the reality of the incarnation in a way that photography could not.  Iconography shows the incarnation in a way that the written can but describe.   Looking at Scripture, we see a white page with black letters, and we can read about God’s revelation.  An icon portrays to us in lines and colors, in graphic form, the incarnation.  Photography can only show us the external physical features of something.  Iconography reveals the hidden truth of someone, the sanctity, the relationship to divinity. 

In an Orthodox Church, the iconography portrays for us the cloud of witnesses which surround us (12:1) –  that choir of holy men and women who were looking for Christ and looking forward to Christ’s manifestation.   That manifestation, that revelation, occurred in Jesus of Nazareth.   He is the Christ, the Son of God, God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God, God the Son.  That is the revelation which iconography places before our eyes.

Iconography is not simply good, or beautiful, or helpful, or edifying.  It is essential to our understanding of the incarnation of God the Word in Jesus Christ.  Iconography reveals to us the reality of the incarnation in a way which printed words cannot.

With Christ before our eyes, we can persevere in running the race set before us (12:1-2).

John 1:43-51   “Come and See”

This Gospel lesson has a related theme to the Epistle lesson – it is about seeing, using one’s eyesight to encounter God.

The invitation of the newly called Disciple Philip is, “come and see.”  As disciples of Christ, we are to show others who Christ is and what he has done.   We don’t simply have to tell them about Christ.  Iconography enables us to invite others with the same words that the Apostle Philip used.  Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree, and Nathanael in his heart knew what it meant to be seen by Christ.  Iconography invites us into this seeing and being seen.   And Jesus promises Nathanael that he will see even greater things.  And in the Orthodox Church, iconography places before our eyes these greater things which Christ promised to reveal:  Christ’s enthronement in glory, heavenly scenes, Mary as Theotokos,  the Transfiguration, the Communion of the Apostles, the Resurrection of the dead, the destruction of death and Hades, the choir of the heavenly angels and saints.  “You will see the heavens opened,” Jesus tells us (1:51).  Indeed iconography gives us windows into heaven – allows us to see what Christ reveals to the world.

Iconography transfigures the church building.  Yes we can see the beauty of nature and we can pray to God out of doors.  But no matter how beautiful nature is, we still cannot see there the incarnation of God or the transfiguration and transformation of the natural world into all that God intended the world to be.  We cannot see the original Paradise nor the Kingdom of heaven in the beauty of nature.  For to see these things we need to see the beauty of this world transfigured and transformed by the incarnation and by deification.  That is the reality which iconography gives us.   The Church is a place and a space of transfiguration and transformation.  In the Church bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  In the Church the gathered people are transformed into the Body of Christ.  In the Church bare walls are transfigured into windows into heaven.   We come into the Church to see not the beauty of the natural world, nor beauty created by humans, but we come to see the beauty of nature and of human creativity transfigured and transformed into the revelation of God.  In the Church we can not only hear about but we can see incarnation and deification.  In the Church we can see the Theotokos and we can become the bearers of Christ ourselves.  In the Church we can see the image of God not only in each other, but in the glorified saints of every generation.  In the Church we can see both heaven and earth.

These are the things iconography can do for us.  By transfiguring space and place, they transform our eyes into seeing the things of God.  Thus iconography transforms us into those who see God.  Iconography purifies the heart.

Following Christ – not always about obedience

Notice in John 1:43 what happens when the Lord Jesus calls Philip with the words, “Follow me.”  

We probably expect Philip to get in line behind Jesus and to go wherever Jesus goes, like a little boat in tow.  Our image of following Christ, seems to always put Christ in front of us and we tag along going where he goes and doing what he does.  Maybe we envision Jesus doing a life long “follow the leader game” or perhaps the “hokey-pokey,” and we simply do what He does.   WWJD?

But in the text, the first thing Philip does is find Nathanael.   What is strange about that?

Well, he had to go and find Nathanael.  He had to turn his back on Jesus and go look for his friend.  Following Jesus it turns out doesn’t mean keeping in line behind Jesus like a bunch of first graders following their teacher across a dangerous intersection.

 Following Jesus means to go out and tell others about the Christ, and to find others to invite to become His disciples.

Following Jesus doesn’t meant walking behind him like a line of identical penguins, or baby ducks.   We follow him wherever we go, whomever we seek, whenever we speak with someone.   Following Jesus means taking Him with us wherever we go, into every relationship and conversation.  Following Jesus means initiating action, seeking our friends and converstation with others in order to tell them about Jesus.

We are not to be merely passive tag-alongs who can’t help but be dragged along with Christ.  We are to go into the world and be the ones that introduce others to Him.  “Following Christ” means He is right behind us and only when we first encounter others can we introduce them to Him!

Following Christ is not best described in terms of obedience, in terms of doing what you are told, in terms of passive imitation.   Following Christ requires initiative, creativity, seeking, finding, questioning and seeing new things including a new heaven and a new earth.

Fasting: Dominion not consumption

 Genesis 1:27-29     “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”

One obvious truth that is found in the 1st Chapter of Genesis is that though God created humans to have dominion over all other animals on earth, dominion did not include eating them!   In the Genesis 1 creation story, humans are created to be vegetarians.   Humans and the other animals are not co-equals on the planet, humans were created to have dominion over the animals on earth.  There is a hierarchy with God having dominion over all, then humans having dominion over the rest of the animals, and lastly the animals are over plant life which is given to be food for the humans and all the other animals.  But dominion does not mean humans can consume or destroy the animals.  Rather the humans seem to be given the task to be the mediators between God and the non-human but living creatures on earth.  The Lenten Fast in which we eat neither animal life which has been killed nor the products of these animals (eggs, dairy) is given to us as a time to reflect upon what our role as humans should be on this planet.   What relationship should we have to the animal kingdom?   In paradise humans were told to have dominion over, not to be consumers of.

Forgiveness Sunday 2008

 Then the Lord said,  “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

“Lent is a time of repentance, and a season in which we seek the Lord’s mercy – specifically His forgiveness for the sins which we confess.   Jesus tells us that the place to begin seeking God the Father’s forgiveness is not in God but in our neighbor.  If I want God to forgive me my sins, trespasses, debts, then I need to turn to those around me and forgive them first.  According to our Lord, there is little sense in asking God for mercy and forgiveness if you are not going to show the same to those around you.   The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35) teaches the same lesson.  And so also we were taught by our Lord Jesus to ask our Heavenly Father:  “and forgive us our trespasses/debts as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Great Lent as a Fast calls us to think again about original human life in the Paradise of God described in Genesis 2.   It is pretty hard for us to imitate life in Paradise – except there is one way we can experience life in the Garden of Delight – we can eat like Adam and Eve ate.  That is to some great extent what the Lenten Fast  guides us to eat.   Great Lent is a return to the foods of Paradise.   But it is also during Great Lent that we come to realize how much we really do love the fallen world and all of the foods of the fallen world – oil, wine, meat (none of which were used as food in Paradise).   As the Apostle James wrote, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4).  But Lent reveals to us that we really do love the world and want to be friends of the world, more than we love the Paradise of God.  The food and good things of this fallen world attract us and tempt us more than Paradise does.   That is pretty revealing about ourselves.  We say we want the Kingdom but not if we have to give up this world.   Fasting on the other hand attempts to free us from our addiction to the fallen world.   Fasting is not all about the rules, it is about deciding where on real treasure is – in God’s kingdom or in this fallen world.  Where is our treasure?

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Beauty and Truth

In the Akathist Prayer Service, “Glory to God for All Things”, there is one line which says that scientists, artists and poets are all inspired by God to be interpreter’s of God’s creation and revelation. It is a most beautiful thought that God posits His Spirit in all kinds of people, not just in theologians ore priests, but in artists, artisans and scientists as well. All are endeavoring to discover the truth and the beauty of God’s creation – even when they have no personal consciousness of God. “All truth is Christian” as Justin the Martyr said in the Second Century. The sense that artists and poets are inspired by God is well expressed in Exodus 31:3-6, where the Lord God says, “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every craft…. and I have given to all able men, the gifted artisans, understanding in their hearts and ability that they may make all that I have commanded you.” Art, poetry, craftsmanship, design, iconography, architecture, are all skills inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. And they were initially commanded by God to beautify His Temple. Today, too often, we have so separated beauty and truth, that we forget that scientists, poets, artists and artisans all are interpreters of God’s creation. And in Orthodoxy, the temple, the sanctuary is one place in which we see God speaking to us through beauty, lines and color as well as in words, poetry, and song.

Blessed is the Kingdom…

In the new ORTHODOX STUDY BIBLE, Pslam 144 (145 in most English Bibles):10-13 reads –

O Lord, let all Your works praise You and Your holy ones bless You.  They shall tell of Your kingdom’s glory, and they shall speak of Your power, that all the sons of men may know Your power and the glory of Your kingdom’s magnificence.  Your kingdom is a kingdom of all the ages, and Your dominion is from generation to generation.

This no doubt is the scriptural basis for the proclamation at the beginning of every Divine Liturgy:  “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto ages of ages.  Amen.”    We proclaim and speak of the Kingdom of God so that all people might know its glory, power, honor, beauty and magnificence.   We do it to bring to our own minds what we know about and have experienced of God and His Kingdom.  We also proclaim the Kingdom so that everyone else in the world might come to hear of and experience its life giving power and glory.