Thanksgiving Bears Fruit in the Giving

Thanksgiving is not only something we offer to God, it is also a way of experiencing the world.   Though anyone can cultivate a thankful spirit within themselves, those who are blessed with abundance should be especially thankful.  Unfortunately, some of us who live in relative abundance come to believe that we deserve the blessings – which we have earned, and since we are good or because we are Americans we are entitled to the abundance of the earth.  A sense of entitlement is the opposite of the spirit of thankfulness.  Thanksgiving bears fruit to God when it grows into a spirit of giving because of the thankfulness. 

songbird For those thinking they somehow deserve abundance and that they are entitled to God’s blessings, I offer the following story, which is said to be an old Arab folk tale and which Anthony de Mellow included in his collection of aphorisms and wisdom, THE SONG OF THE BIRD:

“A man walking through the forest saw a fox that had lost its legs and wondered how it lived.  Then he saw a tiger come in with game in its mouth.  The tiger had its fill and left the rest of the meat for the fox.

The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger.  The man began to wonder at God’s greatness and said to himself, ‘I too shall just rest in a corner with full trust in the Lord and he will provide me with all I need.’

He did this for many days but nothing happened, and he was almost at death’s door when he heard a voice say, ‘O you who are in the path of error, open your eyes to the truth!  Follow the example of the tiger and stop imitating the fox.'”

Parable of the Rich Fool: Redux

Sermon notes 2008      Luke 12:16-21       The Rich Fool

 Then the Lord Jesus told them this parable:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.'”

A 2008 retelling of the parable for Americans in the midst of an economic crisis: 

“The land of rich men produced abundantly. And so they thought to themselves, ‘What should we do, for we have no place to store our savings and investments?’ Then they said, ‘We will do this: we will pull down those laws which limit our profits and we will invest more with larger risks, and we will build ever bigger loans for ourselves, and there we will invest our unbelievably large gains and our portfolios and net worth will grow immensely. And we will say to our selves, Selves, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry, for property and stock values can only go up.’ But God said to them, ‘You fools! This very year your loans and margins are being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.'”

What have we as Americans been investing in for the past 30 years – in God, or in personal wealth and selfish gain?    Are we concerned about being rich towards God, or just in being rich?   Being rich towards God means being generous towards people, including the poor, needy and strangers.

A few other sayings of Jesus which are in the spirit of the Holiday Season:

“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”   The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.   (Luke 16:13-14)

“If you love those who love you, what benefit 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 benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 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 evil.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. “  (Luke 6:32-36)

 “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid.  But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,  and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”   (Luke 14:12-14)

Book: Understanding the Bible

understandbibleI was sent an examination copy of UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLE: A GUIDE TO READING THE SCRIPTURES which Saint Mary’s Press is selling for $10.95.   It is a small one hundred page introduction to reading the Bible as well as to understanding the Bible itself.  It has a lot of very helpful information for anyone wanting to understand what the Bible as a whole is about – how the books of the bible were chosen to be in it, some background information about interpreting the bible, a glossary of terms, a few charts and maps.  For the price it is a good buy.  It was written for Roman Catholics, but most of the writing is factual information and thus useful for the Orthodox as well.  Unlike the ORTHODOX STUDY BIBLE which mostly focues its attention to Patristic writers and a Patristic reading of the Bible, this little book offers  a summary of information that scholarship has brought together to help believers understand the scriptures.  While much of the information is readily available in other books and in bibles that have extensive notes, if someone is looking for one small book to help learn the basics of Bible reading, this would be a decent choice.

Sermon on the Rich Fool (1992)

Sermon notes 1992        (Ephesians 2:4-10)   and   Luke 12:16-21Today in our community we have been blessed by being witnesses to the baptism of Paul B…. It is a blessing for us in many different ways. We all have seen a child of this world born again as a child of God. We have watched Satan being thrown aside. We have caught a glimpse of the unending life in God’s Kingdom. In addition to all of these blessings, we each have had a chance to hear again the words of the baptismal prayers. These same prayers were once said over each of us. So at each baptism, we are given the blessed chance to renew our own commitment to God. We come to understand at each baptism what it is that God expects of each of us in this world, since each of us are also baptized into Christ.

I want to remind you briefly of one reason why we do baptize so that you can today more fully appreciate the baptism of Paul and your own baptism.

We baptize in order to give a new birth and life to people. We are born into this world as a child of this world. But this world, although filled with many tempting pleasures, can ultimately lead us only to sickness and death. For this world is a world corrupted, made sick, by sin, by a separation from the life-giving God. Through baptism, Paul, you, and I can now live for the true life, the spiritual life of God’s Kingdom. This is true life because it is unending life, and life without sickness, nor sorrow nor any pain whatsoever.

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.           (Ephesians 2:10)

We all are the workmanship of God. God fashioned each and every one of us for life with Him. However, that beautiful craftmanship of God has been badly battered and scarred by the evil of Satan, as well as by our own rebelliousness against God. The eternal beauty has been lost in us. Christ Jesus came into the world to restore that beauty to us. In baptism, the dirt and filth of this corrupted life are washed away in order that true beauty of the spiritual birth can be revealed to us.

As St. Paul said, God created us for good works in Christ Jesus. God intended us to do the good works of His blessed Gospel commandments. He wants us to “walk in them”. To walk in them means to follow them and to do them. But that must be our own choice. We must train ourselves to do the good which God has set before us. This training which is the discipline of Christ’s disciples is something we all must choose if we want to preserve the beauty of the baptismal life. To all of us today, but especially to Paul’s parents, godparents and grandparents, it is up to you to train him in the way he should walk to keep the beauty of God’s workmanship. You have baptized him, now you must teach him how to be a disciple of Christ.

One aspect of being God’s child and disciple was taught us in today’s Gospel lesson. The rich man who was storing up great wealth for a life of ease in this world, only to discover that he had to die. Since he had lived only for himself and his own pleasure, he found himself totally impoverished when he died and came face to face with God. All of us who are baptized, think about this lesson. To walk in the way of the Lord, means not to live for a life of greed and getting more wealth in this world. The riches we accumulate in this world will do us no good in the world to come. Because when we die, we will leave all of this wealth behind. We must choose to despise worldly wealth and to live for God’s kingdom. For the Lord Jesus clearly taught that if we use the goods given to us for the love of God and of neighbor, those riches will be stored up for us in the world to come.

Remember the lesson of the rich man. All of us are to teach the lessons of Christ. The best teacher is our own EXAMPLE.

O Lord, help us to enter upon this spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well pleasing to you. Amen.

The Parable of the Rich Fool

nikolaivelimCommenting on Luke 12:16-21, the Parable of the rich fool, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic wrote that a man so blessed should have not been boastful but spoke to God in a spirit of Thanksgiving:  

“Jesus spoke a parable unto them, saying: ‘The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought within himself, saying: ‘What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?” He was not just rich; he had such a yield from his harvest that he did not know where to store it. Looking at his wheat-covered fields, and his orchards and vineyards whose branches were weighted down by fruit, his gardens overflowing with all kinds of vegetables and his hives full of honey, this rich man did not look towards heaven and cry out with joy; ‘Glory and praise to You, O most high and merciful God! How great an abundance You have, in Your power and wisdom, brought forth from the black earth! You have, through the sun’s rays, poured sweetness into all the fruits of the earth! You have given every fruit a wonderful form and particular flavor! You have rewarded me a hundredfold for my small labors! You have had mercy on Your servant, and have poured such gifts from Your full hands into his lap! O my most wondrous Lord, teach me to give joy to my brothers, sisters and neighbors with these Your gifts. May they, together with me, rejoice and thankfully glorify and praise Your holy name and Your inexpressible goodness.'”

The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (2008)

entrance2Sermon notes (2008):   The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple

A dear friend asked me if there is some sense that the Mother of God symbolizes humanity’s deepest quest in her entry into the Temple.  What an excellent question!   That made me really think about the Feast in a different way.

I have been reading Peter Bouteneff’s BEGINNINGS: ANCIENT CHRISTIAN READINGS OF THE BIBLICAL CREATION NARRATIVES.  In this book Bouteneff reminds us that ancient writers were not Post-Enlightenment thinkers, and so their view of the historical is quite different from ours.   When we 21st Century citizens think about history, we tend to think about facts and what literally happened in various events.   The ancient writers however were not shaped by the 18th Century European Enlightenment and their sense of “literal” and “historical” includes “interpretations” of the events – not just what happened but what do the events mean?  (for example, was an earthquake God’s intervention in history?).   They also did not separate the world in to a secular versus sacred reading of the events, but assumed God acted in history, so one HAD to interpret events (did the earthquake stop evil from occurring or was it a judgment from God on the evil that occurred?).   Additionally, not having a modern scientific view of the world, they did not have or offer “natural” explanation of events (the tsunami was the result of movement in tectonic plates beneath the Indian Ocean), but rather assumed the events were intentionally caused by some greater powers and so HAD meaning to them which had to be deciphered and discerned.

Getting back to the Feast of Entrance of the Virgin – whatever the historical and/or legendary events behind the event, the hymnology of the Feast is a clear meditation on the implications of the child Mary, the future Theotokos, being presented in the Temple.

From the point of view of ancient Orthodoxy, the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos, is poetic meditation on the significance of the incarnation of the Word of God.  If Jesus is God, as Christianity claimed, then Mary contained God in her womb, and is indeed a temple of God in her own right.  In the entrance of the Virgin, we have the realization that the real temple of God turns out not to be a building, but a person.  The revelation of God is that God’s abiding presence is found not in a building, but in the people of God, particularly fulfilled in one chosen mother who is what Israel was supposed to be – the people in whom God abides so that they can be a light to the nations.  When Mary enters the temple, the temple is revealed to be the proto-type of what God was really planning and doing for the salvation of the world.    Certainly throughout the Old Testament (the Jewish Tanakh) there is a very ambivalent attitude about the temple itself.  God cannot be contained by a building.   God seems much more comfortable with the tabernacle – that holy tent which the Israelites moved with them wherever they sojourned.  God’s promise of establishing the house of David has more to do with the descendants of David than with a building.  The ambiguous role of the temple is certainly picked up by the Gospel writers where Jesus says no matter how massive the stones or impressive the temple, they are all doomed to be torn down – something greater than the temple building is what God was planning.  The eternal house of David is not a building but the Christ.

Mary, the one fully favored by God, turns out to be the fulfillment of that which the temple was only the preliminary model.  Once Mary conceived Christ, the old temple’s role as a model was fulfilled and thus it became of no more value in God’s plan as the real temple now existed.   The temple in Jerusalem was not just a full scale model of the real heavenly temple, but it was a symbolic model which prefigured the Theotokos.

In a sense for Orthodox Christianity, the entry of the Theotokos into the temple actually reveals that the Jerusalem temple itself is empty.  The Jerusalem temple did not contain God but encountered the one who would contain God when the virgin child entered the temple.   Poetically, the temple itself acknowledges that Mary is the real and heavenly temple in which God dwells.  And once the reality is present, the Jerusalem temple is revealed as little more than a scale model which serves no further purpose.

Mary’s entrance into the temple also reveals that “religion” – that emphasis on ritual and rubric – is also empty.   The Theotokos shows that God is declaring religion empty and instead is exalting humanity as His chosen instrument for the transformation of creation.  Not only the Jewish temple and religion, but all “religion” is shown to be empty.    Instead of Orthodoxy talking about “going to church” – going to religion, going to perform the correct rituals and rubrics – we are to realize we collectively and individually are the temple of the Holy Spirit.  It is not sacred and religious things with which God is truly concerned (rubrics, relics, holy places and holy things), but with humans realizing what it is for us to be created in God’s image and to have God’s Spirit indwelling in us.   The incarnation of the Word is not meant to create holy relics, but make humanity holy and humans into a living temple.

One final comment – the temple in Jerusalem was supposed to be the location to which Jews could turn in prayer to God.  The Theotokos as the living temple supersedes this role for she is taken into heaven to be our intercessor.  It is not towards a building in Jerusalem that we must face, for now we have an intercessor in heaven who prays for us.  No longer is the temple merely the sign of God’s presence on earth, the true temple of God is in God’s presence and is a sign of hope for the world.   We do not reach heaven via Jerusalem, rather the heavens have been opened to us and God’s temple, the Theotokos, becomes for us the way to heaven.

The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple

entrance1The life of the Mother of God more fully discloses the secrets of the prayer of the heart.  Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) developed a beautiful homily on the Presentation in the Temple, in which Mary enters the space of unceasing prayer.  In the Orthodox Church, the Presentation of the Mother of God in the Temple is celebrated on November 21.  The feast signifies the coincidence, or rather, the passage from the temple made by human hand to the temple “not made by human hand”-precisely, the Mother of God herself, who carries within the divine Word.  Mary is called to become the sanctuary and the temple of God.”           (Boris Bobrinskoy, THE COMPASSION OF THE FATHER)

Entrance of the Theotokos (2004)

Sermon notes (2004)   The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple

entranceIn the Torah, the first five books of the bible, we learn what great care God took in planning the temple in Jerusalem. For God describes in intricate detail what the Temple was to be like, and God carefully chose the craftsmen He wanted to do the work. God did not let the building of His temple be left to chance but He made clear His choices, and He personally guided the decisions to be made regarding the Temple, because the Temple was to be the sign of His presence on earth amidst His chosen people. The Temple was the place where God was to dwell on earth.

Are we to imagine that when our God chose the woman to be the mother of His Son, that he took any less care? That He just picked any childbearing female without regard to who she was? It seems reasonable based on the detailed description which God revealed to His people about the Temple in Jerusalem and about its consecration, that God took equal care and love in choosing Mary to be the Mother of His Son.

In the Church we have the Feast of the Entrance of the Virgin Mary into that Temple. We have the woman carefully chosen by God because of who she is – even before she conceives God’s Son – now entering the Temple which God so carefully designs and decorates.

Now both the Virgin and the Temple are signs of God’s loving care for the world, both are where and how God dwells on earth, and both are signs of God’s presence. But the Temple in Jerusalem that massive structure of huge stones which so impressed the disciples of Christ, and whose detail and beauty was revealed by God, has long been destroyed and is no longer a sign from God. That old temple was a sign of God’s presence, and yet God dwelt there only occasionally and eventually He abandoned that temple and allowed it to be destroyed. Whereas the Virgin, who is the temple in which God became incarnate, remains a sign to God’s people until this day. A temple not built by hands and which cannot be destroyed by human means. She indeed and in purpose has become the eternal sign and temple of God’s dwelling with us. Even though God also dwelt in her only for a short time, her role was to make the eternal God to be incarnate, something the old temple in Jerusalem could never do. Her role has become eternal. Her role was to make the eternal incarnate. She is the permanent sign of God’s eternal presence on earth – a sign that cannot be destroyed, like the old and massive Jerusalem Temple could be and was.

In the original temple which Solomon built was placed the Ark of the Covenant, that sarcophagus like box over which the cherubim spread their wings. And in the Ark was kept the stone tablets on which the 10 Commandments were written. The written Word of God symbolically contained in the Ark within the Temple. But all of that, as important and holy as it was, given as gifts from God to His people, were lost in history. They did not permanently survive despite being made of stone, nor could they make permanent God’s relationship with humanity. But the Virgin Mary, humble as she was, became what the Ark and Temple could not be. For in Mary, the Word of God was inscribed, not on tablets of stone, but rather becoming incarnate in her womb – the Word became flesh, not stone. And this incarnation of the Word of God is the one which has become the eternal sign of God’s presence. The Ark and Temple described in the Torah were temporary, and were but a preparation for the reality which came in Mary’s womb – the incarnation of the Son of God. And Mary and Her Son are the permanent sign of God’s Word in our midst – something that even those tablets of stone could not become.

The 10 Commandments, given to us by God, are not the permanent sign of God’s presence with us, but rather it is the incarnation of the Word of God – Jesus Christ who is our Savior and redeemer. Jesus is for us what the tablets of stone could never be – our salvation, our way of union with our God.

God’s Word is a living Word – it is Jesus Christ, not a tablet of stone, not a book in print, but a human who is God incarnate. And God’s true temple turns out not to be a massive and beautiful building of permanent stone and marble and granite, but a beautiful woman who God chose because of what He saw in her. God’s plan was not that His Word become stone, but rather that His Word become flesh. God’s salvation occurs not by God becoming etched into a rock, but by His becoming human so that we humans can be united to Him. God in the flesh, God united to humanity, not law written on stone which is our salvation. We Christians give thanks for the incarnation which is our salvation. That is why we so honor the Virgin.

And perhaps that is why some who think salvation comes from God’s Word written on stone tablets find it difficult to honor the Virgin Mother of God.

And in the Feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple we celebrate in thanksgiving this Virgin who is God’s temple, the Theotokos, who becomes for us the mother of our salvation. A permanent sign of God’s abiding love – a sign now eternal in heaven, eclipsing all the temple could ever be. And we honor her for what she has become to the entire world.

More honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, she gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you.

Project Hope

johnguyanaMy eldest son, John, who one month ago received his Master’s Degree from Johns Hopkins University is spending a little time as a volunteer with Project Hope in Guyana.  In the photo he stands at the back of the group of kids along with 2 other Project Hope volunteers.  The photo was taken in Mabaruma a regional capital.   Mabaruma is just a little south of the Venezualan rain forest.   You can check out John’s Project Hope blog at  Please do remember him and the other volunteers in your prayers.

Job: Suffering and the Presence of God

brokenness“Pondering the book of Job, that intense debate about God’s goodness within the Bible, I began to discern that the answer to Job’s questioning was simply the fact that he found himself in God’s presence.  In God’s presence all the questions just fade away, as you realize the immensity of the infinite, divine reality with which you are confronted.”   (Frances Young, BROKENNESS & BLESSING: TOWARDS A BIBLICAL SPIRITUALITY)

New Testament scholar Frances Young offers what might be one of the best insights into the book of Job – it is about being in God’s presence, not about understanding justice or suffering.  We struggle to make sense of our troubled and fallen world – why is there evil and why does evil and suffering triumph at times even over the innocent and the good?   Can it be that the loving God allows His faithful servants to be put through torture and inconsolable loss just to prove Satan wrong?  As Young puts it, by modern thinking “God’s morality is in question.”   Indeed, modern people, including many believers often wonder if God is powerless in the face of natural disasters, war, holocaust, terrorism,  human hubris or sin.  

We see at the beginning of the book  of Job a man blessed by God with prosperity and all that one could hope for in life.  He is described as being blameless, upright, God-fearing, not seduced by evil, who worships God even when bad things happen to him.  He accepts God’s will despite the loss of everything; even his wife tells him to curse God.   He has done no wrong nor does he sin; yet and on top of his suffering, his “friends” do not console him but rather tell Job it is all his own fault that he suffers, accusing him of arrogance and sin. 

What perhaps is amazing in the story is that it is only through his suffering, and not through his prosperity and righteousness, that Job experiences the presence of God!  Only after suffering terrible loss, unbearable sorrow, and the accusatory chastisement from his friends, does Job encounter God.   Prior to his undeserved and unjust suffering – in that time when he was blessed by God for his faithfulness-Job only “had heard of God by the hearing of the ear.”   But in the hell in which he found himself where all was lost and even spouse and friends blamed him, Job saw God and conversed with the Almighty. 

jobThe story does not follow the religious idealism and logic one would expect – when blessed and prosperous, Job is faithful to God but the Lord does not speak with him – only about him, and to Satan!  Job has no personal experience of God in his prosperity, but is faithful and upright anyway.   His faithfulness, blamelessness and righteousness do not protect him from wicked suffering and loss, as one might expect in a Bible story.  Incredibly,  only when he is reduced to poverty through unjust suffering and total loss of all that is good, does he get to see God and speak with Him.

This is hardly a story for teaching the benefits and rewards of being good, or of following God’s commandments.  Job’s steadfastness in keeping faith with God defies reason; the story may be a panegyric for such unyielding faithfulness to God despite historical reality (which certainly would be consistent with Israel’s tenacious faith in God despite their miserable Old Testament history).

The story does however set up an understanding that helps us make sense of the life of Christ, who thoughcrucifixion1 God’s Son and Messiah suffers humiliating torture and execution before being justified by God and returned to glory.   The rejection of Christ by the people and His seeming abandonment by God follows the pattern set by Job and gives it all full meaning.   God’s favor cannot be measured by human prosperity.

The methods and logic of God indeed are beyond human understanding, and warn us against accepting cliché ridden religious formulae and formalism.    The purpose of God may remain hidden in mystery, and at times all we may be able to discern is His presence, not His purpose.   And though this remains unsatisfactory for our minds, we can realize that the sense of His presence is sometimes enough for our hearts to carry on in this world.   His presence is more valuable to our existence than understanding His purpose.   I always pray that those I know and love may be blessed by the sense of His Presence, even if His purpose remains hidden.

The book of Job teaches that to suffer is neither an absolute sign of God’s rejection nor of God’s punishment.   Though we wish it on no one, suffering can become the entrance into the presence of God.  We have heard about God and His great deeds, and read His Word, but that all is mere informational learning.  For it is possible to experience God Himself in this world and even in our suffering, and that experience is formational and transformational making the world tolerable because we realize it is the very place where we do encounter the living God.