The Good Samaritan in a Dangerous World

[Sermon notes.  12 November 2017.  Annual Parish Meeting.]

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.   (Ephesians 2:4-10)

“even when we were dead in trespasses” –  This refers to us in the Church, not those outside the Church!  WE were dead in our sins.  We parishioners have experienced both death in our sins and resurrection in our Christ.   God’s love comes to us while we are still sinners (Romans 5:8).   We wouldn’t need God’s love, favor, grace, forgiveness if we were sinless.   We can only be raised with Christ if we are dead.  There would be no need for a resurrection if we hadn’t died first.

“made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” –  sitting together in church, we are in the heavenly place.  The parish church is that heavenly place where we sit together in Christ Jesus

“we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” –  that is another image of the parish.  We are God’s craftmanship, built to do good works.  That is why we need an active, functioning parish community so that we an work together for the good.

Gospel: Luke 10:25-37
And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” So he answered and said, “’You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Our parish – we give from our budget $1700/month to charity.  This is above and beyond all the charity projects we take on each month.  Because we are a true commuter parish, we don’t have a strong sense of a location identity.  Very few of us live in the locality of the church, so our charity work is not so locally focused, but is outreach to other peoples, areas, projects.

We as parish must never cease to be the good neighbor, the good Samaritan to everyone whose path  bring them to our community.  Or whose paths we cross in our sojourning.   Christ makes it clear that being the good neighbor is something He values in us and expects from us.

Christ does not use the parable to talk about how the government should have done more to protect the man walking down to Jericho.  He doesn’t use the parable to say more police or a bigger army is needed, nor does Jesus advocate self defense, carrying weapons, pre-emptive strikes.   His point in the parable is be neighborly, be charitable.

Ethics thought puzzle – what if the Good Samaritan had arrived just a little bit earlier on the scene, in time to prevent the crime from happening, would Christ have blessed his use of force (even lethal force) to prevent the crime?  Or are Christians only to step in to offer comfort once the crime/suffering has been inflicted?  Jesus doesn’t say.  Whatever we might think in answer to those questions, we still must be neighborly.

Today, beause of the events of mass shootings in churches, many people feel unsafe, and feel the parish needs to consider safety and security for its members.  The shepherds of old took action to protect their flocks, including attacking the attackers.  Doesn’t the church have an obligation to protects its members and make the parish a safe and secure place for its members?

We are obliged to behave as neighbors, no matter what other security or safety measures we think are necessary.

Satan’s victory comes not in killing us but in converting us to his way of thinking and behaving.  If we abandon our principles, our discipleship in order to follow the logic of he world, then we have lost the battle with evil.   We are after all disciples of the Crucified One, who rose from the dead.  Killing  us does not cut us off from Christ and rather works to the contrary in keeping us united to the Son of God.   Our being killed by others is not the greatest thing we have to fear.  Jesus said:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.  (Luke 12:4 )

We Christians may be threatened by other people.  Yet, our warfare is not against those who do us bodily harm.  We may have to take steps too ensure the safety of our congregations, but we also have to remember that in Scripture we are told how to arm and defend ourselves.  As St. Paul exhorts us:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints  …  (Ephesians 6:10)

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Overcoming Our Sins

Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos muses:

Christians often say: “if my fellow men behaved to me differently, if I had better children, if my spouse did not do this or the other, if…,if…, I could probably live a Christian life”. We have the impression that the cessation of external problems would make us better. However many times I say that external problems will never cease. Now we have troubles with our studies and later we are full of anxiety about our career or marriage. Bringing up our children will raise new problems. Afterwards we will be concerned about the future of our children or even finally of our grandchildren…I leave all other problems caused by work and social dealings. Problems will never end. We must overcome them. (The Illness and the Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition, p. 71)

Being Orthodox Means Having a Relationship With God

The Orthodox Church is not primarily an institution. Orthodox Christianity is not a series of rules to live by, nor is it a particular structure of church government. Orthodoxy is not a theological system, nor is its fullest expression limited to any particular period of history or cultural environment.

Orthodoxy is nothing less than a relationship with God. Orthodoxy is the expression of the way God interacts with His people. In other words, Orthodoxy is the way God relates to the Church as the Body of Christ, the way He relates to each individual within it, and conversely, a way by which people may interact and interrelate with God.

Orthodoxy begins at or before birth, and it does so as an impersonal relationship between a Creator and His creature. However, when the person participates in the Mystery of Holy Baptism, that relationship enters a new dimension: it becomes personal. In a personal relationship, each person has a name and is recognized when called by that name. Jesus talks about this when He says that He, the shepherd, calls His sheep by name, and they recognize His voice. In the Mystery of Baptism, just as the person dies and rises again in the water, God’s name is revealed, but so too is the name of the person being baptized. God now has a way of getting our attention: He can call us by name.  (Archimandrite Meletios Webber, Bread, Wine & Oil, pp. 29-31)

The Gospel or a Prosperity Gospel?

Jesus taught:  “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.  But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me.”  (John 15:18-21)

Biblical scholar Morna D. Hooker comments:

“Contrast with this the promise of one of the [TV] evangelists who is well known to those who are familiar with the North American phenomenon known as “electronic religion”, who every week assures his audience on television and radio: “Something good is going to happen to you today – spiritually, physically, financially.’ It is fairly  easy to see that something is wrong with this message, for what have promises of financial success to do with the Christian gospel? Why should Christians expect material benefit from the gospel? Such promises of physical and financial benefit are crude appeals to self-interest; religion is being sold to viewers as a way to success. Religious men and women will do well because God will reward them. What sort of a gospel is this? Christ died – and I am cured from my cancer. He became poor – and my bank balance gets steadily healthier. He was hung up on a gibbet – and I am a great success.

Now of course this is a travesty of religion – so much so, that we find ourselves amazed that anyone is taken in by it. But perhaps the travesty is only an extreme example of an attitude which is much more marketed in this way, then the Church has totally succumbed to the values of the outside world. Religion is being sold like any other commodity, and the vital question is “What do I get out of it?” But what sort of values should Christians be maintaining – in a world which esteems self-reliance and applauds success? What sort of values should they be maintaining in a world where millions have no hope of being self-reliant or successful?

Christians are no more likely than anyone else to find the solution to problems of inflation and unemployment, injustice and famine. What they can do is to show the relevance of the Christian gospel to all those problems. When the world is divided between rich and poor, prosperous and starving, those with jobs and those without, strong and weak, where should Christians be found? Looking for something good to happen to them, spiritually, physically and financially – or concerned about the welfare of others? Maintaining the rights of the strong, or standing up for the weak? Enjoying the success that has come to them through their own efforts or through good fortune – or identifying with those who have no hope of ever experiencing anything good? (From Adam to Christ, pp. 68-69)

There are many ways we can help victims of the recent hurricanes and earthquakes as well as provide support for future needs of people.  Many organizations do wonderful charitable work to help victims of disasters.  We can help others by donating to  International Orthodox Christian Charities.

The Golden Rule: Do Unto Others

The Lord said:  “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.

And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”  (Luke 6:31-36)

St. Nikolai of Zhicha comments:

“Christ’s command that we do to others as we would that they do to us is so natural and so clearly good that it is a wonder and a shame that it has not long ago become a daily habit among men. No man desires that others do him evil: let him therefore do no evil to others. Every man desires that others do good to him: let him therefore do good to others.

The Lord continues: ‘For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye, for sinners also love those that love them?‘ This means: if you wait for others to do good to you, and to repay this with good, you are doing no good thing. Does God wait for men to deserve the sun’s warmth, and only then command the sun to shine? Or does He first act out of His charity and love? Charity is an active virtue, not a passive one.

God has made this clear from the foundation of the world. From day to day since the world began, the Lord has, with His gracious hand, poured out rich gifts to all His creatures. Were He to wait for His creatures first to give Him something, neither the world nor a single creature in it would exist. If we love only those who love us, we are merchants engaging in barter. If we do good only to our benefactors, we are debtors paying off our debts. Charity is not a virtue that simply pays off debts, but one that constantly lends. And love is a virtue that constantly lends without looking for repayment.

If we lend to those from whom we hope for a return, what are we doing by this? We are transferring our money from one cash-box to another, for that which we lend we consider to be our own, as much as when it was in our own hands.”  (Homilies, pp.193-194)

St. Gregory the Great: Renouncing Desires to Inherit the Kingdom

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So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”

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And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.   (Luke 5:1-11)

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St. Gregory the Great comments:

“You have heard, my friends, that at a single word Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus. They had not seen him perform any miracles yet, and they had not heard him saying anything about eternal recompense, but at a single command from the Lord they forgot all their possessions.

You may be thinking that these two fishermen possessed almost nothing, and so you ask how much did they have to give up? In this case, my friends, it’s the natural feelings and not the amount that we have to weigh. Those who have kept back nothing for themselves have left a great deal; those who have abandoned everything, no matter how little it may be, have left a great deal. We are attached to what we have and hold on to it; we long for what we do not yet have and try to get it. When Peter and Andrew renounced their desire to possess, they gave up a great deal; along with their possessions they renounced even their craving to possess. Those who imitate them give up as much, then, as those who do not imitate them crave to possess.

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Don’t ever say to yourselves, when you think of people who have given up a great deal, “I want to imitate them, but I have nothing to give up.” If you renounce your desires, you are giving up a great deal. No matter how little they may be, our external possessions are enough for God. He weighs the heart and not the substance, and measures the effort it costs us and not the amount we sacrifice to him. If we consider only the external substance, we see that these astute businessmen, Peter and Andrew, traded their nets and their boat for the fullness of life!”  (Be Friends of God, pp. 26-27)

Struggling With Sexual Passion

St. John Chrysostom  (4th Century) is one of the great Patristic commentators on scripture.  He is a pastor and moralist in his outlook.  While today many embracing scientific materialism want it to be true that humans are simply another animal on the planet, governed completely by the same laws of genetics and biology as any other animal, Chrysostom like all those Patristic writers of the Christian tradition believed the very thing that made humans unique is the ability to arise above purely animal drives and to choose behaviors of a higher moral character rather than have one’s life determined by biological drives.  With the recent proclamation of the Anthropocene by current scientists, we start to see a scientific recognition that humans are an animal capable of rising above genetic determinism to the point that humans now are shaping not only human evolution by their choices but also the evolution of most species on the planet.   Chrysostom knew nothing of modern scientific theories on evolution and genetics, but he did think humans have a spiritual dimension given by God which humans needed to exercise in order to attain full human potential.

“For there are many who have stripped for the contest against the tyranny of nature, who with purity are pursuing the path of virginity, who in this mortal body are showing forth the precepts of the resurrection: ‘for in the resurrection,’ he says, ‘they neither marry nor are given in marriage [Matthew 22:30].’And having engaged the battle against the spiritual powers, they contend eagerly for incorruption in bodies that are corruptible, and – what is unbearable for many to hear – they actually reach perfection through their works. For they drive off their passion, which is like a ceaselessly leaping, frenzied dog; and they take command over the raging ocean, sailing calmly amidst the fierce waves, making a successful voyage across the greatly troubled sea; and they stand firm in the furnace of physical desire without being signed, trampling on the hot coals as if they were clay. Yet, it can happen that such ones, capable of such great things, can be viciously attacked, shamelessly and pitiably, by this passion, and they can be conquered by it.”

Chrysostom’s imagery about how strong sexual desire can be, leaves little doubt that he understood sexual drive and temptation.  He does make it clear that some are able to overcome their sexual drive and actually control it.  He says this is unbearable for some to hear – including those who can’t control themselves, those who don’t want to have to control themselves and those who think humans are merely animals and shouldn’t bother to control their powerful, natural drives.  Many don’t want to hear about people who learn to control their animal instincts.   For Chrysostom, the person who can control their sexual desires, especially those who remain virgins, are the height of human perfection.  Today we have people who spend a great deal of time and energy to become perfect physical specimens of humanity – through exercise, dieting and other means.  We rave about the physically beautiful (athletes and the sexually attractive).  Chrysostom sees human perfection not in physical body sculpting but in learning to control one’s animal desires.  He elevates those spiritual athletes to be the highest degree of humanity and the most desired of human beings.   Humans are capable of making themselves physically beautiful and desirable, but Chrysostom following the Christian tradition thinks spiritual beauty is far more important to our desire to be fully human.

Virginity is something so great, and demands so much effort, that Christ came down from heaven in order to make men like angels and to implant the angelic way of life here below – not, however, daring to make this way of life mandatory, or to raise it to the level of a law, but instead, instituting the law of self-mortification. Is there anything that exists more burdensome than this? He has made it a commandment to bear one’s cross continually, and to do good to one’s enemies; but he has not made it a law to remain a virgin. He has left this to the choice of those hearing Jesus’ words: ‘The one who is able to accept this, let him accept it.’ For great is the weightiness of this matter, and the difficulty of these struggles, and the sweat of the battles; and in pursuing this virtue the terrain is precipitous.” (Letters to St. Olympia, pp. 68-67)

What makes the willingness to control sexual impulse and virginity so special to Chrysostom is that it is completely voluntary.  One chooses this way as a way of sacrifice and self-denial.  For Christ does not command us to live as celibates and virgins.  It is a way of life that one can choose  in order to fulfill Christ’s words to deny the self  and take up the cross to follow Him (Matthew 16:24).  We don’t become fully human by engaging in all our animal instincts and desires.  We become fully human when we realize we can rise above biological determinism and can develop our spiritual lives – and fulfill the Gospel law of love.

The Nativity of the Theotokos (2017)

On September 8 we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos – the birthday of the mother of Jesus.

“The fact that there is no Biblical verification of the facts of Mary’s birth is incidental to the meaning of the feast. Even if the actual background of the event as celebrated in the Church is questionable from an historical point of view, the divine meaning of it ‘For us men and for our salvation’ is obvious. There had to be one born of human flesh and blood who would be spiritually capable of being the other of Christ, and she herself had to be born into the world of persons who were spiritually capable of being her parents.

The feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, therefore, is a glorification of Mary’s birth, of Mary herself and of her righteous parents. It is a celebration as well of the very first preparation of the salvation of the world. For the ‘Vessel of Light,’ the ‘Book of the Word of Life,’ the ‘Door to the Orient,’ the ‘Throne of Wisdom’ is being prepared on earth by God himself in the birth of the holy girl-child Mary.” (Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, Vol. 2, Worship, p. 132).

Courage, People of God

“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!” (Psalm 31:24)

St. Alexander Schmorell, Martyr

There are so many divisive issues in our society today, many of which discourage or threaten Christians.   Sexual immorality, big government, Islam, secularism, fascism, communism, anarchy, dictatorship, Obamacare, catastrophic illness, ruthless capitalism, poverty, war, aimless hedonism, global warming, unemployment.  From every side and every one looks, one can find issues that threaten our existence with uncertainty, chaos, suffering, persecution and nihilism.

How are we to respond?   With faith, hope and love.  That is what we are taught in Christianity.  No suffering in this world is ever viewed as the end all or final word on anything.  The final word, like the first word, belongs to God.  All things happen within God’s universe, and within God Himself.  For those who believe, this is to be of comfort.  No matter how bad things may seem, God and God’s plan are still outside of the control of this world and greater than the world.

St. Paul

St. Paul told the members of the nascent church which was threatened with persecution and extinction: “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous (Gr: literally, “play the man” – see 2 Sam 10:12), be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14).   Their situation was not better than ours.  They were a tiny minority without any political support or power.   The established religions all opposed them, as did the rich, the educated, the powerful, the empire.  St. Paul tells them and us the same words that God’s prophets and kings had been telling the people of God throughout history.

So God tells Moses:

“Be strong and of good courage, do not fear or be in dread of them: for it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”

Then Moses summoned Joshua, and said to him in the sight of all Israel,

“Be strong and of good courage; for you shall go with this people into the land which the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them; and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the LORD who goes before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you; do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:6-8)

After Moses, death, God said to Joshua:

“Be strong and of good courage; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:6-9)

King Joab facing war told Israel:

“Be of good courage, and let us play the man for our people, and for the cities of our God; and may the LORD do what seems good to him.” (2 Samuel 10:12)

King David used the same words to strengthen his people:

“Then you will prosper if you are careful to observe the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD commanded Moses for Israel. Be strong, and of good courage. Fear not; be not dismayed.” (1 Chronicles 22:13)

And again King David encouraged his son, Solomon with these words:

“Be strong and of good courage, and do it. Fear not, be not dismayed; for the LORD God, even my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the LORD is finished.” (1 Chronicles 28:20)

In Daniel’s vision he is told while in captivity:

“O man greatly beloved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.” And when he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.” (Daniel 10:19)

There are numerous other such examples sprinkled throughout the Old Testament – often before a battle,or before some struggle, God’s people were reminded to be courageous.  Even against superior odds, even when defeat seemed inevitable, even when the people suffered great loss and defeat, they were called to courage.  St. Paul in his words to his flock is simply copying the words of his ancestors and trying to get the nascent Church and struggling Christians to be courageous even in the face of opposition. He is invoking the memory of their forefathers.  Today is our turn to hear the call and heed the words to be courageous, no matter what is happening in history.  Courage is not folly.  We are not being called to the reckless abandon of super heroes, nor to go on some ravaging offensive to destroy others.  We are called to be courageous no matter what else is happening – to be people of faith, hope and love.  Courage is faithfulness to God.