The Unforgiving Servant

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.  . . .  We love, because he first loved us.  (1 John 4:10,19)

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“We cannot continue without mentioning the parable of the destitute servant (Mt 18:23-35)–and we are all destitute servants! A man owed the king a tremendous sum of money which we was unable to repay. So, he was to be sold into slavery together with his entire family. But the king was moved to put and forgave him his debt. No sooner had this servant gone out then he came upon another who owed him a small sum and fiercely grabbing him by the throat, he had him cast into prison. The master having heard this brought harsh justice upon him saying; ‘You wicked servant! I forgive you all that debt because you besought me; and should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?

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We must carefully note the progression of the parable. It is not because I forgive the sins of those who are in my debt that God forgives my own. I cannot exact God’s forgiveness. It is because God forgives me and leads me back to Himself, because He enables me to exist, in freedom, in His grace and because I am so overwhelmed with gratitude that I then free others from my egocentric ways and let them live in the freedom of grace as well.

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We are constantly expecting something from others. They owe us their love, their attention, or their admiration. My interest is not in others but in my self-gratification, which they provide. The stuff of which I am made is vanity and irritability. And since others are a perpetual disappointment, since they cannot settle their debts with me, I pursue them out of spite and bear towards them dark and negative feelings, I get lost in a wilderness of ill defined ‘vendettas.’ Or else, nursing my offended dignity, I remove myself, taking on an air of proud indifference and pay myself for the offenses of others…in fool’s gold!”   (Olivier Clement, Three Prayers, pp. 33-34)

Testing the Patience of the Lord

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?

How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.    (Matthew 16:5-12)

O Lord, though we wish to be Your disciples, and wish we could be just like Your Apostles, help us so that we will not imitate their wooden literalism!  How often they misunderstood You!  Open our hearts and minds to Your Gospel teachings.  We have the advantage that the Apostles did not have – we clearly know who You are, and we already know the lessons they had to learn.  You have revealed to us Your teachings through them.  We see their mistakes and what they learned from those errors and lessons. Their lack of perception becomes for us a lesson in enlightenment, and yet, how we are just like them in not understanding Your love.

Holy Apostles, pray to God for us!  You gathered us into the Church through your preaching.  We have you as examples of discipleship to emulate.  We have learned both from your correct teachings and your mistakes.  Ask God to take away from us the blindness of failing to see the deeper lessons He intended for you and us.  Pray that the Holy Spirit will heal our hard hearts, our stiff necks, our darkened minds, our failure to bend the knee, our closed hands, our eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, and our mouths that fail to give thanks or speak the truth.

Lord, forgive us when we don’t want to understand but instead want rules and regulations because we don’t want to love others as you love us.   We fear judgment and so want to bury the talents you give to us because we too often think you are a harsh judge rather than a loving God.   Do not abandon us to our blindness and desire for an easy way.  Let Your light shine even into the darkness of our hearts and minds.  Stay with us until we understand You!

St. Nicholas Cabasilas: How to Be a Saint

St. Nicholas Cabasilas  writing in the 14th Century in his THE LIFE IN CHRIST, offers a vision for how to live as a Christian that makes discipleship accessible to all.  In his book, he does not see Christ demanding extreme asceticism from all Christians, but he does believe Christ offers holiness to every Christian.  His words might be a good framework for all of us to see how we can move the Church in America from honoring a few past Saints in North America to seeing all of us as being called to be the saints in North America.  First, St. Nicholas reminds us that all of  us have to consider what virtues we need in our particular lives to fully follow Christ in the vocation which we have chosen or to which we were called:

No one would claim that the same virtues are needed by those who govern the state and those who live as private citizens, or by those who have made no further vow to God after the baptismal washing and those who live the monastic life and have taken vows of virginity and poverty and thus own neither property nor their own selves. (p 160)

St. Nicholas recognizes that the president of the country and congressional leaders are in need of specific and special virtues to help them do their jobs properly.  Not everyone is in their positions, those who aren’t are going to need other virtues.  Same is true of those who have chosen to be monks or priests – they need to develop particular virtues to fulfill their roles.  The laity whether married or single and all non-monastics need  to cultivate particular virtues in order to live “in the world” as Christians.  In this sense the laity cannot just imitate monks to faithfully live their life in Christ.  Monastics will not always be the right role model for the non-monastics.  St. Nicholas uses the example that monastics have already given up possessing private property – so they aren’t going to be as focused on the virtue of charity as working people should be.    We, the non-monastics need to think long and hard about what virtues do we need to be faithful to God in the 21st Century world in which we live.  Which virtues do spouses need?  Which virtues do parents need?  Which virtues do we need in each profession or workplace in which we find ourselves?

If we share in His blood we must share in His will.  We cannot be joined to Him in some ways, and yet be separated from Him in others, neither can we love Him in one way and be hostile to Him in another, not be His children on the one hand and worthy of blame on the other.  . . .    It follows, therefore, that he who has chosen to live in Christ should cling to that Heart and that Head, for we obtain life from no other source.  But this is impossible for those who do not will what He wills.   It is necessary to train one’s purpose, as far as it is humanly possible, to conform to Christ’s will and to prepare oneself to desire what He desires and to enjoy it, for it is impossible for contrary desires to continue in one and the same heart.   (p 161)

While receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is essential to our weekly lives as Christians, it is not sufficient for salvation.  We have to share in doing Christ’s will.  We have to know what the will of the Lord is and figure out how to imitate Christ in our daily lives.   This isn’t simply following a bunch of rules and rituals, which might be what monastic obedience requires.  We have to read the Gospels to learn how to imitate Christ in the work-a-day world, in our homes and neighborhoods.  To be Christian is to be Christlike – but we are to be Christ like in our marriages, on our jobs, when interacting with our fellow parishioners or when being neighborly to friends and strangers.  What we need to pay attention to is the particular Gospel lessons that help us live each day in dealing with other people and with the problems we face as home owners, citizens of our country, as employees or employers.

When we thus greatly love Him we become keepers of His commandments and participants in His purpose, for as he says, ‘he who loves Me will keep My commandments’ (Jn 14:15,21).   Besides, when we recognize how great is our own worth, we shall not readily betray it.  We will not endure being slaves to a runaway slave when we have found out that a kingdom is ours.  (p 165)

We have the responsibility as Christ’s disciples to know His commandments and to fulfill them in our lives.  As we know, Christ taught that His commandments are basically that we love God with all our soul, heart and mind and that we love one another as He has loved us.  We sometimes get so focused on minutiae of ritual and rule that we lose sight that all we do is to be done in love for God and neighbor.  When we forget love, we become ritualists.  It is easy to become Pharisees once we become ritualists.

St. Nicholas reminds us of our great worth – we are created to be the children of God!  God is giving us His Kingdom.  We are not slaves, but God’s own family.  God loves us as His children.

But Christ does not regard His servants as though they were slaves, nor does He bestow on them honors fit for slaves; He regards them as friends.  Towards them He observes rules of friendship which He has established from the beginning; He shares His own with them, not merely one or another part of His riches, but He gives the very kingdom, the very crown.  What else is it that blessed Paul has in view when he says that they are ‘heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ’ (Rom 8:17), and that all those who have shared hardships with Christ reign with Him (2 Tim 2:12?  (p 167)

We are called to follow Christ in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.  No need to change circumstances, though perhaps at times repentance does call us to make major changes in our lives.  However, we can be full Christians as parents, spouses, neighbors, employees, businessmen, civil servants, soldiers, and friends.

Thus the law of the Spirit is with reason a law of friendship and consequently trains us in gratitude.  There is no toil involved in applying ourselves to this law, neither is it necessary to suffer hardship or to spend money, nor is there dishonor or shame, nor shall we be worse off in any other respect.  It makes it no less possible to exercise our skills and it places no obstacle in the way of any occupation.  The general may remain in command, the farmer may till the soil, the artisan may exercise his craft, and no one will have to desist from his usual employment because of it.  One need not betake oneself to a remote spot, nor eat unaccustomed food, nor even dress differently, nor ruin one’s health nor venture on any reckless act.  It is possible for one who stays at home and loses none of this possession constantly to be engaged in the law of the Spirit.”  (pp 173-174)

Making Christ Your Greatest Love

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”   (Matthew 10:37-38)

St. Brigid of Ireland

“If you worship Christ in your heart, you can save your kinsfolk as well as yourself; if your heart worships father and mother, son and daughter, you will certainly lose both yourself and them. For whoever denies Christ before the world, him will Christ deny at the Last Judgement before His heavenly Father and all the hosts of angels and saints.

(Saint Isidore of Pelusium wrote to Philetus the Mayor, who was downcast at not having got into the eminent society that he craved:

‘Glory in this life is of less significance than a spider’s web, and more insubstantial than dreams; therefore lift up your mind to what is of first importance, and you will easily calm your saddened soul. He who seeks the one glory and the other cannot attain them both. It is possible to achieve both only when we seek, not both but one: heavenly , glory. Therefore, if you desire glory, seek divine, heavenly glory, and earthly glory will often follow on from it.’  (Letter 5, p. 152)

The Lord made it clear to the apostles that this moment of decision is difficult saying, “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” – that is, his family, that will hold him back from following Christ more than anyone else in the world, and who will condemn him the most strongly if he does so. For indeed, it is not our enemies who bind us to this world, but our friends; not strangers but our kinsfolk.”   (St Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, pp. 4-5).

Zacchaeus is Us Not Them

The Gospel Lesson: Luke 19:1-10
Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Sermon notes January 2017

  • Jesus in Luke 18:31-34 had just/ already told the disciples they were headed to Jerusalem where He will be killed by the Gentiles.  In 19:1, Jesus seems to be passing through Jericho, he wasn’t planning to stop as He is headed to Jerusalem and his destiny on the cross.  Yet His sojourn is suddenly disrupted by His encounter with Zacchaeus:  for today I must stay at your house.  This is a surprise in the narrative.  Even as God’s plans are unfolding, they can be put on hold for the sake of one person!   Jesus’ own plans can be disrupted by an encounter with someone, even a sinner!  There is a message here:  It is never “too late” to seek Christ, never a waste of time, just to be curious about Him.  Even if you are merely curious, a real encounter with Him will change your life!  Zacchaeus wasn’t seeking an audience with Christ, he was just curious and just wanted to see Him.  Seeking Christ is rewarding, even for the sinner, the lost, the one cut off from God’s people, the one who chooses to be cut off from God’s people.

  • I am really struck by vs 7, “But when they saw it, they all complained…” The sudden appearance of the “they” is startling, even jarring to me.  So far the story has been about Jesus, His disciples and then Zacchaeus.  There has been no “us and them” or “we and they” in the narrative, except perhaps Jesus predicting His death at the hands of the Gentiles (Luke 18:31ff).   But suddenly there is a “they”, “them”, “not us”.   Zacchaeus though Jewish is portrayed as the outcast, the outsider, a sinner, not one of us, not a real Jew suffering at the hands of the Romans, but a collaborator – a tax collector for the Romans (the Gentiles who Jesus prophesied are about to kill Him!) .  But Jesus sees him also is a son of Abraham.  Now, suddenly, the “they” “the others” are those complaining about Zacchaeus even though they are Jews, they are not part of us, but are “them.”   The Gospel lesson is about reclamation and restoration, but also about taking sides.    Zacchaeus is restored to us, to the people of God.  But the crowd, the Jews, are no longer seen as the people of God.  “They” have suddenly rejected the way of the Messiah.  They, the crowd, like His miracles and promises, but they don’t want people like Zacchaeus to be restored to fellowship, they want Zacchaeus to be judged and rejected, as they have already done.  The crowd claims to be not like Zacchaeus because He is a sinner, but Jesus says He is a son of Abraham, even though lost, but the very thing Christ came to seek.  The people have not understood the coming of the Messiah, the promise of His restoration of Israel.  They assume He is coming to mightily overthrow their enemies, He is there to save sinners, to work with the fallen.  This is Christ’s idea of restoration, but it is an idea many aren’t interested in.  The crowd often likes that Jesus rejects the Pharisees as the Pharisees are too elitist and maximalist, but neither do they want sinners – those less than themselves, those not worthy of themselves – being restored to their number.  They want to be proven “right” to be proven worthy, especially to the Pharisees.  Of course God sees them as chosen, despite what the Pharisees might say, but they don’t want to have those they deem to be sinners included in their number!
  • Christ tells us in Matthew 25 to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. Christ’s message is not just for Jews, but in this Gospel lesson, he is reaching out to a lost sheep to restore the person.  But we Gentiles were not part of the House of Israel, we are not being restored, but are being grafted in new.  There are some who need restoration, being brought back into the fold, but others have to be added new for the first time.  We are not the restored, but truly sinners made new.  Christ is not embarrassed to be embraced by sinners, by strangers, by outcast.  We “Gentiles’ suddenly find ourselves being included not because we are righteous, but rather because, as St. Paul notes in today’s epistle, God “is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”    God is the Savior of everyone, even of us, not because we are righteous but because of God’s love for us as our Creator.  We too should be careful  who we deem unworthy of being part of God’s people – we should welcome all who seek Christ even if we think they are unsavable sinners.
Prodigal son returns
Prodigal son returns
  • Today’s Epistle gives us some idea about how we are to live as a result of being called by Christ into the flock, the Church, into His body:

1 Timothy 4:9-16
My Son Timothy,
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. These things command and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.

1] We are to be an example to believers – to one another:  in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”   What do each of these things mean?  How do we do it?  We are lead by example, we should be wanting people to pay attention to our lives and lifestyles.  The things we say and do are to be examples to our fellow Christians, our fellow parishioners, our family and neighbors and coworkers.   In purity – even what is in our hearts is to be an example, it is not good enough to have external behavior for we must internally in our hearts be converted so our very thoughts and feelings are an example to others!

2]  We are to give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.     We are to study, attend adult education, be life long learners in the faith.  We have an obligation as Orthodox to this.

3]  “the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”   Note God is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe, but God is the Savior of everyone.  This is the key verse which connects the Epistle to today’s Gospel.  God is the Savior of everyone, including Zacchaeus, including sinners, including people we judge unworthy of the Gospel.  No one is unworthy of the Gospel, even those who collaborate with the enemies of God.  No one is outside God’s salvation.  Christ is Savior especially to those of us who believe, but He is also Savior to all people.

Seeing the Sinner: Yourself

…The only way in which you know the seriousness of separation from God is in your own experience of yourself. Moses writes to Poeman,

‘If you have sin enough in your own life and your own home, you have no need to go searching for it elsewhere’.

And, more graphically, from Moses again,

‘If you have a corpse laid out in your own front room, you wont have leisure to go to a neighbor’s funeral.’

This is not about minimizing sin; it is about learning how to recognize it from seeing the cost in yourself. If it can’t be addressed by you in terms of your own needs, it can’t be addressed anywhere – however seductive it is to say, ‘I know how to deal with this problem in your life – and never mind about mine.’ The inattention and harshness that shows we have not grasped this is from so many of the desert monks and nuns the major way in which we fail in winning the neighbor. Poeman goes so far to say that it is the one thing about which we can justly get angry with each other.

A brother asked Abbas Poeman, ‘What does it mean to be angry with your brother without a cause? [The reference is obviously to Matt. 5:21]. He said, ‘If your brother hurts you by his arrogance and you are angry with him because of this, that is getting angry without a cause. If he pulls out your right eye and cuts off your right hand and you get angry with him, that is getting angry without a cause. But if he cuts you off  from God – then you have every right to be angry with him.’

To assume the right to judge, or to assume that you have arrived at  a settled spiritual maturity which entitles you to prescribe confidently at a distance for another’s sickness is in fact to leave them without the therapy they need for their souls; it is to cut them off from God, to leave them in their spiritual slavery – while reinforcing your own slavery. Neither you nor they have access to life. As in the words of Jesus, you have shut up heaven for others and for yourself. But the plain acknowledgement of your solidarity in need and failure opens a door: it shows that it is possible to live in the truth and go forward in hope. It is in such a moment that God gives himself through you, and you become by God’s gift a means of connection another with God. You have done the job you were created to do.” (Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert, pp 30-31)

 

Following Christ: Living Beyond Ritual

“We became Christians by the grace of God; let us take care to have true Christianity within ourselves. We were baptized in the one Tri-hypostatic God and have received the gift of holiness and justification; let us take care to guard this heavenly treasure to the end.

We believe in Jesus Christ crucified ; let us take care to follow Him with faith, and having each one taken up on his cross let us go after Him. We confess and call upon the heavenly God; let us take care to please Him with a heavenly character.

We hear the word of God; let us take care and live just as it teaches us. ‘We await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come’; let us take care to conduct ourselves in this world worthily of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come; and having turned away from the vanities of this world, let us strive only for everlasting blessedness.

We approach the holy and heavenly table of the Mysteries of Christ; let us take care that this heavenly and life-creating Bread brings life, sanctification, illumination, renewal, joy and spiritual consolation.”

(St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven, pp 57-58)

The Joy of the Gospel Commandments

In Yesterday’s post, Enmity and Discernment, I mentioned the icon at the front entrance of our church, which I must pass every day that I’m in the building.  I cannot get to my office or to the sanctuary without  passing by my Lord who is telling me:

“I give to you a new commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34)

Loving others is a command, not just an appropriate reaction to others.  It is to be a conscious choice of how we treat others, not an emotional response to how we feel about them.  The love we show them is not based upon how they treat us, or what they think about us – if it is, then we are behaving just like any sinner, but not like a Christian (Luke 6:32).

If we obey the Gospel command, it will have an effect on our heart.  What effect might it have on us if I love others as Christ loves me?

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;

the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;

the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever;

the ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.  (Psalm 19:7-11)

Fulfilling Christ’s commandment impacts my soul by reviving it; my mind be giving it wisdom; my heart by filling it with joy; and my eyes by giving me true vision.  Every aspect of my being is touched by Christ when I obey His command to love others.

Enmity, Discernment

Each day when I enter the church, I see these words on an icon:

John 13:34
John 13:34

Those words have been part of my life, week in and week out for 20 years.  I cannot get to my office without passing by them.  Some days they seem to jump out at me and cause me to stop in my tracks.  Sometimes if I mindlessly walk by them, they call me back and I have to stop in front of them and remember.

Jesus’ only new commandment is that we are to love one another as He loved us.  Christ commands me to love others as He loves me.  That is a tall order for sure.  And every day I struggle with what it means and how I might do it, or even if it is possible for me to do it.   Of course, I can find ways to make the text more palatable and doable.  Since Jesus speaks to us (in the plural) he means that when we are gathered with other like-minded Christians who are all committed to Christian love, then we are to love them in that context since they will equally be loving us back.  But then, of course, Christ taught us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), so our Christian love isn’t limited to those who love us.  If it is, how are we any different than unbelievers?  (Luke 6:27, 35)

“We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.” – St. John Chrysostom

“Prayer for our enemies is the very highest summit of self-control.” – St. John Chrysostom”

“Praying against one’s personal enemies is a transgression of the law [of the Gospel].” – St. John Chrysostom

Christ’s Gospel commandments are hard.  Sometimes they seem obscure, for how can we do them?  Is it humanly possible?  Perhaps, Christ just was a utopian idealist, and some day, in heaven or paradise or some distant place, a pie-in-the-sky La La land, things would be so very nice and polite.

However, we live in this world, in which there really are enemies, and people we don’t particularly like or want to be around.  What are we to say to Christ when He commands us to do something that seems too hard, or maybe even not possible?

“Yes, sir!”

He is our Lord, God and Master, and we are His servants.  So before every service I light a candle before this icon which portrays Christ’s commandment, and I have to lay aside all excuses, and say, “Yes, Lord!”  Bowing my head in humility, I also have to say, “Forgive me.”  Forgive me for doubting it is possible, for not even trying, for not being willing to deny myself in order to follow You, for wanting to sit at your right hand but not being willing to stand with you at the Cross.

“It is a fearful thing to hate whom God has loved. To look upon another – his weaknesses, his sins, his faults, his defects – is to look upon one who is suffering. He is suffering from negative passions, from the same sinful human corruption from which you yourself suffer. This is very important; do not look upon him with the judgmental eyes of comparison, noting the sins you assume you would never commit. Rather, see him as a fellow sufferer, a fellow human being who is in the need of the very healing of which you are in need. Help him, love him, pray for him, do unto him as you would have him do unto you.” – St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

(Quotes of the saints are from For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace, and Nationalism, pp 114-115)

 

Living Forgiveness

“Let us continue in oneness of mind, bound together by peace one towards the other, and abstaining from that rage which delivers bodies and souls unto destruction. I beseech you brethren, if anyone has a complaint against another, let us forgive one another as Christ forgave us, that we may always be peaceful, not only in God’s churches but at home and in the market place, and with one mind and one mouth glorify our Father in heaven.” (St. Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, p 264)