The Last Judgement

In today’s Gospel Jesus gives us a different sort of teaching. Instead of speaking of Himself and the Kingdom obliquely or through Parables, He confronts us with a vision of the Last Judgement. This Glorious vision is of Him, the Son of Man, as King of all nations, for all nations will be judged, those we like, and those we do not like. All nations before the Throne of Glory are judged based on how they recognized the Image of God in the least of them.
Some will see the King as joy and bliss; others will see the King as judgement and condemnation. And the dividing line is “How did we treat others.”

And He divides the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the wicked. One thing to note is that neither the righteous nor the wicked are aware of who is which. The righteous question being considered righteous; the wicked question being considered wicked. The righteous are unaware that by ministering to the least of these, they ministered to the King.

He was: hungry, and they fed; thirsty and they gave drink; a foreigner, and they welcomed Him; naked, and they clothed Him; sick and imprisoned and they visited Him The righteous ministered to Him by ministering to the least of these. They didn’t know that by ministering to the Image of God in the least of these, that they ministered to God, the King. For God does not need food, drink, asylum, clothing, a physician, or liberty — but the least of those created in His Image do. Come ye blessed, inherit the Kingdom that was prepared for you from the foundation.

To the goats, the wicked He says: Depart you cursed ones. He does not curse them. They have cursed themselves. Depart to a place that was NOT prepared for you, but for the devil and his demons. The fire of punishment was not designed for you, but you have brought it upon yourself; you have chosen it.
They choose it by refusing to do all the things the righteous did.

Brothers and sisters, we live in a culture dominated by protestant calvinism. If you read social theory you will find that they have divided the poor into “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor”  But SS John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Ambrose of Milan will have nothing of this.

For most people, when they see someone in hunger, chronic illness, and the extremes of misfortune, do not even allow him a good reputation but judge his life by his troubles, and think that he is surely in such misery because of wickedness.  — St. John Chrysostom
Lift up and stretch out your hands, not to heaven but to the poor; for if you stretch out your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven. But if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing . — St John Chrysostom
Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead. —  St John Chrysostom
If you see any one in affliction, ask no more questions. His being in affliction involves a just claim on your aid. For if when you see a beast of burden choking you raise him up, and do not curiously inquire whose he is, much more about a human being one ought not to be over-curious in enquiring whose he is. He is God’s, be he heathen or be he Jew; since even if he is an unbeliever, still he needs help. For if indeed you had been charged by God to investigate and to judge, well and good, but, as it is, the fact that he has fallen into misfortune is all you need to know. If you see him in affliction, do not say that he is wicked. For when a person is in calamity, and needs help, it is not right to say that he is wicked. For this is cruelty, inhumanity, and arrogance. — St. John Chrysostom
The rich are in possession of the goods of the poor, even if they have acquired them honestly or inherited them legally. — St. John Chrysostom
The rich seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption. For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.—  St. Basil the Great
He who strips the clothed is to be called a thief. How should we name him who is able to dress the naked and doesn’t do it. — St. Basil the Great
The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. — St. Basil The Great
There is your brother, naked, crying, and you stand there confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering. — St. Ambrose of Milan
You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not just to the rich. —  St Ambrose
Feed him who is dying of hunger; if you have not fed him you have killed him. — St. Ambrose of Milan

I was hungry and you took my food away; I was thirsty and you gave my water to someone who paid you; I was a foreigner and you sent me back to the perils of the country I escaped, I was naked and you condemned my morality; I was sick and you made it impossible for me to see the physician; I was in prison and you forgot me.

Rather than take Jesus’ words to heart we try to find a way to justify our greed, our hard heartedness, our neglect, our theft of the resources that belong to all mankind.
In a week we will begin a time when we are asked by the Church to simplify our lives, to soften our hearts, to be generous with alms, to turn down the volume of our noisy world.

Brothers and sisters, listen. Our souls are on the line. Jesus taught us to pray that our debts be forgiven as we forgive our debtors — our debts, those things we should have done but didn’t. Jesus did not accuse the goat people of adultery or murder; He accused them of lack of mercy.
I would be guilty of not clothing you if I soft-peddled this. This is what our Lord expects of us. This is the criteria by which we are judged.

The Kingdom which was prepared for you from the beginning, the joy of all joys — or, the punishment that was not prepared for you but rather for the devil and his angels. Which will we decide? We must decide whether to let the medicine of these commandments be a healing for us. Or by not applying the medicine a fate which was never ours to begin with awaits.

But by our actions or inactions, we decide.

in-as-much

Parable of the Good Samaritan

Parable of the Good Samaritan

 

Once again we come to the story of the lawyer testing Jesus. Once again Jesus bounces the question back at the lawyer. Once again the Lawyer answers rightly “Love God; love your neighbour.” Once again Jesus tells him he is right, do this and he will live. Once again the Jesus turns back the attempt to ensnare Him.

But Luke continues the story where Matthew left it. The lawyer seems to sense that Jesus has pointed out to him especially the need to love his neighbour. And so he seeks to justify himself, and asks, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus answers with this well known parable of the Good Samaritan.

Samaritans were viewed as halfbreed New Age semi-believers; they believed a little bit of everything.  The Jews despised them. If Jesus were giving this parable to the Westboro Baptist, the Samaritan would be gay; if He were giving this parable to a racist,  he would be black. So we must ask ourselves, who do we despise? This is the person who is the Samaritan for us.

We all know this parable well, there is no point in me retelling it. But who are we in this parable?

First, in a very real sense, we are that lawyer in that question, “Who is my neighbour?”

Do we respond to need like the priest or the Levite? both of whom had legitimate reasons that they could use to justify not helping? Do we respond with questions, “what will happen to me if I help?” If they touched blood, or if the wounded man died on them, they would not be able to serve in the temple. Both priest and Levite put their own concerns above the needs of the wounded man. The Samaritan realized that the man could well die if he did not help, and so he helped him and bound up his wounds. This is a service that Jesus calls us all to in this parable, to bind up the wounds of others we come in contact with.

Sometimes the wounds are obvious; sometimes they are not. We must be the one who has mercy. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

So our neighbour is everyone. And in this day of internet and global communications, our neighbour may well be on another continent. We must be the one who has mercy. We must be the one who listens, who hears, who gives space for others who hide their wounds.

In another sense, we are the innkeeper. We have been given a stewardship for the care of others. We must attend to them, for the Lord has already made payment to us, and has promised to recompense us if we spend more. We also, as innkeeper, have a charge to keep our inn in good order. The inn was a hospital to the wounded man. Here we have this church that is a hospital for wounded souls. We must do our best to make sure this ministry is available for all.

Thirdly, we are the man who fell among thieves. During the 5th week of Great Lent the hymns of Vespers and Matins remind us of this; many of them are based on this very parable.  Thursday Vespers before the Great Canon has this hymn:

In my wretchedness, I have fallen among the the thieves of my own thoughts. My mind has been despoiled, and cruelly have I been beaten; all my soul is wounded, and stripped of the virtues, I lie naked upon the highway of life. Seeing me in bitter pain and thinking that my wounds could not be healed,  the priest neglected me and would not look at me. Unable to endure my soul-destroying agony, the levite when he saw me passed by on the other side. But Thou, O Christ my God, was pleased to come, not from Samaria, but incarnate from Mary: in Thy love for mankind, grant me healing and pour upon me Thy great mercy.

I am the man who fell among thieves, even my own thoughts; they have covered all my body with wounds, and I lie beaten and bruised. But come to me, O Christ my Saviour and heal me.

   Jesus is the Good Samaritan Who binds up our self-inflicted wounds. We are our own enemy. We inflicted upon ourselves grievous wounds. But Christ comes to us to bind up and heal those wounds.

Jesus meets the disciples walking on water

Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost

 

CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST !!! — Be of good cheer; I AM; cease your fearing.

Let’s set the scene: Jesus was just told that His cousin, John the forerunner was murdered at the behest of Herod. When Jesus tries to recuperate, John’s disciples have joined His and swelled their ranks. As we heard in last week’s Gospel, He fed them in the wilderness. Now He must recuperate. He sends His disciples ahead on a boat while He goes off up the mountain to pray; and He prays deep into the night.

As darkness descends on the sea, the wind picks up. They are experienced fishermen and not concerned at first. Then the wind drives even more. Last time they were in this situation Jesus was with them but sleeping. This time Jesus is not with them. For 9 hours they battle the waves and the wind. Then, if things weren’t bad enough, they see a something off in the distance. They become even more frightened. What is this “THING” that is on top of the water? They were seasoned fishermen and they had never seen anything like this. IT’S A GHOST !!!

Jesus speaks calmly to them: “Be of good cheer; I AM; cease your fearing.”

This is an astonishing declaration. Jesus said things like this many times when they were visiting Jerusalem, at the feasts, and He was teaching the people. It’s all over the Gospel of John — but in the synoptics, it is rare: “Be of good cheer; I AM; cease your fearing.” He is telling them that He is God and that He is in charge of the situation.

Protestant scholars try to find ways to dismiss such statements as if they are unique to John’s Gospel, and thus, somehow, don’t count. But here it is in Matthew: “Be of good cheer; I AM; cease your fearing.”

Peter is still in his impetuous stage. In a strange mixture of both doubt and faith he says: “IF it be Thou, command me come to Thee on the water.” Rash, and full of faith, yet spoken in the subjunctive, “IF it be Thou, …”

Jesus said: “Come.” And getting out of the ship, Peter walks on the water toward Jesus. But he did the very thing that Jesus commanded him not to — he did not cease his fearing, and so he began to sink; and he begs Jesus to save him. Taking Peter by the hand, Jesus very gently rebukes him. It sounds much harsher in English. In Greek it is more like “little faithed one, why didst thou doubt?” It is a tender rebuke — a rebuke one might give to a child: “Little faithed one”: Keep coming back Peter; you’ll get this eventually.

And Jesus takes a humbled Peter in the ship and the wind ceased. And the other disciples get to make the acclamation that Peter had made: “Thou art the Son of God.”

And when they get to Gennesaret the people recognized Jesus. He has been there before. So they brought the sick to touch the hem of His garment.

Be of good cheer; I AM; cease your fearing.

So as the people of Gennesaret now know they are in need of healing. So we are also in need of healing: Healing from our wounds, healing from our fears, healing from our mixed faith that is ready to move forward IF — IF our fears can be addressed.

And Jesus says to all of us here: Be of good cheer; I AM; cease your fearing. To Him be glory always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Honest Questions asked of me on Facebook

Honest Questions asked of me on Facebook

 

One of my Facebook friends with whom I have chatted off and on for several years has posed a few questions and asked me to respond (and invites others as well to respond).

Laurie Reeves asks: Steven – I wonder if you would let me hijack this or some other post of yours. I have questions about Christianity, and 1. I trust your opinion over any other “religious” persons I know, as I believe you will be as honest as you can be, and 2. I welcome responses of some of your friends who are not my friends, so I didn’t want to private message you or use my status.

Steven – I’ll start one issue at a time 🙂 But first, so that I have the best way possible of asking my questions, can I ask you a few?

Do you believe the bible is man-made or God made?

Do you believe Christianity (Christ, perfect, cross, salvation) is the only means of getting to heaven?

Do you believe in one god or multiple god’s (Muslim, hindu, etc). And by god’s, I mean religious god’s as they are commonly understood. Not Greek god’s or the one some random guy made up in his basement.

Laurie, you ask some good questions. Let me give it a shot.

 

First Question: the Bible was written by man, inspired by God. They wrote in human terms about things that in many ways are beyond language. Scripture cannot be understood outside a relationship with God (since that is what they are about) and attempting to take them in a literal only way is to invite sickness (passions).

The Scriptures are a book OF the Church and are properly understood from that perspective. In a sense the Scriptures represent a synergy between God and man.

When we look at how people have used scripture in the last two centuries we see a different approach employed both by the “conservative” and “liberal” ends of the spectrum. They use a mostly literal approach to either prove or disprove the scriptures. An approach that seeks to “prove” things using scripture inevitably ends up creating God in our image (rather than the reverse). The Church is the pillar and foundation of truth. The scriptures are one of the many ways the Church communicates that truth. Other ways are through the Hymns of the Church, the Icons, the Councils, The Tradition, the lives of the saints.

Second Question, Christianity: There is One Body, One Bride of Christ. Those who find themselves in heaven will do so because they participated (Communed) in that One Body. Heaven is a relationship with God in which we see His Light as Love (not so much a place). Jesus saves us collectively, not individually. We are either participants in Him or we are not.

Thus it is possible to say where the Church IS (Even though there are many who are part of it’s communion who have yet to be born). The Church is the proclaimer and invoker of the Kingdom of God. That said, it is NOT possible to say where the Church IS NOT. An individual muslim, hindu, pagan, atheist, may be part of the body. It is not my call to say where the Church IS NOT. God saves (restores, heals) those who participate and work with Him. Salvation is not just about a ticket to heaven; it is about the healing of our disease, the removal of our Character Defects, and a communion with all who follow Him. It is a transformation and renewal of our mind (NOUS) into a restored likeness of God. It requires our participation and cooperation. God does not save us without our cooperation. The Cross saves us (but not in the Anselm sense of substitutionary atonement) through Christ taking on our disease and being wounded by it and raising our humanity to what God had intended. Christ makes a path for us to walk to the Father, a path of glory, sobriety, humility, and love. If a hindu takes up his cross and follows Christ he is further along than many Christians.

I believe that God holds us accountable for the revelation of Him that we have. Thus I expect fewer Orthodox Christians to make it than “others”, for we have the fulness of the revelation of God, and thus no excuse for not following it.

Third question, God: I believe in One God: Father Son and Holy Spirit, One Essence in three persons. This means that God is a communion of Love unto Himself in ways we cannot know. It means that we, created in His Image, are called to a communion of Love with ourselves, with Him, and with others. Christianity does not divide God into functions. All of God was involved in creating, inspiring, saving, empowering. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and points to the Son. The Son is begotten of the Father before all ages and lives perfect obedience to the Father out of love and points to the Father.

The Glories of God (His energies) are shared by all persons of the Trinity. We have only seen the Word become flesh for our sakes. But His Glory is the Father’s Glory. And His energies are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fatefulness, gentleness, self mastery. These are the fruit of the Spirit that we are called to bear.

We cannot know God as He knows Himself. God is a mystery. This is my big disagreement with self-help groups  which speak of “God, as we understood Him.” Western Christianity seems to think that it has to figure God out. The problem is that the God we have figured out says a lot more about us and our disease then it says about God. The god who can be understood is not God. Or, as St. Evagrius of Pontus said: “God cannot be grasped by the mind. If He could be grasped, He would not be God.” We can (and must) have a relationship with God without understanding Him, allowing Him to be Who He IS.

God is Love, and if we say we faith Him, we must love too, otherwise we are just fooling ourselves. So, the question of whether we truly Faith (believe in) God shows up in how we treat others. How we minister to the “least of these” is how we treat God in Whose Image they are all created.

Communion

On Communion

Communion was inaugurated with the Kingdom of God. If our proclamation is to be the Kingdom of God, it is realized in this worship, which God Himself has left us. (full disclosure- I was born baptist and am now Orthodox)

God is eternal, so our worship of Him needs to follow in that. Worship should appeal to every part of our humanity (our seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching) but not our passions. I think that this communion being so much like the last time and the time before that is part of the message of the Kingdom of God and that it is eternal. I am most glad that it is ever the same and ever new.

The End of a Great Debating Career

 

Story of the pentecostal preacher at Stetson in the parking lot.

When I was at Stetson University, I was known to be a very sharp debater, having honed my skills on the backs of many hapless deacons at churches my father had pastored or I had attended. I mention this because it has to do with a story of what happened one spring.

I was coming out of a NY Deli that was in an old burger joint’s building at the corner of Plymouth  and Woodland Blvd. As I left, I was accosted by a preacher in the parking lot. He had with him about a dozen of his Church. They were out “witnessing”. It is how he understood his service to Christ worked.

One of his come on lines was to ask the usual, “What’s your major?” My major was Music Theory and Composition. The preacher then said, “You know about music; I know about God.”

The preacher had no idea what he had done. He could not imagine how badly he had lost his argument before it even started. He could not comprehend the verbal drubbing that was in store for him.

I opened my mouth. And as I looked at him, I saw him surrounded by his church group. This would not be pretty. He would get the thoroughly trounced in front of people who looked up to him.

I closed my mouth. It occurred to me that in his assumptions and pride he had given me immense power over him. He did not know that I had taken multiple senior level religion classes; he did not know that I had full access to my Baptist minster father’s library since I could read. If I were an evil type person I could have shellacked him well in front of his congregation. I turned and walked away and mused about how this preacher’s pride gave complete control away to the mercy or mercilessness of whoever happened to be there. Then, as I walked back to my apartment I began musing about how I did that myself, how my own pride gave people, whose intentions may or may not be honourable, power over me.

Thus ended my debating career. There must be something more. Something important was missing, possibly more than one thing. I was beating my head against the wall of the culture I had been brought up in. And yet I believed  in a God Who IS beyond all culture and language.

In all this thinking about God abstractly (even high quality abstract thoughts), something was missing. Nothing in how I had been taught to “DO” theology included relationship with God, it was just well conceived, rigorously pursued ideas ABOUT God (along with a nagging warning to myself not to turn my thoughts about God into an idol).

This is not how I wanted it. I knew well the importance of Relationship with God; I knew that God was far beyond my words about Him. But, alas, the tools I was accustomed to using did not lend themselves well to dealing with God in relationship.

What was missing was COMMUNION (fellowship, participation) with God. I had a well studied idea about what fellowship with God was like. But it was a sort of foggy notion at best, since I had not allowed God to Incarnate Himself to me through communion. As a Baptist we believed that the Lord’s supper was a sort of Symbol of a Symbol of something that we did for reasons we really didn’t know other than Jesus said “This do….”

Having been to Russia during the last of the great Soviet persecutions of Christians, I had also seen their worship first hand. This gave me an excellent example of very high liturgical worship that didn’t fit my preconceived notions of “stuffy”. Rather, they combined the simplest of services with all the festivity and solemnity that we normally reserved for “Easter” and Christmas. What is more, they prayed as if their very breath depended on it. This, very lovingly, violated my assumptions.

Seven years later I was, myself, Orthodox. But a question occurred to me very early on: What do I do with all this theologizing that I had been taught? Of what use was it in this new space? I did not want to employ the old ways of thinking, but they were so much a part of my habit of thinking that it made me almost afraid to read scripture because I knew I would do to scripture what I had always done.

There is the tendency among both the non-believer and the believer brought up in the heritage of western thought to separate theological categories and consider them in isolation. We don’t do that. And this is because we are Catholic (Catholic means according to the Whole) and must consider the whole together (and we are accountable to the whole). How we do any particular thing always is related to our relationship with God and His self emptying love for us. Thus He desires not the death of a sinner but that he turn and live. It is easy to justify a multitude of positions when you consider them in isolation. When I found myself accountable to the Whole — to all of the saints that had come before, that were sharing this time with me, and those who were yet to be born — I had to think theologically in terms of all of them. When I said anything I remembered that I was in communion with the saints to whom the faith was once delivered, and that I was also in communion with those to whom I owed the responsibility of passing along the same treasure I had received.

The Church is the agent by which Jesus the Christ has provided that we commune with His Body and Blood and become His Body. This cannot be understood outside of relationship. We are healed in a relationship with the Healer, not because we deconstruct how we understand His spiritual medication and use that to self-medicate ourselves spiritually. This is a recipe for disaster and madness.

Acquiring the mind of the Church as a communion of the Body of Christ, is not something that happens overnight or by magic. I am still working on that in myself, having taken the approach of my Baptist forefathers to its logical conclusion and realizing that there was no “THERE” there. And, compared to what Jesus was up to, what I had been taught was extremely impoverished.

Our Relationship is with God Who took human flesh for our sake, Who came to our condition, Who stretched out Himself to us, for us, and through communion, IN us. That relationship is expressed in Holy Communion, and through prayer. Here I find the words of St. Maximus the Confessor echoing at me constantly: “Theology is Prayer, prayer is theology. Theology without prayer is demonic.”

It is a journey into that relationship that I now make. It is a journey that I do very badly very often. Christ calls me to a life-giving relationship with Him when I want it, and also when I want to run away from it. It is a journey that I don’t ever expect to master; and yet, it is the journey of Life to which He calls me. May He direct my steps and help me both when I want to follow Him, but especially when I don’t want to. As St. John Chrystostom said: “O Lord, save me whether I want it or not.”

Go to hell

When people condemn others to hell, it raises the question, “Whose Hell?” In Orthodox Christianity Heaven and Hell are both the Glory of a loving God. The one in heaven perceives it as a warm glowing light, the other perceives it as a consuming fire. The difference is relationship. We don’t like that. Relationships are hard. We much prefer to reduce it to a manageable formula that we control. As John and Jesus both said, our relationship with God is lived out in how we treat others. How can we say we love God Whom we have not seen when we hate our brother whom we have seen. And how we treat God’s Image in the least of these is how we treat Jesus.