Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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The Cross is not a political slogan

Living in Montreal and two other Canadian cities in the 1970s I became aware of the politics that ruled the Greek Orthodox churches in Canada. As a matter of fact, it came to the point, at least in Montreal, that the Hellenic Community administration that governed all the Greek churches of Montreal was split along the lines of the political parties of Greece!

The politicization of the church has been a fact since the unfortunate transformation that the emperor Constantine initiated. We are still living in the Constantinian era. And not only the Orthodox Church! Even those churches that do not consider Constantine as a saint are nevertheless living under the shadow cast by his reign.

Consider the 20th century. The official Lutheran Church in Germany quickly capitulated to Hitler, leaving only a small remnant of German Lutherans who remained loyal to the gospel of Jesus Christ rather than Nazi ideology. The Catholic Church in Spain supported the dictatorship of Franco; and in most Latin American countries supported and blessed ruthless dictatorships throughout most of the 20th century. Even in the Greece, the church embraced the dictatorship of the colonels, 1967-73,  and the slogan, <<Ελλάς Ελλήνων Χριστιανών>>, loosely translated as, “Greece, [the land] of Greeks, Christians”. I inserted “the land” which is not present in the original but is one of the ways it can be translated – the other way being “Greece, [for] Greeks, Christians.” I also separated Greeks and Christians by a comma to capture more of the flavor of the original. For the meaning is not that there are Greeks who are Christians – but Greeks ARE Christians. If someone is not a Christian he or she is not Greek, and hence not part of Greece. It was a slogan that perfectly expressed the marriage of church and state and the nationalist identity of every embedded member of that society.

The colonels’ slogan can be equally well applied to other societies. There is a very sizable segment of the US population who would subscribe to something similar for American society. It is all part and parcel of the politicization of Christianity that we have inherited from the fourth century revolution in church-state relationship.

Today politics define the Christian experience in this country to an increasingly alarming extent. Once a label has been attached to a person’s form of Christianity, that person is only allowed to support the politics that go with that label. So, for example, a “liberal” Christian cannot be liberal if he or she is against abortion. A “conservative” Christian cannot be conservative if he or she approves of same-sex marriage. If you were “evangelical” in 2016 you had to vote for Donald Trump; if you were “progressive” you had to vote for Hillary Clinton – you were a traitor to your label if you voted otherwise! So your political or religious label puts you in a straitjacket – hence the polarization that is quickly destroying the social fabric and the possibility of reasonable dialogue.

Nazi insignia combining key symbols, including the cross (click to enlarge).

Typical piece of Nazi “Christian” propaganda (click to enlarge)

This is a frightful situation. Allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ is replaced by allegiance to a political slogan or ideology. This is what the church did in Nazi Germany. Nazi Christians even represented the Cross inside or with the swastika! But there were a few Christians who did not fall in line – and many of them paid with their lives. The most famous of the resisters was the theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spent two years in Nazi prisons but was quickly killed by order of Hitler in the last days of the war, as the Allies were about to enter Berlin. During his two years of imprisonment, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters and theological essays that were collected after his death by his close friend and relative, Eberhard Bethge. They were published under the title Letters and Papers from Prison, a book which I consider one of the most important books ever written by a Christian. It is a book well worth reading as the line between the cross and political and racist ideologies becomes increasingly blurred.

Like all citizens of a nation, Christians will have their own political views and preferences – but we do not have God’s permission to turn the Cross into a slogan or marry the gospel of Jesus Christ to any political ideology, left or right. Political engagement is important and necessary for Christians. But political engagement is tricky and treacherous. Better to be wrong in your politics than to be wrong in defending your politics with scripture! Venture with fear and trembling. And never assume that God agrees with your politics.

 


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The gospel of enough

 

We live in a time of unbridled greed. There seems to be no limit to how rich a rich person wants to be. And corporations are the greediest persons of all. I call corporations “persons” because that’s what the Supreme Court in its questionable wisdom decided to call them in 2010.

When is enough? Today I want to introduce the term “gospel of enough”, which I first encountered in the December issue of Sojourners magazine. But I view the gospel of enough in two contradictory senses. One is in the good sense of saying I have enough for my own comfort and for my family, let me see what I can give to others, to those in need. How I can contribute to the common good? That’s the good version of the “gospel of enough.”

But there is another version, the one we encounter in the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21).

The man in the parable amassed a large wealth and decided it was enough for him to stop working. Good for him! He wasn’t greedy like today’s super-rich. But it stopped there. He did not look beyond himself. He was satisfied with his success and wanted nothing more than to enjoy it all by himself or with his family, if he had family – the parable says nothing about family. He was rich for himself only; not rich for God. And how is one rich for God? By sharing with others – because that’s where you find God.

Okay, you’ve heard this message many times before, right? It’s one of the favourite themes of preachers. Well, yes it is, because it also happened to be the favourite theme of Jesus!

But today I see an even more demanding meaning in this parable. Is it possible for the church to be like this man? To rest on our successes? To go into cruise control? To say, okay we have reached a plateau here, we can’t go any further? We’re a respected church in our city, we have taken good care of our buildings, we manage to pay our bills and have a priest…we’re okay.

And that creates stagnation, sameness, lack of vision, apathy, indifference, lack of participation…. All of which we see in many churches today, including our own.

How do we inject new life, to become church as church, as the representatives of Jesus Christ, whose body we are! Here is Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians:

Brothers and sisters, Christ is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility… And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Eph 2:14-22)

That is Saint Paul’s vision. It is the foundational vision. Without it we can’t even dream of doing something outside of our walls. We are not members of the church, we don’t come to God’s house. We ARE God’s house, God’s dwelling place in the Spirit. God’s spirit blows where it wills, according to Jesus. God’s spirit is restless, constantly moving to animate life and new vision. May the Holy Spirit blow our way and get us up from our comfortable sleep.

But it starts with prayer. Without prayer, the vision is absent, or it turns into something else. Paul Holmer taught at Yale Divinity School, 1960-87. Here is a prayer he offered at Yale on 11 December 1973. This is the kind of prayer that can reinvigorate a people of God to our mission.

O Lord, Our God, Shepherd of the Fallen and Friend of Sinners:

We thank Thee for song that has enlivened our memory, for words that are promising, for love that made cradle and cross the means of our hope.

Once more, we live by a mercy we did not covenant, a joy we did not deserve, a love we did not seek, a victory we did not win, a peace that is not as the world gives. So, in grace we wander, thankful for Thee who art the light in our darkness and the sufficiency in our weakness.

Amid the splendors of health, of opulence of learning, of youth, of song and good spirit, we wish also to thank Thee again for the deeper dignity given us by belief in Thee, by following Thee and sharing the life and fate of Jesus in this world.

To that end:

Abide with us, and trouble us: when we are thoughtless of the work of others, when we forget the nameless toil and funded labor that gives such bounty to us all;

Abide with us, and trouble us: when we forget the suffering, the blind, the poor, those who are defrauded, oppressed, and betrayed—and may we, for them, learn Godliness and perhaps live for them, where we can not, like Jesus, die for them;

Abide with us, and trouble us: when we confront those who are hurt by hopelessness, tarnished by sins, bruised by grief, undone even by their own deeds, permit us, O God of light, never to forget our own frailty nor to lose sight of Thy image in others;

Abide with us, and trouble us: with the dishonesties that are powerful, the lies that have authority, the sins that are interesting, the gossip that is funny, the ignorance that is irresponsible though hidden—O God, never let us so conform to the world that the truth and life and way are hidden from us;

Abide with us, and trouble us: for the little ones of the world, who are terrorized by enemies, broken by envy, consumed by avarice—those who languish in prisons, fester in poverty, and are thwarted by their life and fate; help us right wrongs, befriend the helpless, bind up wounds. So use us and our talents that God’s glory might shine about them and us;

Abide with us, and trouble us: that with talent, we might not be wasteful; with ardor, we be not irrelevant; with passion, not helpless; with thoughts and learning, never without the love for God and neighbor;

Abide with us and comfort us — in well-doing. And now may God, the Father, Christ, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be with us this day and forevermore. Amen.


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Jesus, the Good Samaritan

In recent weeks we have seen a constant stream of allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent men. One of these is Judge Roy Moore who is running to be elected to a Senate seat in a special election in Alabama next month.

It’s not for political reasons that I mention him. I mention him because of the way the Bible has been used in defending him! One of his supporters, the Alabama state auditor, Jim Ziegler, offered this shocking defence: “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”

Did you ever imagine the Bible – the Gospels specifically – could or would be used to defend possibly criminal behaviour? I don’t know whether Roy Moore is guilty or not, and that’s not my point here. I’m just shocked that the story of Joseph and Mary could be used in such a way. In fact, the Bible does not give Mary’s age, but she could very well have been a teenager according to the norms of her society. But again, that’s not the point. Before we dump on the Bible illiterates of the Bible Belt let’s be honest with how Mary has been used in our own Orthodox tradition to keep women in subjugation.

As one commentator put it, when Christians cite the Bible to defend child molestation, Jesus should sue for defamation.

And an attempt at defamation is what led to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer, νομικός, approached Jesus to test him – the verb ἐκπειράζων can mean to test – as in the standard English translations of the Bible – but it can also mean to trap, as in an argument, to tempt, to incriminate. All the meanings are negative, confrontational. This lawyer was a member of the segment of society that was always out to attack and catch Jesus in his words in order to incriminate him and defame him. This was not an innocent questioner.

When Jesus dialogues with him in the conventional manner that any rabbi would have done, the lawyer goes further and asks the provocative question. “And who is my neighbor?” I imagine a cynical tone in the lawyer’s question – like Pilate’s “What is truth?” He asked in order to justify himself, Luke’s Gospel tells us, δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν.

The question Who is my neighbor? is satanic, in Bonhoeffer’s opinion:

“Who is my neighbor? The whole story of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ singular rejection and destruction of this question as satanic. It is rebellion against God’s commandment itself, [as if to say] I want to be obedient, but God will not tell me how I can be so. The question What should I do? was the first betrayal. The answer is: do the commandment that you know. The question Who is my neighbor? is the question in which disobedience justifies itself. The answer is: You yourself are the neighbor. Go and be obedient in acts of love…

It is the question of disobedience that seeks to justify itself. Who is my neighbor is precisely the lynchpin upon which the gospel of Jesus Christ hangs. It is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, the teaching aimed at reforming the human heart. Because the neighbor is not just the family next door on your street with whom you exchange the occasional greeting. The neighbor is the complete stranger, the foreigner, the one whose religion you don’t respect. Samaritans were hated by the Jews, and vice versa. And yet, it was a Samaritan who stopped to help a wounded Jew.

An icon of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, showing all the events in the parable and with Jesus as the Samaritan!

Jesus as the Good Samaritan.

In many icons of this parable, Jesus himself is represented as the Samaritan. And there is profound truth in that. He is the stranger in our midst. He is the foreigner. We have moved so far from his teaching that we wouldn’t recognize him if he stood among us. But he comes to us every time we read one of his parables. He comes to us and knocks at the locked doors of our hearts and asks to enter. To become the neighbor who will take care of our wounds and lead us to wholeness. He is the Good Samaritan and we are the wounded by the side of the road.


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We are not neutrinos!

 

On a recent trip to Germany we visited friends in the city Karlsruhe, a typical German city of medium size. I did not know at the time – but found out just days ago – that Karlsruhe is the site of a very important experiment in physics: the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino Experiment, Katrin for short. Its purpose is to find the mass of the neutrino – the most insignificant entity in the universe. Insignificant because for a long time it was believed to have no mass, but scientists now know that it has an extremely tiny mass. What is significant about neutrinos is that they are present everywhere. Every second, right now, billions of neutrinos pass through your body! Uncountable numbers have been left over from the Big Bang birth of the cosmos 13.8 billion years ago. There are more neutrinos in the universe than any other kind of particle, but because they do not interact with any type of matter, they are hard to detect and measure. Because they are present everywhere in huge numbers, their mass could determine the future of the universe. Will it continue to expand for ever, to all eternity, until it dies a cold death? Or will it stop expanding and perhaps even contract and collapse again?

The main spectrometer of Katrin on its way to Karlsruhe in 2006. The project is set to get under way in June 2018.

You might think that the fate of the universe countless billions or even trillions of years in the future is hardly something for us to be concerned about. How about the fate of your grandchildren or great-grandchildren a hundred years from now? Is that something you might want to be concerned about? Although the current administration in Washington does not believe in global warming and human-caused climate change, the White House did release last Friday an exhaustive scientific report put together by 13 federal agencies that says humans are the dominant cause of the global temperature rise that has created the warmest period in the history of civilization. The report says that there is “no convincing alternative explanation” that anything other than humans — the cars we drive, the power plants we operate, the forests we destroy — are to blame.

Will it change people’s minds about climate change? Will it change the position of the current administration, which allowed the release of this report?

Change of mind is a hard thing for humans. And that is why in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) we hear Abraham say to the rich man: ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’

It is hard for humans to change our minds. It will be interesting to see what impact – if any – this newest report will have on public opinion and the politics of Washington.

The rich man did not change his ways, though he saw Lazarus every day at his doorstep. So also his brothers will not change their ways even if someone should rise from the dead. The human heart can be very hard, implacable.

Do we go through life like neutrinos, not interacting with what’s around us? Do we go through life like the rich man today, not caring for those who need our compassion? Do we go through life not caring how our lifestyles might be ruining the environment and the future life of our children and grandchildren? Those are good questions to ponder on today.

May the Lord preserve us from hard-heartedness. May the Lord continue to work on us, to give us soft hearts, compassionate hearts. We are not neutrinos!


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On the Way to Resurrection

Our Gospel reading today is the story of two resurrections. On the way to raise from the dead the daughter of Jairus, Jesus stopped to raise to life a woman who had no life…. Miracles are signs, they are reminders that Jesus is on the way to resurrection, and on the way once in a while he pauses to perform a miracle. But more significantly, he pauses on the way to resurrection to give new life, life with meaning… Today’s Gospel reading is not about miracles. It’s about the miracles that take place on the way to resurrection! [Hear the rest of the sermon here:]

 


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Searching for a Human

 

Άνθρωπον ζητώ (“I seek a human being.”) Diogenes, the great 4th century BC philosopher, spoke those words as he walked around with a lamp in broad daylight.

Statue of Diogenes with his lamp

Diogenes the Cynic, he is often called, one of the founders of Cynic philosophy – but don’t confuse Cynic philosophy with the cheap cynicism most of us engage in. Diogenes claimed that all the artificial growths of society were incompatible with happiness and that morality required a return to the simplicity of nature. “Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.” Diogenes is credited with the first known use of the word “cosmopolitan”. When he was asked where he came from, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites)”. This was a radical claim in a world where a man’s identity was intimately tied to his citizenship of a particular city-state. He became notorious for carrying a lamp, looking to find a real human being. An exile and an outcast, a man with no social identity, Diogenes made a mark on his contemporaries. (Most of the above information taken from Wikipedia.)

Today also, one can do the Diogenes stunt and go around looking for a human being – as we increasingly lose our humanity. More and more scientists and social thinkers are losing hope in the human race and are talking about artificial intelligence, when humans will evolve into some higher form of existence. Higher? I doubt it – more homogenized uniformity appears to be the fate of the human race, if current predictions and trends continue.

Jesus came looking for a human being. And he found human beings in unexpected places – as in today’s Gospel reading. But the villagers could not stomach what Jesus did and asked him to leave.

Πάντα χρήματα ήν ομού. Είτα ο νούς ελθών αυτά διεκόσμησε (Anaxagoras, 5th century BC). “In the beginning all things were indistinguishable. Then came mind and arranged them.” διακοσμέω – a beautiful verb, meaning to arrange, organize; better yet, to adorn in various ways. Even in modern Greek, we speak of διακόσμησης – what an interior decorator does. In Genesis, God spoke and created order from the initial cosmic mass/chaos. In Greek philosophy, the mind of man created the order and brought out the beauty of creation in its manifold forms; that is the message of the verb διεκόσμησε.

The mind of man can decorate the world, see it in its manifold beauties and give names to its variety – as even Genesis tells us. Today, the human mind seems to have grown weary of itself and of the world. We prefer to narrow the world down to fewer and fewer elements. 75% of all insects have already disappeared according to one recent study. 75% – that’s catastrophe in the making! And not only are we destroying animal and insect life on the planet, we are eradicating the variety of plant life. There are very few original forests left in Maine. One of the most famous books Thoreau wrote, Maine Woods, could not be written today.

The human mind yearns for homogeneity, uniformity; the opposite of what the mind does in Anaxagoras’ profound statement. We seem to have grown tired of creativity and original thinking. Jesus comes today, like Diogenes, looking for a human being.


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An Ordinary Saint

Back in November 2014 I came to Patra, Greece, for the funeral of my mother. Father Andrew at my mother’s parish church ushered me into the sanctuary and gave me vestments to wear so I could preside at my mother’s funeral service. So there I was, a clean-shaven priest from America between two local priests, both sporting typical long beards. Not for one moment did I feel out of place.

The funeral service was followed by a procession to the cemetery where the burial took place. There I encountered Father Mihalis and another priest, who preside at gravesite services. When they learned that I was a priest, they immediately insisted that I do the gravesite service. I didn’t have a book with me, so I went from memory, and they helped when I stumbled on a word or two. Again, a study in contrast, and again total acceptance, accommodation and priestly fellowship such as I have never encountered back home.

The two cemetery priests in 2014. Father Mihalis is on the right, with white beard.


Today I was back in my mother’s home parish for morning Liturgy. At the end of Liturgy we had a memorial service for her. Father Andrew was as kind as in 2014, though I chose not to put on vestments and participate in the Liturgy and memorial prayers. Later in the afternoon we drove to the cemetery, and there was Father Mihalis making his rounds. I immediately accosted him and asked him to come to my mother’s grave.

He showed some signs of recognition. I took out my iPhone and showed him the pictures of the Nov 2014 gravesite service. We started walking to my mother’s grave and he began to introduce me to other people that we passed. I at one point told him to stop doing that, and he was surprised. Why are you nervous? You’re an Orthodox priest and it’s a blessing for people to know you! A woman went to kiss my hand – something very common among Orthodox people – and I pulled back. Don’t be like that, he gently said to me.

I completely surrendered to his loving care. Both in 2014 and today I worried that people would think less of me because I’m from America, clean shaven with short hair, looking nothing like a Greek Orthodox priest. And yet not a single person in 2014 or today even remotely looked at me with any disapproval. So who was more caught up with external appearances – I or Father Mihalis and the people he was introducing me to? The answer was clear!

Father Mihalis is very special. He is an ordinary saint. I couldn’t stop embracing him today. The church canonizes extraordinary men and women and calls them Saints. They might be martyrs for the faith, ascetics and great spiritual masters, renowned bishop theologians, etc. Father Mihalis is not extraordinary in any of the usual senses. He is a simple cemetery priest, making his rounds, responding to every call to go to a grave for a prayer service, and humbly accepting whatever small payment he might receive for his services. His priestly garments are old, worn out and not recently cleaned. His hand are brown from the sun and from handling incense and being close to the earth at every graveside. If Jesus were walking around the cemetery today, he’d probably look a lot like Father Mihalis, but probably younger and with a shorter beard.

He wanted to get vestments for me so I could do the service. I told him, No, I wanted him to do it! When we finally got to the graveside, where my wife and aunt were waiting for us, he immediately included all three of us and even pointed to me to do some of the priest’s prayers, though I was dressed in regular street clothes. Such a spirit of openness and inclusiveness I have never encountered in America. And here I was in conservative Church of Greece and I’ve been blessed to have experienced the love and welcoming spirit of Christ in the persons of Father Andrew and Father Mihalis. They are true priests in the service of Christ, not of worldly appearances.

Today with Father Mihalis I felt in the presence of a saint, an ordinary saint. We need more ordinary saints in the church. They are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the meek who will inherit the earth. Which earth? The earth that Father Mihalis touches in his gravesite services and in which he will join his wife Ismene who died this past January? Or the earth that can still be made holy by men and women like Father Mihalis? I pray that he will continue to make the rounds of the cemetery for many years so I can meet him again and be touched by his gentle spirit.