Ancient Answers

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Abraham in the Center


Last week I speculated why our churches – including our own here in Portland – are slowly emptying. My answer last week was two-fold: Our Orthodox Church has forgotten its purpose to be a place of healing, and people simply don’t think they need healing – or to put it more radically, they don’t need Jesus. Or they think they don’t need Jesus!

Today we have two readings (2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9 and Luke 16:19-31) that remind us of what used to be the reason why people went to church. For many centuries, the church had two weapons that kept people coming: The promise of heaven and the threat of hell. Promises of heaven can motivate many people, but nothing motivates like fear. So the church for many centuries used the weapon of fear to keep people coming back and staying in their places or pews.

Today the fear of hell has gone from most people. And as for heaven – well, if there is heaven God is going to let everyone in, so what’s the big deal? Why should I go to boring Liturgy? Or fast? Or pray? Or worry about the commandments or how I live my life? Why worry about sin? There is no hell, and if there is heaven God is going to let me in no matter how I live my life. Fear does not work any more. And promises of heaven only seem to work with jihadist terrorists. So what are we to make of today’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus if I can’t use it to scare anyone?

Let’s start with Abraham since he is in my opinion the real central character. Notice that Lazarus doesn’t speak, and the rich man only speaks with Abraham; even when he requests a favor from Lazarus, he asks it through Abraham. So Abraham is the central character. What was Abraham to a Jew? Abraham was the father of many nations (Genesis 17:5). He is the father of Jews, Christians and Moslems. In the Bible’s language, Adam was the man of dust, the first man. But no one in the Bible looks to Adam as his/her father. They look to Abraham. The rich man now calls him father Abraham, but while he was alive, he ignored the man at his doorstep who also had Abraham as his father!


So the poor man Lazarus is carried to the bosom of Abraham in the parable, while the rich man looks on from afar. What else does Abraham represent in the Bible? He represents hospitality. In Genesis 18, Abraham and Sarah welcomed three men to their home in the desert, and without knowing it they offered hospitality to angels. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2 – clearly referring to this incident) In our own tradition, we represent the three men who visited Abraham and Sarah as angels, but angels who also represent God. And that’s because in the Genesis story, Abraham addresses the three men as Lord – Yahweh! So when Jesus tells us, I was hungry and thirsty and you gave me food and drink; I was naked and you clothed me – he was thinking of Abraham’s kindness and hospitality. Abraham is our example of hospitality. The rich man calls Abraham his father, but he did not do what Abraham did.

Finally, in that same chapter 18 of Genesis, the three men who visit Abraham and Sarah are on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. When Abraham hears of this, he pleads with God and bargains. What if there are 50 righteous people there, will God still destroy? No, God will spare the place for the sake of the 50. What if there are 45? I will not destroy it. How about 40? And so on. Finally, what if there are 10 righteous people there? For the sake of ten I will not destroy it, God says and walks off. And we know the rest of the story. The rich man perhaps remembered the story of how Abraham was even able to bargain with God so he now hopes Abraham can do some bargaining on his behalf.

So Abraham represented three things relevant to the two men in today’s parable and to us: their/our common fatherhood, hospitality, and intercession with God. The rich man failed in all three, and Abraham had nothing with which to help him. Remember, Abraham had pleaded if there were ten righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah! The rich man in today’s parable was not a righteous man – Abraham could not plead for him.

Finally, the rich man begs for a message to be sent to his brothers. Ah, there’s the fear motivation. Maybe they can be scared to doing things differently so they don’t end up in the same place as he. It doesn’t work that way, Abraham replies. Fear does not work – he could be speaking to today’s people. If the man’s brothers haven’t listened to Moses and the prophets, they won’t believe even if some one should rise from the dead and go to them. And here my message today re-unites with last week’s message. When people think they’re just fine thank you, they don’t need Jesus. And they don’t need the church or the sacraments. And they certainly won’t be scared by any parables such as the one we heard today. So let’s do for them what Abraham would do. Treat them as our brothers & sisters, offer them hospitality in our hearts and whenever they do return, and above all, lets intercede for them. Let’s pray for them. Then we might become the church that draws people back.

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Liturgical Healing

Φιλάνθρωπος – that is one of the words that we use to refer to Jesus in our hymnography and prayers. As a matter of fact, our terminology goes even further and we call him μόνος φιλάνθρωπος! He is the  ONLY lover of humankind!

So today we sang, in Tone 1: Glory to your resurrection, O Christ; glory to your kingdom; glory to your plan of redemption, O only lover of humankind.

Δόξα τῇ Ἀναστάσει σου Χριστέ, δόξα τῇ βασιλείᾳ σου, δόξα τῇ οἰκονομίᾳ σου, μόνε φιλάνθρωπε.

Indeed, today’s Gospel reading (Luke 8:26-39) is a perfect illustration: For many of us, Christ is the only lover of humankind. When a person experiences rejection and no love from other human beings, it is comforting to turn to the “only lover of humankind”!

The Ormylia Foundation, To Ίδρυμα Ορμύλια, is associated with the Orthodox Convent of the Annunciation in Ormylia, Chalkidike, northern Greece, which in turn belongs to the Monastery of Simonos Petras on Mount Athos. Its mission is to comfort and alleviate the suffering of human beings without preference to race, religion, gender, or creed. Serving others through the use of medical science has been a special mission of the Orthodox faith since early Christian times, and there are many Orthodox saints who were doctors! The Ormylia Foundation supports those in need through practical works of love.


The heart of the foundation is the Center for Social Advancement, Disease Prevention and Medical Research, “Panagia Philanthropini” Το Kέντρο κοινωνικής συμπαραστάσεως, ιατρικής προλήψεως και ερεύνης «Παναγία η Φιλανθρωπινή». The Center provides high quality standardized tests for early detection of breast cancer and other forms of cancer. Together with AIDS prevention and other medical services, the center provides spiritual and social support, humanitarian aid, public health education and other works of love for the people of northern Greece and many other countries in Eastern Europe.

That is an interesting name, Φιλανθρωπινή – a rather unusual form for this adjective, at least by my knowledge of Greek. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing that it goes beyond the more usual φιλάνθρωπος. I’m guessing that this adjective denotes a very active form of philanthropy, akin to the life-changing decision of Mary to accept her role in the incarnation of Christ. This is the heart of the Christian faith: Philanthropy – the love of humankind. Philanthropy is not an emotion; it’s not even about giving money to a charity – although that can help. Philanthropy is first and foremost LOVE – an act of love, the love of humankind. One can be a philanthropist and still hate human beings! Φιλανθρωπινή: She who loves humankind.

The holistic vision of physical and spiritual healing, together with social support, is what Christianity should be about. Healing cannot be separated from social support and spiritual restoration. All three dimensions of healing are there in today’s miracle story. And like so many of Christ’s miracle stories, it is a parable in action.

There is a fascinating bit of teaching that Jesus gave in Matthew 12:43-45. “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and returns with seven other even more evil spirits, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”

You see, healing has to be holistic. Emotional or spiritual healing can leave behind a vacuum, just as in the teaching of Jesus. If the vacuum is not filled with love and social interaction, the result can be even greater emotional and spiritual turmoil. Human beings are not meant to live isolated lives; and we are not healed in isolation. That’s why Christ left a church behind – not as an institution. We have turned the church into an institution! The church is meant to be a place for healing – first and foremost! And perhaps that is why our churches are emptying – including our own church here in Portland. And the ones that are thriving are probably thriving for the wrong reasons. Why do people stay away from church and the Liturgy? Because they think they’re okay and they don’t need any healing? Because the church has forgotten its primary mission to be a place of healing? You probably never thought of this, but that’s not your fault: Throughout the Orthodox Church we have collectively forgotten why we are a church!

We look for explanations elsewhere for our emptying churches: children’s sports on Sundays, language and other ethnic factors, the sameness of our Liturgy, boredom and apathy, etc. Sure, all these are factors; but I think the reason might be more basic than any of those explanations. We live in a society where people think they’re perfectly fine and they don’t need any help, thank you. And if they need help with something, there’s a pill for that. People are self-sufficient; they don’t need Jesus. They may believe in Jesus, they may glorify Jesus on a few special days in the year – but they don’t NEED Jesus!

But here in the Liturgy our chaotic lives meet the presence of God. The kingdom of God is among us, and it’s both messy and beautiful. The Liturgy helps make sense of our lives, and we receive momentary glimpses of eternity through the icons and the prayers and the communion, just as light shines through our stained glass windows. The Word is made flesh right here and we see our lives transfigured. We are given strength and meaning to face the rest of the week – just as the apostles on the mountain of transfiguration received a vision that helped them return to the messiness back down from the mountain.

Παναγία η Φιλανθρωπινή, I like that name in Ormylia Greece. Every church should be Φιλανθρωπινή! And every one of us should be philanthropos, reflecting the love with which we were first loved by Christ, the μόνος φιλάνθρωπος – the only lover of humankind.

(I removed the audio file because of tapping sound throughout. The text version here is quite complete and in places superior to the spoken version.)


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There’s an Icon for that


Seed falling on different types of soil: a beautiful image of how the same divine grace will produce different results in different people. But is divine grace the same for everyone?

img_0046Every year in October we read the Gospel parable of the sower and the seed. Not a coincidence, because October is the time when sowing takes place in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean – and of course it is in those lands that our lectionary was developed. Late October is the time for sowing oats, barley, lentils, beans, and of course, wheat. The book Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village by Juliet du Boulay describes the “Ecological Year” – in other words, the year of stewardship of the land. Ecology means stewardship of our home, oikos. Ecology has nothing to do with politics or anything political. It is simply about knowing the land we live on and our relationship to img_0047the land. It’s about recognizing our place in God’s universe. Juliet du Boulay wrote a second book about this same Greek village, Ambeli, a small, dying village in Euboea; a book with a very ambitious title, Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village. In the late 60s and early 70s this author lived in the village and experienced up close the unique bond between their physical existence on the land and their spiritual existence in the Liturgy and all the sacramental and sanctifying celebrations of the church year. Indeed, when you talk about the eastern Mediterranean you cannot separate physical from spiritual. They are uniquely inseparable.

img_0044There is a picture of a man sowing the wheat, and the ground is rocky, with lots of weeds – not promising for a rich harvest, but very much like the imagery of today’s parable. But the caption reads, “The simple exchange between man and nature according to which he tills the ground and gets his bread in return.’

When dealing with the wild soil of that part of the world, the sower has no choice but to throw the seed and hope for the best yield. Undoubtedly there is ploughing to prepare the soil, and it happens in the first 2-3 weeks in October, but there’s only so much you can do with soil in that part of the world. And it is that part of the world in which Jesus lived and composed his parables. He didn’t have the American and Canadian prairies in mind, nor was he thinking of the rich green fields of California. Jesus knew how precarious the sowing of seed was in the real life of villages. And he also knew how precarious was the hearing of God’s word in the souls of people.

Just as there are different qualities of soil and natural environments, so also there are different types of people and livelihoods. Some are hesitant, some are eager but quickly fall away, some believe but fall away when difficulties arise, some are so preoccupied with material goods that they have no room for spiritual goods. And some are receptive and stay receptive and cultivate a rich spiritual life in communion with God and God’s people. Is there any hope for those who fall away? The parable seems to say that there is no hope; they are lost. But maybe not.

In my opening, I questioned whether the divine grace is the same for everyone. If it is, then one can conclude with the message of this parable. But the parable is about one type of seed. Does God operate in only one way? Does he show the same grace to everyone? In another parable, we hear about a master who gave 5, 2 and 1 talents to different recipients, “to each according to their ability” – and results were desired according to the amount given. And Ephesians 4:7 says, “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”

Different people receive Christ in different ways. In today’s world you hear the phrase, “There’s an app for that.” There are apps for practically every need. In the Orthodox Church we can say, “There’s an icon for that.” Yes, our icons are like apps; they respond to different people and different needs.

Entrance into Jerusalem wall icon at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME (click to enlarge)

Take the large wall icons in our church here in Portland. Some people don’t need the fanfare of miracles or dramatic conversion; they look for a God who enters their lives simply – the way Jesus enters in the Palm Sunday icon.

The wall icon of the Transfiguration at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME (click to enlarge)

Others want the fanfare, the miracles, the visions. They want God to show his glory, they want the shining light! For them, the icon of Transfiguration might be more meaningful and reassuring.


Baptism of Christ wall icon at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME (click to enlarge)

Some people look for God in creation. They want a God who sanctifies our lives and our environment, who makes everything holy. Perhaps they can respond to the icon of Epiphany.

Resurrection wall icon at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME (click to enlarge)

Other people are afraid of death and look for God to provide an answer to their fear of death; they might turn to the icon of Resurrection, which shows Christ trampling down death.


Dormition wall icon at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME (click to enlarge)

Some people simply want to get to heaven; they might be inspired by the icon of Dormition, which shows Christ receiving the eternal being of his mother Mary.

Do you see how each icon can respond to different needs? Every one of us responds to the gospel according to the grace given to us and according to our ability. The church has an app for every person, according to where they’re at and what can most meaningfully communicate the gospel message to them. The church has an app for everyone. They’re called icons.

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The Wine of Compassion



The volume of Palamas homilies in my library

In 1334 Saint Gregory Palamas experienced a vision. In the vision he was carrying a vessel overflowing with milk, but the milk then turned into the finest wine. A youth appeared and rebuked Gregory for not sharing the wine with others and reminded him of the parable of the talents (cf. Matt. 25:14–30). Palamas interpreted the vision to mean that he should go from teaching simple moralistic messages (the milk) to the higher truths of faith (the wine).

In seminary classes with Fr. John Meyendorff I studied the theological writings of Gregory Palamas. But now, some 34 years later,  I’m becoming familiar with his homilies and they’re better than his theological writings. There is a homily by Gregory Palamas for this Third Sunday of Luke which, in my opinion, perfectly represents the lesson he learned from the vision. Indeed, my mouth dropped as I read this homily. Gregory Palamas is as fine a biblical preacher as I have ever encountered.

He begins his homily by quoting from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which leads him to go back to the Old Testament, to the Books of Kings, where he reflects on stories of Elijah and Elisha and compares their miracles to the miracle of Jesus that we heard today. Gregory has offered no milk to this point – only the wine of solid biblical exegesis! But the vintage of his wine grows with each paragraph. As he turns to today’s miracle story, he goes for broke:

“For the resurrection of the widow’s son serves as a pattern for the renewal of our mind. Our soul was widowed of the heavenly bridegroom on account of sin, and her mind was like her only son, who had … lost true life.” [Because of sin, we drift away from God,] “But when the Lord drew near and stood by us, He immediately renewed our mind and raised it up by His advent in the flesh. He did not, however, come to us in the beginning, but later, in the last times.”

Gregory saw the miracle of the widow’s son as a parable of spiritual renewal. But it’s a renewal reserved for the “last times” – in other words, our times. The “last times” is biblical language for the manifestation of Christ in glory. It’s not only a reference to the Second Coming. Palamas lived in the “last times” as we also live in the “last times”!

“Deaf dust, then, heard him calling into being things which have no being, heard him who upholds all things by the word of his power, heard not the voice of a God-bearing man, but of God made man.”

Gregory does not hesitate to see in this miracle an image of God’s creation of the universe from nothing. This is no ordinary miracle that can be preached in a superficial 5-minute sermon. Nothing Jesus ever did was ordinary, and to reduce the Gospel stories to trivial feel-good messages is to do a great injustice. Gregory learned from his vision not to do that.

Near the end of his biblical and theological explorations, Gregory addresses his listeners directly:

“Do you see how the Lord, pitying the widow who was mourning her son, did not just use consoling words to her, but helped her through His actions? As far as we are able, we too should do the same, and not be sympathetic to those who suffer just with words, but demonstrate our compassion for them through our deeds… For by our very nature we are bound to be compassionate and merciful one to another. If we observe God’s manifold mercies towards us, for which all He demands from us in exchange is to pardon one another, share with one another, and be charitable… how can we fail to render as an inescapable duty, forgiveness and mercy in practical ways to our brothers and sisters in need, as far as we can?”

Telling us to be compassionate sounds like the usual moralistic message preached by countless preachers. But no, this is not milk, this is the finest wine. Because Gregory says something truly profound: “For by our very nature we are bound to be compassionate and merciful one to another.” Gregory is fully aware of sin – but he is also aware that within every one of us is the original beauty – the original goodness – that God planted in us. By nature we can be compassionate and merciful to one another. Gregory presents this as self-evident, something not to be disputed or even proven! It should be self-evident to every Orthodox Christian. But we also need the reminder and the challenge: Can we live and act in harmony with the beauty that God has placed in us?

Every year this Gospel reading comes in October, the month of the feast of St. Demetrius. This saint was extremely popular in the later centuries of Byzantium. Gregory concludes his homily by bringing into his discourse the example of this saint from whose body flowed fragrant and sanctified myrrh. And the closing prayer of the homily invokes the saint:

By the intercessions of the Myrrhstreamer among martyrs, may we too, who share in the holy myrrh that flows from him, also see and partake then of that glory, by the grace and love for humankind of Jesus Christ, who is glorified in His martyrs and is God over all, to whom belongs all glory for unending ages. Amen.


He is re-making us


I usually don’t quote extensively from the Fathers, because I prefer to speak with my own voice. But today’s Gospel reading (Luke 6:31-36)  prompts me to share some powerful messages from Saints Gregory Palamas and Isaac of Syria.


Homilies of Gregory Palamas in my personal library

In Homily 45 by St. Gregory Palamas (14th century) we read:

He who alone fashioned our hearts seeks from us, now that he is re-making us, the very things which he originally put in our souls when he created us, but which have been spoilt. Nothing shows this more clearly than the words of today’s Gospel reading: “As you wish that others do to you, do so to them.”

St. Gregory goes on to say: “Now that the Lord has revealed that all the gospel precepts are inscribed within us, he commands and ordains that we should order our lives in agreement with them. Being the lover of goodness and the friend of humankind, he has put into our nature the knowledge of how we should act.”

St. Gregory tells us that this Gospel reading aims at making us like God. Indeed, Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Then the light of the glory of the Most High will shine around you, and you will be among those who in the company of Christ will be deified.

St. Isaac of Syria (Hom. 71) asks, “what is a merciful heart?”


Isaac of Syria in my personal library

It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and at the recollection and sight of them, the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy that grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up prayers with tears continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy…. But the sum of all is that God the Lord surrendered his own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation. This is not because he could not have redeemed us another way, but so that his surpassing love might be a teacher to us. And by the death of his Son he made us near to himself. So great was his love for us that he did not wish to violate our freedom, but he chose that we should draw near to him by the love of our understanding.

This, dear friends, is what is missing in so much of Christianity today. St. Gregory is right to identify this Gospel reading as the sum of all Christ’s teaching. If we can give without expecting anything in return; if we can love even our enemies – then we are perfect, and the fullness of God’s image and likeness is in us. Luke says, Be merciful as your Father is merciful. Matthew 5:48 puts it differently: Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Our liturgy is full of Kyrie Eleison – Lord have mercy. But where is our call to be merciful? Is it the missing dimensions in our lives?

The hatred and bigotry that are so much a part of Christian societies today are the exact opposite of what Christ teaches. There are too many walls in the world – because there are too many walls in our own minds and hearts. What I love about Gregory’s teaching is that he uses the word “re-making”. Because of Jesus Christ, God is re-making us. We are a work in progress. Jesus tells us today that because he is re-making us, it will be natural for us to love even our enemies, to even pray for the devil (according to St. Isaac).

Most of us are not there yet. But let us strive to it. Let us not move backward – backward to the state of sin, backward to what we would be without Christ. Watch your speech, watch your thoughts. Let love govern your speech and actions. St. Isaac (Hom. 46) tells us, Paradise is the love of God. The tree of life is the love of God. If we live by love, we partake of Christ and are made immortal. The person who lives in love reaps life from God, and while still in this world nevertheless breathes the air of resurrection.

Love is the language of the kingdom. There is no other language that can be spoken in the eternal kingdom of God. When you travel to another country it helps to learn something of the language spoken there. So why don’t we start learning the language here? Why not start speaking it and practicing it? Love your enemies. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.