Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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36 Degrees to Armageddon

 

Frank Schaefer is a noted Orthodox writer, speaker and blogger. He recently received a request from a friend in the Chicago area: “Please let me know if your contacts know of any truly loving Orthodox (Greek, Russian or other) churches or missions in Chicago or within an hour’s drive of Chicago.” Frank wrote on his blog: “I don’t have an answer. Do any of you?” I don’t see any responses on his blog. Is it really such a rare thing to find an Orthodox church that is truly loving?

It was in the news last week about a mosque in Chantilly, Virginia, that was “vandalized” –  not with messages of hate like other mosques around the country, but with messages of love! “We love you,” “We are your brothers and sisters,” “You are loved,” “We are with you!”

We need more vandalism of that sort! When Jesus in today’s Gospel reading told one man to sell everything he had, give it to the poor, and then follow Jesus, he was talking to one specific man with a specific problem, a specific attachment that kept him out of the kingdom. Perhaps money is not your spiritual problem; perhaps not mine, either. Perhaps it is something else. Whatever it is that has power over you and how you see the world, Jesus today tells you and me: Go, get rid of it, and come follow me.

This year’s election was mostly about identity politics: LGBT, transgender bathrooms, white nationalist, Black Lives Matter, immigration, abortion, gun issues, legalized marijuana… . Only one issue didn’t make it to the floor of any debate or any major campaign speech of either party. And it is the one issue that will make all those other issues irrelevant! The one issue? Climate Change. Global Warming.

Oh, I can hear some of you thinking: Father is talking politics now! No, I am not talking politics, because neither political party seems to care about climate change or is talking about it. Okay one party tends to deny it while the other party gives it occasional lip service. But they’re all liars. They don’t care. We are all merrily marching along to Armageddon. Climate change is not a political issue. People make it a political issue so they can disagree about it and put it off for another year or decade, or even century.

I read yesterday that Arctic ice is at a record low for this time of year. The temperature in the Arctic right now is 20C above what it should be this time of year. And yes I should translate: 20C = 36F. 36 degrees Fahrenheit above what it should be this time of year. Imagine Maine 36 degrees above what we should have this time of year. It’d be a balmy 80 degrees out there.

Bathrooms for transgender people? Abortion rights? Open-carry rights for gun lovers? Higher minimum wage? Legalized marijuana? These are political issues, and you’ll never hear me speak for or against any of them. But all become irrelevant when the very fate of the planet is at stake. A wall to keep out illegals? We can build walls against illegals, but we can’t build any walls that will keep our own city of Portland from going under water.

Liberals should consider that identity politics and human rights won’t mean much as the planet dies. And conservatives should consider that gun ownership and prayer meetings will not hold back the warming and dying oceans.

Climate Change IS political – but not in the way you think. While left and right can disagree on practically everything, climate change is the one issue that can unite us and should unite us.

There is no one solution to the problem, which is why we should be talking about it. Human beings have shown incredible ingenuity and ability to work together when facing threats. There is plenty wisdom on all sides of political divides. We can do it – but we can’t ignore it for much longer. Climate Change WILL unite us, WILL break down political divisions of left and right. The question is whether it will unite us when we are together facing the irreversible catastrophe; or whether it will  unite us now to find creative ways that will save life on this planet and also enrich our own quality of life.

As a follower of Jesus I have no choice but to be hopeful. I have to overcome my own tendency to label people who don’t see the problem the way I see it. Jesus tells us in the spirit of today’s reading: Let go of everything that divides and come, come follow me into an exciting future.

In a recent movie, Arrival, aliens come to earth to help humanity – because humanity will help them 3,000 years in the future! Mutual help seems to be a universal code of conduct. Let’s start here in our own world. Let’s help each other live better lives. Let’s love one another, let’s work together. Let’s learn from each other. And that dear friends is the only politics you’ll ever hear from me – the politics of unity and mutual respect. It’s the only politics that will save us, the only politics that Jesus can use.


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Possessions that Possess

 

I am forced again to talk about context, because the parable we heard today has been deprived of its context. Here is the context, in Luke 12:

13 One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Then comes the parable:

16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Perhaps the church fathers who gave us our Gospel readings in the Liturgy thought the context was irrelevant and just wanted us to hear a parable to scare us into giving money to the church! Okay, I’m being a little facetious. But how does the parable end? With the words “rich toward God.” Now don’t get me wrong. I hope you do support our church. Stewardship pledge cards are going out to your homes and I pray that you will respond prayerfully and appropriately. But I don’t have to scare you into supporting our church. You are doing it with very little push. I congratulate you and I thank you for your support.

As I said, the church fathers may have removed the context in order to make this parable about you being rich toward God = rich toward the church. But I don’t think that was the case, really. So often we hear in Liturgy parables without the immediate context, probably just to make a parable a form of absolute teaching unrelated to what was going on around Jesus. That can be very helpful for us who are not there with Jesus, but it’s also dangerous because we can misinterpret what was Jesus’ intention. And I don’t know about you, but I really care about what were the immediate circumstances for everything Jesus spoke. Jesus never spoke from an ivory tower; he spoke in the midst of life among real people with real problems.

So the parable of the rich fool was prompted by someone who wanted Jesus to resolve a family inheritance squabble. Jesus refuses to get involved; it’s not his place to judge or divide inheritances. Jesus indeed will be judge, but in a completely different sense. And Jesus will decide on matters of inheritance – but not the inheritance this man had in mind. Jesus will give inheritance to all who believe in him, an inheritance that will be beyond human measure, in a different life, in an eternity where there is no conflict or greed. Instead of dividing the inheritance he gives them spiritual advice: “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Then he tells them the parable we heard in our Gospel reading this morning. The parable illustrates the teaching that life does not consists in the abundance of our possessions. Life is so much more than possessions. But here is a problem with the parable and with our translation: “This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” This clearly sounds like a threat. Tonight you will die and what will happen to all your possessions, who will possess them? Clearly he is addressing the man with the inheritance problem.

The problem is in the translation: “This night your soul is required of you.” The Greek text says: ταύτῃ τῇ νυκτὶ τὴν ψυχήν σου ἀπαιτοῦσιν ἀπὸ σοῦ. “This very night they are demanding your soul from you.” Who or what are “they” who are demanding his soul? Is it God? Then we wouldn’t have had a plural form of the verb ἀπαιτέω. Is death the threat? Certainly that is the most direct interpretation. Or is it something else; an interpretation that goes deeper, perhaps?

Could it be the possessions who are demanding his soul? The minute you find satisfaction and fulfillment in things, they possess you. If you allow possessions to define your life, you’re not living. God does not ask for our wealth. God asks for our hearts. However, our money and possessions easily destroy love and affection. That is true in human relationships. How many families, business partnerships, marriages and friendships are destroyed by money? God does not need our money; but our money and how we use our money do define who we are and where our affections lie. In the final analysis if the church asks for your support it’s to help you define your priorities.

You’ll laugh at me and say perhaps, “Sure, sure, so you say. But the church needs money to pay the bills, to maintain the buildings, and to pay for your salary!” Yes, you do pay me a salary. Yes, the buildings needs maintenance and the bills need to be paid. But it’s only because we’re not perfect, and because we need to gather here and you need to have a priest to lead you in worship and to teach the gospel. If we were all perfect, there would be no need for the church – ANY church! But we’re not perfect.

Icon of the Entrance of Mary in the Temple (click to enlarge)

Icon of the Entrance of Mary in the Temple

As I was working on this sermon, I had it in mind that I would somehow tie the Gospel parable to tomorrow’s wonderful feast of the Entrance of Mary in the Temple. My sermon ended in a different place than I had envisaged. But Mary is still our teacher, even in the matter of stewardship and being rich toward God. Mary was poor, yet no one was more rich toward God than she was. As a little girl she was taken to the Temple – something very unusual in Jewish society of that time. But spiritually that was where she belonged. That’s where her heart was filled with God’s presence and she was prepared to receive in her body the full presence of God in the birth of her son, our Lord Jesus Christ. So we also enter into this place, into this house of worship, to receive Christ in our being. You support this church because you need it in your lives. Here it is more God who is rich to us, rather than we are rich toward God. By sharing our wealth with the needs of the church, we experience the joy of God’s richness to us. Being rich toward God is not such an impossible thing after all.


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What don’t you understand?

 

One can say, I don’t understand all this high theology, I don’t understand what Liturgy is all about, I don’t understand how bread and wine can be the body and blood of Christ. One can say any of these things and be sincere. But what don’t you understand about “Go and do likewise”? It’s a simple command, and it needs no theology. And it needs no consecration of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. It’s actually a simple command that turns us into the body of Christ, and sometimes even into his blood!

If you are not a neighbor to the homeless, to the persecuted, to the refugee, then you are not following this basic command of Jesus, “Go and do likewise.” Saint John Chrysostom, whose feast day we celebrate today, understood the message, and that is why he was persecuted by the empire and the rich and powerful 1600 years ago. The church honored him after his death with the title Chrysostomos – the “golden-mouthed”. The Liturgy we celebrate today and most days of the year is named after him.

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But was he golden-mouthed only because he was an eloquent preacher? His preaching was consumed with a passion for the poor and the homeless, the ignored of society. He spoke of the oil of mercy (referring to the parable of the maidens and the bridegroom). “Who are the merchants of this oil? The poor, who are sitting in front of the church, waiting for your mercy! You have money? Buy heaven! You don’t have money? Give a cup of cool water.”

“The poor are physicians of the soul, your benefactors and protectors. You receive more than you give. You give silver and receive the kingdom of heaven. You wash your hands before you pray. God has placed the poor at the doors of the church so that before you enter to pray you wash your hands with philanthropy.”

Δύο νιπτήρες εισι προ των πυλών της εκκλησίας˙ μία του ύδατος, εν ή νίπτεις τας χείρας, και μία η χείρ του πένητος, εν ή αποσμήχεις (purify) την ψυχήν σου. Εισέρχου εις την εκκλησίαν, και νίπτε τας χείρας σου˙ επίδος εις την χείρα του πένητος οβολόν, και απόσμηχε την ψυχήν σου. Εάν δε εισέλθης και νίψης και εύξη, τω δε πένητι μηδέν επιδώσης, τί όφελος;

“There are two fonts at the entrance of the church: one with water, in which you wash your hands; and the other the hand of the beggar, in which you purify your soul. Enter into the church, and wash your hands; give your offering to the hand of the beggar, and purify your soul. If you enter and wash your hands and pray, but give nothing to the beggar, what’s the point?”

On the very first day of Lent, we read from the first chapter of Isaiah. We enter Lent with these extraordinary words. It is God who speaks:

Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.

Is there any difference between today’s Parable of the Good Samaritan and this passage written by Isaiah 700 years before Christ? God has a passion for us human beings. He desires that we have com-passion for each other, for the poor, the homeless, the refugee.

Τουτό εστιν, ώ εξισούσθαι δυνάμεθα τω θεώ, ελεείν. An amazing statement by Chrysostom: “This is the means by which we become equal to God (in the sense that we are put on the same level with God), by being merciful.”

But you will protest that we live in very different times than Chrysostom. Indeed, it is hard to tell who is really poor and who isn’t – though we all know that there is real poverty in our society. Many people are afraid of refugees – maybe some of them are terrorists. Highly unlikely, but a real, justified fear nevertheless. So what do we do? Well, you can get involved in an organized effort to help the poor, to promote social justice, to alleviate poverty in our city, state or country. For starters, you can work in a food pantry or a soup kitchen. Perhaps you might want to start something like that in our own church, in our own parish house. Perhaps you might want to help a halfway house or one of the shelters in our city for abused women. You might want to volunteer at one of our hospitals or nursing homes. Perhaps you might want to form a small group that will visit nursing homes or the Veterans Home in Scarborough. There are lonely people all around us. They might not all be poor, but they lack human companionship. Perhaps you can organize to drive people to church some Sundays, if not every Sunday. The possibilities are endless.

Icon illustrating the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with Jesus himself in the role of the Samaritan. He is our peace, our shalom.

In this icon illustrating the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus himself is the Samaritan, showing us also the path to sharing his life, by being compassionate.

We can all be good Samaritans. And all of us are in one way or another like the man who was beaten and left for dead. We need each other. This is where the gospel of Jesus Christ begins. This is always where John Chrysostom began. So we honor him as the great teacher of mercy and compassion.


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“Did you help?”

 

Dorothy Sayers began one of her public talks with the following words:

What I am going to talk about is theology. … I think it only fair to warn you about this, because I so often get letters from people saying that they “don’t agree with theology.” They don’t like it, as some people don’t like spiders. If anybody here feels like that, this is the cue for them to rise and make a graceful exit. (Quoted in Creed Without Chaos, Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers, by Laura K. Simmons, page 11)

She was a popular writer in Great Britain, known primarily for her Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels. But she was also a very articulate defender of the Christian faith when the Church of England was already beginning to drift from classical Christian teachings. She was part of that unique circle of Christian intellectuals at Oxford University that also included C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others, during the 1930s and 40s. She died in 1957.

My own first awareness of Sayers was in Florence in 1978, when I picked up Dante’s Divine Comedy in the translation by Dorothy L. Sayers. What better place to start reading the Divine Comedy than in Florence, Dante’s hometown? And with Dorothy Sayers as translator?

I like the way she began that talk, giving people an opportunity to walk out if they don’t like theology. Many people don’t like theology. This is actually the prime problem that keeps people away from church, or keeps people in an infantile version of Christianity. Our church is deeply theological. Our Liturgy is deeply theological. No wonder people can’t relate to it. The argument is often made that the church does not speak the language of today. That is true. And of course, I don’t mean whether the church speaks English or Greek or whatever. I mean of course the conceptual language of today’s people, the language with which they view the world and relate to the world. But what is even more true is that today’s people don’t speak the language of the church and don’t even care to learn or understand the language of the church, or the language of the Bible, or the language of the Creed! And so we have an impasse.

In the early 1940s Sayers produced a series of radio plays for the BBC titled, The Man Who Would Be King – a series in 12 parts dramatizing the life of Christ. One Jewish man who listened to the radio plays understood Jesus for the first time in his life. His difficulty had been the Incarnation — that is truly the primary Jewish difficulty. After hearing the plays, he felt that so good and great a man must have been God. Before, he hadn’t been able to see how so great and good a God could have become man.

This dear friends is where most of us are. We also have trouble with the Incarnation. How could a great and good God become a human being? It’s a problem for the theologians, most people would say. Yes, if by theology you mean some abstract kind of religious philosophy. That’s not the kind of theology Dorothy Sayers spoke or wrote. It’s not the kind of theology that I embrace. My kind of theology is the theology that embraces and nourishes. That is why my primary gateway to theology is the Liturgy – not just the Sunday Liturgy, but the whole liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church, especially the great annual feasts, some of which we represent in our icons.

Jesus spoke theology – not with fancy words, but with actions that opened people’s eyes to the liberating love of God. Jesus spoke theology because He is Theology! The Word of God, the Logos. People think that’s a bit of Greek philosophy that crept into the Gospel of John. No, it’s not. It’s Hebrew. The dabar of God – the word of God came to Abraham (Genesis 15:1); the word of God came to Elijah (1 Kings 21:17); the word of God came to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 32:26) ; “the word of the Lord came to me,” wrote Ezekiel over and over in the book that carries his name. The word of God was always coming, because God always goes out of himself toward his proudest creation, the human being. And God finally, at the right time, went out of himself all the way and became a human being.

It’s only when we see the actions of Jesus in their whole context – not just the first century, but history before and after, that we can begin to do theology, to speak properly of God. God gives us voice, like he gave voice to the woman with the flow of blood in today’s Gospel reading. And God raises us from our depths of solitude and ignorance like he raised the girl from the dead in today’s reading. Giving voice to the bleeding woman was for her as good as raising her from the dead, from a living death. This is theology: To be touched by God; to be given a voice by God; to be raised to life by God. It’s all there. How we respond is the challenge.

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One writer writes about going to a meditation center in Paris. He writes:

Madame de Salzman asked me whether I found the meditation at the Maison last evening useful. She had not been feeling well and could not come herself. Someone else, a senior person in Paris, had led the meditation. I had felt a little disappointed by the fact that she had not come and I had not been able to make a deep connection with myself during the meditation. I made some complaint about the way the meditation had been led. Madame de Salzman asked me something which struck me like a thunderbolt, and showed me the level of my self-occupation. She asked simply, “Did you help?”  (Quoted in Parabola Magazine, Winter 2016-17 issue, page 112)

Did you help? Perhaps that is the question we need to ask ourselves and each other when we find the Liturgy irrelevant, when we feel the church does not speak the language of today. Do we help? Do we work with the grace that God pours into our lives every moment? Do we try to learn the language of the Liturgy, of the church, of the Bible, of the Creed? Do we allow the language of the church and the Liturgy and the Bible and the Creed to embrace us, to heal us, to nourish us, to raise us up, to give us voice, to sanctify us? That is what Jesus also would ask. “Did you help?” Do you help?