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Some choice words

Some words for “God’s chosen, holy and beloved.” Yes, that’s how Paul addresses his fellow believers in Christ, and that’s how I address you this morning. What a privilege! But it is not a privilege in the way that human beings privilege themselves to the exclusion of others. These three epithets in Greek, ἐκλεκτοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ ἅγιοι καὶ ἠγαπημένοι, are not meant to make us proud or boastful. They describe what is our standing before God, how God sees us. And they have consequences: “as God’s chosen, holy and beloved” put on….the five attributes that Paul singles out. If you are God’s chosen, holy and beloved, it follows that you will have a compassionate heart, that you will be kind, humble, meek and patient. And I love the symbols that this slide uses to accompany each of those qualities.

σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ is best translated not as “compassionate hearts,” but rather as compassionate guts! The compassion Paul is talking about is not just an emotion: “Oh, I feel so sorry for that poor child.” No, it’s compassion that stirs you in the depths of your being and leads to action and personal involvement in the other person for whom you feel pity. Every time the Gospels describe Jesus as having compassion on someone it’s the verb that comes from σπλάγχνα that is used to describe his reaction. Jesus didn’t just feel an emotion, he was stirred in his guts to acts of compassion.

The compassionate person is also kind – χρηστότητα is Paul’s word here, which also means goodness. Just as God is kind and pours his goodness on us, so also we show goodness to those we encounter. Paul is not talking about emotion of pity which might last for a few seconds or a minute before we move on. Anyone can feel pity. But the true Christian response to suffering is not pity but gut-stirring compassion that arises from the goodness/kindness within that reflects God’s goodness to us. Paul is never superficial. He never deals in slogans. He used words carefully, making full use of the rich meanings that these ancient Greek words had.

True compassion comes with humility, meekness and patience. Many times we reach out and help someone while silently also passing judgment on the person, thinking he or she is lazy, or wondering whether drug use brought him or her to such a bad state or illness. Sometimes pity is little more than an expression of judgment of the person we are pitying, and even a sense of superiority to that person. So Paul connects the attributes of humility, meekness and patience to compassion and kindness so as to prevent judgmental pity that comes so easily when we label others. The Christian who is humble, meek and patient is far less likely to show judgmental pity on someone. If you know your own lowliness, your own neediness for God’s compassion and goodness, you will not be arrogant; you will be meek in your attitude to life. And if you have had to be patient in your own life to reach a certain goal or to overcome a sickness or a temptation, you will be less likely to judge the other person. If it took you time to overcome something, you can hope for time in the other person; and you will be patient in your estimation of the other person.

So you see, Paul is not just piling on good words here. He has thought this through; maybe not exactly the way I’m thinking it through and almost certainly far more profoundly than I am capable of connecting the meaning of these beautiful words. Perhaps I can conclude my short exploration of this verse by quoting the rest of the paragraph that begins with this verse in Colossians. It is all a further expression of what it means to be “God’s chosen, holy and beloved”:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17, RSV)


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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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The Wine of Compassion

 

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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.


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The luminous eye of compassion

 

The key word in today’s Gospel reading is “see” – When did we see you…? is the question repeated by both sets of people!

Compassion is all about seeing. That’s the message today. Notice in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite saw the wounded man and passed on the other side, away from the place of compassion:

a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion – It is much more concise in the original Greek: καὶ ἰδὼν ἐσπλαγχνίσθη – and seeing had compassion.

The demand of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that we develop the ability to SEE. To help us in this, Jesus tells us to look for him among the poor, the homeless, the suffering, the victims of injustice. We are too comfortable in our neighborhoods and churches and respectable civic involvement. And because it all begins with seeing, is it any wonder that cities around the nation and around the world regularly pass laws to make the homeless and the poor invisible?

I’m not naive. I know that there are people who pretend to be poor or homeless or unemployed, who can very well provide for themselves. I know that there are people who use and abuse the system. I’m not naive. But I’m also not blind. And I know that there is genuine need. The Europeans who were so comfortable with their social democracies were suddenly confronted by the suffering of millions. After an initial compassionate reaction, the doors started closing.

Even in Greece, which has been at the forefront of the crisis and which has done the most to help even though it is of all European countries least able to help – even in Greece one hears stories. Residents of the village Αθυρά dug up the earth with tractors where tents to house 3,000 migrants were to be set up, so as to prevent those tents from being set up in their neighborhood. And then there is this:

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No, this is not something that happened recently. Three Sundays ago Lou Ureneck spoke to us about the tragedy of Smyrna in 1922. The incident above was written by the great Greek poet George Seferis, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature – and yes, it was an incident that happened in 1922, with Greek refugees. The doors close, fences are built along borders, even 50-foot walls! In the second world war, nations closed their doors to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

I’m not naive. I know the problem is huge, beyond any single country to deal. I’m ashamed for what those Greek villagers who dug up the earth to prevent refugee tents being set up, yet I can’t totally blame them nor can I judge them. And neither do I believe that Jesus will finally condemn any of us for failure to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, taken in the homeless. So what is the point of this parable? The parable is meant to challenge us and to open our eyes. When Jesus told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned – he knew that such acts on our part would take us to the heart of the all the suffering, brokenness and injustice in our society. He knew that such acts would cause us to ask questions about ourselves and our society. He knew that such acts would help us become more fully human – like he became human, like he placed himself in the place of the poor and suffering. This is the full impact of the incarnation: He entered the hurt of the world and embodied it in himself – he became hurt, not only on the cross, but everyday.

He’s telling us, Look closely, I’m not far, I’m right there, wherever you avert your gaze. See me, touch me – he told his apostles when they had trouble believing that he had risen from the dead. He is not dead, he is alive and he identifies himself with the same people that he preferred to associate 2,000 years ago – the poor, the sick, the lonely, the outcasts, the sinners – yes, perhaps even those fakes out there at street corners holding signs.

The Christian gospel is unique because it preaches a God who is very different from every other god in every religion. Not that God is more “powerful” than the other gods – but rather God chooses to be poor and powerless in order to draw us to unity with each other and with God. The sermons of John Chrysostom and other great fathers of the church make constant reference to this parable we read today. But I will conclude today with a quote from a lesser known ancient preacher, Jacob of Sarug, preaching in a dusty Syrian village near ancient Edessa, around the year 520 AD. Note especially the magnificent phrases I have highlighted in red. They encapsulate everything I’ve tried to say here, and they do it much more deeply and eloquently.

For your sake he was made a beggar in the streets, in hunger and need along with the poor in this world… The Creator, to whom the entire creation belongs, has abased himself so as to borrow from you in (the person of) the poor… ‘Give to the needy, and I will be as a debtor to you…Although he is God, he has equated himself with the poor… He is hidden and exalted high above all ranks of heavenly beings, but when a poor person stands at your door, you see him!… He whom the cherubim convey on their backs lies smitten on the bed of sickness, along with the sick. Wherever you want to see him, you will find him by means of the luminous eye of faith that does not doubt: with the sick, with those in distress, with those who mourn, with the needy, with the hungry and afflicted… The poor person who has stood at your door is God himself… In a lowly and despised guise he has come to visit you, so that when you fill his belly, you will find the Bread of Life. (As quoted in Susan R. Holman, God Knows There’s Need, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 49-50)


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Marks of Community

Today’s Gospel reading, Luke 13:10-17, should be read in the context of the entire chapter 13 of Luke. Jesus heals the woman who was bent over for eighteen years in the midst of various parables and confrontational dialogues.

Christ healing the crippled woman who was bent over. From the so-called "Two Brothers Sarcophagus" - mid-4th century, in the Vatican Museum.

Christ healing the crippled woman who was bent over. From the so-called “Two Brothers Sarcophagus” (mid-4th century, in the Vatican Museum)

What unifies all these segments of chapter 13 is the idea of community. A careful reading of this chapter reveals several marks of what a Christian community should be and should not be. That’s what today’s sermon attempted to do. The audio file of this sermon is presented here: