Ancient Answers

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Room for Mercy

At the heart of our Liturgy is Mercy. We say it so often that there’s a Greek saying that makes fun of it. But make no mistake, Mercy is at the heart of our faith. And mercy is precisely what is missing in the world today. Everything comes from mercy. And the parable Jesus teaches today touches at the core of what we call religion and what we call gospel. Religion and gospel are not the same thing.

The great theologian Karl Barth said that religion is man’s rising to  go to God. But the essence of Christianity, what we can call the gospel, is God’s rising to go to man. Brilliant distinction. God rises to come to us because we need forgiveness, we need mercy. For some people that makes Christianity too negative. I still remember the woman we talked to at the harbor in Ydra two summers ago waiting for our boat back to Athens. How she was repelled by the many crucifixes she saw while traveling in Latin America and other Catholic countries. What perhaps she didn’t understand is that she was repelled not by the crucifixes, but by the Cross! The Cross, that “scandal” (σκάνδαλον, Galatians 5:11, translated as “offense” in most English Bibles) that strikes the heart of human thought; that reminder that we need forgiveness, that we need God to come to us – to be born among us, to walk among us, to be ridiculed and rejected by us, and finally to be crucified by us. 

Yes, we prefer our own versions of God. No Cross, no forgiveness, no praying for mercy. Those are all a big blow to human ego and self-satisfaction! No, all we need is love. Imagine no religion, sung the same John Lennon. Indeed, imagine no religion, yeah why not? Imagine the gospel instead. But no, we don’t want to imagine gospel. Gospel, evangelion, good news? Why do we need good news? We have fake news! 

Without mercy and forgiveness what do you have? Look at the Pharisee in today’s parable. He had no need of mercy. He was self-sufficient. He had all his religious requirements down pat. All he looked to receive from God was congratulations for being such a good religious man. But was he? His heart was full of hatred and contempt for the publican. He did not thank God for mercy, because he had no need of mercy. I thank you, God, that I am not like other men. You see, without mercy and forgiveness, you can pretty much hate anyone. Especially someone like the publican, who stands in the back and beats his breast asking for God’s mercy. Look how terrible that man is acting. Why is he so negative about himself, dragging himself like that? He must be a terrible sinner. Thank God I’m not like him.

One of the great ascetics of the Orthodox Church, Saint Dorotheos of Gaza (6th century) wrote this beautiful bit of advice:

God is the creator of all human beings, with their differences, their colors, their races. Be attentive: Every time you draw nearer to your neighbor, you draw nearer to God. Be attentive: Every time you go farther from your neighbor, you go farther from God.

Elias Chacour was priest of a small village in northern Israel before being made Archbishop of Haifa. When he first arrived at the village church in 1965 he found a church both physically and spiritually in total disrepair. When the people assembled in church he could see the deep divisions that existed among them. Four distinct groups, each keeping distance from the others. “The empty space between the four groups made the sign of the Cross” he said. On Palm Sunday of his first year at their priest, Father Elias looked at the grim faces in church. After the Gospel reading, when it was time for the sermon, he walked to the back of the church and padlocked the door. Returning to the front he told his parishioners:

Sitting in this building does not make you a Christian. You are a people divided. You argue and hate each other. You gossip and spread lies. Your religion is a lie. If you can’t love your brother or sister whom you see, how can you say that you love God whom you don’t see? You have allowed the Body of Christ to be disgraced. I have tried for months to unite you. I have failed. I am only a man. But there is someone else who can bring you together in true unity. His name is Jesus Christ. He has the power to forgive you. So now I will be quiet and allow him to give you that power. If you will not forgive, then we stay locked in here. If you want, you can kill each other. In that case I’ll provide your funerals gratis.

A long silence followed. Finally one man stood up, faced the congregation, bowed his head and said, “I am sorry. I am the worst of all. More than any of you, I need forgiveness.” Father Elias embraced him, and the church immediately became a chaos of embracing and forgiveness. Father Elias had to shout to be heard. “Dear friends, we are not going to wait until next week to celebrate the Resurrection. Let us begin it now. We were dead to each other. Now we are alive again.” He began to sing the paschal hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life.” The congregation joined in. Unlocking the door, Father Elias led them into the village streets. The rest of that day, in every home, at every door, there was forgiveness. It was resurrection for the entire village.

It’s a beautiful story from the recent past. Elias Chacour is still alive, retired now. Three times he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He describes himself as a “Palestinian-Arab-Christian-Israeli.” It doesn’t get much better than that. In 2001, Chacour gave a commencement address at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, where he accepted an honorary degree. An excerpt from his speech:

You who live in the United States, if you are pro-Israel, on behalf of the Palestinian children I call unto you: give further friendship to Israel. They need your friendship. But stop interpreting that friendship as an automatic antipathy against me, the Palestinian who is paying the bill for what others have done against my beloved Jewish brothers and sisters in the Holocaust and Auschwitz and elsewhere.

And if you have been enlightened enough to take the side of the Palestinians — oh, bless your hearts — take our sides, because for once you will be on the right side, right? But if taking our side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, back up. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend. We do not need one more enemy, for God’s sake.

Those are words of mercy, those are the words of someone completely under the power of the gospel. Mercy, dear friends, is at the heart of healing – not only at Mercy Hospital here in Portland, but the healing that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring to human relations and how we see each other and ourselves through the eyes of God. Thomas Merton, one of my great heroes, wrote:

If we believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of Christ. 

“In mystery” is the key. Do you have room in your life for mystery? Then you have room for mercy. 

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Lessons from a hero

Where do people earn the Per Capita Income? More than one poor starving soul would like to know. In our countries, numbers live better than people. How many people prosper in times of prosperity? How many people find their lives developed by development? Eduardo Galeano, quoted in Partner to the Poor: A Paul Farmer Reader, p. 328 (California Series in Public Anthropology, 2010)paul-farmer

Paul Farmer has much to teach us about last Sunday’s parable of the Publican and Pharisee. He has written the stories of many people who have been his patients in many countries. One of these is Acéphie Joseph, a young woman who died of AIDS in Haiti in 1991. She was from an impoverished family of “water refugees” who had lost their home and land years earlier when their valley was flooded by a hydroelectric dam. Acéphie’s beauty — she was tall and fine-featured, with enormous dark eyes — and her vulnerability may have sealed her fate as early as 1984. Though still in primary school then, she was already nineteen years old; it was time for her to help generate income for her family, which was sinking deeper and deeper into poverty. Acéphie began to help her mother by carrying produce to a local market on Friday mornings. There she caught the eye of Captain Jacques Honorat and she entered a liaison with him, even though she knew he was married and had children. She knew it was wrong, but…

“What would you have me do? I could tell that the old people were uncomfortable, worried; but they didn’t say no. They didn’t tell me to stay away from him. I wish they had, but how could they have known?…I knew it was a bad idea then, but I just didn’t know why. I never dreamed he would give me a bad illness, never! I looked around and saw how poor we all were, how the old people were finished… What would you have me do? It was a way out, that’s how I saw it.”

Jacques Honorat died from AIDS and Acéphie moved on to a low-paying job in Port-au-Prince, where she began seeing another man, Blanco Nerette. Soon after giving birth to a daughter, she was diagnosed with AIDS. She died and left behind her daughter also diagnosed with AIDS.

Many Christians would look at Acéphie and see a woman who died because of her sinful behavior. Moralistic judgment of others is one of the trademarks of being a “Christian” in our comfortable American society. But Paul Farmer sees her and countless others differently: “Little about Acéphie’s story is unique; it brings to the foreground many of the forces restricting not only her options but those of most Haitian women.”

Paul Farmer is an anthropologist and physician, and he has worked with poor people in Haiti and other third-world countries for the past three decades, providing health care where none or little is otherwise available. And all the while he holds the position of Kolokotrones University Professor at Harvard University. He is one of the most remarkable humanitarians the world has ever known and I’m sure he will win a Nobel Prize one of these years. He is still only 55 years of age. And he is my hero; a real-life hero, not a comic-book hero.


Farmer connects the story of Acéphie and others like her to the “structural violence” that permeates life in so many countries, especially among the poor. The suffering he witnesses is “structured” by forces like racism, sexism, political violence, and grinding poverty. He quotes from The Praxis of Suffering, by Rebecca Chopp:

“Knowledge of suffering cannot be conveyed in pure facts and figures, reportings that objectify the suffering of countless persons. The horror of suffering is not only its immensity but the faces of the anonymous victims who have little voice, let alone rights, in history.”

People who die of AIDS, or drug overdoses, or street violence, are just numbers to us. And we tend to form snap judgments about their character and how they lived their lives: People die of AIDS because of their immoral or deviant sexual behavior; people die of drug or alcohol abuse because they were addicts and didn’t turn to Jesus for help; people are poor or unemployed because they’re lazy; people are on food stamps because they’re cheaters and liars… and so on.

We judge people by our own narrow standards of morality, from the viewpoint of our own socio-economic comfort. We even judge entire nations. For years now it has been commonplace in Europe and North America to accuse Greeks of being lazy and spoiled; that’s why Greece is in the mess it’s in. Not true! Sure, Greeks cannot deny their own responsibility for their woes. But it was European market tactics that encouraged Greek people to buy and owe beyond their abilities. And it was Wall Street, especially Goldman Sachs, that taught the Greek government the tricks they needed to lie their way to debacle. The same tactics that sunk millions of Americans because of subprime mortgages also sunk the nation of Greece. And just as ordinary Americans were forced into bankruptcy while the banks and financial institutions that caused the crisis walked away with government handouts, so also Greece and the millions of Greeks who have borne the burden of the big boys’ crimes. Angela Merkel should go after Wall Street instead of Greeks who have been stretched beyond sustainable limits!

The Pharisee in last Sunday’s Gospel reading did what we do: He judged the tax collector and everyone who was not like him. Jesus warns against forming judgments of others. I can speak from personal experience how often I have formed judgments of people only to discover later what difficulties or tragedies they were experiencing. Paul Farmer teaches me that instead of judging others I should do what I can to fight the “structures” of economic, racial and gender oppression that drives people to drugs, sex, alcoholism, violence, and even terrorist sects. We are all connected. None of us can know how one show of kindness could save another person from despair. And I’m not talking about giving money. I’m talking about a kind word, an embrace, an invitation of friendship – small acts that could make a turning point in the life of someone headed for disaster.

But it all starts with not judging. Do not judge! No matter what you think you see or what others say, DO NOT JUDGE! Take a hint from my hero, Paul Farmer. Every person has a history. Before you judge, get to know a person. Chances are you’ll find he or she is not very different from you. Chances are you’ll see that you could be that other person if your circumstances were different! Knowledge is the great leveler of consciousness. Don’t judge.


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Thanks to a Martyr

In Russia, St Tryphon is regarded as the patron saint of birds.

In Russia, St Tryphon is regarded as the patron saint of birds. He is especially venerated in Russia.

I often wonder that we have too many monks in the Orthodox Church and not enough martyrs – martyrs who had a voice in shaping our liturgical tradition, that is; martyres, witnesses, to faithful living in the midst of a complex world. Then perhaps we might have more readings like today’s Epistle reading from Romans. The normal reading for this Sunday is 2 Timothy 3:10-15, but thanks to the holy martyr Trypho, who died for his faith about the year 250, we were blessed to hear the Epistle reading for his feastday, Romans 8:28-39.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate often substitutes the Epistle readings, and sometimes also Gospel readings, for some saints when they fall on Sundays, out of concern to introduce some variation in the normal cycle of reading. Saint Trypho (or Tryphon) is not a major saint, but the Patriarchate chose the saint’s Epistle reading today anyway. We don’t get the benefit of any changes in the next three Sundays from the normal appointed readings: 1 Corinthians 6:12-201 Corinthians 8:8-9:2, and Romans 13:11-14:4  and you’ll notice all three readings have to do with food!

But thanks to Saint Trypho, we heard today one of the most magnificent sections of the New Testament. I referred to this chapter two Sundays ago, the part earlier in the chapter where Paul tells us about all creation groaning, as it waits to share in our glorification. Today’s reading is the climax of the chapter. And indeed, it is about glorification that Paul speaks to us.

… For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among the many who are his brothers and sisters. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

οὓς προέγνω, καὶ προώρισεν συμμόρφους τῆς εἰκόνος τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ, εἰς τὸ εἶναι αὐτὸν πρωτότοκον ἐν πολλοῖς ἀδελφοῖς· οὓς δὲ προώρισεν, τούτους καὶ ἐκάλεσεν· καὶ οὓς ἐκάλεσεν, τούτους καὶ ἐδικαίωσεν· οὓς δὲ ἐδικαίωσεν, τούτους καὶ ἐδόξασεν.

This passage has been highly controversial in many Christian circles because it raises the matter of “predestination” – but is it a false problem? Does God “foreknow” only some people? Is his foreknowledge limited? Did God foreknow the Pharisee, the publican, or both, in today’s Gospel reading? Note the sequence: Foreknow – Predestine – Call – Justify – Glorify! God foreknows everyone and predestines everyone to be “conformed to the image of his Son.” Just as ALL creation waits for the adoption and glorification of God’s children, so God’s intent is for ALL to accept the calling. But not everyone will accept the calling.

God does not predestine some to be saved and some to be damned. We separate ourselves from each other, as the Pharisee did from the tax collector.

God does not predestine some to be saved and some to be damned. We separate ourselves from each other, as the Pharisee did from the tax collector.

Paul here is not thinking about whom God predestines to be saved or not to be saved (as some Christian groups think). Paul is saying that God’s intent has always been that we be conformed to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ. This is what we are “predestined” for. Paul reveals the infinite reaches of God’s love as it extends to every single human being. And it follows from the statements about the creation groaning. Nothing can separate us from the love that all of creation receives. And nothing can separate us from the pain of creation as it is groaning and waiting for deliverance and glorification.

… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Everything works for good in the lives of those who share in God’s purposes (Romans 8:28), Paul tells us.

A small boy named Wally lived in a suburb of Sydney. None of his classmates liked him, especially his teacher, who always yelled at him.

One day Wally’s mum came to school to check on how he was doing. The teacher told his mum honestly, that her son is simply a disaster, getting very low marks and she had never seen such a dumb boy in her entire teaching career. The mum was shocked at the feedback and withdrew her son from the school and even moved out of Sydney!

Twenty-five years later, the teacher was diagnosed with an incurable cardio disease. All the doctors strongly advised her to have heart surgery, which only one surgeon could perform. Left with no other options, the teacher decided to have the operation, which was successful. When she opened her eyes after the surgery she saw a handsome doctor smiling down at her.

She wanted to thank him, but could not talk. Her face started to turn blue, she raised her hand, trying to tell him something but eventually died. The doctor was shocked and was trying to work out what went wrong….. When he turned around he saw our friend Wally. He was working as a cleaner in the clinic, and he had unplugged the oxygen equipment to connect his Hoover!

You really expected this to be one of those teary-eyed stories, about how Wally became a heart-surgeon, didn’t you? Well, many times things don’t work out for the best, despite Paul’s assurances. But we can experience unity with all humanity and all creation. We are in this together. And that is the real message of Paul and our Gospel today.

The world often makes no sense, and sometimes we feel we are part of a circus, where we are NOT the audience! And how long will the circus last? Paul is telling us, until we all become complete human beings, until we all come to maturity, as he put it in his letter to Ephesians. But there has been only one really human being since the world began. So, until we all become like him: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brothers and sisters.”

Or, as he wrote in Ephesians 4:13, “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” We are called, predestined to become like Christ – to become Christ to each other, Christs to God. All of us… finally. That’s the whole gospel, the whole message: as easy… and as hard, as that.

Audio file of today’s sermon: