Sunday, January 24, 2016

God loves us

Prodigal Son 
from the Eadwine psalter
circa 1150
illumination on parchment

Our father – the one in the heavens – gives to us everything. All that we have. All that we are. Our life. Our freedom. Our being. And, he loves us. He is love – with us.

Sometimes we think – maybe – well, what’s so great about that? I don’t have much. I don’t have as much as some of my neighbors do. Sure, they have something to be grateful for – but not me. And so we show God our face of ingratitude.

Do you know that look? If you have children, you probably know that look. Because you know what’s it’s like to give everything to someone – for all that you have to be theirs. And you know what’s it’s like for them to take it all – and to take it for granted.

But you also know, that when they do that, it does not lessen your love for them. It does not quell in you the warmth of your affection for them – not one degree.

When a child says to me, “I hate you” or “I wish you were dead,” it does hurt, but I know that they do not know what they are saying and so I forgive them – though sometimes, in my fallenness, it takes a moment. And I go right on loving them and providing for their needs and also, as I am able, for their wants.  

Some of us know something about what it means to be a loving father or mother, though none know so well nor love so well as God, our father, who is in the heavens. All of us, however, are children of a loving father – the one in the heavens. And so all of us – believe it or not – know something about being loved.

My friend Ian Gerdon wrote recently that, “all humans are brought into existence with two names: Amati (which mean Beloved) and Amandi (which means Ought-to-be-loved).” We are beloved by God and we ought to be loved by humans. We are created by love himself, out of his love, for loving, and being loved. While our first name – which is Beloved – describes our true condition and the ground of our being, our second name – which is Ought-to-be-loved – describes how we all should respond to that reality in ourselves and in our neighbor. God loves us and he calls us to love ourselves and one another.

Sadly, we do not always love one another. And, we are not always loved by others. And, we do not always love ourselves.

When we feel unloved, it is always because some human has not loved us as they ought to have. Sometimes that human is another and sometimes that human is myself – but the defect or deficit in love is always on the human side and never the divine. 

God’s love never fails. When we feel unloved, God loves us. When we think that God does not love us, God loves us. When we do not love God, God loves us. When we say to God like ungrateful children, “I hate you” or “I wish you were dead,” God loves us. But we humans do fail to love. And our failings and the failings of our neighbors can cloud our vision.

Our neighbors’ and our own unloving thoughts and actions sometimes keep us from seeing that God our father loves us, that he is with us. We fail to see all that he has given us. And so we covet after persons, positions, and things that are not given to us, but given instead to others. Ingratitude and covetousness are ubiquitous and pernicious. To covet nothing that is our neighbors’ is a kind of freedom that few of us know.

We are too often like the ungrateful younger son who says to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.” In the usual course of things, of course, a son receives his inheritance only after his father has died. So, by asking for it while his father yet lives, the younger son is in effect saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” This is supreme ingratitude. It is a failure to see that the father already shares everything with his sons. They are with him always, and all that he has is theirs.

But that is not enough for the younger son. Really, he just seems to want his father out of the picture. Perhaps he mistakes his father’s loving presence for some kind of oppression or limitation on his freedom. As it turns out, taking his inheritance and leaving is not gain for the younger son, it is loss. Though he thinks it will be to his benefit, it is in fact his undoing. He does not know what is good for him as well as his father does. While he briefly increases his possessions and pleasures, for that he loses the loving presence of his father, and a continual sharing in his abundance. His ingratitude leads to the loss even of what he has.

And the elder son is ungrateful, too. The two sons are not as different as we might suppose. The younger son is overt in his ingratitude – taking his inheritance and leaving. But the elder son’s ingratitude becomes clear when he refuses to go into the house to celebrate the return of his brother and when he bitterly says to his father, “you never gave me a kid that I might make merry with my friends.”

The loving father leaves neither son alone in their ingratitude. When the younger son comes in sight of his house, his father runs out to meet him. And when the elder son will not come into the house to the feast, his father goes out to invite him in. The father goes out to them both.

How like these two sons we are!

Being with our father – the one in the heavens – is worth far more than anything we can gain from the world. But all of us are at times like the younger son. We turn away from our father and go into the world to try there to sate our passions. Hopefully, we have learned from this that such squander brings us nothing but emptiness and ruin. And that it is only in the presence of our loving heavenly father that we can find peace or rest. So let us who have turned to the razzle dazzle of covetous worldliness now turn back again to our father. He will run out to meet us.

Or sometimes we are like the elder son. We have always remained partly in our father’s presence – say, by coming often to church – but all the while we try to hide in our hearts our ingratitude and petty jealousies. Let us let go of all of that. Our father will come out and entreat us to come in to the feast.

Indeed, he is even now inviting us into the feast. An antidote to the poison of our ingratitude is available in this Divine Liturgy: the Eucharist. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving. Ingratitude, then, is anti-Eucharist. And so, let us give thanks to our father for all he has given us, above all for his loving presence in our lives, and approach holy communion with grateful hearts. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A reality to which we must respond

Sunday after Theophany

Christ is born! Christ is baptized! Christ is risen! Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today we are at a great convergence. It is the Sunday after Theophany, and so we are still remembering Christ’s baptism. And yet, according to one reckoning, it is also still the season of Christmas until the feast of the Encounter on February the 2nd, forty days after his birth. Meanwhile, today would be the first day leading into the Triodion – the Sunday of Zacchaeus – were it not for certain liturgical peculiarities due to Pascha being so early this year. There is no Sunday of Zacchaeus this year, but I think it’s still worth noting that the Great Fast is already right around the corner.

Time, the order of things, chronology, chronos is muddled, it seems. Simultaneous. Converged. It is as if all salvation history is happening at once. The first forty days of Christ’s newborn life is converged today with the forty days he fasted in the desert just after his baptism by John – which is a forty days that inspires our forthcoming Great Fast in preparation for Holy Week and Pascha, our commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus – the point of it all, the cause of our joy, our only hope.

Today’s gospel occurs immediately after Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness after his baptism by John in the Jordan. Jesus hears of John’s arrest and withdraws to Galilee, not out of fear, but to fulfill prophecy – and to there call forth the men that would be his apostles.

It is at this time that Jesus begins to preach. “Jesus began to preach and say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These are the first words of his preaching and with them, he pays homage to John, his baptizer, the greatest of the prophets, his forerunner, who made straight his way. Jesus’ first kerygmatic words directly quote the preaching of John, who went before him to prepare his way.

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." These words are especially suitable today – on this day of convergence. What’s going on in the church calendar today reflects the timelessness of deeper reality. As does the imminence of the coming kingdom of heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Jesus says this, as did John before him. But didn’t these preachers live and preach about 2000 years ago? How could the coming kingdom have been imminent then? Aren’t we still waiting for the kingdom? Don’t we pray, with every Our Father, “Thy kingdom come”?  We do, and our King is coming. But he has also already come. He is both already and not yet come. It is as if time is muddled. Simultaneous. Converged. It is as if all salvation history happens at once. God’s time is not like our time.

When John preaches that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, he preaches as one waiting for the coming king. When Jesus preaches the same thing, it is the very king who is preaching. The kingdom is indeed at hand when Jesus says that it is at hand – for he is the king and the kingdom is in his hands.

He is already come. He is in our midst whenever we gather in his name. He is now reigning in the hearts of those of us who believe.

We must not become like some of the fundamentalist prophecy enthusiasts of our era, obsessed with doomsday calculations and bible codes and what not. That, I think, is to miss the point.

In the Gospel of Luke, “the Pharisees [ask Jesus] when the kingdom of God [is] coming – [and] he answer[s] them, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you" – or – it is “within you all” (Luke 17: 20-21).

God is to reign in our hearts. And we must make our hearts a suitable palace for our king. Origen observes that “The kingdom of heaven is not in a place but in disposition. For it is within us. John preaches the coming of that kingdom of heaven, which Christ the King will deliver up to God, even the Father” (Fragment 74). 

This is the reality to which Christ calls our attention with this – his first sermon – one sentence in length, but infinite in meaning. The kingdom of heaven is reality – not mere perception. Our perception, in fact, often misses it. We often fail to see that “The LORD is king for ever and ever; [and that] the nations shall perish from his land.” (Psalm 10:16). We often think that it is our worldly kingdoms or republics that are of primary importance and that deserve our most devoted attention.

But no, the truth is that the Lord is king and his kingship is over all the earth (cf. Psalm 22:28). In 2007, there was an effort in Poland to declare Jesus the king of Poland. Well, Jesus is king, but it is not by our fiat. He does not rule by the consent of the governed. Rather, the governed have being by the word of God, who is Christ, our king. The king of kings and lord of lords.

The kingdom of heaven is the world we are actually living in. It is the world that God so loved. It is the world we often cannot see because our vision is so clouded by sin. The kingdom of heaven is among us. It is imminent. The reign of God is in our hearts.

And this is a reality to which we must respond with repentance. If we do not repent, we cannot know the truth of God’s sovereign presence in our lives. He is present whether we know it or not. Repentance is how we come to know it. He is with us, and we must understand this and submit to him, for he is with us. Repentance – metanoia – is a turning toward the Lord and away from our consuming passions.

Away from gluttony and toward self-control.
Away from lust and toward desire for God.
Away from greed and the love of money and toward compassion for the poor.
Away from anger and toward goodwill and love for all. 
Away from dejection and toward joy.
Away from sloth and despondency and toward patience, perseverance, and thanksgiving
Away from vainglory and toward doing good in secret and contrite prayer
Away from pride and toward judging no one and regarding no one as beneath us.

These are the eight passions outlined by St. John Cassian, (whose leap day feast we incidentally get to celebrate this year on Feb. 29th) and their opposite virtues, which St. John of Damascus describes (On Virtues and Vices). Studying these can help us make a beginning of repentance. 

The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Therefore, let us repent.

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