Monday, July 14, 2008

The Fourth Sunday of Pentecost

July 13, 2008

“But the centurion said, “Lord I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this on Go! And he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes.”

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

When we come to this time in the four year cycle of our country, politics tends to dominate everybody’s thoughts. People are absorbed with election campaigns, and with the qualifications or the platforms of various candidates. And because we are bombarded, incessantly, some of us voluntarily – I usually have a news channel on the television all the time – with what’s going on in the world, we also fall into that description of the Lord of men whose hearts are troubled with the things coming upon the earth. People will ask “Who are you for?” and, “Who is the best candidate? What is the best political party?” and, “What is the best platform?” and in the temptation to express one’s own opinion, my opinion has always been that the person who I would look for is the one who fulfills the requirements, not of a political philosophy, but of the Hippocratic oath given to doctors – first to do no harm. When the church prays for the civil authorities, we pray that God will speak quiet words into their ears concerning the people in his church, that we might live in their tranquility, that they will be calmed down. That they will lead calm and quiet lives in all Godliness and sanctity.

We understand that all things that happen in this are, in the final analysis, part of the kingdom of darkness. At one time when I was asked to write regular articles for our diocesan magazine, which now we’re only going to put out once a year because we put it on the internet, I got the question, “Is it a sin for Orthodox Christians to vote for the ______ party?” And I wrote back, “There is no Hezbollah in Orthodoxy; there is no party of God.” All of the political parties are, to a greater or lesser extent, bound up in the kingdom of darkness - the things that have to do with cruelty, and severity, and the affairs of this world . Nevertheless, if there’s a message that’s clear regarding authority in the world from the Scriptures, it is that we are to submit to it. Our Lord said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s;” and again the Apostle Paul said, “The sword that is wielded by the state is not wielded in vain.” The irony is that it was the sword wielded by the state that severed St. Paul’s head. But St. Paul didn’t stand up and say, “You have no right;” rather he bowed his head and took the stroke of the sword, recognizing that it was given to civil authority to punish wickedness and vice, and to maintain piety and virtue, and that they would be judged by the extent to which they did such things. In fact, the reason why the early Christians were thrown out of the Synagogue, the reason why there was a split between the Orthodox Church and it’s Jewish roots was not because we claimed Jesus was the Messiah and they denied it. In Judaism, it is not a punishable offense to believe in a false messiah – many Jews claimed many men were messiahs and had to admit later they were wrong. The Church was separated from Judaism because we refused to take part in their uprising against the Roman state. Both in 67 AD and again in the time of the bar-Kokhba rebellion in the early part of the second century, the Christians said, “It may be a bad empire, but it’s the only empire we’ve got.” They refused to rebel against the established authority.

Now, when I say this to you, you’re going to say, “How un-American! Our country is built on revolution.” I’m not going to go into that because this is not a political science address. But I will mention to you that the war that was fought for American independence was not fought in order to wrench rights away from a ruler, it was fought to maintain rights that had already been given to the people by the ruler that the ruler was in the process of taking back. In other words, it was a conservative or reactionary rebellion against usurpation, which is a word found in the Declaration of Independence: Usurpation of power which had been delegated to the people.

Let us go back to the early Church. The early Christians refused to do battle against the Roman Empire. There were things they wouldn’t do: they wouldn’t sacrifice to Rome’s idols or offer incense to her gods. And there are things they would do: They would serve in the army, as long as they were not compelled to worship false deities in the process or to commit acts of massacre, as opposed to acts of warfare – they would not attack civilian populations. They remained obedient to Roman law insofar as that law did not contradict directly the duty they owed to God. In fact, in the apology of Justin the Martyr, he says to the Emperor, “You think we are traitors because we do not offer sacrifices to YOU,” he says to Marcus Aurelius, “to your genius. But know this: That it is the prayers of the Christians that hold intact, it is the eucharist of the Christians that holds in place, the pillars of the universe. We are the ones who sustain your empire by our prayers. We are the ones who are holding order together; it is by our prayers that civilization endures.”

And the Christians didn’t carry signs outside the Roman Imperial palace saying “Caesar is a dictator,” “The Emperor is a fascist,” “Down with the Empire.” They didn’t even protest in support of the moral virtues that they considered to be righteous and just, and against indignities and perversions that they considered to be abominable and disgusting. When I was first engaged to the ministry, when I was an Episcopalian, walking in the Land of Egypt before the Lord brought us out with His mighty hand, I became involved in protesting against the encroachment of abortion on the laws of our country. We protested at drug companies, and we protested at public buildings, and at a certain point I stopped. The reason I stopped was this: that at that point in my mind and in my heart I believed that this was a nation of Christians governed by Christian principles, and that as a Christian I had an obligation to hold up to the political authorities here their Christian obligation to be righteous and moral. At a certain point, I decided, “No, this is no more a Christian nation as a nation than ancient Rome was or than the Soviet Union was.” It is a nation with a Christian habit. And yes, we can sometimes guilt the nation with a Christian habit, but then it falls back to the question of pragmatism: Does the guilt that politicians, or citizens, feel outweigh the pragmatic advantage they will gain by doing the wrong thing? And so we’re no longer the conscience of the country; we become just another group of naggers. I made up my mind that to the extent that I use the stewardship of my vote that I would not vote for anyone who said that he would facilitate the continuation of the destruction of innocent human life by legal means. No, I will not be a partner to that. As it says in the Psalms, “Thou sawest the thief and consented unto him” - you didn’t yell, “Thief!” when he was going into your neighbor’s house, - “And thou hast been partaker together with the adulterers” – you laughed at somebody else’s immorality, you winked at it, you tolerated it. So we cannot become co-agents of sin. Nevertheless, we have to understand that this is not our abiding city.

If we were to have read the other epistle which was appointed for today – Fr. Schmemann advised me, “People have trouble remembering one epistle. Don’t confuse them with two” – we would have read that we have here no abiding city. In other words, this is not our kingdom, this is not our world. Our world is the kingdom of heaven, and our life is in the world to come. But as long as we’re in this world, we have certain obligations to this world. The children of Israel were carried off as captives to Babylon. They were carried off in chains and then allowed to settle there. The prophet wrote to them and said, “Thus says the Lord to the people of the house of Judah, carried off to Babylon: Live in that city in which you are settled. Build houses. Plant vineyards. Give your sons and daughters in marriage. Pray for the peace of that city, for in its peace shall be your peace.” So for 70 years, the Israelites remained in Babylon, and then some came out. There are still people living in Baghdad today, who are descendants of people who were carried away there who pray for that city, that its peace would be their peace. And so we have an obligation to manifest good will toward the institutions of this world; to pray for the president, for those in civil authority; to lift their names up everyday to God that He will strengthen them that they might act rightly and avoid acting unjustly.

But we talk a bunch about human authority. Human authority has a quality to it, as I said, of worldliness, or materialism, and of darkness. If I were the commander of an army – which no priest should ever be – I might have to order someone executed for mutiny or for desertion. Why? Because his act of rebellion or of forsaking his suffering comrades in the ranks would endanger the lives of everyone. So, in exercising that authority, I might have to exercise that force which is not wielded in vain. This is why our church forbids our clergy to exercise civil authority, even though at times they have, because we are combining the kingdom of Light and the kingdom of darkness. I remember a story when the Byzantines appointed a viceroy to the city of Alexandria in Egypt. Viceroys wore one costume, and of course, archbishops wore another, but this person they appointed was also their Byzantine Patriarch of Alexandria, and so he walked around with one brown shoe and one red shoe. We can’t walk with two shoes, like limping with two opinions. Those who are serving in the government of our nation, our state, our city, are as much in danger – in mortal danger – as those who are defending our rights and liberties on the battlefields. They have put themselves within the devil’s reach, and they need our prayers day and night.

But now let’s talk about what authority means in the church. You see that’s what that Roman officer had learned, that centurion learned. He learned that because he obeyed the orders of his commanders, and his soldiers obeyed his orders, that there was a system that worked in the world that kept the world from devolving into anarchy, from breaking down into rebellion and uprisings of hoi polloi. He understood that, and by analogy he understood that if Jesus were the messiah of Israel, the One able to save his dying servant from death, that He could speak the word that the power of God would go forth and perform that work without his even having to come to the man’s house. He had learned what the authority of God was – it did not require to touch of a hand, the breath of a mouth, but simply the thought, the utterance of a word. “Lord, I am not worthy,” he said, “that thou shouldst come under my roof. But speak the word only, and my servant will be healed.”

Now in the church, authority is a different thing. All authority rises from the nature of the person who exercises it. Worldly authority is kataexousiazo. As the Lord said, “The princes of the gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in power exercise dominion upon them”– pounding them down from above, “but it shall not be so among you, but he who will be first among you shall be as the last, and he who will be greatest among you shall be your minister, your servant.” We are to exercise kataexousiazo – you know the word kata is catastrophe, it means coming down from above, overturning – but exousia, that is the authority that we show from our own heart. So in the church, one of the most ridiculous things is when I see a priest get upset because people don’t call him “Father.” If they think you’re their father, they will call you that. If they don’t, they won’t; and why would you want them to call you that if they didn’t feel that that is what you were? So when we introduce ourselves – I will sometimes answer the phone, “This is Father Joe,” and I will sign my checks “Fr. Joseph Hirsch” so that people who get the checks will know who I am. But I’ll say, “This is Archpriest Joseph Hirsch,” or when I was younger, “Priest Joseph Hirsch.” It’s up to people. The Lord says, “Say that no man on earth is your true father, for your Father is in heaven.” But if you call a person “Dad” and he is your natural father, that’s a sign of respect. And if you call your priest “Father,” it’s a sign that shows, hopefully, that you feel that relationship of spiritual child to him; and if you don’t, he is a fool to think he can beat it out of you. How stupid parents whipping their kids for not respecting them – is that going to make the kids respect them more, or is that going to make them despise them? So the authority that we have in the church is whatever authority we manifest. That is why the Lord had St. Paul tell us, “Show respect to those in authority over you, considering the outcome of their actions.” You see how they are living, how they are behaving, what the consequences of their faith are in the lives, and if it is an example that you honor by respect of them. Now what if you don’t honor it? Then do you show disrespect? No, you still show respect to the office; you still show respect to the vestment. But if the man in the vestment does not have a heart beating with those things that deserve the respect of the people of his authority, then it is an empty vestment – a hollow priesthood.

And so, brothers and sisters, we’re taught today a great deal. You see it’s the feast of the first six of the seven ecumenical councils. At each one of those councils, men gathered from the ends of the earth not to pass new laws or to think up new ideas. The Anglicans are now gathered in Great Britain to try to decide whether they should bless the marriages of sodomites and whether they should ordain women to the episcopate. At this point, they should go ahead because they’re no longer possessed of any claim to be part of the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church, and they’ve already ordained women to the episcopate in many countries under the priesthood, so let them make up their own religion and so people will not confuse them with us, which they sometimes have done; which I did for a long time until I learned better.

We don’t have meetings like that. We don’t say, “What cool, new, groovy ideas and programs can we introduce into the church?” And when we try to do that, we look really stupid. As one Russian man says, “When we act like that we are like people jumping on bandwagon after horses have run away and wagon is running downhill.” Alright, we held councils because somebody was saying something was true that the church didn’t feel was true. When we held councils, the bishops gathered, they prayed, they said what the church believed – what was taught all the way from Britain and Scotland to India, and the church said “Yes, this is the faith of the apostles. This is the faith of the fathers. This is the faith that has established the universe.” Within the council, there was no heretic. Why? Because the council was asking, “What is the faith we once received?” But once the faith was defined, once the fathers proclaimed it, once the canons were drawn up, once the edicts were sent out, once the creeds were written, then if you said, “Oh well, I have the right to my opinion,” then you were a heretic. What is a heretic? A person who chooses. They say, “Well the church can say this, but I feel this way.” Well go ahead and feel all you want to, but you’d better say what the church says and believe what the church believes because that is the mind of God, kept within us by the Holy Spirit. And so these six councils were gathering the bishops and priests and deacons from the ends of the world, not to think up new ideas, not to develop new programs, not to exercise some new kind of authority, but to delineate what the faith was that everyone believed everywhere, always, and to tell those who had other opinions, “No, in respect for the authority of God, who is able to heal at a word, lay aside your own personal, selfish, ignorant opinions, motivated by whatever, and accept the faith of the apostles, of the fathers, the faith by which the universe is established.

So today, brothers and sisters, we have a lot to think about. We have to think about our attitude toward civil authority, whether we think ourselves too important because we’re allowed to be involved in the political system of our country, whether we think it too important, whether even we think our nation too important, and remember it’s all the kingdom of darkness. And then the authority that’s exercised in the church, that it should be always exercised with love, with compassion, and with kindness, with caring. The highest punishment the church can inflict on anyone is ultimately to excommunicate them from the body. And when St. Paul has to do this, he says, “I am cutting this man off so that hopefully, by handing him over to the devil, he may have such fear in his heart that he will flee back to the church, and his soul will be saved.” So even the act of punishment that’s inflicted by the church ultimately for that arrogance that says, “My immorality is better than your morality; my belief is better than your faith,” even with that it is always an act of love, always with a prayer even to the end that by being handed over to the devil the heretic, the sinner, may repent and may be saved. So today, we’ll each approach God, we’ll say, “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou should enter under the roof of the house of my soul, which is all waste and ruin, and Thou canst find in me no fitting place to lay Thy head. But since Thou desirest to come to me, bid the doors of mine unworthiness be opened that I may be satisfied with Thee alone.”

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Glory to Jesus Christ!

Glory Forever!

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