Monday, September 1, 2008

The 11th Sunday of Pentecost

August 31, 2008

The 11th Sunday of Pentecost

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

Glory Forever!

We understand that the great gift that Christ gave to us, the gift itself that provides the gift of life everlasting, life in the kingdom of heaven, is the gift of forgiveness of sins. For by the forgiveness of sins we are able to be restored to the condition that Adam and Eve possessed before they fell, and we’re able to renew our grace filled nature by our confession and our contrition. So the most wonderful thing that Christ’s precious blood does for us is to resolve a predicament, that by human nature the many offenses that we commit want to sink into our souls and weight them down and burden them heavily and cause them to make our spiritual nature bend prostrate to the ground in the same way that a curved spine causes the physical nature to be prostrate.

So today we hear a parable that the Lord tells about a king who had taken account and found that one of his servants had been responsible for his being in lack of a substantial amount of money. This amount of money is literally a king’s ransom. We have been given to understand that this is not the case of a man who wasn’t making enough to make ends meet. It wasn’t the case of a poor man who was misappropriating a little here and there to feed his family. The sum involved here is substantial. The crime is not petty theft; it is high treason. This man had either through dishonesty or through carelessness managed to lose a substantial portion of the kingdom’s wealth. The king should have been expected to execute him for this high crime simply on its face. But the man fell down and said, “Have mercy on me master, and I will pay you all.” The king didn’t just say, “Okay, get up. I have postponed your punishment. Go out and try to repay it.” Instead he forgave the man both the act by which he had through dishonesty or through lack of attention deprived the king of his wealth and also of the debt itself. The man ought to have gone out rejoicing. He ought to have been filled with such great gratitude. For in a moment he had been not only relieved of the punishment for his dishonesty or his carelessness, but also of the obligation to make recompense. A great weight had been lifted both from his soul and from his shoulders, and yet, what does he think?

He thinks, “I’m not going to let this happen to me again.”

So he finds a truly poor servant, one who had borrowed a few dollars from him, and he grabs the man by the throat and says, “Pay me all now!”

And the man uses the same words he had used: “Have mercy on me Master, and I will repay all.”

This man, rather than showing compassion, has his fellow servant thrown into the debtors’ prison, until by hook or by crook, somehow or another, he should pay off that small debt. The verdict against this man when the king hears about it is that he is rearrested and this time he is sold into slavery, in bitter and harsh labor for the remainder of his natural life. For, not the debt that he incurred, but for his refusal to be as generous in a small thing as the king and had been in a great matter.

The moral the Lord tells us of course is that forgiveness on our part is the precondition to receiving forgiveness. We have a contract. There are not many legal contracts in our Christian faith.

There is one that we sign every time we pray when we say, “Forgive us our debts in the same, to the same extent, as we are willing to forgive our debts. Forgive us our offenses against you in the same way, to the same degree that we are will to forgive the debts, the offenses of our neighbors against us.”

And what is the meaning of this “In the same way?” It is that as God consigns our offenses, our sins, our wrong actions, consigns them to oblivion, He does not ignore them, He eradicates them. He removes them from His memory and from existence; so we have to be willing to remove those offenses against us from our hearts. Now does it mean that we have to be suckers? No it doesn’t. It’s not wise, it’s not prudent, to allow yourself to be abused again and again by the same people in the same way. You have to be on your guard. You have to be wise enough, prudent enough, if for no other reason than it is a sin to tempt our neighbor with the possibility of repeating a sin we know he already, or she already, has the weakness to commit. That’s a kind of scandal. If we know that someone is likely to steal, we ought not put out money in front of them and walk away. If we know that someone is likely to lie, the we ought not put them in a situation where they are likely to feel that they have to be braggadocios or immodest. So yes, we don’t have to be ignorant for the sake of our brother, but it is precisely for his sake and not so that we can get even that we remember these things.

Today we celebrate the feast of two great Orthodox bishops. One of them is in our service book, the other is on our calendar. Each of these men understood in a real and deep way what the nature of forgiveness what. Each one had a confrontation with other bishops about this issue, and in both cases it was about the Roman church that they had their argument.

The first is Cyprian of Carthage. He was a man who grew up in Carthage, in a place where, in the third century, the people still worshipped the god… Baal. They brought their extra children and they burned them in fire and sacrifices to this demon god. Of all of the fathers of the church who reflected upon the paganism that had preceded Christianity in the classical world, all of them showed some compassion, some understanding, even some appreciation of the lessons, the parables, and the myths that had prepared the world for the coming of Christ, except for the Carthaginian fathers.

For they said, “Our parents are certainly damned to hell.”

Why? Because they, out of greed, passed their children through fire as sacrifice to demons. They decided it wasn’t a good idea to have too many kids because that divided the family’s wealth too much, so when you had more than the one or two you wanted, the rest you would place in the hands of the statue of Baal. The hands were far enough apart that as the fire touched the little spine, the baby would contract and fall through the hands into the fire. Before doing that, the child’s face muscles would contract and there would be an apparent smile on the face.

The Carthaginian mothers would say, “Oh isn’t that sweet. He’s going to be with Baal; he’s happy.”

The Sardonic grin. That’s what it’s called – the sardonic grin. It reminds me of those women, who having had a partial birth abortion, with the child’s brain sucked out in the birth canal, asked the doctor to give them the baby’s body so they could hold it in their hands and pretend that this was some kind of a miscarriage or a natural calamity. It is murder of the worst kind. Cyprian knew that this was the paganism from which his people had learned. So when persecution came under Decius, under the emperor, and North Africa suffered worse than any other part of the Roman empire – the total number of martyrs in North Africa exceeded those of the whole world put together under the roman emperors. When he saw this coming, he insisted that his people remain steadfast, courageous. As Bishop of Carthage he had seen so many of his flock – men and women, even virtual children, 12 and 13 year olds – go joyfully to their execution at the hands of Roman authorities rather than deny Christ.

But some of the people of Carthage had worked out a little deal. They could offer incense to the idol, the same Baal before whom, perhaps, their grandparents had burned their aunts and uncles.

They could stand before that statue and pretend to offer a sacrifice, but in their hearts they would say, “Well, we’re still with Jesus.”

You see the Roman authorities liked this, cause they didn’t care what you believed; it was what other people thought you believed. If by your half lie, you were willing to create doubt in the eyes of others, and if enough people could justify themselves by saying, “Oh well, we’ll just pretend that we’re idolators,” then the whole spirit, the heart of the church, could be broken.

And then there were those who took even a less obviously evil way. They wouldn’t even go to the idol. They’d instead go to the recorder of documents and they would pay and for a certain amount of money they could get a piece of paper that would say that on a certain day they had offered incense to a certain idol.

They would say, “My hands are clean! I didn’t bow down to any pagan statue. I didn’t throw incense before the emperor’s image or before Baal. You see, it is only a piece of paper.”

And then there were those who when the authorities came and demanded of the deacons and readers that they hand over their volumes of the holy gospel of their lectionaries of the epistles, would instead say, “Well, I can’t give you those, but I can give you a medical book. I can give you a book of philosophy.”

And the authorities were delighted because then they could say, “The deacon so-and-so has handed over this volume of sacred scriptures of the Christians to be burned in the fire.”

And by doing this they could break the courage and the heart of the Christian community. At this point, the Romans had become very, very adroit at propaganda. They were not concerned at all with lugubrious tortures, nor were they concerned with righteousness of intention. They were only concerned with public appearances. Cyprian then was caught in a situation that put him between two points of opinion. The reason that we can call him a great Orthodox father is because he understood the paradoxical nature of our faith.

As the persecutions began to come to a close, there were people who came back and said, “Oh well, yes, we got a document,” or, “We showed up but didn’t offer incense,” or, “We offered incense but didn’t really mean it.” And there were those who said, “Yes, we were scared to death, so we really did offer incense.” And these people would come back and say, “Come on everybody. Shouldn’t we be able to go to communion this Sunday? I mean, after all, we’re sorry now.”

There were two opinions about that. There was in the North African church called the rigorists, and they said, “Look. My brother, her cousin, our grandparents – they were burned alive. They were eaten by lions. They slain by the sword because they wouldn’t deny Christ. Now you sucker, you think you can come back and you can sneak into church. No. There’s no forgiveness for you. Not in this world. Not in the world to come. You’ve been baptized, you’ve been sealed, you’ve received Holy Communion. You denied Christ. You belong to the Devil.”

Then there were the other people who said, “Oh come on now. Can’t we just realize that sometimes some weak people fail. Let’s be lenient with them.”

So Cyprian was caught between these laxists and the rigorists. He realized that with the rigorist position you got a God who was no more compassionate and kind than Baal himself; who demanded the blood of his own people in payment for their infidelity. And he realized that with the laxists you had an opinion in which people gradually would stop going to confession. Why? Because they wouldn’t take their sins that easily. Or when they sinned, they would expect easy healing of their wounds. They wouldn’t expect to have to do any penance, because you see people don’t understand that the purpose of penance in the Chruch is not to punish people. It is to bring them to repentance, to contrition. That’s why the penitential manuals say the punishment for adultery is 7 years excommunication, but the spiritual father may at his discretion shorten it to three years or even less. Why? Because what is required is two things: an example to the whole body of Christ that publicly known sins should be publicly repented so that no one lose their sense of the awesome wickedness of these actions. And the second thing is that the person himself should be brought to humility so that he would understand the wrongness of his actions.

St. Paul, in 1st Corinthians excommunicated a man who married his father’s widow. This is considered, as I said before, by the Church, to be incest. It’s an evil act.

He said, “I hand his body over to Satan that his soul may be saved.”

But as soon as the man repented with bitter tears, undid the evil he had done, Paul immediately said to the Corinthians, “I want you to receive him back. Even though I am absent in body, I’m present in spirit, I forgive him. I restore him.”

So Cyprian took this position: we should not deal lightly with serious sin, especially apostasy or acts of the shedding of the blood of the innocent. On the other hand, we should not hold people in hopeless despair, but should seek the mercy of God. The only sin that cannot be forgiven is the sin that we deny, and therefore refuse to repent. If we turn evil to good, and good to evil, then yes, we will not be forgiven because God will not intrude on our hearts and compel us to be sorry.

So, today we celebrate Cyprian who stood up against the pope of Rome. Who said to him, do you really think that you in Rome, who witnessed the blood of two apostles, do you really think the Holy Spirit speaks more clearly through you than through the other bishops? Do you think you have some special gift? No. What you have is that the churches of all the world pass through your city so you know the fullness of the tradition. But you don’t have any intuition superior to that given to the other bishops of Christ.

When the issue came up of the baptism of those who had been baptized by heretics, Cyprian took a hard position.

He says, “If you were baptized by someone who denied the trinity, or who denied Jesus was true God and true man, even though water was poured in the name of the… you should have to be baptized again. If you were baptized by somebody out of communion with the Holy Orthodox Church, you should have to be baptized again.” But then he said, “This is my position.” Then he went on to say this: “Some my brother bishops receive people” – as we do because our rules come down in America from the Russian church, we receive people who were baptized by heretics – by Calvinists, by Wesleyans, by Anglicans, by Lutherans, as long as the form and the intention were present, and we validate them.

But he said, “If any bishop does this thing that I think is a mistake, I want you to know this: that any priest who calls him out for it, he is the schismatic. It’s the priest who’s the rebel, no the bishop. Because the bishop is exercising his own economy given to him by God, but the priest is being arrogant, willful, and insubordinate.”

Now I will mention one other saint. Saint Aidan was bishop of Lindisfarne. The people of England had been evangelized at one time, and then, as the roman army went through, many receded back into paganism. And there was a king in Northumbria, named Oswald, and he had had a bishop there to try to convert his people. But this guy came with a rule book rather than with the scriptures in his hands. He was so hard, so difficult on the people that they resented. And Oswald sent, instead of calling for another British bishop, he called for a bishop from a land that was called then Scotland and is now Ireland. And this man was Aidan. He didn’t speak the language of the people there – he spoke the Gaelic language. But the king himself would stand up - because he and his family had been exiled among the Gauls at one time - he would stand up and he would translate the sermons of Aidan. People were healed and delivered. They accepted Christ. The gospel that Aidan preached was, in his words, a gospel of first giving milk and not expecting them to be fed on solid food when they are newborn in Christ. He didn’t push down on them heavy disciplines in terms of fasting, or regulations in terms of manners. Only the moral law and the doctrine of Christ. And he was responsible, not even able to speak the language of the people, to bring about the conversion of many many people.

In America, we don’t have many intelligent, capable, moral, upright, celibate priests. We have a hard time getting bishops. I wouldn’t mind if we sent off to Romania, to Serbia, to Russia and got a few guys who didn’t speak English and brought them here to be pious examples to us. They could use translators. Archishop John used to call his secretary every Thursday, and in three hours he could write all the letters for the whole diocese and receive all the letters and have them read to him. He was my spiritual mentor and didn’t very often speak English at all.

He said, “I spoke German, Latvian, and Slavonic. I came to America to learn English, and they taught me Russian.”

But Aidan was a good example because he loved his flock. Because, like Cyprian, he would neither take a position that was too hard for people to bear, nor so easy that it scandalized and corrupted them. So, when the Roman missionaries came and urged his flock to accept Roman hegemony, he said, “No. It is you guys, by your changes, who created all these problems,” and he refused to bow a knee to the bishop of Rome.

You know, the English bishops gathered together with the British bishops and they asked their senior elder bishop, “How shall we know when this man, Augustine of Canterbury comes, how shall we know whether we should embrace him, or disdain him?”

And the elder bishop said, “When you approach and he will be sitting, if he rises from his chair and embraces you as brother bishops, then you embrace him and you do what he says. But if he sits and he expects you to come and bow before him, equals before equals, then reject him.”

So for a few centuries still, in some places, especially on the island of Iona, until the 11th century, the customs of the ancient Orthodox English church were preserved in spite of the presence and the innovations of the church of Rome.

So we honor today these two bishops who understood what it is to mediate forgiveness within the body of Christ. We glorify our God who grants us forgiveness of our transgressions, both voluntary and involuntary, both minor and grievous as long as we with true faith, with a broken hearts with humble spirits and tears, we fall down before Him and ask forgiveness.

To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages through their prayers.

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

Glory Forever!

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