Thursday, November 27, 2008

The 19th Sunday after Pentecost

Today we are blessed with three stories that are informative for us. They are instructive and illuminating. And they cast a light upon the anxieties that oppress humanity in the present hour. The Lord said in the last days that there would be diseases, and there would be earthquakes and floods, and wars in various places, and men’s hearts failing them. And some will make of this that we can define this as the last days of the earth. I don’t know whether we can or not. But I found from my youth that the older people get the closer they see the last days as coming. It’s not so much that the last days are coming closer to them, as they are coming closer to their last days. I am not going to prophesy to you that there are calamities now that are going to bring the earth to its end, or that I know the scenario that somehow or other will be bound to follow in bringing a close to creation.

We understand only that one of two things will happen to us: either that Christ will come again and we will be brought with him alive in the air to meet him, or we will sleep in the earth and Christ will come and we will rise from the dead to meet him. And practically for us, it makes no difference: our task is the same. Somebody suggested to me that we ought to call of liturgy – it was a joke by the way – and go down and hear the speech down town. And I said, “I think I’ll plant my beans first.” What I was thinking of was the story of a Rabbi in the time before our Lord’s appearance, that was asked by one of his disciples, “Rabbi, if someone came and told you that the Messiah had come, what would you do?” And the rabbi was engaged in planting beans, and he said, “First I will finish planting my beans, and then I will go see the Messiah.” So, I said, “I think I will plant my beans” – take care of the things that are my duty and let God take care of the rest of it.

Men’s hearts failing from fear and from looking after the things coming on the earth is what happens when people attach too much importance to the events around them. They think, in the first place, that what’s happening in the world is somehow or the other what’s important, and it is not what is important. Secondly, they come to think that they are supposed to do something about it. That their principle theatre of activity is supposed to be the world, and that is absolutely wrong.

Today, Holy Apostle Paul starts out telling us about how, when he was setting off to go to Damascus to arrest Christians and bring them back because there weren’t enough in Jerusalem to persecute – he being a Pharisee of Pharisees, wishing to guard God’s honor, thinking it was his job to put an end to this heresy of the Nazarene, of Jesus – he got letters, licenses saying to the king of Nepotian saying that the Roman government considered it and honor if they would allow Paul to bring back Christian’s in chains. But on the way there, he was stricken by God. Not stricken by God to punish him; not stricken by God who wanted to take his black, filthy heart and wash it clean against his will, but stricken by God who knew that St. Paul was trying to do the right thing and Who took his good efforts, who took his good intentions misguided and turned them into a means of grace. So God struck him, and he fell from his horse, and he heard the Lord’s voice and saw him – he says he doesn’t know whether he was taken up to heaven or Christ appeared to him on earth.
“Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? It is hard for thee, like a horse to kick against gones” – against the straps.
“Who are thou, lord?” said Saul.
And He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But go into the city. Go to the man named Ananias. He will baptize you and he will show you what you are to do. For I have sent you as a light to all the gentiles” – to tell the Jews that the Messiah has come. So Saul, having heard those things, got up and went into the city, and he came to Ananias and found him on Straight Street – you can still go visit it in Damascus.
And, before he got there, an angel appeared to Ananias and said, “Saul is coming.”
And he said, “Oh, you mean the one who’s been persecuting our people in Jerusalem, who held the coats for the people who stoned Steven.”
“Yes, he’s coming.”
“Well, lord, what’s he coming here for?”
“Well, he’s blind, and you’re to heal him.”
“Oh. Are you sure you want to do that lord? I think the blinding part was a really good idea. Why don’t we just leave him that way, and he won’t be able to do any more mischief?”
“No!” the Lord said, “Baptize him. For he is for Me a chosen vessel to bear my name before the gentiles.”

So, in Saul’s case, a person who was misguidedly full of all kinds of enthusiasm to do the wrong thing, God took that energy because it was offered in good will even though with erroneous reason, with ignorance. And God turned it around; he made it a means of grace. He made it the cause, not only of the salvation of people at that time, but it’s through St. Paul that Christianity ceased to be simply the other sect of Judaism and became the faith that saves the world.

We hear that, and then we hear about another man, if we read the synaxarion, this man is Demetrius. And Demetrius had stead fast good will AND right reason. Now, it’s said of him, that he was a Slav. I suppose this is because he came from Solonica and he’s believed to be a Macedonian. I will say that because, like so many other things, it allows us to put the Greeks, and the Slavs together in the same boat where they belong, and not allow them to argue about which saints belong to whom. Demetrius lived at the time when Roman religion and imperial government had become totally corrupt. Men who looked at it would say, “It’s absolutely lost. The world is coming to the end.” Last night I had some pain in my feet and I couldn’t sleep so I got up and I review the lives of all the Roman emperors. And I realized what a big batch of bums they were. I mean there was one year when there were four of them. They would make an alliance and then they would get together with another guy and kill off their co-emperor. Many of these guys were elevated to the ranks of the Emperor and then killed by another army. But it was about to come to an end.

It was in 306, the same year in which Constantine ascended to the throne in the West, and directed the edict of tolerance in Milan. Maximian in the East was trying as hard as he could to wipe out Christianity, but he also was looking for good, intelligent administrators, men with a good family and a good education. So, not even realizing that Demetrius was a Christian from his birth, baptized as an infant into a secret Christian family, he elevated him to fill his father’s place as the governor of Salonica. Now let me tell you something that this demonstrates to us. Demetrius was a practicing Christian, a believer. He never offered incense to the Emperor’s genius, he never worshiped the Roman eagle or the standards of the gods, and yet neither did he go around and beat on people’s doors and say, “Can I tell you about Jesus?” What he did is he lived a Christian life as a man in a demonically possessed world. He just did his duty. The difference is, Paul was on the wrong road and God had to slap him upside the head and put him on the right road, and Demetrius was on the right road from the beginning. And so, when it came about that Demetrius was made the procurator of the province of Salonica, in which the city of Thessalonica is, he immediately was sent there to arrest and kill Christians. And what did he do? He began preaching Christianity openly, protecting them, knowing exactly what would happen to him. He was a man who did his duty. When he was the emperors soldier, he fought valiantly in the emperors wars against the enemies of the Empire, without allowing his hands become bloodied with innocent blood and without having bowed a knee before false gods. He was a faithful soldier of Jesus Christ, even as he served the Roman government.

But when the time came, when he could not be both a faithful soldier of Jesus Christ and a servant of the Emperor, he knew who his king was. And so he stood up and he proclaimed his faith. Demetrius was arrested, but in prison, the young soldiers who had been won over for Jesus by his way of life, by his example, by his virtue, they began to come to him and ask for his advice. They asked for him to bless, as their spiritual father, as their adopted father, the decisions they had made. And one of these was a man named Nestor, who was a lean mean fighting machine. He was a wrestler; he was a roman soldier. And he noticed at the games that Leo, or Leus, who was a German, the emperors favorite gladiator, not only massacred Christians with great delight, but that it seemed to be his sole purpose to inflict as much torture as he could before destroying them. And so, Christians would be give to Leus to fight and he would beat them to within an inch of their life and he would throw them over on the standing spears on the side of the ring to a bloody death.
So this is what Nestor asked Demetrius; he said, “I know our Lord said that we are to love one another, but this man is a hateful enemy of Christ. May I take up warfare against him?”
Demetrius said, “My son, you have my blessing.”

And so, he entered the ring, that elevated platform, the next day. And when Leus came after him, grinning, shrieking, howling to frighten him, by the sign of the Cross, by his prayers to God, Nestor was able to defeat Leus, and he threw his body on that same barbed, speared garden upon which Leus had impaled so many believers in Christ.

The emperor was so angry that at the very same moment he ordered both the death of Nestor and the execution of Demetrius. Demetrius was a young man who, in his youth, had acquired all the things that you, and in my youth I, tended to think were really important. He had a high position, a lot of esteem from his neighbors, a great deal of wealth. Before he was arrested he ordered he aide-de-campe to give away all his wealth. He said, “We will not need this anymore, we are laying up now treasures in heaven.” And by his prayers the Orthodox people of that part of the world have felt that they were defended and protected from all kinds of calamities from that day even to this. From his bones, starting in the seventh century, oil has exuded that is not just oil but a sweet smelling myrrh. And from time to time, when I can get somebody to go to Salonica, they come back and they bring us a little bit of this oil from St. Demetrius that we can anoint people with. This was, unlike Paul, who was full of fervor and misdirected, a man who was full of fervor and well directed. He didn’t waste his energy on thinking it was his job to determine what task he ought to undertake. He allowed God to present the task, and when the time came, he was equal to it.

And now we’ve got a third man. And this was a man who, as you know, represents both the Jewish priesthood and royalty. He dressed in the white linen ephod of a high priest or a priest and the purple robes of a king. And what did he do? Was he a bad man? There was nothing in the story that says he was a bad man. He was a rich man – is that a sin? Well, Demetrius was a rich man. What was wrong with this man? He was neither striving to do good and doing it incorrectly, nor was he striving to do good and doing it correctly. He was neither a Paul, nor a Demetrius. He was a self-possessed lout. Every day, as he processed out of his house to go through the streets of the city, perhaps to go to the synagogue, perhaps to go for a stroll, he had to step over the body of the man lying at his door step – this man Lazarus, full of sores, who the dogs would come and lick, but who no one gave a crust of bread to. He would step over the man. He would not spit on him, he would not despise him; we have no reason to believe he would call him names or tell him to get out of his way. He simply ignored him. Because it makes no difference whether his reason was good or bad: he had bad will. His will was to satiate his own passions, his own desires, and that blocked him from caring about, from doing good to anyone else. So the Lord tells us this man was in hell, not because of what he did, but because of what he didn’t do. Not because he performed evil acts, but because he didn’t perform good acts. We are called upon then today to hear God speaking to us. Not to let our hearts fail from looking after things coming upon the earth. Not to feel that it is our job to save the economy, or the nation, or the political system, or this or that thing. Not to think that somehow or the other that if things don’t go our way that this is a disaster, for the only disaster will be if our souls are lost. But to look after, understanding and performing the will of God, doing good unto all men, especially unto those who are in the household of faith, seeking God’s kingdom and allowing God to take care of His world.

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

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