Thursday, December 4, 2008

The 23rd Sunday of Pentecost

A couple days ago one of my sons was asking me a question and I gave him and standard answer, and he said, “Well, I know that. You’ve told us that six times at least.” Now I’m thinking that now that Erin Schwartz is blogging my sermons, people are going to find out just exactly how often I repeat myself. But that’s okay. We can go on a three year cycle kind of like the Roman Catholics.

The thing about the gospel today is that every Jewish person, every Jewish man, who had any piety, any love of God in him at all, had this desire: that he should have a sufficient amount of material wealth that he could spend his time studying the scriptures and praying rather than having to labor. It was not that he prayed to be able to be lazy, but that he prayed to be free to do God’s work and not to have to do temporal work. And that’s why this man in the story today is such a clutz. He’s a fellow who was successful at farming. His fields bring forth enough grain that he can survive for years on it. His vineyards enough grapes that he has wine in abundance. His flocks multiply. And he doesn’t say to himself, “Oh my soul, you can now put away some of this wealth and give some to the poor, offer some to the temple, and then go and study Torah.” Instead, he says, “Party on dude. Enough wealth is laid up for you for many years.” And that night, an angel comes to the man and addresses the man in a way that our Lord said that if we addressed one another, we’d be in danger of hellfire. He said, “Thou fool. Thou fool. This night shall thy soul be required of thee, and whose shall those things be?”

The lesson we have from this man is that our entire life is by God’s proclamation to be a life of labor. When Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden, God laid on Adam this commandment: “By the sweat of thy brow shall eat thy bread all the days of thy life until thou returnest unto the earth from which thou wast taken.” In other words, work is a burden, a podvig, a spiritual exercise laid on every single Christian. There is not one of us who are allowed to retire from the service of God, even if we are allowed to retire from our particular occupation at a particular time. And so it is that our life is meant to be one of transition. Now, for most of our forbearers there was no choice. I know that Andrew’s great grandfather was plowing his fields and gathering in his harvest of up to the very day that he could no longer go out in the fields and do it. And his heart was broken, not because he was getting old, but because he was a farmer and couldn’t do his farming. Well, we’re blessed here. We have enough material abundance that most of us, even the most humble among us, are able at the end of our lives to have some leisure to use in whatever way we’re disposed to do so. And God’s will is that after we have laid down the burden of manual labor, or of intellectual labor, after we have finished our lives of having to travel on business, or having to stand before classes, or study inventories and prepare business plans, that we should lay out for ourselves a way that we can serve God whole heartedly without having our attention divided. A pension, social security, savings, even those ever shrinking 401Ks – they are gifts given to us so that we can dispose our lives in such a way as to labor for the Lord.

I would speak to you today about St. Alexander Nevsky. Alexander Nevski is one of the Russian saints who we always observe because, first, a lot of our people are named Alexander; secondly, he was a hero of the faith. If it had not been for him, as world events developed, all of the land of the Russe would probably be Muslim today. Alexander Nevsky was a prince in the line of Rurik, a descendent of Prince Vladimir, he was a prince of Novgorod, the second city. After Kiev came Novgorod – the princes moved through the line, they didn’t stay in a city all their lives. Alexander Nevsky, just plain old Alexander, was faced with a double edged sword, or rather two swords, coming at him at the same time. From the east was coming the Tartar yolk – already felt, already burdening the land. The Tartars came to tax, to despoil, to pillage. They would often ride into town and they would hang the priest from the chandelier of the church, steal the altar and ride off with it. That’s why, in the Russian tradition, often the relics are not place in the holy table. They’re placed in the atimension so that the priest, if he’s smart, can grab it and run. And the next thing he did was to cut the rope from the chandelier so nobody could get hanged from it. They knew how to kill these people but they were devastating. They were barbarians. They were like wild animals. They descended upon the civilized world of that time like a plague of predators – like wolves howling out in the east. And from the West at the same time, sensing the weakness of the young Christian Kievan state, the Swedes – who were going through their Catholic phase before they became Lutherans – decided in the name of a holy crusade to attack the people of Russe. So they put together an army, realizing that the people of the Russe cities were engaged in defending themselves against the Mongolian Tartars, they launched war. They called it a war of the cross. The pope gave the blessing – if you died in this war you would go to heaven, just as if they were fighting infidels. They attacked the Orthodox East.

And Alexander prayed, and he asked his staretz, “What should I do? Oh Elder, Staretz, what should I do?”
And the elder said to him, “Examine your priorities.”
And Alexander said, “The Tartars want to take our wealth. They want to burn down our churches. They want to capture our villages and place them under their rule. The Swedes want to take away our soul. They want to destroy our Orthodox faith. They want to replace it with another religion.” For, at that time, the Tartars didn’t care much about religion – it’s the one thing they didn’t care about. He said, “I will fight the Swedes.” So he turns his back on his most vicious enemies and he takes on those who wish to destroy the souls of the Russe people, of the young Kievan state. And at the river Neva he was successful, in the 13th century, in defeating the Swedes.

There are stories about that battle. This icon here, of Nicholas the Defender of Orthodoxy, is a monument to that. For when the Swedes attacked the monastery, the monks carried the decorative statue of St. Nicholas they had on the walls of their monastery, around the monastery. And the Swedes withdrew.

My good friend, Fr. Michael Lilianstrom, our Swedish Orthodox priest in the Serbian patriarchate in Sweden, said to me, “Nobody tells you this story, but the Swedish priest who was commanding the Swedish army, for some reason, went to talk to the monks and the next time the soldiers saw him he was in a monastic robe. He abandoned the Latin faith. He abandoned the Swedish nation, and died as a monk in that monastery.”

St. Nicholas’s sword in his hand there is not a sword to cut down enemies, because no Swede died in that conflict. It’s the sword of the spirit that cuts for the dividing of soul and Spirit.

Alexander then, having won this victory, turned his attention to the Tartars. He negotiated with the Great Kahn. These are the people who, our little Russian children, when they did their yolka when the All Saints people where, they talked about the bogadiers. The came and they courted the Khan, but they refused to worship the idols that at that time the Mongolian Tartars worshipped, or to practice any of their religious perversities. But they did pay taxes, and by doing so, Alexander bought peace both from the infidels of the West and from the marauders of the East.

But this is the point of the story: When he became elderly, he didn’t say, “I was a great warrior. I defeated the Swedes. I was a great ruler. I brought peace to my people. Now I’m going to sit on my throne and be appreciated.” He, himself, divested himself. Last night during the dismissal I was perplexed – I was thinking, “where do I commemorate Alexander? Do I commemorate him among the great princes – Constantine and Helen, Vladimir and Olga? No, he should be commemorated among the monastics,” because before his death, he lay aside his royal robes; he lay aside his princely diadem, and he took on the robes of a monk. And he died in repentance for all those men whose lives he had had to take in battle defending his people. Not proud for the blood he had shed. Proud that he had chosen the right side, but repentant that exigencies and circumstances had required him to be a warrior who took the lives of his brother human beings, of his fellows made in the image and likeness of God.

There is a time to war, and a time to make peace. And one last fascinating detail. We know the story of Boris and Gleb, the sons of Prince Vladimir. Boris and Gleb both voluntarily allowed themselves to be murdered by their uncle Sviatopolk rather than bring down his anger upon the Orthodox Church. He was still a pagan. He said, “If you oppose me, I will destroy the church. If you move out of my way, I will not touch it.” And by moving out of his way, he meant “allow his assassins to kill them.” They were men who chose peace, where they probably in battle could have defeated him. But they would not risk the peace of the Orthodox people for their own lives and profit. BUT on the eve of this battle against the Swedes, one of Alexander’s generals comes in and he says, “On the river, in a boat, I saw two men dressed in antique armor, and they cried out to me, ‘Go tell Alexander we are his ancestors Boris and Gleb, and we will be with him on the battlefield tomorrow.’”

There is a time to make war, a time to make peace, a time to do business, and a time to seek after the salvation of one’s soul and the souls of one’s fellows. So to each of us it is given to eat our bread by the sweat of our brow all the days of our life. But we pray to God for peace at the last so that our labor may be a labor of prayer, of witness, of study, of Christian labor; and that we will have time and will not say rather to our souls, “Take thy ease: Eat, drink, and be merry, for much good are laid up for you.”

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

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