Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The 25th Sunday after Pentecost

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

Glory forever.

I’ve been reading papers that my college students have written, and there was a group of women who were writing a report on Roman Catholicism and death – the name of the course is “Death and Dying.” A little bit lugubrious. And they quoted from a Roman Catholic catechism that said that people who died in mortal sin immediately go to hell, where they experience the torments of the last days. And as I read this, “No, well it’s not quite that simple.” For one thing, we don’t believe in venial sins and mortal sins. Sin is a condition, it’s not a collection of acquired guilts. But on the other hand there is truth to the statement and there has to be because I was thinking about this: What if you were one of those ten lepers who was healed and you realized when you were only a few steps away from our Lord that, not only had the sores on your body disappeared – the corruption, the death, that was gradually taking hold of your flesh, vanished – but that your appearance was normal and you could now again move and talk among human beings, and be restored to a state of being clean according to the Jewish understanding. And so you said, “Hey! Aren’t I lucky?” And you went on and did what you needed to do to get the certificate of cleanness, and then went home. If we saw that happen, wouldn’t we think these were dreadfully ungrateful people? They were people who did not have even the normal human sensitivity. What you do if you were in great agony and parts of your body were rotting and falling off because the nerves had gone away, and you couldn’t even tell when you burned yourself or hit yourself with a hammer? If you were all white and crusty, and everyone who saw you kept at a distance because they were afraid they would receive contamination from you, and then you were healed? Would you not return and fall down on your face, and cry with sweet tears, tears of thanksgiving for the one who had been responsible for your restoration to health?

And yet, the Lord in this parable is talking, not only about the leprosy of the body which ends with physical death, he’s talking about the leprosy of the soul. Everyone of us were born corrupt. We were born not only to physical, but to spiritual death. We were born deserving nothing but destruction. We were born enemies of God – hating and despising the good things, loving and embracing the evil. And to each one of us, God has come and through water and oil and his own precious blood which he shed in bitter agony on the cross he has healed the leprosy of our bodies and of our souls. And he has set us on the right path. And how many people accept that, put it away in their promise book, and then fail to respond in any way to it? How many people who are counting on Jesus Christ, on His Church, on His precious blood, on His promises to forgive them their sins are sitting at home today too tired or preoccupied, or lazy, or self-possessed to come and to give thanks?

The very liturgy we celebrate is called eucharistos. I’m afraid of any foreign language because I’m not that good at English, but the Greek people I believe (Nick can tell me if it’s true) when you say “Thank you,” you say “Eucharistou?”
Nick: Eucharisto
Fr. Joe: Eucharisto
Thank you. The Liturgy is our thanksgiving. It is our coming, our bowing down before God, it is our saying how grateful we are that he has given us life, and then it is receiving more from him – more life. It’s not just coming and doing obeisance. It’s not bowing down like people to some Oriental potentate. It’s receiving from God grace upon grace when we hold up to God our broken hearts and our thanksgiving he pours out on us a super abundance of more grace. And yet how many of us spend our Sundays and the Holy Days of the Church, on which we’re not obliged to be at work, entertaining ourselves or just plain sleeping? You know, I believe the Church, being the body of Christ and also the ship of salvation, has the ability through the prayers of the faithful to drag into heaven a whole lot of people who only kind of half way show any kind of gratitude to God. If there’s a spark of the love of God, if there’s a flickering wick lighted by the Holy Spirit, the prayers of the Church can fan that into a flame and ultimately bring that person to salvation. But for those who have received forgiveness, and grace, and healing, and who then so despise the Good Physician that they fail even to return to give thanks – for the nine lepers – there is also the danger that in the hour of their death, in the moment of their trial they will not turn their eyes toward the Risen Lord but will turn their eyes toward the bodily life that is being taken from them. And they will hear from that angel the words that the rich man heard in the gospel two weeks ago: “This night will thy soul be required of thee.” So, even though we don’t believe in purgatory per se, we don’t believe in the accumulated merits of the saints that the bishop of Rome is able to access by unlocking the merit bag and giving out indulgences, even though we don’t believe in that, even though we don’t believe in the categorizing of sin as mortal and venial, still we do believe this: That there is an awful danger that for those who do not return to give thanks, who don’t return love to God for his love of them, there is the dreadful danger that at the moment of the separation of their souls and bodies they will find themselves surrounded by ceaseless flames.

We have today so many saints who I wanted to talk about, but I’m not going to because I was moved to say that, but I will mention simply one. I won’t mention Philotheia this year. Ambrose of Milan. He was a catechuman, and man who had put off his baptism. His mother had been a Christian, his father wasn’t. He was governor of the city of Milan. He had come to the back of the church and he had said he wanted to gather into the Holy Orthodox Church with all his heart, but then he had remained a student into his adult years. He had, like those of our Protestant brethren, despised baptism in his youth thinking he needed to put it off till the right time. I always tell parents who say, “I think my child needs to grow up enough to understand what he’s doing before he’s baptized” – I say – “Yes, I agree. And don’t feed him until he is old enough to understand digestion.” Anyway, this man was called to the cathedral because the Arian heretics – the people who denied that Jesus Christ was true God – were trying to pull a coup. They were the ACORN people – they were trying to steal the ballot box, they were trying to rig the election and they were saying they wanted their Arian candidate to be bishop. They probably even said, “Isn’t it fair? Shouldn’t we Arians get a turn? It’s time for a change!” Ambrose came into the church when it was almost a riot, and he stepped up onto the _____ - the platform in the middle of the church – to tell the people to “Shut up!” And he was wearing his golden armor of a Roman Equestrian. As he stood there, the sun – which, in churches in Italy, tends to shine down from the East toward the altar in the West – showed down the aisle on Ambrose in his golden armor, and a dove descended from the ceiling of the church and rested on his head. And a child there in the church shouted, “Ambrose is bishop!” The whole crowd acclaimed Ambrose as bishop. I will tell you the election of Metropolitan Jonah was almost as remarkable. It was an acclamation that came by a movement of the Holy Spirit. And this man had to be baptized the next day. Then he had to be ordained as a deacon, and a priest, and a bishop, and installed as the Bishop of Milan. But he was one of the greatest bishops the church ever knew.

Three times he opposed the emperor by the grace of the Spirit. A retired Arian bishop wanted one of the little, unused churches in Milan as his headquarters when he came back from working as a missionary, teaching falsehood to the people of the north. And the emperor said, “You know, we can be generous, ecumenical.” And Ambrose said, “The altar of God is not the altar of heretics” and the emperor withdrew. Secondly, the Senate, left at Rome when Constantine went to Constantinople, wanted to keep in the middle of their assembly the altar to the god Nike, the god of victory – not the god of shoes. And, Ambrose said, “How can we put a pagan God in the heart of a Christian kingdom?” Now look around your house sometime and see how many pagan statues you’ve got around there and ask yourself what St. Ambrose would have thought about that. How many icons do you have? And the third thing was this: The emperor Theodosius got upset because a mob in Thessalonica, kind of like that mob of Greek anarchists yesterday who were burning police cars and throwing fire bombs at people, the mob in Thessalonica rioted and they killed the governor. And the emperor called them all to the Hippodrome, and he had soldiers there disguised as plain folk and on a signal they drew their swords and killed a few thousand citizens of Thessalonica. He was emperor. He was going to show them who was boss. And then he showed up the next Sunday, which was Christmas, in Milan. And he came to the church to receive Holy Communion, and Ambrose met him at the door. Ambrose wasn’t even the bishop of Rome, he was just the bishop of Milan, the bishop of the church where the emperor had gone for communion. He said, “You will not enter this church. You will not defile this temple of God, you whose hands are stained with the blood of so many.” And Theodosius stood, with his imperial robes removed, and his crown off of his head, in sackcloth for three days and three nights in the snow barefooted in front of that church, and on the third day Ambrose absolved him and received him into communion. He said, “Even emperors have to do penance for their vicious sins.”

So we honor this man today who teaches us that when God calls us, whatever position we’re in, whatever we think our lives are supposed to be, what ever ends we think we’re pursuing, whatever are our plans for tomorrow, when God calls us to carry out His plans that we say yes, and if we do so, you know he’ll give us the grace to do it well.

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