Sunday, May 28, 2017

Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Pascha 2017

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The moment of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution is fast approaching. Jesus has finished teaching His disciples. The hour has come. His work on earth is complete. So complete, in fact, that he can say with confidence at the end of Chapter 16: “Take courage, I have conquered the world.’ And then he turns to prayer.

Notice that John chooses to bring us a report of this prayer, given in the upper before they go to Gethsemane, rather than the prayer of anguish in the garden that we find in the other Gospels. Why does he do that? Well, it may be that this prayer serves in some way as a summary of all that has gone before in this Gospel. Here we find Jesus’ obedience to the Father, the glorification of His Father through His death and resurrection; the revelation of God in Jesus Christ; the choosing of the disciples out of this world; their unity modelled on the unity of the Holy Trinity: father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and the promise that their final destiny is to share in the glory of the Father and the Son in eternity. It is as though this is the final crescendo, the final movement in a gospel that shows us Christ dwelling among us as one of us, but returning to God and taking us with Him, a crescendo that climaxes with the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

Jesus can say with confidence that he has overcome the world, yet he turns in the next breath to prayer, to ask God to bring Him the victory. In fact, the prayer He prays is divided into three parts. First, He prays for Himself. Then He prays for the disciples. Finally, He prays for all those who will come to believe in Him through their testimony.

Now, as we go through this prayer, I want you to notice two things. First. Notice how Jesus’ priorities are reflected in the things He prays for. You may have found this to be true for you. When you find yourself under stress, it happens that you find yourself thinking about the things that really matter. So it is with Jesus as He prays, knowing that the end is near. But notice also how the way Jesus prays can be a model for us in our prayer life. We will see in a moment how He prays for Himself, then how He prays for those He has been ministering to, and finally, how He has a long term view in mind as well as He prays.

Jesus has just finished saying that He has overcome the world, and now He stops to pray.. And the first thing He prays is that God would glorify Him. Now at first sight, this sounds like a fairly self-serving prayer. But in order to understand what He is asking, we need to think about what is involved in Jesus being glorified. In fact, He has already talked about being glorified back in Chapter 12. You may remember how when some Greeks cane to see Him, Jesus recognized it as a sign that the end had come. So he says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23-24). Then He says, “Now My soul is troubled. And what should I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’” (John 12:27-28).

Jesus’ glorification will first involve His death on the cross, with all its agony and shame. Jesus is to be hung on a cross, as a sign that he is cursed by God. As St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Philippians: “Though He was in the form of God, He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” Jesus asks God to glorify Him, first of all, because only God is able to do it. Jesus has given up everything that might have enabled Him to do it Himself, and now is turning to God, to restore to Him what which is rightly His.

But He is also asking God to vindicate Him, to show that His claims are true. He says God has given Him authority to give eternal life to all whom God has given Him, but before that can happen, he needs to be shone to be righteous. He needs to be restored to the glory He had before the world began. Even as He is asking for God to glorify Him, notice that His mind is on God’s plan to bring salvation to those God had given Him. His request for glory is simply to fulfill God’s eternal plan to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, Jesus Christ. What is more, as He asks, His greatest reason for asking is so that He night glorify the Father. This is the most significant thing that characterizes all of His ministry on earth. He has come to glorify the Father.

I wonder if this is what our prayers are like when we pray for ourselves or for our Church. When you pray for yourself, are you asking God to bring about His own glory through the things that you do or are you just thinking about yourself? Are you placing yourself in God’s plan for the world, so that the things God does through you will bring forward His plan of salvation for the whole world? I am afraid that too often I find myself praying that sort of prayer with motives that are very mixed; seeking my own glory or my own ends, for my own sake, rather for the sake of God and His glory.

But such is not the case with Jesus. He does not consider Himself but only those things that end in the salvation of all people and the greater glory of the Father. This should be our goal as well, beloved. We should always seek to do those things which glorify God and not ourselves.

After Jesus prays for Himself, His thoughts then move naturally to those that the Father has given Him. There is a close bond between the disciples and Jesus that comes out very clearly and that forms the basis of His prayer. “I have made Your name known to those whom You gave me from the world. They were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word.” It is as though Jesus sees the disciples as His special charges; as though God has entrusted them to Him, like a foster parent might be given the responsibility of raising someone else’s children. Thus we hear Jesus say: “I have fulfilled Your charge to Me. I have made You known to them. They have believed My word. They now know that what I have comes from You.” Notice how Jesus repeats those words: ‘Now they know,” ‘They know in truth,’ ‘They have received them,’ and ‘They have believed.’ There is certainly a distinctly special relationship between Jesus and His disciples based on the way they received God’s words.

So Jesus prays for them, for those that the Father has given Him, because they also belong to the Father. And what does He pray? “Holy Father, protect them in Your name those whom You have given to Me.” He first prays for the father’s protection. Remember back to Holy Thursday, to Jesus’ farewell discourse, of which this morning’s Gospel reading is a part, when He said that He would not leave them orphans. One of the dangers for orphans in that sort of society was that they were oftentimes defenceless. They had no one to protect them from people who would seek to do them harm. Sadly, the same holds true for many children today who find themselves without a mother and father. So Jesus prays that God the Father would take over the role of protecting them from the dangers of living in this world.

And notice what it is that they need to be protected from. Jesus says, “Protect them in Your name whom You have given to Me, so that they may be one, as We are one.” Jesus has already given them His new commandment that they love another as He has loved them. In fact, He said it three times. One of the reasons that He gave that command was that only by loving one are we able to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The greatest danger for the disciples was that they would be broken apart by division. The same is true for us today. If we do not love one another, then we shall not dwell in peace. How clearly do we see that in many parts of the world today? Sadly, we even know this to be true in our own community.

I think that is why Jesus had to say it three times, because it is such a danger. And the lack of love is not just a danger for us individually or as a community, it is also a danger for the Church. Where love is absent, we get sidetracked and forget about giving God glory by how we live our lives. As I mentioned earlier, we must concern ourselves always with glorifying God.

The unity we have with each other and with Jesus is a sign to the world that He was indeed sent by the Father and that they are loved by the Father. So, our unity as the People of God, as the Church, gives glory to God and our unity as human beings created in the image and likeness of God also brings Him glory. What is more, the unity of the disciples and our unity today with each other is a necessity so that none fall away. Jesus was the tie that bound the disciples together, but as He was about to leave them, they needed the Father’s help to stay together, so that they could support one another. They also needed the Father’s protection against the attacks of the evil one. Jesus had no doubts that any opposition they would face would come from Satan.

While Jesus talks about the world being opposed to them, it is quite clear that behind that opposition stands the Prince of this world. As St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Ephesians, “our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) While we live in this world, we will continue to fight against the forces of evil in the world that are opposed to the Gospel, to Jesus Christ, and to His Church.

This is the reality of our situation today, is it not? We live in a culture, in a society, in a world that is opposed to God and to the Truth and therefore will be opposed to us whenever we stand up for the principles God has given us. This brings us to the third and final part of Jesus’ prayer. He prays for those who will come to believe in Him through the preaching of the Gospel.

Notice again that the focus of Jesus’ prayer is on the unity of the Church and the glory that brings to Him and the Father. “I in them and You in Me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that You have sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me.” How important it is that we are seen to be completely one! It is as the world sees our unity, as unbelievers observe the way we interact - the way we care for one another, the way we support one another - that they begin to realize there must be something solid and true to the Gospel we preach and live. That is why it is so important when we have some problem with another Christian that we seek to resolve it, rather than letting it simmer and fester until it becomes a source of division in the Church.

And what is the secret to this unity about which I speak? “I made Your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” If we are going to pray for one another and for our Church, it would be good to include in every one of those prayers that the love with which the Father has loved Jesus Christ, His only Son, may be in them, and that Jesus Himself may be in them.  Let us pray also that the Father’s love may also be in us and that Jesus Himself will come to us and abide in each of us. Finally, let us pray also that with God’s love and Jesus within us, our manner of living will change so that God will be glorified through us. specialHis

Monday, May 22, 2017

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Pascha 2017

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Christ is risen!

In this morning’s Gospel reading, St. John tells us about a blind beggar whose only source of income was the alms collected while begging at the roadside, where travelers came and went. As Jesus approached, he paused and engaged the beggar in conversation. As Jesus was speaking to the beggar, His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:3). Jesus then spit on the ground and made mud from the saliva and clay. He put the mud on the man’s eyes and told him, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam.” So we understand, the beggar was not going to receive his sight until he went down to the pool of Siloam and washed. In other words, he was granted a wonderful, powerful gift but if he was to choose to accept the gift there was an act of obedience that needed to be carried out.

God created us all with free will. What this means is that we can say “yes” or “no” to anything He proposes to us or asks of us. Yet, God makes it very clear that He desires our obedience. How often do we struggle with that one?

The beggar of whom we hear about this morning was born physically blind. However, we are all born “spiritually blind.”  Whatever knowledge and experience we receive early on in life is what we are taught from the cradle. So, if we are born spiritually blind, we are born into spiritual darkness. If we live in spiritual darkness, where, then, does the Light of Knowledge and Salvation come from? The answer is simple. It is the same exact source that granted the beggar his physical sight: Jesus the Christ.

The beggar knew that he was blind and he knew that he wanted to see. But all he could ever do was sit at the roadside, begging for alms. What else could he do? Then Jesus comes along and engages him and offers him his sight. Why did Jesus stop and minister to this one particular man? That becomes obvious. It was a divine appointment. Jesus was compelled by God the Father to engage this one man in the same way He was compelled to minister to the Samaritan woman at the well. It was a divine appointment.

St. John does not tell us that the beggar was the only person that Jesus ministered to; so, it is fair to say that in all probability Jesus ministered to a number of others while he was in town. But, there was a reason that Jesus stopped to speak and minister to the blind beggar. And that reason was not just physical blindness, but spiritual blindness. Spiritual blindness is something that afflicts more people than even physical blindness does. And this is the point Jesus wanted to bring to light, so to speak.

What we see is the omniscience and omnipotence of God at work. He knows the spiritual and physical condition of every person all the time and every time. Just as when Zacchaeus was up in that Sycamore three when Jesus passed by, Jesus knew he was there and knew that Zacchaeus had a strong desire to see Jesus. We might be short in stature and unable to see over the crowd but Jesus sees every one of us no matter what.

When mankind exists in a state of darkness, that is sin, he cannot know the Spirit of Truth and love which comes from God. In a state of darkness, we can easily fall prey to false teachings and false pathways of life which lead to a state of being lost. Man cannot live simply by his own decisions and conscience. One’s conscience must be formed by faith, within the light of Truth, which is Jesus Christ. Then, and only then, can man trust his decisions, knowing that they have been made in the light of the Living Truth which leads all men to true holiness, righteousness, and salvation.

I am a great fan of mysteries and enjoy watching television shows like Columbo, the Hercule Peroit and Miss Marple mysteries and the more contemporary television series like Law and Order and NCIS. Having worked closely with law enforcement as a chaplain for many years, I find myself trying to solve these mysteries based on the clues that are shared before the final solving is made clear. I enjoy a better than average success in doing that. Of course, it is just entertainment. But what it says to me is that we fixated on a path that leads to an unknown. If, at some point, it becomes obvious that it leads to a dead end, we have to go back and pick up another clue or two and follow its path. The important thing to remember is not to follow a false lead that can have many pitfalls along the way.

God is so good that he provides us with a safety net when we get off track. All we need to do is ask HIM and He will put us back on the right track. The paths that lead to dark spiritual places are all paved with temptations. Some powerful allures lurk all along the way. To name a few: sex, money, lust, pride, fear, shame, lust for power and position, greed, etc. These all can be very powerful temptations and even motivators which can easily set us off in the wrong, and oftentimes, disastrous direction.

As we draw near to the close of the Paschal season, I look back to Good Friday and remember the three hours of total darkness that God cast upon all of His creation as His beloved Son hung dying on the Cross. Three hours of darkness with no light of any kind; no ambient light from sun, moon or stars. Certainly, no artificial light! People had no idea whether the world was coming to an end or not or whether they were going to spend the rest of their natural lives in complete and utter darkness. It must have been a very frightening experience, to walk around in complete darkness, not being able to see where one was going. It was also very dangerous, I believe, because without light, a person could fall and get seriously hurt.

That is what it is like to walk around in spiritual darkness, frightening and dangerous. God does not want harm to come to any of His children but He does not force us to do His will or take His advice. He leaves the choice up to us. If we choose to continue living in spiritual darkness then it certainly is our choice. Our choice to do so may sadden God but He is not going to force us to do otherwise.

I do not have to tell you that blindness is a terrible affliction. Our sight is central to so much that we enjoy in the world. Whether it is the beauty of nature, or the smile on another’s person’s face when they see you coming; whether it is the control it gives you over the world around you, or the freedom that it allows you; or simply the awareness of what is going on around you, your sight is vital to you. So, when someone loses their sight, it takes a lot of adjustment. A blind person has to rely on their other senses. Blind people sometimes have to depend on others for things that the rest of us take for granted. If you know someone who is blind or who has failing eyesight, you have an idea of what kind of restrictions they live with. It is not easy.

While physical blindness cannot always be healed, spiritual blindness can be healed. And there are more people who are spiritually blind than there are people who are physically blind. As Jesus heals the beggar’s physical blindness, we discover in the spiritual blindness of some of those who saw and heard about the miracle which Jesus performed.

Light versus darkness is one of the prominent themes that run through St. John’s Gospel and linked with that theme is that of judgment. For example, in the third chapter of John’s Gospel, the Evangelist explores the idea of light and darkness and how it is linked with the true nature of judgment. “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:19-21) Can you see the connection between this theme of light and darkness and blindness and seeing? It is a connection that comes out more strongly as the story in this morning’s Gospel unfolds.

When Jesus tells His disciples that the beggar’s blindness was caused neither by his sins or those of his parents, He actually pointed out their own spiritual blindness. Their presuppositions that the man was born blind because of his sins or those of his parents blinded them first to the possibilities of the situation, and second, to their purpose for being there. Their understanding of the man’s blindness is in fact no different from that of the Pharisees. Their understanding of the world is one of cause and effect. In other words, illness and sickness must be the result of God’s judgment for sin. In the eyes of the disciples and the Pharisee’s whether it is the person’s sin or his parents’ is of no account, but clearly sin must be involved.

This is actually an attitude that you still find among many Christians today. Some people still attribute suffering and illness to sinfulness on the part of those suffering or those who are close to them. But Jesus blows that idea out of the water. He says that the only thing God intends with the beggar’s blindness is that God’s works might be revealed in him. There is nothing sinister about this man’s illness. There is no sense of retribution or punishment associated with it. It is just the way things happen sometimes. But in this particular case, God is going to use the man’s disability to reveal His glory.

Let us not overlook the rebuke Jesus gives His disciples. He says, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” In other words, do not let your presuppositions deflect you from the opportunities that God provides for ministry.

How often do we analyze and dissect what we should do instead of acting to bring God’s light into the world? How often do we apply our minds to finding someone else to blame for what we did or getting someone else to do something we should have done? Well, Jesus knows what to do. He spits on the ground, makes some mud and uses it as a salve for the man’s eyes. He then sends the man off to the pool of Siloam which, John tells us, means “Sent.” Perhaps St. John wants to remind us that Jesus is the one who was sent by the Father. So the man goes and washes and we are told that he comes back from the pool with his sight fully restored.

Well, as you might well expect, this causes something of a stir. Everyone who witnessed what took place had known the beggar all his life. He had been blind since birth and now he can see! And so, they all want to know how such a thing came to pass. “Who did this thing?” they ask. And the man tells them that is was Jesus.

If this happened today, most of us would scoff at the idea of a miracle. Miracles do not happen. Claims of miracles are just in the minds of religious fanatics or weirdos; people who are not all there. Most of us would try to find some natural reason for what happened or we would just ridicule the man. That is what happened back then. The people did not know what to believe. Was it something supernatural or was it just a fluke, some kind of extraordinary natural occurrence? To find out, the people take the beggar to the Pharisees to get their “expert” opinion.

And here is where spiritual blindness comes out in full force. The Pharisees, of course, know all about Jesus. They have already formed their opinion about Him and even passed judgment on Him. It does not take them long to accuse Jesus of more wrongdoing and leading the people astray. Now, they accuse and chastise Him for healing on the Sabbath. Even to the extent of making mud in order to do it! So, what is their verdict about this latest offense? Well, they cannot deny the reality of the miracle, no matter how hard they try. The man can clearly see. Though they try their best to find some loophole, some explanation other than a miracle to explain why a man born blind now sees as clearly as they do, they fail in their attempt. So they take another path. They accuse Jesus of violating the Law, saying, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” I think we have heard that one many times before. Their position is fixed and quite clear. It is all about the Law. In their eyes, Jesus cannot be from God because He does not follow the established Law.

We begin to see how their traditions, their age-old interpretations of the law, bind them to reality. In fact, as the interview continues, the contrast becomes even more apparent. This simple beggar, who is presumably without any education, can see clearly what has happened. He says to the Pharisees about Jesus, “He is a prophet.” But the Pharisees rebuke him, falling back only upon what they know. “We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man responds in amazement: “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where He comes from, yet he opened my eyes. WE know that God does not listen to sinners, but He does listen to one who worships Him and obeys His will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this is not from God, He could do nothing.”

The reality of Jesus’ origin is blatantly clear to the man born blind and now healed, yet the Pharisees refuse to acknowledge it. Faced by this rebuff from an ignorant peasant they snap back, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” Like the disciples, they believed that blindness is the judgment of God on sin, so they can dismiss everything the man says because obviously he was born in sin. But were they not also born in sin?

So here we have a man who was born blind but now can see, but whose ability to see clearly goes beyond the physical to the spiritual, while those who are meant to be the spiritual guides of Israel are shown to be spiritually blind. Bu that is not the end of the story, is it? There is more to come, as we discover the relationship between sight and belief, blindness and judgment, and guilt.

After he heals the beggar, Jesus goes looking for the man and when he finds him, asks him not whether his eyesight is better, but whether he believes in the Son of Man. You see the discovery that he has made, that Jesus is a prophet sent from God, needs to be grounded in the full reality of who Jesus is. He is the Son of Man, the one who, in the Book of Daniel, is given all authority and dominion; who in the Gospel of St. John is the one who will be lifted up, and who will judge all the earth. And it is important that he does not just acknowledge that the Son of Man exists but that he puts his trust in Him.

The response of the man is not only to acknowledge his belief in Jesus, but to worship Him. His eyes have been opened to the whole reality of who Jesus is. His worship, in fact, is a sign that Jesus is not just a prophet, but truly the Son of Man, the one whom all peoples will worship on the last day. Jesus’ response is to say, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do not see may become blind.”

Some of the Pharisees who were listening at this moment understood what Jesus was saying was directed toward them. They ask Jesus whether he is accusing them of being blind. His reply is enigmatic: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” They are blind, in fact, but their claim to be able to see establishes their culpability. The Pharisees claim to be able to see, to have not only physical sight but spiritual sight as well, but when the light of Christ comes into their midst they run from it. Jesus’ very presence among them blinded them to the things they should have been able to see all along, even as it opened the eyes of others who perhaps did not have the enlightenment of the learned Pharisees.

The message we should take from this morning’s Gospel is first to think about the way we see things. That is, how is our spiritual vision? Are we open to seeing God at work in every circumstance or pour we blinded at times by our theological, professional or rationalist presuppositions? Is our spiritual sight blinded by the various traumas of life we have experienced over the years? It is easy when you are strongly convinced of your own position to close your mind to anything that falls outside the familiar. So, for example, those who come from a well thought out evangelical tradition may have some difficulty with the experiences of the Church’s liturgical worship or Her various traditions. Conversely, those who are members of the Church may question the rock and roll flavor of evangelical Protestant worship as being inappropriate for the worship of God. We know, of course, and without any doubt, that the most perfect worship of God is found in the Divine Liturgy; it is also the most perfect prayer to the Almighty. This we know to be true because we let the facts speak for themselves.

The danger we live with today is that we frequently form our opinions or make judgments based upon precedent rather than from reality. We judge from what we have been taught, or from what we have worked out by our own reasoning, rather than letting the facts speak for themselves; or holding off judgment until all the facts become evident. That is the contrast into today’s Gospel message, is it not? The Pharisees looked at what happened and got out their law book to help them pass judgment, while the beggar looked at what happened and let the facts speak for themselves. And what was the end result? Judgment was passed, but it was not the judgment that the Pharisees had in mind. The judgment that was passed was that those who were blind regained their sight, while those whose eyes were closed to the reality of Jesus’ work, had their guilt made visible for all to see.

Is seeing believing? What do you do when the truth is staring you right in the face? Do we believe or do you continue in your disbelief? Are you looking to see God at work in the world or do you stand firm in your refusal to acknowledge His presence and work among us? Are you content to remain in spiritual darkness or are you going to take action and seek to become children of the Light as God desires us to be?

Think about these words of Jesus which He spoke to His disciples: “We must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” They are His words to us as well today.  Consider this interpretation of them, if you will: We must do the works of the Lord while we have life for when we are dead, no one can work. Today’s Gospel message is not just about light and darkness, or blindness and sight; it is about life and death as well. Doing the works of God gives life. Not doing the works of God brings suffering and death, spiritual death, to those who ignore the Word of the Lord.

Let us not remain in spiritual darkness, brothers and sisters. Let us, like the blind man, receive the healing of the Lord, wash our eyes and open them so that we may see the reality of God’s presence and work in our lives, the community in which we live, and our world. Then, let us carry on the work of the Lord while we still have the time, for death can come to any of us at any moment and there will no longer be any opportunities to do good; all there will be at that point is judgment.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Pascha 2017

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Christ is risen!

Have you ever wondered what intelligence agencies like the CIA do? We always hear “conspiracy theory” stories about the clandestine or super-secret activities of our nation’s various intelligence agencies and how they spy not only on foreign governments but even on the American people. According to WikiLeaks, the CIA is able to activate your smart TV’s internal microphone and record your conversations. They can even access your cell phone and listen into to your telephone conversation or access your computer and take it over, reading your emails or even sending emails from your account. You are probably thinking right about now, ‘I would hate to be the agent tasked with listening into my conversations.” “Hey! Why did you change the channel? I was watching that!” “Dad, Frankie took my baseball hat and won’t give it back.” Mom, this skirt is too long. I look like grandma!” “I am ten years old, Dad. I know all about the birds and the bees and protection.” No, I do not think I would want to eavesdrop on your conversations either.

Would it not be interesting, though, to eavesdrop on the conversations of someone famous? For example, would we not all like to know exactly what President Trump said about Prime Minister Trudeau after they met? Or what the President says about Hillary Clinton in conversations with his friends? I am sure there would be a lot more than raised eyebrows at some of what was said.

This morning, however, we are going to eavesdrop on a candid conversation Jesus had with a certain Samaritan woman. Let us pretend, for a few minutes, to be intelligence agents at a debriefing who are trying to make sense of this well-side, well-said conversation.

Ok people, let’s get to it. Here is what we have so far. At twelve noon yesterday, Agent Smith, who was assigned to monitor our listening device at Jacob’s well in Sychar, Samaria, picked up an interesting conversation between a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman. Now, as you all know, those two peoples, the Jews and the Samaritans, never speak to each other if they can help it. But perhaps the Jewish man was desperate. It seems that he had been on the road all day and was tired and thirsty. So when the Samaritan woman approached the well, he asked her for a drink, to which she responded, “You are a Jew and I a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (John 4:9)

Now, if the Jewish man was really thirsty, would you not expect him to beg and plead for a drink? Instead, this is what our microphones heard him saying, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10) Can any of you agents make any sense of that? What exactly does the Jewish man mean by “living water?” Obviously, the Samaritan woman could not make sense of it. She noted that the man had nothing to use with which to draw water from the well. She then seemed to sense that possibly the man was talking about a different kind of water, and so she asked the man, “Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” (John 4:12).

You have to admit, it was a good question. After all, in a dry land like that, it is impressive that the well was still pumping out water some two thousand years after Jacob had dug it. Now, you would think that after the woman gave such a profound response that the conversation would be over, that the Jewish man would have just up and left. But such was not the case. Instead, the man responds to the woman, saying, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14). What do you make of that; a water that quenches thirst forever? Can you imagine the implications of such a thing? If such water exists and we can get our hands on it then we can ensure that no one ever dies of thirst again.

The woman too was keen on getting her hands on some of the water about which the Jewish man spoke. But when she asked for some, the Jewish man told her to go get her husband and come back. Was there enough of this water for more than one person? Is that why the Jewish man told her to go get her husband? I do not think so because when the woman reported that she had no husband, the Jewish man said: ‘The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you have now is not your husband. What you have said is quite true.” (John 4:18).

Where did the Jewish man get his intelligence because he was spot on with his information and the woman admitted it! While I would say that this man is some kind of undercover agent, the woman surmised that he was a prophet – you know, one of those religious fanatics through whom God supposedly speaks. Perhaps that is why she continued with a seemingly unrelated question. She wanted to know where the right place to worship God was: Samaria or Jerusalem? But the man said: “… a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23).

Now this response of the Jewish man may seem a little baffling to us but so it was as well for the woman at the well, for she said, “I know that the Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When He comes, He will explain everything to us.” (John 4:25). Now, I did a little investigating myself and learned that the Jews and the Samaritans were waiting for someone, the Messiah, to save them and deliver them from all their troubles. And here is the bombshell. That Jewish man we have been listening to on this tape, the one who was so tired from walking that he stopped at this well at Sychar? He said, “I, the one speaking to you am the Messiah (John 4:26). At this point in the recording you can hear others approaching. We assume that the woman left abruptly because we hear a voice calling out, “Hey, you forgot your water jar!”

Agent Smith thought that that was the end of the conversation between the Jewish man and the Samaritan woman, but as you hear now, there is a bit of commotion going on. Apparently, the woman came back and she brought some of her friends with her; other Samaritans we presume. After several minutes of conversation between them, it has been reported that they became convinced that this weary Jewish traveler was, in fact, the Messiah. What do you think?

Ok, let me step back into the role of your bishop now so we can think through this well-side, well-said conversation between the weary Jewish traveler (Jesus) and the Samaritan woman. First of all, you need to know that Jesus was on a mission. In the verses before our text it says that Jesus “had to” go through Samaria on His way back to Galilee. The fact of the matter is that Jesus did not have to go through Samaria any more than you or I have to go through Watertown to get to Syracuse. There are other routes, some of them more direct. So why did Jesus have to go through Samaria? The reason is because He was on a mission. He wanted to speak with the woman at Jacob’s well. Likewise, God wants to speak to us, so He comes to meet us where we are. We are firmly in God’s sights as someone he wants to save and have as His own.

But let us go back to the woman at the well. Why did Jesus wait at the well? It was not because she had done anything to earn God’s love or special attention. Jesus did not make a beeline to Sychar to give her some humanitarian or community service award. Do you remember her life’s story? She had already been through five men, and now she was living with someone outside the bonds of marriage. But that was all the more reason Jesus had to go to Sychar. This woman was in trouble, in deep trouble; for if she continued on the path she was going, she would be condemned to eternal fire. Not a very appealing prospect.

Much like the woman at the well, we too need the interest of Christ. No matter what we have done, Jesus is interested in us and in our overall well-being. And, for whatever reasons we do not go to Him, He comes to us where we are in our lives and waits for us.

When Jesus shows interest in us we often think He just wants something from us. Is that not what the woman at the well concluded when Jesus asked her for a drink? She figured that the only reason the Jewish man “lowered” himself to speak to her was because she had something he wanted. Do we not sometimes feel that way when someone speaks to us? Do not some of you feel that way when I encourage you to attend Divine Liturgy regularly, or support the Church with your time, talent and treasure, or to go out and actively and regularly involved yourselves in works of charity and mercy? When I tell you to do these things, it is not because I want something from you but because I want you to be always in a position where you can receive and experience God’s love to the fullest. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked Him and He would have given you living water.” (John 4:10).

You see, when Jesus, through my unworthiness, asks for your attention or asks you to do something, it is because He wants to give you something! He wants to give you His love and manifest to you that he wants to share His life fully with you. You must remember, beloved, that when your bishop or priest speaks to you, he does so not on his own authority but with the authority of Jesus Christ. Thus, when we call you to fuller participation in the life of the Church, to a more regular participation in the Holy Mysteries, and to repentance and metanoia, it is because we, as vicars of Christ and in His person, want to invite you to experience and live in God’s love. Christ wants to give you the living water that forever quenches your thirst for happiness, contentment, peace and purpose.

In order for the water of which Jesus speaks to have its proper effect, however, we must first recognize the conditions we have that need healing and cleansing. At the top of the list is sin. Sin is a sickness which afflicts us all and it is one that can quickly become fatal if we do not take steps to eliminate it from our lives. What sin would Jesus expose if he was having a candid conversation with you? Do you, like the woman at the well, play fast and loose with relationships? Is the person you spend the night with or go on weekend getaways with someone who is not your spouse? Are you presenting yourself as an honorable and righteous person but in reality you selling drugs or doing something else illegal or immoral? Are you in some way living a double life?

How should we deal with our sin? Ignore it? Make excuses for it? Blame someone else for it? Certainly, the woman at the well did none of the foregoing. She admitted her sin, she acknowledged it and owned it and confessed to Jesus that He was right about what He said about her. But she also believed Jesus’ offer of living water that would put out the fires of her sin and, subsequently, of her guilty conscience.

Jesus offers us this morning that living giving water which washes away all sin and guilt in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist. By receiving Christ into yourself, He purges you of Your sins and refreshes your soul. But be beware, beloved, that you do not receive Christ unworthily for if you do, His precious Body and Blood will burn you unto condemnation. For the sake of your soul, seek to receive the Lord honorably and with all humility, acknowledging before Him true repentance and sorrow for your sins.

The Samaritan woman sets for us a goodly example. When Jesus announced: “I am the messiah,” she ran to town with the news. In her haste, she forgot her water jar, but she did not leave without water – living water was bubbling up inside of her just as Jesus said it would. Beloved, we, like the Samaritan woman, also have every reason to leave behind our water jars to run errands of mercy for the Savior. We must find time to do the work of the Lord and to proclaim His Word, the Gospel of Life. This must be our priority. If we make the work of the Lord our priority then everything else will fall into place and our joy and happiness will increase a hundredfold. Like Jesus, we will look beyond our own needs to the needs of others so that we pray for them, help them, serve them, and most importantly, have a well-said conversation with them by sharing this eternal life-giving water of God’s Word with a thirsty world.

Amen. Christ is risen!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Pascha 2017

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Christ is Risen!

This morning’s Gospel reading brings us to the pool of Bethesda, which means “the house of mercy.” We hear tell that many sick, blind, lame and other infirm people came to the pool in the hope of being cured of whatever ills they had. At the same time, we hear that obtaining a healing was not easy. We are told that healings only occurred when an angel descended into the waters and stirred them up. This did not happen all the time so we can assume that many people were left disappointed and disillusioned. In fact, we are told that whoever got into the pool first when the waters were stirred was the one to be healed so we can assume also that only the first to get into the pool each time the waters were stirred was healed and no others.

We are not sure if an angel really came down from heaven and stirred the waters. This description could easily be just a scribe’s way of explaining a pious or even superstitious belief of the people who lived at that time. Then again, it is entirely possible that an angel did do this work. Angels do exist; they are messengers of God and faithfully do His bidding all over the world. There may be angels among us this morning, worshipping and praising God with us, adding to the simple but profound glory and majesty of our Divine Liturgy. But whether or not an angel stirred up the waters is not the point. The point is, in matter of fact, that the pool at Bethesda was a place of hope and longing for the multitudes of sick, diseased, blind, lame and withered people who gathered there.

Anyone with a heart of compassion would be moved to tears at the sight of all those hurting and suffering people. Can you imagine the sounds: the crying, the moaning, the coughing, and the other myriad sounds of suffering and pain? Can you not just hear the pleas for help anytime someone who appeared healthy passed by? Can you imagine the smell of the ‘multitudes’ laying on mats, or leaning against walls and pillars, unable to bathe themselves, unable to care for their most basic hygienic needs? Imagine the smell of bad body odor, urine and excrement so strong and so foul that it would make you gag and want to throw up. Could you possibly picture yourself among such people trying to help them and comfort them? Not many of us have the stomach to do such work.

How many of you have been in the hospital seriously ill, so ill that you could not get out of bed to go to the bathroom? Do you remember what it was like when you had to use a bed pan and the nurses came in once you were done and cleaned you up? We often take for granted what nurses do for us. The men and women who care for us when we are sick, especially very ill, are people of great compassion and mercy, and we should pray for them every day and express our thanks and gratitude to them every opportunity we get. I mention this contemporary experience of compassionate and merciful care and our need to be grateful to those who show us such mercy and compassion because the people who gathered at the pool of Bethesda were not as fortunate as we are. For the most part, they were alone and were left abandoned to their illnesses. No one should ever have to live like that.

For some time now our elected government officials have been arguing and fighting back and forth about the costs, availability and scope of health care for the American people.  My brothers and sisters, there should be no arguments or disagreements on this matter. No human being, regardless of their age or health problems, should be left without adequate health and medical care. To prolong and debate this matter in the fashion our elected officials have been doing is a sin, a despicable act against the dignity and well-being of every American that cries out for justice to Almighty God. Our elected officials should be ashamed of themselves for using God’s children as pawns in their political chess games.

Our suffering, sick, and infirm brothers and sisters today are no different than those who sat by the pool of Bethesda centuries ago. They are frequently forgotten and marginalized. When they do get attention, it is often because they have become the centerpiece of some elected officials political aspirations or some celebrity’s public relations enhancement campaign, or some organization’s annual community outreach project.

 I wonder how many people from out of town who came to Jerusalem for its many feast days ever gave a moment’s thought to going straight to the ‘house of mercy,’ the pool of Bethesda, to visit the sick and blind, the lame and withered. I wonder how many people who come to visit Utica ever think to go and visit places like Hope House, the Rescue Mission or Thea Bowman House. Are not our poor and our homeless, our sick and suffering brothers and sisters equally worthy of the attention and solicitude of our visitors and guests just as much as our businesses and cultural attractions? We should never be ashamed of our poor, our homeless, our hurting and suffering brothers and sisters for they too stand equal with us before God and they too are part of the treasure of this great city in which we live.

What do you think Jesus did? As soon as He entered Jerusalem on this particular day, the pool at Bethesda was the first place He went. Jesus was not interested in engaging in the festivities first off. No, He wanted to go to the place where the sick, the infirm, the suffering and the lame were gathered. He went to a place of both despair and hope; He went to the ‘house of mercy’. Imagine what our Lord must have felt in His heart every time He looked upon one of His children who was suffering and in any kind of pain. Imagine how broken His heart was when He looked upon the multitude at the pool of Bethesda. Imagine how His heart breaks every time He looks down upon this world He created and sees the afflictions, heartache and suffering that rages throughout it because of sin.

I want you to see this first, my dear people; I want you to understand that what took place in this recorded account two thousand years ago at the pool of Bethesda has been replayed over and over again throughout the centuries everywhere throughout the world, and because of it, Jesus our God weeps.

Now, that is not to say that Jesus did not accomplish what He went to Bethesda to do. As we heard in the Gospel reading, He cured the man who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw the man lying by the pool, He already knew that the man had been in that condition for a long time. No one had to tell Jesus what the facts of this man’s case were; He already knew. Nevertheless, Jesus engaged the man in a conversation and finally asked him, ‘Do you wish to get well?’

Now in the same way that Jesus knew what was in men’s thoughts and in their hearts so too did He know not only this man’s physical condition but his spiritual condition as well. We have as proof of this in Jesus’ instruction to the man to stop sinning so he will not get sick again.

If we study this passage very carefully, particularly the dialogue between the sick man and Jesus, we will learn that the man does not answer Jesus’ question as to whether he wants to get well. The man seems entirely consumed by the fact that he is in his present condition because no one will help him get into the pool so that he can be healed. In essence, the man reveals by what he says that he was placing the blame for his circumstances on what somebody had not done for him.

Jesus asks the man if he wants to be well and the man does not give Jesus a direct answer, he simply complains and whines. So what does Jesus do? He tells the man to take up his pallet and walk. This was not a response by Jesus to prayer or faith. Nothing about the man’s behavior indicates to us that he even prayed at all. And it was not because Jesus had been given any clear indication that the man wanted to get on with a normal life and be set free from the chains of his physical condition. In fact, the man seemed to be almost resigned to his condition, although not gracefully.

Jesus’ healing of the man despite the absence of prayer or faith is a perfect example of what the Lord meant when He said to Moses, “I will have me4rcy upon whom I will have mercy, and compassion upon whom I will have compassion.”

Now when the man is healed, what do you think he does? Most of us, if we were in his situation, would thank God for the gift of being healed. But not this man; he shows no evidence of being grateful at all.

In other accounts of Jesus’ miracles we see people giving thanks to God. We hear a man testifying, “I was blind, and now I see.” We see people falling at Jesus’ feet and declaring Him both Lord and God. We even have an account of a leper who was so excited that he came back later, searching for Jesus, for the sole purpose of thanking Him.

Not the man in our Gospel this morning. After he was healed, he simply picked up his pallet and walked away, apparently without a word. When the Jews criticized him for carrying his pallet on the Sabbath, he could not even tell them who made him well. “He who made me well was the one who said to me, ‘take up your pallet and walk.’”

Can you believe this man! Not only did he not thank Jesus for healing him, but when he was criticized by the Jews for carrying his pallet on the Sabbath, he blamed Jesus for telling him to do so! No, not my fault! I was just sitting by the pool, minding my own business, and this guy comes up and miraculously healed me of a 38 year infirmity and told me to get up and carry my pallet. So, if you have a problem, take it up with him. And that is just what they did; they went out and looked for the man who dared violate the Sabbath laws.

Later that day, Jesus finds the man in the Temple and days to him, “Behold, you have become well. Do not sin anymore so that nothing worse may befall you.” Notice that Jesus did not say as to others, ‘Your faith has made you well,’ or as with the woman taken in adultery, ‘Go and sin no more. It was a common belief in that culture that when people were seriously injured or ill it was because of sin in their life or perhaps they were suffering for the sins of their parents.

You may remember the disciples asking Jesus if the man born blind was that way because he sinned or because his parents did. The answer Jesus gave was “neither,” but that the Father might be glorified. And of course, the Father was glorified in both the miracle of restored sight and in that man’s grateful testimony later.

Now we know that there are times when God uses sickness and illness to stop people from sinning and, of course, we know that illness or injury can be a direct result of sinful behavior. For example, drinking too much can result in belligerent behavior, which can also result in the drunken person getting into a fight. We also know that a drunken person, if driving while intoxicated, can get into an accident, which can result in injuries, even death, to himself and others.

Here at the pool of Bethesda it seems that out of knowledge of this man’s past life, Jesus is indicating that his illness of 38 years was a result of sin, and now that he was healed purely by the grace and power of the One talking to him, he should learn from it and not go and continue in his sin.

We have no indication in this morning’s Gospel that the man, even though he was healed, turned to God. We have no indication that his heart was filled with joy and gratitude. On the contrary, we have every good reason to believe that the man was simply ungrateful.

So what was Jesus’ purpose or reason for healing the man by the pool of Bethesda? First and foremost, it was an assertion and manifestation of His divine power and authority. Certainly, no mere mortal could do the things Jesus did. Secondly, and more importantly, Jesus is compassionate and merciful and the healing of the man by the pool is an assertion that ‘I will heal whom I choose to heal and show compassion upon those whom I choose to show compassion.”

Jesus’ reasons for helping others never have a political motivation; Jesus’ only motivation in helping others is love, but it is a love really unknown to us. Our definition and understanding of love is totally different than the love which Jesus shows His creation. Many times our love has strings attached to it. There are no strings attached to Jesus’ love for us; that is what makes it so rich and so pure, so unmistakably divine.

Jesus Christ is the Lord and Creator of all, who cares for every one of His created children, who knows each one deeply and intimately, and because he is God, He can do no wrong to anyone. Every word or thought or action of God toward mankind is for their good and for His glory. His love for this man by the pool of Bethesda was no less or no more than His love for anyone else.

‘Get up, pick up your pallet, and walk.’ It is a very simple, very straight forward command. Nevertheless, it is a command that will bring Jesus much criticism and add to His list of troubles with the religious authorities of that time.

Did Jesus really need to do this? Did He need to bring more unwanted attention to Himself, knowing that the authorities were constantly seeking ways and opportunities to trap Him and arrest Him? No, He did not. As I said a few minutes ago, the only thing that motivates Jesus is His love for His children.

But Jesus never shied away from confrontation with the Pharisees and religious authorities of His day. This alone made them angry, especially because He did so with authority and righteousness. They also feared Jesus, not because He had a following, but because they knew, in their hearts, that He could very well be who and what He said He was. This was a reality that feared more than anything else.

The Pharisees knew and understood that the Son of God was Himself, God. They did not have the concept of a higher God and a lesser God by virtue of a subservient relationship or position between one and the other. Thus, when Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of God, they become enraged and seek to kill Him, for they know exactly what the implications of such a claim are. All of Jesus’ teaching, miracles and demonstrations of power showed Him to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah and this frightened the Pharisees and other religious authorities.

Only God could do the things that Jesus did. Who other than God could heal a man who had been sick for 38 years? Who other than God could raise a man from the dead who had been dead four days? Who else but God could feed a crowd of five thousand with a few fish and loaves of bread? If any of us here this morning were witnesses to such acts or if any of us were the beneficiaries of Jesus’s compassion and mercy such that we obtained an immediate physical healing, what would we do? Would we be grateful and give thanks to God, or would we be indifferent and just go on our way?

St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Romans, ‘For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.’ How true it is that so many people know God, but they do not honor Him or gibe thanks to Him. Every day God works miracles among His people, every day God heals our infirmities and illnesses. He heals our brokenness and makes us whole but do we thank Him for His kindness, His mercy and compassion toward us? Sadly, many do not. But God heals us and shows us His mercy and compassion despite how foolishly we act or how ungrateful we are. That, my dear people, is pure and unadulterated love!

Man’s ingratitude toward God is not borne out of ignorance but rather out of our rejection of God’s goodness and our desire to be our own god. We will take from God whatever we can get, but we will not submit to His goodness and power. We will not glorify Him. We will not give Him thanks. We will not hold ourselves accountable to Him. We will just take and go our own way. What happens then is that we continue in our sinful ways. Even though we may have received a healing from God, we will become ill again because we choose to continue in our sinfulness. We do not want to change. We do not want to give God what is rightfully His and that is our lives.

My dear people, we do not live for ourselves alone. We live first for God and then for each other. Unless we are willing to give ourselves over completely to God and let Him direct our lives, we shall never be healed, we shall never be whole. Our wholeness and completeness comes from a life lived fully in Christ and for Christ.

This place in which we are gathered this morning, in which we gather every week, is a “house of mercy”. It is in this sacred and grace-filled place that we come not only to worship God and give Him thanks but to receive His mercy and healing. Sometimes we take our church buildings for granted; we see them merely as real estate and a “physical plant” whose upkeep and maintenance is a line item on the annual parish budget. But this is more than a mere building. It is the Temple of God, the Household of God, the place where God dwells in glory and majesty. It is in this sacred and holy place that God’s mercy is poured out on us like a fresh mountain spring as we come to be washed clean of our sins and healed of our infirmities, both spiritual and physical.

While the Church is comprised of the redeemed of the Lord who have been cleansed and reborn from above by water and the Spirit and who are now heirs to the promises of Christ, sin still manages to rear its ugly head; fallen human nature struggling to defy the will of God in the life even of the believer. Yet, God still deals with us mercifully and with compassion; He does not deal with us according to our iniquities, nor does He turn His face from us.

In the face of the ingratitude of the invalid at the pool at Bethesda, and the ingratitude of the Pharisees, and the ingratitude of millions of believers throughout the centuries, the work of the Father and the work of the Son and the work of the Holy Spirit continued and still continues to this day. Because of God’s great love healing where healing is underserved and even unsolicited will continue abundantly and without interruption.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4-7).

The message we are to take from this morning’s Gospel is that God shows mercy even in the face of ingratitude and unbelief. God’s desire is to redeem for Himself a people who will spend eternity with Him before His throne and in His blessed presence, forever expressing in word and life the gratitude of those who have been shown the riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior.


Christ is risen!