The Curious Monkey


Sermon preached by Jamil Samara on Sunday, February 28, 2016 at St. Mary Church

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

The Curious Monkey

I've been spending lots of time lately with my nieces and nephews, and they love to read. A favorite book from my childhood is now one of their favorites too - Curious George. The story begins, as you know, with a monkey's curiosity getting the best of him. But, have you ever tried to catch a monkey? It's as simple as the story makes it seem. Hunters and farmers for centuries have used a proven method, known as a monkey trap. Start by making a small hole in some object - a tree, a gourd, a termite mound, or even a jar.  The hole has to be just big enough for the monkey's hand to fit in. Fill the hole with some food - some nuts, seeds, or fruit.  Then sit back and wait.

Sooner or later a monkey will come by and smell the bait. He will reach his hand through the hole, grab the bait, and then he'll try to pull his enclosed fist back out. But he can’t. The hole is the right size for the monkey's empty hand, but too small for a hand clutching a fistful of nuts, and he is trapped.

At this point, the monkey should realize, “Hey, I’m stuck, drop the nuts.” But he doesn’t. He wants the nuts. He doesn't want to surrender them and leave, literally, empty handed. So he pulls and pulls and pulls, refusing to drop the nuts, and the hunter or farmer comes up behind and snatches him. If he had just surrendered what he was holding, he could have been free. But because he refused to surrender, he lost his ultimate freedom. His need for food is natural. He needs to eat to survive, of course, but he lost sight of that because his desire for that particular food got the best of him. His desire controlled his actions, and as a result, cost him his freedom.

Fasting from that Which Ensnares Us 

My brothers and sisters, in what ways are we just like that monkey? As humans, we have natural, biological needs, just like the monkey. Food, shelter, and love are often at the heart of what drives us. When our desires are so strong, they can overpower our good judgment, our ability to make decisions based on what God reveals to us as true and good, that make us truly happy are compromised.

As created in the image of God, we are called to transform our lives to something greater. We live our lives suspended in tension between two poles, our desires on one side, and living selflessly on the other. Since we are mortal, that tension will always exist, and always be pulling us in one direction or the other. Where do you feel that tension in your life?

Just like the monkey that is drawn to the food, there are the things that ensnare us, that have a hold on our lives, even if we don't think so. The seven deadly sins, a list formalized in Western Christianity, but still familiar to us in the East, is worth considering: Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride, Lust, and of course, Gluttony. One or more of these is the feature of any good modern drama or horror movie, but I suspect that they are closer to home for each of us than we care to admit. Do any of them sound familiar to you? And by familiar, I mean, to where has your mind been drifting during the service today? Each of course have their basis in something good or natural.

We must eat, but when we are consumed by the desire to eat, it becomes gluttony. Love is a good and righteous thing, but when it becomes skewed, we encounter Lust. If either of these are taken in the opposite direction, we encounter starvation and isolation, neither of which is healthy either. It's about finding the healthy balance in all aspects of life.

Fasting to Find the Right Balance 

Fasting involves a metanoia, a changing of our minds and approaches to life. In today's Epistle reading, St. Paul reminds us that even though "all things are lawful for me," we should "not be enslaved by anything." I think St. Paul is talking about balance here. Just because I CAN eat whatever I want doesn't mean I should. And if I let myself walk down that path, I might become enslaved by it before I'm even aware of it. Fasting keeps us in check from going too far in one extreme.

That is what happened to the Prodigal Son in today's Gospel reading. He thought he would be alright to indulge in the worldly pleasures of life. He eventually becomes aware of the suffering in the life he made for himself, and returns to his father, fully contrite and repentant of his actions. His father runs with open arms to greet him. That is what God the Father does with each of us when we return to Him, when we choose Him over worldly desires. He welcomes us back with a loving embrace.

Fasting, however, is not the end in itself, but a means to the end. We do not fast because God wants us to starve. Rather, it is through denying ourselves for a period of time that we will be open to greater things. And yes, there are greater things prepared for us than a delicious sirloin. Perhaps material desires have a hold on you? A new pair of shoes that you simply must have? A big screen TV, not only to watch the game, but also to make your friends jealous? The periods of fasting given to us are opportunities to exercise our will to turn our attention from these worldly desires to greater things.

Fasting as Exercise and Training

As with any exercise, fasting prepares us for the race ahead. Competing requires preparation; you can't just show up at a race without having first gone to practice to build up your strength and endurance.  As St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things." The race is living the life of the cross. The reward for running the race is to receive the crowns that are imperishable.

We have now entered into the period of preparation that we call the Triodion.  It began last Sunday and takes us to Great and Holy Pascha. The Triodion includes a "pre-fast", which we are in now, where we get to do some warm-ups and stretching, if you will. On March 14, we begin the real training; 40 days of a strict fast we know as Great Lent, followed by Holy Week. By the end of Holy Week, we should find ourselves exhausted and stretched to the max from our spiritual exercise.

The Triodion takes us on the way of the Cross, to Golgotha on Holy Friday, where we experience Christ's death through our own spiritual struggle. Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving are all a part of the way of the cross, the dying of ourselves, the relinquishing of our own will to allow God's will to grow within us. This is our focus for Great Lent; we encounter and experience the cross ourselves in order to proclaim Christ is Risen!

Fasting that Leads to Right Action

When fasting is simply "giving something up", we can be led to despair and a heavy heart in the same way a child does when deprived of one of his toys. When fasting simply creates a void, we will then spend the time of the Great Fast counting down the days until we can begin to eat burgers and chicken wings again.

Fasting, however, gives us the chance to say "yes" to the things we actually need, to allow the fruits of the spirit to enter in - that of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Then the period of fasting will be an exercise that draws us closer to both God and neighbor. We can say "yes" to true freedom, to live and thrive as human beings in communion with God and each other, rather than be enslaved to our passions and focused only on ourselves.

We must connect our fasting with our relationships in order to make an acceptable fast before the Lord. If your fasting this year allows you to focus just a little bit less on yourself and just a little bit more on your brother and sister, then it will be a fast acceptable to God. If by fasting, you will be able to share your lot and portion at the table with those who have none, then it will be a fast acceptable to God. If your fast this year includes departing from the noise and temptations of technology, entertainment, and social media in order so that you can draw closer to the stillness of God that exists inside of you, then you will have found a fast that is acceptable to God.

Despite my boyhood dreams sparked by Curious George, I have never caught and owned a monkey myself. But we can still learn from the monkey and the trap that ensnares it. The monkey lives in tension between desire and survival. Our tension is between the temptations of this life and the way of the cross, the denial of our selves. Though more difficult, the way of the cross allows us to become our true selves, more fully human, and in communion with God, filled with the Holy Spirit, which is real freedom.

If we put into practice the tools offered by the church during the Triodion period - fasting, prayer, and almsgiving - we can train ourselves to be vigilant when presented with the things of this world that draw our attention away from God and from our brother and sister. At the service of Forgiveness Vespers in just a couple weeks from now, we will sing, "Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord." May it be so.