The Vocation of Lovers of God
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, July 9, 2017 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA.
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (8:28-9:1)
The extreme case Jesus faced in today’s Gospel reading called for great compassion and courage. While I know it is tempting to focus on the drama and display of power, I think the point of the story leads us in a different direction.
It is counterproductive to focus our attention on evil especially if we consider the verse from Deuteronomy, “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.” We surely do not want the contemplation of evil to darken our hearts. It is far better to focus on beautiful and holy things as St. Paul writes in Philippians, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” After all, if for no other reason, having heard thousands of confession, I can assure you that evil is boring. Holiness, on the other hand, is always interesting! So, let’s not focus on the demons today (or ever), but on Christ and the power of God’s love.
In Philippians 2 St. Paul quotes a hymn of the early church about the incarnation. The Son of God “made himself nothing by taking on the form of a servant…and humbled himself even unto death.” In today’s Gospel reading the Servanthood of God comes alive again. Christ reaches out to serve two untouchable men without any regard for his own safety or reputation. Here were two poor, dangerous men, labeled as demon possessed, isolated, persecuted, ostracized, cast out from any kind of human society and any compassionate support and Jesus became their servant, healer and friend.
It does not amaze me that Jesus had power over demons (why would that be such a big thing for the Son of God?). What never ceases to move me is the Lord’s never-ending display of compassion in the face of extreme human suffering. Jesus never turned away from suffering people. He never tried to protect himself from those who were despised and rejected the way we often do. He let nothing stand in the way of Love. This was how he fulfilled the will of his Father who is love. God is love is the Good News! This is the message the world longed to hear then and longs to hear now and in Christ we not only hear it, we see it in action. In us, too often, it is neither heard nor seen.
Those who truly love God are easy to find because they are full of love. Love is the one unmistakable sign of a disciple of Christ. Corinthians 13, “if I have not love, I am nothing.” Hatred may cross their minds, but, like a passing cloud, they have learned to let it come and let it go. And if we read the Gospels we discover something else surprising, it is often not the religious and the pious who get it, it is the ones who know they are nothing. Yannaras writes of this:
"In the language of his place and time, Christ spoke of the mode of existence and life ‘according to truth’ as the ‘kingdom of heaven.’ He preached that those who guide us toward this ‘mode’ are not pious religious people, those who find satisfaction in being virtuous, those who shore up their ego by keeping some kind of law. Those who guide us are people who have lost all confidence in their own selves, people who expect no personal reward whatsoever, and only thirst to be loved even if they don't deserve it - despised sinners: tax collectors, robbers, prostitutes, and prodigals.”
Dostoevsky chimes in on the same theme from CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, “Then Christ will say to us, 'Come you also! Come you drunkards! Come you weaklings! Come you depraved!' And he will say to us, 'Vile creatures, you in the image of the beast and you who bear his mark. All the same, you come too!' And the wise and prudent will say, 'Lord, why are you welcoming them? And he will say, 'O wise and prudent, I am welcoming them because not one of them has ever judged himself worthy. And he will stretch out his arms to us, and we shall fall at his feet, and burst into sobs, and then we shall understand everything, everything! Lord, your kingdom come!”
How glorious is the grace of God! It makes one wonder where all this legalism we think of as “orthodox” comes from.
I heard about a man in Los Angeles (you may have as well) who lives the life of a true lover of God. He is a widower, alone in the world. When he discovered he had cancer, he had to face it alone, with no one to hold his hand, and no one to support him. He admits that he was terrified. When he recovered (thank God), he thought to himself, “If I, a grown man, was so terribly afraid, how much more frightened must children be when they are facing death alone?” So he began his life’s work. A work of great love, self-sacrifice, and humility. He takes in children who are alone and dying and cares for them until the end. Some of them live for only days after they are sent to him. Others live longer and he loves them all and suffers with them and mourns them when they die. He lives a life full of joy and tremendous sorrow and he does it willingly. 24/7 he does this work without pay, without time off. His name is Mohamed Bzeek and he is an immigrant from Libya. “Blessed are those,” Jesus says, “who hear my words and do them.”
St. Isaac of Syria tells us, “Wherever there is love, there is God.” Whenever and in whomever we find such ego-transcending compassion, we can be sure that we are looking at someone who has heard the voice of the Son of God and taken it to heart. "Love all God's creation,” writes Dostoevsky, “ the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things."
My belief is that if all of us are called to discover and live this kind of life. The question then is: what is your calling and how will you live it out?