St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

The words of the Word of God that Teach Resilience

 

Sermon preached by Kyra Limberakis on Sunday, March 8, 2020

Last week, we looked at the power of the words of God that create and renew for Antiochian Women’s Month. This week, I am focusing on the words of the Word of God that teach. To begin, I’d like for you to take a moment and bring to your mind the best teacher you’ve ever had. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a teacher in the formal academic sense, but someone who has taught you something you’ll never forget, someone who has challenged you, or who has invested in your growth as a person.

For me, that teacher is a brilliant, quirky, sometimes scatterbrained, older Catholic woman with a thick Long Island accent who taught my “early Christian ethics” class in graduate school. She was often late to class, had a briefcase overflowing with ungraded papers, and would sometimes go on tangents during our lectures. And yet, I’ve never been more challenged or felt more heard by a professor in my life. While I was the only Orthodox Christian in those classes, she welcomed my perspectives and challenged me to think critically about assumptions I had made. When I graduated, she recommended to my husband that he buy me a book by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel on the role of Orthodox women in the church…That book changed my life in many ways.

I paint this picture for you because I believe that teachers can have a profound impact on our lives. They can open our hearts and minds in ways we never thought imaginable. We need teachers. We need guidance and wisdom from those who are a few steps ahead of us. We need to be challenged. We need them to help us build resilience.

And yet while we need teachers here in the world...the most important teacher, the one who provides us with a never-ending source of wisdom, and is the reason for us gathering today in community, here in Cambridge, is Jesus Christ. He is our ultimate teacher.

So how do we encounter Christ as teacher? He is unlike our human understanding of one as he transcends the traditional teacher/student relationship by reminding us in Matthew chapter 10 that “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master.”

And His teaching style is somewhat “unorthodox”; it is more than just his words or lectures...it’s His embodied actions...He teaches us by touching our wounds, like he did for the man with leprosy. By breaking bread with the least of our brethren. By calling us by our names, like he does to Mary Magdalene in the tomb. And even by simply seeing us...in the way that he saw Nathaniel under the fig tree, as we heard in today’s Gospel. These actions are more than just historical accounts of what he did on earth, they are meant for us TODAY.

Beyond these radical actions, the words of our Lord and Savior have taught and continue to teach us everything! About who we are and who we are capable of becoming; about how we relate to one another and how we should treat each other. In Ephesians 4:31 Christ teaches us in the words of St. Paul to rid ourselves of “all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. [To] be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ God forgave us.” In Matthew Chapter 5, Christ’s words teach us to, “Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” His words teach us how and why we should serve those on the margins of society, about how every person is called to have “abundant life” without reservation, without qualification, and without condition. The list goes on and on. Even if we have “ears to hear” and “eyes to see,” we can learn from His words and actions and still never know enough!

And yet, this sermon will have missed the mark if I didn’t focus on at least one aspect of the words of the Word of God that teach us. It’s a lesson that I’ve been struggling to learn for the past few years working for the church...it’s his teachings on how to be resilient.

Resilience is a term that has been floating around in the buzzword stratosphere recently and there are many different ways to define it. As I’ve come to understand it, it’s not just “toughening up” or “building thick skin.” Resilience is essentially the ability to be persistent in all manner of situations because you are strengthened by strong purpose and a truly critical perspective. For Orthodox Christians, therefore, resilience is our capacity to persist in the face of life’s challenges, by remembering we have a greater purpose in Christ (even when we cannot see it!) and using the perspective that, through His death and resurrection, there is something better to come. It is viewing our life through the lens of our telos, our ultimate union with God.

This is much easier said than done and there have been several times in my life where I’ve needed to be more resilient. As a young woman working for the church, there are moments of deep frustration, spiritual ambivalence, and witnessing a lot of the hypocrisy and corruption that emerges from human-led religious institutions. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when I wanted to just give up. Perhaps you’ve felt this way too in your own context.

But if I take the Gospel message seriously and I look to Christ as my teacher through the reading of His word and participating in our liturgical community, I realize that the Christian life is, in itself, an act of resilience; it is persisting, in relationship with Christ, in the face of the world’s challenges and calls to do other things with our lives, choosing to serve His Church and His people, choosing to use our gifts not primarily for ourselves but for the life of the world. Why? Because this is the pattern Christ gave us; Christ offers in and through Himself the prime example of resilience.

Christ’s friends betrayed Him. He was publicly mocked and challenged. He lost His dear friend Lazarus and wept for that loss...and most significantly, he suffered the most inhumane and humiliating persecution. His death on the Cross, seen through one light, could be seen as a spectacular failure. But in and through the world's sign of shame and death, crucifixion as a criminal, Christ offers salvation to the whole world. Through his resurrection he triumphs over death, bringing Life and a sense of purpose to all of humanity.

His experiences of grief, betrayal, and hardship may not be far from things you are experiencing in your own life right now. Our suffering must be acknowledged as real and profound, but Christ’s Life shows us that through it we are capable of profound love and resilience. In spite of every setback in His ministry, Christ continued to bring healing and salvation to others. He did not allow His suffering to consume Him or distract Him from his ultimate purpose of giving of Himself for the life of the world. His calls for us to love our neighbor and to alleviate the suffering of others, invites us not only to bear our own crosses, but, as St. Maria Skobtsova notes, “to be pierced by the Crosses of others.” Loving others and living selflessly takes resilience.

Christ knows that we will be challenged. In Luke 9:3, Christ encourages his disciples to persist, sending them out saying, “If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet...” St. Paul encourages his community similarly saying in 2 Corinthians 4, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” This is the message of resilience.We may be struck down but we are not destroyed because we have strength and Life in Christ.

Earlier I said our great teachers open our hearts and minds in ways we never thought imaginable. They give us guidance and wisdom as ones who are a few steps ahead of us. And while they may not be Christ, I believe Christ works through them in teaching us to be resilient...I know my professor did.

Our challenge to ourselves this Lent is to slow down enough to let Christ reclaim in our hearts the space as our greatest teacher.

Our challenge is to immerse ourselves in the words of the Word of God so that they can teach us.

Our challenge is to be able to pray with truth the prayer before the Gospel reading in the Liturgy, where we ask Christ to "Shine within our hearts the pure light of Your divine knowledge and open the eyes of our minds for the understanding of your gospel proclamation” for through His Gospel, we will find our strength to be resilient.