St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church
872 N. 29th St. Boise, ID
an American parish of the Russian Orthodox Church
12/1 - Acquiring True Wealth

Luke 12:16-2 1

We live in a culture which places a premium on working and providing for yourself.  A person who is able to take care of his own needs by his own labor is considered to be a success and highly esteemed; while a person who cannot seem to make ends meet and who must depend on the charity of others (as well as the state) is seen as a failure and is often looked upon with scorn.  The rich man in today’s Gospel parable was one of those whom we would consider a success.  He did not depend on anyone else for his welfare and in fact worked so diligently that he was able to amass a surplus of goods – more than he could need.  Now, he thought to himself, it would be possible to take a well earned rest and to enjoy the fruits of his labor and sacrifice.  But that very night, he was called to stand before the throne of God and what words did he hear?  He was not congratulated for his hard work or for his success.  He was not complimented on his work ethic or his thrifty ways.  He only heard, “Thou fool”.  Indeed he had worked hard and had gained much – but he worked hard for the wrong thing and gained that which had value only in this transient and short life.  He completely neglected the needs of his soul and did not collect any spiritual wealth and so was found wanting.  He was a fool not because he did not work hard, but because he worked hard for the wrong thing. 

Side by side with this parable, we also celebrate later this week one of the great feasts of the Virgin Mary, her entry into the Temple.  As a child, she was brought to the temple to be dedicated to God.  She would live in the temple, work there and learn to love God.  Then upon her womanhood, she would return to her parents house and become eligible for marriage.  This was not an uncommon practice for pious parents who wished to give a gift to God for His mercy and for the gift of children.  But with the Virgin Mary it was different.  When they arrived at the temple and were met by the high priest at that time (Zechariah – who would be the father of the Forerunner, John the Baptist), she ascended the steps of the temple on her own and the spiritual eyes of Zechariah were opened and he saw that she was truly chosen of God.  He broke all convention and took her into the temple itself and even there did not stop but took her into the holy of holies – the place where the ark of the covenant had been kept – for he saw with the eyes of his soul that she would become the living ark, the dwelling place of God.  There she worked to acquire not a worldly fortune, but a spiritual fortune amassing for herself the grace of God which would enable her to become the temple of God incarnate, that ladder by which God descended from heaven and the font from which He took our flesh and became man.

The Virgin Mary worked hard and worked hard at acquiring the right kind of wealth.  St John of Kronstadt describes her labors saying:  “How did the most blessed Virgin spend her time in the temple? … She spent her time in prayer, reading of the word of God (as you can see on the icon of the Annunciation), in divine contemplation, and handiwork.” 

St John then holds the Virgin up for all of us as an example of how we should labor to acquire the riches of the grace of God,  “What an excellent example for fathers, mothers, and their children; for Christian maidens and youths!...we should also have the same thoughts as She has. May her children by grace be of one spirit with Her! Let them learn from her how to love the Lord, our Creator, more than anything else in the world, more than father and mother, more than anyone dear to us; how to avidly study the word of God…; learn with what warmth of heart and love we must pray to the Lord; how we must dedicate ourselves to him wholeheartedly; how to entrust our fate to His wise and all-good Providence; with what purity, meekness, humility, and patience we must always clothe and adorn ourselves and not with the vain embellishments of this adulterous and sinful world which knows no bounds of luxury and elegance in bodily clothing; how to love a life with God and the saints more than to dwell in the tents of sinners (Ps. 83:11).”

“Who will show us what makes up our Christian calling and duty, of what spirit we must be, and how we should behave ourselves in various life situations? Who will give us the strength to live wholly in the spirit of Christ? The Church gives us all this. We can receive these spiritual powers in the temple of God through the Sacraments. Here a heavenly, unearthly Spirit hovers; here is the school of Jesus Christ, in which future heavenly citizens are educated. Here you will receive heavenly lessons from the Divine Teacher, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit in the Gospels. Here is heavenly food and heavenly drink, spiritual, heavenly garments, and spiritual armaments against the enemies of salvation. Here you will receive the peace that is a foretaste of heaven, so necessary to our spiritual activity and education, and strength for spiritual labors and struggle with sin. Here we partake of sweet conversation with our Heavenly Father and the Most Holy Queen and Mother of God, with the angels of the Lord and saints. Here we learn how to pray, and for what to pray. Here you will find examples of all the Christian virtues in the saints who are glorified each day by the Church. Here, gathered together in the house of God, as children of one Heavenly Father, as members of the mystical body of Christ, we learn how to love one another—member loving member, as members of Christ, as Christ Himself.”

This is how we should spend our lives and how we should labor to acquire the riches of the kingdom of God.  Too often, however, we get distracted by the wealth of this world.  St John described this tendency by pointing out a storehouse, saying, “For example, here in this building were kept fabrics of every sort and color. Those fabrics are the object of adoration of the daughters of men. They lived for them, were inspired by them, rejoiced over them, but not over God. Here the sparkle of various items of silver and gold stunned and enticed the gaze of those who worship everything glittering and beautiful. In a word—no matter where you direct your attention in the world, you will see only decay, vanity, and sin; everywhere is the earthly and worldly. Empty, vain conversations, vain activity that gives almost no reminder of heaven, God, and the other life.”  In contrast, he points out the environment we find in the Church and in the homes of pious Christians, “Only in pious homes do the icons of the Lord Jesus Christ, His Most Pure Mother, and His saints remind the thoughtful that we, Christians and members of Christ, members of His kingdom, look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come, in which we shall unite with the Lord and the saints, having cleansed ourselves of all defilement of flesh and spirit.”

Should we all then give up on the world, leave everything behind and spend our whole lives inside the Church building as the Mother of God did in the temple?  No, we are not all called to such a life of withdrawal from the world.  For the most part those of us here in the parish are called to live in the world, to have jobs and houses and cars and bills.  We have husbands, wives, children, coworkers, friends, and acquaintances.  We are surrounded by the world.  But this makes it even more necessary for us to be alert and attentive to our spiritual lives, to guard against the distractions that surround us and seek to pull us this way and that.  It is a matter of priorities – do everything to the glory of God, seek to use every activity, every task, every moment, no matter how worldly it may seem, in such a way that you are reminded of the presence of the Holy Spirit in your heart.  Create for yourself a haven in your home, a place where you are surrounded not by the distractions of the world but by the reminders of the Kingdom of God.  We should take every effort to be in the Church as much as possible for here we are surrounded by the saints, here we live even if for a brief moment and for just a little bit in the Kingdom of God.  Here we have the Gospel in our ears, we have the incense to lift our hearts to pray, we have the prayers and hymns to constantly pull us toward the Kingdom of God and to describe for us the riches of God’s glory.  Here in the Church we receive the sacraments, those fountains of grace which inundate us with the power and mercy of God.

Brothers and sisters, let us imitate the Virgin Mary rather than the foolish rich man.  Let us work to acquire the riches of the Kingdom of God.  Let us focus our efforts on using the things of this world as the means by which we acquire the things of heaven.  Let us constantly trade and work and sacrifice, not to amass a worldly fortune, but to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven.  As our Lord said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  Let your treasure be found not in earthly barns, but in the mansions of heaven.

11/24 - Love God, Love Your Neighbor

Love God; Love your neighbor - in these two commandments are contained all of the law and the prophets, all of scripture and tradition, all of our faith and practice.  The whole of the Christian life and faith comes down to these two things - love God and love your neighbor. If we were truly perfect we would need no other explanation, no other elaboration, no further discussion - everything would be clear to us in these two statements.  But we are not perfect, in fact we are so far from it that even what little understanding we think we have is distorted.  Not only is our understanding distorted but we also find it impossible to even begin to live according to that limited understanding, let alone to live according to the whole truth.  Our minds and hearts - indeed the whole of our soul and body - are clouded by our own fallen passions and sinfulness and therefore it is necessary to have the remainder of the law and the prophets, of scripture and tradition in order to begin to grasp not only what it means to love God and neighbor, but how to express that love.

In the Gospel, when the scribe who originally asked the question, “What is the greatest commandment” was faced with the answer, he saw that although he knew what the answer was, he did not fully live it in his life and so, seeking to justify himself, asked a seemingly less threatening question, “Who is my neighbor?”  But Jesus Christ, seeing not only the outward appearance of the man, but perceiving also his heart answered the second question in a manner which explains the first.  This parable of the “good Samaritan” teaches us not only about who is our neighbor, but also about how to go about loving our neighbor and on a deeper level how to love God.

Who then is our neighbor?  According to the  parable, all men are our neighbors - whenever we see a person in need, then we see our neighbor in need.  It is our  natural, fallen, tendency to cut ourselves off from the whole rest of the world.  We associate only with like minded people, we divide ourselves into nations and ethnic groups, we create social and economic classes which keep us insulated from those “below” us on the ladder.  In the end, the only person with whom we can truly relate and feel safe is me, myself and I.  In our fallen state, we have no neighbors, for everyone, even those with whom we are most intimate, is divided from us in some manner.  But our Lord Jesus Christ came to heal this fracturing of humanity from one another.  In His high priestly prayer, He intercedes for all who follow Him and asks of the Father, “that they may be one as we are.”  This unity of persons that is the Holy Trinity, is also the model for the heavenly society - a unity of persons, many persons and yet one essence.  This heavenly society is the Church and the doors of the Church, the entrance to this society are open to all.  In the order of creation as it was meant to be before the fall, and in the order of life restored by Jesus Christ (that is the Church) humanity is intended not to be separated from one another, but to be joined to one another - and the bond of that joining is the love of God and the love of neighbor.

What then is this love of neighbor that binds us together?  We see this in the parable both as a negative and positive example.  In the priest and Levite we see a negative example of the love of neighbor - in other words we see what the love of neighbor is not.  These two came across the body of the man beaten and robbed and rather than soil themselves both actually and according to the law, they avoided any contact with the beaten man, even though he obviously needed their help.  These men lived by the “rule of law” - an unbreakable legal code that was the objective measure of all life.  The law mandated certain behavior and penalties for the failures in that behavior.  There appears to be no room in the law for mercy and compassion - for those are human, even divine, qualities that require a living soul rather than lifeless words written in unchanging letters on a tablet or scroll or book.  But the law is not evil, for indeed it does allow for such acts of mercy and compassion, but it also establishes a cost, a price for those acts.  The law is given as our teacher and in exacting a cost for an act of mercy that seems to transgress the letter of the law, it teaches us both the great value of mercy as well as the fact that it requires some small sacrifice on our own part.  The priest and the Levite were bound by the law in that they were unwilling to make the personal sacrifice to be merciful.  This is what love is not - for as the Holy Apostle tells us in speaking of love, “love does not seek its own.”  In other words, if we are acting out of love, when we encounter our neighbor, we are ready to sacrifice that which is “our own” in order to help him.  Love of neighbor requires that we give of ourselves to him, that we bear the cost of that giving and sacrifice a little of “our own.”

The Samaritan is the positive example of love of neighbor - he shows us what love *is*.  Legally, the Samaritan was bound by the same ritual and social law as the priest and Levite - he incurred the same penalties and costs as they and so would have been “justified” according to the letter of the law from avoiding contact with the poor unfortunate man as well.  However the Samaritan demonstrated that love of neighbor transcends the law - yes it incurs a cost, but that cost is born willingly, even joyfully, in order to exercise mercy and compassion.  By coming into contact with the beaten and bloody victim, the Samaritan became ritually unclean and would have to go through the elaborate cleansing rituals and prayers (just as would the priest or levite) in order to function in “normal” society, let alone to enter the temple and pray.  In effect, the Samaritan would be “unclean” and an outcast because of his mercy and compassion.  This is the lesson that the law strives to teach us - that mercy and compassion, love and charity are valuable and so bear a cost.  True mercy, true love of neighbor necessitates giving of oneself.  This is what the Samaritan did - he gave of himself, making himself an outcast - from the moment he approached the beaten and bloody man on the side of the road. 

The Samaritan’s love did not stop there - for love knows no bounds.  He then spent his time and resources washing the wounds of the victim and anointing them with oil and wine and binding them with bandages.  All of this used up his own personal possessions and was a cost that he had no expectation of recovering.  He set the man on his own donkey, choosing to forfeit his own steed and to walk instead and took the victim to the nearest inn.  There he incurred even more expense for food and lodging, not only for himself, but for the victim and then the next day gave even more of his money to pay for the victim’s rest after he himself had left to continue on his way saying that he would return and pay whatever costs were outstanding after his business in the city was finished.  What an example of giving and of the personal cost that is involved in loving!  The Samaritan, crossing cultural, ethnic, social and economic barriers at great personal cost, (both real and social) gave of himself and loved his neighbor.  This is the example for us of what love of neighbor *is*.

But the great commandment is not just to love our neighbor - but first to love God.  From the example of the Samaritan, we know that to love involves giving of ourselves and personal cost.  If this is true of the love of our neighbor, how much more is it true when we love God.  To love God we not only give a little of ourselves, but we give all of ourselves.  We love God with our whole heart - that is all of our emotions and feelings; We love God with our whole mind - that is all of our thoughts and reasonings and mental abilities; We love God with our whole soul - that is all of our desire and will; We love God with our whole strength - that is with every part of our bodily life.  To love God requires the ultimate cost - to give up everything we have of our own selves for that love.  As our Lord has said, “Greater love has no man than this than to lay down his life for another.”  This is our love, that we sacrifice our own life to live instead the life of Christ.  The Gospel says elsewhere that if we love God we will keep his commandments - it is out of love therefore that we follow Christ, that we walk in the path that He gives us, that we follow the way of life that He provides for us in His Body the Church.  And that way of life has a key to it and that key is the love of neighbor.  The God/man Jesus Christ loves the whole world and every person in the world.  We, as members of His Body, are both the expression and the means of expression of that love to the world in which we live.  God did not hold back when He came into the world and gave of Himself entirely, even to death on the cross, out of love for us.  We who are in Christ now continue that same love for the world out of our love for Him.  In loving God, we also are filled with His love and become the means of expressing His love to the world, not holding back anything of our own, anything for ourselves.  To love God means to love our neighbor with His love which fills us.  Therefore we are ready to sacrifice and bear the cost of that love, reaching out across all boundaries, all barriers to our neighbor - that is to every person with whom God brings us into contact - and giving to each one without holding back, bearing whatever cost, whatever sacrifice may be necessary to bring the love of God to the world.

To love God means to follow willingly and joyfully the life that He sets before us, sacrificing our own will, our own desires, our own ideas, our own understanding, our own feelings and emotions, even our own bodies.  Having given all that we are and all that we have to God, we then become instruments of His love in the world, letting that love flow out from us to each and every person that we meet - for each of these is our neighbor and each one is loved of God. 

Love God; love your neighbor - just as God has healed you by His love, so also search out the wound in your neighbor and heal him by God’s love.  Give of yourself and of your possessions without holding back, without expectation of any return, without limit for this is the expression of true love of God and love of neighbor.