Sermon 29th of September 2019

There was once a nun who pretended to be insane. She pretended also to be possessed by a demon. The other sisters in the monastery would not eat with her. She would wander around the kitchen doing all the dirty work that no one else wanted to do. She wore rags on her head even though the rest wore a nun’s habit. None of the sisters ever saw here eating. She never sat at the table with them but would eat what was left over in the pots and pans, or whatever crumbs were left on the table or fell on the floor. She never fought back when they would yell at her and chase her away.

Now there was a monk living not far away, who was a famous hermit, and many people would come to this monk for advice. But an angel appeared to the holy monk and said to him, “why are you proud of yourself? Do you want to see a woman who is more religious than you? Go to the convent and you will find a woman wearing a crown on her head. She is better than you.

So he went to the convent, and asked if he could meet all the nuns so that the angel could show him which one was the great spiritual woman. But this nun did not come to meet the guest monk. And he knew even thought he had met hundreds of the nuns he had not met THE nun. So, he asked the abbess to bring him the one nun who was missing. And the abbess said, “well, yes, technically there is one more, but she is mentally ill, and you don’t want to waste your time with her.”

But he insisted that he wanted to meet her. So, they went to call her. And she didn’t want to come at first because she understood what was happening by divine revelation. But at last they dragged her to the monk.

The monk saw the rag on her head, and he understood that this was her crown. And he fell down at her feet and asked her to bless him.

This is a priest asking a nun for a blessing.

She also fell down on the ground and asked him to bless her.

The nuns were scandalized. They told the monk, “father don’t let her insult you, she’s insane.”

The monk said to them, “no, YOU are the ones who are insane, but she is the spiritual mother both of me and of you. I pray that I will be found worthy of her on the day of judgment.”

Then the nuns started to fall down and weep in front of her. One confessed that she had once scraped off her plate onto the head of this nun when the nun was washing the floor. Another confessed that she had beaten the nun with her fist. Another had been playing cruel pranks on the nun. All the nuns confessed they had done things like this. So the monk prayed for them all and then left. And after a few days the nun who used to be the hated dog of the convent, ran away because she couldn’t stand how much they respected and honoured her, and respected her, and apologized to her. She ran away and no one knows where she died.

Maybe the other nuns thought they were teaching her a lesson?

What would you think if you were trying to live a solemn spiritual life, and someone was wearing a rag on her head instead of a habit? Maybe they thought she was mocking them. Maybe they thought that they had no choice because she was so annoying to them?

I have to teach this person a lesson or else they won’t learn.

My sinfulness hates other people’s righteousness. My anger and hatred cannot abide the forgiveness that other people show. My cowardice and lack of clarity and my unwillingness to stand for something hates to see people who hold firm to their principles. My sin hates your virtue.

I am stuck in my sin, and I can’t stop even if I want to. But you are doing what I cannot do, and I hate seeing it. It’s like a starving man who watches the fat man eat at a feast. It’s painful to watch.

It is painful to watch a humble and loving person do good, when I am trapped by my anger and my need to control. It is painful to watch someone do effortlessly what I cannot do even with all my effort. It is painful to watch someone act with innocence when I have lost my innocence.

What did we hear Jesus saying today? (Luke 6:31-36)

The Lord said, “As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”

Jesus knows that because we are sinners, we have a distorted perspective. Because we are sinners, we are likely to hate a righteous person because of their righteousness. And so, Jesus teaches us a different way:

But love your enemies

[that is, those whom you PERCEIVE to be your enemies, the people you naturally want to hate, the ones who make you so angry. This could be someone very close to you. People very close to you can hurt you the most and make you the most angry. Jesus says we should love the ones WE PERCEIVE to be worthy of our anger]

, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

When you deliberately cut yourself off from the avenues of exercising your anger and judgment, you stop fighting your perceived enemy, and you start to fight your real enemy which is your own sin.

When I lash out in anger at another person, I am not fighting my own sin. When I am so angry that I shun someone or give them the silent treatment I am not fighting my real enemy which is my sin. When I busy myself judging people for not being legalistic enough, when I complain because the rules were not followed exactly, “they should be doing this or that” then I am not fighting the real enemy.

If I find myself exasperated at how old-fashioned or out-of-date my church seems to be, then I am not allowing the wisdom of the church to chastise my lack of courage, and lack of faith. When I find myself resenting the church because of the tension between our Orthodox Christian faith and what my friends want me to believe, I am missing the opportunity to confront my own sins. I am loving those who love me and not those who hate me.

But proverbs says,

“Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished.”

(Prov. 16:5)

Even grownups are victims of peer pressure. We are called, especially as parents, to be the ones who proclaim the gospel and am not ashamed of the gospel. And even though we might be tempted by other people’s approval, true life does not come from judging but from repentance. True life comes from repentance not anger.

St. Peter writes, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.” 1 Pet. 5:6.

This is the fight against our real enemy. Listen to the prophets who wrote during the time when Israel was being oppressed by enemies. The nation of Israel was being oppressed and attacked, and was suffering injustice, and yet their prophets wrote this:

Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people.” (Isaiah 64:8–9)

“‘You disciplined me like an unruly calf, and I have been disciplined. Restore me, and I will return, because you are the LORD my God. After I strayed, I repented; after I came to understand, I beat my breast. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’” (Jeremiah 31:18–19)

“But we did not obey Your voice … and you laid to waste the house called by Your name, as it is this day, because of the wickedness of the house of Israel … Even so, O Lord our God, You have dealt with us according to all Your goodness and great mercy. … But in the land of their exile, their hearts will turn back, and they will know that I am the Lord their God, and I will give them a heart and ears that obey; and they will praise Me in the land of their exile and will remember My name. They will turn from their stubbornness and their evil deeds;  … For You are the Lord our God and You we will praise, O Lord. On account of this You granted in our hearts the fear of You, to call upon Your name, and we shall praise You in our exile, because we will turn away from our hearts all the iniquities of our fathers who sinned against You.” (Baruch 2:24-3:7)

Jesus tells us in the gospel today, “do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High”

The term “Sons of the Most High,” intrigued me, so I started looking at the word, “Most High” to find out what kind of connotation it could have. What does it mean when we call God the “Most High.”

I found that this is terminology that is often used when people make sacrifices to God. That’s what is usually happening when we hear God called the “Most High.”

For example

 “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. 

(Genesis 14:18–22)

Sir. 29:11 Lay up thy treasure according to the commandments of the most High, and it shall bring thee more profit than gold.

Sir. 31:19 The most High is not pleased with the offerings of the wicked; neither is he pacified for sin by the multitude of sacrifices.

Sir. 32:6 The offering of the righteous makes the altar fat, and the sweet savour thereof is before the most High.

Sir. 32:10 Give unto the most High to the measure that he has enriched you; and as you have received, give with a cheerful eye.

I want to go back to the question anger. We experience anger and rage, and we don’t always know whether it is justified or not. How do we know whether our response to anger is our own sinfulness lashing out, and how do we know if our response in anger is healthy? Sometimes we have to say no.  How do we know?

To begin with, we can say to Jesus, “I am willing to do what you are calling me to do, even though it causes me pain in the short term.”

We ask Jesus, “are you sending me into a kind of metaphorical exile? Am I experiencing anger and distress because I need to grow? Do I need to learn something about my own sinfulness from this infuriating situation? Do I need to change?”

And then ask yourself, “is standing on a principle going to be a sacrifice for me? If I stand for what is right, if I draw a line and say “no” and if I take the unpopular position, am I making a sacrifice for God by doing that? Or am I trying to be in control? Am I being stubborn?

Many times, we don’t know which one is the case. We don’t always understand our own motives. These are good questions to ask ourselves, but I would be lying if I told you that you will always know in your heart that you are making the right decision.

A good prayer to pray is, “God, let me serve you.” Or, “let me repent of my own sins first.” The priority is for me to repent of my own sins.

If you come to the conclusion that you really don’t want to draw a boundary line; you don’t want to say, “no,” yet for the sake of the vulnerable, for the sake of those who might be hurt otherwise, you reluctantly have to say to the person who made you angry that you do not accept their behaviour, then pray that God will guide you. Pray that God will give you the strength to apologize later if you have to. Say, “God I am willing to admit I was wrong if I have to, but right now I feel that this is what I need to do.” And then take your stand and say “no”.

But if you are saying “no” in anger in order to punish someone, in order to control them. If the anger is so overwhelming that you feel you could not forgive even if you wanted to. If your anger is so intense that you have no remorse, no love for the person you are confronting, then there is a good chance that God is calling you to sacrifice your anger to him, and is not calling you to speak out.

You can sacrifice your anger to God by admitting, yes, that person seems wrong, but I am also wrong. So I am going to forego judging that person.

Yes, I am suffering, but I also cause other people to suffer. So this time I am going to bring my suffering to God, and ask for him to guide me in the midst of my suffering. And I am going to keep quiet and not judge. I am not going to hit back.

“Yes, the church sometimes seems to be slow to learn, but I am even more slow to learn, and I don’t want to be guilty of distorting the gospel message, and so I am going to leave the truths and principles of the Orthodox Christian faith unchanged. Yes, I think some priests and bishops might be misguided, but I am even more misguided, and so I am going to allow the truth of the Body of Christ to be my truth, at least for the time being.”

Some of you are mourning because someone you love does not love God. Someone you love is not following Jesus, and it eats away at you. We feel immense pain when we love Jesus and we watch someone we love walk away from Jesus. We almost want to shout at Jesus, “why are you allowing them to walk away?”

Maybe you just have more sorrow than anger. Maybe you just hurt for this person you love, and maybe you just long for them to return.

You too can make a sacrifice – on their behalf. That’s what our time in church is for. In the divine liturgy we ask God to accept the sacrifices we are making for ourselves and for the ignorance of the people. We offer our sacrifices on behalf of others. In the Anaphora we pray, “Thine own of thine own we offer unto Thee in behalf of all and for all.”

Each person will have to make up his or her own mind in the end. But we can fast on behalf of others. We can pray on behalf of others. We can give our work and our time and our love on behalf of others.

I encourage you if you see someone else losing faith, as a challenge and a calling to have faith on their behalf. And if you know of someone who is failing to repent, take up the challenge to make sure that you repent. Take other people’s weakness as a calling for you to use the strength of Jesus to stand firm on their behalf.

And you might ask, “will it work?” If I sacrifice my anger and disappointment and my pain to God, what do I get back? Is that going to make my suffering go away?

The gift of God is that we are allowed to sacrifice to him. The proof of God’s power and victory is that His Holy Spirit strengthens us enough that we choose to sacrifice to him. In the moment when we choose to sacrifice, Jesus is living within us.

Today we read the words of St. Paul who said,

Brethren, it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we too believe, and so we speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

I want to address myself specifically to spouses and parents. I want to encourage you to give thanks to God for the context of the family as the place where you can work out your salvation. The family is the place where, as St. Paul says, we “carry in the body the death of Jesus.”

This is the place we are most seriously confronted by our own sinfulness. This is the place we are most intensely challenged.

This, by the way, is the reason why the church is so insistent on the sanctity of marriage.  It’s not because God is irate when intimacy happens at the wrong time. God longs for us to take the opportunity to work out our own salvation in the context of commitment. God’s beautiful gift to us in the family is that we can do the excruciating work of confronting our own selfishness. And so, a marriage needs to be from beginning to end an act of obedience to God, and act of trusting God to give us strength, and act of pouring out our lives as an offering to God. That’s what a marriage is, when it is at its best. We are given our families is in order for the life of Jesus to become manifest in us. It is for our salvation.

Have a talk with God during the rest of this service. Tell God in your heart that you are going to bring a sacrifice of thanksgiving. The greatest sacrifice of thanksgiving we can ever make is to confess our sins. To admit our own faults, and to ask Jesus to cleanse us of our sins..

I am a sinner, but you, Jesus, can help me to serve you wherever I am.

Renew your commitment to forgive and to love, and to follow Christ in the context of your home and your family. And if you are single, renew your commitment to serve Christ in the context of this church, because this church is your family.

Tell Jesus that you do not know how to take the next step forward. Tell Jesus that you do not know what to do, that you are at your wits’ end.

Tell Jesus you are willing to follow him wherever he leads you.

The good news is that you are still trying. The good news is that you have not given up yet. The good news is that there is still time and whatever you offer to Jesus in humility he will multiply a thousand-fold even, if you can’t see it now.

And then come forward to the chalice and receive the body of Christ.