Ars Praedicandi: Sermon on Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Preface:

For this homily, I focused on the appointed Epistle lesson (Romans 10:1-10). The Gospel was from St. Matthew 8:28-9:1. The text of the sermon is here. As for my thought process in constructing the sermon, I decided to append a message I posted on my Facebook page about the meaning of American independence Day to me. See that message after the text of the sermon. Perhaps at some point, I will offer a more substantial post on the relationships between civil holidays and Church solemnities.

FREEDOM, RIGHTEOUSNESS, AND THE CROOKED PATH (Sermon)

Yesterday, we celebrated our national holiday. Practically speaking, July 4 marks the middle of the summer; it is prime time for American vacations, barbecues, lazy days of watching baseball. Symbolically, July 4 marks numerous tenets the citizens of the USA hold dear: among them are national independence, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion. Many (not all) Americans will fight passionately and fiercely to retain these privileges because the American heritage teaches that freedom is the primary ingredient to a right and just society.

Recently, I have been researching Church publications on an émigré Orthodox community of the USA during the Cold War. I was struck by the ease with which the primary thinkers of that community identified America as having a sacred mission to liberate countries in the world where freedom of conscience and religion were prohibited. These thinkers were convinced that freedom and democracy would contribute to the transformation of global society and make it more just and righteous.

Since the Cold War, we continue to struggle with the dynamics of freedom, right here in this country. We are all well aware of the hot-button issues that generate fierce debates about freedom, or its absence (the matter seems to have ignited a small cohort of Orthodox to publicly espouse the reconstitution of a monarchy). As citizens celebrate a heritage that promotes freedom, they simultaneously lament the frightening violence and hatred that seems to have seized the hearts of too many people in this country. The murder of men, women, and children in Charleston, SC, along with the recent history of public violence in Baltimore, Sandy Hook, and Columbine tugs at our hearts. People on “all sides” of the hut button issues claim to value freedom, and despite the huge ideological gaps separating them, they all together lament and regret the loss of life that manifests a society that continues to seek righteousness.

On June 24, we celebrated the birth of St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner and Prophet who called the Judeans to repent, seek baptism, and seek the kingdom of God. We also heard Jesus teach in the Gospel that our task as his disciples is to seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness. We tend to think that we can imprint righteousness on society through legislation, but in today’s letter of St. Paul to the Romans, St. Paul reminds us that God’s righteousness—the very righteousness that Jesus has called us to pursue in this life—is located not in a body of legislation, but in a person. St. Paul says at the end of today’s lesson that the one who confesses the Lord Jesus with his mouth and believes in his resurrection in his heart will be saved. “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness”—the heart is the place of belief that God has raised Jesus from the dead. These two verses connect the righteousness of God’s kingdom with the eternal resurrection of Jesus (I say eternal because St. Paul referred to him as “Lord” in the previous verse, a reminder of Jesus’s divinity).

Today, St. Paul’s letter tells us that we have a model for righteousness in this world: Jesus (cf. Philippians 2). Allow me to briefly paraphrase Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory, as I remember him describing Jesus like this in a dogmatic theology lecture: human beings miss the mark when it comes to being right humans in the eyes of God. Jesus is the “right” human being because he follows the law of God. Jesus follows the law of God by obeying God, even when God leads Jesus to humiliating death on the cross. The righteousness of Jesus is not manifested by his observance of each detail in the corpus of Hebrew law (note his sharp criticism of the Pharisees for their obsession with these details), but for the point of the law, which is to love God and to love one’s neighbor. As we reflect on Jesus’ life, we see him accept many elements that do not make sense to us. Perhaps someday, someone will revise the narrative of Jesus’ life to show him as one who kept company with Jewish intelligentsia, born in wealth (as opposed to poverty), and having selected seemingly flawless men and women to be his disciples and apostles. He selected fishermen; and the women who followed him (cf. Luke 8) had demons coming out of them. A recruiter for a Fortune 500 company would view Jesus’ selection of disciples as an epic failure, a pattern to be avoided.

But Jesus adopts the crooked path God appoints to him, which follows the biblical pattern. Abraham also accepts God’s announcement that Sarah (who was old and barren) will give birth; and the very son born of her, God instructs him to sacrifice. Does this make sense? No, certainly no more than it made sense for Noah to build an ark, or for a murderer (Moses) to become the great prophet of his people, or for Cyrus to liberate the Jewish captives from the Babylonian captivity (Is. 41, 44). These biblical antecedents (and there are many more of them) lead up to Jesus’ following God’s path which leads him to the cross, and St. Luke gives us a sense of Jesus’ own consternation at going to the cross in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22). In our tradition, we tend to depict Jesus’ obedience to God as a great paradox, since the creator of the universe (the divine Logos) is the same one who assumes human flesh and dies on the cross. So many aspects of Jesus’ life make no sense, but yet we worship him on account of his love for God and his love for his neighbor confessing that God has glorified him because he was the right human being.

Jesus is the model for the righteousness we are to practice. We too must love God and love our neighbor, without stipulating exceptions. Obviously, this is the hardest of Jesus’ teachings to observe; to love our enemies, and not just love them, but give them food and the very cloaks on our backs. When we try this, it threatens our way of life and our standing in American society. We look like pacifists and some might see us as weaklings who will never be successful.

Today, God is inviting us to interiorize a righteousness he has already given us. We will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit at this very liturgy, as we always do, and the Holy Spirit enables us to confess the Lord Jesus. As we confess Jesus as our Lord, Jesus as our pattern for living, let us have the courage to accept God’s invitation to walk the narrow path; and this narrow path requires us to love our neighbor and our enemy, to the point of giving him or her a cloak, and food. We might complain while we do these things that make no sense to the world, but doing them is an act of love for God, because God asks us to do the hard things that honor his image in every person of this world. Brothers and sisters, our American ground continues to be soaked with the blood of men, women, and children who died because of hate; we have all heard the cries of their loved ones who suffer from the repercussions of hate in our world, a hatred that threatens the freedom of us all. May we heed the holy apostle’s invitation today to seek true righteousness from our Lord Jesus, by the grace of the Holy Spirit; and may our obedient love for God and our neighbor manifest the confessions of faith we make with our mouths to be true confessions that are unto our salvation, and the salvation of our neighbors. Amen.

Nicholas Denysenko’s Facebook post on July 4:

Happy Independence Day! During the last two months, I have researched selections from the literature of Ukrainian immigrants to the United States, especially during the period of the Cold War. I am struck by their gratitude for basic freedoms; especially the freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. In one pastoral epistle, bishops referred to the United States as having offered “friendly shores” to immigrants from Ukraine. Many immigrants struggled mightily here: to communicate, pay bills, put food on the table, and educate their families. Some things have not changed. The community I live in now is heavily populated by immigrants, and I see many of them take on hours upon hours of hard labor to feed their families. While working for me (in small handyman capacities beyond my meager abilities), many of today’s immigrants have smiled, arrived on time, and have been genuinely good colleagues. I am blessed to have educated some of their children in my classes (my classes tend to be populated by young people whose families hail from Mexico, El Salvador, Egypt, and Armenia, among other countries). I don’t know if they would call America’s shores “friendly”; I hope only that they have been friendly enough to provide them and their families with opportunities they would not have enjoyed in their native countries, as was the case for my emigre parents and grandparents.

Of course, America is not friendly for everyone, all of the time. The families mourning in Charleston, South Carolina know this, as do people from Sandy Hook, Baltimore, Ferguson, Columbine, and many other places. Many of us are worried that the freedoms we treasure are being taken away from us. I do not claim to have the answers to these questions (as someone whose political interests are private, with the exception of rapidly developing clean, renewable energy), but I do know this: I have worn a cross around my neck since I was about 10, and removed it only for two echocardiograms, and no one made me confiscate it; I have always had icons in my offices, and no one has ever asked me to remove them; sometimes I make the sign of the cross while I pray during a walk, and no one berates me; I have prayed openly, in public, using traditional Orthodox language (meaning that I referred to God as the ‘Father,’ and when someone asks me if God is male, I just say that there is no gender in God and I refer to God as Jesus did in the New Testament), and no one ever made me stop. I was berated once at a poll booth, during the last presidential election when people outside told me (and others) that we had to vote for President Obama; but no one stopped me from voting my conscience, and that vote was cast neither for Pres. Obama nor for Mr. Romney.

Yes, I wish things were better here, and my eyes have opened to the treasures offered by other countries. But I am grateful for the freedom that has enriched my life, and especially grateful for the many wonderful people who live in this country, whose families literally hail from countries across the globe. Happy Independence Day, America. May your people find unity and peace in these times of trouble. May you raise up new leaders with new ideas to lead us through the 21st century. May your shores always be friendly to visitors and immigrants. And may God bless you, and the men and women who serve you in the military and through other important – and almost always unknown – offices.

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