Sermon – The Fifth Sunday of Lent 2018
The Fifth Sunday of Great Lent
Commemorating St. Mary of Egypt
By V. Rev. Timothy Baclig
April 14, 2019
One of the hymns in today’s Orthros (early morning) service highlights the witness and testimony of the penitent saints: The Kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness, spiritual striving and holiness… This hymn is taken from the words of St. Paul who said: “The Kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness, joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:7). Our Lord Jesus Christ also said, “Man does not live by bread alone, but needs every word that God speaks.” (Matthew 4:4). And from His Sermon on the Mount we hear, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:6). Then, perhaps among the most frequently quoted verse are the words of Jesus: “Be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and what He requires of you, and He will provide you with all these other things.” (Matthew 6:33).
All of these virtues are spiritual qualities that are not in any way intended to diminish the experience of heartfelt joy or peace for a Christian. These virtues are practiced with the mature understanding that our life does not consist in relishing temporal things or fixating upon fleeting passions.
How much is enough? You and I have to determine each day: how much is enough to eat? How much is too much to spend? How much time we should we provide for something? The list goes on and on.
Each Lent we tend to fixate upon the food we eat when we think of fasting. However, the fast also involves the use of our talents and skills as well as the management of our resources. We tend to forget that our Lenten discipline of fasting must be accompanied with prayer and good works.
For the past five weeks at our Wednesday evening Liturgies we have prayed the words of St. Gregory Diologist: …Let our eye have no part in any evil sight. Let our hearing be inaccessible to all idle words; and let our tongue be purged from unseemly speech. Purify our lips which praise Thee, O Lord. Make our hands to abstain from evil deeds and to work only such things as are acceptable unto Thee, establishing all of our members and our minds by Thy Grace.
How is any of this possible? What are we saying by praying these words? Are we calling upon God to act and to somehow prevent these things from happening (…that our eye have not part in any evil sight, or our hearing be inaccessible to idle words, etc.), or is there something that we are actually supposed to do?
This prayer of the Liturgy summarizes the task and the goal of our personal Lenten discipline. Prayer involves our relationship with God. It is our conversation with Him. And while you and I can easily call upon God’s help for many things and at many times, we are also expected to do our part as we live our lives from day to day.
There is much to be said about what is gained from the spiritual virtues of temperance, self-control, chastity, and modesty. They are exemplified in the life of the Holy Virgin who is our intercessor. These virtues are greatly lacking in our day and are among the lessons that parents need to spend time in helping their children to understand what they mean. In so doing, it is extremely important that parents also live and exemplify these virtuous qualities.
Episode Two of “The Relationship Project” by Faithtree Resources has a very important curriculum for young people on the subject of “Intimacy.” The curriculum in its entirety put into the words of our day a six lesson curriculum on: 1) our personal identity as Orthodox Christians, 2) the meaning of true intimacy and why boundaries are important for real intimacy, 3) the hows of building relationships, 4) marriage as a Sacrament, and 5) dating. This curriculum is also an invaluable resource for adults!
Each day we have come to recognize the urgency and importance of having this curriculum ready for our youth programs designed to engage our young people in conversations in the church. There is a lot that they are exposed to on a daily basis outside of the church—where most of their time is spent. You know—because, as parents, you also spend most of your time beyond the walls of our church each week. And you also are engaged in conversations that pertain to subjects for which very little has been provided in a way that helps you to know how to engage in conversations with others.
This curriculum is long overdue! We can no longer be a church that provides theological monologues that speak over our heads. Jesus engaged each person he met in a conversation that brought light to the life and ignited their faith in Him. Come to our Holy Week services to hear the Gospel lessons that clearly help us to hear how our Lord spoke with the people he encountered: “The Sinful (Adulterous) Woman,” His use of parables of the Kingdom, even the conversations He had with His own disciples who had many misconceptions and who were weak in staying awake following the Last Supper, like some of us struggle in prayer at our services! Our Church’s teaching is what makes good sense. Christ’s way is in building sound relationships. We need to know how to engage others in ways that helps them to understand God’s way of thinking before more time escapes us and more young people of our generation are lost to the world’s way of thinking.
Great Lent in our church is the time when we become focused upon addressing the subject of our “passions.” The Fathers of the church saw every negative impulse as an opportunity to be transformed. One of the best examples which explain this important lesson is heard in the words of St. John Climacus. St. John says that passions such as anger, gluttony, pride or lust, which can cause us to sin, can also be transformed to virtues if they are redirected. In other words we can “overcome evil with good” by curbing or redirecting our passions. Listen to what St. John himself says:
God neither caused or created evil and therefore, those who would assert that certain passions come naturally to the soul are quite wrong. What they fail to realize is that we have taken natural attributes of our own and turned them into passions. For instance, the seed which we have for the sake of procreating children is abused by us for the sake of fornication. Nature has provided us with anger as something to be turned against the serpent, but we have used it against our neighbor. We have a natural urge to excel in virtue, but instead we compete in evil. Nature stirs within us the desire for glory, but that glory is of a heavenly kind. It is natural to be arrogant—against the demons. Joy is ours by nature, but it should be joy on account of the Lord and for the sake of doing good to our neighbor. Nature has given us resentment, but that ought to be against the enemies of our souls. We have a natural desire for pleasurable foods, but not surely for wastefulness.
Gluttony, St. John tells goes on to say, is a vice, but eating as such, is by no means sinful; there is nothing wrong about enjoying food. The practice of fasting implies no condemnation upon the action of eating, but serves to make that action sacramental and Eucharistic (a sacred action of thanksgiving).
I am convinced that these undiscovered and untaught lessons can made a significant difference in our struggle with our personal struggle with anxiety, pain and human suffering. This is precisely why the Feast of the Resurrection (“Holy Pascha” Aramaic for the word “Passover;” [Christ is our Passover, having passed from death to life.]) is so very important and central to everything about our Orthodox worship.
Great Lent and Holy Week are not mere rituals and should not be looked upon as some magical formula for our healing. It is intended to provide us with a structure and prayerful services that bring us closer to a reality that we often want to ignore. The work and effort to change: to be renewed and transformed, remains with our willingness to do what is right, beginning with the renunciation of pride and any sin that prevents us from being in communion or in fellowship with each other.
May we all make the most of the time we have left in the period of the Fast and in the Great and Holy Week which is to come by preparing ourselves to experience the fullness of Holy Pascha. And may the Glorious Feast of our Lord’s Resurrection be even more meaningful this year to every member of our families.