One of my favorite prayers of the Orthodox faith is the Prayer of St. Ephraim. It is well-known as we pray it during Lent as part of our weekday services including the Presanctified Liturgy. The prayer goes like this: “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.” The prayer as a whole ties in nicely to our themes this morning- having a judgmental spirit and self awareness.
Judging others and a lack of self awareness or, perhaps better, self examination go hand-in-hand and both are challenges that we are all in a battle to overcome. Our own lack of self reflection and a judging attitude go back to our earliest history. Consider the story of Adam and Eve. Once in paradise, they are given one commandment- don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This commandment was really less about the fruit than about self awareness in relationship to God. He is God, we are his creation. It is the natural order. The one commandment was really about honoring God. But, of course, we failed and have continued to fail in this endeavor since the initial partaking of the forbidden fruit.
And so after our grand failure, God goes to Adam and Eve and questions them. We are all familiar with the story- it is the first account of “passing the buck”... Adam immediately blames Eve (and God himself!) for the disobedience. “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Not to be outdone, Eve, when confronted, passes the buck onto the Serpent- “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Both Adam and Eve missed the mark- not just because of their disobedience- but because of their lack of self reflection, accountability and remorse over their own choices and a tendency to point the finger elsewhere.
We are really no different, and so in our Gospel readings this morning, Jesus raises the same concerns. Our reading this morning comes towards the end of a long series of teaching that begins in Chapter 5 of Matthew, with the Sermon on the Mount and continues until the end of Chapter 7. The teachings are about how to obtain the Kingdom of Heaven and they cover a variety of does and don’ts for the Christian life. In our reading this morning, found at the beginning of Chapter 7. In this passage, Jesus tells us not to judge, lest we be judged and in the next breath, gives us an example of pulling the log out of our own eye before pointing out the speck of dust in anothers.
Here we see a spirit of judgment being used in the same context as a lack of self examination. We are instructed not only not to judge, lest we be judged- but also are instructed that we should not judge the small speck in our brothers eye when we have a log in our own eye. A couple of words about this. First off, a word about judgment. Judging is not the same as discernment. We are called to be discerning, as Paul states in his Letter to the Phillipians, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ…”
So what is the difference? Judgment implies condemning. Judgment implies a power differential- where one person is criticizing another and condemning them as a person. It implies an ego trip for the judger- one is I boosting oneself up at another’s expense. An example of this would be the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee judges the tax collector in his prayer, “I’m so thankful I am not like this other guy because I pray and fast…” The pharisee is boosting his own ego up while condemning another. Jesus condemns this behavior, saying the tax collector, who was humble and repentant, went away justified while the pharisee was not.
Discernment is our cognitive ability to make decisions on what is good and bad for ourselves. It is also the ability to see what is best for another without condemning them. We can all discern that lying is bad. Discernment implies helping another to see the harm without condemning them as an evil person.
We see a lot of judging in our political arenas right now. People are judging the overall character of others based on who they voted for (or will vote for), what their opinions of the protests and riots are and a host of other things. BUt what we need to see, as Christians, is that we can be discerning and disagree with other people’s choices without condemning them as individuals. We are to see that all people are God’s good creation.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we say “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The idea is that we will be forgiven to the measure we forgive others. The same principle is at work when Jesus says “Judge not, lest you be judged.” The statement does not mean that by avoiding judging others we will utterly avoid any judgment on our own sins. But it is a warning that if we are condemning towards others, without self examination and repentance, our own judgment before God will be harsher because we have not shown compassion, mercy, and charity.
We see this in the story of the debtor who begged his master for mercy on his great debt. The master extends forgiveness, but then the forgiven servant goes out and harshly treats a fellow servant who owed him money. When the master hears what the servant has done, he is thrown into prison because he didn’t show mercy. When we show charity, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion to those around us and do not judge them- we open ourselves up to God’s mercy and charity towards us. The measure we give is the measure we will receive.
Finally, Jesus teaches us to carefully examine our own conscience and to judge ourselves. Rather than worrying about trivial sins of others and judging them, we need to look at our own failings and fix them. St. John Crystostom addresses how judging ourselves is for our own spiritual benefit, while judging others is to our detriment.
You who are so spiteful as to see even the little faulty details in others, how have you become so careless with your own affairs that you avoid your own major faults? “First remove the plank from your eye.” You see that Jesus does not forbid judging but commands that one first remove the plank from one’s own eye. One may then set right the issues relating to others. For each person knows his own affairs better than others know them. And each one sees major faults easier than smaller ones. And each one loves oneself more than one’s neighbor. So if you are really motivated by genuine concern, I urge you to show this concern for yourself first, because your own sin is both more certain and greater.
We certainly can show genuine concern for others by helping them to discern, not judge, their own failings, but before we endeavor to do this- we need to examine ourselves critically, repent, and work on our own sins. If we cannot see our own sin, how can we possibly be ready to genuinely and lovingly help others to see their sin? This is why many of the great confessors of the Church have lived humble lives of self reflection and repentance. It is why many of them have been given a strong gift of discernment of others' sins- because they are constantly searching their own heart and repenting.
As we move towards the presanctified gifts this morning, let us examine our own hearts and entreat God for forgiveness. Let us repent of judging others and entreat God to forgive us for condemning our fellow creations. And let us endeavor in the days and weeks ahead to remind ourselves to constantly be examining our own hearts and to avoid judging others. Rather, let us, in the words of St. Ephraim, seek a “spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love.”
Glory to Jesus Christ, Glory forever!
- Deacon Kevin HaanSaturday June 20, 2020
The title of this morning’s homily is, “What is the Purpose of the Church?” From the outset, this title is too big of a question for a short homily. It could easily be a series of homilies or even a Ph. D dissertation. It is a BIG question. In fact I can’t possibly explore the depth of this in a few minutes, however, our Scripture readings this morning give us insights into a couple of facets of the reason the Church exists.
Last week, I spoke about the liturgical season we have been in the past two, now three weeks. It is a transition from the Paschal season to Pentecost. Last Sunday was the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit came upon believers to equip them for ministry to the world. This, of course, is one of the primary reasons for the existence of the Church- to spread the good news of salvation. Indeed, the Great Commission itself tells us of one of the primary reasons for the Church’s existence: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Here we see that the reason for the Church is to spread the Gospel, to administer sacraments (baptism), and equipping the new believers- which in both ancient and modern times takes place in the catechumenate. From the Great Commision then, we see that one of the primary purposes of the Church is to evangelize, administer sacraments such as baptism, and prepare converts for life in the faith.
Evangelism, however, is also accomplished in other ways. Consider this morning’s gospel reading. The first part is about basic human compassion and sacrifice for those around us. Jesus says, “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.” The point is to give of ourselves freely to those in need. We are to offer to help others freely because they are God’s good creation. This flies in the face of what society teaches us. Our world teaches us to value material items, it carefully trains us to be materialistic.
The whole field of advertising is designed to get you to desire a product you may not need or want. Our consumer society leads us to desire more and more- we have, as economists say, “unlimited wants”. Our desires lead to greed and greed is the enemy of human compassion to those in genuine need. Jesus uses the idea of giving over your cloak to show that even the things that you are currently using may be fair game. If we have a coat and someone isfreezing, can we offer it to them? This is easy in concept, but challenging to actually put into practice.
So what does this have to do with evangelism? One is reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow, a psychologist, argued that there are stages of needs that humans have. Basic needs need to be met in order for the person to advance to a higher state. We see this in education. If the base need of hunger is not met, a student can’t focus enough to learn. Thus the advent of food programs. Likewise, meeting people’s basic needs is the first step to their salvation. Interestingly enough, I founda statement from the Salvation Army to this effect, “At the Salvation Army - Fox Cities, we know that feeding the person is the first step before you can feed the soul.” Evangelism includes meeting people’s basic needs. Needs met opens the heart to the message of the Gospel.
While this passage is specifically about giving material things to those who are in need of physical / material help, the principles are applicable to other areas beyond the material. Can we freely offer a listening ear, our compassion, kindness, and empathy to those in need? Humanity has more than material needs, although those are the most basic that we should seek to help others with. Often giving of our time and emotional self is a challenge. Like physical needs, meeting emotional needs is also a doorway to being able to share the faith.
But then Jesus offers perhaps a harder challenge: “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” This is easy to gloss over, but if you think about it, this is highly counter-cultural. The world doesn’ teach us to love our enemies- it teaches us to hate them and not only to hate them, but to seek revenge, to get “even”. The world is full of Hatfields and McCoys- people who take a dispute and escalate it until it reaches grand scales and massive carnage. We are taught to vilify, gossip, and undermine our enemies.
If you still doubt me, consider our politics these days. Each side demonizes the other. There is never any good on the other side- they never have a valid point. OUr politics have become simple. If you don’t share my viewpoint you are evil, a Nazi, a Commie, racist, an extremist, hack, any number of phobes, the list goes on.... The generalization and stereotyping is overused by both sides to almost become meaningless- except that the levels of malice are so great it is nauseating. It is reaching the point that words, on both sides, are spurring people to evil actions against those they choose to neither understand or see as human beings.
God has another way. He calls us to have compassion on our enemies. To pray for them. To love them. Love doesn’t always mean agreement. But it does mean having compassion and looking out for the best interest of others. An acquaintance of mine once defined loves as “authentic concern for the legitimate interests of others.” I like this definition. It doesn’t call for overly emotional love, it doesn’t call for a false face. It calls for genuine compassion and looking out for our fellow men and women.
This is what we are called to and it is very difficult to achieve when the approach is not reciprocated. It is difficult to love those who vilify us, attack us at work, undermine us, gossip against us.... But this is exactly what Christ calls us to do when he tells us to turn the other cheek.
Returning to evangelism... what would be the impact if Christians lived this out. What if we balanced our steadfast beliefs with genuine love. Many Christians are openly hostile to those who have different lifestyles or have made life choices that are counter to what we believe God has called us to. But what if we, as Christians, demonstrated genuine compassion rather than non-stop criticism. What if we refused to be bated by those who hate us and attack us and instead offer a kind word. Would it change people’s perceptions of us? Would some be intrigued?
We have been talking this morning about the purpose of the Church. We have talked about evangelism, sacraments, and equipping of new believers as some of those reasons we exist as a body. There is one more from our passage I’d like to address. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, writes,“I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine.”
Another reason we exist is to equip each other, to encourage the use of all our spiritual gifts on behalf of the community and the world, but also to encourage each other. If we are to live sacrificially for the world, if we are to seek to live a holy life, if we seek to love those who do us harm- we will need support. No one, save Christ himself, can do this on their own. We need each other for mutual support and encouragement. When we are frustrated with those who hate us, we need someone to remind us what our end goals are.
When we struggle with sin, psychological stresses, or other troubles in our lives- we need words of compassion and support. This is why meeting together is so important. We cannot succeed in living the faith in isolation. Even the monks of the desert needed fellowship on occasion. We, living in a secular, hostile world, need it all the more. BUt glory to Jesus Christ, who gave us his spirit and established his church for just this reason.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Deacon Kevin Haan, from his Homily on Saturday, June 13