Sunday, July 06, 2008

Trust in God and In His Created Gifts to Us

Sunday, July 6, 2008: 3rd SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST. Today's commemorated feasts and saints: Ven. Sisoës the Great (429). Ven. Sisoës, Schema-monk, of the Kiev Caves (Far Caves—13th c.). Uncovering of the Relics of Holy Princess Juliana Ol'shánskaya (16th c.). Martyrs Marinus and Martha, and their child

The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.
Whenever we turn to the Scriptures we need to be cautious least, even with the best of intentions, we read back our own experience into the text. This is certainly the temptation that we face when we are confronted with Jesus' very direct words in this morning's reading from the Gospel of St Matthew. For the time being let me leave aside the first verses of the passage. Though I'll come back to them, I am mindful of St John Chrysostom's comment on the words, "The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!" Chrysostom (The Gospel of St Matthew, Homily 20) says that this verse is obscure, hard to understand.

In his own homily, rather than dealing with these words directly, John follows the example of Jesus Who teaches about those "things which are more within the reach of our senses." Where a moment ago, "He had spoken of the mind as enslaved and brought into captivity," now he speaks about "things outward . . . lying before men's eyes, that by these the others also might reach their understanding." So, for example, "just as when the eyes are blinded, most of the energy of the other members is gone, their light being quenched; so also when the mind is depraved, your life will be filled with countless evils . . . . For as he that destroys the fountain, dries up also the river, so he who has quenched the understanding has confounded all his doings in this life. Wherefore He says, 'If the light that is in you be darkness, how great is the darkness?' For when . . . the general is taken prisoner what sort of hope will there be, . . . , for those that are under command?"

The old gods have been driven out of our awareness. But this exorcism was not performed in the Name of Jesus Christ but by in our own name. We no longer believe in the old gods not because we are Christians who trust in Christ, but because we have an almost childlike confidence in our own scientific knowledge. It is easy for us to forget, if we ever even knew, that the various "masters" to whom Jesus refers were in the ancient world all associated with the old gods that we no longer acknowledge. Mammon (money), biological life, food, drink, all had their own gods who were responsible for them. And so Jesus referring back to the many masters that compete for human attention He says that "after all these things the Gentiles seek."

The counsel being offered by Jesus is not a hostility to the body or the legitimate needs of the body. Nor is He condemning wealth as such. Think for example there is the Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-15) who was praised for knowing how to use money. In that parable, where by the way Jesus reminds us we cannot serve two masters (v. 13 ). And it is here that we get a sense of what we are being told about our relationship with not only money but the good things of creation. Jesus tells us:

"And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man's, who will give you what is your own?" (vv. 9-12)
It is not that we ought not to have money, or that we ought not to take pleasure and enjoyment from the creation. It is rather that our use of money and the creation should be "faithful." What we have needs to be at service first of our relationship with the Most Holy Trinity. Creation and our use of the creation, is meant to draw us ever closer to God. Think here of the experience of a sunset, the ocean, or the smile on a new born child face. All of these can inspire in us a sense of awe at the beauty of creation. And it is that experience of awe that opens us up to a deeper faith in God.

Creation is, in its own way, a sacrament of God's love for us. To borrow from St Isaac the Syrian, "In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the One who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised." What else does the Incarnation tell us, but that creation is taken up, "swallowed up" in Isaac's phrase, by the unbounded love of God?

For the Gentiles of Jesus time, if they had any relationship with the material world at all, it was either exploitation or terror. Absent from their relationship was any sense of love and mercy. In the ancient world, one sacrifices to the gods not out of love, but in the hope of bending the gods to human will. And so we are told we cannot serve "two masters." To do so invariable we lead to "hate the one and love the other, or else . . . be loyal to the one and despise the other." And how can it be otherwise? Apart from the heart that knows creation as a divine gift "swallowed up in the great mystery" of divine love and mercy, the material world—for all its delights—is a journey to death that travels along the path of decay and disappointment. It is only the echo of the biblical witness that keeps alive for many in our culture any warm feelings for the material world. But if creation is not a gift what else is it but that which binds and limits me? What else is it but a source of frustration and disappointment?

We can now return to the initial verses of the this morning's Gospel: 'The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!"

Generally in the fathers the word we translate as "mind," nous, is literally the "eye of the heart." For simplicity we probably would do better to translate nous as "heart." But not heart in the emotional sense, but the biblical sense—the center of the human person and out of which all of our thoughts, feelings and actions arise.

So, returning to the Gospel, the darkness that Jesus refers to is to a darkened heart, a heart that does not trust in God or the gift of His creation. If my heart is dark, if there is nothing of the divine light in my heart, how deep is that darkness. But if your heart is filled with light, then (like the saints), you will shine with divine light. Jesus is setting up a contrast between a heart darkened by sin, on the one hand, and of a heart filled with divine light on the other. This really is the common human struggle, between a heart filled with light and a heart not simply shrouded in darkness, but that has become all darkness. And it is in terms of this struggle, one that we can recognize in ourselves, that we read the rest of the Gospel.

To rise out of the darkness we need to avoid two extremes. We must, on the one hand, not worship the creation as if it were our god. This is the sin of the Gentiles St Paul says in Romans (1.18-25):

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, 25 who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
But, on the other hand, we cannot in our desire to cling to God alone dishonor Him by denying not only our place in creation, but the delights and joys that He give us in creation. The creation is, after all, God's gift to us from the beginning.

If I am to trust God, if I am have faith and confidence in Him and stand in right relationship to Him and the creation, I need to have not only a sense of thankfulness to God for all that He has given me but also a sense of my own place in that creation. Finding the right balance in this is a lifelong task since as I change and grow that balance will necessarily change with me. I think though the right tone is expressed in the Akathist "Glory to God for All Things."

Composed by Protopresbyter Gregory Petrov shortly before his death in a Nazis prison camp in 1940 it is a meditation on the words of St John Chrysostom as he was dying in exile. Taking its title from Chrysostom's meditation it is a song of praise from amidst the most terrible sufferings. It is also an extended praise of God for the mercy and love He pours out on us in creation.

The Akthaist begins and ends with these words:

Everlasting King, Thy will for our salvation is full of power. Thy right arm controls the whole course of human life. We give Thee thanks for all Thy mercies, seen and unseen. For eternal life, for the heavenly joys of the Kingdom which is to be. Grant mercy to us who sing Thy praise, both now and in the time to come. Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age.
I was born a weak, defenceless child, but Thine angel spread his wings over my cradle to defend me. From birth until now Thy love has illumined my path, and has wondrously guided me towards the light of eternity; from birth until now the generous gifts of Thy providence have been marvelously showered upon me. I give Thee thanks, with all who have come to know Thee, who call upon Thy name.
Glory to Thee for calling me into being
Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe
Glory to Thee, spreading out before me heaven and earth
Like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sigh of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life's journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age.
The challenge that the Gospel puts before us is to thank God for all things—to never allow our hearts to become darkened by a lack of trust in God. Part and parcel of that trust in God, is a trust in Him of His creation. To meet this challenge let us give glory to God for things, for to God belongs all glory, honor and worship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever and ever. Amen.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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