This Sunday's Homily...

It was said that in his youth a man named John who lived on Cyprus had a dream in which a beautiful maiden named Compassion appeared to him and told him she was the eldest daughter of God.

As John grew, then married and had a family, the dream never left his mind. When he became a widower and then an ascetic it stayed with him. As popular acclaim required he serve as the Patriarch of Alexandria that dream followed him to his palace. And as Patriarch he made it his mission to give to many, to all, to people he did not know, and people far and wide, and by generosity express compassion and so serve God.

These acts were not always met with approval. The Church in Alexandria in the early 600’s was wealthy, prominent, and there were those who would keep the wealth intact. But Patriarch John understood something greater than the economy of those times, and ours as well, an economy based on acquiring and storing for ourselves. John understood that in God’s economy what was given away, what was shared, was what came back to you and that the glory of the Church was when she lived not for herself but for God and those outside her walls. It was that attitude that made John notable in his life, acclaimed in his service, and eventually glorified by the church where he is now known as St. John the Merciful.

And it’s this attitude that’s found in our Epistle and Gospel readings today. Our Orthodox faith teaches us that we truly own nothing in this world. All that we acquire in our time here is given to us by God, the source of all good things, and we are required to hold it in trust and use it for the glory of God and the benefit of all. At the end of time we will be asked to give an accounting of what we have been given and the basis of that accounting will not be in how much we acquired by how much we have shared.

We Orthodox often use the hammer of “tradition” against each other, arguing about what kind of music we have, what language we speak, how the Priest served, what kind of food we need to make, a million things we all think are tradition. But the truth is if you want to know the heart of Orthodoxy none of those things matter in any particular way at all. Jesus himself said it best we he urged those follow him to love God with all their heart and soul and mind and love their neighbor as themselves.

If you love God in this way, you will trust him for all your needs. If you love your neighbor this way you will understand that you find your own true life in living for others and all that you have, all that you are exists for the benefit of all. If you understand this you will have mastered the tradition of our faith in a way that people obsessed with rubrics and cultures and liturgics and who does what and who has the power will never know. Whatever they may gain they gain for only a short while but those whose lives sow bountifully into the lives of others for the sake of the love of God hold on to their treasures for all time.

It is said of St. John the Merciful that he commanded his coffin to be made but left unfinished and his grave to be partially dug. At various times during the year he instructed those in charge of making coffins and digging graves to approach him and say “Master, shall we complete the preparations for your death…?” In this way St. John reminded himself of what things truly matter in this life.

Perhaps something like that would be good for us as well. We should ponder our end not as some kind of exercise in morbid introspection but rather as a way to give our lives focus and meaning. The Psalmist asked of God, “Teach us to number our days so that we can increase in wisdom” and another has said “The shortness of life underscores the value of giving ourselves to the right things.”

If we did we would soon come to realize that we truly own nothing in this world, even the clothes they bury us in will one day turn to mulch. We would understand that everything we think we possess, including this church, is not our own and what matters is not what we hold close to ourselves but what we give away. And perhaps the most remarkable thing is that as we draw nearer to understanding this we become more free from the tyranny of life, more alive, more whole, more real, and more focused on the things that last. And we begin to know what it is to have eternal life.

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