Homily from St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Oct. 25, 7530 (Nov. 7, 2021 on the civil calendar).
May our reading for this 22nd week after Pentecost, the parable of Lazarus and the Beggar, have special meaning for us.
First, the Church Fathers in interpreting this Parable remind us of the seriousness of what we do here and now in our life on earth in God’s Creation. For each day, our life is a gift from God, and any belongings we have are a gift from Him.
This upends the false stereotype today of cultural Marxists (capitalist or communist) and other atheists that Christianity is concerned only with the after-life. For in fact, it is how we live our life each moment here and now that works toward our salvation or damnation.
How we live our life needs to involve a life of alms-giving, the more excellent way of love as the Apostle Paul called it, and St. Paul was not praising his own strength for as the Protestant Henry Drummond noted in his famous essay “The Greatest Thing in the World” on I Corinthians 13, when we first meet the apostle Paul, before Jesus Christ appeared to him, his hands are stained with blood — from his complicity in the killing of St. Stephen and persecution of Christians.
When we love our neighbor as ourself, and we love our God with all our heart and all our soul and with all our mind, then we love our neighbor as Jesus Christ, for we are already loving God with all our self, we are loving God through our self so to speak. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ asked us, who was the neighbor? And it was the Good Samaritan. And who is the Good Samaritan a type of but Jesus Christ. So again we love our neighbor as Jesus Christ. The famous verses in Matthew 25 indicate this as well. For inasmuch as we have helped the least of these, His brethren, fed them and gave them drink when they were hungry and thirsty, naked and clothed them, and came to them when they were sick or in prison, we have done so to Him.
Brothers and sisters, how far we have to go as Christians, how far we have to go as a mission, to fulfill these charges given us by our Master, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. How tempting it is to be what the Apostle Paul derided as men-pleasers, attending to the small needs of the great and mighty to impress them and further our careers and to flatter ourselves. How often we sustain ourselves in comfort and forgot about those others truly in need, spending our money on things that are not true needs or worrying about our future needs instead of sharing our gifts from the Lord. Yea, whatever we have is more than a gift from the Lord, it is like our lives also in a sense a loan from the Lord. How are we using it? And how much do we spend money on interest for credit and loans of all kinds, and thus engage in usury from the receiving side, instead of balancing our books with God through love of our neighbor.
We do not always think of these things because we are living on borrowed capital especially in America. On a practical level a friend who is an expert in fundraising told me this week that the wealthy in their families go through their wealth in three generations, unless they are super-rich. That is, a family might have say ten million dollars but it will be gone in three generations. In America we have had a history of a strong middle class that has been the most prosperous and most extensive in the history of the world. Yet we have come up on our three generations or more since the so-called greatest generation of the Great Depression and World War II and the so-called silent generation who came of age in the Korean War era in the early Cold War.
There is an evangelical Protestant movie series called God’s Not Dead, a new episode of which came out recently, called God’s Not Dead: We the People. The neopagan modern philosopher Nietzsche infamously proclaimed that God is dead, to which a wag claimed to quote God’s response, that Nietzsche is dead. Orthodox Christians may say that God was dead, in the Crucifixion, but He is Risen. That is the good news we share with the world.
Yet in that new movie installment, there is a scene in which the key character Pastor Dave is very sad sitting in his office about the state of America, and looks at a photo of his dead friend, a Nigerian missionary. Suddenly Pastor Dave finds himself in a dream-like conversation with that friend, who tells him that America has been given much by God, and from her much is expected. It is clear in the movie that America has not lived up to that obligation. Yet that becomes a call to action for Pastor Dave to do something to help.
Likewise we as Orthodox Christians should find our bugle call to action in the Parable of Lazarus and the Beggar. In fact, such is the state of the rich man who lived for his comfort that as St. John Chrysostom points out in his commentary on the parable, his name is not even known to us or to God. The rich man during his life on earth objectified himself through his death and became in effect a non-person. In the after life a chasm separates him from the beggar whose poverty he had ignored on earth. Truly as some have observed, when we help those in need, it is they who are really helping us out of the abyss of self-objectification that is spiritual death, which would turn us into an idol of ourself like King Midas being killed by being turned to gold.
We do know the name of Lazarus, and perhaps, it has been pointed out, this is not really a parable so much as a vision of a real person in the afterlife, shared with us by Jesus Christ. This poor man’s faith was a real support unlike the riches of the wealthy man, which all left him at death. In the Orthodox tradition we are told that in the 40 days after death each of us will face the challenge of being examined for our unconfessed sins and our omissions in life, to determine in what state we will dwell before the Final Judgment. We pray for the dead, as the Church did yesterday on Demetrios Saturday, to ask our Lord Jesus Christ’s mercy for the departed. Only God knows the judgement faced by each of us after death at the particular judgment and then at the General Resurrection and Final Judgement. But the account of Lazarus the beggar and the Rich man shows us the seriousness with which we should take the charge of the Great Commandments and our duty to our neighbor. For our salvation occurs not alone but through the Church and in the sobornost of spiritual unity that in hidden but embodied ways connects each of us in both the grace and struggle of virtue, and the lying objectifications and idolatry of sin. May our Lord through the intercessions of His Most Holy Mother help us and give us good strength in our struggles against idolatry of comfort and apathy towards those in need.
As a mission, one central immediate way we can help others in these latter days is to support in all possible ways our building program, no matter how small or large we can donate our resources, for erecting a temple is a necessity to our outreach and evangelism. But also we must look daily for ways to share any wealth, however large or small, God has given us on loan with each day.
The new God’s Not Dead: We the People movie ends with a ringing declaration by Pastor Dave that this country belongs to “We the People.” But from an Orthodox Christian standpoint there is more than this. Our country belongs to God, like all countries, and like all Creation, and like all people. God is the source of our true freedom in voluntary service to Him. As our Church hymnology tells us: “Who is so Great a God as our God, Thou art the God Who Worketh wonders.” “O Lord of the powers have mercy on us, for in times of distress we have no other help but Thee.”
Pastor Dave in the movie is single pastor of a Protestant Church called St. Jude’s. Maybe in the next film he will convert to Orthodoxy and become an Orthodox monk or marry and ultimately become an Orthodox priest and bring his congregation with him. We can only hope there will be many more such conversions in real life. I will end with a small item of news I learned from Alexei Krindratch who runs Orthodox Church survey projects in North America. He said he found that a survey showed that parishes of our Synod, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), feature an incredibly high 70 percent rate of converts among her members, and also has seen measurable growth especially during the Covid pandemic, with Orthodox from other jurisdictions coming to ROCOR due to more open continuing services. He warns that the sample of converts in ROCOR is small and thus needs to be taken with grains of salt. But we in our mission are perhaps 95 percent converts. We know the appeal of traditional Russian Orthodoxy to Americans today. In giving a cup of cold water in Christ’s name, in feeding the hungry and ministering to the need in His name, we know that one of those desperate needs today is evangelism, and bringing more of our God’s sheep into His Church, for which we should give in all ways that we can with our efforts and resources until it even hurts in bright sorrow.
For redoubling our efforts to build a temple is a service to all in need in our community, and to ourselves as the neediest in supporting that evangelism, even while we also seek out all avenues for individual and community philanthropy, and in the process help to save our country while allowing love for our neighbors as Jesus Christ to lift us up as unworthy sinners. As the Prophet David said in Psalm 50, “restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation and uplift me with Thy free spirit.” Lord, may it be so. Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us, Amen.