Forgiveness Sunday

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
The most important Element in our Life
Forgiveness Sunday
14 February, 2010
Romans 13:11-14:4 ; Matthew 6:14-21


[This audio file has been edited since audio and written styles are not the same but very different ways of communication.]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Our Saviour says to us this morning that the extension and the explanation of the central theme of the “Our Father” is that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. The radical forgiveness in this God-given prayer affects and is affected by all the petitions that surround it. Forgiveness for the Orthodox Christian is not an option. Forgiveness is the centre of our life. It is the most practical way of living out the love of God. Forgiveness is the most important element in our life.

It is difficult for us to remember this. We have ironic ways of doing exactly what the Lord has just said not to do. The Lord says to us : “'Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven'”. This treasure in heaven involves loving the Lord first and foremost above everything, and allowing the Lord in His love to heal everything in our lives. It is concerned with putting everything in the correct perspective in our lives, into the correct order in our lives. In fact, ultimately, it means that we are allowing the Lord to make us into the persons He created us to be in the first place.

Because we are so poisoned with and enslaved to fear, we have strange ways of holding on to “pet” fears. In the course of the pains in our lives, we become accustomed to holding on to pet fears which are also connected to “pet” grudges, and “pet” resentments. They can very often burrow themselves so deeply into our hearts that we do not even know that they are there. We wonder why we snap at someone unexpectedly or react grumpily to someone unexpectedly when there is no particular cause. We wonder why we behave strangely (and other people wonder why we behave strangely, too). If we have these characteristics and these strange little quirks about us, it is a good thing to start looking into the interior of our hearts, and to ask the Lord to shine the light of His love into those dark corners of our hearts. Something must be hiding there that is producing these strange reactions : sudden anger, sudden explosions, and so forth. It is weird how we hold on to these things, but we do.

We have a dangerous tendency to hold on to things that are dark like these. The particular strangeness about it is that we hold on to these fears because they are familiar, and we are accustomed to them. In fact, we are used to being a slave to them, although we do not want to admit it. Thus, we go on and on in our lives being afraid of what might happen if we let go of them, and let the Lord heal us so that we would be free of them. We are afraid of what comes with this freedom. We human beings really are very strange. We have such a wonderful, free gift from the Lord of love and freedom, but we are so often inexplicably reluctant to reach out and receive it. Sometimes we can try to be “in control” as we try to take only a little bit here, and a little bit there (some part of it that we feel we can digest at the present time). Because we are irrationally afraid, we do not simply respond to Him : “Lord, here I am”.

I am saying that it is important to pay attention to this characteristic about ourselves, because if we are holding on to these fears, then the ability to forgive is going to be severely limited. Forgiveness is crucially important. Our society talks about forgiveness, but society does not know the first thing about what real forgiveness is. Most people will say : “Oh, forget about it ; let it go ; get over it ; ignore it ; put it away”, and things such as that. These are very glib and very easy things to say. Who of us (and certainly not me) can forgive by simply putting the pain, the anger, the grudge aside. The result of putting it to the side like that means that I stick it into a dark place in my heart, into some catch-all cupboard. Some older persons will recall the infamous and over-stuffed hall-closet of Fibber McGee. This, however, is worse than the Fibber closet, because this closet is really stinky, and its atmosphere is poisonous. I hide the anger, resentment and fear in there, as I try to pretend that what troubles me does not exist anymore. I have not done anything to whatever it is except to put it there. In my own experience in life, every time I have put things into the dark, stinky parts of the heart (which I, myself, and not the Lord have created), these things sit there, fester, turn around and around, get bigger and bigger, and stretch out tentacles. This is what happens when we do what people popularly and very mistakenly think is to forgive. To ignore is not to forgive. To pretend it does not exist is not to forgive.

The Lord’s way to forgive (and it is the only life-giving way) is to face whatever it is straight on. The fact that someone said to me the most horrible, insulting, irritating thing that I ever heard in my life, and which produced great hurt and turmoil in my heart, is something that I may not hide from and ignore if I want to live in the life-giving context of the Lord’s words today. I have to be prepared to pray for that person, saying repeatedly : “Lord, have mercy”. Archimandrite Sophrony of Essex rightly says that this very simple prayer encompasses the whole Gospel in those little words. Saying : “Lord, have mercy” over and over and over again for the person who has so hurt me, heals my heart. I am asking the Lord, in His love, to be between us in His love, to intervene and apply His love to the other person. This has the effect on me of healing my heart because I am praying for the other person. Because I am praying that the Lord be present in His mercy and in His love, and that He bring healing to the other person, that is what brings healing to my heart. Once I start to pray for the other person, the anger, the bitterness, the sorrow and the pain begin to be healed, moderated, and actually neutralised by the same love of the same Lord, so that I come back to my normal self. At least on my part I can have a normal disposition towards the other person, who may not yet have come to the ability to forgive or change his or her opinion of me.

As angry as I may be in my response to someone’s very hard-hearted, pointed, nasty-sounding remarks, there often can be a certain amount of truth in what is being said, about which the Lord can bring a change in my heart. However, it is not so much for us to be looking for what might be true in someone else’s rebuke – it is more that we allow the Lord to show us, and to straighten it out, Himself.

Forgiveness is not an option. It is the centre of our life. If we look at everything that our Saviour does in the Holy Gospel, it is related precisely to this forgiveness, beginning with the Incarnation itself. If we doubt His readiness to forgive us, then why, for instance, are we paying so much attention to Saint Mary of Egypt ? We pay attention to Saint Mary of Egypt because her repentance was so great. The Lord’s forgiveness of her was so great that it gives us hope that in our messes He will do the same for us. However, we, like Mary, have to turn about. We have to turn away from fear, and let go of fear. We have to turn away from these grudges, and other things that are so distorted and poisonous. We have to let them go, and put them in the Lord’s hands saying : “Take it away, Lord”. We have to allow Him to heal us.

I am particularly grateful to be able to be here on this particular day yet again this year, because this day is the putting into practice of this forgiveness. I am also grateful because since the last time I was here, this community has given birth to a way of touching the lives of people in n in a very concrete and practical way. This way has already received approbation by people that I have been talking to who are not of this parish. The love of the Lord is not expressed merely by talking and writing. The love of the Lord must be acted upon, worked, and done. Insofar as we you have been able to participate in developing this presence in the centre and the heart of n, you have begun to meet the very practical needs of people in a practical way ; you are, in fact, living out in this necessary and practical way the love of the Lord.

In the hymns of last evening in particular, we were paying attention to the departure of Adam and Eve from Paradise. It is important to pay attention to the fact that God did not kick them out of Paradise. It is more accurate to say that they talked themselves out of Paradise. If we pay attention to the conversation between Adam and Eve and the Lord after they listened to the lies of the father-of-lies, we can see how quickly the poison worked in them. The poison was instantaneous and deadly. Before that, they had a perfect communion with the Lord. They understood instinctively what the Lord willed, and what is life-giving. They participated with Him and in Him in Creation, and the giving of life in Creation. Having disobeyed because they accepted the lie, they immediately knew fear. Immediately they began to deceive themselves. They tried to hide from God (although no-one can ever hide from God). Then, when the Lord asked them direct questions, they started to make excuses, and blame each other. It is obvious to us as we read all this that the poison worked instantly. The very things that we still do to this day, they instantly did. It is important for us to understand how they talked themselves out of Paradise. Not for a moment did they say : “Forgive me. I am sorry”. They forgot. After the lie, forgetfulness is the next main weapon of Big Red.

Lies, suspicion, deception, and forgetfulness. How many times did I say to my parents when I was embarrassed about being corrected : “I forgot”. I said that many times. I got sore spots (in those days you got sore spots) because I was forgetting, but it did not help very much in the remembering department. Even in my advancing years, this is still a problem.

It is essential that we be mindful of and remembering the love of the Lord. It is crucial that we hold onto the Lord’s love, because no matter how far I try to run away or hide, I can never escape His love (see Psalm 138:9, 10). His love is what enables me even to exist. I exist only because of His love. His love is life-giving. My existence is my opportunity to be alive with Him eternally. I have had many conversations (and I am certain you have had them, too) in which people say : “How can the Lord let this go on : all this death, destruction, war, theft, starvation, people being killed in all sorts of horrible ways, people suffering intensely. Why does the Lord let it continue on ?” This question is unanswerable — except that, in the context of the whole world’s brokenness, there is still enough opportunity for people to find the Lord. That is perhaps why He has not yet called everything to a halt. There are still many people who are calling on the Name of the Lord, people who have not bent the knee to Big Red (see the Prophet Elias in 3 Kingdoms 19:18). Therefore, the Lord prolongs the opportunity for others to find their way. The Prophet Elias helped and encouraged other people to find their way to true worship of the true Lord. That is our responsibility.

In Egypt, it is precisely this way. The persecution of Christians in Egypt is intensifying. It is not decreasing. People are dying more and more often in Egypt now because they are believers. It is a great suffering. Yet the Egyptians are not “taking it lying down”. The last I heard, there are societies of Christians who understand that it does not make any difference what they do about being obedient to the state, or not. Simply because they are Christians, they are at risk. Therefore, they establish societies designed specifically to bring the Muslims to Christ, and they do it with great success. There are web-sites, and all sorts of amazing things and tools available. That is one example of why the Lord allows things yet to continue on.

There are still people who are open to receive the Lord. It is up to you and to me to be available to them in love. If this availability is only through “Sandwich Saturday”, then that is not a small thing in itself amongst all the other benefits being done at Saint Maria’s. It is not only the sandwiches. It is the encounter in love that is significant to people who are suffering, rejected, and thrown out as they are. When we are paying attention to people who are homeless and rejected, do not forget that our whole society (polite as it is) feels the same way about us as it does about these outcast people.

We Orthodox Christians are not understood by our society. The society in the midst of which we subsist is completely preoccupied with its cozy, comfortable myths and illusions about the benefits of building and living in mammoth houses. We deceive ourselves into presuming that everyone is to be rich, and that there are plenty of well-paying jobs available to all who want them. Our self-deceiving society pretends to have a wonderful life ; but in fact, this phantasy is built on the backs of many thousands of poor people. Indeed, when the biggest city in our country has 40,000 people with no place to live in (the last I heard), then we are obviously living in a big illusion and delusion. We are just the same as the rich man who ignored the poor Lazarus. Because of this contrast between the way of the Lord’s love and the way of our secular society, we should not expect to be understood and immediately well accepted. To the people of this secular society, we Orthodox Christians are very strange indeed. For instance, we actually attempt to live out Christ’s radical forgiveness, even while we are immersed in an atmosphere of retribution, an atmosphere in which everyone seems to want to lock up everyone else for years and years, and to “throw the book” at everyone. This attitude is the complete opposite of the way of Christ. It is not a surprise that we are not understood.

When you are doing what you are doing here, you are precisely in harmony with what the Orthodox Church has historically done everywhere when she has been free to be herself. Where do hospitals come from ? From the earliest days of Christian life, it was early martyrs who established the first hospitals. Who are our most famous unmercenary, wonder-working physicians ? Men and women of the first four centuries. This is our characteristic. There are many more that followed Saint Panteleimon and his friends (the great, famous unmercenaries). In the Soviet days of Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Byelorus, and other places, everything was supposedly provided by the State. Then the Communist State collapsed. With the renewal of a relatively free Orthodox life since 1988, the first thing that happened was a two-pronged movement. First, there was a renewal of the Temples in which to worship the Lord. Second, there was the immediate addressing of the needs of the poor. Very shortly after perestroika (re-structuring), I was taken to Moscow where I met a priest who was a chaplain in a Moscow hospital. This hospital was populated by Orthodox volunteers and nurses who had already established a chapel in the hospital, and who were praying there. They were holistic, caring for everything about the people who were sick.

At the same time, this priest had organised a large orphanage. In a Christian context, an orphanage in that society is important, because the State there (to this day) takes in orphans, but then puts them out onto the street at the age of fifteen. This condemns them to the nastiest things that society can provide for them. Not many (in fact, very few) of those coming out of those orphanages onto the street at the age of fifteen are able to establish themselves in a life-giving way. They enter a very degraded way of life because every imaginable predator is waiting at the doorstep of these orphanages. On the other hand, the Christian orphanages receive these children, and keep them after the age of fifteen until they become adults. They educate them properly ; they clothe them properly ; they teach them to read and write ; and they teach them a trade or a skill so they can do something when they come out of school by which to support themselves. In Russia, in the diocese of Orel, there is a priest and his wife who had adopted fifty children (at the last count). Then they had three children of their own. At the same time that they adopted all these children, they also welcomed into their homes twenty-five (it has to be more by now) senior citizens with disabilities. They welcomed all these homeless, sick grandmothers and grandfathers into their conglomerate. This family has become a village by this time.

Last autumn when I was in Ukraine, I encountered two monasteries : one for men and one for women. The abbot and the abbess used to be married to each other, but at some point they decided that they were going to live as monks. In the end they became the leaders of these two communities which are about 25 km apart. At present, the women’s monastery had about 140 nuns who are all squashed into a small territory. The men’s monastery has ninety monks, and they have 200 hectares. The men’s monastery is helping the women’s monastery with food, and the women’s monastery is helping the men’s monastery with the orphanage that the abbot has established because he, himself, had by this time adopted 250 children. This is in the area of the border with Romania, Moldova and Bessarabia. The children live in beautiful buildings with four to seven children in a room. Their ages range from infancy to twenty (they have started to marry them off by this time). Some have very challenging disabilities. The nuns come, the monks come, and the children call them “Mama” and “Papa” (of course, the abbot is the main Papa). These monks and nuns are providing a family for these children which they could not otherwise have had. They also have medical possibilities that they could never have had otherwise. The abbot was declared to be an official hero in Ukraine because he has done all this. It was done with no State help. It was all done by the people supporting this monastery and this orphanage. I am giving you only a few examples (there is much more I could say), because this is simply how Christians would normally behave.

Doing what you are doing here in this city is only normal Christian behaviour. No-one would ever get away with adopting 250 (or even fifty) children here in Canada. You are doing what the Lord gives you to do according to your gifts, and you are practising His love, and giving life and hope to others. May they, with us, glorify the All-Holy Trinity : the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.