Effort matters.

Homily 350 – Cheesefare The Expulsion of Adam from Paradise
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
March 10, 2019
Epistle: (112) – Romans 13:11-14:4
Gospel: (17) – Matthew 6:14-21

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

In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul writes to the Romans that we shouldn’t thing how to satisfy the flesh and its lusts.

He speaks of not partaking in parties and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and lustful acts.

The English may not be helpful in understanding what is meant here. We hear the word “lust” and most of us immediately think of sexual attraction. Certainly, that is part, but not all, of the meaning.

The prayer of St. Epharim the Syrian, which we will begin tonight and say throughout lent, uses the phrase “lust of power.”

Lust is desire – lust is want. And what lent teaches us is that lust can – and should – be controlled.

Not easily – it doesn’t come naturally. But it is possible, and necessary.

By conforming ourselves to the disciplines of the Church, we constrain our desires. We learn that control is possible. Even for a day, even for an hour.

That’s enough to start. But not enough to finish.

Realistically, we should expect to improve. To do a bit more than in the past. With the idea that we can move into more grown-up ways.

Think about it – a child doesn’t control their desires or wants. That is a skill they learn, not in an instant, but over years – decades.

Instant only applies to gratification, and it doesn’t last. Give a child everything they want, and the only behavior that results is for them to want more.

Control the desire and they learn, slowly, that it’s okay do delay gratification, or even as they get older still that they can deny the desire completely. Yes, that growth and learning is sometimes punctuated with tantrums.

Growth still occurs, though. In the world of child development, that is called maturity.

Same in the world of spiritual development.

St. Paul alludes to another element of our discipline. Disciplines, even though taught as a singular norm by the Church, are highly personal things. The emphasis is not – absolutely not – on perfect compliance.

Consequently, we cannot – must not – evaluate others. It is impossible for us to know what the individual struggles of another person are, particularly if that person isn’t sharing the intimate details of their struggle with us.

St. Paul says – do not look down on anyone. Do not judge anyone.

The only person you can – and should – evaluate is yourself. No one else.

The church provides help for those areas in need of attention, through the spiritual fathers and mothers, and also through one’s confessor.

We should attend to our struggles and failures during lent, and allow the confessor to advise us on how strict or lenient we should be with ourselves.

And spoiler alert: our strictness and leniency is about our effort. Trying. Trying to do more than before.

Success, or failure, are irrelevant. This was the advice I was given by Archbishop Anastasios of Albania. Only faithfulness – effort – matters.

Over time – the effort increases. We have convinced ourselves that the Great Fast is to be taken seriously, and the others can be lessened without concern.

It is perhaps like going to the gym four days a week, but only really putting forth effort on one of those days.

Yet, in doing so, we lost the opportunity to continue our effort. To continue our growth.

The monastic practice for the first three days of lent is to eat nothing. At all. From Sunday evening vespers of forgiveness, until the liturgy of the presanctified on Wednesday, they take in no food.

Remaining days, they may eat perhaps one small meal, late in the day.

Now, I don’t do that – nor should any of us, in my view. If we look to the discipline of the Church, though, that is what is demanded.

For us, it is not a failure, but something we can strive for. Eventually. Taking little steps. Making a consistent, continual effort.

The Gospel adds a different dimension to this as well. We need to do this quietly. Personally. How difficult is it to keep our fast to ourselves?

Even when we don’t evaluate others, how many of us are tempted to proclaim to others that we are fasting?

But no – others, in the words of our Savior and Lord, shouldn’t even realize we’re fasting.

Again, looking at the monastics, they will accept what they are offered in the spirit of hospitality. They may or may not eat it – but they will accept it, graciously, and with genuine thanks and love. They don’t judge the person – far from it!

They are thankful.

This is how we lay up treasure for ourselves in heaven. We fast, making a stronger effort each time. We fail.

But we are faithful.

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