Firm, and flexible.

Homily 398 – 37th after Pentecost (Forgiveness Sunday Expulsion from Paradise)
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
March 1, 2020
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.

Rabbi Manis Freidman tells the story, the true story, of the rabbi that was sent to visit the American Hostages in Iran back in the late 1970s.

Six of the 52 Americans held hostage were Jewish, and while they wouldn’t allow a US rabbi to visit, the leader of the Iranians, Ayatollah Khomeini, agreed to let a Mexican rabbi visit.

After some delay and debate, the rabbi, Chief Rabbi of Mexico Abraham Hershberg, visited, along with some other clergy. On Friday, the traditional Muslim prayers were said, in public, led by the Ayatollah. The visiting clergy were invited and placed on a platform – nearly a million people were in the streets.

When the time came for the people to kneel, and then prostrate, Rabbi Hershberg alone did not bow. A very dangerous move. One that everyone, including himself, placed his life at very much at risk.

The Ayatollah summoned the rabbi and demanded to know why he didn’t bow.

Rabbi Hershberg responded, “I said that I’m a Jew and not knowing the language of their prayers and to whom they are bowing, I could not join. He was surprised by the thinking but also seemed pleased with its sincerity. Sharing the stage with Khomeini made a very large impression on Iranian Jews and strengthened their morale.”

A few months later, a dusk to dawn curfew was announced in Tehran during the tumult of the revolution. This occurred during a time when Jews customarily leave their homes before daylight every morning to recite special prayers of repentance.

Khomeini issued a decree that Jews who carried their ritual prayer objects visibly would be allowed to leave their home at 4 am so they could say the prayers in the synagogue. The Jews of Iran attributed this bit of religious liberty to Rabbi Hershberg’s meeting with the Ayatollah, and the respect the Rabbi’s sincerity and honesty generated.

I’m telling this story as we enter the Great Fast as a note of encouragement, and a note of gentle chastisement. Perhaps sometimes as Orthodox Christians, we are embarrassed by our faith, or we just want to fit in with the world, and so we downplay our devotion to our faith and our piety.

However, the world still has a modicum of respect for those who hold, and stick to, strongly held beliefs – like not bowing to a god other than the True God. Offering incense to idols, as the Scriptures warn us over and over.

Not that this will engender our popularity in society – no, that isn’t what this is about. This is about giving up our status, our popularity, because of what we believe, and what we proclaim.

So, that is the warning – we will not win friends with our devotion to our faith. But, as a word of encouragement, it won’t be as bad as we think either. People may not like us, they may not want to be around us.

But they will respect us.

Our internal dialogue, however, is something different, because while we should stand firm in our faith and practice of piety, St. Paul on behalf of the Church reminds us that we should never use our practice of piety to cause stumbling to others.

Hospitality, we are reminded by the Church, is paramount. And this leads us to internal conflict. Should we be gracious recipients of what is offered to us, or should we be obedient to the fasting rules?

A couple of comments may be in order here. First off, the failure to fast is not a sin. It is, rather, something from which we don’t derive benefit if we don’t practice it.

Second, anything received in thanksgiving is acceptable for us – and if you want the backup for that position, I would direct you to the Epistle reading today from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, or from St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, Chapter 4, verses 4 and 5: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

Now, this does not provide carte blanche to seek out invitations to dinner from our non-Orthodox friends! If we do that, then we may need – no, do need – to take a very hard look at how we are viewing our faith in Christ.

If we take that task, it reveals to us something important about our faith.

And that’s what lent does – it reveals to us who we really are, by asking us to take the norms of the Church more strictly – to pay attention to them more closely.

The most important of which is self-focus, or more appropriately the lack of it. We are not to focus on ourselves but on others. That is what we heard last week in the description of the last judgment.

If we focus on others, and not on ourselves – even not on our piety – then we’ll be doing lent the right way.

We don’t concern ourselves with what others do or don’t do, but we keep our eyes on our own plate. If we in any way compare ourselves to others, we take our eyes off of Christ, who is our only true comparison.

Comparing ourselves to others can lead to despondency, or to prelest – spiritual delusion.

The Great Fast is a time of intensity, to be sure, but it doesn’t need to be a time of anxiety. Keep your focus on others – not to capitulate, or abandon faith or worship idols.

But in showing the love of Christ to the image that is within them.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Glory to Jesus Christ!