Repentance – fasting and prayer.

Homily 372 – 10th after Pentecost
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
August 25, 2019
Epistle: (131) 1 Corinthians 4:9-16
Gospel: (72) Matthew 17:14-23

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

Sometimes, the demons that are in us cannot be simply tossed away. Some require fasting and prayer.

The difficult ones, that is. The ones that go deep, the ones with strong attachments.

Which begs the question – what does fasting and prayer do? How does it work?

We have to start by saying we don’t know, other than God’s grace and by His Will and desire. But we do know bits and pieces.

Fasting teaches us that we do not have to indulge ourselves. It teaches us self-denial. We will practice fasting as long as we are in this body because the practice is never completed.

We can never hope to fully conquer our self-indulgent desires. Fasting, in a small subset of life, teaches us what it means to repent – to change.

When the message of the scripture is “Repent!”, that is what it means. Change from self-focus to focus on God.

In our time, that is a Herculean task. Every single aspect of our life in this society is seemingly self-focused. Seemingly every message we get is about self-satisfaction and self-gratification.

Now, more than ever, the message to all of us is “Repent.” And fasting is an important beginning point for repentance.

Christ also mentions prayer. Throughout the scripture, there are so many references to prayer. For me personally, it is necessary to remind myself what prayer is – what is the purpose? Why are we told to pray?

At first glance, it seems like God is telling us to pray because He seems to need it somehow. But that isn’t true at all. God needs nothing. God is everything.

Appeasing God isn’t the purpose of our prayer.

Prayer is, much like fasting, another way of taking our gaze from ourselves – our desires, our wants, our condition – and placing our attention on God.

Just as we saw last week, with our attention on Christ, and our complete focus on Him, we can come to Him even if it demands walking on something that can’t be walked on.

But when our attention returns to ourselves, and we lose the full attention to Christ, we falter, and we sink.

In prayer, God asks us to focus on Him. On His provision for us, on His care for us, on His love for us. We offer our thanksgiving to God, recognizing again that it is His provision and His love that keeps us alive.

Now – we may wonder about the ability of focus on God to effect change in others. To do so, though, would be to miss the point. We can’t effect change in others – God can, but we can’t.

The purpose of our prayer isn’t to compel God to act – that would be ridiculous. We can’t be arrogant enough to think we can compel God. Yet we try.

But what God asks is that in situations of difficulty – when the demons are trying to destroy us, or someone around us – is that we pray, and look at God, who then does something critical to our salvation. Essential to our salvation.

He shows us the infirmity, the demons, the imperfections within ourselves.

After the recent shootings in Dayton, Ohio, a dear friend and priest in our diocese, Fr. Silvu Bunta, was on a podcast talking about the shooting, and our response to it.

His comment, supported by the patristic and monastic witness, was that when we see the evil in others, we have to identify with it by locating the same evil in ourselves. Because that evil does exist within all of us – and it may not even be a matter of degree.

It may manifest differently – we don’t pull a gun and start killing. Perhaps we injure through hurtful words. Perhaps we practice shunning. Perhaps we create a toxic environment in which the object of our scorn cannot pursue salvation, or peace, or even life.

It remains true however that it manifests itself in us. That the battleline between good and evil, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, runs through the heart of each of us, always.

As for the other, God will deal with it. Perhaps with our assistance, even. Our focus remains on changing ourselves.

For it is only through changing ourselves that we change the world. And only by allowing our focus to be completely on our Lord that we are changed, and that we are used by Him.

We want to always look at the group and say “well, if they don’t change, then my change won’t do any good.” Not so fast, though.

We cannot compel change in someone else, either. God doesn’t compel our change, and God doesn’t expect us to change others.

I think some who preach on the sins of others are missing the very important point. They don’t see the sin, the evil, the death, within themselves.

Looking and focusing on the failures of others, in order to appear better ourselves, is exactly the critique of the Pharisee in the account of the publican and the Pharisee.

Acquire the Holy Spirit, St. Seraphim of Sarov tells us, and thousands around us will be saved.

Understanding the mechanics of this isn’t particularly important. Nor is it particularly difficult. Because when we remove the focus from ourselves and place it squarely and without distraction on God, the world becomes a better place.

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