The questions betray us.

Homily 494 – 5th GL
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
April 10, 2022
Epistle: (321-ctr) – Hebrews 9:11-14 and (208b) – Galatians 3:23-29
Gospel: (47) – Mark 10:32-45 and (33) – Luke 7:36-50
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

From time to time people ask about what is necessary to be OK with God. Particularly things like going to Church. How often should I go to Church, or go to Confession, or go to Communion in order to be OK with God?

The question gives away an underlying assumption. That assumption is that God acts based on our actions. That salvation is a transaction, and the individual wants to know God’s best price.

After all, that is the American way. Supply and demand. Free markets. Everything is a transaction. Even salvation.

What it betrays in us is our fundamental misunderstanding of salvation itself. Salvation is restoration – healing. Salvation has nothing to do with goods and services – nothing to do with any sort of transaction.

It is a bit confusing because we look at the Bible and sometimes refer to it as the Old Covenant or the New Covenant. And covenant connotes a contract – an agreement.

But that isn’t what the scriptures are – they are not covenants, they are testaments. They are like a one-way promise. Testaments as in “Last will and testament.” Here is what I’m giving you.

We can accept it, or reject it. But we can’t earn it.

Today we remember St. Mary of Egypt in our journey to Pascha. She is our image of repentance, in the extreme. She went to church exactly twice in her lifetime, that we know of. She took communion twice in her lifetime.

A bit more extreme than many of the desert saints, but still – the desert saints and hermits were not ones to attend church very much.

However, we need to point out a couple of things.

Just because they didn’t go to church doesn’t mean they didn’t pray. In fact, they were consumed by prayer. They abandoned the world so that they could devote themselves completely to prayer. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

That isn’t what most of us are doing instead of coming to Church if we are honest.

The prayer of the desert monks, St. Mary of Egypt included, was for repentance. It was for mercy. Not trying to earn salvation. They didn’t want to reject salvation. Maybe better said, they didn’t want to let their salvation slip through their fingers or get stolen away from them.

The life they lived away from church was not just austere. It was without anything. Some perhaps had an icon, some may have had a prayer book. Most of the time hermits did not live that life without many years of living in community, preparing themselves for that isolation.

Again, how many of us are choosing austerity over Church? Not many. We like to sleep in, perhaps get a coffee and read the paper over brunch. Or maybe we have some other obligation, typically about fun and enjoyment and entertainment.

Is entertainment and leisure our God? Is that what we worship? That argument can be made, I fear, even among Orthodox Christians. We are not immune.

So if Church, sacrifice, and self-denial is not earning us anything, then why do them? What is in it for us?

Brothers and sisters, that isn’t even close to the right question. That question betrays again our self-centeredness. Our (dare I say it) selfishness. What is in it for me?

Let’s put these pieces together. Salvation is ours, a free gift of God. It is free to us – but like the saying goes, that doesn’t mean it didn’t cost. Christ sacrificed His life, His self, He set aside divinity and offered His humanity.

And because He died, we can now become claimants on His will, His Testament.

These things – Church, prayer, fasting, almsgiving. They are not given for God. They are given for us. So that we can express our love for this amazing gift – the gift of existence! The gift of life! The gift of sonship! The gift of calling the Almighty God “Father.”

We accept these gifts two ways. The most important way is with our love. Love for God, love for one another. Love for, as we say at Pascha, even those that hate us.

The additional way – not alternative, but additional – is repentance. Change. Change from being selfish to being self-less. Change from acquiring and holding to offering and giving. Change from “what’s in it for me?” to “how can I share this with everyone?”

That is what St. Mary of Egypt was pursuing – not some sort of transaction. She was pursuing repentance. Out of the eyes of everyone – for forty-seven years.

She was told what to do by God – and she did it. Not for any reason other than her love and gratitude for what God did for her. Delivering her – saving her – from the life she had lived before.

We may say “God has not spoken to me.” But that would not be correct. God tells us what to do – clearly, unambiguously. We may not like what He tells us to do. But not liking it is a significant indication that we are still transactional in our approach.

We haven’t yet understood how to receive God’s most precious and glorious gift.

He told St. Mary to go across the Jordan, into the desert. He tells us to deny ourselves, kill our ego, and follow Him. Follow Him. That is, emulate Him. Be like Him.

Because don’t we all try to emulate the ones we most admire and love? The only one truly worthy of our emulation is the One greater than ourselves – the One who created us, and loves us, and sacrificed Himself for us.

The One who rises from the dead, on Pascha.

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