Sunday, November 1, 2015

Happy Sts Cosmas and Damian Day!

Today, November 1, is the Feastday of the patron saints of our Church, Sts. Cosmas and Damian. I was asked Friday evening by our priest (and my colleague and friend at the seminary) to preach.  It was a wild and crazy service.  Towards the end of Orthros, two people came for confession, which meant we in the choir went back over ground already covered and kept on chanting for what seemed to be a long time.  And after the liturgy, we had memorial prayers for the souls of those who perished in the Russian airliner crash in the Sinai.  And then we had the Artoklasia prayers to bless the bread and wine and oil brought in celebration of our saints.  In the middle of all that, after the Gospel reading (which I have included below), I brought the lectern to the middle of the sanctuary and stood before the people.  And this is what I said.

Luke 16:19-31
19There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and who feasted sumptuously every day.  20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.  22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.  The rich man also died and was buried.  23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.’  25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.  26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’  27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house – 28for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises form the dead.’

The story about the rich man and Lazarus is well known.  And it is a story.  For centuries people have interpreted this parable to say that this is what heaven must be like, and that this is what hell is going to be like.  But Jesus is not intending to give us a description of the life to come.  Instead, he is making another point altogether.  When the rich man who is in torment begs father Abraham to send Lazarus from the dead to warn his brothers, Father Abraham simply says, ‘They have Moses and the prophets.  Let them listen to them.’  But the rich man says, ‘No, father, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ To which Abraham replies, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

And you will recall that One did rise from the dead, the Lord Jesus himself.  And just as Jesus said, even though He rose from the dead, the vast majority of Jews found reasons not to believe in Him, not to trust in Him, not to turn from their rebellion and follow Him. 

And the application for us is obvious.  We are in the same position as the rich man’s family.  We are living our lives oblivious of the realities of hell and heaven.  And God in His grace has given us the absolutely amazing, astonishing, awesome treasures of His Word and His Church.  We have been given everything we need to understand where this world came from and what this world is about and where this world is going.  We’ve been given everything we need to understand where you and I came from and what our lives are meant to be about.  We’ve been told what sin is in general and how you and I in particular have chosen again and again not to love God and not to love our neighbor, but instead to choose to live for ourselves.  We are like that rich man, oblivious to spiritual reality, oblivious to human need, oblivious to everything except what gets us what we want.  But we also have been told of God’s great love for us, sending His Son Jesus Christ to die for us on the cross so that all of our many wrongs might be forgiven, and to rise again from the dead to defeat the power that death holds over us and open up the way for us to be born again in this life and live with Him forever in the life to come.   This is what God has done for us.  This is what God is doing for us, right here, right now, even in this place, extending His hands to you, calling you to Himself, calling you to turn from the life you have been leading and the choices you have been making, calling you into His new life of freedom from being a slave to this world and a slave of the devil.  But so many are like the rich man and his family, refusing to listen, with our ears stopped up, even some of us in the Church, who think that being religious somehow keeps us safe.  But the day is coming when we, like the rich man, will find ourselves simply getting from God what we deserve.

But I have a question I want to ask you.  I realize I am taking some liberties with the text.  But what if the rich man, instead of living the totally self-centered life, what if he saw the wrong of his ways ?  What if he repented?  What would it look like?  We don’t know any of his other circumstances.  But we do know his relationship with Lazarus.  In the parable, the rich man is aware of Lazarus, based on his conversation with Abraham when he is in hell.  The rich man even knows Lazarus’ name.  But he chose to ignore him in this life, and did nothing to relieve his suffering and need.

But we can guess that if he repented, he might use his riches, not for himself, but for good, and to help Lazarus.  Lazarus’ most pressing need is his health.  The rich man would have given some of us money to get medical help for Lazarus.  And once that emergency was dealt with, there are the issues of food and shelter, which, again, the rich man with his resources was in a position to do something about.  And then long term, I can envision an effort to help Lazarus go back to school and get some training so that he could work and make his own living.  And should Lazarus struggle to find someone to hire him, I can see that the rich man might give him a position on his own staff.  Can you see the difference that this would make.  Not only would it make a difference in Lazarus’ life; it would make a profound difference in the rich man’s life.  No longer would he view what he has as his own to spend on himself and for his pleasure.  Instead he sees who he is and what he has as belonging to someone else, belonging in fact to God, to be spent on those things God is doing.  This is what we call stewardship.  What you have is not your own, it was given to you by God.  And the purpose that God has given you all of these things and these talents and all this time is not that we can then spend it on ourselves, but so that we can give it away and spend it on those things God is doing.

Tragically for everyone, the rich man chose to do other things with his possessions, with his talents, with his time.  But I have another example, this time of two men, who made different choices.  Our church is named for them, and today is their feast day, when we remember them and thank God for their example.  But there is a challenge.  The Orthodox Church actually commemorates three sets of brothers who served as physicians during the 3rd and 4th centuries.  They are called unmercenary physicians because they helped people out of love and practiced medicine without receiving payment.  And the three different sets of brothers all came to be known as Cosmas and Damian.

The Cosmas and Damian from Syria and Arabia were Christian brothers who were physicians and were rounded up in a persecution during the 3rd century and tortured and beheaded.  We commemorate them on October 17.  The Cosmas and Damian of Rome were Christian brothers and physicians who were martyred outside Rome by a jealous pagan physician in 283-284.  We commemorate them on July 1. The Cosmas of Damian of Asia Minor were twin physicians who refused payment and whose gifts of healing led to a spread of Christianity where they lived.  And they took seriously the command Jesus gave to his disciples: ‘Freely you have received, freely give.’ (Matthew 10:8) They died peacefully and were buried in Mesopotamia.  And we commemorate them today.

Can you see the difference between these brothers and the rich man in our parable?  Instead of holding on tightly to possessions and money and spending it on themselves, Sts Cosmas and Damian gave it all away.  And God made them a tremendous blessing to their Church and their community.  They used their talents, and their gifts and their possessions to pursue God’s agenda of love.  They made a difference in the name of Christ.

Now I could make the obvious turn here and ask each one of you, how are you spending your time, your talents, your money and possessions?  Heaven or hell should not be any surprise to any of us – all we need to do is look and see what kind of steward we are being right here and right now.

But what I really want to do is stimulate a discussion about our Church.  We as a Church are named after Sts. Cosmas and Damian.  But are we like them?  Do we understand that who we are and what we have belongs not to us, or to any group in our midst, but to the Lord?  Do we understand what God’s agenda of love might be for us?  What would it look like if we made the decision not to exist for ourselves, but to give ourselves completely to what God is calling us to be? And what is God calling us to be?  Think with me for one more moment.

We are very wealthy.
We are both multi-ethnic and international.
We are centrally located.
We are at the heart of the largest and fastest-growing archdiocese in all of Africa.

Jesus says to us the same thing he said to Cosmas and Damian – ‘Freely you have received, freely give.’

What is keeping us from dreaming?  From asking, ‘God, what do you want us to do with all of these facilities and this property and all of this talent and all of these resources that you have given to us?

We could undertake to build a conference center to serve Kenya’s Orthodox Christians.
We could undertake to establish an excellent Christian bookstore – the very first Orthodox Bookstore in Kenya.
We could build a home for retired clergy, or a monastery, or a convent.
We could partner with other organizations and establish a first-response clinic in Kibera.

There is a world of need in front of us, which is another way of saying; there is a world of opportunity right here.  So we have a choice, not just as individuals, but as a Church.  We can just sit here and do what we’ve always done.  Or we can ask God, ‘What do you want me to do with all of this that you have given me and made me to be?  What do you want us to do with all of this that you have given us and made us to be?  So what do you think we should do?  I challenge you to pray about this.  Ask God to show us what he wants us to do.  And then like Dr. Cosmas and Dr. Damian, start doing it with everything we have.

Through the prayers of our holy fathers, St. Cosmas and St. Damian, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us.

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