St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

The Table is Set

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, December 13, 2009

Luke 14:16-24 (11th Sunday of Luke)

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

The invitations have been sent. The table is set. The dinner is prepared.  All that remains is for the guests to arrive. But this is a party for which guests are required to prepare.  This is no ordinary event.  It is the heavenly and eternal banquet!  All that is necessary for our salvation has been accomplished, except one: we must accept or refuse the invitation. The last, necessary element is our decision.

In today's Gospel reading many of the invited guests make excuses and send their regrets.  One had to investigate a new piece of land he had just bought claiming he had not yet investigated it.  Strange!  Who would do that?  The second bought oxen without examining them.  Strange again!  Who would do that?  The third said that he had just gotten married and therefore could not come. That excuse at least makes some sense.  But what Jesus seems to be getting at is that all these are simply excuses. For what?  For laziness and apathy I wager.  Maybe, knowing the host of the feast and the preparation that would be expected of them, they just weren't willing to put out the effort. What kind of effort? What exactly would be expected of them?

The text takes an interesting turn when the host sends his servants out to the hedges and highways to ask whoever they find to come and fill the seats left open by the guests who decided not to come.  How could they have been prepared?  What's happening here? 

Invited guests have time to prepare.   Usually invitations to a big party are not issued at the last minute.  "To those to whom much is given much is expected." The invited guests had more than enough time to get ready.  The last minute invitees had no time at all! Remember the parable of the workers who came at the eleventh hour receiving the same wages as those who came at the first?  That is just how God is.  Compassionate and loving to a fault.

Today let's talk about the invited guests. Since everyone here has received an invitation we have no excuse.  We need to know what to do to be prepared.

In today's Epistle St. Paul spells it out pretty clearly.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. In these you once walked...But now put them all away; anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk...Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

In other words, the Lord calls us to cleanse our minds and our hearts.  Paul calls it "putting to death in us what is earthly."  By "earthly" he means all the things that lead us away from God.  It is no coincidence that modern neuroscience has shown that some of the very things St. Paul lists literally cause damage to the brain. Anger, for example, contemplated over time, and has been shown to damage the anterior cingulate.  Belief in an angry god actually causes people to exhibit symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, that terrible disease that affects soldiers in wartime and people who have suffered trauma.  Paranoia and stress especially.  Extremism is born out of the same kind of fear that debilitates sufferers of abuse! Dwelling on sinful thoughts, or on bad theology, causes real suffering and can result in chemical changes and physiological damage. St. Paul warns that unhealthy thoughts must be, as he says, "put to death" before we act out on them and hurt not only ourselves, but our neighbors.  Again modern science bears out and elucidates what the Bible teaches.

The truth is that peace, joy, and happiness are impossible if the mind is distracted by unhealthy passionate thoughts.  If we want we can exchange those thoughts for good and healthy ones and actually heal the damage that has already been done. Meditation on God, the prayer of Jesus, becoming acquainted and friendly with interior silence, sacramental living and the conscious practice of virtue and compassion towards others are the antidotes proscribed by Holy Scripture and the Holy Fathers.  In these ways the inherent gifts and powers that have been freely given to all by the Creator buried under the refuse of unhealthy, sinful thoughts and behaviors are released.  This is how we actively cooperate with the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. As we "put these thoughts to death" the moment they arise by letting them go without engaging them or dialoging with them we awaken the image of God within and set free the living waters of the soul. As Jesus says, "Out of their bellies shall flow rivers of living water."

What kind of water is flowing from us?  What is the fruit of the kind of life we are living? St. Paul and Jesus invite us to check it out and have the courage to repent if need be.

Within us resides the ability to obey God's commandments. The seeds of kingdom of heaven are within us along with the seeds of hell.  We choose which seeds we water and which ones we do not.  Following the teaching and example of Christ we come to know the difference; which seeds lead to life and which to death. Choosing the narrow path we learn how to remove those that cause suffering with gentleness and compassion and nurture those that lead to life until they come to fruition.

It is a work to be done moment by moment as each thought arises. With practice we can learn to see the advent of even the tiniest thoughts, stop sin before it begins to take root and grow, and nurture the healthy ones to fruition.  We must stop these unhealthy thoughts, these temptations, when they first arise if we want to be consistently successful. This is what St. Paul alludes to and the kind of preparation Jesus calls his guests, that is us, to undertake.

Let me end with a quote from St. Maximos the Confessor from the Philokalia to close.

If, as St. Paul says, Christ dwells in our hearts through faith (Eph. 3:17), and all the treasures of wisdom and spiritual knowledge are hidden in him (Col. 2:3), then all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in our hearts. They are revealed to the heart in proportion to our purification by means of the commandments. 

They shall see him and the riches that are in him when they have purified themselves through love and self-control, and the greater the purity, the more they will see.