St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

The Heart Hears

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, October 7, 2012

The first thing that strikes me about today’s Gospel reading is the compassion of the Savior.  It is a characteristic that defines him throughout his earthly ministry.  Another great example of this, which is a favorite of mine, is when he saved the Adulterous Woman from stoning.  Although she was guilty he treated her as if her sin was nonexistent casting it, as he says in another place, "as far as the East is from the West."  In His presence sin disappears.

Today he extends his compassion to a widow whose only son and probably sole source of support had died.  He raises the young man from the dead. Even death cannot deter Divine Compassion.  That is why there is nothing to fear. His Compassion reveals to us that in his presence death has no power.

The second thing that strikes me has to do with the sense of hearing.  Often the Lord ends his teachings with the phrase "those who have ears to hear, let them hear."  He is clearly referring to something spiritual here, not just the normal ability to hear sounds, but rather the ability to hear the subtle voice of God.

The dead young man hears the Lord's voice calling him back from the dead. How is this possible? How did the young man hear him?  Who can say?  We know next to nothing about life beyond the grave and I do not recommend paying attention to those who say they do, Orthodox or otherwise. Stick with Jesus, folks, and pay no attention to the so-called “holy elders” who claim to know everything. Usually, what they say amounts to little more than wishful thinking and gnostic fantasy.  All we really know is what the New Testament says:  "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord," and "it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we shall be like him." Oh yes, and this. "God is love." That's enough for me to know.  Enough for anyone.

Back to the subject which really is, do we have "ears to hear?" We do, but we are so busy listening to all the crazy noise around us that we cannot possibly hear the still, small voice of God speaking. St. Philoxenus of Mabbug, a Syrian Bishop, wrote about it this way.

"Even if a thousand trumpets were to sound in the ears of the dead, they would never hear them. That is how it is with a soul...that has lost all memory of God, a soul that never thinks of God all day: it does not hear the sound of the Word that is calling it. The trumpet of the Word does not wake it. It is sunk in the sleep of death and this sleep is pleasant to it...The soul is dead when it never thinks of God, when it has lost all memory of God. Its powers of discernment are dead. Its nature remains alive, but its will is dead and its freedom has disappeared."

So, not remembering the central fact that because God is, we are, we fall asleep and walk through life like one of the living dead, dreaming our lives away. And although God sounds trumpet after trumpet to wake us, we do not hear them.

Every beautiful thing is a trumpet. Every tragedy is a trumpet. Every success, a trumpet. Every failure, a trumpet. Goodness is a trumpet, and so is sin. Death is the great trumpet and the one we try hardest to ignore, but we do so only with the greatest of efforts all of which are destined to fail.

But God does not give up. Love never does. Love himself comforts the widow, stops the funeral procession, and calls the young man back from the dead. Love has also not forgotten you and me. Love never forgets the beloved.  What it will take to bring us out of our deep sleep, only God knows. This is the greater meaning behind the legend of the “Sleeping Beauty.”  What will it take to awaken the soul from the sleep caused by the poison of sin and death? What it will take to open our ears, only God knows.

And yet, the power to hear stirs within us, down deep in the unconscious and we can encourage it to burst free. Han Urs Von Balthasasar writes,

"If we want to hear something we must prepare ourselves to perceive by being still. If we ourselves are talking, or if our thoughts, wishes, and concerns are speaking within us the noise they make will render us unable to hear...Mention is made of 'turning off,' of 'concentrating' the scattered consciousness of entering the 'mysterious path inward'." Then von Balthasar reminds us that the silence "required of the Christian" is not of our own making; it is already possessed in ourselves and in God...the quiet, hidden 'chamber' Jesus commands us to enter is a gift from the Lord's own hand.

On the streets of Rome there are many beggars of various sorts. One caught my eye in particular. A man, probably in his late twenties, his bare feet swollen from disease so much he could not wear shoes. He sat on an old skateboard which was his means of getting around. This was someone I could not ignore. A human ruin among the other ruins. I took the change from my pocket and put it in his cup and lightly touched his shoulder. A smile broke across his face I will never forget. The coins were important, but the touch probably moreso.  Then I saw him. No longer blinded completely by my selfish concerns, I saw the crucified Savior smiling back at me.

There is the part of us that is still alive, from which we are able to hear, and from which we are able to respond it we choose.

How do we begin? It is simple.  When the thought of God occurs, take a few moments to stay with it. Take some time with it. Let the thought of God sink in. That is a trumpet. When something beautiful catches your eye, stay with it for a few moments.  Take some time with it. Let the vision of beauty sink in. That is also a trumpet pointing to God.

When tragedy strikes, do not resist it. Open to it. Embrace grief with compassion and watch as it reveal its power to propel you to the Source of Compassion. That is a trumpet hard to ignore.  To do so we must be willing to do violence to the natural inclinations of our true nature.

All these trumpets, big and small, are sent to wake us up. Even if it is only for a moment, there is still great value in it as a foundation on which to begin to build a new life.  The more often we wake up the more we become used to being awake and, little by little, we are transformed. This transformation is known as Enlightenment. This is the great power of Mindfulness.

For salvation there is really nothing left to do.  All that is required is a response to what each present moment brings.  At every moment God offers us Love.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom was speaking with the writer and philosopher Jacob Needleman who asked him, "What is the proper response to love?" The Metropolitan answered, "The proper response to love is to accept it. There is nothing to do. The response to a gift is...to accept it. Why would you wish to do anything?"

That is the point of it all.