St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

So Plain, So Clear, So Beautiful

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, May 20, 2018

Meeting an actual Christian - that is a saint - is such a beautiful thing. They don't usually come, in my experience, draped in black robes, wearing weird hats, with long, bushy beards and birkenstocks. Saints are far less ostentatious, as if they don't want to be seen. Humility makes them like children playing hide and seek with the world as St. Seraphim liked to do with the children who came to see him. Jesus spoke about this.

"Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets." (Luke 20:46)

Those words are very clear aren't they? Yes, you would think so, wouldn't you? I recommend that we read the Gospels above all books but only if we have an open heart ready to take the teachings of our Lord seriously. If so, they will change us, not our neighbors...us, for they speak of the necessity of complete selflessness, of dying to self, of letting go of self. We who are so much in need of change dare not ever look to control others.

What honor does a saint need from us? Saints are too busy honoring everyone else to waste time on looking for praise for themselves. That is what makes them saints after all. They are so utterly selfless that they run as if from fire from recognition, honors, and awards.

I'll never forget when I learned this lesson. It was at a spiritual conference in Montreat, NC at which some of the most popular leaders of the charismatic movement were speaking. I waited with my friends at the door before the hall opened so that we could rush to the front and get the best seats. Before I made it all the way down to the stage, that verse exploded in my mind. What kind of Christian would I be if I fought for the best seat? I turned around and headed to the back. There were plenty of good seats there!

To this day I cannot bear to sit at head or at clergy tables. I don't even like to wear clerical clothes unless there is a good reason. If people cannot tell that I am a priest by the way I act, black clothes will never convince them.

Clothing is a tiny thing though the hyper-religious among us have blown it up into a major thing - what hat to wear when, and how many layers of black are enough to be properly dressed! I let others worry about such ridiculous things. There are people to care for and children to feed. Why worry about what to put on? Clothing does not make you Orthodox, a heart full of love does.

I believe I have met a living, breathing, actual saint. A real one. He is a black bishop in the Church of God (not sure which one) who works also as a prison chaplain. You would never know he was a bishop by the way he dresses, or talks, or holds himself. You know he is a Christian because the aura around him reflects the kingdom "not of this world." He would not be happy that I am talking about him.

Jack Kornfield writes that heaven (he calls it "nirvana" of course) manifests in a person's life "as ease, as love, as connectedness, as generosity, as clarity, as unshakable freedom." His list is far from exhaustive for it omits (not on purpose) humility, compassion, kindness, openness, and big-heartedness. When you see these qualities in a person, you know you are in the presence of God and a living saint.

The Bishop moves easily through the crowded visitation room speaking to everyone with gentle grace. No one is left out. He says a word, gives a smile, shakes a hand, pats a child and without an overtly religious message shares the Gospel more eloquently than a thousand fervent monks ever could.

He and I have effortlessly bonded. I love to see him and speak with him. I am convinced that if Christianity has a future, it will be because of people like him. It reminds me of a poem by Mary Oliver which speaks of the ease of living an authentic human life. It is called "When I Am Among the Trees." What follows is only a part.

When I Am Among the Trees

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine."

We are called into this world to do what is simple and natural for all of God's children, "to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine." Whatever hides the light and keeps the living waters of God's love from flowing generously from our deepest heart, that is where true repentance begins. At every moment we are called to look within for anything that would keep us from loving without limits. Saints are those who lives are cleared of the debris of selfishness.

"You are the light of the world," Jesus says and we are meant to share this light, his light and our light, freely and generously, breaking all boundaries, crushing all the false delusions of superiority and separateness. The trees share their light, as does all creation, with everyone. We are to be like them in their charity.