Fr. Seraphim is establishing the Orthodox Monastery of All Celtic Saints on the Isle of Mull (near Iona) of the west coast of Scotland. He shared the homily at Holy Apostles Orthodox Mission in Chilliwack, BC on Sunday, Jan 28, 2018. Midway through the homily, I felt the deep regret of not having recorded his homily and resorted to thumbing these few notes on my smartphone: his reflections on Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and Publican praying in the temple (Luke 18:9-14).I believe what follows is nearly word for word, but any paraphrasing resulting in an error is solely my responsibility.
Luke 18:9-14 (NKJV)
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Fr. Seraphim's Homily (excerpts)
... In the Orthodox baptismal rite of exorcism, the first demon we ask Christ to drive away is idolatry, and this is deliberate. For Israel's first idolatry was not the worship of foreign gods, but of the Law. And Christians too may create an idol of our own faith. Orthodoxy itself is idolatry when it defines itself by separating itself from the other or turning from love of neighbour.
When we define ourselves by what we have done--our fasting, our praying our giving--such that we are "not like them," indeed, better than them, we can know that something has gone horribly wrong in our faith. We've left the straight path of Jesus and swerved off course to the right or the left.
True Orthodoxy is defined by complete openness and love for everyone. This is always how we see Christ responding to others in the Gospels. He never turns from the publican or prostitute or sinner, but opens his heart to them in love. And so we are called to become like him, as little christs to the world, marked by open hearts and love towards all.
Every time you cut off anyone for any reason from your love, remember that you yourself are in danger. And this parable is not about other types of people, like the Pharisees. I am both. The publican and the Pharisee are both in me. In fact, I am a microcosm of every character in the Bible. I am all of these, from Jesus to Judas, and my reactions to my neighbour determine whether I am one or the other, the publican or Pharisee.
Fr Seraphim Thru the Eyes of a Monk
On Ancient Faith
It struck me how ready I was to embrace the punchline of this parable as, "Thank God I'm not like the Pharisee." Happily, a Sunday School teacher warned me against that decades ago. Sadly, that impulse is still lodged deep within. This is particularly true of my rejection of who I once was and the shame associated with that.
That is, in my distant past, there was a period of years where I was a proud and self-avowed dispensational fundamentalist, and then a Calvinist Evangelical. And when I say proud, I mean that I embraced these labels as bounded sets that defined me as over against others--many others. My identity, like the Pharisee, was deeply connected to what I had done (a legalism of right belief) and how I was "not like them." Moreover, loving to be right could also make it difficult to love those who I thought were not right. Not only those who were theologically off-base in my opinion, but also those I deemed as lost or damned by my own (allegedly biblical) standards. Okay, not totally--my parents modeled a better way--but these propensities lurked in me for sure.
And still do. There's nothing so tempting for ex-smokers as to despise and scorn smokers. Why is this? Why not a greater empathy for the struggle? But I've observed this phenomenon regularly. And not just with smokers. It is strikingly evident in ex-fundies, such as myself. So now, thinking I'm all 'woke' (but obviously not, according to my Progressive friends), I can stand in the temple with chin up and say, "Thank God I'm not like the Pharisee, the rapturists, fundies, homophobes or 5-pointers!"
"Now I'm Orthodox! There! Arrived! Right?" Don't we sing in our liturgy every week, "We have seen the true light, we have found the true faith." Andrew Klager, a fellow Orthodox, reminded me, "It doesn't say we ARE the true light. We have seen the true Light," who is Christ. And if there's a maxim for every Orthodox to remember, "We know where the true Light is, but we have no idea where he is not." So, echoing Fr. Seraphim, my godfather David Goa has said, "Orthodoxy is turning toward love. Turning away from love is not Orthodoxy." Easier preached than practiced.
And there it is. Can you smell it? Still defining myself by my new and superior outlook. Part of me is as self-righteous and hateful in spirit as those alt-right folks who I'd feel quite justified in punching. Some peacemaker. Some Christian. No, Cain still skulks around inside. Rohr says it well, if still too kindly:
"We all become a well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly. That which we oppose determines the energy and frames the questions after a while. You lose all your inner freedom."
— Richard Rohr, Falling Upward
As Jarrod McKenna says, "In the culture of activism, calling people out is easy; calling people in is hard, but confession is helpful."
Said another way, protest and resistance are essential wherever ideology seeks to dominate and exclude the other. We need to say a firm NO to oppression, self-righteousness and hatefulness on every front (left and right), and find ways to overcome evil with good. But it's that old problem of becoming the beast you try to destroy. Firefighters may be able to fight fire with fire, but Christians cannot drive out Satan with Satan. When we opt out of the Jesus Way of creative nonviolence and the invitation to reconciliation, we resort to the same old weapons of this world--hate, division, exclusion--and we render ourselves and our cause impotent.
And again, my first instinct is to point the finger at the 'them' who I believe are most guilty. See how possessed I am of the Pharisee spirit?
So here is my confession. As a former Evangelical who has moved on, how shall I deal with the contempt in my heart for what I fear she's become? I can't be in denial that something awful is occurring. The headlines this week included epitaphs that were probably on the mark. John Pavolovich wrote "White Evangelicals, this is why people are through with you," and Baptist writer Miguel de la Torre announced, "The Death of Christianity in the U.S." His prognosis:
"Christianity has died in the hands of Evangelicals. Evangelicalism ceased being a religious faith tradition following Jesus’ teachings concerning justice for the betterment of humanity when it made a Faustian bargain for the sake of political influence."
I can't say he's wrong. Just as even Jesus couldn't say the tax-collectors didn't embezzle or the prostitutes hanging on his words and feet weren't selling themselves to survive. But that's not the issue. The issue is that I can monitor my growth in Christian transformation by my reactions--not just to the 'sinners,' but to the 'Pharisees'--because as Fr. Seraphim pointed out, I'm either or both on any given day or moment.
When walking with Jesus through the Gospels, I'm caught up in hoping and cheering for the 'sinners' to be elevated and restored. But I don't hope that for everyone. I'd rather add my jabs at the bad-guy Pharisees and priesthood when Jesus rebukes them. I suspect that Jesus shares exactly none of my schadenfreude when he puts them in their place. He wept over them. I never have.
So it is with the Evangelicals. I hear their oncology without tears. Yes as Paul Young reminds me with his gentle correction, they are my tribe.
Yes. I've been adopted by the Orthodox Church and welcomed with kindness. But I'll likely always feel like an outsider. I don't share their DNA and I'm unlikely to catch their ethos in this lifetime. In my blood, in my bones, the Evangelical tradition is there whether I love it or hate it--whether I'm proud or ashamed.
But here's the key: when the writers I've mentioned pronounce ichabod, Evangelicalism sits as my judge and serves as a refiners fire by virtue of my response to her. My reaction makes me the sheep or goat, because what I do to her (if she's as sick as we say), I do to Christ. Do I hope she dies or do I hope she recovers? Do I call her out or call her in? Do I thank God I'm not like her, or see how I'm exactly like her? She is the measure of my transformation towards love.
Today, it helps me to think of my dad, Lloyd Jersak. From his conversion as a teen-ager, he's been a faithful soul-winning Baptist Evangelical, unashamed of the gospel he knows and ready to share it with the least of these. He has consistently resisted exclusion, always calling others in, whether they were homeless vagrants who'd pissed themselves or closed fundamentalists who needed a wider vision the church.
He's old. Like 80. He's forgetful. Doesn't hear well. He walks slow on bad knees. He's had a heart-valve replacement and is battling kidney cancer for the third time. Lloyd is famous for locking his keys in the car. And playing Amazing Grace on his baritone--sometimes while driving gravel roads, other times to the street-people in the inner city.
He's an Evangelical. Maybe his virtues and vices and maladies are all Evangelicals.
I love him. I hope he lives. And I'm way more grateful to be like him than not. Where I'm not, I don't pray, "Thank God," but "God, have mercy on me a sinner."