SERMON DELIVERED AT
ST. GEORGE CATHEDRAL, WORCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS
First Sunday of Great Lent / Triumph of Orthodoxy
Sunday of Orthodoxy Divine Liturgy
Council of Eastern Orthodox Church of Central Massachusetts
February 28, 1999
Hebrews 11:24-6; 32-12:2 John 1:43-51
The theme of faith permeates the entire eleventh Chapter of the letter to the Hebrews. This chapter seeks to define faith not with abstract concepts but by describing how particular personalities of the Old Testament lived their lives in relationship to God.
When we hear the word "faith" different meanings immediately come to mind. Yet, I do not think I would be too far off the mark if I said that many of our definitions are reductions of the reality of faith. Perhaps the greatest reduction is when we identify faith as wishful thinking — as hope beyond hope that is based on our desire for a specific outcome.
Faith is neither wishful thinking nor is it a psychological disposition, which enables us to be open to an impersonal God who, for the most part, remains apart from our lives. In the letter to the Hebrews, faith stems from a personal conversion that is based on trusting the living God who acts in history. It is this trust and obedience in the God who calls and loves us that enables all those personalities in Chapter eleven to enter the unknown. Thus verse one of chapter eleven begins to define faith as the "assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
Hope and conviction are based on the relationship we have with God. One of the personalities referred to at the beginning of the chapter is Abraham. Because of his relationship with the living God he leaves his home and travels to an unknown land that would be given to him and his descendants. Yet we know that Abraham did not become a builder of great cities, but remained a wandering shepherd who was willing, out of obedience, to sacrifice his only son Isaac, the son born to him and his wife Sarah in their old age, the son who was to make the elderly patriarch the father of many nations.
The same kind of trust and obedience can be found in Moses, the first name we hear in our reading this morning. Referring to his faith we are told that "[He] considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward "(vs.26). Here we encounter a Moses who would rather suffer with God's people (vs.25), and who would identity his suffering with the future suffering of Jesus the Anointed One, than enjoy the wealth and power of Egypt.
Faith enabled Moses to keep the Passover and strengthened the people of God to cross the Red Sea (vs.29).
By faith, those called by God entered the unknown in order to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Fear was overcome by trusting, loving and obeying the God who never ceased to carry his faithful ones.
The lesson of faith, which confronts us this morning, is especially pertinent as we celebrate, today, the triumph of Orthodoxy. The event of the past — that is the restoration of the icons and therefore the defeat of iconoclasm — was made possible because of the power and victory of faith. Those who suffered and those who were martyred because they opposed the iconoclasts saw the wealth and power of the empire as insignificant in comparison to the wealth and glory of God's Kingdom. For the defenders of the icon depicting the incarnate God and His saints testified to the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Through faith, the defenders of the icons saw the images of Christ and His saints as a vision of what was to come. Through faith, the transfiguration of the world was proclaimed in lives and color.
As we celebrate the feast of the icons, we are compelled by this morning’s epistle reading to evaluate our faith. We speak and proclaim the triumph of Orthodoxy. We speak of the faith, which sustains the universe. And yet given all our words and celebrations we still cannot ignore the fact that the lack of ecclesial unity among the Orthodox in America undermines all that we say and do. Who can deny that the plurality of jurisdictions distorts the very icon of ecclesial existence? Who can deny that the underlying fear to realize one, local, canonical and autocephalous Church is rooted in a lack of faith which has rendered us virtually incapable of confronting and responding to anything new or unknown?
To celebrate the feast of the icons requires the faith of Abraham, Moses and all the others named in the letter to the Hebrews. Only with their kind of faith can we fully express trust, love and obedience to the one who despised the shame of the cross (12:2) for us and our salvation. Only when we share the faith of the saints can the Church in America show itself as Christ's living icon, which continues His ministry here, and now. Amen!