Volume 4: Number 2

February 18, 2013

This month, Wonder is publishing the homilies given by four Orthodox attendants at the 2013 Festival of Young Preachers, an event sponsored by the Academy of Preachers . The theme for this year’s festival was “The Gospel and the City” and several passages of scripture were offered for the attendants to preach on. The passages chosen by our writers/preachers were Genesis 11, Psalm 137 and Acts 1.

With these words, once spoken and now written, each of our authors offers us a proclamation of the Gospel. As always, we hope you find these reflections edifying and inspiring, and may they draw us all closer together in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Zion in Babylon: Reflections on Psalm 137 by Ms Anna VanderWall

Out of the garden, into the city by Mr Harrison Russin

There are a lot of tears out here in Babylon by Fr James Parnell

Salvation in the midst of the earth by Mr Andrew Boyd

Zion in Babylon: Reflections on Psalm 137

February 18, 2013

Zion in Babylon: Reflections on Psalm 137
Anna Vander Wall

 C.S. Lewis wrote a story called Till We Have Faces. In this story, there is one character who always fixes her gaze on the mountains, the place where the gods dwell. She longs to be there, especially when she is happiest and experiences the love of her friends. She tells her sister that, “It was when I was happiest that I longed most…The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from.”[1]

In the same way, every Christian longs for heaven. We have a sense in our daily lives that this life here is not our true home. Sometimes we know this most clearly when we are happiest because we catch glimpses of heaven in earthly joy. But this awareness that we’re made to be with Christ is even more powerful when things aren’t going right in our lives. When we’re unemployed for several months and just can’t find a job, when our parents are fighting or divorced, when things just don’t go as we plan, we know with certainty that this world is imperfect, and it is not what we were made for.  We feel this longing when we’ve hit rock bottom. It is the longing Adam and Eve felt when they were exiled from the Garden of Eden. It is the longing for paradise lost that echoes through every story we read and every movie we watch, and it is a loss we all feel every day.

This longing is embodied in Psalm 137. In my tradition, we pray Psalm 137 every year before Lent, a time when Christians pause to reflect on our true Heavenly homeland. Psalm 137 was written during Israel’s captivity in Babylon, and it is first and foremost a lament. It is a lament for the disobedience that led to Israel’s captivity in Babylon, the city of sin. It is a lament that the city of Zion, once so glorious and beautiful, has been taken away from the Israelites because they rejected God to pursue sinful passions. It is a lament for our sin and a plea for God’s help. It is, on a grand scale, an epic hymn for every Christian who longs for their true home. It is our song of sin, repentance, and salvation.

The very first verse reads:

          By the rivers of Babylon,
                 There we sat down, yea, we wept
                 When we remembered Zion
                                       (Ps 137:1 KJV)

Babylon is constantly referred to in the Bible as the city of sin,[2] whereas Zion is the place in which God dwells. Sinful rivers flow through the land of Babylon, while rivers of holy tears flow down the faces of the captives. The Israelites weep because they remember the sin that led them to enslavement in Babylon. They are captives to their own sin, and only when the promised land is taken away from them do they realize the true beauty of their home with God. This psalm expresses the sorrow we all feel because we live in a world of sin where we know we are not at home.

We too have glimpsed the joy of Zion, whether we have seen it in the beauty of the stars or in a church service or in a long-lasting friendship. And it is precisely because we have known the joy of Christ’s presence that we feel so estranged in the sinful city of Babylon. The psalm continues:

          We hung our harps
                 Upon the willows in the midst of it.
          For there, those who carried us away captive asked of us a song,
                 And those who plundered us requested mirth,
                 Saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
                                                                                  (Ps 137:2-3)

Here the Babylonians invite the exiled Israelites to join in their sinful mirth and even taunt them to defile the holiness of Zion by exposing its beautiful songs to mockery.

And what is the psalmist’s reaction? He says,

          How shall we sing the Lord’s song
                 In a foreign land?
          If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
                 Let my right hand forget its skill!
          If I do not remember you,
                 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth—
                 If I do not exalt Jerusalem
                 Above my chief joy

The Israelites “hang their harps” because Babylon is not worthy to hear the joyful songs of Zion. All Babylon craves is sinful revelry, or what they call “mirth”. But Zion has true joy, that is, the joy of experiencing God’s presence. This true joy is something that quenches our every thirst, whereas the false pleasure of Babylon is only a mirage. Babylon promises water, but it never materializes. The psalmist recognizes the difference between true and false joy. He therefore says that he wants his right hand to forget its skill and his tongue to cling to the roof of his mouth if he forgets true joy. In other words, he wants to do nothing and to say nothing. Finding anything more pleasing than Zion would mean he has forgotten and betrayed his true home.

For us, too, everything in our lives that is estranged from Christ is Babylon. Anything we delight in more than Christ is an idol that cannot really satisfy us. Whenever we ignore Christ and chase after a fleeting pleasure, a fiery moment of passion, an opportunity to bask in our own glory, a chance to humiliate an adversary, we are choosing Babylon instead of Zion. But once the fleeting illusory joy of sin has faded, we find ourselves weeping by the murky, polluted waters of Babylon, longing for the pure, living waters of Zion. And this is where you and I are today, longing for our true home and lamenting the sin we find ourselves entrenched in.

Our song of lament sounds a lot like Homer’s Odyssey because it also is the story of a man trying to get home. He has been gone for several years fighting a war, and when it is finally time to go home, he realizes that he will have to fight his way through many temptations and hardships. Yet he always remembers that his home promises more joy than anything he will encounter on his travels, so he never gives up hope. At one point he has to sail past sirens. For those of you familiar with mythology, you know how nasty sirens can be. A siren is a seductive sort of femme-fatale that lures sailors to their deaths with enchanting music. This is rather unpleasant, but fortunately the hero of the story knows of the dangers sirens present beforehand. The sailors plug their ears and our hero ties himself the mast to resist the sirens’ bewitching music.[3]

Ulysses and the Sirens

Ulysses and the Sirens

Now Israel’s situation in Babylon is just like this. The Babylonians promise pleasure to ease their captives’ pain, but the Israelites know now that these pleasures will destroy them. Remembering the joy that awaits them in Zion, they are holding out for a greater joy, a more perfect joy, an everlasting joy that reveals Babylon’s pleasures are merely passing shadows.

Dear to Christ, our Savior speaks a word to us today. We pray Psalm 137 today as a lament, a lament for our brokenness, a lament for our sin, a lament for our isolation and estrangement from God. But this lament is prayed with the hope that, however long we must toil in captivity, joy will come in the morning. The good news is that Christ, our joy, has come into this world.

The home that we long for today is not a piece of real estate, but our God Himself: Christ is our true home. And the good news of the gospel is that with His advent in our world comes the opportunity for His advent in our hearts. If we love Christ, home is always with us, and the more we love Him and make room for Him in our hearts, the closer we will be to home every day. Perhaps the most important paradox of Christianity is that, even while we are exiles in a world of sin, we can still carry a piece of home with us in our own hearts and this piece of home, Christ, expands to touch everyone around us.

Jesus heals the demoniac (Luke 8:26ff)

A perfect example of this living gospel is the demon-possessed man Jesus heals in Luke 8:26-39. This man was literally an exile. The demons that possessed him were so powerful that they drove him to exile among the tombs. Christ arrived and commanded the demons to depart, after which He Himself took up habitation in the man’s life instead. The man was so overjoyed at this new life that he begged Christ that he might go with Him. But Christ does not oblige. He commands him to return to his own house and tell his friends and family what great things God had done for him.

Dear to Christ, we also have dwelt among the tombs and have been counted among the dead. But Christ has raised us from our sloth and idleness, and with the Psalmist we have glimpsed His beauty and exalted Him   above our chief joy. Because we have known this joy, we may long to be home with Christ without toiling through this world of sorrow, but the good news is that Christ is already with us and is already alive in this world and in our hearts, and He commands us to remember the good things He has done for us and to share the beauty of that memory with a world that dwells in darkness. This darkness may never become fully light until Christ comes again and we rejoice with Him in heaven, but until then we can come closer to home every day by allowing Christ’s light to enter our hearts more fully. Like Odysseus, we are traveling out of exile, and while we are traveling, it is the remembrance of Christ’s beauty and our assured hope in Him that will bring us home. Christ is our joy. Christ is our home.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), 74-5.

[2] Especially throughout Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

[3] Homer, The Odyssey, Book XII. Robert Fitzgerald, trans. (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2001).

Out of the Garden, Into the City

February 18, 2013

Out of the Garden, into the City

Harrison Russin

Genesis 11:1-9 (RSV)

            Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Ba’bel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.


a modern rendering of the legendary ‘tower of Babel’


Cities seem to get a bad reputation in the Bible. Just think of the first few chapters of Genesis: God creates man and woman, and places them in a garden. And this garden is about as far from a city as we can imagine. Then Adam and Eve transgress God’s commandment; within a generation, we’re killing each other.

And to where does the first murderer flee? To a city.

After God appears to Abraham and Sarah, promising a son, he tells Abraham about the coming destruction: and where is God not able to find ten righteous men? In the cities, Sodom and Gomorrah.

In fact, some of this city names are so powerful that they can encapsulate entire civilizations of biblical enemies and friends —Jerusalem, Babylon, Philistia, Nineveh, Rome…

Today a group of nomads is coming from the east to a plain, level area — Shinar. And they say to each other, “Come, let us build ourselves a city.”

Now there’s a good chance that, from all of us in this room today, most of us come from cities. In fact, 82% of the United States population lives in cities or suburbs. And I don’t think we would deny the comforts and conveniences of city living: advanced public transportation; efficient living situations, like apartment buildings; established cultural institutions, like museums and libraries and operas. In the ancient world, these advantages were pretty similar. You see, living in cities provides protection against invasion, and it’s a sign of civilization.

So what is it about city living that is so bad in the Bible? I think today’s reading gives us a clue.

                  Come, let us build ourselves a city,
                              and a tower with its top in the heavens,
                              and let us make a name for ourselves,
                              lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
                                                                                                            (Gen 11:4)

Let us make a name for ourselves…

Let us make a name for ourselves…

It was a joy for me to be able to spend Christmas with my brother and his new wife, who are expecting their first baby this spring. And of course, nearly all of our dinner conversations recently have turned to names — “What are we going to name the baby?” My brother’s requirements are not unusual for couples today: it has to be a cool name, not a name you can easily make fun of, unique but not weird. We are, after all, a culture obsessed with names. Names are the ways we define ourselves: names are the ways we separate ourselves from other people. Now, individuality and self-affirmation is necessary and good. It’s important to identify our uniqueness, our spiritual DNA and gifts which are identical to no one else in creation. But simultaneously, this individuality has a dark side: it also includes ways we think that we are superior or more worthy in some way than other people. And instead of defining ourselves positively, as who we are, we start to do it negatively, identifying who we are not:      I’m not an outsider, I’m not an immigrant, a heretic, a liberal, or a conservative, I’m not an enemy. I’m chosen to be not like these people.

And cities are the ways we protect that self-definition, erecting our own walls to keep out the foreign invader, closing the gates whenever danger is near, paying our taxes and losing our property all for a little more protection. But sometimes this self-definition seems so far away from us. “It’s not part of my daily life.” It’s only confined to the world of CNN and People magazine – the cult of celebrities. It’s easy enough to laugh at celebrities and the ways they engender our cultural obsession with self-definition. We have pop stars with the audacity and arrogance to think that one name will suffice for their definition: Prince, Madonna, Cher. We have sports superstars who emblazon their own names across entertainment, food, and drink products, changing their names to Metta World Peace or Chad Ocho Cinco.    We have authors whose very names can sell a ghost-written book they had nothing to do with producing, like Tom Clancy and James Patterson.

But I think we can search a little harder, with a little more self-scrutiny, and see each of us is obsessed with self-definition. It doesn’t have to be something loud and ostentatious — like donating money to some cause so that you can see your name printed on the list of donors. We do little acts of self-definition every day. Every time I turn a blind eye to a panhandler on the street, I’m defining myself by my own money and actions; every time I deny help to people I don’t like, but readily help those attractive and friendly people, I’m defining myself by my friends and company; every time I wake up at 6:30am, and decide that I’d rather sleep in than go to Church on a Sunday, I’m defining myself by my own time and priorities.

So are we really so different from these men building a huge tower? After all, most of the time I’m more concerned with my own city, my own bricks, my own tower, than with God’s city and tower. These builders fire up the kiln, squeeze and mold the clay, mix in the sand, and heat the stones: they make their own bricks.

This is a constant refrain in Scripture: there’s the story of Peter, following Jesus to his interrogation at the house of the High Priest. As Peter is inconspicuously warming his hands by the fire, some people come up to him and try to assign him a name —  “Oh, you’re one of his people, aren’t you…” Peter responds, and tries to make his own name: “No, I’ve never heard of Jesus before in my life!” Whose name is more important here? Whose name takes priority in my own life?

I’ll offer an example — I am an Orthodox Christian. That means we have 2,000 years of tradition and writing and theology and art to draw upon in our worship and Christian life. But that also means that I have 2,000 years of “stuff” that can separate me from God. Whether it’s languages, or liturgics, or incense, or icons, I find that I end up using “Orthodox” as an adjective to describe myself and not as a description of how the church sees Jesus Christ: fully God and fully man. Perhaps all of us who offer a qualifier in front of “Christian” face this same temptation — Protestant, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, whatever! We end up making our name, our description, more important than the person of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen from the dead.

So yes, the city can be a nice place to be; it can make us feel comforted and safe, secure from danger and harm with those large gates, and strong army. But the truth of the city, at least in the Bible, is that we make its rules; we make its name, and call ourselves after it.

Before I entered seminary I worked at a homeless shelter for teenagers. There, I was trying to make my own bricks. I was trying to do this job on my terms, in my own way, apart from God’s plan. And after my first week there, I was just about sick of it. I was sick of being hurt by the people I was helping. I was sick of being lied to, and cheated, and treated like I was completely dumb; I was sick of being robbed, and giving handouts to people who clearly weren’t thankful. I called up the head pastor of the shelter to talk with him.

“Fr Steve,” I said, “What the heck are we doing here? We give these homeless children a place to stay, clean clothes, job training, 3 meals a day…and the gratitude and thanks and willingness we get back amounts to nothing. I can’t even get them to help wipe the tables after lunch and dinner.”

“you forgot to take the candlesticks” from Les Miserables

Father Steve took his time, let out a deep sigh, and said, “There’s a large French novel called Les Miserables. In the story, a bishop allows a stranger to stay in his house for the night; the visitor steals the bishop’s silverware, and runs away. And this thief is caught, and brought back to the bishop. ‘This man claims that you gave him the silverware,’ say the police. The bishop responds: ‘Yes, I did give him the silverware. But you left the best behind.’ And the bishop gives him two silver candlesticks.” Then Fr Steve said, “that is what we’re doing here.”

Well, Father Steve was right. Every day I lie to God; every day I cheat God, and steal from him; every day I start to make my own bricks, carve out my own city, establish my own identity, and deny the home he’s given me in a garden.

And still — God gives… And he gives…And he gives, knowing that I’ll probably lie and cheat and steal again tomorrow.

Now of course, God sometimes comes down, and intervenes, and confuses our tongues. That’s what we hear about today; God doesn’t destroy the tower, he doesn’t throw brimstone upon the city, he doesn’t flood the earth; He simply comes down and confuses our language. But the funny part of all this — the irony — is that all of these bad things in the story — languages, name-making, cities — they all become opportunities for salvation. Every sin I commit — every chance I take to steal from God — he turns into a vehicle for my own salvation.

Salvation out of chaos.

God knows that we have an obsession with names. It’s one of the first tasks he gives us — Adam names all the animals, he makes them his own he identifies them.  But God takes our obsession with names, and turns it into salvation. “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus. Emmanuel. God’s victory, present among us. And from there, we learn about all these names God offers: Son of the Most High, Prince of Peace, First Born of All Creation, Firstborn of the Dead, the Lamb, Messiah. The Christ.

And God gives us this name for ourselves: “In Antioch, they were first called Christians.” He gives us this name as our own; He anoints us, because we are called after Christ. He makes us his own sons and daughters. The prophet Isaiah declares, “You shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord will give.” Our true identity isn’t caught up in some obsession with uniqueness, with defining ourselves, with giving our own lives direction and meaning. God gives us our name.

What does this really mean? Simply the message of the gospel: Your life is not your own. You were bought with a price. And not only does your life belong to God — it belongs to your brother, and your sister, and every person around you.

And so we turn once again toward the city. In the midst of the city –  of brokenness, enmity, destruction – God offers us salvation. God takes all of that garbage and junk out of our lives, and transforms it completely. An example: Cain and Abel — second generation sinners, the first set of brothers, and the first homicide. Now, murder is not good. Murder is evil, it’s an aberration, it is horribly wrong. But God comes to us as we are, broken and twisted and evil, and he uses murder — gruesome, legal, public execution on a cross — so that we can be saved.

Likewise, God takes the cities we erect — these fortified palaces, alabaster chambers of reason, civility, culture; of safety, commerce, security; and he comes into our cities, these refuges in our hearts. And he enters the city not how we would expect. He comes in weakness, which is the ultimate manifestation of his strength; he enters as a baby in a cave in Bethlehem; he comes into Jerusalem on a donkey. He’s coming to save the city: He’s coming to save us from our self-obsession with reason, and culture, and security, and comfort.

"Behold, The Man"

“Behold, The Man”

“Behold Your King”
  Behold your king,
 in emptiness,
 in condescension, disgraced,
 in the ultimate weakness of death.
 Behold your King,
risen from the dead on the third day.
“Let us go forth to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.
For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” (Heb 13:13-14)

The city which is to come: that’s where we call home,

That’s where we belong. And even though, in the beginning, God put us in a garden — so removed from the concerns of city life, a place of harmony and concord; in the end, he puts us in a city. The New Jerusalem. We read about this in the Revelation to St John:

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.
He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them;
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,
neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.
And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”                                                                                            
                                                                                                              (Rev 21:3-5)

And in this city — there is no temple, because the sacrifice is already accomplished. And in this city — there is no need for sun or moon, because the perfect light is shining on it every day. And in this city, is a river, and trees, and fruit. And God doesn’t forbid us to eat this fruit — no, he invites us.

For centuries, Christians have been trying to reach this city, trying to realize it on earth. But the truth of this New Jerusalem, this heavenly city, is that it’s not of this world, even though it stands right before us. So we’re not going to reach it by making our own bricks, and building our skyscrapers, and making our own names.

We enter it today, right now, by doing the will of God — by spreading forth the name to which he calls us; by building and adorning his temple, his building, his body — his church; by using the stones and wood he’s already given us, instead of looking for our own.

What does this mean, every day? Two words, most simply: love and forgiveness. These are the bricks that God uses to build the new city, the heavenly Jerusalem. And I’m called to that, you’re called to that: we’re called by the name of Christ.

So maybe you have a brother you haven’t spoken to in years. Maybe you have a boss at work or an administrator at school who continually annoys you for his ineptitude. Maybe you’re still mad at your boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse for some careless word or thoughtless act.

Forgiveness isn’t a magic pill or a wizard’s wand; but God starts to build the city through our work. And he uses living stones – you and me. God starts to provide the labor, and shows us that He is our only true name.

So forgive; love; and you, and your boyfriend or girlfriend, and your boss, and your brother, and I — we’ll all start marching into that city together.

There Are a Lot of Tears Out Here in Babylon

February 18, 2013

There are a lot of tears out here in Babylon
Reflections on Ps 137
Fr James Parnell

Psalm 137 is a brutal psalm. To some, it may sound more like an SEC fight song gone wrong. How on earth are we to get “good news” out of a psalm that ends talking about the murder of children? Why on earth would anyone sing this psalm as part of worship? How could they?

Well, in my tradition, we do: Orthodox Christians sing Psalm 137 as part of our worship. Now it is read every Friday morning as part of a block in which we read through the entire book of psalms every week, but it is chanted solemnly, on the three Sundays before Great Lent, at the All-Night Vigil in preparation for the Divine Liturgy. This service commemorates the resurrection of Christ, and in this period, before we begin 40 days of fasting, penance, and prayer, we give this rather harsh psalm a key position.

American soldiers pray near modern-day Babylon

American soldiers pray near modern-day Babylon

But why? Why sing a spiteful song about the fall of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Babylonian exile at service highlighting the resurrection of Christ? No matter how much you spiritualize the text, or highlight the hyperbole, it’s a rough psalm; and a hard one to sing, much less pray.

I’ll be the first to admit that it isn’t one of those that you stick to the mirror or refrigerator. It’s not a mantra or a promise of God that you’ll see touted in an Evangelical bestseller. It’s not on the Royal Ambassadors Scripture Memorization list. It’s not listed in your teen reference bible as a place to go for comfort.

But it’s one of the most powerful expressions of  love for one’s city; one’s homeland and the feeling of despair that comes when you’re separated from it; perhaps forever. The Psalm concludes in a surprisingly visceral and dramatic way. It’s pretty harsh … not something you’d expect to be sung in church. It’s about the city, sure, but what does that have to do with the Gospel? What does it have to do with Christ?

Everything! This psalm has everything to do with the Gospel. This psalm was written in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile to Babylon in 586 B.C. but this story has more to do with the Gospels than we might think.

The Psalm opens to a scene of Jerusalemites; inhabitants of what was Zion, that great city. They are no longer there, protected by the walls of their city, the womb of their mother, Zion. But are instead, sitting on the bank of a foreign water way, the Euphrates river valley, and they’re weeping; crying rivers of their own in remembrance of the siege that they feel cursed to have survived.

They hang up their lyres, their harps, their musical instruments on the trees, like prisoners on the gallows, for they’d rather have them be silent, dead, and without movement, than be used for the amusement of their captors; those who crushed their city and slaughtered their families without remorse.

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” they laugh, but the captives cry out, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land…?” (Ps 137:3-4, RSV). For the song of Zion is the song of the Lord for the psalmist, that holy city that couldn’t fall, for God was with it. Or so they thought…

The psalmist then makes a series of remembrances; he calls to mind his memory of Jerusalem, invoking a curse on himself if he forgets Jerusalem; if it doesn’t remain his highest joy and the pinnacle of his highest hope, but his calls for recollection take a darker turn, he calls out to God: Remember O Lord, how the Edomites, the descendants of the supplanted Esau, on the day of Jerusalem said, “Raze it! Raze it down to its foundations!” (137:5). He concludes in a roar, lashing out at the great city of Babylon: “O daughter of Babylon, You devastator! You destroyer of our life; Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones; and dashes them against the rock!” (137:8-9).

Whoa… There is of course a bit of a revenge fantasy here; but there’s more than just a desire for the attackers to be paid back in spades; it’s more than just the well-worn tit-for-tat of the Middle East. It’s hyperbole, but it’s hyperbole that is used to make a specific point, and make it abundantly clear: This is about the destruction of a city; the end of existence, at least for the psalmist. This exile, and its scriptural component in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, is unlike anything else in history. The story of God’s destruction of Jerusalem is unique. It’s not just any city. But then, what is a city? What is its purpose?

In the Ancient Near East the City-State was the epicenter of life

In the Ancient Near East the City-State was the epicenter of life

In the Ancient Near East, any government, nation, or tribal coalition had a city, the center of that people’s universe. People went out during the day, farming the land outside the city, grazing their animals, fishing and felling trees; but at night, they came back to the city, and the gates were shut. The walls, the gates, were about protection. But even more powerful than the stone walls was the temple of stone that housed your god; the god that protected your city, He was the creator of your world.

That God brought you rain, kept your women and cattle fertile, and kept the storm and sickness at bay. Now that God, is the Father of your City. And God placed a person in charge, a king, and the king became his son, for lack of a better term. He was his emissary. This king’s job is to uphold the God-given laws; he issues decrees and enforces them. At the palace you bow before the king, but everyone, the king leading the congregation, bows down to God. So this is your world; your city, your king, your God.

And in the story of Judah, the king and the people get lax. They pay lip service to the deity. When their prayer isn’t answered, they try something else. The king focuses not on the law given to him by God, but on the regional politics. And slowly, God is forgotten; a vestige of our cultural milieu. But when a neighboring king leads his army, from another city, to your city and sacks it, tears down your idols and your temple and places the idol of his own god, your world is turned upside down.

You rationalize: obviously their god was stronger than mine. But with Israel, it’s different; Scripture tells us that the destruction of Jerusalem is not a battle that God has lost to Marduk or any other Babylonian idol; No, the desecration of his temple wasn’t proof of God’s weakness to protect his people, but rather was a show of his strength.

God destroyed his city. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sent the Babylonians to desecrate his temple and to devastate his people; God did that to his people, because they forgot God. They forgot that their God was The God, the God of heaven and earth, the Most High, the God over Jew and Gentile. Instead of living according to the Law, and being a light to the gentiles, a glory to God and an example to the nations, they became just like the nations.

God says of them: “my people have forgotten me, they burn incense to false gods” (Jer 18:15). Jeremiah warns, “You have eyes and heart only for dishonest gain, for shedding blood and for practicing oppression and violence” (22:17). And in Lamentations: “The Lord has done what he purposed, has carried out his threat, as he ordained long ago” (Lam 2:17). Still, no one expected it, or knew how to cope. And this story, of God getting our attention with the unexpected, the unthinkable, continues.

Jesus, tells his disciples about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and after it happens, the writers of the New Testament reflect on it, the utter shock of Jerusalem being wiped away; the order that they knew, gone. This is not what they expected. Where was this messiah that was to bring an end to Roman oppression? What of this Messiah that was to bring the Kingdom of God? Now what they thought was his throne is shattered: no more.

The people of Israel, in Psalm 137; they’re blinded by rage and pain; they’re lost. They had an ideal, an expectation, in their head, one of unending peace and prosperity, despite their lack of love for God and their neighbor; and it’s shattered. Similarly, The disciples in Acts, who ask Christ at His ascension, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” had built up a city in their own minds, with a throne and a king of their own making, a palace and a temple of their own design.

Scripture is at times like a mirror held up to our human condition. We see our fears, our doubts, our deepest and darkest thoughts; in Ps 137, though we may look away at the ending, we are not so far from the exilic writer.

That desire to feel safe, to believe that God is somehow on our side is, in our corner, there for us; is just as strong today, in this great pluralistic, democratic nation. We’re still worried, stressed, and scared about our future. And the reality of revenge, of anger, against those we see as Babylonians, our perceived enemies can still drive us to hate those we are called to love.

Increasingly, I hear from other Christians, across denominational and geographical lines, about a perceived war, against them; that they are victims of bigotry, of prejudice and intolerance; that there is a war on Christianity and family values.

And these “evil” people, fighting against God’s chosen ones (us, of course), become the targets of our anger, of our vitriol, of our contempt, and we think we’re doing God a favor. We feel that we have to somehow defend God and his Church; that he needs us to save everyone else and get them to start acting right; that we’ll somehow safe the day. We spend millions of dollars supporting this candidate, or that cause, or this ministry, but forget that Christ has overcome the world;

Too often, we describe ourselves, our life in Christ, by using negatives instead of positives: we don’t do this, we don’t support this, and we’re “pro-this,” when the opposite is meant, we’re against this or that segment of the population; they just won’t fit in our City.

We too build up a city for ourselves, a city made up of us and ours, with walls and gates built not as a sanctuary for all who seek life, but as a bunker for those we think deserve to live. But when this shelter is threatened; when disaster strikes, when crisis comes into our lives, and that illusion of a calm haven is shattered, we despair, or worse, we lash out and fight to protect what’s ours.

Just before the armies of Babylon arrived, Jerusalem was happy in their comfort zone; the walled city; and they didn’t feel the need to uphold or share the Law they’d been given. They became insular, greedy, and distrusting of anyone that wasn’t them. And only when God smashed their very foundations; were they forced, or perhaps given the opportunity … to live amongst those they had despised, those whom they’d hated; those whom they didn’t know.

We are so focused on our ministry or our cause: we’ve hijacked the gospel as a vehicle, forgetting our first love.

We are so riled up about this or that issue in society,  we have forgotten that, no matter what their sins or proclivities, their soapbox or political party, They, the people we don’t agree with, are made in the image of God, sinners just like us.

We are just plain scared; we’ve been beaten and bruised, hurt by so many horrible events in our life, that we just want to be safe, even if it means staying inside our fortress:  our church, our circle, our home, our own mind.

But, there’s so much more that God has in store for us. Remember what God spoke to those in Exile through his prophet Jeremiah that God spoke to those in Exile: “…build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. … Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer 29:4-5, 7). It is in seeking the welfare of our neighbors, of those who hate us, our enemies (whether real or imagined), that we find our peace, not in any elaborate make-believe Christian bubble that we create for ourselves, to protect us from “the world.”

"Seek the Welfare of the City..."

“Seek the Welfare of the City…”

St. Paul, the persecutor turned preacher, writes to the new exiles of the diaspora:  “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” (Heb 13:12-15).

Our Lord suffered outside the gate; he was hung upon a cross and died. He was buried and was raised to life by his Father, so that we might become heirs to his kingdom, his everlasting city; that we might be able to live forever with his Father, as our Father; co-heirs of this inheritance. However, it means suffering outside the gate of our city, today, bearing the abuse he endured, in order to enter into that city which is to come. We can’t build it ourselves, but must rather heed the Shepherd’s voice and enter the door that he has opened: the door of the Cross.

Today: deconstruct the city that you’ve built with your own stones; Better yet, leave it behind and sit down by the waters of Babylon—The World, the seductive world, that we love and desire, yet hate and fear—and sob; cry; weep and wail. They won’t know that you’re weeping over your lost castle of pride, of self-satisfaction, of religiosity. Indeed, they might not notice at all; there are a lot of tears out here in Babylon.

But once you catch your breath, get to know the people of Babylon, outside your city walls. And instead of dreaming of their destruction, fantasizing about their failure, or hoping for their harm: Let go! Instead of boycotting and bullying this group or that; befriend them and be a blessing to them; not in order to trick or convince them, but because it is an opportunity for you. You can encounter Christ, where you least expect it. Be around them; get to know them; learn to love them.

Because only by suffering with them, outside the gate of your city, will you find Jesus Christ.

Salvation in the Midst of the Earth: Acts 1:6-11

February 18, 2013

Salvation in the Midst of the Earth

Sermon on Acts 1:6-11

By Andrew Boyd

“Lord, Tell us about our political future. Will you intervene directly into our political reality? Will you fulfill our political expectations, vanquishing our oppressive foes and taking care of your chosen people? Lord, will you take care of our real or perceived problems for us?” “Lord, at this time will you restore the Kingdom to Israel”.  We want a King, someone to make life easy, to take charge when things get tough, someone to blame when things go wrong, someone to vanquish our enemies and gloriously reign in political worldly power, making our position comfortable, secure, or even exalted.

In a certain sense, it’s normal to want this. It’s a sign of faith to believe that our God can provide earthly solutions to our earthly problems. But it’s also a bit misguided. God rarely works the way we want him to, rarely granting us magic solutions, an “A” on an exam we didn’t study for or a date with a pretty woman we’ve never mustered up the courage to speak with.  And when we look at the “kings” in our lives, from Church leaders to parents, politicians, and celebrities, we are almost left disappointed. The Psalms are so often proved right “trust not in princes and in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.”  We all, following the Israelites and the Apostles, fail to recognize God as King in our lives and the implications of being citizens of His royal city.

In many ways, the Old Testament is the story of a King, His City and its God.  When the Prophet Samuel was growing old, Israel asked him to appoint a King to replace him in his old age, to lead the people, to take care of them, to solve their problems. God tells Samuel ““Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”[1] And Samuel, being the dutiful prophet of the Most High God goes and tells the people what it will mean for them to have an earthly king.


Samuel the Prophet

Samuel tells the Israelites how bad having an earthly King will be for everyone, how the taxes will pile up and pile up, how he will wage war and decimate their families. And the people replied to Samuel’s warning “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”[2] We want to be like everyone else, we want someone to fight for us and lead; we want a lobbying group, an advocate, a voice in the marketplace of the world-wide city. We want political solutions to our problems, just like everyone else.  Israel didn’t do so well with its kings, because the citizens of God’s kingdom are not like everyone else.

An unnamed apostle in the beginning of the book of Acts falls into the same error as early Israelites with Samuel. Imagine the setting, Christ is preparing His Apostles for their earthly ministry, about to give his last word to them before His Glorious Ascension, and one of his closest followers dares to ask him “Lord, at this time will you restore the Kingdom to Israel?”[3] “Lord will you give us back that King you didn’t want us to have in the first place?”

When asked if his followers will again gain political power and a degree of control over their station in life, Christ instead prophesies their very martyrdom. This passage from Acts can read “And you shall be my [martyrs] in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[4] In Greek the word for martyr and witness are the same, perhaps even interchangeable. And what else is the rest of the book of Acts than a chronicle of that early witness, that early martyrdom, from the stoning of Stephen to the death of Paul in Rome.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, we read this passage from Acts on Easter Morning, during our vigil that goes from midnight to dawn. About 1:30am, after the faithful have already been singing hymns and exchanging festal shouts of “Christ is Risen!” for over an hour, we all hear this passage from Acts. Celebrating the ineffable joy of the Risen Lord, we hear His call to martyrdom, to witness all over the world for His sake. Why then? Because it is only in the light of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection that our suffering, our martyrdom, any aspect of our witness has meaning.

Christ is risen, and every selfless act, each moment of human suffering and martyrdom now has meaning because death itself is conquered, and the pathway to eternal life in Christ’s kingdom is opened to anyone who wants it through the selfless suffering of an innocent man. Christ our King, is not like other kings, showing his power through force, but revealing his power in perfect weakness, by the rising again from death on the cross. Just as our king is not like other kings, we as citizens are not like the citizens of earthly Kingdoms.

Martyrdom is our call, following Christ’s admonition to be witnesses to Him, to follow our leader, our King, who selflessly gave his life for the life of the world. But we don’t live in Ancient Rome, we won’t be thrown to lions or crucified in a public spectacle. However, our mission is still the same: we are witnesses to the Great King, Christ our God, who was crucified under the charge “King of the Jews.” How, how can we give a compelling witness in our time and in our place?  How can we be effective citizens of his self-sacrificial kingdom? Through death. We can only witness through our own death, whether figuratively or literally, for the sake of the other. We forget that even in our time and place, there are many people who consciously take the opportunity to lay down their lives for their neighbors, soldiers and policemen, civil servants, and even recently, in my home state of Connecticut, elementary school teachers. Most of us will never have to make such a dramatic decision. The true challenge is to prepare ourselves for such a physical or permanent sacrifice, by willingly offering ourselves as witnesses every day.


One of the Volunteer “Arlington Ladies”

I’m from a military family and I’ve had the blessing of attending funerals at Arlington National Cemetery from time to time. At Arlington, there are dozens of funerals a day. If you ever find yourself standing graveside during a funeral at Arlington, you’ll also see a well-dressed woman walk over to the grave escorted by a handsome, young enlisted man in dress uniform. She’ll stand reverently and silently for the service, and at the end she’ll come over to you, express her condolences, and hand you a hand-written card.  These women, called “the Arlington Ladies”, volunteer their time, and have for decades, to make sure that there is a person present at every single funeral at Arlington, to make sure that none of our soldiers, sailors, or veterans is buried without someone there to express thanks for their service. These women, quietly and faithfully, day after day, offer a martyrdom of their own time, a sacrifice of it, for the sake of people they have never, and will never meet. They are true citizens of Christ’s Kingdom, following in the footsteps of the sacrificial King.

There’s another story I heard once. My friend is a pilot on an aircraft carrier. There are small prop planes that land on the carrier regularly to deliver mail, supplies, and people. His friend was piloting one of these planes in for landing with three passengers on board. As the plane was landing, the pilot noticed the engines failing. He quickly ordered the passengers to abandon the plane. He remained behind to keep the plane steady as they jumped to safety. This man, sacrificed his life for three others, and showed us what it means to be a citizen of God’s kingdom. I bet you didn’t hear that story on the evening news.

Another powerful example of martyrdom and witness comes from the Early Church. Ignatius was a Christian bishop in the Ancient city of Antioch at the end of the 1st Century, in the generation right after the apostles. The Apostle John was one of his teachers. Ignatius was arrested for being a Christian leader, and brought from Antioch (modern day Syria) to Rome to be killed by lions in the coliseum. On his way from Syria to Rome he wrote a lot of letters to his followers. My favorite one is where he tells people not to “spring” him from jail, but to let him die as a martyr, following in Christ’s footsteps, and therefore becoming a real human being full of life through his sacrificial death.

It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to be king over the ends of the earth. I seek him who died for our sake. I desire him who rose for us. The pains of birth are upon me. Suffer me, my brethren; hinder me not from living, do not wish me to die. Do not give to the world one who desires to belong to God, nor deceive him with material things. Suffer me to receive the pure light; when I shall have arrived there, I shall become a human being. Suffer me to follow the example of the passion of my God.[5]

Ignatius, he doesn’t see himself as a full human being, as fully alive in Christ, until the moment of his impending martyrdom, his impending witness to Christ by his public death in the Coliseum in Rome. Ignatius’s own identity decreases, he is no longer king of his own life, but follows obediently in the footsteps and identity of His crucified King.


As Christians we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ not only on one Sunday in the springtime, but every Sunday. Likewise, we remember His crucifixion not only on Good Friday, but every Friday. When we gather together on a Friday in my tradition for the Divine Liturgy, for our communal celebration of the Holy Eucharist, we sing the psalm line “Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.”[6] God showed us the true power of his kingship on the Cross, crucified as King of the Jews, and in doing so opened for all of us the path to salvation and eternal life in His Kingdom through our earthly actions. He made our salvation that day, but it’s up to us to respond to it in our own free will. As Christ works our salvation on the Cross, we tap into that same salvation when we sacrifice for others.

A famous preacher from my tradition said this when asked about when Christ will come again and establish the fullness of his Kingdom: “I know nothing about the ‘whens’ and ‘hows.’ But I know that in Christ… …the Passover of the world has begun, for Christ is risen and Life reigns.”[7] Christ our King is Risen, raising the world with himself. Our salvation has been created and worked in the midst of this world, in and through its imperfections, its tragedies, its suffering. Lord, reign in our hearts as King, and guide us to witness to your Kingdom here and now in this world, from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.


[1] 1 Samuel 8:7b-9 (NIV)

[2] 1 Samuel 8:19b-20 (NIV)

[3] Acts 1:6 (RSV)

[4] Acts 1:8 (RSV)

[5] Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Romans as quoted in John Behr, The Way to Nicea (Crestwood,NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 92.

[6] Psalm 74:12 (RSV)

[7] 48. Thomas Hopko, “Two ‘Nos’ and One ‘Yes’” Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 1, (1984) ,  http://www.schmemann.org/memoriam/1984.svtq8.hopko.html, (accessed January 28, 2013).

Vol.4 No. 2 Authors and Contributors

February 18, 2013

Anna Vander Wall grew up in a non-denominational church in rural Colorado and converted to Orthodoxy during high school, after reading St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. “Orthodox sacramentalism has helped me see God’s beauty in the people and nature around me. I desire to learn more about this beauty and preserve its remembrance in a fragmented world.” To this end, Anna is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Physical Therapy and Poetry.

Harrison Russin is from the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania, and is currently in his final year of studies at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, pursuing a Master of Divinity.  Harrison intends to pursue doctoral studies in the fall.

Andrew Boyd is the Director of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministry for the Orthodox Church in America. After completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Connecticut, he completed the MDiv program at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. He currently lives in Glen Head, NY. 

Fr. James Parnell is a newly ordained priest of the OCA, and currently in his final year of studies at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He is a pastoral intern at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in New Britain, CT. An Iraq War Veteran with over a decade of military service, Fr James also serves as a Chaplain Candidate in the New York Army National Guard.