Sermon delivered December 1, 2019 by Archimandrite Maximos
This rich man had a problem, but it’s not the problem he thought he had. His land brought forth tremendous fruit, tremendous grain, riches. He had a difficulty: “What am I going to do with all of this extra grain, these extra riches? Where will I store it all? Where will I put it?” And he happened upon the lucky idea of going to tear down his barns and build greater, so then he has more space, more places to store his grain. He plans to say to his soul, “Soul, we’ve worked hard, let’s take our ease; let’s eat, drink, and be merry.” And then he hears the terrifying words from the Lord, “Thou fool, tonight thy soul will be required of thee.”
Dear brothers and sisters, I said the rich man had a problem, but it wasn’t the problem that he thought he had. He thought he had a storage problem. He thought he had a problem of where to keep his stuff. His problem was infinitely deeper, significantly deeper. His problem was that he had an entirely wrong outlook on life, an entirely wrong outlook on material reality and his responsibility to it. There is an old expression, “thinking outside the box” that people would use all the time in the business world. His mind was fixed in this box, in this narrow way of looking at things. His mind was earthly, completely earthly. He was concerned not about his soul, not about eternity, but about temporal duration, keeping things the way they are. He desired, as we often do, a continuous, vampiric existence, where we just live and do tedious things ad infinitum. Our life based merely on the acquisition of goods for trivial and pointless pleasure.
Dear brothers and sisters, we don’t have that opportunity. At some point we will hear those same words, hopefully not prefixed by “Thou fool.” But our soul is, and will be, required of us. And what that means is, we will be held accountable; we will have to give an accounting for what we have done with the great gift. The other problem the rich man had was a misunderstanding of value. He valued grains and fruits or whatever he put in his barns, above the great gift of great price, his soul. He valued earthly things that are corruptible, and did not value eternal things that are incorruptible. We heard in the Epistle, we are called on to be citizens of heaven with the saints. We cannot become good citizens of heaven if our mind is poking around in the earth all the time, if our mind is focused merely on material things, if our mind, our soul, our strength, is simply about the acquisition of these things, these trivial pleasures. Our problem, like the rich man, is that we’re caught in this trap; we’re caught in a barn, if you will. We’re caught in a way of thinking of “How big do we make the barns? How small do we make the barns? Let’s fix this; let’s fix that.”
In order to make spiritual progress, we have to see things in perspective. It says repeatedly throughout the Scriptures, the Lord knows whereof we are made; He knows we are but dust; He knows we need things; He designed us; He built us; He knows we need food and shelter and clothing and so forth. Those are legitimate, reasonable, sane things to ask for—medicine, doctors, these kinds of things; that’s perfectly reasonable. We’re not being un-Christian or un-ascetic if we require some basic provisions; even the monks in the desert had something; not much, but something. It lets us know how little we can actually live on if we’re focused on heaven.
Saint Symeon the New Theologian compares our spiritual life to a lampada. And he says the oil, God provides. The fire, God provides. But the wick, the thing that connects the two, that’s us; that’s our mind.
But that being said, “where our heart is…” (Matt. 6.21) Where is our heart? Where are our intentions? When we wake up in the morning, and our mind comes out of the fog of sleep, what are we thinking about? What are we worried about? Where do we want to go in our spiritual life? Do we have a spiritual life? Are we thinking about God? Are we thinking about prayer? Or are we just going through the motions? Or are we in our mind thinking, “Oh, if I had a billion dollars. Oh, the great barns I would build.” What are we doing in the course of our day-to-day life, to set our soul on fire? That is what we’re called to do. That sounds extreme and radical, but that’s what we’re called to do: to set our soul on fire with the Holy Spirit. Now if we’re thinking “Oh, I don’t really feel like my soul is on fire with the Holy Spirit,” then you and me, like the rich man, have a problem.
Saint Symeon the New Theologian compares our spiritual life to a lampada. And he says the oil, God provides. The fire, God provides. But the wick, the thing that connects the two, that’s us; that’s our mind. And if you look at the lampada, oftentimes what stops the fire and what puts it out is dirt and grime. That’s sin. Our job, like the virgins, is to trim our wicks. We have to clean off the filth and grime of this world so we can be citizens of the next world.
We have to . . . begin telling our soul, not “Take thine ease. Eat, drink, and be merry,” but we must tell our soul and encourage our soul to be on fire, to be consumed—all of us, every aspect of us.
When the Fathers talk about sin, we often understand it as a very grubby sort of material sins; we understand those. But we disguise slander as concern. We disguise greediness and materiality as being careful and cautious. Now those are good things—mercy, caution, and so forth—but we know, we have to examine ourselves so that we do know, what we’re actually doing. You can go to the doctor and give a false set of numbers and say, “I don’t have any pains or aches,” the doctor can reply, “That’s good,” and you can drop dead that day. You have to be honest about who you are if you want spiritual healing, if you want to allow God to set your soul on fire, so that on your last day on earth you will not hear those terrifying words “Thou fool,” but you will hear “Welcome to heaven, my good and faithful servant.” You will hear words of encouragement because you have taken the talent given by God and you have applied it.
We must all, in the Christian life, have courage. We must have faith. Faith and courage are similar. We have to put ourselves out there. I said last week, we have to expose our life and activity to risk. We want to keep everything buried. We want to keep everything safely in our barns. We want to try to preserve this life and all the aspects of it indefinitely. We are told in no uncertain terms in this Gospel, this life as we’re living it will come to an end when we least expect it. We need today, to begin having that dialogue with our soul and begin telling our soul, not “Take thine ease. Eat, drink, and be merry,” but we must tell our soul and encourage our soul to be on fire, to be consumed—all of us, every aspect of us. We must transform ourselves.
I think this is a very appropriate Gospel for the first Sunday of the Nativity Fast, as we are preparing ourselves for the Nativity of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. This is one of the Great Feasts of the Church. The rest of the world celebrates it; lately we’ve been faced with all sorts of sales, because what the world is advocating and suggesting is something completely opposite of what we’re doing. We’re fasting and they’re building, and building, and building towards this material extravaganza. It’s hard for us not to be affected by that. It’s hard for us not to fall into that way of thinking. I’m not judging them; they’re having fun; that’s their culture; they’ll answer for it. But we, as Orthodox Christians, have to be serious. We have to be a good example for our brothers and sisters.
Without being difficult and unpleasant, we have to remind people by reminding ourselves, what we’re preparing for: the Nativity of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ; the coming into the world, in a very particular and real way, of the Creator of the Universe. So that He may transform us. So that He may ascend the Cross. So that He may be resurrected. So that He may ascend and take our souls to heaven with Him. Dear brothers and sisters, as we journey together during this Fast, as we make our feeble efforts to abstain from this, and abstain from that, and eat a little bit less—let us remember why we’re fasting, and why God put us here.