SERMON 11-11-18 (Our Departed Neighbors)
Today I want to focus on the 2 questions that the lawyer asks Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.
His first question is:
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Instead of answering, Jesus responds by turning the question back at the lawyer saying:
“What is written in the Law?” and “How do you read?”
And the lawyer answers by quoting the 2 great commandments:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
To which Jesus replies:
“You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”
Then comes the follow-up question. The lawyer asks:
“And who is my neighbor?”
For some people, when they hear the word “neighbor” they immediately think of the person living next door to them. Others might think of a neighbor as someone who shares the same culture, or beliefs that they do… Someone they can relate to or have affection for.
But, to answer the Lawyer’s question Jesus, tells a parable in which, he uses a Samaritan as an example of what a neighbor actually is. Which is amazing, as Jews would never consider Samaritans as “neighbors” because they had no dealings with each other.
So, for Jesus (being a Jew himself), to use this example would have been shocking at the time. But that was the point: He was trying to get through to this lawyer, to get him to understand that there should not be restrictions or limitations on who we consider to be our neighbor.
Simply put, Jesus wants us to understand that all of humanity is a neighbor to us and we to them. Regardless of whether or not they share a common faith with us, or the same political views as us, –no matter what distinctions there may be between us, (in the end), we are all each other’s neighbors. And we are to love each other as neighbor’s just as the Samaritan showed love to the man who fell among the robbers.
But do we actually do this?
You see, to honor that second great commandment to “love our neighbor” is an indicator of whether or not we are honoring the first one: “loving God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind.” If we don’t love our neighbor, who is made in the image and likeness of God, then we’re not loving God. To do one is to do the other. If you love God, you love your neighbor. If you love your neighbor then you love God. It’s that simple. These two commandments are inseparable. We cannot limit our neighborhood to just the people we like or get along with.
Even as members of the Church, I think we at times (although unintentionally perhaps), limit the definition of neighbor. Typically, when we read the parable of the good Samaritan we feel inspired to help those who are suffering in this life, and who are in need of help (whether it be helping someone who is sick or injured).
But, so much of our attention for our neighbors is focused solely on those who we see right in front of us. I think we often forget that the definition of neighbor extends far beyond what we see. Indeed, it extends even beyond the grave itself, to our departed loved ones. In fact, I would argue that if you want to think of a neighborhood, think of the Discos. The living and the dead are right next to each other. They are neighbors.
Now, you might say, “Father, they’re dead, how can I be a neighbor to someone who is no longer here?” “I can’t bind up their wounds and care for them like the Samaritan did for the man who fell among the robbers, so, how can I help them?” The answer is: YOU CAN PRAY FOR THEM. And I want everyone here to know that our prayers for the dead, DO INDEED, make a difference.
I will cite two examples from the lives of the Saints which illustrate this point:
The first is about St. Macarius of Egypt:
One day, St. Macarius was wandering in the desert. On his path he saw a human skull lying on the ground. “I touched it with my palm stick,” he said, “and the skull said something. I asked him, ‘Who are you?’ The skull answered, ‘I used to be the chief of the pagan priests.’ –Macarius then asked him: “How do you pagans fare in the other world?’ –the skull answered: ‘We are burning in the fire, flames surround us from head to foot, and we cannot see one another. But when you are praying for us, we can get a glimpse of one another, and this brings us some measure of happiness.”
The second story is told by St. Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome. It goes like this:
A monk of his monastery did not keep his vow to NOT own money. When he died, the authorities, in order to set an example for the others, refused to allow him a church burial, as well as prayer. This lasted for 38 days. After which, the authorities relented and pitied his soul.
For thirty more days, the church prayed and offered the bloodless sacrifice for him. On the last of these days, the departed man appeared in a vision to his brother, who was still alive, and said, “I suffered cruelly until now, but now I am happy, and I dwell in the light; for today I have entered into communion.” Thus the departed monk was spared punishment because the soul-saving bloodless sacrifice had been offered for him.
These are only two accounts, (among many), given to us by the fathers of our Church, which state that our departed loved ones can benefit from the prayers of their loved ones on earth. This is not meant as a guarantee that we can change everything and get someone into heaven (because ultimately God is the judge and that matter is in His hands), but it gives us hope. Hope that such prayer can help those we love.
Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev says in his book entitled: PRAYER: Encounter with the Living God:
“We should not pray only for our neighbors who are alive, but also for those who have departed to the other world…” “…when someone dies they pass into another world where they meet God to answer for everything they did in their earthly life, good and bad. It is VERY important that such a person be accompanied on his way by the prayers of his loved ones, of those who have remained here on earth, who keep his memory. We, who remain on earth can ask God that He lighten this person’s lot.”
And, if we can help them, then it is without a doubt, our responsibility to fervently pray for our departed brothers and sisters as often as we can. This is why the Church has so many different days set aside specifically to pray for the dead: The Saturday of the Souls Liturgies during the two weeks leading up to, and the first week of Great Lent. During the Kneeling prayers of Pentecost we pray for the dead. Each and every Divine Liturgy contains prayers for the dead. We pray for them in the Great Entrance — and we pray for them after communion, when I come into altar…–and pour the remaining particles of bread from the discos (representing the living and the dead) into the chalice, saying:
“Wash away O Lord, the sins of those here commemorated by Thy precious blood, through the intercessions of all Thy saints.” Showing once again, that we are constantly remembering the dead and offering prayers for them. This is loving our neighbors.
So, as we leave here today, let us MAKE time to pray for ALL of our neighbors, both living and departed: That God will bless all of them, And may they, (as our neighbors) in turn, pray for each of us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God, Amen.