Love Yourself?

The words that you heard Our Lord Jesus speak to the Pharisees in the Gospel (Mt 22.34-46) are both subtle and profound. They are subtle because they contain not simply the answer that He wishes to give to them, but also a little bit more that they need to hear. And they are profound because they draw us out of ourselves and deeper into the mystery of the love that God is.

Let’s first consider their subtlety. The Pharisees wish to trap Jesus and so they send someone who knows the law, someone who knows the answer to the question he is going to ask. So this is not a curious question. This is not someone saying, “Gee, Jesus, what do you think of this one?” Rather it is a very tricky, craftily devised question to see how Jesus will answer.

What is the first commandment? You all know the answer. You know that the first commandment is that you shall have no other gods. But that is not how Jesus chooses to answer the question, even though that’s what the Pharisees and especially that expert in the Torah expects to hear.

Jesus simply wishes to focus on something that they have forgotten, something that too often is misunderstood by us, something that escapes us because it lives in our emotions rather than living in who we are. And so the first word out of His mouth is “love.”  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

Love God above all else. If you love something else more than God, then you do not yet love God. And to love God is to love God above everything else, to fear nothing but losing God, and to trust in God more than you trust anyone, or anything else.

Love God with all that you are and with all that you have. That’s the first commandment.

The key word is “love.” A word that has escaped these men, for they were not interested in loving Jesus. They were envious of him. They wanted to trap him and trick him. They wanted to see how they could get him. And anytime you want to trip someone up, anytime you want to get at them, anytime you want to stab them with some word, you do not love.

This is why Jesus then continues with more than what they asked for. For they asked for the first commandment and he told them, “This is the first and greatest of all commandments. But the second commandment is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Notice the order. “To love God is to love our neighbor” (St John Chrysostom). It does not say that to love our neighbor is to love God. For if we put the neighbor first, then we can determine who our neighbor is and how we are going to treat them. And too often our neighbors are people we like, not the people that we think are smelly or dissatisfying to us. And too often the neighbor is the one that we think we can manipulate and bully or use.

Now if we put the neighbor first and say “to love the neighbor is to love God,” then we might be thinking we can get away with something with God. That we can manipulate God and bully Him; that we can say to Him, “See what I have done for you; now here is something you can do for me.”

That is often times how our prayers tend to go, even if we don’t say those exact words. For our prayers tend to be, “God I did my part, now you be fair and do your part. Do the help that I say I need from you because I did the thing that You said I should do.”

To put God first; to love God by loving your neighbor—that means that we must love our neighbor in the same way that we love God: with all that we are and with all that we have.

To love our neighbor then is not to try and manipulate him, or to use him, or to bully him, or to see what we can get from him, or to bargain with him. To love our neighbor is to realize that any person put in front of us —not just the ones we like, not just the ones that are agreeable to us, but anyone in front of us—that is the person we are to love. And we are to love with the same love that we have for God: without any fear of losing or being short changed ourselves, without any trust in what we do, without any love for ourselves. That is how we are to love our neighbor because that is how we are to love God.

This escaped the Pharisees. It too often escapes us as well. But it escaped them because, as I said, they were envious, they were jealous, they were trying to trap him, they were trying to use his words against him. Rather than hearing what he was saying, they wanted to just listen to the words. Jesus of course understands this and chooses his words better than we do. He’s very precise in his language and hits the bottom note just exactly where it needs to be: on the word love.

Now, when Jesus proceeds further He becomes profound. He draws us out of our self, and into the mystery who God is. For our Lord says that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Too often we hear that backwards too. Too often we think that in order to love my neighbor I must first love myself. And since I don’t yet love myself how can I love my neighbor? And so my neighbor will get no love whatsoever until I’ve learned to love, and forgive, and be at peace with myself.

That’s not what Jesus says. He says love your neighbor as yourself. Not love yourself and then love your neighbor. That is too often how we operate. Our Lord is urging to do is to think about how we are to love ourselves.

We all know that within us lurks some sort of darkness—some darkness of the soul, some darkness of the mind. We all know that within us lurks some sort of fear and anxiety so that we are unsettled with who we truly are. No doubt, this is why we are constantly trying to shift or shape our identity and say to ourselves: “Maybe I fit here, maybe I fit there, maybe I should do this instead. I’m unhappy with all sorts of things in life: work, friends, family: all these things that annoy me.”

How is it then with all this darkness lurking within us, when we’re not very sure about who we are, with all this unhappiness—even during the times when we’re peaceful and at rest—how is it then that we can even begin to love ourselves?

We love ourselves when we listen not to what our voice says, not to what we think about ourselves, but instead hear the identity that God has given to us: the statement of love He has spoken to us. For He spoke in the waters of baptism the same word to you that He said to his beloved Son: “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”

Now we have a choice. Do we believe what God says about us, that He loves us even though He knows our darkness? Even though He knows our flaws? Even though He knows we are constantly veering off in the wrong direction and are making promises that we cannot keep, or will not keep? Even though he knows all of that, He still loves us.

Do we believe what God clearly says to us? Or do we believe the darkness within us; what today’s prayer [collect] calls the contagion of the devil. The contagion of the devil, among other things, wants us to believe that we really are unlovable people because we cannot really love ourselves.

But God’s word is very clear and precise to us: “You are my beloved son; You are my beloved daughter.”

Now when that sinks in, when we can begin to believe that, and trust that, and live from that, and push aside the darkness and bad feelings that are still there—when we say to them, “Nevertheless, God loves me”—when we’re able to do that, then we can begin to love our neighbor. Not because we’ve fallen in love with ourselves, but because we’ve learned to see our neighbor as the same sort of person that we are: the one to whom God says “This is my beloved son, my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased.”

That is the profoundness of the words that Jesus speaks when He says “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He’s not saying, “First love yourself, and then love your neighbor.” He’s instead saying, “Love your neighbor with the same sort of love that God has declared to you; because that is the only love that you can be sure is true for you; that is the only love that really applies to you. And so love your neighbor as another human that has been loved by God.”

That is hard for us to do because we want to push people away; we want to make sure that we somehow manipulate them or use them.

But if we love them as God has loved us, and if we love God with everything that we are and everything that we have, then we have not simply fulfilled the first and the second commandments. Rather, we’ve been filled with the God whose love is within us. And we’ve not just kept the rules. We have kept the love of God that he gives to us, and that he is for us, and that he is within us.

To this Lord Jesus Christ, the Father’s beloved Son who lives His love in us, belongs all glory, honor, and worship; now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen

Homily on St. Matthew 22.34-46 by Fr John Fenton for Pentecost XVII (13 October 2019)

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Sacrificing Our Will

We have been led to believe that we can do whatever we want. So when someone tells us that we should do something, or that we must do something, or that we are expected to do something, almost immediately our hackles are raised, our pride rears its ugly head, and we insist to ourselves—if not also aloud to others—that we will do what we like, that no one will tell us what to do, that no one can make us do anything, and that we will make our own choices.

And this stubbornness is applauded by those around us. We congratulate each other for being resolute, for being our own person, for standing up for ourselves and our right to free choice. But in fact we’ve become the slave of our selfishness. We’ve succumbed to the deadly sin of pride.

Doing what we like, going our own way, insisting on our choices—that is not the mind of Christ that the Saint Paul speaks about in the Palm Sunday Epistle. What does the holy apostle say? “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” And what is this mind of Christ? He made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant … and humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death.

In other words, Our Lord did not do as He liked; He did not go His own way; He did not stubbornly say, “No one can tell me what to do.” Instead, thanks be to God, Our Blessed Lord Jesus willingly, freely, and gratefully submerged His thoughts and desires, and submitted Himself to His Father’s will, trusting that Our Father in heaven knows best.

In the Passion Narratives on Palm Sunday, Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday and Good Friday, you will hear this same theme when Our Lord Jesus prays, Not as I will, but as Thou wilt. Not My will, but Thine be done.

With those words, Our Lord not only determines to be our Savior; He also shows us the way of salvation. He not only demonstrates that He is holy; He also leads us in the path of holiness. And He not only conforms His will to the Father’s will; He also indicates that, if we truly desire to attain the kingdom of heaven, we must set aside our pride, we must put to death our stubbornness, we must refuse to go our own way, and instead follow in the Lord’s saving path of humility.

For in His tender love for us, Our Savior Jesus Christ both put on our flesh and suffered our death. In this way, He gained for us the salvation, the freedom from death, the forgiveness of sins, and the life in God that we desire and that Our Father has freely given. By His death, Our Lord opened heaven to us and obtained what we could never obtain on our own.

Yet we can stray from this saving way. And we can damage the holiness Our Lord gained for us if we let pride have its way by doing not what we must but what we please.

Let us, therefore, beg the prayers of the Holy Mother of God, of the Holy Archangel Michael, and of all the angels and saints that, aided and defended by their holy intercessions, we may follow the example of Our Lord’s great humility, and remain on the path of holiness by putting to death our self-will and by living solely in the Father’s will, who has loved us in His Son and by His Spirit with an everlastin g love. Fr John W Fenton

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Vice & Virtue: A Men’s Retreat

On Saturday, April 13, St Michael will host “Vice & Virtue: A Men’s Retreat.” Participants will be challenged to reflect on the examples of St David the King and St Joseph the Spouse of the Virgin Mary in their personal battle to be victorious against various vices.

The retreat begins at 9 a.m. with prayer and Mass (Divine Liturgy) and concludes with prayer at 4 p.m. In addition to the main presentations, time will be aloted for silent reflection, conversation, and confession.

The retreat will be led by David Paddison, Fr John Fenton, and Dn Nicholas Mamey. Various resources will also be available.

The cost to cover meals is $12.50 online, or $15 in person. Registration is not required, but is requested. See the link below.

For more information or details, contact Fr John Fenton at stmichaelwhittier@gmail.com

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Lenten Retreat March 16

To aid your Lenten Fast with prayer and meditation, the Society of St Benedict of St Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church will host the V Rev John Finley on Saturday, March 16, for a day-long Lenten Retreat.

Fr John will present three meditations on the theme “The Inner Heaven of Man” which will focus our attention on the healing of Mind, Heart, and Will.

Fr John is the chairman of the Department of Missions & Evangelism for the Antiochian Archdiocese. His meditations will be will surrounded by prayer and Liturgy, silence for reflection and private prayer, and opportunities for confession.

The retreat begins with First Hour (Prime) prayers at 9 a.m. and concludes by 3 p.m. with Ninth Hour (None) prayers. Fast friendly meals will be provided; however, child care is not offered.

St Michael Church is located at 3333 Workman Mill Road, Whittier CA 90601. Please RSVP by sending an email to Fr John Fenton (frjohnfenton@gmail.com) or by telephoning the parish office (562.692.6121).

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When The Lord Give Us Opportunities

Before this parish, in recent months, the Lord has placed several marvelous opportunities. These opportunities take various forms: persons, donations, talents, etc. The question that ought to consume us is whether, and how, we might take advantage of these opportunities.

Putting before us opportunities is oftentimes how Our Lord works with us. He does not foist Himself upon us or lead us by the nose. And rarely, if ever, does He answer our most common prayer; that is, to show us which path we are to take (considering, of course, that our options are all morally upright).

That can be frustrating, especially if we are expecting or demanding some “clear word.” As if God is our Magic 8 Ball who reveals our fortune and future, especially when things have aligned to present us with intriguing or important decisions. That understanding of God reduces both Him and us: Him to a shaman we consult only we are at loggerheads, and us to people who are ultimately governed by fate.

Yet, as we know, Our Lord God desires to be more than an impersonal consultant. And He has designed us with free will; in fact, such free will that He even permits us to ignore Him, revolt against Him, and disown Him. For without this free will, we could not truly and freely love Him.

However, this does not mean that Our Lord doesn’t suggest to us possibilities. In fact, He often opens doors or pathways, points out viable alternatives, and may even give hardly preceptive nudges. Yet whenever Our Lord presents us with opportunities, He then honors our free will by letting us choose our own path—even if that path is not what He would think is the best.

Even this thought raises another bothersome question: Why does Our Lord present opportunities? And why, when He does, doesn’t He make the choices plain.

Well, sometimes the choices are plain; particularly when they involve a moral good or evil. But most often, Our Lord presents us with opportunities to give us the chance to stretch our wings of faith. If I may be so colloquial, it’s as if Our Lord is saying, “Here. Let’s see what you’ll do with this!”

Our Lord presents us with opportunities to give us the chance to stretch our wings of faith.

Mind you, it’s not a test. The Lord rarely treats us like Abraham and Job, seeing how far we’ll go for Him or whether we’re as strong as He thinks. Rather, most often, the opportunities Our Lord presents are just that: opportunities. Chances to explore certain avenues; openings to expand our vision; attempts to help us see things from another angle.

That is how I see the opportunities that the Lord has recently set before us as a parish: chances, openings, attempts, and challenges to think about who we are and how we might proceed differently, perhaps even more remarkably, as a community.

Perhaps we can see these opportunities—and every opportunity the Lord gives us—as a means of remembering that

[L]ove never rests. Love never says, “We’re there.” Love is a long-term project. An undying process. A constant moving forward. Not just to improve, but more importantly, to deepen, to mature, and to grow.

By the prayers of St Michael, and by your prayers, may Our Lord help us see His love in everyone and everything.

Fr John W Fenton

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Lessons & Carols

Featuring a guest conductor, a string quartet, a selection from Handel’s Messiah, and favorite Christmas carols, this year’s Lessons & Carols service will be held at St Michael’s Church on Saturday, December 22, beginning at 6 p.m.

Join us, and invite family and friends. This is a community event, intended for all we know and love!

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Preparing for Christ Mass

The Church and the world prepare for the Lord’s Nativity in two very different ways. And these opposing preparations reveal what each really believes.

The world prepares by putting up trees, lights and other decorations. It also offers “holiday” (or “seasonal”) parties, and thinks nothing of prematurely anticipating christmas day. The world simply can’t wait; in fact, it won’t wait. And so it barges ahead and “celebrates” christmas during the month after Thanksgiving.

The world’s excuse for barging ahead is that “christmas is for the children.” Yet it doesn’t let the children wait for chirstmas. Instead, the world indulges the children. But who are we kidding? The adults are really indulging themselves using children as an excuse; and too often, at the children’s expense.

In doing this, the world shows both its immaturity and its lack of understanding for any celebration. The world shows its immaturity by focusing on itself—its parties, its ideas of how christmas should be celebrated, and its inability to wait. And the world shows its lack of understanding because it believes that the real reason for christmas revolves around the joy it can manufacture for itself.

The Church, by contrast, celebrates not christmas but Christ’s Mass—the day we did not deserve or merit to have Our Lord God come into our flesh to bear our sin, assume our death, and be our Savior. In other words, the Church understands that the reason for Christ Mass revolves around the great and wondrous mystery of Our Lord’s coming down from heaven for us men and for our salvation.

Because of this focus, the Church fixes our attention not on self-serving joy or decorations or parties, but rather on our need to repent, fast and pray so that we might be duly prepared, in heart and mind, to welcome and receive this great gift of God’s Love. Therefore, the Church prepares her members for Christ Mass by urging them to slow down, to focus not on this world, and to meditate on the Lord and world to come.

How can we quietly pray and meditate if we are caught up in going from party to party, or in decorating the house and yard? That is a question the Church urges us to consider. But more importantly, the Church urges us to remember that the month between Thanksgiving and Christ Mass is best spent utilizing the ancient Advent discipline of fasting, prayer and confession.

This discipline helps us reset our focus so that we see that christmas is not “for the children.” Rather, Christ Mass is about the Christ Child whom we are unworthy to receive, but who gives Himself to us nevertheless so that we might leave this world and its allurements behind and be joined everlastingly to God our Father in true and holy joy.

I encourage you, then, during this Advent not to be caught up in the world and its fabricated christmas, but to prepare yourself humbly and meekly so that, with godly intensity, you may celebrate the holy Twelve Day feast of Our Lord’s Nativity.

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Advent Retreat on December 8

The Society of St Benedict will host the annual Advent Retreat on December 8.

The Very Reverend Patrick O’Grady from St Peter the Apostle Church in Pomona will present the three Advent meditations on “Obedience, Repentance, & Pure Prayer.”

This retreat is open to all persons. It is designed primarily to give, for at least a few hours, a respite from the many distractions in December so that one can focus on the gift of Our Lord in our flesh.

The retreat begins with Prime at 9 a.m. and concludes by 3 p.m. with None. Please RSVP by email (frjohnfenton@gmail.com) or telephone (562.692.6121).

(Note: Child care is not provided.)

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