Lech Walesa was the Polish electrician who helped found the Solidarity Trade Union in 1983. This was the first independent trade union in the old Soviet Union and became the political movement that drove communism out of Poland. While visiting the United States after becoming the 2nd president of a free Poland he commented on the wealth of the US: “You have riches and freedom here but I feel no sense of faith or direction. You have so many computers, why don’t you use them in the search for love?”
Material prosperity can become a deep delusion that blinds us from the false freedom of material ease. We no more have to look at the chaos in society to see that material wealth can unleash the foolishness of our own self-centeredness. That notion that I can “do anything I want because I have the money to do it” never leads to true freedom but slavery to our passions. But the challenge comes in confronting the truth that material wealth is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. What happens is that material wealth reveals the depth of spiritual illness in us all, and, in that, it is a valuable moment to grasp. Sadly, most of us miss this opportunity to learn about ourselves and we remain enslaved to the passions that poison our lives.
Look at our lesson today in Isaiah 5:7-16:
Thus says the Lord: For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry! Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing: “Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.” Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening till wine inflames them! They have lyre and harp, timbrel and flute and wine at their feasts; but they do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands. Therefore my people go into exile for want of knowledge; their honored men are dying of hunger, and their multitude is parched with thirst. Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure, and the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down, her throng and he who exults in her. Man is bowed down, and men are brought low, and the eyes of the haughty are humbled. But the LORD of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness.
St. Isaiah has a colorful way to describe the material wealth of Judah. They “who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.” What a powerful description of ever-growing wealth that leads only to deep loneliness!
In our own journey of Great Lent, we are invited by the wisdom of the Church to “fast” together. We Orthodox don’t merely choose one thing to “give up for Lent” but fast as a community as we can in support and solidarity with one another. The power of our chosen “poverty” during this season creates community and a sense that saying “no” to good things for a short period of time sets us free to truly appreciate what we have and not merely “consume” what we have. The “fast” enables us to take a voluntary adventure into taming our passions and to learn to both be grateful for our possessions and learn to let them go for the benefit of our own souls.
And that leads to a freedom from the loneliness of “I am enough for myself” and all the modern expressions of our isolated technical existence. The poverty of our material wealth in this society has enslaved us to live out the most ridiculous notions of “freedom” and “self-fulfillment.” And yet even the most bizarre expressions of our “true to yourself” madness has done nothing but multiply loneliness and separation and further atomization of our lives in increasingly smaller and smaller “tribes. Study after study has shown that even as our material wealth has increased, our loneliness has increased even more. And now they are talking about Artificial Intelligence creating “AI Best Friends” to combat this epidemic of loneliness among us. Dear ones, we must avoid this madness and we must teach our children the treasure of the Faith so they avoid this madness as well.
So the Church offers us another Way. This Way invites us to a purposeful poverty for a time so that we NEVER take for granted our wealth and our prosperity. And in this choice of temporary poverty, we are invited to an honest assessment of our true spiritual poverty that spoils all our material possessions. Through this season of repentance and humility, we see past the temporary ease of material possessions to the true freedom of repentance. We tame the passions that poison our lives and we grow in our attentiveness to the eternal over the shallow temporariness of the present.
Our commemorations today call us to remember 7 holy hieromartyrs of the city of Cherson on the Black Sea. These holy bishops were sent as missionaries of this area to evangelize the population and each of them was killed by the unbelieving people of the area as the number of Christians grew. These men understood that eternal values outweigh the temporary comforts of the world and were willing to give their lives so that even their enemies would be saved. The area eventually became a stronghold for the Faith because of the faithfulness of these holy bishops.
Today, are you blinded to your spiritual poverty by the material wealth that cons you into believing “all is well?” Take the plunge into the wisdom of the Faith and practice a serious Great Lent and you’ll discover the powerful freedom of living a Normal Orthodox life in a world increasingly drifting from the sanity of the Faith.
P.S. Since You have given us the miracles of Your holy Martyrs as an invincible battlement, by their entreaties scatter the counsels of the heathen, O Christ our God, and strengthen the faith of Orthodox Christians, since You alone are good and the Friend of man. Amen
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