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Sunday of the Forefathers

December 16, 2012

It’s Christmas time.  Parents bundle up their children another day for school Soon Christmas vacation will start in the small town of Newtown, Connecticut. There’s shopping to do, errands to run before they pick them up.

Then the worst imaginable scenario takes place. A young man walks into Sandy Hook elementary school and begins shooting. When the horror finally stops 20 children and 6 adults have been shot and killed. 12 little girls and 8 little boys had their lives cut short. This is just heartbreaking. What can be said at a time like this? The experts will all have their opinions on why this happened. What do I say about it? All I can say is this was pure evil. The heartlessness and wickedness of this man that did the shooting is really unbelievable.

The pain for a parent losing a child is perhaps among the worst pains of human existence. At times like this we must turn back to the basic message of Orthodox Christianity. Among Slavic Christians, Christmas is the time of S’nami Boh. This is a Slavonic phrase that translates the Biblical word Immanuel. Both of these mean “God is with us.” God is with us. That is hard to believe for many right now. For too many in our world, God will be blamed for “allowing” this tragedy to occur. “Why did God let it happen?” many will ask. Why didn’t God stop it?

As hard to believe as it may be in our society today, God is not Superman, Batman or Spiderman. He does not use His superpowers to prevent tragedy. So what does God do? Or better – what has God done? He became human in Jesus Christ. He made it possible for us to be just like Him – like God Himself. This does not give us superpowers. This does not give us superpowers. This does not give us the ability to make wine from water. This does not give us the power to step in and stop tragedies from happening.

We are told again and again in Scripture and in the writings of our Holy Church Fathers that God is love. We are told that God is Father. Did your father on earth step in to prevent accidents or tragedies in your life? My father did not. But what did he do? He was there for me when I needed him most. He was there to love and care for me when I was hurt or hurting. He and my mother were loving and caring parents who gave me the choice of how I was to live. Sometimes I chose wrongly. Sometimes I chose against their will, and I got hurt by it. But they were always there to comfort and support me in my time of need.

S’nami Boh. Immanuel. God is with us. That is what God does.

I know God is there through loving parents and caring people to bring comfort to those grieving right now in Connecticut and around the world. I know He is here right now to bring comfort to all of us who are heartbroken to hear of such a tragedy.

At times like this we need to step back and look at the larger picture. For the picture is not of a single horrible tragedy that happens all too often in our world. The picture is not in time. The picture is eternal. Stepping back and looking wider we see that this life on earth is not all there is. There is a life to come. An eternal life. A life forever with God.

When that eternal life begins, there will be a judgment. All earthly wrongs will righted. The man who committed this heinous act will, like each of us, have to face God. The judgment for those who reject God’s love will be severe and forever. But that, for us, is not important today.

In that life to come, there is also great safety for those beautiful children whom I believe are all right now resting in the arms of Jesus Christ and cared for by his wonderful Mother. No harm will come to them again. Jesus Himself said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

And there is comfort available to their parents who are in the deepest valley of pain and grief right now. They, too, can be given the assurance that they have the ability to see their dear children again in that life to come.

We remember the Forefathers of Christ on this Sunday of the Church’s Year. From Abraham to Joseph, we remember ordinary people who were chosen to do extra-ordinary things. Among those Forefathers was the greatest of the Kings of God’s people. King David lost a child of his own. But he knew what was in the future. “I will go to my child one day,” he said, “but he cannot return to me.”

It is our task this and every season of the Holy Nativity, every Christmas, to let our children know that we love them and not take them for granted. And to share with them that God is with us. S’nami Boh. Immanuel. And because of what God has done in sending Christ, we shall never be separated from each other.

27th Sunday after Pentecost

December 9, 2012

It must be one of the most well-known stories in the entire Scriptures.  This Gospel tells the story of the healing of Ten Lepers. It is a simple story. Ten men suffering from leprosy are all healed from the dread disease by Christ. Only one of the ten returns to thank Jesus for the miraculous cure. "Were there not ten healed?" Jesus asks. "Where are the other nine?" This is the question put before us all today. Where are the other nine? 

It is a strange business, this ingratitude. It is hard to define. But it’s one of those things which we recognize when we see it both in ourselves and in others. Ingratitude has many ingredients. The chief ingredients are self-centeredness and self-pity.  There is a little story that illustrates the first of these two ingredients: self-centeredness.

There was once a very respectable wood elf who spent his time running around with a little wheelbarrow, gathering snails and weeds that were destroying the vegetation. This elf had a prized possession that he kept in his little hut. It was a green blanket; a soft green blanket. It had fallen from a fairy's wagon as she had traveled through the woods and she never returned for it.  At night the little elf wrapped himself in the green blanket. Now it was very cold in the deep woods. But the elf was warm in his soft, green blanket. And he slept soundly through the night. In fact, he slept so soundly that he had never had occasion to see the King of the World. The King of the World was said to come early each morning to make all things fresh and new. But the elf was so wrapped up in his warm green blanket that he was never up. He had never seen the King of the World.

One time a shepherd met this elf out in the woods and said, "Have you ever seen the King of the World?" And the elf said, "No. As a matter of fact, I never have.  I've never been able quite to manage it." Now the shepherd was shocked to hear this, living in the woods that way. So the shepherd came up very close to the elf. He looked into the elf’s eyes and deeply into his soul.  He said, "I seem to see something there that looks strangely like a blanket." The elf knew that the shepherd had discovered his secret. His secret was this. The elf would rather be wrapped up in the warm green blanket than to get up early enough to see the King of the World who made all things fresh and new. 

It seems that green blankets have a great deal to do with self-centeredness. And we all have our green blankets. Each of those nine lepers in our Gospel was securely wrapped in his own green blankets. They were all no doubt happy to be back in society again. They had cured, healed bodies – and probably quite good looking bodies at that. Besides, they had been through so much. They deserved to get healed. Now they had to make up for lost time. And Jesus? Oh, yeah, we'll send him a note sometime, when we get around to it.  Securely wrapped in a warm green blanket! 

Self-pity is another ingredient which makes up ingratitude. It is similar to self-centeredness--but in reverse.  People who practice self-pity feel so sorry for themselves, that there is no room for thankfulness. There is a story about an elderly man who went to visit another very old man who was in the hospital, very ill. He came up to the man's bedside saying, "Well, we're both so old. We're coming to the end of it. There isn't much help for us is there? But I've come to see you, John. Is there anything I can do for you?" "Yes," said the man in the bed. "Would you mind taking your foot off the oxygen tube?" Self-pity can so absorb a person, that he can no longer see the things for which he might be thankful. 

Self-pity, as well as self-centeredness, can so wrap us up in a warm green blanket that we are kept from seeing the King of the World and how he makes all things fresh and new. 

But then there is that leper who did come back. This cured leper who, upon recognizing his healing, did not take it for granted. He flung himself at Jesus' feet praising God, and showing great gratitude. This was the man upon whom Jesus pronounced the word, "Your faith has made you well." One English translation puts it this way: "Your faith has made you whole." And the basic meaning of  both  phrases  is  literally,  "Your  faith  has  made  you right with God." Salvation in the New Testament means wholeness, completeness. It means life back under the rule of God where it belongs. 

We who have been blessed with the wonderful riches that Christ brings are the ones who should see wonderful things around us for which we can be thankful.  Simple things, things we look at and simply accept--like roads, buildings, bridges, cars, trains, airplanes. There’s even your own home or apartment. We are the inheritors of such public riches which we so often overlook. Think of the work, the sweat, even the lifeblood of people who made these things for us. And it is even simpler. Do you have a cup of coffee in the mornings during the week?  The coffee we get from Kenya is picked by workers who get twenty cents a day! I never think about that. We so often just take it for granted. Is our green blanket so snuggly warm that we fail to see the King of the World? He has come to make all things fresh and new every morning, including our coffee? 

In Japan, fishermen who spend the year fishing, have a special festival day in which they ask forgiveness of the fish for taking them all year. A favorite painting of mine shows a Native American who has just killed a deer. He is next to the dead animal, on his knees. He is thanking his god for the life of the animal and for providing food for his family. An old Orthodox custom is to make the sign of the cross over a loaf of bread before slicing it--like our little prayers of thanks before and after meals. These are small tokens of how to overcome the green blanket syndrome.

After all, the King of the World is coming. He is coming. He is coming as He comes day after day. He comes to make all things fresh and new. Don’t miss Him!

 

Feast of St. Nicholas

December 2, 2012

There was once a monastery near Constantinople. It was a poor monastery. The Rule of the monastery required the monks to own nothing. As well, the monks were to rely entirely upon the charity of travelers. Travelers were sometimes scarce. Travelers were often stingy, as well. When the monastery was in great need the monks would pray to St. Nicholas for help.

One day, a traveler came along the road. Near the monastery, he came upon a man's body lying beside the road. The poor man was dead. The traveler took pity on the man. He took the body to the monastery and asked the monks to bury the man. The traveler gave a generous donation to cover burial expenses and help the monastery.

A year later, the same traveler was again near the monastery. He came to the very spot where he'd found the body. This time a boy was standing on the spot. The traveler asked the boy what he was doing there.  “My father disappeared last year,” the boy explained.  “I’m trying to find him.” The traveler took the boy to the monastery so he could see his father's grave. Standing by the grave, the boy asked to take the body home to his mother.

The monks honored the boy's request. They began to dig up the coffin. As they dug, they found the grave filled with gold and silver coins. The monks were, of course, puzzled by this. They turned to ask they boy what this meant. But the boy had disappeared.

St. Nicholas himself later appeared to the Abbot. The great saint told the Abbot that the monks no longer needed to worry about money. God had sent an angel, disguised as a boy. God sent the angel to reward the compassion of the traveler who had found the dead man alongside the road. And to reward the monks who looked after the man’s body. So goes one of the many stories about the great love and charity of the Saint we remember today.

Children around the world know and love St. Nicholas. After all, it is he who, it is said, brings gifts and treats in December. He is known by different names—and even looks different from place to place. But, it is the same St. Nicholas who delights with small surprises and good things to eat. St. Nicholas gave in secret. He was always alert to others' needs. And the good Saint expected nothing for himself in return. It is this selfless generosity which seeks only the good of the other that made St. Nicholas's gifts the gifts of a Saint.

In the West around the eleventh and twelfth centuries the tradition of exchanging gifts on St. Nicholas Day actually began. As early as 1163 the tradition was observed in the Dutch city of Utrecht. St. Frederick had been bishop there in the 8th century. In the 12th century, French nuns began leaving candy and gifts outside the doors of children in need. The St. Nicholas Day children's gift-giving custom spread through Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland and England. It took root across most of northern and central Europe, as far east as Romania. One English writer described the 1550s London feast day procession. He said it was led by people dressed as St. Nicholas. He described how they "went abroad in most parts of London singing after the old fashion." He said they were "received among good people into their houses, and had much good cheere as ever they had in many places."

A 15th century Swiss writer wrote of St. Nicholas Day: …it was the custom for parents, on the vigil of St Nicholas, to convey secretly presents of various kinds to their little sons and daughters who were taught to believe that they owed them to the kindness of St Nicholas and his train, who, going up and down among the towns and villages, came in at the windows, though they were shut, and distributed them. This custom originated from the legendary account of that saint having given portions to three daughters of a poor citizen whose necessities had driven him to an intention of prostituting them.

St. Nicholas primary virtue came to be seen as generosity to children. This generosity was rooted in the several other stories about the Saint. First he had rescued the desperate young women with gold for their dowries. Then he had saved three schoolboys from a certain death. Thus on St. Nicholas Eve, December 5th, gifts were left for the small children of poor families. St. Nicholas' gifts were usually good things to eat: apples, oranges, nuts, and eventually cookies and sweets.

On this Sunday we speak of generosity in giving after the example of the great Saint. On this day we offer our stewardship of time, talent and treasure back to God who gave these gifts to us in the first place. On this day we gather gifts that will be received during these holidays by the poor of Atlanta through the Loaves and Fishes program of the Atlanta Orthodox Clergy Brotherhood. We offer to others freely and without expectation of return. This is the legacy of St. Nicholas. Giving. Giving. And wherever there is need, giving some more.

Among Orthodox, St. Nicholas Feast Day, December 6th, has been celebrated for centuries. St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, St. Niklass, Santa Claus: he is still the gift giver, no matter what we call him. He has become the patron saint of our God-loved diocese. He prays to God for us in our time of need. He prays to God for our salvation, as the words of His tropar say: “You attained greatness through humility, and wealth through poverty. O Father and Archbishop Nicholas, ask Christ God to save our souls.”

Leavetaking of the Entry of the Theotokos

November 25, 2012

On November 21st our Church celebrated the feast the Entry of the the Birth-Giver of God into the Temple. This is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church’s year. Today is the final day of the Feast.The event is based on a traditional story told in an early Christian writing. This is the story.

A couple by the name of Joachim and Anna were childless for many years. They promised God that if they had a child, the child would be given to the service of God in the Temple. When they were gifted a child, Joachim and Anna fulfilled their promise. When their child, whom they named Mary, was three years old, they did it. They offered Mary back to God. The faithful parents brought their daughter to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was the center of religious life among the Jews. It was considered the very place where God was. It was the very place where God joined His people on earth.

The High Priest Zacharias, husband of St. Elizabeth, led Mary into the Temple. There Mary entered the Holy of Holies. This was the most sacred, the central part of the Temple. Even the High Priest could enter only once a year. No one else was allowed to enter. This was the very place where God dwelt. Zacharias was led by the Holy Spirit to take the three-year-old Mary into this most sacred area of the Temple. God was working out His plan. He was preparing His vessel, His Bridge, His new Temple, Mary. He was getting ready for His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to enter the world.

The three-year-old Mary was led into the Holy of Holies, because God had news for the world. Mary was to become the new Temple. And several years later that news became known. Mary became the new Temple because she carried God inside of her for nine months. That is where God chose to dwell. She was His physical temple. She gave Christ her flesh, her blood and her bones. This new Temple replaced the wood, metal and stone of the Jerusalem Temple.

While she lived in the Temple in Jerusalem, Mary prepared herself to become the Mother of God. And what did she do there in the temple as a child? According to St. Gregory Palamas, Orthodox Church Father, this is what she did.  She listened to the writings of Moses and prophets. She learned about Adam and Eve and everything that happened to them. She learned how they were created, settled in paradise and given a commandment there. She learned about the evil one's ruinous words. She learned about their expulsion from paradise on that account, the coming of death and the change to a way of life full of pain. As time passed, she saw how life grew even worse. She saw how God's creature made in His image grew further apart from the Creator and became closer to the Evil One. When the holy Virgin Maid heard and understood this, she was filled with pity for humanity. She decided at once to turn with her whole mind to God.

Here the meaning of the feast comes clear. The Entry into the Temple that we celebrate today shows us two things clearly. First, the Holy Birthgiver of God is the New Temple, wherein God in His fullness lived. Second, the Holy Birthgiver of God, the every-Virgin Mary is the true example for all – especially for children. From three years of age she was in church. That was her whole life. That is what God created her to do. And in so doing, she became the Mother of God.

All too often we take being in church, in the Temple of God for granted. We have a beautiful church, used basically on Sundays. How do we follow the Holy Mother into the Temple; into our Temple? What did the young people of Soviet Russia think about the loss of their churches? What did they do when they had no church to go to – all had been closed down by the Soviets. Hear this story told by an Orthodox Bishop of the times.

“…a certain believing man was present at a Divine Service in Soviet Russia. (The service was held in a secret place). The others became convinced of his trustworthiness and invited him to their place, to Vespers. The service was like this. He came to quite a large, furnished room. It was full of young people. They were all sitting down, talking quietly. A little later a man dressed in working clothes came in. The young people spoke quietly to the guest. He was their priest. Quietly and reverently all went up to him to get a blessing. He blessed everyone. Then  everyone sat down again in their places to begin Vespers. The young people put on a recording that played very loud so that people on the outside would think that the young people were having a party and dancing. The priest pronounced the last part of his prayer. They answered him quietly under the sounds of worldly music. They asked the priest to serve the Liturgy, too. But he said it had to be in a church. So they brought him to the outskirts of town, to a deserted, falling-apart barn. Inside, everything was arranged as in a church. And there they had the Liturgy. …”

“We here are lazy,” the Bishop went on, “and do not go to God's temple. Now there is no danger at all. Back then those young people went at terrible risk to pray to God. One of these young people was asked, ‘Aren't you afraid? There have been incidents where they have uncovered such places and there followed the most cruel punishment!’ They calmly answered him, we are not afraid of anything; faith is dearer for us than everything. We are prepared to die for the Lord. Neither unpleasantness, nor deprivations, nor tortures, nor oppressions, nor death frighten us -- nothing terrifies us. But the Lord keeps us."

Today’s feast comes during the Nativity fast. Today’s feast is a call to remove ourselves from earthly to heavenly things. Let us change our path from the flesh to the spirit. Let us change our desire from temporal things to those that endure. Let us put away earthly delights that tempt the soul and soon pass away. Let us desire spiritual gifts, which remain forever.  Let us “lay aside all earthly cares,” and raise them to Heaven, to the eternal Holy of Holies, where the Mother of God now resides. There does the Holy Theotokos pray for us. And through her prayers, we shall be become possessors of the everlasting blessings to come.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

24th Sunday after Pentecost

November 18, 2012

Some years ago, I received a phone call from a former parishioner living out of state. He told me that his late mother’s will had included me. That was the good news.  He added the rest of the news. After all the bills were paid, the funeral expenses covered, and the attorney had his take, there was nothing left in inherit. But he thought I should know that the dear lady was thinking of me. I did think of her – kindly – and thus ended my career as an heir.

No doubt I should be grateful that there was nothing left to inherit after that kind woman reposed. After all, I was spared embroilment in one of life’s oldest problems: squabbles over who gets what when the will is read.

Our Lord Christ had this old, old temptation in mind as he spoke today’s parable to a man who wanted Him on his side in an inheritance settlement.

One of the multitude said to him, "Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?" And he said to them, "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, `What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."(Luke 12:13-21)

This judgment of Christ comes down upon the greed that is in us all. This judgment is as severe and blunt as any He spoke. It denounces a malady of our soul that besets us all. Our Lord did not play around with greed, the most subtle of the deadly sins. He came down hard on the man who asked him to referee a family inheritance battle. Christ knew the fatal attraction of storing up treasures for one’s self but not being rich toward God.

The tricky nature of greed is that it can sneak in. It can be covered by wisdom or ambition. Greed can masquerade as hard work, or quickness in answering when opportunity comes knocking. In the parable, Christ pictures the “go-getter” mindset that comes uncomfortably close to what has been called the “American dream.” Here is the man portrayed. He has abundant fields, but his eye is on the big picture. He surveys the endless market opportunities out there. He decides to go for broke. He plans the grand dream of ever bigger and better facilities. He has to have something to house the bonanza he’s banking on. Then he sits back and dreams of the pot of gold at the end of his rainbow. There will be a comfortable retirement; he will be able to reap all the rewards for his hard work and shrewd investing. Here is a man confident that his trust in his ample goods will make his sunset years truly la dolce vita, the sweet life.

What’s wrong with this fellow? He seems to embody every quality that a corporation board of directors would pay big bucks for! Christ does not wait an instant to answer: He is a fool! This is the name Christ gives for the ultimate problem in life: putting things in first place ahead of God. That judgment in the parable strikes like a thunderbolt – or should I say – a massive heart attack! “Fool! This very night your soul is required of you!”

In the process of devoting his life to profit, he lost his soul. That means to regard something other than God as the source and center of all meaning and all good in life. And to make it all the worse, greed parades under the appearance of respectability. Think of the multi-billion dollar industry that is professional sports. We hear of players refusing to “play” when they can’t get the multi-million dollar contracts they demand. It is unabashed and clear greed.

How does this speak to me and to you? Well, suppose that, in one catastrophic moment, you lost everything you own. Put yourself in the shoes of the Old Testament prophet Job, or those caught in the worst of Hurricane Sandy. No more house or property is yours. You have no place to sleep tonight. You have no money, no clothes, no food, no car, no job to go to in the morning. Nothing is there. In what, then, would your life consist? What would still give you worth? Where would you find identity?

The Holy Apostle St. Paul writes to the Colossians (ch. 3): “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above…”  It is not the Dow Jones average that has given us salvation. No, it is our faithful Lord Jesus Christ. It is our God become human. It is Christ who went through all those things that make for the worst of life. As he hung on the Holy Cross, He unmasked the very idolatry that is greed. He lost everything. He even thought He had lost God: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” 

And in the worst that life can give, Christ was resurrected from the dead. He was brought back to life with all of us. So, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above…” What God has given to us in Christ we can never fully repay. But we can try. Christ gave 100% for us. What do we give back to Him in thanksgiving? The traditional Biblical stewardship is to give back 10% of everything we have. This is called tithing. When you look at the big picture, giving back 10% is such a small amount compared to what God has given us. Yet the average giver in the Church gives less than 1%. What does this say about our “being raised with Christ”? What does this say about our greed?

We are sons and daughters of God in Christ Jesus. We surely must plan and work for tomorrow’s needs. But, as we do, let us remember the words of Christ. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Everything else will be added to you.”

 

 

 

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

November 11, 2012

We all know the greatest commandment.  We heard it again in today’s reading from the Holy Gospels.  We are to love God with our whole being.  And we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  But just knowing this is not acting on it.  To make the move from simple head knowledge to living action – that is the task to which we are called today.

Christ tells the story of the Good Samaritan so that they might see how the greatest commandment should work in their lives.  Anyone, including us, can see ourselves in the role of the priest and Levite.  But to follow in the footsteps of the Samaritan?  There is the challenge.  The Samaritan knew the law and he acted on it.  He saw a man in distress – in need of help – and he went to his aid.  He even followed up on this first ministry by assuring the man a continuing care of his needs until he could care for himself. 

Of course, it was inconvenient for the Samaritan.  He had to go out of his way to help a fellow man.  He had to make a personal sacrifice of time, of money and of effort.  He did all this without expecting any reward in return.  The Samaritan did this all because he simply wanted to help his neighbor in time of need.  This is “charity” – or what we might call “stewardship” at its best.  One volunteers oneself and his or her time and money, and does so without strings attached and looking for no reward in return.  The Samaritan did not ask the man to report to him.  He did not ask the man to explain to him how he got into this mess.  He did not ask the man to explain why he did not take any precautions when traveling.  The Samaritan did not ask for a case history to justify his time, money or energy expended.  In short, he was a Good Samaritan.  He helped his neighbor in need because he was motivated by love – love of God.  There can be no better example of Love for God than love that is expressed as an act of mercy.

Mercy is the active side of the coin we call love.  If we truly love God, we will want to share the deep joy and gratitude we have in our hearts.  And what is more natural than to share it with our neighbor in need?  Love is only love when it is shared.  Such is the very meaning of love.

Christ has given us, in this well-known story, the example of great virtue.  Here was a Samaritan, a member of a despised race, an outcast and a stranger in Jewish society.  Yet he proved to be the noblest of all.  This man, when put to the test, showed mercy to his neighbor when his neighbor needed him the most.  And that is expected of us. We, too, must show mercy, that is, to be merciful even as God is merciful.  We are to love as God has loved us. We are to love others as we love ourselves.   The first step, as Christ suggests, is to learn to love ourselves.  After all, how can we love our neighbor if we don’t love ourselves?  But just what is “self” love?  First of all it is not “selfish” love.  Love that is selfish is actually a form of hatred.  Selfish love excludes all others, even God.  Love includes – it includes God, neighbor and self.

When it comes to loving self, it means to know ourselves as we really are.  And, as well, it is to know how God intended us to be.  He created us in His own Image and Likeness.  He intended us to be like Him – His true children who bear naturally His Image and His Likeness.  A true child of God respects and honors, that is, loves, his body, mind and soul as a gift given by God.  Thus it is natural to look from self to our neighbor and to God.  For God has made all people in His Image and His Likeness.  Humanity has received these gifts as a common heritage.  God gives equally to all; He shows no special favors.  He loves us all.  What greater example of this is the Cross?  On the Cross, the Son of God showed all of us His love.  He showed it to those who know Him as Savior.  But he showed the same love to those who reject Him; even to those who crucified Him. 

 So who is our neighbor to whom we show love as it has been shown to us?  In a very practical way, it starts with the neighbor closest to us.  It is said that it is more difficult to love our neighbor in need next door than to love our neighbor is some remote corner of the world.  Our first concern should be for the neighbor in need closest to us.  The story is told of a mother with many children.  She was asked which of her children did she like the most.  Which of her children did she favor?  The mother answered simply that it was the one that was in trouble.  It was the one that was in need at the time.  That is where we, too, begin to love our neighbor.  It is the one who is in need nearest at hand.

 But how about loving God?  How do we do that?  He has no needs for us to fill.  He is not in trouble.  God does not need us.  He is our Creator.  He has made us in His Image and Likeness.  And we have hidden that Image behind our sin and disobedience.  But God did not leave it that way.  He has chosen to continue to love us in our need.  He showed that love by sending Christ to the Cross to save us and restore His Image in us.

 And what does He ask for in return?  Only that we share that love as He has loved us.  We share it with our neighbor who is also created in the Image and Likeness of God.  And we start by caring for the Image of God that is in our own selves.  The time of preparation of the Holy Nativity is such a time.  Confession, fasting, prayer – these are all ways of caring for the Image of God in us.  And we love our neighbor in need because he, too, has been made in that Image.  Let us strive to be as this Samaritan.  Let us be Good, even as the Samaritan was good to his neighbor.

22nd Sunday after Pentecost

November 4, 2012

Have you ever wondered to yourself: “How can everyone else seem to be so happy and full of joy when my life isn’t so happy?” How is it that other people can worship with joy and I feel so “blah”? How is it that so many seem to have great communication with God, yet I seem to be praying to an empty heaven?

Others are getting healed.  Others are getting blessed.  Others are prospering.  Others seem to get everything they want out of life.  Where am I missing it? How can I get what I see others getting?  Have you ever felt like just another face in the crowd?  Is it like you were not making any difference to anyone?  Is it like you were not needed or necessary?  Is it like you were just passing time and taking up space? Does the grass always look greener on the other side of the fence?

The feeling of being just another face in the crowd can be a very lonely one.  If you have ever been on the streets of Manhattan in the middle of the day, you know. There you can easily find yourself swept into the flow of the crowd.  Before you know it, you are surrounded by hundreds and thousands of unfamiliar faces. Even though there are multitudes around you, all seemingly content and completely comfortable in their surrounding, you feel isolated and alone and totally out of place.

Being lost in the crowd is a frightening experience. Have you ever been separated from your child in a crowded department store? Or have any of you children ever let go of your mother or father’s hand in a large crowd and become lost?  If you have found yourself taking the wrong exit into a bad area of a large city, you know the knot that appears in your stomach.  Lost in a crowd – you know what it’s like.

So goes the story of the woman with the issue of blood in today’s reading from the Holy Gospels. She is in a large crowd, this desperate woman.  She is pushing her way through that crowd.  She had suffered 12 years.  She no doubt had spent all that she had to find a remedy.  She abandoned all customs and rules to get to Christ.  Here she was, a woman, out in the middle of the day, pushing her way past men.  She must have been desperate.

And Christ said, “Who touched me?” When everyone denied it, Peter and those that were with him said, “Master, the crowd presses upon you, and you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And Christ said, “Somebody has touched me: for I perceive that virtue is gone out of me. “

What is important here? It wasn’t that Christ healed.  He had done so many times.  It wasn't even that He had healed someone who had been afflicted for a long period of time.  After all, He had healed another woman who had been sick for 18 years.  He had also healed another who had been blind since birth!  It wasn't even the fact that this woman should not have been there.  What is important here may not even be that this sick woman had to persevere to even get through to Christ.  No.  What is really important here may be the question asked by Christ. “Who touched Me?”  And then the response of the crowd.  “They all denied it.”

We all would have probably responded much like Peter when he said to Christ, “What do you mean who touched you?  Everyone here is touching you.”  Yet the word translated “touched” doesn't mean what we commonly would define it to mean:  we think it means to “feel.”  Yes, many in the crowded multitude “felt Him.” 

Many of you come to Liturgy and you “feel” something.  You may sense the presence of the Lord.  You may feel the mystery and majesty of the Liturgy. You may even be excited about what you see.  Yet, how often do you walk away from the experience of the Liturgy just as lonely, just as broken, just as jealous, just as miserable and just as depressed as you came.  There is a reason. 

The reason may be that you never “touched” Christ!  The word “touched” can more accurately be translated “to fasten oneself to.”  The word here means getting a “strong grip” on something.  Like a shark or alligator locking onto something.  The word implies grabbing hold without the intention of ever letting go! 

And the crowd around Christ? “They all denied it.”  They all denied touching Him.  Sure they could all say “We were there.”  We were a part of the crowd.  We were all witnesses as to what took place.  We can testify as to what happened.  We might even have felt something really good while it was going on.  But the question of Christ remains the same “Who touched me?”

“Who touched me?”  What separates the “faces in the crowd” from the “woman with the issue of blood?”  The crowd still sees Christ as just another option in life.  The woman saw Christ as her only option!  So we find Christ surveying the crowd looking for that one who would touch Him.  No, not just feel him.  He looked for the one who would "fasten onto Him so as never to let go."

The story of Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago is the search by Zhivago’s half-brother for Zhivago’s long-lost daughter.  She became lost, she tells in her story, because the man leading her out of Moscow as it fell to the Bolsheviks in the chaos of the crowd, “let go of my hand, and I was lost.”  We ask ourselves today: how strong is our hold on Christ?  Do we just feel Him now and again?  Or are we fastened to Him, so as never to let go?

21st Sunday after Pentecost

October 28, 2012

We are yet again in another season that has been come to be called Halloween.  With the help of merchants and advertisers, society has come to link Halloween with demons and evil spirits.  We also have come to link thoughts of Halloween with grave markers, tombstones and skeletons.  We even decorate our homes with images of such things. Sorry to say, but in the world around us, demons and evil spirits have been stripped of their true power.

Let us not let ourselves be fooled, however.  Demons and evils spirits are real.  They are powerful.  We have only to look at our reading from the Holy Gospels for today.  In this reading from Luke, Jesus meets a man under the influence of demons.  The demons that lived in the body of this man were fierce and violent.  Luke tells us that the demonized man lived naked and among the tombs.  Among the tombs.  We might think that’s a good place for this demon-possessed man.  He ought to live among dead bodies and skeletons.  That may be part of our Halloween connection.  And it may be partly why many are fearful of walking through a cemetery at night.

These demons who lived in the man were so fierce and violent, we are told, that even chains and fetters could not hold the man.    When Jesus passed by, the demons confronted Him.  “What have we to do with you, Jesus, Son of the Most High?  Do not torment me!”  We must remember, first of all, that demons are spirits – evil spirits.  They know all about God and God’s plan for humanity.  They knew that Jesus was the Son of God.  They knew that the time for their power to be taken away was near.  These demons knew of the power of Jesus, the Son of God.  They even knew what Jesus had planned.  They knew what was going to happen. “They begged Jesus to let them enter the herd of swine.”

When Holy Evangelist Matthew tells this story, Matthew tells us that Jesus said one word to these demons.  “Go!”  It is brief.  It is right to the point.  There is no argument.  There is no justification.  There is no explanation.  There is simply a one-word command: Go!  I am reminded of Jesus’ response to Peter in Matthew 16.  Peter had scolded Jesus when Jesus had told the disciples he would have to die.  Jesus then was right to the point with Peter.  “Get behind me, Satan!”  When something is not in harmony with the will of God, it is to be rejected.  No matter what the source.  No matter who is doing the tempting.  It calls for a clear, quick and to the point rejection.  When evil tries to have its way, there is only one response:  “No!” 

Evil has no place in a world of people created in the image and likeness of God.  When an alliance is made with evil, only evil can result.  There is no middle ground.  There is no compromise.  A swift rejection of evil makes an alliance with God.  When we ally ourselves with God in Jesus Christ, we come down squarely on the side of good.  We ally ourselves with beauty, perfection, peace, harmony and unity.  Any force that would tempt us away from this godly path must be rejected.  We must reject it fully.  And we can, with Jesus as Guide and Power, do it simply:  “Go – get behind me, Satan!”

We are reminded how important it is not even to get into conversation with evil.  Our Father in the Faith John Chrysostom observes such in his commentary on Genesis.  He says that man made himself vulnerable to sin when he began to talk with the Serpent in the Garden.  The first step in committing sin is to change the “No” to the temptation, to “Maybe.”  That considers the possibility of sin.  It opens up a middle way.  And when it comes to evil and sin?  There is no middle way.  There is no compromise.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, tells us so.

A professor at Loyola College in Maryland has written something interesting.  He writes about the way our society has become so “me”-centered that the reality of evil has been dismissed.  When we are tempted to evil today, our first reaction is not “is this right?”  Rather, today’s modern person says, “Will this make me feel good?’  Or asks, “Will this be of some advantage to me?”  God has been left out of the equation.  One’s own self becomes the measure of good and evil.  It is no wonder the world is in the state it is.

May God grant us the power and wisdom to say “No!” to evil.  May God grant us the power of the Holy Spirit to always ally ourselves with Him.  In our Epistle today, Paul writes to the Galatians.  “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God. ”  And in that life we all have, there is no greater work than the rejection of evil.  May we believe in the power of God to overcome evil.  And may we ever walk in the new life that God has granted us through the life, death and resurrection of His Son.

Moleben for the Salvation of our Land

October 24, 2012

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last months, you know that in two weeks we elect a President of the USA.  As citizens of a democracy, we have the ability to make our voices heard. It should be noted, however, that voter apathy among Christians is very high. In the past presidential election, 40% of voters who identified themselves as Christians did not vote. How things might have changed if even half of those 40% had brought true Christian convictions to bear upon the world around them.

Is that fair to say? Don’t people have the right NOT to vote? I believe that at least (if not more) than 40% of people who identify themselves as Christians don’t practice their Christianity at all anyway. So we ask the question: where do our Christianity and country meet? How can we be good Christians and good citizens? I would propose to you tonight as we pray for the salvation of our land that love for God helps us to love our country.

First of all, remember what the apostle Paul wrote. “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1) In other words, God has established the principle that government is needed to be in charge of society. And as Christians, we are to be in submission to the governing authorities even though we may not always agree with them.

Paul goes on to tell us the purpose of government. The first purpose is to do good. “Rulers,” Paul writes, “hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good.” A second purpose for government is to restrain evil. “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

We all know that is true. Every time you hear a siren or see red lights behind you, what do you do? Do you look at the speedometer to see if you’re driving within the speed limit? And do you wonder, "Is my seat belt fastened? Do I have my insurance card? Is my inspection sticker up to date? Is my registration sticker current?" If all the answers are "Yes," then you breathe a sigh of relief. But if you have broken the law, then you’re afraid because the government has the power to punish you for your disobedience of the law.

Secondly remember that our nation’s Constitution was written assuming that the citizens of this land would be moral, God-fearing people. That’s the only way democracy will work because democracy becomes whatever the people are. If the people become pagan and immoral and violent, then the government becomes pagan and immoral and violent. For example: Suppose there were 5 people on an island, 3 men and 2 women. The 3 men vote to rape the 2 women. That’s democracy. But that’s democracy at its worst. So democracy has the capability of becoming an evil form of government if the people are evil. That, brothers and sisters, is a real concern.

The Old Testament call by God to His people still stands: 2 Chronicles 7:14:  “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” These words from God Himself are not addressed to unbelievers. They are addressed to His people, to us, to us who are believers. And they are saying that we’re the ones who need to repent and turn our faces to God for healing if His grace is to continue for our land.

In 1 Timothy 2:1-4 the apostle Paul said, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved…”

Our president needs our prayers. Our governor needs our prayers. Our county government needs our prayers. Our leaders and all their support staff, the legislators, and all in authority over us need our prayers. We pray with every use of the Great Litany of Peace, “…for our honorable government of our country an all civil authorities.” Keep that prayer on your lips especially in these times.

Finally, in becoming the best Christian citizens that we can be, remember where your citizenship really is. Again, St. Paul to the Philippians 3:17-21: “Join with others in following my example, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of…Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame….But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who…will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body.”

There’s a saying that goes, “Freedom is never free.” You and I live in a country that cost many their lives to make us free. They made the ultimate sacrifice, and some are still doing it, so you and I can be live freely to do just what we are doing tonight.

The famous Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky told the story of the time he was arrested by the Czar and sentenced to die. The Czar, though, liked to play cruel psychological tricks on some of his prisoners by blindfolding them and standing them in front of a firing squad. The blindfolded prisoners would hear the command to fire and the rifle shots, but would feel nothing. Then they would slowly realize that the guns were loaded with blanks.

Dostoevsky went through this experience himself. He said that going through the process of believing that he was really going to die had a transforming effect on his life. He talked about waking up that morning certain that it would be his last day of life. He ate his last meal and savored every bite. Every breath of air he took was precious. Every face he saw, he studied with full intensity. Every moment was etched into his mind.

As they marched him into the courtyard, he felt the heat of the sun and appreciated its warmth like never before. Everything around him seemed to have a magical quality. He was seeing the world in a way he had never seen it before. Then when he realized that he had not been shot and that he was not going to die, everything had changed. He became thankful for everything about his life, and grateful for people he had previously hated.

You and I may very well die this night. If not, when the morning dawns bright and clear – what will your life be like? Will it have changed at all as life was changed for Dostoevsky? Our ability to have the freedom we do is dependent on those who die to protect it and those who live to preserve it. Our Orthodox way is to continue to grow in holiness, and to bring those around us to the same holiness. God has the power to save our land. He shares that power with us. We must decide how and when to use it. The next big opportunity? Tuesday, November 6, 2012

 

20th Sunday after Pentecost

October 21, 2012

Of all the religious teachers in history, Christ was the only one qualified to speak with authority about death and the afterlife. He is the only one who claimed He would die and return from the dead.  And then He did just that.  So when Christ speaks of the afterlife, we can be assured he knows what he’s talking about.

The story of the afterlife told by Christ in today’s reading from the Holy Gospels, has four important lessons we can learn.  First lesson: financial status is no reflection of faith.  One could title Christ’s story “rich man, poor man.” And we learn much from the experience of the rich man. Christ speaks about a man who was so wealthy he could “live in luxury every day.” That phrase meant he didn’t have to work. He was one of those whom we moderns might call the “idle rich.” In Christ’s day people made the mistake of thinking wealth was connected to goodness. Wealthy people were rich because they were good.  Poor people lived in poverty because they were evil. When the rich man died, there no doubt was a huge funeral at which people spoke of the rich man’s greatness and goodness.  However Christ said he ended up in the flames of hell!

Christ is saying that net worth has nothing to do with one’s standing before God. There’s nothing wrong with being wealthy. That is, as long as the rich acknowledge God as the source of wealth. But it’s obvious this rich man was a self-made, self-centered person. His sin was not in being wealthy. His sin was ignoring the needs of Lazarus who was begging at his doorstep every day. Thus, financial status is no reflection of faith.

The second lesson from this story of Christ is this. Knowing God doesn’t excuse anyone from suffering. In contrast to the rich man, Lazarus was a man who had a relationship with God. When he died he was escorted by the angels into the presence of Abraham. He went to heaven. But look at the condition of Lazarus’s earthly life! Christ said he was a beggar. He was carried to the door of the rich man’s house every day to scrounge around for a few crumbs.  Not only was he a beggar, but he had some kind of painful skin disorder. Christ said he was covered with sores. He was so weak he couldn’t stop the street dogs from licking the sores. What a picture of a sad, suffering existence! Which of those two people, Lazarus or the rich man was right with God while he was alive? Many might have picked the rich man.  Many would have been wrong!

There are some who preach a health and wealth gospel that says if you are right with God, you will always prosper and always be healthy. Apparently poor Lazarus couldn’t get that station on his cable.  The truth is, sometimes righteous people suffer a great deal in this life. But thankfully, this life is not all there is!

So, lesson three: when your body dies, you will continue to exist – either in heaven or in hell.  The rich man and the poor man each lived totally different lives.  But they had one thing in common: they both died.  But that’s not the end.  At the point of physical death, the body ceases to function.   But the soul continues to live on.  While together, the soul and body have journeyed through life.  They have (hopefully) ascended the ladder toward heaven. If the soul and body together are at the top of the ladder to heaven at death, the soul will continue on in eternal bliss with God.  And the glorified body will follow at the final judgment. 

The icon of the "Ladder of Divine Ascent" depicts that ladder going from the bottom left to the top right of the icon. At the top is Christ in glory with hands outstretched towards those people who are climbing the ladder. In the air and on the ground are a number of demons.  They are trying to shoot (with arrows) or drag people off the ladder. Some people are falling from the ladder. The point is that no matter how high a person might ascend, no matter how close to God one may come, it is still possible to fall.  It is still possible to turn from God.  Yes, life continues after death.  The question is where?

Thus, the final lesson from Christ’ story: You’ve got a choice of where to spend eternity.  When we get to heaven, we may be surprised to see who’s there.  And who is not!  We will not only see Lazarus there.  We will see a man who lied and deceived and stole something that wasn’t his: Jacob. We’ll see a man who committed both adultery and murder: David. We’ll even meet a man who lived a life of crime, and was granted paradise a few minutes before he died. You remember thief who were crucified with Christ.

What was the difference between the two thieves? What was the difference between Lazarus and the rich man? What is the difference between some people who go to heaven and those who don’t?  The difference is the choices that each one makes while still alive! It is the choice to repent of sin or not.  It is a choice to belong to the Body of Christ or not to.  It is the choice to trust in the way of riches and the world, or the way God has provided through the Church.  It was Jacob’s choice.  It was David’s choice.  It was the thief’s choice.  It was the rich man’s choice.  It was Lazarus’s choice.  It is our choice, too. 

Oh, yes – there is one more lesson.  This directly from this story: after death there are no more choices.  After death there is no repentance.  The time is now!

Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council

October 14, 2012

Jesus Christ is the final Truth in the Church. There are two ways to know the Truth of Christ. First, we know the Truth by His words contained in the Gospels. And second, we know the Truth above all by His actions. And the most important of His actions?  Of course it is His Resurrection from the dead. How then is the Truth of the Church known? Who can speak for the Church? Can the Truth of the Church be stated by one man? By a lowly priest in North Georgia? By a Pope? By an Emperor or a King? By our own Bishop? The answer is simple. No.

We do know where the Truth of the Church lies.  We can find that out in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. There we find that, after Pentecost, the Apostles gathered together in a Council. They discussed and prayed about some problems in the Church. This gathering is known as the Council of Jerusalem. At the end of this Council, the Apostles made decisions.  These decisions, they said, “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

In other words the Truth of the Church comes from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit speaks through the Apostles’ successors gathered in prayer. The Truth of the Church comes by the Holy Spirit through the councils of the Church. The Holy Spirit, we often pray, is the Spirit of Truth. Christ Himself says the Spirit will be sent from the Father, to lead us into all Truth. That’s where the Truth of the Church lies.

In the Church’s life there have been Seven Great Councils. There the Bishops, successors to the Apostles, gathered. At these Councils, there were not a dozen bishops.  There were not a hundred bishops. Rather there were hundreds and hundreds of bishops from all over the Christian world.  Thus these Councils were called Ecumenical, or world-wide. The bishops in council defined the basis of our Orthodox Faith.

The last of these Councils took place in the eighth century. It was the Seventh Ecumenical Council. On this Sunday in October every year, the Church remembers the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Council. The icon showing the Fathers of this Council is in the middle of the church. Through that icon, we, today, are with the Holy Fathers in that Council.

Some people may ask, but why is it that the last Council took place so long ago? And why were there only seven of them? The reason for this is simple. It is because these seven Councils resolved all the great issues defining our Faith.

For example, the Seventh Council in the eighth century spoke to many of the great issues of later times including our own. At that Council, the Fathers said that since Christ truly became a human, we can make images or icons of Him. Moreover, we can paint images or icons of saints too. For although the saints were flesh and blood like us, they, like us, were made in the image of God. Although fallen from that image, all of us have a high calling.  We are to become icons of Christ Himself.  We are called to return to that image in which we were created, the very image of God.

The enemies of the Fathers of the Seventh Council said the opposite. The enemies, known as iconoclasts or image-breakers, said that Christ was not truly human. Thus, icons of Christ, they said, were no more than pieces of art. They were idols. The iconoclasts denied the very essence of the Faith. And what is that? The Holy Hierarch Athanasius of Alexandria said it clearly. God became human so that humans could become more like God. Icons are the very truth of that saying.

So the iconoclasts took icons out of churches and burned them.  They reduced church buildings to vast, empty barns. By denying that Christ had become human, they also denied the image of Christ in all of us. So came about massacres and persecutions. They burned not only icons, but also humans. So it is today. At any time, any place where human life is not held sacred or divine – there are the iconoclasts of the eighth century alive again in the 21st. Wherever life or death comes down to a human choice, there the Fathers of the Seventh Council have spoken.  Always choose life. For every life is created in the image of God!

The original iconoclasts were defeated in the eighth century. But throughout history they have reappeared. In England they showed up in the 16th and 17th centuries. Then they burned the images from churches. They burned human beings at the stake. They stabled their horses in churches. They fired their cannons from church towers.

In the twentieth century they showed up again. They hid behind all sorts of philosophies, both left-wing and right-wing. They dynamited churches. They massacred priests and the faithful. These tragedies happened all over the world at the end of the last century. And they continue into this one. They will continue to happen wherever the image of Christ is denied in human life.

The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council spoke the Truth.  They spoke of the very essence of the Orthodox Faith. And there has not been another Ecumenical Council since then.  There has been no need. If only we would heed the teachings of the Holy Fathers in the eighth century.  Then this twenty-first century would be one of peace, health, and long life for many happy and blessed years.  Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, pray to God for us!

18th Sunday after Pentecost

October 7, 2012

The presidential election is on most everyone’s mind these days. The election is but a month away. Directly related to that election is the economy. With millions out of work, and without jobs to be found, economy is a major issue. If you add the growing moral breakdown of society to economic uncertainty what do you have? For many, it seems a bleak future. Like everyone else, I don’t like thinking about inflation, energy shortage, or other hard realities.

But I am a priest. I am not an economist. I am not a social scientist. I certainly am not qualified to deal with social or economic turmoil. I am more equipped to deal with the fear that sometimes grabs us when we think about these things. So let us look today at these problems as we ponder the experience of the widow in our Gospel today.

First, try to place yourself in her shoes. Her husband was dead. In her society, the husband was chief, and only, provider. Now, beside her grief over her husband’s death, her son dies. Now there was no one to care for her future needs. She, of course, had not social security. Her son was her last source of care. So out of the city of Nain she walks to the cemetery. Slowly. Surely weeping. She does not need a CNN economist to tell her that her economic system has collapsed. Her lifestyle has to change. There seems to be no hope. She has no joy. Despair is close at hand.

Just then a young man walks up to her. He says, “Do not weep.” “Don’t cry”? Her whole world has been shattered. Her life lies in ruins. “Don’t cry”? How cruel this seems. She has every right to cry. But this young man is Jesus.

St. Luke tells us that as Jesus watched this procession, he had compassion on this poor widow. He tells the procession to stop. And the dead son of the widow comes alive again. Can you imagine the joy this woman must have felt? She had hope again. Her tears of grief were turned instantly to tears of joy. At the same time, we are told, “fear seized the crowd.” Of course they were afraid. God had intervened in human life. They were afraid with a holy fear. Who was this man who could change the course of human affairs so drastically?

Can God do the same today? Does He do the same today? Can we trust God to see us through our fears? Can we trust that God will see us through the fears about such mundane things as our economy? Our elections? After all, we are in a situation much like the poor widow’s. She could not rely on herself to solve the problems that were facing her. She was caught in an uncontrollable downward spiral. That is, until God stepped in. Will God step in again, for us?

The fact is, God has already stepped in. In Jesus Christ, God has provided us with a lifestyle that is distinctively Christian. He does not give us that canned laughter of a TV comedy – a laughter that just masks our fears. God in Jesus Christ has provided us with a lifestyle that is secure from the changes in our world. For the Christian, specifically the Orthodox Christian, there is an answer to our anxiety. This answer is based on an entirely different view of the world. In this view, the Christian realizes that there is so much more to life than cars, bank accounts, and all the creature comforts of society. Thus to the prophets of economic doom we say, “So what? God has visited His people.”

Do notice that in this story from the city of Nain, no one asked for Jesus’ help. He just saw the poor widow there. And then He acted. If there is one thing that these stories of Christ tell us it is this. God will not be stopped until He has filled the world with His compassion and love. How far will God go to act for us? St. John tells us. “This is the way God loves the world,” John wrote in His Gospel. “This is the way God loves the world. He gave His only son.” Christ’s own death could not stop God. He broke through the human weakness of death then, too. He raised Christ from the dead. Economic crisis pales in comparison.

We are faced with a choice. History teaches us of the choice some made during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many gave up and jumped out of their office windows. What is our choice? It is not really a choice between Obama and Romney. It is a choice to trust the compassion and love of God or not. It is a choice to believe that Christ is alive and well, and working on our behalf. Or not. It is a choice to live the Orthodox lifestyle based on prayer, sacrifice, fasting and the Holy Mysteries of the Church. Or not.

How many times have we heard, or sung those comforting words? You know them, perhaps by heart. “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace. According to Your Word. For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared in the sight of all people. A light to enlighten all the nations. And the glory of Your people…”

Have you ever heard of Charles Blondin? Blondin was a tightrope walker. He was the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He walked a 3” hemp rope, 1,100 feet long. In 1859 and 1860 he walked across it 160 feet above the Niagara River, just below the falls, several times. Each time he did it with a different, daring feat. He was dressed in a sack. He walked on stilts. He pushed a wheelbarrow full of potatoes. He rode a bicycle. One time he stopped in mid-section and cooked an omelet on a small portable stove. What if you stood in the crowd and he came up to you with his wheelbarrow. What if he asked you, “Do you believe that I can push you across in this?” You might say “Yes.” What would your answer be if he then said, “Get in?”   In the worst and best of times, God invites us to get in with Him.

17th Sunday after Pentecost

September 30, 2012

Of all the things Jesus commanded, loving our enemies is perhaps the most difficult. I may not love God like I should.  But I’m determined to get a handle on it. I many not love my wife the way I should.  But I intend to work at it. I may not love my neighbor as I should.  But I have nothing against trying.  But, love my enemy? If you could love them, they wouldn’t be your enemies anymore, now would they? They’ve hurt you.  They’ve spoken out against you.  They’ve threatened your self worth, your standing in community, your finances, your job.  They’ve subjected you to mental cruelty and perhaps even caused you bodily harm.  I don’t want to love these people. And yet, Jesus says, "Love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.  Bless those who curse you.  Pray for those who mistreat you."

 One way of thinking about my enemies is found in Romans. "Do not take revenge, my friends.  But leave room for God’s wrath.  For it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord."  But that’s not really “loving my enemy” is it?   So why should I love my enemy? Jesus gives us 3 reasons.

 First he says that when we are willing to do that "Great is your reward." Jesus doesn’t expand on this.  But this a promise. A promise from Jesus Himself. Jesus is essentially saying: "If you will honor me enough to do the tough things in life, I’ll reward you properly.”

 Think of protomartyr and deacon Stephen. As he lay dying, we’re told that his last words were: "Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing." What is Jesus doing during this travesty? Stephen says: "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." Knowing Stephen’s desire to forgive his enemies even as he is dying, Jesus is standing in heaven.  It may have been a mark of respect and honor. Jesus - knowing that Stephen had determined to forgive his killers - took this opportunity to show him and us that this is the type of attitude He honors.

 Secondly, Jesus says, "You will be Sons of the Most High."  Now, if you’re not sons of the most High, whose sons would you be?  Hatred is a tool of Satan.  Paul to the Romans advises, "Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good."

 Leonardo Da Vinci once had a terrible falling out with a fellow artist just before he began work on the "Last Supper." The story is told that he determined to paint his enemy as Judas. It was a perfect likeness. But last of all, he set to work painting the likeness of Jesus. No matter how he tried, nothing seemed to please him. Finally, he realized that he could not paint the portrait of Jesus as long as his enemy had been painted into Judas’s place. Once that was corrected, then the face of Jesus came easily. Neither can we paint the face of Jesus in our lives as long as we hold bitterness in our hearts.

 Thirdly, Jesus says for us to be like His Father.  We want to imitate Him. We want to grow up to be like Him. But this part of His personality doesn’t appear to make sense. To be kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Why on earth would God want us to be kind to the ungrateful and the wicked?  In Peter’s second letter, he reminds us that God is patient with each one of us.  God does not want anyone to perish.  He wants everyone to come to repentance.  So that’s why.  We are to love the wicked and ungrateful because it is they who need salvation, too. Can you imagine anyone who needs salvation more than your enemy?

 It is, then, our mission to reach out to our enemies for their salvation.  A young boy once heard in church from Romans, "If your enemy is hungry, feed him.” Why should you feed your enemy? he asked the priest.  The answer was simple.  “Because God says so."  In his school, this young boy was always being poked by another boy.  He did not know what to do about it.  "Maybe I should feed my enemy," he thought. He knew that this nemesis of his liked jelly beans.  So our hero got a bag of jelly beans to take to school the next day.  He decided that the next time he got poked he would turn around and deposit the bag on his "enemy’s" desk.

 The next day, our hero got poked again.  So he turned and plopped the bag of jelly beans down.  As he told the story to his mother, he remarked that “He just took the jelly beans. But he didn’t jab me the rest of the day!" In time, the two became the best of friends.  All because of a little bag of jelly beans. 

 “Love your enemies, and do good. And lend, expecting nothing in return.  And your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High.”

16th Sunday after Pentecost

September 23, 2012

The reading from the Gospels today takes us to the Sea of Galilee.  It was the Lord’s second call to His disciples.  Christ had previously called the four fishermen (Andrew, Peter, James and John) to follow Him.  They had traveled with Him in Capernaum and Galilee. But then they had returned to their fishing business. The time had come to move to a deeper level.  This is a story of our own Orthodox faith and life. This may be the very story of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Church.

Christ had already attracted great crowds of people.  On this particular day the crowd had become so large that they were pressing Him against the shoreline. So Christ decided to address them from a boat.  He got into one of the boats and asked the owner to go out in the water a ways.  That was so the people could see and hear him. After he finished teaching the crowd he told the fishermen to put out their nets for a catch of fish.  “When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, ‘Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’”

Move to deeper water.  Christ is talking of what He wants to do in Simon’s life. Christ is going to take Simon Peter to a deeper place in his spiritual life. It is no different for us. Christ, through His Church, keeps calling us.  The call is to move to a deeper place.  It is to develop our relationship.  You have probably heard that familiar piece of wisdom, “If you are not as close to God as you used to be, who is it that moved?”  After all, relationships always change. Either they move forward or they die. There is no middle ground.  There is no lukewarmness.  Are we no closer to God than we were last week or last year or twenty years ago?  Then this same call to Simon Peter is our call, too.

But often when the call comes, we are tempted to get around it.  We are tempted to be guided by our own experiences instead of what God says. It’s like; (to an eight-year-old) “It’s time to take the training wheels off the bicycle.”  Or, (to a sixteen-year-old) “It’s time to take the car out on your own.”  Logic says, “NO!”  Progress says, “YES!”

Here, Christ asks Peter to do something contrary to his own expertise in fishing. By Peter’s fishing knowledge, what Christ asks was not going to work. The best fishing on the Sea of Galilee was at night close to shore. But Christ had asked him to launch out into the deep.  And it was in the middle of the day. This was asking a great deal of Peter. Christ was asking him to trust His Word. He was in effect asking Simon to try again even though he had failed in the past. This of course would be an important lesson for Peter in the future. He was not to allow past failure to keep him from serving.  

We are tempted to be guided by our by our own circumstances instead of what God says. Just like Peter. “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing. But at Your word I will let down the net.” Peter is saying that he and his partners are dog tired.  The word translated “toiled” indicates very hard work.  They had not slept all night.  They had worked hard all night. The fishing of the past evening indicated that further fishing would be fruitless. Christ was asking them to bring out once again their freshly cleaned nets. Row out to the deep water.  And go through strenuous process of letting out and taking in the nets all over again. You can imagine what they might have been thinking. These men needed to learn obedience.

How does Christ take us from where we are to where He wants us to be? By pushing us, that’s how. Perhaps doing things our own way has left us empty.  Maybe our own knowledge and skills have failed us and we need to become obedient. Maybe its time for us today to obey God and try things His way.  That is, try it, even it we don’t understand where, why or how it’s all going to work out. Launching out into the deeper water is scary. It is less familiar.  But it is where God’s blessings are to be found.

The Church Fathers remind us that a boat is a New Testament picture of the Church.  Christ had instructed Peter to get into his boat.  There, again at the Word of Christ, to move the boat.  Then, at the place where Christ tells him, he is to let down the net. These are all pictures of Christ at work in his Church.  When we are in the process of growing in our faith, obedience in the Church is everything.  That is, obedience to the instruction of Christ.

The results? “And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish. And their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.”  As they harvested their catch, the two boats were filled to overflowing.  Both began to sink.  The result was more than just success.   “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Christ’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”  Peter senses his own unworthiness. Earlier he had called Christ “Master.”  Now he calls him “Lord.”  Lord was a title reserved by the Jews as a description of God Himself.

And these fishermen’s lives are changed forever.  “And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”  So they pulled their boats to shore.  And by every indication they turned their backs on the biggest catch of their lives.  For they followed Christ. The word “followed” is a word which signifies the deepest inward attachment.

God expects us to obey Him, simply because He has spoken. It is at His command that we, too, can launch out into deeper water and let down the nets. He will accomplish the results.

Afterfeast of the Elevation; Patronal Feast of St. Elizabeth

September 16, 2012

“Then Jesus called the crowd to Him along with His disciples and said: `If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it.  But whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”        

God has never offered us an easy way to eternity. He did not come to make life easy.  No – rather He offers to make people great.  As well, God never calls upon us to do or face anything that He was not prepared to do and face Himself.  What He asks us to face, He has already faced. So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus has a right to call on us to take up a cross.  For He, Himself, first bore one for us.

That goes against the grain of what the world teaches, doesn’t it? The world teaches us that success is measured by how much wealth we hold.  It is measured by how convenient and easy life is for us. And anything that differs from that, anything that bothers us or becomes difficult or complicates our already busy schedules, we should avoid.  So the world teaches. We’ve been taught that everybody ought to cater to us.  We are taught that all our needs ought to be met. All our wants and desires ought to be taken care of.  When that doesn’t happen, then we become unhappy.  And yet, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” 

So, what does it mean to “take up” or “bear” a cross? First of all, Jesus tells us that “taking up our cross” is something that we do voluntarily. Jesus calls us, and challenges us.  But it is our decision. Taking up our cross and following Jesus is always voluntary.

Generally we are pretty careless in the way that we talk about “cross-bearing.”  For example, suppose that after extensive testing the doctor tells me, “I’m sorry, but you have diabetes. You are going to have to deal with it for the rest of your life.” Now that may be a burden that I must bear.  But it is not a cross that I have to bear. So I can’t then tell others, “Diabetes is my cross to bear.” I can’t say that because I didn’t volunteer for it.  If I’m going to bear a cross, that means that I am, of my own will, taking it up for Christ. I’m going to enlist, to offer myself in some way to serve Christ. It is a task that we choose to undertake.  It is a price that we pay, out of love.

In the Priest’s prays at the consecration, St. John Chrysostom tells us of Christ and His Cross. “…on the night on which He was betrayed, or, rather, on the night on which He gave Himself up for the life of the world…”  Christ took on His Cross voluntarily.  He chose to bear that Cross.

For Christ bearing His voluntary Cross meant to die because He loved us so much He could do nothing else. It meant reaching out to all people, including those who are unlovable and unlovely.  It meant reaching out to people who may never return the love. And we are called to do the same. 

We remember today the Patroness of our parish church, St. Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Forerunner. In her old age, with her husband, St. Elizabeth became pregnant. She and her husband had prayed for many years for a child. It was the Archangel Gabriel who, you will recall, visited St. Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah in the temple. The Archangel announced the coming birth of the Forerunner. Zechariah was skeptical. But Elizabeth conceived. And what was her reaction to this Cross set before her? St. Luke tells us. She says, “Thus the Lord has tone to me when he looked on me.”

Imagine a woman advanced in years, perhaps sixty or seventy years old becoming pregnant. She will carry a child for nine months and then give birth. Here is a Cross asked for, given, and freely accepted. “Blessed is she. Blessed is she. Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” These words were from St. Elizabeth. She spoke them when she visited her cousin, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

These are words of encouragement for us. They come to us from our own Patroness. They come from St. Elizabeth who as an old woman conceived and bore a child. And that child would be St. John the Forerunner, “the prophet of the Most High.” Are there Crosses in our lives to bear? Are we being called upon to change our lives because of what God wants us to do?

If so, let us be encouraged to bear our own crosses. Let us follow the example of our Patroness. Let us surely follow the example of the very Cross of the Lord.  That Cross lies now in our midst.  It remains there for the entire week following the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. We as faithful Orthodox Christians do not merely think about the Cross. We carry it in solemn procession.  We bow before it.  We kiss it.  We venerate it.  We celebrate it.  And we know that this is not in vain.  For we know that by venerating the Cross we accept what that Cross calls on us to do.  We bear our Crosses for Christ. For without the Cross, there can be nothing.  With the Cross there is glory. In place of the Trisagion on the Feast we sing, “Your Cross we adore, O Master, and Your Holy Resurrection, we glorify.”

Thus Holy Orthodoxy offers us a Cross. Not a life of ease, or a solution to our problems. We can’t guarantee success on the job. We can’t promise that our marriages will be perfect. We can’t promise that we’ll stop having problems at home, or at school, or with friends. All we really have to offer is Jesus Christ and his Precious and Life-giving Cross.

Take up the Cross.  Do what the Cross calls on you to do in this life, knowing what follows this earthly life.  Bear the Holy Cross in your life with joy.

Sunday Before the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Sept 9, 2012

"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him."

This section of the Gospel according to St. John focuses our attention on the action of God for our salvation.  It refers to an Old Testament time when the people were in the wilderness.  There they began to complain about being lost, having no food, how great it had been in Egypt, and so on.  The Lord cast fiery serpents among the people.  Many died. The people came to Moses and repented of their sin of not trusting Moses and the Lord.

”And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’  So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”

So Christ is saying in our gospel lesson that the Son of Man, Christ Himself, will be lifted up and whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. This lifting up is placing Christ on the Cross so that you and I may have eternal life. This act of selflessness by Christ is for our salvation. God sent His son into the world not to condemn the world, not to punish the world, but to save the world. And that salvation came by the way of the Holy Cross. 

I saw a banner once which said, “The crib and the Cross both were made of wood.” God sent His son into the world through the wood of a crib in a manger and used the wood of a Cross to save the world from sin. Now, in our Orthodox tradition, we celebrate only one feast of the crib – we call it the Feast of the Nativity, Christmas.  But the Feasts of the Cross are many.  There is the Third Sunday of the Great Fast (Lent) – the Sunday of the Holy Cross.  There is Great and Holy Friday.  And there is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church’s year this Friday – The Exaltation of the Holy Cross. 

The Holy Cross is important.  It is central to the life of the Church.  We are never to be away from the Cross.  At baptism we are given a small cross to wear and bear – always.  At ordination, the Bishop gives the priest a heavy Cross on a chain to identify him as someone who bears the Cross of Christ.  We venerate the Cross after every Liturgy.  The Cross is always present.  We might say the Cross gives and gives to each generation again and again.

It is like the apple tree in this story by Shel Silverstein entitled "The Giving Tree."  There was once an apple tree and a little boy.  "The tree gives the little boy her apples to pick and her branches to climb. The boy and the tree love each other.  They are happy in their life together. As the boy grows older, however, his interest in the tree becomes less. The tree is very lonely.  One day the boy returns as a young man. The tree offers her apples and branches.  The boy claims that he is too old to climb and play. He is more interested in money. 

“’Can’t you give me some money?’ he asks the tree. The tree has no money.  But she does have apples. Why doesn’t the boy pick the apples and sell them.  Then he will be happy.  The boy does this and the tree is happy. But then the boy stays away an even longer time and the tree is sad. 

“Years later the boy returns. The tree is very happy as she invites the boy to swing from her branches. But the boy is too busy to play. What he really wants is have his own family and a house to keep him warm.  Can the tree give him a house? No, but the boy can cut her branches and build a house with them, suggests the tree.  Then he will be happy. The boy does this and the tree is happy. 

“Many years pass before the boy, now middle-aged, returns. The tree, overjoyed, invites the boy to play. But now the boy is too old to play. All he wants is a boat which will take him far away. ’Can you give me a boat?’  The tree invites the boy to cut down her trunk and make a boat so he can be happy. The boy does this, and the tree is happy.  But the tree is not really happy.  After all, now only a bare stump remains.

“When, years later, the boy returns, he is hunched-over, old man. The tree apologizes for having nothing to offer any longer.  It has no more apples to eat or branches to climb.  It only has an old stump.  But the old man says his teeth are too weak for apples, and he is too old to climb. All he needs is a quiet place to sit and rest for he is very tired.

“’Well,’ says the tree, straightening herself up as much as she can.  ‘An old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, boy, sit down, sit down and rest.’ And the boy does. The tree is very happy."

The cross of Christ is like that.  Christ suffered and died on that Cross centuries ago.  But the salvation found in that Cross keeps on giving generation after generation.

Christ was lifted upon that Cross for our salvation. And it was done as He said.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” 

We prepare for the Great Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Let us, with the Crosses we bear on our bodies, show forth that same love to all in every generation that God, through the Holy Cross, has shown us.

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 2, 2012

Think back over the years to the most popular Hollywood movies. There was “Star Wars.” There was the series of “Rambo” films. And there was the record-breaking movie “Jaws.” This very popular film of the 1970s is still popular today. It has spawned “Shark Week” in its 25th season this year on the Discovery Channel. The movie, of course, features a shark. And what is the theme? It is the killer instinct of that creature. Sharks must be high on the list of creatures in creation for killer instinct.

It might seem curious to you to start a sermon this way. But take notice that “Jaws” features a shark: not a turtle or a jellyfish. There is something in us that is fascinated by the killer instinct in a shark. It is an instinct that our fallen human nature can understand. Our fallen human nature can even identify with it. Killer instinct. I am quite certain that our fallen human nature is closer to a shark than a jellyfish.

Christ our Lord hints at this dark side of fallen humanity in today’s Gospel. His story of the cruel tenants is filled with that dark side. The tenants, those being paid to watch the owner’s land while he is away, do terrible things to the owner’s representatives sent to check out the land. They “beat one.” They “killed another.” They “stoned another.” But their chief prize was the son of the owner. They had him killed, too. And this caused the full anger of the owner to come down on these tenants.

Christ was talking about the way the prophets of old were treated. Right up to the time of John the Forerunner, God’s chosen servants were sent to God’s chosen people. These prophets were tortured. They were mocked and whipped. They were stoned. They were sawn in two. They were killed with the sword. John the Forerunner was beheaded. We remembered this savage act on the feast day this past Wednesday.

But above all, Christ was talking about the way of the Cross that lay before Him. He is the Son of that Owner. He is the One who came to His own. He is the One Whom His own people beat, slapped, and nailed to a Cross.

We don’t have to watch too much of the evening news to see it first-hand. I am talking about that killer instinct in the fallen nature of humanity.  I clipped a piece from the newspaper from several years ago. I found it at the bottom of a file. It is the newspaper’s “Quote of the Week.” Here is the quote: “This is a thing that I feel is provoked by the devil.” (So said) the Rev. Melvin Johnson, a Baptist minister, explaining why he shot a car salesman … who delayed in giving him back his $850 deposit on a used car.” Shot him! A minister – took out a gun and shot the salesman! Killer instinct.

I’ve seen it in the city. A car moved over into my lane in front of another auto. The lane-changing car slightly damaged the other car. The driver of the damaged car zoomed ahead and stopped right in front of the wandering driver. He jumped out of his car, face red with rage. He reached into his pocket, presumably for a knife or gun. Finding neither he pounded his fists on the windshield of the car that had nearly scraped fifty dollars’ worth of paint off of his immaculate foreign car. Killer instinct.

I am sure every one of us has seen such examples of fallen human nature. Perhaps we have been the culprits ourselves. The point that Christ makes in his story is that such things surface in religious circles as well. Christ well knew the killer instinct in the fallen nature of those around Him. He knew well of what they were capable. And they carried out His crucifixion in the name of religion!

It would probably be satisfying for us to hear how Christ ended his story. Yes, the anger of the owner came down hard on those tenants. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death. Then he will let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” But the point of the story is not the feel-good payback. The point is about the “fruits” of the new tenants.

For we are the new tenants. And what fruits are we to offer the owner and creator of our world of which we are the tenants? Holy Apostle St. Paul tells us clearly and to the point. He writes to the Christian Church of Galatia. “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”  These are the fruits that grow in God’s vineyard. His vineyard is His Church. Just because we name ourselves a “church” does not guarantee a harvest of these good fruits.

After all, Christ’s Church is His people. It is His people gathered in faith. It is His people linked together by His mercy. It is His people active in works of love produced by the power of the Spirit in the Holy Mysteries.

Some of you might know that I played some semi-pro soccer in my more youthful days. While playing in the soccer capital of the U.S., St. Louis, in 1972, I was scouted by some pro soccer scouts. In conversation with them, they told me I had great potential. They told me I had all the tools to make the pro ranks except one. They said I lacked one thing: the killer instinct. They said I would not do whatever I had to do to win.

I think it is true. It is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game. That is a kind of religious statement. Living as a person chosen by Christ means living in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. There is nothing there of killer instinct. These fruits are goals of living. Life is not about winning. It is about living. It is about living for Christ and in Christ. It is about living in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Pentecost 12

August 26, 2012

Today’s Gospel is about a young man we often call the "Rich Young Ruler." This is a familiar Gospel. It is read every year on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost. You might be thinking, “Rich.  Young.  Ruler: there is nothing in the life of this person that applies to me.” Well, over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that there are several things about ourselves that we don’t think that we are.

First of all, we never consider ourselves rich. I have never met a person who really thinks he is rich, because there are others who have much more. I’ve met a few who I think are rich, but in their own eyes they’re not. This young man is described as rich. Most assume that what Jesus says to him does not apply to them because they are not rich. Compared to most in our world, we are all rich – very rich!

Second, we seldom think of ourselves as being young, even when we are. As teenagers we tried to convince others that we were mature. A few years later we often commented about how old we were getting. Now, we’re complaining that we have gotten old before our time. This man is described as young and rich.  Most of us consider ourselves neither.

Third, we have very little authority. Children complain that their parents are unfair and that no one ever listens to them. Husbands complain that their wives don’t respect them. Wives complain that they don’t have equal rights. On the job someone else always has more authority than we do. The result is that we never see ourselves as people of authority.  This young man is rich and young and a ruler. Obviously, we are not like him at all.  I beg to differ.

Why did this rich young ruler come to Jesus? In St. Mark’s telling of this story he says that Jesus is saying "good-bye" to the people of that city. Just before this Gospel reading, Matthew tells us that little children were being brought to Jesus. As this rich young ruler watched the love that Jesus had for them and saw the children returning that love it may have had an impact on him. And now, this may be the last time he will see Jesus.  So he rushes up to Jesus. St. Mark says that he ran to Him.

Perhaps this rich young ruler saw in Jesus a quality of life that he did not have, but that he really wanted. Perhaps he saw something in Jesus that was in sharp contrast to his own life. Maybe this young man thought, "I would like to be like that." So he ran to Jesus to catch Him before He left town.

Here was a young man of honor and prestige. He surely worried about his reputation. By the world’s standards Jesus should have been coming to him. But here was a ruler running up to Jesus to ask the most important question that anyone can possibly ask. "What shall I do? What good thing can I do, that I might inherit eternal life?"

Jesus answered simply. Keep the commandments. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t bear false witness. Honor your father and mother.  Love your neighbor as yourself. The young man answered as any good Jew would have answered. "All these I have kept. What do I still lack?"

The rich young ruler claimed to have kept the law. In the legal sense that might be true; but in the spiritual sense it was not true, because his whole attitude toward others was wrong.  In the last analysis his attitude was utterly selfish. So Jesus confronted him with the challenge to sell all and to give to the poor. This man was so possessed by his possessions that nothing less than this complete rejection of them would do.

If we look on our “stuff” as being given to us for nothing but our own comfort and convenience, then possessions are a heavy chain around our necks. But if we look at what we own as a means to helping others, then these possessions are our crown. 

Notice that Jesus didn’t ask the young man to give for a particular project. He did not ask him to give to the building fund or to help pay day to day expenses. Those are not the reasons that Jesus gave for giving. What Jesus says is, "Give before what you possess possesses you. You are at a dangerous place in life. Your ‘stuff’ is about to master you. Give it away before it ruins your life."

What might this young man thought?  Maybe he thought, "If I did this, and followed Jesus, I would be free. I would have the life that I so much desire. But on the other hand, there was the banquet being thrown for him that night. There was the wardrobe of clothing he just purchased. There was the beautiful young lady his family had picked out for him to marry. There was the new chariot that he had just ordered. So what should I do?” St. Matthew tells us “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.”

A few moments before he had run to Jesus. Now he walks slowly away. So in His brief conversation with the rich young man, Christ truly reveals to us the Christian life. It is not about how to get to heaven.  The Christian life is to know Christ and be more like Him.  Then, once we find Christ, we’re to give up everything else and follow Him. This doesn’t mean quit our jobs or live in poverty.  It means we give up anything that might stand between us and our relationship with Christ. When we have the most important thing in the world, we must be willing to suffer all things to keep it.

Afterfeast of The Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos

August 19, 2012

Many Orthodox churches keep their icons of the Twelve Great Feasts on a wall somewhere in the church.  At each Feast the icon for the day is taken and placed on the tetrapod for veneration.  The very last icon in the series of twelve is the icon of the Dormition. With the Feast of the Dormition, the Falling-Asleep of the Most Holy Mother of God, we come to the ending of the Church's Year. The Church’s year ends with the Dormition of the Theotokos.  The Church's Year begins in September with the Birth of the Mother of God, celebrated on September 8.  The icon for the Feast of the Nadnetivity of the Mother of God stands first among the Twelve Great Feasts.
 
Last Wednesday's Feast, the Dormition, or the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God explains to us the origin of a well-known Orthodox hymn. It is so well-known that even the youngest children know it by heart.  At Camp Nazareth, the hymn is sung at the prayers that end each meal. All the campers know the hymn and sing it out. You know that hymn too: “You are truly deserving of glory, O Birth-giver of God.  More honorable than the cherubim.  And more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim. Who as a Virgin gave birth to God the Word. True Birth-Giver of God, we magnify you.”
 
The story of the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God begins with another visit from an angel. An angel of the Annunciation had come to Mary many years before. Now, three days before her falling-asleep, the Holy Mother was visited again by the Archangel Gabriel. The archangel told her of her coming repose. When the Mother of God neared death three days later a miraculous thing happened.  All of the Apostles were brought to Jerusalem to make their farewells to her. In the traditional story, we are told how the Holy Mother got ready for her death.  She gave away all she owned to poor widows. She then made all the preparation for burial in the Garden of Gethsemane. There she would be buried next to her parents Sts. Joachim and Anne.

Those around the Blessed Mother knew she was soon to die.  The Blessed Mother comforted the grieving.  At the time of her repose, the house was filled with light, and the Blessed Mother’s face shone and her body was fragrant.  Then Christ came with the angels to take her soul. We can see this from the icon of this Feast. Her soul was taken up by her Son, together with the cherubim and the seraphim.  Thus the words of the hymn.  “More honorable than the cherubim.  More glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.”  After Christ along with the angels had taken the Blessed Mother’s soul to heaven, the Apostles, singing in procession, took her body to the tomb which then they sealed.
 
Three days later, the Apostle Thomas arrived, having been delayed.  He, too, wanted to make his farewell.  So the tomb was unsealed and opened. The tomb was  found empty.  Only the burial clothes with a wonderful fragrance were there.  The Orthodox Church Fathers have taken this to mean that the body of the Holy Virgin was so pure that it too had been taken directly up to Heaven.  That is why we have nowhere any bodily relic of the Mother of God. And it is also for this reason, the Fathers tell us, that the Holy Mother is first in the Kingdom of Heaven after Christ.
 
Of course there are people who will tell you that none of this story is written in the Bible.  But for us Orthodox the Holy Scriptures are only part of the Holy Tradition. These details of the falling asleep of the Holy Mother come to us as an instruction of the Holy Fathers.  They are to teach us.  They are to warn us.  They are to comfort us.

The icon of this feast is personally my favorite.  As I see Christ holding the soul of the Blessed Mother, I am comforted about the approach of death.  After all, it is our destiny to die.  That is the only certain thing about this earthly life.  Every day that passes we draw one day nearer to our deaths.  However, our ambition is not to die, but rather to fall asleep.  Just like the Holy Mother of God.  We, too, want to have our souls taken to heaven by the holy angels.  We, too, want our death to become simply a passage from this life to life eternal in the Everlasting Kingdom of Christ and all His saints.

St. Benedict of Nursia was the sixth century founder of Western monasticism. This Orthodox Church Father wrote in his Rule: “Keep death daily before your eyes.”  If one disciplines one’s self to do so, it can be a scary thing. Death seems so final. When the soul is parted from the body, we no longer have any way to purify the soul. And that is our lifetime goal.  We have a lifetime to purify the soul and prepare it for eternal life.  As St. John of Damascus reminds us, there is no repentance after death.  The Holy Orthodox Church teaches us, however, that it is possible for our souls and bodies to be made perfect in holiness, in this life. And it is the Mother of God Herself who shows us the way to the holy life.

What is it that made the Mother of God’s body so holy? What was it that, at her Falling Asleep would allow it to be taken directly to heaven?  How could she bypass the Judgment?  Because the Blessed Mother carried Christ in Herself.  She gave birth to Christ in a literal, physical way. She had Christ living in her.  We, too, are to so live this life that Christ is born in us!  We are to be so close to Christ that he literally lives in us and we give birth to Him so that the world can see Christ in us.

This is the life we seek as Orthodox Christians.  It is the life that we live so that, at the approach of our falling asleep, our souls may be taken by Christ and His angels to the place of blessed repose.  And for such a life we pray: Most Holy Theotokos, Mother of God, save us!

Afterfeast of Transfiguration

August 12, 2012

You always remember when you have met someone who shows in his or her life the whole manner of being in the presence of Christ. It’s not outward things that show this presence of Christ in that person’s life. It comes from deep within. That person is like a clear window through which Jesus Christ is seen and known.

Another way of saying that is that such a person reflects the face of Christ. Having seen the face of Christ, one is changed forever. We are in the middle of the eight day feast of Transfiguration. We have gone up on the mountain with Peter, James and John. And what did we see there? “Christ was transfigured before them. His face shone as the sun. His garments became white as light.”

This shining moment was so important in the life of the Church that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter and Paul all speak of it in their writings. We might ask why did this happen? Why was Christ transfigured on the mount? This moment in the life of Christ is a clear preview of His Resurrection. Christ was prepared for the Cross and the Holy Resurrection on that mountain. And we have seen Him. And we have received of His glory!

We have not only seen the glorious face of Christ, we have kissed that face, and have, therefore shared in its glory. Every time we venerate this holy icon of the face of Christ, we, too share in His Transfiguration glory. Christ has taken on our nature as human beings. What happened to Christ, happens to us. Christ has taken our nature and has changed it. It is no longer just human. Our nature is that of Christ Himself.

When we look at the face of Christ, it is like looking into a mirror. We are to reflect that glorious face. We are to see in that face the very resurrection life He has won for us. After all, God made us in His image. He intends our lives to reach the full extent of what He created us to be. Paul says it this way. “We are crucified with Christ. We are buried with Him. As Christ was raised from the dead, so we, too, walk in newness of life. We live no longer for ourselves, but for Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.”

To look upon the face of Christ is to see what we are to be.  It is to see what we are to become. To look upon the face of Christ is to put away all that is self-serving and self-centered. In the presence of that shining face, we begin to know what we are here for. We begin to know who we really are as His created children.

But yet there is more. To look upon the shining face of Christ is to be drawn into lasting ties with other people. After all, Christ has turned His face to the world. His icon is available to all people. For all have been created in His image.

This shows up most clearly in those things that separate us from one another. At the most basic level we are polite one to another. We maintain a kind of unity with each other. In Christ we are called to more than politeness. The real test comes when those abrasive things come between us. The real test comes when hostile actions begin between people. Which nature that lives inside us will come out then? Will it be simply politeness? Will it be “an eye for an eye”? Will it cause a separation that will last forever? What an old, old story. It goes all the way back to Cain and Abel. No politeness there. Certainly no forgiveness there.

But there is an even older story. That is of the will of God to bring all to the knowledge of the truth. Even back in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve who deliberately sinned were given the chance of forgiveness. And the fullness of that chance is seen in the glorious shining face of Christ. Christ’s work was to, again as St. Paul says, “to tear down the dividing fence between God and man.”

For Christ meets us in other people. It is His very face we see when we see the faces of those who hunger and thirst. It is His very face we see when we see those who are ill or imprisoned. We see His face in the faces of faithful men and women who are filled with good works. Every face we see is of the same nature as we are. Every face we see is of the same human nature as Christ who came to save us all.

On that mountain of Transfiguration, the disciples could not bear to look upon the glory of Christ’s face. Their sleepy responses were all too human.  Yet Christ kept faith with them. He led them through the Cross to their high calling as Apostles. Thanks be to God that He still bears mercifully with us today. By Christ’s mercy we are on our way to our own Transfiguration.

Let us keep our gaze directly upon the face of Christ. Honor that icon and seek it as an image of our own faces. For Christ has glorified us as He has been glorified.

Glory to Your Holy Transfiguration, O Lord!

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

August 5, 2012

It is a very strange feeling to be out on a lake at three for four in the morning.  That is the time for the fourth watch, approximately three to six a.m.  It is even a stranger feeling to be out on a lake at that hour in the middle of a windstorm.  That is exactly the situation the disciples faced.  It was very bad. St. Matthew says that the waves and wind “beat against” their fishing boat.  The word meaning “beat against” is the same word for “torture” in the original language. The waves tortured the boat. They appeared to be fast losing the battle against this storm.

Having been in something of the same position before, I know something of their feelings.  The situation for me was a lake I did not know very well, and a misty fog to boot.  One could not see one's hand in front of one's face. Lights were useless.  All one could see with the light was a better view of the mist.  It is a fearful, scary feeling.

However, it was not the sudden windstorm that sent these disciples on the Sea of Galilee into such fear.  It was the sight of Jesus coming to them across the waves.  “It is a ghost!” they cried out in fear. Jesus was coming. He was walking on the water!

For some at this point in reading this Gospel, our scientific, modern minds kick into gear.  “Can such a thing happen?  Can all the laws of gravity and physics be defied?  Can Jesus walk on water?”  It is just those questions that try to separate us from the real meaning intended here. 

For this Gospel story is about dealing with our own fears. What is it that terrorizes us? Of what are we truly afraid? I think that we become fearful of something because we can't control it. All of us have experienced that kind of fear.  It is part of our fallen nature.  From our first day of life we always have something to fear.  It can be within us or around us.  It can be close by or far away.  It can be visible or invisible.  It can be in ourselves, in others, or in God.  This fear is related to power--power that is beyond our control.  This text pictures it clearly.  Not only a violent storm pounding against a boat.  It is also the sight of a strange figure coming through the waves.

I think of the instances of fear that I have known.  There was the resident in a home for the recovering mentally ill that I supervised. We stood in the middle of the hallway. He held a large fire extinguisher over my head, threatening to kill me. Fear. There was the inmate in prison who had been pushed to the breaking point. He was in the prison hospital when he went off. I had been called in to try to calm him. He grabbed a steel bar used to hold up bags of intravenous fluids. He threatened anyone who got close. There were many prison officers there in riot gear. As I approached him, I knew what would happen if this inmate were to fall into the hands of the officers. But I was in mortal danger, too. Fear.

Fear is universal. It is in us all. We are born with the capacity for fear. And we hold on to it throughout our lives. It is that part of our lives that shows our fallen human nature. What fears do you bring with you this morning as we come together for Divine Liturgy? How far beneath the surface appearance of calm do we need to go before we find the deeper layers of worrisome, anxious fears? Those fears are there. Do we fear for our security in the future? Do we fear losing a loved one? Or maybe we are simply afraid of normal things in life like thunder and lightning.

Fears are not to be denied. Fears are to be faced. Our reading from the Gospels today sets before us the One whom fear attacked but did not conquer.  It shows us the One in whom we take refuge and find strength to be more than conquerors of fear ourselves.  “Take heart,” he says, “it is I. Have no fear!” 

Jesus comes to his people with that command. “Have no fear!” And that is truly good news.  Jesus said, “It is I” not merely to identify himself.  This is Matthew's witness to a great God of the Old Testament.  Jesus came as fulfillment of God's ancient promise of a Messiah. He is the “I am” who spoke to Moses in the burning bush. This Messiah will, as Holy Prophet Isaiah says, “be with you when you pass through the waters.” Where two are three are gathered in his name, the I AM is present.  And nothing shall separate us from his love, Paul tells the Philippians.  Not tribulation, not fear, not distress, nothing in all creation will separate us.  Christ Jesus took our fears with him to the Cross.  He felt those fears in his own agony.  And he defeated the power of death that lies behind all fear when he arose in power and glory.

Take heart, he says to each of us this day in connection with our own particular fears. Peter's bold act of stepping out on the stormy waters himself was a good start.  But when he took his eyes off Christ, and saw only the raging waters, he began to sink.  So it is with us.  We live not by the heroics of our boldness in the face of fear. We live by the strong and sufficient hand of Christ. His hand saves us. His hand keeps on drawing us up from sinking back into our fears.

Thus taking heart means having courage.  We must, for our part, steadily and with discipline, fix our eyes only upon Christ. So many things distract us from fixing our eyes on Christ. Yet only He can steady us with his word and presence in our lives. Taking heart means joy. As St. John's Gospel tells this story, the disciples were glad when they took Jesus into the boat. Joy is a sure sign of taking heart. Our time together as the people of God gathered around the altar is so essential to us.  In joy we here find strength in the fellowship we have with God and each other. Fear just cannot hold up the quiet joy of trusting Christ's sure promise. Thanks be to God who, in Jesus Christ, always comes to us across stormy waters. Now, in the face of anything that causes us fear, we look into the eyes of the One who said, “Take heart, it is I.”

Eigth Sunday after Pentecost

July 29, 2012

Miracle: that is one word that many no longer have in their vocabularies. We would rather use other words. We would like to use words that describe things we can count on. We use words like, "certainty," or "down to earth," or "confidence." After all, miracles suggest change, "freaky" things. To many, the miracles of Jesus are just that--unbelievable, impossible. They go contrary to the laws of nature. Therefore as modern thinking goes, they cannot be true.

Thus the miracle of today's Gospel. Matthew tells us that five thousand men were fed. They were fed with five loaves and two fish. That is five thousand men, not including the women and children. It seems impossible. In Evangelist John’s telling of this miracle, he says that Apostle Philip thought this impossible. "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,” he said. Even Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, admitted that five loaves and two fish could never feed them all. However, the Gospel record tells us, they all were fed. They were all satisfied. And, there were twelve baskets full of leftovers.

What is going on here? What kind of magic is Jesus doing? The crowd of people who participated in this event was rightly impressed. They were so impressed, St. John tell us, that they wanted to make Jesus king. Why not make him king? Anyone who could feed five thousand men (not including women and children) on five loaves of bread and two fish would make a great king.

But they had obviously missed the point of this miracle. Jesus never just performed a miracle for the entertainment of the people. The importance of this miracle is not that Jesus did something for the people. The importance of this miracle is that the people participated in the power of God. It is that we participate in the power of God.

How is it that we become part of this story? How can we participate in the power of God? What has this to do with us? The disciples of Christ had noticed that the place where the feeding of the 5000 took place was, they said, "a lonely place." It was in the wilderness. It may have been a place like the place where the ancient ancestors of these disciples spent 40 years wandering about. Those ancestors had been freed from Egyptian slavery. They were promised a land "flowing with milk and honey." And yet they found themselves in a dry, dusty, dangerous desert – without food or water. And what happened to them? They, too, participated in the power of God.

 God provided food and water. He gave them bread from heaven. He gave them water from a rock. God showed them who He was for them. He was there in the wilderness with them, and fed them when there was no food. When the worst of their lives happened, even then, God found a way. When the people saw no prospect for the future except death by starvation, God spoke. By God's word, new life and possibilities are opened for them. God gave them bread from heaven. God gave them water from a rock.

As we hear today's Gospel, we go back to that Exodus story. For Jesus and His followers, the story comes new again. For Jesus led his followers out to the wilderness region beyond the Sea of Galilee. Jesus led the people out into the wilderness to feed them. This provided a striking reminder of the deliverance God brought long ago. In Christ this ancient story is filled with a richer and deeper meaning. It can be summed up in this way. Christ's people yet today find themselves in a wilderness. They find that wilderness in their own lives. Yet Christ Himself is the bread of life Who will not let his people perish with hunger.

What does it means for us to "be in the wilderness"? What might it be for us to be as the disciples called it “a lonely place.” The wilderness here does not mean a place. It is a condition of living. The wilderness, the lonely place, is when life is hard. Perhaps it is when that pain becomes unbearable. Or when a good friend or member of the family dies. The wilderness means different things for many of us. For some it means slipping into that kind of boring, meaningless living. For some, it is the taking for granted that tomorrow will come as if it were an insured reality – so today means nothing.

In that wilderness of life, Christ is the Bread of life is offered to satisfy our hunger. He is food for the journey. There is none other beside him that endures to eternal life. So how is it we become involved in this miracle? How is that that we participate in the very power of God? We become involved when we receive the Bread of life in Holy Communion.

Over the centuries since these deeds and words of Christ were first recorded, Christians have linked them with the Holy Communion. Christ says, "This is my body . . . this is my blood . . ." At the altar, the priest repeats these exact words. And we? We participate in the miracle. We participate in the very power of God. This happens when we receive the True Bread from heaven. We are then satisfied. We then have exactly what it is we need on this journey through the wildernesses of life.

May it never be said among us that the word miracle has disappeared from our vocabularies

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

July 22, 2012

From Exodus 25: (The Lord said,) “Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length. A cubit and a half its breadth. And you shall make two cherubim of gold. Of hammered work shall you make them for the two ends of the mercy seat. … And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark. And … there I will meet with you…”

In this Old Testament reading, we find the God giving instructions for His throne on earth. That throne was atop the Ark of the Covenant. Notice that He calls His dwelling place a Mercy Seat. I think God’s choice of names for His throne is interesting. What this name for His throne says is, “When you approach me – first and foremost I want you to realize I am Merciful.” God gives mercy.  That is, God does not give us what we deserve.  In the Old Testament, the priest offered blood sacrifice. That animal sacrifice was made to postpone God’s punishment for the people’s sins. It was “pushed back” one more year. And so the sacrifice was made each year.  The Lord postponed judgment, or he gave mercy at his Mercy Seat.  After all, something better was coming!  Now from St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews:

“Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come. . . . He entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood. . . . Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Christ the High Priest became Himself the once-for-all perfect Sacrifice for sin. At His death, the temple was done. The ark gone. The veil torn in two. The way was now open directly to God’s presence. The seat of God’s presence is no longer located in some remote place. It is not in the temple in Jerusalem. His throne room is now here. And the Mercy Seat has, according to Paul to the Hebrews, become a Throne of Grace. Grace: "When God gives us what we do not deserve." Mercy was when God did not give us what we deserved.  Grace is when God gives us what we do not deserve.  Mercy happens when God withholds judgment against a sinner who deserves it.  Grace happens when God give salvation to us when we do not deserve it.

Yet for some coming to God is still coming to a Mercy Seat. It’s a place we can go and simply not be condemned. And that’s great. But God has so much more in mind for us. Because of Christ, His throne is no longer just a Mercy Seat. Now His is the Throne of Grace! Not only will He forgive, or not give you what you deserve.  But His intent is to bless, or give you what you do not deserve!  So many still come to Divine Liturgy to gather around that Mercy Seat. They are content with how great it is that God puts off His judgment. And so many Christians’ perspective is that this is what Christ is all about. He accepts them, in spite of them.  Surely, He does that. But the Mercy Seat of the Old Covenant has become the Throne of Grace of the New.

When I was first learning about Orthodoxy, I heard some strange things at worshp. One of those was the constant repetition of Lord, have mercy. At the hours prayed before Liturgy you hear that prayer repeated first three, then twelve, then forty times. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. At other places in the Church's prayer it is repeated again and again: three, twelve, forty, or even a hundred times. My astonishment at first was (in good Protestant form), “Once is enough already!” As time progressed, though, I came to realize, “Once is far from enough.” St. Symeon of Thessaloniki writes this about the “Lord have mercy” prayer. “We should not ask for anything except for mercy.  (For) we have neither boldness nor access to offer anything as our own.  So as sinners and condemned through sin we cannot, nor dare not, say anything to our Loving Master except 'have mercy.’"

The word mercy in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word has the same root as the old Greek word for oil, or more precisely, olive oil.  Olive oil has been used for centuries as a healing agent. The oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in.  The oil soothed, comforted and made whole the injured part.  To say Kyrie Eleison is to say, “Lord, soothe me.  Lord, comfort me.  Lord, take away my pain.  Lord, show me your steadfast love.” Yes, mercy will take away the pain – but that is not all it does.  Mercy begins the process of so much more.

We read this in today’s Gospel. “When Jesus departed from there, two blind men followed Him, crying out, ‘Son of David, have mercy on us!’”  The holy prophet Isaiah, hundreds of years before Christ walked the earth and healed the blind, had pointed out that a sign of the coming of Christ was when the blind receive their sight.  Here, in today’s Gospel, our Lord and Savior Christ is not approached as one of the Old Covenant would have approached the Mercy Seat.  The blind men were not simply asking Christ to push back judgment another year.  No.  For them, seeking mercy was asking for what they did not deserve. 

We are the blind men in this Gospel. We approach Christ, and over and over ask, demand, cry out: Lord, have mercy. Hospodi Pumilui. Kyrie Eleison. Doamne Miluişte. We are not asking simply that God’s judgment be put off another year.  Something far better has come.  We now approach the Throne of Grace to ask for the healing, the purifying power of Christ.  As St. John Chrysostom says about the healing of the blind men:  ”(Christ) touches them with His hand, showing that His most holy Flesh also bestows light and life; for He is the Giver of life and light, the Treasury of good things.”  Father Chrysostom further reminds us that those who see with worldly eyes do not recognize the Son of David.  But those whose worldly eyes had been blind but touched by Christ, could see the Light.

If all we seek when we approach to meet God is to not get what we deserve, we are missing so much.  The throne of Grace is the place to behold the Light that is Christ. It is to receive what we do not deserve. What we do not deserve, my brothers and sisters, is heaven.  At the throne of grace, heaven is ours for the asking.

The Holy Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils

July 15, 2012

The Sunday that falls between July 13 and 19 is designated as the commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the first six ecumenical Councils. Today we reflect on the role of Fathers and Councils, and Tradition. In our Church, Fathers and Councils represent the Tradition we value so highly.

We tend to see Tradition as that which somehow holds together everything that is Orthodox. That includes scripture, liturgy, the theology of the Fathers and Councils. It includes the lives of the saints, canon law, and our disciplines. These are what make us Orthodox Christians. Tradition, I once heard, is for us Orthodox, the water in which we swim. It is the environment in which we live and think and worship. Tradition is therefore closely connected with the Holy Spirit. For all of these things have to do with the work of the Spirit. The Spirit inspired the Fathers. The Spirit allowed the Fathers to find words to describe things indescribable. The Spirit inspired the writers of the Bible. The Spirit lived in those whose lives we remember as Holy Ones – the Saints of the          Church.

I think everyone, by their human nature knows about tradition. I am not talking about the Church’s Tradition (capital T). I mean we all have our own personal, family or national traditions (small t). Our traditions preserves the past through memory. Why do families put up decorated trees at Christmas? Maybe we have forgotten why. Why do we go to fireworks displays on the 4th of July? Maybe we have forgotten why. Why do we make the sign of the Holy Cross? Maybe we have forgotten why.

I like to tell the story of little girl watching her mother cook a ham. The family tradition was to have ham on New Year’s Day every year. So every year the little girl’s mom would get out her roasting pan. She would take the ham and cut off the ends. She would place it in the pan and roast it for dinner. Years later, the little girl married and had a family of her own. On New Year’s day, she would take her ham according to family tradition. She would cut off the ends, place it in the pan and roast it. Her own little girl asked her one New Year’s Day. “Mom, why do you cut off the ends of the ham before you roast it?” “I don’t know,” mom replied. “I just do it that way. It’s a tradition. Your grandmother always did it that way.” The girl was unimpressed. So she went to grandma. “Grandma, why did you cut the ends of the ham when you roasted it?” “Oh, I did it so that it would fit in the pan.” Some traditions lose their meaning over the years.
 
Our Church’s Tradition cannot lose its meaning. It had better not. For that same Tradition established years ago opens the way towards what is yet to come. What we remember today are the Fathers who struggled to find words to express the deep mysteries of God. They found the words to describe what we believe about the one God. They found words to describe God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They found words to describe the humanity and divinity within the one person of Jesus Christ. The Father’s Tradition we are celebrating today as our own. Tradition is the glue binding together the past and the present. That same Tradition sets out our future.

What we celebrate today is a help for us not to forget why we do what we do. After all, some traditions (small t) probably ought to be lost. When the grandchild got a larger pan, she probably no longer cut off the ends of the ham. That small t tradition was thankfully lost.

For us, Church Tradition is a living thing. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we find Tradition to be alive and well. It is a living Tradition that informs us of the past. It allows us to determine how we deal with issues of today. A prime example is before us almost daily in the news. Our societies, our churches, are split these days over an issue called “same sex marriage.” Many in our society see marriage of one man and one woman like the tradition of cutting off the ends of the ham. Change the tradition, they say. It is old, outworn. It has little meaning in the world today. How do we approach an answer to this question? As Orthodox Christians our answer is easy. We find out what our Tradition (capital T) has to say about it. The Fathers of the Church, who repeat the teachings of Christ and the Apostles, are clear. Marriage is for one man and one woman. Period. No need to question any further.

In that case, the answer is simple and to the point. But there are other more complicated questions. How do we answer them? To be faithful Orthodox, we need to engage the Tradition we have received. And this means, first of all, steeping ourselves in the rich treasury of the past. We need to know liturgy, the scriptures and the councils. We need to know the Fathers. We need to know our iconography. We need to engage the Church’s Tradition. Only then we can enter into the deep meaning of Orthodoxy’s ways of experiencing and understanding the workings of God. We need to practice what they practiced. We need to try to see what they saw. We need to struggle to understand both the successes and the failures of the past. But the question is why? To what end? For what purpose?

We honor the Tradition of the past so that we are equipped to be God’s people today. We honor the Tradition so that we are equipped to look at the current needs and issues and problems. We, with the Tradition of the past, are armed to face the present and the future. The God of the past, the God of Tradition, of the Fathers, of the Councils is also the God of the present and the future. That which has been handed to us guides us. It suggests possibilities to us. It describes how our ancestors in the faith thought. It tells us what they have done. It tells us what we are to do.

Holy Fathers of the first Six Ecumenical Councils, pray to God for us.

The Holy Mystery of Baptism

July 8, 2012

It is dark.  A shivering band of people gather around a cistern.  Deep in the earth the sound of moving water is heard.  The slightest shuffling of feet echoes throughout the chamber.  Most of the band is quiet. A few whisper.  Above the ground, heard only faintly from below, a rooster crows, marking the day's beginning.  Soon farmers and merchants will be rising from sleep. They are ready to take up their daily work. They don’t know what’s going on underground.  They would not understand. They certainly would not approve. Some might even take action against these folks if they could.

Meanwhile, below, a leader has come forward. He is a quiet yet severe man.  He whispers some words in the almost eerie setting.  Some of the people begin to take off their clothes, folding them and setting them aside.  Quietly, and in many cases with fear, they approach the cistern where water bubbles and flows.  The children are put forward first. After some questions that in many cases are answered for them, they are dipped in first. Then come the older children and the men.  They are asked a number of very serious questions.  After answering, and being placed under the water, they come out quite overwhelmed.  Finally, the women remove all their ornaments and loosen their hair.  They are to have no rings or jewelry on them.  They step into the water and come out. Like everyone else, they dress again in brilliant white robes.

The leader is very busy with oil that he is blessing. He pours it on the people.  He is asking questions. He hears answers. He repeats formulas.  Somehow his dignified appearance seems to calm the fear of the people near him.  He seems satisfied with the proceedings.  He gives orders for the newly baptized to leave.  The group makes its way through some passageways into a larger room.  Here are others who have been baptized on an earlier occasion. They greet the newly baptized warmly and invite them to a meal of bread and wine.  There more sacred words are spoken. Hymns are sung.  The people now seem relieved and are obviously very happy.  They have been baptized and chrismated.  They have shared in the Body and Blood of Christ.

This secret event has been described in a writing called the apostolic tradition. It was written in the third century by St. Hippolytus. He describes the Holy Mystery of Baptism as a beginning.

 Baptism is a beginning.  What does it begin?  How is it a beginning?  The best way to get into that is to remember that baptism is, first of all, water.  But it is not simply water.  Most people who have ever seen a baptism or know anything about it know that it is not simply water.  It is water, connected with certain prayers and formulas.  It is water used in a special setting. It is holy water.
Water. Water has to do with beginnings all the time. Life, it is said, came from water.  Our individual lives begin at the point where "water is broken."  Water has always been part of the usage of the Church.

Water is a central theme in the Bible. At the word of the Creator, the waters above and the waters beneath were separated.  When humans sinned and the world was flooded, God delivered His own from the flood waters.  At the command of God through Moses, the waters of the Red Sea and the Jordan River parted. There the people of God were brought from death to life.  At the command of God through Elijah, the rains stopped falling on the earth. In the New Testament, John the Forerunner calls upon the people to turn their lives around and back to the God who created them. He called on them to signify this turning around by the use of water to wash them clean.  When Jesus stepped into the water where John was Baptizing, God put his stamp of approval on Jesus.  And at the very moment Christ was leaving this earth, He told his followers to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  With the authority of Christ Himself, these words became the very words used at every Baptism since.
   
Baptism is beginning.  Baptism is the beginning point of departure out of death into the process of eternal life. To the Christian, then, Baptismal water is not mere water.  Called into being by God. Consecrated by his Holy Spirit. Ordinary, simple water is made into a miraculous bath giving life forever with God.

 The trend through the centuries has been, however, away from relishing, drowning in, and enjoying the water of life. The Baptismal river became a pool. The pool became a well or cistern. The cistern became a barrel. The barrel became a font.  The font became a birdbath. The birdbath became a bowl. The bowl became a finger bowl.  What if the trend continues? I am afraid we shall soon be seeing the waters, the Flood, the Red Sea, the Jordan, the Water of Life applied in the tiny droplets of an aerator, an atomizer or a humidifier.

Now  God can, of course, work through any water in any amount, if He so wishes.  But we Orthodox immerse. We use lots of water. We always have. We use enough water to drown in. For that is the exact action that is taking place. Holy Apostle Paul tells us so. “You are buried with Christ by baptism into His death, so that, as He is risen from the dead, so you, too, might walk in newness of life.” When someone is immersed in the water made holy by the Spirit, it is a death. But then one rises out of the water. And thus starts a new beginning. It is a new life. It provides the possibility of an eternal life with God in the mansions of heaven.

On this day, remember your Baptism. With Charles Vladimir, walk in newness of life.

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

July 1, 2012

”When Jesus heard (the centurion), he marveled…”  In other words, Jesus was amazed. What is it that amazes Jesus? What could it possibly be that would amaze the Eternal God made flesh?  He who was present when the heavens were created, and the moon and stars put in place?  He who was there when Man was created from the dust of the ground and into his nostrils was breathed the breath of life?  What could possibly amaze Jesus the Christ, Messiah and Savior of the universe?

The Gospels record only two times that Jesus was amazed.  The first time was when Jesus returned to His hometown for the first time.  His hometown friends and relatives could not believe that this Jesus had become so famous.  The people, in fact, St. Mark tells us, were offended by Him.  So, St. Mark goes on, “(Jesus) was amazed at their lack of faith.”

Then there is the story in today’s Gospel.  A foreigner, a Roman soldier, approaches Jesus and asks Jesus to heal his servant.  Not come and lay His hands on the servant, no!  “Just say the word,” the Centurion says, “and my servant will be healed.”  “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him. ‘I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.’” Jesus was amazed!

Now let’s be perfectly clear.  Jesus always amazes us. It is amazing to think that the God who put the stars into the heavens would care enough about us to enter into our world.  It is amazing that He would cast our sins as far as the east is from the west. It is amazing to think that the God who created the world with His own hands would take on human flesh and become one of us.

But here Jesus is amazed.  He is amazed at what he sees in a foreigner.  This Centurion was the Roman commander in Capernaum.  The Centurion was given that title because he was the commander of 100 soldiers. St. Luke tells us that this Centurion was well loved by the Jews in Capernaum. He had invested his own money to build a synagogue for the Jews. He loved the people and they loved Him. When Jesus got to town, the Centurion met Him with a request to heal his paralyzed servant.

Jesus said to him, "I will go and heal him." Isn’t that just what you would expect Jesus to say and do? When we come to Jesus requesting healing, we expect Him to respond by coming.  We expect that Jesus will bring wellness and wholeness. As Jesus turns to go to heal the Centurion’s servant, the Centurion puts out his hand to stop Jesus.  “I’m not worthy to have you come into my house.  Just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  Just say the word!

Isn’t it amazing all we go through in hopes of getting God’s attention? Some will pray long prayers.  Some will cry big tears.  Some even scream and wail as if God were deaf.  Some go so far as to pay large sums of money in the hope that God will take note of their generosity and respond to their cries. What amazes Jesus is: “Just say the word and it is done!”

The centurion understood what it meant to be under orders. He worked for the Roman government. He had a mission – to keep peace in Capernaum. He was to make sure that the people in Capernaum obeyed the Roman law, the law of the land. Not only was the Centurion’s word, law, but his presence meant peace! His presence was all that was needed to make sure the law was enforced.

Thousands of cars drive up and down I-575 everyday. Those driving those cars drive them at a variety of speeds, from steady and relaxed to, well, it seems, at NASCAR speeds. But let a police car be seen and what happens?  Brake lights flash and everyone slows down.  Did the speeding law suddenly change? No! But the one who enforces the law is now present!  And that changes everything!

The Centurion understood that just because Jesus is the Healer it was enough just for Him to be there for his servant to be healed. Jesus did not need to come to the Centurion's house. He is still the Healer no matter where He is.  And His simple Word is enough!

This past week we remembered Sts. Cyrus and John. Today we remember Sts. Cosmas and Damian.  There were called “Unmercenary Healers.”  That means they were given the gift of healing in the Name of Jesus Christ. As well, they received no payment for their services.  We read of hundreds of persons who were healed from physical, mental and spiritual illnesses by their miraculous gift of healing.  The history of Orthodoxy is filled with such miraculous, amazing stories.  Yet there are those who will not believe that such things can happen. There are those, in fact, who will resist our Orthodox faith because of what they consider fairy tales and myth.

Hear what our Lord Christ says about faith: “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."  Nothing will be impossible for you.  It is such a faith that moves mountains.  It is such a faith that sees the Healer and does not need to see the miracle.  But the miracle happens anyway, sometimes in ways we can’t see.  And other times in ways that everyone can see. 

Can we move mountains from here to there with only a word?  Yes we can.  Do we move mountains from here to there?  I challenge you to amaze our Lord Jesus Christ as did this Centurion.

Nativity of John the Forerunner

June 24, 2012

This is the first Sunday of the summer.  It is the time for carnivals and festivals.  All over the world there are festivals happening today. In the church, East and West, the festival of the birth of John the Forerunner is being observed.  It is the summer solstice festival.  For it was St. Augustine who pointed out that John the Forerunner's motto, "He must increase, I must decrease" is written on the calendar of the northern hemisphere.  For the days are longest at the birthday of John the Forerunner.  He arrives and the light of day decreases.  When Christ is born at Christmas, the light of day increases and the darkness goes away.

John the Forerunner is a fascinating, mysterious figure.  He stands alone in the hot, dusty desert.  He seemingly has no family or friends. His food is grasshoppers and wild honey.  His clothing is made of camel's hair and leather.  His shelter is a cave.  His message is a stern message of judgment on sinners.  John had taken the Nazirite vow.  This meant that, like Samuel and Samson, John would not cut his hair, touch a dead or unclean thing, or never drink an alcoholic beverage.  It was a vow of total separation, no matter what the cost, from the lifestyle of the heathen.

John is often depicted as the stern, austere preacher of judgment and fire.  I think too many view the Forerunner as too sad a man.  Contrary to that view, we hear today that John's coming into the world was a moment of joy, a happy time. 

Certainly John's miraculous birth certainly brings joy into the world.  In our reading from the Gospels today, the angel announces the birth of John to his father Zechariah. The angel speaks. "You shall have joy and gladness. Many will rejoice at his birth."  John was prayed for, sought for. He was long anticipated by the aged couple Zechariah and Elizabeth.  A first child for a couple thought to be past child-bearing age could not help but bring joy into the family.

As soon as John was born, we are told that the neighborhood gathered for a great party The came to celebrate a triple miracle. First there was the a couple too old do have a child. Second the birth is perfect. And third, the sex of the child had been correctly predicted. At the circumcision party, eight days later, they name the baby John.  Both Elizabeth and Zechariah know his name will be John, though they never spoke to each other about it.  Zechariah lets his joy be known as he bursts forth with the marvelous words. "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; He has come to his people and set the free."  Someone once said that a baby is a sign that God is not discouraged with the human race.  So also baby John was a sign of joy.

So it is, the one who has brought joy into the world, John possesses joy himself.  I once read that joy is like jam, you can't spread it without getting some on yourself.  John's family certainly reflected joy.  His was a home filled with hope. For his home was just like those who had faithfully awaited the coming Messiah for many years.  His was a home of singing, praise, prayer and hospitality.

When John grew up, he did not let the world down, either.  He knew exactly what the remedy for the world's ills would be.  He appears on the scene like a doctor would to a patient he has been testing.  Weeks, months pass by and he finds no result. Suddenly, one day, the doctor comes in.  “I've found out what is wrong! I know what is causing the illness. But better, I know exactly what to do about it!”  Such was the good news John preached.  He knew the disease of humanity.  He saw sin like a cancer growing in the human race.  He quickly pointed out the only solution. It was John the Forerunner who spoke these words. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John knew what his job was. He was the Forerunner of Christ. He was to point to Christ who only had the power to save the world.

John shared the joy of knowing the way to salvation.  He would not let this joy be lost, not even in the dungeon of Herod.  Not even on the chopping block where he lost his head as payment to a lewd dancing girl.  John had nothing to be ashamed of.  His conscience was clear.

John the Forerunner provides us with the perfect illustration of how joy comes into our own hearts.  I recently ran across again the philosophy of life expounded by existentialist philosopher J.P. Sartre.  He wrote: Life adds up to zero; it has no meaning, no purpose, a nightmare between two nothings.  I think J.P. Sartre is right--life is grim if lived as Sartre lived it--apart from God.  With God, in fellowship with God and God's Kingdom, life is full of meaning. It is full of joy.  Even the unborn Jesus provided John the Forerunner with the very joy he would bring into the world.  Luke tells us that when the pregnant Mary Theotokos visited Elizabeth, the unborn John leaped in Elizabeth's womb for joy.  We can attribute life's joys to many things. We call them luck. We congratulate ourselves on good planning.  But, for those who live a life centered in God, we attribute the joy of living to God. We know the source of true joy in life.  Happiness and joy in life are as fleeting as the wind if we spend our lives looking for them.  Let us take the example of John the Forerunner. Living a life that points others to God will be a life of joy. 

Let us go out to our midsummer day today. Let us be refreshed with the Body of Christ living in us.  Let us go our way full of the joy only God in Christ can provide for us.

Holy John, Forerunner of the Lord, pray to God for us!

All Saints of the Carpatho-Rus

June 17, 2012

Have you ever seen the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel? It is, of course, not a “sea” at all. It is not as big as other bodies of water we call “seas.” It is not as big as the Red Sea, or the Black Sea, or the Mediterranean Sea. All of these are hundreds of miles long and wide. The Sea of Galilee is maybe twelve miles long and six miles wide at its widest distance. But it is a beautiful sea. It is clear and clean. It is a bright blue reflecting the clear sky of the area of Galilee that surrounds it. This lake is surrounded by steep rising hills. These hills are covered in green and in the colors of the flowers that add to its beauty.

Boats ply the water of this lake. The first time Pani and I took a tourist boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, it was late in the day. The water was calm. The golden sun reflected off the water. There was little activity on the lake. It was not like the morning when we took the same ride several years later. In the morning, fishing boats filled the lake. This was life on the Sea of Galilee in the 1990s. I am sure that it was not unlike life in the first half of the first century on that lake.

It was not unlike that morning on the Sea of Galilee when four fishermen met a stranger on the beach. “Follow me,” the stranger said. “I will make you fishers of men.” Peter, Andrew, James and John listen. They follow him. “I will make you fishers of men” is the phrase that begins a long-term impact on their lives. Little did these fishermen know that their response to this simple statement meant they would follow Him for three years. They could not have known that they would behold the light that He would bring. They did not know they would hear Him teach. They did not know that they would watch Him heal. They did not know that they would abandon Him in His hour of greatest need. They did not know that the power of His Holy Spirit would fall on them and make them Apostles. They did not know that they would travel the world for Him. And they did not know they would die as martyrs for Him.

At that moment they did not know Who they would follow. They would follow a  stranger. And that is exactly what becoming a disciple means. It means following someone. But in this case, it was not just anyone. In this case, becoming a disciple meant following Christ Jesus, Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. These fishermen’s response to Christ’s call was the response to the One who comes among us still today with His call. “Follow me.” At the heart of becoming a disciple is following the very person that is our Lord Jesus Christ.

It seems rather pointless to emphasize the truth that we follow Jesus Christ as His disciples. But it is not pointless at all. I have been around as a leader in the church for long enough to have seen otherwise. I have seen how often the main point of our being disciples is lost. After all Christ did not say to the fishermen, “Come and follow the rules and canons of the church.” Nor did He say, “Come and follow the ethnic traditions you have grown up with.” He did not say any such thing. He said, “Follow me.”

How often do we find ourselves in battles over divisive trivia in the church? You have heard the questions I am often asked. “Are you Russian or Greek?” “Do you have classes in your language?” “Are you Old Calendar or New Calendar?” “Do you believe in the pope?” “Do we have to fast?” “Why do you wear that scary black dress?” One has to be very careful when answering these questions. People often decide whom they are going to follow by what they hear as the answer. Lives of people have been scarred spiritually when human customs have hidden the One whom we truly follow.

We follow Christ Jesus, Lord and Savior, Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Only by His call are we His disciples. He still comes to us. He comes, as He said, “wherever two or three are gathered in His name…” He comes. He calls, “Follow ME.” He is here right now. We know His presence by faith. We will receive His Body and Blood in a few moments from this altar. We call upon Him in prayer. We praise Him. We sing to Him. We hear Him as we open our Gospels and listen to the proclamation of His Word.

Being disciples does not mean being of a certain ethnic background. Being disciples does not mean following the fasting rules of the Church so precisely that we forget why and for Whom we are fasting. Being disciples means we follow Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, Second Person of the Holy Trinity. We walk with our hand in His. Our whole life is claimed by Him. We are disciples, just like those fishermen.

Today we remember the saints and martyrs of the Carpatho-Rus. They were followers of Christ – to the death. We remember St. John the Hermit, 8th century enlightener of the Czechs – martyred by the Avars. We remember Sts. Cyril and Methodius, 9th century, killed by the Latins for being Orthodox. In more modern times, we remember Priest Maxim Sandovich, martyred by unbelievers in 1914. We remember the martyr Theophan Sabov, priest and monk.  He was administrator of the Presov diocese from where many of our founding diocesan members came. Abbot Theophan, a future bishop, was shot by the Soviets, as they “liberated” Ukraine. And there are many more.

We hold these martyrs up today, not because they followed the rules, or wore the right clothes, or kept the fast. We hold these up today because they died following Christ. They heeded the call to “Follow me.” And they ended up martyrs for the faith. Just like the fishermen of old. “Follow me,” Jesus said. “And I will make you fishers of men.”

All Saints Sunday

June 10, 2012
Today Christ Himself says it. He is clear and to the point. It is possible to be what the world considers a winner and still be a miserable loser. We can gain the whole world, He says, and actually lose our soul. He tells us it is a much wiser to "lose" our lives for his sake. It is then we discover real life here and in eternity.
In short, our Lord says to us that self-denial for His cause is equal to self-fulfillment for ourselves. He tells us to remove those things that are simply self-gratifying and unimportant from our lives. For then we find our lives being added to. We will find satisfaction of soul. We will find contentment of body. We will find real joy.

But, as in all things, we have a choice. We can be greedy grabbers and end up in misery. Or we can be sharing servants of Christ and end up with a loving God who gives abundantly to those who seriously follow after the Master.

Here is an example. If you want to get someone’s attention quickly, tell them they have the distinct possibility of being a sure winner. After all, we all like to win, don't we? But to win what? Actually, to win almost anything. We would all like to win a happy life. We would all like to win in business or at work or in the stock market. We would love to win enough material goods so as not to have to worry. In fact, to win anything seems to bring joy to us.

So often, however, we come across people who feel they do not know how to win. You’ve hear them. "I can't win for losing. Every time I think I am going to be a winner, things happen and I lose again." I am reminded of the story of a man who won a trip to Mexico. The story has it he is still down there. He’s waiting to win a trip back home. Or the story of the man who was told he would be granted one wish. He was very excited at the prospect. He wished for a foreign car agency. He got his wish. He was granted a Chrysler Plymouth dealership in downtown Tokyo.

In today's reading from the Holy Gospels, our Lord tells us how to be sure winners. His words are clear. "Whoever would save his life will lose it. And whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel, will save it." In short, we win by losing.

On first hearing, it sounds like a strange statement. Winning by losing. How can this be so? When one thinks about it, people win by losing in many ways. The doctor wins his or her skill and expertise by "losing" long years in classrooms, laboratories and hospitals. The musician wins mastery over an instrument by "losing" years in practice. Astronauts and pilots win the ability to handle their crafts by "losing" years in training. Painters and sculptors win skill with brushes, knives and chisels by years of practice and much time with teachers. The faithful believer in Christ wins the objective of sainthood by "losing" his own lifestyle. He wins it by investing and fulfilling that lifestyle with that of Christ our Savior.

Obviously, there is a cost to everything of value. Before we can win, we have to lose. At least we must lose in terms of time, money, sweat and tears. But this is not truly losing. It is dedication. It is investing in what we consider to be the most important value in our lives. Often all of these are combined in such a way that we give in order to get. We sacrifice of ourselves as Christians so that we become more Christ-like. We give up our own stubbornness. We give up our own greed. We give up our own personal pleasures. We give up so that we can get. We can get generosity of soul. We can get goodness of heart. We can get the love of others that characterized our Savior. We strip away our own self that we can assume the selflessness of Christ. We remove our unsaint-like behavior. We replace it with saintliness. That is finally what we and Christ are talking about. Becoming saints. The saints won by losing. Such is our calling as well.

However, even the saints seem to start out like you or me. Hear Peter, the foremost of the Apostles, in today’s Gospel. “We’ve left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” Or, to put it in today’s terms, Peter asks, “What’s in it for me?” What was in it for Peter? Well, the harder he tried, the worse it got. He tried to defend Christ in the Garden with the sword. Remember, he cut the ear off one of the High Priest’s slaves. What did he get for it? A rebuke from Christ Himself. “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” Loser. Peter could not see Himself as one of Christ’s followers when push came to shove. He denied Christ the Savior three times in the courtyard. Loser.

Yet it was this Saint, this St. Peter, upon whom the Spirit fell at Pentecost. It was this Peter who preached to the gathered residents and visitors in Jerusalem that Pentecost day. His words by the power of the Spirit caused 3000 souls to be baptized and receive the gift of that Spirit. Peter – the fisherman who was not too good at fishing. Peter – the apostle who saw Christ transfigured on the mountain. And then denied Him three times. This same Peter is the one to whom Christ promised so much. “You who have followed me will sit on a glorious throne. …you will receive a hundred-fold. …you will inherit eternal life.”

Then come those words. We have all heard them. We have all probably used them. “But many that are first will be last. And the last first.” This is what All Saints Day is all about. The first, the winners in this life, are those who make their worldly desires and pleasures their goal and win them. They will lose. The last, the losers in this life, are those who lose their self-centeredness, their greed, their lust for the pleasures of life. They will win.  St. Peter won by being crucified in Rome – just like Christ. He won by losing. He won eternal life with His Lord and Savior. “…and the last shall be first.”



Feast of Pentecost

June 3, 2012
You’ve heard the joke before? How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is: “Change? What’s change?” I am here to tell you differently today. I am here to tell you that Orthodoxy is all about change.

Fifty days after Christ’s Resurrection, the Holy Spirit came upon the Holy Apostles and all those gathered with them in that upper room.  But this coming of the Spirit was in a new and different way. For the first time, the Holy Spirit actually took up residence within the human soul.

Before this the Spirit of God would descend upon a person for various reasons. In the Old Testament it was different.  The prophets, for example, were inspired to make God's will known to His people.  The prophets were to speak or write or act in a particular way.  But the Spirit did not live within their souls. But something new happened at Pentecost.  This was something wondrous.  This was something marvelous. God came and dwelt not only among us.  First God came as our Lord Jesus Christ.  But then He came to live within us through the Holy Spirit. The promise of our salvation is that we would be united with God.  Now it was fully possible.

This indwelling of the Holy Spirit has a great effect on a person. By this coming an actual change is begun. The soul has come into contact with God.  It cannot remain the same. Now sometimes we see how one's behavior might change when he or she has been joined to the Church. Converts are usually eager to learn and absorb all that our Holy Church has to give us.  The convert wants to follow the Church’s instructions about behavior and practice.  The convert will do things differently than before.

But this change is not just a change in behavior.  These new actions have an effect of their own.  They begin to change the way that one thinks.  They begin to change how one views the world around him.  Say you wished to develop compassion for people.  The best way is to begin is to act more compassionately.  Through consistent compassionate actions, the mind will begin to think compassionately.  The heart will begin to feel compassion. What happens if you act towards someone in a loving manner, even though you might dislike that person?  After even a short time, you will begin to love them in action.  That is the effect of the body's action on the heart.  This truth, by the way, contradicts the idea in our society of "falling in or out of love." Love is not something that strikes out of the blue for some mysterious reason.  Love is the result of and is maintained by effort.  One has to work at it!

But even here this change does not end.  For once we develop new feelings and thoughts, then our spirit also changes.  One begins to develop in the soul the spiritual fruits of these changes. We call them virtues. And these virtues are supported by the grace of God. This grace then transforms our very nature. We no longer have a nature of sin. Rather, we begin to develop a nature which has the likeness of God.

Easter and Pentecost are about change. At Easter, we are reborn.  We die and are resurrected with Christ. This new resurrected nature is then shaped and molded by the Church. Then it is filled with the Holy Spirit. Our Lord spoke of an unclean spirit which had been cast out of a man.  That unclean spirit, finding no place to rest thought that it would return to its former host. "And when he comes, he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself. They enter and dwell there. And the last state of the man is worse than the first." (Luke 11:25-26).

At Easter, we are reborn and our soul is "swept and put in order."   Then it is necessary for our soul to be occupied. Our soul needs to prevent the demons from taking advantage.  So God in His infinite love and mercy comes Himself to dwell in us through the Holy Spirit. This is the feast of Pentecost. This is the feast of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  It is the day of the transformation which was begun at Easter is fulfilled in the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And the Holy Spirit within us, Himself, with our help can have great effect. The Spirit can transform and shape the soul into the very image and likeness of God.

But God does not act towards us as a tyrant. He does not impose His will on us. Rather, God works with us. He acts as the loving Father that He is. He helps us by using our own voluntary action to submit to His will. He works with us that we might be changed. It is therefore necessary for us to cooperate with God. We must allow Him to work in us. We must allow Him to shape our own will to His will. What happens if we resist Him? What if we refuse to cooperate with His direction and His leading? Then
He will withdraw. God will not force Himself upon us unwillingly. Therefore we must develop within ourselves a desire for God. We must have that desire that is greater than all other desires. We must have a love for Him which is greater than any other love.

How do we develop this desire and this love? What did we just say? If you wish to love someone, then act as though you love them. And in a short time that love will begin to grow within your heart. If we wish to develop a supreme love for our Lord Jesus Christ, then we must begin to act as though we had such a love already. And if we adjust our behavior to conform to a supreme desire and love for God? Then that desire and love will grow within our heart and soul. If we want Him, then He will be there. If we love Him, then He will come to us. And when He comes, He will change us into His own image and likeness. He will dwell within us. He will unite us to Himself.

All because of today. All because of Pentecost.



Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

May 27, 2012
The first Universal Council of the Church was held in the year 325. St. Constantine was the Roman Emperor. He had, years before, declared that persecution of Christians would stop. 318 Bishops gathered together from all over the Christian world. Together they drew up a written summary of the Orthodox Faith. That same summary was confirmed later in the same century at the Second Council of the Church.

We still sing and read that written summary of our Faith. It is known in English as the Creed. This word comes from the Latin for I believe. We read the Creed every morning at morning prayers. We sing that Creed at every Divine Liturgy. You should know the words by heart.  "I believe in One God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth" All over the world the Orthodox Church upholds this same Creed and has done so ever since the First Council of the Church. Even Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism still retain most of that Creed, though with one major change.

The Creed can be divided into four basic sections: First,at the beginning of the Creed we state our belief in "One God the Father" Second, we state our belief in "One Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God". Third, we state our belief in "The Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father"  Finally, we state our belief in "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church," in one baptism, in the resurrection and in the age to come.

Throughout human history, one or more of these parts of the Creed have been rejected.  Thus, for the first three centuries, the Church was persecuted by the forces of the world which rejected the Faith in One God the Father. They maintained that there were many gods. For some, the sun was a god. For others, the moon was a god. Some believed that there was a wind god or a rain god. Even the Roman Emperor had proclaimed himself a god. Thousands of Orthodox martyrs gave up their lives during those years. They refused to believe in any god other than "one God the Father almighty."  Who do you think is god today – even among Christian people? I could name many.

Then, during the centuries following the 1st Council, the Church was persecuted by those who said that Christ was not the Son of God. Or they believed that Christ may have been the Son of God, but had never become a real man. Perhaps you have heard the names of some of these groups: Arians, Nestorians, Monophysites, Iconoclasts and so on. The Church was victorious as well against these groups. The Church maintained the Faith through the teachings of the Church Fathers and the faithfulness of the people.  Who do people think Jesus Christ is today? A good buddy? My best friend? Some guy who lived a long time ago? Do we still believe that Christ is the Son of God? That he lived and died as a man, and rose from the dead for our eternal salvation?

Then, again for hundreds of years, the Church was persecuted by those who rejected the Fathers' teaching on the Holy Spirit. This was when the Church broke up into hundreds of different groups. This was when the word "denomination" was born. All of these splinter groups had one thing in common. They all reject the Orthodox teaching on the Church. They have denied that there is only one baptism. They don't believe that after the separation of the soul from the body there is resurrection and an age to come. I would dare to say that the majority of people today deny that there is life after death. 

The Fathers of the First Council were then also prophets. They defined the Faith for all time. They confirmed the Faith through the councils that were to come. After the First council, no other Council of the Church ever redefined the Faith or changed or modified anything. The Creed remains ever the same. That is why for centuries no Universal Council has been called: the work was all done early on. 

So, why do we remember the Fathers of the First Council today?  We are now  three days after the Feast of the Ascension. We are seven days before Pentecost. These Feasts speak clearly of who Christ is. We read today in St John's Gospel where Our Lord speaks of His Father. Christ speaks as His Son, Whom the Father has sent. Christ says clearly that He came out from the Father. He says that all things that are the Father's are also the Son's. These are the very words that inspired the Fathers of the First Council. 

How we live and how we work as the Church will define for the present and future generations the Faith of the Church. As we look around our world we see that so many have rejected this Faith. So-called Christian groups are failing nearly everywhere. Church attendance is down. People don't want to be known as Christians. It is not politically correct to identify yourself as a Christian. And then there are so many who do identify themselves as Christians yet who profess a false faith.  We of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Church of Woodstock have by the power of the Holy Spirit, planted a church. We have now the obligation to show to the world that we are serious about it. As serious as were those martyrs who died for the faith. As serious as those Fathers of the Church were who fought for the truth, sometimes to their own deaths.

May God grant us the gift of the Holy Spirit again this Pentecost that we can be as strong as they. May God bless you and the parish church to be a model of the Faith of the Church as handed down to us by the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.





First Holy Confession

May 20, 2012
When I was growing up, my Sunday School teachers told me that God knew and remembered every one of my sins.  It was like God had a large black book in which He wrote them all down.  I pictured a stern old man with a quill pen and an ink pot.  But, when we presented ourselves at the gates to Heaven, all we had to do was say, “I believe in Your mercy.” And I would get into heaven.  It seemed an awful way to spend my life.  I had to live in fear of God's anger. There was a feeling of guilt and sorrow for sins.  And I would have to wait until death to resolve it. I had to always think about whether I was going to be forgiven for some little sin I did!  It was scary.

Later on I learned more.  One priest told me that God did indeed have a big sheet of paper on which He wrote down my sins.  But—God used a pencil.  Every time I went to Confession, God took out an eraser and rubbed away all my sins! All I had to do was say "Sorry" to God and my sins would be forgiven.  But what if I forgot some?  Or what if God forgot to erase some of those sins?  I would be in big trouble.

Now that I am older I have learned better.  It is my own self that is the paper.  And I am responsible for writing down the sins. I keep track myself.  God doesn’t need to.  And every sin I commit keeps me separated from God.  Only God has can wipe them all away. This is to me what confession is.  It is giving my list of sins to God so that he can, as the Holy Prophet Micah says, “cast them into the deepest part of the sea.” Through the sacrament of Confession, I don't have to wait until the moment of my death for God's forgiveness and mercy.  It is available to me every time I ask.  I can tell God I am sorry for my sins. I can promise God to do better.  And, best of all, God forgives me, and takes all those sins away. Then I can be close to God again.

When it comes to confession all I have to do is remember.  I remember how as a child how helpless the idea of not being forgiven made me feel.  Think about what confession does. With His wiping away of my sins, fear and doubt are replaced with peace and freedom. Confession strengthens me (again and again) to "Go and sin no more."

Being closed off from God's love is not only frightening, it hurts.  Suppose you have a disagreement between youself and a friend.  You lose something there. It hurts.  It makes you feel only half of yourself. The wound will only begin to heal when each forgives the other and starts over. It's the same way between you and God. Only God's forgiveness can heal self-inflicted wounds of sin.  But with His perfect love and mercy, the healing is immediate.

Yet there are objections to confession. You may have heard them.  You may have made them.  Someone I know objected saying that God knew all he had done. Why did he still have to tell it to a priest in confession?  I think confession struck him as inefficient. "I don't need to talk to God; He knows my thoughts!"

Think about this a moment.  Which is more powerful?  To say, “I love you”?     Or to think, “I love you”? Which is more effective?  To say, “I am sorry”? Or to think “I am sorry”?  Which makes a relationship better more quickly?  To admit out loud, “I did that, it’s my fault”?  Or just to think, “I did it, it’s my fault”?

If there's something we find difficult to say out loud, it's probably because we don't want to admit or accept responsibility for it. Here is the power of the spoken word in Confession.  By saying it (even if we may not want to), we accept responsibility for it (even if we may not want to). Only at that point, saying the words out loud, can we be most honest about ourselves.  And the priest is there, not to judge you or condemn you.  He is there just to hear you say it, out loud. You just can't make a good confession unless you say it, out loud, to the priest.

One person who made confession to me wanted to provide a list of reasons for committing sins along with confession. She understood that God already knew what she had done. She knew that she still had to confess it to a priest.  But she couldn't really understand why she couldn't also explain herself to God. She said, “But, he made me get angry. That's why I cursed him." I said, "No, you let yourself get angry. You chose to curse him. Confession doesn't have anything to do with what the other person did."

It is most important to remember that the major effect of sin is its offense to God. Our sins do hurt those around us. But they also affect our relationship with Christ.  Sin affects our soul's ability to receive God.  Some say we only need to confess and apologize to the other members of our society and that’s that.  Who needs confession? The truth is, sin is not just a social act.  Sins are an offense to God.  Our confessions are essential in restoring and renewing our relationship to God.

You, members of this year’s First Confession Class, have now reached the age of knowing right from wrong. You have made your First Confession as God's children. You have been receiving our Lord in Holy Communion for your entire lifetime to now.  Christ has been entirely and freely with you nearly your whole life.  He has offered Himself to you without question.  Now it is your turn to talk to Christ. You now can tell Christ Himself what keeps you from being close to Him.  You now have the gift of Confession.  You now, for the rest of your life, have a way to making sure that there is nothing between you and Christ to prevent His coming to you.  May God bless you as you come closer and closer to Him.

Christ is Risen!




Sunday of the Samaritan Woman (Mother\'s Day 2012)

May 13, 2012
Today is the Fifth Sunday of Pascha. As is usually the case, the feast of Mother's day also falls during the Paschal season. Today we remember Photini, that Samaritan Woman whom Jesus honored. We also remember and honor our mothers. We are, of course, commanded to honor our mothers. That's in the Ten Commandments. But honoring mothers is also the sensible and loving thing to do. Many of us here today wish we still had our mothers living so we could honor them, remember them and love them.

A six-year-old boy, separated from his mother in a supermarket, began to call frantically for “Martha! Martha! Martha!” That was his mother’s name and she came running to him quickly. “But, honey,” she admonished, “you shouldn’t call me ‘Martha’, I’m ‘Mother’ to you.” “Yes, I know,” he answered, “but this store is full of mothers.”

Our world is full of mothers, but each of us has only one mother who is special. She should be. She must always be. There is no one like our mothers. And no one can take the place of our mothers.  On Mother’s Day we can’t say enough good things about our mothers. Hidden (well-hidden I may say) in our Scriptures are references to mothers. Have you ever read the book of Proverbs from the Old Testament? That book is read throughout Great Lent at Vespers. Reading those lessons again this past Lent for the Liturgies of the Pre-Sanctified, I thought about today's sermon. Today, on the basis of some of the Old Testament Proverbs let us be reminded about those good things we have to say about mothers.

A boy got his first job. As he was boasting about the amount of work he did, he said, "I get up at 5 a.m. and have my breakfast." He was asked, "Does anyone else get up too?" He replied, "Oh yes, mother gets up and fixes my breakfast and then fixes dad’s breakfast." "And what about your dinner?" The boy said, "Oh, mother, fixes that too." "Does your mother have the afternoon to herself?" The boy replied, "No, mama cleans the house, looks after the other children, and then gets supper for me and dad when we come home. Then we watch TV before we go to bed." "What about your mother? What does she do?" The boy replied, "Mama washes some clothes and irons the rest of the evening." "Do you get paid?" "Of course, Dad and I get paid." "And what about your mother, does she get paid too?" The boy replied, "No!  Mother doesn't have a job!"

From the book of the Proverbs 31:27: "(A mother) watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread idleness." Mothers? They do more work than most of us men put together!

But that is not all we can say about mothers! A London editor submitted to Winston Churchill for his approval a list of all those who had been Churchill’s teachers. Churchill returned the list with this comment: “You have omitted to mention the greatest of my teachers—my Mother.” So Proverbs 31:26: "She speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction is on her tongue."

An epitaph on his wife’s tombstone written by her husband after 60 years of marriage, read, "She always made home happy." So Proverbs 31:11-12: "Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life."

A teacher at school put this question to little James in math class, "James, suppose your mother made a cherry pie, and there were ten of you at the table: your mother and father and eight children. How much of the pie would you get?" "A ninth," was his answer. "No, no, James. Now pay attention. There are ten of you in the home. Don’t you know your fractions?" "Yes, ma'am," he replied, "I know my fractions. But I know my mother even better, and she would say that she didn't want any pie!" The unselfishness of a mother shows a heart of love for her family. And all of us can remember many unselfish acts of devotion our mothers made to our homes. Wise Solomon wrote this in his Proverbs: (Proverbs 31:10-12) "An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life."

Thomas Edison once said, “I did not have my mother long, but she cast over me an influence which has lasted all my life. The good effects of her early training I can never lose. If it had not been for her appreciation and her faith in me at a critical time in my experience, I should never likely have become an inventor. I was always a careless boy, and with a mother of different mental caliber, I should have turned out badly. But her firmness, her sweetness, her goodness, were potent powers to keep me in the right path. My mother was the making of me. The memory of her will always be a blessing to me.”

Perhaps Thomas Edison had read Proverbs 31:28: “Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.”

Pause today to thank God for your mother. If she is alive, speak to her words of thanks, of good cheer. Speak to her words of love and respect. If she has gone to God, offer a prayer for her soul that God receive her into His Kingdom.



Sunday of the Paralytic

May 6, 2012
The modern world thinks that anything medically wrong can or will be cured sooner rather than later. The modern world believes that medical science is the answer to the question of illness and suffering. The modern human does not look in himself at times of pain and suffering. He does not look for the cause inside himself. He only looks for a cure. And if there is no cure? He blames anybody else, including God.

In this self-centered view of life, the modern man forgets something vital. He forgets that maybe, at least part of his suffering is caused by his own action. Maybe his illness, his medical condition, his aches and pains just might be caused his own choice of getting further from his Creator.
We see the paralytic today sitting on the side of the pool waiting for 18 years. 18 years of suffering. But also 18 years of hope. After all, he was coming every day to that pool in hope for a cure. He was patiently waiting for a miracle to cure his legs so he can walk again.

However when Christ approaches him Christ does not ask him: do you want to walk again? But He asks him: Do want to be healed? This is a very important detail. This detail is giving us a hint on how we should see ourselves in the great scheme of things.

A human being is not only his body, as modern people believe. But a human being is also not only his soul, trapped in the earthly body as some other people believe. Man is a whole, body and soul together. Man as soul and body is bound for eternity in this unity. There is no moment when the body existed and the soul was not. Man is Man as his Creator made Him at the beginning of time. His body is from the earth. His soul is from the breath of life coming from God. Therefore everything we do in our bodies will reflect on the soul. And – everything we do with our souls will be reflected in our bodies.

We have been created to reach perfection. We have been created to use our bodies and souls to reach to the true source of life which is God the Creator. But through sin the link between us and God was broken. Our bodies which could have lived forever were penetrated by decay and death. Pain and suffering came into our lives.
Understand that this suffering and death was not a penalty from God. God only wishes us what is good for us. But death was a voluntary choice from our side. Our own decisions have broken the link with the very Source of life.

In the original Greek language to sin is called hamartano, which mean to miss the target. But it also means not to be a part of something. Sin is the reason why every day we miss our target of getting closer to God, to be united with Him for eternity. Through sin we turn away from God. Sin is something we choose to do. And for each sin there is a consequence.

Now perhaps we can see why, in today's Gospel, through sin we are not whole. We are like the paralyzed man waiting by the healing pool. We sit for so many years near the fountain of miracle and we have no One, as the paralytic answered today to Jesus . Do you want to be healed? The paralyzed man answered him, Sir, I have no one to help me.

We have no One because through sin we became like the paralytic. We have become paralyzed in our daily sin. We cannot make one step to enter in the fountain of life. We are spiritually paralyzed and we need Someone to carry us into the water of healing life.

We have no One because through sin we have broken the link between us and the only One who can help, Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the only One that can take us in His arms and heal us in the fountain of His miracle, His Church.

Christ is the only one that can make us whole again. He can reunite us with our Creator so we can be whole again. If Christ is missing from life, that life is not whole, but empty. That life has no meaning. Lives are whole and have a purpose only in Christ. Without Him our earthly struggle is meaningless. It is hopeless. And then such lives turn to worldly answers for healing and life. Such lives seek answers from medical science and psychiatry. Such answers may keep bodies alive and well – for a while – but do absolutely nothing for the soul.

After all, pain and suffering does not come from God. Pain and suffering are a result of what we do with our lives. If we sin we choose pain and suffering. Yet God in His unchanging love and mercy allows us to be turned again to Him through suffering. We can, like many people in pain and suffering, continue to blame others or even God. We then continue to miss the target again.

"Do you want to be healed?" If so, I believe that is why you are here today. He is the One who can lift us from the paralysis of our sin and make us walk again on the path of salvation.



Sunday of the Myrrhbearers

April 29, 2012
An Orthodox priest in California relates this story. “(While I was in Irvine) I went with some friends to walk on one of the local beaches.  As we were walking from the parking lot to the sand we passed by a bench overlooking the water.  It had fixed to it a plaque. The plaque said the bench was dedicated to the memory of a young man killed in a car accident.  My friend related to me the tragic story.  They explained that the deceased boy’s family had him cremated, and then his brother paddled out on his surfboard and ‘scattered his ashes’ in the waves.  

“How unfortunate!” the priest went on.  “And what insult added to the injury of death.  It is bad enough to be killed at a young age. But then to have your own family throw you in the fire and cast you into the ocean!  These people chose a park bench over a grave.  There will be no Panachidas sung for years to come at that park bench and no frequent visits.  I doubt we will see a priest visiting that bench and sprinkling it with holy water.  We will never see Paschal procession being made through the parking lot singing “Christ is risen!”  There will be no visits on Soul Saturdays to that bench.  There will be no crosses planted upon it.  And I doubt very much that his mother will kneel there and call down grace upon her departed loved one by her tears!  That bench is instead a token of the ignorance and cruelty of modern secular man.”
 
Today we thank God for those who cared for Christ's body after His death. We remember the righteous Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who buried the body of Christ. And we remember the holy Myrrhbearing women:  Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Martha of Bethany, Mary mother of James and Joses, Joanna, and Salome. They brought the holy myrrh, a spice used in burial to the tomb that first Pascha morning.
 
The Holy Myrrhbearers love for Christ did not end at His death.  What boldness and courage did the noble Joseph show when he approached Pilate for our Lord’s body. And he provided his own tomb for the burial. Nicodemus, who also had been a secret follower of Christ, assisted Joseph at the burial of Christ. The tradition tells us that he was severely punished by the Jewish leaders. He was no longer a “respected member of the council.” Rather he was exiled from the synagogue.  The Holy Myrrhbearers clearly demonstrated their great love for Christ after His death.
 
What fearlessness to be identified with Christ did these show forth!  And that, while Christ was dead.  How much more ought we to fearlessly identify ourselves with the Lord Christ, knowing as we do that He is risen?  That He is ascended and is ruling the world? 

While Christ was still alive they followed Him, but secretly for fear of the Jews.  Once Christ was dead they threw off this concern, and with great boldness identified with their Master.  It is one thing to love a living person.  Often this love brings with it a return of love.  But it is another and deeper thing altogether to love someone deceased.  This is selfless love, and love offered with no expectation of return.  This is the love demonstrated by Sts. Joseph, Nicodemus, and the Myrrhbearing women.  This is the love shown by their bold request for the Lord’s body. It was shown by their tender care in bringing Him down from the Cross, washing His wounds, cleaning Him, anointing Him with spices, wrapping Him in pure linen, and burying Him. 

Let us also remember today that no one loves the dead more, or cares for them more intensely than our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.  We love because He first loved us.  We love the dead, because He first loved the dead.  Our Savior died and was buried so that He Himself could go to His dead children in Hades and raise them up!  By His death He visited the dead.  His grave was a passage to the graves of all His children, and a message for all of His children yet to be born.  There is no place where Christ has not gone before us.  There is no place that death can take us that Christ has not already been.  What happens when we kneel before an open grave and commit our loved ones to the ground?  We do so knowing that the Lord Jesus Christ has already been below the earth and has trampled death by death. 

It is in this knowledge that we Christians can calmly prepare for our deaths and think often upon them. The noble Joseph had great spiritual foresight. He prepared his own tomb (that he gave to Christ) even before the Resurrection of our Savior.  So also we, living in the light of the Resurrection, need often to think of our own deaths.  May we be numbered amongst the righteous Nicodemus and the noble Joseph and with the Myrrhbearing women.  May we all receive the reward of the Resurrection of the just in the eternal kingdom of God.

Christ is risen!


 
Thomas Sunday

April 22, 2012
Christians, people like you and I, are Pascha people. Just like the disciples of old, we have been caught up in the Pascha faith.  We stand with the women and the disciples at the empty tomb on Pascha morning.  We are Pascha people.  We have a sense in our lives of anastasia.  That word is a wonderful Greek word which means resurrection.  We have tasted anastasia in the breaking of bread.  We have known anastasia in the strength of the fellowship we call the church.  We have shared anastasia when we share our joy in the resurrection of Christ.

We are Pascha people.  But we are also people who have known doubt, reluctance, unsureness.  Though we are Pascha people, we are also real people.  We are people who have a real faith.  But we also must deal with the harsh realities of life.  On this Thomas Sunday, the church asks us to contemplate the harsh realities of life.  Today we look through the eyes of the apostle Thomas.

That first Pascha evening, we are told, "Thomas was not with them."  The other ten had seen Jesus himself.  They had had visual proof of the resurrection of Jesus.  But, Thomas was not there.  For Thomas, that the dead Jesus was alive, was simply too fantastic to receive.  Thomas must have seen Jesus die, from a distance, of course.  And now, to see him alive?  It is just too much.  Maybe it was remotely possible.  But no, it could not possibly be.

I think we all have had that feeling.  You know, maybe...but NO!  It happens when we get that envelope in mail.  “You have won a million dollars,” it says.  And then, in tiny print, “if you. . .”  You know that sometime, somewhere, someone will walk away with the million dollars.  You thought it was you, this time.  Maybe  but, no, it couldn't possible happen.  The hope is distant. The expectation is nonexistent.

Thomas did not know he was going to become a Pascha Person. He was willing to be just a Good Friday person.  But Pascha arrived for Thomas one week late.  The evening of that week later, he knew the familiar Jesus to be the Christ of Pascha. Jesus even offered Thomas his hands and his side.  "Touch them, if you must."  But Thomas did not need to.  No longer did he need to satisfy his senses.  Thomas knew inside.  He felt in his heart that he was in the presence of the Risen Christ.  He had recognized Jesus alive.  He had become a Pascha Person.

For one week, Thomas had been a Good Friday person.  He had been safe.  He did not have to prove to anyone that Jesus rose from the dead.  It certainly must have been much easier for Thomas to say, "Well, we thought this Jesus was our Messiah.  But he's dead and gone now. So I guess it's back to the old routine again."  But Thomas encountered the Risen Christ.  And now his life was really complicated.  One thing the world was not going to accept was that this Jesus had risen from the dead.  Thomas was now a Pascha Person.  He had to go.  He had to tell the good news. “The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed!"  But it was complicated.  They had no risen Jesus to produce to prove their story true!  Surely there were many more people who did not believe the story than just Thomas.  Jesus, after all, appeared to so few.  So now the test really began.  Had Jesus really risen?  Or were they only seeing things which not many others ever saw?  And that is the way the message comes to us today.  Jesus is risen.  And there is no Jesus to appear to us to prove it.  What shall we do?  How do we respond?

Even those who claim to be Pascha people are intimidated when there is no proof.  Those early Christians could not produce an alive and risen Christ.  They had to face a skeptical and unbelieving world.  They had to face a world ready to laugh at such a claim.  And then to put them to death for believing it!  All they could do was to refuse to back down when their claims went unbelieved.

Pascha people are different from all others in society.  Christianity, Orthodoxy, is about being out of step with the familiar, the normal, the "natural" in life.  It is to risk being different from others in our society, to differ from the status quo.  Pascha people are different.

Pascha people are never at the end of their ropes.  When disaster strikes the Pascha person, the Pascha person is never without hope, love, comfort.  When the Pascha person is stripped of things of this world (money, prestige, social position) the Pascha person is never bankrupt.  If the Pascha person should be on the verge of death, the Pascha person knows that life is everlasting.  The Pascha person is never without a final word.  The Pascha person never has a pain without a comfort.  The Pascha person never loses hope.  That’s because there is always someone there to hold the Pascha person up.

But, to be sure, Pascha people are always under pressure to prove their story to be true.  The world wants to know if our faith is real.  “Did Christ rise, or is it all just another fairy tale?”  Well, what do we have?  What are we to do?  Jesus left us no proof  except for the grace and love that Christ's Pascha people show.  Christ is alive in the world, he is resurrected from the dead in our world today.  It is when he is alive and resurrected through us.  He is alive and resurrected when we, as the resurrected Body of Christ, the Church, stand up for love and forgiveness over against hate, unjustice and bigotry.  He is alive and resurrected when we as the resurrected Body of Christ, the Church, reject all forms of evil and sin.

Christ is alive and resurrected when we, as the resurrected Body of Christ, the Church, are willing to risk being different in society.  It is when we show that we believe what we say we believe.  Then, and only then, have we become Pascha people.  We become the living Body of Christ in the world.

No one plans to become an Pascha person.  We can only be convinced by our personal encounter with the Risen Christ.  He meets us in His word, in His Holy Mysteries.  He meets us in fellowship with other believers.  He meets us, this Resurrected Christ, when we have done the least for our needy brothers and sisters.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!



The Feast of Holy Pascha

April 15, 2012
Death is a subject that we don’t like to talk about.  But, it is the one sure thing in life.  The Preacher says in Ecclesiates, “There is a time to be born and a time to die."   And the writer to the Hebrews comes right to the point.  "And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment."  Death is sure!  In the Bible death is called by many names. Giving up the ghost. The king of terrors.  A change.  Going to thy fathers.  Putting off this tabernacle.  Requiring the soul.  Going the way of all flesh.  Being gathered to our people.  Going down into silence. Returning to dust.  Meeting the last enemy.  And, sleeping.

There have only been two people who did not die.  They were Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament.  Because death is sure Jesus tells us to prepare for it. “As long as it is day, we must do the work of Him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work."  In the Bible death is viewed as our enemy.  But, to be sure, for a Christian, it is a defeated enemy!  Paul even viewed death as a friend he said "for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." He sees death as the means of moving from the struggles of life to the pleasures of the presence of God. Yes!  From the part to the whole.  From the mortal to the immortal.  From tears to no tears.  From sickness to no sickness.  From departing to never parting.

However, for the non-believer death is for sure an enemy.  The non-believer  has only the death to look forward to.  It is endless dying.  There is no way out, no way up.  It will be worse than life.  There will be tears but no one to wipe them.  There will be burdens but no one to help carry them.  There will be sickness but no one to heal them.  There will be sins but no one to forgive them.  That truly is hell!

Hundreds of years before Christ, the Holy Prophet Isaiah foretold of a day when death will be swallowed up for ever.  He foretells of a day when the last enemy will be wiped out.  A day when the righteous will not be subject to the tyranny of death.  Do you know when that day will be? 

Let me first tell you when it was not.   It was not when the widow of Zarephath’s son was raised to life by Elias.  It was not when a dead man was touched by the bones of Elisha, and came back to life.  It was not when Jairus’ dead daughter was raised to life by Jesus.  It was not when the widow of Nain’s dead son was also raised by Jesus.  Lazarus had been dead for four long days and Jesus raised him to life.  But that was not the day.
 
Even though each one of these were wonderful works of God, not one of them swallowed up death forever. In each of these cases those raised to life had to face death all over again.  Isaiah tells us with certainty. The day is coming when death is done for forever.
 
 
And it happened. It happened on a hill outside of the city of Jerusalem.  Jesus, an itinerant preacher from Nazareth, had been accused, found innocent, and given the death sentence.  He was nailed to a cross.  On that day death put it cold hands on the very Son of God.  The earth shook.  The sun refused to shine.  Hell rejoiced!  He who said that He was the way, the truth and the life was dead.  He who said He was the light of the world was dead.  He who said that He was living water was dead.  There is no doubt about it on that mountain on that day Jesus the Son of God was dead!

At that moment of his death the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  The earth shook and the rocks split.  The tombs of the righteous dead were broken open.  But they could not rise because death still had its cold hands around the neck of Jesus.  Hell celebrated all night Friday, all day Saturday and all night Saturday.
 
However, I need to tell you that these events are also not the events that swallow up death.  They only get us ready.  For as long as death had Jesus we had no hope.  There was no one who could help us.  Jesus was the best God had and now death had Him.  But God the Father raised Jesus from the grave.  God the Father took life out of the grip of death.  On the third day death was swallow up.  So on this day, this Holy Pascha, this feast day of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, on this day we can celebrate the end of the power of death forever.  And how can this be?

Because Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. And to those in the tombs bestowing life. Jesus is alive and death is defeated!  Because He lives we can live. Because He lives we can face tomorrow.  Because He lives all fear is gone.  Because we know He holds the future. He holds our future. Death may take our bodies, but death will now never take our life. We can live forever with Him. And so today we face death. We look it squarely in the face and laugh because Death has been defeated. We live now. We live no longer in fear of death.
 
And life is worth living only because death has been swallowed up in His victory.  He lives.  He lives. We live.

Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!




Holy and Great Friday

April 13, 2012

“At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom…”

The ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem was a truly unique building. It was built on the top of Mount Zion. It was located at the highest point of the city. One could see the glorious temple from miles away when coming to Jerusalem. At Jesus’ time, the temple had been built by the Jewish King Herod. Herod was a master architect. Herod’s temple was not as beautiful as Solomon’s temple of centuries earlier. But it was built to the same exacting specifications.

The temple was to house the very presence of God. At least that is what the ancient Jews believed. Depending on one’s religious standing, someone could only get so close to God. The outer courts were for the non-Jews and the women. The inner court was reserved for the male Jews. Up the stairs and into the center of the temple, only the priests could go. They could get to the Holy Place, a room separated from another room called the Holy of Holies. This Holy of Holies was the holiest place of all. It is where God was said to live. In the temple of Solomon, the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the Holy of Holies. The only one who could enter there was the High Priest. And he could only go there once a year.

When the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, he would wear his vestments that had bells sewed on them. In addition, a rope would be tied around his waist. The other end of the rope extended out into the Holy Place. Just in case the High Priest could not get himself out due to sickness or even death, he could be pulled out by the rope. After all, no one else was allowed in the Holy of Holies.

This Holy of Holies was separated from the Holy Place by a thick dark curtain. No one could see through it. No one could even touch it, except that High Priest. And he could touch it only when, again once a year, he went through the curtain. The curtain of the temple was a symbol. It stood for the fact that ordinary people had no contact with God. Only the priest could be near God. Everyone else had to go through the priest. The priest offered the sacrifices. The priest said the prayers. The priest alone had access to God.

That was until one day something happened.  “At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom…”  This is what St. Matthew tells us what happened when Christ died on the Cross. “At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom…”  The expression “at that moment” is a translation of a phrase that is used in the Scriptures to tell us something very important is happening. It means: Take notice! God is doing something that is neither expected nor really understood.

In this case when “… the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom…” truly something significant was happening. At the very moment of Christ’s death, God was rejecting the power and authority of the temple to control access to God. At the very moment the sacrifice of Christ was complete, no more sacrifices were ever to be needed again. There would be no more lambs killed. There would be no more blood sprinkled on the people. There would be no more High Priest who only could access God.

The torn temple curtain told of the new way to access the Father. That would be the way through Christ Himself. The new priesthood would be shared by all who believe. Anyone can get to God directly. Today’s priest serves the people’s access to God. He directs and assists them. He is like a tour guide who keeps the group on the right road and points out important times and places along the way. Today’s priest is chosen from among the people. He does not have the right to priesthood because he belongs to the right tribe or right family. He leads the people to God in prayer, and he brings God to the people. He does that by coming from the holy place, the altar, with the body and blood of Christ Himself. The priest today is to be the example of Christ Himself. He offers a life sacrificed for the life of the Church. And he offers the unbloody sacrifice at the altar for the forgiveness of sins.

I have recently been receiving emails from those who are warning us of the persecutions that are about to arrive. The senders cite examples of the persecution to the death of Christians around the world. The senders are sure such persecutions are coming to this country, and soon. Soon there will arrive those who will attend services and seek to hear things they say are “hate” speech. They will listen for words about abortion, homosexuality, women’s rights, etc. They will have priests arrested and prosecuted for such hate speech. And if one is not friendly to Muslims? Such persons may be killed on the spot!

What does that sound like to me? It sounds like the very words of the Passion history of Christ we read last night, and heard again in our Gospel this evening. Christ was accused of hate speech because some of His hearers just thought it was. Christ was arrested. He was tortured. He was killed. He did not seek such a death. But He did not turn away from it. In fact, He offered Himself for the life of the world.

“At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom…”  Brothers and sisters, we are all of one priesthood. We are a “royal priesthood” as St. Peter calls us in his first epistle. We stand today with the curtain torn in two. We can enter through the curtain to God whenever we wish. I look forward to the day when, because of the death we remember today, I can walk through the torn curtain. For my Father is waiting for me there. I know I will be there. I know He will be there. Let the world do as it may. The curtain is torn. For good.



Palm Sunday

April 8, 2012

On the Sunday before the Great and Holy Pascha and at the beginning of Great and Holy Week, Orthodoxy celebrates one of its most joyous feasts of the year. Palm Sunday remembers the Entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem. The event came on the day after Christ raised Lazarus from the dead. Having heard of this miracle, the people went out to meet the Lord. They welcomed Him with displays of honor. They shouted their praises. Today, we, too, receive and worship Christ in the same way. We, too, acknowledge Him as our King and our Lord.

The Biblical story of Palm Sunday is recorded in all four Gospels. Five days before Passover, Jesus came from Bethany to Jerusalem. He sent two of His disciples to bring him the colt of a donkey. Jesus sat upon it and entered the Great City.

Many had gathered in Jerusalem for Passover. They had also heard of the miracle of Lazarus, now raised from the dead. When they heard that Christ was coming to Jerusalem, they went out to meet Him with palm branches. They laid their coats on the ground before Him. They shouted their praises. “Hosanna! Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!”

Three years earlier, Jesus began His public ministry. It was then that He proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God. His words and miracles were intended to produce a change in the hearts and minds of the people. His words and miracles would change some. But the call was, really, to follow Him – to follow Him all the way to the Cross.

So this Palm Sunday, we, again are called to behold our King. We are called to behold the Word of God made human. But we do not simply see someone riding into the city on the back of a donkey. We see so much more. We see Him as one present right here and now. He is present in power and glory at every Divine Liturgy. He enters in at every prayer and every Holy Mystery. He comes in every act of love and kindness and mercy. He comes to free us from fear. He comes to take possession of our very souls. He comes to be enthroned as King of our hearts. He comes to deliver us from death through His own death and Resurrection. He comes so that we might live in union with Him. He comes to give us the power to choose to return to the image of God in which we were created. He is the King who frees us from slavery to sin. So, yes, Palm Sunday calls us to come and behold our King entering. He is entering our hearts, our lives, our thoughts, our actions. He is, truly King: Vanquisher of death; Giver of life.

And Palm Sunday calls us to behold the King entering into His Kingdom, right now. For He is claiming us for His Kingdom, right now. We become His subjects, right now. All the gifts that He can give to us as King come, right now. His Kingship and Lordship of our lives does not lie at some point in the distant future. In the very words of Scripture, the Kingdom of God is within us, right now.

And what does that mean that the Kingdom of God is within us, right now? It is something like this. There are too many people in the world who think that their life is all about themselves. “It’s my life,” the teenager screams at her parents. “I don’t care what you say. I’m going to do what I want.” A patient diagnosed with cancer cries, “Why is this happening to ME?” We often forget that our lives are not just about our selves. Our lives have something to do with the people around us. We are all connected. We are all of the same nature, that of Christ Himself. We are thus connected with friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances, and yes, even our enemies. No one lives life separate from anyone else.

But what have we become when sin is king of our lives? We become self-centered and selfish. We can so easily turn in on ourselves. We can so easily turn our backs on each other. The truth is that my life is not about me. My life is about the King—Jesus Christ. Your life is not about you. It is about the one who entered Jerusalem this day. It is about the one who went to the Cross for you. Our lives are about Christ the King of the Kingdom that is within us, right now.

That Kingdom is the Kingdom holiness. It is the Kingdom of goodness, truth beauty, love, joy and peace. These qualities are not the work of the human spirit. They come from the life of God. They reveal God. For Christ has brought God to us. He is the God/man. He brought God down to earth and showed us what God is truly like.

So Palm Sunday calls us to come out and see our King. His royalty comes not from either political power or living in the luxury of beautiful palaces. Our King we will see this week as Suffering Servant, to use the words of Isaiah the prophet. Our King will accept the humiliation of crucifixion. Our King will suffer the worst that humans can mete out. He will do it patiently. He will do it unselfishly. He will do it “for the joy” of loving us, as St. Paul said to the Hebrews.

Today we sang this hymn from the Matins of Palm Sunday. “With our souls cleansed and in spirit carrying branches, with faith let us sing Christ’s praises like children. Let us cry with a loud voice to the Master. ‘Blessed are You, O Savior, Who has come into the world to save Adam from the ancient curse. And in Your love for mankind, You have been pleased to become the new Adam. O Word, Who has ordered things for our good, glory be to You!’”




The Fifth Sunday of Great Lent: St. Mary of Egypt

April 1, 2012
There just might come a time in our Christian lives that God will ask us to do something that we are not used to doing. He might ask us to take a step of faith.  He might ask us to do something that just doesn’t make much sense.  And, maybe, out of fear of the unknown, we might refuse. We might refuse to trust God.  We might refuse to take one more leap of faith.

After all, many of us tend to distrust change.  We have grown accustomed to just where we are, thank you very much. We become accustomed to how God normally speaks to us and uses us. But when God asks us to do something different or unpredictable, we can become greatly afraid.  We might just freeze and remain right where we are.

In today’s reading from the Holy Gospels we read that as Christ’s disciples followed him to Jerusalem they were filled with both “amazement” and “fear.” The Gospel writer Mark liked to use these two words. Throughout Mark’s Gospel, people respond to Christ with amazement and with fear. They were amazed when Christ healed a man who could not walk. They were amazed when he said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy person to enter the Kingdom of God. They were amazed when he instructed them to return to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s.

The people were afraid when they realized that a man who had been possessed by a demon had been healed. The disciples were afraid when Moses and Elijah appeared with Christ. We are told that their fear left them speechless. The people were “amazed” by what Christ did and said because he challenged much of what they took for granted.  They were “afraid” of the power that he possessed.  Later in Mark we read about two women named Mary.  They went to see an empty tomb on a Sunday morning.  And St. Mark says, “So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb.  For they trembled and were amazed.  And they said nothing to anyone.  For they were afraid.”

Do you see a pattern emerging in Mark’s Gospel?  As the Apostles went with Christ toward Jerusalem, they were “amazed” and “afraid.” So Christ “ took the twelve aside and began to tell them the things that would happen to Him.”  Christ spoke in detail about what they were up against in Jerusalem. Christ revealed his plans to his Apostles. He told them he was to suffer.  He told them He would die.  But He also told them He would rise again! He removed the element of the unknown.  And isn’t it the unknown that causes so much fear in the lives of human beings? If we become afraid to follow Christ where he is leading maybe we have not really listened to Him. Maybe we haven’t really trusted what He has said to us. If we are unsure of God’s direction then it is probably because we have failed to really listen to Him.

When God shows up in our lives He asks us to follow Him. And where might that lead?  Sometimes, as in my case, He asks us to leave our religious past and start again.  That is both amazing and scary. The amazement is, first of all, that Christ would call any of us to do that.  But that amazement quickly turns to fear. “Yes, I will follow You.  But what will other people will think of me? What commitment will be required of me?  What will have to change in my life?”  When we start thinking of the unknowns, it is scary to follow where Christ leads. It may mean giving up a comfortable life.  It may mean the loss of friends.  It may mean injury or even death.  But the call comes, nonetheless. And when it comes, we must answer.

Thus the Church places before us St. Mary of Egypt.  St. Mary of Egypt struggled for many years. Up until the age of 30, St. Mary of Egypt had lived a life of complete debauchery and depravity. She couldn't even tell the monk Zosimas everything that she did. But when God called her to follow Him, she understood that her life had to change. Her experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem was fearful.  As a result of that encounter with Christ, St. Mary of Egypt spent some 48 years in the desert alone.  But it was there she found the amazing new life that God had prepared for her.  In the midst of hunger and nakedness, she found what God wanted for her. God had called.  St. Mary answered. At first afraid, she became amazed at what God had in store for her.

Your very presence in church today says that you have made a decision to follow Christ.  In the midst of a world that tells us we can do whatever we want to, we have made a choice.  You have heard the Church say, "I don't care what the world tells you Christ is calling you to do something else." And as we listen to Christ in today’s Holy Gospel, we hear him tell what will happen to those who follow Christ. The future is not unknown.  He will be betrayed. He will be mocked.  He will be scourged and spit upon.  He will be killed. This is what Christ was called to do. He calls us to follow Him. Christ went to this suffering and death freely, of His own will.  He calls us to follow Him, freely of our own wills. It is an amazing call.  But it is not one that should make us afraid. For the end of the story is also known: “…and the third day He shall rise again.” And so shall those who follow the call of Christ.

So, today we follow the lead of St. Mary of Egypt.  As Christ calls us to follow Him to Jerusalem, so the Church today invites each of us to join St. Mary of Egypt in the desert.  It’s hot.  It’s dry. It’s sometimes lonely.  It’s demanding.  It’s full of demons. It’s not the fast lane of life. But – come along on the journey.  Don’t be afraid.  I guarantee, you’ll be amazed!



The Annunciation to the Holy Birth-giver of God

March 25, 2012

"For with God nothing will be impossible."

The first chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke focuses on two important women in the Bible.  One is St. Elizabeth, patroness of this church. She was a woman probably in her sixties or seventies, well past her years of child bearing. The other is Mary. She was a young girl, probably no more than a teenager. Both of them are pregnant. In our day, it is Elizabeth's pregnancy that seems the more unlikely. Unmarried pregnant teenagers were not unheard of in Mary's day, nor are they in ours. Pregnant senior citizens were quite another matter.

But as it turns out, Mary is a virgin. This makes pregnancy even more remarkable than that of her cousin Elizabeth.  Elizabeth would give birth to John the Forerunner.  And six months later, Mary would give birth to Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior.  "For with God nothing will be impossible."

Before there is a birth, there must first be a conception. So today, exactly nine months before Christmas, we celebrate our Lord's conception.  For he was "conceived by the Holy Spirit." Now we don't know the precise date that the angel intruded on Mary’s life.  We do know that it was in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy that Gabriel appeared to Mary in Nazareth.

This was, in the words of St. Paul, the "fullness of time."  It was the moment when the time just right.  When the time was right, God sent his Son to be born of a woman. The promise had been first spoken by God long before. It was in the Garden, in the hearing of Adam and Eve after their own sin. The promise was that God would make war between the devil and the woman. Through the offspring of the woman God would crush the head of the serpent. In the process God would suffer the crushing of his own heel.  The promise was carried by a long line of Israel's mothers who carried the promise. There were Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and a whole host of nameless women.

At the end of that long list of Israel's mothers is Mary, the young maiden of Nazareth. She stands as the new Eve. Mary is at the opposite end of God's promise to save His fallen creatures.  Eve had listened to the lie of the devil. She said “yes” and had been deceived. Mary listened to the promise of the angel. She said “yes.” And all the promises of God found their fulfillment in this Child of Mary. "For with God nothing will be impossible."

Mary's virgin motherhood is a controversial thing today. It is an embarrassment to the sophisticated. It is foolish nonsense to the learned. It is a "childish myth" to those who do not believe that anything is possible with God. We have come to believe the opposite. We believe today that with humans nothing is impossible. Nothing is impossible, given enough time, technology, and working capital. There is little room left in modern hearts and minds to think about a pregnant virgin. And in a day when three out of four couples live together before their wedding day, listen to the Holy Mother.  How many brides today could ask, "How shall this be, since I have not slept with a man?"

The angel offers no explanations to satisfy our modern curiosity. "The Holy Spirit will come upon you.  The power of the Most High will overshadow you.  The child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God." This is entirely the creative working of God. Through the Word, by the Holy Spirit, a young woman conceives without a man.  Then she gives birth to a Son, who is the Holy One, Immanuel, God with us.

Today is a special day in history. This day the angel came to Mary and proclaimed the Promise. This day in Nazareth of Galilee, in a young girl named Mary, God became human. This day the Creator became the creature. This day the Word became Flesh. A tiny cluster of human cells in the womb of Mary held the very Lord of the universe. Our culture would dismiss this as "fetal tissue." But here in the womb of Mary was the eternal Word of God through whom and by whom all things were made. Surely we rightly call the Holy Theotokos “More Spacious than the Heavens.” That is the icon the overlooks the altar.

Thus Christians have come to call Mary, the "Mother of God." She is the “Theotokos.” She is the “the Birth-giver of God." The angel will permit us to call her nothing less. Mary is the virgin mother of the Son of the Most High. To deny Mary's virginity is to deny that God is Jesus' Father. It is to deny that Jesus is true God, God's only Son.  If Mary is not a virgin mother, then her Son is only a man. Then his death is simply the death of a man.  It is not the death of Him who would be the Death of death.

At the Annunciation, Mary knew nothing of what was to come. Just as we do not know everything that lies in the future for us. We don’t know about next year, or next month or even tomorrow. We don't know what suffering, trials, or temptations are in store for us. We don't know if we will be sick or healthy, prosperous or poor. We don't know what our being servants of the Lord will mean for us. We don’t know what crosses will come to us.  We can be sure, however, the crosses will come. We don't know the time and circumstances of our own death.  Nor do we know the hour or day of the Lord's coming in glory and our resurrection from the dead.

But we do know this one thing on this Feast of the Annunciation.  Amazing things happen where God speaks his word of promise. A virgin conceives and bears a son. Sins are forgiven in the name of Jesus. Sinners are washed and reborn as baptized saints. The body and blood which were born of Mary was crucified, raised, and glorified. The same body and blood are offered at Divine Liturgy for sinners to eat and to drink. The dead are raised to life. "For with God nothing will be impossible."

3rd Sunday of Great Lent

March 18, 2012

Let me tell you about Donald.  I met Donald about 20 years ago. Donald was a single young man in his mid-twenties or so.  Looking at him, one would size him up as what some people used to call "Yuppies" (young, urban, professionals).  He was young.  He was urban.  He was professional.  But he was a far cry from the stereotype of young single adults always on the move in social circles.

Donald had heard in a sermon of mine about a prison inmate. This inmate was accused of shooting his best friend by accident. He was charged with murder in the second degree. I told of how depressed this young man was. I told of how hard it was for him to face anyone while he was waiting for trial.  Donald, upon hearing about him, asked me if he could become a visitor for this man.  Being prison chaplain, I arranged a time for a visit.  Donald came every week for nine months to the prison to see him.  That in itself is not so unusual.  But consider the fact that Donald lived some sixty miles from the prison. He had to take three different trains and a bus to get there. It was a one-hour and 45-minute trip from his home to the prison. But he did not miss a visit. He didn’t miss whether due to bad weather, poor train connections, poor health or any reason.

Donald did this because he wanted to. It was not because he had to.  It was choice, not force.  He did it for Jeff's sake, and for his good. He did it not to meet some inner need to control or sympathize with someone else. He did it not to be praised. He did it because of Christ's love in his own heart.  Donald would be surprised to hear his weekly visits called "crossbearing."  But in the purest sense of the word, that was what was taking place.

  At a crucial time in his ministry, Jesus told his disciples that: "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected . . . and be killed."Jesus' cross was foreseen and accepted.  In the power of a love that can only come from God above, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.  As the Holy Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Hebrews. “Instead of the joy that was set before him (Christ) endured the cross. He despised the shame. And he is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." Christ bore His cross. Christ gave His life for the world. In so doing, Christ gave us final and complete victory over death. There is no shame in his cross.  The Cross is our glory. The Cross is our hope. The Cross is our salvation. Then Jesus added: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me."

Crossbearing is an essential mark of our belonging to Christ as his people.  To take up our cross is to obey him.  It is the mark of our discipleship.  It is inseparable from following him.  But notice how Jesus teaches us its meaning.  Crossbearing is the fulfillment of our lives. It is not our missing of life's meaning. How do we find our purpose on earth? It is to follow our Lord in faith, and let Him assign the crosses.

Let Him assign the crosses. We do not choose our crosses to bear. It is not necessary to go out looking for them. "Take up your cross" can only come about in first following him.  As that happens, crosses will come about.  We need only forgive our enemies. We need only love those who are being cold to us.  We need only do good to those who hate us.  We need only treat every other human being as one who is dear to God in spite of everything. Then the cross-bearing will come along in due time.  But this is the first thing to keep clear. We do not choose the cross we bear. It is the consequence of our following Christ.

The second thing to keep clear about is that crossbearing does not mean anything and everything that wears us down.  Several years ago a popular T.V. evangelist lost his ministry and his reputation for well-known reasons. But the huge hubub and all the flak he took cannot be equated with cross-bearing. That is exactly what he called. “I have such a cross to bear,” he said. He and all of us in our own way, take the consequences of our sins.  We transgress and we suffer for it.  Cross-bearing is not the result of our sins Rather crossbearing is the sign of our faith at work in real and practical ways in daily life.  So we must not be muddled in our thinking that every trouble and care of life is a cross to be borne. Today’s backache, tomorrow’s cold and the price of gas are not crosses we have to bear!

Do you recall the myth of Narcissus that has come down to us from the ancient Greeks?  He was that handsome young man who rejected his neighbors. He then fell in love with his own image in a stream. You may remember seeing a famous painting of the mythological figure. There he was, gazing enraptured at his own face. He was totally wrapped up in himself as he saw his own reflection in the water.

Ours is the age of Narcissus. Why do we sense a lack of commitment to great causes among large numbers of people today? It is the narcissism, the self-centeredness that is rampant in our society. Self centeredness chokes out love. This narcissism can be finally and fully repelled by only one force--suffering love.  In following the Cross of Christ, though, we swim against the stream.  The force of our own choices, every one of us, is narcissistic.  No one has to teach us to live for the self.  Each of us by our own choice pursues a course of life that makes it seem that to gain the whole world is really to have it made.  Look at what ecstacies people go through when they win the lottery!  This is nothing  but narcissism.  But the basics do not change. It is still true. In losing one's life in the power of divine love and in living for others, we find the only life really worth living.

"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."  The invitation is there.  The crosses are waiting.  Love God.  Love your neighbor. Then crossbearing begins.

2nd Sunday of the Great Fast: St. Gregory Palamas

March 11, 2012

It was the first day of basketball practice at Wingate High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. The coach handed a ball to each player. "Boys," he said, "I want you to practice shooting from the spots you might expect to be in during the game." One of the boys (who was pretty much there as a substitute) immediately sat down on the bench.  From there he began shoot the ball toward the basket. You might say that boy didn’t expect to get to play much.

I suppose he was just trying to get a laugh out of his team mates. But, there are some people who like to sit on the bench.  That’s because it’s where they’ve gotten used to being. They never strive to do much more than that.  They don’t believe in themselves enough to put in the extra effort and practice to change. And because of that they’re always going to sit the bench.  I hope we don’t find ourselves sitting on the bench at the Great and Final Judgment.

Yet there are people who live their Christian lives like that. As far as their faith goes, they are bench sitters. They are the type of people who don’t expect much out of God.  And that’s what they get. The Great Lent is a reminder that God won’t accept the idea that anyone can "just get by" as Christians.  Those in today’s Gospel are ones who wouldn’t stand to just sit on the bench.

Picture the scene.  Jesus’ popularity had grown all throughout the land.  Now he is in a house that is filled with people.  They had come from all over.  It was so crowded, no one else could get near the house.  Now a man who was paralyzed had some very good friends.  They knew where Jesus was.   But they couldn’t even get close to the door. So they sit down begin to talk.

“There’s no room in the house. People are crowding the door and they are blocking windows. How else are we going to get in?" Then one of them says "Well, there’s nobody up on the roof! I wonder... if we could dig a hole in the roof, then, we could let him down in front of Jesus."  Another friend scoffs. "We can’t just drop him thru the hole! How are we going to lower him safely to the floor?"  Still a third says "If we had ropes... maybe we could lower him down through the roof. Yeah, ropes would do it!" And off they go in search of ropes to use for their friend. 

This is a bold move on their part. Not only are they about to destroy the roof of someone else’s home. Not only are they about to disrupt Jesus as he talks. But they are about to barge into a meeting of some very important people.

But you know, the paralytic’s friends don’t care. They don’t care if they ruin the roof. They don’t care if they upset the meeting. And they don’t care who’s there in house with Jesus. All they care is that they have a friend who’s sick.  And they know Jesus can heal him. Nothing else matters.

 And it works.  The paralyzed man is lowered from the roof right in front of Jesus.  And the paralyzed man is healed.  How radical a faith is that?  How willing to rock the boat were these friends of the paralyzed man?  They were not going to be bench-sitters. 
I said earlier that Great Lent was a time for us to be reminded that we can’t just “get by” as Christian people.  Christianity takes hard work.  It takes radical commitment.  It takes doing that which is necessary to get both ourselves and our friends healed.  Confession, fasting, attending services – these are some of the things that a radical commitment takes.

This second Sunday in Great Lent is the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, the fourteenth-century Archbishop of Salonica in Greece.  Behind the town of Kavalla near Salonica there is a cave in the rocks.  This was the home of Gregory Palamas before he was consecrated Archbishop. It was in that cave that he spent years in fasting and prayer. And there, not caring for his body, he instead cultivated and cared for the purity of his heart and his mind.  There, in that cave, he received gifts of the Holy Spirit.  There, he came to know God.  He came to an understanding of the energies of God that has been a central part of Orthodoxy ever since. 

But he did not get to this purity of heart and mind by sitting on the bench.  His life was a disciplined life of prayer and fasting.  He lived in a cave.  He did what to our modern minds seemed impossible.  And through that active participation in the life of the Church he received his healing.  His heart and mind received illumination. 

Are there times we ask ourselves questions about what we do as Orthodox? Why do we fast? Why do we make sacrifices? Why do we stand at long services? Why do we pray? To those of us who are beginning to doubt and waver after only two weeks of the Fast, the Church brings us an answer today. This answer is in the person of St. Gregory Palamas.  He is offered to us as example and saint.  It is as if he were one of those who befriended that paralyzed man.  There was nothing going to stop him from the presence of Christ.  And, like those friends of the paralyzed man, he got there.  My prayer for you is that you may also get there.  That you may stand healed in the presence of Christ. May you be given power and the will to get there.

Sunday of Orthodoxy

March 4, 2012

An Orthodox Church is a small version of Heaven and earth. Inside the Church, we are called upon to “lay aside all earthly cares . . . “   That is what the Cherubic Hymn of the Divine Liturgy tells us.  We are to focus on things of God.  We are to worship Him. The Church building itself helps us separate mind and body from “earthly cares.”  One way is the quiet and respectful atmosphere.  Another is the icons. In Orthodox churches icons are in the narthex, on the walls, over candle stands. Many even have them on the ceiling itself. There are icons of the Fathers, the Bishops, Martyrs, Saints, Prophets and Apostles.  There are icons of significant events in Christ’s life.  There are icons of His mother, the Theotokos.
 
In front of the Altar is the iconostasis, or “icon screen.” Tradition tells us that it was St. Basil the Great in the fourth century who started the use of the icon screen.  This is the same Basil whose liturgy we celebrate today and all Sundays in Lent.  He began to use the icon screen in order to discourage those at the altar from being distracted during the Divine Liturgy. (“Lay aside all earthly cares.”) On the icon screen we find icons of Christ, His Mother, the Theotokos, the birthgiver of God. We also have the icons of St. Nicholas, diocesan patron. We also have the icon of St. Elizabeth, our patroness.  On many icon screens, the icons of the feasts and the Apostles are placed along the top. On the Deacon’s doors are the Archangel Gabriel and the first deacon martyr St. Stephen. We are surrounded by living images of the Faith. The icons remind us where we are.

The icon is an unwritten, unspoken sermon.  It is called a “window into Heaven.” It is a window that works both ways.  We see the image of that which is in heaven on the other side.  And that image sees us.  I remember a friend’s first encounter with icons.  He saw them painted all over the walls and ceilings of a Church.  “They’re all staring at me!” he said.  Yes, I suppose they were.  The image in an icon is more than that, though.

I have shared with you before what happened to me in October 1992.  I was sitting in the chapel of the 14th century monastery of the Great Meteora.  This was a monastery built on top of the towering rock formations found in North Central Greece.  I was alone in the chapel.  I looked at the faces that were “staring at me.”  But it was not strange.  I recognized them.  The faces were those of familiar friends.  These were images of people I knew.  I had read of them.  I had studied them all my life.  There were Old Testament figures. There was Moses, Abraham and Elias. There was Paul and the other Apostles.  There was Christ Himself.  And, of course there was the most familiar face of all.  There was the face of His Blessed Mother.  I felt at home.  I was among friends.  That very experience started my journey to Orthodoxy. 

But we don’t just look at the icons.  Nor do they just look at us.  Orthodox venerate the icon.  We kiss it.  We make the Sign of the Cross before it.  We even bow low to the ground in front of it. St. Basil the Great, whose liturgy we serve on Sundays in Lent explains why. All due love, respect, awe and reverence go not to the icon itself, he tells us.  That honor, love and respect pass to the very person depicted.  Thus an icon is not a piece of “religious art” made to decorate the Church or home.  It is not like a van Gogh or an Andrew Wyeth painting placed on the walls because it matches the interior of the room. 

Icons are so important in the life of the Church that thousands of people were killed defending their use. At several points in history, Councils were called to address the literal war over icons.  Some thought that venerating icons was the worship of idols.  They thought it was worshipping wood and paint.  The 7th Ecumenical Council finalized the Church’s teachings about icons.   

That Council restored icons in Orthodox churches on Sunday, March 11, 843. Orthodox faithful celebrate that each year on the first Sunday in Great Lent. It is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  It is what we do today.  We parade around with the icons.  We hold them high.  We tell the world that we have found Orthodoxy and are happy about it.  Just like St. Andrew the first called in our Gospel today.  “Come and see what we have found.  We have found Christ!”  Would that we could parade the icons around the streets of Woodstock.  Then we could shout, “Come and see what we have found.  We have found Christ!”

The holy icons are such an important part of worship in the Church.  Prayers before Liturgy are recited by the priest in front of the iconostasis as he venerates the icons of our Lord and our Lady. As well, the thanksgiving prayers at the end of Liturgy are said in front of the icons.  Every Orthodox home should have an icon in every room.  There should be a special place for the icons of Our Lord and of Our Lady. At that special place our prayers should be said.  Icons intimately connect us to the great heavenly host.  We heard about them in today’s Epistle to the Hebrews.  That “great cloud of witnesses” surrounds us.  They watch over us.  They care for us.  They provide us opportunity to pray before them. 

On this Orthodoxy Sunday, remember those faithful who gave their lives that we might be here this day.  Venerate the icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy here in front of us.  And say the prayer from today’s Tropar.  We venerate Your most pure image, O Good One.  And we ask forgiveness of our transgressions, O Christ God. Of Your own will You were pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh to deliver Your creatures from  bondage to the enemy. Therefore with thanksgiving we cry aloud to You. You have filled all with joy, O our Savior, by coming to save the world.

Sunday of Forgiveness (Cheesefare)

February 26, 2012

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites…  But when you fast, (let your fasting) be seen by your Father who is in secret. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  (Matthew 6:16-18 passim)

Today is the final day before the beginning of the Great Fast. We have been partially observing the fast this week. But tomorrow, the full fast starts. In the reading from the Gospels today, Christ speaks of fasting as something quite ordinary for His followers. “When you fast,” He says.  It is not, “If you fast.” Or is it even, “If you choose to fast.” No – Christ says, “When you fast.”

But there is more. When you fast, don’t look dismal. Don’t make it obvious to others that your are fasting. Those who do are hypocrites, Christ says. They want others to see them fasting. Hypocrites Christ called them. They are outwardly looking good. But, inwardly, they are, as Christ says elsewhere – ravenous wolves.  Your fasting, Christ goes on, is to be seen and known only by your Father in heaven. But is it not true? When we talk about fasting, it surely seems dismal. Fasting appears to many to be a downer.

How is it we have such a poor picture of fasting? Maybe it comes from the common understanding of fasting as bargaining. “O.K., God,” so the bargain goes. “I will give you this much. What will You give me in return? I’ll give up chocolate, meat, alcohol (just for Lent, You understand). I’ll even give up cursing. I’ll give up some small pleasure. I’ll work on that mildly bad habit. I’ll even set aside some money for a good cause. Those who know me will look on me as a good Orthodox Christian. I’ll get something for it!”

Perhaps we should look at Christ Himself. What kind of example of fasting does He set? “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And He fasted forty days and forty nights” (Matthew 4:1-2).  Jesus Christ had to concentrate all His powers of body and spirit on the battle with The Enemy. That is the only way he could win a clear victory over him. Out of that battle, came the sound of Christ’s three-fold “No!” He said “No!” to Satan’s magic. He said “No” to  Satanic power. He said “No!” to Satan himself.

But what of our fasting? It is the same fast. It is the fast that enables us to say a bold “No!” and not always, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” to whatever comes along. We fast so that all our powers can be concentrated on the battle at hand. We are confronted with the temptations of Satan on a daily, hourly basis. More often than not, we are willing to say “Yes!” to those temptations. The deceiver shouts at us through media in ways we are not even aware. From automobiles to triple-decker hamburgers – TV, road signs, computer advertising – they shout at us. “More! More! More!”

Our Father in the Faith John Chrysostom reminds us that a life lived without a good and regular practice of self-denial is hardly prepared for serving Christ. A life that is lived that gives in to every whim and will of the self is not ready for the great battle with the Evil One. We do not fast because we are required to. We do not fast to lose weight. We do not fast to be seen by others.

“And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  The reward comes not in exchange for our fasting.  We will not receive special gifts from God because of how good we are at fasting. The rewards come when the battle with Satan the Deceiver is won. The reward comes when, confronted by “More! More! More!” we have practiced ourselves to be able to say, “No! No! No!”  And to be able to say our “No!” with confidence and not dismally.

The Desert Fathers of the Church were fasters. They lived virtually without any food at all. Here is a story told by one of those Desert Fathers. This story shows us the true meaning of fasting.

“It was said about an old man that he endured seventy weeks of fasting, eating only once a week. He asked God about certain words in the Holy Scripture. But God did not answer him. Then he said to himself: ‘Look, I have put in this much effort, but I haven't made any progress. So now I will go to see my brother and ask him (to explain the words).’ And when he had gone out, closed the door and started off, an angel of the Lord was sent to him. The angel said: ‘Seventy weeks of fasting have not brought you near to God. But now that you are humbled enough to go to your brother, I have been sent to you to reveal the meaning of the words.’ Then the angel explained the meaning which the old man was seeking, and went away. Along with fasting there must be humility! Fasting opens the way. It is a means to an end – it is not the end itself. ”

Judgment (Meatfare) Sunday

February 19, 2012

Today is the Sunday of the Last Judgment.  One night a woman dreamed that she was having a conversation with God. She was angry about all the suffering and evil she saw around her. She complained to the Lord. “God, why don’t You do something about all this?” God gently replied: “I did. I created you.”

Many people make the same mistake as the woman. We expect God to just zap things and make them right. In today’s Gospel, Christ is telling us something else. Christ tell us that true Christians will become walking, talking, living, breathing icons of  Christ Himself. Care for those in need was Christ’s ministry. Christ taught this. He lived this. He modeled this. But this was nothing new. This is what God had always said He wanted of His people. In Proverbs (19:17) we read: “He that has pity on the poor lends to the Lord; and he will repay him according to his gift.” David, the Psalmist, wrote this. “Blessed is the man who thinks on the poor and needy: the Lord shall deliver him in an evil day” (40:1-3).

Being kind to the needy is central to what God has always asked of His people.
Again, in Proverbs (21:13) we read this. “He that stops his ears from hearing the poor, himself also shall cry, and there shall be none to hear him.”

Someone has written an interesting twist on today's Gospel. Looking at the reality of life today he wrote this. "I was hungry and you formed a humanities club and discussed my hunger. I was imprisoned and you crept off quietly to your chapel and prayed for my release. I was naked and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance. I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health. I was homeless and you preached to me of the spiritual shelter of the love of God. I was lonely and you left me alone to pray for me. You seem so close to God; but I am still very hungry, and lonely, and cold.” Here is the truth. If we only talk about doing good for Christ, the result is empty.

So. Does Christ mean if we help the poor we can earn salvation? Christ tells one group one thing. Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Give a bed to strangers. Clothe the naked. Look after the sick. Visit those in prison. If you do all this you will inherit the Kingdom. Then He tells the others that because they didn’t do these things they will depart into the everlasting fire. So, if I do enough good deeds, I can inherit the Kingdom? This is the teaching of many religions. But, this is not Orthodoxy.

St. Paul wrote this to Bishop Titus (3:4-6). “But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by the good works which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit (that is, Baptism and Chrismation), whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior…”

In other words, we can’t buy our way into the Kingdom by doing good deeds. And that is a good thing. Can you imagine trying to figure out if we’d ever done enough to be acceptable? During the middle ages, the Western church got rich controlling just that.

The Fathers of the Church are clear. Christ is telling us that if we are truly His followers, we’ll be known by our good deeds. Christ taught His disciples this (Mt. 7:16-21): “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”

Here is what true Christians will look like. They will feed the hungry. They will give drink to the thirsty. They will give a bed to strangers. They will clothe the naked. They will look after the sick. The will visit those in prison. This is how we’ll recognize true followers of Christ. Of course, there will be those who will claim to be Christians. But they won’t do these things.

Last evening we prayed this sticheron at Great Vespers. “When You are about to come to execute just judgment, O Just Judge. And to sit upon the throne of Your glory. The river of fire flowing before Your altar will dazzle everyone. When the powers of heaven stand before You in dread, and men are judged in fear, each one according to his deeds. Then, O Christ, have pity on us and make us worthy to be counted with those who are saved. We ask this of You with fervor, for You are compassionate.”

Next week we will enter into the forty-day Great Fast in preparation for the Pascha of the Lord. Today is the Sunday of the Last Judgment. It is also called Meat-fare Sunday. Today is the last day on which we will eat meat until Pascha. But these external preparations for Lent are outward signs of an internal preparation. They help us. They train us for the rest of our lives. They prepare us to stand before the Judge. For the last judgment is the point at which all will be known. The last judgment is when God reveals to us what is really in our hearts.

Sunday of the Prodigal Son

February 12, 2012

Many of us are very familiar with today's scripture reading. It's about the only time many of us even use the word "prodigal" and even then we probably still don't know what it means.  For the record it means, "recklessly extravagant."  In this parable Jesus tells the incredible story of a younger son, the baby. He seems to have grown up in the lap of luxury. He probably was a spoiled rich kid. Now he asks for his inheritance early. In his youthful recklessness, he thinks he can do anything without consequences. At first, he lives the high life. He goes to parties with all the right people. He eats the best food. He drinks the best wine.  But then a famine occurs. When it does, he also happens to be out of money. 

In his desperation, the young son finds a job feeding pigs. This is dirty and smelly work, quite different from his previous playboy lifestyle. But, being Jewish, it's an even worse shame. Jews regarded pigs as unclean. Jews were not even to be near pigs, let alone cleaning up after them. Not only does he work with unclean animals, he is so hungry he's even envious of the food the pigs are eating.  What a contrast of this son's two lifestyles!

But then the man comes to his senses.   He is his father's son.   Even his father's hired hands, the lowest rung of the ladder in the whole household, have more than enough to eat.  The son realizes he has to swallow his pride. He has to admit his wrongdoing. He says to his father, "I've sinned against God and you!"  To show his true change of heart, he is even willing to become a hired hand in his father's household.  But his father won't hear of it. Instead the father calls for a celebration.  His son is back who was lost has now been found.  The father would be justified in treating his son as a hired hand. Yet that father, out of his love, welcomes the son back home. But there's still a little unpleasantness.  

The older brother, the good guy, is mad.   He doesn't understand how he's done everything right his whole life and yet "when has he ever even had a party?"  The older son has done all the right actions. He doesn't understand the repentance of his brother. Nor does he understand his father's love for this reckless son.  The older son prefers his brother to stay lost and dead.

It is a classic story and in theory we all love it. I say "in theory" because most of us like it on paper. However, if it happened in real life, in our own situations, we might not really like it after all.   We might be inclined to be more judgmental. More than likely, we, too would be resentful.  If we can keep the stories set in the past with no connection to the future, the stories are "safe." 
Most of us here are more like the older son in Jesus' story. We (for the most part) have our lives together. We are not out partying every night until 3:00 am or walking the streets of Los Angeles. We are working or are actively looking for work. We devote our time to family. And like the older son, we would like credit for it. We haven't been out squandering our wealth on parties and prostitutes. We haven't been hungry because of our.  We haven't been like "those people" who are ruining society. So in reward for our good and clean living, we think we deserve a little better treatment.

How would we feel about the younger son? Our natural reaction is "give them what's coming to them!" We all know about those rebellious children. We know the type. They could be relatives, friends, neighbors, coworkers, students. When they do something very stupid and reckless, we secretly hope they get their just desserts. More often than not, we privately would like to see them lie in the bed that they made. Many who are nice, respectable, and good people would love to see others punished for their rebellious actions. 

Christ's lesson here is not that reckless acts go unpunished.  Nor is it a justification for someone to get out of the consequences of a sinful, reckless, or dangerous lifestyle.  After all, in Jesus' story the younger son didn't get off the hook. He had to reach rock bottom. Had he not, the process of repentance may never have started.  Had the younger son been "bailed out" he would never have sought to seek his father.  He knew he was flat on his back. He was willing to throw himself at the mercy of his fathers. He also knew it meant the recognition that he had sinned.  The father welcomed his child with open arms. The older brother just didn't get what was going on. He didn't understand "mercy."  After all, mercy is something we don't deserve. Yet we receive it from God anyway. 

As sinners, we have no right to be called God's children.  Considering God's holiness and perfection, we have no right to even be called his hired hands.  Yet, like the father in the story, God, when we repent of our sins, welcomes us bck into his family as his children.

We are one week closer to Great Lent. We are one week closer to the time of intentional repentance. The Father is waiting for us prodigals. Are we ready to come back to Him?


Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

February 5, 2012

Today is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. It is the formal beginning to prepare ourselves for Great Lent. The Fast of Great Lent begins in 4 more weeks. Next week comes the Prodigal Son, then the Sunday of the Last Judgment. Finally comes the Sunday before the Holy Fast begins – the Sunday of Forgiveness.

Last week was the Sunday of Zacchaeus. Remember that the little man who climbed the sycamore tree was a publican, a tax collector. Today, we read about another publican. Today’s story of the publican and Pharisee has extra meaning when we think of it in light of the story of Zacchaeus. But let us imagine now that the publican of today's parable is Zacchaeus. Imagine the life of Zacchaeus before he was enlightened by Christ. He was the chief among the publicans. He was the biggest sinner. This meant that he had been guilty of murder. Also he was guilty of defrauding widows and orphans. How so murder? He may not have killed someone with his own hands. But he may have caused people to starve. His stealing may have affected the poor who had little money. If he had taken their last, how could they live? They starved or became sick and died. Their murder would be on his head. A man in his situation could easily fall into every kind of sin.

What happened to Zacchaeus? Christ came into his house with salvation. He was enlightened by Christ in a miraculous way. And his response? He said, "I will restore fourfold to anyone I have defrauded I will give half of my goods to the poor." What happened to Zacchaeus? He wanted to do better. 

And then came the next day. He no doubt fell back into his bad habits. He still loved money. He continued to steal. He still had a weakness for all the things that he wished to get away from. It is likely he fell back to his old ways, again and again and again. Why would the publican Zacchaeus, struggle so?  Why would he go into the temple and say, “God be merciful to me a sinner?” Why didn’t he just give up? That’s the most likely thing to happen in this world. Most people give up. They like sinning. And they keep on sinning.

The reason they give up is because they do not know Who God is and what He has done, and what He will do. Our lives are spent in learning two pieces of knowledge. These are critical to our salvation. We must know ourselves. And we must know God. If someone grows in knowledge of God he learns how great God is. That person develops a desire to become holy. As this same person grows in knowledge of himself he sees those areas in his life that are not in keeping with Who God is. So he tries to change them.

The problem with sin in Christians is not so much that they just want to sin and don’t care. The problem is that they haven't come to know God. The knowledge of God cannot be learned from a book. It cannot be gained simply by listening to preaching or teaching. A relationship with God is something that is developed. It is like any relationship. A love relationship, for example, comes about with personal interaction. Even computer dating still brings people into interaction with each other.  So it is with God. Such a relationship is developed with interaction with Him.

And how does that happen? It happens in the services of the church. It happens in sermons, prayers, hymns and readings as part of those services. It happens in keeping the fasts. They are all essential. If an Orthodox does not fast, or if he or she does not value the services, it is very unlikely that such an Orthodox will know God. This is because we truly believe that through worship, prayer and fasting, God reveals Himself to us. And if you don’t know Him, then that sin that you have trouble with – it will devour you. You will have no chance against it whatsoever, because you will not know how to fight it.

This publican appeared to know God. He also knew himself. So he went to the temple knowing that he was unworthy.  But at the same time there was hope. He knew that God could change him. That is why he came into the temple. That is why he did not think about anything else except his own sin. That is why he looked at the ground  not caring about anyone or anything else. He was too consumed with his own pressing problem. Was he failing? Was he still falling into his old sins? No doubt he was. It takes time to work on those favorite sins. It is a hard lesson to learn. It is not how good we are at change that God judges. Rather, He will judge us on how good we are at making an effort to repent.

Thus the Church gives us the time, the space and the opportunity to get to know God. The greatest opportunity comes in Great Lent. These weeks of preparation are given to us to prepare ourselves for how we will keep the Fast. There will be many more services available for our attendance. There is a much stricter rule of fasting. What we have before is the chance to repent. And right now to prepare our hearts and minds for what we will do.

I urge everyone to make for themselves a rule of life for Great Lent. Such rules include what services one will attend beyond Sundays. When will Holy Confession be made? What spiritual reading will take the place of worldly entertainment during the Fast time? How will I keep the fast? How strict will I be?

As your spiritual Father, I offer you my help in preparing your personal rule for the Great Fast. The publican comes before us today as the model of a human being under torment. He has continuing sins, as we all do. His humble presence in the Temple is the first and foremost sign of his desire to change. He knows where change starts. He has made the right first step.

Sunday of Zacchaeus

January 29, 2012

There is something humble about Zacchaeus. Perhaps it might be better to say that there is something humiliating about Zacchaeus. He was small of stature. He was not tall. He was, as the old Sunday School song goes, “a wee, little man.”  In our society, being short is somehow a cultural fault. We have even invented a politically correct phrase to refer to short people. They are called “vertically challenged.” Politically correct or not, to be so called is still humiliating.

Yet it is humility, or even being humiliated, that is basically Christian. How often in our Scriptures are the humble exalted?  There is the Theotokos herself. She declares, “God has looked on my lowliness, and exalted me.” Christ Himself talks about those at the table of the Great Supper. The proud and haughty take the front seats near the host. The humble and poor sit in the back. But those are even more exalted when the host comes to the back of the room. He says to them, “Move up to the front.” The humble are again exalted. Remember the humble publican at the back of the temple. Remember the proud Pharisee in the front.

Then there is the man Zacchaeus himself. He was an extortioner and cheat. Yet he became a holy man. He was a hated tax collector. Yet he was later made a bishop by the Apostles. Zacchaeus was given salvation because he knew he was small. He knew he had to climb up a tree to see the Salvation that was coming into his own house.

In all of these examples, it is the small persons, the humble who hear the voice of Christ. When they have climbed up, then they hear the word of Christ. “Come down.  I am coming to your house today.” Salvation is for the small. I don’t mean just small in stature. It was Christ Himself Who called all of us to become as small children. Salvation is for those who make themselves small. That is they make themselves humble. Sometimes they are even humiliated.

In Holy Baptism we see all of this in action. A small child is here. He is humiliated and naked in front of everyone. He is brought to the waters. He is plunged three times into the holy water. And this humble, humiliated child is then drawn out of the water. He is dressed up in the finest. The child is drowned and rises again a new person. The child has begun the road to heaven.

Such is the very calling of every Orthodox Christian every day. We are to be humble, even humiliated. Yet we know that Christ has exalted each of us through our own baptism. Each day we are to remember that He has come to each of us. He has called out to us that He is going to our house today. Such is the beginning of the road to salvation.

32nd Sunday After Pentecost

January 22, 2012

Today’s Gospel tells us about a woman who has a problem. Her daughter was vexed by a demon.  This woman had carried this child in her womb for nine months.  She had gone through the pain of childbirth.  She had nursed the child, fed her, changed her.  She had watched her grow, take that first step, say her first word.  This was her little girl.  But now she is sick.

She probably had been sick before. A cold here. A headache there, maybe even the flu from time to time. But nothing ever like this before.  In the daytime she screams and hollers constantly.  You can’t put new clothes on her because she’ll tear them off.
Strange voices come out of her mouth. She can’t eat.  She can’t sleep.  She can’t play. She is possessed by a demon. 

Can you imagine the helpless feeling of this mother? I’m losing my little girl. I’m losing my little girl.  Perhaps you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps you know how it feels like when you are losing your little girl.  Or losing your little boy.  Or losing that husband. Or losing that wife, or brother or sister.  It’s a helpless feeling. 

But you know how a mother’s love is.  That love will go miles in search of help for her child. She will travel late at night, on foot, in the cold and the rain in search of whatever is needed.  Now she’d been everywhere.  She’d done everything for her little girl.  She was about to give up hope.  Then one day, the news travels into the village that a man was coming to town. He was not just any man. He was no ordinary man.  She had heard about this man. Jesus was His name and giving hope to hopeless people was His claim to fame. He had cured leprosy.  He had even raised the dead.

This Jesus was coming by her way.  St. Matthew tells us that she was so consumed with excitement that she ran out to meet Him.  She came and found Him and cried out after Him. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” Now in the original language the word used here for cried suggests that she cried out and kept on crying out. She just didn’t do it once. She needed to get His attention.  There was no other hope for her helpless, demon possessed little girl. And so she presses her case to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.”

But Jesus does exactly the opposite to what we think He should. He does not rush to her aid. He does not agree to follow Her home. He does not soothe her heart with words of encouragement. No, Matthew says that Jesus remained silent. “He answered her not a word.” She had heard that this man Jesus could do anything. Now when she came to him for help, he was silent.

It’s a hard thing to deal with God’s silence. What happens when God appears to be silent to you?  Do you give up on asking? Do you give up on that lost person you’ve been praying for? Do you give up and walk away and think that you wasted your time anyway? How do you deal with the silence of God? Ask the Prophet Job about his silent treatment. Everything of Job’s was taken away.  All his wealth, houses, land – including all his children. He cried out to God for deliverance. And heaven was silent.

Yet this Canaanite woman in our Gospel today, kept on crying out. She was persistent. She knew that if Jesus didn’t answer, there would be no answer.  She knew that Jesus, Jesus He’s the man, if He can’t do it, nobody can.  She kept on, keeping on as they say today.  And then come the disciples. “Send her away, for she is crying after us.”  Their solution to the woman’s problem?   Just give up. 

First Jesus seems to ignore her. Then she has to endure the ridicule of the disciples. Then finally when Jesus speaks, it’s with words of discouragement. “I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” I haven’t been sent here for your kind of folks. I have more important people to deal with. How she must have felt that day.  God had seemingly rejected her.

Did you ever have the experience while watching television you will hear a strange screeching sound?  The screen will go black. The program will be gone. But then a message will come up to let you know that everything is going to be alright. Nothing is wrong with the set. You don’t have to adjust it.  Why?  Because it’s only a test.  You’ve heard the words before.  “This is only a test.”

All of us know those times when we feel rejected by God. We know those times when all is going wrong with life. When there are strange sounds in your home or on your job, or in your church. When things get black and dim, don’t adjust your set. Don’t try to fix it yourself.  Don’t give up on God.   It’s only a test.

In his homily on this Gospel from Matthew, St. John Chrysostom tells us what Jesus was doing.  “Yes,” says Chrystostom, “He did put (the woman) off.  But he did so that he might crown this woman.  What Jesus says to the woman is like this. ‘Your faith is able to bring about even greater things than (this healing).’ So great a thing is persistence in prayer.  Jesus proved to the woman and to the disciples never to give up.”

And the woman’s child was made whole, we are told.  For the woman it was a struggle.  She had waited years for this.  And then was made to wait even longer as Jesus Himself put her off.  But it was all to show those who would see, that God is still in charge.   This is only a test.

31st Sunday after Pentecost

January 15, 2012

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He knew He was to die. It is the last stage of the journey for Jesus. It was the first stage of a new journey for another man. As Jesus travels near Jericho, a blind man is begging by the side of the road. He hears a commotion. He asks what is going on. They tell him that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. He had heard of this Jesus. Jesus was a miracle worker. But, if he did not act soon, Jesus would pass him by. This man lived in perpetual darkness. He also believed Jesus was the Messiah. He had to do something. So he broke the rules of polite society. He created a scene.

But, the blind man saw more clearly than he thought. In calling, “Jesus, Son of David,” the blind man recognized who Jesus was. This Jesus was the Messiah. This was the promised seed of the line of David. He recognized this. He knew who Jesus was. And he acted on it. Even today, what you believe about who Jesus is, -- that is the single most important thing in your life. It is on that question alone that all of eternity rests. “Who is this man they call Jesus?”

That day when Jesus passed by, the blind man was suddenly faced with the biggest decision of his life. Would he continue to live in his little dark world, totally dependent on others?  Or would he assume responsibility for himself? He chose to cry out to the passing Jesus.

Think for a moment about whatever rut you may be in. Think about what is continually wrong in your life. Yes, you can blame it all on your parents or society. You can blame your nationality or your rotten luck in life. You can blame your lack of self discipline or the bad genes you inherited from your parents. You can even blame your situation on the weather. You’re certainly free to do so. But there is a price for playing the blame game. You may not get the chance to get a Real solution to your problems.

For this blind man, he didn’t know if Jesus would ever pass through Jericho again! Don’t miss this! He had one chance and he took it. It may be that you have sat in the church in Liturgy after Liturgy when you have felt the tug of the Holy Spirit at your heart. But you didn’t do anything about it. Consider that blind man. Jesus never passed that way again. If you allow Christ to pass you by, you may never have the opportunity to cry out to Him again. 

Be assured, however that the world will try to silence your cry for mercy from God. “Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’”  Those leading the way into town – some of whom were probably the elders of Jericho – were irritated by the interruption and unseemly disturbance caused by the blind man. At first the blind man “called out.” But when they tried to make him be quiet we are told he “cried out.” The blind man had to yell louder because he had to raise his voice above the people telling him to shut up. He refused to be silenced by people trying to keep him away. Are you allowing anything or anyone to silence your prayer life, your cries to God? Remember, He may never pass by your life again!

Jesus not only heard the cry of the blind man but he heard and felt the need of this man.  “So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him.” “And when he had come near, He asked him, What do you want Me to do for you?” That seems like a silly question, doesn’t it? What blind person doesn’t want to see? It is not that Jesus does not know what this man wants. Rather, it is that Jesus Who wants him to admit his need. The blind man knew exactly what he wanted. “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Then Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” And immediately he received his sight. The man now sighted followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

The reality of this man’s faith is seen not so much in his healing. It is seen in his willingness to follow Jesus and glorify God. He could now see – really see.  This all took place because a blind man by the side of the road made several good decisions. He called out. He cried out to Jesus. He let Jesus know exactly what he needed. He did not let Jesus pass by, maybe for the last and only time. He decided to do it – and he did!

After all, despite what some say about priests, there are no God-police. There is no one who will grab us by the neck and say you must read your Bible. You must go to church. You must give money to the church. When God created man, he created man superior to all other creatures. He gave you and me the gift of choice. He will not force us. However, with the gift of choice, goes the terrible responsibility of living with the results or consequences of our choices.
Bad results follow from bad choices. And it is all up to us.

You have a choice this morning. God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is passing by this very day, at this very hour. You can chose to call out.  If something tries to stop you in your dealing with Christ, keep trying, call louder. Tell Him what you need. He can provide. He is here. The choice to call out to Him as he passes by is yours. If you remain silent as He passes, remember he may never pass by again. If you call out, He will hear. He will act.

Sunday after Theophany

January 8, 2012

It is the Sunday after Theophany.  It is the Sunday after Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan. It is the Sunday after the angels, the Forerunner, and God the Father appeared at the Jordan to proclaim that this man Jesus was the Son of God.  It is the Sunday after the waters of the Jordan were purified by the presence of Christ.  It is the Sunday after we blessed water right here, bringing that pure, holy water of the Jordan right into our church. We will bless water again, today. Today you can take this water, if you have not done so already.  You can take the pure, clean and blessed holy water into your home.  You can use it to cleanse your life and the life of the world around you.  Keep a bottle of that holy water near you.  Maybe you can keep it at bedside.  Taste of it daily.  Remind yourself not only of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.  Remind yourself of your own baptism and the holy water that began the process of making you holy.

On the Sunday after the Baptism of Christ, we tell all about it.  We speak about it.  We preach about it.  What a marvelous gift it is to be able to speak!  How often do we  think about the miraculous capacity we have to communicate with words?  It is a distinctive mark of our being created by God in His image.  There is untold power in the words we speak.  There is power for good.  There is power for evil.  For those whose speech is hampered by physical or mental disability, the results are devastating.  Let us give thanks today for the gift of speech.

After all, the presence of Christ is made known through faithful speaking. At the altar, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the priest, using simple words, changes ordinary bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ.  At the ambo, standing before you, the priest speaks words in a sermon.  These are not to be words about the weather, or the latest political news story.  These words, spoken from this place, are to be words that speak of Christ.  They are to be like the words of John the Baptist. It is he who declared “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The words of a sermon are to be a little theophany.  They are to reveal who Christ is to those who listen.  If it does not do that, if the sermon does not reveal Christ, it is not a sermon.

Think for a moment about the power of words.  But don’t think of my words for a moment.  Think of your words.  Think of the words you have used in recent weeks or months – or even the last hours.  Could those words be used to proclaim who Christ is in your life?  Think about it.  Through words, our out-of-control tempers flare up.  Words we speak in a fit of rage wound so deeply.  Words become the way to cover up the truth – on purpose.  We hear such words so often in the media.  Products are advertised with words to be something far beyond their value.  Words can even promote ourselves beyond who we are for the purpose of personal gain, money, or political office.

Another person’s reputation and good name can be shattered with just a few simple words.  The commandment not to lie or deceive with deliberate words is one that is often talked about in confession.  It is no wonder that in our Orthodox Vesper service, we sing these words from Psalm 140 every Sunday.  “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord.  Keep watch over the door of my lips.”

But we are Christ’s people.  We are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.  That gift is also sealed at Chrismation on our lips.  When we speak, we are to speak as one who belongs to Christ.  We are to speak as one whose only witness is to that Christ who now lives in us by the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Now think of a time when some word was spoken to you when it was needed.  Did it happen in a hospital room?  Or in a funeral home?  Some word was offered to you that you will not forget.  That is because it was offered to you in the name of Christ.  Maybe it was a word of comfort.  Or a word of encouagement.  Or just a friendly greeting from that stranger who sat next to you on the plane.  We all can recall people and moments when the heavens opened and the power of God came upon you through the words of another person.

But you, too, give a powerful witness through words.  It has been happening right here in this Liturgy today.  How many times in our Liturgy do you sing, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit..”  In the ancient creed of the Church, you proclaimed the faith handed down from the Apostles.  Remember, when we sing the Creed, we are not just talking to God. God knows our creed, too. When you sing the Creed, you are bearing witness to our ancient faith to those within your hearing.  There might be someone who has never heard it before. So sing with joy. Sing with purpose, every time.

There is a wealth of wisdom tucked away in St. Peter’s first letter where he instructs us about our words.  “Always be prepared,” St. Peter says, “to speak up about the hope that is in you.  Yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”  Orthodox Christian people are distinctive.  People will notice.  And when they do, they will ask you why? Why are you so different from others in this world?  Then you have the chance to tell them.  It is the golden moment when you have the opportunity to use words to speak of the Christ that is in you.  “It is not me,” you can say, “It is the Christ who lives in me.”  That is how one can speak of Christ.  Those words come, as St. Peter suggests, “with gentleness and reverence.”  It is not to build yourself up.  It is to build up the other person with the power of Christ that moves your life.  May the prayer be on you lips as it is on the priest’s at the start of every Liturgy.  “O Lord, open my lips.  And my mouth shall declare Your praise.”


The Circumcision of our Lord / St. Basil the Great

January 1, 2012

“At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the Name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

Today the church offers us two simple facts: Jesus' circumcision and His Name. The Church also tells us that there is good news in them.  They are proclaimed as Gospel – Good News.  But we may not know why these simple acts of Jewish parenting are good news for Christians 2000 years later. To find out why, we need to turn back some 1500 years before Christ’s birth.  We travel with Moses up Mount Sinai.

Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt.  In the wilderness, Moses is summoned to the top of Mount Sinai. The people are kept away.  Even the sheep and goats are to stay away from the possibility of coming into close contact with God. And Moses cannot even bring anyone along for support. And, on top of the mountain, the LORD descends in the cloud, and fog, and lightning and thunder.  God stands with Moses.  And God tells Moses His Name. “I am the Lord, your God,” He said.

Once before, Moses had asked God who He was.  Then God gave the answer, "I am who I am." But here, we are told, God stands right beside Moses, and proclaims His Name. “I am the LORD, your God.” Since that time, the Name of God being so holy, was never written down nor spoken aloud.  No one wanted to take such a Name in vain.

One can hardly imagine what God's voice sounded like, standing so close to Moses on the mountain. For centuries scholars have only guessed at the likely pronunciation of the Name of God. The English word “Lord” is a translation of the Hebrew word that Moses remembered and wrote down.  That word, that name of God, was forever only spoken out loud once a year by the High Priest in the temple on Yom Kippur. That word, the Name of God, was used so infrequently that even the priests grew uncertain of how to pronounce it.  The common pronunciation of that work the Name of God, today, is Jahweh.

But 1500 years later, the Archangel Gabriel, who has also stood close to God, was sent to Mary.  The Archangel said, "You shall call His Name JESUS." And Mary and Joseph did just that. Just a simple Name, Jesus. The Name is a variant of the Name Joshua.

Today there is no mountain to scale. No swirl of cloud and fog. There is no thunder or darkness. The sheep may safely graze nearby. There is no mystery.  There is no secret code to crack. There is, in fact, no limit to the ways we may use or abuse this Name. And we rejoice to be able to pronounce the Name of our Lord so easily. God has now made it so easy to speak His Name that sometimes we forget how much power there is in knowing it and saying it.

We do run the risk of treating Jesus' own Name as casually as we have treated other religious practices. Do we forget that standing in the presence of the living God and hearing His Name, is somehow special? Remember that one time of year only the Old Testament High Priest was able to say the Name of God aloud.  Do we neglect to notice how powerful the Name of God can be in our hands?

So here we are on the first day of the civil New Year.  No doubt many of us begin 2012 with some anxiety. We may be anxious about our families, our nation, our world, our planet. So many things to make us uneasy.  There is the war in the Middle East.  There is the continuing threat of global warming.  There are fears of terrorism.  I am sure there are many who would like to send a prophet up a mountain who could return to us with the certainty of God’s Law written by Him on stone tablets. Then the world would know, they would say. We would love to have the authority of having heard the Name of God from His own mouth. How easy it would be to make decisions about our lives and the year ahead if everything were so clear.

But God has, instead, whispered His Name amid the cries of a baby. And he has given us that Name to speak: a living Name, which like circumcision, changes us indelibly and forever. And the question is whether or not we want to be changed. God has made each and every one of us special enough to pronounce His Name. He has given the Name to you and to me. He has promised: “Whatever you ask in My Name, I will do it.”  We ought to do everything in His Name.  The holy Apostle Paul exhorts the Colossians. “Whatever you do, in word or deed, to all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” The Church has taught us to repeat with every breath the Jesus prayer.  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  In doing so the very person of our Lord can occupy our thoughts, inspire whatever we do, and find a fixed place in our hearts.

The name of Jesus.  This is not a mysterious Name.  It is not an unpronouncable Name.  It is not just a string of letters, all too easily taken in vain.  It is the Name of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. And it can change our lives. It can change the whole world.
 


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