The Anchor Of The Soul

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (9:17-31)

In today’s gospel we are given a glimpse into the reality of the spiritual realm and the power of demons. This is not superstition although modern western thinkers may claim it to be so. How do we know that this is not mere superstition? Because Our Lord Jesus Christ engaged with this phenomenon clearly and decisively on multiple occasions. The Lord never lied to us, not once. He has always taught His disciples the truth. So He interacts with the world as one who has x-ray vision. He sees beyond our ability to see. This theme is picked up in popular culture in movies like the Matrix. The main character “Neo” is considered to be “the one.” He is seen as a Messiah-like figure. We see many themes in this sci-fi movie but it becomes really interesting once we are given a glimpse into his expanded knowledge and ability to see what “normal people cannot see.”

Likewise, Christ our Lord sees things that are not easily apprehended by most of us. The reasons why we barely recognize demonic encounters and issues are many but one of the main reasons is because the job of the demons is to distract us away from prayer by any means necessary. But most of the demons are now standing in the unemployment line because the smartphones and the computers have been far more efficient and effective at distracting us and keeping us from prayer.

Nevertheless we see that the demons in this gospel passage are powerful. They can take an otherwise healthy young boy and cause him to lose control of his own body and mind. They can cause him to fall, to convulse with seizures and to move unwillingly towards things that are dangerous. If the demons have this ability, can we imagine how much they do to us with subtle thoughts and fantasies and desires that quietly work on us hour after hour and day after day? They are experts at warfare and they learned that if one way doesn’t produce results, there is always time to change methods and tactics and try other avenues of attack. The demons are powerful but they lose much of their power over us when we are baptized and brought into the Church. They continue to stay at a distance and their attacks are very weak when we are active with our participation in confession and communion. I don’t say these things to you because I want you to participate in them. I am saying them to you because this is the truth as witnessed and explained by the holy tradition and the saints of the Church for two millennia.

But guess what else the saints have said for nearly 2000 years? That two of the most powerful acts that we can undertake against the demonic warfare are fasting coupled with prayer. The demons are powerful, but baptized sons and daughters of God are much more powerful especially when they faithfully combine prayer and fasting. It is for this reason that our Lord Jesus says to the disciples “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” This is a spiritual reality that applies to us. Perhaps we have some serious problems with anger or lust. Perhaps we have addictions to things like alcohol or food or pornography. All of these illnesses require the therapy of fasting coupled with prayers. Slowly, through such practices, we become more human.

St. Theophan the recluse writes,

“If this kind goes out by the prayer and fasting of another person, then it is even less able to enter one who fasts and prays. What protection! Although there are a slew of demons and all the air is packed with them, they cannot do anything to one who is protected by prayer and fasting. Fasting is universal temperance, prayer is universal communication with God; the former defend from the outside, whereas the latter from within directs a fiery weapon against the enemies. The demons can sense a faster and man of prayer from a distance, and they run far away from him so as avoid a painful blow.”

Now we shouldn’t think that fasting only applies to the type of food we eat, we should note that the saints and fathers of the Church tells us that the amount is as important at the type of food we eat, perhaps more so. St. John Cassian writes,

“A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied. When the Apostle said, ‘Make no provision to fulfill the desires of the flesh’ (Rom. 13:14), he was not forbidding us to provide for the needs of life; he was warning us against self-indulgence.” -On the Eight Vices

But we don’t undertake these practices out of a sense of obligation or for some ulterior motives, or even to gain specific spiritual gifts. It is all with the goal of having communion and fellowship with the Holy Trinity. St. Seraphim of Sarov writes,

“Fasting, prayer, alms, and every other good Christian deed is good in itself, but the purpose of the Christian life consists not only in the fulfillment of one or another of them. The true purpose of our Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.”

— St. Seraphim of Sarov, Conversation on the Goal of the Christian Life

In fasting we imitate our Lord Jesus Christ who Himself fasted for our sakes. He succeeded and showed us that our path is not dreadful in this spiritual warfare, but according to the words of St. Paul, we “have a strong consolation, we, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope that is set before us; a hope, which we have as an anchor of the soul,” through the works and the mercy and love of our Lord Jesus Christ who was victorious for us. May He alone be blessed with the Father and the Holy Spirit AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Way to God

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (8:34-9:1)

Today I congratulate you as we reach the third Sunday and the halfway point of the great fast. Three weeks down and three more to go, before we begin to journey through Holy Week. According to the tradition, the Church brings forth the cross for veneration on the third Sunday of Lent in order to give us strength to continue on the path and to complete the course of this fast.

Whenever we begin a difficult work, we may find it easy to stay motivated for a day or two, possibly for a week or two, but then reality begins to set in. We get tired. We are unhappy with ourselves and the results. We contemplate giving in and giving up on the work we had originally set out to accomplish. Yet the Lord Jesus Christ reminds us of what’s at stake in today’s gospel reading. What is at stake is the soul. Everything that we do as human beings ultimately affects the health of our souls and this is really important because the soul is immortal. It was created by God to live forever with Him. So when our Lord speaks to us about the soul, this is from a completely different viewpoint and perspective than any that we could possible imagine. He speaks to us as one who understands our souls, because He Himself created the soul.

He tells us that there is one path to gaining your soul. One path to a healthy and vibrant soul. To deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Him. The Church brings forth the image of the cross and the words of Our Lord to remind us that much of life involves suffering. Some of that suffering is involuntary and some of that suffering is voluntary. In this case the Lord is telling us to take up voluntary suffering. He is telling us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses. What should we deny ourselves? We should deny ourselves of anything, any thought or inclination, or action that doesn’t put God and those around us, as the priority of our lives.

Sometimes this means denying myself a simple thing like a purchase of something that I really want. Sometimes it means denying myself a certain pleasure or activity because it doesn’t glorify God. Sometimes it means denying myself a certain preconceived goal or a vain idea or ambition because that particular thing doesn’t put others before me. That particular activity might glorify me, but if it glorifies me, then it doesn’t glorify God. Sometimes denying myself and taking up the cross means denying my strong inclinations, even things that I might associate as part of my identity. Sometimes, having or doing what I want means denying something else to my spouse or my children or my friends. It might be a very selfish thing that is in fact the opposite of love.

What separates us from the rest of the world is only our love. Our Lord says “They will know that you are my disciples if you have love for each other.” But Our Lord doesn’t say this in a vacuum, isolated from the world. He says this with the cross in view. He tells us to deny ourselves and to follow Him. And where will He lead us if we follow Him? Will He take us to Disneyland? Or Hawaii? No. If we follow Him, He will lead us to the place where He goes. To the very foot of the Cross.

Who is faithful enough to trust the Lord? Who is loyal and obedient to follow Him wherever He leads us? Who is willing to say boldly “He must increase while I must decrease?” Who is willing to say “Lord, everything in my life and everything that I am, belongs to you.” Christ offers us the chance to be with Him in truth. He offers us a chance to partake of His sufferings and to partake of the joy of the redemption of the world. How? Because we belong to Christ. We are sons and daughters of the Most High. But this high calling cannot be activated within us unless we agree to freely and faithfully follow Our Lord while carrying our crosses. Without the cross it is all just vain philosophy and empty potential. There is no doubt that this will be painful, but through the cross is joy come unto the world!

The Lord invites us to walk the royal path with Him. To partake of His sufferings in order to fully partake of His resurrection. As we partake in these things with Christ we are given new energy and strength to radiate this new life to the world around us.

We give up everything for the sake of Jesus Christ and we find that in return, we gain everything 100 or 1000 times over. We give up earthly desires and pleasures and the Lord replaces them with heavenly visions and radiant joy. We might find that we lose some friends because we follow Christ and then we are surprised that we are grafted into a whole new family and we make friends of the saints. We might lose some treasures because we don’t take a job that keeps us from the liturgy, or we skip on a job that is immoral or unprofitable and then we find that God grants us spiritual treasures of grace that go far beyond our understanding. In short, there is nothing that we sacrifice in this life for the sake of the love of God that God will not restore to us many, many times over.

St. Isaac the Syrian writes,

“Behold, for years and generations, the way of God has been leveled by the cross and by death. How is it with you, that you see the afflictions of the way as if they were out of the way? Do you not wish to follow the steps of the saints? Or do you wish to go a way which is especially for you, without suffering? The way unto God is a daily cross. No one can ascend unto heaven with comfort, we know where the way of comfort leads.” + St. Isaac the Syrian,

We know where the way of comfort leads, but Christ has opened the doors of His Church to us, and taught us also the ways of salvation, in order to open the doors of the kingdom to us. May we take up our crosses and follow Him in faith! AMEN.

Source: Sermons

What Paralyzes Us?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (2:1-12)

When we begin our introduction to Orthodoxy classes with newcomers, seekers and inquirers, we begin by telling all of them that the Church is a hospital. The model of a courtroom or a business or even a social club is misguided and lacks the heart and the purpose of why Jesus Christ has founded His Church, His beloved bride. It exists to be a place of healing and life for every one that enters through the doors, because assuredly, everyone that enters through those doors is sick.

How are we sick? We are sick because our souls are disordered. We do not love God. Our ancestors Adam and Eve, rebelled against God and their offspring entered into that fallenness and life of disobedience. Instead of being in love with life, goodness, truth and purity, mankind married itself to disobedience, lies, impurity and finally to death. What started in the soul, spread to the rest of us as a sickness or a cancer. We are divided in our minds, our bodies and our will. We are fragmented. St. Paul speaks of this when he says,

“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me…but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Rom 7:14-24

This is our condition. We are broken because of our warring and conflicting desires and our inability to bring all things together within us, to unite every part of us in the service and worship of God. This is a picture of what sin has done to us. It deeply affects us at every level and it even causes us to fall into sickness and all kinds of mental, emotional and physical diseases. We sympathize with St. Paul when he cries out “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” We see an example and a symbol of this body of death and the way that sin paralyzes us in the person of the paralytic in today’s gospel. We are not told how long this man was paralyzed. We are not told what caused his paralysis. But we observe what great works God did in his life.

We take note of the dear friends, the four men who carried their paralyzed friend to the house of Jesus. It is clear that this house is a symbol of the Church which is in truth the house where Christ dwells. The four men symbolize the 4 evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who carry all manner of sick men upon the stretcher of their gospels. Not so that they should remain on the stretchers, but in order to bring them precisely to the feet of the physician with his medicines and therapies, to the hospital, the holy Church of God.

Of course many of you know these things but it is good for us to be reminded of them and to share them for the sake of all the new faces present with us. Since Christ is the physician, and the Church is the hospital, then it makes sense for us to see that the sacraments of the Church are the various medicines through which God shares with us His grace in a powerful and dynamic way. Listen to these words from St. Ignatius of Antioch who lived from 35-107ad. He writes, “breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but which causes that we should live forever in Jesus Christ.” Letter to the Ephesians, 18-20

That is why we are here. That is why the gospels were written for the world. That is why some of our parents brought us and dedicated us to God. And I think that this is why many of you have come from various backgrounds and joined or would like to join yourselves to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church; to make sure that you receive the medicine of immortality and to unite ourselves fully to Jesus Christ.

Can I tell you the secret to receiving this great gift of immortality and healing and all of the treasures of Christ through the Church? You receive them by identifying with the paralytic. When you read or hear the gospels you have to identify with the one who is sick and needs healing. You have to not only agree with his condition. You have to agree with the cause. The cause of most of your problems isn’t economic or political. If you want to see the cause you have to look at your sins and your own lack of love. There is great power in the admission that we are the ones that are sick. There is great power in admitting that we need others to help carry us to Christ. There is great power in being vulnerable in our hearts.

Just as it was for the paralytic, the start of our healing is through the forgiveness of our sins. This starts with a profound repentance and the medicine of confession. When we hear these words “Son, your sins are forgiven”, we should identify with that man so that we can also be filled with hope and joy. God is so merciful and desires that we should be lifted up from our bed of sickness and from all of the various ailments that put us into an existence of paralysis. Christ knows. Identify with the one who is in need and call out to Christ from the depths of your heart. He will hear you and He will heal you. Then He will command you to rise, take up your bed and walk in newness of life. AMEN

Source: Sermons

The Sanctification of Our Senses

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (1:43-51)

Each Sunday of Great and Holy Lent has a theme. The theme of this, the first Sunday of Lent is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, also known as the triumph of Orthodoxy. In the year 843, on the first Sunday of the Fast, The Empress, Saint Theodora and her son, Emperor Michael, venerated the Holy Icons together with the clergy and the people. This was the first time that icons were returned to the church and used for worship for many years. We are told that for more than a hundred years the Church suffered due to those who opposed the use of icons and supported the iconoclasm.

Why did the Church suffer? Is it because the icons were beautiful decorations for the church? Well, it is true that the icons are beautiful. It is also true that the icons add a layer of reverence and an atmosphere for prayer. It is our hope that very shortly, by the grace of God we will begin building the new church and will cover the walls with iconography. It is my hope that this will be a place where people get lost in prayer with the saints. A place that helps to lift our hearts to Christ and to the kingdom.

But the Church didn’t suffer simply because it was less beautiful. When icons were banned it was an attack on our beliefs and our theology. Those who banned icons did so because they believed that icons were a form of idol worship. They believed that the use of icons was a breaking of the commandment not to make any graven images. But the issue goes much deeper than that. All theology comes back to this question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” For the Church the answer is that Jesus Christ is the incarnate, only begotten Son of God. He is co-equal to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. He is one is essence with His Father and the Spirit. Yet He retains His personhood. God is one in essence, three in persons. But this statement on who Jesus really is, shapes our worldview from the moment that He enters into our world and into human history. Jesus becoming a flesh and blood man who lived with us and walked with us and talked with us and was seen among us, these facts change our understanding of icons because they change our understanding of God.

When God gave the ten commandments to Moses and Moses gave them to the people, it was with the understanding that you could not depict God because no human eye had seen God. But listen to what the Apostle John writes to us, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that ourjoy may be complete.” 1 Jn 1:1-4

The icons are a sign of the completion of our joy. They complete our joy because they remind us of the gospel in truth. Jesus Christ, became man while yet being God. It is God who was seen by the Apostle John and the rest of the disciples. It was God who taught them. It was God who raised Lazarus from the dead and gave sight to the blind. It was God who suffered and died and was buried for us. It was God who defeated death and rose again for us. Our joy is complete because our eyes “have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples.” What more do you want to see in life? What more is necessary? What could possibly bring us more joy?

For Orthodox Christians, the display of icons is a reminder and more than that, it is a declaration that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. This fact completely changed the course of human existence and it changes the existence of each person who accepts Christ and submits their life to Him. So we don’t depict a God that we haven’t seen. Rather we depict the God that we have seen and known in truth. We don’t use our imagination to do this. We use our God-given senses. In addition, we don’t worship the icons in the way that an idolater prays to an idol. We venerate the one who is depicted through the icon, in much the same way that one might carry a picture of their beloved in their wallet. It is just a piece of paper and yet it depicts and symbolizes one that we love. So also our icons, while on canvas and wood or on the walls of the church, bring our minds to the ones who are depicted.

St. John of Kronstadt reflects on the whole nature of worship and our senses when he writes, “The Church, through the temple and Divine services, acts upon the entire man, educates him wholly; acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind, and will, by the splendour of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the prosphoras, the singing, and sweet sound of the readings of the Scriptures.” + St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ

The Church, the bride of Christ, invites us to open our senses to “come and see.” These are the same words that Philip offered to Nathaniel, when he asked about Jesus. It isn’t enough that others tell you, you must desire to see His face for yourself. The Church invites us to come and see her beloved bridegroom. Come and hear His words. Come and experience all that He has offered to us through His love for mankind. This is our treasure as Christians.

Why did we spend all week in the church? Why did we spend all week praying together? Is it because we enjoy suffering? No. It is because we need to reorient ourselves and our vision back to truth, to beauty and to goodness, back to the One who is our life. He alone is our hope, our treasure and our triumph. All of this is here for you, come and see. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Sin and Forgiveness

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (6:14-21)

“The Lord said to His Disciples: If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

This is a difficult word from our Lord Jesus Christ, a challenging word, perhaps even a terrifying word. We are reminded again by Our Lord that we will be judged by our likeness or resemblance to God. We briefly mentioned this last week when we spoke of the last judgement and whether we had acquired the works of love, whether or not we were filled with love. And now here, again at the cusp of the great and holy fast, we are once again faced with this reality. Is there anything within me that is redeemable? Is there anything in me that is worthwhile? Is there anything within me that is good? The Lord answers these questions by reminding us that whatever is good or worthwhile within us is redeemable precisely because it reflects and takes part in the image of the One who is good and worthwhile.

How much has the Lord forgiven you? If in the secret place of your heart you don’t think the Lord has forgiven you very much, then it is likely that you will not offer much in the way of forgiveness to others. But those whose hearts are open and sensitive know within the depths of their being that they were given great gifts by God, gifts that they did not deserve or earn. That He forgave them much. In such a persons life, there is an acknowledgement of just how far we have fallen and just how high we were raised again by the merciful God. For such a person, forgiveness flows naturally, abundantly.

Many of us grew up going to churches and being exposed to the teaching of Christ from a young age and I think that sometimes that makes us take things for granted. We are so used to these concepts that we rarely step back and take a moment to see just how beautiful and truly wondrous is God. God is merciful. He saw our wretched condition. He saw us bowed low by the terrible weight of sin. He saw us crushed and perplexed. He saw our adversaries rejoicing because they had defeated us. Sin was victorious. But Jesus Christ overturned the power of sin. He defeated it through His life-giving death. God forgave us because He is the One who forgives. Listen to these words from St. John of Kronstadt,

“When you pray that your sins may be forgiven, strengthen yourself always by faith, and trust in God’s mercy, Who is ever ready to forgive our sins after sincere prayer, and fear lest despair should fall on your heart — that despair which declares itself by deep despondency and forced tears. What are your sins in comparison to God’s mercy… if only you truly repent of them? But it often happens that when a man prays, he does not, in his heart, inwardly hope that his sins will be forgiven, counting them as though they were above God’s mercy. Therefore, he certainly will not obtain forgiveness, even should he shed fountains of involuntary tears….. ‘Believe that ye receive them,’ says the Lord, ‘and ye shall have them.’ Not to be sure of receiving what you ask God for, is a blasphemy against God.” – St. John of Kronstadt

So you see that even our saints tell us that God’s forgiveness is complete, total and absolute to the one who accepts it with sure faith. This complete, total and absolute forgiveness is part of God’s goodness and His love. God has redeemed your life so that you might also become love to others. So that you might offer a path to redemption for others. When we forgive others for all of the pain and difficulties that they have caused us in our lives, that doesn’t mean that we forget those things or that we pretend that they never happened. It doesn’t mean that we play dumb or forget. Instead we acknowledge them and move on from them. Our forgiveness is a sign of our love and our trust in God’s goodness and providence. A sign that God is present in everything. Our forgiveness is also a key that unlocks the depths of love to which we are capable. So these issues of forgiveness and love are by no means trivial. They are the heart and soul of Christian life. They are not mutually exclusive, but rather complimentary and necessary for one another.

God isn’t going to judge us based on how well we treat our families and friends and people we like. God is going to judge us on the person or group of people that we dislike the most. God is going to judge us on our disposition towards our enemies, our true enemies, those who have betrayed or harmed us. Make no mistake, what Our Lord requires of us, is nothing less than what He demonstrated for us from the cross. Pure and genuine forgiveness for everyone and for whatever they had done to Him. I will leave you with a final word from St. Mark the Ascetic who writes,

“The sign of sincere love is to forgive wrongs done to us. It was with such love that the Lord loved the world.”

+ St. Mark the Ascetic, “On Those Who Think They are Made Righteous by Works: Two Hundred and Twenty-Six Texts” No. 48, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1)

Source: Sermons

Do We Really Believe?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (25:31-46)

Our Christian faith is requires conviction. One of the reasons that we celebrate and often remember the martyrs, those who die for their faith in Jesus Christ, is because of their courage and conviction. They believe in Jesus Christ with unshakeable belief. They have conviction in their faith. They believe firmly that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that He was crucified and that He defeated death itself and rose again from the dead. That is part of the Christian faith. We have to have this as a firm conviction. Likewise, as Christians we must also have a strong and unshakeable belief that this same Lord Jesus Christ will come again and will be seated on the throne to judge all nations and all people.

The One who descended to us in lowly human form will come again as a the radiant and victorious King of kings. The One whose victory began on the wood of the cross. This One comes again to judge all, the living and the dead. Today we find ourselves being reminded of these things that we often take for granted. The Church is a loving mother who doesn’t desire to see her children lost forever. She doesn’t want to see us confused and disoriented in life. She doesn’t want to see us drowned in the sorrows and cares of this life because there is more to life than this. This life is a beginning for us.

The Holy Orthodox Church doesn’t want her children to be unprepared or caught off guard. So she prepares us. As we are now about one week from the start of Great and Holy Lent, we are reminded that the king and judge of all is indeed coming and we will encounter Him. So in order to properly prepare us, the Church acts like a good tutor and gives us all of the questions for the upcoming final exam. But she goes a step further by also giving us the answers. The answers actually come directly from our Lord Jesus Christ. He tells us who will be numbered among His sheep and who will be numbered among the goats. He separates them. But what are the criteria for being sorted into the two group? Only this: How do we treat those in need? The hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners. In other words, those who are in the worst position in life. What do we do for those folks, how do we serve them, how do we love them? That’s it. It is elegantly and painfully simple. We won’t be judged by our bank accounts, or our titles or our social media reach or our beauty or our physical strength, but we will be judged on the beauty of our souls and the strength of our character as demonstrated through our service to those in need.

Listen to one of the hymns for this day,

“I think upon that day and hour when we shall all stand naked, like men condemned, before the Judge who accepts no man’s person. Then shall the trumpet sound aloud and the foundations of the earth shall quake, the dead shall rise from the tombs and all shall be gathered together from every generation. Then each man’s secrets will be manifest before thee: and those that have never repented shall weep and lament, departing to the outer fire; but with gladness and rejoicing the company of the righteous shall enter into the heavenly bridal chamber.

How shall it be in that hour and fearful day, when the Judge shall sit on his dread throne! The books shall be opened and men’s actions shall be examined, and the secrets of darkness shall be made public. Angels shall hasten to and fro, gathering all the nations. Come ye and hearken, kings and princes, slaves and free, sinners and righteous, rich and poor: for the Judge comes to pass sentence on the whole inhabited earth. And who shall bear to stand before his face in the presence of the angels, as they call us to account for our actions and our thoughts, whether by night or by day? How shall it be then in that hour! But before the end is here, make haste, my soul, and cry: O God who only art compassionate, turn me back and save me.” -Four Stichera at praises, Matins, Meatfare Sunday

We hear these things and we might say to ourselves, it seems a bit dark and foreboding. That is true, but only if we hear these things and remain unchanged. They are not given to scare you but to warn you of another reality that is more real than anything you think you can comprehend. When we are in the presence of God nothing can help us but the love we have acquired and shown to others. Love is what makes us able to stand in the presence of God because God is love.

Why should you wait until tomorrow to change or take your life more seriously? How do you know that tomorrow will come? Today is the day of salvation if you hear difficult and good words and you apply them to yourself with faith and conviction. Today is the day to receive new life and boldness before the throne of Christ. But we receive this by going out of our way to serve others whenever and in whatever way that we can. We can do this anywhere can’t we? We can practice by serving our families, our spouses, our brothers and sisters, our church community with great joy and enthusiasm. And then this joy will overwhelm us and energize us to go further out of our comfort zone to serve others is greater need. This is our path, my beloved. This path starts with self-denial. We start fasting for many reasons and one of them is in order to develop the ability to deny ourselves. The ability to give up our attachments and to think nothing of them.

St. John Chrysostom tells us that not only can we be saved but we can become equals to the apostles themselves through self-denial. He writes,

“The saying is not mine, but the blessed Paul’s. For when he had said, “Covet earnestly the best gifts, and yet I will show you a more excellent way; [1 Corinthians 12:31] he did not speak next of a sign, but of charity, the root of all our good things. If then we practice this, and all the self-denial that flows from it, we shall have no need of signs; even as on the other hand, if we do not practice it, we shall gain nothing by the signs.

Bearing in mind then all this, let us imitate those things whereby the apostles became great…. From all worldly things, therefore, let us withdraw ourselves, and dedicate ourselves to Christ, that we may both be made equal to the apostles according to His declaration, and may enjoy eternal life; unto which may we all attain, by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ to whom be glory and might forever and ever. Amen.”

+ St. John Chrysostom, Homily 46

Source: Sermons

The Prodigal Son Was Hungry

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (15:11-32)

As we continue our journey through the pre-lenten Sundays, we are reminded that last week we heard the message of the Pharisee and the Publican. We took from this message the foundational necessity for humility as a start to our spiritual lives. Yet we understand that the Church is a place where balance is necessary. If one were to go to an extreme in their self-condemnation and self-accusation it might lead to depression or even complete despair. We see an example of such despair in the person of Judas Iscariot. But the Church reflecting the mind of it’s master and Lord, teaches us that humility is only part of the story of our salvation.

We hear today this beautiful parable of the prodigal son. What a magnificent passage. I find that from year to year this is one of the texts that is very difficult to preach on, not because there isn’t enough to say about it, but because it has almost too much to say! The lessons are many and they are powerful. We begin with the young man, the son who was clearly not content with what he had in life. He desired more for himself. He went with boldness to his father and said “Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.” The father being both just and kind, agreed to this request and gave the young man his proper share of the inheritance. Do you know what this means? It is a symbol of the life that God has given each of us. God hasn’t given you a life in order that you should feel like His slave or like He controls you. He has given you life out of the abundance of His love for you. He wants you to have this love and to embrace it.

The younger son wanted to embrace life and he took all of the riches that were promised to him and he departed away from his father’s house and from all that he knew in order to experience independence and dictate his life according to his terms. We are told that the young man went to a far away country and that he squandered his wealth on loose living. Yet, things got worse. A famine arose. There was very little food and he was now very broke. So he went to work as a laborer for one of the citizens of that country. He was put to work right away. He was sent into the fields to feed swine. Those who would have heard this story from the lips of our Lord Jesus would have been disgusted since swine was considered unclean. But the young man in his desperation was so hungry. He had no choice but to work in this way in order to make some kind of a living to support himself. Hunger took hold of him. Hunger convinced him that he would gladly bend down and eat the pigs food if only someone cared enough to offer it to him, but no one gave him anything.

The young man had once had everything. But his rebellious spirit and his desire for the world caused him to squander every last cent. You know sin is never isolated. It pervades our mind and heart. It pervades our being. He ran away to sin and “experience the world.” But one thing built on another and he quickly lost his senses. He found himself working for a man who didn’t care for him. Had the man cared for him, he would have fed the young man, but he did not. So the young man in his desperation contemplated eating the swine’s food. This is how sin reduces the stature of a man and makes him like a slave. Yet, there was still hope. God used the young man’s troubles and trials to bring him to a deep hunger. Through this hunger, we are told that the young man “came to himself.”

One of the reasons that we fast for many days during Great and Holy Lent, is in fact the need for each of us to become hungry. This becomes increasingly difficult in a world of abundance. But the gospels teach us of the need to fast. The church fathers understood that physical hunger would help awaken our deeper and more profound spiritual hunger. This young man fasted involuntarily and through this involuntary fasting, his senses were awakened. He came to himself. He understood his reality. His heart was opened and he missed his father. He missed his father’s home and all that he once had taken for granted. My brothers and sisters, this is a symbol of the Church.

The young man is everyone who has ever left the safe harbor of their heavenly Father’s house, the Church, and tried to live independently as their own person with their own rules and their own ways. This is even true of some who never physically leave the Church, yet in their hearts and minds they left long ago. They aren’t interested in the things of God. They aren’t interested in prayer or speaking with God. They aren’t interested in living a godly life or obeying Christ’s commandments. And God, out of His deep sense of honor for our personhood and a deep sense of love for us, allows us to take the inheritance (the life that He has gifted us) and use it as we wish. He doesn’t force us to stay in His house miserable. He steps aside so that we may pursue our hearts desire. We are fortunate and blessed that in some of these cases, we reawaken and come to ourselves.

The Holy Orthodox Church all over the world from antiquity has built in a mechanism to assist us in coming to our senses and receiving the life-saving medicines of the soul. We fast together to help us to wake up and come to our senses. God wants us to hunger for Him. If we hunger for God and we see the depth of our own fall, then we might turn back towards home and run with haste towards the One who loves us unconditionally. That is precisely what the young man did. He decided that even the servants in his father’s house were in a far better position than the one in which he found himself.

So he turned back towards home. The Church is your home. By one degree or another, each of us has drifted away and is in need to start returning to Our Father’s home. Each of us is called to remember our inheritance and our status and to find the One who has shared all of it with us. As the young man began to draw near to the house, his father saw him and ran towards him. God is waiting like this for each of us. If we knew how much God loved us, we would be overwhelmed by it. I’m not sure we could really comprehend it. This love is shown to us in the image of the father who sees his son still at a distance and yet he comes running, not walking, running!

How God longs to see us come home! How God longs to embrace us and forgive us and restore us to a place of honor, to celebrate our return! How God longs to see those who are dead, restored back to life and health so that they might dwell with Him!

The whole universe of God’s mercy and forgiveness is open wide to receive those who will repent and return. May we do so without hesitation, as St. Tikon of Zadonsk writes,

“Sinners that repent are still saved; both publicans and fornicators cleansed by repentance enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. The compassionate God still calls to Himself all that have turned away, and He awaits them and promises them mercy. The loving Father still receives His prodigal sons come back from a far country and He opens the doors of His house and clothes them in the best robe, and gives them each a ring on their hand and shoes on their feet and commands all the saints to rejoice in them.” + St. Tikhon of Zadonsk: Journey to Heaven Part II: The Way of Salvation


Source: Sermons

Can Prayer Be Bad?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:10-14)

It is time for us to take a deep breath together. We are here at the start of the pre-lenten period. For the next few weeks the Church will take us on a path to prepare us for a profitable and enriching lenten struggle. Each of these weeks has a certain theme based on the gospel reading of that particular Sunday. This week we are encountered with the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican or tax collector.

In the gospel according to Matthew during the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Our Lord Jesus Christ offers these poignant words: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That is a terrifying passage for those who have ears to hear. Why should it be terrifying? For the exact same reason that this parable should strike us as a harsh reality. Of all the forms of pride and delusion that mankind can harbor and nurture within themselves, the greatest and most destructive of all is the religious pride and delusion. Put another way, pride is a great sin, yet pride that is somehow wrapped up or covered in religious wallpaper is even greater. It means that the sacred place where God should dwell is not only devoid of God but is a place where the self becomes our greatest idol, our god.

I have mentioned before that the atmosphere of Orthodox Christianity if one is not careful could lend itself to a degree of phariseeism. If we are not careful and we don’t have guidance in the spiritual life we can very easily fall into the delusion of thinking that if we pray a set number of times or a set number of prayers per day, and if we confess a set number of times per year, and if we fast a set number of times per week or per year, and if we read a set number of Bible verses daily, and if we read a set number of prayers of preparation for Holy Communion and if we go to a set number of services and read a certain number of pious comments on Orthodox forums and a certain number of quotes from the church fathers on instagram, and if we have a certain number of icons hanging in our home, then of course it is proof that we are holy, righteous, good and justified before the judgment seat of God. This my brothers and sisters is a mindset that does not lead us to growth and life but rather to the opposite, to darkness, decay and spiritual death.

The true goal of the lenten experience is to take us on a journey where we begin to question ourselves, our motives, our actions, our inner thoughts and inclinations and where we go even further by doing the opposite of justifying ourselves and our lives. We take the opposite stance and we condemn ourselves, we see ourselves as failures and we begin to see that we are sick and that our actions and choices have only put us further into sickness, have caused real and lasting damage to our souls and bodies and have ultimately ruptured our communion and relationship with Christ our God.

We go on a path of self-discovery yet this path isn’t focused on the self. In today’s parable if you pay attention, the Pharisee’s prayer was all about the self. He used his time of prayer to compare himself and his exceeding goodness to the failures of the tax collector. “I thank you that I am not like other men.” This is a great blasphemy. Because those men you condemn were created in the image and likeness of God, and you are not so different from them. You differ only in types or in degrees of failure and sin.

Above all lent is a time for us to reorient ourselves to our own brokenness. This happens not by focusing on ourselves, but through a radical and uncompromising focus on Christ. It is a time to reorient ourselves to our need for a physician, a savior, a messiah to heal us. The theme today is one of humility. Lent is a time for humility and humility is the path to salvation. Why? Humility allows us to communicate and to understand and connect with God because Christ is humble. “Learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.” Conversely, if we are prideful, we can’t know God. To be sure, we know of God, but knowing God intimately and communicating with him in intimacy is another matter completely.

Lately I’ve been listening to a book by Fr. Stephen Freeman called “Face to Face: Knowing God beyond Our Shame.” It is a marvelous book and I highly recommend it. It is interesting to note that the author quotes heavily from St. Sophrony. He talks about one of the hallmarks of St. Sophrony’s teaching being the need for a Christian to learn to “bear a little shame.” This is healthy. This is what the tax collector did isn’t it?

There is a way in which we need to expose our shame and weakness and failures before God. This happens in our private prayers and must also happen in the context of confession with a priest. And when we bear a little shame, God uses this process of humbling ourselves as a path to healing. Our hearts are now cracked open and the Holy Spirit can enter and dwell within us. We hear this echoed in the Psalm 51:17 “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” That’s it. Everything else is extra. Everything else is a means to an end.

Does that mean that we can skip the fasting and the praying and the almsgiving? No. The Church has given us these practices as powerful tools to help us find the deep heart and grow as children of God. When these practices are undertaken with the right focus and in the right spirit, then our sins will be magnified, our neighbors sins will be minimized, Christ will be glorified and we will be sanctified in the process.

For all the “religious” activity of the Pharisee, he couldn’t produce one single solitary humble thought or prayer. He entered the temple and left not only unchanged, but even worse since he sinned while addressing God with his pride and simultaneously condemning the man next to him. Yet the tax collector had a poor and beautiful soul didn’t he? He entered the temple with a heavy heart and could barely even utter his prayer from his sense of brokenness and unworthiness of God. He only cried out “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” And for this single heartfelt prayer, God rejoiced and loved the man. Can I produce a similar prayer from the depths of my heart?

I will leave you with this beautiful quote from St. John Climacus: “An angel fell from Heaven without any other passion except pride, and so we may ask whether it is possible to ascend to Heaven by humility alone, without any other of the virtues.” + St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 23.12


Source: Sermons

What Talents?

The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (25:14-30, + Luke 8:8)

In today’s gospel reading we hear the familiar parable of the talents. In this passage it seems that the talents are a type of money or currency that is distributed to each of the servants by the master of the estate. However we should understand that this parable is about much more than how we invest our money. The parable of the talents is about how we invest all of our God given gifts and the fruits that result from those gifts. There is a question of what we do with the original gifts that are given to us. How do we use them? Do we increase them? Do we reinvest them? We might say that this parable is all about the economy of the kingdom.

Perhaps we understand the talents as gifts of the Holy Spirit. What do we do with such gifts? Some have the gift of empathy and listening. Others have the gift of prophecy. Some have the gift of healing. Others have the gifts of teaching or preaching. Some have the gift of hospitality and yet others the gift of service. Still others have material wealth as a gift. Some have a real gift for prayer on behalf of others. Everyone has a gift and sometimes more than one gift. As I said last week, everyone has a ministry in their life and in the life of the church. Most of those ministries are not out front, but hidden from plain view, and that’s ok. But it is important that we exercise and utilize those gifts out of love for God and others.

We can sometimes hide those gifts from the sight of others, but we better not hide our gifts away and neglect to use them. St. Gregory the great writes about the servant who buried his talent and this is what he says “Hiding a talent in the earth means employing one’s abilities in earthly affairs, failing to seek spiritual profit, never raising one’s heart from earthly thoughts. There are some who have received the gift of understanding but have a taste only for things that pertain to the body. The prophet says of them, “They are wise in doing evil, but they do not know how to do good.” -Gregory the Great: [Jer 4:22.] Forty Gospel Homilies 9.1

The point that we have to remember is that the talents, the resources, the gifts that we have are not actually ours. In fact, we understand that even our life doesn’t belong to us. St. Paul writes “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” 1 Cor 6:19-20 This applies not only to our bodies since we were dedicated to Christ in baptism, but to all that He gives us. When we live with this framework, we find that everything makes sense and that we no longer live for ourselves, but rather, for our Lord and master. I often encourage you to make prayer one of the first things that you do upon waking in the morning. Why? Because this act helps us to clearly remember that the day belongs to God, rather, that our life belongs to God.

How we start our day has a powerful effect on the rest of our routine and mindset. The mindset that we are after is the same one found in a beautiful prayer that we will soon begin to recite together since Lent is drawing near. “O Lord and Master of my life…” If Christ is indeed the master of our lives, we will offer everything up to Him. We will offer all of it, both good and bad. We will offer our pain and suffering, our anxiety and anguish. We will offer our joys and victories. We will offer up our worst moments and our best triumphs. We will offer up our minds and hearts and all of our works. We will offer up our talents as well as our many failings and frailties. We offer it all to God who desires to perfect us and to see us reach new heights as the pinnacle of His creation. We offer it with faith and hope that Christ will offer us much more than we can ever imagine.

Finally, I want to leave you with thoughts from St. Theophan the Recluse, who writes,

“The parable about the talents offers the thought that life is a time for trading. That means that it is necessary to hasten to use this time as a person would hurry to a market to bargain for what he can…No one who has received life from the Lord can say that he does not have a single talent—everyone has something, and not just one thing; everyone, therefore, has something with which to trade and make a profit. Do not look around and calculate what others have received, but take a good look at yourself and determine more precisely what lies in you and what you can gain for that which you have, and then act according to this plan without laziness. At the Judgment you will not be asked why you did not gain ten talents if you had only one, and you will not even be asked why you gained only one talent on your one, but you will be told that you gained a talent, half a talent or a tenth of its worth. And the reward will not be because you received the talents, but because you gained.” + St. Theophan the Recluse

May we work through God’s grace to offer back abundant fruit and to share of this fruit with others to the glory of God, the lover of mankind. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Desire of Zacchaeus

The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (19:1-10)
Today we hear and we celebrate the story of Zacchaeus. The more that I think on this story and contemplate the more I am blown away. Zacchaeus blows away our conceptions of what it is to desire the Lord. Zacchaeus blows away our understanding of what it means to repent. Zacchaeus utterly demolishes our understanding of what it means to welcome Christ into our lives.

Zacchaeus stands as a corrective for my lame efforts. He shows me that I while I desire to know Jesus Christ, I don’t desire Him with the zeal and the love and the purpose with which Zacchaeus desires to know the Lord. This should put me to shame because I know more of Jesus than Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus had heard of the Lord’s teachings and likely new of some of His great miracles. But I know that Jesus was crucified out of His deep love for us. I know that He willingly suffered and endured great shame for us. I know that He rose from the dead. I know that He has sent us the Comforter, the Holy Spirit to be with us. I know that He has forgiven me.

Yet with all the unbelievable and amazing things that I know about Our Lord Jesus Christ, I don’t show half of the zeal and desire of Zacchaeus who was considered a sinful tax-collector. Most of the tax-collectors were considered sinful because they made their wealth by preying upon the people and over-collecting on taxes. It is likely that Zacchaeus did the same. Yet, although he was hardened by sin, Christ found a way into his hardened heart and through that small crack, the light of Christ began to invade his being. Instead of fighting this light, Zacchaeus followed it to the source. He desired to know this Jesus and nothing would substitute for this knowledge. No one could stand in his way. Indeed, even his own limitations as a man, his very short stature, could not stand in his way. We are reminded that our limitations can never stand in the way or be an obstacle for the one who is consumed with a desire to know the Lord Jesus. But we are also reminded that you can’t know Him on your terms. You can only know God on His terms!

We see this demonstrated in that Zacchaeus begins his great effort to see Our Lord Jesus and then while he is hanging in the tree, the Lord looks up to him and says to him “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your place today.” Sometimes we say that we want to know God, but we also want that to happen on our terms. However that is not how things should work since God is the sovereign Lord. He should direct us and we should, out of our great love for Him, obey faithfully. Zacchaeus took an amazing first step in his search for the Son of God, but imagine what would have happened if the Lord spoke to him and then Zacchaeus responded differently. If he said “Lord, I apologize but I’m not in the mood today.” Or “Lord, I’m already exhausted from fighting the crowds and climbing this tree so perhaps maybe you would consider coming over tomorrow.” It seems funny but we do this often in our lives. We put off Christ or delay our encounters with Him. We say, I will just spend an hour on facebook or instagram and then I will go read my Bible. But let me binge watch some Netflix and then I will pray for a few seconds before bed. But Zacchaeus is not like us. He shows us what it means to be hungry for God in our lives. He shows us what it means to hear God’s voice and to obey with haste. For this reason we are not surprised that our Lord promised salvation to him and His house because salvation is the restored relationship with Jesus Christ.

St. Nikolai of Zicha writes, ““Today, salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).
Thus it was spoken by the One Whose word is life and joy and restoration of the righteous. Just as the bleak forest clothes itself into greenery and flowers from the breath of spring, so does every man, regardless of how arid and darkened by sin, becomes fresh and youthful from the nearness of Christ.”

And he continues saying,

“Today, salvation has come to this house” said the Lord upon entering the house of Zacchaeus the sinner. Christ was the salvation that came and Zacchaeus was the house into which He entered. Brethren, each one of us is a house in which sin dwells as long as Christ is distant and to which salvation comes when Christ approaches it. Nevertheless, will Christ approach my house and your house? That depends on us. Behold, He did not arbitrarily enter the house of the sinner Zacchaeus, rather He entered as a most desired guest. Zacchaeus of little stature climbed into a tree in order to see the Lord Jesus with his own eyes. Zacchaeus, therefore, sought him; Zacchaeus desired Him. We must also seek Him in order to find Him and desire Him in order that He would draw nearer to us and, with our spirit, to climb high in order to encounter His glance. Then He will visit our house as He visited the house of Zacchaeus and with Him salvation will come. Draw near to us O Lord, draw near and bring to us Your eternal salvation. To You be glory and thanks always. Amen.”

– St. Nikolai Velimirovich, “Zacchaeus Of Little Stature”

Source: Sermons