The Way That Leads to Life

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

One of the worst things that can happen to us is to begin thinking that if we love God or have true faith, that somehow our life will be easier, or less painful or have less suffering. When all of a sudden we are faced with difficulties or tribulation, we then question our faith, we question God, we question everything. Why? Because in fact, we had made an idol of pleasure or ease of life.

Even now during the Great and Holy Fast we are sometimes surprised at the level of discomfort we have. We might say to ourselves “Didn’t Father tell us that if we fast and pray faithfully, we will have an experience of the Lord, we will grow in communion with Him?” But let us put our struggles into perspective. Today is the Third Sunday of Lent. It is officially the mid-way point of the fast. Three weeks down, three weeks to go. At the end of the next three weeks, we will enter into Holy Week, the holiest and most solemn time in the life of the Church.

We have struggled a bit. We have prayed a bit, fasted a bit, done a bit of prostrations, done a bit of repenting, done a bit of weeping. At this point we might find ourselves tired. We may begin to question the logic of all this hard work, all of this struggle. Yet what does the Church to to offer us encouragement? She doesn’t bring out the icon of the resurrection of the Lord. She brings out the cross. She reminds us of the love of God for each and every man, woman and child that has ever lived. She reminds us that the Lord Jesus, suffered for us and died for us on the precious wood of the cross in order to give us true life.

My brothers and sisters, now is the time to struggle. Later it will be time to rest. When I say that now is the time to struggle, I am speaking of this holy fast, but I am also speaking of our life in general. There is no one who can avoid suffering. No one can avoid trials. No one can avoid difficult people in their lives. My friends, there is no life for us unless we take up our crosses and carry them all the way to the end.

The Lord taught us what He would also demonstrate for us. He had courage and carried His cross with strength. He knew it was unjust. He knew it was painful. He knew that He did not deserve such treatment. They spit in the Lord’s face and they slapped Him. They beat Him and whipped Him. This was the reward that He received for the many thousands of people that He had fed and healed and taught. They rewarded His love with their hatred. They nailed Him to the tree of death. Yet the Lord took all of this patiently. What a Lord we have! He took this suffering because it was the only way to offer us true life! He took our death and gave us His divine life.

As we each enter into our particular struggles of life, we must enter into them by asking the Lord for strength. Mothers need strength to keep up with their duties and the raising of their children. Fathers need strength to continue working difficult jobs with difficult people. Husbands and wives need strength and patience to deal with one another and to accept one another and support one another. Children need strength to fight peer-pressure and courage to act differently than the world around them.

We enter into our sufferings with determination and a focus on the love of God and of the example of the Lord Jesus. If there was another way, God would have surely shown it to us.

We are called to suffer in life and to carry our crosses so that we might live the life of Christ within our bodies. Instead of seeking pleasure, we seek to please God. Instead of temporary rest, we seek eternal rest when the Lord chooses to give us this rest.

Every decision we make creates a ripple effect. And every day we are faced with the decision that once faced the Lord after He had fasted for 40 days and was hungry. He was faced with a choice of who He should serve. We are faced with that same decision every day. Do we follow after pleasure, after ease of life, after Satan? Or do we follow after the commandments of God, after the way of Christ, no matter where it might lead? The Lord tells us that there is nothing so special as the soul of a man. Don’t forfeit your soul or the souls of those around you for fleeting pleasures.

It is so sad when someone is overcome by serious temptations and their lapse in judgement doesn’t just affect them. It affects everyone in their social circle in a negative way. In fact, it affects the whole Church. Instead of offering life through their struggles, in the model of Christ, they try to throw off their crosses and run after whatever it is that they feel they are lacking.

The cross is brought out to us today not only to give us strength but to remind us of the way to life. It is time to rededicate ourselves in these final weeks of Lent, and to rededicate the days of your whole life to the Master who can redeem your life and offer you something that transcends your every concept of life and joy. Now we are climbing up the mountain of prayer and making progress through the grace of God. Soon we will rejoice with the angels and with the whole universe as we celebrate the One who took up His cross for our sake and in return, gave us to eat of the fruit of eternal life! 

Source: Sermons

What Can Happen When We Pray

The Second Sunday of Great and Holy Lent, St. Gregory Palamas Sunday

I’m amazed every year when I’m reminded that St. Gregory Palamas was once called “the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church.” Now imagine that he was called “the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church” by the Patriarch of Constantinople himself. The year is 1344. This comment was made during a Church council and it caused this man to be thrown into prison for the next 4 years. The man who was “the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church” was St. Gregory Palamas, archbishop of Thessalonica. Yet the Church in her wisdom has set aside this the second Sunday of Great Lent as Palamas Sunday.

Why was this man called “the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church?” and yet why do we remember him on one of the Sundays of Lent? To simplify this I will say that St. Gregory was an accomplished monk who became the abbot or head of one of the monastic communities. In the course of his spiritual life, he had learned many things about our life in Christ, about true Orthodoxy. One of the things that he learned and taught was of great controversy and we better hear it and understand it because it is part of our theology and understanding of God. St. Gregory taught that we could know God intimately and personally. That we can commune with God and that when we do we actually partake of His energies. That we can, through heartfelt daily repentance and ascetical efforts, grow in purity. And when purity is coupled with true prayer, we can feel, know and be bathed in the presence of God by the grace of the Holy Spirit. 

I have to tell you that even today, even now, that is a radical idea for many. I was recently speaking with someone who told me that they felt much better and achieved much more from meditation than they ever did from prayer. I replied that it was probably the case that no one had actually taught them what prayer is or how to pray apart from opening a prayer book and repeating what is in it. In addition, I told them that if we dedicated the same time to prayer that some people dedicate to meditation, the “results” would be quite positive.

We think of prayers as formal words. We sometimes think of prayers as speaking empty words into a blank space, never to hear anything in return. So we are often lucky to spend even 3 minutes praying before we get tired or bored. That is not prayer according to the Fathers of the Church. Prayer is living communion with God that is experienced in a genuine way and this always transforms us, even though we rarely sense it as it is happening. God is not far-away, He is not known only through mental knowledge and books. He is known in truth as we participate in His energies. Rather than say too much from my own words, I will share some of the words of our Fathers and what they had to say about experiencing God. As I share these things please note that we do not pray for to have similar experiences, but God sometimes gives them by grace. Either way, the grace of God is working in us, when we pray. Whether we have a dazzling experience or something far more subtle. Let us first hear the words of St. Gregory Palamas himself,

…the grace of the Spirit takes possession of the quiet soul, and gives it a taste of the unspeakable good things to come, which no passionate and negligent eye has seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of such a man (cf. I Cor. 2:9). This taste is the earnest of these good things, and the heart which accepts these pledges becomes spiritual and receives assurance of its salvation.” 

That light, father, appeared to me. The walls of my cell immediately vanished and the world disappeared, fleeing I think from before His face, and I remained alone in the presence alone of the light. And I do not know, father, if this my body was there, too. I do not know if I was outside of it. For a while I did not know that I carry and am clothed with a body. And such great joy was in me and is with me now, great love and longing both, that I was moved to streams of tears like rivers, just like now as you see.” -St. Symeon the New Theologian 

Finally, I will share with you the words of the modern, yet to be canonized saint, Elder Sophrony of Essex 

Towards evening at sunset I would shut the window and draw three curtains over it, to make my cell as quiet and dark as possible. With my forehead bent to the floor, I would slowly repeat words of prayer, one after the other. I had no feeling of being cooped up, and my mind, oblivious to the body, lived in the light of the gospel word. Concentrated on the fathomless wisdom of Christ’s word, my spirit, freed from all material concerns, would feel flooded, as it were, with light, from the celestial sun.At the same time, a gentle peace would fill my soul, unconscious of all the needs and cares of this earth. The Lord gave me to live in this state, and my spirit yearned to cling to his feet in gratitude for this gift. This same experience was repeated at intervals for months, perhaps years….Under the influence of this light, prayer for mankind and travail possessed my whole being. It was clear that the inescapable, countless sufferings of the entire universe, are the consequence of man’s falling away from God, our creator, who revealed himself to us. If the world loved Christ and his commandments, everything would be radically transformed, and the earth would become a wonderful paradise.”

I have shared these things with all of you because I want you to know that we do not fast and undergo lent for some outward ritual and symbolic observance, but for the opportunity to be purified and healed. God is not far away. We can have peace with Him. We can knowand experience God.How do we begin to know Him? We begin with heart felt repentance. When we repent, our sins are removed and no heavy weight will weigh us down as we climb up the mountain of prayer. Next,we pray patiently and as we begin to pray, we ask for the gift of prayer. There is no doubt that the Lord desires to give this gift to you. And like any good activity, it must be undertaken with discipline, as a daily part of our life. So continue to strive, because knowing Him is worth it. He desires to know you and to transform you completely, because He loves you. May the grace of the Lord be with you all! AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Why Is The Sunday of Orthodoxy, the First Sunday of Lent?

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

On this, the first Sunday of the great fast, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy. This day specifically commemorates the restoration of the holy icons into all of the churches of God. We might be asking ourselves, “why does the Church celebrate this at the beginning of Lent?” “What is the connection between the veneration of icons and this holy season?” Let me share a few thoughts with you.

The culmination of the great lenten struggle is found in the glorious events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. According to Christian teaching these are the most important events in the entire history of the universe. Yet, in order for them to be understood as more than myth or legend, something must anchor them to reality. What the Church has understood as the anchor of our understanding is the eye witness accounts of the apostles. They gave up their lives, they went to their deaths preaching and teaching that they had indeed seen and touched and heard and known the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. They were witnesses, in the Greek language a witness is a martyr. 

Icons are a necessary part of all Christian worship. In our Church, we pray what we believe and we believe what we pray. The Orthodox faithful underwent many years of hardship and persecution at the hands of those who believed that the use of icons was forbidden and was wrong according to their understanding of Scripture (an understanding that incidentally was heavily influenced by the rise of Islam). These Christians read Scripture with a narrow understanding that denied the living interpretation of the universal Christian tradition of the first few hundred years.  Nevertheless, truth won the day, through the life giving breath of the Holy Spirit, as the Church came together to reason and pray and understand what is God’s will regarding this subject that had created so much controversy.

The 7thecumenical council, a universal council of the east and the west, tells us that icons are not only good, but absolutely necessary to Christian worship. They are a continual reminder that God is no longer understood as simply an invisible spirit. God is understood as having a Son, who Himself took real human flesh, real human existence. Who was born on an actual day in history, in an actual place, with an actual human mother from whom He received His actual human DNA. St. Peter writes “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 2 Peter1:16 

In the Old Testament, God forbid the making of images for worship because the people did not have a proper understanding of Him. No one had ever seen God, for God is spirit. For the people to attempt to depict or worse yet, to pray to what they had not seen or understood, would be a great blasphemy because they were bound to depict God incorrectly. They were bound to worship something false. But, the Lord Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that the day is coming when the true worshippers of God will worship Him in spirit and in truth. This indeed has happened with the coming of the savior into the world. The Apostle Paul writes that Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). His actual word from the Greek is not image but icon. It is thisrevelation of the Son of God in the flesh, that makes iconography not only proper, but necessary. Since mankind looked on the face of the Son of God and dwelt with Him and witnessed all of the events of His life, we know that He is real. To forbid iconography is to deny the incarnation, to deny the taking of flesh by the Son of God. So before the Church leads us to the cross and the resurrection of the Lord, the Church first reminds us of Christmas (the nativity).  The Church reminds us that what we believe is not myth, but truth, and truth has consequences.

In today’s gospel reading Nathanael says to his brother Philip “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And how does Philip respond? “Come and see.” That is the Christian faith. It is not philosophical theory but experience that includes our senses. We don’t know God through books. We know God by experience.In the Orthodox faith we have a sensory experience every time that we enter the church. We taste the Lord’s body and blood, we smell the incense, we see and kiss the icons, we hear the hymns. It must be so! Because our redemption and healing happens not only on some far-away cosmic level, but it happens even within the individual person and within his very cells. Sanctification through the life of the Holy Spirit, transforms us at every level. As a person participates through the body, through their senses, they are healed. The Lord Jesus Christ in His abundant mercy and love for mankind, has made this healing possible by truly taking our human flesh and lifting it up to His level. Hisresurrection becomes our resurrection. Everything is healed. Everything is transformed. Everything is made new in the light of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

So now you see why we remember the return of the icons into the Church. Because we can’t get to the resurrection without the incarnation. We can’t get to the life-saving faith unless the apostles had first witnessed the Word made flesh, and been so convinced of this fact that they were willing to die to proclaim the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a powerful testimony of the truth of our faith and it is this faith that gives us new life. It is this faith that we cling to and embrace as we repent and fast and attend extra services andask the Lord to open our hearts and minds and make these truths a part of our being. 

Truly God is the Lord and has appeared unto us! There is no place here for formality, vainworks, or dead religion. Lent is a time to come to life byembracingthe divine life that has been shared with us through God’s grace and the holy witness of the apostles and all of the saints. This alone is real life! Glory be to God forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Practical Advice As We Enter Great Lent

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

Our Lord begins today’s gospel reading, the gospel reading that is given to us on the day before we plunge into the holy waters of Great Lent. Here is what the Lord says to us “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.” I think that these words are quite clear. Another way of looking at this saying of our Lord Jesus is this: If we cannot learn to forgive others, genuinely, from the heart, we can never accept the forgiveness that God wants to give to us. Why is this the case? Because God cannot impose Himself upon us. He invites us, but He doesn’t impose.

We come to the church on Sundayand you usuallyhear me giving the homily or sermon and you maybe inclined to think that what I am saying has no practical value. That somehow I am speaking theoretically. NO! The Christian faith is not philosophy but practicality that comes from truth and leads to life. If you want to have great relationships with others, one of the most important things that you need to learn is the ability to forgive everyone for everything that they have ever done to you. Whether through words, or actions or thoughts. Forgive them quickly. This will give you tremendous peace that flows throughout your relationships and clears your path to knowledge of God. This is a tremendous life lesson that we can apply daily. For this reason we will come together as a community tonight at 5pm. We will pray together and we will share the rite of forgiveness with one another. All of us, both members and those who are training to become members of this community. It is a powerful service that helps us to start Lent on the right foot.

Now I would like to share with you some more practical tips for getting the most out of Great Lent.

Guard your eyes: The eyes are the lamp of the soul. Lent is a great time to really pay attention to what we read and see. It is now an established fact that social media such as facebook has tragic consequences on teens and youth, but it is also becoming clear that these forms of social media are poisonous to most people (even, or especially those in denial). In addition, we know of the poisons in the entertainment industry as well as pornography and news. All of these things, even when they seem innocent or harmless, are of questionable value because they usually distract our minds away from the things of God and direct them to the things of the world. 

Perhaps this Lent can be a time for you and your family to dramatically cut your screen time, whether it is games or tv or web browsing. Perhaps we can use this extra time for activities that build up the family like group reading of good stories or board games. Perhaps it could even be used for more personal reading and prayer. This doesn’t apply only to youth, but to parents. Parents, let’s try to put down our phones from dinner time until the children go to bed. Let’s give them our attention and not withhold our love to focus on trivialities. Either way, let’s guard our time and our minds through the gateway of the eyes.

Guard your lips: Our Lord Jesus tells us that it is not what a man puts in his mouth that makes him unclean, but the things that come out of his mouth. During this season we are keen to focus on the food we eat and to try our best to observe the rules of the fast. Let us not forget that the fast is but one way, albeit a powerful one, of attracting the grace of God. But if we fast from certain foods but don’t abstain from gossip or evil words, the grace of God will not rest on us. Then we will be in worse shape then before we fasted. On the others hand, some of the fathers of the Church tell us that practicing silence can greatly help us to receive the grace of God. The lips are connected to the mind and heart. When one is silent, the others begin to quiet down and give room for God to speak to us in our depths. 

Another tip that is closely associate with this one is: Find time in your day for absolute silence. No phones, no music, no people. Just 10 or 20 minutes of silence, preferably sitting or kneeling in front of an icon, can make a great difference in our interior life.

Next, Attend more services: If in the past, you attended lenten services once a week, perhaps you can increase your level of participation and commitment to attending two lenten services a week. If you have never come to mid-week services, perhaps it is within your power to attend once a week. For us, the holy prayers and services are a great means of receiving the grace of God. To come to the Church and pray is truly a counter-cultural and revolutionary act. It is a declaration of our time and faith and commitment to the living God and His people. When you come, you greatly benefit not only yourself but the others in your family and in the church. If for instance, the church is empty on Monday night. Let us suppose that one person comes to pray. He or she might think to themselves “Am I strange?” or “Perhaps I am missing some other important event.” But when there are many together they are strong and they bear witness to one another that Christ is the center of our life, that worship is an essential part of our day.

Finally, expect to be fiercely tempted: When we fast and increase our prayers, we are making a declaration of war against the demonic. But just because the enemy has wokenup and increased his attacks, does not mean that we should back down and run away or retreat. No! It is the time to fortify our defenses and increase our attacks, primarily through prayer and the study of the Scriptures.St. Theophan the recluse once wrote “For a believer there is nothing terrifying here, because near a God-fearing man demons only busy themselves, but they do not have any power over him. A sober man of prayer shoots arrows against them, and they stay far away from him, not daring to approach, and fearing the defeat which they have already experienced.”

When you pray and use the name of Jesus Christ you mercilessly whip the enemy and bring him great shame. It is better that your enemy should know shame then to succumb to temptation and have the shame placed on you! Remember that Lent is not just a season. It is a symbol of our whole life.

You desire the good things of life. You desire eternal life. Turn to the living God and you will have them! Let this Lent be your return to paradise. Paradise is not a place, paradise is the Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever we put it during this sacred and special season will be returned to us with heavenly interest! Our time spent in the church will not be lost! Our money given to the poor will not be lost! Our efforts to pray and struggle will not be lost. None of these will be lost, but in return for all of these, we will be found!

St. Porphyrios once said “All beings turn towards Him, albeit unconsciously. Turn your mind towards Him continually. Learn to love prayer, familiar converse with the Lord. What counts above all is love, passionate love for the Lord, for Christ the Bridegroom. Become worthy of Christ’s love. In order not to live in darkness, turn on the switch of prayer so that divine light may flood your soul. Christ will appear in the depths of your being. There, in the deepest and most inward part, is the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is within you [Luke 17:21].” And glory be to God, forever. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Rock Bottom and The Return To God

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

We are now entering the second week of the pre-lenten period in the Holy Orthodox Church. Last week we heard the Lord’s beautiful words about the publican and the Pharisee and we concluded from His words that the most important aspect of our prayers must be humility. Humility is the bedrock upon which the rest of the lenten journey begins and it is indeed a journey, a marathon. It is a challenge, not an easy task. Lent is no time to simply go through the motions, but a time to embrace the motions and activities as if they are holy supplements for our salvation. The Church knows that we as her children often lose our way. We often lack focus. We lose track of time. We lose track of ourselves. But the Church does not lose track of us. She is like a good mother who is watchful, and patient and gently teaches and corrects and makes sure that her children are on the right path.

Last week we began with the foundation of holy humility, and as we move on, we can’t forget the lessons of the previous week. Each one adds on to the whole structure that we are building. And what is that structure? It is the temple of the Holy Spirit, that is made up of each of us as individuals and even more so as a community of the faithful. Today we continue with the magnificent parable of the prodigal son. I believe that you all know this parable. We should know it well. It should be etched in our hearts because not only is it a picture of true heartfelt repentance, but it is also a splendid vision of the unconditional forgiveness of our heavenly Father. Both of these lessons are bound up together.

In the parable, we have a rebellious young man, not unlike the modern teenager or college aged student. Due to our fallen condition, it is fairly normal for young men and women to rebel. They rebel against their parents, against their teachers, sadly, they even attempt to rebel against God and the Church. I say attempt, because no one succeeds at rebelling against God or the Church. They succeed only at rebelling against themselves by betraying themselves into the hands of the enemy. In their search for freedom and power over their own lives, they often become slaves to sin. They neither add nor take away from the Lord or His Church. This happens because we are still affected by the sinfulness of our forefathers Adam and Eve and their rebelliousness towards God.

So youth will often rebel. It’s nothing new. It has happened for a long time. The Lord Jesus knew it to be a reality. But it is not the rebellion that is the most important aspect of the story. If you rebel away from your family and your church and your God, you must understand that that doesn’t have to be the end of your story. It can be the start of a turning point. It can be a chapter in a longer tale. So it is not the rebellion that is the most important aspect of the story, it is the possibility of redemption. 

How did the redemption of the prodigal son come about? The son asked for his share of the father’s inheritance. He took the money and used it to live a loose life. He partied, he drank too much, he gambled, and he dated many women, instead of uniting himself to one woman in marriage. Everything that he could do wrong, he did. We are told that when he had spent every last cent, when his wallet was completely empty, a great famine arose in that country. He was now poor, hungry and could not even live off the land due to the famine. So he did what he thought best at the time and became a servant to one of the citizens of that area. Not only did he become a servant, but his servitude was a bitter one as he was charged with tending to the pigs in the field. But in all of this there was a hidden blessing. As the prodigal was sitting in the fields watching the pigs as they fought to eat the pods he had spread for them, he became so hungry that he even considered eating the pigs food. And in his hunger, we are told that he came to himself.

In modern language we would say that he experienced the rock-bottom moment. Often people who are in the midst of sin and addiction, need to experience such a moment before they wake up and take personal responsibility for themselves and their situation. But what was it that caused this to happen in the young man? It was his poverty and his hunger. It is one of the reasons why we fast; to open our hearts to God that we might come to our senses. And by coming to our senses, we might genuinely repent with hunger and thirst for all of the blessings that come when we live in the house of God, in His presence.

The young man, came to his senses and he repented with bitter tears. He had betrayed his father and squandered everything that was given to him. But he repented sincerely and said to himself “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father.” We see his genuine repentance in the fact that he does not just come and say “sorry.” He plans to tell his father that he is not even worthy to be called his son, but to be treated like a hired servant. 

The Lord Jesus says all of this for our sakes. God desires us to return, but He desires us to return in a genuine way. Not with words, but with heartfelt compunction. He wants us to know that while He calls us His sons and daughters, we are in no way deserving of such titles. They are a product of His grace and His mercytowards us.

We are told that the young man rose and went to his father. This is the picture of repentance, as we get up from where we have fallen into sin and turn back and head towards God. But something unexpected happens to us as it did to the young man. While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and had compassion on him. He ran to him and embraced him and showered him with his kisses. What an amazing God we serve! What love God has for each one of us! And what is required in return? Simply to reject our old ways and to direct our gaze towards Him and to move towards Him in the heart and mind followed by the body. We take a few steps but God rushes towards us through the grace of the Holy Spirit. While we are still on the ground, praying and weeping, the Holy Spirit comes to comfort us and embrace us. He raises us up and robes us in one of His kingly garments. 

We see the whole picture of redemption here. We see the fall, we see the repentance and we see the love of our heavenly Father to lift us out of despair and give us new life. We all fall. We all sin. We all rebel. Don’t let that be the end of your story. You do not have to remain hungry and enslaved to the evil one. Come to your senses quickly and run back to your Father’s house! He is waiting patiently for you to return. He desires to share everything that He has with you.Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

False Spirituality or True Prayer?

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

For some strange reason people are now too busy for the church. They are too busy to hear the word of God, the word upon which the whole of western civilization was founded. Is it any surprise that the very foundations of western society and morality are crumbling before our very eyes? Is it any wonder that people are often miserable? In truth, they are not only too busy for the church. They are too busy for their salvation, and salvation means a living relationship with the Holy Trinity. That is real life. 

People in their greed and corruption of soul would run here or there for a few dollars, or a few moments or experiences, but they are completely unaware or unwilling to seek out the One who is more than every treasure, the One who is life itself. What good is the few dollars that we have when one day we will leave it all behind? God made us to have dominion over all of creation, and not that we should be the slaves of creation, which is the definition of idolatry and death.

I say all of this as an introduction to our pre-lenten period. This parable of the publican and the pharisee is like a warning bell. It tells us that it is time to begin waking up, my brothers and sisters. It is time to wash our faces and drink our coffee and perk up and stand at attention because the judge is right around the corner. It will not be long before He comes to meet us. You are the most blessed of all people because it is the Lord’s day, and you are here to listen to His words, so listen to them carefully. Lay aside every earthly care, and focus. Allow the words of the Lord to burn you, to scrape you, to cleanse and purify you, to refashion you into who God intends you to be.

Today’s parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee is a powerful introduction to the purpose of Great and Holy Lent. One of the men fasted twice a week, gave a tithe of all that he had, and prayed regularly at the appointed times. The other man did not pray much. He didn’t tithe, in fact, he regularly took money from others. Sometimes he probably took more than was necessary in order to line his own pockets. If I gave you only this information and I asked you to make a determination about which one was righteous before God, there is almost no doubt that you would tell me that it was the first one and not the second… and you would be completely wrong. Why? Because thereis one aspect of each man’s character that I have not mentioned and it is the most important aspect of all. Listen to the parable.

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ ” 

So what was the characteristic that the tax collector had, which the Pharisee did not? Humility before God. Right here at the start of the preparation period we are reminded that neither fasting nor almsgiving nor prayer will help us, if they are self-centered and full of arrogance and judgment towards others. Woe to those who go around and point out the deficiencies in the practices of others. 

The ascetical practices like fasting,mustbe undertaken, but they must be undertaken with the right spirit and attitude. We are not practicing these religious behaviors to fashion a weapon to use against others or in order to grow in pride and feel that we can now judge others as God does. We practice them precisely because we know our infirmities and are in need of the mercy of God and these exercises help to defeat our flesh and energize us towards Christ, when they are done with the right attitude and demeanor. 

One of these men prayed as if he was something special. The other prayed as if he was nothing. Yet, the Lord accepted the prayers of the one who prayed as if he was nothing. He proves that truly God creates out of nothing. When we offer ourselves up to God as nothing, He, according to His good pleasure, makes us into something that pleases Him.

One of the men looked around and compared himself with others. The other man, would not so much as look up, but stared at the ground and prayed that God would be merciful to him. And the Lord Jesus who is rich in mercy towards us, has taught us that this is what He desires from us. This is the way that we should pray. 

The noted Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol writes “Condemnation begins with pride, and pride is nothing other than the absence of love. A proud man does not love his neighbor. And when we condemn our brothers, it means that we don’t love them. If we loved our brother, we wouldn’t condemn him. Even if we clearly saw some flaw in our neighbor, we would find a justification for it and cover it.”

“The saints never condemned, not because they watched themselves closely, but because they had great love.”  “When we notice that we’re condemning our neighbor, we have to understand that we’re suffering from spiritual immaturity.” He then writes, “How can a man learn to produce good thoughts (about others)? Above all, he must sit and think: “Lord, how many sins I have!”

Instead of praying like the Pharisee, we come andpray as people who are very poor and filthy and very sick. We think of ourselves asif we are coming to the King in this awful, dirty condition. We come in prayer, knowing our own sinfulness, and hoping in God’s ability to have mercy on us and cleanse us. Instead of coming to the Lord imagining the best in ourselves, we come to Him with the belief that we are the worst of all men. He will then transform us into much better than we could ever imagine.

St. Nikolai Velimirovich once said “Do the healthy go to hospital, to boast of their health to the doctor? But this Pharisee did not come to the Temple with a whole and healthy soul, to boast of his health, but as a man seriously ill with unrighteousness who, in the delirium of his sickness, no longer knows he is ill.” He continues with a story, “Once, when I was visiting a mental hospital, the doctor took me in front of a wire screen across the cell of the most seriously ill of his patients. “How do you feel?”, I asked him. He immediately replied: “How do you think I feel, among all these madmen?” 

I pray that the Lord will allow us to see the extent of our own sicknesses, and to genuinely, humbly, seek out the one Lord, who alone can redeem and heal us completely. Glory be to God, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Does God Ever Ignore Our Heartfelt Prayers?

The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (15:21-28) 

Three. That is the number of times that the Canaanite woman begged and pleaded with the Lord Jesus for His help. She came to him begging and crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” 

This woman came with the noblest of intentions. She came with the right attitude. She came and asked for the right thing from the only one who could possible offer to fulfill her request. We are then left wondering why the Lord ignored, or seemed to ignore the first two requests and only responded after the third?

Is the Lord a cold-hearted individual? Is the Lord Jesus mean-spirited? At a glance, this seems to be the case. The Lord all but calls her and her people dogs. He says “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Can we imagine what the media would do if any public figure were to refer to anyone else in such a way today? They would have a field day. 

Yet the Lord Jesus, the Son of God, often surprises us and this must be so! God is often unpredictable. We do not understand His ways or His mind. The Apostle Paul wrote “For who can know the mind of the Lord?” Rom 11:34 So we should not be confused by His actions but we must humbly try to discern or understand what is happening here. 

It seems clear that the Lord is testing the woman. But the truth is that the Lord Jesus already knew her heart. There was another reason for this back and forth exchange according to St. John Chrysostom. He says “we might surmise that this is the reason he put her off, in order that he might proclaim aloud this saying (O woman, great is your faith) and that he might crown the woman: “Be it done for you as you desire.” By this the Lord allowed those who were standing nearby to learn the meaning of true faith in God and in His chosen one, and to learn it from a gentile of all people. This should have put the Jews to shame. Shame because they did not have that level of faith in Christ or the humility that preceded it. 

This scene teaches us many things about our own relationships with the Lord Jesus. First and foremost we learn that often we have to persevere in prayer patiently to receive the things that we ask for. It’s not enough to pray for something once or twice. Even when it seems that God is ignoring us, it is not the case. If it is important we should continually pray for it. In the process of praying for it patiently we will gain many blessings even if we do not receive the thing that we had asked for. Prayer is not simply a list of things we want. It is a chance to eat and drink and bathe in the grace of God through the Holy Spirit. In fact there is nothing that is greater than the invisible gifts that God desires to give us in prayer. 

We thank God that we don’t always receive what we ask for. Not everything that we ask for is in fact good for us. In the Divine Liturgy we ask God to answer our prayers according to His will and according to what is for our salvation. We will have a chance to find sufficiency in Christ as St. Paul did when he prayed three times that the thorn of the flesh would be removed from him and the Lord replied “My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Maybe our prayers will be answered in the way that we hope. Maybe our prayers will be denied. Maybe our prayers will be answered in a way that we could never anticipate. Either way, prayer is the prerequisite to a living encounter with Christ. 

We also see the great humility of the woman. St. John Chrysostom compares her attitude to that of the Jews who dealt with Christ. He says 

“Behold the woman’s wisdom! She did not venture so much as to say a word against anyone else. She was not stung to see others praised, nor was she indignant to be reproached. Behold her constancy. When he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” she said, “Yes, Lord.” He called them “children,” but she called them “masters.” He used the name of a dog, but she described the action of the dog. Do you see this woman’s humility? Then compare her humility with the proud language of the Jews: “We are Abraham’s seed and were never in bondage to any man.” [Joh 8:33.]“We are born of God.” [Joh 8:41.]But not so this woman. Rather, she calls herself a dog and them masters. So for this reason she became a child. For what does Christ then say? “O woman, great is your faith.”

She could have looked around and complained about the people around her. She could have called them hypocrites and sinners. She did not. Likewise, we are often tempted to hold ourselves up as pillars of the faith while criticizing others. She did not act in such a haughty way, looking at what others are doing or not doing. Our attitudes should be like this “I am the chief sinner….I am no better than anyone who has ever lived on the face of the earth.” We should have that heartfelt opinion of ourselves. Because God is drawn to those who do not look around and condemn others. He is drawn to those who support others and are merciful to others.

And we see exactly this in our final point today. We see the great power of intercessory prayer. We see a woman who goes through all of these struggles for the daughter that she loves. And guess what? The Lord accepts the mother’s struggles on behalf of the daughter. In the same way, the Lord accepts our struggles and prayers on behalf of one another. Why do you think that we ask the saints to intercede and pray for us? It is because they are alive in Christ and we believe that the Lord will accept their faithful prayers on our behalf. Likewise we should practice saintliness and do what the saints do, here and now for one another. We become saints by living like saints, energized by Christ. Pray for othersas the saints do. Beg and plead on their behalf with faith. This is one of the most concrete forms of love that a human can undertake on behalf of another. We pray for others knowing that it is possible that they do not have the strength or knowledge to pray properly. In this way, our prayers are sacrificial and powerful.

Regardless of whether we are praying for others or for our own struggles, May we come to the Lord with the perseverance and humility of this Canaanite woman. May the Lord say to each of us “great is your faith!” Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Will He Call Us Lazy Or Faithful?

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

One of the great early fathers of the Holy Orthodox Church is St. Irenaeus of Lyons, he was known to be a disciple of St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who himself was a disciple of St. John the Theologian and disciple whom Jesus loved. I would like to share with you, one of St. Irenaeus’s quotes, and it is one of the most beautiful quotes that I have ever heard or read. St. Irenaeus writes “The glory of God is man, fully alive.” Do we understand the profound nature of this saying? The Lord of glory who has created all things visible and invisible is most glorified when the pinnacle of His creation, mankind, is fully alive.

Everything that happens in the life of the Christian is to be geared towards making this goal a reality. All of the commandments of God and the teachings of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, are given to us not in order to make us slaves or to burden us or to take away our thirst for life. They are given to us in order to help us come to a real knowledge of what life is meant to be. Every aspect of our faith in Jesus Christ, even our participation in the services of the Church, is meant to facilitate our freedom, to remove the shackles of death and corruption that have taken hold of our souls through sin. Every aspect of life in Christ is meant to resurrect the believer from the dead. When man breaks free of sin by entering into the life that Jesus Christ offers, he does what he was powerless to do on his own. He really comes to life. He is not partially alive and partially dead. He is as St. Irenaeus puts it “fully alive.”

In today’s gospel reading, Our Lord tells us the parable about a man who is preparing to leave for a journey. This man entrusts his property to some of his servants. To each servant he gave a different amount, then he went away. We are told that after a long time, the master returned and began to settle the accounts with his servants. This is how the master greeted the servants who were faithful with what they had been given, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.” 

However the reaction that the master had to one of the servants was not positive at all. This particular servant did not do anything with what the master had given him. He did not invest it. He did not leverage it. He simply hid it and gave it back to the master unchanged. Here is what the master said to this man “You wicked and slothful servant!” He continues further on saying “Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”

Those are terrible, frightening words. But they are part of the reality given to us by Our Lord Jesus. The Lord loves us too much to give us only soft words. He wants to alert us, to wake us from the sleep of delusion. St. Gregory the great of Rome says this about the wicked and lazy servant 

“He said that he was afraid to invest the talent for interest, when he should have been afraid only of bringing it back to his master without interest. For many people in the church resemble that servant. They are afraid to attempt a better way of life but not of resting in idleness. When they (admit)to the fact that they are sinners, the prospect of grasping the ways of holiness alarms them, but they feel no fear at remaining in their wickedness. Peter is a good example. When he was still weak, he saw the miracle of the fishes and said, “Depart from me, O Lord, because I am a sinful man.” [Luk 5:8.]If you regard yourself as a sinner, it is only right that you not drive God away from you! But those who see that they are weak and are for this reason unwilling to improve their habits or way of life are like people admitting that they are sinners and at the same time banishing God. They flee him whom they ought to hallow in themselves; even in the agony of death they do not know where to turn and cling to life.”Forty Gospel Homilies 9.3.

According to St. Gregory the Great, the Lord expects much more than merely what he has given us to trade with. He gives us the treasure of the Holy Spirit so that we might work with this and multiply the gift within us, through some work of our own. So that we might bear abundant fruit. So that we might even share of this fruit with others and feed them and nourish them. He has given us these treasured divine gifts so that we might do what we could not do without Him, that is, to become fully alive. In our understanding that is not understood as merely referring to life here and now but to becoming immortal and share in the divine nature by God’s grace.

What is better my friends, to be called “good and faithful servant” or to be called a “wicked and lazy servant?” Which words would we rather hear from our boss at work, or our parents? Which words do we desire to hear our Lord Jesus Christ say to us? 

St. Gregory continues saying 

“Whoever has love receives other gifts as well. Whoever does not have love loses even the gifts he appeared to have received. Hence it is necessary, my friends, that in everything you do, you be vigilant about guarding love. True love is to love your friend in God and your enemy for the sake of God. Whoever does not have this loses every good that he possesses; he is deprived of the talent he received, and according to the Lord’s sentence he is cast into external darkness. External darkness comes as a punishment to one who has fallen voluntarily into internal darkness through his own sin.

St. John Chrysostom had this to say about the parable,

“Let us therefore, knowing these things, contribute whatever we have—wealth, diligence or care giving—for our neighbor’s advantage. For the talents here are each person’s abilities, whether in the way of protection, or in money, or in teaching or in whatever thing you have been given. Let no one say, “I have but one talent and can do nothing with it.” You are not poorer than the widow. You are not more uninstructed than Peter and John, who were both “unlearned and ignorant men.” [Act 4:13.]Nevertheless, since they demonstrated zeal and did all things for the common good, they were received into heaven. For nothing is so pleasing to God as to live for the common advantage. For this end God gave us speech, and hands, and feet, and strength of body and mind and understanding, that we might use all these things both for our own salvation and for our neighbor’s advantage. Our speech not only is useful for hymns and thanksgiving, but it is profitable also for instruction and admonition. And if indeed we used it to this end, we should be imitating our Master; but if for the opposite ends, the devil.”

God is generous with His grace and the things He has given us, just as the master was generous with his servants. How will we respond? What words will we hear from the blessed lips of our Master? You must decide by your response to His love. May we become men and women who are fully alive, to the glory of God. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Orthodoxy, Step 1.

The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (4:12-17) 

Last week we celebrated the Feast of Theophany and it was indeed a glorious celebration as we welcomed 8 new members into the family of God, the holy Church. 

The feast of Theophany is special in it’s own right and it also has the special distinction of being the event which happened at the start of the preaching ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was an indication that something new was about to happen. Something for which the world had groaned and hoped and desired. St. Matthew tells us that the Lord came to dwell in the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali and that this would fulfill what was spoken of hundreds of years earlier by the prophet Isaiah who wrote “The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 

The Word of God began to teach mankind directly through His word, through His preaching and teaching. He began His process of recreating the universe which He had created by His own word by recreating humanity with His life giving teachings. And we are told that the very first precious word of the Lord’s preaching ministry is this one powerful word “REPENT”.

The word “repent” means to have a change of heart or a change of mind. It means that we who have turned our back to God will turn around and face Him and walk towards Him with our whole person, in our actions and purpose, in our bodies and minds and hearts. 

Step one of the Orthodox Christian life is to understand that all of life is a life of repentance. It is one of the subjects that the saints and fathers and mothers of the Church do no cease to discuss and teach. 

One of the modern saints, St. Nikolai Velimirovic said 

“Repentance is the abandoning of all false paths that have been trodden by men’s feet, and men’s thoughts and desires, and a return to the new path: Christ’s path. But how can a sinful man repent unless he, in his heart, meets with the Lord and knows his own shame? Before little Zacchaeus saw the Lord with his eyes, he met Him in his heart and was ashamed of all his ways.” 

Repentance is not about shame, but it involves shame. Shame is not desirable as a stopping place, but as a starting point to turning back to Christ. When we have a healthy sense of shame, it turns our attention from actions and thoughts that bring us separation from God, death and destruction and it turns us towards what St. Nikolai calls a new path, Christ’s path. If he doesn’t think about his life and his actions, if he doesn’t reflect and acknowledge his wrongdoing he deceives himself. It means that he or she is on a false path because the path does not lead back to Christ. Only the path of painful, genuine, heartfelt shame brings us to fall on our knees and cry out to God from the depths of the heart. This is the prayer that is precious in the sight of God. 

King David understood this well and we see it reflected in Psalm 50, which in common usage is actually Psalm 51 and begins “Have mercy on me. O God.” In this psalm we hear these words, 

“For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise.” 

God doesn’t ask for much, He certainly doesn’t require animal or blood sacrifices from us as He once did of the people of Israel. But He does desire a sacrifice, the sacrifice of our spirit, the sacrifice of our heart. He doesn’t need it. But He knows that we need it. Unless we tear down the old way of our life through repentance, we are doomed to continue going down that path again and again. Repentance is quite painful but it is the only way forward. Why is it painful? Because we have made sin a part of who we are and it clings to and infects every aspect of us from our thoughts to our activities to our appearance to our speech. It even affects our sleep. When one actually repents he is declaring war on his desires and passions and this is a type of death. We start that process in baptism as we put to death the old man, and come to newness of life with the resurrected Lord Jesus. Repentance is indeed tough.It destroys the old, crooked ways that feellike they area part of usand itlays the groundwork and foundation for anew road to Christ our King.

St. Symeon the New Theologian wrote this about repentance“Through repentance the filth of our foul actions is washed away. After this, we participate in the Holy Spirit, not automatically, but according to the faith, humility and inner disposition of the repentance in which our soul is engaged. For this reason it is good to repent each day as the act of repentance is unending.”

How do we do this? We repent daily. We pray the prayers of repentance such as Psalm 50/51. We study the Gospels and learn just how far we are from the ideals that the Lord is teaching. We use Him as our canon and measuring stick. We also come to confession. There is no doubt in my mind that confession is one of the most difficult spiritual practices and that is why it is also one of the most beneficial. It causes pain to bring out one’s inner sins and shame and declare them to the Lord in the presence of the priest. But this pain is actually life-giving surgery. Through this momentary pain, pride is uprooted and humility is laid down as the foundation of the journey to Christ.

The Orthodox Church teaches that as we begin the difficult work of repentance we will not be alone. God will do most of the work. He is merciful to help us and save us. He feels for us and desires to transform us into new creatures. He alone does the work of redemption by His grace. Repentance is the key by which we enter into His grace and presence.

May Christ our God give us the courage to repent genuinely and thoroughly, that we might allow Him to refashion us properly, in His blessed image and likeness. That He alone might bind our wounds and turn our shame into eternal joy. Glory be to God Forever AMEN. 

Source: Sermons

A Few Words For The Newly Baptized and Chrismated

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to Titus. (2:11-15; 3:4-7)

Joy of the Feast to all of you! And our joy is truly filled to the brim today as we celebrate this amazing feast of Theophany, the appearance of the Holy Trinity to mankind. And we are also celebrating one of the most joyous events in the life of the Church, that is the baptisms and chrismations of our newest members. I will not say much but I want to address them today. It is my hope that while I am addressing them, many of you will take these words to heart.

In today’s epistle we hear these glorious words: “The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world; awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for Himself a people of His own who are zealous for good deeds.” So that is what I would call a pretty nice summary of the Christian faith and the Christian life.

These are the things that we do here together as a community, as the body of Christ. We have much to celebrate today as you have been filled with the Holy Spirit and newness of life, and as you prepare to receive the holy body and precious blood of Our beloved Lord Jesus Christ. We have much to celebrate but we cannot forget that this is not the finish line. This is only the beginning. Let this not be another day in your life, but the day that you recommit yourselves to live only for Jesus Christ and what is profitable for your salvation.

One of our great modern saints, St. Nektarius of Aegina, in his book, The Path to Happiness, wrote:

“Christians, have we understood the great responsibility that we have taken on before God through baptism? Have we come to know that we must conduct ourselves as children of God, that we must align our will with the will of God, that we must remain free from sin, that we must love God with all our hearts and always patiently await union with Him? Have we thought about the fact that our heart should be so filled with love that it should overflow to our neighbor? Do we have the feeling that we must become holy and perfect, children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven? We must struggle for this, so that we may not be shown unworthy and rejected. Let none of us lose our boldness, nor neglect our duties, nor be afraid of the difficulties of spiritual struggle. For we have God as a helper, who strengthens us in the difficult path of virtue.” end of quote.

You did not become an Orthodox Christian to magically become holy overnight. You did not become an Orthodox Christian to quit struggling. We are here as Orthodox Christians who ask Christ to bless our struggle and mold us into His image, as we seek to enter into the victory over sin and death that He has already obtained for us through His death and resurrection! It is your victory as an adopted child of God. Stretch out the hands of your heart to Christ and embrace all that He offers you. He will never leave you or abandon you, because God is love and love never ever fails. AMEN.

Source: Sermons