He Did Not Create Man For Death

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (4:5-42)

God has created the world out of His overflowing love. The pinnacle of the created world according to the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church is the human being. God created us out of His love. He wanted us to exist, to experience, to live and He wanted to know us and be known by us. As we hear today’s gospel reading it can really be easy to overlook what a profound and amazing story we are hearing. It is the lengthiest one on one dialogue between Our Lord Jesus Christ and any other person in the entirety of the 4 gospels. He doesn’t save this for the high priest or Pontius Pilate or even one of His very own disciples. He shares this honor and privilege with a sinful and struggling woman. This is a much bigger deal than we probably realize. According to some historians, it was not even permitted that women should speak with men outside of their homes unless those men were either their husbands or their close family members such as brothers or uncles. Yet we see that the Lord does not refrain from speaking with her. He knows the social rules and conventions but He is more interested in the person that is right across from Him. Today is the day that He will open her heart and bring her to living faith.

This poor woman had come to the well in the middle of the day because she was thirsty and looking for fresh water to drink, but the Lord revealed that in truth she was thirsty for something much deeper. She had been married 5 times and now she even spent time with a man to whom she wasn’t married. In all of her actions she loudly screams that she is lonely and desperate for a deep sense of love that has never quite been fulfilled. One after the other, this poor woman chased after the next opportunity, the next promise, the next chance, but one after the other, each of them failed. She was left still thirsty for more. The water here is a symbol of what this woman desires and chases after. She drinks and finds herself thirsty again. She starts a new relationship, thinking it will solve all of her problems and she is left still feeling lonely, misunderstood, and ultimately unloved.

The Lord Jesus never does anything by chance. It seems quite likely that He came to the well at that very moment and on that very day because He had a purpose. His purpose was to see this woman’s life redeemed. But in order to redeem her life He must first take it apart and correct her thinking. In the Christian life, you can’t simultaneously follow Jesus and do your own thing. You can’t have both, at least not in a serious way. Either you choose Christ or you choose your own way. When I say this I don’t mean merely mentioning that we follow Jesus Christ, I also mean actually following His teachings and the teachings of His living body, the Church. The saints demonstrate that we are forced to choose between our way(the way of the world) and Christ’s way (the way of the Church).

Our Lord does what would be considered rude in our times because when the Samaritan woman begins to talk about worship He insists that the woman doesn’t really have a clue what she’s talking about. He says to her “You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know.” But He knew that she could handle that and in fact would benefit from it. He goes even further saying “We worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” In our day and age it is inconceivable that one would speak this way in such definitive and absolute terms. Yet this is precisely the way that the Lord Jesus addresses her and reveals to her the truth. The truth can be perceived as abrasive, yet nothing can substitute for truth, so we try to speak the truth in love as much as it is humanly possible. Our Lord is saying that not all paths lead to salvation because salvation is a living relationship with the true and living God. In the days of old, one was merely concerned about religion and philosophy, but now it is claimed that there are other ways to lay hold of salvation. Gender ideology and sexual identity are among the new paths offered for the one who is hungry and thirsty and lacks peace within themselves. Of course we know that this is not a path to living water, and not a path to God. The path doesn’t lead to peace or salvation because it starts with a lie as it’s foundation. True worship of God starts from a place of truth. Truth about who God is and truth about who we are. The Lord says “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” So when the Lord says that salvation is from the Jews, that means that salvation proceeds from a narrowly defined path. It is by no means universal, except in the sense in which it is available universally, to all people who repent and direct their hearts and lives to Jesus Christ.

The Lord pointed to this woman’s sinful life through her multiple marriages and divorces and her current relationship. He then corrected her understanding of religious practices and worship. And when she accepted these things humbly, without arguing or being offended, He then revealed Himself to her as the long-awaited Messiah, the anointed one of Israel.

Our path to salvation begins similarly. First we have to have our way of thinking and our way of life corrected. We have to see our failings, acknowledge them and choose to turn away from that path. Next we go to Christ and allow Him to teach us and lead us in the right way since He is the way, the truth and the life. We receive the living water of the Holy Spirit in baptism and Chrismation and continually as we struggle to live a holy life in the Church. This refreshes us and gives us life, much as it did for the Samaritan woman named Photeini. She met and was challenged by Jesus Christ and He forever changed her life, because He desired her and loved her even before she was born. Do we dare to allow Christ to encounter us in the depths of our hearts and to likewise change our lives? I want to leave you with a few words from St. Nikolai of Zicha. He writes,

“God does not desire that any man be lost. He did not create man for death, but for salvation. Is there a gardener who sows vegetables, yet desires that his vegetables dry out and perish? God is wiser and more compassionate than all men. God has only one desire: that all men repent and turn away from evil. How the husbandman rejoices when a withered vine comes back to life, becomes green again, and brings forth fruit! How much more then, is the joy of God and His angels when the souls of men, withered from sin, turn to Him and become young again with tears of repentance, and bring forth the fruit of repentance!” St. Nikolai Velomirovic- Prologue from Ochrid

Source: Sermons

Christ Is Healing

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (5:1-15)

The resurrection is not a past event. It is true that the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ has already happened, but for us, the resurrection, our resurrection, is a future event. Each and every encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ throughout our lives, is a chance to take part in the resurrection that Christ has promised us. How is this so? What do I mean?

The resurrection is not merely a physical miracle. The point of the resurrection is a complete and total resurrection. God is concerned with our physical health but even more with the health of the soul. When we are baptized, life is given to the soul. The soul is restored from a place of death and decay and renewed with life. We say that when someone is baptized he is reborn. As he chooses to dwell with Christ and to reach out and touch Christ daily in his life, he is not only reborn but refashioned, remade according to the image and likeness of God.

Today’s gospel reading from St. John is a reminder that true and complete healing and resurrection of the human person is found in Jesus Christ. We are told that a miracle happened in Jerusalem, at the pool called Bethesda. Occasionally, an angel of the Lord would trouble the waters and we are told that whoever stepped in first would be healed of his physical disease or infirmity. We see that among those who are waiting for the water to be stirred is a man who has been ill for 38 years. 38 years! Sometimes when I have the sniffles or a cold for two days I’m ready to throw in the towel, but this man was really seriously ill for a long time. He was paralyzed, perhaps from the waist down, we aren’t quite sure.

To add to his troubles, since he was paralyzed, he was quite unable to move quickly if the water happened to be stirred by the angel. So he put all of his hope in the kindness of some unknown person who would help him to get into the pool with perfect timing. Perhaps he had waited there by the miraculous pool for a long time, we don’t know. But either way, his situation was nearly impossible.

Life is quite difficult at times. Sometimes it feels impossible. And sometimes in the midst of our hardest times in life we have ideas and thoughts about what will make everything better for us. Just like this sick man who thought that having someone help him into the pool was his solution. So we say to ourselves, if only I had more money, things would be better. If only I had more health, things would be better. If only I had better friends, things would be better. We come with a multitude of man-made solutions to our most difficult problems in life, but the words of the gospel bring our attention to only one holistic solution. Most often this solution is right in front of our faces but we don’t have the spiritual eyes and the faith to see it. The solution to all of the impossible difficulties of life is not to find a better human answer but to turn your eyes to the One who does what is beyond comprehension, to the master Jesus Christ. He will offer you something far greater than you can imagine.

How do we turn to Christ? As Christians, we turn by repenting and acknowledging our faults and sins. Like the paralytic, we often look for others to blame when our situation doesn’t get better, but the real issue was something so close to him that he couldn’t see it. His paralysis itself was the problem. His limitations and his sickness defined him. When we repent and acknowledge our sins, we are no longer defined by them, instead of shouldering the oppressive weight of these sins, we give them over to Christ who gladly carries them and then He defines us by His definition, as children of the Most High, according to His grace and love for us, His children.

We can also turn to Him when we open the pages of Holy Scripture and especially the gospels. In those blessed pages we hear directly from the Lord Himself. How many of us are starving for the word of God in our lives? We gorge ourselves on the world, but we starve without the Lord. We fill ourselves with entertainment and fiction and stories and news/propaganda, but all of this is a distortion of reality because Christ alone is truth. That is why the gospel sits alone on the altar covered in gold (plating).

We turn to the Lord when we put God first in our lives. When we start our week with the joyous celebration of the liturgy. Every week this is a choice we must make for the rest of our lives. Do we set aside the greater for the lesser? Do we set aside what is most important for what is less important? Well that is precisely what would happen if we got lazy or found ways to start our week that didn’t involve attending the liturgy. But as children of God we offer the first portion of the week, of our time and energy and resources to the Lord and we ask Him to take this small offering of ours and to bless and multiply it according to His will.

We turn to Him when we receive His blessed body and pure blood in holy communion. He literally feeds us His body and blood. He promises us that when we partake of Him, He will raise us up at the last day, and in fact, we often experience internal resurrection of our hearts and minds when we come and partake of the eucharist.

We turn to Him when we study the saints and emulate their lives and we emulate their lives when we make it our duty to live the commandments and be molded by them, especially the commandments to love God and love our neighbors.

My dear ones, for the man or woman or child who wants to be completely healed and resurrected, the path is open and the Lord sees us. Only choose carefully how you will answer His question, “Do you want to be healed?” Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Let Us Also Flock To Christ

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (12:1-18)

Yesterday we celebrated the raising of Lazarus from the dead after 4 days. As we have previously mentioned, this miracle is directly related to the feast that we are celebrating today, Palm Sunday, our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem. St. John the evangelist tells us that the reason why the people clamored to Jesus was because He had just done this startling sign and wonder. So the people flocked in droves to see this man who might be the messiah, the anointed holy one, and to see Lazarus who was raised from the dead.

The Lord Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. The One who can ride upon the chariots of fire and be carried by a multitude of Angels, rides on a humble and lowly donkey. When an emperor or king would enter a city after a great battle, they would come either on horse drawn chariots or on a beautiful and majestic horse. But the Lord who will indeed be victorious reminds us that His victory will not be through military might and power. It will be the victory through humility. We are constantly reminded that in the Christian life, the only way up…is down. We rise, or rather, are raised to honor and glory through our willingness to put ourselves beneath others and submit ourselves to others. It is a sentiment that is in utter contradiction to the messages of the world around us.

The Lord entered into Jerusalem and He heard the cries of the people, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!” Hosanna means “Save me, I pray” or “I pray that you will save me.” And this exactly what the people cried to Him. But we know that He was not swept up in their celebrations. He heard them cry “Hosanna!” but He knew that in a few days many of the same people would cry out, “Crucify Him!”

He heard that the people cried out to be saved, but He alone understood what that would mean for Him.

He saw that the people pushed to try and catch a glimpse of Him, and perhaps He knew that some of the same people would line the streets as He walked to Golgotha on Holy Friday.

He was carried into Jerusalem by a Donkey, He who would carry the weight of our sins upon His very shoulders.

He entered the city with His disciples by His side, but not one would remain when the guards came to arrest Him later in the week.

The people flocked to see Lazarus, the man who had died but later they would flock to see the God-Man, as He was led to His death.

The One who heard the people cry “Hosanna!” carried this cry deep in His heart as He also heard mockers crying out “Save yourself and come down from the cross!”

We are awestruck by the depth of His mercy and love for mankind.

I want to leave you with a quote from St. Andrew of Crete from one of his Palm Sunday homilies,

“So let us spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him.

We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of his victory.

Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel.”


Source: Sermons

Is Christianity Possible Without The Cross?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (10:32-45)

Today is the fifth and final Sunday of Great and Holy Lent. Tomorrow we begin the sixth and final week of this fast. I pray that it has been profitable for each of us. And if for some reason we believe that it has not been, I pray that God will give us courage to push ahead regardless as we aim for the imperishable crown of victory with Christ and His saints. The promises of God are true. Every last one of them. God has promised us everything, only endure to the end.

During this last Sunday of Lent the Church draws our attentions to the future, to what is to come. We are told that Our Lord Jesus Christ “took his twelve disciples, and began to tell them what was to happen to Him, saying “Behold we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles. And they will mock Him, and spit upon Him, and kill Him; and after three days He will rise.”

Sometimes when we are in the middle of Holy Week and we hear all of the amazing readings about all that Our Lord Jesus suffered, and we hear the reactions of the disciples, we might forget that in fact the Lord Himself told the disciples what was to happen. This was from His very lips. Yet somehow they still did not understand and did not believe. In fact we see that two of His disciples come to Him with a request. Our Lord is ever so gracious and He gladly allows them to request their hearts desire. We thank God that He also allows us to request our hearts desire. He said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the sons of thunder, the brothers James and John said to Him, “Grant us to sit, one at thy right hand and one at thy left, in thy glory.”

Now this is truly fascinating on many levels. First we recall that in one of the gospels it is written that it was the mother of James and John who made this request. Nevertheless, this is how it is reported to us according to St. Mark. What is so fascinating is that at the time when the Lord Jesus Christ was the most vulnerable and most honest about the trials and tribulations that He was about to face, His disciples were glossing over that and only thinking about glory and honor. After the disciples had spent nearly three continuous years sitting at the feet of the Lord and learning from Him, soaking in every word and every miraculous moment, yet they did not understand at all.

I think that often we are exactly like the disciples. We might follow the Lord for years but we can’t seem to understand what it means that the Lord really suffered. We can’t understand that the Lord endured humiliation. And we can go a step further, we can’t seem to understand that we must also suffer tremendously in this life. This is why the Lord replied to the brothers, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink…”?

So often we want to have the glory of following Christ, we want holiness, we want a good reputation, we want paradise, we want to sit and eat with the saints. But Christ calls us to first live like the saints and suffer with the saints before we can begin to enter rest with the saints and with the Lord. No matter what type of life you attempt to engineer for yourself, you have to face trials and temptations and suffering of one form or another. As we heard on Wednesday night while listening to St. Innocent of Alaska, he taught the people that we as Christians suffer both external and internal crosses, and it’s not acceptable to run away from those crosses. Christ our Lord knew that He would suffer and instead of running away from it, He embraced it with God as His only helper. Courage is necessary my brothers and sisters. We see this courage in the lives of the martyrs. Had they been cowards, we would barely even remember that they had ever existed. And we tell ourselves and others that we would like to be like the martyrs and suffer and die for our faith, yet the smallest life circumstances and troubles come our way and we begin to think of new ways to betray Christ and run away from our duties and obligations. Face up to your crosses, your trials and difficulties, with the help of God.

We try to face up to our crosses and bear them with courage because in doing so, we save not only ourselves but we also serve others. When we lack courage, we can’t help anyone. When we think only about ourselves and how we can best have what we desire in life then no one is edified or sanctified and no one is helped at all. We often want to be like James and John and sit in glory, but the Lord reminds them and us saying “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be servant of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

This is given to us for our sakes. As a reminder and a call to take courage as your friend and companion, not only during this fasting season but during every part of Christian life. The Lord desires with all of His heart to give us the joy and the power of the resurrection. But there is an order, just as there was an order in the life of our Lord and anytime we try to have things out of place and without the proper order then our life won’t reflect the love of Christ, it will just look like chaos. Hear these difficult words from St. Mark the Ascetic,

“Unless a man gives himself entirely to the Cross, in a spirit of humility and self-abasement; unless he casts himself down to be trampled underfoot by all and despised, accepting injustice, contempt and mockery; unless he undergoes all these things with joy for the sake of the Lord, not claiming any kind of human reward whatsoever – glory or honor or earthly pleasures – he cannot become a true Christian.” -“Letter to Nicolas the Solitary”, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1)

We become true Christians through our embrace and love for the cross of Christ which is demonstrated perfectly in our embrace of our own crosses. And when we do this joyfully, then we become not only true Christians but true human beings made in the image and likeness of God. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Remember The Promise

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews. (6:13-20) and The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (9:16-30)

These readings are given to us for the fourth Sunday of great and holy lent. We are more than halfway through the contest. But it still seems that the end is a long ways off. We begin to feel exhausted by the extra services and because we have fasted. Little things might frustrate us or make us feel anxious. Things that didn’t tempt us in the first few weeks of the fast may have worn us down and now we find ourselves feeling a bit defeated. Perhaps our passions have gotten the best of us. Perhaps our poor habits are trying to overwhelm us.

Now is precisely when the Church reminds us of why we fast. We see this clearly in the gospel reading. A young boy was demon possessed and his father brought him to the disciples to cure him. The disciples had done this many many times over the years. Our Lord Jesus gave them the power to do this. Yet in this particular case, it was all to no avail. The father of the young man was so desperate for a cure for his son and in his desperation he uttered beautiful words from the depths of his heart to the Lord Jesus Christ, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!”

Perhaps at this point of the fast each of us has had a moment or two where we feel the depth of this despair and where we want to cry out with the father, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” The Lord does not like to see us suffer, but we know that the Lord loves it when we understand our situation and turn to Him as our only hope. In truth we don’t have the power to solve our problems or fix our brokenness, but God does have this power. So we are given the opportunity to become like the man and cry, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” To this cry, the Lord responded swiftly with His cleansing words and healing touch and he healed the young man.

Later, after the crowds dispersed we are told that the disciples were surprised and wondered why they couldn’t cast out the demon and heal the young man. What the Lord Jesus tells them is an important thing for us to remember today. He said “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” He is acknowledging a spiritual reality that we cannot see with our physical eyes. Not all problems are the same. Not all spiritual issues are of the same strength or intensity. Some issues are far more stubborn than others and in order to counteract such stubborn demonic issues, our faith must be really strong, fully charged and ready for the warfare.

It is no surprise to us that the Lord tells us that the path to strong prayers and strong faith is through bringing our prayers together with fasting. God desires to give us control over our spiritual lives and to make great progress. Fasting is part of the path to spiritual victory. This is one of the reasons why fasting is a staple of Orthodox Christian living. We fast for over 200 days of the year. The Church is reminding us that while we are alive and in the flesh, we are at war and we have to be ready for the assaults of the enemy.

St. Theophan the Recluse writes, “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 defends 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.”

My brothers and sisters, it is God’s good pleasure to help you and to heal you of all your spiritual infirmities. In fact this is exactly the message of today’s epistle to the Hebrews. It tells us that “when God made a promise to Abraham, since He had no one greater by whom to swear, He swore by Himself, saying, “Surely I will bless and multiply you.”” and it continues saying,

“So that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God should prove false, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…”

All of this is shared with us today to give us encouragement and boldness. God has promised to bless us, His children, as He promised to bless Abraham. Now is not the time to wilt like an old unwatered flower. Now is the time for us as Orthodox Christians to seek Christ even more boldly and to grow strong and courageous in this battle. If God is for us, who can be against us? The battle of Lent has lingered on but it will not go on forever. We will be victorious over our sins, our passions, our spiritual infirmities and weaknesses not because we are strong. Far from it. Because HE is strong. We will even defeat our final enemy, the final boss, who is death, because He has defeated death. Have faith. Be firm. Be ready to follow Christ now on the path that He has given us, with prayer and fasting. The struggle is worth it because Christ is worth everything in our lives. To Him alone be the glory with His Father and the Holy Spirit AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Citizenship Through The Cross

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

“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” That is the powerful question that is posed to the disciples and to us today. And it is such a fitting question for us because we are people who can engineer our lives to have almost anything and everything that we desire. If I can’t afford something, I can even buy it with a credit card. Yet we know that at some point down the road, we will have to pay back what we owe. Yet this is much more true regarding our souls. Our soul is given to us as a gift from God. A gift that we can choose to nurture and grow or that we can choose to neglect and disregard or even abuse. Either way, at the end, we will be responsible to answer for how we have treated our souls, what have we done with them and whether or not we still possess them.

Of all of the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, this is among the most important in the daily life of one who wants to follow the way of Christ, of one who wants to be called by the name of Christian. Our Lord Jesus Christ loves us, my dear brothers and sisters. He loves us. He cannot stand to see us far from Him and far from His Father. His desire is to have us present with Him at all times and especially in His kingdom. This makes sense doesn’t it? When we love people and enjoy their company we find that we want to be in their presence, to share time and space and life with one another. And the Lord Jesus desires to share all of this with us. But He tells us that the way won’t be easy and it definitely won’t be for everyone. The key to following the path laid out by the Lord Jesus Christ is to deny yourself.

We can imagine it in this way. All of life is a series of choices, a series of forks in the road. At each and every fork we are given an important choice, to turn to the left and follow the desires of our hearts whatever they may be, or to deny ourselves and turn to the right and follow after the Lord Jesus Christ. We are given this choice, to do what feels right, or to do what is right. And how often we find ourselves in the middle of this struggle! Perhaps for seasons of our life it feels like we are in this type of struggle daily. That we constantly have to reflect on where we are and what we are seeking in life. We are called to do this, with sobriety of heart and mind. We are called to remind ourselves of this question posed by the Lord Jesus “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” It’s not that the world is not offered to you. It is offered to you. Satan offered the whole world to the Lord Jesus Christ if only He would bow to him. It is offered to you. You can have it. But you can’t keep it and you definitely can’t have it and have your soul left intact. Sacrifices must be made either way. Either it is a sacrifice of our souls in order to gain our wants and desires. Or else it is a sacrifice of our wants and desires in order to gain our souls renewed in Christ.

Every single day Christians have to choose the way of denial, the way of the cross. Whether you are husbands or wives or parents or friends, whatever stage of life you are in, every day is another opportunity to see just how far we can go in setting aside our wants (even though they are sometimes powerful and feel like needs) and we try to see just how far we can go to carry our burdens and serve one another. Humanly speaking this is absolutely impossible. So how can we possibly do it? We can do it because Our Lord Jesus Christ first carried His cross for us. He has opened for us the way of the cross through His extreme humility and love for mankind.

St. Augustine says, “For, when I noticed that you were being slowed down in your divine purpose by your preoccupation with domestic cares, I felt that you were being carried and dragged along by your cross rather than that you were carrying it. What else does the cross mean than the mortality of this flesh? This is our very own cross which the Lord commands us to carry that we may be as well armed as possible in following him. We suffer momentarily until death is swallowed up in victory. [Isa 25:8; Hos 13:14; 1Co 15:54-55.] Then this cross itself will be crucified… There is no other way for you to follow the Lord except by carrying it, for how can you follow him if you are not his?”

My friends, this way was opened to us by the Lord to give us a way to life, by allowing us to follow Him and to enter into His life. What’s more, we are told that unless we follow this way, we don’t really belong to Him. So the clear and powerful sign of our life belonging to Jesus Christ is that we submit ourselves and our desires and our very lives to Christ on a daily basis. We learn through failing and repentance and renewed struggle, to offer everything back to Christ. We learn to say to Christ “My Lord and My God, I know that my life is a gift from you, that it belongs to you, help me to use this life to follow you, to glorify you and to be well-pleasing to you for you alone are my hope and my joy. I desire only you.”

St. Isaac the Syrian once said, “Behold, for years and generations, the way of God has been leveled by the cross and by death. How is this 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 special for you, without suffering? the way to God is a daily cross. No one can ascend to heaven with comfort, we know where the way of comfort leads.”

Today we celebrate the veneration of the Cross in order to give us renewed hope and strength and inspiration to keep going through the discomfort of Lent and to keep going in our Christian struggles with zeal and courage and hope. “Through the cross is joy come into all the world.” The cross of the Lord brought humanity to the resurrection. And when you faithfully carry the crosses that you have been given, God will use them to bring joy to you and to your world and will ultimately lift you to the culmination of all joy, to share in Christ’s resurrection. May this alone be our hope and our inheritance. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Gathered Before The Throne

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

Today we are met face to face with a reality that is beautiful for some and quite brutal for others. Today we hear the words of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ about the last judgment. And we are once again in awe and astonishment that the Lord, the king of heaven and earth should reveal such a mystery to us. He welcomes us into His kingdom to understand what is required of us and how we will be tested on the great and last day.

If we pay close attention to this teaching about the last judgment we are surprised both by what is contained and by things that are not mentioned at all. For instance, there is no assumption of being perfect. The Son of man doesn’t separate the people based on whether or not they are perfect. He doesn’t separate them based on whether or not they have ever sinned or done wrong in their lives. He doesn’t separate them based on how long their prayers are or how diligently they fast. He doesn’t separate them based on how piously they cross themselves or make their bows. He doesn’t separate them based on how many icons they can hang on one wall of their house. These are all external in some sense. The Lord judges the heart and more specifically, the way our heart manifests itself in acts of love and mercy and kindness for others.

At the last judgment, the criterion is love. Love in action. But there is a catch! It is not love of those who are easy to love, like our friends and our families and people who are nice to us, or even towards animals who are furry and cute. No. It is love to those who are typically ignored or even despised within our society. Love for those that are often most difficult to love. Love even for those who seem unloveable. To love the poor and those who are hungry. To love the strangers, who have no family and friends. To love the sick who are stuck at home or in hospitals, or even the prisoners who are serving time for their crimes. In a way, we are encouraged to bend down and to go to their level because this is precisely what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for us by becoming man. He becomes like us.

So we know all of the criteria for the final exam. There are no surprises. You are judged on how you treat your fellow men who are created in the image and likeness of God. And the more those people are hidden or silent and easy to ignore, the more important it becomes that we love them and that we sacrifice to serve them. That is what it means to be a son or a daughter of God. It’s not just a title that we are given. It is a role that becomes part of our identity.

And we are reminded that there are very real and lasting repercussions to our faithful action or our faithless negligence. The results are permanent either way because once we die, there is no more hope of change and repentance. We are judged by the real and true divine Judge. Instead of seeing this as a threat to our lives and our existence, we should instead see it as a great wake-up call and opportunity to do good to others with the full assurance that we won’t be wasting our lives, we in fact be gaining our lives through our sacrifices for others.

I will end with an extended meditation from St. Nikolai Velimirovich, who writes,

“Brethren, what is our last awaiting? In the night we await the day and in the day we await the night and again the day and again the night. But this awaiting is not our last awaiting. Brethren, what is our last awaiting? In joy we tremble waiting for sorrow and in sorrow we wait with hope for joy and again sorrow, and again joy. But not even these awaitings are our last awaitings. Brethren, our last awaiting is the awaiting of the Judgment of God. When the judgment of God comes, the Dreadful Day “which burns like a furnace” (Malachi 4:1), then we welcome all that we deserve; a day for some, without change into night, and night for others, without change into day; joy for some without change to sorrow and sorrow for others without change to joy. Brethren, that is the last awaiting of the human race, whether he knows it or does not know it, whether he thinks about it or does not think about it. But, you faithful should know this and you should think about this. Let this knowledge be the zenith of all your knowledge and let this thought direct all your other thoughts. In the knowledge and contemplation of this, include that which is even most important, include your diligence “that you may be found of Him in peace without spot and blameless” (or still more correctly translated: pure and blameless).

Be diligent to be pure in mind and in heart, correct in your conscience and in peace with God. Only in that way will the last awaiting not frighten you with unexpectancy, nor will it hurl you into the night without day or into sorrow without joy. As everything else in the life of the Lord Jesus was a surprise for man, thus will be His Second Coming unexpected, in power and in glory. Unexpected was His birth by the All-holy Virgin, unexpected was His poverty, unexpected also was His miracle-working and every word and humiliation and voluntary death, the resurrection, the ascension, the Church and the spreading of His Faith. Unexpected will be His Second Coming, unexpectation more frightful than all other unexpectations. O Lord, O righteous Judge, how will we meet You, unclad in purity and blameless even in peace? Help us, help us that however much as possible we may prepare for the dreadful encounter with You. To You be glory and thanks always. Amen.” (The Prologue of Ochrid, July 31st)

Source: Sermons


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

In today’s gospel reading we once again have the honor and joy of hearing a parable of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This is one of the most well known and well loved of all His parables, the parable of the Prodigal Son. We hear this during the pre-lenten period because there are so many valuable lessons to be found within this message.

Among the first of those lessons is that God gives each of us an inheritance that we can either use properly or abuse. What is this inheritance? It is our very life as humans upon this planet. We are created in the image and likeness of God. That is an inheritance that we were given. Our life is a gift that we didn’t earn but it was given to us according to God’s good pleasure. And everything good in your life is also a gift from above. Your talents, your resources, your abilities etc. All of these things come from God.

Sometimes we as human beings can act just like this prodigal son. Sometimes we can forget the source of our blessings and we can forget what a blessing it is to dwell in our father’s house and we can be so hungry for independence and freedom and even fun, that we shirk our responsibilities and we choose to run away from home. Sometimes this happens in actual families, but what happens even more often is that we run away from God and we run away from our Father’s house. When I asked the kids about what the Father’s house symbolized, one of the young ones, only 7 years old answered correctly: The Church! Yes, absolutely. The Church is the house of Our Father. He allows us to dwell here and He feeds us through all of the spiritual blessings of the Church, starting with Holy Communion. All of the things of God, all of the blessings and the virtues that we gain by dwelling within the Church, these are the inheritance that God desires to impart to us. Mostly, He desires to impart Himself to us.

Nevertheless, throughout history we as humans have been rebellious against our creator. We have often run far in the other direction in order to gain a sense of freedom and to find ourselves. It is then not a surprise to us that the way that the young man found himself was not by running away from his father and living a loose and undisciplined and sinful life. He found himself when he ran out of money, lost his friends and lost all hope. He hit rock bottom in his own life. In that very moment where he was hungry and tired, even exhausted by his choices, he realized what he had done to himself and what had happened to his life before his very eyes. In that moment, he came to his senses and realized that in his father’s house he was living like a king and he had true freedom under the shelter of the roof that his father provided for him. He realized that while he had imagined himself to be like a prisoner and a slave, in fact, all of the rules of his father’s house were not meant to make him a slave, they were meant to protect him from becoming a true slave. And this young man had indeed become a slave. He was a slave to his own passions and desires. He was a slave to the will of the demons. He was not free at all.

It is likewise the case that sometimes we leave the Church, the Father’s house, and we imagine that somehow somewhere there is something more fulfilling. We imagine that somehow the Church is restricting our freedom. The world tries to convince us that everything can be ours if we simply deny Christ, His teachings, His Church and His saints and run after all the things that the world offers us. But it is all a mirage as the young man found out. For us as Christians we have come to understand that outside of Christ and His way, there is no true life. We have learned that even if we are struggling with our sins and desires, we will only find peace and freedom through the One who can destroy our chains and can grant us freedom because He even destroyed the bondage of sin and death.

St. John of Kronstadt once said,

“All our attention must be centered on the parable of the Prodigal Son. We all see ourselves in it as in a mirror. In a few words the Lord, the knower of hearts, has shown in the person of one man how the deceptive sweetness of sin separates us from the truly sweet life according to God. He knows how the burden of sin on the soul and body, experienced by us, impels us by the action of divine grace to return, and how it actually does turn many again to God, to a virtuous life.”

So this is our goal. To take the energy of our struggle and our pain from being separated from God and His life and to use this to fuel our repentance, our return to the Father’s house, to the Church.

I will leave you with a quote from St. Tikhon of Zadonsk who 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

Let us also join them my brothers and sisters and rejoice together in the loving embrace of our Father. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Above All Virtues

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

Fr. Thomas Hopko once spoke about Lent as a time where we refocus our efforts and our energies on doing all of the things that we should do and being all that we should be as Christians. In that sense Lent is nothing special. It is a reminder of what our life should be like. It is true that during the lenten season we abstain from certain food and drinks but that is not the heart of lent. The heart of lent is to cultivate our own hearts or rather, to allow our hearts to be open to the cultivation that God would like to do within us.

During this pre-lenten period we hear poignant and powerful gospel readings each week. And each week we receive a glimpse or an angle regarding what it means to be a true Christian. What it means to be a true human. What it means to have a human heart.

Today we hear the familiar parable of the two men who went into the temple to pray. One man was a pharisee and the other was a tax collector. We had previously learned about tax collectors from the gospel passage about Zacchaeus. We learned that tax collectors were often greedy and immoral men. They took more than their fair share and used the threat of force to enrich themselves at the expense of the common people, even their own countrymen. We know that the Jews considered the tax collectors to be the worst of the worst of society. Men who took advantage of them and even worked hand in hand with the Roman empire, the sworn enemy in the mind of the Jews of that period.

On the other hand we have a pharisee. We see this term often in the gospels but what is a pharisee?

“The Pharisees were an influential religious sect within Judaism in the time of Christ and the early church. They were known for their emphasis on personal piety (the word Pharisee comes from a Hebrew word meaning “separated”), their acceptance of oral tradition in addition to the written Law, and their teaching that all Jews should observe all 600-plus laws in the Torah, including the rituals concerning ceremonial purification. The Pharisees were mostly middle-class businessmen and leaders of the synagogues. Though they were a minority in the Sanhedrin and held a minority number of positions as priests, they seemed to control the decision-making of the Sanhedrin because they had popular support among the people.

Among the Pharisees were two schools of thought, based on the teachings of two rabbis, Shammai and Hillel. Shammai called for a strict, unbending interpretation of the Law on almost every issue, but Hillel taught a looser, more liberal application. Followers of Shammai fostered a hatred for anything Roman, including taxation—Jews who served as tax collectors were persona non grata. The Shammaites wanted to outlaw all communication and commerce between Jews and Gentiles. The Hillelites took a more gracious approach and opposed such extreme exclusiveness. Eventually, the two schools within Pharisaism grew so hostile to each other that they refused to worship together.

The Pharisees accepted the written Word as inspired by God. At the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, this would have been what we now call the Old Testament. Unfortunately, the Pharisees gave equal authority to oral tradition, saying the traditions went all the way back to Moses. Evolving over the centuries, the Pharisaic traditions had the effect of adding to God’s Word, which is forbidden (Deuteronomy 4:2). The Gospels abound with examples of the Pharisees treating their traditions as equal to God’s Word (Matthew 9:14; 15:1–9; 23:5; 23And in vain they worship Me,

Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’(Mark 7:7). (Source: http://www.gotquestions.org/Pharisees.html)

As we turn back to the parable we see this tax collector doing the same thing that the pharisee is doing. They both go to the temple to pray. What differentiates them? Is it their jobs? Is it their politics? What makes them truly different from one another? It is clear from the prayers that they spoke. The Lord Jesus tells us that “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.’”

And likewise Our Lord Jesus tells us about the publican or tax-collector’s prayer. He says “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 separated these two men really? What was the thing that distinguished them from one another? What separated them was the contents of their hearts. Not their titles, not their jobs, not the groups that they were associated with. Their hearts. And this is something that should strike us with some fear. God looks past the outward and straight into our inner being and reality.

He hears our words, but He also hears past our words to the intents and the contents of our hearts. What is God looking for? What does He desire from us? What pleases God? In a word, Humility. Humility means that we see ourselves without an inflated sense of importance or false self-esteem. Humility means that we view ourselves as lower than all the rest and that we see that in and of ourselves, without God’s help, we are nothing at all. If we believe in our hearts that we are something then it means that our hearts are self-sufficient and that means that God’s grace won’t be energized within us. It is as if God will not hear us and that is a terrible thought.

Many of the saints and fathers of the Church spoke about this virtue of humility. St. John the dwarf wrote “Humility and the fear of God are above all virtues.” That is a really amazing statement when you think about. But St. Tikhon of Zadonsk goes even further. He says that Humility is actually the evidence that we are true disciples of Jesus Christ. He writes, “From humility it is known that a man is a true disciple of Jesus, meek and humble of heart. If we wish to show evidence that we are true Christians, let us learn from Christ to be humble as He himself enjoins us, ‘Learn of Me; for I am meek, and humble in heart (Mt. 11:29)’”. -St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

I pray that as we prepare to rededicate ourselves to the life of prayer during Lent, we will make sure to build our prayers on this most beautiful foundation of the Christian life.

Source: Sermons

Be Dedicated

The Reading from the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. (6:16-7:1)

In our day to day lives it is easy to live as if God is not really around. We sometimes imagine that God is floating somewhere “up there” while He leaves us to our business down here. Fr. Stephen Freeman refers to this as the two storey model. God is upstairs and we are downstairs. However that is not a classical Christian or Orthodox Christian understanding. This mindset however does exist among Christians. And if it exists among Christians it exists much more among non-Christians and the non-religious. There is a secularized worldview that believes that what you do at home with your faith and religion is one thing, but in the public eye, everything should be stripped of religious meaning and symbolism. This should be a problem for us as Christians. It should raise red flags. Why?

Because you as an individual are not two persons. You are one person and when that one person is baptized that whole person then belongs to Christ. St. Paul writes in today’s epistle that “you are the temple of the living God.” When there is a temple it cannot have multiple uses and purposes. It is completely dedicated to worship of God and to no other purpose. St. Paul goes even further as he quotes from Leviticus 26:12Jeremiah 32:38Ezekiel 37:27 saying “as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore, come out from them, and be separate from them,” says the Lord.”

What an amazing God we worship and serve! He doesn’t dwell above us, or below us or in special handmade containers or sculptures or pieces made of Gold. He dwells with us and in us. He moves in our midst, in the very fabric of our lives. He lives in our hearts and we even partake of Him each week when we meet together. And since God is so so close to us, and wants to be even closer to each of us, He commands us to actually really desire to be pure and holy and uncompromised. He is serious about making us His sons and daughters, making us like His Only Son Jesus, and so we must be serious about desiring to be like Jesus as well. We must be serious about being separate from the world and touching nothing unclean so that we won’t be infected by sin and lose the blessings that are ours through baptism.

What does it look like to “come out from them, and be separate from them”? It looks much like it sounds. We have to create a healthy physical distance and also distance our senses from whatever doesn’t serve or please God. So many things are in the world that don’t serve or please God. It might be technology that we use. It might be co-workers or classmates who don’t share our Christian values and morality. It may be people who live an awful and toxic lifestyle. Whatever the case may be, we love and serve all people but we have to create some healthy distance and make sure that our time with others is ultimately time that glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ and doesn’t slowly erode our own faith and zeal for Christ. This is especially true the younger and less experienced we are in our faith. We are susceptible to many problems because our spiritual immune system hasn’t been properly developed yet. But sometimes we are Christians for a long time and yet we can fall through comfort and complacency, so everyone has to keep up their guard. Everyone has to work and everyone has to suffer a bit in order to come to knowledge of God. In a way, we are required to enter into the rejection that Christ Himself faced from the world.

St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco said “All righteous ones were sorrowful in the world because they were strangers to the sinful world. All of the apostles suffered in one way or another. Righteous men left for the desert. What made them Saints? Suffering? Not suffering alone makes Saints, but striving towards God, the love of God, and the labor of overcoming obstacles to holiness, which is the fruit of man’s labour and the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

My brothers and sisters, God has given us a promise. He is in our presence. He wants to share everything that is His, with us. He wants us to be sharers and partakers of the divine life just like the saints and holy ones throughout the ages. Let’s take it seriously and pursue this goal. No matter how much we progress in this goal, we should remember that our progress happens only by God’s grace and we shouldn’t be proud about our status.

St. John Cassian writes, “When we have attained some degree of holiness we should always repeat to ourselves the words of the Apostle: “Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me’ (1 Cor. 15:10), as well as what was said by the Lord: ‘Without Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). We should also bear in mind what the prophet said: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it’ (Ps. 127:1), and finally: ‘It does not depend on-man’s will or effort, but on God’s mercy’ (Rom. 9:16).”

May the mercy of our great God and savior Jesus Christ give us courage and assist us as we struggle together towards this wonderful promise.

Source: Sermons