The Unbroken Thread In Our Story

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (20:19-31) 

One of the aspects of the Christian faith that convinces me most is the story of the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We know that amazing stories exist everywhere in the world, in history and in religious traditions. What I find to be unique about the story of the resurrection is that it continued and expanded in its reach and power across the whole Roman empire and the whole world despite the fact that it seemed completely unbelievable. But as you look at the story more closely, you see that it may in fact be the most plausible and reasonable way to explain what happened after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

The crucifixion is itself, one of the most historically verifiable events in ancient times. It was recorded by not only the Christians but by Jewish historians as well as pagan writers. So we know that the crucifixion happened just as well as we know of any event in ancient history. Now we come to the resurrection. What we find truly amazing is that the disciples are willing to die, to be killed for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why is this amazing? 

It is amazing because it points us to the truth. The Jews and pagans (even to this day) claim that the disciples of Jesus invented the whole story. They claim that the resurrection did not happen, that it was all a fraud. Of course there is a huge problem, in fact, 11 huge problems. The examplesof the disciples themselves. It is a well known fact that people will often die for things they believe in. People die for country and family and any number of others things they believe in, yet here in the early days of the Church, we have men being put to death for claiming that Jesus was risen from the dead. 

The problem that the Jews and the pagans and unbelievers have not properly wrestled with is this: Why would these 11 disciples choose to die for the belief in the resurrection if it was false? If they had made up the story themselves? So we are left with only one of two options: Either they lied about the resurrection and decided to suffer and die for their lie. Or they really truly saw Jesus raised from the dead and this completely changed the course of their lives. One of these two options is reasonable, the other is unreasonable. One of these two options is sane, the other would be truly insane. People often die for things they believe in. People generally do not die for things that they know to be a lie. So the first time that one of the disciples would have been tortured or killed or seen one of their brothers or close friends, tortured or killed, they would have said “You are right, we lied about the whole thing, it never happened.” You now understand the power of the word Martyr, which means witness. They witnessed Christ’s resurrection and this powerful witness was never shaken. You can’t scare or intimidate the power of the truth. It is like a flower that finds a way to come through the cracks in the pavement. Nothing stops it. 

This is the Christian faith and it has a reasonable basis. Can we test these things under a microscope? Can we answer every question or doubt about the faith definitively, not at all. But we can take the words and the works of Jesus as a character witness and we can take the courageous examples of the lives of the disciples as a sort of proof that what we are celebrating this day, and every single Sunday, is true and good.

St. Justin Popovich once said “The entire history of Christianity is nothing other than the history of a unique miracle, namely, the Resurrection of Christ, which is unbrokenly threaded through the hearts of Christians form one day to the next, from year to year, across the centuries, until the Dread Judgment.”

The whole history of Christianity is actually the process of individuals believing in the story of the resurrection because without the resurrection, there is no faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. 

Christianity would be nothing if it ended with a man crucified and buried. But it does not end there. It could have ended there, had the Jews produced a body, but they could not, although they had asked for guards from Pontius Pilate. There was a grave but no body. There was emptiness, but this empty tomb fills each of us with greathope.This is the upside down way of the Christian. When the world sees death, that is all there is, the end of the story. But we are anupside down people. When we hear about death or see it, we have a certain hiddenjoy. We certainly miss those who have passed but we are filled with joy because death has lost it’s power and it’s sting. 

Nothing can dampen our lives or cause us anxietybecause the most important victory has already been accomplished for us, by the Son of God.As children of God it is time to wake up to this reality. There is nothing else to struggle or fight for, because the fight was already won for us. Jesus Christ has defeated sin and death. But what does that mean for us? It means we are invited to run to grab hold of this victory, to make it your own byyourobedience to Christ. Yourstruggleto grow in purity and to fight the sinful habitswill then allow yourlife towitness to others that“He is risen, as He said!” 

If He has risen from the dead, then all that is necessary for us, is to be with Him, to honor Him, to struggle to know Him and live with Him.And through our honest struggle, He will take what is old and make it new. He will take what is broken within us and heal it. He will take those who were dead in sin, and bring them back to radiant life. Don’t think that this is impossible, because with God, all things are possible. Christ is Risen! Indeed He is risen! AMEN. 

Source: Sermons

The Entrance Of Christ and The Fulfillment Of Our Joy

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians. (4:4-9) and the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (12:1-18) 

I want to be really straightforward with you and share my unfiltered feelings. I am not happy that we are not together. I am quite sad because you are not here to celebrate this holy feast together. I miss your faces, your smiles, your presence. The church is full of angels and saints every time we pray together, but it is lacking the fullness that is usually part of our celebration of Palm Sunday and leading into Holy Week. It is ok to be sad. It is ok to come to terms with this new situation that we have not faced before. But, we have to allow this sadness that we have to push us closer to our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. We have to allow this time to fuel us and help us so that God willing, one day, when the doors of the church are open to all, we will fill this church to capacity. 

The truth is that many of us were taking our church lives very casually. Now we feel the pain of being separated from one another, from this place that is full of the grace of God, from the sacraments, from the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus. I hope that we will never forget this time, because these experiences can be a powerful teacher and motivator for each of us. There are important things, people, and places that we take for granted until we don’t have them anymore. Perhaps one benefit of all of this is that God has opened our eyes to what is really important. 

In the midst of all of this, in our sadness, we hear these words in today’s epistle as St. Paul writes “Brethren, rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance (patience). The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

The God we believe in is a personal God, who wants to know us personally.If He did not want to be known personally, He would have stayed in the heavens, far away from us. But He wanted to know us and be known by us. Take this time to really give your life to God. Dedicate time to getting to know Him every day. Did you hear about how Mary came and wipedthe feet of the Lord with her own hair? That was a symbol of her love and dedication to God. Each one of us is called to find ourown ways to show our love for God, through acts of service for others and especially in our private times of prayer. We have to be like Mary and get on the knees of our heart and come to the feet of Christ from the depth of our hearts. Not just repeating vain words, but speaking from our hearts, with some pain of heart. This makes for good prayers…and good prayer, genuine prayer, brings us past anxiety to a place of peace.

St. Paulreminds usthat there is nothing to be anxious about. If you watch too much news, you would think otherwise. But thank God that we don’t see the world like everyone else. Where others see tragedy, we have hope. Where others see suffering and begin to doubt, we trust God even more. Where others see only death, we see the potential fornew life with Christ and His saints. Why is this true? Because when we are closely connected to God, we have peace and according to St.Paul, this peace surpasses all understanding. Meaning, it defies explanation completely. It is like God, because the source of the peace is in God!

Why do we have peace? What gives a Christian such a tremendously different approach to life and to every aspect, and struggle of life? It is this: That God became a man and dwelt among us. Today we celebrate His entrance into the holy city of Jerusalem. Why? Was He coming to the city to be celebrated and honored and to have a great party with the people? No. Far from it. He was preparing to fulfill His mission. He was following the will of His Father and like a good shepherd, he was preparing to lay down His life for us, the sheep. So we celebrate this festive entrance of the Lord entering into the city on a donkey, being cheered and adored because of the great miracle that He had performed just a day earlier, when He raised Lazarus from the dead. But the festive mood would change quickly as the week progressed, and the Lord knew this quite well. 

Let us not be like the people who celebrated the coming of Christ one day and then turned on Him and betrayed Him soon after. How do we betray Christ? We betray Him when we ignore Him, when we do not pray. We betray Him when we do not give thanks for all of the good things in our life. We betray Him especially when we choose to sin and not to obey His teachings and commandments.Yet on Palm Sunday Our Lord still allowed them to celebrate because although they did not know it, they were celebrating their savior and their freedom through this savior. 

Little did they know that their celebration would indeed be fulfilled in His betrayal and suffering and crucifixion and death. These were the instruments of their salvation. They celebrated the raising of Lazarus from the dead, but in fact, the Lord was about to do something much greater by offering all of humanity a chance to partake in His resurrection.

The Son of God, the God-man, Jesus Christ, suffered and died a human death that we might be raised in glory and live a divine life, free from slavery to death and sin. A life that is lived without fear and without anxiety, but in complete and profound peace. This is the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, of which St. Paul spoke. When we start torealize how much God loves us, when we realize what He has accomplished for us and what He would like to share with us, we cannot really be sad or worried about anything. A life that is lived in obedience to the teachings of Christ. A life where we die to our sinful passions and desires. This is a life full of joy and true celebration. A life that contains no anxiety, only tremendous gratitude and peace. This is His gift to us, out of His love for each of us.

May we keep all of this in mind as we walk through Holy Week with Christ, having gratitude and joy for what He is doing and has already done in our lives. To Him alone be glory forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

How To Grow Fruit In The Desert

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

Today, on the Fourth Sunday of Great and Holy Lent, we remember our father among the saints, John Climacus, also known as St. John of the Ladder. According to the synaxarion (life of the saint),

“The celebration of his feast on this day arose from the custom prevalent in the honorable monasteries of starting Great Lent with the reading of his lessons. John describes the method of elevating the soul to God as ascending a ladder. He teaches those who seek salvation how to lay a firm foundation for struggles, how to detect and fight every passion, how to avoid demonic snares, and how to rise from the rudimental virtues to the heights of Godlike love and humility. John of the Ladder came to Mount Sinai at age 16 and remained there, first as a novice under obedience, then as a recluse, and finally as abbot until his eightieth year. One time, his disciple, Moses, fell asleep under the shade of a large stone. John, in prayer in his cell, saw that his disciple was in danger and prayed to God for him. Later, when Moses returned, he fell on his knees and gave thanks to his spiritual father for saving him from certain death. He related how, in a dream, he heard John calling him and he jumped up and, at that moment, the stone tumbled. Had he not jumped, the stone would have crushed him. John Climacus died on March 30, 606.” 

We are amazed to hear that he entered into the monastic life, that he fled the world and went into the wilderness of the desert at the age of 16. Most teens at that age are thinking about driving and they are looking towards their future. They want to be happy, to have fun, to daydream, to fall in love, to go to college, to get jobs. They want to build their lives, and yet this young man was looking more intently at his future. He was not looking at the short term goals but at the whole goal of this life…and he figured it out. He found the short-cut to a rich and rewarding life, but it came through great struggle. It came through many trials and tribulations. It came through suffering and even tears. In fact, he figured out one of the immutable laws of the Christian life. In order to save your life, you have to be willing to sacrifice it all, to lose it all, to show your love for God. We can see this for instance in the example of Abraham, who was asked to sacrifice the thing that he loved most. He was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, to God. Of course we know that God did not make him go through with this, but God tested Abraham’s faith. He wanted to see what was really in his heart.

John Climacus went through great sacrifices and struggles. He sacrificed a “normal” life in order to lose it all for Christ. He went into the wilderness to become a nobody in the eyes of the world, and he came to have a firm grasp on the realities of life because he gained life through his efforts to know God intimately. He gained himself. Instead of being a nobody, he became someone that the Church remembers often. His work is still read all over the world during each and every lent, for roughly the last 13 centuries!

We see a man who was obedient to the life taught by Christ, and reflected in the life of the Church. A man who is obedient through struggles in fasting and prayer. And isn’t this the message of the gospel reading today? The disciples wonder when they are powerless to heal the young man who is possessed by a demon. Yet, the Lord tells them, “this kind, cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” It means that prayer and fasting are the keys to a thriving and serious spiritual life. The disciples could not heal in this difficult situation because they lacked the faith and power that become energized through fasting and intensity of prayer. Another way to understand this is that increasing our efforts to fast and pray is a sign of our great faith in God, and this faith is rewarded greatly.

Whatever our situation may be, whether it is demon possession, or sickness or great temptations, or bad habits, or addictions or this worldwide quarantine that we are under. All of these trials can be overcome if we redouble, or “re-triple” our efforts to dedicate them to God through prayer and fasting. Prayer is the door and fasting is the pick that unlocks the door of the heart, our passage to God. 

One of the Hymns that we sing today, in honor of this great saint John of the ladder, says “The barren wilderness thou didst make fertile with the streams of thy tears; and by thy deep sighing thou hast given fruit through thy struggles a hundredfold. Accordingly, thou hast become a star for the universe, sparkling with miracles. Therefore, O righteous Father John Climacus, intercede with Christ God to save our souls.”

May we be like St. John Climacus and allow the wilderness of our hearts to become fertile soil for the grace of God to work, through our struggle and even through tears. Have faith that through the efforts of fasting and prayer we can know Christ more intimately and that He will multiply the fruit of our struggles, a hundredfold. He will make us the light of the world and allow us to shine brightly, even during times of darkness. This is possible if you believe because “All things are possible to him who believes.” And glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Drawing Near to The Throne of Grace

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews. (4:14-5:6) andThe Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (8:34-9:1) 

On this the third Sunday of Great and Holy Lent we mark a wonderful event. We have now reached the halfway point of this great and holy struggle. The Church is a wise mother and she knows her children well. She has seen their struggles over two millennia and in the midst of their struggles and trials and tribulations, she has raised up countless numbers of saints from among her children. 

So today as we celebrate the third Sunday of Lent, Our mother, the Church, brings forth the remembrance and the image of the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ to strengthen us and to encourage us during this difficult time of fasting and prayer. In the life of a Christian, nothing is more frightening or painful than to look at oneself and ones failings before God and to examine his or her life and repent honestly and truly. If it was easy, everyone would become saints. If it was easy Our Lord Jesus Christ would have said “The way is large and wide and many enter it!” But our blessed Master does not say that at all. He says “The way is narrow and there are few who find it.” 

Yet the Church reminds us that even in the midst of these difficult days of repentance, we should keep going, keep pressing on towards God. And as we begin to grow tired of fasting and repentance and struggle, the Church brings out her most powerful treasure. She shares with us the trophy of the victory of the Lord Jesus Christ, which has become our victory as well. How can we not be comforted whenever we see the image of the cross of Christ? How can we not have our wounds soothed by that beautiful image of God’s love for us?

These days, we might feel that we are suffering more than we did in previous lents. The whole world seems to be in fear regarding the virus that is spreading around the world like a wildfire. Some of you are really missing the Divine Liturgy. This might be your first or second week away from the liturgy. For some of you, maybe it was even longer than that. But I want you to know that it is natural to miss the Liturgy and to hunger and long for the life of the Church. What is unnatural is for people to skip the Divine liturgy for worldly reasons and pathetic excuses. It means that there is a lack of love for God. But here in our situation it is admirable and good that we obey the authorities and do our part to help in this battle against the virus.

Our time away from the church, reminds me of the Israelites in the wilderness after they had received their freedom from Egypt. They had to wander for a long time with only a promise in their hearts. They were promised that they would one day see the promised land and dwell in it together. Until then they were nearly empty handed. They did not have much in the wilderness! We might feel like we are stuck in the wilderness of our own homes. In fact we cannot even find toilet paper! But what did the people have in the wilderness? They had the presence of God. God went before them as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. We cannot even imagine such a spectacle! 

Yet, what we as Christians have is much much more than anything that they could have imagined in the wilderness. We have the presence of God within us because we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit through our Baptism and Chrismation. You have become temples of the Holy Spirit! God is with you always. God has also given us promises. He has promised to never leave us. So we are called to be faithful to His teachings and to never leave Him! 

In today’s Epistle reading we hear these words,

“For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One Who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ understands our condition, because He has lived this condition. He held within Himself, our human condition and His divine, heavenly condition. And because of this, we are told that He sympathizes with usand loves us. The apostle goes further to say that we should “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” 

Today we might feel that we are in a time of need. In truth, all of our life is a time of need. We are completely helpless and dependent upon the Lord and only the arrogant or the insane believe otherwise. So don’t squander this time of isolation, this time in the wilderness. Transform your homes not only into little churches but into little monasteries, away from the world. Take the initial steps to draw near to the throne of grace and you will find God’s grace poured out on you and your family through faith. 

In today’s gospel the Lord says “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” Now we feel that we have lost some of the world, we are a bit cut off from the world around us. But we should not despair, because during this time we can dedicate and focus our lives on Christ. Instead of a time of torment and torture, this can be a time of comfort and peace through our union with Christ in prayer and in service of one another (as much as that is possible). So, far from being a time of torment, it can be a new paradise. Isn’t that why the holy men and women went into the deserts and wildernesses of the world, to find Christ in prayer?

Brothers and sisters, let us run the rest of this lenten race, carrying our various crosseswith haste and understand that we have not lost anything, but we have gained a chance to regain our lives and our souls by returning to Christ. To Him be the glory with His Father and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Christ, the Coronavirus and Our Fragile Health

On this, the second Sunday of Great and Holy Lent we commemorate the life and teachings of St. Gregory Palamas. The life of St. Gregory is quite fascinating and inspiring and I want each of you to read it later tonight. Parents, you will have a responsibility to really strengthen and encourage your children over the next few weeks. It is no use to moan and complain because the kids are home. Instead we can start the day by giving thanks to God for all things. We can use this time to teach our children how to turn fear into fuel for prayer and a vibrant faith. We can use this time to follow the life and example of St. Gregory Palamas and make God our obsession. 

This has been a week full of news and worries and concerns. People are worried about the economy. Many are worried about the novel coronavirus that is spreading like wildfire throughout the world. It is ok to have some fear. Fear can be a healthy response to real threats or dangers. It allows us to prepare as best we can. It is not ok to have anxiety. Anxiety is irrational fear that is driven by our overactive imaginations and passions and under active faith in God. Anxiety is often the result of obsession about ourselves, our physical health and obsession over all of the bad things in the world. As we focus on what is going wrong in the world, we magnify those things and make them bigger. We make them the focus of our lives by giving them too much attention in our lives. 

Let me remind you that it is great and holy Lent. Now is not the time to obsess over the news. We already know what is happening in the news. The virus will infect twice the number of people every 3-4 days. Hundreds of thousands, if not millons of people will be infected all over this country. It is not a matter of if, but when. Lent is not given to us to focus on this sickness. It is now our time to focus, to make God our obsession. That is what is meant by the Lord when He says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.”

Orthodox Christians have lived through times of great tribulation. Through plagues, floods, persecutions, beheadings, wars, famines and earthquakes to name a few. We will continue to have these difficulties in this life. Don’t think you can run away from this by watching the news and being anxious. You can’t run away from the troubles of life. But you can run to Christ who is our shelter in this and every storm. Let your anxieties be turned into fuel for your prayers. If you do not feel anxiety for yourself, good. Start praying for others. Start with those that you know and then pray for those that are suffering all over the world. Pray that God would have mercy on them. 

I am not saying that we should be careless. We are being reasonably careful. We want people to be healthy. We want to slow the rate of infection within the community, out of love for the church community and the larger community. But for all the talk of fear for peoples lives and their health, I have not heard anyone speak with such concern ever, for the health of their souls.

About 647,000 Americans die of heart disease every year. About 600,000 die every year from cancer. More than 600,000 Americans die from abortions in the United States each year. About 80,000 Americans die every year from Diabetes. Each and every year, at least 12,000 die of the flu. In some years that number is even greater, up to roughly 60,000. About 6 million Americans die every year in car accidents. 6 Million. That is 6 times the number of residents in Wake County, NC. By the grace of God, until now we have only had 50 deaths in the United States from the novel coronavirus. 

I care about your physical health. I want you to be physically healthy, but all of this is nothing compared to my desire for your spiritual well being. I will be sad if one of you is sick or if God forbid, one of you passes away. But I cannot live with myself if one of you is spiritually unprepared to die. Let me remind you that everyone is going to die physically, but whether we live or die spiritually, is another matter, an eternal matter. Here we live a short physical life, at best usually 70 or 80 years, but the soul will live eternally and it will be reunited with the body. So whatever efforts we make to strengthen the soul, whatever efforts we make to boost our spiritual immune system, whatever efforts we make to know God and to love our neighbors, these things will be with us long after we leave this life. They will be a part of us forever. My brothers and sisters, this is not the time to be afraid, but the time to have courage and deep faith because God will never leave us or forsake us! We are His children and He is our Father! All of our worries will not add a single day to our lives, because our days are all numbered by the God who has also numbered the all of the stars and each grain of sand.

All of the fathers of the Church tell us to be afraid, but what do they tell us to fear? Listen to this quote by St. John of Kronstadt, he says “Fear evil like fire. Don’t let it touch your heart..” Imagine what a beautiful life we would have if we feared evil the same way that we fear sicknesses? Imagine what peace of soul we would have! Imagine how strong our families and churches and country would be!

Many of the fathers also tell us to fear God. Indeed Holy Scripture teaches this. The proverb says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Pro1:7). Ecclesiates 12:13 says “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” And again in the Proverbs we hear “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death” (Pro14:27).

This is a time that might feel strange. We are a bit disoriented, we are off balance. But it is time to quickly find your footing and strengthen your resolve and your determination not to allow anything to distract you from the real struggle, this struggle to know and to love God with every fiber of our being. That is the example of St. Gregory Palamas and because of his great struggle, he was given a great vision and experience of God’s grace. 

We do not fear death, because we have already died and been buried with Christ. That is why the martyrs had courage. They were weak, but God was their strength. We also have courage through our faith in Jesus Christ, who is our way, and our life and offers us a share in His gloriousresurrection. May you all have courage and hope through Our Lord Jesus Christ who is our refuge and our salvation. Amen.

Source: Sermons

Just Forgive!

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

The Orthodox Church is interested above all else, in the healing of the human person. Each of us was created in the image and growing towards the likeness of God and yet this has been distorted and disfigured within us because of our sins. We are broken as people. We are fragmented in our mind, body and soul. This is the natural result because our sins cause fragmentation within us as well as between us and God and then between us and everyone around us. Sin breaks and divides, yet the Church seeks to offer the healing of Jesus Christ not only through words, but through the life giving grace of the worship and sacramental life.

As we are now at the doorway, at the very edge of entering into the great and holy arena of Lent, we are reminded that all of this is given to us by the Church, for our healing. We aren’t fasting to be miserable or to draw attention to ourselves. We are fasting in order to become reunited within ourselves and with God and with those around us. We are making war against the passions and the flesh and strengthening our spiritual efforts by God’s grace. 

In an effort to make sure that we begin the lenten struggle on the right foot, the Church gives us this beautiful gospel reading for the Sunday of Forgiveness. These words of Our Lord Jesus Christ come from His sermon on the mount. We hear these words “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.” 

In this short saying, we receive one of the great keys to the kingdom of heaven and to a life of peace. Forgive everyone of everything. Whether intentional or unintentional, whether someone has sinned against you in words or deeds or dirty looks or bad thoughts, forgive them. Husbands, forgive your wives. Wives, forgive your husbands. Parents, forgive your children. Children, forgive your parents and your brothers and sisters. Forgive your friends and co-workers. Even forgive your enemies. This is a sign that we are healing as people, that we are quick to forgive others. It is a sign that we are growing in the image and likeness of God, that we are becoming His children. How beautiful is life when people ask forgiveness and forgive one another quickly, without delay! 

St. Nikolai of Zicha once said “Absolutely nothing will help us if we are not lenient toward the weaknesses of men and forgive them. For how can we hope that God will forgive us if we do not forgive others?”No one here is perfect. Everyone here has sinned either in word, deed or thought and these sins affect everyone in the community. When you are struggling, that affects me. When I struggle, that affects you. What a lovely thing it is for brothers and sisters to really give each other the benefit of the doubt, to be patient with one another, to speak to one another. 

Tonight we will come together for forgiveness vespers. What a powerful, moving service! I hope that each and every one of you is able to come and be a part of this healing and uniting act. The Holy Spirit is present in a tangible way, when we humble ourselves before one another and say “forgive me.” What a joy it is to bow low before each of you and ask you to forgive me. I know that I am not perfect and that I sin often, either through some careless word or through neglect or in a myriad of other ways. But this service that we do together is the start of a new foundation for each of us in our spiritual life. We refresh and we begin anew as Lent begins. In this service of forgiveness we even begin to have a foretaste of the paschal joy, the joy of the resurrection! Because in the resurrection we “call brothers, even those who hate us.” We come face to face and make an effort. We break a sweat. We do with our actions, what we claim to want in our hearts, and healing follows. 

When we forgive it is not enough to forgive people in our own prayers before God. We should go to them and ask them to forgive us. We are not guaranteed that they will respond appropriately or kindly. But we should ask them and unburden ourselves and make our conscience clear before God. And likewise when we forgive people, we should really mean it. It is not enough to say it and then go on speaking ill of others or judging them or condemning them. We should try to act kindly towards them. There are many ways that we deceive ourselves when we say that we are not angry with others and then we recall the past or we speak ill of others or won’t sit down at table with them, or won’t acknowledge their presence. This is not forgiveness or love. 

Listen to the words of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk “Do we refuse to forgive? God, too, will refuse to forgive us. As we treat our neighbours, so also does God treat us. The forgiveness or unforgiveness of your sins, then, and hence also your salvation or destruction, depend on you yourself. For without forgiveness of sins there is no salvation. You can see for yourself how serious it is.”

God gives us the method and the tools for our healing, but He does not force us to use them. Our path is narrow as Christians. It is the path of love and this path often requires forgiveness. And how many times should we forgive our brothers and sisters? The Lord Jesus says “even seventy times seven” meaning, an infinite number of times…as often as God Himself has forgiven and continues to forgive each and every one us. May we strive to be healed together here in the Church, and may we start on this great and holy journey together crying out “God forgive me, a sinner!” AMEN.

Source: Sermons

How Will We Be Judged?

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

One of the most deceptive aspects of our culture and society is the belief that when we die, we will become nothing. We just cease to exist. However, we as Christians understand the words of Jesus Christ as the truth and the reality of life. We test everything that we hear and see and understand against the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord reshapes and reforms our reality by His teachings, by His words. And through this reshaping of our reality, He then reshapes our lives and reshapes each of us. Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us when we die, we will not simply cease to exist. We will not simply vanish.

Even among many of the Protestant and evangelical denominations we see the belief that when we die, all will be well if we have believed in Jesus Christ, if we were “saved.” That we will avoid judgment and that God will not even judge us. All of these opposing philosophies seek to undermine the truth of the gospels. The truth as spoken by the Lord Jesus is that God is a judge, that there is indeed a judgement and that each of us will be judged and separated. Some will be numbered among the righteous and other will be numbered among the unrighteous.

What are the criteria for this judgment? How will God judge each of us? He will judge us based on our actions! Not only based on what we say or what we believe, but on our actions themselves. As we begin seriously contemplating the meaning of life without meat, life with voluntary sacrifices, we are reminded that the Christian life is not really ultimately about how we fast, how many prostrations we do, how many prayers we say, or the length of our prayers. The criteria for a whole and complete Christian life is how well do we love. How active is our life of love?

The Lord Jesus Christ tells us that at the judgment, each and every one of us will stand and have to give an account for our actions. What actions? Specifically these: Did we feed the hungry? Did we give drink to the thirsty? Did we welcome strangers? Did we clothe those who lacked clothing? Did we visit those who were sick? Did we come to those who were in prison?

This is not a laughing matter. Our spiritual life and death are based in part, on our actions and those actions are determined by whether we know and are growing towards God. If we know God, we will know a life of love towards others. It’s not enough that we do the things mentioned in the gospels every once in a while. It assumes that we busy ourselves with acts of love and have no time for the works of darkness. We have to avoid living sinfully, judging others, speaking ill of others, acting in uncharitable and unloving ways towards those around us, even those who disagree with us. We are not called to judge our brothers and sisters in Christ, but to humbly try to reconcile and love them. We have to love everyone, the poor, the sick and naked, the prisoners, the strangers and we even have to go further. We have to love those whom we regard as our enemies because God will judge us and we cannot avoid this judgment. St. Silouan once wrote, “Whoever will not love his enemies cannot know the Lord and the sweetness of the Holy Spirit.”

In the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, that we will begin reading on the first day of Great Lent we will hear these words,

“The end is drawing near, my soul, is drawing near! But you neither care nor prepare. The time is growing short. Rise! The Judge is near at the very doors. Like a dream, like a flower, the time of this life passes. Why do we bustle about in vain? [Matthew 24:33; Psalm 38:7] Come to your senses, my soul!”

This is the second to last Sunday before the great lenten struggle begins. It’s time to refocus our lives. Lent is a time for us to come to our senses, to come to our Lord and to come back to life. Don’t think that you and I can just be comfortable with a little extra fasting and prayer and call it a day. NO! God requires His children to show acts of mercy and kindness to everyone. If His children do not show love, they will be unrecognizable to Him and He will also be unrecognizable to them. 

St. Isaac the Syrian writes about thejudgment and hell when we says, 

“I also maintain that those who are punished in (Hell) are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love? I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is more poignant than any torment. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in (Hell) are deprived of the love of God… The power of love works in two ways. It torments sinners, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend. But it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties.” 

We all want to have joyful lives. We want to have lives that are pleasing to Christ and offer us meaning and fulfillment. This is only possible if the One who created us, also accepts us to dwell with Him in peace and joy for all eternity. Our Lord Jesus tells us that this is possible only through acts of love and mercy. We can only stand at the Lord’s right hand if we are willing to live sacrificial lives and go out of our way to show acts of mercy to others. This is what is expected of us because this is what Our Lord has done for each of us.

He has fed us with both food as well as the heavenly bread. He has clothed us not only with clothing but with the garments of righteousness. He has visited us in our sicknesses and given us both physical and spiritual healing. He has not only visited us while we were imprisoned in our sins, but He has completely freed us from the power of sin and death. Let us be His children and reflect this mercy and love in all of our dealings with others. May the Lord judge us worthy to be numbered among His faithful sheep. Glory be to God Forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

He Went Away Justified

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

We continue on the march towards Great Lent. We are like soldiers who are drawing near to the front lines of the battlefield. The Church is preparing us for spiritual battle because Lent is a great spiritual battle. As we draw near to the battlefield, we are given special gospel readings to aid in our preparation. The Church like a wise general is foreshadowing the moves and the tactics of the enemy and is giving us the counterattacks. Each week is a new building block, a new tactic or weapon that we will add to our repertoire. 

This week we hear one my very favorite passages in all of the holy gospels, the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. This is a story told by Our Lord Jesus Christ. He tells these stories because He loves us and He wants to connect with us, with our hearts, through these stories that give us access to truth and light. 

Listen to what the Lord says “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!’” 

What is the point of the parable? The point is humility. The Lord Jesus, our beloved master, gives us two very different people with two very different prayers. One does everything correctly from an outsiders perspective, he also keeps all of the small traditions and rules with exactness. But the problem is that he doesn’t ultimately keep them out of love for God, and his strictness has not produced love within him. He gains great pride through his perfect observance of all things religious. But it gets worse, he boldly uses this distorted vision of himself to accuse others before God! God forbid that we should become like this man. Our prayers are a sacred time to draw near to God, not to accuse and condemn others. The fact that he is obsessed with the activities of others and their shortcomings, both perceived and real, is a sign of just how much he lacks peace from above, peace from God. It reminds me of this story from a modern saint, St. Paisios of Mt. Athos. Listen to his words,

“Some people tell me that they are scandalized because they see many things wrong in the Church. I tell them that if you ask a fly, “Are there any flowers in this area?” it will say, “I don’t know about flowers, but over there in that heap of rubbish you can find all the filth you want.” And it will go on to list all the unclean things it has been to.

Now, if you ask a honeybee, “Have you seen any unclean things in this area?” it will reply, “Unclean things? No, I have not seen any; the place here is full of the most fragrant flowers.” And it will go on to name all the flowers of the garden or the meadow. You see, the fly only knows where the unclean things are, while the honeybee knows where the beautiful iris or hyacinth is.

As I have come to understand, some people resemble the honeybee and some resemble the fly. Those who resemble the fly seek to find evil in every circumstance and are preoccupied with it; they see no good anywhere. But those who resemble the honeybee only see the good in everything they see. The stupid person thinks stupidly and takes everything in the wrong way, whereas the person who has good thoughts, no matter what he sees, no matter what you tell him, maintains a positive and good thought.”

The Pharisee was the fly in the story, but what about the Publican? It turns out that he was the bee. He could not see garbage anywhere outside. He would not so much as dare to look around or busy himself with what others were doing. He could not see any garbage anywhere outside, because he was busy looking inward, repenting. He was busy with the task of dealing with the garbage that he found within himself. That is true humility. And everyone who repents and prays with this demeanor is truly blessed beyond measure. You will know God if you have this attitude when you pray. King David writes “a broken and humbled heart, God will not despise.” Imagine the freedom and joy that we would have if we prayed with a focus on our own sins and God’s abundant mercy.

The Publican only said one heartfelt sentence “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” yet Our Lord Jesus tells us that this was enough. He did not have to say any more. The Lord says that “this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” Wow. The shortest distance to God is humility. The quickest path to God is humility. The way to become like God, to receive His boundless blessings, is through humility. And this humility is something that we can put into action in everyday aspects of our life, not only in our prayers.Whatever we do in our lives, we can do it all with humility and then we will not be alone, but with God and if God is with us, what do we lack?

St. John of San Francisco writes, “The power of God is effective when a person asks for the help from God, acknowledging his own weakness and sinfulness. This is why humility and the striving towards God are the fundamental virtues of a Christian.” My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us take these virtues and boldly run the race set before us. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Feast of Presentation and the Candle of our Souls

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (2:22-40) 

Today we celebrate one of the twelve great feasts in the life of the Church. The Feast Of Meeting, also known as the presentation of the Lord in the temple. This took place 40 days after the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, aka Christmas. It was a time for the mother to bring a sacrifice to the temple and to ask the priest to pray for her purification as seen in the book of Leviticus 12. Our own practice mirrors this ancient practice of the Jews. We church the child and the mother around the 40 day mark and through the churching we pray for the mother’s purification and ask for her to be accepted back into communion with the Holy Church. That day, she receives the Eucharist for the first time since giving birth.

In some places this feast is also called Candlemas. We know that by the 7thcentury there was a custom that involved candles and processions. We know this because St. Sophronius of Jerusalem mentions itclearly in one of his sermons. This procession with candles is a symbol of what the Elder Simeon did that day in the temple when he took the young Christ into his arms and said “Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Thy people Israel.”

He carried the light of the world in his arms! Can we imagine such a joy and such a blessing? We are overjoyed when we carry a newborn child for the first time. Yet, here he was carrying the child that he had literally been waiting a lifetime in order to finally see. We can only begin to imagine his exuberance and overwhelming joy.

In his sermon on the Feast of The Presentation, St. Sophronius of Jerusalem said the following,

“Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ. The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.

The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God. The true light has come, the light that enlightens every man who is born into this world. Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this light. Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness. Let us be shining, as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal.

Rejoicing with Simeon, let us sing a hymn of thanksgiving to God, the Father of the light, who sent the true light to dispel the darkness and to give us all a share in his splendor. Through Simeon’s eyes we too have seen the salvation of God which he prepared for all the nations and revealed as the glory of the new Israel, which is ourselves. As Simeon was released from the bonds of this life when he had seen Christ, so we too were at once freed from our old state of sinfulness.”

We fall into sins. We fight about many things. We struggle with one another. We argue over politics, we argue over sports, we argue over chores and housework, we argue about trivial matters in our homes and even in the church, or we argue about weightier matters like respect and justice. Yet we can also learn from the words of the Righteous Simeon that we can be, and should be, at peace. Why? Because we have seen and known the salvation that is now present through the coming of Jesus Christ into the world and into our lives. 

We should stop being petty and earthly. We can cease our sinful habits and ways of thinking and take the opportunity to look up to the heavens and thank God for His love and mercy. Where would we be without such mercy and love? Where would we be without His salvation? Where would we be if He had not forgiven our sins?

But all of this is now open to us, heaven itself is opened to us, because of Our Lord Jesus Christ and we are forever thankful for such a precious gift. As St. Sophronius mentioned, we should work to make our souls glow with His radiance. We should shine with our love for God and one another. Nothing more and nothing less is needed. May we enter into this feast with joy and may the Lord make radiant lights who reflect His precious and life giving light. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Zacchaeus As A Mirror

The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (19:1-10) 

It is now Zacchaeus Sunday. This means that the time is near. The great and holy struggle of Lent in not too far away. In fact, Lent will begin on March 2ndbut before we ever reach the start of Lent, the Church will try to give us the prerequisites and prepare us for the spiritual school of Great Lent.

When I hear the story of Zacchaeus, I cannot help but feel that a mirror is held up to each of us. We look at Zacchaeus and we can see that perhaps we have fallen short of his level of desire for God. I can say, I desire God, but I don’t desire to see God in the way that Zacchaeus desired to see God. I am repentant, but I am not seriously repentant in the way that Zacchaeus was seriously repentant.

When we hear the words of the holy gospel, we should let it be a mirror that reflects back to us and allows us to see ourselves. The gospel is also like a light that shines brightly on our imperfections. We often try to hide those imperfections, because we want to appear beautiful. But God is not interested in our appearing beautiful. He wants to actually transform us into beautiful people. When we look at ourselves we see minor imperfections, but God sees major spots and blemishes on our souls. He wants to cleanse us and heal us and remove these blemishes before they become cancerous tumors on the soul.

So today we see Zacchaeus, a man that we know and love through this story. His determination and tenacity in the face of all obstacles between him and a vision of the Lord are legendary. Our children all know songs about Zacchaeus. He puts my efforts to shame. When I see how he struggled to see Jesus Christ. When I see how he ignored all of the difficulties and pressed onward and upward, I am left inspired. Each one of us has reasons why we have not really struggled and made a concerted effort to see God and to know God. For one, he works too much. For another, he is too busy correcting the faults of others. For another, he is too busy working and building up his businesses. For another, she is busy with the housework and there is never time for a break. For yet another, she is busy on social media or chatting with friends. Yet others are busy with entertaining themselves, finding the next movie, the next show that takes them out of this reality of life and into fantasy.

We have a multitude of reasons for our slackness in seeking Jesus Christ. And the truth is that all of our excuses are rubbish. If a rich tax collector of a high stature in society, is willing to overcome all the distractions and obstacles around him and humble himself and look like a fool to climb into a tree and see Jesus, then our reasons for not seeking Christ more faithfully, are probably not that good. We can put this another way. If we have a reason why we aren’t devoting ourselves to seeking God in our life, then we probably don’t have our life properly ordered.

Zacchaeus also had a disordered life. He was rich, he stole money from others in a legal way, through collecting taxes, but taking a little extra for himself. All of us have lived disordered lives at some point, maybe we are living disordered lives now. Zacchaeus teaches us that the first step to change is desiring something better. In this case, it is desiring someone better. When I look at Zacchaeus, I can say honestly, that I don’t desire to see the Lord Jesus Christ with the same desire as Zacchaeus. If I did have that great desire, I would spend more time finding the Lord Jesus in the 4 gospels. I would spend more time struggling to pray fervently and focusing, not simply going through the motions and words of prayer. And what would the Lord Jesus Christ give me, give us in return? He would give us new life and boundless joy.

St. Nicholai (Velimirovich) of Zicha preached some beautiful words about this gospel text. He said 

“Just as the bleak forest clothes itself into greenery and flowers from the breath of spring, so does every man, regardless of how arid and darkened by sin, becomes fresh and youthful from the nearness of Christ. For the nearness of Christ is as the nearness of some life-giving and fragrant balsam which restores health, increases life, give fragrance to the soul, to the thoughts and to the words of man. In other words, distance from Christ means decay and death and His nearness means salvation and life.

“Today, salvation has come to this house” said the Lord upon entering the house of Zacchaeus the sinner. Christ was the salvation that came and Zacchaeus was the house into which He entered. Brethren, each one of us is a house in which sin dwells as long as Christ is distant and to which salvation comes when Christ approaches it. Nevertheless, will Christ approach my house and your house? That depends on us.” 

May we struggle faithfully to see Jesus Christ in our lives and we will not be surprised when we also see Him dwelling in our hearts. AMEN.

Source: Sermons