Can Prayer Be Bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMEN.

Source: Sermons


What Talents?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons


The Desire of Zacchaeus

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

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

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

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

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

And he continues saying,

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

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

Source: Sermons


Is It A Sin?

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

We have completed the Feast of Theophany, the Lord’s baptism and now we continue with the Lord as He begins his ministry of preaching, teaching and healing the people. Most of the commentators agree that the Lord’s earthly ministry was about 3 years long. It is hard for us to fathom how one individual could so profoundly change the course of the whole world and human history in 3 years.

One of the hallmarks of the beginning of the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ is the fact that He begins his preaching with the very same word uttered by John the forerunner and baptist. “Repent”. “Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Many of you know that this word repent means to turn around, to reorient yourself, to change your mind, to change your way of thinking, to change your way of life. But it assumes something else. It assumes that we understand what we are to repent of. According to the teaching of Christ and the new testament, we are to repent of the sin in our lives. But what even, is sin? That is a very important question in our day and age and one that needs to be answered.

Sin in the Greek language of the New Testament means to miss the mark or to fall short. More broadly, sin is understood as the words, thoughts and deeds that create a wall or barrier between us and God. How would we find out if some word, deed or thought is a sin in our life? Where should we go to find the answer? Should we trust pop stars and musicians? Should we trust google? Should we trust politicians? How about the courts? Ok what about your friends opinions? What about that one group chat thread? Or your social media groups? These are not typically trustworthy sources of information. They are not generally truthful sources.

So where should we go to hear the truth? If you get this answer correct and your follow through with it, then you will have a blessed life. We go first to the words of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is our Lord Himself who said “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father, except through Me.” If the Lord is truly the way then it follows that the first place we should go to learn truth for our lives is directly to His words and His life as recorded in the 4 gospels. Now some people would concede this point gladly but then they would say that all we need are the words of Christ. In other words, nothing else is worth noting in the whole of Scripture and if the Lord didn’t mention it, it must not be an issue. That is one opinion but we must say that it is simply false. Holy Scripture is more than the 4 gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Scripture is the books of Moses and the wisdom literature and the prophetic books. The truth is found in all of these places since God does not change and neither does the Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth. The New Testament is another place where we find the truth. The words of St. Paul are not optional words for a Christian. So when St. Paul teaches the Christians throughout the Roman Empire, he teaches them with the authority of Christ and in harmony with Christ.

In our day and age there is a hesitation to call things sinful. But that is not good for us. Imagine being in a hospital where the doctors and nurses refuse to tell you what kind of sickness you have. They know you are sick but they don’t mention it for fear of offending you. They figure that it will be too hard for you to bear the truth. So everyone then pretends that you are completely well, the very picture of health and normalcy. Now you see what is happening in our world. But the truth is available to us my brothers and sisters. We don’t have to sit in darkness and the shadows of death. We can know God’s will for our lives. We can know the way to walk and live and think that will be pleasing to God. We can also know what pitfalls to avoid in our lives. And there are so many pitfalls, that is why Our Lord says “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matt 7:14)

It is a narrow way that we are seeking as children of God. It isn’t a glamorous way or a fancy way or a popular way. It is a way that is built on the foundation of repentance as we understand from the Lord’s very first words.

So how do we begin to repent? We start with the difficult first step of looking at our lives and ourselves in the light of the teachings of Christ and the rest of Holy Scripture. We start by honestly assessing where we have fallen short and broken the commandments and holy teachings. We might fall down and cry to the Lord “Lord please reveal the depths of my brokenness to me. Help me to know my sins and to repent properly.”

We might make a list of those sins as well and bring them with us to the sacrament of confession. The Church isn’t like the other hospital that I mentioned. She doesn’t pretend that we are well when we are sick. But she takes those who admit their sickness and she does make them well by the grace of God. It is not so much an issue of what you have done or not done. It is an issue of whether you want to change and to return to Christ and begin cultivating a relationship with Him. He desires this relationship with us. The old things can be wiped away and forgiven. Healing can come to us. Reconciliation with God is possible. But God can’t force His way into our hearts. That door is locked from the inside.

Perhaps as we seek to examine ourselves and our conscience we ask ourselves “what is holding me back?” “What about my life is not pleasing to God?” “What wrong thoughts or actions are causing me to be sick in the soul?” “What am I putting above my relationship with God?” These are some of the profitable questions we might ask.

St. Nikolai of Zicha writes, “Only if sinners cease to commit evil and learn to do good and turn to God with humility and repentance they will become “white as snow.” The Lord is mighty and willing. No one, except Him, is able to cleanse the sinful soul of man from sin and, by cleansing, to whiten it. No matter how often linen is washed in water with ashes and soap, no matter how often it is washed and rewashed, it cannot receive whiteness until it is spread under the light of the sun. Thus, our soul cannot become white, no matter how often we cleanse it by our own effort and labor even with the help of all legal means of the law until we, at last, bring it beneath the feet of God, spread out and opened wide so that the light of God illumines it and whitens it.”

So let us start with this belief that each of us is indeed a sinner and that each of us is in need of healing from the Master and physician of our souls, Christ Our Lord. Let this be our first step to becoming radiant sons and daughter of the living God. AMEN.

Source: Sermons


What Is Courage?

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

Today we are blessed to contemplate new beginnings.  It is, after all, New Year’s eve. The very last day of the year and we are blessed to spend it together here, in worship of the living God.  Now, it is quite common as we wrap up one unit of time or one phase of life to begin to look back at what has happened over the course of the last year or the last phase of life and to examine it.  We might look at places where we have “done well” and others where we have “fallen short.”  We might examine our failings.  We might begin to formulate a plan of action for the coming phase, the coming year, the next semester, the next project at work and so forth and so on.   So this is quite natural and quite normal as we wrap up the year 2023.  And just as we look back we are also quite inclined to look forward to the coming phase of life, to something new.

These are important aspects of growth as a human being, but they are much more important in our spiritual lives.  This is a place where we are least likely to be honest about our situation and most likely to live in a state of denial or worse, delusion.  It is hard for us to see our condition, basically impossible. Nevertheless, this is the aspect of human growth that is most integral to becoming a mature and well-rounded human being.  By this I mean, a human being that is a reflection of Christ and His saints, who live the divine life.

Another reason why we are so unlikely to be honest about our spiritual situation is that to address our failings in this area would be quite painful.  A man who examines the depths of his heart in prayer will quickly find himself being nearly overwhelmed by the depths of the darkness of his heart.  He can suddenly fall into a place that is near to despair when he realizes or begins the effort to realize just how he has disfigured the image of Christ that is within him.  Very few things are as painful to us as seeing our own sins on a personal level.  The equivalent to this in the physical realm might be the diagnosis of cancer.  A man or woman goes on from one day to the next with relatively little that interrupts their life and then one day the doctor may call you or bring you in for a meeting and at that moment your life is invaded by a new and harsh reality.  While you look completely healthy on the outside, in fact, your are not well at all.  Your body is at war.  Your healthy cells are in what appears to be a losing battle to a tumor or cancerous growth that desires to spread and to take over every last inch territory.  One can approach this moment of their life as either a death sentence or as a chance at a new beginning.  

Likewise, the beginning of the gospel according to St. Mark which we have read today is a similar moment.  A moment to try to the best of our abilities to do an honest self-assessment of our lives. A moment to “prepare the way of the Lord” and to “make His paths straight.”  But what if our self-assessment is not very good and not very honest (which it likely won’t be at least at the beginning of our spiritual journey)?  In that case we still have hope, but our hope can’t be ourselves.  Our hope is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  As we read and study the gospels for ourselves, we encounter the light of truth.  This light can be almost ruthless in its ability to expose us and our weaknesses and help us to start the process of healing.  But as we see today, the beginning of the gospel is the beginning of the spiritual life for each person who desires to be transformed, it is the process of dying and rebirth that begins with heartfelt repentance.  A process filled with pain and yet overflowing with potential through the work of God’s grace and our cooperation with that grace.

My desire for each of you, and for myself, is that you view the act of repentance as the most fundamental act of the coming year.  This is the most painful and the hardest work and yet equally the most important and life-changing of all.  It starts by being honest with yourself and measuring yourself according to the teachings of Christ.  It starts with seeing a glimpse of your inner condition and being disgusted with it.  I want you to know that the state of our world and its value system make this very difficult.  The world tells us to take pride in our fallen and improper thoughts, words, feelings and actions.  The world tells us to wear our passions like a badge of courage.  But that is not courage, my brothers and sisters.  Courage is not boldly accepting and proclaiming your sinful state.  That is not courage.  Courage is struggling against the passions and sinful desires and trusting that God will help you to wear the garment of righteousness and holiness because He loves you.  Courage is boldly proclaiming that Christ is bigger than you and the things that you struggle with. Courage is proclaiming with hope and faith that the God who defeated sin and death itself, is quite capable of putting our sinful nature to death and pouring out new life on us. That is courage.

What should we do if we are unsure how to repent or how to begin to repent?  Start by praying a prayer like this one by St. Isaac the Syrian, 

“At the door of Your compassion do I knock, Lord; send aid to my scattered impulses which are intoxicated with the multitude of the passions and the power of darkness. You can see my sores hidden within me: stir up contrition—though not corresponding to the weight of my sins, for if I receive full awareness of the extent of my sins, Lord, my soul would be consumed by the bitter pain from them. Assist my feeble stirrings on the path to true repentance, and may I find alleviation from the vehemence of sins through the contrition that comes of Your gift, for without the power of Your grace I am quite unable to enter within myself, become aware of my stains, and so, at the sight of them be able to be still from great distraction.”  + St. Isaac the Syrian, from The Prayers of St. Isaac the Syrian

Everything is possible for the one who boldly draws near to God in a humble state of repentance.  The Lord opens the doors to the kingdom through repentance.  Listen to the words of St. Symeon the New Theologian.  He writes,

“Through repentance the filth of our foul actions is washed away. After this, we participate in the Holy Spirit, not automatically, but according to the faith, humility and inner disposition of the repentance in which our soul is engaged. For this reason it is good to repent each day as the act of repentance is unending.” — St. Symeon the New Theologian, Philiokalia Volume 2

May this be our life and our road during the coming new year and beyond. AMEN.

Source: Sermons


Invited To A Royal Feast

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (14:16-24)

Our Lord Jesus Christ has desired that His people should know and understand His heart and His thoughts. This is why He taught us with parables. These parables help us to understand the Lord, His kingdom, His desires for each of us. One cannot look for the meaning of life in the abstract. The meaning of life flows naturally from understanding the source and creator of life. Listen and understand.

In the parable the Lord tells us that a man once gave a great banquet. This man was very excited to share this banquet with all of the people that He knew. He told His servants to go and invite all of them. But then something very strange happened: one by one, those who were invited, began to make excuses for themselves as to why they could not possibly come to the great banquet to which they had each been invited.

This parable is of course about participation in the kingdom of God. But the kingdom of God itself is lived out and experienced most powerfully here in the Divine Liturgy. It is for this reason that the priest begins the Liturgy with these words “Blessed is the Kingdom”. If you would like further proof that this parable connects us to the liturgy then you have to look no further than verse 23 where the master says the following, “compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” The house is none other than the house of God, the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth. St. Sophrony of Essex writes that “The Divine Liturgy is the way we know God and the way God becomes known to us…every Divine Liturgy is a Theophany. The body of Christ appears. Every member of the Church is an icon of the kingdom of God.”

The parable of Our Lord is an invitation, a calling, a warning and a promise. It is an invitation to sit with God and feast with Him. It is an invitation to a relationship because the sign of a good relationship is that we sit together at the same table and break bread. It is a calling to partake of the body and blood of Christ, the heavenly bread. It is a warning that even if we find all of the best excuses that we could possibly come up with, even if the excuses are reasonable from an earthly perspective, God is quite unreasonable in some ways. He will take our invitations and our places of honor away from us. He promises that one way or another His house will be filled with those who desire to be where He is. Those who desire Christ, His saints, His angels, His sacred body and blood and all of the grace and treasures of God.

What are the excuses that keep some from coming to the Church? There are too many to list. What are the excuses that might even keep us from growing closer to Christ when we do attend the services? It’s even possible that one can be standing in the Church but their mind and heart is elsewhere. So this parable is useful even then. Because one is not present and active unless they give their whole heart and soul and body to the activity that they are doing. So the perfect way to fulfill the first and greatest commandment is to worship God in prayer and the prayer that is above all prayers is the Divine Liturgy.

So it doesn’t make sense for me to tell you to come to the church and to participate in the Liturgy since you are already here. But it makes sense for me to encourage you to raise your level of participation so that you can take every possible benefit from this great gift that Christ is sharing with you. How do you raise your level of participation? We prepare the night before the liturgy by making sure we don’t spend the night in parties and staying up late watching unwholesome programs or movies. We stay away from our phones and computers especially the apps and websites that might ignite our passions. We might choose to spend extra time reading good spiritual works as well as spending some time either the night before or the morning of the liturgy praying some of the prayers of preparation for holy communion.

On the morning of the liturgy there shouldn’t be loud music playing in the car on the way to the church. Worldly music inflames the passions. If you inflame your passions and desires then you will find it much harder to focus and pray. You need your heart to become a tranquil pond, but through the improper use of your senses especially sight and hearing, your heart will be like a raging sea in the middle of a storm. You and I are called to be the Temple of the living God, not a disco or nightclub or amusement park. Take this invitation from Christ seriously. God wants to know you more intimately and He wants to abide with us and in us. He wants to renew and restore us and give us new, vibrant life. He wants to share the power of His resurrection with each of us. So come to the liturgy with zeal and focus, knowing that we don’t come to smell incense or see friendly faces or hear an average sermon. We come to meet Christ face to face in His house. What a blessing!

Let me leave you with a beautiful quote from St. John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco who said,

“For a man’s complete sanctification, the body of the servant of the Lord must be united with the Body of Christ, and this is accomplished in the Mystery of Holy Communion. The true Body and the true Blood of Christ which we receive become part of the great Body of Christ.

Of course, for union with Christ, the mere conjoining of our body with the Body of Christ does not suffice. The consumption of the Body of Christ becomes beneficial when in spirit we strive towards Him and unite ourselves with Him. Receiving the Body of Christ, while turning away from Him in spirit, is like the contact with Christ which they had who struck Him and mocked and crucified Him. Their contact with Him served not for their salvation and healing, but for their condemnation.

But those who partake with piety, love and readiness to serve Him, closely unite themselves with Him and become instruments of His Divine will.” AMEN.

Source: Sermons


Resting So That God May Work

The Reading is from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (13:10-17)

In today’s gospel reading we are told that Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath day.  The Sabbath day is Saturday.  You might remember that according to the law of God, the ten commandments, this day is considered a holy day.  A day on which no work should be done at all.  This day, according to Jewish life and customs, was a day to rest and part of that rest was to go to the local synagogue and worship God.  The synagogue functioned much like a local parish church might function, but not exactly like a church.  The focus of this worship was singing of hymns and the hearing of the word of God as read from the Old Testament.  In addition there was a time where someone would teach upon the text that had just been read, much like this sermon.  In many ways the worship well-mirrored that of many Protestant Christians.  There was no altar, no sacrifice within the synagogue, but only in the Temple in Jerusalem.  So when you see ancient Christian worship, which you are blessed to see each and every week, what you are seeing is a hybrid of synagogue and Temple worship.  

We received from ancient apostolic tradition the transfer of the dignity of the Sabbath to Sunday, the first day, the Lord’s day, because it is the day of the resurrection of Our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.  So for us, the Sabbath is kept in all strictness in principle, but it is not kept on Saturday but on Sunday.  Christ’s resurrection coupled with His life giving crucifixion, changed everything in the universe.

Now as the Lord was in the synagogue on that particular Sabbath day, there was a woman there whom we are told had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years.  If I have a cold for 18 minutes, I am ready to give up and throw in the towel.  This poor woman struggled and suffered terribly.  We are told that she was bent or hunched over and could not straighten herself.  You may not have realized it but this woman was full of faith.  How do we know that?  Because she continued to find a way to come and to worship in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, even when it was far less than convenient to do so.  Each step was suffering and exhaustion for her.  But I am sure that she went to the synagogue with faith that God could heal her.  So she continued diligently.  

The Lord saw her in the synagogue.  He saw her as she was and He saw past that to who she could be.  Today you are here to pray and the Lord sees who you are currently and He knows your potential for the future.  He knows who you can be.  He knows what is ailing you.  He knows what causes you suffering.  He knows your weaknesses and infirmities, the physical as well as the mental and the spiritual.  We have many infirmities and He knows them all.  

Some of us struggle with anger, or lust or greed or pride, or perhaps a combination of them all.  Others struggle with addictions such as alcohol or drugs or attention and affection from others.  We all struggle to pray purely and to love purely from a sincere heart.  These are not minor conditions.  The condition of the heart is most critical.  We really are sick, both you and I.  And the first one to claim and boast of great spiritual progress or gifts is likely the most sick.  We really do have need of a physician. And just as the Lord did that day in the synagogue, He sees us and He diagnoses our sickness perfectly.  Thank God that He does.  

The Lord saw this woman who had suffered so much and He took pity on her.  What a beautiful thought, that God takes pity on us, that God cares, that God loves, that God is merciful.  Nowhere apart from Christ, will you find this pure image of God as love.  Our Lord Jesus Christ helped this woman.  He told her that she was “freed” from her infirmity.  This is the work of Christ for those who love Him.  He frees them from the sickness and slavery of sin.  Then He frees them from the bondage of death.  Both physical death as well as the death of the soul.  He resurrects those who love Him to a new and glorified life with the saints.

Are you suffering due to sickness or a particular spiritual struggle?  Don’t despair, because God knows and sees everything.  What we cannot do is despair, and what we must do is continue to be faithful to God as this woman was.  Our faith should not be dependant on having our troubles taken away or removed.  Our faith in Christ is an unshakeable faith and belief that despite our sins and failings and weaknesses, He is still truly the Son of God, and He loves us and will heal us and perfect us in due time.  In fact, He has already started this process within each of us.  This knowledge is true comfort and true peace.

Like the woman who suffered for a long time, we are encouraged to continue to come faithfully to the place where Christ is present and watching.  To the place where He offers us true healing.  We are the patients, He is the physician and this is His hospital.  Finally, I leave you with a quote from St. John Chrysostom who said,  

“Remember, my friends- in a court, the more you appear, the more trouble you are in. In a hospital, the more you appear, the more care and treatment you receive.”  And Glory be to God Forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons


Jericho and Faith

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:35-43)

Today we hear the story of a blind man near the city of Jericho. Some of you will recognize the name Jericho because it is the city that was encircled by Joshua and the Israelites. It was known to have high and thick walls and was considered impenetrable by outsiders and enemies. To this impossibly difficult situation the Lord, God of Israel told Joshua and the people to march around the city each day for six days. At the end of each day as they finished their revolution around the city, the priests would blow their horns. On the seventh and final day, Joshua, the priests and the people went around the city seven times and then the priests blew their horns and the people shouted. At this shout, the walls of Jericho began to crumble. The city was quickly overtaken by Joshua and his forces and the enemy within was destroyed.

We wonder how this miraculous event occurred. During our times it’s easy to find specials on history channel or discovery channel where the so-called experts will try to explain the miraculous happenings through natural and explainable means. But that completely misses the point of the reading as it’s given to us in sacred scripture. What Joshua and the Israelites did, had no affect whatsoever on the walls of Jericho. It was faith that brought down those walls. God had given them a command. He did not force it on them. He did not control their movements. He told them what He desired for them and then the Lord waited and observed His people. The faith of Joshua and the Israelites was rewarded swiftly.

So it is to this same city of Jericho that the Lord Jesus Christ appears with his disciples and a whole multitude of people. Yet just outside of the city there was a blind beggar. The beggar had probably sat in that place for many days or many years of his life. The benefit to sitting at the gates of the city is that you would have access to all of the visitors and people who were traveling to or through the city. Yet as the blind beggar sat there he noticed something was different. The noise and the commotion told him so. So he began to inquire and learned that Jesus of Nazareth was nearby and walking towards the city. All of a sudden, this blind man cried out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

The people around him were annoyed or irritated, or perhaps they were embarrassed. They told the man to pipe down. They told him to be quiet. So what did the man do in response? He did the only sensible thing and ignored them completely. He cried out with an even louder voice, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” His actions can put us to shame. We are afraid to make the sign of the cross in front of others. We are afraid to bless ourselves or our food before we eat in public. We are afraid to speak of Jesus to others. Yet this man, who had nothing to lose, poured everything he had into his cry to the Lord. And his faith was not in vain.

The Lord stopped and looked directly at the man and asked him a powerful question, “What do you want me to do for you?” The Lord asks his beloved sons and daughters the same question. He stands daily with His heart open to us and He asks us this question. It is asked to each of us in the depths of our hearts. “What do you want me to do for you?” And my beloved brothers and sisters, Christ our Lord is happy to give us whatever our hearts desire if it be for our spiritual growth and salvation.

We learn here that no obstacle can get between Christ and the prayer of the faithful man or woman. In the same place where the people repeated their procession around the city for 7 days, the beggar only repeated himself once. In the same place where God had rewarded the people for their faithfulness after one week, He rewarded the blind man’s faith in an instant. In the place where the people cried out with a loud voice and the Lord heard their cries, now one man cried out with a lone voice and yet was also heard. In the place where God had worked to miraculously and suddenly bring down the walls of the city, He miraculously and suddenly brought down the wall of darkness that had kept the beggar from seeing. And in so doing, the Lord gave physical sight to the blind man while giving spiritual sight to those nearby who had been spiritually blind. The blind man knew the identity of Christ through faith even before he laid eyes on Him and Christ responded to the blind man’s faith generously.

God wants to share so much with us. Where is our faith? When do we go to God? Only in our storms? When do we trust God? When do we lean on God and not on our own understanding?

One of the modern holy elders, Thaddeus of Vitovnica said “We have very little faith in the Lord, very little trust. If we trusted the Lord as much as we trust a friend when we ask him to do something for us, neither we as individuals nor our whole country would suffer so much.”

This faith is not just found when we are under pressure or stress or persecution. It is the profound and consistent walk of daily obedience to Christ. That is living faith. St. John of Kronstadt tells us that it is by looking to the faith of our forefathers and ancestors and the saints of the past that we are inspired to continue our faithful walk. He writes,

“When your faith in the Lord, either during your life and prosperity, or in the time of sickness and at the moment of quitting this life, grows weak, grows dim from worldly vanity or through illness, and from the terrors and darkness of death, then look with the mental eyes of your heart upon the companies of our forefathers, the patriarchs, prophets, and righteous ones: St. Simeon, who took the Lord up in his arms, Job, Anna the Prophetess, and others; the Apostles, prelates, venerable Fathers, martyrs, the disinterested, the righteous, and all the saints. See how, both during their earthly life and at the time of their departure from this life, they unceasingly looked to God and died in the hope of the resurrection and of the life eternal, and strive to imitate them. These living examples, which are so numerous, are capable to strengthen the wavering faith of every Christian in the Lord and in the future life.”

And let us add to this list, the example of the beggar who cried out to the Lord in his blindness. May his example inspire us to cry out for healing. AMEN.

Source: Sermons


What Do We Have In Common With God?

The Reading is from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (12:16-21)

This coming week we will celebrate the holiday called Thanksgiving. In the life of the Church we celebrate thanksgiving each and every time that we come together for the Lord’s body and blood, for holy communion. From the Greek we receive the word Eucharist, which literally means “thanksgiving.” We call it thanksgiving first because we are told that the Lord Jesus Christ lifted the bread and “gave thanks” to His Father before He gave it to His disciples.

We also call holy communion “thanksgiving” because this is the sacrament that reminds us to give thanks for all that God has done for His people and all that He has done in our lives. We come together as the people of God to celebrate the victory of Christ over sin and death and this is a cause for joy and giving of thanks. This sentiment and life of thanksgiving reaches it’s pinnacle during the divine liturgy each and every Sunday, as it has for 2000 years. But the attitude and sense of thanksgiving should transcend the physical walls of the church building and this sense of gratitude should permeate everything we say and do. Each and every time that we get together as Christians, whether inside the church or outside the walls of the church, we give thanks and celebrate because God created us, because God loves us, because God has forgiven us and redeemed us, because God has made us to share in His glory and made us partakers of His grace.

In today’s holy gospel we hear the parable of the Lord regarding the rich man who had abundant crops and abundant wealth. This story is really about gratitude or the lack of gratitude. The man had so much that he literally couldn’t hold anymore in his barns and grain bins! Instead of giving thanks and showing gratitude by being generous, or by sharing with others who were less fortunate, the man thought only of what he could do to prepare for his own future comfort. But the Lord called him a “fool.” That is a very serious word. What made the man foolish? He was foolish because he assumed that tomorrow was guaranteed. But we have no idea about tomorrow. I recently heard the true story of a man who retired after working most of his adult life and before he retired he and his wife made many plans. On the very day that he officially retired. The day after his last day, he died. We make plans but God is not bound by our plans. This is why we say “Lord willing” or “God willing” instead of assuming things in life.

St. Maximos the confessor writes, “There are three things which produce love of material wealth: self-indulgence, self-esteem and lack of faith. Lack of faith is more dangerous than the other two.

The self-indulgent person loves wealth because it enables him to live comfortably; the person full of self-esteem loves it because through it he can gain the esteem of others; the person who lacks faith loves it because, fearful of starvation, old age, disease, or exile, he can save it and hoard it. He puts his trust in wealth rather than in God, the Creator who provides for all creation, down to the least of living things.”

Above all else our faith will dictate our gratitude and sense of thanksgiving and this will dictate where we focus the energy of our lives. If we are thankful and content then we will not constantly look to purchase the newest, the biggest, the shiniest. Are we people who are content? This doesn’t apply only to purchasing things. It applies to every aspect of life.

For instance, when we are faithful then we are also thankful for the people in our lives and we understand that they are gifts from God, we won’t think to discard them or replace them even if they aren’t perfect. After all, you aren’t perfect either! If you want to give yourself a gift don’t replace the people in your life, replace your sins and passions with virtues. The virtues will open your eyes and help you to see that God is working tirelessly in your life. This will then lead to heartfelt gratitude instead of grumbling. Then your work will be truly beneficial.

The one who is rich towards himself is ultimately very poor. A good example of this is Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol.” He saw everyone as a leech and a beggar. He was lonely because everything focused on himself. But when he was brought low, he then realized that what he received was a gift that could be used to bless and share life and joy with others. Even the poor became a great gift to him.

Christ desires those who are rich towards God. Rich in what way? In every aspect of their lives. Rich with their resources, rich with their attitudes, rich with the energy and efforts that they give to living a godly life and to serving and helping others. The one who is rich towards himself says “how can I further enhance my life?” He might even say “I am the source and creator of my own happiness.” I’m sure some of you have heard such words. But tthe one who is rich towards God says “how can I show thanks for all that God has done in my life?” He might say “My God why are you so generous with me, when I am a worthless servant?” He or she will be thinking constantly about how they can show love to others and use their gifts to show love to Christ, to His Church, to those in need.

I leave you with a quote from St. Gregory the Theologian. He says, “Seek to distinguish yourself from others only in your generosity. Be like gods to the poor, imitating God’s mercy. Humanity has nothing so much in common with God as the ability to do good.” – St. Gregory of Nazianzus, On Love of the Poor

AMEN.

Source: Sermons


Who Is My Neighbor?

The Reading is from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (10:25-37)

In today’s gospel passage we hear that a lawyer came to put Jesus to the test. One should always be careful when lawyers are nearby. But this particular lawyer wanted to test Our Lord’s knowledge of the law of God. It is possible that this man even came with good intentions. Perhaps in the depths of his heart he really wanted to have a deep and thriving relationship with God. Perhaps he really wanted to inherit eternal life. Perhaps he really wanted to be saved.

In the course of asking Our Lord Jesus Christ how he could inherit eternal life, Our Lord questioned him in something of a socratic method and through questioning the Lord understood that the lawyer knew what the law said: “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor.” However there was a problem with his understanding. He knew what he should do, but he didn’t know how to apply this knowledge fully. There was something of a disconnect between the man’s theoretical knowledge and his day to day life. This was made clear when the lawyer asked this particular question: “And who is my neighbor?”

So once again our Lord told the man a parable and through this extensive parable, the Lord once again asked a question and received the proper answer from the lawyer. In this way, the Lord led the man to the answer instead of simply lecturing or telling him the answer. “Who is my neighbor?” That was the question of the lawyer and often this is a question that resides in our hearts and minds. We live in a fragmented society. The fragmentation of our society and our world has been caused by many factors but it seems clear that somewhere near the top of the food chain. Near the top of the power structure, there are those who benefit greatly from seeing chaos and division within society.

When there is suspicion, there is distrust. When there is distrust, there is hatred and then division. Over time this pattern of behavior leads to such a divide that we begin to see the people around us not as they truly are, as humans made in the image and likeness of God, but as enemies, as demons, as something less than human. And we do this every day. You are told that if you side with Israeli’s you are evil. But others will tell you that when you side with the Palestinians you are morally wrong. This might apply to how we look at illegal aliens or someone of a different race or perhaps even someone who has different political opinions. In each and every one of these situations and circumstances we are called to be more than merely human. We are called to be God’s children at heart. We are called to see everyone as neighbor. What a beautiful thought!

In order to further reinforce this idea, Our Lord Jesus Christ told the parable of the good Samaritan. This is already an oxymoron since a Jew could not use the words good and Samaritan in the same sentence. They thought of the Samaritans as a people with a different religion, a different and strange people. A lesser people. So the Lord really pushes the boundaries of the people’s comfort zone in order to get his point across. To love your neighbor as yourself is to go out of your way to serve those around you, even if they happen to be different from you. The Lord shamed his listeners, including the lawyer, a bit. He showed them that one of these Samaritans understood the law better than any of them ever had. The proof was not in how he talked or spoke of the law. The proof was in the way that he demonstrated this love in action. The demonstration of love could be distilled into one word: “mercy”.

When Our Lord himself was eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees asked what Jesus was doing and this was His reply, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” That is God revealing His heart and His mind to us. Perhaps we should pay attention and do likewise.

How do we acquire this demeanor of mercy? It comes as a by-product of our love for God and our understanding of His overwhelming mercy towards us.

In fact, when we have come to know God and we have a thriving relationship with Him, then even the impossible will happen. We will even see our enemies as our neighbors and that is proof that we are really becoming like God. That you are in fact related to God!

St. Moses of Optina writes, “If at some time you show mercy to someone, mercy will be shown to you. If you show compassion to one who is suffering (and of course, this is not a great deed) you will be numbered among the martyrs. If you forgive one who has insulted you, then not only will all your sins be forgiven, but you will be a child of the Heavenly Father.”

Who are we? Who are we really? It is known only through the actions of love for everyone that we encounter in our lives.

And I would like to end with another fantastic quote from St. Dorotheos of Gaza who said, “The more one is united to his neighbor the more he is united to God.”

May this alone be our path. AMEN.

Source: Sermons