An Invitation to Life

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

Today’s gospel reading is given to us traditionally two Sundays before Christmas (the feast of Nativity). This Sunday is called the Sunday of the Forefathers or Ancestors of Christ. On this Sunday we hear this parable about the man who gave a great banquet. This reading is specifically appointed for this day, but the question is why?

What does the Sunday of the forefathers of Christ have to do with this parable about the grand banquet? The short answer is EVERYTHING. The man in the parable is the living God. This living God whom we worship and serve, has been inviting men and women into His great banquet for a few thousand years. He has extended this invitation to many, throughout the generations of the people of Abraham, and the generations that lead up to the Messiah Himself. But the sad truth is that while the invitation has been given freely, so many people have ignored or plainly rejected the invitation to come and to sit at the table with the Lord and to dine in His presence, to be treated to the most amazing banquet that we can possibly imagine.

As we prepare for the coming feast where we celebrate the earthly birth of the Lord and His taking on of human flesh, we are reminded that there were many who came before the Lord, who are related to the Lord. There are many who were invited, but only a few were ultimately chosen to taste of the Lord’s banquet. Two thousand years after the birth of Jesus Christ, we can say that in this regard, not much has changed. More people have been invited to this banquet, in fact, billions have been invited to this banquet. Yet the Lord is telling His servants to go out to the streets and lanes of the city, and to the highways and hedges in order to find more guests. He does this because He desires that His house may be filled.

We are part of those who are given an invitation to the banquet. In fact the Liturgy which we serve every week is a sign and symbol, a foreshadowing and a confirmation of the reality of this banquet. This mission alone has around 120 members. But where are those who were invited? Could they not afford the ticket? It was free. Could they not understand the services? They are said in the language of the land. Could they not find a seat? The seats are plentiful. Did they not receive an invitation? Far from it! The invitation is universal. Christ our Lord is inviting us to His heavenly banquet, to salvation, which is in truth a process of uniting with us and with our hearts. When we move past this little community we see the same thing in each of the churches. So many invited, so few who responded. What is worse is that these same people respond with eagerness to the invitations of the world, the world from which we are called to be holy and separate. So they run to parties, they plan for sports, activities, and leisure even on the day of the Lord. In addition people are toiling, sweating, worrying, and spending their lives to work for and buy gifts and toys and distractions that will not benefit us much in the long run. A heartfelt letter or card, or time together is more precious than most of the gifts we give. In the business world, those who make purchases are called consumers. But in truth it is what we purchase that often consumes us. It is what we possess that often possesses us. The Lord reminds us of this when He says, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

What about us? We are here, physically present in the church. But where is our heart today? Where has our heart been during this fasting season? Where has our heart been all along, for the previous days, weeks, months and years? Christ has invited us to prayers every day, how have we responded? He has invited us to read His holy words in the gospels, how did we answer Him? Christ has shown us the examples of His multitude of saintly men and women, have we read their stories and imitated their lives? Christ has invited us to receive the greatest possible gifts and treasures, things that eyes have not seen nor ears heard. The Lord loves us so much that He has not only invited us to the banquet, He has clearly demonstrated the way to get there. He even grabs us by the hand and walks us there, if we are willing to be led by Him. My brothers and sisters, life is short, the invitations have been received by each of us, and the time to respond is now!

Without Christ there would be no great banquet, no Christmas, no festivities at all! Without Christ we would have no forgiveness, no surpassing joy, no freedom from sin and death, no resurrection. Without Christ we are nothing but dead, inside and out. With Christ there is festive joy, forgiveness, freedom, life and resurrection. This is the joy and the meaning of the invitation given by Our Lord Jesus. He comes to us as a pure and innocent babe that we might choose to come to Him in purity and innocence of heart. He comes to us as poor, that we might come to Him and receive true wealth. He comes to us to give us the gift of His life, that we might die to our old ways and accept His invitation to a banquet of true life with Him and in Him! To Christ be the glory, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages AMEN.

Source: Sermons

When Religion Is Used As A Weapon

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

When our religious practices don’t start with the love of God, they become like weapons. They no longer can do good for us or for others. They no longer help us to heal but cause wounds.

We are witnesses to the way that the ruler of the synagogue practiced his religion, his Jewish faith. He was like many of the Jews of his day. Perhaps he had started his life with a pure love for God but somewhere along the way, it was overtaken and obscured and replaced with love for rules and laws. In truth rules and laws are easier. They don’t require us to have open hearts. They don’t require us to leave our comfort zone. They don’t require us to be vulnerable. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. Laws and rules are very important. They bring order to our lives and when applied correctly, they reflect the presence of God. But when the laws are divorced from God, they become weapons of destruction.

One of the traps that can often ensnare people as they try to grow in faith is the idea that perfect adherence to rules is what will make us worthy before God. According to the gospel of Jesus Christ, nothing makes you worthy of God’s love. God in His mercy, pours out this love upon all of us. We are here in a season of fasting. We do our best with the rules of the fast but we should remember that our strict adherence to the fast does not, in and of itself, make us holy, good or worthy in the Lord’s eyes. St. John Chrysostom says that people can abstain from eating meat and yet they devour one another with their gossip and lack of charity. The fasting that is pleasing to God has nothing to do with what goes into the mouth. It has everything to do with what comes out of our hearts. Those are not my words, but the words of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Does it mean that we shouldn’t fast? No. Does it mean that we should be slack in the way that we practice our faith? No. It means that we should be ready to do everything that is required of us with cheerfulness and by putting Christ at the front of our minds. God is the one who brings it all together and allows it to be done correctly, with love. The ruler of the synagogue was alive towards the rules of the law, but he was dead towards his neighbor’s needs. And if he was dead towards his neighbor’s needs, he was in truth, dead towards God. Our Lord Jesus Christ opens his eyes and exposes his darkness. He says “You hypocrite! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”

All that the ruler of the synagogue could see was a law being broken, but in his blind zeal, he forgot that he also broke this law every Sabbath when he took care of his own animals. But it was even worse. Not only did he forget his own works on the Sabbath, he forgot to care for the needs of the woman who was suffering for eighteen years! He forgot to fulfill the second commandment of our Lord, to love thy neighbor as thyself. In neglecting to love his neighbor, he neglected to love his God. This is the definition of a dead faith. We are told that all of the Lord’s adversaries were put to shame at that moment. It is crucial that our practice of faith doesn’t bring us shame but joy and liberty through Jesus Christ.

How can we ensure that we are not like this man who had misplaced zeal and who used his religion as a weapon against others? We have to recognize that we are also infirm like the woman who was sick for those many years. We have to genuinely believe that we are in need of the healing touch of Jesus Christ. Not once or twice in our lives, but daily. When we feel our need for God, when we feel our shortcomings and our fallenness we won’t have the strength to focus on what others are doing or to compare our practices to others. We will feel truly at the mercy of the Lord and that is precisely when the Lord does His best work. My prayer should not be “Lord, thank you for making me better than other people” or “Thank you for making me good.” My prayer should be “Lord, reveal to me the depth of my sins, and the depth of my sickness and have mercy on me, the one who is not worthy of your mercy or your love.”

Our Lord Jesus helped the woman because He could see her need. He also sees our hearts. He knows if we genuinely seek Him. He knows if we, deep in our hearts, actually hunger and thirst for Him. He knows if we feel self-sufficient. He knows if we have deeply seated pride. He knows if we love Him and if we love our neighbor, and upon these two laws, hang all the law and the prophets. May our Lord search our hearts and find our religion to be pure, genuine and full of love. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Exposing Our Darkness to Light

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians. (5:8-19)

In the epistle reading today we hear some great words of instruction. The holy apostle writes “Brethren, walk as children of light—for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true—and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”

What it is to be a child of light is to be someone who bears fruit of light. This light is the divine light which comes by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It guides us and shows that when we show fruits that are good and right and true, we are actually showing divine fruit because Christ our God is the source of the good fruit that is in our lives, as our Lord said “without Me, you can do nothing.” St. Paul continues saying “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness.” It should go without saying that when we commit sins, we are not being productive or fruitful. We are wasting the valuable time that has been given to us and we are wasting the life with which we have been blessed by God. We have especially wasted the baptism that we have received through the Church. All of it is wasted on the one who partakes of the works of darkness in an unrepentant way. This life of sin cuts us off from God but it never ends there. It starts with being cut off from God but sin does not rest until it has cut us off from our families, our friends and our own right minds.

Sin literally makes us useless to God and useless to our fellow brothers and sisters. Sin makes us dead by deadening our souls but generally speaking sin also makes us like the dead because the dead do not produce fruit, they are of no benefit to anyone (please note that this does not apply to the saints or holy ones). For this reason St. Paul writes “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” This is not merely light like of the Sun and the Moon, or the Christmas lights we see everywhere. This is the divine light of God! This is the light of life. This is the light that I want to fill my soul and during all of the struggles of the day I have to decide what will fill my soul, will it be the darkness of sins or the light of God. Each one is cultivated through our choices and our works. Each one is drawn to us based on the state and the inclination of our hearts. If our heart is seeking after goodness, after God, it cultivates good and finds that it has the fruit of light. If our heart inclines towards sin and madness, we find that we quickly cultivate a garden of filth for our souls and we produce rot and stink and death for ourselves and for those who are near us.

Thankfully St. Paul gives us a way out of such a mess. He says “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but expose them.” There are many ways that we can expose our sins but I will focus on the most important one, the one that the Church provides for all of it’s people, free of charge. The sacrament of confession.

I have mentioned to people in the past, that there is a significant differencebetween those who confess regularly and those who confess sporadically or never at all. Confession is a powerful medicine given to us directly from the mouth of our Lord Jesus Christ who said to the disciples “receive the Holy Spirit, those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. And those whose sins you retain, they are retained.”

Confession is your opportunity to expose your works of darkness to the light. It is not the light of the priest, but the light of Christ that works dynamically in the one who comes boldly and lays his sins at the feet of Jesus Christ. This sacrifice of ego and pride is exactly what the Lord is seeking as the psalmist King David writes “a sacrifice that is pleasing to God is a broken spirit, a humble and contrite heart, you will not despise.” Don’t simply tell God in private that your spirit is broken, and that you are sorry for your sins. Prove that your heart is humbled by opening up and bringing your sins to the place where they can be exposed to the light more fully. Bring them to the place where they can be completely removed by the power of Jesus Christ. The priest is not interested in your sins just as a doctor is not interested in your sickness, he is interested in your recovery. He wants to see you healthy and holy.

How often should we confess? I would recommend that we confess at least 4 times a year (especially before or during the major fasts). You can and should confess more often if you have something serious which needs to be confessed. You should also confess when you feel that you are weighed down emotionally and struggling to pray or to progress in your spiritual life.

It is sad to hear of so many Christians who go to counselors and pyschiatrists and psychlogists without first coming to confess their sins. It reminds us of the Lord’s words when He said that we should never sew a new piece of fabric onto an old garment or put new wine into old wine skins. Both must be new or renewed by Christ! Come and be healed and start on the road to wellness, by receiving what the Church offers for free. Come and expose the darkness of your heart to the light of Christ. Let us awake while there is still time and as St. Paul writes in today’s epistle “Christ shall (indeed) give you light.”! And glory be to God forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Finances of the Heart

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

Every parable of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ is a gift that is wrapped and offered to us. We are invited to take the gift and to peel away the wrapper and the many layers to find more and deeper meaning as we read and study and pray, asking God to open our hearts and minds to His reality.

This parable of the rich landowner is commonly interpreted as a call to be generous with our finances, to give more than we save for ourselves. There is certainly truth to that interpretation, but I see something else here that goes beyond our finances. We could say that the Lord is not so much interested in the finances but in the finances of the human heart.

We as a community are coming off of the wonderful celebration of a great event, the consecration of this church into a true house of God. We are liable to feel a bit of let-down after all the excitement and activity and the thrill of such an event. We are also liable to feel like it is time to rest. In that regard we would be much like the rich man in today’s gospel. He said “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”

One of the ideas that you will never hear in the Scripture or the New Testament is this “God wants you to be comfortable.” In fact it is often just the opposite. It is hardship, trial, and opposition that allows us to be built up and strengthened. It might be easy for some of us to look back at the last couple of years and months and to begin to take our rest and to celebrate what we have accomplished (though in truth it was not we, but He who accomplished it all). This is misguided thinking and it is the kind of thinking that turns the ship in the wrong direction and heads straight towards the rocks and certain shipwreck. We can’t stop now, we can’t be comfortable and we can’t rest.

The Lord says that the one who is foolish is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God. How do we make sure that we are not foolish? How do we make sure that we are actually being rich towards God? We have to be generous with everything that belongs to us, not simply our finances but our very precious time, our talents, our energies, and our love. These things must be understood rightly as coming from Christ and when they are understood rightly, they can then be returned to the Lord Jesus Christ with generosity. We won’t come to God or to His Church and think that God and His Church are trying to steal our money or our time or our energy or our life. We will see reality and say “I am so thankful to God for His many generous blessings towards me and I cannot help but pour out my life to Him who first poured out His life for me.”

We can act generously towards Christ and His body, the Church through so many different works. One teaches, another visits the sick, another cleans the floors, yet another sets up for coffee hour. One rearranges chairs and tables every week, another purchases supplies for coffee hour. Some teach the kids, others serve in the altar, yet others bake bread or bring food for our meals. Every person has a task and a ministry within the community and without your work the community suffers as if the body is being neglected. It suffers when we cease to be generous and to work with open hearts towards the living God who blesses us continually. It suffers when we begin to count the cost and try to figure out what we are owed or how we are underappreciated or what else we might’ve done had we not been busy with the church. These attitudes are not from the Holy Spirit. He is looking for us to act according to the words of the Lord Jesus who says “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). If we act daily with this kind of overflowing gratitude and joy, nothing becomes impossible for us.

Most importantly, this life of generosity towards God and towards others is demonstrated through our life of prayer! Think about that. There is nothing which demonstrates our relationship or lack of relationship with God like our focus or lack of focus on spending quality time with the Lord. When we lack generosity towards God, we say “Lord, there is not enough time in the day for you”. But when we are generous towards God and we understand His place, we say “I cannot afford not to spend time with you, my Lord and the love of my life.”

This generosity is not just towards God, but towards our family and friends and parishioners. When we are generous with our time and energy and bring them to the Lord, we are also being generous and serving others by praying together as a community and there is nothing more powerful than communal prayer. This generosity towards God and towards the things of God becomes a complete paradigm shift in our life and it means that we are building up beautiful treasure with God. Rather, we begin to realize that He is our only treasure and only what we build in Him can never be destroyed or taken away from us. We will truly understand that Christ the Lord is our very inheritance, to Him alone belongs the glory, along with His Father and the All-Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Aspects of the Consecration of a Church

Next week we will have the great blessing of two major events in the life of this mission, and indeed in the life of the Church.

On Saturday we will have the consecration service for the church building. This of course coincides with the other great blessing which is that we will receive His Grace Bishop Nicholas for his first visit to our mission, and this is actually the first time any bishop has visited us since we began nearly 21 months ago.

The consecration of the church is important because it reminds us that everything in this life, everything, is to be offered to God. But this is not simply our act of dedicating the building to God. It is in fact God’s act of pouring out the Holy Spirit and making this place radiant with His Grace and presence.

You’ll notice some familiar elements within the consecration service such as the procession that we will take around the building 3 times. The Bishop will stop in front of the closed doors of the sanctuary and he will start a familiar dialogue as he beats on the doors of the church and says “life up your gates O ye princes, and be lifted up ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall enter!” This reminds us of the special Pascha (Easter) services as we open the doors of the church and remember that Christ our Lord has ultimately made it possible for us to have an open door not only into the church, but into the kingdom of God.

After the Bishop and the people enter the church, the bishop will focus on the altar table for a while. This makes sense as the altar table is the center of Christian worship. It is upon the holy altar table that the holy gospel book sits. And it is upon the altar table that we place bread and wine and ask God to transform them into His sacred and mystical body and blood. The life of the Church revolves around the altar table because it is at the altar table that Christ returns to us and offers us salvation through union with Him.

The Bishop will take the relics of St. Raphael, our beloved patron saint, and he will seal those relics into the center cavity of the altar table with hot wax. He will also seal in a list of the names of all of the parishioners of this mission. The relics of the martyrs remind us of the fact that the early Church used to celebrate the liturgy on the tombs of the saints. It also brings our minds to the words of Revelation (the Apocalypse of John) who writes “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:” (Rev 6:9). The life of the church is vibrant because of the witnesses who boldly proclaim the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, no matter the cost. This same boldness is required of us as we consecrate this church building to God. It’s not enough to say to people, come and see. Sometimes we have to actually do the really difficult work of being witnesses or martyrs of our faith in Jesus Christ.

The bishop will then wash the table and anoint it as well as vest it with new garments. This process should remind each of us of our washing in the holy waters of baptism. At baptism we all died and were buried with Christ and we were raised again to live life in a new way. We are meant to understand life as a new reality when we actually are born again and come into the life of the Church through baptism. Church is not what we do on Sundays, it is what we do every day as Christians. Everything about us has to change as Christians.  As St. Paul writes, because of our baptism we have to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (1Cor10:5). The church building is then anointed with the oil of Chrism which was used to anoint every person who was received into the Holy Church. This anointing is a sign of the laying on of hands from the Apostles and a sign of the reception of the Holy Spirit.

When the church is anointed, it belongs fully to God. When we are anointed with Chrism, we belong fully to God. It becomes the task of our life to present ourselves as worthy of the name and the blessing that we have been given as Christians. It also becomes our task to bring this church building to life through the way that we use this place. Not as a place for pride, or gossip or laziness. But as a place full of love and joy and service, first to the Lord and also to the people who come here looking for God’s love and healing presence.

These are just a few of the momentous aspects of this coming week. We give glory to God who has given us every blessing and allowed us to come together and to work prayerfully, with love, to build up this holy community. To Him be the glory with His only begotten son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Lessons from the Brother of the Lord

Tomorrow is the Feast of St. James the brother of the Lord

As a change of pace today I thought I would take some time to tell you about Saint James the brother of the Lord and some of his work. As you know there are likely 3 Saints named James in the New Testament. One is St. James the greater, who is the son of Zebedee and the brother of John the evangelist. The next is St. James the less the son of Alphaeus. Both of these James were part of the 12 disciples. Last but not least we have James the brother of the Lord. This James is spoken of in the book of Acts and was considered one of pillars of the early Church and probably the first Bishop of Jerusalem.

He was related to the Lord Jesus Christ because he was the son of Joseph the carpenter. As you know Joseph was married and had children and later when his wife died he became a widower and God chose him to take care of Mary the virgin. St. Jerome writing in the 4th century tells us that “After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem. This one was holy from his mother’s womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed. (the idea here is that he is not a man of this world) He alone had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, and went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camels’ knees.” He was murdered by the Pharisees in Jerusalem when he was thrown from the pinnacle of the Holy Temple. This was in response to his fervent preaching of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.

And St. Paul tells us in 1 Cor. that James was one of the first people to see the risen Lord after the crucifixion. Also in Acts 15 when there is a disagreement among the Apostles over how the gentiles (the non-jews) should be received into the faith, they turn to James who gives his opinion which is considered authoritative. These are his words “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” Please notice that all of those prohibitions still exist for us today. St. James helps guide the course of Christianity to be set with a focus on the gentiles that is not merely words but a changed reality. If they wanted these people who did not know God to come into fellowship with us they couldn’t force them to be Jews first…that would be difficult and would turn many away from the faith. They could bring them in and also teach them to love God without obeying all of the outward Jewish laws.

One of the other great works that St. James did was that he wrote the epistle that bears his name in the New Testament. It is a fantastic book. It is 5 short chapters and is straightforward and easy to read. This book focuses very little on Theology or dogma but does a great job of getting to the basics of living a Christian faith practically. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” James 1:3-8

St. James also teaches about how our Christianity should be alive, he writes “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this, to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” And he adds more to this “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe and shudder!” His idea that faith without works is dead was so offensive to reformers like Martin Luther that he wanted to have the book of James removed from the Bible. This is the arrogance of modern man. When we don’t like what is in the Bible, or when it disagrees with us, we imagine that it isn’t there or that it wasn’t meant for us.

While there are many other points to focus on in the epistle of St. James, the last one we will look at today is on prayer. St. James says “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” This is a reminder that nothing in the world is so powerful as the fervent prayers of the righteous. When all the troubles of life hit, we are reminded by St. James that prayer has a powerful effect. Prayer can not only help us in our personal lives, it indeed has power to transform the world around us and when we pray humbly and fervently we see that we can effect great change through God’s power. When we honor God, He honors us.

By the prayers of the righteous Apostle and Martyr Saint James, May God hear us and help us to apply and live our faith to the Glory of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Did The Early Church Believe in Icons?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (8:5-15)

In today’s gospel we hear the familiar story or parable of the sower. Our Lord teaches us that the seed is the word of God. The parable is about what happens when in our hearts we either accept or reject the word of God. There is however one potential, what happens when two different groups of Christians each claim to be following the word of God and yet they come up with dramatically different interpretations and ideas based on the same texts? This issue has troubled many Christians throughout the centuries of Christian history. If I use the Bible, and you use the Bible and we both come to extremely different understandings of the Scriptures, how do we know whose interpretations is correct? How do we discern the truth from falsehood?

We can liken this to our own country and our own rule of law. The laws of this land are supposed to be based upon the Constitution. But problems often arise with the laws themselves or their applications and so it has to be brought to someone who judges what is sound law and what is unsound. What is a proper application and what is a proper interpretation of the text of the Constitution? Ultimately these questions can come before a group of nine judges or justices who are known as the Supreme Court. They have the power to interpret the laws in the light of the Constitution and they can effectively interpret the Constitution itself.

The Church has a similar structure that works to interpret the Scriptures and the New Testament properly. This structure is known as an ecumenical council. These are gatherings of great numbers of bishops from all over the world who would come to one place to pray together, to reason, to debate and ultimately to bring to light the genuine Christian teaching on whatever controversy or issue needed their attention. But unlike the Supreme Court, this was not simply based upon their human opinions but we believe it is guided by some other factors.

One factor is that there is a universal tradition or teaching that was passed on from place to place and person to person. There is a teaching that comes directly from the Apostles and has been preserved among those who rightly believe. The main guarantors of this teaching of the Apostles were the bishops who had been appointed in every place or region. This is one of the reasons why a bishop is never consecrated by simply one bishop, but by two or three. This demonstrates that there is unity among them and that multiple leaders of the Church have vouched for this man’s Orthodoxy and faith. When a gathering of bishops, who have the same faith and doctrine and have been themselves consecrated as bishops by others who held the same faith and doctrine and can trace this faith and doctrine throughout the history of the Church all the way to the Apostles, you know that this is a special and powerful gathering and it is one that can only happen in the Orthodox Church because it is only in the Orthodox Church that we have an unchanged and unbroken connection all the way back to the Apostles of Jesus Christ. That is a bold statement yet it is totally true and easily verifiable through a historical analysis with discernment.

The second factor in the guidance of the Holy Church is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the assembly. When our Lord the Holy Spirit is present in our midst, error vanishes and the truth is proclaimed. The Church has had many such gatherings over the past two thousand years. We commonly say that there were seven ecumenical councils but that is not necessarily the case. It is really an oversimplification but it is true that there were 7 major gatherings to discuss and discern major issues within the life of the Church. Our Church is always remembering important events and people within it’s life. It is our common remembrance that helps us pass on the truth and the life of our faith from generation to generation. We begin by remembering the Lord’s betrayal, death and resurrection every time we come here for the Divine Liturgy.

Today we remember the Seventh Ecumenical Council which took place in the city of Nicaea in 787 a.d. This gathering came together to discuss the removal and the forbidding of icons in all of the holy churches under the Emperor Leo III in 726. Please take note that the state or government has been trying to find ways to subvert and change the Christian faith in every single generation, not just ours. Sometimes, standing for what is right means going precisely against what we are taught by the government and those that speak and teach on behalf of the government. This issue of the icons really caused a deep divide within the life of the Church because Leo and those who followed him, used Scripture and equated the creation of icons and their use with the idolatry that was forbidden since the time of the prophet Moses. They were further convinced because they saw the rapid rise of Islam and Muslims also taught that images were forbidden.

The bishops of the One Holy Church gathered together not to decide anything of themselves or their own opinions, but to discern the original teaching, the truth of the faith as it had been handed to them. They quoted extensively from St. John of Damascus who had died some years before the council, and was the most well known defender of holy iconography. He taught that the veneration of holy images was always part of the unwritten tradition of the Church but he showed how it was demonstrated even during the time of Moses, for instance with the creation of the cherubim who were fashioned by men and overshadowed the ark of the covenant. This was in direct conflict with a straight reading of God’s commandment to make no graven images. However St. John rightly points out that they were not created to be worshipped as idols.  God instructed them to be made so that we would have a more rich experience of worship that points past the symbol to a greater reality.

Icons are symbols that direct our minds to the living God who actually sanctified all of matter when He took flesh and became man. Icons are not something that we worship. We venerate them, knowing that our veneration is not really for the wood or the paint, but for the Word of God who made all of this possible when He appeared on the earth and was seen by men. Not only do we support the use of icons, we go further than that.  The Orthodox Church says that you must have icons in your place of worship because icons, especially of Jesus Christ, remind us that Christ was not a mere spirit but was fully God and fully man. That He was seen and heard and known. That He truly existed, and truly redeemed all matter and all creation by His coming. May God help us to truly believe this and to live accordingly. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

How To Come Back From the Dead

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (7:11-16)

We often hear news spread quickly in our age of instant news and the advent of the internet. Sadly this news is usually not good news but various forms of bad news or tragedies that are happening somewhere in the world. The gospel reading today speaks to an amazing event. This event only happened three times in the history of the people of Israel until the coming of the Lord, our savior Jesus Christ. What was this amazing event? The raising of the dead back to life.

The first was when the great prophet Elijah raised a widow’s son from the dead. The second was when His disciple the prophet Elisha (Elysias) raised a young boy from the dead. And finally, and perhaps most interestingly we have the story from 2 Kings 13 where a man is about to be buried and his friends spot a band of raiders headed their way. They are afraid for their lives and have no time to make a proper burial for the man so they quickly place the man in the same tomb where the prophet Elisha was buried. What happens next is amazing and is only really possible with an Orthodox Christian understanding of the saints and the glorification of the body. At the moment that the body of this dead man touched the body of the prophet Elisha, he came back to life! So much for those who deny the power of the saints and the power of holy relics. It is the power of God to transform humanity that is ultimately being denied!

So the point remains that this was a rare and isolated event in the life of the Jewish people. What happened that day in the city of Nain was a rather great event. This event alone would have caused the name of Jesus Christ to spread far and wide and many of the people would’ve been completely convinced that He was at the very least, a great and powerful prophet if not the Messiah they had been expecting.

In and of itself, the raising of one who was dead, is a great and wondrous miracle. Death is not easily cast aside. Death made mankind tremble with fear. Death had married itself to the human race because of our rebellion and rejection of God, which began in the garden with Adam and Eve. God desired that we should have great potential and in order to give us such potential, He allowed us free will out of His great love for us. This free will, we chose to use in a way that cut us off from God and from His teachings. In short we were cut off from life itself.

Our Lord Jesus did not simply have compassion on a widow who had lost her son. He had compassion on each and every son of man. He had compassion on our whole situation and context. He alone understood it fully. Yes, He does a great work for this woman and for her son. It is merely a shadow of the work He is going to do in the human race. He will not only conquer death in the body, He will allow us to have resurrection and restoration of the soul! That is why it is so important that we honor the saints, those who are pleasing to God. Because they prove that the Lord Jesus Christ has power over our fallenness and the death that was part of our human experience. The saints prove that we can be transformed and brought back from spiritual death to full health and strength and life through the giver of life.

The Lord did not have to do much to raise the man from the dead. He touched the bier and spoke His word “Young man, I say to you, arise.” There is a sense in which the word of God can also heal and raise us from deadness to newness of life. An encounter with Jesus Christ, through reading the 4 gospels, can impart the same miracle which this man received, to our spiritual lives. We can experience spiritual resurrection! Some of you might think that I was born wearing a stole and with a beard and ready to pray the liturgy. You would be mistaken. It is the encounter with Our Lord Christ through the gospels that brought me from spiritual death towards His light, by His grace. I am not sure how we as Orthodox Christians can be instructed in life without reading the 4 gospels. Let’s make it a priority to read one chapter of the gospels each and every day. God wants to impart life to our dead and decaying souls. He has many ways of doing this but one of the most basic and fundamental is through His teaching and preaching as found in the 4 holy gospels.

I’m sorry to say that some of us and some of our families and friends are on spiritual life support. We are one temptation, one storm, one trial away from losing everything, from losing our salvation, from spiritual death. Happy is the man who built his house upon the rock of faith in Jesus Christ. His house can withstand any storm because Christ our God is not moved by death, let alone our storms. Wise is the man who built his whole life upon the God-man Jesus Christ, not following the example of Adam and Eve but turning towards the example of those who please God. Blessed is the man who sees the Holy Church as the body of Jesus Christ, the pillar and foundation of truth. If we come with reverence into the Church as if we are coming towards Christ Himself, we become the most joyous of all people. We don’t want to become like the widow who was left with nothing because she had lost her only son. What use was his body when it was lifeless and cold? What use can we be if our souls are also lifeless and cold?

Come, my friends and my brothers and sisters to the One who raised and continues to raise the dead back to life. Come to the one who alone grants us spiritual resurrection and the promise of unending life in fellowship with Him. To Him who alone is our Resurrection and our Life, to Jesus Christ be glory, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Senses and The Heart

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

Both of our readings today give us a clear indication of what is required of us to be considered sons and daughters, the children of God. These indicators are not given to us as rules or laws or even as a warning. They are given to us with a voice of encouragement because God our Father, wants us to know that He is present and that we belong to Him.

In Second Corinthians chapter 6 we hear St. Paul quoting from Scriptures saying “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore, come out from them, and be separate from them”….. “and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters.” St. Paul then concludes with these words “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”

Being an Orthodox Christian is about having the potential to have a close-knit, familial relationship with God! I fear that for most of us, this possibility is viewed as a pipe dream, as something impossible. Sometimes it is because we are really comfortable in our simple religious practices. Our Lord Jesus Christ has many things to say to us if we are simply comfortable in our practice of religion. He says “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter into heaven.” So what does that really mean? It means that God is not interested in the adherence to rules and guidelines and religious practices for the sake of the practices. That is what the Jews believed would save them, and Christ our Lord corrected them.

What does this all mean? It means that God is after our hearts. He desires a heart that is clean, pure. He desires that our hearts be full of love, not for worldly things but for Him and for others. If we have faith that He will come to us and dwell within us, we are required to do everything in our power to rid ourselves of all the potential obstacles that keep that from happening. Those obstacles begin in the heart.

In the epistle St. Paul says “come our from them, and be separate from them.” This tells us that oftentimes our greatest obstacle to pure and good faith will be the company we keep and the society and culture around us. Christians have done a great job of blending into the society and not sticking out. If we’re honest, we’ve not really done a great job of separating ourselves from the activities and entertainment and the goals of the world around us.

As an Orthodox Christian there is no way that I can be guided by the same principles and goals of the society around me, because the society around us, doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ, doesn’t believe in the afterlife and doesn’t believe that anything is more important than immediate pleasure. For us, the issue may not be who we associate with and interact with on a daily basis. It may simply be what we are subjecting our senses to on a daily basis. God is interested in your heart. The obstacles to knowing God are in the heart but they are strongly influenced by the five senses. We are spending lots of time reading the news, looking at politics, watching Netflix and staring at our computers, phones and tablets. Are we sure that the material we are consuming is actually good, wholesome, encouraging and God-pleasing? Or is it possible that the material is full of violence, obscenities, sex and materialism? Are the characters modeling a strong Christian identity? Are the storylines perverted or demented? Are these stories deeply troubling and gut-wrenching, do they stir up the passions? Are these things that you would watch or freely discuss with your priest?

Nothing in this world matters if we don’t desire to know God intimately. If we desire to know God intimately, we understand that anything that presents an obstacle to that goal, should be corrected or removed from our life. In this way the Christian life is like constant warfare with oneself and ones surroundings. Indeed the Lord Jesus Christ says “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” We know that the Lord was not advocating physical violence, but decisive actions.

If one sees a problem that is a life or death issue, he attacks the problem right away. He has no time to waste! The Lord is looking for those who are ready to struggle courageously to live a life of extreme purity and holiness. Why? Because He created us to be more than mindless consumers. He created us to be saints who speak with Him as with our own flesh and blood father. And we know this to be the case because we have seen the witness of the saints who chose to live radical lives of holiness. This living witness of the saints confirms that the words of St. Paul are good and true “Touch nothing unclean, then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters.” The sacrifices and struggles towards holiness and purity are real, but the promises of God are true. May He give us the strength and courage for this battle, which is in truth, the battle for our hearts. Glory be to God forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Keep Thy Mind In Hell

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (5:1-11)

Have you ever been at your wit’s end? Have you ever felt like you were in the depths of despair? Have you ever felt that no matter what you did, things would never get better? I assume that each of us has had these feelings and thoughts during difficult times in our life. We know that life can be hard, even brutal at times. One of the things that we consistently find when we encounter God in the Scriptures and the New Testament is that God does not prevent all of the pain and suffering for His people. Rather we find that God uses pain and suffering to do two very important things for His people.

First, God uses tribulation and struggle to mold and shape our character. It is difficult to gain character and have your soul molded in a positive way if your whole life is easy and glamorous and comfortable. We can liken this to physical activity. If a perfectly healthy man or woman begins to use a wheelchair to move instead of their legs, what will happen to their legs over time? They will become weaker. And what will happen if they stay off their legs for a very long time? They may even lose some of the ability to walk and hold their own weight. The muscles were not challenged even in the slightest way. Alternatively if we want to get bigger and stronger, we willingly choose to push against or pull weights. We offer resistance, because that alone will allow for real growth and strength.

God does the same with us. He allows the trials and difficulties in the world around us to be a form of weight and resistance in order to cultivate within each of us a saintly, humble, holy, loving disposition. I’ve often had people who come and talk about their problems and issues with spouses and neighbors, with extended family and with co-workers. Those troubles are real, and God knows that they are real. They are also a chance to be reshaped and reformed. Mothers and (sometimes) fathers, struggle to get up in the middle of the night with crying children. They wish and dream about unbroken sleep. That is a very natural response to the difficulty. Yet, God uses this trial to mold them. What is nearly impossible for the first baby becomes like second nature with later children. We have become accustomed to it, we’ve also become stronger.

He does this for each of us in our difficulties. Sometimes He uses our struggles to make us humble and aware of our many shortcomings. That is a wonderful disposition to have, but it is one that is far from us when we are in relative comfort. Just look at the Israelites and the many ways that they fell into sin. But we should be clear that this doesn’t happen according to our knowledge or comfort level or in a specific period of time. It happens according to God’s will. Peter and those with him, had toiled for a number of hours and yet that was not the end of the trial. They continued to struggle and sweat and worry all night long and yet they did not gain any fish or any pleasure. We should also be clear and say that there is very little benefit to such difficulties if we curse or grumble or complain throughout the ordeal. So God indeed uses tribulation and struggle to mold and shape our character, to make us holy.

Secondly, God uses tribulation and struggle to try and turn our eyes and our hearts back to Him in repentance and heartfelt prayer. God never ceases to do miracles for each of us, yet we are relatively blind to His work in our lives. We forget His benefits and love for us, because we don’t usually pay attention. We forget the many gifts that He has given us because of the abundance of these good things in our lives. It takes difficulties and trials and deprivation in order to wake us up to our need for God’s presence and help in our lives. The fishermen depended on the fish to survive. To be in their shoes, to toil all night long, to come back to shore empty handed…that is enough to break some people. In the case of the disciples, it was just enough to break open a crack in their hearts. It was just enough to allow them to receive the miracle that Our Lord was about to perform and more importantly, it was enough to allow them to receive the One who performed it! God allowed the difficulty in order to wake them up to a greater reality. He had the power all along to put fish in their nets, but His primary objective was not to catch fish in their nets. It was to catch the disciples in His net!

I wonder if we would turn away and reject all of our difficulties and struggles and suffering if we had faith enough to see that these things were really making us holy and leading us back into a relationship with our Master and Creator?  What is better, comfort from things or comfort that cannot be taken away?  What is better, stability in things or stability in Christ?

Among those whom we commemorate today is St. Silouan of Mt. Athos.  He reposed on this day in 1938.  He was a man who struggled valiantly to overcome his sinful passions and to know Christ.  Once, after he had struggled for many years, the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him with these words “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.”  This was a great source of comfort for St. Silouan because he was reminded that God was present and would not leave His children in their struggles.  For the fishermen, a night without fish was a form of hell.  For us, hell might look different, but each of us will have such a time in our life and perhaps more than once.  

Let us also remember not to despair but to patiently endure our struggles with faith that God is able to use these things for our benefit both to grow in our character and to grow in our love of His Son, Jesus Christ to whom be the glory with His Father and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Source: Sermons