Signs Of Life

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians. (5:22-6:2)

In today’s epistle we hear the words of the Apostle Paul to the church in Galatia. This is a well known text regarding the fruit of the Spirit. He begins by telling us what these fruit are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

We can say that the fruit of the Spirit is the sign that we are living in, with and through God. What benefit would we have if we speak of God with our lips or come and sing hymns in the church but we don’t walk in the Spirit? We have to ask ourselves if we are walking in the Spirit, truly. Just as a doctor should not treat himself, we shouldn’t trust our own opinions so much as we should seek out the guidance of others who are more experienced in the struggle such as godparents, parents, and clergy. So we have to ask them to help us if there is a question about our behavior or our way of life. We have to know our starting point and repent to begin this struggle.

Then we can ask the more important question: “how do I cultivate the fruit of the Holy Spirit?” And this is not a trivial matter. It is really at the heart of Christian life. One day we have to go and face our Lord and He will ask us to give an account for ourselves and He will question us as to whether or not we used the gifts that He gave us in a way that is good and pleasing to Him or whether we squandered our inheritance.

So why do I mention these things? Because we love one another and want to see one another thrive in Christ! We are in the army and we have to do what is best for one another and protect each other on this great spiritual battlefield.

St. John Chrysostom tells us that there is a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit and it is the soul that is in the middle of the struggle. He writes “The soul is situated in the middle of the struggle between virtue and vice. If the soul uses the body as it should, it makes itself more spiritual. But if it departs from the Spirit and yields itself to evil desires, it renders it more earthy.” He tells us that it is the exercise of our free will that dictates the direction that we go. Are we inclined toward virtue or vice? Christian life is holistic. Everything is connected. When we choose vices, sinful, or impure or untrue things, we are not honoring God, we are defacing the image of God within us. We also are choosing what is dead and cannot give us life, but leads us towards corruption.

St. Seraphim tells us that when we receive something good and holy in our lives, we feel joy but when we receive something demonic or evil, we are actually disturbed, our peace is lost immediately. Of course this assumes that we are attempting to struggle. He writes,

When a man receives something Divine, in his heart he rejoices; but when he receives something diabolic, he is disturbed. The Christian heart, when it has received something Divine, does not demand anything else in order to convince it that this is precisely from the Lord; but by that very effect it is convinced that this is heavenly, for it senses within itself spiritual fruits: love, joy, peace, and the rest (cf. Gal. 5:22).”- St. Seraphim of Sarov, Little Russian Philokalia: Vol. I

One small example is the way that our heart rejoices when we receive the Holy Eucharist. It is an overwhelming sensation of joy and peace. It is a sign that what we have received comes from God.

My fear is that as Christians we continuously receive many different inputs through our senses and we are not careful to guard our hearts and to sense whether the things we see, and hear are good or evil. In our own times it is even harder to discern these things because our world has turned away from Christ. The world wants you to believe that evil is good, such as we see in the homosexual agenda and the decline of marriage because of casual sexual relations and co-habitation. Our world wants us to be confused even regarding the status of whether one is male or female. Lord have mercy.

As people who want to live in the truth and want to love God, we are really called to be warriors and struggle and train and be on guard so that we will be inclined to gravitate towards and choose the good, the pure, the true and the holy.

So as Christians the way that we make sure that we are on the right path is to follow the commandments and check our works against the teachings of Christ. We also add various spiritual disciplines to our lives, some with the guidance of our spiritual father.

Some of these disciplines include coming to confession at least 4 times a year and possibly more often. Another discipline is daily repentance every evening. We make a mental inventory of our sins and we ask God to help us and forgive us. Another discipline we add is prayer. This can be praying with prayer books, psalms or saying the Jesus prayer. How often should we pray? Always. And while that is not always possible or practical in our lives, we can try to make sure that prayer is the start and the end of every day. We can say the Jesus prayer throughout the day. This gives us strength and renewed focus in our Christian walk.

We also have fasting and the giving of alms to the poor and needy. Of course there are many other Christians deeds that help us to grow in Christ. Wives, show reverence and support for your husbands. Husbands, love and be present for your wives. Fathers and mothers be diligent with your stewardship of the home and the raising of your children. Be diligent with providing for your families and protecting them from enemies seen and unseen. Do everything that has just been mentioned with joy and gladness and gratitude because this is the path that God has given for your salvation. Listen again to what St. Seraphim of Sarov says about all of these spiritual disciplines.

“Fasting, prayer, alms, and every other good Christian deed is good in itself, but the purpose of the Christian life consists not only in the fulfillment of one or another of them. The true purpose of our Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. But fasting, prayer, alms and every good deed done for the sake of Christ is a means to the attainment of the Holy Spirit. Note that only good deeds done for the sake of Christ bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Everything else that is not done for the sake of Christ, even if it is good, does not bring us a reward in the life to come, not does it bring the grace of God in this life.” — St. Seraphim of Sarov, Conversation on the Goal of the Christian Life

May the Lord help us to humbly cultivate this life of spiritual fruit and acquire the Holy Spirit! AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Healing Often Requires Bitter Medicine

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:18-27)

Perhaps the most important question that a human being can ask is this question that is posed by the man who came to test Jesus in today’s gospel reading. He asks “Good Teacher, What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

The Lord before responding has a question of His own, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Many have misunderstood this passage and it’s meaning. Some believe that Jesus is telling the man that He is not good and not God, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our Lord Jesus Christ is trying to raise this man’s awareness and attention. Because if you know that the one you are asking these questions to is in fact God in the flesh, you will certainly pay very close attention to what He tells you.

But this question that the man asks the Lord is powerful and life giving! It has immense potential. Perhaps it is the question that we should ask ourselves every day of our lives? “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” After all, we ask many questions, but how many of those questions have eternal and lasting significance?

And it is important to note that the Lord gives a very predictable answer. He is not rewriting the book. He isn’t abolishing the Holy Scriptures. He is rather, bringing them to life. When He is asked how to inherit eternal life He points to the ten commandments. “Do not commit adultery. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother.” Our Lord Jesus Christ is never seen complicating but simplifying our spiritual life. Nothing is complex in the Christian life. Obey the commandments. That is the foundation of the Christian life. But in our world, even what seems simple and uncomplicated is made complex because we don’t live straightforwardly but we live in a sinful culture and society. Our world is turned upside down by our disobedience to the commandments of God and by our prideful willingness to test and tempt and challenge God to find all the loopholes to behaving like a Christian and a child of God. We claim with our lips that we want to be close to God, but God sees our hearts and what we really believe.

However in this particular case in the gospel, this man believes that he has kept the commandments perfectly and therein lies the problem. Scripture tells us that there is none without sin, no not one. We are told that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Even if we live only a day on the earth, we would sin because this is the condition and disposition that we inherited from our ancestors.

The man believes that he is perfect in keeping the commandments and he has pride in this perceived accomplishment and that is why what happens next is so important. Our Lord Jesus Christ gives this man a difficult word, a life-giving instruction. Whenever the Lord speaks words of correction to those that He loves, He challenges them. He gives them life through the word of correction. This is why the reading of the gospels coupled with active repentance is so extremely integral to our spiritual development. Because God loves us, He gives us life giving medicine, and sometimes medicine goes down with difficulties. Sometimes the medicine is not sweet but bitter. Yet this is what is often required for us to come back to sanity and health.

Listen to the words of St. Anthony the Great who writes “The truly intelligent man pursues one sole objective: to obey and to conform to the God of all. With this single aim in view, he disciplines his soul, and whatever he may encounter in the course of his life, he gives thanks to God for the compass and depth of His providential ordering of all things. For it is absurd to be grateful to doctors who give us bitter and unpleasant medicines to cure our bodies, and yet to be ungrateful to God for what appears to us to be harsh, not grasping that all we encounter is for our benefit and in accordance with His providence. For knowledge of God and faith in Him is the salvation and perfection of the soul.”

By this definition we should ask ourselves if we are truly intelligent men and women or if we are less than intelligent. The man in today’s gospel took pride in his keeping of the commandments but the Lord saw through his talk, straight into his heart. The Lord found a sort of spiritual cancer hidden there and He was determined to shine a light on this and expose it and cut it out of the man. Yet, as is so often the case, the healing requires our participation. We have to work in synergy with God to receive full healing.

So whenever the Lord offers us a way out, and healing, He does so without imposing His own will on us. He gives us the prescription and offers us a place on His operating table, but He doesn’t tie us down or force us to choose what is best. But the fact remains that God will often test us to see if we are truly willing to do whatever it takes, to make serious sacrifices of our own will in order to know Him more deeply.

In the case of the man who tested the Lord, the Lord offered him true freedom and the chance of a lifetime. How many of you would have followed the Lord if you were given the chance that day? Perhaps not as many as we think. Why? Because the Lord tests the hearts of those who claim to desire Him. He looks to see what they truly love and the law of Christ is that you cannot serve or love two masters. At some point in your life you are forced to choose and that choice is of necessity painful if our hearts are divided or if we worship false gods. St. Maximos the confessor writes “The person who loves God values knowledge of God more than anything created by God, and pursues such knowledge ardently and ceaselessly.”

May we each love and pursue Christ with everything of our being, because He first loved and pursued us, and this is our only path to life.

Source: Sermons

Dedicated to God?

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple in Jerusalem.

One of the twelve great feasts in the life of the Orthodox Church. Here is what one of the recent saints, St. John of Kronstadt said about this feast:

“On this day, my brethren, the holy Church celebrates the solemn Entry into the temple in Jerusalem of the three-year-old child, Mary—the blessed daughter of righteous parents, Joachim and Anna—to be in instructed in the Lord. Zacharias—the elder and high priest—meets her with priestly splendor; and as he was instructed to do by the Spirit of God, he brings her, accompanied by young maidens, into the most interior part of the temple, the Holy of Holies, where the high priest himself enters but once a year, and where the Holy of Holies, the Lord Himself dwelt—for she was to become the Mother of His flesh.

How did the most blessed Virgin spend her time in the temple? Taught the Hebrew written language and prayer by the Holy Spirit through the maidens, she spent her time in prayer, reading of the word of God (as you can see on the icon of the Annunciation), in divine contemplation, and handiwork. Her love for converse with God and for reading the word of God was so great that she forgot about food and drink, and an Archangel brought her heavenly food at God’s request, as the Church sings in the stichera for today’s feast.

What an excellent example for fathers, mothers, and their children; for Christian maidens and youths!….” He continues saying, “May her children by grace be of one spirit with Her! Let them learn from her how to love the Lord, our Creator, more than anything else in the world, more than father and mother, more than anyone dear to us; how to avidly study the word of God—something unfortunately not seen amongst the disciples of Jesus Christ; learn with what warmth of heart and love we must pray to the Lord; how we must dedicate ourselves to him wholeheartedly; how to entrust our fate to His wise and all-good Providence; with what purity, meekness, humility, and patience we must always clothe and adorn ourselves and not with the vain embellishments of this adulterous and sinful world which knows no bounds of luxury and elegance in bodily clothing; how to love a life with God and the saints “more than to dwell in the tents of sinners (Ps. 83:11).”

We understand the feasts of the Church not simply as commemorations of events that happened in the past but as events that relate directly to us and to our salvation. Mary was dedicated to God from her youth. Her parents dedicated her to God from her youth. We are called to live in imitation of her parents Joachim and Anna, dedicating ourselves and our children to loving and serving God. Their love of God had a powerful effect. It led to their child becoming the vehicle for the salvation of the whole human race. We are called to also be and to raise vehicles for the salvation of the world around us.

When do parents get to stop dedicating themselves to raising godly Christian children? Is it when the children are weaned and begin to eat solid food? Is it when the children begin to take their first steps and walk? Is it when children begin puberty and become teenagers? No. One might argue that to stop focusing at this stage of their lives is akin to gross negligence. We are to dedicate ourselves and our children to God perpetually. We do this by jealously guarding their hearts and minds. To be clear let me say that smartphones and computers are the cause of the majority of the spiritual, and psychological problems that our teens have or will have. Dads, man up and be responsible as leaders in your homes. Moms, lead by example. Whatever care you take in being diligent with your raising your children now, will be accounting as a blessing to you both in this life and forever when you meet the Lord in the kingdom. Set limits and rules and stick to them as if your life or the lives of your children depend on them…because in the truest sense, they do.

All of this requires patience. The world wears us down with distractions and shiny things. We find ourselves living in pleasure and comfort and it’s really easy for us to get complacent and neglect our duties, but the Church teaches us that we are to continuously live with our minds and hearts directed to God.

St. John Chrysostom tells us that the home is to be a little church. So in a real sense, our homes are to be temples where we live and serve God. Practically speaking that means less electronics, less entertainment, and more quality time for family conversation and shared activities, more time for reading and more dedicated time for prayer together. Because our days are numbered and our lives belong to Christ.

We were each dedicated to God just like the Mother of God was dedicated in the Temple. You were dedicated on the day of your baptism. You belong to Christ and your life can be a witness to God’s goodness and love. Your life can also be a path and conduit of grace, healing and salvation that God uses in the lives of many others. What is required of us is to trust God with our lives and our most prized possessions such as our minds, our time, our attention and our children so that He can bless them and return them to us. This is what Joachim and Anna did with their most precious possession, a beautiful 3 year old girl. And God has not ceased to bless us and the whole universe richly through their act of sacrificial dedication, faith and love. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

How To Prove Your Love To God

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

Today we hear about a certain man, a lawyer who put Jesus to the test. It reminds me that quite often we are guilty of doing the same thing and trying to test God. We come up with various scenarios in our minds and theorize that this or that action or behavior is appropriate based on our own personalized reading of Scripture or using the idea that perhaps a certain activity or behavior is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. But let me remind you that we are not Protestants with our own tailor-made unique reading of the Bible that applies only to me.

As Orthodox Christians we have God as our Father and the Church as our Mother, which means that we have the teachings of the Church and her saints to also help guide us. Trying to justify my sinful actions through smooth words and slippery philosophies is hardly attempting to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. This is true whether it applies to casual sexual activity or illegal drugs or using foul language or any other thing that you can think of. The two can’t reside together. We can’t both test God and hope to be well pleasing to God. We shouldn’t try to be one person with dual aims and goals that are divergent. We should try to be a unified whole, everything moving together in the right direction.

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

As the lawyer attempts to put Jesus to the test, he himself is tested with severity. Jesus puts the man on notice with a very simple idea. You cannot possibly begin to understand loving God with all of your self and all of your strength until you actualize this love concretely towards your neighbor. The love you desire to have towards God is demonstrated by the actual love you show to the flesh and blood people around you, to those who are made in the image and likeness of God. Love is only a lofty theory if we continually speak about our love for God but we don’t lift a finger or break a sweat to serve and assist our neighbors.

St. Dorotheos of Gaza once said “The more one is united to his neighbor the more he is united to God.” So in fact we can look at our neighbor as a springboard or a trampoline or a rocket ship that propels us quickly towards the God we claim to desire with our heart. St. Dorotheos goes a bit further and he gives some practical advice on how we deal with others. You know that often people will say “I wish that I could be loving to such and such a person, but they are not loving to me. Yet here is what St. Dorotheos wrote “Do not ask for love from your neighbor, for if you ask and he does not respond, you will be troubled. Instead show your love for your neighbour and you will be at rest, and so will bring your neighbour to love.” It is the act of love that kindles love and not vice versa. This is also reflected in the teaching of our Lord who said “If you love me, obey my commandments.”

We also cannot underestimate the power of praying for others and forgiving others as true acts of love.

As we continue to think about new ways to love our neighbors and in turn draw closer to Christ, we are also reminded that the Nativity Fast begins tomorrow. St. John Chrysostom, whom we celebrated yesterday gives us some beautiful words regarding the true character of Christian fasting and I believe that it ties everything together nicely. He writes,

“For the value of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it. Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works! Is it said by what kind of works? If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see an enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honour, envy him not! If you see a (lovely) woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.” -St. John Chrysostom

Through these holy activities we will begin to show that we are children of the One who Himself took pity upon us and our broken condition and treated us as His neighbors and friends. To Christ alone be glory forever and ever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Abiding in God’s Love

The Reading from the First Epistle of St. John. (4:12-19)

Today we celebrate the memory of St. John the Theologian, the beloved disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ. For this reason we hear from St. John’s first epistle and we are given a glimpse into wonderful things.

First St. John opens the epistle with these words “Brethren, no one has ever seen God.” It is a straightforward statement but we should take it to heart. We live in a world that increasingly denies the existence of God. If you speak of God you are looked at like you are crazy. Yet the Theologian is direct with us and tells us that “No one has ever seen God.” By this he means that no one has seen God, the Father. However the same one who tells us that no one ever saw God the Father tells us something even more remarkable “We have seen and do testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.” It is truly a stunning verse!

St. John tells us that although no one has ever seen God the Father, he and the others with him were living witnesses to the Son of God, Jesus Christ. They experienced life with Christ. They touched Him. They witnessed His betrayal and death. They rejoiced in His resurrection on the third day. The lives of the disciples would never be the same after all that they had seen and experienced. Everything changed because of the truth of what they had seen and experienced and it was confirmed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. John confirms this when he writes “By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”

St. John tells us that we can also experience what he and the other disciples experienced. We have our own personal Pentecost when we receive the Holy Spirit. Of course we receive the Holy Spirit on the day of our baptism (and or chrismation) and yet we as believers are called to try to stir up the grace of the Holy Spirit and be renewed through our daily life of faith and repentance. Without repentance and fasting and spiritual disciplines we become stagnant and our heart grows cold and hard and we don’t sense the work of the Holy Spirit.

Once at a clergy retreat we had the privilege of spending time with His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos who wrote an amazing book about the prayer life called “A night on the desert of the Holy Mountain.” When one of the priests asked him how we could take a shortcut to deeper prayer and to growing closer to Christ he replied “prayer with tears.” When our heart is softened then we will sense the grace of the Holy Spirit working within us. That is where we know God. Not with our eyes, but in our hearts. King David writing in Psalm 51 said “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise.” When our hearts are broken, preferably daily in prayerful repentance, then our hearts are open to experiencing God more fully. Because He is humble, He reveals Himself to those who are humble of heart.

St. John tells us that “whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him and he in God.” We are encouraged to confess the true nature of Jesus Christ within our hearts and minds and also to others. Are we ashamed to mention Christ and His Church? Are we afraid that others might think that we are “weird”? These are small indications that our heart might still need some tuning. We can confess that Jesus is the Son of God with our whole lives. How do we live? What decisions do we make? Do we dedicate time from our busy lives to acknowledge that our lives are a gift from this loving God? Do we think about the Lord in the middle of the day? Do we pray to Jesus in quiet moments of the day or even unceasingly? These are just a few of the ways that we confess Christ in our lives and we experience His life as our own. And this is the life that the Church itself tries to give to the people who live by faith.

St. John continues this passage with a beautiful verse “God is love.” He tells us that “he who abides in love abides in God.” What does it mean to abide in love? Does it mean to do whatever you want? Does it mean to love whomever you want, and in whatever way you want, as we are encouraged to do in our broken world? No. On this point St. Basil the great wrote “If God is love, as John says, then it must be that the devil is hatred. As he who has love has God, so he who has hatred has the devil dwelling in him.” Likewise we can say that those who claim to love but do so outside of the commandments or in opposition to the commandments of God, are not loving but full of hatred because they build their lives upon a foundation of rebellion and hatred for the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ who loves us and gave His life to bring us to life.

You don’t get to make the rules, since you are not the master of your own life. And we wouldn’t want our own rules anyways because we are the cause of most of the problems in our life. Christ is the divine law-giver and we have to accept life according to His rules if we want to inherit His life. The one who abides in love is the one who lives within the commandments and teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ as his only way of life. When we live within the love of His commandments, especially the commandment to love our neighbors, we begin to know God more deeply. We are purified and enlightened by the light of God’s commandments through pursuing them and being obedient to them. And since the commandments come from God, we truly begin to know Him through them. It is like a door that is only unlocked from the inside of our hearts. Christ stands at the door of our hearts to knock, but we must daily choose to open the door by serving and loving others and obeying His divine teachings. For His divine teachings are life and love and joy and when we live in them, we are promised to know Him in truth. To Christ alone be the glory with His Father and the Holy Spirit AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Of Snakes And Men

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (3:13-17)

In today’s gospel reading Our Lord Jesus Christ refers to an amazing story in the Old Testament Scriptures, in the book of Numbers chapter 21. Starting at verse 4 we read:

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way.5And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9So Moses made a bronzec serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” Num 21: 4-9

The people complained against God and we see that according to Scripture it is considered dangerous and sinful to complain, to speak against God and against those whom God has placed over us in our lives. Certainly this applies directly to the clergy but also can be understood as applying to others whom God has placed over us such as parents and teachers, coaches, instructors etc.

When the people spoke against God and His servant Moses we are told that God sends fiery serpents among the people as a form of correction. It can also be understood that God simply removed His protection from the people in order to teach them not to blaspheme and grumble against Him. When we speak about God or address God directly, we are reminded that we must do so carefully, even within our hearts and minds. God is due reverence, thanksgiving, awe and holy fear. God is not your maid or your genie to grant all of your wishes. God is also not Burger King and you can’t have it your way!

However God did not abandon the people who repented and turned back to Him. Those who confessed their sins and humbled themselves before God’s servant Moses were given mercy. God allowed the serpents to come and He also heard the cries of the people for help. He had an answer and it defied logic, reason, science or anything that one might expect. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten by the serpents running through the camp, the person who was bit was to look to the bronze serpent and they would not die but live.

The Lord tells us that He Himself became as the bronze serpent. We can say that the bronze serpent was a prefigurement and foreshadowing of Christ Himself. What the bronze serpent was able to do for the physical health of the people in the wilderness, Christ would do for the spiritual health and salvation of the whole world, especially for those who looked to Him with faith, as the crucified Lord. In today’s gospel reading we are reminded by our Lord Jesus Christ that God has loved, does love and will continue to love the world and His people who are in the world. Those who seek Him, and love Him and serve Him in faith.

We are like the people in the wilderness. Sometimes we grumble and complain. Sometimes we lack gratitude to God for all of His generous blessings. Sometimes we fall into sins. At times our falling into sin can bring us to the point of despair. We think that we can’t recover, that everything will be lost, that we can never become holy, that we can never draw closer to Christ. Yet we are reminded that we already have the antidote, we already have the vaccine. This vaccine is greater than any that has ever been made in the history of the world. When you take any vaccine it cannot prevent death. Yet Christ offers us exactly that. He offers us the ability to transcend death because He has died for us. If we have faith in Christ and are faithful to Christ, we will be saved and restored to life in, through and with Jesus Christ. Yes we can be bitten by the spiritual snakes. Yes we can be struck by the demons and feel that we are mortally wounded due to our sins and failings, but Christ reminds us that the antidote is close at hand and this is offered freely to every man, woman and child. He offers His life for our life. St. John Chrysostom says “These two things, more than anything else, declare his unspeakable love: that he both suffered for his enemies and, having died for his enemies, he freely gave them by baptism the entire forgiveness of all of their sins.”

St. Gregory the Theologian writes “Let us praise the Son first of all, venerating the blood that expiated (wiped away) our sins. He lost nothing of his divinity when he saved me, when like a good physician he stooped to my festering wounds. He was a mortal man, but he was also God. He was of the race of David but Adam’s creator. He who has no body clothed himself with flesh. He had a mother who, nonetheless, was a virgin. He who is without bounds bound himself with the cords of our humanity. He was victim and high priest—yet he was God. He offered up his blood and cleansed the whole world. He was lifted up on the cross, but it was sin that was nailed to it. He became as one among the dead, but he rose from the dead, raising to life also many who had died before him.”

As we prepare to celebrate the feast of the cross tomorrow evening, let us never forget that God is love and that this love was proven for us, poured out for us upon the cross. God sees our condition. He knows our state. And He has provided the medicine for our healing. May we be like those Israelites in the wilderness who quickly looked to the image of the bronze serpent to save their lives. Let us also look to the image of our Lord crucified, that we might find health, joy and life even unto everlasting. AMEN

Source: Sermons

A Taste Of The Kingdom

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (18:23-35) 

Often when we speak to children they ask us about the nature of heaven. “What is heaven like?” Even adults often wish to catch a glimpse into this mysterious reality. Yet, the Lord Jesus Christ in His earthly ministry, often gave His disciples and the people who came to hear Him, a sneak peek into the nature of these mysteries such as the kingdom of heaven. He does this in today’s reading. He tells us something about the nature of things in the kingdom of heaven.

Our Lord who loves mankind, tells us that the kingdom is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. He found that his servants could not pay their debts which they owed and so he generously forgave them and wiped away their debts to him. However in the parable we find that there is a wrinkle. All is not well. One of the servants who was forgiven all of his outstanding debts that were owed to the king, went out from his meeting where the king had just forgiven him and he in turn found one of his servants who owed him a very small amount. He grabbed him and began to choke that lesser servant and said to him “pay what you owe!” So the servant pleaded with him and said, “have patience with me and I will pay you.” But the first servant refused and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.” 

Upon seeing this, the other servants who were standing nearby went and reported what had happened to the king. And then the king summoned that servant and said to him “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And we are told that in anger the king delivered him up to the jailers until he should pay all his debt. And then we get the moral of the story: “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

We are reminded by the Lord Jesus that forgiveness is not a matter of opinion or feelings. It’s not really about what we want to do. It is about what we need to do for our own health and well being, as well as the well being of others. Forgiveness is a life or death conscious decision. Of course we are speaking about spiritual life or spiritual death. 

Forgiveness is a foundational aspect of the life of a Christian. It was forgiveness that the Lord demonstrated when He hung on the cross for us. It was forgiveness that was given to us as a gift at the time of our baptism into Christ. It is forgiveness that is offered to us daily when we repent and pray to God and when we come and receive the sacrament of confession. We have received so much by the grace of God. No matter what others have done to you in your life, they have not done anything compared to what we have done against God. Not even close. According to St. John Chrysostom, this is precisely why the debt owed to the king is much greater than the debt owed to the servant. People may sin against us but it is rather infrequent, yet according to St. John, we openly sin against God who is watching all the time and knows all things! 

My brothers and sisters, if we search our hearts we might find that we are angry with others, hurt by them. We can see that our society is more angry as a whole. It is also the case that this wretched pandemic has further divided people. God is giving us plenty of opportunities to learn this blessed work of forgiveness. Perhaps it is because people do not forgive one another that they are so angry. Perhaps it is because we don’t forgive one another and we don’t reflect the reality of God’s radical forgiveness. But how can we reflect this reality unless we first embrace it and accept that God has indeed forgiven us? We have to acknowledge the work of God in our lives. How He has wiped away our sins and refashioned us in the image of His Son.

It is very hard to live a perfect life, to live without offending or being offended by others. Yet through forgiveness, every door to godliness is open to us. 

Who should we forgive? We should start by forgiving those who are closest to us. Typically they are the ones that we feel the most resentment towards. It is sad to see husbands and wives at enmity with one another. It does not please God. God designed them to be one in Christ. To be welded together through His love. Yet often it’s the case that they are angry with one another and harbor resentments and bad feelings, sometimes for many years or decades. What a pitiful condition! It is also sometimes the case between parents and their children, between friends and between members within the body of Christ, the Church. 

Each year I am struck by the beauty of Forgiveness Vespers that we celebrate right before we plunge into Great and Holy Lent. It’s such wonderful moment in the life of the church because each person humbles themselves before every other person and forgives them and embraces them from the depths of their heart. We do this without asking questions or explaining ourselves or figuring things out or deciding who should forgive whom. We all join in expressing our mutual brokenness and mutual need for mercy. 

We don’t have to wait until forgiveness vespers to reconcile with those around us. Sometimes the best reconciliation happens when we humble ourselves and go and ask forgiveness of others. We may feel that others owe us or should ask our forgiveness but still we can start down the path. We may not even know what we have done to others but asking them to forgive us goes a long way towards opening the pathways of grace to work in the heart. Instead of being enclosed in a prison of resentment and scorekeeping, the heart is opened to receive and give mercy and forgiveness. 

Often I’m asked, “Father, how do you deal with someone when they hurt you?” My first answer is to pray for them. Remember them by name and bring them to God. In that way we become like the saints and intercede on behalf of others. We also become like God Himself. Today’s parable is an invitation to choose. Either be like God and dwell with Him forever or choose to be unlike God, to be refused by God, and thrown into a prison of your own making, built upon all of your resentments and pain and all of your personal injustices. A place where we can not be reached by God. At the same time, we force people to stay locked in the prison that we have created by choosing not to forgive them. We hold them captive and make them victims instead of liberating them with love, as God has liberated us. Choose wisely my brothers and sisters.

I pray that we will choose to cultivate a merciful disposition beginning with our own faithful repentance, convinced that God is merciful and full of forgiveness. As St. Gregory of Sinai writes,”God immediately forgives everything to those who ask forgiveness in a spirit of humility and contrition and who ceaselessly invoke His holy name. As the Psalmist says, ‘Confess to the Lord and call upon His holy name’ (cf. Ps. 105:1).”

May this be for us a taste of His mercy, the true nature of the kingdom of God. And having tasted of this kingdom, may we choose to dwell within it and invite others to do so. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

He Stands In The Storm

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (14:22-34) 

In today’s gospel reading we hear the story of the disciples who are in truth, in a bad situation.  They were stranded on the sea in the midst of a violent storm.  In all likelihood, they were in a boat that was quite small, meant for fishing, and they were really tossed about by the powerful winds and the surging waves all around them.  They feared for their very lives.  There was no coastguard to call, no life jackets, and no hope.  But all at once, hope appeared.  As if out of nowhere, and in the most unexpected way, hope was present.  What was this hope?  Their hope at that very moment was not a “what”, but a “who”.  Their hope at that very moment was Jesus Christ.

There is so much for us to learn and to hear within this gospel message.  We notice how the Lord did not wait for their situation to resolve itself in order to make an appearance.  Far from it!  We sometimes think that we need to do everything possible to order and control our lives as if we can help God. Yet, the Lord did not wait, He came to them in the most unbelievable of ways, He came to them in the midst of their trial and difficulty, in the midst of their trial.  He did not require a boat, He came to them walking upon the water.  He did not require a clear path or a resolution to the storm.  He entered into the heart of the storm.  Why?  Because His people, His sheep, were there, in the midst of the storm, and they needed Him at that moment. He came because they needed Him.  

We see some storms happening in the world around us.  Sickness, disease, lawlessness, tyrannical governments, and much more. In our own lives we struggle with the trial of our own fallenness and we deal with our brokenness and the resulting broken relationships with others. All of these are parts of the storm of life.  It can make you wonder if you can ever escape from the middle of the storms.  We go from one day to the next and we wonder how we can take anymore. We wonder what is coming next?  But there is something important to remember.  We were not meant to be helpless victims to our situation in life.  

Since we are the sheep and Christ is our shepherd, we are not helpless, we are known by God, seen by Him.  He hears our voices and our cries.  He will never leave us abandoned no matter how difficult our life might seem at any given moment.  That is good news.  The Lord says that He cares and provides for the sparrow, and He reminds us that we are of infinitely greater value than a tiny bird.  Yet there is more.  Because we are His children and He wants to share His glory with us, He will not merely be with us in the midst of trials and storms, He will cause us to be able to stand even in the midst of the storm, even upon the waters of the sea. In fact this is exactly what happened to Peter when he saw Christ. He regained his courage and called to the Lord. When we see Christ in our lives, we are given new strength and courage to face whatever we must face.

In the midst of our difficulties in life, no matter what they might be, we should not be overly concerned with the winds and the waves, we have to have faith. We have to look through the storm for Christ. This is no doubt a symbol and a reminder for us to pray through all of our difficult times in life and to seek His face. Don’t run to instagram and facebook, pinterest and netflix. The answers to the storms of life are not to be found there. Neither are they found in drugs and websites and games and the various things we focus on to ignore our pain. Christ is the only answer of God the Father, His very Word. As we seek Him diligently, faithfully, with a pure and ever repentant heart, in a moment, in an instant, we will see Him coming to us in the middle of our difficulties and we will hear these words spoken directly to each of us “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” 

Even now, even if it is your most difficult time of life, it is no time to despair and lose faith. It is time to seek Him with greater resolve as did Peter at that moment that seems to us to be a moment of pure insanity. But what seems insane in our worldly thinking is often truly sane when seen with the eyes of faith. Who would dare to ask to walk on the water in the midst of a storm? No one, but the one who understands that His master is the only one who can conquer the storm. All of a sudden, what seemed impossible, becomes our reality. And even if we begin to falter and lose hope, lose focus, even momentarily lose faith, we can continue to follow the example of Peter who cried out as he began to sink “Lord, save me!” And Jesus immediately stretched out His hand and grabbed hold of His creation. He was of great value in the eyes of his Master and maker. You also are of great value in the eyes of your Master and maker. So even as you feel that you are like Peter and you are beginning to sink in the storms of life, and the waters are beginning to surround you and to creep up above your neck, the Lord encourages us to continue to have faith. As He said to Peter “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” Let us also be full of courage and faith. The One who is able to stand in the midst of the sea and calm the storms is able to handle whatever storms you are facing or will face, and He alone can raise you up to stand by His side through everything that life throws at us, even death itself. Because He is the lover of mankind. Glory be to God forever AMEN. 

Source: Sermons

The Feast of Dormition and Our Focus In Life

 The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (10:38-42; 11:27-28)

Today in the Holy Orthodox Church we celebrate the last of the twelve great feasts of the Church year, the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Virgin Mary. As you may remember, today’s gospel reading is the same exact gospel reading that the Church appoints for us on nearly every feast of the Mother of God. It seems that there is a powerful message that the Church is trying to drill into hearts and minds. There is something about this gospel text that tells us something special about Mary, the Mother of God. Let us contemplate this reading together for a few moments.

In the Church it seems that we have two kinds of people, those who are like Martha and those who are like Mary. Both of these groups love Christ, but they relate to Him in different ways, with different levels of priority. Those who are busy working, serving and looking after many things and those who tend to leave some of those things in the background in order to focus on what Our Lord Jesus calls the one needful thing.

On the surface we find it easy to relate to Martha. She is like us. She wants to serve others. She sees plenty of work to be done and doesn’t see enough people doing the work. She is frustrated and at her wits end. She must have been because that is the only way to explain her behavior and the way that she addressed the Lord. And her frustration would have been valid and justified except for one small problem. She was frustrated with her sister because her sister was sitting attentively, in the presence of Christ, listening to and absorbing the teaching of our Lord and forgetting everything else in the world. I wish that we would all be found guilty of the same.

Sometimes we are also like Martha. We love God but we want to make sure that everything is just so before we can rest and focus on Christ. We want to get our lives in order. So we organize and clean and plan and help and do everything that we can with the idea that we are building a foundation through our service to God. Yet the Lord often turns our understanding on it’s head. He says to Martha and in turn, to each of us “I am the proper foundation of life, focus on me first.” How many distractions and matters do we allow ourselves to put before God and His teaching and His presence in our life? In essence the Lord says to Martha, “your life will be well ordered when it starts with Me.”

I have often shared with our people that the very first thing that should happen every morning is that we fall on our knees in prayer and that we read the words of the gospel. This should happen before we check our phones or get on our computers or talk to others or eat breakfast. First be filled with Christ’s presence and His words and then you will have a foundation for serving others and dealing with the anxieties and business of life. 

The Mother of God was busy in her life, after all she was a mother, not just any mother, but the mother of the long awaited Messiah, the savior of the world.  And it is precisely for this reason that we see that she is focused on God.  That is the message from the Church today in the reading.  If you want to be blessed like the Holy Mother, if you want to live a worthwhile life, you will only be able to do that in so much as your life is a reflection of your love for God and your focus on God.  And we hear exactly that sentiment from our Lord when the woman cries out to Him “blessed is the womb that bore you and the breast which nursed you.”  And the Lord replies “Rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  

What ultimately makes the Mother of God so precious to us and to all of humanity is that she was willing not only to make God her focus and to hear the word of God, she took it one step further and kept the life giving word of God.  In a very literal sense, she allowed the word of God a place to dwell within her and to be nurtured and developed and grown.  We have each in a very real sense been blessed by her extreme faithfulness to nurturing the word of God.  For this reason shall all generations call her blessed!  What was possible for her is also a possibility for us.  What prevents you from sitting at the feet of God and making Him your focus?  What prevents you from hearing the word of God and keeping the word faithfully in your life?  What prevents you from bearing the life giving fruit of such faithful obedience, and sharing this fruit with the world around you?  To do so is to honor and to be honored by God.  No one fulfills this better than the Holy Virgin. Yet this path is one that is open to each of us because of the saving and redemptive work of her only Son.

We can barely fathom the holiness and the beauty of this woman that we lovingly call the Mother of God.  We can barely comprehend the way that she was loved and reverenced by the disciples and apostles of the Lord.  She was held in extreme honor and her departure from this life was a moment of great sadness for the apostles.  It was as if each one of them had lost their very own mother!  Yet, holy tradition tells us that the disciples were given great consolation on the third day, when they found the tomb empty and she appeared to them later that evening with these words of comfort “Rejoice! I am with you all the days of your lives!”

My prayer is that we will also come to this realization that she is with us, even now.  Reach out to her my brothers and sisters and she will strengthen us and help us and pray for us to her Son. Let us follow her example of love and faithfulness and make the Lord the very center and the heart of our lives. For this alone is wisdom and life.  Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Turning Trials Into Hope

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans. (12:6-14) and The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (9:1-8) 

St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome. He wrote into the very center of the empire that so many had understood to be evil. We do not have to look far and we see evil all around us. Some believe that the United States is the modern equivalent to the Roman empire. And we as Christians are here, now. One of the powerful aspects of our faith is the belief that Holy Scripture and the New Testament are alive and rich with meaning for all generations and all peoples. What St. Paul spoke to the Romans is now very important for us to study. We might be questioning what is going on all around us, we may be anxious, fearful, maybe even falling into despair. Allow the words of the great Apostle to guide and comfort you during this time.Let us hear again these words given to us in today’s epistle, 

“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads,f with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. 9Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit,g serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

What St. Paul is telling us is that each one of us has a part to play within this story of life. Each one of us has been placed here by God in order to serve and to love and to help one another. In whatever we do to use the gifts that God has given each of us, St. Paul exhorts us not tobe lazy but fervent and energetic in our service to God and the body of Christ, which is the members of the Church. God has given us amazing strength and gifts and talents in various ways. As things may get more difficult for us, it is necessary for us to use these gifts wisely and bear fruit for the Lord. What is this fruit? It is the fruit of holiness. The fruit of lives that are sanctified and offered to God, to the doing of His will, to the keeping of His commands. 

St. Paul not only reminds us to love one another and serve one another, he goes further to encourage the Christians in Rome. He tells them to “rejoice in hope.” How can he dare to say this? He saw the way that Christians were treated. He understood that they were persecuted unjustly. Was he insensitive to their predicament? No, he understood it quite well, yet he had a hope that remained in his heart because he met with the risen Lord Jesus Christ. His hope was found in the resurrection of Christ. His hope was in the Lord’s defeat of death. St. John Chrysostom speaks about tribulation and hope when he says “All these things are fuel for the fire of the Spirit.… There is nothing which makes the soul so courageous and (adventurous)for anything as a good hope.”

Where is our hope my brothers and sisters? Where was the hope of the Roman Christians? Did it matter if the authorities were unjust to the Christians? They were also unjust with the Lord Jesus. What did it matter if the Christians were persecuted and killed, if the authorities could not break their spirits and kill their souls? Everything in life is turned on it’s head by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything in the life of a Christian is turned on it’s head and given new meaning by entering into and living within the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection. Your life is not your own, it belongs to Jesus Christ. You have nothing to fear if Christ is with you. But without Christ in your life, you will fear everything, even your own shadow.

As Christians we are not guaranteed peaceful and comfortable lives. We have mostly lived in comfort but we should always be ready for trials and difficulties. Perhaps that is one of the lessons the Church teaches us through the ascetic disciplines. Yet St. Paul has a word for us in case we do run into trials and difficult circumstances. He says we should be “patient in tribulation.” But how can we possibly do this? How can we go on when we feel great difficulties in our lives? How do we manage when we feel that we are under a cloud and unable to lift our heads? St. Paul tells us the answer and it is so simple that I think we often take it for granted, “continue steadfastly in prayer.” 

Prayer is our bridge to God and God is our only source of strength and hope. St. Joseph of Optina writes “Prayer is food for the soul. Do not starve the soul, it is better to let the body go hungry.”

Similarly St. Gregory Palamas writes “Prayer changes from entreaty to thanksgiving, and meditation on the divine truths of faith fills the heart with a sense of jubilation and unimpeachable hope. This hope is a foretaste of future blessings, of which the soul even now receives direct experience, and so it comes to know in part the surpassing richness of God’s bounty, in accordance with the Psalmist’s words, ‘Taste and know that the Lord is bountiful’ (Ps. 34:8). For He is the jubilation of the righteous, the joy of the upright, the gladness of the humble, and the solace of those who grieve because of Him.”

When we are most hungry, most thirsty, most weak, that is when it is easiest to give up. This is often when we turn to the smartphones and the televisions and others turn to drugs or alcohol. But these are all thieves and robbers. They steal your attention, your lives and your hearts while they offer you very little in return. And that is precisely the wrong solution to our situation. This is precisely when we should be most diligent and eager to do the work and run to Christ in prayer. We call God our Father, but do we live this reality and understand just how much God loves us and wants to support us? He wants to give us everything that He has because we are His children. Let us trust Him and have hope that we will be victorious with Him. Be courageous in hunting for pure prayer with Christ. Turn your life upside down and be disciplined in the small things in order to find the pearl of great price and the treasure of prayer. Everything else will pass away but what we have cultivated between us and God will remain forever. This is our hope and in this hope we will be conquerers with Christ, the victorious King, to Him be the glory with His Father and the Holy Spirit forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons