Orthodoxy, Step 1.

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

Last week we celebrated the Feast of Theophany and it was indeed a glorious celebration as we welcomed 8 new members into the family of God, the holy Church. 

The feast of Theophany is special in it’s own right and it also has the special distinction of being the event which happened at the start of the preaching ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was an indication that something new was about to happen. Something for which the world had groaned and hoped and desired. St. Matthew tells us that the Lord came to dwell in the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali and that this would fulfill what was spoken of hundreds of years earlier by the prophet Isaiah who wrote “The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 

The Word of God began to teach mankind directly through His word, through His preaching and teaching. He began His process of recreating the universe which He had created by His own word by recreating humanity with His life giving teachings. And we are told that the very first precious word of the Lord’s preaching ministry is this one powerful word “REPENT”.

The word “repent” means to have a change of heart or a change of mind. It means that we who have turned our back to God will turn around and face Him and walk towards Him with our whole person, in our actions and purpose, in our bodies and minds and hearts. 

Step one of the Orthodox Christian life is to understand that all of life is a life of repentance. It is one of the subjects that the saints and fathers and mothers of the Church do no cease to discuss and teach. 

One of the modern saints, St. Nikolai Velimirovic said 

“Repentance is the abandoning of all false paths that have been trodden by men’s feet, and men’s thoughts and desires, and a return to the new path: Christ’s path. But how can a sinful man repent unless he, in his heart, meets with the Lord and knows his own shame? Before little Zacchaeus saw the Lord with his eyes, he met Him in his heart and was ashamed of all his ways.” 

Repentance is not about shame, but it involves shame. Shame is not desirable as a stopping place, but as a starting point to turning back to Christ. When we have a healthy sense of shame, it turns our attention from actions and thoughts that bring us separation from God, death and destruction and it turns us towards what St. Nikolai calls a new path, Christ’s path. If he doesn’t think about his life and his actions, if he doesn’t reflect and acknowledge his wrongdoing he deceives himself. It means that he or she is on a false path because the path does not lead back to Christ. Only the path of painful, genuine, heartfelt shame brings us to fall on our knees and cry out to God from the depths of the heart. This is the prayer that is precious in the sight of God. 

King David understood this well and we see it reflected in Psalm 50, which in common usage is actually Psalm 51 and begins “Have mercy on me. O God.” In this psalm we hear these words, 

“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.” 

God doesn’t ask for much, He certainly doesn’t require animal or blood sacrifices from us as He once did of the people of Israel. But He does desire a sacrifice, the sacrifice of our spirit, the sacrifice of our heart. He doesn’t need it. But He knows that we need it. Unless we tear down the old way of our life through repentance, we are doomed to continue going down that path again and again. Repentance is quite painful but it is the only way forward. Why is it painful? Because we have made sin a part of who we are and it clings to and infects every aspect of us from our thoughts to our activities to our appearance to our speech. It even affects our sleep. When one actually repents he is declaring war on his desires and passions and this is a type of death. We start that process in baptism as we put to death the old man, and come to newness of life with the resurrected Lord Jesus. Repentance is indeed tough.It destroys the old, crooked ways that feellike they area part of usand itlays the groundwork and foundation for anew road to Christ our King.

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

How do we do this? We repent daily. We pray the prayers of repentance such as Psalm 50/51. We study the Gospels and learn just how far we are from the ideals that the Lord is teaching. We use Him as our canon and measuring stick. We also come to confession. There is no doubt in my mind that confession is one of the most difficult spiritual practices and that is why it is also one of the most beneficial. It causes pain to bring out one’s inner sins and shame and declare them to the Lord in the presence of the priest. But this pain is actually life-giving surgery. Through this momentary pain, pride is uprooted and humility is laid down as the foundation of the journey to Christ.

The Orthodox Church teaches that as we begin the difficult work of repentance we will not be alone. God will do most of the work. He is merciful to help us and save us. He feels for us and desires to transform us into new creatures. He alone does the work of redemption by His grace. Repentance is the key by which we enter into His grace and presence.

May Christ our God give us the courage to repent genuinely and thoroughly, that we might allow Him to refashion us properly, in His blessed image and likeness. That He alone might bind our wounds and turn our shame into eternal joy. Glory be to God Forever AMEN. 

Source: Sermons


A Few Words For The Newly Baptized and Chrismated

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to Titus. (2:11-15; 3:4-7)

Joy of the Feast to all of you! And our joy is truly filled to the brim today as we celebrate this amazing feast of Theophany, the appearance of the Holy Trinity to mankind. And we are also celebrating one of the most joyous events in the life of the Church, that is the baptisms and chrismations of our newest members. I will not say much but I want to address them today. It is my hope that while I am addressing them, many of you will take these words to heart.

In today’s epistle we hear these glorious words: “The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world; awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for Himself a people of His own who are zealous for good deeds.” So that is what I would call a pretty nice summary of the Christian faith and the Christian life.

These are the things that we do here together as a community, as the body of Christ. We have much to celebrate today as you have been filled with the Holy Spirit and newness of life, and as you prepare to receive the holy body and precious blood of Our beloved Lord Jesus Christ. We have much to celebrate but we cannot forget that this is not the finish line. This is only the beginning. Let this not be another day in your life, but the day that you recommit yourselves to live only for Jesus Christ and what is profitable for your salvation.

One of our great modern saints, St. Nektarius of Aegina, in his book, The Path to Happiness, wrote:

“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.” end of quote.

You did not become an Orthodox Christian to magically become holy overnight. You did not become an Orthodox Christian to quit struggling. We are here as Orthodox Christians who ask Christ to bless our struggle and mold us into His image, as we seek to enter into the victory over sin and death that He has already obtained for us through His death and resurrection! It is your victory as an adopted child of God. Stretch out the hands of your heart to Christ and embrace all that He offers you. He will never leave you or abandon you, because God is love and love never ever fails. AMEN.

Source: Sermons


What If We Are Worse Than Herod?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (2:13-23) 

One of my professors in seminary would always say that when you read the holy gospels, or when you listen to the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, you should always think of yourself as one of the people that Christ is correcting. Why would he say that? He was trying to teach us how to read the gospels with humility. After all, what can we take from the teaching of the Lord if we feel that somehow we are already keeping all of His teachings? The benefit to us is quite small if we come to the Lord and believe that we are already righteous, but the benefit is infinitely great if we see ourselves as the ones in dire need of His healing touch.

As we are continuing to celebrate the feast of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ we hear this gospel passage from Matthew 2, and it could be really easy for us to look at the situation and immediately judge the characters put before us. The main antagonist in this gospel passage and in the stories relating to the birth of Christ is Herod. We know this because he was hunting for the baby Jesus in the angels words “to destroy Him.” Herod’s madness of course went much further because he did not stop at hunting down the infant Jesus, he also killed every male child under the age of two, in the whole region of Bethlehem, to the tune of 14,000 babies in all. He was a truly a barbaric, beastly man.

But it is not enough to simply see him as an evil man and to move on. We are well served to see ourselves as not much better than this man. Everyone is capable of great evil. Everyone who has not been purified in their heart is carrying terrible thoughts and desires although we may not act on them. But the Lord tells us that the one who has the thoughts, has committed the sins in the place where it matters, that is the heart.

So how might we be like this mad tyrant Herod? We are like him because we do not give the Lord time to grow in our hearts. He comes to us each day, as an infant, as a little voice, a brief thought. But what do we do with that thought? We usually cast it out of our minds and hearts just as quickly as we can. Since the Lord comes to us in a gentle and humble way, like an infant, it is so easy for us to cast Him aside in our day to day lives. Sometimes we go further than casting Him aside, we actually destroy the remembrance of Him through our unrepentant life of sin. St. Paul speaks of this when he writesForit isimpossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put himto an open shame” Heb 6:4-6.

From this we understand that each one of us has the potential to be just as bad as Herod, and even worse because unlike Herod, we have all tasted of the grace of God and been enlightened by the Holy Spirit and yet we sometimes choose to fall away without aiming to repent and return. Our hearts can turn cold just as Herod had an icy cold heart. What is the solution to this terrible problem? How can we keep from stumbling and falling as did Herod?

First, we have to honor the voice of the Lord in the little day to day things. If we do not honor the still, soft voice of God when He comes to us gently, how will we honor Him when He comes as king and judge over all creation? So we honor Him by honoring His commandments and His teachings and by honoring His words to each of us. When we honor the small, we receive the greater. When we read the gospels every day with more eagerness than we give to football games and video games and social media and novels and news reports, we then show ourselves to be worthy recipients of God’s Son. It is like we are welcoming Him into our home instead of chasing Him out of our minds and into a foreign place (which is Egypt).  Herod was not a worthy recipient of the news of the birth of the one born king, and because he did not accept the news with joy, he lost the opportunity to be saved through this amazing gift. But his failure did not end there.

We can also keep from stumbling like Herod by acknowledging that there can only be one king and His name is Jesus Christ, the name which is above all others. We are required to do what Herod in his pride and arrogance would not do. We are called to fall on our knees and submit with gratitude to the Son of God and His lordship over our lives.  Am I ready to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the master and I am the servant or slave of God? Or am I like Herod, simply unable and unwilling to accept that anyone should have lordship over me and my life?

Herod thought of his life, his position and his status as his own.  He was in delusion. This is the delusion of sin which leads to death.  He thought of his status and position and life as things that should be protected at all costs, even the murder of tens of thousands of innocent children, even the attempted murder of the new born messiah.  Are we also in delusion? Do we think of our life as our own? How could we possibly think that our life was our own? You did not give yourself life. Life was breathed into you by the One to whom you owe your very existence.  The One who gave us life also bought us at a price and redeemed our lives from sin and death. For this we ought to be eternally thankful and joyful and in this joy we must not walk but run to embrace Jesus Christ with our very lives.  Run to Him! Grow in Him! Become one with Him! 

If we take this seriously we will not be found lacking like the tyrant Herod but will find our real strength and treasure and life in the life of Christ our Lord, to Him alone is due all glory, with His Father and the Holy Spirit AMEN.

Source: Sermons


A Family Tree Full of Bad Apples

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (1:1-25) 

Our reading today is given to us on the Sunday which falls before the Nativity of Our Lord (which we will celebrate tomorrow evening). In this gospel reading we see that St. Matthew has undertaken the immense task of documenting much of the genealogy of Our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. He traces the line according to Jewish custom through the father’s lineage. In this case it goes through Joseph’s lineage since he was assumed to be the father of the Lord. However in the gospel according to St. Luke we notice that Luke actually traces the lineage of the Lord through Mary, His actual mother, all the way back to Adam and Eve.

In this list that has been provided by Matthew we see many famous and some infamous names from the Old Testament. Within this list is a veritable who’s who of the Scriptures. We see Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. We see his sons Isaac and Jacob. We see Jesse and David the king as well as his son the wise Solomon. And many many more. What we can’t help but think about if we have read the Old Testament and have some familiarity with these names is just how truly human these men and woman listed here actually were. We see the faithful, but we also see some who lacked faith. We see liars and thieves, harlots and adulterers and even murderers. This is the family tree into which Jesus of Nazareth was born. I’ve often appreciated the saying “Friends are the family you choose.” But in this case, the Lord chose to come into history and to make himself a part of this family and it’s twisted, often extremely flawed story. In this way, the Lord is not so unlike every one of us. If we dig back into our family histories we will no doubt find out that our family is not necessarily filled with saints but with a scrambled assortment of characters, some good, some not so good.

I want to tell you that the Lord did not make a mistake in coming to be a part of this family tree. The Lord became part of this family tree in order to save this tree, to heal this tree and to allow this tree to bear fruit that would feed the whole world, and indeed, the whole universe. The fact that the Lord Jesus chose to become part of this group of fallen men and women is a great blessing for us because indeed we are all fallen men and women. The lineage of the Lord is in some ways a symbol of the rest of humanity. We should fall on our faces and thank and glorify the God who would not accept to live far from His subjects but would love us so much that He came to be a part of this human experience. And He did this with no shortcuts. I read this week that a recent poll was taken in Britain. 2000 people between the ages of 21 and 38 were shown a picture of the nativity scene and nearly 39 percent could not identify the baby. That is a sad state of affairs. How could the people lose sight of this most precious of historical events?

The Lord did not appear suddenly one day as a great prophet. Neither did He come riding on the clouds as the great messiah. He appeared as the smallest and the most vulnerable of all creation, a new born baby. He was fed at the Virgin’s breast. He was nurtured and supported. He was hidden and protected while others sought His life. What love has the Lord had for us that He would agree to enter into such a life?! It is a mystery that we can never fully comprehend. Hundreds of years earlier the Prophet Isaiah received a vision and he wrote it for us “Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and His Name shall be called Emmanuel (God with Us).” God with us! Does this bring us joy? Does it fill us with wonder? Does it stir our senses?

Sometimes as Christians it is easy to be hard on ourselves. We struggle and we pray but we often have the nagging sense that we are not good enough. We get the feeling that we are still so far from perfection. And, we are right. We are indeed, still far from perfection. But don’t despair, Christ isn’t waiting for you to become perfect so that He can come to you. Christ wants to come to you because He wants to perfect you! He wants to make you holy. As often as you will open yourself to Him, He will come and dwell with you just as He came to dwell with humanity as part of this not so perfect family tree. Don’t worry about your imperfections or your sins. The love of God does not depend on us. God sent His only begotten Son to wipe away our sins. Our task is to embrace Christ with gratitude. We can do this by being grateful for what the Lord gives us. We can do this by being obedient to His teachings, which enlighten and inform our lives. We can embrace Christ by settling down and praying thoughtfully, attentively, patiently, instead of rushing through it as if it is a chore.

We can embrace Christ by embracing His body, the Church, and allowing the prayers and sacraments to be a part of our day to day lives. We can embrace Christ by embracing the poor and the needy as Christ has embraced all of us who are poor and needy. We can embrace Christ by loving His All Holy Mother and the rest of the saints, who honored and lived and breathed the Lord Jesus. Those who honor the saints, honor Christ Himself.

Finally, we can embrace Christ as a newborn baby. Have you ever seen the way that people react to seeing a newborn? They melt, they are in awe, they pour out so much love and adoration on the little one. When we see a newborn our hearts can barely contain the feelings. Imagine just how much love and adoration we should give to the One who was born of a Virgin in order to die and give us life!

To Him alone is due glory, with His Father and the Holy Spirit AMEN.

Source: Sermons


Are We Sons of Obedience or Disobedience?

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians. (3:4-11) 

The Church is not a philosophical club. It is not a place where we come and share ideas and then we leave and go about our lives living as we please. When you were brought into the Church you were brought in freely but you were bought at a very high price, through the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ. He paid for your salvation. Out of our exceeding love for the Lord Jesus, we come to the Church in order to consistently, actively, draw nearer to Our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. It is my joy to see this community, to see each of you growing in Christ. Sometimes growth is difficult. Sometimes, in order to draw closer to Christ, it means that we have to actively be removing obstacles that stand between us and the Lord that we hope to know and to serve. This means dying to ourselves and our desires so that Christ can be formed in us. 

In today’s epistle, given to us specifically for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, we hear the words of the Apostle Paul as he speaks forcefully to the Colossians. He does this out of extreme love for them. He doesn’t want to be their boss or their judge. He wants to help them to avoid judgment. He corrects them because he desires that they should go further than simply claiming to know the truth. He desires that they should live the truth and have real life in Christ. Christ is our life, and our life must be in Christ. 

So he tells his fellow Christians to put to death what is earthly within them. What are these things that need to be put to death? He has quite the list. He begins with fornication. What is fornication? The Greek word used here is porneia, from which we get the word pornography. By this he means sexual sins of any nature but especially adultery, casual sex outside of marriage and other forms such as homosexual activity to name a few. Fornication is ultimately any form of sexual practice that is not part of the holy marriage between one man and one woman. 

Today we have people teaching many confusing messages regarding sex, to the degree that we might begin to believe them. This often happens because we have not studied or known the teaching of the Lord and the Scriptures. People who don’t know any better, tell us that whatever is good according to your feelings, is actually good. But our standard for what is right and wrong cannot be our own thoughts and feelings, it must be the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, every one of us knows that sometimes a choice feels good at that time, but just a few minutes later, we may have deep regret.

Fornication can also be understood metaphorically as a symbol of idolatry or the worship of anything but the living God. So first the apostle Paul tells us to put to death fornication. Next he mentions impurity which can also be translated as uncleanness. Now we know that St. Paul is not so much speaking of physical uncleanness as he is the moral uncleanness. That is, the moral impurity. One of the Greek dictionaries lists moral impurity as lustful, and/or luxurious, self-indulgent living. These things are contrary to the life lived in the Spirit. He continues by naming passion, evil desire and covetousness, which he also calls idolatry. 

We might be quick to say “Father, I do not worship idols.” And it is true that you may not have a stone statue of the buddha or krishna or some other deity in your home (at least I hope you don’t), but we worship things by the focus of our attention, our love and our resources. Whatever I give my time, my energy and my money, is a true and sure sign of my priorities. If we have a heartfelt desire to make God our priority, we have to act like it through the use of our time, energy and resources. We can’t covet anything that belongs to others because this act of coveting, leads to greater sins. We spend so much time fixated on the desires that we have. We spend so much time feeding our urges with more attention, that we are negatively changed by them. We show that we are still attached to meaningless things. On top of all this, we demonstrate to God that we are not thankful for all that He has generously given us. 

And then the apostle says something that seems harsh to our ears. He says that on account of all these sins “the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience.” We must understand that to be called a son or daughter of disobedience is not good. The Lord is trying to give us new life, which begins when we are baptized. But the life of sin is disobedience, and it is a life that is drawing us away from God and from life in Him, and towards death. After naming these sins, St. Paul mentions a few more: “anger, wrath, slander and foul talk.” He completes the list by saying “Do not lie to one another.” 

If we as adopted sons and daughters of the Lord, practice the behaviors mentioned above, we are no different than the world. We the children of God must not be confused with the children of the world, the sons of disobedience. If we tasted what joy and life the Lord has shared with us and turned back to living like the world, we are worthy to receive what the world will receive for it’s rejection of God’s love. 

And what does the apostle tell us to do about all of this? He tells us to put all of these behaviors to death and put it all away from us. Our behaviors become part of us. St. Paul says that when you were baptized, you were buried. The old man was put to death and the new man is born, raised in Christ! At times it is difficult for us to follow the narrow way and live for something that we can’t clearly see and can’t always perceive. But St. Paul says “when Christ, who is our life, appears, them you also will appear with Him in glory.” Imagine the honor that He has bestowed on us that He would allow us to appear with Him and to share in His glory? This is His desire for each of you, that you should be saints who live as if you are dead to the world and alive to Christ alone.

In today’s gospel Our Lord tells us that many are called to the great banquet but few are chosen. That means that each of us has work to do. Let us accept the new nature that has been gifted to each of us, and let us put all our energy into knowing Christ through deep prayer, study and obedience to the gospels and the receiving of His most holy body and most precious blood. This is how Christ will come to life within us. As we spend time seeking His face, this beautiful face will be transferred to us. This is how we are renewed, how we are recognized as sons and daughters of obedience, leading to everlasting life and glory. AMEN. 

Source: Sermons


The Biggest Problem in the Church

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

Today’s gospel passage is frightful to me because it gives us an example of the ways in which the faithful religious observer or even the leader of the religious community, in this case, the synagogue, can lose their way as they seek to do God’s will. We can be deceived or blind to the fundamentals of a living faith, a living relationship with the Lord. We see this from the ruler of the synagogue as he is angered and tries to correct the Lord Jesus. What was it he was trying to correct? What caused him to become angry and to sternly attempt to rebuke the Lord? What had the Lord done that was improper according to the ruler of the synagogue? What was his egregious error? He healed a woman on the Sabbath day.

As you probably know, honoring the Sabbath day is one of the ten commandments and this law was followed quite religiously by faithful Jews. On this day it was not permitted that any work should be done. In fact, ultra-orthodox Jews still obey this with exactitude. They cannot so much as turn on the oven or switch the lights on or off because that is considered breaking the law of God. There is much to be admired about their zeal and their exactitude for the rules and the law. There is much to be admired regarding their attempts to be faithful and obedient. Yet there was a problem in the application of this law and the understanding of it’s context.

The encounter between the ruler of the synagogue and the Lord Jesus Christ provides for us, an image of stark contrasts between the one who is religious and the One who is faithful, merciful and full of love. After all, what is the point of a relationship with God and with His Son and Spirit? Is it to allow us to become better at following a list of rules? No, my friends. A relationship with God energizes us and should allow us to look past the outer appearances, to get past the superficial and into the heart of the situation. 

What frightens me most about this reading and about many of the gospel passages concerning the Pharisees is that I am convinced that in most of these cases, the people in question, firmly, deeply believed that they were honoring God by their religious exactitude. Yet in every one of the cases, the Lord shined the light of His truth and revealed a different picture. 

In today’s gospel, the Lord Jesus is corrected for healing a poor woman, who had been sick for eighteen years. He is told that any work, including healing, is to be done on any other day than the Sabbath. The Lord responds to the ruler of the synagogue when He says “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 looses from this bond on the Sabbath day?” 

It becomes clear from the words of the Lord Jesus that the ruler of the synagogue had forgotten the most important issues of the faith by focusing so much on the keeping of the law. In fact he was so blinded by his legalism that he forgot that he himself went out on every Sabbath to untie the farm animals and give them something to eat and drink. He himself broke the law on a regular basis. Yet, his blindness extended further because he could not see and have mercy on a woman who came to the synagogue and so desperately needed it. She who was bound by Satan for eighteen years with a terrible affliction, was now being further bound and constrained by a man who thought that he was being faithful to God, yet in his faithfulness to the letter of the law, he lost all sense of the meaning of the law of God. The Apostle Paul tells us that the law was a tutor until the coming of Christ. It was meant to teach and instruct, but what was the substance and essence of this teaching and instruction? What was the point of the law? The point was to bring us to full, complete love and devotion towards God our creator and to teach us to have mercy and love on our neighbor. If our application of the rules and laws does not do these two things, then it is to be rejected.

It is sad to say that even though we are no longer under the Mosaic law, even though we have the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ to enlighten and teach us, we still have to deal with such legalism and those who focus on outward appearances even now. There is within every religious community and certainly within Orthodoxy, those that look to religious exactitude and practice as if it is the means to their salvation. Very often this group will be inspired by some monasticism or by the guidance of a monastic elder or father. Monasticism has its proper place, application and strictness under the guidance of an abbot or abbess who is the spiritual father or mother of the community. And while there is certainly value in many of these practices, the insistence on them as being necessary for salvation is to be rejected. Only Christ can save and He does this by His grace and not by our works of the law, whether you replace the Jewish law with any other form of law. 

If we over-emphasize those superficial aspects of religious practice, we are likely going to be like the ruler of the synagogue (who knew the law quite well) but had many blind spots regarding his own practice of faith. We will miss “the weightier matters of the law” that the Lord is constantly speaking of; justice, and mercy and faith. As it is written in 1 Samuel 16:7 “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 

When you come to the church you are not to look all over the place at who is wearing what clothing and what hairstyle. You are to look to the icons for inspiration and hope that God can refashion you and transform you into one of His saints. And then you are to undertake the difficult task of refraining from looking at others and look within yourself, because that is where you will find the most glaring deficiency in the Church.

It reminds me of G.K. Chesterton who once wrote in to the local newspaper to reply to a question they had asked, which was, “What is wrong with the world?” His reply was only two words long “I am.” Likewise, anyone who looks around and doesn’t see that the biggest problem within the Church is themselves is in delusion of the gravest sort.

It behooves us not to be dragged down by those who would emphasize outer appearances and transform the Church into a place of judgement. The Church cannot be reduced to a place of rules and religious minutiae. Christ desires much more for us. Once we go down that road, the Church loses its distinctive appearance and gift as a place of healing, a place where we freely enter into the warm embrace of our Father. The ruler of the synagogue forgot that that was the purpose of the synagogue, and of the law, to bring people to his heavenly Father. He forgot that God is the God who desires mercy and not sacrifice. He forgot to rejoice in the great miracle that happened right before his very eyes. He was blinded to all of this out of his love for the law.

In trying to judge others shortcomings, he failed to see his own deep failings. The woman was much better off because she was aware of her sickness and she knew of her need for God’s mercy. He failed to see his need for the mercy of Our Lord Jesus Christ. May we know our own weakness and our own frailties. May we know them and seek the physician, who alone can heal us. 

May the Lord help us to seek God’s mercy and to be vessels of this mercy for others. Glory be to God forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons


The Walls of Jericho and the Walls of the Heart

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

It can be difficult for us to relate at times to some of the people that we encounter in the gospel readings. People who have lived very difficult lives. People who have had terrible afflictions or diseases. Most of us have not known such things by the grace of God. But there is a way in which those who have experienced such things are in a much better position than ours.

In today’s holy gospel, we hear of a blind man who was sitting by the roadside begging. This was the road which led to Jericho. Jericho was a bustling city due to it’s abundance of springs which led to an abundance of palm trees and other fruit bearing trees. We know of Jericho since it is the first city that was conquered by the Jewish people as they were led by another Jesus, or rather, the one whom we know as Joshua the son of Nun. This city was conquered only by God’s grace as the people obeyed the command of the Lord to march around the city each day for six days. And on the seventh day, they were commanded to march around the city seven times. Finally they were to blow the horns and shout with a great voice and behold the walls of the city crumbled.

As I mentioned at the outset, there is a way in which those who have struggled like the blind man that we see in today’s gospel reading, are in much better shape than we might think. When we are healthy, when we are comfortable, when all of our needs are met and we live without any pain, our hearts become like fortresses. But when we see this man, blind, unable to see the beauty of God’s creation. Unable to work for a living, but forced instead to beg. We see a man who not only lacks sight. We see a man who lacks walls around his heart…and in this case, that is a man who is ready for God to enter into His life. 

You might wonder why we as Orthodox Christians put such an emphasis on our ascetical life, our voluntary self-discipline, our fasting and prostrations, our almsgiving. It is because we want to make sure that our hearts are softened, not surrounded by thick rock walls, but ready to open the gates to receive the Lord Jesus Christ. 

The Lord conquered Jericho and brought down it’s walls. When we are going through truly difficult situations, it is a good time to recognize that the Lord is breaking down the walls around each of us. He is preparing us for something much greater than what we could imagine or what we desire. He is preparing us for Himself.

The people in the caravan with Our Lord Jesus Christ would have seen a poor blind beggar, but little did they realize that he was more blessed than all of them, because he was poor in spirit. The Lord says “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This blind man became more rich than them all. How? In his poverty, in his utter despondency, he did the one thing that God really desires, he cried out to the Lord from the bottom of his heart. It makes us wonder, who was actually blind and who could actually see? 

The blind man cries out to the Lord and this cry is a bold declaration of faith in Jesus Christ, whom he has never even seen! He cries “Son of David, have mercy on me!” What boldness. What courage. Who can give have mercy on us but God? Who could be the Son of David, but the long awaited messiah. The blind man believed these things. His whole life had led him to this very moment when God would do something amazing in his life. But it happened because his heart was not walled off, but vulnerable, aching, open to Christ. It happened because he had true faith.

Faith in Christ whom he has never witnessed with his eyes. Faith without seeing any of the miracles. Faith without even seeing the man. That is true faith according to the very definitions of faith and it is no surprise that the Lord says to him “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.”

What about us? What is the condition of our hearts? What has sin done to each of us? Are we fortified like the great walls of Jericho? Are we walled off from the pain and suffering of others? Are we walled off from our own deep need for Christ? Can we see our sickness and need for the Lord Jesus or are we the ones who are actually blind? Do we feel pain in our hearts because we know how poor we are? Do we feel anguish because we desire to see and to know Christ? Turn this desire into action! Don’t numb the desire or the pain, run towards Christ who alone can heal you. 

These next three and a half weeks are a time to focus on things that matter, and this will be exceedingly difficult because the world around us will do just the opposite. This is a time to exercise self-restraint, a time to struggle to repent and to pray more fervently, a time to engage in even more works of charity and to soften and prepare our hearts to receive Christ the King. Let’s each make a pact to set an alarm every evening maybe an hour before bed time and cut off the television or the smartphones and dedicate ourselves to allowing God extra time with us.

This is time for reading the lives of the saints or the writings of the fathers or the gospels and the rest of Holy Scripture. It is also time for prayer, maybe we read from the prayer books or maybe we pray for all of the people we know, or perhaps, like this blind man, we simply grab a prayer rope and cry out “Lord Jesus have mercy on me a sinner.” All of these actions allow God a chance to circle our hearts as Joshua and the people of Israel circled Jericho. Day after day they obeyed the Lord and finally at the appointed time, the walls fell.

If we are faithful in the little things that God has given us to do through fasting and prayer, God will no doubt storm the city of our hearts and raise up the banner of His flag in our lives. People will look and will see that we belong to the Lord, that we are His. That is my desire for each of you and for myself also. May the Lord heal us and make us well, and may all the people in your life see this and give praise to the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Source: Sermons


Untitled

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (16:19-31)

Today we hear the story of the rich man and Lazarus. It is a story that ought to make us stand back and take account of our lives and see whether or not we are on the right path. Why should we do this? Because Jesus our Lord offers us a reality that we in the modern world do not really accept. He tells us that the afterlife is real. He tells us that heaven and hell both exist. He tells us that God His Father will hold us accountable for every word and deed that we have ever done in this life. The Lord reminds us that everything that we do matters. Everything that we do either shows that we believe in the God of love, or that we deny this God.

The focus of the story is on the rich man who is given no name. St. Augustine tells us that the man is not named because he is not named and numbered among those in heaven. His name is not written in the book of life. St. Augustine also tells us that the problem was not that this man was rich. The problem was that he was greedy with his wealth. He did not understand his wealth as a sign of God’s love and mercy for him. He did not stop to think about the many ways that God had provided for him. Rather he thought of his own wealth as simply the fruit of his hard work or his intelligence or his talent. He used this wealth for his own enjoyment without regard for the needs of others. If he did not understand the truth of his own situation in life, there was absolutely no way that he could understand the situation of the beggar Lazarus, who was in need.

The rich man did not see God’s hand in his life. If you don’t have gratitude for God’s work in your life, how can you ever be God’s hands in the world? How can you help others unless you first realize that God has been helping you? The gospel shows us that the rich man is detached from reality. His life of self-indulgence is also detached from others, and their needs. We know that he was self-indulgent because we are told that he feasted sumptuously every day and wore the finest garments. His focus was on himself and his pleasures. When one spends his time focused on making himself feel good, he becomes numb to the needs of those around him and numb to his own deep need for a relationship with God. He also becomes numb to the fact that he will not live forever but will one day leave behind all of those things that he so enjoyed.

On the other hand, we generally view our biggest problems in life as suffering and sickness as well as injustices. Yet Scripture continually shows us that it is through suffering and sickness that God can open our hearts to Him. When we are suffering it is very difficult to be under illusions. We see the reality of who we are, the reality of our frailty and the reality of our actual need for God. It is of utmost important that we as Christian can sense this reality while we are here on earth. It is too late once we have passed from this life to the next. This is exactly the reality that the rich man faced on the day that he passed from this life to the next.

One day he was the king of his world. He did not even notice the poor man who was begging near his table. The next day, he died and realized that he alone was truly poor. He had spent his life accumulating wealth and treasures of a material nature, but on the inside he was devastatingly poor. He was poor in faith, poor in love, poor in mercy. He did not realize any of this until he was separated from the body and in the place of the dead, feeling torment in Hades. At this moment he learned that it was true. There is indeed an afterlife and there is indeed suffering for those who do not know and love God and His ways. If one spends his life neglecting works of mercy for others, he will not know love. If he doesn’t know love through the care of others, the fathers of the Church say that he will in no ways know God. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos wrote

“The Lord wants us to love one another. Here is freedom: in love for God and neighbor. In this freedom, there is equality. In earthly orders, there may not be equality, but this is not important for the soul. Not everyone can be a king, not everyone a patriarch or a boss. But in any position it is possible to love God and to please Him, and only this is important. And whoever loves God more on earth will be in greater glory in His Kingdom.”

In any position it is possible to love God and to please Him. We please Him when we love our neighbors and even our enemies and when we realize that they are created in the image and likeness of God. We please Him also when we understand that God created us to serve and to love others and not only to spend our days trying to please and comfort ourselves. As we comfort others, the Lord, the Holy Spirit, through His grace, comes to dwell within us and give us divine and comfort and this comfort can never be taken away from us by anyone, or even by death.

Let us not be like the rich man who was caught off guard. Instead let us heed the warning of the Lord Jesus, who loves us dearly as His children. Now is the time to repent. Now is the time to take heed and be watchful. Now is the time to demonstrate our love for God and bring it to life by our love for those in need.

If we can struggle faithfully to do this then the grace of God will be with us and will allow us to rejoice along with Lazarus, in the bosom of Abraham, in the dwelling place of the righteous with all of the saints. AMEN.

Source: Sermons


He Stretches Out His Hand To Us

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (8:41-56)

In today’s gospel reading we are met face to face with two terribly difficult situations. In one, we have a woman who has been really very sick for about 12 years. She has a serious problem with bleeding which makes her weak and sick and on top of all of that, it also means that she is always considered unclean according to the Jewish law. This means that she could not approach or touch any holy thing. In a way this added much more to her suffering and affliction.

The next situation that we find in the gospel reading is even more difficult than the first. We also encounter Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue and we hear that his only daughter, at the tender age of 12 has fallen seriously ill. It is not long before everyone is alerted to the unbearably difficult news that comes to them as they are traveling towards the home of Jairus, as a servant from his house comes to him and says “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more.”

Every one of us has suffered the loss of loved ones. Every one of us has been sick or known others who were chronically sick. Many of us have known the extreme pain that comes with the loss of young children. It is an unbearable loss. We have a hard time trying to understand the grief that a parent must endure in such a situation. To all of this we are sometimes inclined to think to ourselves “This is not fair.” Sometimes we are even bolder than that and we say “Why did God let this happen?” or we say “Why does a good God allow such evil and suffering?”

One of the conversations that sometimes happens in our home sound a bit like this, “Daddy, that is not fair!” To which I often reply “life is not fair.” One of the facts of our Christian worldview is the idea that the sin of Adam and Eve caused corruption and death to spread over the whole world and especially over the human race. We can say that life in the beginning was fair, but that the actions of our rebellion against God, changed our situation completely. When humans chose to go their own way and rebel against God, they essentially drifted away from health, sanity and life and towards sickness, insanity and death. This sickness, insanity and death did not stay isolated but spread like wildfire uncontrollably, burning everything that came into contact with it.

God allowed this to happen because He does not impose Himself upon Adam and Eve, or upon us. He allows each man to be a kind of Adam or Eve. He allows each one to follow or reject Him. His respect for our freedom is a sign of deep love for us. But with that freedom, came consequences based on our actions. But God in His wisdom knew from the beginning that our freedom to sin would actually cause great pain and would even lead to the most unjust and unfair event in the history of the world; to the betrayal and murder of His Only Begotten Son. So when we say that life is not fair, we can look to the cross and understand that God knows this much more than we know it.

But through this greatest injustice and cruelty, through the crucifixion, Christ our God could penetrate our human frailty and our sickness and He could heal them from within. As St. Gregory the Theologian writes “What is not assumed is not healed. But that which is united to His godhead is also saved” Christ our God assumed our humanity and by doing so, He shared His divinity with us and conquered the things that we could not conquer on our own, sin and death. He conquered them so that He could once again restore each of us to life and health and holiness.

The healing of the woman with an issue of blood seemed impossible to her. She had spent all of her money looking for cures. She had lost all hope. It’s possible that some of us feel like this woman. We feel that we have lost hope. Perhaps it is because of our own physical illness, but perhaps it is due to a mental illness or a breakdown in an important relationship. There are any number of difficult situations that can tempt us to think “life is not fair.” There are any number of situations that can make us think that we might never get through our trying times. It is at that very moment in life that everyone must make a choice just as this poor, sick woman had to make a choice. You can allow the circumstances of life to defeat you or you can reach out to God with every bit of strength that still remains within you. That is what it is to have faith, to believe in what we cannot see clearly with our eyes. Hoping against hope, with no idea of what would happen, this woman reached out her hand in faith and immediately she received health and peace from the source of healing.

The family of Jairus was shaken to the core. The cloud of death had overtaken their home and had laid hold of their beloved daughter. But God was watching, and God knew of their profound loss. We might find it hard to cope with such loss, yet our God also knows our losses. But unlike the woman who reached out to Christ for healing, death had made it impossible for the little girl to reach out to her Master and Lord. But just as the woman had earlier stretched out her hand to receive healing, Our Lord Jesus stretched out His hand to give healing to the girl who could not longer reach out to Him. What death made impossible, the Lord made possible. He does this for each and every one of us. He is prepared to reach out His hand to pull us up out of the depths, as we see pictured in the icon of the harrowing of Hades, with Adam and Eve.

The message is clear. Even in extreme difficulties and the various sufferings of life, we should not lose hope. Even in death, we are not beyond His reach. God has conquered suffering and He has conquered death because He passed through them both. Let us trust that the God who passed through them can also provide us a way through them, granting both physical and spiritual resurrection, both now and in the coming age. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons


What Should Terrify Us?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (8:26-39)

We are close now…only 10 days away from the eve of the Feast of All Saints on the western calendar. This evening celebration is called Halloween from the phrase “all hollows eve”.

On this day we often see children as well as grown adults, dress up as all sorts of awful looking things like ghouls and goblins and witches and monsters. That is certainly not something that we want to imitate. Monsters, vampires and things of that nature are not things that we should try to pretend to be, because when we do that we are in fact making light of things that are evil and demonic.

What a Christian tries to do is to baptize or chrismate everything around him. He tries to sanctify it and transform it so that it gives glory to God and affirms the good, the true and the beautiful.  Perhaps one can find a way to redeem such secular holidays, with the guidance of their priests.

And while we know that much of Halloween focuses on ghosts and monsters and things that are evil, we are not at all afraid of these things because we know that Christ has defeated evil and has given us the grace to defeat evil in the place that it matters most, that is, in our hearts. God is with us! Some say that only two things are certain in this life, death and taxes. But that is not true for us. We add a third, God is with us. His presence is a sign of His love.

So we are not afraid of ghosts and goblins and nonsense, it is all under the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ, who conquered not only these but death itself! But according to today’s gospel there are a couple of things that should truly terrify us. The first is that demons are real and can truly possess those who do not care for their souls. It is no surprise that the first thing that we do when we baptize anyone into the Church is that we read prayers of exorcism. The Church takes seriously the idea that demons exist, why? Is it because of superstition? Is it because the early Christians didn’t understand science or psychology? No. It is because Our Lord Jesus treats demons and demon possession as real. St. Luke the evangelist tells us that the man in the story had superhuman strength. He lived among the tombs and had the strength to break free from his chains. He would have been a truly terrifying sight. A wild, crazed man, running around naked and out of his mind. He was a plaything of the devil. He was a puppet and Satan was his master.

In actuality our Christian life is about being in the hands of a master. Either we are in the hands of Satan as his puppet, who does his will. Or we are in the hands of our Creator, the Master of our life. The One who molds us and forms us into the new man. Every choice, every decision, every moment of life, is a chance to further solidify our standing. When we choose evil, when we choose to rebel against God and fall into sin, we are choosing to have the demons add new strings to us. We are giving them control over us. Slowly, with each terrible decision we find ourselves less and less in control. Further and further away from Christ. On the other hand, when we choose Christ and follow His teachings, then Satan’s strings are cut, and we find ourselves shaped and transformed into the likeness of God.

This man was a slave and puppet to the demons. He had lost control of his mind, his heart, his body. But Christ our God, who is full of mercy, had compassion upon this man. He travelled to this gentile region, away from His people and through this He demonstrated that all people would become His people, both Jews and gentiles. And this brings us to the second truly terrifying thing in the story. It is something which could keep us awake at night if we bothered to really think about it and reflect on it. After seeing the most amazing miracle that these people had ever seen, the healing of the demon possessed man, and after seeing him seated, clothed and in his right mind. The people reacted by rejecting the Lord Jesus Christ immediately and begging Him to depart from their region and their presence. Nothing could possibly be more frightening than asking the God-man Jesus Christ to withdraw from your presence. This is the epitome of ignorance and the fulfillment of evil. And we have to ask why they acted or reacted this way?

The answer comes down to the swine. The swine were of far more value to the villagers than the presence of the Lord of glory. Oh how terrible would our life be if we one day realized that we had pushed away God because we loved something else. In this case, the thing that the people loved and desired was their financial stability and livelihood. Perhaps in some ways these people are not much different than the average person. But Christ the Lord calls us to wake up and leave behind the average misguided mindset and trust Him and love Him. If He was able to heal this man who was by all accounts quite far gone, imagine what He could do for those villagers. Imagine how much He could have changed their lives in one night, or one conversation. That is exactly what happened to the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob and we still remember her to this day!

How precious is Jesus Christ in our lives and in our heart? Or let us ask it another way…what is most precious in my life? Is it my talent or my looks or my wealth or my title and position? None of it will matter. Like the herd of swine, everything outward will perish but everything that Christ Himself builds up within us, will remain. It is our Lord’s good pleasure to transform your life and to make you a part of Him. It is His good pleasure that you be seated next to Him, clothed in righteousness and in your right mind.

St. Paul writing to the Ephesians says,

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self,which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

May our Lord grant this to us,and Glory be to God forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons