Unity In The Church

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (17:1-13) 

In today’s gospel reading, which is given to us for the commemoration of the First Ecumenical Council, we hear these words of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ “And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to Thee. Holy Father, keep them in Thy name, which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one.”

It is an amazing thought to contemplate this prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is part of what is often called His “high priestly prayer.” As the Lord is preparing to be betrayed and arrested and preparing to suffer the worst of all shameful treatment and suffering, Our Lord is praying to God our Father. He is coming to His Father as The Son. He teaches each of us that we also have access to God our Father. We can reach out to Him, seek Him, receive strength from Him for whatever we are going to face. 

We also see that Our Lord Jesus cares so much for His people that He prays for them. He is on His way to a terrible and agonizing death, yet His mind is fixed on His people. And this prayer is not something that is said once. It is an eternal prayer. What is it that He prays for? He prays that they will be kept together, that they will be one even as He is one with His Father.

What does oneness, or unity look like for Christians? Where do we find it? Well, we hear it in the words of the creed that Christians have been reciting from nearly 1700 years. “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” That is a good place to start. We don’t believe in 2 churches. We don’t believe in the thousands of denominations or “non-denominations” that have split and resplit from one another over the last 400 years or so. We believe that the Church is one. That it is united in it’s Dogma. Dogma is defined as the unchanging truth, the core beliefs. St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch once wrote, 

“The Church dispersed throughout the whole world to the ends of the earth has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith……While scattered throughout the whole world, the Church has received this message and this faith and still, as if living in only one house, carefully preserves it. She believes these points of doctrine as if she had only one soul, and one and the same heart. She proclaims them, teaches them and hands them down harmoniously, as if she had only one mouth. Although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the meaning of the tradition has remained one and the same, for the churches in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different thanthose of Spain or in Gaul or in the East or in Egypt or in Libya.”

The Church is also one in it’s leadership. In fact, the outward sign of the unity of the Church is found in the position and role of the bishop, as we see in our historical writings that have passed down to us from antiquity. If a person wants to know what the Church taught and believed, we have the resources to search for the answers. We don’t need to invent the answers or interpret the Bible in new and novel ways. The Church has left us a treasure through the writings of historians and Church fathers and the lives of the saints. 

The unity of the Church is clearly seen in the person of the bishop. The bishops were appointed by the Apostles and tasked with guarding the faith and shepherding the faithful. As the church grew, so did the number of problems and especially false teachings, false dogmas, which we call heresies. The Church would protect itself from false doctrine and from breaking communion with the apostles by making sure that those who served and led (bishops, priests and deacons) were appointed from within the community and did not take the authority from an unknown source. So deacons, priests and bishops were always ordained by bishops who were already within the one Christian Church.

Listen to what St. Ignatius writes about the role of the bishop. He is writing in the early second century. “It is therefore befitting that you should in every way glorify Jesus Christ, who has glorified you, that by a unanimous obedience you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, and may all speak the same thing concerning the same thing [1 Cor. 1:10], and that, being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you may in all respects be sanctified.” He also writes “forwhere the bishop is, there is the church.”

We believe that the Church is also one in it’s worship and sacraments. St. Ignatiusalso writes “At these meetings you should heed the bishop and the presbytery attentively, and break one loaf, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote which wards offdeath but yields continuous life in union with Jesus Christ.”

So not only do we get a glimpse into the importance of the clergy of the Church, under the guidance of the bishop, but we also get a glimpse into the importance of receiving the Eucharist (holy communion). We are told that unity in Christ comesthrough obedience and living peaceably under the guidance of the clergy and this unity comes to fruition and is made powerfully present in our receiving of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. 

Have you noticed that we are living in a divided time? Whenever there are worries, fears and anxieties there is division. Whenever people lack a unifying goal and purpose, they are divided.Whenever people are afraid of death, there is alsosin and this causes great division. Satan is now working overtime to confuse and divide the people of God. He divides them from one another and then he attacks once they are isolated and alone. As Christians we protect ourselves by running to Christ and to His Church. It is not enough that we run to a church. We must run to The Church which has remained united in her life giving teachings. This is our safe space. We need fellowship with God and with our fellow Christians. Alone, we perish.

Our only hope as Christians is to cleave to the unity of the Church. The Church is the place of unity that Our Lord Jesus Christ prayed for to His heavenly Father. Within the spiritual and physical walls of the Church, there is hope and salvation. Even if you are not yet comfortable coming to the church building, you can live as a united member of the Church in your homes and daily lives by honoring God’s commandments. By studying the Scriptures and the lives of the saints. Through prayer for yourself and others. Through lives of sacrifice and love for others. Through times of contemplation and silence, not filling every minute with noise and chatter.

Our Lord Jesus prayed for our unity. Whether we are here physically or virtually, we are called to be united. Our Christian life is a life of struggling to become united in our bodies, hearts and souls. To harmonize everything within us to the service of Christ. So this is our life in the Church, unity within, unity with our neighbors, unity with the teachings and life of the Church itself, which is the body of Christ. Unity with the Holy Trinity. All of this ensures that we will not be lost, misguided or misdirected. It ensures that we are on the right path, this path of salvation. And He has prayed for us and given us His bride, theone Church as a place for this unity to be made powerfully present in our lives. May Christ our God unite our hearts and minds and bring us to true worship and love. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Who Should We Blame?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (9:1-38)

The disciples came to the Lord Jesus Christ after seeing a blind man and they asked a difficult and poignant question “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  It is really quite the question.  What is beautiful about this question is that they brought it to the Lord Jesus Christ.  They trusted Him.  They knew that He would provide the correct answer.  In our own lives, where do we go when we have questions?  Do we run to study the words of Holy Scripture?  Or do we run to other sources, to google, to facebook forums?  They went straight to the source and we should do the same with the big questions of life.  Our Lord Jesus will give us an answer to those big questions, and His answer will be truthful.

Now back to the question that was presented by the disciples to the Lord.  “Who sinned that this man was born blind?”  We as humans, have this need to find a way to explain the difficulties we encounter in life.  Perhaps this is not more true than when we see someone suffering tremendously.  Sometimes we are even that person who is suffering. And we begin to look for reasons for the terrible thing that has happened.  In January, we began to hear of a virus that was causing some suffering and sickness and death in China.  Within a few weeks it was at our doorstep.  We began to look for people to blame.  We began to look for a cause.  Some said it was China’s fault for allowing their people to travel.  Others said that it was the president’s fault for not shutting the borders sooner.  Yet others blamed the virus on a Chinese lab, and others on the wet markets where the poor people go to eat a meal that they can afford.  

In the aftermath of this virus, we shut down much of the country, jobs were lost, and people have suffered greatly, financially, emotionally, spiritually.  Still we look to place the blame as if doing so will help us come to grips with the situation.  As if knowing who to blame will help us feel better.  Some blame the governors and some the federal response, and some blame the right wing and others blame the left. But none of that will actually help us feel better, because blaming people won’t actually bring us healing.

Our habit of blaming others is actually a sign of our own lack of humility, our pride.  St. John of Kronstadt said “Every man on earth is sick with the fever of sin, with the blindness of sin and is overcome with its fury. As sins consist mostly of malice and pride, it is necessary to treat everyone who suffers from the malady of sin with kindness and love. This is an important truth, which we often forget. Very often we act in the opposite manner: we add malice to malice by our anger, we oppose pride with pride. Thus, evil grows within us and does not decrease; it is not cured – rather it spreads.”  So we have to find a better way forward.  A way that is gracious and merciful.  

  Our Lord Jesus Christ went above and beyond any answer that the disciples had in mind.  They gave two options, but He raised their minds to a better response, with gracious and beautiful words. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”  Wow.  The Lord never stops surprising us with His teaching.  They wanted to blame sin.  They wanted to blame the blind man or his parents.  But the Lord Jesus Christ refused to put the blame on them.  In replying the way that He did, the Lord also corrected the misguided thinking of the disciples.  God hadn’t done this as a punishment.  Just because someone gets sick or something terrible happens to them, it doesn’t mean that it is karma or divine justice.  The martyrs of Christiant history died horrible deaths.  This was not because of anything they had done to deserve it.  It was to glorify God, whose Only Son was put to death in the same manner.

God wasn’t punishing them.  That is not the God who is love.  God hadn’t punished this man…what kind of a God would we worship if He acted in such a way?  Yet the Lord said to the disciples that this was allowed by God so that His wonderful work could be made manifest in the life of this poor blind man.  I wonder if we ever think this way when we are faced with difficult situations and trials?  How many of us say to ourselves “this is a chance for the work of God to be manifest in my life?”  When we see the world in that way, it means that we have God given eyes to see reality.  Our blindness is taken from us and it is replaced with true and clear sight.  

Don’t spend your life looking for people or things to blame for everything that is wrong and difficult and inconvenient and uncomfortable.  Blame won’t make anything better.  Actually, if anything the desert fathers tell us to blame ONLY ourselves.  Saint “Antony said to Saint Poemen, ‘Our great work is to lay the blame for our sins upon ourselves before God, and to expect to be tempted to our last breath.”

Don’t use every difficulty in life as an excuse to become the judge of others.  Instead, when we see difficult situations, it is a chance to look at our own shortcomings and to give the entire situation to Jesus Christ.  We do this when we come to the Lord with heartfelt prayer, from the depths of our being.  We say to the Lord, “Lord, you see this situation and Lord Jesus, only you can resolve it.  Only you can provide healing.”  That is our reality.  Until we see this, we are truly more blind than this poor man.  But when we finally begin to put trust in the Lord, we begin to see His work through this pandemic, and through every difficulty.  We may even find a way to thank God for all that He has allowed to happen in our lives.  We may see that our difficulties were gifts, that they helped us to grow and to trust in God and that God used the magnitude of our trials and difficulties to show that His greatness knows no measure at all. 

There are no limits to what God can do in our lives.  On this last Sunday of Pascha, never forget that even the worst situation known to man, that is death, looks insignificant in the light of what God has done, and we are His children.  What the Lord conquered in His resurrection, He freely shares with each of us.  This is our reality, this is our belief, this is the faith that upholds the universe.  Christ is risen!   

Source: Sermons

Do Not Be Afraid!

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (15:43-16:8) 

Christ is risen! Today in the life of the Holy Church we are reminded of some truly courageous acts of love. Each and every day for the last few weeks, I am reminded that people are afraid, but the Lord keeps reminding us that we have nothing to fear as His children. Some are afraid of getting sick. Others are afraid of being judged because they aren’t wearing masks or taking the same precautions as some deem necessary. Some are afraid that the authorities will use this sickness to clamp down on religious practice in this country. Some are afraid that we won’t get back to normal life anytime soon. We do have some reasons to fear, there can be no doubt about that. But we also have reasons to take courage, to be brave.

Our gospel reading today shows us the example of some very courageous people. People who were pious and loved God so much that they went out of their way and took risks, took chances and ultimately they were rewarded for their actions even in the darkest of times. They were rewarded for their faith. One of these courageous people was Joseph of Arimathaea. He was a prominent religious leader and the truth is that he stood to lose everything for showing sympathy for Jesus. Yet we are told that he “took courage” and went to Pilate. Why it is even possible that Pilate could have seen him as a sympathizer and had him punished or even crucified! Yet Joseph took courage and asked for the body of the Lord Jesus. And what courage and faithfulness he had. He not only went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body, but he went to the foot of the cross, to a scene that would be quite difficult to behold. He, along with Nicodemus, took down the bloodied, lifeless body of our Lord Jesus Christ. They handled His body with reverence and care and love. They showed great respect and honor to Christ. They did much more than the 12 disciples according to the gospel text. The disciples were paralyzed with fear yet these men, acted boldly, with love. It is a testament to their true faith and dedication to Jesus Christ.

The myrrh bearing women also showed similar boldness. They went to the tomb to anoint the body of the Lord. They did not worry about how they might be viewed by others, even the soldiers who were to guard the tomb. They did not give a thought to the fact that the Lord would be decomposing in the tomb. The women, like the men we just mentioned used different ways to show the same love for the Lord Jesus. In the life of the Church (which is the body of Christ) we also find different ways to show our love for Christ. We are called to do this even when the work is not glamorous. Actually the usual work of loving others and serving in the life of the Church is not glamorous work at all. It is dirty, difficult and often thankless. Each one does this work in different ways. One by offering comforting words, another by giving a hug, another by preparing food, another by cleaning, yet another by baking bread or by trimming the candle wicks. One by teaching, another by listening patiently. All of them serving and loving the same Lord, even through different kinds of actions. Each act might even carry a different sort of reward, yet all the rewards come from the Lord.

These women went out early on Sunday morning and the Lord rewarded their faithfulness and love by making them the first witnesses to the miraculous and life changing event of the resurrection. What an honor! Can you imagine? Even they could not comprehend it and we are told that “they went away and fled from the tomb for trembling and astonishment had come upon them.”

Right now we are in a situation that is difficult, there has been a sense that we’ve been waiting for the Sun to rise after a long cold night. Take courage! The Sun will rise again. Look to the bright spots in your life. You have your life, you have another day to learn to pray, to learn to love, to learn to repent. We have much to be thankful for. But I want to say to you, take courage! Joseph and Nicodemus and the Myrrh bearing women all had courage….and we can be like them. Actually I want to tell you that your courage must exceed their courage by far. How can I possibly say such a thing? Because they had this otherworldly courage after the crucifixion but before they knew a thing about the resurrection. My brothers and sisters, we have the good news of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ! So we must have courage that is above and beyond anything that even these saintly people possessed. We are called to reorient our lives and our way of thinking. This reminds me of that very nice quote “Don’t tell God how big your storm is, tell thestorm how big your God is.” 

Isn’t this how we should approach every difficulty and challenge in this life? Reminding ourselves that God is much bigger than the trials and tribulations of life. Some of the parents who are listening today have been privileged enough to hear the famous VeggieTales song “God is bigger than the boogie man.” In fact God is bigger and greater than everything including evil and sin and death! So we are not going to walk around in fear of the future because the future belongs to the Lord as did the past and the present. We also belong to the Lord. We are His children through our baptism. What He has, He is sharing with us. His defeat of sin and evil, it our defeat of sin and evil. His defeat of death, is our defeat of death. His glorious resurrection, is indeed our glorious resurrection. There is literally NOTHING to fear when you are a child of God. Only one thing do we really fear…to fall away from God, to be outside God, because that is true sickness that leads to true death. I want to leave you with a beautiful quote by St. John Maximovitch of Shanghai and SanFrancisco. He said 

“Now the Church consists of both her earthly and heavenly parts, for the Son of God came to earth and became man that He might lead man into heaven and make him once again a citizen of Paradise, returning to him his original state of sinlessness and wholeness and uniting him unto Himself.

This is accomplished by the action of Divine grace grated through the Church, but man’s effort is also required. God saves His fallen creature by His own love for him, but man’s love for his Creator is also necessary; without it he cannot by saved. Striving towards God and cleaving unto the Lord by its humble love, the human soul obtains power to cleanse itself from sin and to strengthen itself for the struggle to complete victory over sin.”

His complete victory will be our complete victory, so stop worrying and take courage! Christ is risen!

Source: Sermons

The Unbroken Thread In Our Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons

The Entrance Of Christ and The Fulfillment Of Our Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons

How To Grow Fruit In The Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons

Drawing Near to The Throne of Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In today’s Epistle reading we hear these words,

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons

Christ, the Coronavirus and Our Fragile Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons

Just Forgive!

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

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

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

In an effort to make sure that we begin the lenten struggle on the right foot, the Church gives us this beautiful gospel reading for the Sunday of Forgiveness. These words of Our Lord Jesus Christ come from His sermon on the mount. We hear these words “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons

How Will We Be Judged?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons