He Give Us New Life

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (5:1-15)

Today we hear the familiar story of the paralytic who had been ill for 38 years. We are not told how long he had been laying beside the miraculous pool, but we are told that Our Lord Jesus Christ knew that he had been there for a long time. The Lord likewise knows each of our situations, our trials, our difficulties, very intimately. He knows them better than we know them!

Our Lord comes up to this paralyzed man directly. This in and of itself should cause our hearts great joy. The king of heaven and earth, the maker of all things, descended to our level and then He goes directly to the man who is poor, sick and in great need, and He does something that most kings and leaders never do. He speaks with a man who is in great need. Who is this man, that the Lord of glory should come to him? Who are we that the Lord should come to us? But such is the grace of God and His mercy towards mankind.

What does Our Lord say to the man? Only a simply question: “Do you want to be healed?” There is a way in which what the Lord Jesus says to this man, is the same thing that the Lord speaks quietly into our hearts. He whispers to each of us gently “Do you want to be healed?” But it is not always easy for us to respond properly to this question. Take the paralytic for example. How did he answer the Lord? He said “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” So the man wanted healing but he understood that the problem was that he couldn’t get into the pool fast enough. In his mind, he thought to himself, “If only I had someone to help me get into the water quickly, I would be healed.” He lacks understanding. He doesn’t understand his powerlessness, and he doesn’t know the true source of this healing. He has been putting his trust in men, and as is usually the case, men have let this man down for a very long time. But the Scriptures tell us it is better to put trust in the Lord than to put confidence in men.

We,like the paralytic,are often quite similar in our day to day lack of understanding. Some think to themselves, if only I had more money, everything in my lifewould be better. If only we had a different president, everything would be better. When a woman comes to complain about her husband, she says “if only he would change, everything would be better.” The men often say the exact same thing “if only she would change, everything would be better.” We sometimes say to ourselves “I would be a better person if I didn’t have to deal with so much stress at work or at home.” We say “if only I could lose those extra pounds, I would feel much better about life.” If only I had a different job, I would be a better person. If only I was more strict, if only I fasted more, if only I worked harder, I would be a better Christian. In all of these things we can be easily distracted from the source of our healing. All of these things might be good for us, but they are tools. The simple fact remains, according to the words of the Lord “Without Me you can do nothing.” Christ asks each of us if we want to be healed, let’s not fall into the trap of looking for healing in all the wrong places.

We sometimes believe that our life will be better if external circumstances change. The Lord Jesus Christ proved to the paralytic that it was not the outside situation that had to change but a change from within, through the work of the physician of oursouls and the lover of mankind. What I am trying to say to you is this: Don’t lose your focus or look to false saviors. It is the Lord Jesus Christ alonewho can restore and heal you. We have an advantage that the paralytic did not have, we know the identity of Jesus Christ. We know Him by name, but have we given Him the time to know our hearts? Have we opened our hearts to Him and given Him a place to dwell? Do we really trust our lives and our situations and our difficulties to Him? Do we really spend time standing or kneeling and speaking with Him, asking Him to put His hand on our lives and heal us? Do we ask Him to bless our family members, friends and co-workers? Do we ask Him to bless our classmates, both the nice and the not-so-nice?

I don’t want us to be confused or distracted from reality. Jesus Christ is our reality. He is our salvation. He is our hope. He is our joy. He is our healing. He is our peace. He took a man who was basically dead, and gave him a resurrection, a new life. He has the power to give us new life as well.

The paralytic was confused regarding the source of healing. But after his healing, we see that it was the Jews who were confused. What was it that confused them? They saw the man who had been paralyzed, carrying his pallet and walking. It scandalized them. Why was this the case? Because they perceived that the law of God was being broken, the man was working, by carrying his bed on the Sabbath day of rest. Little did they know that the One who had commanded the man to rise, take up his pallet and walk, was the same One who made the Sun itself to rise and fall, the same One who caused the tides to come in and to go out. The One who in fact had made the law of the Sabbath out of love for His people. Yet the Jews did not understand but turned the letter of the lawinto a weapon. 

They ignored the fact that the man was healed and restored after being ill for 38 years, andinstead they focused on what they saw as his shortcoming and sin. I hopethat we have changed for the better but in some places these judgmental and legalistic attitudes still exist. Their are placeswhere people focus on all of the externalities and appearances, but I thank God that He has protected your hearts from this. I pray that we never be like these judgmental ones but rather let us be like the Lord who provides healing and mercy wherever He goes. God doesn’t need us to judge others, He needs us to love them.

In both situations, that of the paralytic and that of the Jews, we see that both parties put their trust in the wrong things. One in the men who might help him and in the miraculous pool. The others put their trust in the letter of the law. Yet God had something better planned, because His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways. The prophet Jeremiah speaking the word of God once said of His people“I will heal them and reveal to them the abundance of peace and truth.”(Jer 33:6) May we not forget the source of that healing, may we cling to Him and may He shower us with abundant peace and truth in the light of His resurrection. Christ is risen!

Source: Sermons

Small Ways to Imitate the Love of Joseph, Nicodemus and the Myrrh Bearing Women

The Reading from the Acts of the Saintly and Pure Apostles. (6:1-7) and The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (15:43-16:8) 

Since the start of the paschal season you might have noticed that the epistle reading each week has actually been from the book of Acts, (The Acts of the Apostles). This is a detailed chronicle of the life of the early Church and the way that the Holy Spirit moved the disciples of Jesus Christ and guided them to preach the gospel across the Roman Empire.

In today’s passage from Acts 6 we see that the disciples are beginning to deal with practical matters within the life of the church and trying to balance the material and physical needs of the people with their spiritual needs and the necessity to continue the God-given task of preaching the gospel to all nations. We notice that the disciples are overwhelmed by the number of people and particularly by the daily distribution to the poor and needy. This leads the disciples to come together and to say “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 

With this directive, they chose 7 men and prayed over them and laidtheir apostolic hands upon them (not much has changed in the Orthodox practice), and they ordained these men as servants, also known as deacons. At this time the role of the deacon was strictly the role of helping the poor and taking care of the table service. It was also to visit the sick and infirm. We know that historically there were even female deacons who had this role. As time progressed, the deacons also began to take on the liturgical role and to assist with the table service of the Holy Altar. We do not have any evidence that this liturgical role was ever given to women in the early church.

In all of this we see that the disciples could not do it all alone. We should know that the bishop cannot do the work of building up the Church, alone. The priest cannot do the work, alone. The work of God requires a concerted prayerful effort of each member. The deacon faithfullyassists the priest. The altar servers assist the priest and the deacon. The parish council plays a very important role as it is advises and manages day to day practical matters within the life of the church so that the clergy can be freed up to focus on the ministries of prayer, teaching, sacraments, counselingand visiting the sick.

Our womens group likewise, plays an important role in the day to day life of the church. Each group plays an important role, and each individual plays an even more important role in the life of the Church. Our Lord Jesus Christ died and rose again from the dead, to redeem each of us from corruption, sin and death. He died and rose again in order to give us life. Does our life reflect the reality of His resurrection? Do our works and deeds demonstrate that we are living the life of resurrection, that we are living the life of the risen Lord Jesus?

What does this work look like? Well I want to be honest and tell you that sometimes, it ain’t glamorous. In today’s gospel reading we see some amazing examples of the service and dedication that is rendered to our Lord Jesus Christ as He passed away and hung upon the holy wood of the cross on that first Holy Friday. 

Joseph of Arimathaea, took courage and went to Pontius Pilate and asked for the body of the Lord. This might not seem like much, but I assure you that most of us would not have been so bold. Jesus had just been crucified and it was at the order of Pontius Pilate. To go and ask for His body might have been seen by Pontius Pilate as a reason to imprison or even crucify Joseph since it would reveal him to be a follower of Christ. In addition, we can imagine that since this Joseph was a member of the council of the Sanhedrin, his devotion to Jesus could also be seen by the rest of the council, who could remove him from the council, excommunicate him from the temple and synagogues and even try to have him punished or killed as well.

It was no small thing, this act of devotion that Joseph of Arimathaea demonstrated. One can only imagine the condition of the Lord’s body when Joseph received it. It would not have looked like the crucifixion icons, but would have been much more gruesome to our eyes, because the act of being flogged and crucified was among the most gruesome acts that has ever been devised in history.

It wasn’t glamorous, but often, love is far fromglamorous. This same love and dedication that Joseph of Arimathaeaand Nicodemus showed to the lifeless body of the Lord Jesus, is the same love and devotion that the myrrh bearing women showed to the Lord, when they decided to visit his tomb. It this love and devotionthatwe should all aspire to within the Church. Do you know why? Because the Church IS the body of Christ. When you serve the Church, you serve Christ Himself.

There are so many ways to serve the body of Christ and obtain the blessings of this service. And many of you serve faithfully. You chant and sing. You move partition walls and set up tables and chairs. You bake bread and teach the children. But we are always challenged to do more and increase our love and devotion.

Sometimes it means picking up the extra books that are lying around at the end of the services. It might mean cleaning up the church school rooms that have been left in complete disarray.At times it may mean plunging a toilet or taking out a garbage bag that is full. It might mean cleaning up empty paper plates and cups that are leftlying around inside or outside under the picnic shelter.

It can mean calling those whom you haven’t seen for a couple of weeks or even sending them a friendly text. It might mean making a meal for someone or visiting them at their home. Or it can be something as simple as looking after the little ones to give their parents a short rest.Every one of these actions is practical and powerful in allowing us to do the work of the Church, and when we do these things with love, we allow this place to bea place of healing for everyone who enters. We receive the healing of the Lord by hearingHis word, by loving one another, by praying together and partaking of the sacramental life of the Church. And we work together so that others may receive this same grace.

May we take courage and do what we can to serve the Lord faithfully, through the prayers of Joseph, Nicodemus, the myrrh bearing women and all of the saints. Christ is risen! 

Source: Sermons

Why Do We Call It Pascha?

Christ is risen! Indeed He is Risen!

My beloved, we are now in the joyous season of Pascha. It occurred to me that perhaps some of you do not know why we call what is known in the west as Easter by this term Pascha. What does it mean? Where did it come from? How can we celebrate it properly during these holy days that culminate in the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost?

Pascha, is a word that is Greek but originally derived from Hebrew and that word meant “passover”. We know that passover is a feast celebrated by the Jewish people. This feast celebrates the miraculous events that led to the release of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. We read about this in the biblical account called Exodus, which is the second book of the Bible. The actual event that is called the passover is the event that broke Egypt’s back and made Pharaoh submit to the demands of Moses the prophet and release the people of God. What was this event? It was the coming of the angel to kill and wipeout the first-born of every living creature, both man and beast. Both Jews and Egyptians. 

But God had a plan for those who loved Him and had faith. He instituted the passover celebration where the people would gather around a table and eat a lamb cooked with bitter herbs. When this lamb was slaughtered, God instructed that it’s blood was to be put across the door posts of each house. The blood would form a shape that you would see across the top rail of the door and across the two side posts on the left and the right. It would look very much like the Greek letter Pi. However in the modern Hebrew language the shape of the letter would be recognized as Tav which makes the sound “t”. So, if a modern Jew were to look at the mark of the blood on the doors they would immediately think of the letter Tav. Why is this so interesting? Because during the time of the exodus and in the early Jewish history, the letter underwent development and changes. Tav didn’t always look like the Greek letter for Pi, but looked like something much more recognizable to each of us. It looked almost exactly like a cross or a lower case “t”.

What does this have to do with Pascha? Pascha takes it’s name from this feast of the Jews, where they took the blood of a spotless lamb and put it on the doors of the house in obedience to the Lord. This was the sign by which the Angel would pass over the house and would not kill anyone within the house. In this way, it was understood as a passover and that is exactly what we celebrate during this beautiful season of Pascha. Only we have much more to celebrate then did the Jews in Egypt.

The Jews were in bondage and slavery in Egypt, but we were in the bondage and slavery of sin. The Jews worked for Pharaoh and the empire of Egypt, but we worked for Satan and his kingdom. The jews picked a lamb without blemish and killed it in order to eat it and to place it’s blood on the door posts. God chose His only Son to be the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. And He did this upon the wood of the cross, in the shape of a “t”. They ate of this lamb with bitter spices, yet in Holy communion, we eat the lamb of God with joy for what He has done for us and in us.

They spread the blood upon the door so that the angel might pass over the house and everyone in it. Yet we were baptized into the death of Christ so that by the death that He died, He could offer us freedom from spiritual death and life immortal. Through the death of the Lord we are offered fullness of life. It is to live life in communion with the Holy Trinity, forever. Nothing in the world can separate us from God because of the blood of the Lamb of God. This sacrifice has made death powerless over us. Even more that that, it has rejuvenated us and energized us with new life, the divine life of Christ through the Holy Spirit. 

Pascha is a fulfillment of the feast of passover celebrated long ago. It is our passover celebration. It was celebrated with great symbolism in the past, but we celebrate it through fulfillment and in reality. Because of God’s mercy and love, we now have the ability to live freely in Christ, in true life, and to grow in depth and knowledge of the Lord and to serve Him faithfully.

We see this glorious time in the Church as a foretaste and an entrance into the kingdom. Everything shines with the light of Christ. Everything takes on the joy of the resurrection. Everything becomes new again. We fasted for many weeks in order to be prepared and to be purified for this time in the presence of the renewed grace of God. We don’t celebrate Pascha for merely a day. Not even for 40 days. Pascha is the eternal celebration of life in Christ. 

Around the year 1815, we hear that St. Seraphim of Sarov had repented and prayed for nearly 1000 days while upon a rock, he descended from that rock and began to greet all of the people with a familiar phrase that God had given to Him… “Christ is risen!” This is not just a hope. Christ is risen! This is my belief, this is my faith, this is my creed, this is my life. Christ is risen from the dead. And we who were in the tombs of spiritual and physical death are now given life. May this life not be wasted. May this life be lived as the saints themselves have lived it. Life is not about them or about the world. Everything is an offering to the living God. 

St. John Maximovitch of San Francisco said “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.” If this is our way, He will be our joy. Because He lives, we shall also live with Him. This is the precious gift that has been given to us. Christ is Risen! Indeed He is risen!

Source: Sermons

How Not To Lose the Blessings of Holy Week

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (12:1-18) 

As we move into Holy Week, we will quickly see that the cries of the people who came to greet the Lord Jesus on Palm Sunday, have changed. They came out by the hundreds and possibly thousands to say “Hosanna! Blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!” They greeted the Lord as a victorious king, but what a great difference just a few days can make. In less than 5 days, He will be betrayed. In less than a week, the same crowd that came to greet Him and to call Him “king”, will deny Him and cry out with one voice “Crucify Him!”

We are reminded that our feelings are not to be trusted. The people were not watchful, but passionate. They were easily swayed and not firm in their faith and belief in Jesus Christ. We are amazed at their quick change of attitude and we are left much more amazed by the humility of the Lord Jesus. How much patience and mercy He has towards us. His own creation, the very works of His very hands, had completed it’s rebellion and turned against Him. Yet, He did not respond with anger. He responded with humility, in order to turn his curse into our blessing. It is the picture of unimaginable love. Love without limits. Love without preconditions. Love without wavering or faltering. Pure love from the Pure One.

And none of this came as a surprise to Our Lord. He foretold and foreknew the whole situation. He understood what kind of suffering He would face as He entered into Jerusalem. While they cheered and sang “Hosanna!” He already knew how they would change their cheers into jeers, how they would gnash their teeth while they begged for the criminal Barabbas to be freed and for Christ to be crucified in his place.

We probably think to ourselves, “thank God that I am not like those stupid people who betrayed Christ.” But in fact we are the same people! We betray Christ every time we ignore His teachings and do our own will. We betray Christ when we sin. We betray Christ when we do not love our neighbor. We betray Christ when we dishonor and neglect the life that He gives us in His Church, which is in truth, His mystical body. My brothers and sisters, we are not so different from those who came to greet the Lord that day in Jerusalem. We celebrate God when things are going well for us. But we might turn against Him if our life became uncomfortable or if we were sick or if people attacked us or punished us because of our belief in Him.

Why were the people fickle and moody in their attitude changes? Because their faith was based on outward signs and not on the person of Christ. The Mother God knew her Son very well, and she didn’t betray Him. She stood by and watched and agonized over the treatment that Her beloved Son was receiving. Her faith was constant, because it was faith in Christ and not only in His miracles. Faith in the person of Christ can sustain us, because it is a solid foundation upon which to build our lives.

I would like to switch pace just a bit as we prepare to enter into Holy Week. This is the one week of the year when we spend the most time in the church and I want to take a few moments to talk about what we can do to make the most of this time, to gain great benefits. I also want to speak about what we do that steals away the grace of God and the joy of this somber but beautiful week.

Here are a few things that steal our joy and diminish our sense of God’s grace: Extra talking and joking after the services. I’ve noticed that after each of our services, we are happy to see each other, happy to be together. But let us try to hold in some of that enthusiasm and joy. This should be a week full of quiet reflection and a time for us to let the prayers find a place deep in the heart. If we talk as soon as we leave the somber holy week services, we lose some of that grace, we chase it away with idle chatter or boisterous laughter. Instead, try to hold back and safe guard it like a treasure that will gain interest over time. It’s much more difficult than you think, if it has not become a habit.

Next, be extra careful about how you spend your free time. This is not the time for loud music and games and television. But it is a great time for an electronics and media fast. It is an even better time to finish those books you’ve started at the beginning of Lent and even to study the holy week book that we use daily during this week. It is full of amazing hymns, scripture readings, and prayers.

Last, don’t focus on Pascha prematurely. Don’t focus on your meal plans or celebrations too early. This is the day that the Lord has made. Don’t lose the blessings of each day of Holy Week by daydreaming about the future. On Saturday after the morning service, you will have plenty of time to think about and prepare for Saturday evening. Only remember that Pascha is NOT about food and drink but about light, joy and life! It is the most special service of the whole year, where we enter more deeply into the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

The last thing that I would like to mention that steals our joy and robs us of the grace of Holy Week: Willfully skipping the services. Lent was a time to begin reorienting our lives around Christ and His Church. If Lent was the start, Holy Week is the culmination. It is the time when every Christian is called to put aside the things of the world and hit the pause button on their outside lives. The world is passing away. Only the Lord’s kingdom will remain! Here is a simple rule for the week: If it can be postponed or put off until later so that you can come and pray, then by all means, do it. Or what will a man give in return for his soul?

Holy Week was not instituted in order to make you feel guilty as you skip all of the services. It was instituted by the Church in order to help you enter into the profound beauty of all that the Lord Jesus has done for us. In order to give you a deep experience of the redemption that was won for us by our Lord, through His life giving sufferings and passion. And all of this helps us to fully enter into the joy of life in the risen Christ.

May the Lord give you strength for this holy marathon and make you worthy to celebrate at the footsteps of the empty tomb! AMEN. 

Source: Sermons

It Is Not Too Late!

On this final Sunday of Great and Holy Lent we remember and celebrate the life of the great St. Mary of Egypt. 

Most of us know the story of St. Mary of Egypt but perhaps we can dig a little deeper into the Church’s true purpose for remembering her now at the end of the great fast.

We are told that Mary left home at a young age, about 12 years old. She was wild and undisciplined and she was a sex addict. She had little control over her desires or impulses. She allowed these feelings and urges to drag her from place to place. In many ways she embodies the definition of womanhood that is offered to us in the Western world. Her life was like something out of “Sex and the City.” She would be celebrated by many for her unrestrained lifestyle. Today many women celebrate this so-called freedom. They think that being sexually chaste or modest is some sort of weakness or even slavery. They fight for the freedom of the body and they can’t conceive of the ways in which the body and soul are connected. They fight for sexual liberation and can’t conceive of the ways in which they are hurrying towards their own slavery.

Mary was like many people today. She was governed and ruled by her sexual desires. These desires led her further and further into darkness. It is possible that for most of her life she had never heard the word “NO”. She made herself available to many of the young men she met. She gave her love to one man after another. And this is where she falls right into the biblical story of salvation. Mary of Egypt is a great symbol of God’s people, when they are unfaithful. She is a woman with many lovers.

If you spend some time in the Old Testament, especially in the prophetic books, you will find a recurring theme. This theme is the marriage of God to His bride Israel. This Israel is not the nation state that we see on the news, it is understood by the Fathers of the Church as the people of God. The problem with the people of biblical Israel is that they are always giving their love to other gods. God wants them to be faithful, but they continue to seek out false gods, day after day and year after year. Israel is the unfaithful wife. According to the Scriptures, she is worse than a harlot.

Are we faithful to God or do we behave like Mary of Egypt. Do we live to serve the true and living God or are we living for other gods such as wealth, beauty, power, security and luxury? When these strange gods come to seduce us, how do we respond? Do we push them away or do we quickly accept them?

Mary had gone her whole life and never been denied because men were looking at her strictly on her visible beauty. But what would happen when she approached the One who could see the inner state of her soul? As she sought to enter the church in Jerusalem she felt a force push against her. The woman who had never been rejected was now being rejected by God Himself. It was a turning point in her life.

It turns out that Mary was not happy in the state she was in, she was miserable. She had been chasing these sins because she was hungry for something deeper. She wanted love. We all want love. The problem is that usually the things we love don’t return love to us. They use us and throw us away once we are no longer useful. They leave us feeling lonely, abandoned and empty.

Mary found the love of Jesus Christ. She was baptized and received communion and for the next 47 years she lived in the wilderness in complete solitude. She repented and prayed and thanked God that He had not rejected her, but had shown her true love and mercy in ways she could never expect. Her transformation began with her heartfelt repentance, but it continued long afterwards. She did not merely accept Christ into her heart and go about living any way she liked. That is not Christianity, that is fantasy land. Mary of Egypt gained amazing spiritual gifts and insights, the likes of which are rarely attained even by those living in the monasteries under spiritual guidance for many years. God was faithful and true in His promises. As Mary continued her struggle, Christ continued to pour out His abundant grace. Once Mary knew who loved her, she gave Him everything she had and everything she was. She poured out her body, her heart, her mind and her strength. She completely embodied the first and greatest commandment to give God everything of ourselves.

Mary becomes a sign of what can happen to the people of God when they turn from their wickedness and actually let God affect them. It’s not a matter of “if” God can change you, It’s a matter of “how”. St. Mary of Egypt shows us that it is God’s good pleasure to transform each of us into His image and likeness. He makes warriors to become peacemakers. He makes brutes to become physicians. He makes the foolish to become wise. He makes harlots to become virgins. He makes strangers to become His sons and daughters.

As we near the finish line of the fast, Mary of Egypt gives us courage to complete our journey. Not one of our sacrifices or our prayers will be ignored. Not one of our struggles will be forgotten by God. Perhaps it is time that we turn to Him and trust Him completely as did this wonderful saint. God loves you just as He loved St. Mary. He doesn’t desire your death but your purification, sanctification and illumination. He desires to have communion with you, to know you intimately. No matter how far you’ve fallen, no matter what sins are in your past, God is ready to redeem you. Even now, at the last hour of Great and Holy Lent, God can transform each of us and bring us true healing. It is not yet too late. What is impossible with men, is still possible with Christ our God!

Glory be to the God Forever. AMEN.

(Adapted from a sermon given on 4-5-2014 )

Source: Sermons

Instructions For The Laity From St. John Climacus

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

Today’s reading is given to us on this, the fourth Sunday of Great and Holy Lent. This day we commemorate the memory of our father among the saint John Climacus. He is most well known for the spiritual classic which he wrote called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”. In this powerful book, he outlines steps of the spiritual life as rungs of a ladder that lead up to heaven. As we climb and gain new virtues through God’s help, we ascend further towards the Kingdom. This book is so highly regarded that it is often the main lenten reading in monasteries around the world. This of course makes great sense when you realize that this book was written for monastics and from a monastic mindset. Nevertheless, it has many wonderful treasures for the average layperson who eagerly studies it with some guidance from their priest and spiritual father.

At the beginning of the book, St. John has some important words of advice for those living in the world, especially those who are single and might consider monasticism. We will get to that in a moment. But I think it is important to remember that not everyone needs to get married. Some are not called to marriage. But if we desire to be single then we must be single in the way that is pleasing to God, and not in the way of the world. If we desire to be single, we should also desire to be celibate or chaste. You can’t stay in the world and live anyway that you like and claim to believe in God and serve Him while living in any way that you please. 

The Church teaching (which is the teaching of Jesus Christ), does not allow for the gratification of sexual urges and desires outside of the sacrament of marriage between one man and one woman. We are certainly free to live that lifestyle but it is to our own harm and death, and not to life. So even those who live together and pretend to be married are living in grave sin, that does untold spiritual damage because they have chosen to live without the blessing of God. One of the modern fathers likened this to a man putting on a priests vestments and trying to serve the liturgy. Just wearing the vestments isn’t enough to make someone a priest. He has to be ordained with the laying on of hands, from an authentic bishop, that bestows the grace of the priesthood. And he will have to sweat and struggle to become worthy of the grace that he was given. In similar fashion, the ones who desire to live lawfully and in a godly manner, must wait for the Holy Spirit to bless the union and make the couple, one flesh. Then they must work diligently to confirm the gift they received. So each of us must decide and be firm in our conviction. Nevertheless, right at the beginning of his epic work, St. John has some words of advice especially for those who are unmarried and perhaps feel the pull to the monastic life. He writes, 

“In the world, when an emperor summons us to obedience, we leave everything aside and answer the call at once without delays or hanging back or excuses. We had better be careful then not to refuse through laziness or inertia, the call of the heavenly life in the service of the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of gods. He continues… “Someone caught up in the world can make progress, if he is determined. But it is not easy. Those bearing chains can still walk. But they often stumble and are thereby injured. The man who is unmarried and in the world, for all that he may be burdened, can nevertheless make haste toward the monastic life.” 

In this he encourages those who have contemplated leaving the world to do so without delay and to enter the heavenly ranks. As you may know, our very own Mother Angelina and Father Gabriel did just that, and what joy we take in their offering of their lives to the Lord.

Next, St. John gives some words of advice to those who are married and must live in the world. What he says is short, sweet and to the point, and within it the whole Christian life is present. St. John writes,

“Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: “How can we who are married and living amid public cares aspire to the monastic life?” I answered: “Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies (Liturgy). Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.” 

In a brief paragraph that is dripping with spirit-filled wisdom, St. John all but hands us the keys to the kingdom. He shows us what is required if we want to live in communion and fellowship with the Holy Trinity.

Now some of you may be thinking to yourselves “Father, there is a problem. I want to do all of these things that St. John has mentioned but I cannot seem to do them. I speak ill of others, I judge others, I tell small lies, I carry hatred in my heart, I skip the liturgy at times, I desire and covet what belongs to my neighbor and am not content with what God has given me. What can I do now?”

In a way, the gospel reading is meant to address this. We hear of a boy who is brought to Jesus by his father who asks for the Lords help. The boy exhibits symptoms of being an epileptic. He often falls down and convulses. He has moments where he is no longer in control of himself and in fact, it goes beyond mere epilepsy since his father tells us that often the spirit which possessed the boy, tried to throw him into fire or water and destroy him. To all of this our merciful Lord Jesus responds “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Yet the father, overwhelmed by this trial and the way it has affected his son can only cry out “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” So it is quite similar to where we might be. We want Christ, we want the kingdom of God, we want to do all of the things that St. John mentioned above, but perhaps we feel powerless to get there. 

The gospel tells us that the disciples, who had been given power by Jesus, had earlier tried to help the boy but could not do the job and they wondered why. The Lord replied “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” It is the word that the Lord gives us today. We are reminded that we are in the middle of Lent precisely to increase our prayers and fasting. Why? Because it is in heartfelt prayer and humble fasting, that the greatest changes can happen to our spiritual state. Prayer when coupled with fasting, becomes a powerful catalyst in our transformation as sons and daughters of God. Fasting helps us to overcome obstacles and temptations as well as habitual sins that seem like they can never be defeated in our lives. Yet, we notice that it is the Lord Himself who has blessed the act of fasting. It is the Lord who began His own earthly ministry with 40 days of preparation through fasting and prayer. 

Fasting allows us to shed our sinful inclinations like a snake sheds its skin. So we fast in order that the transformational power of God might be magnified to it’s fullest potential. And we are amazed that as we are healed and transformed we sense that Christ is doing to us what He did to the boy in the gospel reading. He takes us by the hand and lifts us up. What a beautiful image! The Lord looks each of us in the eyes and He desires to reach out His hand to us and lift us up with His healing touch. We are in the difficult final weeks. Now is not the time to despair. It is the time to cry out “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” And Glory be to God forever AMEN. 

Source: Sermons

The Way That Leads to Life

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (8:34-9:1) 

One of the worst things that can happen to us is to begin thinking that if we love God or have true faith, that somehow our life will be easier, or less painful or have less suffering. When all of a sudden we are faced with difficulties or tribulation, we then question our faith, we question God, we question everything. Why? Because in fact, we had made an idol of pleasure or ease of life.

Even now during the Great and Holy Fast we are sometimes surprised at the level of discomfort we have. We might say to ourselves “Didn’t Father tell us that if we fast and pray faithfully, we will have an experience of the Lord, we will grow in communion with Him?” But let us put our struggles into perspective. Today is the Third Sunday of Lent. It is officially the mid-way point of the fast. Three weeks down, three weeks to go. At the end of the next three weeks, we will enter into Holy Week, the holiest and most solemn time in the life of the Church.

We have struggled a bit. We have prayed a bit, fasted a bit, done a bit of prostrations, done a bit of repenting, done a bit of weeping. At this point we might find ourselves tired. We may begin to question the logic of all this hard work, all of this struggle. Yet what does the Church to to offer us encouragement? She doesn’t bring out the icon of the resurrection of the Lord. She brings out the cross. She reminds us of the love of God for each and every man, woman and child that has ever lived. She reminds us that the Lord Jesus, suffered for us and died for us on the precious wood of the cross in order to give us true life.

My brothers and sisters, now is the time to struggle. Later it will be time to rest. When I say that now is the time to struggle, I am speaking of this holy fast, but I am also speaking of our life in general. There is no one who can avoid suffering. No one can avoid trials. No one can avoid difficult people in their lives. My friends, there is no life for us unless we take up our crosses and carry them all the way to the end.

The Lord taught us what He would also demonstrate for us. He had courage and carried His cross with strength. He knew it was unjust. He knew it was painful. He knew that He did not deserve such treatment. They spit in the Lord’s face and they slapped Him. They beat Him and whipped Him. This was the reward that He received for the many thousands of people that He had fed and healed and taught. They rewarded His love with their hatred. They nailed Him to the tree of death. Yet the Lord took all of this patiently. What a Lord we have! He took this suffering because it was the only way to offer us true life! He took our death and gave us His divine life.

As we each enter into our particular struggles of life, we must enter into them by asking the Lord for strength. Mothers need strength to keep up with their duties and the raising of their children. Fathers need strength to continue working difficult jobs with difficult people. Husbands and wives need strength and patience to deal with one another and to accept one another and support one another. Children need strength to fight peer-pressure and courage to act differently than the world around them.

We enter into our sufferings with determination and a focus on the love of God and of the example of the Lord Jesus. If there was another way, God would have surely shown it to us.

We are called to suffer in life and to carry our crosses so that we might live the life of Christ within our bodies. Instead of seeking pleasure, we seek to please God. Instead of temporary rest, we seek eternal rest when the Lord chooses to give us this rest.

Every decision we make creates a ripple effect. And every day we are faced with the decision that once faced the Lord after He had fasted for 40 days and was hungry. He was faced with a choice of who He should serve. We are faced with that same decision every day. Do we follow after pleasure, after ease of life, after Satan? Or do we follow after the commandments of God, after the way of Christ, no matter where it might lead? The Lord tells us that there is nothing so special as the soul of a man. Don’t forfeit your soul or the souls of those around you for fleeting pleasures.

It is so sad when someone is overcome by serious temptations and their lapse in judgement doesn’t just affect them. It affects everyone in their social circle in a negative way. In fact, it affects the whole Church. Instead of offering life through their struggles, in the model of Christ, they try to throw off their crosses and run after whatever it is that they feel they are lacking.

The cross is brought out to us today not only to give us strength but to remind us of the way to life. It is time to rededicate ourselves in these final weeks of Lent, and to rededicate the days of your whole life to the Master who can redeem your life and offer you something that transcends your every concept of life and joy. Now we are climbing up the mountain of prayer and making progress through the grace of God. Soon we will rejoice with the angels and with the whole universe as we celebrate the One who took up His cross for our sake and in return, gave us to eat of the fruit of eternal life! 

Source: Sermons

What Can Happen When We Pray

The Second Sunday of Great and Holy Lent, St. Gregory Palamas Sunday

I’m amazed every year when I’m reminded that St. Gregory Palamas was once called “the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church.” Now imagine that he was called “the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church” by the Patriarch of Constantinople himself. The year is 1344. This comment was made during a Church council and it caused this man to be thrown into prison for the next 4 years. The man who was “the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church” was St. Gregory Palamas, archbishop of Thessalonica. Yet the Church in her wisdom has set aside this the second Sunday of Great Lent as Palamas Sunday.

Why was this man called “the cause of all disorders and disturbances in the Church?” and yet why do we remember him on one of the Sundays of Lent? To simplify this I will say that St. Gregory was an accomplished monk who became the abbot or head of one of the monastic communities. In the course of his spiritual life, he had learned many things about our life in Christ, about true Orthodoxy. One of the things that he learned and taught was of great controversy and we better hear it and understand it because it is part of our theology and understanding of God. St. Gregory taught that we could know God intimately and personally. That we can commune with God and that when we do we actually partake of His energies. That we can, through heartfelt daily repentance and ascetical efforts, grow in purity. And when purity is coupled with true prayer, we can feel, know and be bathed in the presence of God by the grace of the Holy Spirit. 

I have to tell you that even today, even now, that is a radical idea for many. I was recently speaking with someone who told me that they felt much better and achieved much more from meditation than they ever did from prayer. I replied that it was probably the case that no one had actually taught them what prayer is or how to pray apart from opening a prayer book and repeating what is in it. In addition, I told them that if we dedicated the same time to prayer that some people dedicate to meditation, the “results” would be quite positive.

We think of prayers as formal words. We sometimes think of prayers as speaking empty words into a blank space, never to hear anything in return. So we are often lucky to spend even 3 minutes praying before we get tired or bored. That is not prayer according to the Fathers of the Church. Prayer is living communion with God that is experienced in a genuine way and this always transforms us, even though we rarely sense it as it is happening. God is not far-away, He is not known only through mental knowledge and books. He is known in truth as we participate in His energies. Rather than say too much from my own words, I will share some of the words of our Fathers and what they had to say about experiencing God. As I share these things please note that we do not pray for to have similar experiences, but God sometimes gives them by grace. Either way, the grace of God is working in us, when we pray. Whether we have a dazzling experience or something far more subtle. Let us first hear the words of St. Gregory Palamas himself,

…the grace of the Spirit takes possession of the quiet soul, and gives it a taste of the unspeakable good things to come, which no passionate and negligent eye has seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of such a man (cf. I Cor. 2:9). This taste is the earnest of these good things, and the heart which accepts these pledges becomes spiritual and receives assurance of its salvation.” 

That light, father, appeared to me. The walls of my cell immediately vanished and the world disappeared, fleeing I think from before His face, and I remained alone in the presence alone of the light. And I do not know, father, if this my body was there, too. I do not know if I was outside of it. For a while I did not know that I carry and am clothed with a body. And such great joy was in me and is with me now, great love and longing both, that I was moved to streams of tears like rivers, just like now as you see.” -St. Symeon the New Theologian 

Finally, I will share with you the words of the modern, yet to be canonized saint, Elder Sophrony of Essex 

Towards evening at sunset I would shut the window and draw three curtains over it, to make my cell as quiet and dark as possible. With my forehead bent to the floor, I would slowly repeat words of prayer, one after the other. I had no feeling of being cooped up, and my mind, oblivious to the body, lived in the light of the gospel word. Concentrated on the fathomless wisdom of Christ’s word, my spirit, freed from all material concerns, would feel flooded, as it were, with light, from the celestial sun.At the same time, a gentle peace would fill my soul, unconscious of all the needs and cares of this earth. The Lord gave me to live in this state, and my spirit yearned to cling to his feet in gratitude for this gift. This same experience was repeated at intervals for months, perhaps years….Under the influence of this light, prayer for mankind and travail possessed my whole being. It was clear that the inescapable, countless sufferings of the entire universe, are the consequence of man’s falling away from God, our creator, who revealed himself to us. If the world loved Christ and his commandments, everything would be radically transformed, and the earth would become a wonderful paradise.”

I have shared these things with all of you because I want you to know that we do not fast and undergo lent for some outward ritual and symbolic observance, but for the opportunity to be purified and healed. God is not far away. We can have peace with Him. We can knowand experience God.How do we begin to know Him? We begin with heart felt repentance. When we repent, our sins are removed and no heavy weight will weigh us down as we climb up the mountain of prayer. Next,we pray patiently and as we begin to pray, we ask for the gift of prayer. There is no doubt that the Lord desires to give this gift to you. And like any good activity, it must be undertaken with discipline, as a daily part of our life. So continue to strive, because knowing Him is worth it. He desires to know you and to transform you completely, because He loves you. May the grace of the Lord be with you all! AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Why Is The Sunday of Orthodoxy, the First Sunday of Lent?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (1:43-51) 

On this, the first Sunday of the great fast, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy. This day specifically commemorates the restoration of the holy icons into all of the churches of God. We might be asking ourselves, “why does the Church celebrate this at the beginning of Lent?” “What is the connection between the veneration of icons and this holy season?” Let me share a few thoughts with you.

The culmination of the great lenten struggle is found in the glorious events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. According to Christian teaching these are the most important events in the entire history of the universe. Yet, in order for them to be understood as more than myth or legend, something must anchor them to reality. What the Church has understood as the anchor of our understanding is the eye witness accounts of the apostles. They gave up their lives, they went to their deaths preaching and teaching that they had indeed seen and touched and heard and known the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. They were witnesses, in the Greek language a witness is a martyr. 

Icons are a necessary part of all Christian worship. In our Church, we pray what we believe and we believe what we pray. The Orthodox faithful underwent many years of hardship and persecution at the hands of those who believed that the use of icons was forbidden and was wrong according to their understanding of Scripture (an understanding that incidentally was heavily influenced by the rise of Islam). These Christians read Scripture with a narrow understanding that denied the living interpretation of the universal Christian tradition of the first few hundred years.  Nevertheless, truth won the day, through the life giving breath of the Holy Spirit, as the Church came together to reason and pray and understand what is God’s will regarding this subject that had created so much controversy.

The 7thecumenical council, a universal council of the east and the west, tells us that icons are not only good, but absolutely necessary to Christian worship. They are a continual reminder that God is no longer understood as simply an invisible spirit. God is understood as having a Son, who Himself took real human flesh, real human existence. Who was born on an actual day in history, in an actual place, with an actual human mother from whom He received His actual human DNA. St. Peter writes “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 2 Peter1:16 

In the Old Testament, God forbid the making of images for worship because the people did not have a proper understanding of Him. No one had ever seen God, for God is spirit. For the people to attempt to depict or worse yet, to pray to what they had not seen or understood, would be a great blasphemy because they were bound to depict God incorrectly. They were bound to worship something false. But, the Lord Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that the day is coming when the true worshippers of God will worship Him in spirit and in truth. This indeed has happened with the coming of the savior into the world. The Apostle Paul writes that Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). His actual word from the Greek is not image but icon. It is thisrevelation of the Son of God in the flesh, that makes iconography not only proper, but necessary. Since mankind looked on the face of the Son of God and dwelt with Him and witnessed all of the events of His life, we know that He is real. To forbid iconography is to deny the incarnation, to deny the taking of flesh by the Son of God. So before the Church leads us to the cross and the resurrection of the Lord, the Church first reminds us of Christmas (the nativity).  The Church reminds us that what we believe is not myth, but truth, and truth has consequences.

In today’s gospel reading Nathanael says to his brother Philip “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And how does Philip respond? “Come and see.” That is the Christian faith. It is not philosophical theory but experience that includes our senses. We don’t know God through books. We know God by experience.In the Orthodox faith we have a sensory experience every time that we enter the church. We taste the Lord’s body and blood, we smell the incense, we see and kiss the icons, we hear the hymns. It must be so! Because our redemption and healing happens not only on some far-away cosmic level, but it happens even within the individual person and within his very cells. Sanctification through the life of the Holy Spirit, transforms us at every level. As a person participates through the body, through their senses, they are healed. The Lord Jesus Christ in His abundant mercy and love for mankind, has made this healing possible by truly taking our human flesh and lifting it up to His level. Hisresurrection becomes our resurrection. Everything is healed. Everything is transformed. Everything is made new in the light of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

So now you see why we remember the return of the icons into the Church. Because we can’t get to the resurrection without the incarnation. We can’t get to the life-saving faith unless the apostles had first witnessed the Word made flesh, and been so convinced of this fact that they were willing to die to proclaim the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a powerful testimony of the truth of our faith and it is this faith that gives us new life. It is this faith that we cling to and embrace as we repent and fast and attend extra services andask the Lord to open our hearts and minds and make these truths a part of our being. 

Truly God is the Lord and has appeared unto us! There is no place here for formality, vainworks, or dead religion. Lent is a time to come to life byembracingthe divine life that has been shared with us through God’s grace and the holy witness of the apostles and all of the saints. This alone is real life! Glory be to God forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Practical Advice As We Enter Great Lent

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

Our Lord begins today’s gospel reading, the gospel reading that is given to us on the day before we plunge into the holy waters of Great Lent. Here is what the Lord says to us “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.” I think that these words are quite clear. Another way of looking at this saying of our Lord Jesus is this: If we cannot learn to forgive others, genuinely, from the heart, we can never accept the forgiveness that God wants to give to us. Why is this the case? Because God cannot impose Himself upon us. He invites us, but He doesn’t impose.

We come to the church on Sundayand you usuallyhear me giving the homily or sermon and you maybe inclined to think that what I am saying has no practical value. That somehow I am speaking theoretically. NO! The Christian faith is not philosophy but practicality that comes from truth and leads to life. If you want to have great relationships with others, one of the most important things that you need to learn is the ability to forgive everyone for everything that they have ever done to you. Whether through words, or actions or thoughts. Forgive them quickly. This will give you tremendous peace that flows throughout your relationships and clears your path to knowledge of God. This is a tremendous life lesson that we can apply daily. For this reason we will come together as a community tonight at 5pm. We will pray together and we will share the rite of forgiveness with one another. All of us, both members and those who are training to become members of this community. It is a powerful service that helps us to start Lent on the right foot.

Now I would like to share with you some more practical tips for getting the most out of Great Lent.

Guard your eyes: The eyes are the lamp of the soul. Lent is a great time to really pay attention to what we read and see. It is now an established fact that social media such as facebook has tragic consequences on teens and youth, but it is also becoming clear that these forms of social media are poisonous to most people (even, or especially those in denial). In addition, we know of the poisons in the entertainment industry as well as pornography and news. All of these things, even when they seem innocent or harmless, are of questionable value because they usually distract our minds away from the things of God and direct them to the things of the world. 

Perhaps this Lent can be a time for you and your family to dramatically cut your screen time, whether it is games or tv or web browsing. Perhaps we can use this extra time for activities that build up the family like group reading of good stories or board games. Perhaps it could even be used for more personal reading and prayer. This doesn’t apply only to youth, but to parents. Parents, let’s try to put down our phones from dinner time until the children go to bed. Let’s give them our attention and not withhold our love to focus on trivialities. Either way, let’s guard our time and our minds through the gateway of the eyes.

Guard your lips: Our Lord Jesus tells us that it is not what a man puts in his mouth that makes him unclean, but the things that come out of his mouth. During this season we are keen to focus on the food we eat and to try our best to observe the rules of the fast. Let us not forget that the fast is but one way, albeit a powerful one, of attracting the grace of God. But if we fast from certain foods but don’t abstain from gossip or evil words, the grace of God will not rest on us. Then we will be in worse shape then before we fasted. On the others hand, some of the fathers of the Church tell us that practicing silence can greatly help us to receive the grace of God. The lips are connected to the mind and heart. When one is silent, the others begin to quiet down and give room for God to speak to us in our depths. 

Another tip that is closely associate with this one is: Find time in your day for absolute silence. No phones, no music, no people. Just 10 or 20 minutes of silence, preferably sitting or kneeling in front of an icon, can make a great difference in our interior life.

Next, Attend more services: If in the past, you attended lenten services once a week, perhaps you can increase your level of participation and commitment to attending two lenten services a week. If you have never come to mid-week services, perhaps it is within your power to attend once a week. For us, the holy prayers and services are a great means of receiving the grace of God. To come to the Church and pray is truly a counter-cultural and revolutionary act. It is a declaration of our time and faith and commitment to the living God and His people. When you come, you greatly benefit not only yourself but the others in your family and in the church. If for instance, the church is empty on Monday night. Let us suppose that one person comes to pray. He or she might think to themselves “Am I strange?” or “Perhaps I am missing some other important event.” But when there are many together they are strong and they bear witness to one another that Christ is the center of our life, that worship is an essential part of our day.

Finally, expect to be fiercely tempted: When we fast and increase our prayers, we are making a declaration of war against the demonic. But just because the enemy has wokenup and increased his attacks, does not mean that we should back down and run away or retreat. No! It is the time to fortify our defenses and increase our attacks, primarily through prayer and the study of the Scriptures.St. Theophan the recluse once wrote “For a believer there is nothing terrifying here, because near a God-fearing man demons only busy themselves, but they do not have any power over him. A sober man of prayer shoots arrows against them, and they stay far away from him, not daring to approach, and fearing the defeat which they have already experienced.”

When you pray and use the name of Jesus Christ you mercilessly whip the enemy and bring him great shame. It is better that your enemy should know shame then to succumb to temptation and have the shame placed on you! Remember that Lent is not just a season. It is a symbol of our whole life.

You desire the good things of life. You desire eternal life. Turn to the living God and you will have them! Let this Lent be your return to paradise. Paradise is not a place, paradise is the Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever we put it during this sacred and special season will be returned to us with heavenly interest! Our time spent in the church will not be lost! Our money given to the poor will not be lost! Our efforts to pray and struggle will not be lost. None of these will be lost, but in return for all of these, we will be found!

St. Porphyrios once said “All beings turn towards Him, albeit unconsciously. Turn your mind towards Him continually. Learn to love prayer, familiar converse with the Lord. What counts above all is love, passionate love for the Lord, for Christ the Bridegroom. Become worthy of Christ’s love. In order not to live in darkness, turn on the switch of prayer so that divine light may flood your soul. Christ will appear in the depths of your being. There, in the deepest and most inward part, is the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is within you [Luke 17:21].” And glory be to God, forever. AMEN.

Source: Sermons