A Hunger For God’s Presence

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (15:11-32) 

Today we continue our march towards Great and Holy Lent which will begin on March 15th. Each and every gospel reading during the period preceding the start of Lent is meant to prepare us and to inspire us to prepare for this serious and somber time of spiritual struggle leading to healing and restoration. The teaching of the Church is that restoration and revival come first through repentance and this is followed by ascetic struggle. According to St. Basil the great, “Fasting was ordained in Paradise. The first injunction was delivered to Adam, ‘Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.’ ‘You shall not eat’ is a law of fasting and abstinence.” Adam and Eve fell through the desires of their will and the persuasion of their stomachs. They ate and found bitterness, corruption and death in their rebellion from God. 

Yet, through our willful choice to endure hardships and deprivation and to bring the body into subjection to the mind and heart through ascetic disciplines like fasting and increasing our physical prayer routine with prostrations and coming to the church more often for increased prayers together, we melt away the stony and rocky exterior of the heart and the grace of the Holy Spirit can then punch through the walls that have been created by our life of sinful rebellion. We weaken the defenses of the flesh and the Holy Spirit can then overcome us with His mercy and healing. As St. Paul writes “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:27)

Great and Holy Lent was instituted for the whole Church very early on in history. We have a mention in canons of the great council at Nicaea which was held in 325. AD. This time of fasting was particularly important to prepare all of the pagans and unbelievers who would be baptized and accepted as members of the Holy Church on Great and Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, as is our custom to this day. The fasting for 40 days is found all over the Bible, but some examples are Moses on Mt. Sinai for 40 days without food, and our Lord Jesus Christ fasting in the wilderness for 40 days. To this 40 days we also add the days of preparation, called cheese fare week. During that week we remove meat from our diets but continue with eating other animal products such as dairy and eggs. In addition after the 40 days of fasting we have the busiest week in the liturgical life of the Church which is Holy Week. This week is technically not part of lent, rather it is like “a lent within a lent.” 

Contrary to popular belief, the fasting of lent is not limited to removing certain foods. It also assumes reducing the amount that you eat. This can be achieved in a number of ways. For some it will mean cutting back on your portions and getting up from the table while you are still not quite full. While for others it will mean cutting down on the number of meals you eat. All of these questions can be discussed with your spiritual father or priest.

These fasting rules and disciplines as we mentioned last week when we spoke of the Publican and the Pharisee, do not save us. They are a tool for our salvation. St. Seraphim of Sarov writes, 

“Fasting, prayer, alms, and every other good Christian deed is good in itself, but the purpose of the Christian life consists not only in the fulfillment of one or another of them. The true purpose of our Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. But fasting, prayer, alms and every good deed done for the sake of Christ is a means to the attainment of the Holy Spirit.”

Once I was asked if it is a sin not to fast. I think the important question is really “If the Church is truly the body of Christ and I desire to be healed and saved, why would I reject the life giving disciplines that the Church is trying to share with me?” It is certainly a sin to reject the life giving medicines that the Church, which St. Paul calls “the pillar and foundation of truth” has passed down to us. 

Listen to the words of St. John Chrysostom on fasting. He writes “Fasting is wonderful, because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed.” But he also tells us that the acceptable fast is not merely the fasting from food but the fasting from evil through the proper use of our God given senses. He writes,

“For the value of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices…Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works! Is it said by what kind of works? If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see in enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honor, envy him not! If you see a beautiful woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.

Let the hands fast, by being pure from theft and greed. Let the feet fast, by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles (by the way, this mean we need to stop watching filth on the tv and the internet). Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome (or beautiful) countenances…For looking is the food of the eyes, but if it is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul… Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and false accusations (gossip). Let the mouth too fast from disgraceful speech and railing. For what does it profit if we abstain from birds and fish; and yet bite and devour our brethren?” (Homily 3, On the Statues)

So in all this we see that the Church understands fasting in a holistic way. Each one of us starts the fast in the place of the prodigal son. We are alienated from God in some ways and we’ve squandered our inheritance as God’s children. Let us also use this coming time of Lent to be like the prodigal and come to our senses and run back to our heavenly Father who is waiting to embrace each of us and restore us to newness of life. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Observing Lent: God Does Not Need More Pharisees

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:10-14)

As we march down the road to the start of the spiritual battle of Great and Holy Lent we encounter or rather, are encountered by the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. This profound story from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is one that should, and must shake each of us to our very core.

As we begin to prepare for lent we are likely to focus on many external things, what we eat, how many times we pray, how often we attend services, how much we give to or serve the poor and needy and the list goes on. Yet this parable of the Lord serves as a rebuke and a reminder for us. God is not so much interested in what we do as a matter of external religious observance, rather He is quite interested in how the disposition of our hearts are transformed. To put it another way, God is not interested in all of the things we do to look and act religious, but in how we approach Him and our fellow brothers and sisters. Indeed, this is precisely what the Lord says when He is tested and asked “What is the greatest of the commandments?” He answers that the greatest commandment is to love your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

One aspect of a religious life is that it can be very easy and comfortable to go through the motions and to get stuck on the outward observance of rules. We can go even further. One of the real pitfalls of a religious life is that it can make us comfortable with following the rules perfectly and feeling that we are then justified before God and all men because of our adherence to the rules. The Pharisee was quite accomplished at this kind of thinking. He was a legalist. He thought that he would be saved because of his perfect keeping of the outward laws and religious actions. He fasted, he prayed, he gave tithes. Yet St. Paul in many of his letters corrects and rebukes those who trust in the law. He says “For I through the law, died to the law in order that I might live to Christ.”

So why did the law exist and why do these works exist, listen again to St. Paul “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, [f]kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal 3:21-25).

What the Apostle says is that we were given the law and the works to do them because they would train us to act righteously, but he makes a critical point. He says that we are not made righteous by observing the law, we are made righteous by the sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross. With one, we learn to behave righteously, and in the other we are actually transformed and become righteous. The Pharisee learned to behave righteously, but where was his heart as he stood in the temple to pray? It was not humble, loving and merciful. It did not have the qualities that demonstrate that God was present there. In fact he was quite far from God. He prayed as a matter of formality and to congratulate himself. He went so far as to compare himself to and condemn another poor soul who was praying in the temple at that time.

How do we pray here in the temple? And how do we pray in the temple of our hearts when no one is around? Do we compare ourselves to others? Do we believe that God will look favorably upon us because of our ability to keep the outward observances or because of our outward accomplishments?

Sadly today we even apply this sort of thinking to other parts of life. We judge people quite frequently based on what they do or don’t do. And the world tells us that it is ok to judge people, even based on opinions that we think they should or should not hold. In all of this we are losing sight of the one needful thing, Christ our true God. What matter is not what my brother or sister is doing, they have to stand before God on their own, they don’t need my criticism or judgment. What matters is that my heart is broken and I confess my sins because I am hungry and thirsty for God’s mercy and forgiveness. What matters is that I understand that I am a great sinner who does not in any way, deserve God’s mercy and love. What matters is that I am convinced that nothing that I can do will, on it’s own, be enough to allow me to stand before God or to compare myself favorably to others around me.

As we enter lent let us not be tempted to think that keeping the rules and the guidelines will be enough to make us good and holy and righteous. The rules and order of Great and Holy Lent are not meant to puff us up or make us proud. The Lord does not need that kind of religious person. He has enough Pharisees in the world, and He does not hear them when they pray. But His ear is ever towards those who are like the Publican. I hope that Lent will be a time for us to cultivate our hearts and ask the Holy Spirit to show us our true broken condition. When we sense our own brokenness and our deep need for the Lord, and we confess our sins, then and only then, are we are on the right path. Our prayers will become deep through our pain and the path will lead directly to Christ because our prayers will be pure and without any obstacles.

All of Lent is built for us by the Church as a gymnasium to help us train to find the deep and broken heart required to repent and to seek God from a pure heart. We are being trained to become like the Publican and if we become like the Publican there is no doubt that we will leave the temple justified in the eyes of the Lord our God.

I will end with a quote that I mentioned a few weeks ago from St. John of the Ladder who wrote “Let your prayer be completely simple. For both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.” + St. John Climacus, Step 28.5, Ladder of Divine Ascent

Source: Sermons

He Knocks, But Do We Dare To Open Our Hearts?

The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (19:1-10)

Today’s reading welcomes us like an old friend that we have not seen in quite sometime. For those of you who are not yet Orthodox Christians and who haven’t gone through the lenten and pre-lenten cycle, I will point out that this day, Zacchaeus Sunday, is typically a wake up call for us as Orthodox Christians. It tells us that the pre-lenten season is gearing up to start and that the great battle, the spiritual marathon of Great and Holy Lent, the center of the Liturgical year, is not far away now. We are being warned and prepared through these readings for the next few weeks. The spiritual battle is upon us my brothers and sisters and it is time to engage in this battle by practicing, warming up, studying techniques and formations and putting on our armor as sons and daughters of the living God. The children of God were not made for comfort, and ease, they were made for war. War against sin, war against the demonic, war against the flesh.

Today we hear the story of Zacchaeus and when I hear the story of Zacchaeus, I am put to shame. Here is a man who had everything stacked against him and yet he finds a way to our Lord Jesus Christ. While I might have everything in my favor, yet I neglect to run after Christ with zeal every day of my life. Zacchaeus didn’t have the privilege of growing up in a Christian home and yet he hungered to know Christ. We claim to be Christians and yet we often neglect Him in reality. Zacchaeus had obstacles in his path to seeing Christ, such as the fact that he was a short man. He had another obstacle, namely the crowds that were all around the Lord. But somehow Zacchaeus did not let any of those things change his intention and determination to see Jesus that day. We are also put to shame because this man’s heart is pure and humble, he knows that he is a sinner and that he has done wrong to others. Yet in our own lives, we claim to have a relationship with the Lord, but we often feel that we haven’t yet scratched the surface and admitted our sinfulness and weaknesses.

The starting point for Zacchaeus is a desire to see and to know who is Jesus Christ. But that alone is not enough. Seeing Jesus is not enough. One must be ready to follow the example in this story. When we seek Jesus with our whole hearts, He will come to us and try to be a guest in our lives, in our hearts and minds.

So how do we seek Him? Through diligent reading of the gospels on a daily basis and through dedicated time for quiet and undistracted prayers. And how will the Lord respond? In the same way that He responds to Zacchaeus. He will invite Himself into the home of our hearts. But Zacchaeus didn’t stop there. The Lord chose to stay with Zacchaeus, but was Zacchaeus obligated to receive Him? No. He made a choice that day. This choice was not as simple as it may seem. Many of the people around were watching. Some of those men, the scribes and pharisees, thought very badly of Jesus and they would have thought badly of anyone who welcomed Him into their homes. And of course others would have also had suspicions about all of this. Yet Zacchaeus shows tremendous courage and faith. He welcomes the Lord Jesus Christ into his life with no thought for the ways that others might look at him, judge him or reject him. He was faithful before it was fashionable.

In our own day and age it is now increasingly unfashionable to be a Christian. The secular world has co-opted some Christian-ish sentiments and ideas but everything has been perverted and twisted. Christians are no longer the vocal center of society and culture, they are increasingly the hidden minority. We have allowed the secular atheistic world to take control of the narrative of our lives, and this has happened primarily through the public school system and universities. So increasingly we enter into a world that no longer speaks the Christian language and where Jesus Christ is not significant and those who follow Him are more likely to be considered enemies to the secular, godless way of life. In this context, we understand that Zacchaeus may have been small of stature but he was really great in character.

The character and faith of Zacchaeus are seen not only in his determination in the face of the obstacles but in his generous welcoming of the Lord into his home regardless of how others might look at him. The Lord Jesus Christ desires each of us to have the heart of Zacchaeus. In the book of Revelation the Lord Jesus says “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” Is Christ knocking at our doors? Is He knocking at the doors of our hearts? Do we hear Him? How do we respond to this knocking? Do we open the door just a little and then shut it again? Do we open it for a minute and speak with Him at the doorstep instead of inviting Him inside? Or do we really open the door wide and embrace Him into our lives? We know what Zacchaeus did.

St. Makarios the Great writes, “The Lord is always knocking at the doors of our hearts, that we may open to Him, that He may enter in and rest in our souls, and we may wash and anoint His feet, and He may make His abode with us….and again He says elsewhere, Behold, I stand at the door and knock, if any man will open unto Me, I shall come in unto him (Rev. 3:20). To this end He endured to suffer many things, giving His own body unto death, and purchasing us out of bondage, in order that He might come to our soul and make His abode with it…His food and His drink, His clothing and shelter and rest is in our souls. Therefore He is always knocking, desiring to enter into us. Let us then receive Him, and bring Him within ourselves; because He is our food and our drink and our eternal life, and every soul that has not now received Him within and given Him rest, or rather found rest in Him, has no inheritance in the kingdom of heaven with the saints, and cannot enter into the heavenly city…”

The Lord is always knocking, because the Lord loves us with an unimaginable love. How will we respond? Zacchaeus welcomed the Lord and prepared the finest banquet for Him. When Zacchaeus welcomed the Lord into his house, it changed him. He was repentant. He examined himself and his ways. He admitted his sins and offered to correct his past wrongs. His heart was cleansed and transformed through this encounter. He began to shine with the light of Christ.

Each of us has an opportunity to encounter Christ through our reading and prayers but also quite tangibly through receiving holy communion, the precious and holy body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. What a treasure we have! Are we welcoming Him and embracing Him and allowing Him to cleanse and transform us?

Allow the Lord to enter and to make His abode in you and you will become His holy temple and you will also hear the Lord’s beautiful words “Today salvation has come to this house!” AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Gratitude and Maturity

The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (17:12-19) 

When things looks grim, that is exactly when God acts in our lives. When we lose hope and begin to feel that our world is turned upside down, that is precisely when God’s presence and work will be most clear in our lives. In today’s gospel we hear the story of ten lepers. These lepers travelled together, as a group. Why did they do this? Because they were not allowed to live near those who were healthy. They were considered impure and unclean. To be stricken with leprosy was to be given something of a death sentence. Even while you were alive you would feel the sting and pain of this sentence. You were no longer allowed to be near your loved ones, your family. You were not welcome in the markets or synagogues. You would become a complete outcast.

We find that ten lepers are together in this grim and difficult situation. Into their darkness, Christ appears as light. Their lives are impossibly difficult and Christ our Lord entered into the village and entered into their lives. They cried out to Him with loud voices “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” How would the Lord respond? He responded as the one who loves mankind and has mercy on us in our sufferings. He says to them “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Immediately they turned and went back towards the priests and as they did so, they were cleansed of their leprosy.

One of the pillars of the spiritual life is the reading and study of Holy Scripture. We often make excuses for why we don’t do it but we find that the average believer has plenty of time to dedicate just a fraction of it to the study of the word. Sometimes we think to ourselves, “what is the big deal? Will these words on the page make any difference in my life?” Yet we see from the story that one sentence from the Lord Jesus Christ can change your life. He told the lepers only one thing. “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And through their obedience to this one “word” they received healing. Imagine how powerful the word of God could be if we also studied it and heard it and applied it in our lives! So this is really a powerful lesson. We should desire to hear the word of God and to fill our hearts with it.

Here is another lesson: gratitude allows the remembrance of God to grow in our hearts. After the 10 lepers were healed we find that one lone leper praised God with a loud voice. Just one! He turned back and came before Jesus and fell at His feet to give Him thanks for this incredible miracle in his life. What was the miracle? He didn’t simply cure his skin condition, the Lord gave him back his life. Our Lord expresses His pleasure at seeing the healed man return and give thanks. Parents of children understand that it is important to teach them manners and one of the first manners that we teach is the ability to always say “thank you”. God our heavenly Father also desires to see this attitude of thankfulness within us. It pleases Him. It is a sign that we understand that every good and perfect gift comes down from Him.

We can go even further in our own transformation as children of God because we can even see that difficulties, trials and painful experiences can also become a gift since they can bring us to deeper prayer and greater knowledge of God. As we began the year 2021 I kept hearing people say “thank God that 2020 is behind us, it was such an awful year.” My brothers and sisters, that is not how we demonstrate our gratitude to God for all of His generous mercies towards us. When we speak this way we are like the 9 who didn’t return to give thanks to God for all that they had received from Him.

It is not external circumstances that will bring us lasting happiness or peace or joy. It is having our happiness and peace built on a solid foundation that cannot be shaken by anything or anyone. While we are discontent and looking for more, we are forgetful of all of the gifts that God has already provided for us right here and right now. Instead of a building abridge to God, through our gratitude,we build walls with our mentality that prevent us from growing closer to Him. So are there any ways to work on gratitude?

St. Gregory Palamas tells us that one way is through the diligent practice of prayer. As we persevere in prayer the prayer changesin quality and character. He writes 

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

Ultimately we as the children are meant to know and to come to a deep understanding that what we are most thankful for is the Lord Himself.We are thankful for His love for us, for His sacrifice in order to give us new life. We are thankful for His forgiveness of our sins. We are thankful that He has conquered death in order to give us resurrection. He is our hope and joy and the greatest blessing of our life. If we understand in our hearts that the Lord is with us and that He will never leave us, then there is simply no way to be anything but thankful. Through Him we are rich beyond measure, blessed beyond measure and we will have life without measure. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Crying Out For Mercy

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

I notice something interesting as I read through the gospels. There is never a time where someone asks the Lord Jesus Christ for mercy where the Lord does not show the individual great mercy. It might seem quite obvious but it is really a very fundamental point. We call Christ, “the merciful one” and the “lover of mankind” and indeed it is true that the Lord perfectly embodies and lives and pours out His mercy upon all who draw near to Him and cry out to Him for mercy.

Why do people ask Jesus Christ to have mercy on them? In the gospels we see this happen because people feel miserable and hopeless in their lives. They are often in desperation due to their sicknesses or disabilities or their sense of deep unworthiness and sinfulness. All of these are reasons that cause men and women to cry out for the Lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on them. 

In our own lives, we are encouraged to find the same cry within our hearts. We are encouraged to go to the deep place where we are sick and tired and hungry and feel unworthy and once we are there we transform all of those feelings of weakness and defeat intoacry to the Lord, “Jesus, have mercy on me!” St. John Climacus says “Let your prayer be completely simple. For both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.” Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 28.5 It didn’t take much, just one phrase. We see the same thing here with the blind man in today’s gospel. The Lord didn’t hear him because he said many words, but because he said a few heartfelt words to Christ. So we have to find this deep cry within ourselves because the Lord is eager to hear this and to help us.

Sometimes it is easy for us to find this deep cry because things around us are difficult. When our circumstances are difficult or when we are sick and suffering, it is easy to cry out to God isn’t it? But often we are comfortable and or distracted and for these reasons we have to work harder to scratch below the surface of our hearts and go deeper to the place where we feel our real need for the Lord’s mercy and compassion. How do we do this in the Christian life? The Church gives us some tools for softening the heart and going deeper in our prayers. The ascetic disciplines are key stepping stones in this regard.

One of the tools in the ascetical tool kit is fasting. Another tool is to do prostrations. Both of these should be undertaken after speaking with your spiritual father for guidance. Yet another tool for softening the heart is prayers in the middle of the night. Sometimes we can’t sleep. This is a perfect reason to get out of bed and fall on your knees with a prayer rope and spend some time beseeching God, saying the Jesus prayer. You will be surprised at how effective and energetic your prayers can be when you have just a little bit of discomfort. And if all of these aren’t enough we can also go out of our way to give to the poor and do works of charity. These exercises help others physically but they benefit each of us spiritually. You can even come and ask if there are extra things that need to be done around church. I assure you that there is always work to be done. 

What is the goal? It is to be able to cry out to Christ with a real cry of need and desire for the mercy that He alone can provide. But how do we get to that point of crying out to God unless we allow ourselves to feel some brokenness? How do we get to that point if we are always distracted with phones and shows and games? The spiritual fathers of the Church have all recognized that our prayers won’t be very profitable unless we aim for stillness. Part of our fasting regimen should be fasting from social media, fasting from the news, and fasting from movie and games for a time. Sometimes we should do this for an hour or two before bed. Sometimes we need to extend our fasts to go for a day or two or a week or two, maybe even longer. If Prayer is the most profitable thing that we can do in life, why don’t we give it more time? No sacrifice is too great when God offers us Himself in return.

Each of these little steps will help us build an awareness of our sins and our need for healing. The worst kind of delusion, which is abundant within some Christian traditions is the sense that one is perfectly well and has no further need of Christ’s healing and forgiveness. So we have to actively engage in the battle and know that we will struggle and through our honest struggle, by God’s grace, we will grow and bear spiritual fruit. St. Theognostos writes “Pursue your goal forcefully, dedicating your whole life to God, in all your actions, words and intentions seeking by all possible means not to fall away from Him.” 

If we do this and pursue Christ faithfully, then there is no doubt that He will shower us with great mercy and He will speak to our hearts as He spoke to the blind man saying, “your faith has made you well.” Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Theophany, Repentance and Our Unlimited Potential

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

Today’s reading is given to us on the Sunday before we celebrate the Feast of Theophany which falls on January 6th. This feast is also called Epiphany in the Western Christian traditions. On this day we commemorate the baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ and His manifestation with the rest of the Holy Trinity together at the river Jordan. We will come together on Tuesday evening to celebrate that feast with a Liturgy as well as the Great Blessing of Water. We will also have an outdoor blessing of water on Wednesday morning.

As we turn to the gospel reading we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah who wrote “prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” We are told that these words are a clear prophecy of the coming of John the baptist who went out and preached a baptism of repentance to all of the people of Judea and Jerusalem. He was preparing the people to meet God in the flesh! As we begin the new year, I want to tell you that every day of every year of your life is full of unlimited potential. It is true. Our potential is unlimited because our God has no limits. He is infinite and He desires to share of His gifts, to give them to us without measure, until they are overflowing in abundance. Don’t be surprised when I tell you that God desires to pour out His gifts upon us. Did this same God not pour out His own life for His children upon the Holy Cross? He has done this to offer us amazing potential not merely to be called children of God but to become sons and daughters who are refashioned in His image and likeness. Men and women who are truly alive, who see and understand the truth, who do the works of the Lord and share life and salvation with our brothers and sisters.

How do we unlock this potential in our lives? What is the way to grow and progress in the spiritual life? It is through repentance. For an Orthodox Christian repentance isn’t just the start of the spiritual life, it is at the heart of the spiritual life. We desire to make Jesus Christ the center and the heart of our lives, and repentance awakens this possibility. Repentance is a change of heart and mind. Repentance is also a change of life. We acknowledge our many faults and failings and we examine how we have fallen short of the teachings and commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we go deeper we allow the light of the Holy Spirit to shine a light on our hearts and to expose more of our sinfulness, so we go even deeper in our repentance. As we dig deeper we see more of our fallen reality and we see with clarity, our profound need for a Savior.

Repentance is not pleasant. True repentance is painful. It is a burning away of our sinfulness and passions through exposure to the light of Christ. As we repent and beseech God we encounter great pain and tribulation because our sins cling so closely to us. As we try to push them away, we feel that we can never separate ourselves from them, and that we will always be separated from our Lord Jesus Christ because of them. It begins in private, in our prayer closet on a daily basis, and it continues when we come to the church and confess our sins before the priest who stands on behalf of Christ and the people. Confession is not easy but it is worthwhile. It is not convenient but it is necessary for our spiritual growth, for the layman and the clergy alike. We must repent and confess because we are in the middle of a war for our souls. This war rages every day through the temptations and trials that are brought to us. Listen to the words of St. John Karpathos,

“God raises up all who are bowed down’ (Ps. 145:14) and produces grief and consternation among our enemies, as soon as we repent. When you are being tested by trials and temptations, you cannot avoid feeling dejected. But those who till the earth of hardship and tribulation in their hearts are afterwards filled with great joy, tears of consolation and holy thoughts.” 

So when we hear these words we are reminded that trials and temptations are normal and they can feel constant and never ending. What is our response? Steadfast and constant prayer and repentance. Many of the fathers speak of the Jesus prayer as the chief means of constant prayer and repentance. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” There is power in the name of our Lord and through this name, we soften the hard rocky soil of our hearts and make it possible for God to refashion this clay and mold our souls into something beautiful and pleasing to Him, into a masterpiece. 

Repentance is a daily struggle against the passions and the temptations. But it is full of potential for the one who undertakes the struggle with faith. Listen again to the words of St. John Karpathos, he writes, 

“The demons try to undermine your inward resolution by buffeting your souls with an untold variety of

temptations. Yet out of these many tribulations a garland is woven for you; Christ’s power comes to its fullness in us in our weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9). It is usually when our situation is most gloomy that the grace of the Spirit flowers within us. ‘ Light has shone in darkness for the righteous’ (Ps. 11 2:4. LXX) – if, that is, ‘ we hold fast to our confidence and the rejoicing of our hope firmly to the end’ (Heb. 3: 6).”

So this is our task as we begin the new year and as we prepare for the feast of Theophany and the blessing of the waters. In this feast we remember the baptism of Christ and we recall our own baptism into Christ. It is through our repentance that we renew our baptism and that we are recharged with the grace of God! So don’t fear to take a look in the mirror of your soul. It is possible that what we may not be able to stand our own reflection and the reflection of our sins, but let us try and God will work a wonder in us and wipe away the disfigured image caused by our sins and replace it with His own image that is radiant, beautiful and wonderful in every way.

May we run this Christian race, deeply rooted in repentance, with joy as we consider the potential that God has given us and the hope that is ours through His grace and love for mankind AMEN. 

Source: Sermons

Make Your Hearts Like Egypt

Today’s reading is from the gospel according to St. Matthew 2:13-23

In this gospel reading we are again invited to enter into the Christmas story. During the Christmas Liturgy we read about the birth of Our Lord and now we are witnesses to the events that surrounded his birth particularly the flight of the holy family into Egypt, the massacre of the innocents of Israel, and the return of the holy family from exile.

Joseph the man betrothed to the Virgin Mary was told by way of a dream to take the child and his mother and leave the land. He did not doubt the message because it was delivered by an angel, just like the original message telling him to take care of Mary and to call the name of her son Yeshua or Jesus. He trusted this messenger and obeyed. 

What faith this man St. Joseph must’ve had. If we were visited this night by an angel in a dream telling us to relocate to some place such asNew Yorkor California or even China, how many of us would be willing to obey that message? We would make up excuses and convince ourselves that we had not seen an angel and that it had not spoken to us. But not this man Joseph. He had no way of knowing where he would end up or what he would do to keep his family safe, fed and secure but he obeyed. It is in fact a wonderful lesson in faith. When things look bleak and when it seems that there are no safety nets that is exactly when the Lord wants to see what we are made of, whether or not we will be obedient, and likewise, that is exactly when we must be obedient!

The holy tradition delivered from Egypt tell us that the Holy family spent three years in the land of Egypt. So well attested is this tradition that most of the sites visited by the holy family have been dedicated as churches and make up part of a pilgrimage that can be undertaken by those willing to follow in their footsteps. The land of Egypt was quite blessed by the presence of the Holy Family. And what an amazing poetic turn of events it was. If we remember, the Israelites were under the bondage of Pharoah and begged for an escape from the land of Egypt. Now the King of the Israelites was coming back to Egypt looking for protection from his own people. The promised land that God had won by His own might did not even offer a place suitable for the birth of His Son. 

The land of Egypt that has often been cursed and chastised by the prophets of God for their idolatry and treatment of his people is now become the safe haven and refuge of the greatest of his people His Son and his precious mother. So special is this treatment and protectionin the land of Egypt that it was foretold that this land would be blessed hundreds of years earlier by the holy spirit speaking through the prophet Isaiah.

Is 19:19-22 & 25a “In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border. And it will be for a sign and for a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt; for they will cry to the LORD because of the oppressors, and He will send them a Savior and a Mighty One, and He will deliver them. Then the LORD will be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day, and will make sacrifice and offering; yes, they will make a vow to the LORD and perform it.And the LORD will strike Egypt, He will strike and heal it;they will return to the LORD, and He will be entreated by them and heal them. Whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, “Blessed isEgypt My people!”

This is the wondrous mercy of God who does not want to curse any nation, any peoples or any individuals but is constantly seeking for a way to make those who are not yet His, a part of His great plan of salvation. God used the defeat of the mighty Pharaohand Egypt to show His strength and release His people in the story of the exodus, and He again uses Egypt hereas a refuge for His mighty son. 

I tell you that if God could save the Egypt that brought His people to their knees in bitter tears. And if God could save St. Paul who hunted down the first Christians, then certainly there is no one that God cannot save. Maybe this is the most amazing thing about the Christmas story……that God is always working out His plan for our salvation and for the salvation of the world around us. That God has already forgiven us and is givingus a chance to turn from shunning him or neglecting him in our daily lives as eventhe Israelites had done. This same God has become a simple babe that wants to grow and be nurtured in our hearts if we will only allow ourselves to also become like Egypt, a warm refuge for His beloved Son. If this is possible for the dreaded Egypt, imagine what is possible for us as Christians!

We can nurture Christ in our hearts by making a place for His word, His teaching in our lives. The Lord says “if you love me, obey my commands.” As we dedicate this safe place in our hearts for the teaching of the Lord, and we cultivate a deep relationship with Him through ourprayers and we remove all of the enemies of Christ from our hearts, we will then create a refuge or paradise in our hearts, a place where God can grow and flourish. What or who are the enemies of Christ within our hearts? These are the passions and inclinations and sinful desires as well as our false gods that we might serve or love. 

The Lord tells us that “no man can serve two masters.” If we nurture our sinful desires or our false idols such as power, comfort, money and control, we will be feeding and strengthening the enemies of Christ and they will chase Him out of our hearts and out of our lives. All of the life of an Orthodox Christian is to struggle to prepare the way of the Lord, to chase out the money changers of the temple of our heart and to dedicate the temples of our hearts to God the Lord. For this reason we keep vigils, and pray past the point of comfort, we fast and do prostrations, we read psalms, we confess our sins and we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. All of this is done to nourish Christ within our hearts while also doing battle against His enemies, laying siege to them and forcing them into submission or retreat.

Let us run to Christ and His Churchas our refuge and let us also make our hearts like Egypt, a refuge and a resting place for the Lord our God to grow and flourish. To Him alone be glory forever and ever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Where Do We Find God?

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

We come to this day, the Sunday before the Feast of Nativity and we hear a very special gospel reading. Many lovingly call this reading “the one with all the names.” It is also called “the genealogy.” When we hear all these names we may wonder to ourselves “what is the point of all this?” Let me share a couple of significant points and I hope that you will meditate on them over the next few days as you prepare for this beautiful feast.

First, as we listen to these assorted names from the Old Testament we are confronted with a hard reality. The Lord Jesus Christ came from one messed up family tree. I know that may sound irreverent or silly, but it is true. If you study some of the names that are mentioned here and the lives that they lived as documented through Holy Scripture you will also be convinced that what I have said is not an exaggeration. But this also gives us comfort. How often do we hear that we are products of our upbringing? That we can’t escape our family tree? How often do we think that our lives are predetermined by the family that we are born into? Yet, here we see that the Lord enters into the world as part of a family that had a rich and colorful history that is full of the unfiltered, fallen human experience. In this way the Lord’s family tree is not so different than our own. We are born into families and we are part of a family tree and regardless of what happened to create that family tree, we remain part of it.

The tree is not perfect, it is in many ways broken. It is full of broken people who had fractured relationships with one another and yet the Lord entered into this brokenness, and into our brokenness. In the epistle to the Romans we hear these words from the Apostle Paul “God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” We believe the same can be said for the incarnation of Christ. We could also rightly say “God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ was born for us and took flesh for us.” It is truly something magnificent to contemplate. You read these names and see this disordered family tree and then you realize that even through all of this brokenness, God has not abandoned His people. He will use each and every one of these imperfect people to fulfill His perfect will. That is good news for us because most of us are also imperfect and the Lord plans to use and is indeed already using each and every one of us. He also continues the process of healing and restoring us. If the Lord waited for us to be healed on our own, we would have no hope. But thank God that Christ is our hope!

The next point I would like us to meditate upon is this: Christ did not appear out of nowhere. He wasn’t imagined by others or “made-up”. He is part of a family and has descendants that can be traced. All of the people in this list really existed and really lived. We have records of them. They are actual historical figures. Mary really existed. Jesus really exists. In our day and age, people speak of God philosophically, in the abstract. They ask “Does God exist?” But it is really a rather silly question. For the Christian the answer is not found by looking for God in the sky, but in looking at the person of Jesus Christ as found in the gospels. Either Jesus existed or He didn’t, and if He did indeed exist, then we have to wrestle with His identity. This should become the matter that preoccupies our time until we are firmly convinced of the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?”

The world wants us to think about God abstractly. As long as we think abstractly we will never actually know God. We will just think about God with our imagination. If we think about God that way then the devil will win. We will be confused and overwhelmed. We will be like the man who takes a trip to a far away place and does not have a map or a compass. He will remain lost. God does not want us to be lost. He wants us to know the way, the truth and the life. He wants us to His Son and to think about His Son concretely, physically.

He wasn’t a ghost or a spirit, He is flesh and blood. He had a family and family tree that is well documented. He became a man. He lived and grew in the womb of Mary for 9 months. He was born and breastfed and learned to crawl and walk and grew in wisdom and stature. He lived a holy life, fully perfect and pleasing to God His Father and He taught us the way of salvation and He showed us His love for us by pouring out His life upon the cross. At the feast of Nativity, we are celebrating God’s real love for humanity which He proved by allowing His Son to enter into our human existence. The genealogies of Matthew and Luke demonstrate that Jesus is real.

If in the very first chapter of the gospel of Matthew, he had documented something clearly false, no one would have taken the gospels seriously. They would’ve have laughed at him and moved on with their lives. But my brothers and sisters, they did take these gospels seriously. These gospels changed the world and they continue to change them as we speak. They are trustworthy and they spread even through antiquity without the help of facebook and twitter and google and television, because they were known to be accurate and true in most of their details. They were not works of fiction. They were works of truth that the writers were willing to defend with their lives, and they did! So don’t fall into the trap of looking for God in the sky or in your imagination. God doesn’t exist there. Look for Him in the word because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And by becoming flesh, He saved us and gave us a promise and an inheritance.

In the first epistle of St. John he writes “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us— that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.  And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.” 

I pray that as we draw near to the feast and the celebration of Christmas we will really take this time to draw near to the one who first drew near to us, so that our joy may truly be full.

Source: Sermons

Who Will Free Us?

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

At times we are pulled down by the great weight of our own sins. They weigh on us. They are heavy. Perhaps when we are children we don’t experience this but as we grow and mature and gain understanding it becomes clear to us. Sometimes this manifests itself as a lack of peace or some anxiety, even depression. We go to counselors or therapists but things don’t necessarily get better. People try to find various ways to numb the pain of their sins and the weight that is placed on their souls. Some turn to alcohol or drugs as an escape. For others it is attention, affection, praise or physical comforts. Sometimes, sadly, Christians will even go in search of something elusive and study eastern mysticism or “new age” spirituality in the hopes that this will relieve the pain and will give them meaning in their lives. Others will go even further than this. They will claim that the ideas of guilt and shame and sin are just ingrained in us by a Christian upbringing and then they will pretend that none of these things are real. Instead of grasping with reality they try to escape through a life of rebellion, constantly drifting further from Christ and the truth. All of this because we refuse to acknowledge the disruptive and destructive power of sin in our own lives.

In today’s gospel reading we encounter a woman who had a spirit of infirmity for 18 years. She was hunched over and could not straighten her back. She walked and lived like this, as if a great weight had been placed on her neck and shoulders and she was powerless to lift herself up. St. Ambrose of Milan tells us that she had in actuality a sickness of soul. Her soul was bent over and dragged close to the ground. He tells us that there is symbolism here. The woman who is bent over with her eyes toward the ground is like one who has a soul that “inclined to earthly rewards and did not possess heavenly grace.” Meaning it is symbolic of our attachment to earthly pleasures. St. Ambrose says that “nothing burdens the mind more than concern for the world and lust for either wealth or power.”

This week during our introduction to Orthodoxy class we spoke about the sacrament of Holy Unction and how our spiritual and physical health are connected. The prayers of the service of Unction ask God for healing of soul and body. The two are connected because they are each an integral part of the human person. The one who looks after his physical health but neglects the health of his soul is in truly grave danger. He may not see it yet but the seeds of spiritual sickness are being planted deep within the man who neglects his life in Christ and the remedies that are offered by the Church. St. Augustine writes “The devil and his angels have bowed the souls of men and women down to the ground. He has bent them forward to be intent on temporary and earthly things and has stopped them from seeking the things that are above.”

In our weighed down state of sinfulness it is hard for us to even look up and search for Christ. This woman in the synagogue could not see the Lord Jesus. But we are refreshed with a message of hope, He sees her. What love the Son of God has for His people, the works of His hands! He sees her and although she is quite powerless to do anything, He knows her needs. But how was she healed if she could not see the Lord? She heard Him and obeyed His word. We are told that the Lord Jesus called her over to Himself. It is implied from the text that she obeyed and went to Him. She could not see Him, but she could hear His voice. She showed a small amount of faith and obedience and the Lord poured out His grace, healing and life on this poor woman who probably couldn’t remember the last time she was able to look up to the heavens.

We are not so different from this woman who was sick for 18 years. We are also sick and infirm. Sometimes with bodily sicknesses and sometimes with spiritual. We are likely to fall into despair as we try to climb out of the pit of our sins and addictions and habits and we find ourselves unable to do so and covered in filth. Yet this reading today should give us some hope. Regardless of where we are, God is watching. He sees us. He understands our needs far better than we could imagine or comprehend. To the one who simply takes a step to obey His words, to hear His voice, He declares “you are freed from your infirmity!” We should rejoice that this is offered to us and that God is generous towards us. In the life of the Church one of the ways that God is generous towards us is through the sacrament of confession. He knew that we would need this medicine. If you are weighed down by your sins, come and confess. Leave your sins at the feet of the Lord and receive healing. He will lift the weight off your shoulders and you will be able to move freely. Try to do this at least 4 times a year, because it is a form of medicine for our souls. You do your part and confess your sins without hiding anything, and the Holy Spirit will do His part and remove your sins and heal you and He will allow you to live in His presence.

Within the synagogue we see the perfection of humanity in Our Lord Jesus Christ but unfortunately we also see another side to humanity under the same roof. A side that is not so graceful and merciful, in the image of the leader of the synagogue. He is much worse than the woman with the infirmity for his sickness is hidden even to himself! As soon as he sees something that doesn’t jive with his limited, narrow understanding, he goes on the attack. He is by definition a legalist. His god is the law. His interest is in obedience to the letter of the law with absolutely zero regard for his neighbors. He is concerned with being perfect according to the letter of the law while he has no concerns for the woman who was created in the image of God. This is not a problem that is isolated to first century Judaism. This spiritual infirmity still exists today even among the Orthodox Christians. May this spirit of judgement not overtake us and may God protect us from being like this man. God calls us to go beyond merely literal meanings to a deeper spiritual reality. As St. Paul writes “the letter kills but the spirit gives life.”

We are reminded that whether we are physically healthy or sick, whether our sins are apparent or hidden, everything is open to God. We are not called to judge others and point our fingers when we don’t approve of someone else, we are called to keep our eyes towards Christ and not search out the faults of our neighbors. I have enough of my own faults, I am in need of Christ, why should I focus on the faults and shortcomings of my brother or sister in Christ? And even if I happen to see those faults, what is my proper response? It should be to pray for them and love them with an understanding that Our Lord has shown us similar mercy and with the hope that He will once again show us this mercy at the judgment.

May we live in this hope with the confidence that we will hear the Lord say to each of us “you are freed from your infirmity!” 

Source: Sermons

Peace Is Not A Slogan

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians. (4:1-7) 

In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we see the heart of a true pastor and shepherd of the people of God. He is begging the Christians in Ephesus to walk in a certain way, to live in a certain way. He has a very specific reason for doing so. He is concerned with the unity of the Church. This is not a subject that we speak about very often yet it comes up quite a bit in the New Testament and in the life of the early Church. In fact it is so important that our Lord Jesus Christ, when praying His high priestly prayer on the night in which He was betrayed, prays to God the Father “that they may be one, even as We are one.” There is a great desire for unity in the life of the Church, and the faithful. 

In the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch in the second century, we see this emphasis over and over again. Unity is part of our safety net as Christians. The physical unity of the Church is demonstrated by being in submission to the local bishop and those appointed by the bishop, namely the priests and deacons. What is the goal of this unity? It is to maintain the true faith, doctrine and practices of the apostles and to pass them down faithfully. Within the authentic faith, doctrine and practice as handed down by the apostles is also authentic life and joy in Christ.

These days that we live in are full of division. Families are often divided, this begins with spouses who are not on the same page, they don’t live to serve one another but to control one another. Citizens of countries are also divided, neighbors can be divided against one another and the list goes on. How do we reclaim unity and protect the church from the evils in the world around us?

What is required for unity in the Church? The first thing is a deep love for Christ and an understanding that the Church is the body of Christ. If each and every person in the church has a deep love for Jesus Christ, this love will unite us. Having a shared love means living with a shared goal.If each of us loves Christ andsees the Church as the body of Christ we will always act carefully in order to not harm or divide this body. We will always act with the goal of honoring Christ and loving Christ first and foremost. Practically speaking, we will guard our lips and our speech and avoid entering into discussions that will likely inflame and cause division. Listen to what St. James writes “Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.” So we are warned that what we say must be carefully weighed. St. Paul reminds us that we should avoid foolish controversies regardless of the subject matter.

We should also make sure that people know that the church is neither right nor left wing, neither democrat nor republican, neither a supporter of UNC or Duke, or even NC State (although it is an excellent school). God loved us so much that He sent His Son to die for us, all of us. St. Paul tells us that “[God] desires ALL men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” That “all” means everyone. Period. We should make sure that our speech and attitudes towards one another reflect that level of love and care. Christ our Lord died for us and for those who may have different political or economic or even pandemic beliefs than ours. We should live in a way that we will not carelessly push others away from Christ or His holy Church. The Lord Jesus died for all of those people, so don’t push them away by imposing your strong or divisive opinions on them.

In today’s epistle St. Paul give us a couple of important points regarding maintaining peace in the Church. He begs the people to lead a life worthy of the calling to which they have been called. That is a difficult saying. How does one begin to lead a life worthy of being called a son or daughter of God? How does one possibly begin to lead a life worthy of being Christ like and holy? St. Paul tells us that we begin with lowliness and meekness. The loftiness of our high calling is humbling and we should approach it that way…with a certain sense of fear and trembling. What an honor and a privilege that we should be called children of the most high God, although we are all sinners! We have been called to live with Christ and the saints. We have put on Christ. We should live as if we belong to Christ. As St. Paul writes “it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me.” Really, this is the goal of the Christian life, to become activated in Christ through the Holy Spirit. To live in communion with the Holy Trinity. To live in communion with our brothers and sisters in love. When we are walking in humility and meekness we are aware of our own faults and shortcomings and we would never judge our brothers for whom the Lord gave His very life.

Next, St. Paul tells us that we have to be not only lowly and meek but patient with others. In our day to day lives it is really easy to become impatient with people. We are always in a hurry. We expect things to be done our way right away. Often we are impatient with those whom we deal with on a regular basis, our own families, our siblings, our spouses. Sometimes it is our co-workers. It can even happen in the life of the church especially in a close knit and active community such as this one. We have to pray for the gift of patience and peace in every situation. Rather than looking at a situation as a chance to have our voice heard, we should look at the situation as a chance for God’s love to be reflected. If we knew even a fraction of what was required to bring our fellow brothers and sisters into the Church, we would jealously guard them from harm like the shepherd does with his own sheep. That is part of what it means to put on the mind of Christ. And when we put on the mind of Christ and our life harmonizes with the teachings of the Lord, we will be filled with peace. 

St. Seraphim of Sarov writes,

“There is nothing better than peace in Christ, for it brings victory over all the evil spirits on earth and in the air. When peace dwells in a man’s heart it enables him to contemplate the grace of the Holy Spirit from within. He who dwells in peace collects spiritual gifts as it were with a scoop, and he sheds the light of knowledge on others. All our thoughts, all our desires, all our efforts, and all our actions should make us say constantly with the Church: “O Lord, give us peace!” When a man lives in peace, God reveals mysteries to him..”

May this peace in Christ also be ours. AMEN.

Source: Sermons