The Biggest Problem in the Church

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

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

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

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

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

In today’s gospel, the Lord Jesus is corrected for healing a poor woman, who had been sick for eighteen years. He is told that any work, including healing, is to be done on any other day than the Sabbath. The Lord responds to the ruler of the synagogue when He says “Hypocrite! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be looses from this bond on the Sabbath day?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons


The Walls of Jericho and the Walls of the Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons


Untitled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons


He Stretches Out His Hand To Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons


What Should Terrify Us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Paul writing to the Ephesians says,

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

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

Source: Sermons


What Your Schedule and Your Budget Reveal about Your Faith

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (8:5-15)

Why does one person become a saint and another choose a different way? Why does one person seek goodness, beauty, truth and life while another runs towards evil things and death? Why do some people live their lives toward God and others spend their lives running from Him?

According to today’s gospel reading, the Lord Jesus Christ tells us that the difference between these types of people has absolutely nothing to do with God. What do I mean by this? I mean to say that God loves us all dearly. He has generously thrown His seeds everywhere. If we don’t respond to the excellent seeds that are generously given, then it is not the seeds or the sower of the seeds who is to blame. It is the soil that must be blamed.

The difference between the group that seeks the Lord and the group who rejects the Lord and His teachings is demonstrated to us as a difference between types of soil. And this soil is itself a symbol of the heart of man. The seed that is given to us from God is always the best of the best. The word of God can never be second rate. But what happens to the word of God once it has entered into our heart? Does it find a safe, fertile environment for growth? Or does the seed of the word encounter soil that has not been softened and cleared of weeds and thorns?

We can say that all of the Christian journey of life can be boiled down to this parable. What do we do with the word of God? Indeed, Our Lord tells us that everyone must unequivocally fall into one of these categories. We might gain a lot by asking ourselves, “which type of soil is like my heart?” And we should be willing to answer this question in an honest way. If we don’t answer it honestly or we’re worried about the answer, we won’t be able to properly address the problems or shortcomings we find. It would be like meeting a doctor when you happen to feel sick and then when the doctor asks you how you are feeling, you reply “I feel just fine, Doc”, because you are worried about the treatment. Well, if we are worried by the treatment, how can we ever be made well? If we are going to worry, we ought to worry not about the treatment but about what will happen to our illness if it goes untreated.

Each of the soils in the Lord’s parable offer us a type of person or a type of faith. Perhaps we have a very superficial faith. We might say that we believe in Jesus but we don’t actually follow His teachings, or worse yet, we might not even know His teachings because we never read the gospels and studied them. Perhaps we go through the motions of coming to the services and even saying our daily prayers. Or perhaps we are joyful Christians but our faith is not strong enough to carry us through the various trials and temptations that may come our way. If your faith is only as good as your situation, that faith is destined to fail you because it is not based on Christ who is our only rock and shelter in this life. It is instead based on the situations and circumstances of life. Or perhaps yours is like the soil that shares its space with the thorns. We might have faith and that faith might be genuinely good but that faith is always struggling to go deeper, always struggling to really grow and bear fruit, always on the verge of death. Why? Because the soil is shared with the thorns, which are the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. If my heart is burdened with cares, and riches and possessions, it can become nearly impossible to focus my heart on God and the things of His kingdom. As the Lord says “No man can serve two masters.” For all intents and purposes, it is as if we already have our own kingdom here and now. We love our life and all the stuff we have in this life. So we neglect the true, eternal joy that only Christ can give us. We forget that everything else is going to pass away. We can’t take any of our possessions with us when we depart this life. Only the things of God will matter, only the fruit that we have collected and possessed in our spiritual life will remain.

How can we honestly assess where we are and move in the right direction, towards Christ? We have to ask ourselves honestly “What or who do I love?” And how will we know the honest answer to that question? One way is to examine our schedules as well as our budgets. Perhaps there is no greater indicator of what we love than the way we spend our time and the way we spend our financial resources. So take some time and reflect on these matters and if possible, adjust them so that you spend more time and energy focused on God and the things of God. You will never waste any of your effort or energy if your life is focused in this way. Because you will be investing in the garden of your heart and this will bring forth divine, precious fruit from God. Unlike the stock market and the investments of the world, this investment carries little risk but many rewards.

If you love God, you spend time with Him, both at home and in the Church. The same way as a man should act toward a wife that he claims to love or that a woman should act toward the children that she claims to love. Love is not merely a word but an activity of one’s presence. We enter into His presence through prayer, both private and corporate.

In addition, if we love God and the things of God we should look at our budget and examine it. We should find ways to trim our budget of things that are unnecessary or unprofitable to our spiritual life, to our relationship with the Lord of our lives. We should then redirect those funds towards tithing and almsgiving, not out of a sense of guilt, but out of a deep sense of gratitude for all that God has given us and as a testament to the fact that we understand that God is the source of all of our blessings and even of life itself. When we examine our lives in this way, we will no doubt find things that we can change and those things will help transform our hearts from being poor soil to being exceedingly fertile.

God out of His love has given us His word as seed, as potential. It is our repentance that softens the ground and allows the seeds to take root. It is our ascetic discipline that removes the thorns and it is our acts of love and charity that help fertilize the seed of God’s word. And then something beautiful begins to happen. The seed of the word moves by grace, from potential to actual fruit. The seed finds its purpose fulfilled when it finds a good place to dwell within us. This will not happen overnight though. Much like any successful harvest, it will take diligence and patience. But God’s promises are true.

May the Lord help us to struggle like the saints, so that we might become a dwelling place that is worthy of the Lord! Glory be to God Forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons


When Jesus Interrupted a Funeral

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (7:11-16)

We sometimes have the feeling that the gospel texts don’t relate to us, but nothing could be further from the truth. The gospel story revolves around life and death. The gospels speak of life and death but they take life and death to a whole new level. The Lord shows us that it is not the physical death which is the most important consideration of our life. Rather, it is the spiritual death that is our chief concern. Yet, the Lord remains intimately aware of our personal individual situations and our physical needs as well. He aims to heal us spiritually but also physically and emotionally.

We hear in today’s gospel that the Lord went to a city called Nain. The hebrew dictionary tells us that this means beauty. Of course there is no way to imagine what beauty would be seen at the gate of that city on that particular day as the Lord passed through it. It happened that as the Lord was traveling with His disciples and a great crowd, they came across a funeral procession. We are told that this was a large crowd who accompanied a widow, who had lost her only son.

It is hard for us to imagine her situation or her mindset at this darkest hour of her life. She had lost her husband, the love of her life, although we are not sure exactly how long she had been a widow. But in her husbands death there was still the consolation of a grown son. Within her son she could see her husband. She was reminded of him. Even more, he took over the duties of providing for his mother. That is what a good son does for his mother. He looks after and takes care of the one who lived to look after him and raise him. Now we find this woman in the depths of despair as she has lost her beloved son. At this point we might question God in the way that modern people often do and say “why would a good and loving God allow such an awful thing to happen?” The answer is not easy to find. Death and corruption, suffering and evil are part of our world. They are part of our reality. The woman was facing these harsh realities but little did she know that she would come face to face with a new reality.

Our Lord Jesus Christ offers us a new reality. In this new reality, the old and the dying is swallowed up by newness and life. St. Luke tells us that He had great compassion on her. He knew her situation intimately. We often say “why does God allow awful things to happen in my life? Why doesn’t God care about me?” Today’s gospel reading is a reminder that the God sees everything and does care. It is also a reminder that His work happens on His time and no other. The widow was in the depth of her anguish and sadness. She had no idea what was in store for her. She had no idea who was coming towards her. She had no idea that God was already on His way to help her.

How was corruption and death swept away that day? How did darkness give way to light? How did despair become joy? The Lord used two ways; His touch and His word.

Let’s begin with His word: We are told that God created the heavens and the earth and all of creation by the power of His Word. We remember that the Lord calls forth Lazarus from the grave by His word. In His word there is tremendous power and life. My brothers and sisters, these words are also available to us. We can inhale the word of God through the study of the Bible and most importantly the study of the gospels. If a Christian does not study the scriptures, he is dying internally. If he is studying them seriously, he is being renewed in the spirit of his mind, as St. Paul says. If his mind is only filled with news and politics and trash tv and Facebook feeds, he is withering away and dying. But have faith in God and in His word. This word gave life to Lazarus and to the widow’s son. Let there be no doubt that Christ our God desires to give you this life through His word. Cling to it as you would to a life-raft in the middle of the sea.

But since the Lord desires to richly pour out His life upon us, He has done much more than give us His word. There is much more to knowing God than reading the gospels and studying the scriptures. These are often hallmarks of knowing God in according to the Protestant tradition. What is missing however is our knowing God through His touch. St. Luke tells us that the Lord touched the bier, the casket that held the widow’s son. He was not off in some distant place. He was there with the funeral procession. He was there with the grieving widow. He became a real, tangible human being. He took flesh and became man and dwelt with us.

According to our Orthodox teaching, God remains with us in a tangible manner through the sacraments of the Church. The sacraments connect us to the living power of Christ through matter which has been blessed by God. When we receive the sacraments, we receive the touch of Christ! When we offer the sacrament of Unction we are offering oil that has been touched by the Spirit of God and which is placed on the individual by the touch of the priest who represents Christ. When we come for confession we receive the hands of the priest upon our head as he touches us with the sign of the cross and asks the Lord to forgive and absolve us.

When we are baptized, we are immersed into the water that has been touched by the Holy Spirit and also by the breath and the hand of the priest. When we receive the Holy Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we touch and are touched by Christ Himself. He unites with us both physically and spiritually. He gives us life by giving us Himself.

Christ is present with us even in the midst of our sufferings and trials just as He was present for the widow. He is present because the Church is the physical presence of Christ. St. Paul calls the Church, the body of Christ. The sacraments are a sign of His life-giving activity among His people.

When we receive Christ’s touch and His word, we become full of life, full of Christ who is life. He touched the casket and the resting place of the dead man was transformed into a place of resurrection. He commanded the young man to rise and death was swept away. It became a distant memory. What happened to the widow’s son was a shadow of the new reality offered to us by Jesus. What the Lord has done for this young man, He offers to each of us; He takes our lives and our situations which often seem bleak and He transforms them just as he transformed the casket from a place of death into a place of new life. He offers us a new reality through the Church. Physical and spiritual resurrection that begins now and is fulfilled in the Kingdom which is to come.

We, the people of God are here together and together we wait for God. Have faith that God is drawing near to you even in your darkest moments. Have faith that God knows the details of your life and has compassion on you. Even if you feel dead in your faith, have faith. Have faith and draw near to God through His word and through His healing and saving touch which is found in the Church. Then we will know the Lord’s presence and have our sorrow turned to joy and proclaim with the people in the funeral procession “God has visited His people!” And Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons


Only Love Brings Unity

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke 6:31-36

There is a powerful teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ that is well known as the “golden rule.” Our reading today begins with this golden rule. Our Lord Jesus says “As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” This teaching has the power to change your life, but like all of the teaching of the Lord Jesus, it only happens if one puts it into practice.

Every one of us has certain pet peeves. Each one of us is annoyed by the certain actions of others. Every one of us expects a certain standard of treatment. The genius of this teaching is that it takes that standard of treatment that we would like or appreciate and the Lord forces us to apply that standard to others. Wow.

If you don’t like it when others get angry with you, don’t get angry with others. If you don’t like it when others yell at you, don’t yell at others. If you don’t like it when others lie to you, why do you lie to others? If you would like others to share with you, then share with them. If you would like others not to speak evil of you or gossip about you, then you should also refrain from speaking evil or gossiping about others. If you would like others to treat you with kindness and respect, then treat others with kindness and respect. If you would like others to show you love, then show love to others.

Each of these principles points us to a very important fact. You are not special. That’s right. You are not special. Every man, woman and child who has ever lived throughout all of the history of humanity is just as important as you are. How is that possible? Because each and every person was created in the image of God. Each of them was given life by Him. So in fact when we treat the others in the way that we would like to be treated, we are actually showing extreme reverence and gratitude to God for His own handiwork.

It goes further than that. The Lord concludes His teaching today by saying the words that no one else dared to utter “love your enemies.” This is one of the primary ways that we as Christians can stand out from the world, by our practice of radical love. We need it now more than ever perhaps. The rise of social media and the internet has helped to foment and stir up political discourse to a new and terrible level. Truth has gone out the window and all that is left is the search for power, or so it seems. In all of that frenzy over right and left, Democrat vs Republican, liberal vs conservative, we had better take seriously these words of the Lord Jesus, not to see people by their political orientation or their ideology or their worldview, but rather to see them through the lens of the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross allows us to make sense of everything because it highlights for us the immutable law of the love of God for each of us.

Where did you read or hear that Jesus died for only one group of people? Where was it said that Christ’s death redeemed only one privileged class? His love is universal love for all of humanity, all of His creation. And He proves that what He teaches, He has fulfilled in practice. He tells us to do something that seems impossible, to love our enemies. And He shows us how to do it by patiently accepting to suffer and be killed at the hands of His enemies. Through His suffering and death, He did more than demonstrate His love. He poured it out upon creation. He took what was evil and He redeemed it and made it good, through His love. This is our only way forward as Christians.

St. Ambrose adds to this by saying “What Christ said in word, he proved also by example. Indeed, when he was on the cross, he said in reference to his persecutors who were slandering him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” so that he might pray for his slanderers, although he could have forgiven them himself.” Hereafather of the Church shows us that one of the ways that we show love to our enemies is to pray for them. Prayer is one of the ways that we direct our love towards God and towards others. When was the last time that you were angry with someone or some group? When was the last time that you prayed for them with fervent love for them and for their salvation? That was the example of the Lord while in the midst of excruciating suffering upon the cross, how can it not be our example?

I have mentioned this before but I must mention it again. St. Siouan, not so long ago wrote “He who does not love their enemies, does not know God.” That is something we must take seriously. We can’t put it off because we don’t know when we will go to meet the Lord.  This isn’t easy…but it is possible with God’s help, so always ask God to help you love your enemies. Whatever we lack, we can request from God, who gives us generously.

Life is very short. Too short for hatred and grudges.  Too short for false divisions.  The devil divides, but only the Lord unites. Only the Lord grants us liberty and this liberty is the freedom from anger, sin and corruption. The Lord bought us such freedom through His love for us. Each of us must live by that rule of love that was demonstrated by the Lord, in order to fully know that love in the person of Jesus Christ. This is our purpose in life.  Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons


The Unshakeable Love of God

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

One of the ideas that has guided modern anti-religious thinking is the idea that God has multiple personalities. That God is sometimes love and sometimes wrath. This has caused an unhealthy fear of God and has often caused people to dismiss the “Christian” God as being petty or childish or unstable. For instance some teach that if someone accepts Jesus Christ, then God loves him. But if he rejects Christ, then God hates him and moves to punish and destroy him. This has led to unbalanced views of heaven and hell and the afterlife, but most importantly it has caused people to be unsure of their relationship with God or to reflect hostility towards God since they believe that God is already hostile towards them. If we believe in this type of God, we are left confused or angered by the unpredictable personality of God. It then becomes no wonder that people have fled from the Christian faith and that the typical modern western man or woman no longer considers Christian faith as an integral part of our society and culture. These are the ways in which our theology or dogma have a deep effect on our worldview and thinking from the top down. What you believe about God affects your whole world.

In today’s gospel reading which is given to us on this, the Sunday before the Feast of the elevation of the Cross, we are reminded of the reality of this God whom we serve. John writes “For God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” So John tells us that the Lord Jesus Christ did not become a man who dwelt among us and lived our life and experienced our pain and suffering because He hated us or wanted bad things for the human race. In fact it is the opposite, He came to us and was present with us because of His deep love for us. We see this again in the life of the Lord Jesus as He does not impose His beliefs on others or cause them physical pain or use force in order to coerce them into faith and belief, no! Instead we see that He teaches out and works openly and invites people to come to Him.

It is not that God forces us at all. Out of His love for us, He opens to us the opportunity to choose Him and to choose His way over the ways of the world (which are the ways of death and corruption). Yet, even in the life of the Lord Jesus we see that people would not always accept Him or His teaching. Sometimes they would reject him and then we saw the one thing that was unimaginable. People turned on God and attacked His Son. Humanity repaid God’s love by betraying Him. Far be it from God to condemn the world, in fact it was the world who condemned His Son. How much love does God have for us, that He would allow such a terrible and hateful thing to occur? We have no way to quantify such a deep love.

St. John writing in his first epistle says this about the subject “God is love.” He is telling us something about God’s character, God’s personality and even God’s essence. In a manner of speaking, love is in the very fibers of God’s being. There is no place for anything other than love within Him! When we say that God is love, we are saying that His love is perfect, eternal and unconditional. God will always love you. There is nothing that you can do that will change this pillar of our universe. God IS love.

We see this love come to complete fruition when we see the Son of God hanging upon the cross. In effect, this is the way in which God says to the world “Now you see just how much I have loved the world.” St. Paul writing in today’s epistle had this to say “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is our glory because it fundamentally changes the way that we understand the world, theCreator of the world and our place in the world.

Everything is seen differently when we begin to understand God’s love. We even understand our lives differently through the lens of the cross of Jesus Christ. We understand through seeing the cross, but even more, through living the cross. It is one thing to see Christ from the outside, it is another thing to put on Christ and carry the cross.We begin to see that life is not about comfort but about struggle. We begin to see that doing the right things does not always mean that you are rewarded with comfort and happiness. Often it means thatyou will have to really suffer. That is part of what it is to be a Christian who lives according to the law of love. To loveis often to be used, humiliated, disgraced, hurt or even killed. Many of you have experienced such pains and trials.Why do you think that we remember the Martyrs so often? Because they have demonstrated to us what it means to put on the Lord Jesus and take up His cross with love. But my brothers and sisters, if we recognize that men and women like us have been able to embody and demonstrate such love, we can never forget that God’s love far exceeds any concept of love that we might understand. His love for us is perfect.

This love brings us to life and gives our life new meaning. Even difficult things and painful circumstances become beautiful when they flow from our love for God and when we attempt to live His love for others. So this is exactly what we try to do on a daily basis. We don’t simply go around in a careful way, trying to avoid all kinds of pain and struggle. That is no kind of life. We embrace holy struggles. We struggle to be loving to others even when they treat us poorly. We struggle not to condemn others, even when we see them sinning. We struggle to be faithful and dilligent to our work and our families and our husbands and wives. We struggle not to get swept away with the currents of the world. We struggle to be honest even when we see our classmates and co-workers being dishonest. We struggle to live holy lives.

We carry our crosses with the understanding that each one of us can multiply the love of Christ in the world. We carry them bravely, knowing that God is able to raise us up because He alone has conquered death! We carry the crosses that He allows in our lives, no matter how difficult they might beand He promises that we will share in Hisresurrection. All of this is given to us by grace because He first loved us and gave up His life for us, to Christ our God is due all glory, together with His Father and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Source: Sermons


Are We Properly Dressed For the Banquet?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (22:2-14)

Again and again I am moved by the way that Our Lord Jesus Christ has refused to leave us ignorant about the things of God and the things of His kingdom. Because He loves us, He opens the blinds and gives us a glimpse into the most critical issues for the people of God.

Last week we heard the parable of the vineyard and this week we hear that “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son.” There can be no doubt that the king in the parable is God the Father. The son is Our Lord Jesus Christ. The feast to which God is calling us is the celebration of the marriage union of the Lord Jesus to His bride. St. Paul tells us that the bride of Christ is the Church. The Lord consummated this marriage by uniting Himself to His bride upon the holy wood of the cross. He became one with His bride and took her infirmities upon Himself. In return for the death that He took for our sakes, He gave His bride, His own life and resurrection!

Each and every Sunday we come together as the bride of God, the Church, in order to celebrate this union of God with man. This transformation of death into life. We celebrate the swallowing of despair and the rebirth of hope. Each Sunday is Pascha. Each Sunday is entrance into the kingdom of God. There is in a very tangible sense, a way in which we live from Sunday to Sunday. That is actually the structure of the services and the weeks of the Church calendar.

Sunday, the day of the resurrection, is the day where we fully commemorate and enter into the marriage feast with our bridegroom, the One whom we love and long for. Christ our bridegroom loves us, His bride, to such a degree that He does not want us to be apart from Him. Like any sane and healthy husband longs to be with his wife and to grow ever closer to her. The Lord Jesus fulfills this deep desire for His bride and her deep desire for Him by offering us food to fulfill our deepest hunger, and drink to quench our deepest thirst. He doesn’t offer us food and drink that will only fill us up for a short time but will then leave us hungry and thirsty again. He offers us to take and eat of His body and His blood. He gives us of Himself because it is only by consuming the One who is eternal and limitless that one can be satisfied. But there is something more to this. He gives us of His body and blood in order to fully unite us to one another. The Lord teaching in the gospel of St. John says “He who eats my flesh and drinks by blood abides in Me and I in him.” The best and finest way that we unite to Jesus Christ is through partaking of holy communion. We receive the body and blood of Christ and become united to the One who united Himself to us by dying our death. In receiving Him, we are consumed by the One whom we have consumed.

It is a great gift that each Sunday we hear the word of the gospel. When the priest or the deacon comes out to read the gospel all of the people stand attentively and no one even moves while the gospel is being read. We do this out of reverence for the Lord and His word. It is an even greater gift that each Sunday, the Lord is given to us as bread and wine, the mystical body and blood. We should be even more attentive and stand reverently (if we have the strength) during the distribution of communion. We are present at the feast and the Son of the King is in our midst. We have to be reverent, much more reverent than we are during the reading of the gospel or the blessing of the priest. This is our reality. Often I don’t notice things during communion because I’m trying to be very careful while distributing the gifts but this is something that we should do as best we can. It is a sign of our deep gratitude for what is happening and a sign of our love for God who is giving Himself to His people. And love is the crucial factor in the parable.

We notice that there is a man who has been invited to the marriage feast and yet when the king arrives he sees that the man is not clothed properly. He has no marriage garment. The king has him thrown out of the banquet. Why? St. Gregory the great tells us that the garment which the man was lacking was love. In a very real sense, everyone is invited to the kingdom but not everyone will be dressed properly to stay and celebrate. St. Augustine writes “All the faithful know the story of the marriage of the king’s son, and his feast. They know that the Lord’s table is open to all who are willing correctly to receive it. But it is important that each one examines how he approaches, even when he is not forbidden to approach.” He is saying that just because you can approach to receive communion doesn’t mean that you always should approach. We have to prepare for it with confession (at least a few times a year), we have to prepare with heartfelt repentance. We have to prepare by showing acts of mercy and charity. We have to prepare through cultivating a life of prayer and not merely outward motions or intellectual belief.

What makes our appearance acceptable to God is not our outward dress or our hairdo or makeup. God is not concerned with the outward appearance, but with the things of the heart. Where is your heart? What fills your heart? Are we already fantasizing about coffee and donuts or what we will do after the liturgy? Or are we focused and present and full of love right now during this marriage feast which gives us a taste of the eternal marriage feast to which we are called? Marriage means that you devote all of yourself to the one that you love.  We are here at the feast, we have accepted the invitation, don’t stop now! Go forward in you relationship, don’t let it get stagnant. Pour out your heart to God so that He can clothe you with the garment of His love. It is when you receive this love, that you truly are brought back to life. Then we won’t come to the feast as mere guests or observersbut Christ our God will welcome us to enter as His beloved family. He says to us “everything that you see here in My kingdom is for you because I love you and desire to share it all with you.” May the Lord help us to walk in a manner worthy of His holy invitation. Glory be to God Forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons