Starting A New Year With Christ

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

Today we come together and celebrate a special occasion, this Sunday is given to us with extra blessings and grace from the Lord. Today we celebrate the Feast of Theophany together, This feast commemorates the baptism of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ and the manifestation of the All Holy Trinity together after His baptism in the waters of the Jordan.

We also come together and celebrate the reception of our new members into the community. We received these wonderful people into the Church yesterday evening. Today our newest members will receive Holy Communion and truly enter into the fullness of the life of the Church, into the fullness of life in Christ and with His saints. We are full of joy for them!

Finally, among the many things that we celebrate today, we are celebrating our first Sunday Liturgy since the start of the new year. We are reminded that what we are doing here is not some trivial action. It is the heart of the matter. We come here to enter into a deep relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ and this happens in a very focused way, precisely through the act of praying the liturgy together. As I have told the catechumens on a number of occasions, the central, most important human activity that we undertake is to come together for liturgy. Why? Because God made us to be people that seek Him and know Him and through our pious and reverent participation in the Divine liturgy, we are granted immediate and powerful access to God, through the grace of the Holy Spirit and through the grace of the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ.

The reason why the early Christians, and the Church have continued in the practice of receiving the Lord’s body and blood each and every Sunday is because this is the central and powerful act in our life as believers. We don’t come to receive a symbol but to partake of the very Lord Himself. Since Liturgy is our most important human activity and since eucharist is the pinnacle of the liturgy it is important that as we begin the new year, we contemplate and think about how we can fully partake of these things in the best way possible. What can we do to enter more fully and more energetically into the life of the Church, the life of Christ?

We can begin by looking at our newest members of the Church and remembering that at one time we were all like them, newly illumined, newly baptized and chrismated. We are reminded that the decision to enter the Church and to follow Christ with our whole heart, first begins with a decision to leave our old ways behind. The decision to put on Christ in baptism begins with the decision to die to the old man, first through repentance. Indeed that is exactly what John the forerunner was preaching to all the people as he eagerly waited for the appearance of the long awaited Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. He taught the people to repent. Even our Lord himself, when He first opened His mouth to preach, taught the people to repent. I am not saying this to you in order to remind you of these things that you already know, I am saying this to you in order to encourage you to start by embracing a life of repentance.

How do we embrace this life? We start by praying in secret and asking God to forgive our many sins and failings. We should not do this only once in a blue moon, but each and every day. Next we go to others and we ask them to forgive us, we do this whether we have done something or whether they perceive that we have done something to them. Either way, we try to clear the ground of our heart and prepare a place for the word of God and His grace to rest. We try to be at peace with everyone around us. After this we can come to the sacrament of confession and Christ will grant us forgiveness through the hands of the priest.

We continue to embrace the Christian life by studying the word of God, especially the teachings of Our Lord in the gospels. When we know the teaching of Christ, we have a rule to live by. We can repent properly because we can compare our lives to His teaching and His life.

Next, we can go further and deeper in our spiritual life, if we will spend time reading the lives of the saints and their writings. We should be doing a little bit of this, each and every day. The lives of the saints are like nutritious multivitamins. You don’t take a vitamin only once a month or once a year if you have a deficiency, you take it often to help cure the deficiency.

One of our deficiencies as Christians is the modern world of which we are a part. One of the ways that we are healed and brought to a proper relationship with God and our neighbors, is through reading and knowing the ways that the saints lived and acted in their context and in the world around them. We can study them, we must study them, if we hope to follow in their footsteps. If you are saying to yourself “I don’t want to be a saint, that sounds boring.” Then we are misguided and we don’t understand. To become a saint is the most exciting thing possible, to become exactly who God meant you to be from the beginning. To have unending communion with Jesus Christ our master and with His saints, to live forever, to love unconditionally.

So here we are at the start of the year, doing the most important thing together, seeking communion with Jesus Christ, and loving one another. Let us remember the first things, the essential aspects of our walk with Christ. If Christ and His commandments are our focus and our concern at the start of this year and at the start of each day and each moment of our life, then we are truly rich and truly blessed. I pray that the Lord will be your guidance, your hope and your rest today and throughout this new year and unto ages of ages. Amen!

Source: Sermons

God With Us!

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

Today’s gospel reading is read every year on the Sunday before the Feast of Nativity. We commonly call this gospel reading “the geneology” for the simple fact that we are reading about the family tree of the Lord Jesus Christ according to St. Matthew.

St. Matthew wrote his gospel especially to the Jewish people to convince them of the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Jewish Messiah or anointed one. He was the one that the Jews had hoped for all these years. He was the one that was foretold by the Jewish prophets for hundreds of years. St. Matthew, in order to make his case and convince his listeners that Jesus is in fact the Messiah, must first establish that this Jesus is actually a Jew, or else, he cannot be the Jewish messiah.

St. Matthew starts from Abraham, the father of the Jewish people and he then traces the line through King David, and through the deportation to Babylon until the time of the Messiah. He ends not surprisingly with Joseph who was betrothed to the Virgin Mary. This is important because according to the Jewish understanding, Joseph was the legal father of Jesus. It is also important to remember that not only is Joseph the legal father of Jesus, but the Lord is truly Jewish through His holy Mother’s bloodline and lineage.

As we read or listen to the names listed by St. Matthew we are presented with a who’s who of the Old Testament. Some of these names where truly righteous in the sight of God and others were quite fallen. At times some of the people listed were at either end of the spectrum depending on the time of their life. This gospel reading is a reminder that the Old Testament, what the creed calls, “the Scriptures” are quite important. They are the history of God’s dealing with humanity and with His very own chosen people. When we read this Old Testament, we are invited into a deeper understanding of where we were, and what God has done for us through His Son. As we are just a week or so from the start of the New Year, it is a good time for some resolutions. One of the great resolutions that we can make is to try to read the entire Bible in one year. There are various apps and guides to doing that, but one simply way to approximate and read the whole Bible in a year is to read 3 chapters every day and 4 on Sundays. I have no doubt that our lives would be really enriched through this practice. Perhaps it could even be a family activity.

In hearing all of these names we are reminded that God really calls us His people. He really chooses a group of people to call His own and He works in their midst, through their imperfections and the struggles of their life to bring about His salvation to the entire human race. None of these people had a perfect, pain free existence. All of them suffered, were tempted, fell into sin. None of them was perfect, yet God worked through their imperfections to bring about the possibility of human perfection through His perfect Son.

We are reminded that salvation is a messy business. It is not clean and sterile. It is not an intellectual pursuit, but involves our whole being. The Lord Jesus Christ so loved His creation, humanity, that He chose to take our form and likeness in order to adopt and sanctify us. St. Matthew desires to prove that Jesus is indeed Jewish, but it is just as important to remember that Jesus is truly a perfect human in the flesh. If He is not truly human, then we cannot be saved. In all of this, as we hear these names we are reminded that humanity was in a fallen state. If humanity was perfect, then there was absolutely no need for a savior. And we still are not perfect. We are in dire need of the grace of God that is presented to us in the God-man, Jesus Christ. He is not waiting for us to be perfect, He has in fact come in order to perfect us and not vice-versa. If we cannot have a relationship with Christ until we are perfect, then we will never have a relationship with Christ. Rather, out of His loving kindness, He has descended to us in order to save us from our sins. This is why the Angel told Joseph that he should call His name Jesus (He Saves). St. Paul reiterates this when he says “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Who is this that died for us? It is none other than this Jesus who came from a Jewish lineage and whose birth we celebrate this week. He took our humanity in order to bestow us with His divinity. He took our weakness in order to give us His strength. He took our finite and limited life in order to shareHis infinite, eternal life withus. That is how He loves us.

Some of you are struggling in your lives. You are struggling in your relationships, you might be struggling in your work or school. You might be struggling to pray and to know God. Some of you are struggling through difficult circumstances. Some of you have suffered at the hands of others. Some of you have gone through terrible difficulties, sicknesses, trials and torments. Don’t despair, the Lord is familiar with all of this, just as He saw all of these things in the lives of His people mentioned here today. He knows and He is present with us through all of this. Emmanuel means “God with us!” What could be more comforting than that phrase? “God with us!” The Lord Jesus Christ is not waiting for our situations to be perfect. He has become a man in order to bring perfection to us. Instead of changing our surroundings and our circumstances, He often does this by changing things from the inside out. He transforms our hearts! The Lord says that the kingdom of God is within you. Let us give Him the keys to this kingdom by giving Him a place within our hearts. Don’t be afraid. Let Him conquer your heart through love. Then He will transform the dark and desolate places of your life with His presence. For wherever God is, there is warmth and light, joy and peace. Let this coming Christmas feast be a reminder that God desires to receive our invitation, just as we see the face of His newborn Son as an invitation to draw near to Him. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

How We Treat One Another In the Church

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

It is not often that an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ begs. Yet that is exactly what is happening in today’s epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians. He writes to the Christians in Ephesus and what he says here is applicable in every place, even here in our own community. He writes, “Brethren, I, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” Sometimes we forget the sorts of trials and struggles that were faced by the apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ. We forget what they must have undergone and what they went through in order to preach this gospel that we often take so lightly and so casually. St. Paul reminds his hearers that he is writing this while he is a prisoner, under house arrest in Rome. Yet what is his focus and goal during that time? It was the well being and the care of the Church of God, for which he had toiled day and night.

Here St. Paul gives us as Christians some really important guidance, and it is important for each of us to hear these words. He says “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” and then he goes on to describe this life, and how one lives it in a way that is worthy of the name of Christian. It is not enough to claim to be Christians. It is not enough to believe we are Christians internally. We are called to live the life of Christians and He tells us to do this “with all lowliness and meekness”. What do these words “lowliness” and “meekness” mean? One of the Bible dictionaries describes lowliness in the following ways, 1) the having a humble opinion of one’s self 2) a deep sense of one’s (moral) littleness 3) modesty, humility… 

When St. Paul begs us to live the life of Christians, he begins by turning our attention to our own demeanor of humility. He tells us that a Christian is one who is humble, one who has a great sense of their own moral littleness. It reminds me that the great saints of our Church are truly humble people. They are people who don’t judge and condemn others even quietly, internally, because they are focused on their own shortcomings and striving to repent. They don’t have time to judge others because they are solely focused on how they can please Christ. We are told that meekness is similar and goes hand in hand with lowliness, it also goes hand in hand withbeinggentle and mild with others. So much damage is done when we are rude or pushy or when we try forcing people to do things our way, or when we try to force people to see our way and be swayed by our opinions. We are all guilty of this at times, no one is perfect, yet the Lord expects us to strive for perfection. Demonstrategentlenesswith one another because thisis one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Next, St Paul tells us that Christians must have “patience, forbearing one another in love.” Patience is defined here as“endurance, constancy, steadfastness, perseverance” as well as “longsuffering, slowness in avenging wrongs.” Forbearing is defined as “to sustain, to bear, or to endure.”St. Paul is not trying to establish some new moral code, he is trying to give us a glimpse into the kingdom of heaven, and the Church is the image of the kingdom on earth, for the Church is the place where we unite withChrist and His saintsand participate in the Holy Spirit. How can brothers and sisters who live together in Christ, in the midst of the saints and the angels,be impatient with one another? How can brothers and sisters in Christ be boastful and arrogant? Do you not know that without the mercy of God you are like a speck of dust? 

We are reminded that while we are all human, we are called to be holy and transfigured humans together in the Church. Why? St. Paul tells us that we are “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” If one person begins to act in a way that is rash or unkind to someone else within the Church what will be the result? It is possible that some of the people will be pushed away from the Church. We as Christians are not called to push people away from the Church, that is the job of the evil one. We are called to be like the apostles and evangelists of the Lord. We are called to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity. We do this through our living example of love.

We don’t come here simply for ourselves and what we can get, we come here in a spirit of service and love, we come to be with others and share with others in this great joy of the universe, in the joy of the resurrection of our Lord. We are bound to one another through baptism into Christ and through the receiving of the Holy Spirit. We are bound to one another and united through our participation in the body and blood of Jesus Christ, who died for us. So when someone holds a grudge against anotherwithin the community it is a great sin. How do we pray the Lord’s prayer while we hold grudges or are angry with one another? It is impossible. 

You see that the priest turns around during the liturgy to ask God to forgive the people who love him and the people who hate him. He also turns around to ask the people to forgive him, since he knows that he is not perfect but sins and offends others. What the priest doesphysically,should be done by each of you, internally and through your attitudes towards everyone else. Make a low bow in your minds and hearts and strive to serve one another because you are one family. Strive to be united and put aside any minor differences you have so that you may show yourselves to be the faithful children of your Father in heaven.

St. John Chrysostom says “The purpose for which the Spirit was given was to bring into unity all who remain separated by different ethnic and cultural divisions: young and old, rich and poor, women and men.” He continues “Bind yourselves to your brethren. Those thus bound together in love bear everything with ease.… If now you want to make the bond double, your brother must also be bound together with you. Thus he wants us to be bound together with one another, not only to be at peace, not only to be friends, but to be all one, a single soul. Beautiful is this bond. With this bond we bind ourselves together both to one another and to God. This is not a chain that bruises. It does not cramp the hands. It leaves them free, gives them ample room and greater courage.”

St. John tells us that the bond that we have to one anotheris powerful. More powerful than any secret societies or fraternities or organizations of men. The holy bond we have allows each of us to grow and be nourished in Christ as one body with one soul! So nourish and care for the body, because it will be your strength and your salvation in Christ. St. Silouan once said “our brother is our life.” May the Lord truly help us to alwaysbe united as brothers and sisters in love, this will allow the Church to be what it is meant to be, a place of healing, hope, and peace….a place where we strongly sense the presence of the living God. To Him alone be the glory, together with His only Begotten Son and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Did Jesus Say That He Wasn’t God?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:18-27) 

In today’s gospel reading we have a fascinating interaction between Our Lord Jesus Christ and a wealthy man who came test him. The man addressed the Lord as “Good Teacher” and something very interesting happens as Our Lord replies, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but God alone.”

This is a very important point because it seems that some people hear these words of the Lord Jesus and either misinterpret them or are confused by them. In fact, I know that some of the Muslim apologists use this verse as a “proof” that Jesus did not claim to be God. Of course the Church would reject that idea and so should we. Our Lord Jesus Christ clearly says things like “He who has seen me, has seen the Father who sent Me.” He also uses the name of God when He says “Before Abraham was, I AM.” The Lord did not deny His divinity, so what exactly is happening here in this verse?

Our Lord Jesus is trying to teach the man that words have meaning and importance. They are not simply to be used loosely and however one decides to use them. If this is true with normal language, it is much more true with the language that speaks of God and the things of God. One of those things of God, or attributes of God is “goodness”. Our Lord Jesus Christ is trying to take this man’s partial understanding and shed light on it. The man has rightly called Him “good.” But the man has not done so out of a good and pure intention or true knowledge. He doesn’t really understand what it means to be good and how Christ alone is in fact good. Some of the Fathers tell us that he only calls Jesus “good” because he wants to flatter Him and lay a trap for Him, while His guard is down.

Some people have misunderstood the Lord’s words when He says “why do you call me good?” as a way of saying that in fact He is not good. Nothing could be further from the truth. What Christ does not do is say, “Why do you call Me good, I am not good.” He also does not say “why do you call me good, only God is good and I am not God.” He says “Why do you call Me good? “(When) no one but God is good.” In fact what the Lord is doing is leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for this seeker to follow. He is giving him a rope to climb up to the heavenly understanding of who this Jesus is that the man is seeking to test.

The Lord is making sure that the man uses the word “good” in the proper way, and more importantly, He is trying to show the man that in fact He is good, but not for any reasons that the man has perceived, but by His very identity as the only Son of God. St. Cyril of Alexandria tells us that the crowds who came to test Jesus were full of men who looked at Christ as a mere man and they came with deceit and tried to cleverly test him and ensnare him in his words. Nevertheless the Lord Jesus, in his mercy and love for mankind, offered this man clues as to His real identity and He offered Him life-giving wisdom that the man would never again have a chance to hear or receive.

The rich man came with a question, “what must be done to inherit eternal life?” And the Lord Jesus Christ gave this man a prescription that was individually tailored to meet his needs and to remove his deficiencies. He told him to go and sell all that he had and to give it to the poor and to come follow Him. So what was the problem? In fact there were two of them.

First, the man did not know the identity of Jesus. His heart was hardened to Jesus. He had heard His words and probably seen His miracles but none of that was enough for him. The fathers of the Church tell us that our heart is hardened through a life of sin. When we live in sin and selfishness, our love for God and for others grows cold. Our love for the truth also grows cold. So this was the man’s first problem, he did not recognize the identity of Jesus Christ. Knowing His identity can be the difference between life and death. When we have a true and living faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, we are compelled in our hearts to really listen to His words and to honor His teachings in our life. They become our law. But when we lack this faith, we are ready to fall into any sins because we don’t truly believe in the One who taught us to live a life of righteousness and holiness. In our lives we have many opportunities to bend the rules and to become lax. But we are reminded that if Jesus Christ is who we believe He is. If Jesus Christ is who He says He is, then His teachings are truly life changing, they are everything. Without His word, we are in great darkness. Had the man known the true identity of Our Lord, he would have dropped everything in his life to quickly follow Him, and he would have received so much more than he could ever possibly imagine. It is the same for us.

The second reason why this man did not follow the prescription given by the heavenly physician, was that the man was consumed by his wealth. He was in love with his money and riches. He lived for them. What do we live for? He was disingenuous for asking the Lord Jesus about eternal life since he was fully consumed by the materialism and distractions of this earthly life. Why should we ask about Heaven if we are absolutely consumed by earth? Why should we ask about heavenly treasure, if in our hearts we treasure what is earthly and corruptible? Not only was this man consumed by his love for his wealth and the pride of being wealthy, in living this way, he actively denied the first and second commandments of God. You cannot love God with all your strength, with all your mind and with all your heart if in fact you have a stronger love for something else. Our tells Lord us that “you cannot serve two masters.” And if this man had not loved God with his whole being, neither could he possibly have loved his neighbors and those in need.

The Lord gave this man a beautiful gift, a tailor made, personalized word that would bring him new life and entrance into a new reality, a new relationship with Him. But the man sadly rejected it. Some of you may be thinking that what the Lord asked was very difficult, and I would agree with you. It was difficult, but it wasn’t impossible. In fact, some of our greatest saints, such as St. Anthony the great, did exactly this in response to the savior’s life giving word. Difficult, but not impossible, and definitely worth it.

Each of us has a chance to respond to the difficult words and teachings of Our Lord Jesus Christ. What do we do with that great opportunity that is given to us whenever we open the gospels? Instead of hearing them and thinking about all of the things that we would have to sacrifice or give up, I pray that we would approach these things through deep faith and an understanding that whatever we sacrifice for God is nothing compared to what the Lord Jesus Christ wants to share with us. Through Him, we become truly wealthy with a treasure that can never be taken away, and this treasure is Christ Himself. Glory be to God Forever AMEN. 

Source: Sermons

The American Dream and “No Risk” Investments

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (12:16-21) 

In today’s gospel we are told the story of a rich man who was blessed with great crops on his land. He was so blessed with abundance that he did not know exactly what to do with all of the extra crops that he had. In fact, he had run out of room for them in his barns. So he had an idea, he would tear down his barns and build newer, larger barns to store all of his goods. In the parable, the rick man says to himself “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’” 

What the Lord Jesus has described here might well be called the parable of the American dream. From a young age, people are taught that in this country they can become anything they want, they can get rich, they can retire early and live a life full of pleasures and distractions. I’m not saying that you can’t earn a great living and retire early. If the Lord blessed you with talents and good work and a good work ethic and you have the ability to earn enough to retire from your occupation, that is not a bad thing. The crucial question is, what comes next? For the rich man in today’s parable, what came next was stockpiling goods for himself, relaxing, being comfortable and enjoying the “pleasures of life.” Some of you are thinking, “so what’s the problem?”

The first problem is that this kind of life of pleasure hardens the heart and leads us away from God. This kind of life assumes that there is no after-life. It assumes that we will live forever, or that when we die, we will not have to answer for our choices and actions in life. But according to the Lord Jesus, that is exactly what will happen. In addition, this type of living puts all of the emphasis on what we have, but little on what we possess within us. But in the wisdom of God, He looks at the world in the exact opposite way.

He doesn’t care about what you have and what you wear, He cares about what is inside you, in the heart. Have we prepared ourselves to meet Him? St. Leo the great writes “This should be the careful consideration of wise people, that since the days of this life are short and the time uncertain, death should never be unexpected for those who are to die. Those who know that they are mortal should not come to an unprepared end.” St. Ambrose agrees when he writes “The things that we cannot take away with us are not ours either. Only virtue is the companion of the dead.” 

A life of pleasure,comfort, hoarding of wealth: None of this is part of what it is to be a Christian. Our Lord reflects this when He calls the rich man, “fool.”As Christians, we can’t take rest in our wealth knowing that others around us are struggling and suffering. The wealth that we have comes as a gift from God who has rightlyordered so many circumstances in our life and allowed these blessings to be showered on us. A Christian, one who has a living relationship with Christ, looks for ways to show his gratitude to the Lord for all of His rich blessings. 

Our Lord Jesus says that worldly, materialistic people are foolishpeople, who only lay up treasure for themselves. “So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God.”We want to be the opposite of this. Poor towards ourselves and generous towards God. So what does it mean to be rich towards God? We are rich towards God by the way that we give to the poor and those in need, and by the way that we support the work of the Church. In the writings of the Church fathers we have many writings regarding supporting the poor and needy. Listen to what St. Augustine says as he begins by quoting Proverbs, 

“The redemption of a man’s soul is his riches.” [Pro 13:8.] This silly fool of a man did not have that kind of riches. Obviously he was not redeeming his soul by giving relief to the poor. He was hoarding perishable crops. I repeat, he was hoarding perishable crops, while he was on the point of perishing because he had handed out nothing to the Lord before whom he was due to appear. How will he know where to look, when at that trial he starts hearing the words “I was hungry and you did not give me to eat”? [Mat 25:42.] He was planning to fill his soul with excessive and unnecessary feasting and was proudly disregarding all those empty bellies of the poor. He did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns. What he was stowing away in those barns was perhaps even then being stolen away by thieves. But if he stowed it away in the bellies of the poor, it would of course be digested on earth, but in heaven it would be kept all the more safely. The redemption of a man’s soul is his riches.”

St. Augustine tells us that the safest place for our money and treasures is not to be found in gold hidden in a safe or in the stock market or in the savings account or even in bitcoin! It is not even safe when it is wrapped up and hidden under the Christmas tree. The safest place to hide whatever we have, is by giving it to the poor. Because the Lord says that whatever you do unto the least of His brethren, you have done unto Him. Imagine that for every dollar you invest, you would get $1000 dollars in return. I believe we would all jump at the chance to take part in that investment. Yet, this is exactly what the Lord Jesus offers us. He tells us to invest whatever we might have, even if it is only two mites and He will reward us with a great spiritual blessing and heavenly reward. We cannot fathom this fully.

This parable also gives a great opportunityto remind you that part of being generous in spirit and showing thanksgiving to God for all that He has done for us, is to be generous with the Church. The church is not a business. It is the center of our Christian life, our hospital, our place of refreshment,our home. It exists here to minister to the needs of each and every person that enters. So whatever we give with love, is magnified and multiplied through the work of the Holy Spirit and it becomes a blessing to everyone who enters or will enter into the church.

The church offers each and every one of us so much; much more than we can possibly comprehend. Whatever we offer back to God is simply our way to say thank you and to show gratitude to God for His generosity and blessings towards each of us. May we each look for new ways to be rich toward God, who has shown unfailing and eternal generosity towards each of us, through His only Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and glory be to God forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Mercy: An Invitation To Eternal Life

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (10:25-37) 

Today we hear the story of a lawyer who came to Jesus to put Him to the test. Little did he know that in testing Christ, he himself would be truly tested as he came face to face with and heard the voice of the living God.

As an aside, I want to say that when we approach Christ, when we approach God, it should not be to test Him. What do I mean? I know people who read in the Bible with the goal of proving it to be wrong or false. Or they read it to defend their opinions or test their positions against the positions of Christ and the Holy Scripture. Similarly, we sometimes pray in a way that is not respectful, we test God to see what He will do for us, instead of coming to Him with our brokenness and humility and allowing Him to be our guiding hope and our comfort. Sometimes we live outside of the commandments of God and then we have the audacity to blame God when our life falls apart, when in fact it is our own selfishness and unrighteousness that have put us in such a bad state. These are not trivial matters. The psalmist says “Feel compunction upon your beds, for what ye say in your hearts.” So we must be careful that our hearts are truly directed towards Christ whenever we are reading the gospels or spending time in prayer.

In today’s gospel reading, we have this lawyer who comes to test Jesus and he asks “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This is a very good question. It is an excellent question, really. The problem, as we will see, was not the question, but the intent of the questioner. The Lord then asked a question of this man “What is written in the Law? How do you read?” And we are told that the lawyer answered in this way “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” It is really remarkable because he gave the correct answer! He knew the answer in the head, intellectually speaking. Our Lord said to him “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.” So this is the simple way of our Christian faith, to love God with everything that we have and everything that we are, and to love our neighbors fervently. It is simple but it is not always easy. Why? Because loving others, means thinking and living outside yourself. To love is to risk and to sacrifice and even to suffer. 

The lawyer was still quite inquisitive and he asked a final question, an important question:“And who is my neighbor?” This shows us that whatever he knew intellectually, he still did not possess as knowledge in his heart.So the Lord Jesus then told him the parable of the good Samaritan. This parable would have been quite a scandalous thing to the ears of those who were listening. The Lord Jesus took the group that was looked down on and often was despised because they did not believe and worship exactly as the Jews did, and He lifts up one of them as an example of mercy and love for everyone else. He reminds us that anyone can love his neighbor and often as we sit and judge people both inside and outside the church, those same people are working quietly to serve God by serving their neighbors. Our mind is not the mind of God. He sees what we do not see, He judges rightly. 

We are taught by the Lord that anyone can love their neighbor and we are also taught that anyone can be your neighbor, the person that you ought to love. St. Jerome writes,

“Some think that their neighbor is their brother, family, relative or their kinsman. Our Lord teaches who our neighbor is in the Gospel parable of a certain man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.… Everyone is our neighbor, and we should not harm anyone. If, on the contrary, we understand our fellow human beings to be only our brother and relatives, is it then permissible to do evil to strangers? God forbid such a belief! We are neighbors, all people to all people, for we have one Father.”

St. Jerome reflecting the teaching of Christ, is telling us that nothing should cause us to separate ourselves or withhold our love and mercy from anyone else, no matter their creed, or their appearance, their race or their political affiliation, nationality or ethnic origin or any other man made classification that causes strife and division. Each person we meet is our brother or sister, each one is our neighbor. 

Origen writing about this parable says that,

“One of the elders wanted to interpret the parable as follows. The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience. The beast is the Lord’s body. The pandochium(that is, the stable), which accepts all who wish to enter, is the church. The two denarii mean the Father and the Son. The manager of the stable is the head of the church, to whom its care has been entrusted. The fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior’s second coming.”

So we see that what appears to be a simple parable has many rich layers of meaning and ultimately, it is a reminder that the true neighbor is our Lord Jesus Christ. And this is reflected in the icon of the parable, if you’ve ever seen it. Christ himself is the Samaritan.He has taken each of us as He found us, no matter what condition we were in, and He has shown compassion on us and carried us to the place of healing. He has poured out Hismercyupon us. In return, He asks us, who have received mercy from Him, topour out loveon those who need assistance. We are encouraged and commanded to do more than talk about love, we are encouraged to do and to be love. This is our high calling as the adopted children of the Most High God. God is love. He desires us to become love, to make love present. May He give us courage to take risks and to have a heart for those who are in need around us. May the Lord give us strength to sacrifice for others, to follow the path of the cross, the path that He has made clear to us. And glory be to God forever AMEN. 

Source: Sermons

Loving The Poor Makes Us Human

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

In today’s gospel we are told a parable, a story from the mouth of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. This story is both frightening and hopeful. Whether it will be frightening or hopeful for us will depend strongly on how we respond to the Lord’s message. The Lord tells us that there was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. We are told that he wore purple and this was a sign in antiquity of having great wealth. Purple dye and purple cloth was very rare and expensive at that time. This man who dressed ver well also ate very well. Every day he had the equivalent of a great feast. I imagine that this man was not very physically healthy because of the way that he ate but more importantly we know that he was really very sick in his soul. It was not the fact that he had great wealth, that made him unwell. It was that his wealth was not directed to anything outside of himself and his will. His wealth was centered around his own disordered desires and not towards the God who had blessed him with all of this wealth to begin with.

How do we know that this man was self-centered and not God-centered? We see it clearly demonstrated in the way that he neglected the poor man who was at his gate. Why should this be an issue? Isn’t life about making as much money as possible and focusing all of it on our own comfort and enjoyment? Isn’t that the American dream? Yet, according to the Lord Jesus Christ, this type of attitude is a great sin. As we are about to jump on the roller coaster that we call “the holiday season” we would do well to remember that our life in Christ needs to be rooted in His teachings and the main two commandments we are taught is to love God with everything that we have and everything that we are, and the second is like it: to love your neighbor as yourself. These commandments apply to every season, even every second of our lives.

The poor man, named Lazarus, was at the very gate of the rich man. It means that he was in plain view, not hidden away. The rich man could see him but he had no compassion, no love, no mercy for the terrible situation of the poor man at his doorstep. Sometimes we are the same. We see beggars at the exits of the highways and we wonder whether that person is really poor. We see them and we wonder why they are just sitting there and not out working. But this is not what the Lord has asked of us. He doesn’t want us to assess the situation but to do our part to be obedient to His words and His example.

This rich man knew of the existence of Lazarus, but he pretended that he did not exist. He saw a fellow human being, created in the same image and likeness of God, and he treated him as if he was nothing at all. We are told that the dogs came to lick the sores of the poor man. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes “Yes, it says that even the dogs licked his sores and did not injure him yet sympathized with him and cared for him. Animals relieve their own sufferings with their tongues, as they remove what pains them and gently soothe the sores. The rich man was crueler than the dogs, because he felt no sympathy or compassion for him but was completely unmerciful.” 

Can you imagine that the irrational dogs showed more compassion than the man who was created with a rational soul and created in the image and likeness of God, who had the means to offer real help and assistance? What does that say about the rich man? Nothing good.

You see that this is kind of attitude he displays is possible when we are wealthy and well fed. We can forget that others suffer and have very little. We can find it hard to empathize and feel their pain. So we are reminded by the Lord that it is our duty to care for those who are around us and are clearly in need. You don’t have to go far away to look for the poor, and needy and serve them. You will find them near you, if you are looking for them.

We are struck by the hardness and lack of mercy of that rich man. Can we imagine how we would be treated if God Himself were like this rich man? We would all be in dire straits. But we thank God that He is not like this rich man and also not like us. He is generous and merciful, long-suffering and His love is boundless and unending love. Whatever He has, He is willing to share with us. He is not content to see us in our poor suffering state, but He has gone out of His way to help us, even at the expense of the suffering and death of His own Son.  This is the pattern of mercy and love that we are called to follow. It is not easy, but this is the way. The Church helps us to learn this pattern through teaching us the disciplines such as fasting. We are encouraged to feel hunger and thirst, to feel our need for God. This helps us to become more human.  We are also encouraged by the Lord and by the fathers of the Church to give alms and help the poor as often as we can.

St. Nikolai Velimirovich once said,

“Similar things happen in almsgiving and in Holy Communion. In Holy Communion we receive the Living Lord Christ Himself, in the form of bread and wine; in almsgiving we give to the Living Lord Christ Himself, in the form of the poor and needy. A certain man in Constantinople was unusually merciful. Walking along the streets of the city, he would press his gift into the hands of the poor and hurry onward, so he would not hear their gratitude or be recognized. When a friend of his asked how he had become so merciful, he replied: “Once in church I heard a priest say that whoever gives to the poor, gives into the hands of Christ Himself. I didn’t believe it, for I thought, ‘How can this be, when Christ is in heaven?’ However, I was on my way home one day and I saw a poor man begging, and the face of Christ shone above his head! Just then a passerby gave the beggar a piece of bread, and I saw the Lord extend His hand, take the bread, and bless the donor. From then on, I have always seen Christ’s face shining above the beggars. Therefore, with great fear I perform as much charity as I can.’

So, what would be dreadful for us if we were neglectful, becomes a source of great hope for us when we are obedient. God loves us and He will reward even the slightest dead done in His name with love. Regardless of whatever we give to the poor, the Lord will supply our needs and will count our acts of mercy as a great act of love not only towards the poor, but towards the Lord Himself.  It is a double blessing guarantee. So let us not be like the rich man who was not even named in the gospel. He was not to be found in the book of life. But let us be tools that God might use us for His purposes and our benefit. To Him alone be glory, honor and dominion always now and ever and unto ages of ages AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Safeguarding Ourselves Against The Demonic

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

Every year around this time, mid-October, we hear this powerful somewhat frightening story in the gospels about a man who is possessed by demons. Modern psychologists and scientists tell us that that was probably some kind of mental illness. They tell us that the people of old were not very sophisticated and did not properly understand these things so they attributed them to superstitions. The problem with all of these theories is that they completely ignore the words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth in response to what He has encountered. In addition, these baseless theories ignore what happened to the herd of swine. Something more than psychosis was certainly at work here.

The Scriptures and the New Testament speak of demons and the demonic as a reality of our fallen world. Just as there are angelic spirits, ministers and messengers of the Lord, likewise there are demonic spirits that serve Satan who is himself a fallen angel. We know that Satan and the demonic exists because we believe the teaching of Jesus Christ, we believe that He is trustworthy…much more trustworthy than anyone who has ever lived. We believe that He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness and also cast out demons from people on a number of occasions. We also believe the witness of the rest of the Old and New Testaments.

So we are left wondering, why was this man possessed? More importantly, what can we as Christians do to protect ourselves from demonic influence. One step to avoiding demonic influence is guarding our senses. When I say this I also mean that parents should be working to guard their children’s senses. What should we be guarding against? Anything that trivializes sin or distorts our Christian worldview. I am thinking about the shows and movies that we may be allowing our kids to watch, I am thinking about the smartphones that suck the children in, and of course there are other things. We even have to be vigilant regarding what is being taught to our children in the schools.

Regarding our children, St. John Chrysostom says In children we have a great charge committed to us. Let us bestow great care upon them, and do everything that the Evil One may not rob us of them. But now our practice is the reverse of this. We take all care indeed to have our farm in good order…. We take care of our possessions for our children, but of the children themselves we take no care at all. Form the soul of thy son aright, and all the rest will be added hereafter.”Homily 9

It goes without saying that it is much easier to implement these things for our children, if we as adults do them as well. If we are not vigilant regarding these matters, we will slowly be affected and we can be manipulated and turned away from the Lord and His path. Let us not think of our senses as something given to us merely for our pleasure or for the doing of my will, but rather as a gift given to us as a way for us to seek, to know and to experience God. The senses were given to us for the doing of God’s will and the living of a true, holy life.

We can also avoid demonic influence in our lives by filling our lives with Christ and the things of Christ. We can fill our lives with the word of God, with the lives of the saints, with the hymns of the church, with the holy services, with prayer, with the sacraments, especially the life giving Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We can also fill our lives with acts of mercy, kindness and love…even towards those who hate us and despise us.

All of these works act like a torch and they disperse the darkness of demonic activity that swirls around us. If Christ is present as the center of my life, the demons will be forced to scatter as they did in today’s gospel reading. They will be more like annoying gnats and less like fearsome dragons, because God is much greater than our greatest enemies.

Finally, I want to leave you with a quote from St. Theophan the Recluse, who lived in the 19thcentury, he wrote: 

You must never be afraid, if you are troubled by a flood of thoughts, that the enemy is too strong against you, that his attacks are never ending, that the war will last for your lifetime, and that you cannot avoid incessant downfalls of all kinds. Know that our enemies, with all their wiles, are in the hands of our divine Commander, our Lord Jesus Christ, for Whose honour and glory you are waging war. Since He himself leads you into battle, He will certainly not suffer your enemies to use violence against you and overcome you, if you do not yourself cross over to their side with your will. He will Himself fight for you and will deliver your enemies into your hands, when He wills and as He wills, as it is written: ‘The Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp, to deliver thee, and to give up thine enemies before thee’ (Deut. Xxii, 14).”

Let us not fear the Lord, like the villagers in today’s gospel. Let us also not fear the demons. But let us take every opportunity to cling to the Lord Jesus Christ and to become a part of His world, instead of trying to jam Him into our world. Then we will be like the man who was healed in today’s gospel and we will be able to declare all that God has done for us. Glory be to God Forever AMEN. 

Source: Sermons

But Will We Bear Fruit?

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

One of my greatest joys as a priest is seeing people grow in their faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ. It is also a great joy to bring people into the Holy Orthodox faith. We train them and instruct them and receive them into the Church, and we hope that they will continue to have zeal and fervent faith for Christ and His Church. In the beginning, people are often energetic, but sometimes we have seen people who begin energetically and later they seem to fizzle out or fall away. We pray for them and we hope they will become Christians who bear mature fruit, the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their lives, but the truth is that we can never be certain because God has given us freedom to choose Him or to go in another direction.

In today’s gospel reading we hear the life giving words of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He describes the heart of the human being as soil, and the life giving word of God as seed. Either the soil of our heart is receptive to the seed of the word of God, either it is a good place for the seed to be planted, to grow and to bear much fruit or it is place where the seed goes to die and the person remains fruitless. What is the difference between the good soil that bore fruit and the other places where the Lord threw seeds that did not bear fruit? More importantly, how can we make prepare our own hearts to receive the seed of the word of God faithfully?

On Tuesday night we began our Intro to Orthodoxy class with a quote from Met. Hierotheos Vlachos who once wrote that “According to the patristic meaning of the word, everyone is a psychopath, that is to say, his soul is sick…he continues by saying “For the psychiatrist, the psychopath means…he is suffering from a psychosis: a schizophrenic. From the Orthodox standpoint, however, it is someone who has not undergone purification of the passions or attained illumination…” 

The Church stands as a hospital for us, a place that cures the sick. She is a hospital but not simply a hospital, she is also a school of repentance and prayer. These are the medicines and practices that help us to undergo purification of our souls, and it is this purification that helps us develop the good soil of the heart. These things help us to follow the words of our Lord Jesus Christ faithfully, to the end. To become those who “hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.” 

The chalice that is brought out for communion every Sunday is plated in gold in order to reflect the precious nature of that which it is carrying. The gospel cover is wrapped in a beautiful decorative cover, usually with some gold plating, in order to remind us of the precious quality of the words that are contained therein. In the same way, we are called to make ourselves purified and cleansed vessels in order to receive the precious seeds of God’s word in a fitting and acceptable manner. Everything in the life of the Orthodox Church is meant to help us on this path, this royal road, this narrow way of Christ. 

We are consistently called to help the poor and needy, to visit the sick and the prisoners, and to clothe the naked, to support the church. Acts such as these help us to become detached from our wealth and possessions. As Orthodox Christians we are called to fast for over half the year. We also undertake other forms of asceticism, such as doing prostrations in our private prayers or staying up late and praying even when it means getting less sleep. We undertake activities that are not easy and not convenient. We serve others, we love our enemies. We do these things so that our heart will remain soft and fertile for God and not stony, rocky and hard. We do these things because we don’t want to be choked by the pleasures of life. Once someone is sucked into the quick sand of a life of pleasure, it is tough to crawl back out. So this is why the Church offers us her spiritual practices and methods and these have been tried, tested and true according to the lives of the saints who have lived them for centuries.

In addition the Church as a wise mother, gives us powerful nutrients and vaccines to help us grow and keep us away from various forms of spiritual danger. She gives us the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Communion, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. She gives us the support and fellowship of the whole community, the body of Christ. She gives us the sacrament of confession.All of these gifts and many more are given to us because God desired that we would all be saved and would come to know Him. 

Perhaps some of you feel that you are simply going through the motions of your faith. Perhaps some of you are already exhausted by the cares and worries of this life. I want you to remember your purpose and your gift. You were created to serve and to love God, first and foremost. Everything else is secondary. Live with that as a constant reminder.I also want you to remember your gift. It is the gift of adoption into the household of God. It is yours. Everything that the Father has, He shares with you. He doesn’t do it begrudgingly but with openness and great generosity. He says, “come to me, sit with me, know me, partake of me, live with me.” 

As Christians we are reminded by the words of the Lord Jesus, that life is short and that we should guard and treasure His words like precious jewels or something exceedingly rare. The best way for us to do this is to diligently hold fast to the practices and disciplines of the Church. To continually soften our hearts and train ourselves to be receptive to the grace of God that is working in our lives. God desires to save you and to transform you. But He asks us to make room for Him, to prepare the soil of our hearts for Him through daily, methodical, habitual practices of prayer and repentance and participation in the life giving worship of the church.

So we do this day by day, hour by hour and we believe that if we are diligent to tend the garden of our hearts, in time, He will faithfully fulfill His promise to bring forth the abundant fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And glory be to God AMEN. 

Source: Sermons

When We Are Forced to Stare At Death

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

In today’s gospel reading we are privileged to hear an amazing account from St. Luke the evangelist. We are told that many of the disciples as well as a great crowd of people were following the Lord Jesus as He went to a city called Nain, which was a village of Galilee. What the disciples and the people would witness that day was something very special, almost unbelievable. It was a work that had only happened a select few times throughout the whole of the history of the people of God. I am sure that when they woke up that morning, they could not fathom what their eyes would behold that day.

As our Lord Jesus Christ drew near to the gate of the city He encountered one of the sights that He abhors above all else. He encountered something that might have caused Him pain of heart. He was entering the city as a funeral procession was passing by. Why should such a sight be something that the Lord Jesus hates? Because He created us to live forever. He created us to be full of life, not to be swallowed up and embraced by death. He was sad at the sight because from the beginning it was not meant to be. We were meant for so much more than to simply lie in a box with our eyes closed.

I believe that every time the Lord encountered death, it was deeply troubling to Him, as it should be to us. Because it reminds us of the fallenness of humanity and the sin of our forefathers. It reminds us that death had dominion, or lordship over all human life. Yet we find that in Christ, all things become new.

We are told that when the Lord Jesus saw the procession and the widow whose only son had died, He had compassion on her and said “Do not weep.” These are the precious words of the Lord, whose word created Heaven and Earth and all of creation. He condescends to this poor widows pain and anguish and He comforts her with His word “Do not weep.” Who are we that any of us should be shown such comfort and compassion by the Lord, as He demonstrates in this story? What a beautiful master we serve!

After comforting the widow with His words, and as an aside, let me say that when someone is sick or suffering, we should be careful not to try and comfort them with empty words of comfort. The Lord comforted with a full knowledge of what He would do. We should not tell the sick and suffering that everything will be okay, when in fact, their world might be falling apart. We should be with them in their pain. You can’t tell them that everything will be better, because we don’t know that. End of aside.

After His comforting words, the Lord does something that no one that day expected or foresaw. He came up to the bier (the casket) and He touched it and said “Young man, I say to you: arise.” And we are told that the dead man sat up and began to speak. It was such a shock to the crowd that we are told that “fear seized them all.” But the evangelist goes on to say, “and they glorified God saying “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited His people!”

My brothers and sisters, this story is about each of us. Sometimes we are like the widow who is staring into the face of the darkness and trying to somehow make sense of the death of a loved one. And we will all certainly be like the widow’s son who was laying lifeless in the casket, because all of us are going to die. Death is beyond our control. Death is beyond our control but life is the gift of Jesus Christ to those who love Him, who hear His words and follow Him.

We do not need to be troubled by death, because death has no more dominion over Our Lord Jesus Christ, who conquered and defeated death. He destroyed it and destroyed sin. Each of us is called then to live as if Christ has already touched our casket and brought us back to life, and He has! We were dead in sin! We were buried with Him and raised again in baptism! We were given new life and put on the new man. We have become sons and daughters of God by this royal adoption into the household of God. Now we are called to live a resurrected life, not bound by sin as ones who are spiritually dead, but living in the Spirit, in newness of life.

Each of us was dead through sin and each of us has been restored. St. Paul says at least three times in his epistles “walk worthily.” He writes “that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” Again he writes “that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;” and finally he writes “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called”.  Let us indeed do just that.

I pray that this gospel passage will bring you great hope. Sometimes we have to face difficult circumstances in our lives, even death, but we should face them knowing that life has defeated death itself in Christ the conqueror, who rose from the dead. Let us then live in Him and for Him that we might also be redeemed and hear His powerful words inviting us to share in His life, “I say to you, arise!” 

Source: Sermons