Just Forgive!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons

How Will We Be Judged?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons

He Went Away Justified

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

We continue on the march towards Great Lent. We are like soldiers who are drawing near to the front lines of the battlefield. The Church is preparing us for spiritual battle because Lent is a great spiritual battle. As we draw near to the battlefield, we are given special gospel readings to aid in our preparation. The Church like a wise general is foreshadowing the moves and the tactics of the enemy and is giving us the counterattacks. Each week is a new building block, a new tactic or weapon that we will add to our repertoire. 

This week we hear one my very favorite passages in all of the holy gospels, the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. This is a story told by Our Lord Jesus Christ. He tells these stories because He loves us and He wants to connect with us, with our hearts, through these stories that give us access to truth and light. 

Listen to what the Lord says “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” 

What is the point of the parable? The point is humility. The Lord Jesus, our beloved master, gives us two very different people with two very different prayers. One does everything correctly from an outsiders perspective, he also keeps all of the small traditions and rules with exactness. But the problem is that he doesn’t ultimately keep them out of love for God, and his strictness has not produced love within him. He gains great pride through his perfect observance of all things religious. But it gets worse, he boldly uses this distorted vision of himself to accuse others before God! God forbid that we should become like this man. Our prayers are a sacred time to draw near to God, not to accuse and condemn others. The fact that he is obsessed with the activities of others and their shortcomings, both perceived and real, is a sign of just how much he lacks peace from above, peace from God. It reminds me of this story from a modern saint, St. Paisios of Mt. Athos. Listen to his words,

“Some people tell me that they are scandalized because they see many things wrong in the Church. I tell them that if you ask a fly, “Are there any flowers in this area?” it will say, “I don’t know about flowers, but over there in that heap of rubbish you can find all the filth you want.” And it will go on to list all the unclean things it has been to.

Now, if you ask a honeybee, “Have you seen any unclean things in this area?” it will reply, “Unclean things? No, I have not seen any; the place here is full of the most fragrant flowers.” And it will go on to name all the flowers of the garden or the meadow. You see, the fly only knows where the unclean things are, while the honeybee knows where the beautiful iris or hyacinth is.

As I have come to understand, some people resemble the honeybee and some resemble the fly. Those who resemble the fly seek to find evil in every circumstance and are preoccupied with it; they see no good anywhere. But those who resemble the honeybee only see the good in everything they see. The stupid person thinks stupidly and takes everything in the wrong way, whereas the person who has good thoughts, no matter what he sees, no matter what you tell him, maintains a positive and good thought.”

The Pharisee was the fly in the story, but what about the Publican? It turns out that he was the bee. He could not see garbage anywhere outside. He would not so much as dare to look around or busy himself with what others were doing. He could not see any garbage anywhere outside, because he was busy looking inward, repenting. He was busy with the task of dealing with the garbage that he found within himself. That is true humility. And everyone who repents and prays with this demeanor is truly blessed beyond measure. You will know God if you have this attitude when you pray. King David writes “a broken and humbled heart, God will not despise.” Imagine the freedom and joy that we would have if we prayed with a focus on our own sins and God’s abundant mercy.

The Publican only said one heartfelt sentence “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” yet Our Lord Jesus tells us that this was enough. He did not have to say any more. The Lord says that “this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” Wow. The shortest distance to God is humility. The quickest path to God is humility. The way to become like God, to receive His boundless blessings, is through humility. And this humility is something that we can put into action in everyday aspects of our life, not only in our prayers.Whatever we do in our lives, we can do it all with humility and then we will not be alone, but with God and if God is with us, what do we lack?

St. John of San Francisco writes, “The power of God is effective when a person asks for the help from God, acknowledging his own weakness and sinfulness. This is why humility and the striving towards God are the fundamental virtues of a Christian.” My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us take these virtues and boldly run the race set before us. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Feast of Presentation and the Candle of our Souls

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (2:22-40) 

Today we celebrate one of the twelve great feasts in the life of the Church. The Feast Of Meeting, also known as the presentation of the Lord in the temple. This took place 40 days after the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, aka Christmas. It was a time for the mother to bring a sacrifice to the temple and to ask the priest to pray for her purification as seen in the book of Leviticus 12. Our own practice mirrors this ancient practice of the Jews. We church the child and the mother around the 40 day mark and through the churching we pray for the mother’s purification and ask for her to be accepted back into communion with the Holy Church. That day, she receives the Eucharist for the first time since giving birth.

In some places this feast is also called Candlemas. We know that by the 7thcentury there was a custom that involved candles and processions. We know this because St. Sophronius of Jerusalem mentions itclearly in one of his sermons. This procession with candles is a symbol of what the Elder Simeon did that day in the temple when he took the young Christ into his arms and said “Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Thy people Israel.”

He carried the light of the world in his arms! Can we imagine such a joy and such a blessing? We are overjoyed when we carry a newborn child for the first time. Yet, here he was carrying the child that he had literally been waiting a lifetime in order to finally see. We can only begin to imagine his exuberance and overwhelming joy.

In his sermon on the Feast of The Presentation, St. Sophronius of Jerusalem said the following,

“Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ. The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.

The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God. The true light has come, the light that enlightens every man who is born into this world. Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this light. Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness. Let us be shining, as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal.

Rejoicing with Simeon, let us sing a hymn of thanksgiving to God, the Father of the light, who sent the true light to dispel the darkness and to give us all a share in his splendor. Through Simeon’s eyes we too have seen the salvation of God which he prepared for all the nations and revealed as the glory of the new Israel, which is ourselves. As Simeon was released from the bonds of this life when he had seen Christ, so we too were at once freed from our old state of sinfulness.”

We fall into sins. We fight about many things. We struggle with one another. We argue over politics, we argue over sports, we argue over chores and housework, we argue about trivial matters in our homes and even in the church, or we argue about weightier matters like respect and justice. Yet we can also learn from the words of the Righteous Simeon that we can be, and should be, at peace. Why? Because we have seen and known the salvation that is now present through the coming of Jesus Christ into the world and into our lives. 

We should stop being petty and earthly. We can cease our sinful habits and ways of thinking and take the opportunity to look up to the heavens and thank God for His love and mercy. Where would we be without such mercy and love? Where would we be without His salvation? Where would we be if He had not forgiven our sins?

But all of this is now open to us, heaven itself is opened to us, because of Our Lord Jesus Christ and we are forever thankful for such a precious gift. As St. Sophronius mentioned, we should work to make our souls glow with His radiance. We should shine with our love for God and one another. Nothing more and nothing less is needed. May we enter into this feast with joy and may the Lord make radiant lights who reflect His precious and life giving light. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Zacchaeus As A Mirror

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

It is now Zacchaeus Sunday. This means that the time is near. The great and holy struggle of Lent in not too far away. In fact, Lent will begin on March 2ndbut before we ever reach the start of Lent, the Church will try to give us the prerequisites and prepare us for the spiritual school of Great Lent.

When I hear the story of Zacchaeus, I cannot help but feel that a mirror is held up to each of us. We look at Zacchaeus and we can see that perhaps we have fallen short of his level of desire for God. I can say, I desire God, but I don’t desire to see God in the way that Zacchaeus desired to see God. I am repentant, but I am not seriously repentant in the way that Zacchaeus was seriously repentant.

When we hear the words of the holy gospel, we should let it be a mirror that reflects back to us and allows us to see ourselves. The gospel is also like a light that shines brightly on our imperfections. We often try to hide those imperfections, because we want to appear beautiful. But God is not interested in our appearing beautiful. He wants to actually transform us into beautiful people. When we look at ourselves we see minor imperfections, but God sees major spots and blemishes on our souls. He wants to cleanse us and heal us and remove these blemishes before they become cancerous tumors on the soul.

So today we see Zacchaeus, a man that we know and love through this story. His determination and tenacity in the face of all obstacles between him and a vision of the Lord are legendary. Our children all know songs about Zacchaeus. He puts my efforts to shame. When I see how he struggled to see Jesus Christ. When I see how he ignored all of the difficulties and pressed onward and upward, I am left inspired. Each one of us has reasons why we have not really struggled and made a concerted effort to see God and to know God. For one, he works too much. For another, he is too busy correcting the faults of others. For another, he is too busy working and building up his businesses. For another, she is busy with the housework and there is never time for a break. For yet another, she is busy on social media or chatting with friends. Yet others are busy with entertaining themselves, finding the next movie, the next show that takes them out of this reality of life and into fantasy.

We have a multitude of reasons for our slackness in seeking Jesus Christ. And the truth is that all of our excuses are rubbish. If a rich tax collector of a high stature in society, is willing to overcome all the distractions and obstacles around him and humble himself and look like a fool to climb into a tree and see Jesus, then our reasons for not seeking Christ more faithfully, are probably not that good. We can put this another way. If we have a reason why we aren’t devoting ourselves to seeking God in our life, then we probably don’t have our life properly ordered.

Zacchaeus also had a disordered life. He was rich, he stole money from others in a legal way, through collecting taxes, but taking a little extra for himself. All of us have lived disordered lives at some point, maybe we are living disordered lives now. Zacchaeus teaches us that the first step to change is desiring something better. In this case, it is desiring someone better. When I look at Zacchaeus, I can say honestly, that I don’t desire to see the Lord Jesus Christ with the same desire as Zacchaeus. If I did have that great desire, I would spend more time finding the Lord Jesus in the 4 gospels. I would spend more time struggling to pray fervently and focusing, not simply going through the motions and words of prayer. And what would the Lord Jesus Christ give me, give us in return? He would give us new life and boundless joy.

St. Nicholai (Velimirovich) of Zicha preached some beautiful words about this gospel text. He said 

“Just as the bleak forest clothes itself into greenery and flowers from the breath of spring, so does every man, regardless of how arid and darkened by sin, becomes fresh and youthful from the nearness of Christ. For the nearness of Christ is as the nearness of some life-giving and fragrant balsam which restores health, increases life, give fragrance to the soul, to the thoughts and to the words of man. In other words, distance from Christ means decay and death and His nearness means salvation and life.

“Today, salvation has come to this house” said the Lord upon entering the house of Zacchaeus the sinner. Christ was the salvation that came and Zacchaeus was the house into which He entered. Brethren, each one of us is a house in which sin dwells as long as Christ is distant and to which salvation comes when Christ approaches it. Nevertheless, will Christ approach my house and your house? That depends on us.” 

May we struggle faithfully to see Jesus Christ in our lives and we will not be surprised when we also see Him dwelling in our hearts. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

So Much To Be Thankful For

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

As Christians we have so much to be thankful for in this life. We are thankful for all of the various things that other people are thankful for, such as loved ones and friends, our homes, the food on our tables, the many blessings that we have received. But as Christians we take this level of gratitude and we amplify it to a whole new level.

As Christians we are really blessed beyond our wildest expectations or desires. We are blessed to be called sons and daughters, adopted children of God. We are blessed with miracles in our lives. We are blessed with an Orthodox faith and Orthodox Church to guide us from this land to the shores of eternity. We are blessed with the healing sacraments of the Church, the medicines that give us life and joy. As Christians we are blessed to have knowledge of God and His Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, but more than that, we are blessed to know them through a living relationship.

As Christians we are blessed to have communion with the saints who have lived throughout the ages. We are not alone, we are together in a community, both with the people around us and the holy men and women who came before us and fought valiantly for the faith that has been handed down to us.

As Christians we are thankful to know that God really loves us and this love took flesh and became man and dwelt among us. We are thankful to know that Our Lord Jesus Christ truly became a man for us, truly died for us, and truly defeated death for us. We are thankful for the reality of the resurrection that is ours because of His love. We are thankful for the forgiveness of our sins. We have so many sins, so many burdens that we carry. Yet, the Lord in His mercy, has carried them for us and wiped away our sins.

We are thankful that we can come here and pray together and receive the body and blood of Christ together as One body. We are thankful that He loves us so much that He allows us to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to unite with us.

We are thankful that God has heard our pains and concerns and He answers us. He has not abandoned anyone or left anyone without His presence. He has been with us.

In today’s gospel reading we hear about the ten lepers that came and asked the Lord Jesus for healing. They cried out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” And by the power of His word, they were healed! You wonder why I emphasize reading the gospels every day? Because His word is healing and power.

Suddenly as the ten lepers left to return to the priests to show themselves, they began to rejoice as their dreams came true. The impossible became possible. They were healed! They could return to their lives, to their loved ones, they could again become part of the community. And to they went off rejoicing in their blessings! But what was the problem? The problem was that 9 of the 10 forgot to acknowledge God and start by giving thanks and showing gratitude for all that the Lord Jesus Christ had done for them.

When we teach children to say thank you, it is not simply a matter of having good manners. It is a matter of changing their way of thinking and bringing them to a sense of gratitude for everything in their lives. You don’t have everything in your life because of anything that you have done, but because of the love and care that others have shown you, most importantly because of the love of God. For this reason, the Lord seems stunned when the only leper to return and offer thanks was the Samaritan, not the others who presumably had been Jews who should have known a thing or two about thanksgiving and gratitude.

Having gratitude in your life can unlock many doors. It can change your life. How often do we start our day or end our evenings by thanking God for all of the blessings in our life? How often do we list them or contemplate the ways that He has taken care of us? Once you start down that road, everything else is transformed. Instead of complaining when we don’t get our way, we start to think “if God has always provided for me, and loves me, perhaps He is witholding this thing for my benefit.” Or we might say “I trust that the Lord will provide for me according to His good will.” When we show gratitude to God, we cannot help but then have that gratitude flow to others around us. I pray that we are not acting contrary to this through our attitudes and actions.

As I’ve said, gratitude can unlock many doors in your life. It can even help us to unlock the doors of salvation. One of the great modern theologians and priests of our time, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, during his last ever sermon, on Thanksgiving day, offered these words “Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.” May we learn this spirit of thanksgiving to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN. 

Source: Sermons

Are We Chasing Darkness or Light?

The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (4:12-17) 

Last week we celebrated the baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ as well as the manifestation of the Holy Trinity together in one place. This week we hear the gospel that tells of the beginning of the Lord’s ministry and preaching. But something very significant happened in between these two events in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. He fasted for 40 days and was tempted in the wilderness.

Sometimes we ask “why do we fast?” There are many answers, but the one that is most apparent from the gospel of Matthew is that we fast because this is what the Lord taught us through His own example. The Lord prepared Himself for the immense and world changing task that was ahead of Him. He was preparing Himself for the work of preaching and healing and being present with the people. We learn from the Lord’s example that we should also fast to prepare for significant events and even before significant decisions in our life. We also fast to regain our spiritual strength, to fight temptations and to amplify our repentance and our prayers to God.

In today’s gospel reading we are told that the Lord Jesus withdrew into Galilee after the arrest of John the baptist, His own cousin. As Jesus withdrew, He went and lived in Capernaum in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. Isaiah the prophet foretold this event saying“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and  R23 shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” 

One of the anonymous church writers of antiquity has this to say “As history teaches us, these tribes were the first to cross over into Babylonia.” [Zebulun and Naphtali had been part of Israel and were thus sent by the Assyrians to Babylon (cf. 2 Kings 17) before the same fate befell the inhabitants of Judah.] “It is appropriate therefore that all those whom the wrath of God has struck should first be visited by God’s mercy and those who have been led into bodily captivity should first be brought back from spiritual captivity.”

What was the spiritual captivity? It was the darkness of life without the One true God. It was the darkness of the life of the Gentiles, who had neither the law or the prophets or any such thing. It was the darkness of sin.But the appearance of Our Lord Jesus Christ in that region was like the first appearance of the Sun to people who had never lived outside a cave. St. Cyril of Alexandria tells us that Christ our Lord is the great light and the brightness is thegospel preaching. I wonder if we understand this? Can we imagine what our lives would be like without the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ? Can we imagine our lives still in slavery to sin? Can we imagine a life without Christ in our midst? What an empty and darklife that would be. 

But thank God that we are not in darkness, so don’t chase the darkness, but follow Christ. The worst thing for a Christian is to act as if he is still in darkness even when he has known Christ the true God. Don’t live your life so that it isfull of things that distract you, full of busyness and work and collecting things that you can’t keep forever. Make Christ your business. Give Him your heart and your mind and your life will be full of light. Each one of us has to reassess our lives daily. We have to see if our goals are lining up with our actions, we have to see if we are on the right path or fooling ourselves. Our goal is to grow in Christ and to grow in our likeness to Christ the Lord. As we examine ourselves and our lives we are called by God to change course, to change our minds, to repent in order to reorient ourselves back to the way of life, back to the light and away from the darkness. 

St. Nicholai of Zicha once said “Repentance is the abandoning of all false paths that have been trodden by men’s feet, and men’s thoughts and desires, and a return to the new path: Christ’s path. But how can a sinful man repent unless he, in his heart, meets with the Lord and knows his own shame? Before little Zacchaeus saw the Lord with his eyes, he met Him in his heart and was ashamed of all his ways.” 

The way of light that the Lord Jesus Christ has given us, requires us to abandon false paths, false desires and thoughts. What is false? Anything that disobeys the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not only are these things false, but they do not save or bring us to life and fullness. So each and every day we can check our actions against the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. If something is unclear or uncertain perhaps we will need to dig deeper into the writings of the Church fathers and saints for some clarification. In this way there is always a check and balance for us and we won’t confuse darkness for light. The Lord Jesus Christ wants us to be children of the light who live and breathe and move in the light of God. He wants us to become little lights, just as He is the great light. So that even our lives will help others find their way to the Lord. May God give us the courage and the will to repent and to desire the light of Jesus Christ. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

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