Who Is My Neighbor?

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

In today’s gospel passage we hear that a lawyer came to put Jesus to the test. One should always be careful when lawyers are nearby. But this particular lawyer wanted to test Our Lord’s knowledge of the law of God. It is possible that this man even came with good intentions. Perhaps in the depths of his heart he really wanted to have a deep and thriving relationship with God. Perhaps he really wanted to inherit eternal life. Perhaps he really wanted to be saved.

In the course of asking Our Lord Jesus Christ how he could inherit eternal life, Our Lord questioned him in something of a socratic method and through questioning the Lord understood that the lawyer knew what the law said: “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor.” However there was a problem with his understanding. He knew what he should do, but he didn’t know how to apply this knowledge fully. There was something of a disconnect between the man’s theoretical knowledge and his day to day life. This was made clear when the lawyer asked this particular question: “And who is my neighbor?”

So once again our Lord told the man a parable and through this extensive parable, the Lord once again asked a question and received the proper answer from the lawyer. In this way, the Lord led the man to the answer instead of simply lecturing or telling him the answer. “Who is my neighbor?” That was the question of the lawyer and often this is a question that resides in our hearts and minds. We live in a fragmented society. The fragmentation of our society and our world has been caused by many factors but it seems clear that somewhere near the top of the food chain. Near the top of the power structure, there are those who benefit greatly from seeing chaos and division within society.

When there is suspicion, there is distrust. When there is distrust, there is hatred and then division. Over time this pattern of behavior leads to such a divide that we begin to see the people around us not as they truly are, as humans made in the image and likeness of God, but as enemies, as demons, as something less than human. And we do this every day. You are told that if you side with Israeli’s you are evil. But others will tell you that when you side with the Palestinians you are morally wrong. This might apply to how we look at illegal aliens or someone of a different race or perhaps even someone who has different political opinions. In each and every one of these situations and circumstances we are called to be more than merely human. We are called to be God’s children at heart. We are called to see everyone as neighbor. What a beautiful thought!

In order to further reinforce this idea, Our Lord Jesus Christ told the parable of the good Samaritan. This is already an oxymoron since a Jew could not use the words good and Samaritan in the same sentence. They thought of the Samaritans as a people with a different religion, a different and strange people. A lesser people. So the Lord really pushes the boundaries of the people’s comfort zone in order to get his point across. To love your neighbor as yourself is to go out of your way to serve those around you, even if they happen to be different from you. The Lord shamed his listeners, including the lawyer, a bit. He showed them that one of these Samaritans understood the law better than any of them ever had. The proof was not in how he talked or spoke of the law. The proof was in the way that he demonstrated this love in action. The demonstration of love could be distilled into one word: “mercy”.

When Our Lord himself was eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees asked what Jesus was doing and this was His reply, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” That is God revealing His heart and His mind to us. Perhaps we should pay attention and do likewise.

How do we acquire this demeanor of mercy? It comes as a by-product of our love for God and our understanding of His overwhelming mercy towards us.

In fact, when we have come to know God and we have a thriving relationship with Him, then even the impossible will happen. We will even see our enemies as our neighbors and that is proof that we are really becoming like God. That you are in fact related to God!

St. Moses of Optina writes, “If at some time you show mercy to someone, mercy will be shown to you. If you show compassion to one who is suffering (and of course, this is not a great deed) you will be numbered among the martyrs. If you forgive one who has insulted you, then not only will all your sins be forgiven, but you will be a child of the Heavenly Father.”

Who are we? Who are we really? It is known only through the actions of love for everyone that we encounter in our lives.

And I would like to end with another fantastic quote from St. Dorotheos of Gaza who said, “The more one is united to his neighbor the more he is united to God.”

May this alone be our path. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Is Wealth A Blessing or a Curse?

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

Most of you who have been paying attention for the past number of years have noticed that I typically don’t talk about money when I preach. I have many reasons for holding to this pattern. The first reason is that when you have a vibrant relationship with God, you will give without any push or encouragement. It will flow out of you generously as a sign of your gratitude and love for God. Secondly, I don’t want people to ever get the impression that finances are our number one priority as a church. Our number one priority is the worship of the living God and the healing that we can receive through this life of worship. The final reason that I don’t speak about money often is that I typically preach on the subject of the gospel readings and usually the main topic of the gospels readings is not finances or wealth.

It just so happens that today of all days, our gospel reading does touch on the subject of money. This also happens to be the final day of our initial two week capital campaign for the building of the church. This was not planned but has happened by coincidence, or perhaps by divine providence.

Our Lord Jesus tells us that there was a rich man who wore the nicest garments and ate the best meals each and every day of his life. Yet not far from the rich man, there was a poor beggar named Lazarus who merely tried to get close to the table and to eat the crumbs of the meal that would fall from the table. This poor Lazarus was in rough shape. We are told that his only companions were the dogs who came and licked his sores. But in an instant, their realities were forever changed. We are told that both men died. It is quite the meditation on death. Death doesn’t care about your status in life. Death doesn’t care about your age. Death doesn’t care about your gender or about your confusion with such things. Death doesn’t care about your sexuality. Death doesn’t care about your financial portfolio. Death doesn’t even care about your position in the church, whether patriarch or priest. Death is ruthlessly efficient at the task of equalizing each and every person in the grave.

However we learn from the words of our Lord Jesus Christ that death is more than a physical change. Death is a doorway to a spiritual reality. This reality has absolutely nothing to do with our status or accolades or riches according to the logic of the world. Rather, the transformation is based solely on the condition of one’s heart or soul. According to the parable, you can collect as much as you can imagine in possessions, in wealth and status, but these things will ultimately not be counted in your favor. What is counted in your favor is what you have acquired within your soul. So how do we acquire the treasures of the soul? And what are these treasures? They are the virtues. Sometimes we call them the fruits of the Holy Spirit. And there are no shortcuts to acquiring them in the earthly sense.

We know these fruits of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul mentions them in the letter to the Galatians when he writes “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23) These are the treasures of those who want to know God and to dwell with God and the saints.

How do we acquire these treasured virtues? We start to acquire them by living the commandments. The commandments are actually given to us as a track that keeps us on the proper path towards God and the things of God. Now in the course of our life, God will often allow trials and tribulations and suffering. Many of the fathers of the Church tell us that such trials and tribulations are given to us in order to refine us and help us to grow in faith. St. James in his Catholic epistle writes “Count it all joy, my brothers,when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (Ja 1:2-4)

And the brother of the Lord continues later saying “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (Ja 1:12)

St. Isaac the Syrian also writes, “Once men have truly become His (God’s) sons, our tenderly compassionate Father does not take away their temptations from them when it is His pleasure to ‘make for them a way to escape’ (1 Cor. 10:13), but instead He gives His sons patience in their trials. All these good things are given into the hand of their patience for the perfecting of their souls.”

+ St. Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Homilies (42)

Why am I mentioning all of this? Because this is what happened to the poor man named Lazarus throughout his life. Like many people, he suffered a lot. In the eyes of the world he was nothing but a poor beggar. Yet what was being built up for him was something of incomparably greater value. His soul overflowed with divine consolation. He was filled with the fruits of the spirit and the virtues of godliness. He was humble and merciful because he had suffered so much in his life.

And what of the rich man? He was the most impoverished of all! God had blessed him with much, but he turned the blessings of God into a curse by misusing them. How did he misuse them? By thinking only about himself and his desire for pleasure instead of thinking about using some of this wealth to serve others including the poor man who begged at his feet. He who was not generous in his life, found no generosity after death. He who was without mercy in his life, found no mercy after death.

My brothers and sisters, may the Lord not find us in such a state. But rather, may the Lord find that our hearts flow with generosity, mercy and love to all who ask or have need. In this way we will truly be sons and daughters of the Most High. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Hoping Against Hope

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

Where do we go when life becomes impossibly difficult? What do we do when it seems that everyone has left us and that even the very universe itself is conspiring against us? How do we take the next step when so many of the steps that came before it were full of pain and suffering and there wasn’t any relief found in those steps?

The are questions that trouble all of humanity. These are questions that trouble us as Christians. In the midst of all of these questions about the difficulties of life we seem to find only one answer: Hope against hope. Meaning, hope even when there seems no good reason to do so. And this is supported and backed by Holy Scripture isn’t it? St. Paul writes, “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:24-25

St. Paul tells us that even when things are difficult in our walk of faith we should nevertheless walk the road with patience. He tells us that we don’t see what we hope for. We wait patiently with faith because we have a firm belief that God will fulfill our hopes more than we can possibly imagine.

In today’s gospel reading we see not one but two cases of complete hopelessness, yet somehow, like a weed through the cracks in the pavement, the hope rose and climbed towards the light.

First we are told about the woman who was sick with bleeding for 12 years. This would have been a terrible illness not only because it completely depleted her but it would cause a mess and this mess couldn’t be cleaned with all of our modern methods of washing and drying. This woman would also be considered unclean because of her blood according to the Mosaic standards. We know that she was a completely helpless and hopeless woman because we are told that she was sick for a long time and that she had spent all of her living (her resources) on physicians who ultimately could not even help her.

The second case of hopelessness, where life seemed impossibly difficult was the death of the daughter of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. Here again we see that life has taken an unexpected turn towards suffering and pain that is almost unbearable. For Jairus, there was no hope left. He went to Our Lord Jesus Christ with a shred of hope because his daughter was still alive but very sick. Yet on the way, the word came to him. She had died of her sickness. Your children are your life. This daughter was Jairus’ life. And now she was gone.

My brothers and sisters, do you know what happened in both of these stories? God honored their hopes. The woman came out of her despair but she came and touched the garments of Jesus with hope. Hope that she could be healed. Hope that she could live a normal life again. Hope that Jesus would be her savior. And she went away justified by her hopeful faithfulness.

Likewise, we see that Our Lord Jesus Christ entered into the impossibly difficult pain in the household of Jairus and He overcame the darkness with the light of His presence. Jairus was justified through his hopeful faithfulness.

The Lord Jesus Christ knows each of His children better than they know themselves. He knows your life. He knows your struggles. He knows your hopes and dreams and your fears and failings. The Lord is near to us. He is even more near when we are struggling. Don’t lose hope. When we lose hope that is called despair and this is a very great sin. Despair threatens to ruin our spiritual lives. St. Paul says “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;” 2 Cor 4:8

The Psalmist King David writes “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” Ps 43:5

How is this possible to be in the depths of the despair and yet not to lose hope? It is possible when we remind ourselves that God is the creator of all and the conqueror of all tribulations, even death. It is not that our problems are too big. It is that our concept of God is far too small.

St. Peter of Damascus writes “Patient endurance kills the despair that kills the soul; it teaches the soul to take comfort and not to grow listless (lethargic) in the face of its many battles and afflictions.”

In all of these trials we take comfort because we know that God is the one who has and will help us and guide us through the tribulations of life. Jesus Christ is the face of our hope. Because He lives, hope lives and never dies. May you all be filled with comfort by this knowledge. Christ is our hope and the hope of all the world. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Are Demons Real?

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

Today we hear the familiar story of our Lord Jesus Christ visiting the demon possessed man who lived in the country of the Gadarenes. This was an area that was not really Jewish. Most of the people who lived in this region were not practicing Jews. We know this because we are told that there are herds of swine. Swine, pork, is a forbidden food for actual practicing Jews just as it is for Muslims. In fact pigs are considered unclean and no good Jew would want to be defiled by contact with pigs.

I am telling you all of this because it is important to understanding this passage. Jesus Christ is the Jewish messiah. The long awaited holy one of Israel. Yet the Evangelist Luke takes the time to tell us that Jesus went out of His way to visit the Gadarenes, a place that is generally not inhabited by Jews. St. Luke is showing the reader that Christ will be the savior not only of the Jews, but also of the gentiles (the non-Jews). Christ is the savior not only of the clean, but of the unclean. St. Luke is reminding us that Christ is the anointed one for all people. His ministry will extend to all people in due time, although at this present time in the gospels it is focused mostly on Jews.

We are told that as Jesus entered that region He took notice of a man who was possessed by demons. He wore no clothes and he lived among the tombs. He was like a beast. He was also like a dead man. He dwelt in the place that was comfortable for his soul, because his soul was near to death. But that legion of demons could not predict what would happen next and they could not withstand it. What was it that the demons could not withstand? The demons could not withstand the presence of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps this is a good place to begin thinking about how one becomes possessed or strongly influenced by demons and the demonic. The demonic cannot stand the presence of Jesus Christ. So a Christian who actively lives as a Christian will repel them without even thinking about it. If a man, woman or child lives an active life of prayer, always calling upon the name of Christ. If they actively study the Scriptures and especially the gospels. If they read the lives of the friends of Christ, the saints. If they actively worship in the body of Christ, the Church. If they actively receive the sacraments of Christ, especially the Eucharist, then their very being is infused with Christ and repels the demonic. A Christian who is struggling to grow in Christ will become like a spiritual fire to the demons.

Likewise, the opposite is true. If one begins to skip the divine liturgy and deprives themselves of holy communion. If one neglects to pray and read but instead focuses their curiosity on things that are godless or strange. If one chooses to live on a path that is contrary to the commandments and teaching of Christ, then all of these choices build a foundation that invites the demons to influence us, to dwell within us, to become our friends….although in truth they have no friends, only those who serve them like slaves.

In addition, there are some specific practices that one should take care to avoid in order to keep oneself free from demonic influence and oppression. Among these is tarot card reading. It is not a fun and entertaining game. It is harmful both to try to read others fortunes but also to allow someone to read your fortune or read your cards. When a Christian accepts these practices, they are inviting and welcoming foreign spirits to be a part of our lives. And they gladly accept the invitation. In addition one should stay away from ouji boards. They are not a game. I would also be negligent if I didn’t mention drug use. Some drugs don’t merely give a physical high. Some drugs likely open us up to greater demonic influence. St. Paul says “be sober-minded”.

There are a couple of other practices that Christians should avoid in order to protect themselves from demonic influence. One is meditation. Christians don’t meditate, at least not in the eastern religious sense. We don’t empty our minds. An empty mind is easily filled and confused. We fill our minds and hearts with Christ and the things of God. It may surprise you to know that in some of the recent studies about meditation it was observed that those who meditated actually became more depressed, anxious and even had a greater increase in psychosis. Meditation is not prayer. It is quite the opposite.

Finally since the season is upon us let me also mention witchcraft. There is a commonly repeated sentiment that not all witchcraft is bad. Some say that there is white magic. To be kind, I can only say that this is utter stupidity. According to the teaching of Holy Scripture and the Fathers of the Church this is a downright lie. We cannot manipulate the world around us through the use of spiritual forces. Often when someone starts on this path they find that in the beginning things go well for them. But over time a darkness takes hold and they can’t shake it at all. The demons lure us in and then once they have access to us, they enslave us. Christians have access to the truly good spiritual force, the Holy Spirit and this belongs to God and is given only by God’s grace.

Jesus Christ became a man out of His extreme love for mankind, for His creation. He became a man to liberate us from sin, from the demonic and from death itself. If you are free in Christ, then you are truly free. We are forgiven in Christ. We are brought back to life in Christ. So even the one who finds himself living among the dead, like this demon possesses man, still has a chance through the grace of God. This man was saved by God’s love. Our Lord showed mercy on Him and as He breathed into dust in order to give man life at the beginning, He came to this man to give him life.

Likewise the Holy Spirit will breathe new life into the one who repents and struggles to be in the presence of Christ and to be filled with Christ’s presence in His life. Whoever follows this path will never go away empty handed but will be given amazing treasures. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Good Soil or Useless Dirt?

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

Today’s gospel reading is a familiar one, or should be familiar to us. All of the teachings of the gospels should be near and dear to us. We should know them. They should be as close to us as our nearest breath. They are the blood that runs through the veins of someone who calls himself a Christian. If we had just a small realization of what Our Lord Jesus Christ offers us in the gospels, we would gladly leave everything else behind to devote ourselves to studying the words of our Lord. We look to self help books and musical lyrics and personality tests and the opinions and tweets of celebrities but these are all like fools gold for a Christian. There is a reason why the gospel book is wrapped in gold plating. It symbolizes the precious value of the words and deeds of our Lord Jesus Christ as they have been revealed to us.

And this is exactly the point of the parable we heard today. It is about how precious the words of the Lord are to each one of us. The Lord tells us about the sower who was throwing seeds everywhere in the hopes of a good harvest. He then tells us that the seed is the word of God. If the seed is the word of God then of course the ultimate sower or planter of that seed is the Lord Himself. His goal is to spread the seed of His word all over the face of the earth. The face of the earth is the heart of each human. The Lord is hungry for us. He wants to reach us, to touch our hearts.

We are told by Our Lord Jesus that as the seed is thrown, some of the seed lands in different types of soil. By this He indicates to us that the soil of people’s hearts can differ. Just like real soil. Not all soil is good for bringing forth a harvest. Likewise, not all hearts are equal in their quality. What is the criteria for the quality of the soil of our hearts? Our ability to hold on to the seeds given to us by God and to nurture them to maturity.

In some ways it is of little consequence what type of Christian you are today. It is of great consequence what type of Christian you will be a year from now, ten years from now, 50 years from now. We know the seed that we have each been given is of impeccable and unmatched quality. But are we able to hold and protect and nurture and bring those seeds to life in our lives? That’s the question. What type of Christian will you be in the future? What type of Christian will you be at the end of your life? Will you even be a Christian at the end of your life? What type of soil will the Lord discover when He judges our hearts and our deeds at the great and final judgment?

It is always such a joy to see the young kids going to Sunday school and doing their arts and crafts and learning their Bible stories. The seeds are planted when they are young. They are full of joy about the things of God. But what happens to them as they grow? As a priest for nearly two decades I have seen them grow and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some grow into maturity in their Christian faith. I’ve experienced the sadness of seeing some who had great potential become virtually indistinguishable from the people of the world around them. If it is a sadness for us, imagine the Lord’s sadness to see His children lost and confused and scattered. What causes the different outcomes? Why do some shine like the stars in their love for God while others lives are a mess? It comes back to the heart.

If my heart is consumed and filled with the things of the world, its possessions, its thinking, its desires, its darkness, then this chokes out the desire for God. Instead of nurturing the word of God that resides within us, we end up nurturing the darkness and neglecting the good seed.

When we read the gospels we are regularly confronted with the challenge to discern our lives and our actions and to see whether we are on the right path, the narrow path, the path of light. We look at our daily activities and ask ourselves “Do these choices I make glorify God and demonstrate that I am living the gospel in my own life?” (Not my version or portions of the gospel, but the actual gospel of Christ). Do the things that I watch and read and listen to and aspire to inflame my love for God or do they inflame my desires for the world and the life of sin? Does my life glorify God?

St. Gregory of Sinai writes, “People who have received grace are as if impregnated and with child by the Holy Spirit; but they may abort the divine seed through sinning, or divorce themselves from God through intercourse with the enemy lurking within them. It is the turbulence of the passions that aborts grace, while the act of sinning deprives us of it altogether.”

Only one type of seed deserves my attention and focus. Only one should be nurtured to maturity. Only one can bring me back to life and make me truly human. So we ask God to help us nurture good thoughts, good words, good deeds and everything that reflects His presence within us. In the spiritual life we take one step towards Christ and He is delighted and in His mercy and love towards us, He provides the grace to assist us in the struggle to take another thousand steps towards Him, to make Him our priority and the focus of our life for He is the way, the truth and the life. Amen.

Source: Sermons

What Does It Mean To Carry The Cross?

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

Today we hear familiar but difficult words. Our Lord Jesus Christ says “If any man would come after Me,” I suppose this is a good place for us to begin. Do we want to go after Jesus? Do we want to follow Him? Perhaps if we’re honest, we think that following Jesus Christ will be too hard. Perhaps we think it will be boring. Perhaps we might think that it will not be easy and will not be any fun. Perhaps we are even more honest with ourselves and we say “I want to live for myself and my own pleasures and desires, I have no time for Jesus Christ.” It doesn’t quite matter what reason we come up with. One way or another we are put into a situation that requires us to decide if we truly want to follow Christ, to go after Him.

If we do agree to follow after Christ then we move on to the next part of the Lord’s teaching “If any man would follow after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” On this subject St. Nikolai Velimirovich said,

“What does it mean to take up your cross? I means the willing acceptance, at the hand of Providence, of every means of healing, bitter though it may be, that is offered. Do great catastrophes fall on you? Be obedient to God’s will, as Noah was. Is sacrifice demanded of you? Give yourself into God’s hands with the same faith as Abram had when he went to sacrifice his son. Is your property ruined? Do your children die suddenly? Suffer it all with patience, cleaving to God in your heart, as Job did. Do your friends forsake you, and you find yourself surrounded by enemies? Bear it all without grumbling, and with faith that God’s help is at hand, as the apostles did.” -Homilies, Vol. 1

So St. Nikolai likens carrying your cross with accepting whatever hardships, pains, difficulties and awful situations that may come into your life. Somehow, he says, these will be used for your healing as the children of God. We know that God hates to see His children suffer. He hates to see us unwell. So He allows many difficulties to give us the opportunity to grow more fully into His image and likeness. To be fully healed sons and daughters.

I believe that another significant aspect to this reading is that the Lord Jesus expects us to carry heavy burdens including some of the aspects of our life that might seem rather unpleasant but are clearly and definitively part of His will for our lives, such as unflinching obedience to His commandments, even when it will cause us difficulties or even some suffering. To carry the cross in my life may be to struggle with temptations and desires. It might be to continue along a path because we know that it is the right path, the moral and just path even though internally it seems like slow death and is very unfulfilling. Yet we know that it is God’s will for our lives because it is in accordance with His teachings and because this path will ultimately serve others instead of being self-serving. It will bring life to others.

Do you think that the Lord felt joy upon the cross? Do you think it was easy to carry the cross? Hardly. But the hymn of the Church says “through the cross is joy come into the world.” Through His pain and suffering, selflessly, on our behalf, He grabbed hold of true joy that He desires to share with us and with the world.

So St. Isaac the Syrian writes for our encouragement saying, Do you not wish to follow the steps of the saints? Or do you wish to go a way which is especially for you, without suffering? The way unto God is a daily cross. No one can ascend unto heaven with comfort, we know where the way of comfort leads.” –Mystic Treatises, Homily LIX

Your soul is precious to Christ. Don’t trade it away for anything less than Jesus Christ and His treasures. These are the rewards that are ours if we carry our crosses with courage. The door to the kingdom has been opened by Our Lord Jesus Christ through the key of the Cross. And the identification that is required of us to enter that place is to show that we are likewise carrying our crosses to the very end. So that they may be planted next to the throne of Christ and take root and bloom and bear fruits of joy and life together with the saints. Glory be to God Forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Ultimate Weapon

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

On Thursday morning we will celebrate the feast of the elevation of the cross. This is a special day when we commemorate the finding of the true cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by the Empress St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. The Church prepares us for the celebration of this feast with special epistle and gospel readings in the week the precedes the feast. Today’s gospel passage is one of those readings.

The Lord Jesus Christ begins this passage with a statement about something that His average hearers would have known very well. He starts out saying “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness..” What is he referring to here? This is actually a reference to one of the stories from the book of Numbers chapter 21. In this chapter we read the following:

“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9So Moses made a bronzed serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”

This may seem rather strange to our modern ears. All that was necessary for the people to do once they had been bitten by the deadly serpents was to look to the bronze serpent that the Lord commanded Moses to make. If they did this, they would be healed and they would live. We should be rather amazed and possibly frightened by such words because they remind us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways.

Now in today’s gospel reading we see that Our Lord Jesus says something rather remarkable. He likens himself to the bronze serpent saying, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is really quite amazing. Our Lord Jesus Christ is telling us that He will become like the bronze serpent for the whole world. He will be the antidote and the remedy to the deadly serpent who threatens the whole world and who threatens our lives.

And how will this happen? God has a plan for His people. His plan involved His only begotten Son, the wood of the cross and death. The most important symbol in our lives is the cross and this cross of the crucified Lord is our hope and our strength in the midst of difficulties. This cross of the Lord is our light in the darkest times of our life. The cross led to the Lord’s death, but it has become our life through that death. When someone is struggling with his sins, when he is struggling with every aspect of his life, it is by looking to the cross of Christ that he receives new strength and is renewed in his hope. The cross of Christ gives the potential for new life to everyone on earth. In fact it is God’s desire to share His life with everyone possible. We receive this unending gift of life by constantly fixing our gaze on Christ crucified. We hold on to this life by often meditating on the love that God has demonstrated through the cross. We bless everything in our life by making the sign of the cross.

First we bless ourselves. When should we do this? When you wake up in the middle of the night or you are having trouble sleeping. When you first arise. When you lay down to sleep at night. Before you travel by car or by plane. Before you eat or drink. Before you study or take on a project. Whenever you feel temptations are beginning to overtake you. When you are tempted with thoughts of anger or jealousy or lust or pride. These are just some of the times when you can make the sign of the cross. In addition we should wear crosses and we shouldn’t be ashamed of being identified as a Christian. In fact we should be quite ashamed if we blend in perfectly with everyone around us. That is a warning sign. Don’t be a chameleon. Be who you were meant to be by embracing the cross of Christ and all that it entails.

We live the life of the cross. We think about what Christ has done on the cross. We look to the cross to help us through the many struggles of this life. So with our life centered on the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, His life is imprinted upon us. Our fear of death is removed. The poison of our sins is removed. We are free to live with Christ and we are free to live in Christ. We can look to the icon of Christ and pray “Lord, you suffered so much for me and for the entire world to be saved, help me to be victorious over the things that tempt me and to find my life in you.”

I will leave you with a quote from St. John Chrysostom who said,

When, then, you make the sign of the cross on the forehead, arm yourself with a saintly boldness, and reinstall your soul in its old liberty; for you are not ignorant that the cross is a prize beyond all price. Consider what is the price given for your ransom, and you will never more be slave to any man on earth. This reward and ransom is the cross. You should not then, carelessly make the sign on the forehead, but you should impress it on your heart with the love of a fervent faith. Nothing impure will dare to molest you on seeing the weapon, which overcometh all things.”

May this weapon give us boldness and a path to life. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

He Is Our Inheritance

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (21:33-42)

Our reading today is an interesting one because it is toward the end of the gospel of Matthew as our Lord has just entered into Jerusalem and is preparing for His saving passion and crucifixion. We may wonder why this reading would be appointed for this day? I can’t give you a scholarly or definitive answer but I would suggest that this is given to us as a precursor to one of the upcoming feasts which is the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, which we celebrate on September 14th.

The Church in her wisdom is always and constantly looking for ways to teach us, her children. Today we learn through this parable about the patience of God and the plotting of those who are evil. We are told of a householder, a man who owned land and had servants. This particular land also had a vineyard and a winepress on the property. This man, the master of the property rented it to tenants to watch over the affairs of the farm while we travelled to distant places. Most likely there was this arrangement where they would get a free place to stay and in return, they would work the land and perhaps even take a share of the produce.

So this man leaves town and find men that he thinks will be good tenants. And when the season of fruit drew near, this master sent one of his servants to the farm to get his share of the produce, or the fruit. But something very unexpected happened. The tenants did not welcome the servants of the master. In fact, just the opposite, they were angry and they abused and mistreated the servants. We are told that they “beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” That is really awful isn’t it? Well, what’s worse is that the master couldn’t believe it so he sent another delegation of servants. I’m sure that he hoped for a different response but it didn’t happen. In fact it was worse because the master sent more servants the second time. Finally, the master decided that he had to take this matter more seriously so he sent his true representative, his son. He said to himself “They will respect my son.”

Upon his arrival, the tenants saw the son and said to themselves “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.” And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and in the greatest horror of all, they killed him.

This whole story, this parable, is taught to the people by Our Lord Jesus Christ with only one purpose. To show the people the history of God’s dealings with His people and their history of dealing with Him. The servants whom the Master sends are His prophets, both the minor and the major prophets. Most of whom were treated very poorly and sometimes were even killed by the Jewish people and especially the religious leaders. Why? Because they came demanding to receive the fruit that was due to God. They as God’s representatives desired to see the good fruit of the harvest? But what harvest? Grapes, wine, wheat, olives? No. God is concerned with the fruit of righteousness. He is concerned with the wine of holiness. He sent the prophets to the people to help them correct their lives and to truly put nothing before the love of God. But a curious thing happened and this same curious phenomenon continues to happened whenever one attempts to teach the truth or to make straight what is crooked within people’s lives. Many people rebel even further and become defiant in their will. They double down on their life choices and begin to attack those who are sent to help them, as we so clearly see in the case of this parable.

But the treachery did not end there. Not only did the Jewish people abuse and mistreat and kill some of the prophets, they took their treason to the extreme by condemning, abusing and delivering up God’s beloved, precious and innocent Son, like a lamb to the slaughter. Do you know how a father loves his son? Can you imagine it? Can we imagine how God loves His only Son Jesus? With a love more powerful than any force on earth. Yet in His overwhelming and abundant love for us He sent His Son to His rebellious people in the hopes that He would reach some of them and change some of them and bring some of them out of darkness and into glorious light.

It should awe us that the Lord shares this parable during the week in which He is going to be betrayed and killed. He knew. He saw it all as if in a picture book that He had already flipped through. He knew. Although He knew, He did not run, He did not hide, He did not change. He maintained the course. He was brave, He was courageous, He was focused on His task. What was that task? To teach the truth and to be sacrificed for us.

The leaders thought to reject Him and ensnare Him and convict Him and ultimately to kill Him. They thought they would gain everything by doing so. But the words of the prophet were fulfilled, “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” They rejected Him and betrayed the one that they should have loved above all others, but their betrayal became a cause for joy to the whole world, to all those who know and love and follow after Jesus Christ as their lord and master. And what was achieved through this rejection and betrayal by the leaders?

St. Theophan the recluse writes, “The Lord accomplished our salvation by His death on the Cross; on the Cross He tore up the handwriting of our sins; through the Cross He brought upon us grace-filled gifts and all heavenly blessings.” My dear ones let’s not get distracted with all the stuff and the noise of this world. Let’s not reject Christ and his way of life and His teachings as some did. Let’s chase after the head cornerstone, the One who loves us dearly, for He alone can share true life with us. He alone can give us an imperishable inheritance, and this is indeed marvelous in our eyes.

Source: Sermons

Celebrating Pascha Daily

The Reading from the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. (15:1-11) and the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (19:16-26)

In today’s epistle, the beloved apostle Paul reminds the people of the Corinthian church about the faith that he delivered to them and the foundation of that faith. He tells them that this is the faith that they received, the faith in which they stand currently and the faith by which they will be saved and then he adds a qualifier “if you hold it fast”. What does this phrase “if you hold it fast” mean? It means that we must cling to this thing tightly. We must continue in this path and with this belief perpetually, until the last day of our life.

Now what is the content of this faith that St. Paul delivered to the people at Corinth? He says “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He rose on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”

This is the content and the foundation of what St. Paul brought to the people to whom he preached. The content of his preaching was very simple “Jesus is the Christ, the anointed holy one of Israel, He is the Only Son of God and He was crucified and buried and rose again from the dead on the Third day for our salvation.” This was, is and ever shall be the content of the Christian preaching. All of our Christian faith rests on the pillars of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ. So above all else it is important to emphasize that these are non-negotiable doctrines. Once I met with a lady who told me that she believed that the resurrection of Christ was a spiritual resurrection. I continued to press her for details in order to make sure that I understood her clearly. She clarified that she did not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. The problem is that someone had received her into the Church and she was partaking of sacraments as well. She was numbered among the Orthodox Christian faithful but she was not one of us. She denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lord have mercy.

These two events, along with the incarnation, are the heart of the Christian preaching. St. Paul continues writing to the church at Corinth with hard facts. In our day and age data is everything. Listen to his data,

“and that He (Jesus Christ) appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the Apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me. For I am the least of the Apostles, unfit to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

None of this is complicated. It isn’t philosophical word games. It isn’t spiritual and metaphysical jargon. St. Paul tells us that Jesus physically rose from the dead and then he goes one step further and documents a number of instances where he and others were eyewitnesses and beheld the risen Lord Jesus. The experience of seeing the risen Lord, of speaking with Him, of spending time with Him, was so powerful that it completely changed the trajectory of the lives of each of the apostles and disciples. It was the moment when they saw through the matrix of life and understood everything with fresh eyes. They finally understood that Christ is life. They finally understood that life in Christ is the only true life. They understood that life outside of Christ isn’t merely a different version of life, it becomes death.

What does life in Christ consist of? Well, that is the point of today’s gospel reading. The rich young man asks what he must do to have eternal life and the answer of the Lord is “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” We quickly understand that he is speaking of the ten commandments, the law of God. The law of God. It isn’t a game. It isn’t subject to your daily emotions or your fickle feelings. When God says “You shall not!” It isn’t a suggestion. He loves us. He wants to see us filled with life. He doesn’t want to see us unite ourselves and marry ourselves to sin and death. The Lord pushes the young man so far that the man shares his inner thoughts and thereby reveals his hidden sin. The young man says that he kept all of the commandments since his youth. So the Lord sees through this and finds what matters the most. He says to the young man “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.”

One can only imagine the joy we would have in our hearts if the Lord Jesus invited us to follow Him. What amazing things we would witness! Yet this young man was filled with sorrow and went away sadly for he had great possessions. And we might be right in saying that this man’s possessions and in fact possessed his heart. That is the crux of the matter here. God has to possess your hearts. God has to overwhelm your hearts. God has to dwell in your hearts and minds and lives, through living His teachings, through prayer, through study, through loving others, through our participation in the life of the body of Christ, which is the Church. These are all avenues by which we invite God to overtake our lives. He takes away our old, tired and broken lives and he gladly replaces them with life that cannot be overtaken or defeated by any trial or tribulation or anything invented by the forces of darkness.

We know this because the one who taught us these things is He who rose from the dead and trampled down death by His death. We know this because the disciples were overtaken by this news and it forever changed their lives. They gladly sacrificed their earthly lives to bring us true life in Christ. So these are the things that we cling to in our lives so that He will truly become our life.

I want to leave with the words of St. Leo the great of Rome who wrote,

Let God’s people then recognize that they are a new creation in Christ, and with all vigilance understand by Whom they have been adopted and Whom they have adopted. These thoughts, dearly beloved, must be kept in mind not only for the Paschal festival, but also for the sanctification of the whole life….celebration of the Resurrection must be a daily celebration for those who put their hope in God. This hope gives us joy in our daily lives. Our daily lives lead us to eternal life. Eternal life is bestowed on us by him who said: “I am now going to open your graves and raise you from your graves, my people. And I shall put My spirit in you, and you will live…” Homily 71: On the Lord’s Resurrection, Great and Holy Saturday

May this life and this salvation indeed be ours! AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Sign That We Love

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (18:23-35)

When I hear these gospel passages I’m constantly in awe of God’s love and provision for His people. I am in awe of the way that the Lord Jesus Christ leaves nothing to chance in our spiritual life especially in His teachings. He teaches us and makes it clear that what He is teaching us is a glimpse, a foretaste, a preview of something heavenly. What would we give to know what heaven is like? What would we pay to have a small glimpse into the kingdom? Yet here laid right before our feet is the gospel, the good news of the victory of God. In the course of sharing this good news with us, His people, the Lord gives us insight into the heavenly realm and what is required of us in order that we might be with Him in this reality.

Today the Lord tells us that “the kingdom may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” It is a familiar story. One servant owed lots of money to his master and he begged for mercy and the king took pity on him. He had mercy on him and forgave the debt completely. And as this servant who was forgiven was on his way back to his own home, he came across one of his own servants who owed him a very small, trivial amount of money. And how did he respond? He became terribly aggressive and demanding with his servant. He showed him no mercy but only cruelty and anger. He threw him into prison until the debt was satisfied.

But what does this story have to do with us? How does this relate to us and to the kingdom of heaven? Our Lord Jesus tells us that the king is a symbol of God. We each owe a great debt to God. It is a debt that you could never repay even if you had all of the money in the world. In fact we know that our debts with God were forgiven and completely wiped away. But which debts am I speaking of? The debt caused by our sins. Humanity carried a great spiritual debt. We were imprisoned and enslaved by our sins. We were held in bondage by death. We had no way out. Yet we were found by Christ the merciful lover of mankind. He paid the ransom for us with His own life, His own blood. He freed us and He forgave us.

Many of you have experienced a deep sense of the generous mercy of God’s forgiveness in your own lives. You have had moments when your own sins weighed heavily, tangibly on you. Some of you experience it quite often through the sacrament of confession. All of this is given freely as a sign of God’s love through His Son Jesus. The Lord in His mercy forgave us and then in the greatest scandal of all, He raised us up to Him. He made us who are His creation and were formed from the dust of the earth to be higher than the angels.

So the Lord freely, generously and completely poured out all of this forgiveness for us. As we acknowledge this fact we are then forced to look in the mirror and to ask ourselves if we have shown a similar level of mercy and forgiveness on all of the people in our lives. Fr. Alexander Schmemann once wrote, To forgive is to put between me and my “enemy” the radiant forgiveness of God himself. To forgive is to reject the hopeless “dead-ends” of human relations and to refer them to Christ. Forgiveness is truly a “breakthrough” of the Kingdom into this sinful world. (Great Lent, p 28)

Some of the people in our lives have done us wrong. Spouses, parents, children, friends, co-workers, members of our church family. Humanly speaking it is quite possible to end up in situations where you hurt others knowingly or unknowingly or where they hurt you knowingly or unknowingly. The pain can be real when others do us wrong, this is especially true when they are people who might be close to us.

How do we respond in our own lives? How do we respond in our hearts? Do we harbor lots of ill will towards the people who have hurt us? It feels natural to do so, but God is calling us to something higher, to be like Him, to love with supernatural love. Whatever it is that others have done to us, no matter how awful it may be, we are called, as children of God to be more. We are called to forgive because Christ has demonstrated this for each of us. We shouldn’t put people in the prison of our angry and resentful hearts, because Christ has completely freed each of us. We are called to open the kingdom to the world around us.

Even when others have hurt us or done us wrong, we have the ability to pray for them and to ask God to help them and bless them. In our day that might be seen as weakness but the reality is that what seems to be our weakness is transformed into our strength. This is a biblical principle that applies first and foremost to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The cross makes one appear helpless, weak and insufficient. It makes one appear cursed and punished and finally dead. Yet, in the case of our Lord, He turned the cross on it’s head to make it the ultimate sign of strength and victory and life.

How important is it that we learn to forgive others? It is everything. Our daily prayer to God the Father, which was taught to us by His only begotten son Jesus reminds us of this each time we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespassed against us.” The sign of our acceptance and understanding of what God has done for us is found in our ability to freely forgive those who have hurt us. St. Mark the Ascetic writes, “The sign of sincere love is to forgive wrongs done to us. It was with such love that the Lord loved the world.”

Source: Sermons