Be Dedicated

The Reading from the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. (6:16-7:1)

In our day to day lives it is easy to live as if God is not really around. We sometimes imagine that God is floating somewhere “up there” while He leaves us to our business down here. Fr. Stephen Freeman refers to this as the two storey model. God is upstairs and we are downstairs. However that is not a classical Christian or Orthodox Christian understanding. This mindset however does exist among Christians. And if it exists among Christians it exists much more among non-Christians and the non-religious. There is a secularized worldview that believes that what you do at home with your faith and religion is one thing, but in the public eye, everything should be stripped of religious meaning and symbolism. This should be a problem for us as Christians. It should raise red flags. Why?

Because you as an individual are not two persons. You are one person and when that one person is baptized that whole person then belongs to Christ. St. Paul writes in today’s epistle that “you are the temple of the living God.” When there is a temple it cannot have multiple uses and purposes. It is completely dedicated to worship of God and to no other purpose. St. Paul goes even further as he quotes from Leviticus 26:12Jeremiah 32:38Ezekiel 37:27 saying “as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore, come out from them, and be separate from them,” says the Lord.”

What an amazing God we worship and serve! He doesn’t dwell above us, or below us or in special handmade containers or sculptures or pieces made of Gold. He dwells with us and in us. He moves in our midst, in the very fabric of our lives. He lives in our hearts and we even partake of Him each week when we meet together. And since God is so so close to us, and wants to be even closer to each of us, He commands us to actually really desire to be pure and holy and uncompromised. He is serious about making us His sons and daughters, making us like His Only Son Jesus, and so we must be serious about desiring to be like Jesus as well. We must be serious about being separate from the world and touching nothing unclean so that we won’t be infected by sin and lose the blessings that are ours through baptism.

What does it look like to “come out from them, and be separate from them”? It looks much like it sounds. We have to create a healthy physical distance and also distance our senses from whatever doesn’t serve or please God. So many things are in the world that don’t serve or please God. It might be technology that we use. It might be co-workers or classmates who don’t share our Christian values and morality. It may be people who live an awful and toxic lifestyle. Whatever the case may be, we love and serve all people but we have to create some healthy distance and make sure that our time with others is ultimately time that glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ and doesn’t slowly erode our own faith and zeal for Christ. This is especially true the younger and less experienced we are in our faith. We are susceptible to many problems because our spiritual immune system hasn’t been properly developed yet. But sometimes we are Christians for a long time and yet we can fall through comfort and complacency, so everyone has to keep up their guard. Everyone has to work and everyone has to suffer a bit in order to come to knowledge of God. In a way, we are required to enter into the rejection that Christ Himself faced from the world.

St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco said “All righteous ones were sorrowful in the world because they were strangers to the sinful world. All of the apostles suffered in one way or another. Righteous men left for the desert. What made them Saints? Suffering? Not suffering alone makes Saints, but striving towards God, the love of God, and the labor of overcoming obstacles to holiness, which is the fruit of man’s labour and the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

My brothers and sisters, God has given us a promise. He is in our presence. He wants to share everything that is His, with us. He wants us to be sharers and partakers of the divine life just like the saints and holy ones throughout the ages. Let’s take it seriously and pursue this goal. No matter how much we progress in this goal, we should remember that our progress happens only by God’s grace and we shouldn’t be proud about our status.

St. John Cassian writes, “When we have attained some degree of holiness we should always repeat to ourselves the words of the Apostle: “Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me’ (1 Cor. 15:10), as well as what was said by the Lord: ‘Without Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). We should also bear in mind what the prophet said: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it’ (Ps. 127:1), and finally: ‘It does not depend on-man’s will or effort, but on God’s mercy’ (Rom. 9:16).”

May the mercy of our great God and savior Jesus Christ give us courage and assist us as we struggle together towards this wonderful promise.

Source: Sermons

Exchanging Eagerness For Salvation

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

Today we once again have the privilege and honor of encountering a short man with a big heart. We are once again encountered by the example of the man named Zacchaeus. He is a man who had every excuse to neglect his spiritual life and to continue to live his life on his terms. He could have blamed the crowds or his lack of height. He could have blamed his job as a tax collector. He could have claimed he was busy, as people so often do. But in this moment in history, we see instead the example of a man who actively grabs hold of the kingdom itself! In this moment, a man is harnessing all of his energies and focus on the one needful thing. He is demonstrating to us what it means to seek God and what it means to truly repent.

Through such examples within the pages of holy scripture we are reminded that there is always a way to pursue whatever we set our minds and our hearts to pursue. No one can change this part of us. People can influence you, but no one can force you to set your mind and heart on God and on His kingdom and on His Son Jesus Christ. No one can make these things a priority in your life. One day you have to choose to make the things of God a priority for you. And as we all know, there will always be excuses not to do so. We can say that we are busy with our lives, with work, with social outings, with friends, with school, with movies and games, with yard work, with house work, with preparing meals. Yet Zacchaeus offers us a gentle rebuke.

Oh Zacchaeus, man of God. While the world thirsted for riches, you chased after the riches of the kingdom. While the world attended to their lives, you pursued the One who alone gives true life.

Sometimes we say that we are serious about God. But Zacchaeus went further. He proved it. How did he do this? First he proved it through a relentless desire to see Christ as He was walking by that day. His desire could not be quenched by any alternative to seeing Our Lord Jesus. So when there were no options left, and the crowds were too big, he did what any sane grown up would do, he climbed up a tree! The Lord who knows the hearts of men, recognized Zacchaeus as a man who deeply desired to know Him and to change his life. St. Theophylact writes, “In return only for showing eagerness to see Jesus he receives salvation. He desired to see Jesus, which is why he climbed up into the sycamore tree, but before he had caught sight of Jesus, the Lord had already seen him. In the same manner, the Lord always anticipates us if only He sees that we are willing and eager.”

Our Lord recognizes us by the condition of our hearts. Sometimes our hearts make us strangers and aliens to God and to a holy way of life. Especially when we are prideful and sinful. But sometimes, our hearts are humble and open to Christ and He sees us as hungry for truth and holiness and purity and righteousness. In the prophet Isaiah it is written, “Upon whom shall I look, if not upon him who is humble and meek, who trembles at My words?(Is. 66:2)” He alone is able to see these needs within us and to provide according to His wisdom and goodness. When our heart seeks God truly, God will look at us and say “Make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” The place where Christ desires to dwell is within our hearts and minds.

Zacchaeus made haste and went down to host the Lord Jesus in his home. Yet that wasn’t enough. Zacchaeus went further in proving that he was serious about God. He repented publicly and he attempted to go so far as to repay anyone that he had defrauded or injured through his shady and dishonest dealings as a tax collector. It wasn’t enough to say “sorry.” He lived his apology. He set out to make things right with man in order that he would truly make things right with God. Have we as Christians demonstrated such love and devotion to God in our own lives? Have we repented in a way that shows that we are serious? Have we gone out of our way to make things right with those that we might have wronged or hurt in the past? These actions not only help us grow in virtue but they are seeds for the growth of those that we might have hurt or wronged. When someone sees us taking responsibility for our sins and failings they might begin to think seriously of how our encounter with God began to change our life. They might see and even desire such change for themselves.

Most of all, the Lord Himself will see that we have changed just as the changes within this man Zacchaeus continued because he truly desired to know Christ at a deeper level.

St. Nikolai of Zicha writing about this passage says,

“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. Behold, He did not arbitrarily enter the house of the sinner Zacchaeus, rather He entered as a most desired guest. Zacchaeus of little stature climbed into a tree in order to see the Lord Jesus with his own eyes. Zacchaeus, therefore, sought him; Zacchaeus desired Him. We must also seek Him in order to find Him and desire Him in order that He would draw nearer to us and, with our spirit, to climb high in order to encounter His glance. Then He will visit our house as He visited the house of Zacchaeus and with Him salvation will come…”

St. Nikolai ends with this prayer “Draw near to us O Lord, draw near and bring to us Your eternal salvation. To You be glory and thanks always. Amen.” AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Giving Thanks

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

Today we heard the gospel story of the ten lepers. Ten men who were very sick with leprosy. As many of you know, leprosy was considered something like a death sentence in ancient times. Lepers were forced to live away from their families, friends and loved ones so as not to make others sick or impure according to the law.

As the ten lepers approached Our Lord Jesus Christ they cried out to Him. We are told that they “lifted up their voices” to Him and said “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” At this request the Lord responded and told them to show themselves to the priests and as they walked away, they were healed. My brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ loves us so much more than we can possibly imagine. This prayer that the lepers cried out is the foundation for all of our prayers as faithful children of God. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” It sounds almost like another prayer that we commonly pray during all of our services, “Lord have mercy!” It also sounds nearly identical to the Jesus prayer that is said by the faithful all over the world, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, the sinner.”

Now what St. Luke the Evangelist is telling us is that Jesus will hear us whenever we call to Him from our whole heart. Do we cry out to Him from our whole heart? That is what it means to be Christians. Christians are those who have a deep relationship with God written on their hearts through a life of prayer. We also couple this life of prayer with a prayerful life. These two work together in harmony. Whatever you face in your life, whatever struggle you go through, you can be certain that the very moment that you call out to the Lord Jesus from the depths of your heart, He is present and hears you. Yet, the beauty of our life is that we should never stop calling out to Him. We should never stop searching for Him even when things are “going well.” St. Paul refers to this when he says that we should “pray without ceasing.” This simple Jesus prayer or some similar prayer is key to growing in your prayer life. He listened to the lepers and the Lord will also come to heal the leprosy of our souls.

Yet as the men went away and were cleansed and healed they continued rejoicing. They celebrated wildly. It was if the death sentence had been commuted. It was if they were resurrected from the grave. I can only imagine how they felt as they saw their skin healing before their very eyes and they ran with joy they hadn’t experienced in quite some time. I can imagine this and I can see myself as one of these lepers. But one of them did something quite different than the rest. Instead of running towards home, he ran back towards the One who had blessed him with a chance to return home. Instead of celebrating the miracle, he returned to honor and thank the miracle worker. He had a different kind of joy in his heart. It was a joy that wouldn’t be true and real without first acknowledging that it was Christ who had made all of this happen for him. And yet there was more. We are now told the icing on the cake…the man who returned to give thanks wasn’t a faithful Jew but a Samaritan. Wow. Our Lord was truly amazed. This foreigner returned to give thanks and glory to God, while all of those Jews who supposedly knew God truly, didn’t so much as turn around.

We are reminded here that the Lord always planned to save the gentiles, the non-Jewish people. And this was another sign that the gentiles would indeed come to true faith and would love and serve Christ.

This reading is also a reminder that each one of us should live a life of thanksgiving. Jesus Christ has blessed us with so much. He’s given us abundance both physical and spiritual. He has forgiven our sins and comforted us. He has give us medicines and healed us. He has loved us beyond all measure or comprehension.

As we contemplate all of the things that we are thankful for I want to share something for which I’m thankful. On Tuesday we will celebrate 7 years since the start of this church. I cannot help but remember that first liturgy on Sunday January 17th. We were squished together in the clubhouse at the old golf course and as we started to pray the divine liturgy we were treated to a rare and beautiful light snowfall. For me, every day since that first day has been just as beautiful and just as glorious as that day. But the real beauty and miracle is to see you all come together as a close knit family in Christ. We started this church with liturgy and for us the liturgy brings us together and it renews us and brings us joy. The liturgy and all of the prayers and services of the church offer us comfort and grace and healing. So we thank the Lord Jesus Christ that He allowed this church to be planted and to thrive and grow and that He allows us to serve the services here for the glory of God and for the salvation of our souls.

I know that many of you were not here when we first started praying together. It doesn’t matter. You are here now. Let us show our gratitude to God and to one another by supporting and loving one another and never ever taking the church and her services for granted. The services, and especially the divine liturgy, give us life as Christians. So let us show our thanks to the Holy Trinity through our faithfulness to this task that we share together, to grow in holiness and to love those around us with the love of Christ. To Him be the glory together with His Father and the Holy Spirit AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Difficult Path To Healing

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

Today we find ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, right at the beginning of His earthly ministry, His preaching of the good news. We are told by St. Matthew that a prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled during that time as the Lord entered Galilee in the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali. Isaiah prophesied about this event saying “The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

So as we prepare to hear the words of the Our Lord Jesus Christ, the great light who shines His light into the whole world. The light who enlightens us with His teachings which are light. We are astounded that the very first word of His ministry is this: Repent. Very often people will say that if you speak about repentance you are being negative or not focusing on the love of God, but this is not so according to the Lord. Repentance is the solid foundation upon which all of our spiritual lives must be built. And what does repentance mean? It means to turn around. To change your heart and mind. To look away from the direction you were headed, away from sin and rebelliousness and destruction and to reorient yourselves toward God and His ways and His life. The beginning of the good news is that you have a choice in the matter. You don’t have to stay on the path you have currently chosen. You can renounce your past ways and begin the process of rebuilding and reclaiming what is offered to you by the Lord.

St. Nikolai of Zicha writes that “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.”

+ St. Nikolai Velimirovic, “The Thirty-Second Sunday After Pentecost: The Gospel on Repentant Zacchaeus, Luke 19:1

We go through a difficult process when we commit to repentance. We have to face up to our shame. We have to face up to whatever is not good within us. Sometimes it’s our thoughts. Other times it is our words. Yet other times it is our actions. Some of the saints speak of this time of repentance as one where we hate ourselves, or rather, we hate the sins that have become a part of us. They are the part of us that is not worthy of loving. Although it is often painful, we face up to our shame and leave our sins behind and purify ourselves so that we can face up to Christ and cling to Him and His goodness rather than clinging to what is false and destructive. And just as our sins are washed away in baptism. We receive a spiritual washing when we repent fervently. St. Symeon the New Theologian writes,

“Through repentance the filth of our foul actions is washed away. After this, we participate in the Holy Spirit, not automatically, but according to the faith, humility and inner disposition of the repentance in which our soul is engaged. For this reason it is good to repent each day as the act of repentance is unending.”

— St. Symeon the New Theologian, Philokalia Volume 2

St. Symeon tells us that the act of repentance should happen not once or twice, but every single day! That is part of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. Don’t pretend to have it all figured out. Always assume that there is more work to be done within your own soul. When we believe this, we are inviting the Lord Jesus to participate in this mysterious work. And my brothers and sisters, He deeply desires to participate in this work. He loves us and desires our healing.

Through our life in the Church we also come to understand that part of the act of repentance is to come to the Church and the receive the medicine of confession. I want you to know that you should never be afraid to come to confession. Don’t be ashamed. Expose your shame so that you will be able to live faithfully and courageously. Know that as a priest I have no interest in judging you. A priest will actually think more of you because you came with courage and poured out your sins. And this act offers such a tremendous blessing to us. It renews our baptismal oath and the grace of the sacrament. It helps us to heal from our self-inflicted wounds.

Repentance is a difficult exercise yet it becomes a powerful gift. This is why it is the beginning of the gospel message, the foundation of everything that we do as children of God. Finally, St. Silouan encourages us with a beautiful word when he writes, “Glory be to the Lord that he gave us repentance. Through repentance we shall all, every one of us, be saved. Only those who refuse to repent will not find salvation, and therein I see their despair, and shed abundant tears of pity for them. They have not known through the Holy Spirit how great is God’s mercy. But if every soul knew the Lord, knew how deeply he loves us, no one would ever despair, or murmur against his lot.”

May we all come to know God’s great mercy as we strive to repent and become saints. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

A New Year “According to Christ”

The reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians. (2:8-12)

My brothers and sisters, the grace of God has brought us to a new year today. How wonderful it is that we can be together doing the most important thing as a church family. As we are celebrating the new year we are also celebrating two very important events in the life of the Church. The first is the eighth day since the Feast of Nativity, the birth of Christ. This is important because on the eighth day according to the Jewish law and traditions, every male child was circumcised. This practice began with Abraham the father of the Jewish nation. It was established directly by God and was to be a sign of the covenant or sacred contract between God and His followers.

Thousands of years later, we see that the Jewish people continued in this practice that was deemed necessary and fundamental to being a Jew in good standing. In fact, if you refused to circumcise your male child, he would not be recognized as a Jew. He would be treated as an outsider. So it is no surprise that we see faithful Joseph and Mary do the same with the infant Christ. This practice of circumcising the infant boys also points us to the Church’s practice of infant baptism. Contrary to the beliefs of some, the covenant doesn’t depend on the understanding of the one who enters into it, rather it depends on the faith of the one who brings the child into the covenant and it likewise depends on the faithfulness of God to His people. The Church understood that baptism was the fulfillment of the practice of circumcision. Circumcision is seen as an outward cutting of the flesh. But baptism was seen as a circumcision of the inner heart by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Today the Orthodox Church also celebrates the memory of one of the greatest saints of the Church, St. Basil the Great. You will notice that one of the features of the day is that we are actually celebrating the liturgy of St. Basil instead of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. In the early church it was actually much more normal to celebrate this liturgy but now in modern practice we celebrate the liturgy of St. Basil about ten times a year including the Sundays of Great Lent. I highly recommend that one of your practices in the new year would be to read the lives of the saints. There are extended versions of their lives at Patristic Nectar and those are available as audio as well. And I would ask you to read about St. Basil and you will find out why the Church calls him “great”.

As it is the beginning of the new year we are inclined to think about the year that has past. We should do so with gratitude to God for all that He has done for us and given us and all the ways He has blessed us throughout the last year and throughout our lives. As we look back at the last year we should also have time to carefully examine ourselves and our choices and even our beliefs to see whether those aspects of our life really and truly glorify Jesus Christ or if they are simply a mirror of ourselves and our own desires. In this way, our looking back will be fruitful and balanced. And this will also lead to a fruitful and balanced approach to this new year.

It just so happens that on this day, the Church prescribes for us a portion of the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians that challenges us to examine ourselves and our ways of thinking. St. Paul writes “Brethren, see to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”

St. Paul speaks to the churches and writes to them with love. Real love. We know this because he rarely sugarcoats his message to them. The one who doesn’t love you, never challenges you and instead tiptoes and attempts not to rub you the wrong way for fear of offending you. The one who claims to love you and shows their love by supporting your misguided ways and your sins is not your friend. The one who tells you that you are well when you are very sick, doesn’t love you. This is part of the sickness of our country and culture. The word love is thrown around frequently but it can’t possibly mean love in the Christian sense because it doesn’t lead to healing and life. It is devoid of the life giver. We also can’t be healed unless we are willing to hear the truth with patient humility and we accept the medicine and healing that can only come from the Master, Jesus Christ. St. Paul tells us that we should not become prey to philosophy and empty deceit. What does this word “prey” mean? It means “An animal hunted or caught by another for food.” Or “An object or victim of attack.”

St. Paul acknowledges that false philosophy and human traditions can make you become prey. They leave you vulnerable to attack and to capture. Prey to whom? Prey to Satan and to spiritual death. The apostle tells us that the medicine and antidote to falling into such traps is to live “according to Christ.” As we celebrate the new year and think about our own resolutions for this coming year we should contemplate what it means to live “according to Christ” and what it means to live “the fullness of life in Him.” It shouldn’t surprise that we learn what it means to live according to Christ by studying the words and the life of Our Lord Jesus in the 4 gospels. But just in case that isn’t enough, there are other ways to contemplate what it means to live according to Christ. We can study the lives of the saints. The life of each saint is a rich and unique tapestry of how a Christian life can look. No two saints lives are identical.

We can study the teachings of the Church. Where do we find such teachings? We find them in her sermons, in the commentaries on holy Scripture, in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and in the canons and the councils of the Church. Each of these offers us a different angle and insight into what it means to live according to Christ. When we put these things together and we balance them with the reading of the Bible, we find that there is no possible way that we will be swayed and deceived by the philosophies of the world. Instead of being ignorant or confused, we will live full and rich lives under the spiritual protection of God.

There is one more aspect to life in Christ that I want to share with you and that is our participation in communal prayer and worship. The services of the Church teach and heal and bring freedom and peace if you are faithful, humble and patient. Worship is the very act of making God first in our lives. It is the fulfillment of the first and greatest commandment. As we grow to make worship a priority in our lives, we will find that we have opened enough space in our hearts and lives for Christ to truly enter.

As we begin the new year I want to leave you with this beautiful prayer from St. Thalassios. He writes,

“Christ, Master of all, free us from all destructive passions and the thoughts born of them. For Your sake we came into being, so that we might delight in the paradise which You have planted and in which You have placed us. We brought our present disgrace upon ourselves, preferring destruction to the delights of blessedness. We have paid for this, for we have exchanged eternal life for death. O Master, as once You have looked on us, look on us now; as You became man, save all of us. For You came to save us who were lost. Do not exclude us from the company of those who are being saved. Raise up our souls and save our bodies, cleansing us from all impurity. Break the fetters of the passions that constrain us, as once You have broken the ranks of the impure demons. Free us from their tyranny, so that we may worship You alone, the eternal light, having risen from the dead and dancing with the angels in the blessed, eternal and indissoluble dance. Amen.


Source: Sermons

Let Us Belong To Him!

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians. (3:23-4:5) and The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (13:10-17)

In today’s epistle St. Paul reminds the Christians in Galatia about the purpose of the Mosaic law. He tells them that the law was a custodian, a caretaker, a guardian for the people until the coming of the messiah, Jesus, the Christ. And then he tells them that now that faith in Christ has come, they and we, are all sons of God through faith. He tells us the former categories and identities we once had have all vanished away in light of our baptism into Christ. That is a radical change from the messages we receive today in our culture and society. You are encouraged to categorize yourself and others by your race and ethnicity, your political affiliation, your sexuality and your biological (or imagined biological) identities. We are encouraged to become tribal factions and to build up walls that divide us from one another.

St. Paul understood this. He lived it. He saw the world in that way as a faithful Jew. But his eyes were opened by his encounter with the resurrected Lord and this changed everything. Upon encountering and apprehending Christ, he saw the world differently. He says “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Wow.

St. Paul had come to understand that there is only one criteria of importance for humanity. Either you belong to Christ or you don’t. He writes, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

But what does it mean to be Christ’s? What does it mean to belong to Christ? I think that in our modern era, this is an important question that needs answering. As we read the Church fathers, we get nearly unanimous voice about what it means to belong to Christ.

First it means that we are baptized into Christ.

Next it means that we obey the ten commandments and the teaching of Christ. Why is this so? Because the Lord Jesus Himself quoted from the ten commandments and turned to them as authoritative in the life of a believer. The ten commandments are the Law of God for mankind. Unless we know and obey these commandments we will be utterly incapable of knowing and comprehending Our Lord Jesus who perfectly fulfills the law of God in His person. You can’t belong to Christ and then have your own independent opinions on the teachings of Christ. We prove that we belong to Him through our obedience, which is a sign of our deep love and desire for Jesus.

St. Maximos the confessor writes, Just as the result of disobedience is sin, so the result of obedience is virtue. And just as disobedience leads to breaking the commandments and to separation from Him who gave them, so obedience leads to keeping the commandments and to union with Him who gave them. Thus he who through obedience has kept the commandments has achieved righteousness and, moreover, he has not cut himself off from union in love with Him who gave them; and the opposite is equally true.” St. Maximus the Confessor, Philokalia, 2nd century on Theology

Belonging to Christ is even more than obedience to the commandments. It is a love, even an obsession with knowing, and loving Christ. Christ becomes the guiding force and motivation of our lives. In everything that we do or plan to do, we should step back and say “how does this action or choice reflect my love for Christ, who loved me and gave His life for me?” And it turns out that our beloved Orthodox Church instills this type of mindset in her children through all of the activities of her daily life. Everything that happens in the Church happens to help instill a deep love for Christ within us. We fast, we read, we pray, and we serve others, we give alms and we receive the sacraments in order to help us grow in Christ and truly put on Christ.

In today’s gospel reading we are also reminded that no matter who we are, we are sick. We each have various infirmities and illnesses, whether physical or spiritual. We each need healing, and sometimes we are sick for a very long time, sometimes months or years on end. This poor woman was sick for 18 years! Yet, we are also reminded that only One can provide such healing to us. Only one can free us and help us to live as sons and daughters of God.

In our Christian life it is important to recognize that we as Christians are always in the process of healing. We are never quite finished. My healing is not yet complete. Your healing is not yet complete. It is easy for us to get frustrated and to think that we will never be free of our various infirmities whether it is a physical sickness or an addiction or some other problem that we’ve face. But the Lord knows our situation and He loves mankind and helps us as we turn to Him and seek His healing.

What is important is that we continually run to Him, that we make Him ours so that He will make us His. As we run to Him especially through the life of the Church and all of her life-giving practices and medicines, we find that our life will become infused with Christ and with the Holy Spirit. We will indeed be healed and transformed through this relationship with Him. Be patient, have faith, do not lose hope. Only focus on the goal of knowing Christ and offering your life to Him and my dear brothers and sisters, He will surely offer His life to you. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Simple Faith Brings Life

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

There is a wonderful simplicity and beauty to the Christian faith that is often overlooked or obscured. We get hung up on so many different things that it becomes easy to miss the point of everything. The main point of everything in the life of a Christian is not an idea but a person. The person of Jesus Christ. He is the beauty of our Christian faith. He is the beauty of life itself, because without Our Lord Jesus Christ, everything ceases to have life. Without Christ things are lifeless and quite dull. We see two wonderful examples of the beauty of our Lord Jesus Christ in the back to back miracles that we hear in today’s gospel. The sick woman with a flow of blood, as well as the daughter of Jairus, who has just died.

St. Cyril of Alexandria gives us some background on this woman with the issue of blood, and why she wished to remain hidden and in the background, he writes, “What made that sick woman wish to remain hidden? The law of wise Moses imputed impurity to any woman who was suffering from a flow of blood and everywhere called her unclean. Whoever was unclean could not touch any thing that was holy or approach a holy man. For this reason the woman was careful to remain concealed, for fear that having transgressed the law she should have to bear the punishment which it imposed. When she touched, she was healed immediately and without delay.” Commentary on Luke, Homily 45.

St. Ephrem the Syrian writing about this miracle says,

“It was fitting that the faith that shined out brightly in hidden agony was publicly crowned. He wove an eloquent crown for her, because he said to her, “Go in peace.” [Mar 5:34.] The peace he gave was the crown of her victory….This would make known that the peace his mouth wove was the crown that crowned her faith. “Your faith has saved you.” If it was faith that restored her to life, it is clear that he crowned her faith with a crown. This is why he cried out, “Who touched my garments?” [Mar 5:30.] He said this so all the people might know who touched more than anyone else did. She chose to honor him more than others do, first, by approaching from behind, and second, in that she touched the fringe of his cloak. It was also fitting that he would honor her before all of these, she who chose to honor him more than all these. Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron 7.10.

I believe that this act of the faithful woman touching the garments of Christ is where we get the tradition of touching the garments of the priest during the great entrance of the Liturgy. It is not an act of reverence for the priest himself. The priest is a mere human being, and quite imperfect, but the image of priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ is sacred and holy. So sometimes people show love and reverence for Christ by touching the garments of the priest during the entrance and often they pray silently as they do so.

St. Ephraim continues on this passage saying,

“When the woman with a hemorrhage learned that the Lord said to the leader of the synagogue, “Believe, and your daughter will live,” she thought to herself that he who could bring back the soul of a little girl of twelve into her body would also be able to take away an illness of twelve years and expel it from the body. When she heard him say, “Believe firmly and your daughter will live,” this woman reflected, “I can give the faith he requires as the price.” The healing came forth from his mouth, and he negotiated as its price the faith expressed by the woman’s mouth. He gave a clear healing and demanded a clear price. The healing that came out from his lips could be heard publicly, and he required from the lips a faith openly professed….He who was able to put the continued vitality of twelve years in the body back into its place was also able to arrest and banish from its place a flow of blood that continued for twelve years. He who was able to alleviate one illness was also able to banish another.” Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron 7.26.

He puts into perspective for us that we think of many of the miracles of God as great, but the truth is that if we compared them to some of the greatest miracles, such as the miracle of raising the dead back to life, we would then not be shocked at all but simply would marvel with thanksgiving and we would come in true faith and ask the Lord for healing. We do have to remind ourselves that while we pray and hope for healing when we are sick, we understand that true health involves the body, mind and soul. Sometimes our Lord in His wisdom will allow one form of sickness to heal deeper and more difficult illnesses. It is good to pray for health, but we should pray first and foremost for the health of the soul.

As we continue this reading we turn to the second and by all measures, the far greater of the two miracles. The raising of the dead girl back to life. One cannot begin to imagine the pain of losing a young child unless they have gone through this experience. I’m sure that the parents of this girl were at their wits end. Yet the presence of Our Lord changed the whole situation. It is a reminder that if we are in a dark place and we invite the Lord, then that place is full of light. Likewise, if we are in a place that is surrounded by death and we invite the Lord to that place, then the place must be completely overwhelmed with life. Part of the reason that these stories are told of the Lord’s miracles are as a reminder that we should keep all things in perspective, even the worst of situations, even death itself.

St. Ambrose writing about this passage says, “Those who think they are dead will weep for their dead, but when there is faith in resurrection, there is the appearance not of death but of sleep.” Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 6.61-62. He tells us that when people around us die, we should not weep as if they are gone forever. We should weep but this sadness should have something like a hopeful glow. When our loved ones die in Christ, they only appear to sleep. But they are not dead. They continue to live on with the saints in the kingdom. These are the promises of the Lord Jesus Christ for those who love Him and keep His teachings.

St. Cyril of Alexandria says, “Let no one affirm that Christ spoke falsely. To him, as being life by nature, there is nothing dead. Having a firm hope of the resurrection of the dead, we call the dead “those that sleep” for this reason. They will arise in Christ, and as the blessed Paul says, “They live to him,” [Rom 6:8.] because they are about to live. Commentary on Luke, Homily 46.

Let us live a life full of simple faith as we see in faith of the sick woman and Jairus, the father of the little girl. Simple, yet powerful faith in this Jesus who heals diseases, raises the dead and loves us beyond measure. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Rich Or Poor In God’s Eyes?

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

We cannot begin to understand the immense blessing that Our Lord Jesus Christ shares with us by the opening of His mouth and the sharing of divine realities with us. Every time that we open the pages of the gospel we encounter something very special. We encounter truth. Mysteries are opened to us that had been hidden for many generations and from many peoples. Yet we often treat the gospels as if they are mundane and uninteresting, when in fact it is often our understanding of reality that is mundane and uninteresting because it is not formed by the word of life.

In today’s gospel, the Lord Jesus Christ gives us a short glimpse into something that we could never have properly imagined or understood. Into what happens to men when they die. Of course many people over thousands of years theorized and tried to imagine life after death, but here we understand that one of the true mysteries of life is unlocked and opened for us mere human beings. As is so often the case our Lord teaches through His beautiful stories or parables. This was a parable about a rich man and a very poor beggar named Lazarus. We are told that the rich man had everything possible in life, nice clothing, rich foods and on and on. It turns out that he was missing one thing, one very important characteristic which was something he could not purchase. He was poor in love. This lack of love demonstrates itself in his inability to be troubled to serve his neighbor Lazarus.

On the other hand, we hear about this poor man Lazarus. He seems to have had nothing at all, not even a penny to his name. For this reason, he would beg at the tables of the wealthy and would hope to scavenge just a few of the scraps that fell from the table. But there was something special that was hidden within that man Lazarus. He looked like a beggar and owned nothing, but inside, his heart and soul were full of treasures. We learn of his true identity when he dies and the angels carried him directly into a place called Abraham’s bosom. This is something of a synonym for paradise. We learn that this man was holy and full of love.

It should shock us, surprise us and hopefully remind us that God does not judge us based on our outward appearances, no matter who we are. He judges on something much more substantial. He judges us based on the condition of our souls. Have we acquired virtue? Have we loved God truly? Have we loved our neighbor as we loved ourselves? Those are some of the criteria upon which the Lord will judge us. Why? Because those virtues that we acquire or fail to acquire will remain as a permanent part of who we are, or who we aren’t, even after we die. Most of what we think we are, will fade away and vanish completely. We think that our bank accounts and our wardrobes and our haircuts and our instagram posts and our looks will define us, that they are somehow a part of us. But that’s not really true. Who you really are is known only by God, who sees the “hidden man of the heart”.

In the world, the rich man was the “bee’s knees”. He seemed to have everything in life. Yet in the eyes of the Lord, he was rather poor because he lacked similarity or likeness with God his creator. He was devoid of virtues, devoid of mercy, devoid of love. In God’s eyes, the rich man was the very definition of “poor”. In fact he was so poor that our Lord did not even give him a name. It’s as if the Lord truly did not know him. Yet how remarkable that the exact opposite was true for the poor man named Lazarus.

This man suffered greatly yet in all of his suffering, his heart was rich with love for God and His saints. The Lord saw all of his trials and tribulations in life. He saw all of his suffering, just as He sees all of our suffering. And the Lord saw deeper, into his heart. He found that while the man was financially and materially very poor, he was in fact a very wealthy man in disguise. In God’s eyes, this man was rich with virtues. His soul was pure and white as snow. His suffering in life was terrible, but it was actually an aid to his salvation. It reminds us that often the extreme difficulties that we encounter can have the potential to be like medicine for our souls. The Lord allows these things to inflict us and trouble us because He knows they can help form us and save us. Perhaps while we are suffering, we transform this pain and anguish into prayer. If our troubles in life help us learn to pray then they are more valuable than gold and silver by far. The poor man had nothing and it seems clear that he turned to God often. He became an intimate friend of God and the saints. After his death we find him resting in “the bosom of Abraham” with the righteous ones. That was the natural place for his soul to dwell. While the rich man dwelt in a place of misery and suffering. He dwelt in a place full of the regrets of his conscience that had ignored spiritual realities and now could ignore them no longer.

We are reminded by Our Lord Jesus Christ that our goals as the people of God, MUST transcend this very fragile life. Our goal is to work towards the heavenly life, the eternal life where God and His saints are ever present. Are you Christians? Make this the goal of your lives. St. Porphyrios, once said “Turn your mind towards [God] continually. Learn to love prayer, familiar converse with the Lord. What counts above all is love, passionate love for the Lord, for Christ the Bridegroom. Become worthy of Christ’s love. In order not to live in darkness, turn on the switch of prayer so that divine light may flood your soul…”

Let us have our work and families and friends and hobbies but let’s not forget to make the kingdom the true goal and purpose of our lives. My brothers and sisters, life is short. In the blink of an eye it can be over. It is easy for us to be distracted. I am guilty of becoming distracted with trivial things. We worry about politics and the economy and every little thing. But let us decide that the goal of our life is to know God and to share His love with others. Let us make this our primary concern so that on the day of judgment we will be full of joy and peace due to the overflowing virtues and purity of our hearts. In this way we join ourselves to the membership of the heavenly Church just like Lazarus, the poor man.

St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco said, “Now the Church consists of both her earthly and heavenly parts, for the Son of God came to earth and became man that He might lead man into heaven and make him once again a citizen of Paradise, returning to him his original state of sinlessness and wholeness and uniting him unto Himself. This is accomplished by the action of Divine grace… but man’s effort is also required. God saves His fallen creature by His own love for him, but man’s love for his Creator is also necessary; without it he cannot by saved…”

May our Lord Jesus Christ open the doors of the kingdom to each of us and may we strive to enter! AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Whose Side Are We On?

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

When the priest prays the sacrament of baptism, he begins the service with prayers of exorcism over the catechumens who will be received into the holy Church. And as he prays that the Lord will bless the water, he asks the Lord to remove any evil, demonic spirits from the midst of the water and to bless the water and make it a water of regeneration and life. All throughout the prayers and services of the Church there is an explicit understanding of a spiritual battle taking place. The Lord and His angels are in a cosmic war against Satan and his demonic fallen angels. Satan is already defeated but he desires to take as many souls with him as possible before the end. The battlefield for this epic and cosmic battle is the human heart. The Church by the grace of God, equips each of her sons and daughters with spiritual armor and strength for this epic battle. One’s ability to stand and do battle with the demons is based on the amount of training we have put in through our exposure to the divine life of the Church. The services, the hymns, the reading of Scripture and the lives of the saints, our personal prayer rule at home, all of these work together as training for our spiritual battle and as a reward for putting our life in the hands of the Lord and His Church, we are rewarded with spiritual gifts, armor and grace in order to continue to fight the good fight.

In today’s gospel we hear about a man who is possessed by demons, evil spirits. This is not just the stuff of scary movies, but the stuff of reality according to the Christians. Demons are powerful and their goal is to occupy our hearts or to turn our hearts away from being occupied by God. They can work by influencing us, and if this terrible state of being turned away from the living God continues long enough, we may even become susceptible to demonic possession. In the case of the man in today’s gospel, we see that he had lost all of his normal rational faculties. He was truly mad, like a raging beast. So much so that he had been chained up on the outskirts of town and treated like a wild beast. We are reminded through the example of this poor soul that when a man is without God he is truly like an outcast, a slave, a savage and a monster. This is to true to differing degrees.

Yet we are also reminded that the most fierce and foul of beasts and men cannot even stand in the presence of the living God. When Jesus Christ went to visit the man, His presence was a declaration of war and a reminder of the utter and pathetic weakness of the demons and their darkness when they are exposed to the brightness of the True Light. They melt and cower in fear and trembling in the presence of the God-Man who created heaven and earth and all that is within them.

The demons within the troubled man cried out “What hast Thou to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech Thee, do not torment me.” They were filled with fear. They immediately recognized their maker and they trembled before Him. They were powerless against the Lord of glory.

Since they are powerless we might wonder why it is that Christians can still be influenced by and even possesses by demons? In brief, the answer is that we may live a life that helps energize the demons around us. How does this happen? Well, for some it is outright rebellion against the teaching of the Lord and the saints. But for many it is more subtle and gradual. It is a growing lukewarmness to the things of God. In our life, one of the most dangerous threats is our growing number of distractions. These are the silent enemies when they are not properly moderated and balanced in our life. We just have so many possible distractions. Distraction is for our purposes, the opposite of the watchfulness that so many of the fathers of the Church speak of with great zeal.

To be distracted away from prayer, from the thought of God, from the thought of virtue and goodness and beauty, this type of distraction means that our souls are not being fed and nourished and fortified and armored for the battle even as it is raging around us. Every day that we are slack in the battle, the enemies recovers and attempts to conquer more and more of our hearts and minds. He is happy to sit back and rest as we happily cooperate with all of his goals and aspirations for us. It will happen so gradually that we are almost lulled to sleep, like the story of the trojan horse.

We are distracted and busy with many things that cannot give us life. But one thing is needful. A heart and mind that are dedicated to loving Jesus Christ and living the life prescribed by His body, the Church. This is the way to turn the spiritual battle in our favor. We simply open a door for the Lord and He enters and as we have seen in today’s story, there is no place where Christ is present that isn’t forever altered and changed and sanctified. Wherever the light is present, the darkness is vanquished. So if we want to be with the Lord, in a place of light and holiness, we are called to open the windows and the doors of our senses and allow the Lord a chance to enter and to fill us with His goodness.

Let us conclude with a couple of words from St. Theophan the Recluse, who writes, “Refuse to listen to the devil when he whispers to you: give me now, and you will give tomorrow to God. No, no! Spend all the hours of your life in a way pleasing to God; keep in your mind the thought that after the present hour you will not be given another and that you will have to render a strict account for every minute of this present hour.”

He continues saying,

“In order that you may move your will more easily to this one desire, in everything—to please (God and to work for His glory alone—remind yourself’ often, that He has granted you many favours in the past and has shown you His love. He has created you out of nothing in His own likeness and image, and has made all other creatures your servants; He has delivered you from your slavery to the devil, sending down not one of the angels but His Only-begotten Son to redeem you, not at the price of corruptible gold and silver, but by His priceless blood and His most painful and degrading death. Having done all this He protects you, every hour and every moment, from your enemies; He fights your battles by His divine grace; in His immaculate Mysteries He prepares the Body and Blood of His beloved Son for your food and protection. All this is a sign of God’s great favour and love for you”

Glory be to God, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Preparing The Garden Of The Heart To Flourish

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

Today we hear the familiar parable of the sower who went out to sow his seed. As we listen to the whole of this parable we are left with the understanding that the soil is man’s heart and the seed in the word of God. It is obvious that there is nothing wrong with the seed, since the seed comes from and belongs to God. However, the question that we must answer for ourselves is “What can I do to prepare my heart to properly receive and keep the word of God?”

In a garden, the soil must be prepared or else it will be difficult to expect much from what is planted. Sometimes this means tilling the soil, removing rocks and debris, and pulling up the weeds. It seems that Our Lord Jesus Christ also views the heart of each human being as a garden that can bear unbelievably abundant fruit under the correct conditions.

So how do we prepare our hearts to receive the word of God and keep it? The great teachers and fathers of the church speak of a number of things that we must do to prepare and soften our hearts. I would like to briefly focus on three methods of preparing and softening the heart: almsgiving, repentance and confession and the reading of Scripture.

Almsgiving mean to give to the needs of the poor. What can we give? Whatever we have the ability to give that will be a blessing to another person or group. When we give, our pockets are emptied but our souls are filled. We not only make room in our pockets and wallets and purses, we make room in our hearts for God since our possessions were taking up important space in our hearts.

On Almsgiving St. John Chrysostom writes “This makes men like God….Though virginity, fasting and sleeping on the ground are more difficult than this, yet nothing is so strong and powerful to extinguish the fire of our sins as almsgiving. It is greater than all other virtues. It places the lovers of it by the side of the King Himself, and justly.”

On repentance and confession, St. Isaac the Syrian writes, “He who acknowledges his sin is higher than he who raises the dead through his prayer; and he who is worthy of seeing his true self, is higher than he who can see Angels.”

Repentance and confession begin at home. It is something that we do on a daily basis at the end of the day, when we say our evening prayers and take account of our actions and failings of that day. When we feel genuine remorse for our sins, we then bring this energy of repentance to the spiritual hospital, the Church, in order to bear a little shame and humble ourselves before the priest who has been given the great grace to offer the forgiveness of Christ.

The more ashamed we are of our sins, the more important it becomes to relieve this burden and share this with a priest in confession. As long as we hide it deep in our hearts, our hearts are hardened and the demons use it against us and it creates anxiety, depression and a multitude of other issues for us. In fact, St. Nikolai of Zicha says that if we don’t repent, we won’t be saved at all. He writes, “The Lord desires the salvation of each and every person. But not everyone wants to be saved. In a word they all desire it, but in deed they reject it… The ones who perish are the ones who sin but do not repent and only justify their transgressions. That is the worst, most deplorable state.”

Now we come full circle to the reading of Holy Scripture. In the parable we are reminded that the seed is the Word of God. So it makes sense to us that one of the best things we could possible do to ensure that some of the seed takes hold and bears fruit is to make sure we encounter the seed as often as possible and have as much of the seed as possible. The more seeds that we have in our field, the more likely we will be to have an abundant harvest at the right time. Likewise for us, the more we fill our hearts with the word of God, the more we meditate on the Scriptures, the more we study them and commit them to memory, the more blessings we will obtain. The word of God is a two-edged sword. It changes us. It cleanses us, purifies us, give us light and hope. It is a deep well with life-giving waters. Are we constantly depressed, anxious, scattered and feeling hopeless? The Holy Scriptures will help us reorient our lives while they also soften our hearts for the Lord.

On the reading of Scripture, Abba Poemen wrote: “By its nature, water is soft while a stone is hard. However, when it runs along a watercourse and drips on a stone, it slowly but surely makes a hole in it. Likewise, the word of God is soft while our hearts are tough. However, if a person frequently listens to the Word of God, his heart softens and becomes capable to accept the fear of God.”

Finally, we are reminded that it is not enough to just do these things in an empty and mindless way. It is not the works that save us, but God alone. Regardless of what we do, we rely on the grace of God to bless our efforts and to provide the fruit. St. Symeon the New Theologian writes,

“Just as the farmer wearies himself by merely plowing, digging and sowing the seed on the ground, but it grows and produces fruit early and late (cf. Jms. 5:7) by God’s gift, so it is in reality, as you will discover, in spiritual matters. It belongs to us to engage in every activity and with much toil and weariness to sow the seeds of virtue, but by God’s gift and mercy alone the rain of His loving-kindness and grace falls and causes the unfruitful soil of our hearts to bear fruit. When the grain of the word falls on our souls it receives the moisture of God’s goodness; it germinates, grows, and becomes a great tree” (cf. Mt. 13:31-32) (The Discourses; Paulist Press pgs. 219-220)

May our Lord Jesus give strength to our efforts and soften our hearts and may He pour out His great grace so that our struggles may be fruitful. AMEN.

Source: Sermons