Easter For Some, But For Us The Cross

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

Today many of the Christians around the world are celebrating Easter, the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In fact we are also celebrating this today as we do every single Sunday morning during the liturgy. Christians come together to pray and worship the living God and receive His holy body and precious blood on Sunday, the Lord’s day, because this is precisely the day of the resurrection. Every Sunday in the Church is a mini-Pascha, a small Easter celebration, and we sense this joy together each week. 

You might be wondering why half of the world celebrates Easter today while often the Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on a different day, this year being Sunday May 2nd. In fact the dating of Easter was a bit of a controversy in the early life of the Church. The dating of Easter or Pascha was finally resolved by the great council of bishops at the first ecumenical council in Nicaea. Here is the formula that was followed and remains in effect until today:

“(1) Pascha was always after the vernal equinox, (2) it was to follow, but not coincide with, the first full moon of spring, and (3) it was always to be on a Sunday. A fourth principle – and one enunciated following Nicea I – is implicit in the first three: namely, (4) the date of Pascha was not to depend on the Jewish dates for Passover in any way.” Orthodoxwiki.org

While this is the prescribed method, there are someissues since the calendar being used in the fourth century was not asmathematicallyaccurate as modern calendars. Nevertheless, we honor the decisions of the ecumenical council and do not change these decisions without another great council and full agreement with the Orthodox churches. That is part of the life of an Orthodox Christian, submission to the decisions of the Church that have been passed down to us.

However as part of the world is celebrating Easter, we in the Orthodox world are right in the thick of it, in the dead center of Great and Holy Lent. We are in the middle of the spiritual battle. Have you been fighting? Have you been struggling? Have you raised your level of prayer and spiritual reading during the last 3 weeks? Have you focused more on the poor and their needs? Have you dedicated yourself to more of the services of the Church? Have you examined your own heart and found that it is much worse than you had imagined?Have you taken your repentance to new depths?These are all necessary aspects of Lent. Part of our work to cleanse our hearts and our souls is to discover our blemishes and to see our weaknesses so that we will understand our deep need for a savior. Our calling is to die to ourselves, to give up our lives for Christ. That is your calling. If someone asked us “what is the purpose of your life?” A proper answer might be “To learn how to die to ourselves and live to Christ.” As St. Paul once put it “It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me!”Lent is a time not only to die to ourselves and to sin, but a time for our great physician and healer Jesus Christ, to perform heart surgery and while He is doing so, He will also heal the rest of us, mind, body, heart and soul.

Our life is made up of seconds and minutes, hours and days, weeks and months and years and decades, and sometimes even centuries. Each and every second that we are here is a gift from God that is given to us for our salvation. Is Lent just something we suffer through or are we taking hold of this valuable time and trying to cling to Christ? Hopefully we aren’t squandering this time while we dream about Pascha. There is no Pascha, no Easter, without first the cross. The Church is open and the people are physically healthy by the grace of God. Let us thank God for all of His mercy towards us during the past yearand draw near to His Church to that we might be made spiritually healthy as well.

Today in the middle of Lent we celebrate the procession of the cross. As we are weak and our struggle has been difficult these past few weeks, the Church brings out her most prized weapon and possession to inspire us and strengthen us for the remainder of the fight. We have failed to live the life of Christians. We fail daily in our quest to be perfect children of God. We are beaten and defeated by the demons and our own disordered passions and desires.Yet, we look to the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ as ourhope and joy in the midst of our spiritual struggle. In our reading for the day during matins we heard these words,

“Having arrived with God’s grace at the middle of the Fast, our compassionate Mother—the Holy Orthodox Church—thought fit to reveal to us the Holy Cross as the joy of the world and power of the faithful to help us carry on the struggles of the divine Fast.By its power, O Christ God, preserve us from the crafty designs of the evil one and account us worthy to worship Thy divine Passion and life-giving Resurrection, as we achieve the course of the Forty Days with ease, and have mercy on us, as Thou alone art good and the Lover of mankind.”

The cross of Christ is a gift to all of humanity because it is no mere cross. Many thousands of people were crucified during the time of the Roman empire, but most of those crosses were crosses of punishment and instruments of torture. However the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ was something much greater. Through His holy passion and death, the cross became our liberation, our freedom and the gateway to new life. Through this cross, Christ trampled down death and all things demonic. He did this so that those who were baptized into His death and raised up, would put on Christ and would also trample down death and live a life free from the demons as well as their activities and influences.

The Church cries out to her children saying “Freedom is yours, joy is yours, victory is yours, life and resurrection are yours!” but she continues with these words “if you will carry your cross with patient endurance, like your Lord and Master.” Our Lord Jesus Christ is with us during this Lenten season and struggle. Are you determined to stay with Christ no matter the cost? Are you prepared to follow Him even to death, even the death of the cross? Because that is what Christ requires of us, each in our own unique ways. And through your own unique struggle to be obedient to the Lord and to carry your cross, God will not allow you to lose your life, but will restore it and heal it and actualize it and make it a real life, a life in Christ. There is no other way for us. No way around our suffering. Christianity without suffering is a perversion of our faith. It is Christianity without Christ. There is no way around the cross, or under the cross or over the cross. Only through the cross is joy come into all the world. 

May the Lord bless your struggle and give you courage to carry your cross and follow His footsteps not only to Golgotha but to even to the empty tomb and life eternal. AMEN

Source: Sermons

Christ The True Healer

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (2:1-12) 

As I read this passage earlier in the week, I was struck by something interesting. I was amazed by the way that Our Lord Jesus Christ dealt with the paralytic that was brought before Him on a stretcher. What amazed me was that there was no hesitation from the Lord. He gave the paralytic exactly what He needed immediately upon seeing him. But the way that the Lord does this defies all human logic and reasoning. If any one of us looked at the man on the stretcher and was asked to diagnose his biggest problem, there is no doubt that we would all come up with the same answer, “he can’t walk, he is paralyzed.” And that would be correct according to our eyes and his plain physical condition. However Our Lord Jesus Christ has eyes which see much deeper. He is the true physician who sees to the depths of our being. In His opinion, this was not the most important issue that required healing. There was something much more important.

We often approach God with a list of preconceived notions about what we need. We want God to fix the glaring problems in our lives, unruly children, inattentive or controlling spouses, impossible supervisors and co-workers. We also have a preconceived list of our own issues that we want God to help fix. Typically this list begins with physical ailments and physical needs. Sometimes the list includes financial needs. We also struggle with emotional issues. We are often in apathy or anxious, impatient, angry, depressed or even in despair. We even come to the church with the expectation that the Lord will fix all of these things that are at the top of our lists. The 4 men who carried their friend to Jesus Christ also had a preconceived notion about what was needed. They knew how Jesus could help their friend. They had heard of and probably had seen His other miracles, but little did they know that the Lord had much more planned for this paralytic than simply walking.

My brothers and sisters the Lord has much more planned for each of us than simply healing our physical issues. He looks at each of us and He sees our deepest needs. He sees our lives and everything that we have ever done, both the good and the bad. Both the things of which we are proud and the things that bring us shame. He looks at each of us and sees our deepest needs, even the need to have our sins forgiven and to hear these words “Son (or daugher), your sins are forgiven.” Our God is the God of mercy who does not want us to be buried alive in our sins. He does not desire the death of a sinner but rather that they should return to Him and live abundantly. The Lord Jesus Christ sees our fallen nature and the way that sin has paralyzed each of us, but He has compassion on us. He loves us more than we can imagine. “Son your sins are forgiven.” This is among my very favorite verses in all of the gospels. It is a word of joy and promise given not only to this bed-ridden man, but to each and every one of us who is brought to Jesus Christ through our baptism.

In the beginning we are brought by others, someone preached the word to us or we were literally carried by our parents and godparents and brought to Christ at our baptism. But does this process end at our baptism? No! We are called to continue making our way to Christ by all possible means throughout our lives. As Orthodox Christians that is not merely a nice sounding sentiment. It becomes our reality through the life of the Church and her sacraments.

How do we continue to move towards Christ and abide in His presence? Here are some practical steps: Through study of the gospels and obedience to His teachings. That is the first step. Many of the saints tell us that we cannot know God unless we first try to live according to His teachings. How do we hear this word of the Lord “Son, your sins are forgiven” on a regular basis? We hear those words when we come to confession and the priest prays the prayers of absolution, asking the Lord Himself to forgive all the sins that were confessed. And this is the teaching of the Lord Himself as we find in the gospel according to St. John. After the resurrection the Lord breathes on His disciples and says to them “receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, but whose sins you retain, they are retained.”

What is another way that we receive spiritual (and often physical) healing on a regular basis from Christ? Through partaking regularly and frequently of His holy life-giving body and precious blood in communion. This is one of the foundational teachings of the Church.

Listen to the words of St. Cyril of Alexandria who writes

“If the poison of pride is swelling up in you, turn to the Eucharist; and that Bread, Which is your God humbling and disguising Himself, will teach you humility. If the fever of selfish greed rages in you, feed on this Bread; and you will learn generosity. If the cold wind of coveting withers you, hasten to the Bread of Angels; and charity will come to blossom in your heart. If you feel the itch of intemperance, nourish yourself with the Flesh and Blood of Christ, Who practiced heroic self-control during His earthly life; and you will become temperate. If you are lazy and sluggish about spiritual things, strengthen yourself with this heavenly Food; and you will grow fervent. Lastly, if you feel scorched by the fever of impurity, go to the banquet of the Angels; and the spotless Flesh of Christ will make you pure and chaste.”

So we learn that we must not abstain from the bread and the wine which are transformed into the mystical body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. An Orthodox Christian receives the body and blood of Christ as often as possible, with no fear of disease, sickness or anything else.They are not mere symbols as some denominations and groups believed. If they were mere symbols they would have no power to help and to aid us in our spiritual struggle. Yet consistently we see the earliest writings of the Church fathers proclaiming the truth of the power of the sacraments. Especially the Eucharist. To receive holy communion is to receive life. To neglect holy communion for long periods of time is to separate oneself from Christ and spiritually to become betrothed to death. However we are called to much more as Christ’s holy ones. We are called not only to regain life but to put on the truelife of Christ and His immortality. As St. Peter says, we are called to become “partakers of the divine nature.” 

And who are the four friends in today’s reading? They are those who push us and motivate us to come to the church and to take our relationship with the Lord seriously. Those who preach the gospel to us and encourage us. Those who pray for us and bring our names to Christ when perhaps we don’t have the power or the motivation to pray on our own. Finally, we can also understand the friends who carried the man as symbolic of the clergy, the bishops, priests and deacons of the Church, who administer the sacraments and literally bring the people to Christ, and also bring Christ to the people.

Let us partake of these great blessings that are offered to us and run to Christ for complete and profound healing of both our bodies and our souls. AMEN

Source: Sermons

Lent As An Invitation To “Come And See”

Sunday of Orthodoxy 

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (1:43-51) 

One day as I finished the liturgy a man approached me with a rather odd question: “Is all of this necessary?” By “all of this” he meant, the liturgy, the priestly vestments, the icons in the church and so forth and so on. He was a charismatic evangelical and there is no doubt that for him this was all over the top. At the time I looked at him and paused for a moment and said “This is precisely what has been handed down to us and for us this is sacred. We have no reason to change it.”

I’ve thought about that question quite often, “Is all of this necessary.” In fact the short answer is “Yes”. The life of the Orthodox Church is not random or according to the whims of a couple of leaders. It is built upon layers of theology and meaning and history that present themselves during and through our life of worship. Our life of worship must be beautiful and the place that we come to pray must also be beautiful. Why? Because God is the creator of beauty and order and He expects us to treat His whole creation and the space we are given in an orderly and beautiful way. This is not only true for the church sanctuary, it is also true with our lives. The life of a Christian should be well ordered and not full of chaos. Regarding the beauty of the Church, God has given us our senses in order that we might admire beauty and be filled with awe and reverence for Him. The senses were given to us in order to help us draw nearer to God. But the things we do in the church are no mere decorations. No. They have meaning and purpose and that purpose must not contradict the teachings given by the Lord Himself. God gave instructions to Moses for the setting up of the tabernacle and the altar and the priestly vestments. He is a God of order and beauty. If God did not deeply care about these matters He would not have instructed such things. Yet, there is something more to “all of this” especially when it comes to holy iconography.

On the first Sunday of Great Lent, in every Eastern Orthodox church around the world, this day is celebrated as the Sunday of Orthodoxy or the “Triumph of Orthodoxy”. It commemorates a very specific event, namely the return of the holy icons to the all of the churches. The victory of the icons was won at the seventh ecumenical council held in the city of Nicaea in 787ad. It was convened because a great controversy had taken place regarding the role of icons in the churches.

There were some Christians who believed that making and veneration of icons was forbidden by God in the Old Testament and even in the ten commandments. There were yet others who were influenced by Islam to say that icons were a form of blasphemy against God. The Church heard all of these things and these teachings spread far and wide. However the holy fathers of the 7thecumenical council came together with the guidance of the Holy Spirit to pray, to reason from the Scriptures and to expound on the apostolic faith that was delivered to the Church once and for all.

What was their verdict? That icons must be restored in all of the churches. Why? Because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became a man. He really existed. People saw Him and in seeing Him they actually saw God! Where do we get such a revolutionary idea? We get it from Jesus Himself when He says “He who has seen me, has seen the Father who sent Me.” Our Lord also says “I and the Father are one.” St. Paul also affirms the teaching of the seventh council when he writes “Christ is the image of the invisible God.” In fact in Greek the great apostle to the gentiles actually says “Christ is the IKON of the invisible God.” It is a bold statement! We are affirming that the Lord Jesus Christ actually took flesh and became man and dwelt with His people and because He was seen, touched and heard, we are able to depict Him because God has in fact been seen in the Son of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

While we depict Him and His Holy Mother and all of the saints in icons, we do not worship the icons. They are aides to our prayer. Our love and veneration passes from the image to the ones who are depicted in the image. Many of you have photographs of your loved ones and children, but you don’t worship those photos. You love the people who are in the photos and the photos remind you of them and bring to your heart a powerful feeling of being connected. They are an aid to loving them.

The Church tells us that in fact icons are necessary and good. They help us to pray and anything that helps us to pray deeply and genuinely is good. It must be so, because prayer brings us to God and this is the goal and purpose of our lives as Christians, to know God intimately, not as an abstraction. God cannot be an abstraction for us because He lived among us and became one of us. He has taken on our nature in order to share His divine nature with each of us. God became man, in order to make each of us His true sons and daughters. But you shouldn’t merely take my word or the word of your parents or others. We have to be like Nathaniel who took the words of Philip seriously. And what were these words? “Come and see.” Lent is for us a reminder that you will never know God intimately unless you take seriously these words “come and see”. Let us not go through the motions but honor the God who was seen and heard and touched. Let us live as if He exists and let us chase Him down.

How can we chase Him down? How can we live as if He exists? By helping the poor and the needy and sick. By honoring His body (which is the Church) and attending the prayers, making them a priority in our lives. By making the holy sacraments an important part of our lives. Not just holy communion but also confession. These things are given to you by God, to help you and comfort you and heal you. We can also chase God down through other activities. They are not surprises at this point, you have heard them mentioned quite often. We chase God by studying the gospels and the Scriptures as if they are the most important writings in the history of the world (they are). We chase God by finding quality quiet time for God, at least every morning and every evening for some time. We chase God by offering kindness to others, and striving to live like saints.

This is our holy task as Orthodox Christians, to be like the saints and to chase God. What all of the saints realize when they earnestly apply themselves to this task is that in fact, God has been chasing them all along. The proof is that the Son of God became a man, precisely for this reason. To capture our minds and hearts with His love. The icons in the churches help us to remember all of this and they invite us on a daily basis to “come and see.” May our lenten journey be a serious effort to follow in the footsteps of the disciple Nathaniel and “come and see.” And Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Hunting For The Treasures Of The Holy Spirit

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

Imagine that you are a treasure hunter. Your only goal in life is to accumulate treasure. You dedicate your life searching for gold, silver, diamonds and precious stones and jewels. One day as you are traveling and searching for all of these treasures, which are rare and hard to find, you come across a trail. And every few feet along this trail you find scattered treasure. The further you walk, the more of this treasure that you find. In fact, if you walk all the way to the end of the trail you find that there is a giant heap of treasure that is so large that you do not even have a way to collect it all or carry it all. There is only one problem. A giant wall surrounds the treasure. It is 50 feet thick and 50 feet high and there is absolutely no way to go under it, over it, around it or through it. In fact it seems that it is actually two walls that are back to back, two layers of barriers. You are alone with no tools at your disposal.

My brothers and sisters, the treasure that we are trying to accumulate as Christians is the grace of the Holy Spirit and the corresponding virtues, the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The path that we are going to travel to find this treasure is Great and Holy Lent, all of it’s practices, fasting, services, readings and prayers. Yet as we prepare to go on this journey we should be convinced that there is a huge pile of treasure at the end of the journey and that there is a great wall that separates us from the treasure. What is this great wall? It is our sins against others and their sins against us. All of our resentment, all of our hatred, all of our animosity, all of our keeping score, all of our petty differences, all of our hurt and all of our pain, they are the stones used to build this wall. Often times we are even worse with those that we love and are close to, such as our families. We are polite with outsiders but we let our guard down and treat our own families and friends poorly at times. This is true for husbands and wives, parents and children, and between siblings, between friends.

So here we are, all of us are part of this fallen human condition. Each one of us unknowingly building a brick wall that keeps us and others from reaching the mountain of treasures that God would like to share with us. How can we break down this wall? Do we even care to try? If the answer is “NO, I do not care to break down this wall.” Or “No, I do not need to change, only others need to change.” Then why do we bother to come and to go through the motions of prayer or the motions of lent? God does not need us to go through the motions. He doesn’t need us at all, but He desires us. He wants to know us and commune with us.

One of the most amazing aspects of the Christian religion. Something that can be found in no other religion if we are honest, is the idea of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. God has forgiven us. God has removed the first layer of the wall that separates us from Him. The way is open, but the second layer of the wall, the wall that we spoke of earlier is still there. How can we bring this wall down? We have no tools to knock down this wall. What is the correct method? The correct method for breaking down the final wall is through our sincere forgiveness of others. That is much harder than in may seem. We are really good at pretending that we have forgiven others but as we search our hearts we find that perhaps we harbor lots of bad feelings towards others that are just below the surface. We harbor resentment and pain. We also harbor a sense of shame for our own sins and ill dealing with others. All of this can only be healed by starting the process of forgiving others and also allowing others to forgive you.

This means that not only should we be receptive to forgiving others, but we must also be open to asking forgiveness of others. To refuse to apologize to others, to refuse to ask forgiveness of others is to assume quite a lot. The first thing it assumes is a haughty and prideful disposition. It also assumes a lack of love and tenderness in your heart. When someone asks you to forgive them you should respond to them with love and acceptance, understanding that in fact you are no better than them, and at various times in your life, you might actually be worse! But the act of forgiving and asking for forgiveness is the start to the process of healing. It begins the process of demolishing the walls that are between us and the final layer of the wall that separates us from the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact the Lord Himself tells us in today’s gospel that “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” This should cause us dread and shock us into a correct disposition. It should also comfort us. God is ready to accept us and He stands on the others side of the wall but since the wall is part of our heart, He respects it and will not knock it down. It is our property, and we must choose to knock it down through unconditional forgiveness and love towards our brothers and sisters.

So important is this aspect of our spiritual journey of Great Lent that tonight we will all return to the church for “Forgiveness Vespers.” This is our time to pray together and to come to each member of the community and open our hearts to them, both asking them to forgive us and offering them our forgiveness and reminding them that God forgives all things. This is an especially important year to offer this to one another because the last year was full of so much pain, judgement, distrust and anxiety and all of this made us much more likely to be angry, resentful, impatient and unloving. Let us come together tonight and offer healing to one another and open up our hearts to receive all of God’s healing grace.

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

I pray that this Lent will be powerful and profitable and that we will follow the lead of the Church by starting this Lent asking for the forgiveness of our sins and generously forgiving others, remembering that the treasure is waiting for us. Glory be to God forever AMEN. 

Source: Sermons

Instructions to Inherit The Kingdom

The Gospel According to Matthew 25:31-46

When Our Lord Jesus Christ is tested and asked “what is the greatest of the commandments?”  He replies that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”  And then He says “and the second one is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, upon these two hang all the law and the prophets.”  We learn from this that these two commandments are truly connected and inseparable.  

In today’s gospel the Lord Jesus Christ is like a good teacher who is giving us the answers to the final exam so that we might prepare properly for the exam.  In effect, He tells us to pay attention because everything that He is telling us will be on the exam.  We learn that there will indeed be an exam.  We learn that there are important life and death issues according to which we will each be judged.  Yes, it is true.  In our culture to speak of judgment seems harsh and yet this is the reality of Scripture.  There will be a judgement because God is a judge.  No amount of theological innovation can remove God from His place as the judge.  God alone judges and declares the righteous.  His judgements are true and sound.    

As we prepare for the great and holy fast we are reminded that at the end we will not be judged by how well we fast, or how well we do prostrations or even how often we come to the church for prayers.  We were reminded a few weeks ago that the pharisee in the parable of the publican and the pharisee did all of those things.  In fact he excelled at them!  Yet his offering was not accepted by God.  Our Lord says to us that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the pharisees, we will not be saved.  How does one’s righteousness exceed that of the pharisees?  He must do more than believe in God and practice empty rituals.  His heart must be transformed, he must become humble, he must be broken and refashioned in the likeness of Christ.  

Today Our Lord tells us what is expected of the children of God.  Out of love and mercy for each of us, He tells us the truth.   What is the truth?  How will we each be judged?  Will we be judged according to our feelings and strong opinions? No.  Will we be judged according to our words about God?  No.  We will be judged according to our actions which are a response to our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  St. James speaks about this tension in the Epistle of James ch.2 when he writes, 

“For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?  Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!”

St. James tells us that it is not enough to simply believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ.  After all, even the demons believe and they tremble.  However the demons do not worship God and serve Him.  They do not offer up their lives as a living sacrifice to God.  Yet we are called to be different.  Faith in Christ means living a life in Christ.  That is Orthodox Christianity.  It is not merely words about Christ, it is life changing conviction that leads to a changed view of the world and ourselves and our neighbors.  

You were baptized into Christ and have put on Christ!  Having been called to put on Chist, we are called to offer up our lives as a sacrifice out of love for God and on behalf of others.  When we live to serve others and to see Christ in others it means that we are truly being transformed into the image and likeness of God.  If we are sons and daughters of God, we are called to serve others joyfully as the Lord has descended and taken flesh to serve us.  The Lord poured out His life for us, out of love.  We are also called to pour out our lives for others, to become love and this is natural because God is love.  And the reward is much greater than anything we can imagine.  God tells us that in loving and serving others, the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the naked, we are actually doing something even greater, we are serving the Lord Himself.  Do we need any more motivation than this?!

St. Nikolai Velimirovich once told this story,

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

Let us also be convinced that our charity towards others will likewise be accepted by the Lord Jesus Christ and will allow us to hear these beautiful words  ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  and Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

A Hunger For God’s Presence

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (15:11-32) 

Today we continue our march towards Great and Holy Lent which will begin on March 15th. Each and every gospel reading during the period preceding the start of Lent is meant to prepare us and to inspire us to prepare for this serious and somber time of spiritual struggle leading to healing and restoration. The teaching of the Church is that restoration and revival come first through repentance and this is followed by ascetic struggle. According to St. Basil the great, “Fasting was ordained in Paradise. The first injunction was delivered to Adam, ‘Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.’ ‘You shall not eat’ is a law of fasting and abstinence.” Adam and Eve fell through the desires of their will and the persuasion of their stomachs. They ate and found bitterness, corruption and death in their rebellion from God. 

Yet, through our willful choice to endure hardships and deprivation and to bring the body into subjection to the mind and heart through ascetic disciplines like fasting and increasing our physical prayer routine with prostrations and coming to the church more often for increased prayers together, we melt away the stony and rocky exterior of the heart and the grace of the Holy Spirit can then punch through the walls that have been created by our life of sinful rebellion. We weaken the defenses of the flesh and the Holy Spirit can then overcome us with His mercy and healing. As St. Paul writes “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:27)

Great and Holy Lent was instituted for the whole Church very early on in history. We have a mention in canons of the great council at Nicaea which was held in 325. AD. This time of fasting was particularly important to prepare all of the pagans and unbelievers who would be baptized and accepted as members of the Holy Church on Great and Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, as is our custom to this day. The fasting for 40 days is found all over the Bible, but some examples are Moses on Mt. Sinai for 40 days without food, and our Lord Jesus Christ fasting in the wilderness for 40 days. To this 40 days we also add the days of preparation, called cheese fare week. During that week we remove meat from our diets but continue with eating other animal products such as dairy and eggs. In addition after the 40 days of fasting we have the busiest week in the liturgical life of the Church which is Holy Week. This week is technically not part of lent, rather it is like “a lent within a lent.” 

Contrary to popular belief, the fasting of lent is not limited to removing certain foods. It also assumes reducing the amount that you eat. This can be achieved in a number of ways. For some it will mean cutting back on your portions and getting up from the table while you are still not quite full. While for others it will mean cutting down on the number of meals you eat. All of these questions can be discussed with your spiritual father or priest.

These fasting rules and disciplines as we mentioned last week when we spoke of the Publican and the Pharisee, do not save us. They are a tool for our salvation. St. Seraphim of Sarov writes, 

“Fasting, prayer, alms, and every other good Christian deed is good in itself, but the purpose of the Christian life consists not only in the fulfillment of one or another of them. The true purpose of our Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. But fasting, prayer, alms and every good deed done for the sake of Christ is a means to the attainment of the Holy Spirit.”

Once I was asked if it is a sin not to fast. I think the important question is really “If the Church is truly the body of Christ and I desire to be healed and saved, why would I reject the life giving disciplines that the Church is trying to share with me?” It is certainly a sin to reject the life giving medicines that the Church, which St. Paul calls “the pillar and foundation of truth” has passed down to us. 

Listen to the words of St. John Chrysostom on fasting. He writes “Fasting is wonderful, because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed.” But he also tells us that the acceptable fast is not merely the fasting from food but the fasting from evil through the proper use of our God given senses. He writes,

“For the value of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices…Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works! Is it said by what kind of works? If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see in enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honor, envy him not! If you see a beautiful woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.

Let the hands fast, by being pure from theft and greed. Let the feet fast, by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles (by the way, this mean we need to stop watching filth on the tv and the internet). Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome (or beautiful) countenances…For looking is the food of the eyes, but if it is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul… Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and false accusations (gossip). Let the mouth too fast from disgraceful speech and railing. For what does it profit if we abstain from birds and fish; and yet bite and devour our brethren?” (Homily 3, On the Statues)

So in all this we see that the Church understands fasting in a holistic way. Each one of us starts the fast in the place of the prodigal son. We are alienated from God in some ways and we’ve squandered our inheritance as God’s children. Let us also use this coming time of Lent to be like the prodigal and come to our senses and run back to our heavenly Father who is waiting to embrace each of us and restore us to newness of life. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Observing Lent: God Does Not Need More Pharisees

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

As we march down the road to the start of the spiritual battle of Great and Holy Lent we encounter or rather, are encountered by the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. This profound story from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is one that should, and must shake each of us to our very core.

As we begin to prepare for lent we are likely to focus on many external things, what we eat, how many times we pray, how often we attend services, how much we give to or serve the poor and needy and the list goes on. Yet this parable of the Lord serves as a rebuke and a reminder for us. God is not so much interested in what we do as a matter of external religious observance, rather He is quite interested in how the disposition of our hearts are transformed. To put it another way, God is not interested in all of the things we do to look and act religious, but in how we approach Him and our fellow brothers and sisters. Indeed, this is precisely what the Lord says when He is tested and asked “What is the greatest of the commandments?” He answers that the greatest commandment is to love your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

One aspect of a religious life is that it can be very easy and comfortable to go through the motions and to get stuck on the outward observance of rules. We can go even further. One of the real pitfalls of a religious life is that it can make us comfortable with following the rules perfectly and feeling that we are then justified before God and all men because of our adherence to the rules. The Pharisee was quite accomplished at this kind of thinking. He was a legalist. He thought that he would be saved because of his perfect keeping of the outward laws and religious actions. He fasted, he prayed, he gave tithes. Yet St. Paul in many of his letters corrects and rebukes those who trust in the law. He says “For I through the law, died to the law in order that I might live to Christ.”

So why did the law exist and why do these works exist, listen again to St. Paul “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, [f]kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal 3:21-25).

What the Apostle says is that we were given the law and the works to do them because they would train us to act righteously, but he makes a critical point. He says that we are not made righteous by observing the law, we are made righteous by the sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross. With one, we learn to behave righteously, and in the other we are actually transformed and become righteous. The Pharisee learned to behave righteously, but where was his heart as he stood in the temple to pray? It was not humble, loving and merciful. It did not have the qualities that demonstrate that God was present there. In fact he was quite far from God. He prayed as a matter of formality and to congratulate himself. He went so far as to compare himself to and condemn another poor soul who was praying in the temple at that time.

How do we pray here in the temple? And how do we pray in the temple of our hearts when no one is around? Do we compare ourselves to others? Do we believe that God will look favorably upon us because of our ability to keep the outward observances or because of our outward accomplishments?

Sadly today we even apply this sort of thinking to other parts of life. We judge people quite frequently based on what they do or don’t do. And the world tells us that it is ok to judge people, even based on opinions that we think they should or should not hold. In all of this we are losing sight of the one needful thing, Christ our true God. What matter is not what my brother or sister is doing, they have to stand before God on their own, they don’t need my criticism or judgment. What matters is that my heart is broken and I confess my sins because I am hungry and thirsty for God’s mercy and forgiveness. What matters is that I understand that I am a great sinner who does not in any way, deserve God’s mercy and love. What matters is that I am convinced that nothing that I can do will, on it’s own, be enough to allow me to stand before God or to compare myself favorably to others around me.

As we enter lent let us not be tempted to think that keeping the rules and the guidelines will be enough to make us good and holy and righteous. The rules and order of Great and Holy Lent are not meant to puff us up or make us proud. The Lord does not need that kind of religious person. He has enough Pharisees in the world, and He does not hear them when they pray. But His ear is ever towards those who are like the Publican. I hope that Lent will be a time for us to cultivate our hearts and ask the Holy Spirit to show us our true broken condition. When we sense our own brokenness and our deep need for the Lord, and we confess our sins, then and only then, are we are on the right path. Our prayers will become deep through our pain and the path will lead directly to Christ because our prayers will be pure and without any obstacles.

All of Lent is built for us by the Church as a gymnasium to help us train to find the deep and broken heart required to repent and to seek God from a pure heart. We are being trained to become like the Publican and if we become like the Publican there is no doubt that we will leave the temple justified in the eyes of the Lord our God.

I will end with a quote that I mentioned a few weeks ago from St. John of the Ladder who wrote “Let your prayer be completely simple. For both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.” + St. John Climacus, Step 28.5, Ladder of Divine Ascent

Source: Sermons

He Knocks, But Do We Dare To Open Our Hearts?

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

Today’s reading welcomes us like an old friend that we have not seen in quite sometime. For those of you who are not yet Orthodox Christians and who haven’t gone through the lenten and pre-lenten cycle, I will point out that this day, Zacchaeus Sunday, is typically a wake up call for us as Orthodox Christians. It tells us that the pre-lenten season is gearing up to start and that the great battle, the spiritual marathon of Great and Holy Lent, the center of the Liturgical year, is not far away now. We are being warned and prepared through these readings for the next few weeks. The spiritual battle is upon us my brothers and sisters and it is time to engage in this battle by practicing, warming up, studying techniques and formations and putting on our armor as sons and daughters of the living God. The children of God were not made for comfort, and ease, they were made for war. War against sin, war against the demonic, war against the flesh.

Today we hear the story of Zacchaeus and when I hear the story of Zacchaeus, I am put to shame. Here is a man who had everything stacked against him and yet he finds a way to our Lord Jesus Christ. While I might have everything in my favor, yet I neglect to run after Christ with zeal every day of my life. Zacchaeus didn’t have the privilege of growing up in a Christian home and yet he hungered to know Christ. We claim to be Christians and yet we often neglect Him in reality. Zacchaeus had obstacles in his path to seeing Christ, such as the fact that he was a short man. He had another obstacle, namely the crowds that were all around the Lord. But somehow Zacchaeus did not let any of those things change his intention and determination to see Jesus that day. We are also put to shame because this man’s heart is pure and humble, he knows that he is a sinner and that he has done wrong to others. Yet in our own lives, we claim to have a relationship with the Lord, but we often feel that we haven’t yet scratched the surface and admitted our sinfulness and weaknesses.

The starting point for Zacchaeus is a desire to see and to know who is Jesus Christ. But that alone is not enough. Seeing Jesus is not enough. One must be ready to follow the example in this story. When we seek Jesus with our whole hearts, He will come to us and try to be a guest in our lives, in our hearts and minds.

So how do we seek Him? Through diligent reading of the gospels on a daily basis and through dedicated time for quiet and undistracted prayers. And how will the Lord respond? In the same way that He responds to Zacchaeus. He will invite Himself into the home of our hearts. But Zacchaeus didn’t stop there. The Lord chose to stay with Zacchaeus, but was Zacchaeus obligated to receive Him? No. He made a choice that day. This choice was not as simple as it may seem. Many of the people around were watching. Some of those men, the scribes and pharisees, thought very badly of Jesus and they would have thought badly of anyone who welcomed Him into their homes. And of course others would have also had suspicions about all of this. Yet Zacchaeus shows tremendous courage and faith. He welcomes the Lord Jesus Christ into his life with no thought for the ways that others might look at him, judge him or reject him. He was faithful before it was fashionable.

In our own day and age it is now increasingly unfashionable to be a Christian. The secular world has co-opted some Christian-ish sentiments and ideas but everything has been perverted and twisted. Christians are no longer the vocal center of society and culture, they are increasingly the hidden minority. We have allowed the secular atheistic world to take control of the narrative of our lives, and this has happened primarily through the public school system and universities. So increasingly we enter into a world that no longer speaks the Christian language and where Jesus Christ is not significant and those who follow Him are more likely to be considered enemies to the secular, godless way of life. In this context, we understand that Zacchaeus may have been small of stature but he was really great in character.

The character and faith of Zacchaeus are seen not only in his determination in the face of the obstacles but in his generous welcoming of the Lord into his home regardless of how others might look at him. The Lord Jesus Christ desires each of us to have the heart of Zacchaeus. In the book of Revelation the Lord Jesus says “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” Is Christ knocking at our doors? Is He knocking at the doors of our hearts? Do we hear Him? How do we respond to this knocking? Do we open the door just a little and then shut it again? Do we open it for a minute and speak with Him at the doorstep instead of inviting Him inside? Or do we really open the door wide and embrace Him into our lives? We know what Zacchaeus did.

St. Makarios the Great writes, “The Lord is always knocking at the doors of our hearts, that we may open to Him, that He may enter in and rest in our souls, and we may wash and anoint His feet, and He may make His abode with us….and again He says elsewhere, Behold, I stand at the door and knock, if any man will open unto Me, I shall come in unto him (Rev. 3:20). To this end He endured to suffer many things, giving His own body unto death, and purchasing us out of bondage, in order that He might come to our soul and make His abode with it…His food and His drink, His clothing and shelter and rest is in our souls. Therefore He is always knocking, desiring to enter into us. Let us then receive Him, and bring Him within ourselves; because He is our food and our drink and our eternal life, and every soul that has not now received Him within and given Him rest, or rather found rest in Him, has no inheritance in the kingdom of heaven with the saints, and cannot enter into the heavenly city…”

The Lord is always knocking, because the Lord loves us with an unimaginable love. How will we respond? Zacchaeus welcomed the Lord and prepared the finest banquet for Him. When Zacchaeus welcomed the Lord into his house, it changed him. He was repentant. He examined himself and his ways. He admitted his sins and offered to correct his past wrongs. His heart was cleansed and transformed through this encounter. He began to shine with the light of Christ.

Each of us has an opportunity to encounter Christ through our reading and prayers but also quite tangibly through receiving holy communion, the precious and holy body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. What a treasure we have! Are we welcoming Him and embracing Him and allowing Him to cleanse and transform us?

Allow the Lord to enter and to make His abode in you and you will become His holy temple and you will also hear the Lord’s beautiful words “Today salvation has come to this house!” AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Gratitude and Maturity

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

When things looks grim, that is exactly when God acts in our lives. When we lose hope and begin to feel that our world is turned upside down, that is precisely when God’s presence and work will be most clear in our lives. In today’s gospel we hear the story of ten lepers. These lepers travelled together, as a group. Why did they do this? Because they were not allowed to live near those who were healthy. They were considered impure and unclean. To be stricken with leprosy was to be given something of a death sentence. Even while you were alive you would feel the sting and pain of this sentence. You were no longer allowed to be near your loved ones, your family. You were not welcome in the markets or synagogues. You would become a complete outcast.

We find that ten lepers are together in this grim and difficult situation. Into their darkness, Christ appears as light. Their lives are impossibly difficult and Christ our Lord entered into the village and entered into their lives. They cried out to Him with loud voices “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” How would the Lord respond? He responded as the one who loves mankind and has mercy on us in our sufferings. He says to them “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Immediately they turned and went back towards the priests and as they did so, they were cleansed of their leprosy.

One of the pillars of the spiritual life is the reading and study of Holy Scripture. We often make excuses for why we don’t do it but we find that the average believer has plenty of time to dedicate just a fraction of it to the study of the word. Sometimes we think to ourselves, “what is the big deal? Will these words on the page make any difference in my life?” Yet we see from the story that one sentence from the Lord Jesus Christ can change your life. He told the lepers only one thing. “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And through their obedience to this one “word” they received healing. Imagine how powerful the word of God could be if we also studied it and heard it and applied it in our lives! So this is really a powerful lesson. We should desire to hear the word of God and to fill our hearts with it.

Here is another lesson: gratitude allows the remembrance of God to grow in our hearts. After the 10 lepers were healed we find that one lone leper praised God with a loud voice. Just one! He turned back and came before Jesus and fell at His feet to give Him thanks for this incredible miracle in his life. What was the miracle? He didn’t simply cure his skin condition, the Lord gave him back his life. Our Lord expresses His pleasure at seeing the healed man return and give thanks. Parents of children understand that it is important to teach them manners and one of the first manners that we teach is the ability to always say “thank you”. God our heavenly Father also desires to see this attitude of thankfulness within us. It pleases Him. It is a sign that we understand that every good and perfect gift comes down from Him.

We can go even further in our own transformation as children of God because we can even see that difficulties, trials and painful experiences can also become a gift since they can bring us to deeper prayer and greater knowledge of God. As we began the year 2021 I kept hearing people say “thank God that 2020 is behind us, it was such an awful year.” My brothers and sisters, that is not how we demonstrate our gratitude to God for all of His generous mercies towards us. When we speak this way we are like the 9 who didn’t return to give thanks to God for all that they had received from Him.

It is not external circumstances that will bring us lasting happiness or peace or joy. It is having our happiness and peace built on a solid foundation that cannot be shaken by anything or anyone. While we are discontent and looking for more, we are forgetful of all of the gifts that God has already provided for us right here and right now. Instead of a building abridge to God, through our gratitude,we build walls with our mentality that prevent us from growing closer to Him. So are there any ways to work on gratitude?

St. Gregory Palamas tells us that one way is through the diligent practice of prayer. As we persevere in prayer the prayer changesin quality and character. He writes 

“Prayer changes from entreaty (asking God) to thanksgiving, and meditation on the divine truths of faith fills the heart with a sense of jubilation and unimpeachable hope. This hope is a foretaste of future blessings, of which the soul even now receives direct experience, and so it comes to know in part the surpassing richness of God’s bounty, in accordance with the Psalmist’s words, ‘Taste and know that the Lord is bountiful’ (Ps. 34:8). For He is the jubilation of the righteous, the joy of the upright, the gladness of the humble, and the solace of those who grieve because of Him.”

Ultimately we as the children are meant to know and to come to a deep understanding that what we are most thankful for is the Lord Himself.We are thankful for His love for us, for His sacrifice in order to give us new life. We are thankful for His forgiveness of our sins. We are thankful that He has conquered death in order to give us resurrection. He is our hope and joy and the greatest blessing of our life. If we understand in our hearts that the Lord is with us and that He will never leave us, then there is simply no way to be anything but thankful. Through Him we are rich beyond measure, blessed beyond measure and we will have life without measure. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Crying Out For Mercy

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

I notice something interesting as I read through the gospels. There is never a time where someone asks the Lord Jesus Christ for mercy where the Lord does not show the individual great mercy. It might seem quite obvious but it is really a very fundamental point. We call Christ, “the merciful one” and the “lover of mankind” and indeed it is true that the Lord perfectly embodies and lives and pours out His mercy upon all who draw near to Him and cry out to Him for mercy.

Why do people ask Jesus Christ to have mercy on them? In the gospels we see this happen because people feel miserable and hopeless in their lives. They are often in desperation due to their sicknesses or disabilities or their sense of deep unworthiness and sinfulness. All of these are reasons that cause men and women to cry out for the Lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on them. 

In our own lives, we are encouraged to find the same cry within our hearts. We are encouraged to go to the deep place where we are sick and tired and hungry and feel unworthy and once we are there we transform all of those feelings of weakness and defeat intoacry to the Lord, “Jesus, have mercy on me!” St. John Climacus says “Let your prayer be completely simple. For both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.” Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 28.5 It didn’t take much, just one phrase. We see the same thing here with the blind man in today’s gospel. The Lord didn’t hear him because he said many words, but because he said a few heartfelt words to Christ. So we have to find this deep cry within ourselves because the Lord is eager to hear this and to help us.

Sometimes it is easy for us to find this deep cry because things around us are difficult. When our circumstances are difficult or when we are sick and suffering, it is easy to cry out to God isn’t it? But often we are comfortable and or distracted and for these reasons we have to work harder to scratch below the surface of our hearts and go deeper to the place where we feel our real need for the Lord’s mercy and compassion. How do we do this in the Christian life? The Church gives us some tools for softening the heart and going deeper in our prayers. The ascetic disciplines are key stepping stones in this regard.

One of the tools in the ascetical tool kit is fasting. Another tool is to do prostrations. Both of these should be undertaken after speaking with your spiritual father for guidance. Yet another tool for softening the heart is prayers in the middle of the night. Sometimes we can’t sleep. This is a perfect reason to get out of bed and fall on your knees with a prayer rope and spend some time beseeching God, saying the Jesus prayer. You will be surprised at how effective and energetic your prayers can be when you have just a little bit of discomfort. And if all of these aren’t enough we can also go out of our way to give to the poor and do works of charity. These exercises help others physically but they benefit each of us spiritually. You can even come and ask if there are extra things that need to be done around church. I assure you that there is always work to be done. 

What is the goal? It is to be able to cry out to Christ with a real cry of need and desire for the mercy that He alone can provide. But how do we get to that point of crying out to God unless we allow ourselves to feel some brokenness? How do we get to that point if we are always distracted with phones and shows and games? The spiritual fathers of the Church have all recognized that our prayers won’t be very profitable unless we aim for stillness. Part of our fasting regimen should be fasting from social media, fasting from the news, and fasting from movie and games for a time. Sometimes we should do this for an hour or two before bed. Sometimes we need to extend our fasts to go for a day or two or a week or two, maybe even longer. If Prayer is the most profitable thing that we can do in life, why don’t we give it more time? No sacrifice is too great when God offers us Himself in return.

Each of these little steps will help us build an awareness of our sins and our need for healing. The worst kind of delusion, which is abundant within some Christian traditions is the sense that one is perfectly well and has no further need of Christ’s healing and forgiveness. So we have to actively engage in the battle and know that we will struggle and through our honest struggle, by God’s grace, we will grow and bear spiritual fruit. St. Theognostos writes “Pursue your goal forcefully, dedicating your whole life to God, in all your actions, words and intentions seeking by all possible means not to fall away from Him.” 

If we do this and pursue Christ faithfully, then there is no doubt that He will shower us with great mercy and He will speak to our hearts as He spoke to the blind man saying, “your faith has made you well.” Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons