Thursday, December 29, 2005

St. Nicholas of Myra - The Journey to Heaven

(St. Nicholas of Myra: 6/19 December) (John 10:9-16; Luke 6:17-23a)

In the Gospel reading at Matins for the celebration of St. Nicholas of Myra, our Lord speaks of Himself as the “good shepherd.” A shepherd, of course, leads his flock from pasture to pasture, and defends the flock against enemies. Our bishops, of course, are in our midst as reminders of the reality that Christ is in our midst; the fathers tell us that the Church can be found where the clergy and people have gathered with the bishop in their midst. The zhezl, the bishop’s staff or crozier, derives from the staff used by shepherds; and is symbolic of this ministry.

As the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ seeks to bring all people into His flock; and to lead us to the kingdom of heaven. It’s not a journey by an immediately obvious route, because, as He has told us, the kingdom of heaven is within us. Thus, we must go within ourselves to find the way, and this route can be a dangerous one if we lose contact with the shepherd who leads us. As such, He teaches us, in today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Luke, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” How do we enter into blessedness?

Most of us, when we hear about those who are poor, understand this to mean that they have very little money, no real material possessions. In a way, this is easy to understand; they have little that ties them to this world, and so it is, it would seem, easier to look instead to the kingdom of heaven. But if this translates itself into being hungry in the body, it is a rare gift then to be able to lift one’s spiritual eyes to seek the way to heaven. We could, of course, give away all that we have, and become poor in the world’s sense; after all, this is what one does upon becoming a monastic – but the concept is not limited to being materially poor, as the word is often understood.

The fathers tell us that when we live without greed, we are among the poor; and when we live humbly, we are among the blessed poor. As such, these are qualities we do well to develop in ourselves: to not be moved by the desire for material possessions, and not to give time and energy to thoughts about what to eat, or drink, or wear, o how we shall use leisure time for our entertainment; and to consider everyone else as better, and more worthy, than we are ourselves. To live humbly, outwardly due to poverty, and inwardly by self-effacement and self-reproach, is to travel the way to the kingdom of heaven.

Our holy father Nicholas shows us a way to understand this manner of living. He desired to live as a hermit, but was told by God that his God-appointed labors were to take place in the midst of the people. He was noted for his many acts of charity – which, among other things, made him the prototype for “Santa Claus” – and this is significant for us, because it goes back to the point of being so poor that one cannot think of heaven because of being hungry in the body. This way remains for us today: to practice generosity in giving for the needs of the Church, and for the needs of those who are in need. Of course, when we take time and money and resources and use them for the Church, or to feed the hungry, care for the needy, visit the sick and those in prison, and so on, that is time or money we cannot devote to our own desires or pleasures. This is to say, when we give alms and offerings, we make ourselves a bit poorer – but now we’ve seen that this is a good thing, for it leads us closer to the kingdom of heaven.

Brothers and sisters, let us follow the example of our holy hierarch father Nicholas, and use the material blessings God has entrusted to us for the work and the Church and the needs of others; that they may find the grace and mercy of God by these gifts freely given; and that we may find our way along the path to the kingdom of heaven.

Holy hierarch father Nicholas, pray to God for us!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

On the Journey to Bethlehem

(27th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 14:16-24)

Today – in case anyone has failed to notice – is the day the western churches (and those Orthodox Christians on the new calendar) celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the last week of so, it seems that a number of movie versions of the story, “A Christmas Carol,” have been shown on television. I don’t know how much Charles Dickens knew of Orthodox theology, but I am struck by the words he put in the mouth of Marley’s ghost, the specter who appears to Ebenezer Scrooge at the onset of the story. Scrooge asks Marley why he appears bound in chains, with moneyboxes linked to the chains. Marley’s ghost replies, “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” Marley bound himself to earthly things, never giving thought to heavenly matters; and so doomed himself to suffer in all eternity for the loss of what does not endure beyond death.

We are still in the midst of our journey to Bethlehem, and our celebration of the feast of the Nativity. We celebrate the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. He came to set us free from our own bondage, to break the gates of Hell and to trample down death by death. Our Lord Jesus Christ has the power to break the chains with which we bind ourselves, if we will allow Him to do so. But this means, among other things, that we must be transformed, we must break the habits by which we forge our own chains, link by link, and bind ourselves in these chains by our own free will. Our Lord has the power to set us free – but we must do our part.

Consider the Parable of the Great Supper, the first reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke. A great feast has been prepared, and the host sends his servant to bid those for whom the feast has been prepared to come, as it is ready. However, the invited guests decline to come, pleading other commitments. The Fathers tell us that the man who would not attend because he had just bought a piece of ground represents those of us who are governed by the wisdom of the world, and cannot accept the mysteries of faith, only the laws of nature. Thus, the birth of Christ from the Virgin is unacceptable, for it is not a natural birth to this type of person. The man who has purchased five oxen represents those who have bound the soul to the five senses of the body, making the soul into flesh, and limiting it to this world, with no desire to partake of the mystical Great Supper. (This should give us pause, as the foretaste of the Great Supper will be offered today – but how many are prepared to partake of it?) The man who does not attend because he has just taken a wife stands for those who are lovers of pleasure and who live to please the flesh, which is the mate of the soul. But living to please the flesh means that we are not living to please God.

Do you see the parallel? When we persist in our habits of indulging the passions, we weigh ourselves down, as it were, with the chains we make for ourselves – we keep ourselves from rising up to the heavens to meet our Lord and our God. How, then, do we receive the power needed to break the chains that bind us, and weigh us down in body, mind, and spirit? We do so by making the journey of preparation; by living the life of the Orthodox faith and Church; by prayer, and fasting, by giving alms and offerings, and struggling to replace our passions with the virtues that are their opposites: love, instead of hatred; humility, instead of pride; patience, understanding, and forgiveness, in place of remembering the sins and wrongs of others; abstinence and chastity in place of gluttony and lust; generosity in place of greed; laboring, in place of sloth; and so on. We find the power to make the journey in the grace of God, given to us by His mercy and love for us; and strengthened indeed by the mysteries of the faith, of which the greatest is that of holy Communion, in the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters, our Lord has come to set us free, to give us life that will not end. Let us choose to be free; and to live in a way that is pleasing to God, breaking the chains of our passions and sins that bind us to the world, that bind us to death. Let us prepare ourselves for the Great Supper that God desires all His people to attend; for, by preparing ourselves, and answering His call, we shall glorify His name, and shall save our souls.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

"Let Us Not be Like this Rich Man"

(26th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 12:16-21)

[NOTE: This is a "bonus" selection. I wrote this sermon, but didn't like it enough to preach it; so I wrote another instead. It is offered here despite it not having actually been preached.]

The Fathers tell us that our life is not lengthened by an abundance of possessions in the material world; therefore, it is foolish for us to concern ourselves with acquiring them, and to maintain them. All too often, we waste time and energy worrying, “What shall I eat, what shall I drink, what shall I wear?” Of course, if we have nothing, these questions take on a different meaning. The person who is starving asks, “What shall I eat?” But that is a different question when we have things in abundance. The poor ask the same questions as do the rich – but with a different reason, and to a different end. We see this in the parable from the Gospel of St. Luke today.

The rich man makes several mistakes. First, he worries because he has been blessed with an abundant harvest. He worries about how he will enjoy it; and he worries about how he will maintain it. Second, he takes the credit for God’s blessing – and he doesn’t consider God as he does so, speaking instead about “my fruits” and “my goods.” Third, he makes plans for a long life, although he has no assurance of this; and says to himself, “Eat, drink, and be merry” – ignoring the reality that too much food and too much drink usually leads us to indulge other passions as well, making our offenses even greater than before.

We should pay attention to this, for we are all rich in material goods; and we dwell in a land that is the symbol of prosperity, the symbol of wealth, and the symbol of consumption. The rich man in the parable looked at his fields, and the harvest, and decided he needed bigger barns to store his wealth. Anybody here checked the value of his or her house lately? The rich man decided he could do better, and get more, and so live a life of comfort and ease. Ask yourself: What is it I am working for? How many hours do I spend going about the business of making money? For what purpose? To what end?

Please don’t misunderstand. Money is not evil; food and drink and clothing and shelter are all necessary. But when was the last time you stopped to give thanks to God for blessing you and protecting you? The skills each of us uses to obtain our daily bread, and the other things we need to live – did not God give us these abilities? And the opportunities? What do we do with the material things we possess? Do we remember those in need; and give alms to help them? The fathers say of this rich man, that, instead of building bigger barns, he could have stored his surplus grain in the bellies of the poor – and not only would it have been safer there, but then he would not have had the need to build, or worry about fire, or theft, or decay affecting his riches; and when it came time for him to give an account of his life, he need not worry that he had neglected others, but had been merciful to them, as God had been merciful to him. The angels would not have had to come to him to take his life from him, which he was reluctant to give to them, as he loved this world and its pleasures so much. Instead, he would have already given his life into the hands of God; and so departed this life willingly, in order to be with God in a life without distractions or responsibilities or fears.

Brothers and sisters: We are rich in material possessions. Let us not be like this rich man. Let us instead give thanks to God for all that He has given us; and seek to use what He has given to glorify Him, and to care for His people. Let us give from the abundance we have received to support the work of the Church to bring the Gospel of truth to a world in darkness. Let us give from the abundance to help those in need. Let us use wisely the time and resources, which God has entrusted unto us, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

A Life of Love - St. Sabbas the Sanctified

(26th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 11:27-30)

Our holy father Sabbas the Sanctified is glorified as an instructor of monks and converser with the angels. He started seven different monasteries during the course of his lifetime, becoming a monk himself at the age of eight. At the age of eighteen, he left the monastery he had entered when he left his parent’s house, and lived for five years in a cave he found at the direction of an angel. After he had become perfected, he found that others seeking a holy life were drawn to him, and so he gathered them into the monasteries he established. Even his mother came to him after his father had died, and she also become a monastic, living in asceticism until her death. He was attacked many times by those who were close acquaintances, by heretics, and by the demons. He responded to the attacks of his friends with goodness and patient forgiveness; to the heretics by an unshakeable confession of the Orthodox faith; and to the demons by the sign of the Cross and by calling upon God to help him. He was 94 years old when he departed this life to be with the Lord.

One time, some monks rebelled against him, and were then driven from their monastery by the order of the Patriarch, Elias. The went and built huts for themselves in a river bed, and lived there in a desperate way, without any of the things that are necess ary for life. When St. Sabbas learned of their situation, hearing that they were starving, he loaded mules with flour, and took them to the monks himself. When he found they had no church, he built them one. At first, the monks received the saint with hatred, but after he ministered to them, they returned his love with love, and repented of their former evil toward him.

Brothers and sisters, this is the Orthodox faith; this is the Orthodox way of life. When the demons attack us, we should respond with the sign of the Cross, and with prayer to God, asking for help, that we might not follow the urges of our passions. When heretics challenge us regarding our faith, we need to be prepared to answer them from the words of holy Scripture, from the Divine Liturgy and the other services of the Church, from the teachings of the Fathers, and from the lives of the saints. In this, our response should be gentle and calm, yet firm and unyielding – not the easiest thing to do. Similarly, when those close to us question us about our Orthodox way of life, we need to be patient with them, and do our best to show them our Lord Jesus Christ in what we say and do. The example we have in St. Sabbas is a good one for us to follow.

None of this is possible without humility and meekness; and this is what the fathers tell us is the meaning of our Lord’s call to us, as we heard today in the reading from the Gospel of St. Matthew. “Come unto me, all ye that labor, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, that I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The yoke of Christ is humility and meekness. When we humble ourselves before others, we are free, and are at rest, for nothing troubles us. Think about it. When our pride leads us to desire the praise and attention of others, and when we don’t want others to think less of us than we think of ourselves, we never rest; we must constantly be trying to protect and enhance our image. It is easier for us to be humbled than to be exalted.

It sounds like an easy thing, to humble yourself, and to think that all others are better, more worthy, than you. It’s not easy, of course – at least, not at the start; and not when we try to do it in our own strength alone. We cannot succeed without the grace of God, and for that, we must live the Orthodox life: of prayer, and fasting, of giving, and of struggling against our passions. And I cannot imagine how any of us could do what St. Sabbas did for those who had rebelled against him without humility, and without the grace of God – for he surely did what our Lord commanded when He said, “Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for them that spitefully use you.” Not only did he feed them when they were starving; he built a church for them to use to worship God. He met their hatred with the forgiving love which God offers to us all, who are sinners. Who among us does the same? Who among us lives in this way? Yet we are called to this manner of life in this world, that we might obtain a blessed repose, and a life of rejoicing without end in the world to come.

Brothers and sisters, in the life of St. Sabbas the Sanctified, we see the Orthodox way of life, of humility, of purity, and of love. May God grant us His grace to follow his example, and pursue the same – to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Holy Father Sabbas, pray to God for us!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

"Actions Speak Louder than Words"

(25th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 10:25-37; Matt. 10:23-31)

At this time in the Church year, we are preparing to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. On the one hand, we celebrate His birth, His coming into the world. The victory of Pascha, when death is trampled down by death, is not possible without the Incarnation, without our Lord entering into the world, doing so in a way in which His divinity is perfectly joined to our humanity, without mixture, without confusion, without ceasing to be God, and without ceasing to be human.

So we have good reason to celebrate; but we must never forget that He has already come; and that, when He fulfills His promise and comes again, it will not be as it was the first time. He will not be born into the world, a baby in a manger. He will, as we recite in the Symbol of Faith, “come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead”; and of His kingdom there will be no end. We do well to remember that we need to prepare for His coming again, as much or more than we prepare to celebrate His birth in Bethlehem so many years ago.

With this in mind, the question that the lawyer asks our Lord becomes even more important: What must I do to inherit eternal life? We are all familiar with our Lord’s answer: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength; and love your neighbor as you love yourself. This makes sense. When we love ourselves more than we love God, it is easy for us to justify, in our own minds, allowing ourselves to indulge in whatever passion it is that brings us pleasure (even if only for a moment) in this world. This affects our human relationships as well. Think only of yourself, and soon there will be no one in your life except yourself. When we love someone else, when that person is more important to us than we are to ourselves, we are sensitive to the things this person we love likes and dislikes; and we do our best to change our words and deeds so that we maximize the positive responses of our beloved, and minimize the things that would displease or irritate or anger them. Our relationship with God is really no different. When we focus on ourselves, and our own desires, we are distant from God. When we endeavor to draw near to God, it becomes our desire, and then our delight, to do those things pleasing to God, and leave behind the things that would take us farther away. In a similar way, when we love ourselves more than we love our neighbor, it is then that we do them harm in thought or word or deed; from ignoring them, to neglecting them, to cursing them, to actively causing them harm. When we love them as we love ourselves, it is easier for us to be humble, patient, generous, and kind.

It is not enough for us to know these things. We must not only know them, we must do them. And it is not enough just to do them here. I am struck by what our Lord Jesus said to His disciples in the reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel today. He said, “What I have told you in darkness, speak in the light; and what I have whispered in your ear, preach this aloud from the rooftops.” The fathers tell us that this means that what we have seen and heard here, in the Church, we must proclaim in the world. How can we do this?

There’s a folk saying everyone is probably familiar with (and for which I’m sure there is an equivalent in Russian): “Actions speak louder than words.” We’ve probably all seen this happen enough to know the truth of it. When someone says one thing, and does another, we question whether that person can be relied upon; but when words and deeds agree, we can say that this is a reliable person. So it is with us. If we say that we love God, but do not walk in His ways, what message does that convey to those around us who need to know from us about God and His love? If we say that we love our neighbor are we love ourselves, but ignore or neglect or mistreat them –even if only in words – what do we say about the love of God in our midst?

Brothers and sisters, let us love God with the fullness of our being; and let us love each other as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us. Let us shine forth with the light of a holy life, through a life of prayer, and fasting, of giving, and of struggle against the passions. Let us shout from the rooftops with the love of God, as we labor to let Christ be seen in us, and as we love and care for those around us, in the Church, and in the world. If we will do so, we will make a powerful statement about the love of God; to the glory of His name, and the salvation of our souls.

Becoming Living Temples

(24th Sunday after Pentecost) (Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple)

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple. Having been blessed with the miraculous birth of a child, her parents, Joachim and Anna, brought their daughter to the Temple at the age of three years, to dedicate her to the service of the Lord. In the Temple, there were fifteen steps up to the Holy of Holies; and, being so young, it would not have seemed possible for her to have ascended; but, being placed on the first step, she was able to run to the top. She was met there by the high priest, Zacharias, who would become the father of St. John the Baptizer. He, inspired by the Holy Spirit, took her into the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest could enter, and that was permitted only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. She who will bear the Son of God Most High was thus blessed to enter into the most holy place of the Temple, which, until Christ’s coming into the world, was the sign of God’s dwelling in the midst of His people.

The most holy Theotokos is said to have laughed with delight and joy at entering the Temple, and did not cry or turn aside when her parents left her there. She entered into the daily life of the Temple, dwelling with the virgins in the rooms that were part of the Temple complex for those who served God. She was there at the sacrifices offered three times a day, joining in the prayers. She took part in the other activities of the Temple community, praying, fasting, and learning handicrafts together with the others whose great delight was to serve the Lord God. She would gladly have remained there all her life; but, after eleven years, it was decided that she would be placed in the care of her kinsman, Joseph, betrothed (but not married), so that she could continue to live in virginity, although this was not the practice at that time. The holy Virgin was obedient to the temple elders and departed with Joseph to live in his household. Thus we see two characteristics of her life that are both indicators of the preparation she received from God to make it possible for her to give birth to our Savior, Jesus Christ. She found her great delight to be in the presence of God; and she was obedient.

Today, each one of us has also entered into the Temple. We should realize this, and ponder what it means. We have come to the place that is set aside for us to gather together to meet God, and be with Him, as did the most holy Theotokos in Jerusalem. Is it a joy for you to come to the worship and fellowship of the Church, as it was for the Virgin in the temple? Are you taking part in the way of life of the faithful, and so being prepared to bear the Son of God in yourself, to show Him to the world, as she did? Do you offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving through the day, as she did? Do you offer yourself to be the servant of God, as she did, with the fullness of her being? If you are doing so, glory to God! If not, why not?

Brothers and sisters, having entered the Temple today, we have a choice to make: Either to embrace the way of life that transforms us, and empowers us to show forth Jesus Christ to the world; or to turn away from this opportunity. Do we love the ways of the world, and all its comforts, and its praise and glory, more than we love God? For if this is so, we will not pray as we should; nor fast; nor give alms; nor will we see any need to labor, to struggle, to overcome the desires that overwhelm our flesh and lead us into sin. But if we will pray, and so draw closer to God; and if we will fast, and so discipline our flesh, and strengthen our will, so that we can set aside the desires that lead us to sin; if we will give, remembering that all that we have has been given to us by God as evidence of His love for us, and we can partake of and share that love by following His example, and giving to help others in need, and for the work of the Church; if we will struggle to stop doing what is harmful to ourselves and to others, and instead do what is virtuous, and pleasing to God, then we will be transformed, and the image of God will be seen in us, and we will share in the ministry of the most holy Theotokos. Let us, on this day of celebration, pray that we who have also entered into the Temple may be blessed to follow the example of our Lady Theotokos, and so become living temples of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Most holy Theotokos, save us!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

"We have found Him" -- "Come and See!"

(23rd Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 8:26-39)

Today the Church celebrates the life and ministry of the holy Apostle Philip. Philip lived in Bethsaida, the city in which also dwelt St. Andrew the First-called, and his brother, St. Peter. When our Lord met St. Philip, He said to Him, “Follow me.” Philip will follow our Lord throughout His earthly ministry. We hear him mentioned at the miracle of the feeding of five thousand with five loaves and two fish; for, when our Lord asks where bread might be purchased to feed the multitude, it is Philip who replies that they do not have enough money to buy enough bread to give each person a morsel. Philip is mentioned again in Jerusalem, after Lazarus had been raised from the dead. Some Greeks came to him and said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Philip takes them to St. Andrew, who takes them to our Lord.

But I think the two most significant mentions of the holy Apostle Philip are the first, which we heard read today as the second Gospel reading, and the last, also from the Gospel account of St. John the Theologian. In the last occurrence, he is with the Lord and the other disciples at the Last Supper, and he asks our Lord, “Show us the Father, and that is enough.” In reply, our Lord gives him an important bit of information: “If you have seen me,” He says, “you have seen the Father.”

After the day of Pentecost, Philip, in the power of the Holy Spirit, goes to Greece and then into Asia to preach the Gospel of our salvation. Many miracles took place as he journeyed. In one place, where the Jews sought to kill him, there was an earthquake, which swallowed up his persecutors. There were miraculous healings, which helped bring many from paganism to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. In one place, the pagans kept an enormous snake, which they worshipped as a god. St. Philip killed it with a prayer, as if he had thrust a spear into the snake. The enraged pagans seized him, together with St. Bartholomew, and crucified them both upside-down, on a tree. Again, there was an earthquake, in which the earth consumed those responsible. This led the others to try to release the apostles. Bartholomew was still alive; but St. Philip had already departed this life to be with the Lord once more.

So we see St. Philip ends his life as he began to live after having been called by our Lord; for, having met Jesus, Philip goes to his friend, Nathanael, and says to him, “We have found the one we have been waiting for, the one Moses spoke of, and the prophets. He is Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph, the carpenter.” He does the work of an evangelist. Though he did not then know what he would know later, he brings his friend, telling him, “Come and see.”

Brothers and sisters, the Lord has also said to us, “Follow me,” just as He called St. Philip. He has given us the Holy Spirit, just as St. Philip also received the Holy Spirit. If we see Him – through the way of life we can learn from the Orthodox Church, and our fathers before us in the Church: through prayer, and fasting, through giving, and through struggling to overcome our sins and to live a life pleasing to God – we have also seen the Father. And, while we may not be able to go to the marketplace, or the assembly, or some other gathering, and proclaim the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ, yet we can still do as St. Philip did for his friend Nathanael. We can, by being prepared to speak of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ our Lord, and by laboring with God in the transformation of our lives, we can say to people, “We have found the One all the world has been waiting for – the One Who sets us free from sin and death”; and, when they say, “How can we find Him?” we can say, “Come and see,” and bring them here to meet our Lord, even as we are gathered here to meet Him, to praise and worship Him, and to love and care for each other with the love He gives to us to share.

Brothers and sisters, let us prepare ourselves, in word and in deed, to be evangelists, to bring to those in the world around us the good news of Jesus Christ; to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Holy Apostle Philip, pray to God for us!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Choosing Our Place in Eternity

(22nd Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 16:19-31)

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus should make every one of us nervous; because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’d have to say that our lives more closely resemble that of the rich man, who, we are told, dressed in fine clothing, and ate sumptuously every day. (Sumptuously: that means that he ate well. That means a table overflowing with the best food, and the best drink. Something to think about, as Thanksgiving Day draws near.) Every one of us has a roof over our heads, clothing to wear, and food to eat – indeed, even though we don’t consider ourselves to be rich, by comparison to some – the Donald Trumps of this world, for example – we should recognize that we live more comfortably, and with more luxury, than the vast majority of people across time and space. Only a few of us have ever suffered, or will ever suffer, in the way that Lazarus is seen to be suffering in the Gospel today.

Why does this matter? It matters because, among other things, our way of life blinds us to the truth – a truth that includes the reality of hell. Hell is real. The suffering is real. What’s more, God does not send people to hell – those who go there have chosen to do so. That’s part of the point our Lord is making in telling us this parable. He wants us to know that hell is real, that the torment there is real – and that the way we live makes a difference on the great and terrible Day of Judgment, when we must give an accounting for our lives, for every deed, every word, every thought, every desire. What have we done with the life God has granted to us? What have we done with the talents and abilities and resources God has entrusted to us? Have we been good stewards? Or have we been selfish?

Those who show no mercy, and those who give no alms, be warned: eternal punishment awaits you! Those of you who suffer, in body, mind, or spirit, rejoice! For you have hope to receive good things in the life to come, if you patiently endure your circumstances in this life. Consider Lazarus in his suffering. He has no place to live, but makes his bed at the front gate of the rich man. He has no food to eat, and would be grateful if he could eat of the food that falls to the floor in the rich man’s house, as the dogs do. He suffers from bodily sores, and from the agony of having the dogs lick those sores, being powerless to drive them away. Yet in all of this, he does not blaspheme; he does not curse God, or even blame Him, for his suffering; nor does he hate or blame or condemn the rich man for his wealth, or his refusal to share it, or make a charitable use of a part of it on behalf of Lazarus. When he dies, he is met by the angels, who escort him to a place of blessed repose. We know his name, for his name is also written in the Book of Life.

The rich man, on the other hand, is not given a name. He is not worthy to be remembered by God by name. He died, and was not met by angels, but was buried, as his soul had been buried all those years, buried alive in his flesh. He never had a heavenly thought during his lifetime; and so his soul departed, not for heaven, but to hades, to a place of torment.

Which end would you prefer? In which place would you rather dwell? (Well, duh!) So, consider this question: Where is the Lazarus in your life? Who is the person (or persons) you can help by using a portion – and we’re only talking about a portion, mind you – of what God has given to you as a blessing, to be a blessing, to be used wisely in His service? Maybe the answer isn’t as simple as it was for the rich man, who had a beggar outside his own front door. But the season is now at hand, here in the Valley, when we will have beggars on the street corners with their cardboard signs. Maybe you could set aside something to have at hand to stop from time to time and give them something. Thanksgiving Day is at hand; and even though it is not, strictly speaking, an Orthodox holiday (after all, we should give thanks to God every day, continuously), it is a day in our culture where we enjoy the richness of God’s bounty; and there are those who make it a point to provide a meal for those who might otherwise have nothing, or have only crumbs. You can make a donation to a local food bank – in fact, you can do this at any time of the year – but the need is particularly great right now.

Brothers and sister, beloved of God: We choose our place in eternity; and we demonstrate our choice by the way we live. Let us use the time God has given us wisely: in prayer and fasting; in studying the Bible, and the lives of the saints; in loving and caring for each other; in setting ourselves free from the world and our possessions by giving for the needs and work of the Church, and alms for those in need around us; and by struggling to turn away from our sins, and practice in their place the virtues pleasing to God. Then we also will have good reason to hope in the mercy of God, and to be met by angels when we depart this life, and be escorted by them to a blessed repose. Let us live with patient endurance and generosity, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Crucified with Christ

(21st Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 8:5-15)

St. Paul, writing to the Church in Galatia, says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” This is a particularly appropriate text for us, as last week, on Wednesday, new life was granted to four new members of the household of God, four new members of the Body of Christ. Remember the significance of your baptism and chrismation, as St. Paul writes: When we are baptized, we are buried with Christ in His death, and raised to new life in Him. Our entry into the water of the font, being submerged in it, is likened to being buried in the grave; and, as Christ rose from the grave, and so conquering death and entering into life without end, we also, raised with Him, enter into life without end. After being baptized, each of us can say what St. Paul said: “Christ lives in me.” The challenge for each of us thereafter is to make this a reality – to show forth the life of Christ in our own lives.

Do others see Christ in you? If not, why not? This is a part of the challenge, this is a part of the struggle we face as Orthodox Christians: To turn away from the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and to walk instead in the way that God has established for us. We have Christ living in us – but when we sin, we hide His face beneath the filth of our sins. He cannot be seen, because we live in the flesh, and not in the Spirit, Who will lead us into all truth, and will do in and through us good works, if we will let go of our attachments to this world, and the pleasures, momentary and temporary as they are, of our sins. As long as we do not do our part to be transformed, as long as we neglect the way of life that is ours for the taking – of prayer, and fasting, and giving, and struggling against our passions, struggling to acquire the virtues – humility, chastity, self-control, generosity, and, above all, love – His life will be hidden and unseen in us.

This is what St. Paul means when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ.” It means he has lived the way of the Orthodox life: he has struggled to live as Christ lived in our midst, without sin, doing the will of our Father in heaven. There is a connection between the Passion of our Lord in His death, and our striving to be dead to sins – for we suffer when we pursue righteousness. It isn’t easy to turn down that delicious food (“just a little taste, just one more bite”). It isn’t easy to say, “Lord, have mercy” or “Lord, forgive them” when someone has done something we don’t like, and would respond with angry words or actions against them. It isn’t easy to look at someone else and say, “My sins are worse than theirs.” Yet each time we do so, we put our flesh to death – and so we are also crucified with Christ, when we actively struggle against our sins.

It is not possible for us to do this on our own. We need help. The good news is, help is there! We receive the Holy Spirit when we are chrismated; and He will help us, if we let Him. When we pray, we draw near to God, and that helps make us different persons. When we fast, we teach our flesh that it cannot always have what it wants, and we strengthen ourselves for the labor of purity and righteousness. When we give, we set ourselves free from attachments to this world. And when we receive the holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have Him living in us in a most profound and wonderful way – and we are empowered by Him to live His life.

Brothers and sisters: We have been given a marvelous gift – the life of Christ in us. We were washed clean of our sins in baptism; but have fouled ourselves once more by our sins. Let us repent of our sins, and confess them to God, that we might be made clean once more by His grace. Let us rejoice in the life of Christ in us; and let us commit ourselves to the Orthodox way of life, that we might be transformed into His likeness, and show Him forth, in holiness and love, for all the world to see. Let us prepare ourselves to receive Him, and His most holy Body and Blood, that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He, in us – to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Monday, November 07, 2005

"Joy of All Who Sorrow"

(20th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 7:11-16)

In the year 1688, a woman named Euphemia, the sister of Joachim, the Patriarch of Moscow, was suffering from a serious wound in her side. When the doctors were unable to treat her, she “fell down” in prayer to the most Holy Lady Theotokos. Euphemia was told in prayer by the Mother of God to go to the Church of the Transfiguration, and ask the priest there to serve a Molieben before the icon, “Joy of All Who Sorrow.” Euphemia was obedient to this instruction. She went to the church; and, when the priest served the Molieben before the icon, she was completely healed.

What mother who loves her child would refuse that child any reasonable request? So it is for us with the most holy Mother of God. She loves those who love her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ; she loves us with a mother’s love. Now, this is a difficult thing to accept, especially for those of us who did not grow up in the Orthodox Church and faith, but came to the Church and faith from a Protestant background. We all need to remember what transpired at the foot of the Cross, when our Lord, seeing His mother and the disciple He loved, gave her into the care of that disciple, and told him, “Behold your mother.” From that hour, we are told, the disciple took her into his own home, and cared for her as his own mother. Who was that disciple? In time and space, the Church tells us, it was the holy Apostle, Evangelist, and Theologian, John. But the disciple loved by Christ is each one of us, who live Him. And this is part of the blessing: His mother loves us, and she does so with the love that only a mother can have for her child. So it shouldn’t surprise us that Euphemia was healed; and it shouldn’t surprise us when we ask for her help, and our request is answered.

Now, what greater sorrow can there be than when a mother must watch her child die? So it was for the most holy Lady Theotokos, who saw her Son put to death on the Cross. What terrible sorrow pierced her heart, as if by a spear, when she saw this child of hers suffer and die? And how great, then, her joy at His resurrection! Because she has known both sorrow and joy in great measure, her love for us carries this experience as well – and so she can truly be the “Joy of All Who Sorrow.”

What makes all of this possible? Love. It begins with God, Who, we are told, is Love. It is the love of God that calls us into being; it is the love of God that sustains all creation. It is God’s love for us that calls us into communion with Him, Who is Three Persons in One Being – a community one in love, as we, also, are called to be. It is love that causes the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be obedient to the will of God the Father; and so He became incarnate, which is also a sign of His love for us, for He came to save us from death, and set us free from sin. It was love for God that led the most holy Theotokos to yield herself, in the fullness of her being, to the will of God, allowing our Savior to take on our nature, and enter the world to save our souls, and make us one with God.

Beloved of God, we are also called to love. We are called to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength – with the fullness of our being, as did the Mother of God. We are called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, as did Christ, Who made us His neighbors by coming into our midst. We are called to love our enemies; as did Christ, Who died for us, even though we deny Him, even though we hate Him, whenever we sin. It is love that heals us; it is love that saves us, it is love that provides for our every need, from the smallest crumb to the greatest joy to the hope of our salvation in Christ.

Brothers and sisters, let us love one another, as Christ loved us, and gave Himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God. Let us love God more than we love the world, and the ways of the flesh. Let us devote ourselves to the service of God, as bearers of Christ within ourselves; and let us show Him forth to the world with the love we have for each other, and for all who are made in the image of God. Let us love one another, to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Most holy Theotokos, save us!

Friday, November 04, 2005

Correctness and Love

(St. John of Kronstadt) (1 John 4:7-11)

The Orthodox faith is rich, and deep, and wonderful. We have the holy Scriptures, in which God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is revealed to us. We have the teachings of the Fathers, and the lives of the saints, to show us how to think, and what to do, and how to live. Our worship glorifies God, and touches us in all our senses: the icons, and the candles, and the vestments, even the architecture of the church have meaning for our eyes; the music, and the chanting, and the preaching, for our ears; incense and candles for the nose; bows and prostrations and relics that we reverence by touch; and the bread and wine we taste. It is important for us to be knowledgeable, and there is a great deal for us to know: when to pray, and what prayers to use, for morning, and evening, and in preparation for receiving Holy Communion, and after receiving Holy Communion, and in times of need; when to fast, and how to do it as the fast days and seasons vary from strict days to “wine and oil” days to fish days; when to make bows, and when to make, or not make, prostrations – the list goes on and on. It is important to know what to do, and how to do it correctly: for example, how to cross yourself, and when to do it. We put the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand together at the tips, which symbolizes the Holy Trinity; while the other two fingers are kept together in the palm, symbolizing the two natures, divine and human, of our Lord Jesus Christ. With the three joined together, we touch our forehead (“Father”, and then lower our hand to the abdomen, just about at the navel (“Son”); then to the right shoulder (“Holy Spirit”), and then across to the left shoulder (“Amen”). Once completed, we bow forward slightly – not before we’re done, so that we don’t “break the Cross” and so delight the demons. We move slowly, with dignity, not waving our hand about, or moving as quickly as we can.

Everything that is present in the Church has meaning and purpose. Every word we say or hear has meaning and purpose. Every movement we make, and when we do not move, has meaning and purpose. We should do all that we can to learn these things, and do our best to do them correctly. But all of these things are for nothing, brothers and sisters, if we do not do them for love. If we rush through our prayers without the desire to draw near to God, for love of God Who loves us, the words are empty and meaningless, and there is no reason to think that God will hear or honor our prayers or bless the time we spend offering them. If we give alms and offerings without love for our brothers and sisters, without love for those who are in need, what have we done, and what have we gained? When we sin, we show that we love ourselves and the pleasures of this world more than we love God. When we sin against each other, we show that we love ourselves more than we love our neighbor – and so all of our Orthodoxy is good for nothing, all our claims to be Orthodox Christians will be charged against us on the great and terrible Day of Judgment, unless we do what we do for love.

Brothers and sisters: As we celebrate the feast of St. John of Kronstadt, who, by his great love for God, and for the people God entrusted to his care, was also greatly loved by them as a spiritual father, let us remember the great love that God has for us, and seek to find His love in our hearts, that we may fulfill the commandment given to us. Let us be earnest in prayer, and ask to be filled with the love of God, for Him, and for each other, and for all who are made in His image. Let us love one another, as Christ loved us, and gave Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God, that we may do the same, to the glory of His name, and the salvation of our souls.

God's Love for His Unfaithful People

(19th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 6:31-36)

The holy Prophet Hosea, celebrated today on the calendar of the Church, lived in the northern kingdom of Israel during a time of wars and turmoil and political intrigue. Six kings ruled in the final 25 years of the northern kingdom. Four of them were killed by those who then took the throne; only one was succeeded by his son. Israel was a vassal state of Assyria, paying tribute; and the intrigues and disloyalty of her last two kings led to invasions by Assyria, which ultimately destroyed the kingdom and caused the exile of the people from that land. The ten northern tribes of Israel vanished into history.

The prophet’s own life was marked by peculiarities as well. He was commanded by God to marry an adulterous woman; and their three children (two of which were probably not his) were given names that were symbolic of the destruction that was to come if the people did not repent, and abandon their worship of idols, and return to the true and proper worship of God. The names given to the children are translated as, “God scatters”; “not loved”; and “not My people.” Yet Hosea is commanded by God to love his wife, even though she has been loved by someone else, and is guilty of adultery. The holy prophet is obedient, and redeems is wife from the slavery into which she had fallen, serving as a prostitute. He tells her, as God has commanded, that she is to live with him and be faithful to him, and he will love her and care for her.

The people of God are being told, through the prophet’s actions, of the great love that God has for them, even though they have not been faithful to Him. The withdrawal of God’s protection occurred when they would not repent of their worship of idols: which included the offering of their children as sacrificial animals in fire, making them burnt offerings to their gods. The people of God also engaged in a number of different forms of sexual activities they had learned from the pagan peoples around them, including sodomy and bestiality. They did not repent; and so their kingdom was destroyed, and they were taken away into exile from the land God had given them, never to return. Even then, God promises that He will continue to love His people; and, for those who repent, He will bring them to Himself, and love them, and provide for their needs, as Hosea does for his wife after she has been unfaithful to him.

At a glance, we who are the new Israel, might wonder what may be in store for us, as we dwell in a land where the lives of unborn children are offered up as sacrifices on the altar of convenience; and where we are told that we must accept all sorts of sexual practices as acceptable “alternative lifestyles.” We would do well to examine our lives, and see if we have departed from the ways that God has given us to walk in; to see whether or not each of us has been faithful to the Lord, or unfaithful. Of course, if we look honestly, we must say that we have been unfaithful, for we have sinned – and our sins show us our unfaithfulness, and the idols we prefer to our God. Pride, greed, lust, gluttony; as well as a lack of prayer, neglecting to fast, failing to give alms and offerings, and indulging our passion, rather than struggling against them – all these things point to our spiritual adultery in our relationship with God. Yet God’s promise still is true: for those who repent and return to Him, He will love, and provide for their salvation.

If we will dwell in God’s love, we can do what our Lord Jesus commands in today’s reading from the Gospel of St. Luke. If we are filled with God’s love, as He promises, we can love our enemies, as well as those who love us. This should make us stop and think. When someone hates you, they expect that you will hate them in return. If, instead, we love them, there is the possibility that they may be changed, as their hatred is met with love and kindness and patience and forgiveness. If we do so, we are like God, Who has loved us when we hated Him, Who has blessed us when we were His enemies. And if we strive to love everyone, we are like God, Who is merciful to the unthankful and to those who are evil – as we have been, and are, each time we sin.

Brothers and sisters: Let us repent of our sins, and return to the worship of the God Who has shown the depth of His love for us by the sacrifice He made of Himself on our behalf. Let us love our Lord with the fullness of our being; and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. If we do these things, we need have no fear on the great and terrible Day of Judgment; for we shall be safe in the love of God.

"Depart from Me, O Lord"

(18th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 5:1-11)

“Well, when I get to heaven, I’ll explain it to God, and He’ll understand, and I will be forgiven.”

Maybe you know someone who has said something like that – or maybe you have said something like that. It’s probably a comforting thought to many; but, if you ask me, I think that, when we are summoned into the presence of God to give an account of our lives, we will find ourselves unable to speak, confronted as we will be with the fullness of the glory and majesty and righteousness of God. If we can say anything at all, it will probably be along the lines of what St. Peter says to our Lord after witnessing the miraculous catch of fish: “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

St. Paul, in his epistle to the Church in Rome, wrote to say that all of us have sinned, and so we have fallen short of the glory of God. Christ alone is without sin; the only human being to have lived without sinning. Now, you might say, “Well, His human nature was joined to Him in His divinity – so of course He did not sin!” That’s another way of saying, “Well, it was easy for Him!” That’s not true, of course. He was tempted as we are tempted; He knew every human weakness, every human desire – and overcame them. How? I’m sure that the absolute holiness and righteousness that God possesses by nature was part of the source of power our Lord Jesus used to live without sinning. But the greatest part of His power came through His obedience to the commandment He also gave to us: to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength; and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Above all, it was His love for God the Father that allowed our Lord to overcome sin.

What does this mean for us? It means that we have a path we can follow, if we will choose to do the same. Think about it. It is true that we did not come down from heaven and become incarnate, so we do not have a divine nature by the natural order of things. We are not holy and righteous by nature. However, we have been given grace to accomplish what is not ours by birth; we have been given the life of Christ in our Baptism, and the power of the Holy Spirit in chrismation. And we have the commandment to love God, and to love our neighbor. This means that the only thing that keeps us from fulfilling what has been established in us is our love for the pleasures of this world, and the desires of our flesh. We love ourselves more than we love God; because if the reverse were true, it would mean more for us to choose the way of holiness than the way of sin. We love ourselves more than we love our neighbor; because if the reverse were true, we would not murder them, or steal from them, or desire what they have; we would not speak harshly to them, or about them; we would consider ourselves to be better, more worthy, or more entitled to fame and power and prestige than they are. And so all we can say, in the light of truth, is that we are sinners – and that the Lord would do well to depart from us.

But there’s good news. God, holy and righteous, has not departed from us, nor turned His back on us. Rather, He has come into our midst, and desires us to come to Him. It is His love for us that brings Him to us. It is His love for us that forgives our sins, and blesses us with the grace by which our lives are changed. It is His love for us that transforms us more and more into the likeness of His Beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters: Let us consider the holiness of God, and how far we fall from showing His likeness. Let us, with St. Peter, confess ourselves to be sinners. Let us remember the love of God that saves us; and let us walk in His ways as an offering of ourselves in love to Him – to the glory of God, and the salvation of ou

Persistence and Diligence

(17th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matt. 15:21-28; Matt, 13:44-54)

If we had to “boil down” the thrust of the two readings today from the Gospel of St. Matthew into a key word for each, I’d suggest that these key words would be persistence and diligence. Persistence and diligence. (I hope you’re paying attention, because there’s going to be a quiz later.)

In the first passage, the Canaanite woman has a request she very much wants our Lord to grant – she wants Him to heal her daughter, who is ill. Here is our lesson in persistence: Although she does not initially receive a favorable response to her entreaties, either of our Lord or of His disciples, she persists. By the way, there are two levels of persistence here. She does not stop seeking what she desires – she persists in asking; but, more importantly, she does not lose faith, but rather persists in her knowledge that the Lord cis able to grant her request. It is her persistence above all in her faith that finally leads her to obtain the healing of her daughter.

In the second passage, our Lord tells us about the kingdom of heaven, and of how we should value it. The treasure in the field is the proclamation of the Kingdom of heaven in the world; and the pearl of great value is the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. In each case, those who are wise, when they recognize that these treasures can be theirs, give up everything they have in order to obtain the desired treasure.

We have the same opportunity – indeed, as Orthodox Christians, we are already heirs of the kingdom. The pearl of great value, the knowledge of Christ, has already been entrusted to us – but do we truly regard these great riches as we should? For, if we did, we would know that we, also, are called to give up everything we have in order to obtain the reality of the rich inheritance that is ours. This means that we must lay aside all earthly cares; all our possessions; all of the power and prestige and influence we may have – anything that holds us and binds us to this life, to this world. We must let all these things go, and embrace the Orthodox life – through prayer, and fasting, through giving, and through the struggle to replace our passions with the godly virtues – and we must persist in this way of life. It is not enough to pray once, or fast once, or give once, or struggle only for a day, or an hour, or a moment. The Orthodox way of life is one in which we must persist, if we hope to be transformed, and take on more fully the likeness of Christ in us.

Having spoken of the riches of the kingdom, our Lord then speaks of the need for diligence, when He tells the parable of the kingdom as a net cast into the sea, which makes a great catch of fish. After the net is brought in, the fish are sorted, with those that are good being kept, but those that are not being cast out, thrown into the fire. Now, you may ask, what is the basis for distinguishing a good fish from a bad fish? The fathers tell us that this separation of the good from the bad speaks to us of the great and terrible Day of Judgment; and that it is not enough to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, not enough merely to say this – for, by our deeds, by the way we live our lives each day, we “say” much more than we express in words. And so we must be diligent to examine ourselves, and to see if what we do is consistent with what we say when we say we believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. This pearl of great value, our Lord Jesus, should transform us, and we should live in a way that models His life in our own. He is humble, patient, slow to become angry, quick to forgive, and, above all, filled with a love for God that cannot be contained, but instead is a river flowing with love for us, made in the image and likeness of God. Do we live like that? Are we humble, or are we given to pride? Are we patient, or do we want our own way, right away? Are we slow to become angry? Are we quick to forgive? Do we love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength? Do we love our neighbors as we love ourselves? We must be diligent. We must examine ourselves regularly, and when we find that we have not been faithful bearers of Christ in ourselves in the world, we must repent, and confess, and seek once more God’s help and grace to be less of who we were, and more like Him Who dwells in us. We must be diligent; and we must persist in this diligence.

Brothers and sisters, loved by God: Let us give thanks to God for His mercy and grace and love given to us, unworthy and sinful as we are. Let us give thanks that the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ has been entrusted to us; and let us so value this knowledge that we may persist in following the Orthodox way of life, and be diligent about examining ourselves as we do so; that we may be transformed more and more into His likeness – to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Protection of the Theotokos

(Protection of the Most Holy Lady Theotokos) (Luke 10:38-42, 11:27-28)

At the end of today’s Gospel reading from St. Luke, we hear a woman in the crowd say to our Lord, “Blessed is the womb that bore Thee, and the breasts which Thou didst suck.” Our Lord replies that it is those who hear the word of God, and keep it, that are blessed.

This passage, together with one found in the Gospels of Ss. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, where our Lord is told that His mother and brothers are outside waiting for Him, and He replies that His mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God, and do it, are often cited by many in the protestant groups as evidence that we should not give any special honor to the most holy Theotokos, and should not offer prayers to her. Likewise, they would say, of the account in the Gospel of St. John the Theologian of our Lord on the Cross, committing the care of His mother to the disciple whom He loved, that this referred only to St. John. Of course, our Lord did, indeed, commit the care of His mother to St. John, who took her into his own home from that time forward; but it can equally be argued that the “disciple whom He loves” is also each one who hears the word of God, and keeps it, and lives according to it. As such, the care of His mother, the most holy Theotokos, has been committed to each of us; and it is the great teaching and practice of the Orthodox Church to love and honor the most holy Mother of God.

What mother would not have love for anyone who loves and respects her son? What mother would not do anything in her power on behalf of those who honor and obey her son? I am speaking in human terms, of an ordinary relationship between a mother and her son. If we, being sinful, know how to love and help those who honor those near and dear to us, why would this be any different of the most holy Theotokos? She is worthy of our respect and veneration, because she yielded herself completely, in the fullness of her being, body, mind, and spirit, to the will of God. She is worthy of our respect and veneration because of the virtuous life she lived in preparation for this service, and after the birth of our Lord. She is honored and loved by Her son, our Lord Jesus Christ; and why would He object if we also love and honor her? After all, in doing so, we do nothing more than follow His example. And her response, among others, is to intercede for us who love her Son, and to offer her protection to us, as we celebrate this day.

Brothers and sisters: Let us keep this festival with joy and thanksgiving for the protection of the most holy Theotokos. Let us join her in loving and honoring her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ; and let us give thanks for her prayers for our deliverance, and our salvation.

You and Your Talents

(16th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 25:14-30)

How many talents has your Master entrusted to you? How have you put those talents to work for Him?

We do well to ponder these questions for ourselves, because we will one day be called into His presence to give an account for all that we have done. Now, I don’t know about you, but, for myself, I’d much rather hear Him say to me, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Does anyone want to be called a wicked and slothful servant? But if we don’t consider how we use the blessings that God has given to us, we have, in effect, buried our talent in the earth; and will find ourselves judged, as was the servant who had been entrusted with one talent.

Because the “talent” spoken of in the parable has monetary value, we can, and should, and must, speak about how we use the material resources with which God has provided us. In our Orthodox life of prayer, and fasting, and struggling to acquire the virtues, there is also the component of giving – that is, of using the material resources (sometimes called “time” and “treasure”) we have for the work of God. Scripture speaks to us of the need for us to give tithes and offerings: giving our tithe – 10% – to support the work and operations of the Church; and making offerings for the needs of others. Are you tithing to support the church? If not, why not? Are you giving to feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked? If not, why not? This is certainly one aspect of understanding this parable of the talents in our world today.

Consider all that the Lord has given to you. Not sure what that might be? Well, let’s make a list. It’s not a comprehensive list – I can’t give you all the answers! But we can certainly cover a few of the more important gifts each of us has received.

To begin with, God has given you your life. You didn’t have to exist, you know! God, for the sake of His love, has called each one of us into existence, and desires that we might enter into a relationship with Him – one that He intends will never end. And, in giving us life, He has done so in a way that establishes His image in us – a very significant action. (We’ll come back to this point later.)

In giving you life, God has also given you the power to believe. Our power to believe is an amazing one: partly residing in our hearts, and partly in our minds; and being as well an act of our will. We then go forth and act in accordance with what we believe; and to help us in this, God has revealed Himself to us: in nature, where we can see the work of His hands; in Scripture, where we learn of His mighty acts; and through our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, made flesh for our salvation. When we believe the testimony of nature, and the Bible, and of the Holy Church, our belief leads us to have faith; and it is by faith that we are saved, for faith impels us to examine our lives, and repent of our sins, and to seek to be transformed, that we might save our lives.

God, we said, in giving us life, has also made us in His image. This tells us something else about the talents we have received. The Holy Apostle and Evangelist, St. John the Theologian, whose repose is commemorated on this day, tells us that, “God is love.” For us, then, to live in the image, and after the likeness, of God, we must love.
Sometimes, it is easy to love. As a general rule, we love our families: husbands and wives love each other; parents and children love each other; brothers and sisters love each other. Even when relations are strained, or even broken, there is always the hope that the love once there will be renewed. It is also easy, for the most part, to love those who are similar to us. This is one of the things that make the Church so much like a family: we’re all in this together, and have chosen to travel in the same direction along the same path. It’s not as easy to love those who hate us, or reject us, or make fun of us, or ignore us – and yet God loves each one of us even when we sin against Him, or against each other. Forgiveness is only possible with love; restoration to each other is only possible with love; we can only be true to ourselves when we love; we can only resemble God by love. God loves us even when we are unlovely, and unlovable; and if we could only realize some part of the incredible depths of God’s love for us, we would be ashamed of how shallow our own lives are; and be moved to be instead vessels of God’s love, poured out into the world on behalf of all, and for all.

Brothers and sisters: There are no greater riches than the love of God for us. He has given us His love, and has entrusted this treasure, this “talent,” this ability to love and care for each other in His name, and on His behalf, to each of us. Let us put this, and all our other time and abilities into service to Him Who loves us with a most incredible love. Let us love one another, as Christ loves us and gave Himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Taking Up the Cross for Love

(15th Sunday after Pentecost)

What made it possible for our Lord Jesus Christ to take up His Cross, and die for us? Love. It is the love between God the Father and God the Son that enabled our Lord, in His hour of struggle, to say, “Not my will, but thine, be done,” and for the Son to be obedient to the Father to accomplish our deliverance from sin and death. It is the love of God for us, the work of His hands, that caused Him id not depart from us, but rather to come and dwell in our midst, identifying Himself with us completely by joining our nature to His own. His coming and His Cross are empowered by love.

What made it possible for the martyrs to endure suffering and death rather than denying that Jesus Christ is Lord? It was their love for God that led the holy martyrs Trophimus and Sabbatius to reject their high positions in this world and to be faithful to our Lord during a time of persecution. It was the love for those to whom we are joined in the faith that led the martyr Dorymedon to tend to the wounds of Trophimus and Sabbatius during their time of torture, which led to his own martyrdom. Faithfulness and tenderness are empowered by love.

In the two Gospel readings appointed for today, we hear how it is necessary for us to fulfill the Summary of the Law; and to take up our cross and follow the Lord. You know the Summary: “Love the Lord your God will all your heart and soul and mind and strength; and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Our Lord fulfills both these teachings by taking His Cross, an act of love for God and for us, whom God has made His neighbors by living among us. The martyrs fulfill these teachings, loving God more than they loved life in this world, and caring for each other, even at the risk of death. Without love for God, it is impossible for us to take up our cross and follow Him; without love for God, it is impossible for us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

What about us? Can we honestly say that we love God? Perhaps your answer will be like mine: I love God, but not with all my heart and soul and mind and strength; I love God, but I also love myself, and I am still attached to many pleasures of this life and world, and must struggle when the time comes to give them up, and I often fail in the time of trial. Perhaps your answer might be like mine: I love my neighbor, but I love myself more.

Every time we choose the ways of this world instead of the way of God – every time we sin – we show that our love for God is incomplete. Wealth, comfort, power, fame – these lead us to greed, and laziness, and pride; and, ultimately loving ourselves more than we love God. Every time we allow ourselves to become angry, such as when we get cut off in traffic; every time we become impatient or irritated, or we don’t get our own way; in all these things, we show that we do not love our neighbors as well as we love ourselves. What about us? Can we honestly say that we love God? Without love for God, it is impossible for us to take up our cross and follow Him; without love for God, it is impossible for us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

We show our love for God when we take up our cross: when we dedicate ourselves to serving God by laboring to be transformed increasingly in His likeness through the way of life of the Orthodox Church – through prayer and fasting and giving and struggle. We show our love for God when we take up the cross of humbling ourselves, setting ourselves aside, and considering others as more important, and more worthy of love and respect, than we think we are, ourselves. It is not easy; but when we recognize that we are loved by God, and truly believe in the power of His love for us, then the task becomes one that is worth the effort – and you are truly, deeply loved by God.

Brothers and sisters, beloved of God: let us show our love for God by caring for each other, and considering others more worthy than ourselves. Let us show our love for God by taking up our cross, and following faithfully the way of life given to us in His Church. With us, in our strength alone, this is impossible; but we will succeed through the power of His love.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

By This Sign Conquer

(The Exaltation of the Cross) (John 19:6-11a, 13-20, 25-28a, 30b-35)

It is said that the Emperor Constantine, as he was preparing his troops for the battle that would make him the ruler of the western part of the Roman Empire, had a vision of a Cross of brilliant light superimposed upon the sun; and he heard a voice say to him, “By this sign you will conquer.” He ordered his men to put the sign of the Cross on their shields; and he was, indeed, victorious in battle that day. The Emperor, a pagan at that time, later issued the Edict of Milan, which ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire; and he would also summon the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 to put to an end the dissension in the Church aroused by the heretical teachings of Arius. He became a Christian as his death drew near; and the Church recognizes him as St. Constantine the Great.

When the Empress Helena, Constantine’s mother, went to Jerusalem to find the Cross of our Lord, it was discovered that the site of our Lord’s Crucifixion had been covered by a temple to the Goddess Diana. Excavating the site, three crosses were found. How would it be possible to determine the True Cross? The Patriarch Macarius was able to discern a way. As a funeral procession passed by, he directed that the person being taken to be buried be placed on each cross. With the first two, there was no effect; but, when the corpse was placed on the Cross of our Lord, life was immediately restored to that person. After that, a woman who was ill was placed on the Cross, and she was healed. In this way, the True Cross was revealed, and was venerated by all as the precious and holy life-giving Cross..

We may not ever see a vision. We may never hear a voice tell us anything. But we must know this: By this sign, the sign of the Cross, we are able to conquer in every battle that we face. The sign of the Cross wounds the demons, and drives them far from us; and so, when we are tempted, we have as part of our defensive arsenal the sign of the Cross. When we are afraid, we make the sign of the Cross, remembering that we do not achieve anything by our own strength, but only by the strength of Him Who dwells in us. When we have sinned, we make the sign of the Cross, remembering Him Who died on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins, and so we can be helped to repent and confess. By this, by confessing and repenting, and by using the power of the sign of the Cross in our own lives, we too conquer death; we, too, are raised from death to life by the power of the holy and life-giving Cross.

Brothers and sisters: As we keep this solemn feast day, let us give thanks that our Lord Jesus Christ gave Himself for us on the Cross; and let us give thanks that, in the sign of the Cross, we have a weapon to use against the demons, against our weakness, and against our sins, that we might have life, and have it in abundance.

What is This Thing Called Love?

(14th Sunday after Pentecost) (John 3:13-17)

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

What is this thing called love? Most of us would probably define love as a feeling: whether as an attraction to someone, or of affection, or of caring for someone. In our culture today, we talk about love as a feeling that can be overwhelming, and irresistible. Elvis said, “I can’t help falling in love with you.” But love based on feelings can be deceptive: what happens when the attraction fades, when the circumstances change; what happens “after the love is gone?” Is this the love that St. John the Theologian was talking about when he wrote of God’s love?

I’ve heard it said that the Greeks had five different words that we translate into English as “love.” I don’t know about five; but I am familiar with three: eros, which denotes “sexual love”; philos, which is usually translated as “brotherly love,” or, perhaps, that love that exists between friends – a “friendly love,” which is not sexual in nature; and agape, which might be defined, in one word, as “benevolence” – to be full of good will towards another, and to show this good will in word and in deed. In a way, eros and agape are opposites: both generating very strong thoughts and feelings, but where eros is physical or sexual, agape is spiritual, rather than physical. Eros is the type of love that makes you feel as if you will die if it isn’t expressed or returned; but only agape can describe the love for another that makes it possible for us to die on their behalf. It is this love, agape, which St. John the Theologian speaks of to tell us of God’s love for us.

St. Paul writes in a similar way, “But God shows His love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) This love is not a “feeling” – it is a choice. God, for whatever reason, despite our rejection of Him, despite our unworthiness, despite the fact that our sins have made us unlovely, and unlovable, chooses to love us; and in that act of love, gives that which is truly lovely, and truly loveable, His only-begotten Son, so that we might be transformed from enemies of God into His friends; transformed from being sinners into saints; transformed from a death-directed existence into persons who will live a life without death, dwelling in His kingdom in an unbroken and unending relationship of love so intense that we cannot begin to speak of it. Speaking for myself, I think we can only begin to appreciate the fire of God’s love for us by grasping the intensity of love as eros; and somehow moving from its sexual intensity to a spiritual intensity, as agape. The intensity of the love that attracts us to each other, bonding men and women together as husbands and wives, leads us from a love that begins by filling a need within us to becoming a love in which we can give all that we have, and all that we are, for the benefit of the person we love – taking this love beyond husband and wife, and becoming the love that exists between parents and children; from which then can flow love for our extended families, and our family in Christ – and ultimately to love for God, so that we can fulfill our Lord’s commandment to love the Lord our God, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

So there is good news for us: we are loved. Each and every one of us is loved by God. No matter what you have done, no matter how you have sinned, God loves you, and desires that you share with Him in a relationship of love; which will never end, never grow cold, never be dull. It is not a feeling; it is a choice that God has made, to offer Himself to us in love; and a choice we must make, to offer ourselves to Him in love. This is the only reason for us to pay attention to His commandments, to keep His laws: not as a duty; not to avoid punishment – for these reasons cannot give us the strength to persist when the way becomes difficult. We can only hope to succeed in following the path of the life of prayer and fasting and giving and spiritual struggle because we choose to love God more than we love the pleasures of this world, and the momentary and illusive and ultimately empty pleasures of our sins.

Brothers and sisters: Let us love one another, as Christ loved us, and gave Himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God. Let us love God with all the fullness of our being; and let us love and care for each other, choosing to do so with the love of God, and no thought of gain or advantage for ourselves. By doing so, we find God’s love for us; and so be set free to love Him, and each other, in return.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Tending His Vineyard

(13th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 21:33-42)

When our Lord speaks in parables, He is using familiar imagery to allow us to see more deeply into the reality of our existence. In today’s Gospel reading, He tells a story about a man who, in today’s terms, makes an investment by planting, and making other improvements to, a vineyard. He then rents his property, and goes to a far country. As the harvest time comes, he sends his representatives to collect the rent, deferred until the harvest is in. But instead of paying the rent, the tenants drive off the representatives, beating one, stoning another, and killing another.

Now, at this point, we would have called the police – probably even before this point. But the property owner decides that he will send his son as his representative, thinking that the people who had done business with him would respect his presence in the person of his son. Instead, the tenants say among themselves, “Look, here is his son. Let us kill him, and take this property, which is his inheritance.” And so they seize the son, drag him out of the vineyard, and kill him.

Of course, we recognize that the son who is killed is our Lord speaking about Himself, the Son of God; He is speaking of His own death. The deeper truth, then, is that this is a parable about the world. The fathers tell us that the man who plants the vineyard is God Who, in His love for man, calls Himself a man. The vineyard is the Jewish people, planted – that is to say – established by God in the land He promised to them. The hedge may be understood to be the Law He gave to guide them, or the holy angels He set to guard them. The winepress is the altar; the tower is the temple. Those who tend the vineyard are the teachers of the people, the scribes and Pharisees. We are also meant to understand that the “far country” to which the owner departs represents the long-suffering patience of God, when evil increases, and it seems that God is absent. The representatives who were sent are the prophets; and the son sent, of course, is His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The tenants, who were meant to receive the Son on behalf of the vineyard, the people of God under the old covenant, crucified Him; and as a result, they were destroyed; and the vineyard was rented to new tenants, to the apostles, and to those who teach the apostolic faith.

Thus, on the one hand, we have received the inheritance spoken of; but, on the other hand, we are also responsible for delivering to the landlord His portion of the fruit of the vineyard. There are a number of levels we should understand in what we are meant to give to the Lord. Probably the most obvious is in terms of rent: when we pay rent, we are doing so in money; and so we can see the need to give our tithe to the church, and to make offerings for the needs of others. Money, of course, is usually the result of our labors, using our time and our talents; and so these, too, are meant to be placed at the service of the Lord. Among the demands upon our time is the need for prayer, and to gather to worship the Lord. Finally, at the deepest level, we are speaking of love: for all our giving of money or time or effort, all our prayers, all our worship, are empty and meaningless is not rising from a love for the Lord Who loves us, and without love for each other – a love that is patient and long-suffering and forgiving of offenses, and understanding of weakness. We have been planted as a vineyard in God’s love. We have been surrounded and protected by the hedge of God’s love. We have been raised up to see visions of the heavenly country by the tower of God’s love. We have in our midst the altar where God shows His love for us by giving Himself for us, and giving Himself to us in the bread and wine that He blesses to be His Body and Blood. And we have each other, a vineyard to be cared for in love – love for God, and for each other.

Brothers and sisters, the vineyard of God: Let us love one another, as Christ loves us, and gave Himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God. Let us worship God, giving thanks for His love; and let us care for each other, as we are His Body; and let us love those who have not yet been joined to Him, that, by seeing our love, they may see Him, and so come to Him, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Is Anybody Reading These?

OK, so, it's not like I'm not going to continue to write sermons -- at least, not as long as I am permitted to serve as a priest in the Church. And, having written them down (which I do to clarify my thoughts, such as they are, and cut down on the amount of rambling that takes place while actually preaching!), it really doesn't take much time to post them here; nor does it cost anything, as this is a free site. (I do have Scottish blood in my background after all. Not cheap -- thrifty!)

Still, there's no need to consume bandwidth if no one reads these poor and humble offerings. Even so, I guess I'm betraying some level of pride in wanting people to read these sermons, and even more, to comment on them...

Comments, anyone?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

(11th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 19:16-26)

Four years ago today, terrorists attacked New York City and Washington, D.C. Thousands of people were killed. We are still living with the aftermath today.

Two weeks ago today, Hurricane Katrina came ashore in the central Gulf Coast. Hundreds of people were killed; perhaps thousands. We will be living with the aftermath of this storm for years to come.

If nothing else, the remembrance of these events should stir us to consider anew the question with which the rich young man approaches our Lord Jesus Christ: What good thing shall I do, that I may inherit eternal life? This is in keeping with the instruction we have from the Fathers, who teach us that we must, without becoming obsessed with the idea, be ever mindful of the reality that each of us will, one day, depart from this life, and come into the presence of God, to give an account of how we lived, and be judged on that basis.

Who among us can say, with the rich young man, that we have kept all of the commandments of God from our youth? Who among us is not concerned at all about the things of this world, about ease and comfort that requires us to have many things? Such people are exceedingly rare. Now, you might say, “Father, I’m not rich.” Well, maybe you’re not like an actress I read about recently who, when she travels, requires a hotel room for her shoes, in addition to the suite she stays in (at a price of $3,500 a day); and who, while waiting for her luggage at an airport, had her purse stolen from her – with $200,000 of jewelry in it. OK, no one here is rich in that sense; but, in comparison to most of the people who have lived, and most of the people living now, we are rich: we live more comfortably, with more convenience and leisure, than most people have ever experienced. It is the material prosperity of our country and culture that leads people to hide in packing crates and shipping containers, or to walk through the desert, in an attempt to enter this country, and partake of the lifestyle we take for granted, all the while thinking that we need more before we can call ourselves, “rich.”

What must I do to inherit eternal life? Our Lord gives the rich young man the bottom line: Give up all that you have to benefit those in need, and follow me. Some of us are called to this ascetic path today – to give up everything, and follow Christ. Most of us are not capable of doing this in a literal way: if nothing else, we have others who are dependent upon us to provide them with the things necessary for life; we are not free to sell everything we have, and enter a monastery, or devote ourselves entirely to ministering to those in need. But we must still follow Christ; and we have, in the Orthodox way of life, the path and the means to do this. We must pray; we must fast; we must struggle against our passions, and labor to replace them with their opposing virtues – and we must give, so as to set ourselves free, at least in some way, from our possessions. We are called to give our tithes for the support of the Church; and we are called to make offerings for those in need – such as those who have lost everything in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Maybe we can’t yet part with every earthly possession; but we can make tithes and offerings, and so begin to do at least part of what is needed to allow us to follow Christ, rather than depart from Him in sorrow, as did the rich young man, whose possessions, we are told, were great.

Brothers and sisters: We do not know at what hour our life in this world will come to an end; and so we must develop in ourselves a sense that urgent preparation is needed, lest that day be today, and we be found lacking in what God requires of us. What must we do to inherit eternal life? We must confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and God, and Savior; and this, not only in word, but also in deed. We must direct our lives so that what we say and what we do testify alike to the reality that Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives, and we are His servants. As His servants, we must do what He does: live without sin, and confessing our sins when we fall; we must be patient, and merciful, humble; we must love our neighbors, and so desire their salvation that we are willing to give of ourselves, of our time, our talents, and our treasures – that the hungry may be fed, the naked clothes, the homeless sheltered, and the sick and the prisoners be comforted. Our Lord calls us, as He called the rich young man: Be free of all your earthly possessions, and come, and follow Me.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Death and the Dormition

(10th Sunday after Pentecost) (The Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos)

Here’s a news flash: Unless the Lord returns before it happens, we are all, one day, going to die. Our life in this world will come to an end. We all know this, of course; but we don’t always live as we should in the light of this knowledge. The Fathers tell us that this thought should always be uppermost in our minds, and that it should guide every thought, every word, every deed.

Today the Church celebrates the Dormition of our Lady Theotokos; the day she “fell asleep” in the Lord, the day she departed from this life – the day she died. As we can be instructed by her life, we can also be instructed by her departing from this life. After the Crucifixion of her Son, she lived with the apostle John, to whose care He had given her. She rejoiced in the apostles, and often went to pray at the places that had been the location of significant events in the life and ministry of our Lord. Chief among these were the Mount of Olives, and Golgotha. In her old age, her prayers, especially in these two places, were to be released from this life. These prayers however, also included the fervent request that, when her soul and body were parted, that she be spared the darkness and its terrors and punishment; and that she might not encounter the power of Satan, but be delivered from the accusations brought against her.

This should make us stop and think. If the one who gave birth to our Lord Jesus Christ, Who broke the gates of hell and trampled down death by death felt the need to pray for such protection, what about us, who are sinners? If she, whom we say is “…without corruption” – that is, without sin – “gavest birth to God the Word,” needed to pray for deliverance, what about us, who are sinners? In the same humility which, at the time of the Annunciation, led her to proclaim herself as the handmaiden of the Lord, at the time of her death, she did not put any value upon the role she had fulfilled as the Birth-giver of God, but instead entrusted herself to the mercy of God, and not in her works. She was mindful of death; she took no pleasure in this world, but desired instead the world to come; she prepared herself for the day of her departure from this life; and she prayed for mercy.

Can we do any less than our glorious Lady Theotokos? We, too, must be mindful of death. We should remember that the life in this world is temporary, and so not allow ourselves to be attached to any of its pleasures. We should prepare ourselves for the great and terrible Day of Judgment, and repent, and do all that is within our power to do the will of God, and turn away from the passions and the weakness and wickedness of our flesh. We should do all that is within our power to be faithful in prayer, and in fasting, in giving alms, and in struggling to acquire the godly virtues, if only to prepare for the day of our death; and we should always pray for God’s mercy, especially at the time of death: for ourselves, for those whom we love, for all Orthodox Christians, and for all who are made in the image of God.

Brother and sisters, called to be saints: Let us commit ourselves, and one another, and all our life, into Christ our God. Let us follow the example of the life and prayers of our most holy, most pure, most blessed, glorious Lady Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary. Let us be mindful of death, and be instructed by her Dormition, so that we also will prepare ourselves for that day; to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

We Are Also in the Boat

(9th Sunday after Pentecost) (August 21, 2005)

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew is a familiar story. Having miraculously fed five thousand men, as well as women and children, with five loaves and two fish, our Lord sends His disciples ahead by boat, while He goes by Himself to a mountaintop to pray. As night falls, the boat, in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, is being tossed by wind and waves. In the fourth watch, our Lord comes to His disciples, walking on the water; but they mistake Him for a spirit, not recognizing Him – hardly surprising, given that He is walking on the water! He calls to encourage them; and St. Peter, filled with excitement, says, “Lord, if You will, command me to come to you on the water.” Our Lord says, “Come, “ and St. Peter steps out of the boat and walks on the water – at least, while his attention is fixed on the Lord. As soon as he turns his attention to the action of wind and waves, he begins to sink, and cries out for the Lord to save him. He does so, while commenting, “O ye of little faith, why did you doubt?” The disciples worship Him when He enters the boat, for they recognize that He is, indeed, the Son of God.

That’s a dramatic story, with very vivid images. I recall one summer many years ago, boating with friends up on Canyon Lake, on the Verde River. It’s a calm, quiet lake; or, it was until a strong thunderstorm developed; and, as the wind grew stronger, the surface of the lake was stirred up, and soon we were facing waves of two to three feet in height as we raced back to the dock ahead of the storm. I can appreciate what the disciples must have been experiencing, out on a much larger body of water for a longer period of time, and at night. In particular, imagine what might have been going through the minds of those who were not experienced sailors; and Peter and Andrew and James and John, all experienced fishermen, must have been busy trying to keep the boat safe and on course. You can’t earn your living on the water, as fishermen do, without knowing of friends and colleagues lost by shipwreck and storm, washed overboard, and drowned. To me, this makes Peter’s act of getting out of the boat all that more significant. He had to know the risks involved, and yet his love for the Lord, and his faith in Him – and Peter did have faith, or else he could never have tried to step out of the boat – overcome his fears; at least, for a moment.

On one level, this story reveals the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the master of the earthly realm, able even to walk on water. It would probably help us to remember that we are also disciples, followers of the Lord. This means that we are also in the boat.

The fathers tell us that one way we can understand this story is to see that the boat in which the disciples are traveling is the world; while the waves are our passions, troubled by the winds, the actions of the evil spirits, the demons; and the night stands for our ignorance. Unlike the disciples in the story, we have Christ, the Light of the world, dwelling in us; and yet every time we choose to follow our passions, our sinful desires, instead of the ways of God, we blind ourselves to the Light, and choose to dwell in darkness. Because we do not seek the light as we should – by prayer, and fasting, by giving alms, and by struggling to overcome our passions – we are ignorant, and we do not always recognize our Lord when He draws near to us. As a result, we do not take the step of faith that would lead us to become more than who we are, and that would show forth Christ in our lives.

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: Do you have faith? Do you believe? Is Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who has died in our place, and risen from the dead, trampling down death by death? If we truly believe that we are loved by God, and that He has saved us, and lives in us, and that He has given us power to be transformed more and more into His likeness, let us live in such a way that we show this belief, this trust, this faith, not only in what we say, but also in what we do. Let us pray; let us fast; let us give; and let us labor to replace our passions with the God-pleasing virtues. As we do so, we will find our thoughts and desires turning to Him, instead of clinging to the world; and we will be able to walk on the waves, no matter how great the storm – to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.