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!