Monday, July 17, 2006

Shaped by the Life of the Church

(Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia)

We remember today the execution of the Tsar-Martyr Nikolai and his family and attendants, murdered at the hands of the God-fighting Bolsheviks, who would lead Russia into a period of the most intense persecution that the Church, so far, has had to endure in all her history.

It is worth our taking a few minutes to consider the lives, and deaths, of the Tsar-Martyr and those martyred with him, including his immediate family, those who remained with him out of loyalty, and other members of the royal family. Tsar Nikolai II was the absolute monarch of one-sixth of the world, with great power and incredible wealth at his disposal. Considered in one way, of course, he and his family had access to comfort and luxury beyond what almost anyone has ever experienced – and yet, they did not give themselves over to a materialistic way of life. Instead, they allowed themselves to be shaped by the life of the Church. They were faithful in prayers, both by attending the worship services of the Church, and in their own private devotions. They kept the fasts. They gave alms for those in need, and made offerings for the work of the Church. They were not perfect; but they were striving for perfection by living an Orthodox life; and, when the Tsar was forced to abdicate his throne, and he and all his family were forced to endure arrest, and deprivations, and insults, they did not lose themselves in hatred or fighting, but endured their sufferings with humility, patience, and meekness, trusting, as they had always done, that, even as the sovereign of Russia, their lives were subject to the Lord, and they were called to do His will. This humility influenced many of those who were their captors; and even in death, they did not cease to show forth the suffering of Christ.

Apart from the positions they occupied in life and those in which we find ourselves, were the Royal Martyrs of Russia any different from us? The answer, of course, is, “No.” They, like us, were subject to many temptations. They, like us, had hopes and dreams and fears. They, like us, were subject to illness, and the acts of others had consequences for them, as also for us.

So, brothers and sisters, as we keep this day, let us consider whether we, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, are serving God as did the Royal Martyrs of Russia. How do we endure suffering? How do we respond to those who hate us, or wrong us, knowingly or unknowingly? Would anyone say of our lives that we meet adversities and insults with patience, humility, and meekness? Would anyone say of us that, by our labors to live an Orthodox life, we caused them to see Christ in our midst, and so helped transform their life as well as ours? If no one would say these things about us, why is this so? And what must we do to change, so that Christ can be seen in and through us, as He can be seen in the lives and deaths of the Royal Martyrs of Russia?

Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia, pray to God for us!

Fasting, Feasting and the Gadarene Swine

(5th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 8:28-9:1)
Today the Church remembers the life and martyrdom of St. Hyacinthus of Caesarea. He was an attendant in the court of the Emperor Trajan; and his faith, which he had kept secret, became known when the Emperor and his court went to offer sacrifices to the gods of Rome. St. Hyacinthus stood apart from making this offering to idols; and so was accused and brought to trial before the Emperor. Trajan urged him to deny Christ and sacrifice to the gods of Rome, but the saint refused to do so, declaring his love and reverence for our Lord, adding that he brought himself to Christ as a living sacrifice. After he had been whipped, spat upon, and flayed, he was thrown into prison. The only food they brought him was food that had been offered to the idols, which St. Hyacinthus refused to eat. He starved to death over a period of eight days; and when they came to take away his body, two shining angels were seen with him, one covering his body in a glorious set of clothing, and the other placing a wreath of glory on his head. The whole prison was filled with a radiant light.

In the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we hear of the people of the region of the Gadarenes, and of a herd of swine being kept there. Of course, the Jews were forbidden to eat meat from swine – but apparently this did not keep them from doing so. This is in stark contrast to the decision made by the holy martyr Hyacinthus, who would not eat food that had been offered to idols.

When we fast, we do not abstain from foods because the foods are poisonous, or dangerous. Fasting has two main components. First, fasting teaches our flesh that it cannot always have what it wants whenever it wants it. In this, fasting is similar to training for participating in an athletic event. We fast in order to bring our flesh – that part of us that is living according to the ways of the world, in opposition to the way of the Holy Spirit – into subjection to our will, which we hope, by God’s grace, is in alignment with the will of God. Thus, fasting is a way to discipline our flesh; to make our flesh obedient to our will, so that, in the fullness of our being, we can be doing what is pleasing to God, and beneficial to the salvation of our souls.

This aspect of obedience exhibited through fasting leads to the second main component: namely, obedience. Even before we grasp the training aspect of fasting, we do well to fast because the Church has told us that this is a practice we need to follow in order to work out our salvation. We do not have to understand every reason why fasting is good in order to be obedient to the instruction of the Church – we just need to obey. This is not a mindless obedience; we should always be studying our faith, and the teachings of the fathers, and the lives of the saints. If we do, we will see they also fasted, in obedience to the Church; and they profited thereby, saving their souls, and being examples of how to do so to others – including us, if we will learn from them. The practice of obedience is an essential step for us to bring our will into conformity to the will of God; so that we may keep His commandments, and so save our souls.

These two components – subjecting the flesh to the will, and learning obedience – are a form of “basic training,” by which we can go from a foundation skill to advancing in spiritual warfare. If we can teach ourselves to abstain from meat, and dairy products, and eggs and even fish during fasting days and seasons, we can also teach ourselves to abstain from the passions that lead us into sins. When we strengthen ourselves by obedience in fasting, we strengthen ourselves to restrain our other appetites – the sources of anger, and hatred, and lust, and envy, and greed, and laziness. And when we make our obedience to the will of God an offering of our love to Him, we enter into the ability to love God with the fullness of our being, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves – and so we gain the ability to keep the Great Commandment which our Lord Jesus Christ gave to us for our salvation.

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: Let us not be like those who, given the command of God to abstain from eating the flesh of swine, chose instead to satisfy the cravings of their flesh, only to lose what they prized because of the demons. Let us instead preserve our holiness through our commitment to Christ, as did the holy martyr Hyacinthus. Let us pray, and give, and struggle against our passions to live a holy life; and let us fast to increase our ability to overcome the passions – to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Holy martyr Hyacinthus, pray to God for us!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Living as Apostles

(Holy Apostles Peter and Paul) (Matthew 16:13-19)

Today we celebrate the Feast of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul. In many ways, these two servants of God are preeminent in the life of the Church and faith. St. Peter preached the first sermon of the Church, on the day of Pentecost, and about 3,000 people came to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The holy Apostle Peter preached the Gospel of our salvation throughout Palestine, and in Asia Minor, and in Rome, where he was crucified upside down (at his own request) at the order of the Emperor Nero. St. Paul is noteworthy for both the many missionary journeys he made in order to bring the good news of our salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ to as many people as possible; and for the letters he wrote, which make up a good portion of the books of the New Testament. Through his writings, he continues to teach the faithful and the seekers, even to this day.

It is good for us to remember and to celebrate the lives and ministries of St. Peter and St. Paul. But I have no doubt that, if we were able to ask them how best we might honor and celebrate them, they would say, “Embrace the life and teachings of the Orthodox Church, and live as witnesses to the love of God in Jesus Christ. Seek the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and love one another, as Christ loves us, and gives Himself for us.”

We may never preach a sermon to 3,000 people. We may never make journeys as missionaries to foreign lands, putting our lives at risk for the sake of bringing light to those in darkness. But we can make a statement with our lives wherever we happen to find ourselves, by living a life that is holy and pure, loving God, and loving and caring for each other in the love of God. We can preach without words to our families, and our friends, to our neighbors, our coworkers, and even to strangers, by not living according to the wisdom of this world, but instead by living according to the way of life set forth for us by the Church. We can meet adversities and need with long-suffering patience, and with prayer – and people will take notice. We can fast, even when the world is not – and people will take notice. We can give from what God has given to us, for the work of the Church, and for those in need – and people will take notice. We can do all in our power to refrain from sin, and from indulging our weaknesses, putting aside anger and hatred, greed, lust – and people will take notice. Some of those who notice will mock us, even hate us – but some will be drawn to find out why we do what we do; and if we are prepared to give them an answer, we will have become like the apostles to them in their need.

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: Let us honor the holy memory of the glorious and all-praised Apostles Peter and Paul by joining them in the awesome task of making Christ known in our words and in our lives, to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Healing: Physical and Spiritual

(4th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 8:5-13)

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew tells us of the Centurion who came to our Lord Jesus Christ to seek from Him the healing of his servant, who was paralyzed. We know that the servant is healed, because our Lord promises that it will be so; and St. Matthew reports that the servant was healed in the same hour – which is to say, at the same time – that our Lord made this promise to the Centurion. If we look more closely, we see that we do not know the faith of the servant; we do not know if he had any idea that Jesus was the Messiah. We should also see that the Centurion was not a member of the household of God, as this was understood at the time. That is to say, he was not a Jew. But he acted on faith; and so obtained what he desired.

On its surface, this is a story about healing – that is to say, the healing (or curing, if you will) – of a physical ailment, and the connection faith has to our physical well-being. Undoubtedly, when we are sick, or feel ourselves getting sick, we pray and ask God to restore us to health. Likewise, when a member of our family, or a friend, or maybe a person prominent in our lives falls ill, we pray for them to be healed. All of these things are good, and proper. We should, indeed, ask these things in prayer, for ourselves, and for others. You’ll note that we pray for those who are ill at each Divine Liturgy. Not only that: we should ask these things with the trust, the faith, that, as our Lord heard the Centurion’s request for the healing of his servant, so, too, will He hear our prayers for healing; and, as He offered to go to the servant with the Centurion, so, too, will He come to us. We may not always obtain what is needed for a return to health as we understand it; but we will always receive what is needed for the salvation of our souls, for this, above all, is what God desires: that we repent of our sins, and turn from the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and walk with Him, in the way He has prepared for us, so that we may enter into life without end in the joy and glory of His presence.

We must also be aware that this Gospel involves more than just physical healing. Our Lord Jesus became incarnate, in part to fix what had become broken and flawed in us as a result of sin, beginning with the sin of Adam and Eve. Each one of us is, in effect, the servant in need of healing, for we are paralyzed by our sins. This is to say that we cannot travel the way God has provided for us because of our sins. As such, in order to make the journey, we must call out to the merciful Lord in repentance, asking the forgiveness of our sins, and for the healing of that which we have weakened, even unto death, by clinging to our passions, rather than embracing the way of life given to us by God through the Church. Of course, we should ask this for ourselves; but we should ask it as well for every other person in our lives: those whom we love, and who love us; and also for those who hate us, or who have offended us. When someone cuts us off in traffic, we should not be provoked to harden our hearts, to anger, or to condemnation of that person. How much better off would we be if we, instead, asked God to forgive and heal and protect that person? And how much better off would we be if those we have hurt or offended, either knowingly or unknowingly, prayed for us to be healed, rather than becoming angry, rather than cursing, rather than condemning?

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: our Lord Jesus Christ is among us today, to heal our wounds, to heal our sicknesses, in body, mind, and spirit. Let us, with faith, draw near to Him in prayer, for our needs, and for the needs of others – to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Being the Family of God

( 3rd Sunday after Pentecost) (Holy Apostle Jude)

Today is the day the Church remembers the holy Apostle Jude, the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ. According to the teaching of the Church. Jude was the youngest of the four sons born to St. Joseph, before the death of his first wife, and his betrothal to the Lady Theotokos and Virgin Mary. It is said that, at the time when St. Joseph was preparing for his death, and he sought to divide his estate among his sons, he desired to give the son of Mary, our Lord Jesus, an equal portion; but the other sons, except for James, objected, and so no portion was given for our Lord. Only James took a portion of his inheritance and gave it to his brother, Jesus. The holy Apostle Jude does not refer to himself as being the brother of the Lord, as does James. He only calls himself the brother of James; undoubtedly ashamed of both his behavior regarding the inheritance; and also his initial lack of faith in the Lord Jesus as Son of God and Savior.

But the good news is that, while the holy Apostle Jude did not believe prior to the Passion and Crucifixion of our Lord, he did become a believer after the Resurrection of his brother from the dead. He proclaimed the good news of our salvation in Christ, and taught the Orthodox faith throughout the Holy Land, and then into Mesopotamia and Armenia. He met his death, crucified, with arrows shot into his body, at the hands of pagans.

What must it have been like, do you think, to have been the brother or sister of our Lord Jesus Christ, as was the holy Apostle Jude? The question isn’t an idle one. After all, while we did not enter this life as members of the household of God, we have become so through being born again of water and the Spirit in being baptized and chrismated. We entered the household, the family, of God. We have a birthright, an inheritance – the kingdom of heaven. Of course, we can renounce this birthright; we do not have to claim it as our own. But if we desire to be the brothers and sisters of the Lord, we must remember that he said that all those who do the will of the Father Who sent Him are his mother and brothers and sisters. This instruction is joined by the direction given to us at the end of the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew: to seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness. If we do so, the promise is that everything else we need will be given to us.

What is the will of God that we must do in order to be considered the family of Christ? How do we seek first the kingdom of God?

It is God’s will that we love Him with the fullness of our being; and that we love each other. Love is patient; love is kind; love does not envy; love is not proud. Love does not serve itself, but rather serves others. Those who love endure much, without thinking evil of those who do wrong, and without being provoked to take any form of revenge. Those who love delight in the truth, and do not live in sins, but struggle against them. In all these things, we see that our Lord Jesus Christ is the supreme example; and we see these qualities as well in the lives of the saints, as in the life of the holy Apostle Jude. To the extent that we do not see these qualities in ourselves – well, each of us has more work to do!

This work begins by embracing the Orthodox way of life. We must pray, so that we may draw closer to God, and spend time with Him, so that we can learn to be more and more like Him, in Whose image we are made, and Whose life we have received. We must fast, so that our flesh, the avenue for so many of our passions, is disciplined and strengthened for the fight against our sins. We must give from the time and talent and treasures entrusted to us by God, so that we may be set free from being attached to this world, and its pleasures and possessions; and we must struggle to overcome our passions and ride, and be more and more like our Lord Jesus, the lover of mankind.

Brothers and sisters, the way to the kingdom, to the household, to the family of God is available to us. Having sinned, let us repent; having sought to take our inheritance from heaven and waste it instead on earthly things, let us choose now to give a portion of what has been given to us for the service of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us love one another, as Christ loves us, and gave Himself for us – to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Let Us Honor His Holy Memory in Our Lives

(St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco) (Luke 6:17-23a)

Today we celebrate the holy hierarch and wonderworker, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. We remember this saint of God, as we do for all the saints commemorated in the church calendar, to give thanks to God for their life and ministry and example; and we should also be reminding ourselves of what is possible in our own lives – that is, we need to remember that we are not different in our being from the saints, except for the ways in which we choose to live.

The time of the saints is not “long ago and far away.” There are saints of all kinds in every age, in all places. We need look no farther than St. John to realize this is true. He reposed in the lord on July 2, 1966 – and many of us were already born at that time; while others who were not are still only a few years removed from the life of this holy man. The Holy Spirit of God is present and active today, as He has been since the day of Pentecost, to enlighten the faithful and lead us into all truth, and closer to God. St. John proves this, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

St. John lived a deeply ascetic life. He did not permit himself to sleep in a bed. Instead, he rested for a few hours while sitting; or fell asleep while prostrate in prayer. He ate only once a day; and during Great Lent, he did not eat at all during the first and last weeks. When he did eat during Great Lent, he ate only the bread that had been blessed in the altar, and some water. He spent hours in prayer. He gave away the money and possessions that had been given to him. He visited the sick. He cared for the widows and the orphans. He went to the Divine Liturgy every day, and received the holy Mysteries of our Lord’s Body and Blood every day. Is it any wonder, then, that he was able to serve God, and to care for the people God entrusted to him, with healings and other miraculous powers?

Not all of us are able to achieve the ascetic life of St. John, for not all of us are called to do so. But we are called to do all we have been given strength to do in our own ascetic struggles. We should be careful about the comforts we desire, for we pursue what we desire – and our flesh wants to be fed and comforted and pampered. We all can do more in prayer than most of us manage to achieve. We can all do more in charitable works, and in charitable giving. We can all do more to worship God, and to love and care for His people, and to make His presence known to those who still dwell in darkness, and in the shadow of death. None of us may ever reach the ascetic heights that St. John attained; but if we will follow his example, and require more of ourselves, we will honor his holy memory; and we also will become better servants of God.

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: Let us magnify our holy father, the hierarch and wonderworker, John of Shanghai and San Francisco. Let us live according to his example; to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Holy hierarch, Father John, pray to God for us!

Being "Orthodox" Does Not Mean Being "Correct"

(Second Sunday after Pentecost) (All Saints of Russia)

Today we celebrate all the saints of the Russian land. Under normal circumstances, during the sermon there would be some mention of particular saints who have lived in Russia, and consideration given to how their life and teachings are essential for us today, far away from Russia by geography and culture, but still very close by virtue of the Orthodox Church and faith and way of life that we have in common with these saints.

But, brothers and sisters, today in our parish, circumstances are far from normal, far from ordinary. I have to tell you that our choir director is not coming back – and, this week, I have learned more about the reasons why this departure has occurred.

We know that words have power. After all, when God created the heavens and the earth, and all that is therein, He did so by the power of His word. When God said, “Let there be light,” there was light. Whatever God spoke came into existence. Similarly, we know that our Lord Jesus Christ healed by the power of His word; He knocked over the soldiers who had come to arrest Him by the power of His word; He raised the dead by the power of His word. But sometimes we forget that our words also have power: the power to help; and the power to hurt.

On the Sunday after the feast of the Ascension of our Lord, our choir director made a mistake. Things were said to her, and things were said about her – and, as a result, she was wounded in her mind, and wounded in her spirit. These words – not the first ones that were critically spoken to her – proved to be too much for her to bear. There are other reasons for her leaving, reasons that are beyond our power to affect – but what was said that day was the final push that drove her out the door, and out of our parish, and, in all probability, out of our lives. Now, in a way, we are suffering as well – and we must accept our responsibility for what has happened.

But it’s more than just the words. Some of us were born and raised in the Orthodox Church; while others of us came from backgrounds and beliefs outside the Church. Each group – cradle and convert – has strengths and weaknesses they bring with them to Church, and to life. But all, if we are serious about the task of saving our souls, appreciate and embrace the Orthodox way of life: of prayer, and fasting; of giving alms and offerings and tithes and sacrifices; and of struggling to overcome our passions, and replace them with the God-pleasing virtues that are their opposites. But none of this matters if we do not love. If we pray without love, our words are empty. If we fast without love, it is nothing more than a diet. If we give all that we have, and it is not done for love, we have gained nothing. If we live perfect lives, lives without sin, making every prostration, keeping every rule – if we do this without love, we are not Orthodox, no matter how correct we may appear to be, no matter how correctly we speak and act. The Orthodox life above all is a life of love: love for God that causes us to cast away every habit, every behavior, every thought and desire, that we know will displease and separate us from the God Who loves us; and a love for each other, for each person who bears the image of God, that sees no wrongs, hears no insults, accepts all blows, without wavering in love. When our sister made her mistake, and we criticized her, we did not love her – and this happens to us all the time. We all do it; we all are guilty; and all of us need to examine ourselves, and repent of our self-love and hardness of heart.

Brothers and sisters, being Orthodox does not consist of being “correct.” To be Orthodox, we must love God, and love each other. Everything we do must be done for love, done to be living in the service of love, and of the God Who is revealed as Love. If we will repent, if we will confess, and if we will strive to live in love, then, and only then will we be one with the saints who dwelt in the Russian land, who are saints because of their love for God – then, and only then, will we be worthy of being called Orthodox Christians.