Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Dinner Invitation: What's Your Excuse?

Today we celebrate the holy forefathers of our Lord Jesus Christ, the patriarchs and the prophets and the other holy men and women from Adam and Eve to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Moses and Joshua, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel up to John the Baptizer, the last of the Old Testament prophets.  When we read the Old Testament, we should do so to learn not only of the history of God’s involvement with us, but also to learn the many ways in which we were being prepared for the coming of Christ.  Yes, we know that the prophets told us of His coming, from the “Suffering Servant” mentioned in the prophecies of Isaiah, and of His miraculous birth, also found in the book of the prophet Isaiah, who foretold that the Virgin would conceive and would bear a child, whose name would be called, “Immanuel” – that is, “God with us.”  But if we read and learn, we may also recognize in Abel a prefiguring of Christ the Good Shepherd, who was the first to offer sacrifice pleasing to God, for which he became the first martyr.  We might learn of the faith of Abraham that led him to depart from his homeland to the place where God would lead him, to give him a home, even as we are called to leave this world behind to follow where God leads, to our true dwelling-place with Him in His kingdom.  We would see the sacrifice of our Lord in the offering of Isaac, we would see the faith of Ruth and Rahab the prostitute, and many, many others, all of whom can teach us about who we are and who we are meant to be as followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, Whose coming fulfilled the promise God made to Adam and Eve even as they were being forced to leave Paradise because of their sin, that a Deliverer would come to set us free from sin and death.  As we draw near to the celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, we do well to prepare ourselves, to learn, and to live as we should.

In the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke, we hear of the man who prepares a great feast, and sends his servants to gather those who had been invited to take part.  But they respond by making excuses as to why they cannot attend; and so the host sends his servants out again and again, to gather the uninvited as guests, even using force to compel them to enter, until the hall has been filled; but, in his anger, he declares that those who had been invited would now be refused entrance to the feast.

What shall we make of this?  Do you realize that a feast has been prepared for you this very day, and that all who desire to take part and have prepared themselves will be fed with the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ?  What excuses have kept you from accepting the invitation today?  It is true, no one will compel you to come today – no one will be forced to come to the feast today, nor next Sunday, nor on the Feast of the Nativity itself – but why do you not come?  Why do you refuse the hospitality of our God, Who desires that we share in His rejoicing in His Son, our Savior?  Brothers and sisters, a day is coming when we will make excuses to not attend His feast, and find that we are no longer welcome.  Let us not harden our hearts, and so risk being denied a place at the great banquet of the kingdom.  Let us prepare ourselves with fasting, confession, repentance and prayer; and let us come to the Mystical Supper, especially on the day we celebrate the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ into our midst, remembering also that He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  Let us strive by the grace of God given to us in our baptism and in the Lord’s Supper to be ready for the day of His return, that we may celebrate and rejoice to behold Him.

Our King and Savior is drawing near!  Come, let us adore Him.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Where are the Other Nine?"

Our holy father Ambrose of Milan was born to a Christian mother and a pagan father, who was the Roman governor of the province in which Milan was the principal city. When his father died, the emperor appointed Ambrose in his place. It was in his capacity as governor that he went to the church in Milan, where the bishop had died, causing a division in the congregation between the Orthodox Christians and those who were followers of the heresy taught by Arius. Although Ambrose had gone to keep the peace, a child at its mother’s breast cried out, “Ambrose for bishop!” – a cry taken up by others as well, who considered it to be the voice of God. Ambrose was baptized, consecrated reader, and ordained a subdeacon, deacon, and priest all within one week, at the end of which he was consecrated as the Bishop of Milan. He slept very little, worked tirelessly, prayed without ceasing and fasted every day except Saturday and Sunday. Because of this, he was privileged to see many great works of God, and to perform them, as well. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and even raised the dead. Humble before those whose position in society was lower than his, he was fearless with the nobility; he even ordered that the Emperor Theodosius not be permitted to enter any church until the Emperor repented of his sins. He departed this life on the morning of Pascha in the year 397 A.D.

In the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke, we hear the account of the healing of the ten lepers, one of whom, a Samaritan, returns to give thanks, prompting our Lord to ask, “Where are the other nine?” Presumably, those who did not return to say, “Thank you,” were from the people of the first Covenant, to whom God had revealed Himself in a special way, setting them apart from everyone else on the earth. It was this group of people who had been given the promise of the Messiah, and the prophecies about Him. Now He had come; but among these ten lepers, the only one to recognize Him was someone from outside the house of God.

We should always pay attention when the circumstances and responses of those who had been given the first Covenant by God are the subject of the story, because now that group is us, the people of the new Covenant. We are partakers of the special revelation of God to us in Jesus Christ; we are the beneficiaries of the promise of God; and now we can enjoy the special relationship that sets us apart from all other forms of belief, worship, and practices. But can we honestly say that we are doing any better than our predecessors? Like them, we are more likely to live according to the ways of the world, rather than the way of life required by God. Like those who are not members of the community of the new Covenant, we are not looking for the second coming of Christ; and, like the nine who were healed but did not return to give thanks, we daily experience the loving mercy of God, but so often fail to give thanks to God, much less give thanks to God when things do not go the way we’d like them to go. God might look at St. Ambrose, and the good example of his life, and, thinking that the saint was not made in any way differently than any of us, ask, “Where are the others?”

Brothers and sisters, let us not be like those who, having been blessed by healing in the Gospel account today, failed to return to give thanks and to bow down at the feet of our Lord. Let us set our hearts and minds to give thanks to God even in the midst of sickness and suffering, and certainly when we have been given good things by God. Let us not follow any longer the ways and practices and beliefs of the culture around us, but rather let us beg God to give us His grace and strength to follow instead the example of life given to us by our holy father Ambrose, of the saint whose name we bear, and of the most holy Lady Theotokos.

Holy hierarch, father Ambrose, pray to God for us!

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Saint Nicholas: The Power of Love

An example of Russian icons of St. Nicholas fl...Image via Wikipedia

Our father among the saints, Nicholas, was the only child born to wealthy parents, and was instructed in the Christian faith by his uncle (also named Nicholas), who was the bishop in the town of Patara, where St. Nicholas was born. When his parents reposed, Nicholas gave away his considerable inheritance to help the poor, and entered the monastery his uncle had established. It was his uncle who tonsured Nicholas as a monk, and who ordained Nicholas a priest. Throughout his life, Nicholas was known for his love and mercy, and for miracles worked both before and after his repose. Part of his legacy can be seen in his presence in our midst even today. Many nations, including Russia, look to him as a protector of their land and people, and more than 1,200 churches are named in his honor, including 400 in Great Britain – more than any other saint. It is estimated that western artists have depicted him more frequently than any other saint, apart from the most holy Theotokos. Many people don’t realize that the “right jolly old elf” dressed in red and driving a sleigh with reindeer has his origins in this saint: “Santa Claus” is the anglicized version of “Sinter Klaus” – Dutch for, “St. Nicholas.”

Most of us are familiar with certain aspects of the life of St. Nicholas. Probably the most well-known story is how the saint secretly provided gold coins to a family where poverty threatened to cause the sale of three daughters into prostitution. The gold – in some stories, it is dropped down a chimney to land in the stockings of the daughters, which had been hung by the fire in order to dry – spared the family from such a terrible decision. Many of us also know, and, in a way, sort of enjoy, the story of how St. Nicholas, enraged by the heretical teachings of Arius, struck Arius – according to some accounts, he punched Arius in the nose – at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. Perhaps you even know how, on two separate occasions, St. Nicholas intervened to spare three men who had been wrongfully sentenced to be executed: once, when he confronted a regional governor who had take a bribe to find three men guilty; and again when he appeared in a dream to the Emperor Constantine to tell him that three officials of the imperial court were innocent of the charges that had been brought against them. IN each case, the condemned men were set free.

While these stories are familiar to us, we seem to be less familiar with the deeper details of the life of the saint, the details that make such actions as are celebrated in these stories possible. What power makes it possible to confront a government official, risking imprisonment or even death – and St. Nicholas certainly suffered for the faith during the persecutions under the emperors Diocletian and Maximian – to save innocent lives? What power makes it possible to stand up against popular false teachings to defend the Christian faith? What power – and this is particularly crucial in our world today – makes it possible to break the grip of wealth and possessions, and to give away a fortune? There is only one power capable of doing these things: the power of the love of God in Jesus Christ, that flows through those who love God above all else, and whose love flows to everyone made in the image of God, making them sources of God’s love for each one of us to everyone around them. If we do not love God, we will not put ourselves at risk to protest injustice and unrighteousness, to spare others from suffering or to save innocent lives. If we do not love God, we will not take a stand against false teachings; and we will even make compromises with teachings and practices that do not agree with those of the Orthodox Church and faith. If we do not love God, then we cannot truly love each other as we should; and the things of this world that attract and hold our attention – wealth, fame, honor, power, pleasure – these will capture us and keep us from rising toward heaven, as St. Nicholas rose, living as an angel on the earth in the midst of others.
St. Nicholas is loved by many because he loved so richly. His love for God caused him to turn his back on the world, giving away his worldly possessions, and not seeking any worldly honors. His love for God led him to be obedient when, in pursuing a solitary life, he was instructed by God to live his life in the midst of the people around him. His love for God led him to love every one of us – and in his love for us, to seek justice and righteousness for us, and to give gifts of love.

Brothers and sisters, let us love one another as Christ loves us – for He went to His passion and death through the power of His love. Let us love one another as St. Nicholas loves us, and ask for the grace to follow the example of his life.

Holy hierarch, father Nicholas, pray to God for us!

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Church Growth? "Come and See..."

DUCCIO di Buoninsegna Calling of Apostles Pete...Image by carulmare via Flickr

Is there anyone who does not want the church to increase? Think about that…

Today we celebrate the feast of the holy Apostle Andrew the First-called. He is given the title, “the First-called” because it he, with another of the disciples of St. John the Baptizer, were shown the Lord by the Forerunner. We do not know the other disciple’s name; nor would we know Andrew’s, except that he responded not only to the instruction of the Lord to follow Him, but also by going to find his brother, Simon, and telling him to come and see for himself that the man Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed one of God, for Whom they and all the faithful in Israel had been awaiting His coming. When Simon saw the Lord, he was given the name, “Cephas,” which we know as “Peter”; both terms deriving from the words for “rock” in Aramaic and in Greek. Thus, it is also fair to say that St. Andrew was also the first evangelist; although surely St. John the Baptizer might also be given this honor.

When the faithful were forced to flee from Jerusalem because of the persecutions of the Church growing there, the holy apostle Andrew went to the region of Byzantium, and then along the Danube and the Black Sea and even to Kiev before returning to Greece, having established churches, consecrated bishops and ordained priest along the way during his journey. In the Greek city of Patras, he preached the Gospel; among his converts were the wife and brother of the Roman governor, who was furious, and ordered the arrest and torture of the apostle. He was executed by crucifixion; and as he was on the Cross, the faithful came to him, and he taught them, then prayed, was covered with a bright light for some thirty minutes, and then yielded his spirit into the hands of God. He departed this life for the next in the sixty-second year of our Lord.

In the reading from the holy Gospel according to St. John the Theologian, in which we heard about the holy apostle Andrew, we hear as well about the apostles Philip and Nathaniel, and there is a common theme at play. The Lord finds Philip, and say to him, “Follow me.” Philip, in turn, goes to his friend Nathaniel, and says that they have found the One they had been waiting for, of Whom Moses and the prophets had foretold. Nathaniel is skeptical at first; “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” But he responds to Philip’s invitation, “Come and see”; and, when he meets Jesus, he, too, becomes a disciple.

What does any of this have to do with us? I’m sure that most, if not all, of you would answer the question I asked at the beginning in the affirmative: Yes, we want the church to grow. Well, growing the church is a lot like growing a garden. It’s not enough to go to the place where you want the garden, and sprinkling some seeds on the ground, and hoping for the best. If you want your garden to grow, it’s going to take some work: preparing the ground, planting the seeds, watering, pulling the weeds, and so on. The same thing is true for growing the church: it takes work. More than anything else, we need to work at living in the Orthodox way of life, so that what we say agrees with what we do; and we need to be willing to admit our mistakes, when we fail to live as did the fathers and the saints. But there’s a lesson for us in the Gospel about what we need to do, and it’s not terribly complicated. In order to have the church grow, we have to do what the holy apostles Andrew and Philip did: we have to invite people; we have to say, “Come and see.”

In part, this requires us to heed the teaching of the holy apostle Peter, who wrote that we must be prepared at all times and in every season to give an account of the hope that is within us. What hope is that? It is the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, a life on which death has no claim and no hold – the life given to us in our baptism. Our hope is in the love of God in Jesus Christ, by which our sins are forgiven and our souls are saved. If we consider what God has done, and is doing, for us, and if we receive the love God intends for each and every one of us, then we should find ourselves able to say to those we know who are broken and hurting, and to those who are searching, and to those who are in darkness, “Come and see.” Brothers and sisters, if we live with the desire to reveal Christ in us, the hope of glory, if we live loving everyone around us as Christ, and if we will say to them, “Come and see,” the church will grow, God will be glorified, and souls will be saved. May God, through the prayers of the holy apostle Andrew, give us the grace to join in his labors, and to say to as many as we can, “Come and see.”

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Monday, December 07, 2009

Riches, Retirement, and the Kingdom of Heaven

This is the time of year when the accountants and tax preparers are contacting us to help us with the end-of-the-year steps we can take to reduce our tax bills for the year. If you haven’t already heard an appeal from some agency about making an end of the year donation on the television or on the radio or on the internet or in a newspaper, magazine, or email, you probably will in the next few weeks.

In the first reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke, we hear the parable of a man who is wealthy in worldly terms, whose riches are increasing so much that he needs to build larger barns in which to store his possessions. We also hear him planning his retirement into a life that he expects will be comfortable.

Now, to this point in the story, who among us would not want to be in the same situation: to be rich; to have additional riches at hand; and to have the prospect of a comfortable retirement? Most of us would take a deal like that with barely a moment’s thought.

Of course, being familiar with the rest of the parable, perhaps we wouldn’t be as quick to exchange our situation for his. We hear him called a fool by God; and we learn that his soul will be required of him that very night. What, then, will come of his wealth and his plans? As we all know very well, “You can’t take it with you.”

Truth be told, most of us are, indeed, very much like the rich man in the parable. This is not to say that we are rich – although you must admit that, by the standard of living of most people around the world today, as well as the vast majority of those who have ever lived – the average American lives more comfortably, more abundantly, than almost anyone anywhere at any time. But it is true that there are people who have more material possessions and greater worldly wealth than we have. But it is not on the basis of wealth alone that makes us like the man in the parable. We are like him in that our thoughts and concerns are dominated by the things of this world; we pursue wealth in order to make our own lives more comfortable – and we do this even though we know that we do not know when our own soul will be required to come into the presence of God and to give an accounting of how we used the things that God entrusted to us – time, talents, and treasures – not for ourselves alone, but for the good of all. Like the man in the parable, we are rich in worldly terms, but poor in spiritual things: praying, fasting, giving, loving.

The truth is, we can take it with us. Not in its worldly form; but by using the time and talents and treasures we have been given to lay up wealth for ourselves in the kingdom of heaven. By feeding the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting the sick and those in hospitals and prisons, and, yes, by giving to help support the work of the church, we can employ the things of this world for the benefit of others now, and for our own benefit in the world to come. Then, we will not be like the man in the parable, finding ways to store our wealth here while contemplating a comfortable retirement. Rather, we will have the safest place of all to store our wealth; and the hope of eternity sharing the love of God with Him and each other in His kingdom, because we have already learned how to do so in this world.

Brothers and sisters, let us not be ignorant, and let us not be lazy, but rather let us set our minds to use what God has entrusted to us for the service of His people, to give glory to God, and to bear witness to Him in the world.

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Today we celebrate and remember the holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew. He was a tax collector – every bit as unpopular at the time as he would be today – and was at his work when the Lord Jesus called to him, saying, “Follow me.” To his credit, Matthew did so, leaving behind all worldly possessions and possibilities, choosing instead an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven. According to tradition (although modern Biblical scholarship may say otherwise), he wrote the first account of the birth, life, and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ; and the account he wrote is first among the four Gospels in the New Testament canon. This is why he is called an Apostle and an Evangelist: for he was one of the Twelve who accompanied our Lord, and one of the four who wrote about Him after His passion, crucifixion, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven. St. Matthew went to Ethiopia, where he established a church and consecrated a bishop. He also baptized the wife and son of a prince of that land, causing the prince to seek the arrest of the apostle. The first band of soldiers sent to bring him to the prince returned without him, saying they had heard his voice, but could not see him. The second detachment found the saint, but the light that shined from him dazzled them so that they cast down their weapons and ran away. The prince himself went to find the saint, and was blinded by the same light; his sight being restored only by the prayers of St. Matthew. This did not prevent the prince from seizing the apostle; and, after many tortures, in which he was protected and sustained by the Lord, the holy apostle yielded his spirit to his Master. The prince ordered that his body be placed in a casket made of lead and thrown into the sea; but the bishop, following the appearance of the apostle in a dream, found the body. It was this miracle that brought the prince to repent, and to embrace the Christian faith; and he became first a priest, and then later the bishop of that land, serving the Lord as a faithful shepherd of the flock until his own falling asleep in the Lord.

In the reading from the Gospel bearing his name, we hear of the feast that St. Matthew gave after he left behind his earthly life to follow the way of Jesus Christ. It is striking to hear how the Pharisees criticized our Lord for sitting down to eat with tax collectors and sinners. We should recall that the Pharisees sought to fulfill all the commandments of the law of Moses, which included avoiding meals with those who were “unclean” – and certainly Matthew and the others gathered for the feast he gave qualified for that distinction in the eyes of the Pharisees. Our Lord speaks to them; and we would do well to hear and understand what He is saying. First, He says that He did not come for the righteous, but to save sinners. Then, He rebukes them, saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Of course, it is the work of an evangelist to bring the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ to those who do not yet know Him, who have not yet come to Him for mercy and forgiveness and new life in Him. We don’t have any real problems with the first part of His reply to the Pharisees. But that second part? For some reason, this can be a very real challenge for some of us as we seek to embrace and practice the Orthodox way of life.

The danger for us is that we can get so caught up in trying to do everything right that we can miss the real center of the Orthodox faith: to love God with the fullness of our being, and to love others as we love ourselves. If we remember to pray, but do not remember the poor, what god does praying do for us? If we remember the fast, but do not feed the hungry, does our fasting really benefit us? If we confess our sins, but judge others in our hearts, have we truly confessed? If we pay more attention to what others are doing while we are in church than we are to the prayers, have we really taken part in the worship of God? “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” says the Lord – and I take that to include the need for us to be blind to the faults of everyone else, except perhaps in order to pray for them, and to not be so focused on outward acts, as valuable as these may be, that we do not remember to forgive, and to love, and to be patient, and to be humble, and not to judge, or tell another person what to do – unless, of course, they come to you and ask.

Brothers and sisters, let us leave behind the ways of the world – including the ways of the Pharisees – and, following the example of the holy apostle and evangelist Matthew, let us be transformed from our lives in this sinful world to shine with the light of the love of God in Jesus Christ, even to the point of praying for those who seek our deaths.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Good Fruit from Dry Sticks

Among the saints commemorated today is our holy father John Kolobos (little, or dwarf) of Egypt, a friend of St. Paisios the Great, and teacher of St. Arsenius the Great. Among the aspects of his life we learn how, as a novice, he was given an obedience by his spiritual father, St. Pambo, to plant a dry stick in the ground, and to water it every day until it produced leaves. St. John watered that stick every day for three years, until, by the grace of God, the stick produced leaves, and then fruit, which St. Pambo gathered and took to the church, saying, “Come and taste the fruit of obedience!”

Michael (archangel)Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday, we celebrated the festival of the holy archangel Michael and all the other bodiless powers with the added blessing of the presence of the most holy Theotokos through her Kursk Root Icon, whose visit was a great privilege and blessing. We considered how it is that the nature of angels, who certainly appear far more powerful than we are ourselves, not to have dominion, but rather are called to serve. We remember that it is said of many of the saints that they lived as angels on earth; and how each of us is called to be the servant of everyone around us, honoring and respecting every person because they are made in the image and after the likeness of God, and, being blind to, and quick to forgive, their sins, remembering only our own sins, to consider all others as being more worthy of honor and respect than we may ever be ourselves.

Everyone, I am sure, will agree that actually obtaining this ideal requires a great deal of labor, a great deal of struggle. Yet the life of St. John Kolobos and his watering of the stick should encourage us, as we should also be encouraged by the account of the woman with an issue of blood, of whom we hear in the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke. No doctor was able to cure her, and she suffered daily for twelve years; but drawing near to our Lord Jesus Christ by faith, and touching only the fringe of His garment, she was healed. Both her healing and the restoration of life and the bearing of fruit from what was once a dry stick are beyond our power to achieve, or to comprehend; yet both are possible by the grace of God.

Brothers and sisters, in so many ways we are like the woman with an issue of blood: suffering the loss of our lives both bodily and spiritually because we have cut ourselves off from the root of Life by our sins. We are like the dry stick: lifeless, and with no chance of bearing fruit. But if we will put our trust and hope in the Lord, and draw near to Him by prayer and fasting and all the other practices of our Orthodox way of life, and persevere in doing so, even when all it might seem that we are doing is watering with faith a dry, lifeless stick, by our obedience, by desiring and pursuing the grace of God, not the least of which by drawing near with fear and faith to regularly receive the holy mysteries of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, we may have hope that we also, like the woman with an issue of blood, and like the dry stick, may be healed, and so bear the fruits of the Spirit, and so live in such a way that others may taste of that fruit, and draw near to God, and so be saved.

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Living as Angels on Earth

12th-century icon of Archangel Gabriel from No...Image via Wikipedia

Have you ever thought about the angels? Most of us, I’d suspect, usually don’t, unless we find ourselves in a difficult situation, and then remember to ask our guardian angel for help. Thinking about the angels isn’t something easily done in the culture of the world in which we live. Many people, when angels are mentioned, get an image of a golden-haired person in a long white robe with white wings. Of course, as the “traditional” beginning of the Christmas shopping season is less than a week away, soon we’re going to be surrounded with this sort of image of the angels.

Our Orthodox fathers teach us something different; an aspect of which can be seen on the deacon’s doors – the side doors into the altar, one on either side of the royal doors. The door to the right quite often is an icon of St. Michael the Archangel, dressed for battle; while the door to the left is quite often the archangel Gabriel, who, while not in armor, is nevertheless a figure of power, much different from the angels on Christmas cards and atop Christmas trees. The fathers teach us that, before God created the heavens and the earth, the nine ranks of angels were created. They are not material beings, as we are; they are spiritual beings, super-intelligences, able to take on the appearance of having being, and so to interact with the material world. The fathers also teach that the foremost of these created beings, Lucifer, the “bringer of light,” led a revolt of some of the angels after having beheld God’s plan for creation, and especially for mankind, to be created in the image and after the likeness of God. These rebellious beings, cast out of the heavenly realm, became the demons, with Lucifer, renamed Satan – the Adversary – as their leader; opposed by the holy archangel Michael, the leader of the bodiless hosts.

Because we are created in the image and after the likeness of God we are, as the Psalmist says, but a little lower than the angels. One thing we can deduce from this is that we are not as intelligent or as powerful as the angelic beings. Why, then, do we not worship them? Why, then, are we not subject to them as part of the dominion of God?

The answer is at once both simple and instructive. It is the nature of the angels to serve. In the case of the angels who did not rebel against God, they remained faithful servants of God. Indeed, the word “angel” derives from “messenger” – the angels are the messengers of God. Among other things, this means they are servants. In the case of the demons, they chose to serve themselves, rather than to serve God. What is striking about this is how much we have in common with the angels. We are also called to be the obedient servants of God; and yet consider how often we choose to serve ourselves, instead of doing the will of God! Every time we go to confession, every sin we admit there is evidence of how we have followed the example of the rebellious angels, rather than keeping faith with God.

It is said of many of the saints that they lived among us as “angels on earth.” This means, in part, that they gave no thought to the things of this world, but lived in a bodiless way, as much as is possible for us to do. They lived only to serve God; and quite often this was expressed by their serving those made in the image and after the likeness of God, giving instruction with love to assist others in the pursuit of the salvation of their souls. In this way, both by teaching and by their deeds they served us as a way of serving God.

Brothers and sisters, it is our calling to follow the example of the holy Archangel Michael and the other Bodiless Powers of heaven, and to be the servants of God. Of course, one of the greatest examples of this is found in the holy and blessed Lady Theotokos, who, when told of her part in God’s plan for the salvation of the world by the archangel Gabriel, responded by surrendering herself in the fullness of her being – body, mind, and spirit – in order to give birth to our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ. As with the angels, and with the Mother of God, so it is meant to be with us. We are given the opportunity to bear Christ, as did the Theotokos; and to present Him to the world, as she does, as she is most often depicted in the icons. Not only should Christ be seen in and through us, in what we say and in what we do; but having followed the example of our blessed Lady who said, “Behold the handmaiden – that is to say, the servant -- of the Lord,” we are to follow the example of the holy angels and archangels; who, despite their power in comparison to our own, are the servants of God – so much so that I am certain that, on this feast day to honor St. Michael and all the Angels, they share with us the delight in having the presence of the most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos in the form of her Kursk Root Icon. They are not jealous because their festival is shared; rather, they rejoice to be with the one who is “more honorable than the cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.” This is what we should understand, and cultivate in our own hearts – that the joy of the servant is in serving. So let us rejoice in the presence of the angelic hosts, and let us serve each other in humility and love, and so become more and more like angels on earth.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Saved by Grace? Grace and Works in Our Salvation

“For by grace you have been saved by faith; and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; not by works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)

St. Paul writes this in his epistle to the Church in the city of Ephesus. He tells them of God’s plan and purpose, to bring all of creation together under Christ: a plan that begins with His reconciling us to Him through the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. Being reconciled with God, we are then to be reconciled to each other, with the barriers that separate us having been torn down by the Lord Jesus. Made one, we are able to become the Church, through which and in which the message of salvation is to be proclaimed throughout all the world, so that everybody everywhere has the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Why emphasize the point that we cannot save ourselves? The saint wants us to know that we lack the capability to truly love, or to forgive, or to be merciful, when we are apart from God – and sin, of course, separates us from God. He is telling us that God works first in us; that His work is that of faith, the faith in Jesus Christ that saves sinners. There is nothing, no work that we can do to earn the favor of God. Does this mean, then, that it does not matter what we do? Is there any need for praying, or fasting, or giving? Is there any need to struggle against our passions, against the impulses and appetites that, left uncontrolled, soon control us, and lead us away from the path that leads to heaven? If we are not saved by our works, why bother to forgive, or to discipline our flesh, or to pursue humility or patience or generosity or mercy?

Our salvation is a gift from God. No one “earns” a gift; no one “deserves” a gift. A gift is given, at least, ideally, because the giver loves the person for whom the gift is intended. The act of giving is independent of the recipient. But this is not to say that we need do nothing. Actually, those aspects of the Orthodox way of life that might be called “works” – praying, fasting, giving, forgiving, struggling to be patient, humble, laboring to uproot the passions that betray us – these are things we undertake in response to the gift we have been given. We follow the Orthodox way of life not because it saves us – it does not – but because it is through the development of the qualities that praying and fasting and giving and struggling produce in us that allows us to “get out of the way,” as it were, and allow the life of our Lord Jesus Christ given to us in holy Baptism to come forth, to be seen and heard in what we say and do. The “works” of the Orthodox way of life are a way of giving thanks for the gift of salvation given to us freely, while we were still sinners, while we were still the enemies of God, so that we might know the love of God for us in His Son, and in His death on the Cross on our behalf. As we allow the life of our Lord and Savior to be seen in and through us, we may know that we are becoming His Body, His Church – and that the message of salvation is being proclaimed in this time and this place, as St. Paul wanted the believers in Ephesus to know and to do.

Brothers and sisters, we cannot save ourselves; but the good news is that God has saved us, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Let us give thanks to God for the love that is the source of His mercy and grace; and let us, with thanksgiving, embrace the way of life of our Orthodox faith, so that we may fulfill His purpose for us, and be His servants, gathering in all His people, to the glory of God.

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Monday, November 09, 2009

Does Sin Cause Earthquakes?

The holy Great-Martyr Demetrius was the only child of faithful and devout parents, who had begged God in prayer to grant them a child. Of a wealthy family, Demetrius was well educated, and his family’s place in society led him to become the military commander of Thessalonica after his father retired from that post. It was in this office that Demetrius was ordered by the Emperor Maximian, who hated the Christian Church and faith, to persecute and exterminate the faithful in the region under his command. Instead, the saint openly and boldly refused to follow the order, declaring his faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. He was arrested; and, knowing that his life would soon come to an end, gave all is possessions to his servant, so that he in turn could give them all to the poor and needy in the city. His executioners found him in prayer, in which he was strengthened for what would happen by an angel; and they killed Demetrius with their spears. His friends collected his body; and found that myrrh came from his burial site. Many of those who were sick found healing through this myrrh, and a church, small at first, was built at the site of his relics. A rich nobleman who ran to the relics was healed of an incurable disease, and built a larger church in thanksgiving. When the Emperor Justinian tried to move the saint’s relics to Constantinople, a flame of fire arose from the tomb, and a voice was heard, saying, “Leave them here; do not touch them!” The martyr had not, at the time of his death, been removed from his office as the military protector of Thessalonica; and so continued in that office even after his repose, delivering the city many times from barbarian attacks.

In the year 740, a great earthquake struck the city of Constantinople on the feast day of St. Demetrius. It was an earthquake of some duration, and the destruction is caused was significant. The people of the city understood that the earthquake was the result of their sins, and so they were moved to repentance and a changed way of life, even as they gave thanks to the most holy Theotokos and to the Great-Martyr Demetrius for their protection in the time of trial.

This theme is echoed again and again in the hymns during the canon recalling the great earthquake, which is chanted at the service of Matins on the eve of the feast. The hymns call us to flee from sin, which is the cause of great earthquakes, plagues, and death; and to seek to please God by repentance and amendment of life. Of course, this explanation of the cause of the quake that day, as on other days, does not fit well with our understanding of the science of plate tectonics, the cause, as best as we are able to explain it, of earthquakes and volcanic activity. Yet we would do well to remember that the heavens and the earth are created by God; and who can predict when an earthquake might take place, or explain exactly why the earthquake was of any given magnitude or duration? Surely, if God exists – and, of course, we believe He does – it is not beyond the realm of possibility that, indeed, an earthquake may very well be one way in which the love of God, Who desires not the death of a sinner, but that we might instead turn from our death-directed ways, and return to Him, and so find life, shakes us – literally – from the path to destruction, and gives us the opportunity to once more walk with Him, as did Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.

Brothers and sisters, let us, with faith, overcome the world – and what it has taught us that intentionally or unintentionally denies the reality of God; for when we deny the existence and activity of God, we also deny the existence of sin. If there is no God, then there is no sin, and so there is no need to repent, or confess, or to change our way of life. May we never deny our faith and trust in God; and may we, by our faithfulness to our Lord Jesus Christ in word and in deed, through the protection of the most holy Theotokos and the holy Great-Martyr Demetrius, bear witness to Him, and to His love for us.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Called to Bear the Love of God

In the second reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke, we hear our Lord giving instructions on how we are to love. Those who were at the Vigil service last night also heard a reading from the first Epistle of St. John the Theologian that teaches us about how we are to love. It’s important enough that I want to read it again for the benefit of those who were unable to attend.

If a man says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? This commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should also love his brother. Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God. Whoever loves the Father also loves the child who is born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. His commandments are not grievous. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world: your faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

We know that it is important for us to pray, for praying is meant to draw us closer to God; but, as St. John the Theologian teaches us, if we do not love our brothers, we cannot say that we love God, no matter how wonderful our time in prayer may be. We know that it is important to fast, for fasting helps us gain the control we need over our flesh, so that the desires we experience for the things that feed our passions rather than our souls, and so lead us into sin and death, are mastered by the discipline of fasting; but keeping the most severe fast does us no good if we do not love each other. We know that it is important for us to give from the wealth that God has entrusted to us, because by giving to help those in need, and for the work of the Church, we set ourselves free from our attachments to worldly goods and pleasures, and so rise more easily to heaven; but even giving away everything gains us nothing if we do not act out of love.

Who are we to love? Our Lord tells us that our love must go beyond loving those who love us. It is easy – or, at least, easier – to love those who love us. We are certainly supposed to love our families: parents, children, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews. We are certainly called to love each other as we gather together to worship the Lord. But we must also love those who might laugh at us as we say a prayer before a meal, and make the sign of the Cross over ourselves in their presence. We must love those who, by word or by deed, offend us – such as the person who cuts us off on the highway, or gets in line ahead of us. We must love those who hate us, even those who would, if they were able, put us to death, so that we might no longer remind them of the reality of our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and our hope that our sins will be forgiven, and we may be given eternal life with Him in heaven.

We are called to love, even when it is difficult to do so – if only because God, Who is holy and righteous, and who detests sin, has loved us when we were His enemies, has loved us in the midst of sinning, and has shown His love for us by becoming one with us, joining His divine nature to our fallen nature, restoring us to where we were before the Fall, and opening once more for us the way to dwell unceasingly in His presence, as Adam and Eve lived before they violated God’s commandment. God is merciful, and expresses His love for us in His mercy; and so we are to be merciful – but we cannot do so if we do not love.

Brothers and sisters, called to be the bearers of the love of God: this is a most difficult task. We cannot accomplish it without embracing ever more fully the Orthodox way of life. Let us ask God for the grace we need to become more fervent in prayer, more stringent in fasting, more generous in giving; to be humble and patient and forgiving, so that we may be purified and then filled with His love, so that all the world may know the great love of God by which we are saved, and so join with us in worshipping and glorifying the God of love.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Flaws and Miracles

Last night, those who were present were blessed by the presence of the most holy Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary through her myrrh-streaming Iveron icon from our parish in Honolulu. Someone said to me after the Vigil had ended, and we had processed with the icon from the church to the car in which it was traveling to say, “goodbye,” that we should announce every week some miraculous event at our church, rejoicing that so many people had come to take part in worship with this most wonderful sign of God’s love and caring for His people through the prayers and protection of His most holy Mother.

Many of you may have read the account written by Reader Nectarios about the myrrh-streaming icons of the Cross of our Lord and of the Iveron Mother of God. One part of the story that I learned from Fr. Anatole, the priest of our parish in Honolulu, which is dedicated to the Holy Theotokos of Iveron, is that the print of the icon was purchased by him while on a visit to Toronto. At the bookstore where he was purchasing icons for his parish church was a table with icons whose selling price was greatly reduced, because there were flaws of one kind or another in each print. He wasn’t sure why, but he was moved to purchase the print of the icon now streaming myrrh from that table. I mention this because it has a message for each one of us who have our own flaws, as made evident in our sins. In the case of this icon, God has taken what was flawed, and through it has worked, and is working, a miracle. This should give each one of us hope, for no matter how great our sins may be, if we repent of our sins, and confess them, and return to our Orthodox way of life, making ourselves offerings to God, who knows what God may accomplish in and through us?

Earlier, I mentioned the comment made by someone last night, about how we should announce a miracle every week. Although I don’t think that person meant that in a serious way, the truth is that we could, indeed, say that a miracle takes place here every week; indeed, every time we gather in worship. For example, today at this celebration of the Divine Liturgy, as at every celebration, we are in the presence of the miraculous blessing that transforms the bread and wine that we offer to God to become His most precious Body and Blood that He offers to us for our salvation. We receive from Him His Body and Blood in the form of the bread and wine of the offering in exactly the same way that His disciples, who were gathered together with Him in the upper room on the night in which He was betrayed, and went to His Passion and to death on the Cross, received His Body and Blood; through the miracle of God’s love for us, by which we are saved. At this, and at every, celebration of the Divine Liturgy, and at every Vigil service, and at every molieben and pannikhida offered, we are gathered together with the saints and angels, who join us in our prayers as we worship God. Whether we can see them or not; whether we are aware of it or not, these miracles are taking place, just as the miracle of myrrh streaming from a flawed picture printed on a piece of paper and mounted on a simple pine board shows us that God can take the ordinary and humble and raise it to miraculous heights.

Brothers and sisters, let us worship and glorify our God, Whose love for us is so great that it is beyond our ability to understand or describe. Let us give Him thanks for the great blessing of being witnesses to the miracle of the myrrh-streaming Iveron icon of the Mother of God; and let us pray that He will make us ever mindful of the miracles that take place every time His people gather for prayer and for worship. Let us, as we consider these miracles, remember the great depths of God’s love for us, and seek to bring this love to everyone around us, so that they may also experience the great miracle of the love of God in Jesus Christ, and join with us to worship and glorify Him, the God of miracles, and the God of love.

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You Are the Light of the World

In the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, our Lord tells those who are listening to Him, “You are the light of the world.” He then gives some additional details about this light. He says, “A city on a hill cannot be hidden be hidden.” Think about driving around town at night. Every house on a hillside can be seen for miles. Our Lord also says, “No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Rather, the lamp that is lit is put on a stand, so that its light shines for everyone in the house.” Then He tells us what this means for us: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify God in heaven.”

With what light are we meant to shine? On one level, it is the light of good works: especially those things that are done to help another person in need. We know what these things are: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, visiting the sick, and those in prison, and welcoming the stranger – all the things spoken of when our Lord describes the time of the Great Judgment, of the sheep and the goats. But it is possible to do these things, and yet fail to shine. If we are to understand this, and to respond in a manner pleasing to the Lord, what else is there?

Another form of “good works” by which we may bring light into a world of darkness is to faithfully live the Orthodox way of life: praying, fasting, and giving; with humility, patience, forgiveness, generosity to others, and love. If we devote our time and energy to developing and refining these behaviors in our daily lives, we will find it a joy to reach out to others, to feed and clothe and visit and so on. Yet even these good things can be done without bringing the light we are meant to shine. What else must we understand and do to be pleasing to the Lord?

St. John Chrysostom tells us that the light within us is not our own. Rather, the light is ignited in us by our Lord Jesus Christ when we are joined to His life in Holy Baptism. He lights the lamp in us. St. John continues, however, to instruct and remind us that, while the light in us was lit by the Lord, it is up to us to keep the lamp burning. That is, we must, from time to time, trim and renew the wick; and we must, from time to time, refill the lamp with oil; and we must, from time to time, clean the lens through which the light must shine.

Antique bronze oil lamp with Christian symbol ...Image via Wikipedia

Experience with oil lamps, as often found in a church, teaches that the wicks are best served when trimmed twice a day, morning and evening. So it is that the Church advises us to be diligent in prayer at the start, and at the end, of each day. Remember how Moses, when he would return to the people of Israel from being in the presence of God, had to cover his face with a veil, because his face was bright with the light of the presence of God? When we take time to draw near to God in prayer, we come into the light, and so are better prepared to carry that light with us through the course of the day. The lamps must be filled at least daily; and so we should fill ourselves with the words of Holy Scripture, and the teachings of the Fathers, and the lives of the saints, who also brought the light of Christ to us and to the world – that’s why, in the icons, they have haloes. Periodically, the lamps must be cleaned of the dirt and debris they accumulate; and so too must we seek to be made clean in the mystery of confession, through repentance, with the desire not to repeat our sins, but to be transformed. These practices will help us tend to the light given to us, so that, properly cared for, we nay shine with Christ’s light in us, becoming lamps on stands, and even cities on hilltops, to light the way for those in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide those who are seeking God to find and follow the right path.

Brothers and sisters, let us ask God for the grace we need to tend the light given to us, so that the light of our good works of piety and charity may shine before men, so that God may be glorified; and let us never seek praise or commendation from others for the good we may do; but give thanks and glory to God, remembering that if we shine, it is only because He loves us and has given Himself for us, so that we may be saved.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sowing Abundantly

Each of us knows – or, at least, should know – the hallmarks of the Orthodox way of life. First of all, there is prayer: which we might say is to be in conversation with God. Conversation, of course, involves both talking and listening; and relationships cannot exist without conversation. Prayer, then, becomes a way for us to grow closer in relationship to God, if we learn to enter His presence on a regular basis, and if we will listen as well as talk. There is nothing wrong with prayer that praises God, and gives Him thanks; there is nothing wrong with sharing with Him our hopes and fears, asking for help for others and for ourselves; but we must also listen, especially with our hearts, to what God may be saying to us, even as we are talking with Him.

Next comes the discipline of fasting. Above all, this is a strength and a skill we exercise and develop beginning with dietary restrictions. We all know there are days and seasons we mark by removing meat, eggs, and dairy products from what we eat; and even abstaining from fish, wine, and oil on the most strict days. By following this teaching and practice of the Church, we learn obedience – from which flows reverence and meekness; and meekness attacks the root of sin, which is pride. Fasting also is a form of training, such as what an athlete does to prepare for competition. Fasting helps us teach our flesh that it cannot always have whatever it wants whenever we want it; and this discipline can grow to help us resist other passions that would lead us into sins if we surrendered ourselves to them.

Prayer and fasting, above all, are the signs of the Orthodox way of life. There is another practice, however, that we do not speak about as frequently, yet is, nevertheless, one that is quite important: giving. This is the subject spoken about in the reading today from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church. St. Paul is writing here to remind the faithful of this important practice of the Orthodox way of life. What, if anything, should we take from this to do in our own lives?

Remember that, in the Old Testament, the people of God were given, as a law, the requirement to give ten percent of what they received – a tithe of their year’s income. This is not what St. Paul is telling the faithful. Rather, he tells them that the act of giving is a voluntary act; and then he addresses how we are to think about giving. What does he say?

St. Paul does not promise that those who give will receive an earthly reward of wealth. He reminds us that God has given us all that we have; and calls upon us to give in the same way that God has given to us – that is, to be generous. He uses a powerful image: “He who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly; while he who sows abundantly will reap abundantly.” What do we sow when we give? He also talks of sufficiency and abundance. We are promised that we shall be given what is sufficient for our needs, so that we can learn to be free of the things of this world, including food, clothing, and shelter; and by trusting that God will provide what we need, and learning to not live with what goes beyond sufficiency – which is what the world would have us do – we will have enough to give for the benefit of others, while setting aside for ourselves treasures in heaven.

Put another way, St. Paul, and St. John Chrysostom as well, want us to distinguish between what we need – sufficiency – and what we want. St. John Chrysostom uses an example of a person spending very large amounts of money to clothe and entertain someone from the theater, but who, when confronted with a poor man in need of alms, gives little or nothing, perhaps out of the fear that giving will bring poverty on him, the giver, as well. He asks, what will be said to this person, who used the richness given by God for earthly things, but neglected the spiritual aspect of giving without thought of return or reward, which we do when we give to help those in need – and let us remember that part of the reason we give to the Church is to make it possible to meet the spiritual needs of others, both in our midst and in the world.

Brothers and sisters, we are called by the fathers and the saints to share with them in the Orthodox way of life. Let us fast and pray; and let us give, not from necessity, but in thanksgiving for what God has given to us. Let us ask God for the grace and strength to live sufficiently, but no more, so that, by being generous with what God has given us beyond sufficiency, we may use this wisely, giving to the Church and for those in need, so that we may live abundantly in the life of the Spirit, both now, and unto the ages of ages.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Life, Death and the Way of the Cross

In the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Mark, we are told that we must deny ourselves, and take up our cross, and follow the example given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. He tells us – His disciples – that if we try to save our lives, we will lose them; but if we will lose our lives for His sake, and for the sake of proclaiming the good news of our salvation, our lives will be saved. He is calling to our attention the inherent tendency in our fallen state to seek to live in this earthly life for as long as possible, even at the cost of life without end in His Kingdom. It is ironic that the more we cling to life in this world, the more likely we are to enter into a life of torment in the age to come; while if we pursue heavenly things, dying, in effect, in this world, we have the hope of life without end in the joyous presence of God.

In the reading today from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Church in Galatia, we hear as well something about life and death. The Apostle is writing to a community of the faithful that he had established during one of his missionary journeys. Most of the people who had joined this community had previously been pagans, and so did not know of the Law given by God to Moses; and so had been influenced by some Christians who had been Jews before coming to have faith in our Lord, who were teaching that the only way someone could become a Christian was to first become a Jew, and to obey the Law of Moses as well as the Gospel of our Lord. St. Paul is writing to correct the Galatians, urging them to set aside this false teaching. In doing so, he teaches them about the new reality of our existence when we have been baptized into the death of Christ, and raised to new life with Him. He writes, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me.”

So: Here is how things stand. Before our baptism, we are alive in the flesh, but dead in our sins. When we are baptized, we are buried with Him; and when He rises to a life over which death has no power, He raises us to that same life. We have Christ living in us – a most wondrous and amazing gift! Yet if we do not realize this change that has taken place in us, we will continue to live as we did before our baptism; we will continue to follow the ways of this world, and we will not follow the ways of the heavenly life, and so risk losing that life. Among other things, this is why we must understand our Lord’s command to take up our cross, and follow Him.

When our Lord took up His Cross, He did so knowing that He would be put to death on it; that He would have to endure one of the most agonizing ways of death that the mind of fallen humanity has ever devised. The power by which it was possible for Him to willingly accept this death was the power of His love for us. This same power is available to us, so that we may also take up our cross to follow Him. That is, we are given the ability to turn aside from the ways of this world, dying to the world, and living so that the life of Christ in us may be seen and heard and experienced by everyone around us: our families, our friends, our neighbors, the people we work with, even the strangers we encounter during the course of a day. When we fail to live as we should; when we fail to express to those around us the love of God in Jesus Christ, it is because we love what we have in this life more than we love God; and because we love ourselves more than we love the other people in our lives.

What can we do? How can we become dispensers of the love given to us by God? We can do so by embracing the way of life we learn in the Church. That is, we dedicate ourselves to work to see God in every person we meet, and to respect them, even reverence them, as living icons, better, more pleasing to God, than we are ourselves, sinful as we are. We labor to see our own sins, and only our sins, fighting against pride by seeking humility. We learn to ask ourselves, “Do I really need this thing I want to buy?” while asking God to guide us in the use of the time and talents and treasure He has entrusted to us, so that we may do more to support the work of the Church, and to help those in need around us. We must also fast and pray, for without praying, we cannot come closer to God; and without fasting, we will not have the strength to overcome the desires of our flesh, and the comforts and pleasures the flesh seeks in the world.

Brothers and sisters, let us dedicate ourselves to taking up our cross, dying to the world, and seeking above all the kingdom of God. Let us ask God to give us the grace and strength needed to take up the Cross of His love, so that we may love and serve Him by loving and caring for each other.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Racism and Our Mission of Love

In the readings today from the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. John the Theologian, we hear the theme of love. We are told of God’s love for us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” We are taught that the greatest commandment is to love: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” We are also commanded to love one another.

From a cultural point of view -- which is to say, from the world’s point of view, as opposed to the heavenly perspective – the word “love” many times means eros; erotic love, associated with sexual desire. Used properly, this is a gift from God, drawing a man and a woman closer to each other, making them one in holy matrimony, and establishing them as a family, as children may become, as it were, the fruit of their love. Less often, “love” might mean philos; brotherly love, which also binds us together for our good as a family – whether as having the same parents, or grandparents; and also in a larger sense, being of “one blood,” the blood of Christ, being children of God, and so brothers and sisters together. But here the evangelists are speaking of agape; the unselfish love that God has for us, and which we are called to serve as fountains on behalf of all the world. It is a love that thinks more of others and less of self; it is the love that sacrifices for the benefit of others, without thought of reward or repayment. It is the love that made it possible for our Lord Jesus Christ to endure suffering and death on the Cross for our salvation.

Perhaps you have heard some of the controversy that has been taking place during the national debate over the proposal to reform health care insurance in our nation. Ordinarily, the sermon doesn’t usually address topics of current events; but the theme of the readings from the Gospel today directly addresses these events, and so it is helpful to speak of them. It has been suggested that some of the opposition to the plan being advanced by President Obama arises as a result of racism. It is, it seems, an aspect of human nature – fallen human nature – to distrust, and even to have an irrational hatred, for those who are different. Racism, of course, is a response to a perceived difference based on the color of your skin. We are all aware of the cultural aspects of racism in American history and society: of those of African origin who were unwillingly brought to this country as slaves – an action that was acceptable in the minds of many because they were considered to be inferior. After slavery ended, the hatred and discrimination continued. You don’t need to go far outside the doors of the church here to see this: At one time, few, if any, “white” people lived south of Indian School Road; while those sometimes called, “persons of color” – blacks and Hispanics – were only permitted to buy property south of there, including this neighborhood, and surrounding ones. By God’s grace, things have been changing; but according to some, this controversy is a reminder that there is still work that needs to be done.

Drawings from Josiah C. Nott and George Gliddo...Image via Wikipedia

Brothers and sisters, let us not be mistaken. Those of us who have been joined to Christ by baptism, and who partake of the holy Mysteries of His Body and Blood are one with Him, and are one family in Him. The relative presence or absence of melanin – the pigment that produces the color in our hair, and in our skin – is not of any significance. That is to say, there are not three races, as was once thought and taught: there is one race, the human race. Every person, regardless of the color of their skin, is a human being, made in the image and after the likeness of God, and therefore worthy of respect, dignity, honor, and love – of agape, the sacrificial love of the Cross. It is not always easy to overcome the thoughts and habits of the culture in which we grew up; but we are called to do so as children of God, and as disciples, followers, of our Lord Jesus Christ. We each need to remember that we, those baptized, the Body of Christ, share in the priesthood of all believers: to minister to the world, to show all the world the love of God for us in Jesus Christ, in what we say, in what we do – in how we treat each other.

Let us examine ourselves for any signs that we do not yet love with the love of God, and ask for grace and strength to bring this love to a world which still needs to hear the good news of salvation, so that they also may receive the love God has for each of us, so that He may be glorified, and we may be blessed to fulfill our mission of unselfish love.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Dressing for the Feast

In a way, it could be said that the “theme” today is about clothing. This is the day on which the Church celebrates the deposition of the cincture of the Theotokos; and in the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we hear how, as the guests are gathering for the wedding feast, there is one who is found to be improperly dressed for the feast, and so is cast out of the banquet hall into torment.

The canon of the Feast says, in Ode 7 of the first canon, ”The Queen of all, having departed for the mansions of heaven, has left behind her cincture as a treasure for the king of all cities, and by it we are saved from the invasions of enemies, visible and invisible.” It is said that, at the time of the Dormition, the most holy Lady Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary gave her cincture – a belt, or sash, worn around the waist, helping to keep closed the outer garment being worn – to the Apostle Thomas. Some time later, it was taken to the city of Constantinople, placed in a special casket, and kept in a church dedicated to the Mother of God. So it remained until the ninth century, when Zoe, the wife of Emperor Leo, fell into a sickness in her soul. As the result of a vision, she asked that the cincture be placed upon her; and when this took place, she was healed.

The treatment of the man who lacked the proper garment is given to us as a warning – indeed, one of many in that particular parable. There are several groups of people mentioned: those who were originally invited to share in the celebration; those who were invited to take their place; and those who were compelled to attend, without regard as to whether or not they desired to do so. At the time our Lord is telling the story to His disciples, the first group, who had been invited but were found to be unworthy, and whose city was destroyed, was clearly the Jews, to whom God had given the revelation of Himself and the Law, and the promise of the Messiah – Who had now come, but was not accepted by the people who claimed to be awaiting Him. The group invited to take their place at the feast were the Gentiles, who were not Jews but were truly seeking God in response to His call to them; while the group that had to be forced to attend was made up of those who had little or no desire to find God, or to leave behind the ways of the world.

We need to be aware of this; and to realize that the first group today – the group that is invited to the feast – is the Church. Indeed, the Church is the Bride of Christ, the Son of the King, Who is God the Father, the host of the feast. The treatment of the first group, related in the parable, concludes with the destruction of their city; which took place on August 4th in the year 70 A.D., when the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in response to the revolt by the Jews. We also need to know that the wedding garment, the means by which we are properly admitted to the celebration, is our baptismal robe. You may recall that, in the service of Holy Baptism, we pray several times asking the Lord’s grace and mercy so that the newly baptized person may be blessed and empowered to keep their baptismal robe clean and unstained by sin; and that, when we fail to do so, we are able to have the stains and filth of our sins removed, washing (as it were) our robes through the mystery of repentance and the confession of our sins. If we forget these things; if we neglect the way of life we learn from the Church, we are at risk of finding ourselves to be improperly attired, and, like the man in the parable, at risk of being tied hand and foot, and cast out into the darkness, into an eternal existence outside the light of the love of God – and the knowledge of our loss will certainly cause us to weep and wail and gnash our teeth.

We can draw wisdom as well from considering the cincture of the Theotokos. If we think of it only in worldly terms, it has little or no real value to us. It’s only a length of rope, or of cloth, or of leather. Even if it was made of gold, it still has only a fixed value – it is not unlimited. But if we think of it spiritually, we find it is a gift of incalculable value: a source of healings, and a token of God’s love for us, and of our connection with the Church of the saints who have completed their course, and have entered into their rest, with the Lord today in Paradise.

Brothers and sisters, let us not follow the ways of the world, nor seek its wisdom; but rather let us ask God for the grace and strength we need to turn away from the world, and to pursue the heavenly way of life. Let us confess our sins, and ask that our baptismal robes be made clean once more; and let us not neglect to come to the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, for the holy gifts offered today are a foretaste of that great wedding banquet, to which we are all invited. May God grant that each of us, and all Orthodox Christians, will be welcomed at that feast, coming with rejoicing and properly dressed; and that our preparations for the feast will cause others to desire to attend as well, so that their souls, with ours, will be saved.

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Monday, August 31, 2009

Obtaining Eternal Life

If you wanted an account from the gospels that speaks to our culture today, and if, in order to do so, you could choose only one parable from the four accounts of the life and ministry of our Lord, Jesus Christ during the time between His Theophany and His resurrection from the dead, the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew might be the best choice. The parable of the rich young man in the Gospel according to St. Matthew captures who we are in this time and place, shaped as we are by the society in which we live. He has everything that anyone could want: comfort, ease, and the ability to obtain whatever he wants. Yet, having all this, he is still unsatisfied, and he knows he is missing something – he does not have eternal life. It is this that draws him to our Lord, and to ask what he must do to obtain this life that will not end.

Our Lord begins with the basics: He says, “Keep the commandments.” Remember that this dialogue is taking place in a culture that considered itself to be God’s chosen people, to whom God had given the Ten Commandments, and other detailed aspects on what was acceptable to God, and what was not – over six hundred “laws” within the Law. Presumably, this young man, being well off, would also have been well educated, and so would have known this. Now, you would think that this answer would have been enough – keep the commandments – but the young man wants to make the task less difficult, and so he asks, “Which ones?”

Jesus takes him to the next step, listing that portion of the Ten Commandments dealing with our relations with others: do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; and honor your father and your mother. He adds as well the second part of the summary of the Law He taught to His followers: love your neighbor as you love yourself. The young man says, I have lived this way since I was a child. What do I still lack? Putting that another way, he is asking, I have done these things, so why am I still unhappy?

He is then given the final instruction: Go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and then come and follow Me. He departs from the scene, deeply troubled because, we are told, he had a great many possessions. We never learn what decision he made as he struggled with his desire to live eternally and with his attachment to his possessions.

The truth is, each one of us is the rich young man. Even though we may think of ourselves as being followers of Christ – and we are, to one degree or another – we live today more comfortably than most other people on the face of the earth, and with more comfort and ease than even emperors and kings of old enjoyed. We look around, see the mansions on the hillsides with their luxury cars and people dressed in the finest clothing with jewelry and rich food and all the amenities that wealth can provide, and we think to ourselves, “Oh, if only I could live like that, I would be happy!” We should already know, based on this Gospel reading, that wealth by itself, nor any of the things that wealth can obtain, can truly make us happy. We should already know that the only true source of happiness is to be developing our relationship with God, and living in that relationship with each other. But we don’t usually think about these things, not nearly as often as we think about what we want to obtain – even as we already have so much! We need to stop focusing on what others have, stop thinking about what we think we lack, and instead give thanks to God for blessing us with so many good things. We need to remember that the greatest gift of all is the gift the young man was seeking: eternal life, which is freely offered to us through our Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.

Each one of us is the rich young man, asking, “What good thing must I do to have eternal life?” The answer is, nothing. There is nothing we can do to earn or deserve eternal life. We do not have the strength or power to do so, apart from the Lord. The good news is that He has already completed the task; He has already obtained eternal life for us. Our part is to believe that this is true; and in this belief, this faith, this trust, to follow Him, which is done best by living the Orthodox way: praying, fasting, struggling against our passions, giving from what God has given to us to support the work of the Church and to help those in need; by loving and forgiving, by being patient and gentle.

What of the command to sell all that we have and give to the poor? Consider this: If you had nothing, no possessions, you have nothing to lose. No thief or robber can disturb you by taking anything away. If you have no possessions, even the government is no threat, apart from your life. And if you have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, that He died on the Cross and rose to life without end from the grave, then even those who would threaten your life have no power over you, because you know that the life we have here in this world is nothing more than a prelude, the threshold to life without end. To have no possessions – not even considering your life to be a possession, but belonging instead to God alone – you are truly free to follow Christ. So, brothers and sisters, let us ask our Lord for the grace to be set free from the things we acquire in this life, seeking nothing in this world, but working instead to set aside for ourselves treasures in heaven; and for grace to be faithful followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, rather than followers of the world and of wealth.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

What Are We Working For?

At one point in his first letter to the church in Corinth, the holy apostle Paul asks the question, “Does a soldier serve at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard, and does not eat of its fruit?” He is asking the people of that congregation to consider the right of one who labors on behalf of the Kingdom of God to receive his or her reward – that is, payment – for the work he or she has performed. In the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we hear, in the parable of the two servants in debt, of another form of payment; of what happens when a servant is unable to repay; and of the necessity to forgive in order to be forgiven.

The holy martyr and archdeacon Laurence of Rome shows us the labors of a martyr, and the reward, both earthly and heavenly, that is paid to one who testifies to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, even at the cost of one’s life. The holy martyr Laurence was an archdeacon and servant of the Pope, St. Sixtus, and the treasurer of the Church. When St. Sixtus was arrested for his faith, Laurence wanted to go with him, but was told by the Pope that he must wait, and that he would suffer greatly and then would follow him in martyrdom. St. Sixtus was beheaded; and Laurence was arrested. As he was tortured, not only was he told that, if he denied Christ, he would be set free, but he was also offered the opportunity to obtain his release by turning over to his captors the treasury of the Church, which he had hidden before his arrest. The holy martyr refused to yield the money and also refused to deny Christ, yielding instead his body to torture. He was placed on a griddle, and roasted alive; calling to his tormentors at one point, “This side is cooked; turn me over, so that the other side may be roasted, as well!” He entered into his reward – the Kingdom of heaven – in the year 258 A.D.

Most of us, God willing, will never be tested in our faithfulness as was the holy martyr Laurence. We would do well, however, to examine ourselves, and consider the reward for which we are laboring, to which we devote the majority of our time and energy and resources. In all probability, we will find that we do very little when it comes to laying up for ourselves treasures in heaven; and that the vast majority of our labors are devoted to acquiring the means to obtain ease and comfort for ourselves and our families. Isn’t it amazing that we will go deeply into debt in order to purchase worldly comforts, but give no thought to the debt that we owe for our offenses against God, against others, and even against ourselves? We often say, as a form of ironic humor, that we are “slaves to our employers”; and yet we do not consider that we were bought at a price: the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died on the Cross to set us free from our captivity to sin and death. It is through this act of giving that the debt we owe because of our sins, a debt we cannot possibly repay, is canceled – forgiven – because of God’s love for us. Think about this: Adam and Eve became the slaves of the enemy of our salvation because of their disobedience in the Garden of Eden; and each of us has done the same by our own actions, choosing to sin rather than to do what is pleasing to God. He might very well have abandoned us for our wickedness; but He did not leave us in such a wretched state. He came to us, and became one with us, joining His divinity to our humanity, so that we could be restored to Him, and delivered from death, which is the wages paid for sin. We cannot do this by ourselves; but the good news is that it has already been done for us. Now, we have a choice to make: to continue to live as slaves to sin, or realize that, having been redeemed by the sacrificial offering of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are now called to be slaves to righteousness. Remembering the love that has saved us, let us show our love for God by drawing near to Him each day in prayer, confessing our sins and asking for grace to overcome them; praying for those in need; and above all, praising and thanking the Lord for all He has done, and is doing, for us. Let us fast, and so teach our flesh to be obedient to our will. Let us give from what God has given to us, for the benefit of others and to set our souls free from attachments to our possessions. Let us be humble, gentle, patient, and forgiving – and in this way allow the life of our Lord Jesus given to us in baptism to be seen in what we say and do, in who we are. No earthly reward can approach the value of this gift we have been given; and any earthly suffering, whether it is as little as keeping the fasts or as great as that endured by the martyr Laurence, is treasure we set aside for ourselves in heaven. May the God Who loves us and Who has saved us grant us the grace to follow Him faithfully, as did the holy martyr Laurence, so that we may show Him to the world while in this life, and join the choir of heaven to sing His praises!

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