Homily for 4/4/21 – Sacrificing the Will

Today is the Lenten feast of the Precious and Life-giving Cross of the Lord. Last night, towards the end of the vigil, the Life-giving Cross was brought out for veneration and it remains in the Church for the whole week for our help and encouragement. In this Cross there is a particle of the true Cross upon which Our Savior was crucified.  Thus when we venerate it here this week, we are mystically transported to the Holy Land, to Jerusalem, to Golgotha where the cross once stood.  And from Golgotha, it is only a short walk, a few hundred feet, to the tomb of the Lord where He rose from the dead. The Cross is brought out now to remind us that we have completed the first half of Great Lent. For those of us who have not started fasting as of yet, the Cross is a stern reminder that now is the time to get our act together and start, or Pascha will come and we will have missed this opportunity. For those of us who are fasting but may be feeling that we are weakening, the sanctity of the Cross strengthens us. And even for us who are not weakening but doing well, the Cross rewards us with Grace. After all, the Cross is our spiritual sword against the dark enemies that we encounter every day.

That the Cross is our weapon of salvation shows us how incredibly merciful the Lord is. In the Old Testament Scripture we see that the Cross was considered to be a curse. It was the diabolical invention of Satan to be used in the most horrific way for men to destroy each other.  The Savior takes this diabolical tool and sanctifies it with His blood by dying on it.  The Cross then becomes for us a sacred, holy relic that frees us from the influence of the devil if we use it as Christ did.  What incredible mercy of the Savior to take something that was developed to horrifically destroy us and make it our ladder into the kingdom of God!

How then can we use the Cross as our Lord did and gain this benefit?  When our Lord prepared Himself for the ordeal that He would face in giving His life for us, He went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  There He poured out His heart to the Father and felt, as God, the full force of the struggle that we face as His fallen creatures.  He knows our weakness, He knows our pain, He knows our shortcomings, He knows the temptation that we face both from our own fallen nature and from the demonic forces which confront us.  He knows these things first hand for having taken on our flesh, He experienced all that we experience, from moment of our birth to the instant of our death.  All of this He poured out in prayer and then, seeing the extreme suffering that awaited Him on this path of self sacrifice for us, He fell on His face saying, “O my Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”  And rising from His prayer He found the disciples sleeping and He roused them instructing them to watch and pray that they might not fall prey to temptation.  He returned again to His own prayer and again a second time said, “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.” (Matt 26:39-42)  In these two prayers we see the core of how He approached the cross and how we should likewise do so.  Jesus Christ is God incarnate – God, the Creator of all that is, took our flesh and assumed our whole life.  He saw joy and sorrow, He experienced everything that we do in this life.  He had a human will that reacted to all these things as would our own will.  At this moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, that human will was brought out and seeing what was ahead He cried out, “Let this cup pass from me.” And then comes the key moment of the Cross where He says, “and yet not my will but Thine be done.”  At that moment the human will of Christ is in perfect harmony with the divine will, even though that harmony will result in temporary suffering and death.

Here it is, the very thing that we need to adopt in our own lives in order to fully ascend the Cross with Christ in such a way that it becomes for us a sacred, holy relic that frees us from the influence of the devil.  The Cross is an altar of sacrifice and on that altar we offer the one thing that we have to offer – our will.  Coming to the Cross we can cry out with this very prayer, “not my will but Thine” sacrificing the one thing that separates us from complete harmony with God.  The Psalmist himself saw this a millennium before and cried out in the 50th Psalm, “the sacrifice for God is a broken heart, a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise.”  Our own will, the very heart of our being as a free person and the pivot upon which we choose to follow Christ or not is the very thing that we must sacrifice. 

By offering up your own will you renounce what “I want” and instead embrace what God gives. This is the essence of the Cross as the symbol of our victory.  If we can do this, then we can walk the path of salvation in harmony with Jesus Christ.

Offering up the will means that we set aside our own desires and accept with joy that which God gives to us.  Until we set aside our own will, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible to see what God gives because we are so focused on what we want that we are unable to perceive anything else.  Everything that we see is colored by the lens of our own desires.  If something is good to us it is because that thing conforms to our desire and if it is bad, it is because it goes against our desire.  While still wrapped up in our own will, its hard to see things from any different perspective (and if we happen to be able to step out of ourselves for a moment and see something different, it remains impossible to act on it without first denying ourselves.)  In order to take this step of acceptance with joy of all that God gives, we first must bring our will into harmony with His.  That means giving up our own hopes and dreams and desires and goals and directing our will to only one goal – that of being with our Lord Jesus Christ.  If He is our only desire, then to follow Him instead of ourselves becomes the natural thing to do.

But such self sacrifice requires that we love God above all else and secondly that we trust Him to love us and to bring us to Himself.  That trust is important because what we are doing when we sacrifice our own will is that we are putting ourselves fully and completely in the hands of God.  We trust that He loves us and desires that we come into communion and union with Him.  Because He loves us, He also arranges our lives in such a way that everything works together for the purpose of bringing us to Himself.  For this reason the Apostle was able to say, “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:28)  That “good” is the fulfillment of the one desire of the will that has been sacrificed to God – to be with Him.  Our all-powerful God brings every thing in our lives into the service of this one desire, to be with Him.  Knowing this, we can have confidence that every event, every joy, every sorrow, every moment of our lives is part of the path to be with God.  Thus no matter what happens, whether “good” or “bad” from a worldly point of view, we can embrace it and rejoice in it for that moment has brought us one step closer to Christ – our one and only true desire.

Here then is how we sacrifice our will on the altar of the Cross and offer it to our Lord Jesus Christ.  The prayer, “not my will but Thine be done” is the key to transforming the Cross from an instrument of torture and death into the symbol of our victory and the font of joy.  Sacrifice your will, set aside your own desires, your hopes and dreams and goals.  Replace your will with the will of God and embrace all that He brings to you in this life.  When your only love, your only desire is to be with Christ, then every moment of your life becomes one more step closer the realization of that desire.  Our Lord arranges every step of the way so that it brings us nearer to Him and having that confidence we can then embrace all that comes to us and accept it with joy for we are coming ever nearer to Jesus Christ.

This then is the path of the Cross; the path not of suffering and torture, but of joy and rejoicing.  Abandon yourself into the arms of Jesus Christ outstretched to receive you on the Cross and you will receive your desire for just as you have embraced Him, so will He embrace you.

Homily for 3/21/21 – Faith

Heb. 11:24-26, 32-12:2

We heard today in the Epistle a great deal about faith.  Faith indeed is important and today we celebrate the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” wherein we proclaim that our faith is indeed the only true faith.  What then is faith?  Why is it important?  The answer to these questions is contained even in the same epistle that we read from today.  In the previous chapter (Heb 10:23) we read the admonition of the Apostle: “Let  us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering” and then “For the just shall live by faith” and that we “believe to the saving of the soul.”   See what a central role the concept of “faith” has in our life.  The Apostle then continues at the beginning of this chapter (Heb 11:1) to define what faith is:  “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” and then he continues to give a multitude of examples of the importance of faith in our lives of which we heard but a few. (I would encourage all of you, when you return home, to read this entire segment from Hebrews 10:23 – 12:2).  But what does this all mean?  What exactly does it mean to “live by faith”?

To have faith is to believe in the truth of something and then to use that belief to make decisions about how to live.  Faith is basic to our lives.  If we have faith in our God then we believe that what God tells us is true and that it is a reliable guide for ordering our lives. What we believe about God matters and so having a reliable and definable belief about God is important.  Therefore, we believe in “One God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth… and in one Lord Jesus Christ…” and so on.  The Creed (the Symbol of Faith) is our statement of what we believe about God and what He has told us.  This is our faith, this is what we believe, this is the foundation of our lives.  If we have this faith then we can move on and use it make decisions about how to act, how to live, what is important and what is not, what is right and what is wrong.  Our faith in God is the root of all these things in our lives. 

We cannot directly perceive God and even if we could He is far beyond our ability to comprehend.  In order to “live by faith” in God, we therefore hold firmly onto the truth that God has revealed Himself to us through the law and the prophets and ultimately, by His incarnation which is the full, complete and perfect self-revelation of God to us.  Therefore if we wish to be saved (that is to be able to live in eternity in union and communion with God), we must follow the path that He sets out for us in this revelation.

The Apostle tells us further that no man is saved by works – that is, no man can sufficiently follow the instructions that God has given us for we all bear in ourselves the seed of corruption which implants the element of sin and imperfection in our every effort – but that we are saved by grace through faith.  What this means is that our transformation into His image and likeness is accomplished by the infusion of His grace which is acquired not by our own accomplishments, but by our faith.  And here we can begin to see what it means to “live by faith”.  God has given to us instructions about how to order our lives in, for example, the ten commandments.  But none of us can perfectly fulfill all these commandments as we are inherently sinful and imperfect.  But if we are saved by faith rather than works God judges us not on what we have accomplished, but rather by the process of our struggle.  Regardless of our failures, do we struggle to live according to those commandments?  Do we truly believe that they are the laws and standards by which we become like God?  When we fail to follow them, do we then fall into despair, give up and try some other path, or do we repent, with firm faith in God’s mercy and forgiveness, get up and continue on the path set before us by the commandments?  This is the life of faith – we believe that the commandments of God are the means by which we become like Him and so we strive with all our being to fulfill those commandments.  And when we fail (because we do fail almost continually) we have faith – that is we believe – that God Himself will be true to His promise to forgive us and cleanse us of the consequences of our sins if only we repent.  And so by faith, we repent and we return to the path of the commandments that He has set before us. 

Let us look at one of the examples that the Apostle puts before us – the example of Abraham.  Abraham lived before the law and therefore his righteousness could not be defined by the law.  His righteousness, however was defined by his life of faith.  Abraham believed God and followed God’s call to leave his father’s home and to journey to a strange land which God has promised to give to him and his descendants.  Abraham believed and acted according to his faith; he journeyed to the land of Canaan and there began to dwell.  Abraham had no children and yet God had promised him descendants.  Abraham continued in his faith that God would provide children until it seemed he and his wife Sarah were beyond the years of childbearing.  At some point then, Abraham’s faith waned, it wavered, and he made a plan to “help” God by his own efforts.  Sarah sent her slave, Hagar (who was still of childbearing age), to Abraham so that he could conceive a child with her that would then technically be Sarah’s child since Hagar was her slave (the idea of surrogate parenting is not at all new you see).  When God saw how Abraham’s faith waned, He Himself came to Abraham in the form of three angels and renewed Abraham’s faith with the promise that Sarah herself would conceive and bear a child.  Now if you are familiar with this event in the Old Testament (book of Genesis) you will remember that the plan of Abraham and Sarah to help God out with the child of Hagar turned out rather poorly and caused no end of difficulty for Abraham’s descendants, but that the child of the promise, Sarah’s son Isaac, did indeed work out rather well.  Here we see the example of faith which is strong, then wanes and results in a fall but that God provides the opportunity for Abraham to repent and to return to the path of faith.  God later tests Abraham’s faith again, telling him to sacrifice Isaac, the son of the promise.  This time, Abraham’s faith did not waver and God provided a miraculous resolution. (Gen. 22:1-18)  Abraham lived by faith – even without the law – and his faith was counted unto him as righteousness.  God did not judge Abraham by his accomplishments (for as we see he wavered and fell away) but by his struggle.

This is our example of the life of faith.  We believe God and all that He has shown us through the law and the prophets and His incarnation.  We strive to follow the God/man Jesus Christ as best we can and when we fall, we do not despair, but we repent, get back up and continue to struggle to follow Christ. 

Today we celebrate the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” which marks the return of icons to the Church and the final defeat of the heresy of iconoclasm.  This event is expanded to celebrate the constant provision and care of God for His Church protecting her from every heresy that arises.  At the time of the 7th Ecumenical council, many heresies had arisen and been rejected: Arianism Nestorianism, Monophysitism (and all of its variants), Sabellianism, Gnosticism, Iconoclasm and so on.  The number and variety of these heretical movements is infinite – and many, although they were rejected by the Church continue in a variety of forms in the non-Orthodox Christian confessions.  For this reason it is necessary to hold fast to the Orthodox Christian faith and to reject others who claim to be Christian but hold to a different belief.  This is the true faith, this is the only true path that has been revealed to us by God.  In every other religion, sect and philosophy there is that element of error which prevents a person from truly following Christ, and which introduces a wrong turn that leads to a waning of faith such as Abraham experienced and finally a falling away from the path revealed by God. 

God loves you and wants you to enter into union and communion with Him.  He has shown you the way through the scripture – that is the law and the prophets – as well as through His own incarnation.  He calls us to live by faith in His revelation, to live according to His instruction. In His great love and compassion for us, He also sees our weakness, our infirmity, our imperfection that is inherent in us by the seed of corruption and sin that is buried in our fallen nature.  Therefore He calls us to live by faith – and judges us not on our accomplishments, but rather on our struggle – that is, on the process.  Today we are called to live by faith, to give to God our utmost.  And when we fail, when we fall, when we sin; we turn away from that failure, confess our sins and repent and God has promised that He will forgive us, that He will heal us and cleanse us of all unrighteousness and that He will lead us into His Kingdom.  My brothers and sisters, live by faith – every moment of your lives trusting in God, and He will lead you unfailingly into His eternal embrace.

homily for 3/7/21 – The Great Judgement

Matthew 25:31-46

The last two weeks, we have heard in the parables of the prodigal son and of the publican and Pharisee of the great mercy and compassion of God; how He hears our prayers, receives our repentance and freely forgives our sins, welcoming us back into His loving arms when we have sinned.  This great message of encouragement is the background that we need in order to hear that our God is also the great and final judge and that there awaits us, at the end of the world, a final and unalterable judgement.  On this Sunday we are instructed to remember the Great Judgement at the end of the world that we shall all face, when we will stand before the throne of God and present Him with the fruit of our lives on this earth, and return to Him the talents that He gave us along with the interest that we have gained by our spiritual labor – and we shall be judged by Him for all eternity. 

The Gospel that we heard today paints for us a picture of God on a throne with the sheep on His right and the goats on His left.  Those on His right He welcomes into His kingdom of glory while those on His left are consigned to the lake of fire prepared for the devil and his servants.  Truly this is a sobering picture, however let us look at another picture of this great event – that which was seen by the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John in the vision which was given Him by our Lord:

“And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.  And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.  And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.  And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” (Rev 20:11-15)

Consider this scene which is described for us by the Holy Apostle.  First we see a great white throne that descends from heaven – it is described as white for it shone with the divine light of the glory of the Lord.  From the context that the Apostle gives us we know that He Who sits upon the throne is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ.  We see Him now in His great glory from which even the heavens and the earth have “fled away”.  And the saint tells us that “there was found no place for them” that is for the heavens and earth by which he means the physical universe which we know.  At this moment the old cosmos is remade into something new and glorious which is described by the Apostle Paul saying, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor entered into the heart of men the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” (1Cor 2:9)  This is the new heavens and the new earth that God has prepared for those who love Him.  Around this great throne every person who ever lived upon the earth from Adam until the last person born will be gathered.  All mankind will be resurrected and we will all stand before God as complete persons, body and soul, to be judged.  This scene is nearly unimaginable and truly befits the glory of God.

We are not told just how this great judgment takes place other than the reference “the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”  Here now we return to the words of our Lord in the Gospel we heard today for He tells us that already there is a division, even before the judgement begins.  The sheep are gathered on one side and the goats on the other.  This indicates  that there is some kind of “prejudgment” that takes place to which we are all subject.  This “prejudgment” is the particular judgment that we face at the time of our death.  Those in this life who have lived according to faith in the Gospel of our Lord are sent to dwell in paradise while those who live according to their own will await the judgment in the torments of hades, each one experiencing a foretaste of eternity.  The criteria of this judgment is “those things which are written in the books, according to their works.”  You see, my brothers and sisters, we are each writing our own book at this very moment and every day of our lives.  Each day we write a new page.  When we live righteously according to our faith, this is recorded in our book and when we fall away and sin, this too is recorded.  In order to remove those pages full of the black ink of our sins we must certainly repent and our merciful Lord seeing our repentance will tear those pages out of the book and destroy them.  But if we do not repent the black ink of sin remains and stains the whole of the page.

Hearing this we might think with the Apostles, “but who then can be saved?” for indeed we are all sinners and we all have fallen not once or twice but many times.  To this our Lord replies that we are saved not by our own power, but by His great mercy and compassion and says to us that even though all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, if we confess our sins and repent of our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.  Therefore, do not fall into despair, but remember the lessons of the mercy and compassion of our Lord which was given to us in the previous Sundays.

As for the contents of the books, we have only to look at today’s Gospel and there we are told that those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned are counted worthy to enter into the Kingdom of God.  It is not simply doing these things that brings us to this place, but rather that these actions are the physical manifestations and actions of those who love God with all their heart and love their neighbor as themselves.  These are the characteristics of God Himself and if we live according to our faith in Him, we too will do these things.  Therefore we know that we will be judged not simply according to our own works (for there is no one righteous) but rather according to living out of our faith in Christ.

Now let us take a moment and consider how it is that our Lord Jesus Christ, who forgave all men, even those who nailed Him to the cross, could also be the great Judge who condemns the wicked for eternity.  In the incarnation we have the first coming of Christ – God incarnate in this world in humility and as our loving Creator gently leading us onto the path of eternal life.  Then later, at this Great Judgement He is the King of all Who appears in glory, riding upon a great white horse, subduing His enemies and consigning them to eternal punishment.  How do we reconcile these two pictures?  Let us now consider another parable, that of the fig tree which did not produce:

“ He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.”

This parable exactly explains the two comings of Christ.  Having created our first parents, God “planted” them in the Garden of Eden so that they might grow, produce fruit and mature and thus take their place in the heavenly choirs.  But by their own sin, they and all their progeny became infected with corruption and death.  Even so, God provided a cure for this illness so that they and all their children could be restored to their heavenly place.  A portion of mankind continued to follow God and to produce the fruit of righteousness, however others fell further away from God and were enslaved by their passions.  God allowed both the righteous and the sinful to grow together until the time of the harvest so that the righteous would have ample time to ripen and produce the fruit of righteousness.  As the time of the harvest neared God Himself came to “inspect” His crop and found that even the righteous were suffering and needed some TLC to fully ripen.  Instead of doing away with us God chose to “dig about” us and “dung” (that is fertilize) us by pouring out His grace upon us. This marks the first coming of Christ – this is God’s provision of TLC to allow mankind to ripen and produce the fruit of righteousness.  But still the time of the harvest will come, that is the second coming and the great judgement.  At that time He will judge each and all of us to see if we have produced fruit or if we remain barren. 

Too often we focus on the God/man Jesus Christ as the tender caregiver Who is working to nurture us and bring about fruit before the end, but we forget that He is also the Judge who will separate the fruitful from the barren, the sheep from the goats; and those who have the fruit of righteousness He will welcome into His Kingdom while those who are barren and have only their sins to offer will be banished to the lake of fire which is prepared for the devil and his servants.

Brothers and sisters, today we remember that there is indeed a great and final judgement coming.  Let us therefore work diligently, using well the riches of grace that are poured out upon us by the Holy Spirit that we might become fruit bearing trees which will be preserved and planted in the Kingdom of God.  Great Lent is nearly upon us – this is the time each year that we devote to our greatest spiritual struggle, this is the time that has the most promise for us to bear the fruit of righteousness.  Do not let this opportunity pass nor forget that God in His great love for us showers every good gift, every chance to bring forth this spiritual fruit and to be welcomed into His Kingdom.

homily for 2/21/21 – God’s promise of forgiveness

Luke 18:10-14

Today is the day that we begin to formally prepare for Great Lent.  This parable of the publican and Pharisee reminds us of the importance of humble repentance.  Indeed over the next 8 weeks or so we will hear a lot about repentance and humility, self-denial and taking up one’s cross, spiritual struggle and the labor of working out our salvation.  Before we begin that arduous task however, let us take a brief respite to look at something a little different. 

“The publican, standing afar off, wouldn’t lift up so much as his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.  I tell this man went down to his house justified…”  Do you see it? Do you see the most beautiful and wonderful thing that is being shown to us?  “This man (was) justified” that is he was forgiven.  God’s unconditional forgiveness is the great promise that we can hold on to all during the rigors of the fast.  God loves us and He eagerly awaits our repentance.  He is there with His arms outstretched to us, ready to lift us up and bring us into the joy of His presence.  If we confess our sins, He is ready and willing to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  This is a great blessing and a great promise. 

When the Holy Apostle Peter came to Jesus walking on the water, he became overwhelmed by the violence of the wind and the sea around him and fear set in.  Peter began to sink.  He cried out at that moment, “Lord save me” and there was Jesus, at his side, lifting Peter out of the waves and setting him safely in the boat.  See how simple it was – all Peter had to do was to cry out, confessing his weakness and his need of the help of the Lord Jesus Christ, and there He is with outstretched arms, taking Peter out of danger and placing him in safety. 

There will be many times during the coming fast when we may well become overwhelmed by the violence of our sins and the whisperings of despair that the demons constantly suggest to us.  We will be sinking in the sea of our own fears, our own passions and our own weakness.  At that moment, cry out to our Lord Jesus Christ, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” and there He will be, ready to lift you out of the mire of your sins and to set you firmly in the safety of the ark of salvation – His own Church.

The Pharisee of the parable came to God and instead of confessing his own sinfulness and entrusting himself to the care of God, he began to tell God just how righteous he was on his own.  He did not see (of if he did he did not admit) his own sinfulness but instead bragged to God how he did not need God’s help because he was good enough (or even more than enough) on his own.  This is the condition of many in this world – they do not see (or do not admit) their own sins.  It is as if they are blind to their helpless condition.  This inability to see one’s own sins comes about by a lack of repentance.  We always need to cultivate a climate of repentance so we can maintain some sensitivity towards sin.  When a specific sinful state is prolonged , the initial sensitivity towards this sin disappears.  Very often, when a person sins, they immediately feel the shame and horror of their sin, even as they are still in the midst of the sinful act – but they cannot stop.  But if repentance is put off, or completely avoided, then we begin to harden inside and after a time, our sinful actions no longer faze us.  The truth is that we must be in a constant state of repentance. We must refresh our spirit of repentance day and night. In doing this we will maintain the necessary sensitivity and we will keep from falling into the abyss of corruption.  The great danger, when we have lost our sensitivity to sin is that we begin to blame God for our sins.  This shifting of blame starts very subtly as we first begin to blame others for our sin – someone else made me do this, it’s their fault not mine.  They need to repent not me.   When we notice these thoughts in our mind and heart that is a great danger sign.  We have already begun the process of hardening our heart.  As this shifting of blame continues we begin to find ways to blame God Himself for our sins, “God made me this way, it’s only natural that I do this.” and so on.  Beware such thinking for these thoughts only lead us away from the path of salvation and begin to tie us down and we become enslaved to our sin.

What to do?  How can I escape such a strong and subtle trap?  The answer is the great mystery of the grace of God. God will come to help the sinner as long as the state of the soul is not irreversible.  What makes it irreversible?  Only the lack of repentance.  All one needs to do is to humble himself and cry out with the publican “Lord have mercy on me a sinner!” and God’s grace is quick to act in us.  Hearing our cry for help, Our Lord rushes to our side, reaches out His hand to us and lifts us from the waves which threaten to overwhelm us.  Nothing can prevent Him from coming to us, nothing can hold Him back.  The only thing that we have to do is to turn to Him, confess our own weakness and helplessness and throw ourselves completely on His mercy.  At that moment that we turn to Him, He pours out His grace upon us, He heals the wounds that sin has inflicted upon us and He sets us again on the path of salvation.

Yes, the lessons of the dangers of pride and the blessed state of humility that are evident in the Gospel are important for us to learn today.  This parable should be before the eyes of your heart and in your mind all week long.  Read it every day this week in the morning and meditate upon in throughout the whole day.  Absorb everything that you can from it.  Especially note the firm promise of forgiveness and the immediate reaction of grace that is given to the publican and fix this promise in your heart so that it will be an anchor throughout the whole of Great Lent.  God loves you and desires your salvation, He has promised that He will provide for you all that you need.  All you need to do is to confess like the publican, your own helplessness and throw yourself into the loving and compassionate arms of our Lord Jesus Christ and He will forgive you, He will heal you, He will pour out His grace upon you and He will bring you into His presence to stand with the choir of the saints.  This is the promise of our God to you – do not let go of it or forget it, but hold onto it as your anchor for the coming struggle of Great Lent.

Homily for 2/7/21 – Martyrdom

Luke 21:12-19

Our Lord Jesus Christ spoke to his disciples prophesying the fall of Jerusalem and they asked Him, “when shall these things be, what sign will there be when these things come to pass?”  The Lord then began to tell them not only of the immanent destruction of Jerusalem (in 70 AD) but also of the signs of the end of the world and His second coming.  He spoke to them of wars and rumors of wars, of earthquakes, famines, pestilence (plague) and other “fearful sights and great signs”.  He then said to them, “But before all these things, they shall lay their hands on you and persecute you … some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated by all men for my names sake.”  Having given them this dire warning, He then spoke words of comfort, “But there shall not an hair of your head that shall perish. In your patience possess ye your souls.”

From the first martyrdom of the deacon Stephen, to the great persecutions of the pagan rulers, to strife and martyrdoms at the hands of heretics, to the oppression and martyrdoms of the Turkish yoke the words of the Lord proved themselves true again and again.  Even after these waves of martyrdom in the ancient world, the words of our Lord continue to show themselves true.  Always the Church and those who hold to belief in Jesus Christ are singled out, persecuted, imprisoned and even killed by those who live according to the way of the world. Today we recall the beginning of the most recent wave of persecution and martyrdom – we call to mind the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church.  Certainly this persecution begun under the communist yoke of the Russian revolution was pervasive and tragic, but it was not limited to Russia alone, nor did it end after the first wave of martyrs.  This persecution continued on in Russia and spread to other nations, from the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe (Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, etc) to the Christians throughout China.  Just as this persecution seems to have abated with the fall of the various communist governments in Russia and Eastern Europe, so now we begin to see it rise up again in the cultural revolution of the western nations (including the Americas). Those who hold to the Christian faith, believing in the words of our Lord Jesus Christ and attempting to live accordingly are increasingly considered to be ignorant, intolerant, unloving, bigoted, prejudiced and even evil.  This is not a political phenomenon – because all sides of the political spectrum participate in this persecution (all the while seeking to identify the other side as the true culprit).  This is the work of the evil one in the whole world.  It is not right against left, red against blue, conservative against liberal, or any other dichotomy that we are presented with in the political spectrum.  This is a struggle of the world (and the prince of this world, that is the devil) against Christ and His servants, and we are in the midst of it.

But hear the words of the Lord, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”  These are the concluding verses of the beatitudes that we sing at every liturgy before the Gospel is brought out.  And again from the Gospel reading of today, “And it shall turn to you for a testimony … I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist … But there shall not an hair of your head perish.”  In the midst of all this trial, all of this difficulty, we know that God Himself has us in His care, giving us all that is needed to remain steadfast in our confession and to protect us from all harm.  How is it you might ask that Jesus can say in one moment, “some of you they will cause to be put to death” and then almost immediately “not an hair of your head shall perish”?  This is not some inherent contradiction, but rather a reminder that we who follow Him do not have the perspective of the world.  Yes, we will suffer physically (some even quite horribly) and yes, some will even die – but this is of no importance.  God will give to us the strength to endure every persecution.  Remember that He tells us not to fear the one who can harm the body, but that we should instead fear the one who can kill the soul (that is we should only concern ourselves with God Himself and not with the things of this world.)  Any temporal difficulty, pain or suffering that we might face in this world for His sake, even the separation of the soul and body will be counted unto us for righteousness and will bring great eternal rewards in the Kingdom of heaven.  God’s concern for us is for the salvation of our soul and to bring us into His presence with joy and rejoicing in the Kingdom of heaven.  If we should enjoy earthly comforts and pleasures in this life – then glory to God; but if these comforts and pleasures are taken from us in this life, then remember that they are temporary and of limited duration and that they will be replaced by the eternal joys and pleasures of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Martyrdom is giving up our life so that we might receive in return the life of Christ.  For some that means a long life full of self denial and bearing one’s cross.  For others that means suffering and literal death for Christ. Whatever we are given in this life, remember that it is a gift from God which is meant to bring us to our salvation. We need to reorient ourselves so that we no longer look at our lives from the perspective of this world where comfort, pleasures, freedom from suffering and any discomfort let alone pain, the esteem and agreement of men, the acquisition of riches and other possessions, etc. are goal.  Instead let us count this world as temporary and remember that our true home is in heaven.  Let us set our goals on acquiring the gifts of God: mercy, life, love, joy, peace of soul and the other fruits of the Holy Spirit. This is the struggle that leads to martyrdom, but also it is the dichotomy that places even physical suffering and death as nothing, and which promises that not even a hair on our head will be harmed.

The New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church, whose memory we celebrate today, are the first wave of the martyrs of the modern world.  We know that we are their brothers and sisters and that they have borne the onset of this new episode of persecution and martyrdom that will face the Church in our lives and in the lives of our children and grandchildren.  Today more than ever before we need remember that we have embraced Christ and even more important that He has embraced us.  We have come to Him and He has received us.  He knows that we will face great difficulties, but He will give us the superhuman (let us say the divine) strength to endure, the wisdom and words to confess Him before men.  He has promised us that every pain, every sorrow, every moment of suffering borne for His sake in this mortal and temporal world will bring us in return great reward in heaven.  We don’t have to be famous (how many martyrs and saints remain unknown in this world?), we only have to be faithful.  Jesus said to us, “all those who endure to the end will be saved.”  This is the key, whether we suffer a literal and profound martyrdom or whether we live a long life of self-denial and bearing our cross – let us “endure to the end” that we might be saved.  Remember the final instruction of our Lord in the Gospel that we heard read today: “in your patience possess ye your souls.”

homily for 1/24/21 – Repent

Matthew 4:12-17

Every year at this time many of us go through a little ritual that involves making New Year’s resolutions that we hope will help us to become better persons or perhaps will establish a good habit or make us healthier or accomplish some other positive movement in our lives.  While this is an entirely secular ritual, it is very similar to what we are called to do as Christians.  We are called by Christ to change, to become new – and not just once a year, but every hour of every day.

After Jesus had been baptized by John in the Jordan, He withdrew into the wilderness to fast and pray.  There, He was tempted by the evil one and defeated him.  Jesus then departed to go north into Galilee of the Gentiles (further up the Jordan River on the shores of the Sea of Galilee) where He began to preach.  His message was the same as that of His forerunner the prophet and baptist John: “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

To repent means to turn away from something and leave it behind – it means to embark on a new path.  Often we equate repentance with sorrow for our sins, however they are not the same thing.  Repentance and sorrow do often go together, but they are not identical.  We can be sorry for our sins and yet not repent.  This is when we regret having sinned, we might even weep over our sins – but we do not turn away from our sins.  Too often this is the case for us when we realize that we have sinned – we regret having sinned, we maybe even wish we hadn’t sinned, we may even weep for our sins, but then we go right on sinning in exactly the same way.  We might excuse ourselves saying “I can’t help it.” or “It’s just a habit I have.” or some other expression of helplessness.  We might try to blame our behavior on someone else saying, “Well, if they had done that I would not have had to do what I did.” or “I had to do what I did in order to avoid hurting that other person.”  We all have excuses for our sins – excuses that only lead to continued sin. 

But Jesus calls us to do more than regret our sins or be sorry for our sins – He calls us to repent.  When, in response to the prophet Jonah’s teaching, the city of Ninevah turned from their sin the scripture tells us that “God repented” of His judgement.  He didn’t make a mistake that he regretted, nor did He feel sorry for threatening to destroy them.  God did repent – He turned away from His previous course of action and embarked on something different. Our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to repent, to turn away from our sin – leave it behind and never return to it and embark on a different path.  This is hard because it means that we have to give up something, maybe even something that we love.  Maybe we have to give up complaining, or having a temper tantrum, or eating and drinking too much.  Maybe we have to stop being callous towards others who we encounter, ignoring and neglecting them.  We have to stop doing evil and turn instead to do good.

Every sinful passion has its opposite virtue.  Pride is countered by humility, greed by generosity, gluttony by temperance and so on. The fathers teach us that the way to fight a particular sinful passion is to consciously practice its opposite virtue.  Therefore if you find that you are acquisitive and greedy, then force yourself to be generous and give not only what you were tempted to keep for yourself, but give more than that.  Our Lord told us that if someone takes our coat, we should give him our cloak as well – or if he should require us to go with him one mile, we should freely go with him two.  Such behavior not only breaks the power of the sinful passion, but it begins to establish in us the virtue that we strive to practice.  This is the kind of conscious spiritual warfare that we must engage in if we choose to repent.  Turn away from your old sin – stop doing it – and force yourself to practice the opposite virtue.

Now, before Jesus began His teaching, after He finished his time of prayer and fasting, the Gospel tells us: “At that time, when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, He departed into Galilee…”  This doesn’t sound like much – it’s more like a segue from the temptation to the beginning of the Lord’s public teaching – but St John Chrysostom doesn’t ignore this. He comments: “Jesus departs, teaching us to give place to wrath, and not to enter into temptation by going ahead and putting ourselves in danger.  If Christ, Who could do all things, departs and flees physically, there is all the more reason for us to flee from dangers and temptations.  It is not a sin to flee; the sin lies in a failure to fight and struggle bravely and steadfastly when temptation befalls one.” This is an important strategy that I think we too often fail to consider when seeking to repent.  Many times we have the thought that we have to bravely and grimly stand our ground and withstand all the fire and arrows of the tempters.  While that is certainly necessary at times, sometimes, it is better just to leave and go somewhere else.  Time and time again the Holy Apostle Paul tells his spiritual children to flee temptation: in various letters he says “flee fornication” “flee idolatry” “flee youthful lusts” and so on.  Certainly the Apostle would fight against temptation and sin, but there were times when it was best to flee.  If the temptation is too difficult for you, then flee from it – physically change your place, turn off the television or the computer, end a conversation and walk away, refuse to follow a certain train of thought.  Whatever it takes – separate yourself from the temptation.

Now there is another situation that sometimes arises that is downright foolish.  Sometimes a person may intentionally expose themselves to a temptation or purposefully go into a situation where they know they will be severely tempted.  Often there is this idea that by putting ourselves in such a situation, we show our faith in God to preserve us even in the greatest danger, but in fact what we are doing is simply acting in foolish pride, thinking that we are stronger, more holy, or more righteous than we actually are.  We forget that when the evil one tempted the Lord saying, “throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple for does not the scripture say that the angels will prevent even a hair of your head from being harmed.” that Jesus responded saying that we should not tempt (or try) the Lord our God.  It is a greater demonstration of faith in God to follow His example and His commandment than to foolishly put ourselves in harm’s way and hope that God will somehow protect us from our own foolishness.  Flee temptation – don’t run to it.

Brothers and sisters, let us hearken to the words of our Lord – let us repent.  Let us make a new spiritual resolution to turn away from our sins and embark on a different way of life.  Let us flee from temptation and turn instead to follow Christ.  This is the call of our Lord from the very beginning of His teaching, picking up the consistent message of the prophets and emphasizing it with His own voice: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

homily for 1/10/21 – Gifts

A few days ago (Thursday), everything changed, the whole world became different.  God took our human flesh and became man, was born of the Ever-Virgin Mary and the world changed.  Last night at vespers we heard some of the hymns of the feast repeated again: listen to just a little of what was sung. “Come let us rejoice in the Lord, telling of this present mystery: The middle-wall of partition hath been demolished, the fiery sword is  removed, the cherub withdraweth from the gate of life, and I partake of the food of paradise, from whence I was driven away because of disobedience; for the immutable Image of the Father, the Image of His eternity, doth assume the form of a servant, issuing forth from the Mother who knew not wedlock without undergoing change … and He hath received what He was not, becoming man in his love for mankind.” “When the Lord Jesus was born of the Holy Virgin, all things were enlightened…for God appeared in the flesh, the Savior of our souls.”  Just those few lines are enough to leave me breathless as I contemplate the great Mystery of the birth of the God/man Jesus Christ. 

With one great movement, God has healed the breach which separated us from Himself and has opened again to us the path into His Kingdom.  Where Adam had been exiled from paradise, now the second Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ, welcomes us back in with open arms.  Where an angle with a flaming sword was set at the gate of paradise, now God Himself the source of all light invites us to come and be enlightened.  Where the gate was locked now it is again opened to allow us access to the Tree of Life.  Adam was prevented from eating of the fruit of the Tree of Life because of his disobedience and now He Who is Himself Life offers us the divine food of His own most pure Body and His own precious Blood.  Indeed everything has changed and the world is different. 

Seeing this great condescension and gift of God to us, how do we respond.  Again we turn to the hymns of the feast sung at Vespers to help us out: “Every creature that hath breath praiseth Thee … What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, in that Thou hast appeared on earth as a man for our sake? For every creature fashioned by Thee offereth Thee thanksgiving: the angels, hymnody; the heavens, a star; the magi, gifts;, the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, a cave; the wilderness, a manger; and we, the Virgin Mother.” God has given to us the greatest of Gifts – He has given us Himself – and out of our thanksgiving we all offer to him what we are able. What then do we offer to our Lord Jesus Christ? We heard already of the gifts of the angels, the heavens, the magi, the shepherds, what can we offer.  Like these mentioned in the hymn we offer to God what we have.  The angelic hosts hymn God continually and this then is what they offer – a hymn.  The heavens are full of stars and so the brightest and most beautiful star is offered to Christ.  The magi were kings of great worldly possessions and so they offer all their wealth. The shepherds were poor and simple but still they offer their wonder at the coming of the promised Messiah.  Even the earth and the wilderness offer to God a cave and a manger. The human race itself, even though fallen and broken, offers something of the greatest value – the most perfect human being ever produced by humanity – the Virgin Mother. Each offers what he has to God in thanksgiving for the great Gift He has given to us. 

What about us then, what do we offer to God?  What can we offer to God that would be worthy of such a Gift?  Everything that we have is broken and corrupted, even our very nature has fallen and is spoiled by sin.  We have nothing to offer worthy of God’s love to us.  But of all the gifts noted above, some might seem greater than others – the hymns of the angels, a star in the heavens, the wealth of the magi would seem greater than simple wonderment or a cave in the earth or a rude manger.  And yet, God did not refuse any of these gifts but accepted them all without prejudice or judgement.  Each gift is valued by God because it was given out of what the giver possessed and not in comparison to what he did not have.  So it is then with us, we offer to God what we have – our own self, as dirty, broken and corrupted as it may be and if we do so with an open and humble heart He will not turn away from us but will receive and accept our gift.  It is as the Psalmist tells us, “with whole burnt offerings God will not be pleased – the sacrifice for God is a broken heart, a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise.” It is our very brokenness that God desires.  The content of the gift is not important but rather that it is given with humility.  We offer to God what we have – our own broken, sinful, dirty and corrupt selves – and He, seeing our humility, receives this gift with joy. 

Today we also remember the three righteous ones; David the King, Joseph the betrothed and James the brother of the Lord.  These three also offer their gifts to God.  David as the ancestor of the Lord offered his own royal lineage (which of course he had received from God): “Let us praise King David, the ancestor of God, for from him sprang forth the rod of the Virgin, and from her blossomed the Flower, even Christ…”  Joseph offered his obedience, accepting the call of God in his old age to take on the role of the protector of the Virgin and her Divine/human Child. “In old age, Joseph the betrothed beheld the things foretold by the prophets manifestly fulfilled, having received a strange betrothal and a revelation from angels…”  James the brother of the Lord offered himself in prayer and service as the first bishop of Jerusalem and as a martyr: “Let us all praise the brother of God, for he is a holy hierarch who shone forth nobly also in martyrdom…”

These three also represent for us all of time: David the past, Joseph the present and James the future.  David looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and many of his Psalms are prophetic in nature pointing toward Christ.  Joseph saw the fulfillment of the coming of Christ and took Him in his own hands and into his own heart as though He were his own son.  He lived with Christ day by day, each day giving to God the same humble offering of obedience and faith.  James the brother of Lord, as a hierarch stands in the place of the Church, the Body of Christ.  As a martyr he also shows us our own future that we must lay down our own lives for Christ.   

God has come into the world, He has taken our flesh and become man.  And with His coming, everything is changed.  The door of paradise is opened and God stands waiting for us to enter and receive again the divine fruit of the tree of life, His own Body and Blood that we might have His life within us. In our joy, we offer to Him gifts, each of us as we are able. It is David the King, Joseph the betrothed and James the brother of the Lord who show us how to access that newly opened paradise – by placing all our hope in God as did David, by living with God every hour of every day as did Joseph and by giving up our own lives as did James that we might have instead the life of Christ.

Let us rejoice in this new world, let us look with awe and wonder at the mighty miracles of God who has opened for us again the gates of paradise and let us give ourselves as gifts of thanksgiving to God that we might in return enter through the open gates of paradise into a new life in His Kingdom

Homily for 12/27/20 – preparation and participation

Luke 14:16-24

Today, the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of Christ, is the first Sunday of our preparation for the feast of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh. Today we look back on the physical forefathers of Christ – those from whom the flesh of our Lord was drawn.  Although we have had liturgical “hints” over the past month of the coming feast with certain parts of the Nativity service finding their way into the regular rotation, from this day on we begin in earnest to really focus on our preparation for the coming celebration. 

Our small preparation, however, only brings into focus the great preparation that God Himself has undertaken for the great event of His incarnation.  From the very moment of the exile of our first parents from the garden, God began to prepare for our redemption.  Even before this, before the creation of the world, in His omniscient knowledge of all that would come to pass, the incarnation of the Son was planned by the Holy Trinity.  This was not an event that “just happened” or that was cobbled together at the last minute – this was an event that was begun before the beginning of creation.  Today then, we see how God prepared for the birth of the Virgin Mary who would be the instrument of the incarnation.  We see how God prepared the womb from which He would take flesh – our humanity – and unite it with His divinity.  Next week – the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of Christ – we will remember how God prepared the world spiritually for His coming.

In the Gospel today, we heard read the parable of the wedding feast.  A great king – that is God Himself – prepared a feast for the wedding of His Son – our Lord Jesus Christ.  When everything was ready, He sent for the guests who had been invited to come and join the feast.  These invited guests refer to the Jews, the chosen people who had taken part in the preparation for this great event.  Now was the time that they could come and receive their reward.  But each guest in turn made excuses to the king, turning away from His feast to attend to their own affairs.  The King, seeing that those He invited had turned away from Him, then withdrew their places at the feast and invited others – the common people, the poor, the disabled, the blind and deaf, even the strangers traveling on the road – to come and receive the feast that had been intended for the invited guests.  These new people, the poor, the sick, the strangers and so on represent the whole world, Jews and gentiles, whoever would accept the invitation.

St Gregory Palamas speaks of this shift in the “guest list” of the wedding feast of the Son of God. “In the church today, we celebrate the forefathers, most of whom were Hebrews by race.  For what reason? So that all of us may learn that the Hebrews were not disinherited nor the Gentiles adopted as sons in a way that was unjust, unreasonable or unworthy of God who did these things and made these changes.  Rather, just as among those Gentiles who were called, only the obedient were chosen for kinship with God, so the race of Israel, and Adam’s descendants down to Israel’s time, were a great multitude, but only those among them who lived according to God’s will were true Israelites.  To them the prophecies belonged, through them future events were prefigured, and to them the promises were given. Only these men were the true fathers and forefathers, firstly of her who in virginity bore Christ, who is God over all, according to the flesh, and then, through Him, of ourselves.  These fathers and forefathers were certainly not cast out of Christ’s Church, for they are publicly commemorated by us today as partakers of the fullness of the saints.”

Indeed we can see that it was not the entirety of the Hebrew people that were displaced from the wedding feast, but only those who had departed from the true faith in God.  There were those who remained true to God’s promises and continued to live in accordance with their faith – these were accounted worthy to remain among the people of God, the true Israel, the Church of Christ.  Such were all the saints of the old testament, those righteous people who continued to hold fast to their faith in God and lived in expectation of the promised Messiah.  Among them we count the great prophets, kings and leaders of the people as well as countless others who held fast to the Lord God (as God said to Elijah when he mourned the appearance that he was the only one left who followed God – and God replied that there were still 7000 in Israel who had not turned away from Him.  We don’t know who these 7000 were, but they, along with the prophet, are counted among the righteous)  From these righteous ones we also recall the Macabee martyrs, the righteous Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joachim and Anna and of course the great forerunner and Baptist John as well as the Mother of God, the Ever Virgin Mary.  From these unknown righteous ones who continued to hold to their faith in God were drawn the disciples and apostles of our Lord who witnessed His life and teaching, His death and resurrection and who, being filled with the Holy Spirit, served as the nucleus of the New Testament Church.

And the doors of the wedding feast were opened to many others, not of the Hebrew race, among the Gentiles who embraced the faith in Jesus Christ and were “grafted on” to the vine of Christ.  Thus the wedding feast was again filled with guests.  But there was one guest who was found to be without a proper wedding garment and even though he had accepted the invitation to the feast, he was cast out because he did not have the proper clothing.  This clothing is the grace of the Holy Spirit which is evident in the virtues and other fruit of the Spirit in our lives.  We gain this clothing by pursuing a Christian life, living according to the revelation of Jesus Christ.  This unfortunate guest, while initially present at the feast, did not bother to acquire this “wedding garment” of God’s grace and so in the end was removed from the feast.

Again, St Gregory: “All, old and new, who have been well-pleasing to God, and all who have led lives acceptable to God, either before the law, under the law or after the law in the gospel of grace, have this circumcision (the circumcision of the heart) and are united by it. … If you look at God’s dispensation for the human race with understanding, you will see that from the beginning to end it is inwardly consistent and follows a logical order. It is now the case that the elect from every nation receive a new name as Christians, but those who are fruitless are rejected, ‘For many be called but few are chosen’ as the Lord Himself says.”  Here then is an important note for us.  We have all accepted the invitation to the new life in Christ.  As we will sing shortly “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshiping the indivisible Trinity: for He hath saved us.” However, it is not enough just to have accepted the invitation, it is not enough just to have entered the feast and even partaken of the food.  We must also “put on Christ” and be clothed with the wedding garments of the grace of the Holy Spirit.  We must live lives pleasing to God, we must strive to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit. We must be changed and transformed, living no longer according to the flesh but living now according to the Holy Spirit.  If we neglect to work out our salvation then when we stand before Christ, we will not have a wedding garment and He will cast us into the outer darkness with the terrible words, “depart from me for I never knew you”. 

We stand today at the beginning of our preparation for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh.  We look upon the great preparation of God for this moment and we see with joy that the doors have been opened and we too are invited to stand with the righteous ones before the manger, the throne of God.  We have been admitted to the wedding feast, and now it is our task to adorn ourselves with the new wedding garments of grace, putting on Christ and leaving off the old man.  Let us be diligent in acquiring the grace of the Holy Spirit and in cooperating with Him as He transforms us that we might stand before the throne of our Great God and Savior Jesus Christ and join our voices with those of the angels and all the saints praising Him throughout eternity.

Homily for 12/13/20 – restored humanity

Luke 13:10-17

Our Holy Father Seraphim, while living as a hermit in the forest, was attacked by thieves who thought that he was hiding some money or valuables.  Finding nothing they left empty handed but not before beating the saint and injuring him severely.  From that day on, Saint Seraphim walked bent over as a result of his injuries.  We can see this in his portrait and in some of the icons of the scenes from his life.  But we also see that the Saint never stopped looking up, he never stopped looking to God and to the image of God in his fellow man.  It took effort for him to hold his head up while his bones were pushing him toward the earth.  When we look now at his icon we don’t see this injury, we see him standing straight as though he had not been bent over.  We see this in the icon because he is depicted not afflicted with his earthly sufferings, but rather we see him made whole in the kingdom of God which is the result of the grace which filled him throughout his life.

Today we heard in the Gospel a story similar to this.  There was a woman who had an infirmity which caused her to be bent over, nearly doubled.  She was unable even to look up, so great was her disability, however, even though she could not physically look up, her heart never stopped looking to God.  Our Lord Jesus Christ, seeing this woman, called her over to Him – note here that she did not approach Him, possibly she couldn’t even know that he was nearby, but Jesus called to her – and moved by compassion for her suffering, healed her.  She immediately was able to stand straight again and her first response was to give glory to God.

This whole account of healing gives to us an image of our own salvation. This woman, bent over in her infirmity is very nearly like an animal.  No longer able to stand upright, only with great effort is she able to walk on two feet (and she most likely had to use a cane or support of some sort to do so) rather than on “all fours”.  In the same way we are all bent over under the weight and influence of our sins and it is only with difficulty that we resist becoming like an animal.  In fact, many of our prayers of repentance draw this comparison of a man being enslaved by sin is like a beast.  One of the verses that we say in the pre-communion canons quite clearly gives us this image: “O Jesus, having yielded to irrational pleasures, I have become irrational, O my Jesus; and wretch that I am, I have truly become like unto the beasts, O my Savior…” (Canon to the Sweetest Lord Jesus, Ode 8)  In our sins, we can no longer stand aright spiritually as we were created to do; rather we are bent over, forced into the likeness of a beast by the weight of our sins.  It is only with great effort that we are able to lift our eyes from the earth and look to God.  It would be so easy to give in to our fallen-ness, to cease being human and to become like a beast, wallowing in the mire of our sinfulness and passions.

So this is the situation that our Lord saw when He beheld this woman.  For eighteen long years she had resisted the pressure to give in and become like a beast.  For all this time she continued to come to the synagogue to pray, to lift up her heart, if not her eyes, to God from whence cometh her help.  All this time she refused to let go of being a human.  Our Lord, seeing her heart calls her to Himself.  Not knowing her name, he called her by the most respectful title possible – “Woman”.  This is the same way in which He addressed His own mother (at the wedding in Cana of Galilee where He turned the water to wine – John 2:1-10).  He honored her years of labor to remain human despite her outward appearance and suffering.  He called her to Himself and laying His hands on her said, ‘Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity.’  Immediately her back straightened and she could again stand aright, no longer bound by her physical infirmity.  In the same way our Lord sees our condition and has compassion on us.  He sees our hearts, He sees our labor to resist falling into the state of bestiality, He sees our hope on Him and He calls us to Himself saying, “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” (Mt 11:28)  He is calling us to Himself that He might relieve us of this burden of sin, that He might restore to us our lost humanity and lift us up again to look up into the heavens.

If we respond to Him, hearing His voice we come to Him, then He lays His hands upon us and releases us from our sins.  We have all felt the hand of God releasing us from our sins in baptism in the hands of the priest.  If you baptized as an infant, perhaps you do not remember the hands of the priest – but they were there keeping you safe and lifting you out of the waters of baptism into the new life in Christ.  If you were baptized as an adult, you may well recall the hands of the priest as he immersed you in the water and then pulled you up to your new life.  The priest in this case stands in the place of Christ and it is not by his own hand or his own power that he gives you new life, but it is the hand of our Lord Jesus Christ which is laid upon you and which releases you from the burden and weight of your sins by His divine power.  And I do not doubt that many, if not all of you, could recount a time when you felt the hand of God on your heart helping you through a difficult time.  Our Lord Jesus Christ constantly stretches out His hands to us to touch us, to heal us, to cleanse us, to release us from our iniquities.  And immediately our crippled soul is healed and we are released from our sins and are able to stand again, as we were created to do, in the presence of God.

In healing this woman of her infirmity restoring her to her true nature, our Lord heals all of us and restores to us our lost humanity.  We are released from our sins, we are no longer bound by them to become like the animals.  By God’s mercy and grace we can now stand, as He created us to do, and glorify Him.

And that is exactly what happened to this woman.  As soon as she was healed and stood aright, she began to glorify God.  She knew the source of her healing – that it was not of men, but from God alone.  There is no record that she ever turned to Jesus Himself in gratitude, but she immediately began to glorify God.  This is the proper response to the miracle that God performs in us – to stand aright and glorify Him.  Don’t delay, but immediately stand aright and praise God.  Praise God with your lips, praise Him with your actions, praise Him with your attitudes, praise Him with your whole life.  This is what you were created for – to glorify God with your whole being, to join the choirs of the angels in their unceasing hymns of praise to God. 

It is tempting to go back to our old sins, as the scripture puts it as a dog returns to its vomit.  But this is to go and pick up those old weights that were holding us down and holding us back.  Do not return to your old sins, but leave them lie where they are and begin this very moment to praise God.  The woman who was healed had been waiting eighteen years for this very opportunity – she did not go back to her old way of life, bent over and looking at the ground.  She stood up and immediately began to glorify God.  You have been restored to your proper life – continue to live that life.  Leave your chains behind (and yes the demons will pick them up and offer them to you, suggesting that maybe you forgot something), turn your back on your former sins and work to keep yourself oriented towards the light of Christ. 

You have been restored by our Lord Jesus Christ to your humanity.  No longer are you bound to act like a beast (or even worse than a beast for we willingly bind ourselves with our sins) but your lost humanity has been restored.  Stand aright, lift up your eyes, your hands, your hearts to heaven and begin to glorify God.  This is why you were created, this is the purpose of your life, this is the fulfillment of your being – to glorify God.  Begin now and don’t stop.  This is your true life, your true humanity; to glorify God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength now and throughout all eternity.

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