Sunday, December 28, 2008

How do our plans for our lives compare to God's plan?

When I first arrived here in Florence I was told the Narthex would be finished by late September or early October but as we all know that plan didn’t work. Something told me when we blessed the foundation two weeks after they were scheduled that we were in for a game of faith when it came to completing the Narthex according to the plans. Things don’t always work out as we plan for them and sometimes that is for the good especially when God is involved. I’m sure we all have stories about how our plans for something didn’t quite work but the result was much better than we had ever imagined.

The same I’m sure is true for Joseph in this morning’s Gospel. As if it wasn’t difficult enough for Joseph to believe the angel about Mary’s Son, now an angel tells him to pick up his family and move to a foreign country. We know from the Gospel that Joseph had other plans but his plans didn’t work out like he had expected.

Joseph was a widower with children so his plan was to find another wife to care for his children. When God got involved in his plans everything changed. Sure Mary was able to help with his children, but nothing in his wildest imagination could have prepared him for Mary’s Son. Once Jesus was a part of Joseph’s life he had to be willing to change his plans. Just listen again to this morning’s story: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.’” (Matthew 2.13) And when Herod did finally die and Joseph was on his way back just as the angel had told him, “he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee.” (Matthew 2.22) Does this sound like Joseph was keeping to his original plan?

Plans change; at least our plans change. There is only one plan that has never changed…God’s plan to save the human race from eternal suffering. God has never wavered from His plan to save us, whether He was speaking through Moses or whether He was telling Joseph to stay away from Judea. What changes is our reaction to His plan. In the story of Christmas Joseph allows his personal plans to change to allow for God’s plan to work.

My brothers and sisters we have plans just like Joseph. We all have personal plans and we have plans as a community. We have plans to complete the Church. We have plans to build our new Hellenic Center. Some of us have plans for an Orthodox School in Florence, or some of us may have plans for an Orthodox retirement center. I’m sure we all have plans for our community to grow in the future. But we must ask ourselves, before we are warned in a dream like Joseph, if our plans are the same as God’s plan.

God’s plan is simple….save the world. Joseph’s plan was simple…find a new wife to help with my children. As long as Joseph remained in communication with God, his plan worked. Even though Joseph had to flee to Egypt, his children were still cared for. I’m sure Joseph wondered how his plan would work. God allowed for Joseph’s plans as long as he was open to God’s desire for Mary and her Son, Jesus.

God will bless our plans too as long we remain open to His plan within our community and our lives. Just like Joseph we have witnessed and celebrated the birth of God and now we must open ourselves to whatever God has planned for us. God is now a part of our lives, and we must remain in communication with Him. We must remember that God allowed Joseph’s plans so long as they were consistent with His plan for Mary and Jesus. Sometimes God asked Joseph to change his plans. As long as our plans for our personal lives and our community remain a part of God’s plan, He will allow them to work.

This morning’s Gospel shows us that other things can also affect our plans. St. Matthew tells us, “But when he had heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.” (Matthew 2.22) When Herod was dead Joseph was supposed to return. That was the plan but there was no mention of Herod’s son. Since Herod’s son was now ruling, Joseph had to change plans even though his original plans were told to him by the angel. The question we must ask every day is, “How do our plans for our lives and this Church compare to God’s plan today not just last month or last year?”

Things are constantly changing around us and we must be in constant communication with God about our plans for the future. God’s plan has never changed, just our part in them. God may need something different from us in 2009 than He did in 2008. Just think how things have changed for our parish in the past year…different priest, different economy, different mayor, some members have died or moved away and others have moved closer. One thing remains always the same…God’s plan.

We must be ready for anything this year my dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Joseph was ready to take his family and move to a foreign country even though he had other plans. With God in his life Joseph’s plans were fulfilled when he allowed God’s plan to choose the path. God will bless our plans also when we allow Him to choose our path.

So the Narthex expansion will be complete in a few weeks by the grace of God and if God wants us to have an Orthodox School in Florence, it will be built. As for our plans for a larger community…God’s plan is to save the world and that means bringing more people into this Church. All we have to do is be ready to travel to foreign lands first.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Nicest Thing Anyone Has Ever Done For Us

There is a story of a young man who had fallen asleep at the wheel one night while he was driving home from work. His car crossed the median and hit a motorcycle. The driver of the motorcycle was killed instantly and this young man was faced with knowing his actions resulted in the death of another human being. He was facing charges of vehicular homicide and reckless driving among other traumatic circumstances. The world seemed to be closing in around this young man at a time when he should have been focusing on graduating from high school. Rather than preparing college applications he was preparing his defense for trial. Just imagine the hopelessness he must have felt at that time!

He couldn’t speak about the accident without becoming emotional but he shared many of the details with others. During conversations he shared what he considered the “nicest thing anyone had ever done for him.” The morning after the accident he was in his hospital room when his brother came to visit. It had only been a few hours since it all happened and he was still without a shirt. His shirt had become saturated with blood at the scene of the accident. His brother removed his own shirt and placed it over his head. “He gave me the shirt off his own back,” this young man said while he was choking back tears. The sound of young people suffering is very painful.

This morning we read from the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel Luke about the birth of Christ and what happened shortly after. When King Herod heard of the birth of God he wanted so badly to capture Jesus, but was outsmarted by the wise men. “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem from two years old and under.” (Matthew 2.16) And the entire city of Bethlehem wept with the suffering pain of dying children.

Just last week our neighbors in Horry County buried an abandoned baby who was found dead. The news of death and destruction just feels overwhelming at this time of year. Job loss, devastating fires, murders and burglary. Just when people should be preparing for Christmas, they have been preparing funerals and insurance claims. Society feels like it is crumbling around us, but just as the young man I told you about, Christ gives us the shirt off his own back.

This is what Christmas is all about. Two thousand years ago, in the midst of oppression and poverty, God became a human being. The same God who created the entire universe was born as a baby and grew up just as we did in the midst of crime, poverty and death. But He brought us life. He brought us hope for the future.

The birth of Christ my dear brothers and sisters brings us hope for a better tomorrow. What we celebrate this evening is “the nicest thing anyone has ever done for us.” God lowered himself from heaven and became a human being so that we could live forever with Him in Heaven. That is the benefit of Christmas. There is no suffering in Heaven. There is no death in Heaven. There is no pain in Heaven. There is no sighing in Heaven. There is only peace, life and love.

As we pray at every memorial service in our Church, “Give rest to the soul of the departed servant of God in a place of light, in a place of repose, in a place of refreshment, where there is no pain, sorrow or suffering.” (From the Memorial Service) With the birth of Christ, we are now able to become citizens of paradise. Just think, if Christ wasn’t born, He could never have been crucified and resurrected, and if He had never been resurrected we would not be able to get to Heaven. What a great gift He has given us today on Christmas.

Christmas is a time for gifts. We give gifts and we receive gifts from our family and friends. Some of us even receive gifts from our co-workers. Christmas is a time when we should focus our attention on the blessings that are in our life and the blessing of life, the gift we receive from God is precious.

With the birth of Christ God gives us the permission to hope for a better future rather than dwell on the pain and suffering of today. He gives permission “to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.” (John 1.12) If we believe that God, the same God that created the universe – the only God – became a man and was crucified, buried and raised from the dead, then we already have received the greatest gift anyone could ever give us……forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

I would like to tell you the end of the story for the young man, but it is still being written. The family of the motorcycle driver forgave him and he was never jailed. He went to college and is now a promising bright young man with a college degree and with the hope of a great future. God has blessed him with knowing there is comfort in God when all else seems to fail, and that is a great gift.

Tonight my dear brothers and sisters, when we return home for our own family traditions of Christmas, let us remember that there is always hope for a better tomorrow when Christ is part of our lives.

Christ is Born, Glorify Him! Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Which Way Will You Turn?

My mother tells a story about my grandfather that I think many of you would appreciate. My uncle used to live in Miami so every winter my grandfather would spend several weeks on vacation enjoying the sun and fishing almost every day in the ocean. One time, as the story goes, my grandfather was really excited about a fishing trip they were going to take the next morning. You see, two days later he was going back to Chicago. This would be his last trip out for the season. He couldn’t sleep that night, not because he was so excited….just the opposite. He couldn’t sleep because he was so anxious about how he was going to get all that fish back home in the airplane. What would he do if he caught too much? Would they even let him carry it on the plane? He didn’t want to just leave it in Miami. That night anxiety kept him from sleeping.

Anxiety is exactly the same emotion the rich farmer felt in this morning’s Gospel story. “The ground of a rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’” (Luke 12.16-17) You can almost feel his pain. After a long season, the harvest arrived and he had no place to store so much food. But the anxiety was blinding and he didn’t know where to turn for help so he looked to himself for the solution.

There were so many other places he could have turned for help if only he didn’t let anxiety get the better of him. The Gospel calls him a rich man, so he must have had servants. In fact, I would doubt he actually tilled the land himself. He may not have gotten very dirty at all. If we look again at the story it says, “The ground of a rich man yielded” This suggests that Christ wants us to see that the rich man was in total isolation from the work. He didn’t do the work, the ground did….and actually we know as Christians that it was God who made the earth yield a plentiful crop. And still the rich man turned to himself for the solution.

By turning to himself the rich man revealed his lack of consideration for others. The Gospel continues, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods.” (Luke 12.18) His barns were already full. It would not have been difficult for him to give some of his crops away, but he was thinking only of himself. He said, “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’” (Luke 12. 19) A blinding anxiety had total control of the rich man. Not only was he blind to those around him, he was blind to God.

“But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’” (Luke 12.20) The rich man spent so much time worrying about where he would store the crops (crops he didn’t even need) that he was blind to the fact that his wealth would not help him after he died. Christ says, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12.21)

What does it mean to be rich toward God? St Cyril of Alexandria says, “He who does not love wealth but rather loves virtue is rich toward God.” (Commentary on Luke, Homily 89) We are called to take care of each other. The rich man kept turning only to himself. He was blind to the needs of others around him so when he died the food was wasted. Another saint of the Church says, “How will he know where to look, when at the trial he starts hearing the words, ‘I was hungry and you did not give me to eat.’” (St. Augustine Sermon 36.9) The rich man did not cherish love for the poor; he only had love for himself. Otherwise, he would have looked to others for a solution.

The real solution, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is to look to God. If we look to God then anxiety cannot blind us. If we look to God we will see the needs of others and the excess we have to share. If we look to God, we will be rich toward Him. Christ says, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on. Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing.” (Luke 12.22-23)

We live in a society that tells us: “Be your own person!” or “Don’t depend upon others, but depend upon yourself!” and the worst, “God helps those who help themselves.” This last one by the way is NOT in the Bible and it is nowhere in our Orthodox Christian Tradition. Today’s Gospel lesson teaches the exact opposite. The rich man said to himself, “Eat, drink, and be merry.” He was being his own man, and that didn’t get him very far.

“This night your soul will be required of you.” If we die tonight how would we respond? Have we spent more energy worrying about where or how we were going to store our wealth instead of how we could use our wealth to help others? When the Stock Market lost billions of dollars last month, did any of our worrying beforehand keep it from happening? Has our worrying helped since? We can only look to God.

Christ says, “Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds? And which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” (Luke 12.24-25) The rich man turned to himself and was condemned, the birds turn toward God and are saved. Which way will we turn?

By the way, after a long night with no sleep, my grandfather didn’t catch one fish. A lot of good all the worrying did.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Don't Be A Scrooge...Your Life Depends Upon It!

It has been getting colder lately and before we know it Christmas will be here and our time will be filled with many traditions. One tradition which I really enjoy is Christmas TV - Charlie Brown, Frosty, Rudolph, and one of my favorites, A Christmas Carol. The story is about a banker who gains a huge fortune by being stingy and “all about business” instead of noticing the suffering around him. He receives the blessing though to see what the world thinks about him in the future when he is dead – they hated him – but this was all a dream. He has a change of heart and lives the rest of his life not only noticing the suffering around him, but making the world a better place. If only we could all have the chance to see what we would be like after we’re dead….maybe we would change too.

Seeing what life is like after death is exactly what this morning’s Gospel is about. The scene is much like that in A Christmas Carol: “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously ever day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at this gate, desiring to be fed with crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table” (Luke 16.19-20) They both died and Christ allows us to see what their life after they died was like.

After they died we see them both in the presence of God; both being able to talk to God; both being able to see each other; but not both in torment. When Lazarus died the angel came and took him straight to be with God. “The rich man also died and was buried.” (Luke 16.22) In this scene we have been blessed to see how our life might be when we die. The rich man, who had everything he could have imagined when he was alive, was suffering. Lazarus, who had nothing but the compassion of a few dogs, was comforted in every way.

In almost every way of life the rich man was superior, at least by human standards, to Lazarus. He had more money more food more clothes and more of everything than he probably needed. Only the richest people wore purple! There was only one thing the rich man lacked – compassion. “Moreover the dogs came and licked [Lazarus’] sores.” (Luke 16.21) Christ says, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.” (Luke 16.25) It seems that in almost every way after life, Lazarus had more than the rich man. There was only one thing Lazarus didn’t have after he was dead. He didn’t suffer.

Suffering is a part of life. It was a big part of Lazarus’ life and it was a big part of the rich man’s afterlife. We will suffer either way, either now or later, so I don’t wish to dwell on suffering today. Today I want to jump to the end of the story.

The rich man begged God to send Lazarus back to life to warn his brothers to live a better life. He thought that at least they would believe the word of someone who was brought back to life. Christ said, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” (Luke 16.31) We should understand from this that, if the rich man knew the Holy Scriptures – if he knew his bible which in his case was what we call the Old Testament – he and his brothers would not have suffered.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, God speaks to us through the Bible and tells us exactly how to avoid suffering like the rich man. Let me first say, the Church does not teach and the bible does not say that simply being rich caused this man to suffer but the way that he ignored Lazarus. There are so many references to how we can avoid suffering, please allow me just a few moments to read some of them to you. I have them in the order they appear in the Bible.

Genesis 1.26 – “Let us make man [human being] in Our image, according to Our likeness.”
Genesis 2.18 – “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.”
Exodus 20.1-17 – The Ten Commandments (among others) “You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet”
Matthew 25.31-46 – “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”
Mark 12.30-31 – “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
John 15.12 – “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

It is clear my dear brothers and sisters from Holy Scripture, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament that God desires us to live in love and harmony caring for each other just as God cares for each of us. We were created in the image of God. The Holy Trinity is a communion of love and total self sacrifice. If we love each other like God loves us, then we will not suffer after death.

After death the rich man suffered because he was unable to show compassion and love for Lazarus but God still loved him. He still called the rich man son, but the great chasm made it impossible for the rich man to have comfort. St John Chrysostom said the chasm was caused because the rich man didn’t know scripture. “The ignorance of Scripture is a great cliff and a deep abyss. It is impossible for anyone to be without benefit if he reads continually and with attention.” (St. John Chrysostom – On Wealth and Poverty)

Ebenezer Scrooge was a new man on that Christmas morning after he saw what life would be like after he died. Now that we have seen what life might be like for us, we must become new people. We must become transfigured. We must find the time to read Holy Scripture as often as possible and learn to recognize how God wants us to live so we can avoid suffering. But most importantly we must see other people for who they are…..our fellow human beings….and we must love them just as God loves us.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Faith without Works is Dead - James 2.26

When we want to show our love for others, we often find ways to “show” our love in our actions. Spouses will often include subtle “extras” in their daily routine for each other “just because” to show their love. Small children can often be found bringing home “wild flowers” in the form of dandelions for their mothers to show how much they love her. For those in their courting years, there is no end to their willingness to help each other as an expression of love.

So do we show our love for God? “If you love me, take care of my sheep.” (John 21.15-19) As Orthodox Christians we show our love for God in how we care for others. This is why James says our faith is dead without works. St. Seraphim of Sarov says, “True faith cannot remain without works. One who truly believes will also surely perform good works.”

Take time this week in prayer to identify how and where our Lord wants you to put your faith into action.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

It's Not About Numbers, It's About Family

Listen to the following numbers and see if you can guess what they have in common: 8,416, 10,019, 9,975, 8,235, 7,286, 9,275, 9,749, 10,216, 12,002, 13,522, and 8,465. Have you figured it out yet? These are the closing numbers of the Dow Jones Industrials every October for the last 10 years. And what do you think this number is….160/100? That has been our blood pressure every night in the past month when we watch or hear the news about the financial crisis that has gripped our country. There are many, I’m sure even in this Church today, that are worried about the future. Many have lost their retirements and other securities for their future and the outcome looks grim.

Grim…this must have been the outlook for the widow in this morning’s Gospel. St Luke writes, “And when He [Christ] came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow.” (Luke 7.12) This widow must have felt the same anxiety many feel today; her husband was dead and now her only son was dead. Her only hope for a secure future was lost. She was mourning not only the loss of her son; she was mourning the loss of her future and without a husband, St. Gregory of Nyssa points out that, “She had no more hope of bearing sons to cure the loss.” (On the Making of Man, XXV.10) St. Luke even tells us “a large crowd from the city was with her,” (Luke 7.12) and still she was weeping and without hope. There seemed to be no comfort for her.

There seems to be no comfort for us either in the middle of our national financial crisis; the banks are crumbling around us, the stock market resembles a rollercoaster ride, and even foreign countries are starting to worry because a weak US Economy means a weak world economy. And we are all wondering what the future will bring. The outlook seems grim: closed banks, job losses, a long war, an election full of controversy…well at least gas prices came down this week.

But that is not where the story ends. St. Luke writes, “When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then He came and touched the coffin…and He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ So he who was dead sat up…And He presented him to his mother.” (Luke 7.14-15) There was Jesus, completely surrounded by a large crowd when He approached the city gates. He could have continued to enter the city without paying any attention to the funeral procession. Jesus was a busy and popular man. Nobody would have thought any differently if Jesus had continued on His way minding His own business. And in fact He was minding His own business, the business of compassion.

Jesus saw the widow’s fear. He saw her anxiety. He saw her loss of hope and had compassion on her. There is a reason St. Luke makes it a point to tell us that Jesus was surrounded by a large crowd. The crowd could have been a distraction for Him, but it wasn’t. Jesus was able to show the crowd, and us that He loved the widow enough to give her the attention she needed. And He loves us enough to give us the attention we need from Him especially during these hard financial times.

The Lord knows our anxiety. He knows we worry about the future especially in these difficult times. And He will comfort us. He does comfort us. In this morning’s Gospel Jesus comforted the widow by bringing her son back to life. St. Luke makes it a point to tell us the son was young, so now that he was alive again, he could find a wife and start a family. This brought hope and security back to the widow. The crowd was unable to comfort her, maybe because they weren’t family. After all, Jesus didn’t tell the crowd or His disciples to take care of the widow. The crowd represents just an impersonal group. The issue here is about the support and love that only a family can provide.

We have a family here in Florence. We, as a Church and as the Body of Christ, are the family of God. We have been chosen by God to live together here in Florence, South Carolina, as a spiritual family struggling every day to live better lives according to our Orthodox Faith. We have been called, just as the Lord called the son in this morning’s Gospel, to bring hope and security to our family. We have been called to be a place of comfort where people can come to experience the hope that is found in Christ.

The hope of Christ was greater than any comfort the crowd offered the widow, and the hope of Christ is greater than any hope our government or banks can offer us today. The Lord called to the son, “arise” and He is calling to us, “arise and comfort each other as the family of God. Arise and come to the Church and be comforted.”

We have many needs as a community. We are trying to complete the Narthex expansion. We are working to raise funds to build a new Hellenic Center. These are the large visible things that seem to draw our attention much like the large fall in the Dow over the past month. But what about the other needs of our spiritual family? In this morning’s Gospel Christ was not distracted by the large crowd and we can’t afford to be distracted by our large projects either when it comes to bringing comfort and hope to our family. We have families in our Church, some here today, that are experiencing difficult financial struggles. In the end the Dow Jones is just a bunch of impersonal numbers like the crowd in this morning’s Gospel. But we are not simply a large crowd, we are the people of God, and our very own family members need our help. God has already sent us comfort.

We pray at each and every service in our Church to the Holy Spirit for comfort…

Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth
Present in all places and filling all things
The treasury of blessings and the giver of life
Come and abide in us
Cleans us from every impurity
And save our souls gracious Lord.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Gospel and Confetti - Enough for Everyone

When I was in high school I played in the marching band and besides Friday night football games, we would travel to parades and competitions throughout Colorado. It took a lot of practice and a great deal of time commitment to be in the band, but it was worth the fun and the experience. One experience that I hope I never forget was a trip to Walt Disney World in Florida for the Citrus Bowl. We marched in two parades that week; the Citrus Bowl Parade and the Walt Disney World Christmas Parade. Both events were huge spectacular events that used confetti and, if you have ever been to an event with confetti you know what I’m talking about when I say, it seemed to rain confetti for hours. It was everywhere, on the streets, in the grass, on the trees. It even seemed like it was in our ears. Whether we wanted it or not, the confetti came raining down upon our heads. What a thrill!

This image of confetti dropping from the sky and covering everything around is just the image of the parable of the sower in this morning’s Gospel. Christ says, “A sower when out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside, some fell on rock, some fell among thorns, and some fell on good ground.” (Luke 8.5-8) The Gospel doesn’t say that the sower carefully placed each seed into a perfectly prepared hole, but rather the sower casts his seed as if it were confetti. The sower just throws it out there without caring where it lands….or so it seems.

Thankfully Christ gives us the explanation of this parable. Christ begins, “Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God,” (Luke 8.11) or Christ. Since only God can send His Son, the sower can only be God and He does nothing without a purpose or plan. Who or what then is the ground? According to St. John Chrysostom the ground is our souls. (see Homily 44 on Matthew) Maybe we need to look deeper at this parable to fully understand what God’s plan is for us.

So please allow me to retell the parable using new images, and let’s see if this helps us understand what God’s plan is. God sends His Son out into the world. Some of us are hardened like the path and don’t recognize Christ. Some of us, like the rock, have nothing to feed our faith and so we quickly lose our faith in Christ. Some of us, like the thorns, embrace Christ but have a hard time staying focused because we are surrounded by distractions and temptations and our faith doesn’t last during hard times. Some of us, like the good fertile ground, hear the Gospel, embrace Christ and bear fruit and we are transfigured into new life. Ultimately though, like the earth, we are all of these at some time in our lives.

At some time in history, we know that the Appalachian Mountains used to be much larger, like the Rocky Mountains out west. Over time, because of erosion, the mountains became rocks and rocks became dirt and dirt became rich fertile soil that many of our local farms depend upon so that when they sow seeds, a good plentiful harvest follows. Over time, through ascesis such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we are broken down from being not able to recognize Christ to embracing Him and living transfigured lives.

The greatest part of the parable isn’t just that God sent His Son to us on Earth. That is the Good News, but the great news is that God send His Son everywhere no matter who is there. No matter if we are rich or poor, educated or uneducated, employed or unemployed, hardened like the path or good rich fertile soil; God send His Son – the Word of God – to us and each of us has the ability to accept Him even if we are the hardened path.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we must never forget that the hardened rocks of the Appalachian Mountains, with time and work, became the rich farming soils of our area farms and our lives can also become fertile for the Word of God. I remember seeing a tree growing right in the middle of a boulder once in Colorado. There was no soil for the roots, but some seed landed in some crack and grew. During the winds of winter that small little plant was able to hold onto that boulder. The next spring it grew a little larger and the roots a little stronger and eventually the roots found their way deep into the rock and took hold. When I saw it, what was once a small little plant, was now a large pine tree and what was once a great boulder, had become a few large stones around the trunk. If that seed had never drifted onto the boulder, there would be no tree today.

The same holds true for us. If God had not sent His Son to us, we would not be here today. A farmer would never sow seeds where there was no hope for a harvest and neither would God. As Chrysostom says, “For if had it been impossible, this Sower would not have sown.” (Homily 44 on Matthew) Have hope my dear brothers and sisters in Christ because God has sent His Son so that we can live forever and He sent His son to all of us no matter who we are that, “whoever believes in Him may not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3.16) Even if we are more like the hardened rock than fertile soil, in time we are all able, just like that pine tree in Colorado to take hold of the Word of God and let it grow in us.

Very few things on Earth are as spectacular as Disney World or a College Football Bowl Game, but when I remember all the confetti, all the shouting with joy, all the excitement of that week when I was in high school, it gives me hope. It gives us hope that God sends blessings upon each of us no matter who we are; and no matter who we are God will sow His seed in each of us and that seed, like the pine tree in Colorado, will break through our difficulties so God can dwell within us.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Pay It Forward and Be Sons of God

There was a great movie in 2000 about making the world a better place. Pay It Forward was about a young boy who became famous when his theory for making the world a better place in deed made a difference. If you don’t remember or if you never saw the movie, the little boy believed that if each of us who had something nice done for us did something nice for three other people, what he called paying it forward instead of paying it back, the wave of good deeds would spread. The idea seems to have caught on. There is now, in real life, a foundation called the Pay It Forward Foundation which is dedicated to encouraging and assisting in projects of good deeds around the country.

Paying it forward is the essence of this morning’s Gospel. It is not just some cutesy marketing ploy to gain publicity. We heard this morning, “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.” (Luke 6.31) According to Saint Cyril of Alexandria, this “Golden Rule” is the basis of Christian ethics and life. Last week I spoke about how nice it would be if we each put the desires and ideas of others ahead of our own ideas. This is exactly what our Lord is commanding us this week.

We are expected by our Lord to treat others as we would expect to be treated. I doubt we would want people talking behind our backs about our family struggles. I doubt we would be happy if someone was nice to our face and then stabbed us in the back when we turned around. Yet isn’t that the very thing that we have come to expect? My brothers and sisters in Christ, our American Society is filled with greed and hatred for each other and who do you think is to blame?

We are to blame. We are to blame because we not only have come to expect it; we tolerate it in our businesses every day when we don’t insist on Orthodox Christian ethics at a business deal. We tolerate it in our government when we refuse to get involved in the process of our democracy. But the worst part is that we tolerate it in our own actions when we talk about others behind their backs or when we complain about a decision someone else made to everybody BUT the person who made it. And when we tolerate it in ourselves, it should come as no surprise that we expect it in return.

But there is Good News this morning my dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Christ says, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High.” (Luke 6.25) When we love without worrying about being loved back; when we do good without worrying about someone doing good for us in return; our reward will be great. Our reward will be a better world. Our reward will be the freedom to not expect to be hated or resented because we will not hate or resent others. In fact, when we pay it forward we will become children of God and nothing can be greater.

I remember a story once about a very stern bishop who was known for losing his temper at his deacons. One deacon would simply bow to the bishop and say, “Yes your Grace, I’m sorry.” He would say this over and over until the bishop would say, “How can I yell at him when he just sits there and bows and apologizes?” The deacon’s love and humility was rewarded with an improved relationship with his bishop.

If we want to become children of God, we must first believe as we hear in the Gospel of John, “To those who believe in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1.12) This morning we are told that if we pay it forward and expect nothing good in return for our mercy and love for others, we will be sons of the Most High. In other words, after we first believe, we will be transfigured when we follow Christ’s commandments and are imitators of Christ love for others. From the cross Jesus forgave those who killed Him yet we cannot even forgive those who question our decisions on how to spend the Church’s money. It is not enough to say we forgive them and then return home and call our friends and complain if we want to become children of God. We must truly forgive them and the struggle to forgive will be rewarded.

We can only become children of God when we struggle to be imitators of Him rather than live as sinners. When we love those who love us or do good to those who do good to us, Christ says, “What credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” (Luke 6.33) There is a clear challenge here from God; live as sinners or, “Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” (Luke 6.36) And we know what living as sinners get us.

In the movie, Pay It Forward, the little boy becomes famous all around the country. The news even begins to report of the new love and helpfulness that is spreading throughout the country. Our challenge in this morning’s Gospel is nothing less than to pay it forward in love, good deeds, and mercy. When we do this we will already be living as children of God.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Put Out Into the Deep

Summer is behind us and school is well underway. Our children wake up early for school and return late in the afternoon to a series of tasks which includes homework so they are ready for the next day. They end the night in the deep slumber of sleep ready for whatever the world will bring their way the next day, but their peaceful sleep is sometimes interrupted by unknown shadows or dreams. They depend upon us as their parents to comfort them and assure them that they are safe and God will protect them. Sometimes they lie awake worried about what lurks in the deep sleep that awaits them.

I imagine the same anxiedt must have been lurking in Simon when Christ said, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” (Luke 5.4) Just like our children, Simon was busy preparing for the next day cleaning his nets when Jesus came to his boat. Jesus stepped into Simon’s boat and began to teach from the shoreline of the known waters. After teaching Jesus then told Simon, “Launch out into the deep,” as if to say, “I’ve taught you this much; now let’s go deeper into the unknown.”

As long as Simon kept to the shallow known waters of the Lake of Gennesaret he felt safe. Saint Ambrose suggests that Christ’s invitation to “launch into the deep” is for us to give our life over to the deep mysteries of God. We are called by Christ to depart from our comfort zone, to leave the comfort of what we know “will work” in our everyday lives and launch ourselves into a place where only God can comfort us.

God comforts us every day when He sees our anxiety. Christ did not just tell Simon to launch into deep waters, He first said, “Put out a little,” and He taught from the comfort of the known waters. Simon was called by God to allow his boat to be used for the teaching and glory of God. The waters were known, but Simon didn’t know what it would mean to allow Jesus to use his boat as a pulpit. God comforts us when He allows us to begin with what we already know and then depart for the deep.

Just as Simon launched his boat for deeper waters after seeing Jesus teach, we are also called to go deeper in our faith in Jesus Christ. I’m sure we would have the same response as Simon, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.” (Luke 5.5) Simon caught so many fish he had to call other boats to help bring it all to shore. God blessed Simon’s willingness to launch into the deep. God will bless us too when we launch into the deep unknown with faith that God will keep His promise.

God’s promise to Simon was simple… “Have faith in My ability to bring you the fish, and let Me do the rest.” His promise for us today is just as simple, “Have faith in the Word of God and He will take care of the rest.” All Simon had to do was go into the deep unknown water allowing Jesus to lead the way.

Jesus didn’t ask Simon to launch into deep until after He first taught from the boat. And He doesn’t ask us to go deeper before He teaches us. Week after week we gather to hear the Gospel and give glory to God in this beautiful Church. God has been teaching us and now it is time for us to hear His call and launch our lives deeper in our faith. What will our response to this call be?

God is calling us, just as He called Simon, to dedicate our lives – our businesses, our families, our church – to the teaching of God’s Holy Word. Simon was blessed when he allowed Jesus to use him and his boat for teaching and He will bless us – our businesses, our families, and our Church – when we allow Jesus to use us for His teaching. We must be willing to go deeper my dear brothers and sisters to experience the richness that is a relationship with God. We must depart from our comfort zone and go deeper in our faith, and allow Christ to take care of rest.

You have heard me say before that is not enough to just come to Church. We must be transformed. We must, as the name of our Church suggests, be transfigured in our life for the glory of God. Just as Simon allowed Jesus to use him and was transformed, we will be transformed when we allow Jesus to use us. Jesus said, “From now on you will catch men.” (Luke 5.10) Jesus changed Simon’s life and He will change our lives as well.

Peter, James and John together witnessed the miracle catch of fish in this morning’s Gospel. They also were we blessed to witness the Glorious Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. Our Church has been named in honor of this Great Feast. It will be a beautiful tribute to the name of our Church when we too are transfigured because we allowed Christ to use us for His Glory.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is my fervent prayer that our Community can rest peacefully each night rather than be tormented by the unknown of what tomorrow might bring. Let’s launch our boat, our ναός, into the deep water of Faith in Jesus Christ and rededicate on a daily basis ourselves and our Church to the teaching of Christ’s Gospel. He will take care of the rest. We will be transfigured and we will become fishers of men.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Deny Yourself and be Happy

It’s hard to believe that Christmas is only 95 days away and I haven’t started my shopping yet, but before you know it we’ll all be panicking that our shopping isn’t finished. Christmas shopping is a task that I find very difficult and full of anxiety. What should I buy my wife? What would my brother like for Christmas? And I’m sure most of us have even asked our mothers, “Mom what do you want for Christmas?” The answer was probably the same for Christmas, her birthday, mother’s day…. “I just want you to get along with your brother….or sister.” Our mothers have been blessed with the gift of sacrificial love that is an inspiration to many when they constantly deny their own happiness for the joy of others.

“Let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 8.34) These are words of Christ in the opening verse of this morning’s Gospel lesson. If we desire to be Christians and save our lives, Christ tells us the only way to do that is to deny ourselves and pick up our cross. These two simple verses are the hinge upon which our salvation rests and for three Sundays now the Church has been reminding us of this challenge as we embark upon the new Ecclesiastical Year. There aren’t many topics the Church repeats for three weeks, so we should pay special attention to what this message means for us in our lives.

What does it mean to deny ourselves? What does it mean to pick up our cross? The answer to these two questions will guide us to the Kingdom of God. Christ says, “Whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8.35-36) In other words, if we take these questions seriously and take our answer to them seriously, and live according to the teachings of Christ, we will be saved.

The Cross stands for struggle in our life and when we deny our own happiness in order to embrace this struggle we are saved by Christ. It is our denial of ourselves that is the struggle. When we deny our will for the will of God and others we are saved. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray daily that the will of God is accomplished on Earth. This can only be done when we deny our will to the will of others. This of course goes against our American Culture which tells us to get what we can, when we can, for ourselves, and let the others pay for what they want. It is when we deny our will and when we strive for what others want that we are saved. It is that struggle to place the will of others above our own that saves us.

St Paul writes, “Let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.” (Romans 14.19) “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable sacrifice.” (Romans 12.1) “Bless those who persecute you.” (Romans 12.14) “Repay no one evil for evil.” (Romans 12.17) “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” (Roman 12.18)

Our own community here is a testament to this way of life. Many immigrants came to America and worked multiple jobs JUST so their children could have a better life. The founders of this parish sacrificed to build this Church and hall JUST so we could have a place to gather for worship and fellowship today. I have spoken with many parents who say that their only goal is for their children to be educated so they could have a better life.

We know of many examples where greed and selfishness brings an end to successful business and, most unfortunately, families. Just recently in the news we have heard of the collapse of huge banking and investment firms which can be traced to greed and selfishness. We know from own lives that we run the risk of failure when we focus upon ourselves rather than others our Orthodox Christian Culture is a counter culture to America. America tell us that pleasure, money, and freedom to do whatever WE desire is all that matters. The Church teaches us that struggle, modesty and the freedom to do whatever GOD wants us to do is what matters. St Paul tells us, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12.2) According to St Paul, we must be counter culture.

We must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Christ. One of the most successful tools the Church has to help us deny ourselves is fasting. When we fast, we deny our desire to eat a particular food. If we can’t control what we eat on a Wednesday or Friday, how can we expect to be able to control our passions like anger or greed? When we walk into a restaurant or own kitchen we make a choice on what to eat. Eating is the most basic element of life. The choices we make in our diet have an effect on our bodies and our minds. When we include the Church – the Body of Christ – in the process of what we are going to eat, we have included God in our life at the most basic element. If denying ourselves is the struggle, then fasting is the tool we use.

The Church has always fasted. Christ Himself fasted and He tells us to fast. In overcoming certain challenges, we know that only fasting and prayer can bring healing. My brothers and sisters in Christ, if we want to learn how to deny ourselves and follow Christ, we MUST fast. We must include the denial of our will at the most basic elements of our lives.

Just as our mothers found joy when they sacrificed their happiness for us as children, we will find the joy of the Kingdom of God when we sacrifice our will for the will of others. As we embark upon this new Ecclesiastical Year let us make the commitment to deny ourselves for each other. Christmas will be here before you know it….what a wonderful gift it would be if, as a community, the joy of others was more important than our own joy. As Orthodox Christians we consider the Church as our mother and nothing would make her happier than if we all got along.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Feast with a Fast?

Tomorrow we celebrate one of the Great Feasts of the Church with a Divine Liturgy AND fasting. Why fasting? Our Lord said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9.23) As Orthodox Christians we know life is a struggle and joy is often paired with struggle. We struggle to raise our children and find joy in the way they end up. We struggle in our businesses and have joy in their success. “Hard work pays off,” is a common saying in America and our founding families struggled for us to enjoy our Church today.Once we accept that struggle is expected, we can then strive to transfigure our lives to be like our Lord’s life. His struggle on the Holy Cross brought life to the world. Our struggle in fasting and other spiritual disciplines will bring joy to us in the life to come. May we always strive to be more like Christ in our daily lives. Let us start, and “deny ourselves” by fasting as strictly as we are able so we can go after Him.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

We are not Junk, We Just Need to be Restored

When Presbytera and I were preparing to move from Denver to Boston we had several garage sales to get rid of some stuff we had collected over the years. We had too much stuff that would never have fit in the small campus apartment which we would call home over the next four years. Garage sales are an interesting thing. At a garage sale everything is for sale – old or new – and for the right price a smart buyer can find a few prizes. If you’ve ever seen Antiques Road Show you know many very valuable items have been bought at garage sales. Some shoppers spend every weekend going from sale to sale looking for lost treasure. When they spot it they know, under all that dust and dirt and wear and tear is something that looks to us like an old, broken, dirty, worthless piece of trash but it is a treasurer to someone who knows it’s true worth. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, the buyer knows it’s worth saving.

Do you know what is worth saving my dear brothers and sisters? Just like at a garage sale, some may see it as dirty, broken, used, outdated, a burden, and unwanted. We may even see it as completely worthless and definitely not worth saving, but it is. The Gospel lesson this morning tells us that God sent His only Son just to save it. Our life, my dear brothers and sisters, no matter what we may think about it is worth saving to God. That is the good news, the fantastic news, the life-saving news of this morning’s Gospel Lesson.

“For God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3.16) This is possibly the most famous of all bible quotes. We see it in football games and protests of all sorts. There is always someone reminding us that God loves us. To borrow a phrase from Billy Joel, God loves us just the way we are, and He takes us just the way we are. God loves us in all of our brokenness, all of our dirt, all of our burden; God loves no matter what others may think and no matter what we look like. He loves us so much He gave the supreme gift – Himself.

The Gospel continues, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3.17) Imagine God stopping at the largest garage sale on Earth – everything is for sale – and He looks at each one of us. He sees the beauty that is in us. He sees the value we have when others have cast us aside. He sees the goodness that is in each of us. He knows what we are worth. He knows we are worth saving.

God picks us up, cleans us, repairs us, restores us to our full glory, and then sends us back into the world to live as His children. When we believe that Jesus, as God, took on flesh, lived among us, was crucified and died as God, and was buried and rose from the dead as God and as man, we will live forever as His children.

God picks you up my dear brothers and sisters, you and me together and repairs us. Yes, He takes us the way we are today:

No matter where we were born
No matter if we are male or female
No matter what we have done in the past
No matter whom we have married
No matter if we have been Orthodox all our life or we have just embraced Orthodoxy
No matter if we have a job or not
No matter if we have a house or if we are living in our car
No matter if our parents built this Church
No matter if we built this Church or if we just moved to Florence

No matter who we are or who we have been God loves us and accepts us and has the power to repair us IF we believe. The Gospel continues, “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3.18) Do you believe in Him? Do you want to be saved? Then allow Him to pick you up and bring you back to your original glory. Each of us was created in the image of God. When we sin, as we have spoken of before, we fall short of the glory of God. When we believe in Him and we allow Him to take us, we are restored.

We are restored as members of the Body of Christ as the Church. We are restored and we are given “the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1.11-13) It is the will of God that all people are saved. The Gospel this morning reminds us about Moses and the Old Testament. As Moses was sent to save the Jews, Jesus was sent to save the entire world – Greeks, Jews, Americans, Indians, Russians, Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, poor, rich, employed, unemployed, men, women – all who believe in Him.

Fifty years ago this Church was established as a place where Greeks could worship God in their own tradition. For nearly fifty years this Church has stood as a beacon of hope for Greeks and others who felt lost. We are the body of Christ and our mission is to save the world. As the Church honors the work of Moses in the Old Testament, we must honor the work of our fore fathers here in Florence for building this beautiful Church so that could be here today. We must honor the memory of our founders who have set this community on a firm foundation for the Glory of God.

As Christ came and built upon the work of Moses, we must build upon the work of our founding members. We must bring Orthodoxy to Florence so everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from, can believe in Jesus Christ and be restored. We must look forward to the next fifty years my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, building upon the foundation of our fore-fathers, and declare to the entire city of Florence, “Jesus Christ is God and our Lord and we can all be restored and healed.”

My brothers and sisters, Jesus Himself could go the garage sales of Florence looking for lost treasure but He has appointed us, His Church, to go and search for those who feel neglected, cast aside, dirty and broken, and invite them to be restored by Jesus Christ. He depends upon us to see the beauty that is beneath layers of abuse or sin of our fellow human beings and pick them up and bring them to God to be cleaned and restored so they too can become children of God.

“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Be Active in Your Faith

Each year in September any numbers of activities, following the ancient model of the Church, begin their cycle of events. September is a month of bustling activity in our lives. Sometimes we even feel like summer is a distant memory as we drive from school to soccer to dance keeping our minds racing with the traffic in which we find ourselves. I hear too often the excuse: “We can’t come to Church Father because Sunday is the only day we have to relax.” My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, if Sunday is the only day we have to relax, we have too many activities in our lives.

We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the trap that Sunday is for relaxing. Once we have done that, we have not only cheated ourselves out of our rich Orthodox Christian Tradition on Sundays; we have told God He is only as important as leftovers. We must find the time and desire to be active in our faith this year and make a commitment to attend Divine Liturgy on Sundays. It would be better to eliminate one activity from another day during the week to allow us the time on Sunday to be in Church with God. As we will hear in Sunday morning’s Gospel God came so that we can live forever not so we could have time for soccer or ballet. There is nothing wrong with enjoying time on Sundays as a family, in fact I encourage it. For those who want to participate in outdoor activities, bring a change of clothes to Church.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Forgive and Be Forgiven!

For someone who enjoys politics this is one of the most exciting times in history. The Democrats have just completed their national convention and the Republicans are about to begin theirs. No matter which party you are a member of, most agree that these two weeks are some of the most exciting politics to watch. It’s has almost become a spectator sport. Among all the differences we will hear between the two party conventions, it is clear to me at least that they share one thing in common. The airwaves are full of accusations of past agendas and claims that their opponents couldn’t possibly have changed their hearts. What they said in the past, even decades ago, still represents their beliefs – according to their opponents – and neither party believes in another person’s ability to change or as we would say in Christianity, to repent.

“Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3.2) are the words of John the Baptist we read on his icon in Orthodox Churches throughout the world. This past Friday we commemorated the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist with Divine Liturgy and a day of fasting. He was put to death because he accused Herod of breaking the law and marrying his brother’s wife. John the Baptist, whom Jesus declared, “The greatest man ever to be born of a woman,” (Matthew 11.11) gave his life preaching the importance of repentance.

Repentance, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is a real possibility even in the world today, and we are called to repent each and every day but that is only half today’s Gospel lesson. We heard in this morning’s Gospel a parable of a serant who owed a great debt to a king. The debt was so large (ten thousand talents) that there was no chance the man would ever be able to repay it. When the servant begged the king for patience in paying the debt back, “the master was moved to compassion and forgave the debt.” (Matthew 18.27)

This morning’s Gospel is about forgiveness – forgiveness given and forgiveness received. It is about the debt of sin - our sins and the sins of others. And it is about the power of forgiveness over sins. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” With these words we place ourselves in the very spot of the servant in this morning’s Gospel. We owe a great debt to God for our sins and we beg Him to forgive us, but the words of this prayer, just like the actions of the servant in this morning’s Gospel condemn us.

If we do not forgive others for the small things they do against us, or even the large things they may do against us, God will not forgive the sins we have committed. The servant in this morning’s Gospel was condemned by God because he refused to forgive the small debt of another person. He did this even though God had just forgiven his huge debt. He showed no compassion upon his fellow human being. If we put the words of the Lord’s Prayer another way, “And forgive us our trespasses IF we forgive those who trespass against us,” or “forgive us only when and if we forgive those who trespass against us,” or “don’t bother forgiving us Lord until we forgive them.” I think you get the point.

Listen to what the Gospel says: “Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you? And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.” And Jesus said, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” (Matthew 18.32-25)

So now we must think my dear brothers and sisters. We must think about our sins and repent from them. AND we must think about the sins others have committed against us, not so we can hold it over their heads, but so that we can forgive them from the bottom of our hearts. It isn’t enough to say, “That was in the past, but I’m not going to let him forget it.” We must go to those we have sinned against – our brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, cousins, our fellow parishioners – and we must ask them to forgive us even if it was a small thing we did. Remember the wicked servant was condemned because he wouldn’t forgive a small debt. Can we really risk not forgiving or not being forgiven for even the smallest of sins? I don’t think so.

Tomorrow begins the new Ecclesiastical Year. I suggested in the Monthly Newsletter that we each take time for a spiritual self-evaluation. Tomorrow is not only a new year; it is a NEW DAY – a new day in our journey toward salvation and being with God. We must take the time to repent and forgive others and be forgiven. Take the time this week as part of your self-evaluation to make a list of those whom you have sinned against, no matter how small. Then pick-up the phone and begin calling. The first few calls are the hardest, but when you hear the words, “I forgive you” on the other end of the phone a few times, it becomes much easier.

And then…when you answer the phone this week because someone has called you to ask for forgiveness, forgive them no matter what they did or how many times they did it. When the Apostle Peter asked, “’Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’” (Matthew 18.21-22) As the servant was forgiven an un-payable debt so we must forgive others as many times as necessary.

So my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, in politics candidates are rarely given the chance to repent as last week has shown and next surely will show. But we are called to be Saints. We are called to be in the world but not of it so when someone we know says they have repented, we should forgive them. We would want the same in return. Our life depends upon it.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The End of Summer Doesn't Have to Mean the End of Quality Family Time

Labor Day Weekend signifies the symbolic end to summer and with it comes an end to many of our family activities like hanging out around the pool or grilling hamburgers and hotdogs for dinner but it doesn`t have to mean the end of quality family time. Now that School has started and fall sports are in full swing, we have to work extra hard to make sure we plan AND SPEND quality family time each week. Some families enjoy games nights or story nights.We should also try to find time as a family for our spiritual growth as well. As Orthodox Christians our Faith MUST be integrated into every aspect of our life from completing our homework for school to going to ballet lessons. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America Department of Family Ministry has several resources online to assist us in our spiritual growth as a family such as Family Bible Study and Family Worship. You can review their resources at’s take time this week to spend as a family without the TV; talking, laughing, or crying, as long as we are interacting, for the Glory of God is within us.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Our Struggle Makes Us Stronger

Four years ago, in July were enjoying a vacation with Presbytera’s family in Ohio. We both had jobs. Harry had just celebrated his first birthday. We were building a new house. Everything seemed to be going our way. When we returned from vacation, I was sitting in my office at the Cathedral when a friend called. (I wasn't a priest then.) “Did you really get fired?” he asked. “My key still works.” I said. Then another call, “My mom told me they fired you.” “The password on my computer still works.” I said trying to laugh it off. After the third call I went to the Priest’s office and mentioned the rumors I had heard. I was smart enough to know this couldn’t have been a coincidence. That night the Executive Board requested a meeting. Well I wasn’t fired. The Cathedral was going to restructure and my position would not exist after another month, but they were going to pay me for the rest of the year. That was the last real paycheck I received until June 30th two months ago. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I wondered how we were going to eat at seminary over the past four years. We struggled every day to makes ends meet.

My dear brothers and sisters, this morning’s Gospel is about faith and doubt and the struggle to maintain one over the other. We are again faced with doubt in the Apostles, just like last week. “Why could we not cast it out?” (Matthew 17.19) they asked Jesus after He cast out the demon in this morning’s story. Allow me to set the scene for you…

In the Gospel just before this is the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. Peter, James, and John had just witnessed the Divine and Uncreated Light of God in Jesus Christ. After the Transfiguration Jesus tells His Disciples that He was about to suffer. (That was forty days before the crucifixion.) Then this man comes along kneeling and begging Christ to heal his son because the Disciples were unable to heal him themselves. He was healed immediately when Jesus cast out the demon that had possessed the son. When the Disciples asked God why they could not cast out the demon, Christ said, “Because of your unbelief.” (Matthew 17.20) “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17.21) Then again Jesus told the Disciples that He was about to suffer. He said, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.” (Matthew 17.23)

So you see my dear brothers and sisters, this morning’s Gospel lesson is about struggle in our lives individually, as a Parish, and as the human race. It is about two struggles really. The first struggle is physical and emotional. We can clearly see the pain in the father as he begs Jesus to heal his son. The second struggle is one of faith. Jesus says, “Nothing will be impossible” if we have faith. And yet the boy lay their as seizures nearly drowned him and burned him to death. The only healing could come about through prayer and fasting.

Prayer and fasting is a tool that is often either not used or misused in our Church today. We will not discuss the various levels of fasting since there are different for each one of us. It is sufficient for this morning to simply state, “Christ tells us we have to fast,” here and in other places in the Bible. If we accept Christ at His word, which of course we should, and that nothing is impossible if we have faith, then even our physical struggle comes down to our faith struggle. And only through prayer and fasting can we begin to see this clearly.

It is the power found through prayer and fasting that we use to remain faithful against all odds. We spoke last week about remaining focused upon Christ and this can only be done with the power that is in prayer and fasting. Nothing is impossible Christ says, NOTHING and it is prayer and fasting that lead the way.

If we want to overcome the waves of life as we spoke about last week, we must be committed to prayer and fasting and remain focused upon God. My dear brothers and sisters in Christ if we are willing to struggle daily in prayer and fasting, then God will give us the Faith necessary to overcome our physical, emotion and spiritual struggles in life. We must find the time…

We must find the time every day to stand in front of our icons at home or come to Church and pray. We must pray that God helps us to understand first and foremost His Will for us in this life and if we are struggling with a particular problem we must ask Him to help us that too. And we must fast.

Fasting is not optional brothers and sisters. It is crucial to understanding who we are and who God wants us to become. The Church teaches us that we should fast every Wednesday and every Friday as part of our regular struggle along with our daily prayers.

St. John Chrysostom says, “See, at any rate, how many blessings spring from them both. For he that is praying as he ought, and fasting, hath not many wants, and he that hath not many wants, cannot be covetous; he that is not covetous, will be also more disposed for almsgiving.” (Chrysostom – Homily LVII On Matthew)

And what is almsgiving but caring for others needs above our own. Imagine how unstoppable we would be as a community, as a Church, as the People of God. We are still trying to raise $1 Million to complete the Narthex and Hellenic Center. Imagine if we were focusing on prayer and fasting as Christ commands, how much easier it would be to fund our new building projects. Imagine how many people who are in Florence, parishioners and other people, who would have their suffering relieved and their needs met.. Remember what is says in the Book of Acts, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship…and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.” (Acts 2.42-45) Chrysostom described this early community as, “an angelic commonwealth, not to call anything of theirs their own.” (Chyrostom Homily VII on The Acts of the Apostles)

Our only struggle my dear brothers and sisters in Christ is to pray and fast and remain faithful to Christ and His teachings and “nothing will be impossible” for us. It is only when our faith is weak that our struggle cannot be overcome.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Keep Focused on the Prize

One of the activities I enjoyed most in Boy Scouts was archery. I was really good at other shooting sports, but archery was my favorite. I always felt a bit primitive when I was aiming at that bullseye as if I was in the wilderness protecting my family against wild animals. I would sit totally still and concentrate trying to keep my eyes on the target. I may have been in the woods, but the woods were protected by the Boy Scouts of America and the only animals were us boys. Every time I let my eyes wander, I would miss the target. My eyes wandered a lot so needless to say; I didn’t always hit my mark. That’s the story of life isn’t it?

We grow up with sayings such as, “keep your eyes on the target,” so I was surprised to find that only 64 men and 64 women were competing in Archery in this year’s Olympics. Last week 128 athletes (just about as many people as we have in Church every Sunday) focused, much better than I ever did I’m sure, on the bullseye last week but only a few received medals. All the medal winners, and all 128 really, share one thing in common…they all missed their mark sometime in the past week. There was not one single perfect shot, but they all picked up their arrows and tried again. That is what makes a good athlete.

And that is what makes a good Christian too, not picking up our arrows, but trying again. This morning’s Gospel is about the constant process of missing the mark and trying again. Just like the 128 Olympians had to keep their eyes focused on that red, black and yellow target, Peter had to keep his eyes focused on Christ in this morning’s Gospel. And just as I missed the mark when I took my eyes of the target, Peter too began to sink in the water when he took his eyes off of Christ. It’s nice and convenient that the Olympics had archery last week while I was preparing my sermon because the Church has always used archery imagery to understand our journey to salvation in Christ. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Our journey to salvation is one of ups and downs; getting things right and getting things wrong; falling down and getting back up again. Just last week we heard that the Apostles saw Christ feed almost 15,000 people with five small loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14.13-21) and yet the same Peter upon who’s faith Christ builds His Church, experienced poor focus. The Gospel says, “But when Peter saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink” (Matthew 14.30) Peter’s faith was strong enough that he was able to walk on water as long as he remained focused on Christ. As soon as Peter took his eyes off Christ, literally, he noticed just how bad the storm was and panicked. He lost his focus. If he was in archery, we would say he missed the mark….he sinned and began to sink.

Sin is nothing more than missing the mark, my dear brothers and sisters. In fact most of you know the Greek word for sin, αμαρτία, actually means to miss the mark just like in archery. Every time we sin we sink just like Peter. Dwelling on the storm allowed the fear in Peter to turn to panic when he looked away from Christ. We are in a storm too aren’t we my dear brothers and sisters? Our storm may not be visible like the waves crashing against the side of a boat, but they are just as powerful.

The waves were so powerful the Gospel tells us the “boat was beaten relentlessly,” (Matthew 14.24) as if it were a small toy. The Apostles were so afraid they thought Christ was a ghost at first. They couldn’t even recognize Him. Whenever we feel the waves of life beating against us, and they do beat against us, we cannot allow ourselves to dwell upon them or else we will sink. But…my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, there are times, many times when we lose our focus on Christ and begin to sink. So what are supposed to do when all seems lost and we begin to sink? There are three things we must do…

First, we must remember that even in those times when we feel the waves of life beating relentlessly against us that Jesus Christ is never too far away. We should take comfort in this morning’s Gospel for reminding us of that simple point. We are told by Saint Matthew, “Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them and said, ‘Be of good cheer! It is I! Don’t be afraid.’” (Matthew 14.25-27) Jesus is never too far away from us to comfort us and be with us in our struggle.

Second we must recognize Christ in our life just like the Apostles had to first realize that He was not a ghost when Peter said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” (Matthew 14.28) We must call out to God to give us the ability to defeat the storm that is around us so we can approach God. For us here in Florence that means we must find the time and courage to come to Church where we can be with God in His House. There are a number of times throughout the week when we can come to Church, not just on Sundays. Look at the monthly newsletter or check out the website for the service schedule. If there isn’t a time that works for your schedule, call the office and make an appointment when you can come and sit in the Church or call me and we can sit together. Each morning, Tuesday through Friday, I pray a small Orthros service in the Church at 8:30 before I begin my day in the office. Feel free to come during that time and sit and listen to the hymns and prayers of our Church. And whenever you do come to Church, you don’t always have to worry about formal prayer books or structured services. Just look up and keep focused on Jesus in all Icons.

So first we have to remember that God is always nearby. Second we have to recognize Him, and third when we do fall or start to sink we must be willing to reach out to Him as Peter did and cry, “Lord save me!” and Jesus will reach out and grab us and pull us to safety so we can try again.

On the archery field each person gets only three arrows, only three chances, to hit the bullseye. When we miss the mark, there are no more chances. In life’s field, we have three things to keep doing until we hit the target…
1. Remember God is never very far away
2. Recognize God when we see Him and then go be with Him
3. When we do fall, and we all do, we have to pick ourselves up and try again

And the best part is…..we never run out of chances.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Let us Cry Out...Lord, Have Mercy on Us!

I remember a lot of things from when I was young. Like any child, I have memories of growing up and all the pains and joys that go with it. One thing I remember very clearly is a dream I used to have quite often. It was almost always the same. I was in danger and I had lost my voice so I couldn’t cry out for help. One version of this dream that I can remember, as if I had it last night, involved a fire engine speeding down the street and I was lying in the street unable to move. I tried and tried to call my mother but nothing but air came from my mouth. I cannot describe the extreme terror that I felt until finally I rolled out of the way to safety. Then finally I found my voice and I cried out to my mother for help.

This is almost the same scene that we find in this morning’s Gospel. Two blind men were following Jesus and St Matthew tells us they were, “crying out and saying, ‘Son of David, have mercy on us!” (Matthew 9.27) They didn’t cry out only once, the Gospel says they were “crying out and saying [continuously] ‘Son of David, have mercy on us!” Imagine for a moment what that must have been like. They were totally blind and yet the Gospel says they followed Jesus all the while crying out.

If we look a little further into the Gospel we know that Jesus had just healed the woman with the flow of blood (Matthew 9.20-22) and brought back to life the daughter of Jairus, (Matthew 9.18-26) the rich ruler. We can presume then that the two blind men knew of these miracles and knew about the power of God since the news of these miracles “went out into all the land.” (Matthew 9.26) When they heard that Jesus passed by right in front of them, they cried out for help. I figure they must have thought to themselves, “Hey, He just healed them, why not us?”

So why not us my dear brothers and sisters in Christ? The Gospel this morning is sending us a very clear message. “Jesus has to power to heal, we should call Him.” Are we any different from the blind men in this story? We’re not physically blind but we might be a bit spiritually blind. We all have moments when we can’t see God. I know I do, but we are here following Christ just as they were. When we cry out to Jesus “Lord, have mercy, Κὐριε, Ελέησον!” during the Divine Liturgy we are doing just as they did and Christ will turn to us just as He turned to them.

We should see the whole Divine Liturgy this way. Just a few minutes ago, we prayed together, “Lord, have mercy” after every petition for peace, for health, for unity, for seasonable weather. You name it, we just prayed for it and after each petition we sang, “Lord, have mercy.” And God will hear us my dear brothers and sisters.

When Jesus heard the blind men crying out He took them into their house and asked, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (Matthew 9.28) Jesus has heard us this morning and has called us inside His House. When He asks us whether we believe, our answer must be the same as theirs, “yes, Lord.” (Matthew 9.28) And He will heal us just as He healed the blind men and just as He healed the demoniac in this morning’s Gospel.

According to St Matthew, as Jesus was leaving the house of the blind men, a man who was demon-possessed was brought to Him and was healed because Jesus had compassion on him. And just as the Pharisees didn’t believe Jesus, there will be some people around us that don’t believe. Our job is to be like the blind men who “spread the news about Him in all that country.” (Matthew 9.31) so others can come and see for themselves the healing power of God.

This week we have a wonderful opportunity to put this story into action in our own lives. Starting this evening and throughout the week, we will gather here to have a Paraklesis Service, a supplication service to the Theotokos, to ask for healing and salvation from God. What a great chance to cry out “Lord, have mercy.” each night this week in God’s House. Come at least once this week and pray with us for God’s mercy on all of our family and friends. Remember Jesus healed the demoniac just because someone brought him. Jesus will heal others also when we have the faith to bring them or least their names, to the Church, God’s House, for healing.

Jesus entered the house of the blind men and touched them and they were healed. He will touch us too, if we allow Him to. In just a few minutes and again on Wednesday morning, we will be blessed to receive into our own bodies the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, “for health and life eternal.” When the chalice is brought out and we hear “With the fear of God, with faith and love draw near,” this is our chance to say, yes Lord I believe… and we will be healed.

We are told, “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.” (Matthew 9.35) This means that Jesus is at work here in Florence too my dear brothers and sisters. The Church is the living breathing Jesus Christ for those in Florence who are in need of healing.

There is no sickness or disease that Jesus cannot heal… even death. We don’t always know what sort of healing we will receive but we will be healed. That is the Good News of this morning’s Gospel. If we call upon Him, and have faith in Him, He will heal us. Then all we have to do is spread His fame throughout all the land.

In my dream I was unable to cry out to my mother for help until I finally took action and rolled out of the street and let the fire engine roar past my head. The blind men in this morning’s Gospel had to take action and follow Jesus before they called out to Him and were healed by God. The demoniac had to be brought to Christ for him to be healed. God will heal us, the only thing we need to do is take action and cry out to Him, “Lord, have mercy.”

Friday, August 1, 2008

Pray for One Another

Today is the first day of the "15 Days of August" during which we are called to the Church for daily Paraklesis (supplications to the Theotokos) for healing and salvation. How wonderful it would be if each of us took seriously this call and came to Church. How different the world would be if each of us prayed for those in need. How different the world would be if each of us prayed for our enemies. How different the world would be if we just prayed.

What a different world it would be.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

We Have Been Called to the Witness Stand

One of the many responsibilities we have as American citizens is to serve on Jury Duty when the need arises. We are guaranteed a trial by our peers for serious crimes we may be accused of committing. As members of a jury we are expected to listen to the evidence provided by witnesses paraded in front of us until finally the decision of innocence rests wholly upon us member of the jury. Some very famous movies have been made about this process. Two of my favorites are “Twelve Angry Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” These movies, and other stories like them, focus a great deal of attention on the witness stand.
It is witness, or μαρτυρἰα, that the Church engages us with this morning. Today we celebrate the feast of St Panteleimon the Great Martyr and physician who was martyred in 305AD for giving God the credit for the healing he accomplished in his ministry. It is appropriate that we also have the story of the Paralytic in this morning’s Gospel to focus our attention on both witness and healing.
Let’s look at the context of this morning’s Gospel to see what we may take with us this week in our struggle to save the world and bring God’s people to His home. In the Gospel we see a huge crowd gathered around Jesus who was teaching. Over walk these men carrying their friend who cannot walk for himself. “When Jesus saw their faith, [the faith of the men carrying their friend] He said to the paralytic, your sins are forgiven, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” (Matthew 9.2,6) The paralytic just laid there without saying a word. It was the faith of the friends that healed the paralytic. In the accounts of this story in Mark (Mark 2.1-12) and Luke (Luke 5.17-26), we are told that the friends actually climbed up on the roof, cut a hole in the roof, and lowered their friend down in front of Christ. Their action was like taking the witness stand and declaring their faith in the power of Christ to heal.
Just as these four men were witnesses on behalf of the paralytic who was healed, so too are we called to be witnesses on behalf of the Gospel so that others may be saved. St Paul tells us in this morning’s Epistle, “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among witnesses, commit these to faithful men.” (2 Timothy 2.1-2)
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we have been called to the witness stand. Society continues to accuse God and His Church of being out of touch with reality or being too old fashioned. The Church teaches sexual purity and marital fidelity while society teaches free love and easy divorce. We have been called to the witness stand. Society urges us to build palaces to ourselves and cheat others out of their fair share while the Church teaches moderation and sacrifice. We have been called to the witness stand not to defend Christ but to witness His Love and compassion to the world.
Our witness is not in a court of law but the court of public opinion, as lawyers are so fond of saying. Every day we are called to the witness stand and our actions, like the friends in this morning’s Gospel, bear our true hearts. The Gospel of Matthew says, “But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts?’” (Matthew 9.4) What will He find in our hearts? It is not enough to come to Church every Sunday and return to the world without some impact on our actions. There is a reason the saying is, “Actions speak louder than words.” The actions of St Panteleimon and the four friends of the paralytic spoke loud and clear!
My brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s speak up this week, not in words, but in action! Right here in Florence, there are many people who need our help. The Harvest Hope Food Bank and Manna House are in great need of food. Supplies for both these are dwindling. I spoke with Harvest Hope on Thursday and they said their food shelves will be empty by Tuesday. That is only two days left of food for those who need it most. If we allow that to happen, as Christians that will speak loudly about our hearts.
Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love? Feed my sheep.” (John 21.15-19) In the ancient Church the faithful would bring food and other supplies to Liturgy with them for those in need. It the ancient Church there would be piles of food and it was the job of the Deacons to distribute the food to the widows and others in need following Liturgy. According to the Book of Acts, when this was done, “Then the word of God spread, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.” (Acts 6.1-7) If we are called to “bring My people to My home,” (Deuteronomy 4.10) as the Archbishop charged us with in Washington, D.C., how can we ignore this very important part of our ministry? We cannot.
I went shopping yesterday with Harry and bought $100 worth of food. Join me by going shopping tomorrow or look in your pantry and bringing food to the Church and on Tuesday we will bring it to Harvest Hope. There is a flyer here with a list of the types of food they need most.
We have also been collecting money in the Outreach Collection Box this month for Manna House. I am ashamed to say there is only a few dollars in that box. Manna House told me they will purchase dried beans with the money we send them next week. Please consider adding funds to the box before you leave today so their shelves don’t go empty.
This week we have been called to the witness stand and our actions will reveal our hearts. The hearts of St Panteleimon and the friends from this morning’s Gospel were clear – God was able to heal. As Orthodox Christians we know the power of God. He has blessed us with this beautiful Church and, for the most part, a healthy community. We know that God has the power to heal the suffering of other people. The Gospel and Epistle both remind us that we are called to witness these blessings so that others may be saved as well.
When we are called to the witness stand, what will people see in our hearts? We won’t have Atticus Finch to fight for our innocence. We will have only our actions, and actions will speak louder than words.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

What is the Church?

Tell me if the following dialogue sounds familiar to you? “What are you eating? Baklava, it’s really yummy, want to try some? Hey you’re Greek right, do you believe in Zeus? No, we are Greek Orthodox. Is that Jewish? No, Christian. Do you believe in Jesus? Yes. Oh, I didn’t know that. Can I taste that bakalava? Sure….” For those of us who grew up Greek, that was, and maybe still is, a routine dialogue with our friends, but why?

Why don’t people ask us if they can try our Church instead of our food? Of course you know we can’t really answer that question. We cannot ‘get into’ someone else head to know really what makes them ask questions. I do know that, but there has to be a reason people don’t ask us if they can try our Church. Perhaps maybe it has to do with how we portray ourselves to others. I know as a child I never offered to share my faith with my friends. After all, they weren’t Greek, so why would they want to know about my Church?

The fact is my brothers and sisters in Christ that people DO want to know about our Church. Just ask those people here this morning that are here not because they married a Greek but because they discovered the Orthodox Church on their own. Ask them, and they will tell you that a lot of people “out there” would love to know about what goes on “in here” every Sunday…they just don’t know who to ask. So this morning we are going to talk about what the Church IS in a real sense for our lives today in 21st Century America so maybe, some day, when someone does ask us, we’ll be ready.

In this morning’s Gospel Christ tells the Apostles, “You are the light of the world!” (Matthew 5. 14) and He also calls Himself the Light of the world. (John 8.12) So if Jesus is the Light of the world and His Apostles are the light of the world that means the Church is the light of the world – or Christ Himself – and who is the Church… us! Christ says it also in the Gospel of John, “that they [those who believe in Christ] all may be one, as You Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17.21) It is God’s desire that we actually become united with Him.

We become one with Him when we believe in Him and are baptized and Chrismated into His Holy Church. We mystically become THE LIVING BREATHING JESUS CHRIST on the face of the Earth. What a wonderful gift God has given to us. Saint Athanasios the Great said, “God became man so man could become God.” This is not just a saying but a reality. We have been blessed to participate in the divinity of God and all its blessings.

These blessings come with responsibilities and we have responsibilities just as Jesus Christ Himself had. It is these responsibilities that we heard of in both the Gospel and Epistle this morning. “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.” (Matthew 5.16) and Paul says, “Those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works,” (Titus 3.8) because as the Apostle James said, “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2.26)

My brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus came into the world for one purpose…to save the world from being dead. Our mission, if in fact we are the actual living breathing Jesus on Earth today, can be no less. We are called as Orthodox Christians to save the world – one person at a time. The Gospel lessons the past few weeks have been leading us to this point this morning.

On Pentecost we were told that if we believed in Christ we would never thirst and life would burst from us like a raging fountain. (John 7.38)

The next week we were told that if we confess Christ in front of others we will receive a hundred fold. (Matthew 19.29)

Then we were told if we repent we will receive the keys to the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 16.19)

Last week Jesus told us that if we would only trust Him and not worry that all of our needs would be met. (Matthew 6.33)

And finally this week we are called the light of the world, so how can we sit here this morning and be satisfied with a half empty church when there are thousands of people “out there” in Florence who want to know who Jesus Christ is. Don’t they deserve to be saved? I have said many times in the past month that everything we do as a parish comes from the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the manifestation of our complete unity in the divinity of God and if we are unified with God, really unified with Him, then we should be doing everything with Him…and that means saving the world.

The early Church took this mission very seriously. Many times we read of the Grace of God in the Book of Acts dwelling with the Church “and the Lord added to the Church daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2.47) The early Church was dedicated to caring for each other as if they WERE IN FACT one. And what about Paul? He took his saving message of Jesus Christ outside the early Church and invited others…and thank God he did. If Paul remained only with the Jews, we might actually still believe in Zeus. Thank you Saint Paul. And thank you Saint Paul for offering us such good advice today. “But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions for they are unprofitable and useless.” (Titus 3.9)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we ARE the light of the world and just as with any other light; we will be seen by others because the world is a dark place. Will they see foolish contentions or good works? And when they see us, will the praise God or call us hypocrites? Half of all Americans go to Church. Here in Florence, that means there are almost 40,000 people who either don’t know who Jesus Christ is or just don’t know who to ask.

This week we began the preparation for our Greek Festival. Several thousand Florentines will come looking for a Greek Festival. When they come in September for lunch and ask what are we eating, will we just tell them about baklava or will we allow the light of our good works shine so they see Jesus Christ?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Trust in God and Your Worries Will be Over!

I have wonderful memories of being a boy scout when I was younger. We would play all day long in the mountains of Colorado and then enjoy a relaxing campfire at night where we spent time telling stories and laughing at our own jokes. If I close my eyes, I can still see all of us sitting around the campfire; our smiling faces visible only by the faint orange glow of the fire that kept us warm. Beyond our smiles was the darkness of the mountain night air, and in the darkness lie our tents and sleeping bags waiting for us to retire for the night. There was one problem….

Very often we had sat down to enjoy a campfire before the sun had set so we had forgotten to get one very important tool…our flashlights were still in our tents which were by that time totally bathed in darkness. We had a choice to make: either sit and enjoy the campfire and deal with finding our way back to our sleeping bags in the dark later when the campfire was out and we were half asleep or we could run, now when we were awake and there was still a little light coming from the fire, and get our flashlight. I would like to think that these nights prepared me for my life but I still get caught off guard without my flashlight and I find myself in total darkness.

This morning’s Gospel is about total darkness; not the darkness of camping but the darkness of our souls. As human beings, we find ourselves in times of darkness with no hope of reaching the comfort of the light. At one time or another we have all felt this darkness. Some of us this morning might be feeling this darkness right now. It is about hope that the Gospel speaks about this morning: Hope in Christ that we can get out of the darkness.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is supposed to be Good News and too often we as Orthodox Christians get bogged down with rules and regulations about how to live the Orthodox Christian Lifestyle that we forget the Good News about Christ. As Orthodox Christians in America and especially during this time of economic uncertainty in our country – the ever increasing price of gas and the stock market resembling a rollercoaster ride – the question of our future financial security seems more important than when we’re supposed to fast from meat and dairy products or how many prostrations we’re supposed to do each morning. After all, if we don’t have jobs to buy that meat we won’t be eating it anyway. And now that we are in the thralls of a presidential election campaign, each night specialists on the news tell us that the worst is yet to come and America is set for decline and boy, should we be worried.

But Jesus asks, “Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” (Matthew 6.27) We know from our doctors that stress is the number one cause of heart disease, and I’ve learned that here in the Pee Dee we have one of the highest heart disease rates in the county. We can’t afford more stress and doctors are ready and waiting, too many of them I believe, to offer us some magic pill to make everything better. But then there are the side effects of the pills. There has to be a better way… My brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus is the way. Jesus is the answer to all our worries and our hope for the future.

Our future is with God in heaven! Our future is bright with the light of Christ rather than the darkness of uncertainty. Just as there was uncertainty in the darkness around that campfire, there is uncertainty in the darkness of doubt and anxiety. Jesus is the Light of the world, and whoever follows Him “shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” (John 8.12) And just as I had to choose whether to get my flashlight or not, we all have to choose; do we follow Christ or stay in the darkness?

I know…. you’re probably saying, “Come on Father, that is easier said than done. We have bills to pay! We can’t afford to not worry about how we’re going to put food on the table or how can buy clothes for our children who have already outgrown the new clothes we bought last year.” Christ says, “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6.25-26) The life of a bird isn’t easy. Birds spend as much energy looking for food than they do eating it and we will have to work for our food too. The difference between us the birds is that the birds work for the food for today without worrying how they are going to eat tomorrow. We on the other hand, never stop worrying. We never have enough for tomorrow or the next day or the next year.

Next year, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we may not be here. Why should we spend so much energy worrying about next year? What good will it really do us anyway? Just take a moment and think about where you were last year. Think of the things you were worrying about last year. Did it really make that much sense to worry? God knows our needs and He has promised to take care of them. Our job is to have hope and trust that He will do what He promises. If you want to talk about how to live an Orthodox life, you can ask me that later? Our job is to hope in Christ. The Gospel says, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6.33) Not some but all our needs. That sounds like good news to me!