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!