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.