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.