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.

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