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.