Sunday, December 28, 2008

How do our plans for our lives compare to God's plan?

When I first arrived here in Florence I was told the Narthex would be finished by late September or early October but as we all know that plan didn’t work. Something told me when we blessed the foundation two weeks after they were scheduled that we were in for a game of faith when it came to completing the Narthex according to the plans. Things don’t always work out as we plan for them and sometimes that is for the good especially when God is involved. I’m sure we all have stories about how our plans for something didn’t quite work but the result was much better than we had ever imagined.

The same I’m sure is true for Joseph in this morning’s Gospel. As if it wasn’t difficult enough for Joseph to believe the angel about Mary’s Son, now an angel tells him to pick up his family and move to a foreign country. We know from the Gospel that Joseph had other plans but his plans didn’t work out like he had expected.

Joseph was a widower with children so his plan was to find another wife to care for his children. When God got involved in his plans everything changed. Sure Mary was able to help with his children, but nothing in his wildest imagination could have prepared him for Mary’s Son. Once Jesus was a part of Joseph’s life he had to be willing to change his plans. Just listen again to this morning’s story: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.’” (Matthew 2.13) And when Herod did finally die and Joseph was on his way back just as the angel had told him, “he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee.” (Matthew 2.22) Does this sound like Joseph was keeping to his original plan?

Plans change; at least our plans change. There is only one plan that has never changed…God’s plan to save the human race from eternal suffering. God has never wavered from His plan to save us, whether He was speaking through Moses or whether He was telling Joseph to stay away from Judea. What changes is our reaction to His plan. In the story of Christmas Joseph allows his personal plans to change to allow for God’s plan to work.

My brothers and sisters we have plans just like Joseph. We all have personal plans and we have plans as a community. We have plans to complete the Church. We have plans to build our new Hellenic Center. Some of us have plans for an Orthodox School in Florence, or some of us may have plans for an Orthodox retirement center. I’m sure we all have plans for our community to grow in the future. But we must ask ourselves, before we are warned in a dream like Joseph, if our plans are the same as God’s plan.

God’s plan is simple….save the world. Joseph’s plan was simple…find a new wife to help with my children. As long as Joseph remained in communication with God, his plan worked. Even though Joseph had to flee to Egypt, his children were still cared for. I’m sure Joseph wondered how his plan would work. God allowed for Joseph’s plans as long as he was open to God’s desire for Mary and her Son, Jesus.

God will bless our plans too as long we remain open to His plan within our community and our lives. Just like Joseph we have witnessed and celebrated the birth of God and now we must open ourselves to whatever God has planned for us. God is now a part of our lives, and we must remain in communication with Him. We must remember that God allowed Joseph’s plans so long as they were consistent with His plan for Mary and Jesus. Sometimes God asked Joseph to change his plans. As long as our plans for our personal lives and our community remain a part of God’s plan, He will allow them to work.

This morning’s Gospel shows us that other things can also affect our plans. St. Matthew tells us, “But when he had heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.” (Matthew 2.22) When Herod was dead Joseph was supposed to return. That was the plan but there was no mention of Herod’s son. Since Herod’s son was now ruling, Joseph had to change plans even though his original plans were told to him by the angel. The question we must ask every day is, “How do our plans for our lives and this Church compare to God’s plan today not just last month or last year?”

Things are constantly changing around us and we must be in constant communication with God about our plans for the future. God’s plan has never changed, just our part in them. God may need something different from us in 2009 than He did in 2008. Just think how things have changed for our parish in the past year…different priest, different economy, different mayor, some members have died or moved away and others have moved closer. One thing remains always the same…God’s plan.

We must be ready for anything this year my dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Joseph was ready to take his family and move to a foreign country even though he had other plans. With God in his life Joseph’s plans were fulfilled when he allowed God’s plan to choose the path. God will bless our plans also when we allow Him to choose our path.

So the Narthex expansion will be complete in a few weeks by the grace of God and if God wants us to have an Orthodox School in Florence, it will be built. As for our plans for a larger community…God’s plan is to save the world and that means bringing more people into this Church. All we have to do is be ready to travel to foreign lands first.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Nicest Thing Anyone Has Ever Done For Us

There is a story of a young man who had fallen asleep at the wheel one night while he was driving home from work. His car crossed the median and hit a motorcycle. The driver of the motorcycle was killed instantly and this young man was faced with knowing his actions resulted in the death of another human being. He was facing charges of vehicular homicide and reckless driving among other traumatic circumstances. The world seemed to be closing in around this young man at a time when he should have been focusing on graduating from high school. Rather than preparing college applications he was preparing his defense for trial. Just imagine the hopelessness he must have felt at that time!

He couldn’t speak about the accident without becoming emotional but he shared many of the details with others. During conversations he shared what he considered the “nicest thing anyone had ever done for him.” The morning after the accident he was in his hospital room when his brother came to visit. It had only been a few hours since it all happened and he was still without a shirt. His shirt had become saturated with blood at the scene of the accident. His brother removed his own shirt and placed it over his head. “He gave me the shirt off his own back,” this young man said while he was choking back tears. The sound of young people suffering is very painful.

This morning we read from the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel Luke about the birth of Christ and what happened shortly after. When King Herod heard of the birth of God he wanted so badly to capture Jesus, but was outsmarted by the wise men. “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem from two years old and under.” (Matthew 2.16) And the entire city of Bethlehem wept with the suffering pain of dying children.

Just last week our neighbors in Horry County buried an abandoned baby who was found dead. The news of death and destruction just feels overwhelming at this time of year. Job loss, devastating fires, murders and burglary. Just when people should be preparing for Christmas, they have been preparing funerals and insurance claims. Society feels like it is crumbling around us, but just as the young man I told you about, Christ gives us the shirt off his own back.

This is what Christmas is all about. Two thousand years ago, in the midst of oppression and poverty, God became a human being. The same God who created the entire universe was born as a baby and grew up just as we did in the midst of crime, poverty and death. But He brought us life. He brought us hope for the future.

The birth of Christ my dear brothers and sisters brings us hope for a better tomorrow. What we celebrate this evening is “the nicest thing anyone has ever done for us.” God lowered himself from heaven and became a human being so that we could live forever with Him in Heaven. That is the benefit of Christmas. There is no suffering in Heaven. There is no death in Heaven. There is no pain in Heaven. There is no sighing in Heaven. There is only peace, life and love.

As we pray at every memorial service in our Church, “Give rest to the soul of the departed servant of God in a place of light, in a place of repose, in a place of refreshment, where there is no pain, sorrow or suffering.” (From the Memorial Service) With the birth of Christ, we are now able to become citizens of paradise. Just think, if Christ wasn’t born, He could never have been crucified and resurrected, and if He had never been resurrected we would not be able to get to Heaven. What a great gift He has given us today on Christmas.

Christmas is a time for gifts. We give gifts and we receive gifts from our family and friends. Some of us even receive gifts from our co-workers. Christmas is a time when we should focus our attention on the blessings that are in our life and the blessing of life, the gift we receive from God is precious.

With the birth of Christ God gives us the permission to hope for a better future rather than dwell on the pain and suffering of today. He gives permission “to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.” (John 1.12) If we believe that God, the same God that created the universe – the only God – became a man and was crucified, buried and raised from the dead, then we already have received the greatest gift anyone could ever give us……forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

I would like to tell you the end of the story for the young man, but it is still being written. The family of the motorcycle driver forgave him and he was never jailed. He went to college and is now a promising bright young man with a college degree and with the hope of a great future. God has blessed him with knowing there is comfort in God when all else seems to fail, and that is a great gift.

Tonight my dear brothers and sisters, when we return home for our own family traditions of Christmas, let us remember that there is always hope for a better tomorrow when Christ is part of our lives.

Christ is Born, Glorify Him! Merry Christmas!