Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Father Told the Son, the Son Told the Church, the Church Told Us, Who Will We Tell?

There was a very popular TV commercial in the 1970s for Faberge Organic Shampoo. In the commercial, for those of you who don’t remember it…..a woman on our TV screen loved her shampoo so much that she told two friends, and they told two friends and they told friends, and so on, and so on, and so on. The commercial was so popular that people are still quoting it today in web pages and blogs. If the commercial was successful in having two friends tell their two friends and they told their two friends and so on and so on at least once each year, Faberge would have sold 1,099,511,627,776 bottles of shampoo since 1970. Faberge no longer makes their organic shampoo but anyone in business will agree that the idea of telling friends about a product, or a restaurant, or a clothing store, or just about anything you think is good is the best form of advertising. Word of mouth is better than any commercial.

Today’s Gospel lesson believe it or not is about word of mouth advertising, but not for a product. It is about word-of-mouth advertising about the Good News that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became human like each one of us, was crucified, died and rose from the dead so that WE could live forever with Him. Christ says, “Now they have known that all things which You have given Me are from You. For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent me.” (John 17.7-8) And THEN they, the Apostles told their friends, and they told their friends, and so on and so on until today here we are in this Church.

Today the Church celebrates the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council which met in Nicaea in 325AD to thank them and give Glory to God for their courage and wisdom as the Holy Spirit guided them to seek out the Truth about Jesus Christ. Today is an important day in the Church because we remember that the Apostles and Early Church Fathers like Saint Ignatius who in 69AD became the first Bishop in Antioch handed down an unchanged and unbroken chain of Holy Tradition and Faith, before there was a New Testament by the way, from Bishop to Bishop, Christian to Christian, for nearly two thousand years. The Fathers who gathered in Nicaea in 325AD didn’t invent any new beliefs when they adopted the Creed.

In the Fourth Century the Fathers studied the ancient Church and, based upon the writings and prayers and Holy Traditions of the Early Church Fathers and Apostles, established what we have today as the New Testament, nearly three hundred years after the Resurrection of Christ. They were able to do this because the Church has always existed and has always followed the example of Christ.

What Christ heard from the Father He gave to the Church and what the Church heard from Christ the Church gave to us. And now it is our turn to know that all things which the Church has given us are from Christ; and we have received them; and we can know surely that the Church came from God and has been sent by God to us. How can we know this?

Christ’s own words should be a comfort to us. Christ says, “Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me.” (John 17.11) “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak.” (John 16.13) And “what is Truth?” (John 18.38)

The truth is not relative my dear brothers and sisters in Christ. The Truth is Jesus Christ Himself and He has promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church. And just as Jesus passed on the teachings of the Father to the Church, the Church passes on the teachings of Christ to us. Now it is our turn to pass on the teachings of the Church, which ARE the teachings of Christ to each other, our children and our friends and neighbors. It is time for us to tell two friends and they will tell two friends and they will tell two friends and so on and so on.

The teaching of the Church is simple: the purpose of life is to be in communion with God. Jesus said, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; [He’s talking about us!] that they all may be one, as You Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” (John 17.20-23)

There has never been a better gift in the entire history of creation! God has created us human beings to be in communion with Him. The Church has been proclaiming this truth for two thousand years and now it is our turn…I’ve told you and God wants you to tell two friends and they will tell two friends and so on and so on and so on.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Formula for Guilt-Free Living

“Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9.1) This question by the Disciples was a familiar one in their time but by today’s standards we no longer think of physical illness or disabilities in terms of being punishment for sins. BUT how often do we punish ourselves for our sins? Often times it would less painful to be inflicted with physical blindness than the guilt that we force upon our own lives for our sins. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.” (John 9.3)

God does not give us pain or trials because of our sins so neither should we. God forgives us when we ask Him so we need to forgive ourselves also. God does not judge us for sins that have been forgiven so we also need to learn to forgive ourselves (and others) and not allow guilt to bring a dark blindness into our lives. Guilt, especially when it keeps us away from God, has the same effect as being blind and unable to see God’s love but God has the power to heal our blindness so we can live guilt-free lives.

If we are suffering from guilt because of a particular sin in our lives the Church offers us healing in the Mystery of Repentance also known as Confession. When we approach Christ in the sacrament and confess our sins and seek forgiveness, the Priest says: My spiritual child, who has confessed to my humble person, I, humble and a sinner, have no power on earth to forgive sins, but God alone; but through that divinely spoken word which came to the Apostles after the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying, “Whosoever sins you remit, they are remitted, and whosoever sins you retain, they are retained,” we are emboldened to say: Whatsoever you have said to my humble person, and whatsoever you have failed to say, whether through ignorance or forgetfulness, whatever it may be, may God forgive you in this world, and in the world to come.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Nobody Should Be Alone on Mother’s Day

Last Monday I was enjoying breakfast with Presbytera when my phone began to ring. It didn’t stop for about an hour as news traveled throughout Florence of the tragic death of our dear friend Josh Waynick, Father Gregory’s son. When the dust settled we realized that the news was true: Josh Waynick lost his life tragically in a house fire while he was trying to save his dog. And today, his mother is spending mother’s day traveling to bury her son. Please remember Presbytera Laura, and the entire Waynick Family in your prayers. I suspect she will never think of Mother’s Day the same again.

Most of us think of Mother’s Day as a day for us to honor our mothers. We buy flowers, candy, and other gifts to show our mothers just how much they mean to us. In Churches throughout America there are sermons about the importance of mothers and images of the “ideal mother” are preached from the pulpit. After Church mothers are waited on in restaurants and country clubs by their children who love them. As a society we spend so much energy on Mother’s Day honoring our mothers we sometimes forget that there are mothers who don’t celebrate today because they have lost their children.

There are mothers who have no children to bring them out for lunch or to buy flowers and candy. These mothers often spend mother’s day remembering the children they have lost. Our society has too many of these mothers either because war has taken their children or illness or tragic accidents have robbed them of the opportunity of spending time with their children. Too many mothers have no one. They spend the day alone.

“Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.” (John 5.7) This is the cry of the paralytic in this morning’s Gospel. He waited nearby as year after year other people were healed all the while he remained unable to even drag himself into the pool. We may ask where his mother was. The paralytic seems to have lost his mother. He also was left alone and he suffered for more than thirty-eight years waiting for someone to help him. He spent his days alone.

But he never gave up hope. For thirty-eight years he dragged himself to the pool for the annual healing miracle and for thirty-seven years he left still paralyzed. This year was different because Christ was there waiting to ask him, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5.6) Of course he did! Why else would he drag himself to the pool every year? His problem wasn’t that he didn’t want to be healed, but that he needed help; he couldn’t do it by himself. None of us can.

None of us can go through life totally on our own. We’re not created that way. God made humanity in His image and His image is a community. The Holy Trinity is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If we are made in the image of God, then we also are expected to exist as a community. That is what makes this morning’s Gospel so challenging for us. If the paralytic lost his mother and father, then where was the rest of the community to help him? It is hard for me to imagine that not one single person stood up after so many years to help this paralyzed man. The Jews were gathered in the Temple for the Feast, just like we are gathered here today in this Church, and still they couldn’t find it in their hearts to help this poor man.

We came here today to be in the presence of God but we are not here alone. We are not here as individuals. Our time with God is not just about having a personal relationship with God. We were created to have a communal relationship with God not to live in isolation. Isolation is what kept the paralytic from being healed. When we remain alone we remain paralyzed. It is even worse when someone comes here and still remains alone in their heart because we have ignored them or we treat them like a stranger. It breaks my heart when I hear people share why they don’t come to this church. We may not like to hear it but there are people, even some Greeks, who feel unwanted and like strangers in this Church. And so they sit at home spiritually paralyzed because they are alone…and we as a Church have let them feel alone.

But we can change that! This year can be different. We can reach out to those who do not come to Church – Orthodox or non-Orthodox – and invite them to come spend some time with God. We can reassure them that they are not alone and that we will be here with them. We all know at least one person we can call this week – someone we haven’t seen in Church in a long time – and invite them back. Maybe we know of a “lost soul” at work who, like the paralytic doesn’t have anyone to help them. Can we possibly sit by for thirty-eight years without reaching out?

For some it has been a really long time since they have attended Church. This year can be different. For many years they have struggled to heal themselves but couldn’t. This year will be different because Christ has not forgotten them just like He never forgot the paralytic. The Gospel says, “When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk.’ And immediately the man was made well.” (John 5.6,8-9)

Christ is risen my dear brothers and sisters and He has sent us to help. Jesus says, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” (John 20.21) God has sent us, the Church, to bring hope to those in need in and around Florence. If we love God we will go out and take care of those around us.

Mother’s Day should be a day for joy and there will be time for celebrating but we must never forget those who are alone today, mothers and their children. Let us pray to the Lord:

“Lord our God, you who brought back to life the only son of a widow, and who from the Cross made arrangements for the care of Your Own mother, send comfort to those mothers today who have lost their children either through illness, war, accidental death or estrangement. You who from the portico of the Sheep Gate brought health to the paralytic who was alone, bring peace to those who spend this Mother’s Day without their mothers either due to death, distance or estrangement for you are Holy Our God and to You we send up Glory with Your everlasting Father and Your All-Holy Good and Life-Giving Spirit, always now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.”

Christ is Risen!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Focus Upon Christ and Let Him Take Care of the Rest

The story is a common one for many of you here this morning and for most of our ancestors. It is the story of the immigrant. The immigrant leaves his home with whatever he can carry for a journey of unknowns; unknown challenges and unknown blessings in an unknown land. The immigrant sometimes travels with family but sometimes not. He sometimes travels with friends but sometimes not. But when he travels alone, he often finds new friends with which to share adventure and food. He is not alone but has his hope only in God to keep him safe and help him get established in his new home. So much depends upon God for his survival: will he get a job, will he find a place to live, and will he have enough money? The immigrant isn’t held back simply because of these unknowns because God will provide the room, the job and the money he needs to survive. His entire hope rests in God!

Hope in God is what the myrrh bearing women had in this morning’s Gospel. They were already on their way to the tomb to anoint the body of Christ when they asked each other, “Who will roll away the stone from the door for us?” (Mark 16.3) They didn’t hesitate to travel to the tomb just because they didn’t know how they would get inside. All they knew was that they had to go to the tomb. Like the drive of the immigrant, their hope was in Christ to help them when they arrived.

And Christ did help. Saint Mark says, “But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away – for it was very large.” (Mark 16.4) The Gospel of Matthew tells us that God sent His angel to move the stone. (Matthew 28.2) After sending help Christ blessed the women for their faith. He rewarded them by allowing them to be the first to see Him after the Resurrection. He did this because they had the strength and courage to seek Christ no matter what and leave the rest up to Him. The very large stone that had sealed the tomb of God was no match for the faith of these women. We remember when Christ says, “For assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.” (Matthew 17.20) And this was only a large boulder and no boulder was going to keep them from their journey that morning.

We are all on a journey my dear brothers and sisters in Christ. We are on the journey we call life. We are all headed somewhere. But where are we headed? What do we seek from our journey? The myrrh bearing women knew where they were headed and they knew what they were seeking – they were seeking Jesus Christ. We are called to be like the myrrh bearing women and seek Jesus and He will take care of whatever challenges lie in the way.

Each of us here this morning has had some challenge in life to overcome. For some it was or maybe still is a serious illness. For others it may be family struggles with our spouse or children. For others is may be job related. For all of us though our challenges force us to ask ourselves what we really want in life. When our answer includes God and a relationship with Him then God will help us through our challenges. And when we have enough faith that God can do what He promises, “nothing will be impossible for us.” (Matthew 17.20)

The key for us is seeking out Christ first in our lives. It was only two weeks ago when we gathered in the darkness and proclaimed the victory of Christ over death. For a few days maybe we were still on a spiritual high. But it’s been two weeks of work and school and driving the kids around town for their activities and paying bills and more bills and for some of us looking for work just so we can have money to pay those bills. It is no wonder that we grow weak and forget to spend time with God. But the Devil doesn’t forget to tempt us and never stops trying to stop us from seeking God in our lives. The more we worry about our lives the easier it becomes for the Devil to fool us.

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ don’t be fooled! The Devil never stops trying to convince us that God isn’t going to take care of us when we are down and out… but God will take care of us. The Devil cheers every time we lose hope in Christ. We must never lose hope that God will do exactly as He promises. He took care of the rock for the myrrh bearing women and He will take care of our challenges. He took care of the immigrant and He will take care of us.

He will bless us and honor us when we place our hope in Him and seek Him like the myrrh bearing women in this morning’s Gospel. They went on a journey headed for Christ and God removed the obstacles in their way. He will do the same thing for us if we keep our journey called life headed for Christ. The myrrh bearing women didn’t travel alone and neither should we. God has given us the Church to help us in our journey just like He sends a new friend to the lone immigrant.

We are not alone! Christ is with us and present in His Church. In the Church we have all the tools we need for our journey to Christ. Are we struggling with our passions? Then the Church has tools to help us overcome that challenge. When we fast we learn how to conquer our passions. Does our mind wander away from God on to other things? Then the Church has tools to help us overcome that challenge. When we pray the Jesus Prayer we learn to keep our focus upon God. Are we struggling with selfishness? Do we care more about ourselves and our own struggles than the needs of our brothers and sisters around us? Then the Church has tools to help us overcome that challenge. When we do charitable works for others and donate money to charities then we learn that life is not just about us. We are all on this journey called life together.

Together we are struggling to know Christ and become transfigured and as Orthodox Christians we have the most blessed help of all in our lives…Holy Communion. God came and “dwelt among us” (John 1.14) and said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” (John 6.54) We can only live if we commune with God. Christ said, “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” (John 15.6) Death comes if we remain alone and without God in our life.

The immigrant had many struggles when he arrived in this country but he soon found the Church and as a community in Christ, this group of immigrants overcame their challenges and lived fruitful lives in a new land. We can also live fruitful lives in our new land – The Kingdom of God – when we keep our hope in Christ and seek a relationship with Him.

Christ is Risen!