Sunday, August 30, 2009

Are We Making Onion Soup? No, Just Trying to Get to Heaven

What do the following items all have in common: bananas, watermelons, avocados, coconuts, pineapples and onions? They are all filled with delicious goodness on the inside but have a skin you can’t eat. I could name more fruits, vegetables and other foods that share this trait – a tough exterior with a delicate interior. And if you read some of the many ‘good health’ guides you will see all these items listed as being “good for you” and a part of every healthy life.

So what is ultimately good for us? This may have been the question that led the rich man to approach Jesus Christ in this morning’s Gospel. All of us seek what we think is good for us whether it is a good education or a good healthy diet or a good doctor when our diet isn’t so healthy. “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” (Matthew 19.16) These are the words of a rich man seeking goodness in his life. Believe it or not, the answer to this man’s question begins with understanding that goodness sometimes is to be found under the tough skin of an onion.

In order to get the goodness of an onion, we have to peel away the dry layers revealing the pure core of the onion. Jesus said to the rich man, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.” (Matthew 19.17) Goodness is sometimes hidden unless we make the effort to look deep into the core. The man only saw Jesus as a teacher, just as we often only see the dry onion, but Jesus is God and for those who are able to see Him, we see that He is Good…and therefore “good for us.”

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…So God made man; in the image of God He made him; male and female He made them…Then God saw everything He had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1.26-27,31) In the opening passages of the Old Testament God reveals to us that we were made in His image and that He declared us and all creation to be very good. In this morning’s Gospel Jesus reminds us that only God is good, so how can we also be good? The answer is in the onion.

Shortly after God created humanity we began to disobey Him and layer by layer we began to cover the goodness that God had created with bitter skins. By now some of us even find it hard to see the goodness in ourselves let alone the goodness in our enemies. But just like an onion it is there, all we have to do search for it. That is exactly what the rich man was doing when he walked up to Christ in this morning’s Gospel.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, as Orthodox Christians our goal is to spend all eternity in Communion with God. Being in Heaven is being in Communion with the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God. Listen again to the dialogue between the rich man and Jesus:

“But if you want to enter into eternal life, keep the commandments.” He said to Him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, honor your father and your mother, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to Him, ‘All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’(Matthew 19.17-20)

God is telling us exactly what type of life He expects us to live if we want to spend eternity in Communion with Him. Keeping The Commandments is like layers of sin being peeled away slowing revealing the goodness that is inside each of us. And if you have ever peeled an onion, there are always more layers…and that is the message for us this morning. If we want to be perfect and follow Jesus Christ to Heaven we must peel away all the bitter sins of our lives one layer at a time and expose the goodness that is in our core; but God knows, better than us, that it is easier said than done.
“”Assuredly I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19.23-24,26) In ancient times it was common for sailors to call the large ropes on their boats ‘camels’ and since Jesus was speaking to His disciples, many of whom were fishermen, most people in the Church read this passage to mean the it is easier to get a rope through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Does anyone know how to get a rope through the eye of a needle? The answer rests in the onion.

Rope, just like an onion, is made of many layers. In order to make rope, first many small threads are twisted together to make string and many strings are then twisted together to make rope. So…..if we unravel the rope leaving only the original thread we can easily pass the thread through the needle. What our Lord is trying to teach us this morning is that the only we can get into heaven is to remove all the layers of sin that we have wound around our lives and return to the core goodness that He created in the first place.

Onions and rope come in all shapes and sizes, and so do we. Jesus knows that is it not easy living every day in our fallen world surrounded by crime, violence, greed, sexual immorality…you name it our society suffers from it. God also knows that it is not easy peeling away the layers of sin our lives. Like an onion it probably will even cause some tears, but God also knows what is inside our core. As an onion gets older and older it surrounds its core with more and more layers. The longer we wait to begin to remove the layers of sin that we have twisted around the rope of our lives the harder it will be to imagine that we can ever get through that needle.

The good thing is, “With God all things are possible.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

On Your Mark, Get Set, GO!

We all remember these words. They began all the fun races between us and our friends. Our spiritual life is a race. At least it has the same characteristics as Saint Paul himself exclaims, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4.7) Our race toward life in the Kingdom of God, like the 4-person relay in track and field, is not run in isolation but embraced along with our fellow Orthodox Christians as we, “being many, are one body.” (1 Corinthians 12.12) And just as in the 4-person relay we each have our own unique starting point but we share a single common finish line.

The Gospel is a challenge to each of us to take account of our own starting point and run the race with our fellow teammates toward our common goal – Life in Christ. We each have our own history and our own challenges in the race, but only together are we able to reach the finish line. It doesn’t matter who we are, there is always somebody either behind us or ahead of us. The rich man had accomplished many great works in the Law when he approached Christ thinking maybe he was finished when he asked, “What do I still lack?” (Matthew 19.20) “Jesus said to him, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor.’” (Matthew 19.21)

Today we each gather at the end of our year to ask the Lord, what do we still lack? Some of us lack more than others but all of us lack something. Let us not be discouraged and let us help each other win the race. Where we were someone now is. Where we wish to be someone now is. BUT, WHERE WILL WE BE in the future?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What Will We Do This Year? Thoughts on the New Church Year

You who created all things in Your infinite wisdom, and set the times by Your own authority, grant Your Christian people victories. Blessing our comings and goings throughout this year, guide our works according to Your divine will. (Kontakion of September 1)

As the above hymn indicates, we invite God into our daily lives each year when we pray for blessings during the new year. This new year, which begins September 1, 2009, is an opportunity for us to praise God in our achievements, seek God’s forgiveness in our failures, and beg His assistance for our future.

These emotions are not foreign to September for children. Our children know them well. As our children get back into the habit of homework and special research projects, they know too well the feeling of achievement and failure and they know that in order to continue to achieve they must correct their mistakes and make progress in their studies if the new school year will be filled with joy rather than sadness.

As adults too we must take a moment to dwell upon our achievements and failures of the past year so that we can move forward in our lives. In our restaurants we must evaluate what sold or what didn’t sell on the menu. Our children know that if they keep making the same mistakes, they will not make any progress in school and we know that if we don’t change our products our business may begin to suffer in the coming year. Unfortunately, our children are often much better at this than we are.

“Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him the midst of them, and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18.2-3) We must take our lessons from children and spiritually evaluate what worked and what didn’t work in our spiritual lives in the last year and then strive to do better this year. What parent does not challenge his children to get better grades in school one year after another? Likewise our Lord is challenging us, His children, to be better Orthodox Christians this year than we were last year. Just like in school there is always room for improvement.

And improvement in our spiritual struggle is of much greater importance than school because the results are eternal. Of course I would never suggest that we should not strive for the best possible grades in school since God is always glorified in our good achievements. But we must never forget to always be striving to improve our spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church while at the same time attending to our daily lives at work.

So this September, let us take a look back and consider the past year with the following questions:
1. Could I have attended Sunday Divine Liturgy more?
2. Could I have read the Bible more?
3. Could I have reached out with compassion to someone in need more?
4. Could I have fasted more?
5. Could I have studied the teachings of the Church more?
6. Could I have gone to Holy Confession more?
7. Could I have prayed more?
8. Could I have received Holy Communion more?

Consider the answer of Christ Himself: “The young man said to Him, ‘All these I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’” (Matthew 19.20-21) We can always do more to show our Love for God. The question is, “What will we do this year?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Forgiveness Has Just Become a Bit Easier

Gospel ReadingMatthew 18:23-35 11th Sunday of Matthew
The Lord said this parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, 'Pay what you owe.' So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailors, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."

The ability to forgive others is one of the most difficult tasks of any Christian. It seems everywhere we turn someone has done something to us or said something to us or about us that genuinely hurts. This is the most painful when we are hurt by our closest friends or family members. For some reason unknown to us it is easier for us to forgive complete strangers, maybe because we don’t expect anything better from them or is it that we expect so much more from our own loved ones?

In the Gospel Christ gives us great comfort in our struggle to forgive each other. He wants us to consider how much more we have been forgiven; more than we have even asked. The servant who owed 10,000 talents (a huge sum of money) simply asked for patience to repay the debt. In return the master forgave the entire debt as an act of mercy. Not a day goes by when each one of us doesn’t do something, however small, that causes pain to a friend or family member or complete stranger. Many times we let these “small things” pile up until we are so embarrassed we can’t even show our face at family or Church functions. It is just then that we think we cannot possibly be forgiven but when we find the courage to ask for “another chance” to show how much we care, not even expecting forgiveness but for a fresh start, our mothers and fathers brothers and sisters come running to us and embrace us with such great love that our body feels warm inside.

The next time we are faced with the opportunity to forgive somebody, let’s not forget how much we have been forgiven by others and by God. Forgiveness comes a bit easier when we take the time to remember we were forgiven first.