Sunday, September 20, 2009

Save Now! God Will Reward You Later!

When I was young one of the hardest lessons I had to learn was to save money. When I was ten years old I began my first job and with my life long battle with saving money for the future. For a ten year old, anything with the word ‘future’ seemed liked I’d never see it, so why save money for the future. Every penny I had to save was a penny I couldn’t spend. Needless to say I wasn’t very successful saving money at ten. It was only two years later when I learned that if I put some money aside then I could buy a new walkman radio that was all the rage in 1981. All I had to do was deny some spending for a couple of months and I would be rewarded with a better purchase later. And thus began my life-long struggle with saving for the future vs. spending now and I wish I could tell you that I won that battle more than I lost.

The lesson of denying what we want now for something better in the future is the message of this morning’s Gospel. “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8.34-35) Lose my life is exactly what I thought about a savings account when I was ten. Why shouldn’t I have what I wanted right away? Why should I have to wait? I had a job and money. If I wanted to buy a toy or a candy bar, that’s what money is for. Save? HA! I could always make more in the future! I wanted it then and nothing was going to stop me….until I turned 16.

As I grew I realized that there were other things that were important in the life of any teenager: gas money or going out with friends. With only a summer job, I had to learn quickly that if I wanted spending money during the winter and spring I had to save money during the summer. And so I learned another lesson: we never know what the future holds so saving now for the future wasn’t losing my life, it was gaining it later.

Our society is obsessed with the here and now. We are obsessed with instant gratification. Immediate financing, no interest for the first 12 months, no credit needed; these are all popular phrases in today’s society and it all boils down to money and how we can get more things to fill our larger houses. And it doesn’t stop with money and owning more stuff. Our obsession with the here and now has boiled over into every part of life; the worst of which is how our society views sexuality. The need to wait for that first sexual encounter until marriage is considered not just old fashioned by many people but downright foolish. We are so worried about now, many of us don’t even have savings accounts.

So it should be no surprise that God wants us to forget about the now and worry about the future: our future with Him in His kingdom. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8.36) What good will it do to have our cars and summer houses in Greece or at the beach when we are faced with death? We all know, “We can’t take it with us.” But I’m not talking about money today, I’m talking about the priorities in life.

We could just as easily say, “What will it a profit a man if he attends every Gamecocks home game, and loses his own soul?” The Lord will not say, “Come you blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you attended a football game; I was thirsty and you went hunting; I was a stranger and you slept in after a night on the town.” (See Matthew 25.34-36) No, God will not reward us for choosing to ignore Him, His Church or His suffering people just so we could enjoy life now. He wants us to save spiritually for the future.

We don’t know exactly what the future holds, but we do know that God has promised to return sometime: we just don’t know when. When we deny what the world thinks is important and spend more time with God, just like saving money for the future, God will reward us in the next life. He said, “There are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.” (Mark 9.1) The power of God is present right here and right now! Every time we witness the Divine Liturgy, bread and wine become the real Body and Blood of God and we are blessed to be allowed to join ourselves to God. We witness the power of God every day, if we choose to acknowledge it. Who do we think brings customers into our restaurants? Do we not think that they could just as easily choose another restaurant? Why do we think we were chosen for a particular job over someone else? Who do we think ‘planted the idea’ that we were better than another candidate for the job who had the same qualifications. If we don’t think God works this way we should think again. God is always blessing us.

In our own Parish we have witnessed the power of God. Just in the past few weeks there have been savings in our emergency expenses. We fixed the water main that was leaking. Many thought it would costs several thousand dollars: it was done for less than $1000. We fixed the walk-in cooler not for the $3,000 we thought it would cost but for less than $2000 and that included fixing the air conditioning for the Community Center. And don’t forget the ‘once in a lifetime price’ for the marble that allowed us to marble not just the new Narthex but the interior aisles as well. God is working my dear brothers and sisters and His power is visible in our Community.

And God knows better than we do how hard it is to choose Him over society. He knows that we are human and that we make mistakes. I make my fair share of mistakes, that’s for sure but still God continues to bless us. Don’t you think the time has come for us to trust Him? Don’t you think the time has come to start saving for something better in the future?

Think back to when you were just a child learning how to save for the future. Think back to how hard it was to deny buying something just so you could have something better later. And now think back to the time you realized it wasn’t so bad waiting for something better. And nothing is better than spending eternity with God in Heaven. God guarantees it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

God Will Reward Us Later for Our Choices Now

When God became human, He established the Church with the help of His Apostles. From the very beginning of His earthly ministry God never forced anyone to participate in His Church. “Come and see,” (John 1.39) and “Follow Me,” (Matthew 4.19) were the words Christ used to call His first Disciples, and they volunteered to go and live with Christ during His life on Earth. Because of their willingness to follow Christ, they were blessed to witness the miracle of Christ’s Passion and became coworkers with God in establishing His Church on Earth. God honored their voluntary commitment with eternal life spent with Him in His Kingdom and He will do the same for us.

God is calling us to voluntarily follow Him and trust that He will save us from eternal torment. The Apostles followed and were rewarded crowns in Heaven but not before they suffered on Earth. The invitation by Christ to follow Him is not a guarantee that life will be easy and without struggle. On the contrary He says, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8.34-35) We will suffer simply because we choose to follow Jesus Christ because the Devil will stop at nothing to convince us to forget about God. The more we suffer for Christ’s sake the more He will bless us. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8.36)

When we choose to follow Christ we are choosing to leave behind what the world thinks is important. The world thinks wealth, sexual freedom, a good career, and moral independence are the goals of life, yet we see every day in the news how much suffering the world is enduring because although these desires have consumed our society we have failed to achieve them. In the meantime, society has neglected to follow Jesus Christ and now is faced with neither wealth nor a relationship with God.

But we can change all that right here and now! We can choose to follow Jesus Christ and “save our souls.” We can choose to desire a relationship with God rather than a life spent chasing wealth. We can choose to desire a relationship with God rather than practice a life of sexual immorality. It’s our choice; God never forces us into anything. He just promises eternal rewards later for the right choices now.

If you desire a relationship with God rather than chasing the dreams of society, start today and make a change in your life. Allow the teachings of Christ and His Church to assist you in your life decisions. Attend Bible Study, fast, attending as many Church services as you can, help the needy and poor, attend Holy Confession; these are just some of the tools the Church has to help you follow Christ. And if you need help, call your Priest and he will find time to discuss your needs and how the Church can assist you in your desire to follow Christ.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

God Never Breaks His Promise

The story goes that during a bad thunderstorm a young man cried out to the Lord, “Lord save me from this storm!” Later that same evening the storm was so bad that the river banks overflowed and his front yard started to flood. Having faith in God, he believed that God would save him so he closed the door and stood in front of his icons and prayed, “Lord save me from this storm!” As the floodwaters increased, the police knocked on his door and told him to evacuate because the neighborhood was flooding. “God will save me,” he said and he closed the door and returned to his icons to pray, “Lord save me from this storm.” As the water level rose, eventually it broke through the door and windows and began to fill his house with water. He took his icons upstairs and continued to pray, “Lord save me from this storm,” and the water continued to rise until he found himself looking out his second floor window and saw a boat float by with a rescue team. They called to him, “Get in the boat, the neighborhood is flooding!” He refused saying, “God will save me,” and he continued to pray, “Lord save me from this storm,” but the waters continued to rise. He found himself sitting on the roof with his icons when a helicopter rescue team flew overhead and called out to him to get into the basket and they would carry him to safety. “God will save me!” he insisted. Five minutes later the young man drowned to death sitting on his roof. When he saw Jesus he asked, “Why didn’t you save me?” and God said, “Save you? First I came as a police officer and you didn’t follow me; so I came in a boat and you didn’t follow me; so I finally came with my helicopter and STILL you didn’t follow me…what else did you want me to do?”

There are many times in life when we are struggling so hard we simply don’t recognize the help that God is sending our way. I don’t know if you have heard this story before, but I believe it’s a pretty clear example of our real struggle in our daily lives. The reality is that humanity is in quite a mess right now and has been for thousands of years ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God. The Good News is that God has a plan to rescue us from the floodwaters that surround us. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3.16-17) In other words, like in our little story, God plans to send us the police officer, the boat AND the helicopter and He will never stop trying to save us. He just needs us to follow Him to safety.

In the Old Testament we read a story about the Jews wandering in the wilderness giving up hope that God was going to save them. “Then they departed from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea; and they went around the land of Edom, and the people became discouraged on the way. So the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to kill us in the desert? For there is no bread nor water, and our soul is weary of this worthless bread.’ So the Lord sent venomous serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the children of Israel died. Then the people came to Moses, and were saying, ‘We sinned, for we spoke against the Lord and against you; therefore, pray to the Lord, and let Him take away the serpent from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a serpent for yourself and put it on a signal pole; and it shall be, if a serpent should bite someone, when the one who is bitten looks at it, he shall live.’ So Moses made a copper serpent and put it on a signal pole; and it happened, when a serpent bit anyone, and he looked at the copper serpent, he lived.” (Numbers 21.4-9)

With what we know about science today, and they probably did then too, there is absolutely nothing about a copper snake hanging on a pole that can heal anyone from the deadly venom of a snake. The power of the snake was God’s promise that it would save them. And God never goes back on His promise. The power of the copper snake was the belief that God would heal them. And He did just as He promised.

And He promises to take care of us too in our time of need. All we need to do is believe in Him who was hanging on a cross. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3.14-15) Have we been bitten by the serpents of life? Have we lost hope that nothing we do can fix a certain problem that has been plaguing us in our relationship with our spouse? Look. Look upon the Cross of Christ and believe that He has the power to save us. And He will.

In the Divine Liturgy we pray to God, “You brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come. For all these things we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit; for all things that we know and do not know, for blessings seen and unseen that have been bestowed upon us.”

So my dear brothers and sisters if you are struggling and the floodwaters are rising, come to Christ and His Church and pray, “Lord save me!” And when he sends help know that it is not just a coincidence that your problem was solved but that God did in fact send help. Are you struggling to pay your bills? Have faith in God that He will take care of you and when you find money is a pocket or purse or get a credit refund on your next bill, remember it’s not a coincidence it’s God.

God has come to rescue us from death and destruction. We live in a world full of struggle and sin and sometimes the floodwaters of life are crashing against our walls. Let us enter His House and pray, “Lord save us from this storm,” and He will. Let us look upon the Lord hanging upon the Cross and know that He has promised that if we believe in Him, we will live forever. And God never breaks His promise.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Is Football the Antichrist?

For centuries humanity has struggled with the idea that The Antichrist would come and lead a revolution against God. This revolution will initiate the end of the world and the return of Jesus Christ. I suspect many of you had this in mind when you read the above title. This is not the idea of antichrist that I had in mind when I chose this title. In Christianity there are two understandings of antichrist. Antichrist is anything that is either against OR instead of Christ. The Antichrist who will come and lead a revolution against God is THE Antichrist. Another antichrist is anything we place as being more important than our relationship with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and communion with Him. We are in fact following an antichrist in our lives as the Lord says, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew 10.37)

So what about football is antichrist? Anytime we place being at a football game as more important than being in Church, or support a football team financially with season tickets that cost more than we give each year to God’s Church, then football is an antichrist. There are many antichrists in our lives: fishing, hunting, football, soccer, sleep, work, working extra hours, food, sexuality… the list goes on, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3.23)

But there is good news!!!!! John 3.16 is most likely the most famous of any biblical quote and can be seen at every football game. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” The good news is that God has come to rescue us from our sinful state. We can choose God instead of work. We can choose God instead of football. We can choose Christ instead of any antichrist that looks tempting to us because the Gospel of Christ, “is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.” (Romans 1.16) and that is good news we should all be happy to hear.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Tending the Garden of Our Souls with the Tools of the Church

The Reading is from Matthew 21:33-42
The Lord said this parable, "There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterward he sent his son to them, saying 'They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.' And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons." Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: 'The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord's doing, and it was marvelous in our eyes?'"

I spent some time in the garden yesterday. I was planning on digging the whole thing up and calling it quits for the season, but when I started, I noticed new peppers were growing and the eggplant was still producing fruit. Since most of the garden was still producing fruit I decided to let it alone so I could harvest a bit more for the kitchen. Having a garden has been quite an experience this year. Not everything went like I planned. I watched the zucchini all summer. Every morning I saw flowers. I even watched bees going in and out of each flower. But the zucchini didn’t produce a single fruit so I pulled it out and threw it in the compost.

When plants don’t produce fruit in any garden they are removed to make room for other plants that are able to produce. No experienced gardener would waste good soil growing weeds! Of course each climate is different and sometimes we plant things that just won’t produce fruit. Surely we can’t blame a fig tree for not producing fruit in Colorado. But if a fig tree doesn’t produce fruit in South Carolina, something is wrong with that fig tree.

We don’t often talk about people bearing fruit. We’re not trees after all, but God uses this image today to challenge us as Christians. “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their season.” (Matthew 21.41) I don’t think God is talking about figs! So, what fruit are we supposed to produce? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5.22-23)

My dear brothers and sisters, we are called by Christ to produce these fruits “in their seasons.” That means we must use the knowledge of God and each other to understand just what type of fruit we can produce. Just like a fig tree cannot produce fruit in northern climates, we can only produce fruit when the soil of our hearts is fertile with the richness of the Holy Spirit. Each of us has been created by God with certain talents that we are called to use to glorify God.

We glorify God every time we bear fruit just like a garden that produces record crops brings honor to the gardener. We are the garden and God is our gardener. God has planted seeds in each of us and we need to grow and produce that record crop for the Glory of God. Every gardener has tools in his tool shed that he uses to till the soil, prepare the seed beds, control the weeds, fertilize the ground and eventually harvest the fruit. God also has tools is His tool shed that He uses to nurture our growth and control the weeds that distract us from growing. God’s tool shed is the Church and his tools are the Holy sacraments of the Church.

Through the sacraments of the Church, we are nurtured with the grace of God. In the Eucharist (Holy Communion) we are fed with spiritual food, without which we will certainly die. Jesus Christ says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life.” (John 6.53-54) Just as a garden cannot live without food and water, we cannot live without Holy Communion.

When a tree has a broken limb, it must be pruned and if the cut is deep enough it must sometimes be covered with special ointments to protect the tree from pests destroying its inner core. We also need to be healed and anointed with Holy Confession and Holy Unction. Through these Sacraments our sins are forgiven by God and we are blessed so the demons cannot easily get into our core and destroy the fruit of the Spirit that has been given to us.

A dedicated gardener works his land constantly pulling weeds, adding water, taking precautions to keep the bugs from eating the fruit. This is a never-ending task to keep a healthy garden. When we don’t give the garden the attention it needs, we end up with over-grown bushes in a field of weeds, and the fruit, if it does come, is small and few.

We also have to work constantly to keep our spiritual health from being overtaking by temptations and sin. The devil never stops trying to convince us to forget about God. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the tools of the Church to help keep us healthy. The Lord commands us to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5.17) Certain demons cannot be driven out “except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17.21) In the ancient Church everyone “had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people.” (Acts 2.44-47) The ancient Church knew the benefits of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Their garden was producing a lot of good fruit. “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2.47)

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5.22-23) So what are we going to do my brothers and sisters in Christ? What are we going to do to tend to our garden so we can produce this good plentiful fruit for God? If we had never planted a garden before we would probably read a book on gardening, so let’s read. Let’s make a commitment to read the Bible every day and ask the Holy Spirit “to guide us into all truth,” (John 16.13) as we read and study His Holy Word. Come to Bible Study and learn about the tools the Church has to offer in our struggle to bear fruit for the glory of God.

Once we begin our journey to heaven, just like in the garden, we simply have to keep using the tools that will help keep us healthy. We must find time to pray every day. We must fast every Wednesday and Friday. We must be charitable to others. And when we do these things, just like in the ancient Church we will produce fruit for the glory of God.

When we really want to learn about gardening we find a good gardener and spend as much time with him as possible. God is our good gardener and we should try to spend as much time with Him as possible and the best way to be with Him is when we receive Holy Communion. When we receive Holy Communion we are as close to God as we can physically be and He will inspire us to bear good fruit. And when we produce the fruits of the Spirit with God’s help we will be worthy of the glory of God.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Don't Be on the Outside Looking In

“He will lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.” (Matthew 21.41)

With the above warning Christ encourages us to be vigilant in the Faith that has been given to us by the Lord. The “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) has remained unchanged by the Church since the time of Christ. We live in a world that elevates selfishness and individualism above the Law of God which is “justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 25.23) Saint Paul urges, “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)

As Orthodox Christians it is our goal in life to live in constant communion with God. When we live in communion with God our life becomes transfigured and the world will know that we are disciples of Jesus Christ who IS God, one of the Holy Trinity. When we allow the laws of the world to dictate our actions rather than the Law of God, we betray God. Saint Paul teaches: “For if God did not spare the natural branches [Jews], He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell [Jews], severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.” (Romans 11.21-22)

The warning of Christ is clear. We must bear fruit in our Faith or God will find others “who will render to Him the fruits in their seasons,” and we will find ourselves outside the Gates of Heaven looking in.