Monday, November 30, 2009

“Behold the Lamb of God.” John 1.36

New Testament Challenge, Day 16, John 1-5

Today’s reading brings back many good, yet tedious, memories of seminary at Holy Cross. As a method of learning New Testament Greek we had to memorize the first fifteen verses of the Gospel of John. I can still stay them in my sleep...I always think of my first year at seminary when I read the first chapters of John.

It is another blessing that these passages find their way to our lips on the day we celebrate the Feast of Saint Andrew the First-called Apostle. In the Divine Liturgy this morning we read the account of the calling of the Apostles in John 1.35-51 where we see the calling of Andrew. It’s always a blessing to see a connection in scripture to our daily lives.

Since we are in the Advent Lent, I wish to focus upon the ministry of John the Baptist today which is made obvious in the reading at this morning’s Divine Liturgy. “And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.” (John 1.36-37) This, taken with “He must increase, but I must decrease,” (John 3.30) reveals to us the ministry of John the Baptist – to point others to Christ.

Andrew and Peter recognized Christ because John had prepared them to see Him. We should use John the Baptist as a role model in our lives as well. We should each “be John the Baptist” and direct people’s attention to Jesus Christ. Everything we do should be directed at revealing Jesus Christ to others. And when we received credit for a task well done, we should not accept the credit but give credit to God as John the Baptist said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” (John 3.27)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Let Go…and Follow Christ

Imagine you were inside a round room with a rope tied to a pole in the middle. The walls of the room are made of broken glass and would cut you to death if you touched them. As you walked into the room you picked up the rope and pulled it and immediately the room began to spin. As you pulled on the rope the cylinder began to spin faster and faster. Now you began to panic because it grew harder and harder to hold on to the rope and you were afraid you might fall against the broken glass. You notice a door under the pole where the rope is tied which says, “Safe Exit” so you try to pull yourself closer to the door, but the more you pull the faster you spin. The only way to safety is through that door in the middle but you begin to lose hope that you will ever be able to get there. The more you pull the faster you spin. Then the door in the middle opens and a man enters the room and calls out to you, “Let go of the rope, walk toward me, and you will live.” So you let go of the rope.

Doesn’t this sound terrifying? But how different do you think this imaginary room is from this morning’s Gospel? “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Luke 18.22) These are the words Jesus Christ speaks to a rich man who says he wants eternal life. For this rich man, his wealth was like the rope in our imaginary room. He was holding on tight but the all he could think of was the danger if he let go. What would he eat? Where would he sleep? What would he wear to keep himself warm? These are the questions I know I would ask if I was told to sell everything I had. Just like the death that loomed in our imaginary room, without his wealth the rich man was sure he would die. So, “When he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.” (Luke 18.23)

Right about now some of you are thinking, “Why is he talking about money again? Is that all he talks about? I am tired of hearing about money all the time.” I know you are thinking this because I have been told that you are thinking this. And I’m not surprised because Jesus Christ talks about money more than almost any other topic in scripture. More than 25% of his parables were about money and since I continue to preach about the Gospel that we read each Sunday, I’m bound to talk about money 25% of the time too, so don’t get discouraged, its only the Gospel.

There is one thing I have not told you about the imaginary room yet. What you can’t see is the rope is tied to a switch that controls the motor spinning the room. As long as the rope is pulled tight, the switch remains on, but once the rope is loose again, the room will stop spinning instantly and you will be able to walk easily to the center “Safe Exit” just as the man told you. Of course, it takes faith and trust in the man to let go of the rope, just like it takes faith and trust to let go of our riches and follow Christ to heaven.

Life has a lot of challenges; that’s for sure. In today’s economy, many of us wonder every day if we will have a job tomorrow or if our restaurants will stay open another month. We have mortgage payments, tuition payments, gas and electric payments, groceries, insurance; our lives seem to be surrounded by bits of broken glass like the imaginary room that threaten to cuts us to bits if we make one wrong move. God knows much more than I do how people are suffering. But He also knows how to save us.

The Gospel doesn’t say that it is impossible to get to heaven if we’re rich, just easier if we’re not. “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” (Luke 18.24-25) “Various interpretations have been suggested for the impossible image of a camel going through the eye of a needle: e.g., that the word was not camel but rope; or that the eye of the needle was a city gate through which the camel might barely squeeze it if were first unloaded of all its baggage, symbolizing wealth.” (Orthodox Study Bible notes on Matthew 19.23-26, page 1306)

The real issue for us this morning isn’t whether or not it is a sin to be rich. This morning’s Gospel doesn’t address the morality of being rich, but simply the fervor with which we hold on to our wealth rather than following Jesus Christ. Remember that the rich man approached Jesus and asked how to get to heaven. “You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and your mother.’ And he said, ‘All these things I have kept from my youth. Jesus said, ‘You still lack one thing.’” (Luke 18.19-22) Following Christ takes a serious commitment and willingness to let go of our worldly possessions and give our entire life to Him.

God knows how difficult this is, which is why selling everything wasn’t the first answer He gave but the last. When we have done everything else there is to do, THEN Jesus might ask us to sell everything and give it to the poor, and of course some people do this very thing. They are called monks and nuns, and they have sold everything to follow Jesus Christ and dedicate their entire life to God. It is a special calling to become a monk or nun, and most of us haven’t been called to that level of sacrifice.

We have been called to be willing to trust that God will take care of us. We have been called to believe that God became man so that we could become one with God. It wasn’t the wealth that condemned the rich man, but his unwillingness to go the extra mile for Christ. Remember the conversation between Jesus and the Apostle Peter? “’Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?’ He said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ … ‘Tend My sheep.’ ... ‘Feed My sheep.’” (John 21.15-19) Peter had to go the extra mile.

We just finished celebrating Thanksgiving where we ate and ate until we couldn’t eat any more and then we ate some more. Christmas is just around the corner and some of us have already been shopping. The newspapers this weekend were stuffed (so much I thought I received three papers in my box Friday morning) with thousands of coupons trying to convince us to spend spend spend until we can’t spend any more and then spend just a little bit more. We won’t be happy until our arms and our trunks and our closets are full of news toys and gadgets, or so we are told by society.
And just when our legs are aching from all the shopping and our closets are full remember the words of this morning’s Gospel: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18.24) and then…let go of the rope. It’s never too late to let go. This year, consider how you can stay focused upon Christ during Christmas.
Read the bible every day. Participate in the New Testament Challenge.

Fast and pray every day. Call your spiritual father for guidelines.

Help at least one other person every day. It doesn’t have to be major, just help.

Come to at least one extra Church service every week – besides Sunday.

If we do these few things, our room will stop spinning and we will be able to see clearly the door to heaven.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

“If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” (Luke 17.3)

New Testament Challenge, Day 14 – Luke 17-21
I’m going to get off my high-horse about the after Thanksgiving shopping, although much can be said from today’s challenge chapters. Instead, I’m going to write about forgiveness because I believe with Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas approaching, it would do us some good to do some forgiving. The passage above from Luke is quite clear that we should forgive. Christ is challenged in other places in scripture for an answer of how many times to forgive and He states, “not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18.22 – NT Challenge Day 3) Often, though, the issue of earnestness in the one seeking forgiveness is questioned especially when we have forgiven up to sixty-nine times seven and we “only” have seven times left. (A bit of humor goes a far distance when dealing with forgiveness.)

But in today’s reading we see an answer even to the issue of earnestness. “And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, “I repent,” you shall forgive him.” (Luke 17.4) The implication of this passage cannot be avoided. So long as someone asks to be forgiven we are obligated to forgive. The earnestness of the “sinner” is for God to address. Our refusal to forgive others is only a self-condemnation as we recite the Lord’s Prayer… “and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We can only be forgiven if we forgive and I’m not about to take the chance that my sins will not be forgiven when I am faced with an account of my life in front of the Judgment Seat of Christ.

If reading this blog has become a regular part of your day or if this is the first time here, I welcome you. You will see very quickly that I believe we each have a responsibility to put our faith into action and live as if we truly love the Lord. Forgiveness is but a part of this reality.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday...

New Testament Challenge, Day 13 – Luke 12-16

“Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luke 12.15)

I can think of few other passages than this to describe the danger of today’s battle over American consumerism. Today is called “Black Friday” because for many years it was the day many stores’ sales guaranteed the year to be “in the black”. We all know the frenzy each year as shoppers wake up at 3:00am to be first in line to buy the “much needed” new Wii game. Today is bound to be characterized by mobs and stampedes as parents take advantage of “today only” sales meant to drum up business.

But is this really the reason we should call today Black Friday? Our society has turned a day of thanks to God into a weekend of shopping to save the economy and to get the best deal on a toy that is over-priced and under-needed. It is a day we focus upon getting more stuff rather than realizing our needs. Maybe Black Friday describes the darkness of the devil’s control over our lives.

Do not forget the words of Christ, “Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds?” (Luke 12.24) Let’s not forget that we spent yesterday giving thanks to God for the blessings He has given us.

Let’s not forget, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12.34) If you don’t want your heart focused upon the things of this world, don’t put your treasure with the things of this world.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Don’t Just Thank God...Show Him Your Thanks

New Testament Challenge, Day 12 – Luke 8-11

Happy Thanksgiving. Since today is a day, the only official day in America set aside for thanking God, I am sharing some thoughts on giving thanks that are inspired by today’s reading.

“Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” (Luke 9.33) One way we show God we are thankful for the blessings He has given us is to build churches. This practice seems to have fallen away in our contemporary American setting. But consider other “Orthodox” countries where there are millions of Orthodox Christians and you will witness the very tradition. Every street corner, practically speaking, has a church or a chapel in honor of a saint. Many of these have been built in honor and thanks for blessings received. In our contemporary American experience, this could take the form of donations to our local Church of Holy Icons or other items used in the worship of God. Many priests, at least I know I do, have a list of things needed for the Altar or Church. At bare minimum we should make a contribution to the building fund or ministries funds of our local church. This practice is Holy and should be reinvigorated in our American Church.

“He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters.” (Luke 11.23) It is not enough to mind our own business when it comes to having faith. Just because we are not working against Christ doesn’t mean we are working for Him. This passage in Luke suggests that we must be actively working to further the Gospel of Christ to show Him that we are on His side.
“No one, when he has lit a lamp, covers it with a vessel or puts it under a bed, but sets it on a lampstand, that those who enter may see the light. Therefore take heed how you hear. For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken away from him.” (Luke 8.16,18) Here we see our duty to take the light of Christ that we received at our Baptism and not just let it shine for others, but actively make it visible for others to receive the Light. In other words, we sin when we keep our blessings a secret not so that we can be praised but so that people can glorify God.

Here are three examples in today’s readings that inspired me today to commit to an active expression of thanks to God and not simply saying thank you. Praise God for all things.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

“Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6.37)

New Testament Challenge, Day 11 – Luke 4-7

Nothing speaks as clearly as Christ’s warning about how we are to treat others. In Saint Luke’s rendition of the Beatitudes, we are told to love our enemies and be merciful. If we use the logic of Luke 6.37 we can see that Christ is telling us if we love we will be loved and we will have no enemies. In other words, “Love not, and you shall not be loved. Forgive not, and you will not be forgiven.”

In our current political atmosphere of “Party Politics” we are bombarded day after day with hatred for other’s views and opinions. Naturally, this is the nature of politics. We began today’s reading (Luke 4) with Christ being tempted by the devil; “Then the devil, taking Him up on a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, ‘All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.’” (Luke 4.5-6) The Holy Scriptures are clear in their understanding; the devil has control over the powers of the Earth. But we have been called to a different life.

Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Luke 5.32) The world, being controlled by the devil is administered by sinners, with whom we each share the burden of culpability. In Christ, though, we are challenged to move beyond our fallen world. It is no longer good enough to love those who love us, “for even sinners do the same.” (Luke 6.33) We must love all people.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

“Behold the servant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to you word.” (Luke 1.38)

New Testament Challenge, Day 10 – Luke 1-3

With these words the Mother of God (Theotokos) and ever-virgin Mary declared her obedience to God’s will. As a little girl she risked being called an adulteress and constant ridicule from society in her willingness to obey God. She is a model of courage for us in today’s fallen world. It would have been much easier, speaking from a human perspective, to ignore God’s will for her. God doesn’t force anyone to do anything against their will, so we can rest comfortably knowing that the ever-virgin Mary willingly gave up her possibility for the easy life and chose to accept God into her life. She must have known that this would be a challenge for her, as I’m sure we know it will be a challenge for us to obey God’s will for us in our daily lives.

We live in a society built upon freedom, but that freedom is more often than not used for choosing actions that are against the will of God. We have the freedom of will, and in the United States the legal freedom, to pursue wealth until we have more money than we could possibly ever need while ignoring the needs of others around us. But this is not the will of God. “Well done good servant. You have been faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities.” (Luke 19.17) God blesses us when we use our freedom to choose His will to “do good” to others.

In our preparations for Christmas, and while we are about the celebrate the great feast, albeit not on the Church calendar, of Thanksgiving, take a moment and reflect upon God’s will for you in this life. Then meet with your spiritual Father, or find one if you don’t already have one, and discuss God’s calling for you in life. Then take courage! Allow the courage of the ever-virgin Mary and Mother of God to be an inspiration to you to act upon that calling. Then pray that it will be said of you, like it was said of Zacharias and Elizabeth, “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” (Luke 1.6)

Monday, November 23, 2009

“So Pilate, wanting to gratify the crowd, released Barabbas to them.” (Mark 15.15)

New Testament Challenge, Day 9 – Mark 13-16

I have found this mentality to be very prevalent in today’s society, not just in the Church but in all society circles. We are much more concerned with being liked by the crowd of what in many cases is made up of complete strangers than we are in the truth. This is often the case with politics and religion. This may be why our society has a “friendly agreement” to not discuss religion or politics with people at work. It is easier to avoid the conflict and maintain the façade of being liked than to risk loosing good business deals. Our politicians are more likely to answer our questions with statements the think we want to hear than what they actually believe or plan to do in office. Then when someone in society does “stick to his guns” and stand firm in his beliefs he is denounced as being stubborn and unenlightened and unwilling to compromise.

We can no longer compromise on the truth – God became man to unite humanity to divinity – and we must being to proclaim it from the mountain tops. Sometimes that might mean not being liked. Sometimes it might mean, especially for those of us who are clergy or members of parish councils, the people might leave the Church because they don’t want to live according to the teachings of Christ and His Church. Maybe the time has come to revisit some of the Holy Canons that assisted the Church in helping people realize the gravity of their life decisions.

Consider the recent public dispute between Rhode Island Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin and Rep. Patrick Kennedy over the question of abortion “rights” and whether Kennedy has the “right” to receive Holy Communion in the Roman Catholic Church. One citizen actually said, "If they believe they're a true Catholic, who's to say that they're not?" (See Associated Press Story, “Kennedy Dispute Reveals Conflict Among Catholics") Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said it best, “"If you're required (by the church) to make everybody follow your Catholic role, then nobody would vote for Catholics because it's clear that when you get the authority, you're going to be guided by your faith."

But isn’t that the point? Aren’t we called by the Lord to live our faith? “Faith with out works is dead.” (James 2.20) The time has come for us to live our faith and worry less about being liked by the crowd. Our salvation depends upon it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Welcome Home, There are no Strangers Here but the Devil

I remember one time, a few years ago when we were living in Boston, we took a day trip to a zoo in Providence, Rhode Island. After a really enjoyable time at the zoo we were preparing for the long drive back to Boston, about two hours. We were in the parking lot waiting for a family to cross in front of us when the mother stopped and stared at our car. “Who is this complete stranger staring at us?” I asked Presbytera. I’m not shy by nature so I rolled down my window and said hello. “Are you from Colorado?” they asked? (At the time we still had Colorado license plates on the car) After a short conversation we both realized our “old” homes were just a few blocks away from each other. We had practically been neighbors in Colorado, but now both of us were living on the East Coast as strangers to each other until that moment. We exchanged a few niceties about what we thought of our new home and went our separate ways, no longer strangers. It always feels good to connect with someone from home especially when we are traveling or living in a strange place.

This morning we welcome members of our family whom we haven’t seen in a while back home and we welcome some new faces of friends whom we look forward to meeting and building relationships with. In a society that is constantly on the go we find ourselves always in motion from one appointment to another, from one job to another, from one client to another; we never take the time to sit back and look at each other for who we are. If that family hadn’t been crossing the street in Rhode Island, and if I hadn’t been driving at that moment, neither of us would have realized that we had neighbors so close. We may have just continued to travel as strangers to each other.

But Saint Paul writes, “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2.19) Jesus Christ says, “But I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (John 15.15) By this we can be assured that in this Church there are no strangers nor foreigners, but friends and family.

We may not be strangers, but there is something strange about us, not within us or between us, but between us the world around us. We know that Strangers are often hated and suffer in foreign lands, but sometimes we do not understand where our foreign land is. The world itself is our foreign land. Christ said, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15.19) This can be the only explanation why this life is full of suffering.

Saint John Chrysostom said, “For foreigners, whatever they suffer, endure it, as not being in their own country.” (Homily XXIV on Hebrews XI, Chapters 1,4) This suggests that where we suffer is a strange place but our home is a place of peace. Saint Paul reminds us of this when he says we are “called to be saints” (Romans 1.7). We cannot forget the word “saint” (άγιος) means “not of the world” and that Jesus Christ chose us out of the world so this Church is different than the rest of the world.

This Church has been consecrated to God and belongs to God. This is God’s house, not just a place where we come to exchange baklava recipes, but a place where gather as the “household of God” to worship Him and give thanks to Him for saving us. It is a place, the place, where we come to be joined to Christ in Holy Communion and be made holy by His grace. Just as we enter our own houses for comfort and peace, this Church stands as a place of peace and comfort. As we heard in this morning’s Epistle reading, “For now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace.” (Ephesians 2.13-14)

I began with the story about our trip to the zoo because I feel it describes our Church today. Many of us come each Sunday and sit for a little more than an hour not even realizing that the other people sitting next to us are not strangers but members of our own family. As Saint Paul said, “we are fellow citizens of the household of God.” Would any of us if we were traveling to another state or country ignore a Florentine sitting right next to us? I’m sure the answer is no because we would find comfort speaking with someone from home, just like I did at the zoo, knowing someone from home was so close.

Well, we are in a foreign country and I’m not talking about being Greek. I’m talking about being Christian in a world that does not have God as its father. To the elite of society Jesus said, “You are of your father, the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do.” (John 8.44) What else could explain a society (and I’m speaking not of just the United States, but of humanity in general) that takes pleasure in the suffering of others or at the very least demands the right to kill innocent children. For over thirty years our government has been promoting the right to kill innocent children and soon senior citizens in Florida may be at risk of being removed from life support to make room for flu patients. But we are called to be different.

We have been made citizens of the household of God which has “been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” (Ephesians 2.20) Our peace is in Christ, “who has made both one, and has broken down the wall of separation.” (Ephesians 2.14) We no longer have to worry about being Greek or Russian or Indian or American. We are all fellow citizens in the household of God. We have been given the peace of God to worship according to the tradition of the Apostles.

Today we opened our doors and invited our friends to return home. This Church is for everyone and I am thankful to God that you have chosen to be with us this morning. Whether you are returning this morning after being away for a long time or if you are here this morning looking for a place to worship God; welcome home.

Take a moment and look around. Stare at each other if you have to like the woman in the parking lot stared at me. Stare at each other until you realize, “Hey, don’t I know you? Aren’t we both children of God? Don’t we both have something in common?” We do have something in common; Jesus Christ became a man for both of us, so both of us could worship Him in this Church. It’s good to be home isn’t it?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Only God can change hearts

“For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened.” (Mark 6.52)

New Testament Challenge, Day 7 – Mark 5-8

In today’s reading Saint Mark continues to reveal the power of God present in many healing and miracles like the feeding of the five thousand (not including women and children making actual number more like fifteen thousand most likely). Over and over again the people were confused and did not fully understand who Jesus Christ was even though they should have known because the miracles He performed were themselves fulfillment of prophecy. This is most obvious to me when Saint Mark writes, “And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’” (Mark 7.37)

I am always amazed at how people can see the work of God and still be in doubt that God has accomplished something especially when natural logic cannot possibly explain what took place. What else can explain tumors disappearing from an MRI with no treatments or drug therapy? I have personally witnessed, on more than one occasion, the hand of God working for good.

Even the Apostles were slow to fully understand even after Christ had performed so many miracles and sent them out two by two, “and gave them power over unclean spirits.” (Mark 6.7) Christ said, “How is it you do not understand?” (Mark 8.21) But there is always hope...

Finally the Apostles understood when confronted by Christ. “But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered and said to Him, ‘You are the Christ.’” (Mark 8.29) Here Saint Mark ends today’s readings with the Apostles finally understanding who Christ is and Christ guiding them to the next level in understanding His true save humanity.

Christ comes to us first in our physical needs and our limited understanding. He never forces us to accept Him, but when we do He invites us into a deeper understanding of who He is. Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God. He took on flesh so that we, being human, could be united to Him as God. The key to understanding God is to open our hearts to Him and invite Him into our lives.

If only we could be more like Christ in our actions with others. In general we try to force others to agree with us. When are we going to learn? .....Only God can change hearts.

Friday, November 20, 2009

“Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (Mark 4.41)

New Testament Challenge, Day 6 – Mark 1-4

Once Mark has introduced Jesus Christ, immediately we begin to hear of the many healing miracles and exorcisms He performed while on Earth. Even His disciples were amazed at what they were witnessing every day. Saint Mark’s emphasis on these events is no accident, we can be sure of that. He wishes to reveal to us that God’s power is present in Christ and that He has the power to save us from whatever ails us…even death.

We are living in times of great turmoil for many people. With our economy continuing to struggle out of recession many of our brothers and sisters are without food, clothing, shelter, health care, or hope. The United States Government continues to present itself as the hope of the people: health care reform; mortgage relief; stricter guidelines on corporate executives who have taken advantage of our weakness. Both political parties are obsessed with either gaining or maintaining power and daily offer “hope to America” that their particular agenda will save us from whatever ails us…but we know better.

The Jewish leaders were just as power hungry as today’s politicians. Saint Mark tells us of their reaction to the hope that was given by Jesus Christ to the people to ease their suffering: “Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him” (Mark 3.6) They could not rest having the people hope in someone other than the “establishment” personified in the Pharisees and the Scribes.

Only God has the power to save us. Our hope can only rest upon the Triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - to rescue us from death and corruption. During this time of Advent, we should be focusing more attention on receiving the Creator of the Universe at Christmas and less on whether our stock portfolios are stronger than last year or whether government can provide better health care than the private sector. After all, God came as a human being not an agency, and it is only as human beings that we can help each other ease our suffering.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

“And Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28.20)

With these words we finished the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. We are now on day 5 of our 40 Day New Testament Challenge and the reading is becoming harder to fit in. For instance, all this week I was able to read first thing in the morning and then offer a few humble words to this blog. Today, however, the clock found a way to escape me earlier and I was just now (3:00pm) getting a chance to read for the day. It wasn’t that the reading itself was hard, but today I encountered other obstacles that tempted me to put the reading aside for later reading, but I know I will not be awake enough to read the final chapters of the Gospel when I finally get home after two meeting tonight. So I placed my work aside for the moment and got reading….and I’m glad I did.

These comforting words by Christ (quoted in the title of today's blog) were given as He spoke to His disciples after the Resurrection to remind them that He would never abandon His Church. The Apostles believed this deeply that Christ and the Holy Spirit were directly connected to the experience of the Church and they believed fervently that Christ was going to return to claim His bride, the Church, for all eternity within their lifetime. Therefore the Church began a vigil waiting for Christ to return but as time passed it seemed like the bridegroom had been delayed.

We began today’s reading with the story of the “ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.” (Matthew 25.1-5) But when the bridegroom finally did come only the wise were prepared to greet Him since the others had to go and purchase more oil. Christ says, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” (Matthew 5.13)

We should use this Advent period much like a corporation uses a working lunch. While we are waiting for Christ to return, let’s prepare ourselves to go out and meet Him. It may be tonight, and we should want to be ready for Him. If only the five foolish virgins realized they needed more oil and went out right away and bought some more oil…..they could have been back in time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” (Matthew 24.36)

Since I went to see 2012 yesterday, I figured this was a good quote to begin the day. It also happens to be included in today’s reading for the New Testament Challenge from the Preacher’s Institute. I have been approached by young and old alike in regard to the so-called 2012 Mayan “prophesy”. I say so-called simply because in light of Matthew 24.36 we cannot possibly know when the end of the world will take place….but just that it will.

Our task as Christians in the 21st Century is to live like the end can be today. I firmly believe the ancient Christians were “more fervent” than we are today because they truly believed Christ would return in their lifetime. “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” (Matthew 24.34) I also firmly believe most Christians have either lost hope in the return of Christ or at least have settled within themselves that Christ isn’t going to return in our lifetime. Whether He will or not is beyond my scope. I’m not the Father.

“Behold the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night. And blessed is he whom He finds watching” (from the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week – taken from Matthew 24.46). The time has come for us to regain our fervor for Christ and live each moment as if He will return the next.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

“Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” (Matthew 15.11)

The passage is often quoted in discussion regarding fasting, normally by those who wish to not fast. This passage though is not about fasting; it is about ritual washing of hands. If we read the passage in context we understood the Jews believed that eating food with unclean hands would cause the entire person to be made unclean. This is also a common misunderstanding in regard to fasting as many believe the Church teaches us to fast because food is somehow bad and unclean. While this may have been the Jewish understanding, it is not the teaching of the Church. We fast simply as a spiritual discipline to show our commitment to God that our spiritual life is more important than our physical life. In a manner of speaking, in our fasting, we die so that we may live. (see Matthew 16.24-26)

Take the opportunity to prepare for the Christmas Feast during the holy season of fasting. It is not only a discipline, it is also the Holy Tradition of the Church.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Life Has Roots

As part of my Advent discipline this year I have accepted to participate in a New Testmanet Challenge. By Christmas we will all read the entire New Testament. Yesterday's reading was Matthew Chapters 1-7. Knowing that have also committed to blog every day during Advent as part of the 40 Days of Blogging, I was immediately drawn to the opening Chapter of Matthew in which we read the geneology of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ had a history of generations and generations of holy and dedicate God-fearing people and so do we...the Church.

The Orthodox Christian Church is not simply the oldest Christian Church in the world from an academic point of view. To view her as only historically old would negate the reality of her holiness. There are plenty of other ancient faiths that continue to exist in the world, some of which may even have broken away from Christianity, that do not share a history of holiness and dedication to God. What makes the Orthodox Church the True Church of Christ is her committment to the teachings and traditions of Christ and His Saints.

The Saints are examples of faithful Orthodox Christians who refused to alter their Christian lifestyle simply because society declared Christianity illegal. They refused to halt their worship of God simply because others insisted they worship other "lesser gods". Sometimes they even gave their life for Jesus Christ. These holy men and women we call Saints were committed to maintaining the Holy Traditions of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Jesus Christ and His Apostles over 2000 years ago.

So just as the Gospel of Matthew lists the geneologies of the holy ancestors of Jesus Christ, our Orthodox Church history lists the geneologies of our holy ancstors - the Saints - in the daily Synaxarion (lists of saints) read each day in the Matins of the Church. For the Jews the geneology of Christ was accepted as evidence of His being the Messiah. For us the genology of the Saints should be used as evidence that the Orthodox Church of today is the same continuous Church of Christ established over 2000 years ago.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Who is Our Good Samaritan?

I was out shopping the other day and realized that the Christmas shopping season is upon us. In fact some stores had Christmas displays next to Halloween displays. Gone are the days when the day after Thanksgiving had the distinct honor of officially opening the Christmas shopping season. So there I was in a store, I don’t really remember what I was looking for…I don’t shop much…but I remember not being able to find what I needed. I walked around the store for ten minutes; I’m sure looking totally lost. Actually, I was trying to look lost. Being a man I don’t normally ask for help so if I look lost enough eventually a sales clerk will, I hope, ask me if I need any help. But no help came. I could see sales clerks walking around and some even looked in my direction but not a single clerk came to my aid. Maybe next time I’ll just lie down in the aisle to get some attention. Maybe if I look hurt and about to die a clerk might come and ask if I need help.

Actually that sounds a little like our Gospel lesson this morning. “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10.30) Well I wouldn’t go that far just to get the attention of a sales clerk but you can imagine that this man, we don’t even know his name, just then was hoping that lying half dead would get some attention and that maybe someone would help him.

This parable is told by Christ in response to a question from a lawyer who wanted to know how to inherit eternal life. He says, “’Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?’ So he answered and said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ And He said to him, ‘You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.’” (Luke 10.25-28)

Today we are going to imagine that we are both the lawyer and the man left half dead. In reality both the lawyer and the man left half dead could just as easily have been the same person. Both were wanting to be saved. Both were hoping to get attention and both were ignored by their friends. Listen again to what happens to the man left half dead. “Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side.” (Luke 10.31-32) The lawyer was depending upon his friend, his knowledge of the law, to save him but just like the man left half dead, the lawyer was left alone. The law was not enough to save him because he didn’t understand it. Saint Luke writes, “But he, [the lawyer] wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10.29) And the answer for the lawyer and the man left half dead is the same.

Maybe there have been times when we placed our hope in someone or something that let us down? Sometimes it seems that everything lets us down: our car, our bank, a friend, even our government has let us down before and chances are all these things will let us down again, maybe even our family. Sometimes we feel like the man left half dead, just lying there waiting for help; our friends and family just ignoring us when we need them most. Sometimes we are even ignored by our own Church. Don’t forget that even the priest in this morning’s Gospel saw the man and walked away.

But there is hope! “But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion.” (Luke 10.33)The Samaritan was despised by the Jews and, yet, he still saved the man left half dead. Sometimes we get help from the person we least expect. The only question is: “Who is our Good Samaritan?” Who will come save us?

Christ asked the Lawyer, “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?’ And he said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” (Luke 10.36-37)

When Christ speaks in parables many times He speaks about Himself. If we consider the story from this point of view, then we see Christ is the Good Samaritan. When every other person (family, friend, coworker, church member) walks away, Christ is the one that comes and saves us. Christ is our Good Samaritan because it is Christ who shows mercy to us.

Saint Ambrose said, “When he sees half dead whom none could cure before, he became a neighbor by acceptance of our common feeling and kin by the gift of mercy.” (Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 7.74) In other words, when we feel the most vulnerable, when we feel like there is no other place to go for help, He is there for us. I continue to see lives changed when people place their hope in Christ’s mercy. It is not a coincidence that we say “Lord have mercy” thirty-six times in the Divine Liturgy. There is no doubt that we need mercy and that God has it…and plenty of it…and He is willing to give to anyone who needs it.

The Samaritan was hated by the Jews but he still helped the man left half dead. Of course, we may not hate God. We did come to Church this morning after all but do we show Him that we love Him? We are asked to love God with all our heart, our mind, our soul and our strength AND our neighbor as ourselves. This was the essence of what Christ was teaching the lawyer and what He is teaching us this morning. If we love Him then we will love our neighbors and have mercy on them even if they hate us, even if they don’t look like us, even if they are lazy and don’t work as hard as we do.

Thanksgiving is just around the corner and there are thousands of people who are struggling. Are we going to be like the clergy and the Levite and ignore them? We cannot. We must not. If we want to have eternal life we must have mercy on them and help them. We have to be willing to roll up our sleeves, get a little dirty, and help when we see a need.

We don’t have to just imagine ourselves as the lawyer and the man because in fact we are both. The Lord has asked to us to show mercy to others in need if we love Him, and He promises to come help us if we need Him. “Then Jesus said to him, [and He is saying to us] ‘Go and do likewise.’”

So this week when we leave this Church let’s keep our eyes open. When we see someone – it could be a person in a wheelchair crossing the street; it could be someone needing food or a job; it could be anyone we meet – let’s stop and help. But If you are struggling with a problem that seems to never end; if you feel everyone else has ignored you…don’t give up…Christ has come for you too! He is right here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

How Should I Fast?

We begin the Advent Fast tomorrow, I offer the following suggestions. As always we should consult our Spiritual Father for personal guidance when it come to fasting and other spiritual disciplines. Since many Orthodox Christians and other non-Orthodox Christians do not fast, I have found the general guidelines below very beneficial in establishing a fasting discipline.

The following are some suggested guidelines for Advent Lent this year.
 If you currently do not fast regularly or at all… abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays
 If you currently fast from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays… abstain from meat every day during Advent until Christmas
 If you currently fast… increase your fasting one “level” this year following the example above beginning with Wednesdays and Fridays.

Suggested Fasting Levels in the Orthodox Christian Tradition
1. Abstain from meat
2. Abstain from meat and dairy products
3. Abstain from fish
4. Abstain from wine and oil
5. Abstain from cooked foods

It has always been the understanding of the Church that fasting is forbidden for those who have a medical condition requiring food for medications or other requirements such as pregnant mothers. We must remember that fasting is a spiritual discipline and not meant to cause physical harm.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

We are all Worthy of His Love

I don’t think I will ever forget one Saturday morning about eight years ago in Denver, Colorado. The Ladies Philoptochos Society had made arrangements for us to assist in the distributing Thanksgiving Dinner supplies in a low-income neighborhood of the city. The reason I will never forget that morning is not because of the poverty I witnessed as lines of people waiting patiently for food but because of one person I met that morning. We were all working different stations where families would walk up and receive a different part of their Thanksgiving meal: frozen turkey at one table, stuffing mix at another, etc. I was assigned to the bread station and we had tons of bread, more than we were going to need for the line of people that gathered that morning in the parking lot. I had decided to distribute extra bread since there was so much but one woman, with a young child with her said, “No thank you. I only need one. Let someone else have more if they need.” No keep in mind this woman was in line for a free Thanksgiving dinner because she couldn’t afford to buy it for herself. I was very humbled that morning as I stood at my station, with my warm coat and warm home to return to, and I was looking at a woman who by all estimates was much poorer than I was, and yet she gave me a blessing that morning. I think about that morning often.

This is very similar to the scene in this morning’s Gospel. “So it was, when Jesus returned, that the multitude welcomed Him, for they were all waiting for Him.” (Luke 8.40) In fact, that Saturday morning there were already families gathered in the parking lot waiting for us to get set up. It was well known that Jesus would be coming near and surely news had traveled around about the healing of the man with legion demons and the pigs diving off the steep cliff. I’m sure many people wanted to know what this Jesus was really all about so a large crowd gathered. St Luke tells us that the crowd was so large that people were pressing up against Jesus: “Peter and those with him said, ‘Master, the multitudes throng and press You.’” (Luke 8.45)

Despite the crowd we hear of two people coming to Christ and wanting to be blessed: Jairus a ruler of the Jews and another poor nameless woman who had been sick for more than twelve years. Jairus had no shame of needing Christ and no fear of approaching Him. “And he fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged Him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter about twelve years of age, and she was dying.” (Luke 8.41) And Christ agreed to help and was on His way to Jairus’ home.

“But as He went, a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any, came from behind and touched the border of His garment.” Unlike Jairus, this poor woman was ashamed of approaching Christ because of her illness. She was afraid to make herself known to Jesus and the crowd. Perhaps she felt she was not worthy of Christ’s attention. After all, He was on His way to the home of a ruler of the synagogue. But Christ knew she was there.

“Jesus said, ‘Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me.” (Luke 8.46) Even though He was on His way to Jairus’ home, even though He was surrounded by a large crowd, Christ still had time to stop and heal the woman. St Luke tells us, “And immediately her flow of blood stopped.” (Luke 8.44) Jesus had time for her and He has time for us.

My brothers and sisters, maybe you are like this woman. Maybe you are suffering with something that you are ashamed of. Maybe you think Christ doesn’t have time for you. Maybe you think there are other people who are more important than you. God had time for her and He has time for you too. All you need to do is approached Him and ask. There is no need to be ashamed. God loves you no matter what you are suffering with and He wants you to be healed. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5.31) Is there anyone among us not suffering? We are all in need of some healing in our lives and God has come to help us.

Maybe you are like Jairus. Maybe you have come to the Church and asked God for help and you are patiently waiting for a miracle. Maybe you’re up against the wall and need His help right now! Christ said, “Do not be afraid; only believe.” (Luke 8.50) Jesus knows better than we do what we need and He knows when we need it. All He asks us to do is believe, without doubt, that He has the power to help us and we will be saved!

For sure we are all like the crowd. We have gathered in this Church this morning to witness Christ and His love and grace. There are some among us who have asked for God’s help and we are praying for them today and we should pray with them every day. This is why we include a prayer list in every Sunday bulletin and every monthly newsletter; so we can pray for our brothers and sisters who are in need of God’s love and mercy and grace.

My brothers and sisters, each one of us this morning has a choice to make. If we are like the woman quietly coming in to the Church and hoping that God will hear our prayers or if we are like Jairus boldly coming forward and asking God for help or if we are witnesses to those who need God’s help; we all must make a choice to approach God. And He will listen. We have no reason to be ashamed, God will help us. We have no reason to panic, God knows how and when to help us too.

But we have no reason to just sit and watch. There are people we know, people we see every day, that need God’s help. Our job, at the very least, is to go out and let everyone know that Jesus Christ has come to Florence, South Carolina and is waiting for anyone who has need. He is the physician of our souls and bodies. Let’s go out and share the Good News with others.

God has come to help! It doesn’t matter who we are: men, women, rich, poor, Greek, non-Greek, black or white, corporate executives or janitors, Christ has time for each one of us. He is waiting for us and He knows exactly what we need.

Eight years ago I was blessed in a parking lot by a woman I didn’t know; a woman who didn’t think she was worthy of getting a second loaf of bread. She believed there were more important people who had a greater need. She gave me more than she will ever know that morning. I owe it to her, and to God, to let everyone know: when it comes to God’s love, it doesn’t matter who we are, we are worthy of His love and He always has time for us.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

While Supplies Last…

This well known expression completes most every advertisement for products and services today. In marketing there is always a catch. Airlines sell tickets starting from $109 but there may be no seats available at that price unless you are the first to call for a reservation. We can even buy food “buy one and get three free….while supplies last.” It seems there is never enough of a “good thing” for everyone. Only a few are fortunate enough to get their “good thing” before the shelf is empty and most of us it seems are never the fortunate ones.

But in Christ supplies always last and there is always enough for everyone, the first and the last. In the Gospel of Luke we read of Jairus, a ruler of the Jews, who had approached Christ because his daughter was very ill and near death. While Christ was on His way to Jairus’ home, “Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years came from behind and touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped.” (Luke 8.43-44) Even through the poor sick woman had not gotten to Christ first, she still received the gift of His healing power. In fact it seems she arrived at the end of a large crowd and Christ didn’t even know she was near.

In the meantime Jairus’ daughter died but Christ said, “Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well.” (Luke 8.50) It didn’t matter that Jesus had healed the woman because His grace is sufficient and does not expire like some commercial offer. What mattered was the Jairus had faith in Christ and he believed that Christ would heal his daughter.

Our challenge is live life in faith believing that God will make good on His promise. God has come to save us from death and sin. It doesn’t matter if we are first, last, rich, or poor, there is enough of God’s love and grace to go around. Supplies always last!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Lift Up Your Eyes and See Clearly the Needs of Others

Living in the swamps of South Carolina I have come to accept my morning drive to school in the fog. Sometimes the morning fog is so thick I can barely see one block in front of the car especially in the low areas where the road crosses the swamp. The fog just billows across the windshield. It is all I can do to keep the car from going off the road. When I look straight down everything seems perfectly clear. I can see my own feet and my own shoes and my own clothes. Of course I can’t drive the car that way…I have to lift up my eyes and look ahead before I realize that what I thought was clear was actually dense fog.

This morning St. Luke tells us about two people living in the dense fog of life. A rich man who had everything he ever wanted and a poor beggar named Lazarus. “So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torment in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.” (Luke 16.22-23)

While he was alive the rich man spent his days looking down and focusing his attention only on himself and his own needs. The Gospel tells us the rich man “was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day.” (Luke 16.19) He was the picture of wealth. He had fine clothes and good food but we can be sure that he spent his days in a fog because he was staring down only at himself so he never noticed the danger ahead. All he saw was his warm clean expensive clothes, his clean warm slippers, and plenty of delicious food on his table. In the meantime he could not see the needs of Lazarus lying across his door. He was headed for a life a torment in hell not because he was rich but because he didn’t look up to see the fog and the dangerous road ahead.

When he finally did look up it was too late. He was dead. If he had looked up earlier he would have seen Lazarus lying there and been able to help him. After all he couldn’t miss Lazarus because he was lying across the door. The rich man could not enter or exit his dining room without stepping over Lazarus but all he could see was his own flowing robes and not the suffering human being under his feet. When he finally gazed up he saw, in reality, his own judgment in Lazarus. Christ says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.” (Matthew 25.41-43) Lazarus was all these things and the rich man, looking out only for himself, ignored him.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, do we know anyone named Lazarus? Florence County has more than 1,500 homeless people named Lazarus. You won’t see them in the phone book but they are there. They each have their own names but Lazarus seems to be appropriate because how we treat them will be our judgment just as it was the rich man’s judgment. They will continue to suffer if we cannot take the time to take our eyes off ourselves and lift up our eyes and see their needs.

Looking up is the only way we can truly be human and be saved. The very word for human being, ἀνθρωπος in Greek, means “one who looks up.” If we go through life staring down at the ground it is impossible to focus our attention on life around us. In the Divine Liturgy we say, “Let us lift up our hearts. We lift them up to the Lord.” If lifting our eyes up is gazing upon God as we heard in the Gospel: “He lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham,” (Luke 16.23) then we have to presume that looking down is staring into hell. As long as the rich man was staring down at his own wealth he was staring into hell. The only way we can gaze up into heaven is to lift up our eyes and see the needs of people around us.

1,500 homeless people in Florence County are a lot of people with a lot of needs, but we can’t be discouraged and think we aren’t able to help them or that their needs are too great. We must begin somewhere, so let’s begin with learning an example from the rich man in this morning’s Gospel. We are blessed today to hear, directly from God, what hell will be like. The rich man was in hell with no hope of comfort because, even though he was suffering the torture of hell, he couldn’t stop thinking about himself. So we must lift up our eyes and not only see the needs of others but do something about it.

Thanksgiving is in a few weeks and most of us will be enjoying a big full feast with our families while 1,500 of our brothers and sisters don’t even have a home to gather in to give thanks. Let’s make a commitment this year to ease the suffering of some of our brothers and sisters. The Harvest Hope Food Bank distributes 100 pounds of food per person each year although the need is much greater.

I know some of us here today have experienced the pain of being hungry. I have heard many stories about war-time and post-war poverty in Greece, so today I am inviting you to recall that pain and lift up your eyes to our brothers and sisters in Florence. By each of us bringing two pounds of food for the Food Basket in the Narthex each week we can supply Harvest Hope with enough food to feed our whole Church for the year. Then we will be able to say we have lifted our eyes and seen that the Lord was hungry and fed Him.

Going through life looking down doesn’t always give us a clear picture. It doesn’t do me any good driving in the morning fog and it doesn’t do us any good trying to get to Heaven. Sometimes we just have to look up and see the struggles of those around us. We have to lift up our eyes and set our eyes upon God and help those around us. Eventually the fog clears in the morning Sun and we see clearly and we will see clearly when we lift up our eyes and see the Son of God. And then He will say to us, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me food.” (Matthew 25.34-35)