Sunday, August 29, 2010

Beware the Price of Pride

Today we are honoring the gruesome martyrdom of “the greatest man ever born of a woman,” (Matthew 11.11) as a warning against pride and greed. John the Baptist stood as a bold and public defender of truth and morality when he reminded Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." (Mark 6.18) Later as Herodias’ daughter danced for Herod, he was so taken by her beauty that he swore to give her anything she wanted. Since it was Herodias that Herod desired, and whom John the Baptist reminded that he could not have, Herodias convinced her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. As if this was not enough, scripture says, “And the king was exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her.” (Mark 6.26) Herod allowed his lust, pride, and ego to dictate his actions. According to the Scriptures Herod did not want to kill John the Baptist, “knowing that he was a just and holy man.” (Mark 6.20)

How many times do we allow our pride and ego to dictate our actions? Too many times! What is the worst thing that would have happened if Herod had refused Herodias’ daughter and saved John’s life? He wouldn’t have been able to have an affair with her for one thing, but Herod’s lust could not allow that to happen.

We must watch carefully because our passions lurk around every corner to urge us to some immoral act, but we must deny the passions and remain faithful to God and His commandments. We must control our passions rather than allowing our passions to control us. This is why we must fast! Today the Church calls for a strict fast day in honor of the martyrdom of John the Baptist and also as an opportunity for us to take control of our passions. Is it too much to fast today, or is eating meat more important than controlling our passions? We know the result of Herod’s passions…what will be the result of our passions?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Are We Lucky or What? We Have Inherited God’s Kingdom!

Just the other day, like happens so often, I was asked who I was. This time the conversation went something like this:
Young Man: “Are you a preacher?”
Me: “Yes, I’m the Priest from the Greek Orthodox Church on Cashua.”

Young Man: “Where?”

Me: “You know….the Church across from CreekRats.” His friend new exactly where that was…

Young Man: “I don’t know where that is.”

Me: “Where do you go to Church on Sundays?”

Young Man: “###Church.”

Me: “Where is that?”

Young Man: “I don’t know. On Palmetto I think.”

Me: “But you go right? So do you know where it is?”

Young Man: “I don’t know where it is. I don’t drive.”

Me: “Oh, as long as you go.”
A few minutes later the young man approaches me again…

Young Man: “So what is the Greek Orthodox Church?”
Me: “The original Church. You know…before Baptists and Protestants. The first Church that the Apostles started.”

Young Man: “What’s the difference.” This is a question I always get more often than who am I.

Me: “Well, in a nutshell….” And I spent about two minutes explaining that all the other Churches are in some way changes to the original but that the Greek Orthodox Church hadn’t changed ever.

Young Man: “I’ll have to stop by some time.”

Me: “Please do. You are welcome to come anytime.” And we parted ways but not before saying a polite goodbye.

I have conversations like this almost every day but what made this one stick out was that I was working on today’s sermon. That’s when it occurred to me that this morning’s Gospel is actually the answer I should have given the young man.

Our Lord begins, “There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country.” (Matthew 21.33) This in essence is the answer to this young man’s question. The Orthodox Church is the vineyard planted by God and we have been given the Church, as a gift, until He returns.

This gift we call the Church has a very long and grand history. The Church was established by God in the Garden of Eden when He created humanity. When He originally created humanity, it was His desire for us to live in total communion with Him but we fell short. Almost immediately, humanity fell to temptation in the Garden and the rest of history is the story of God’s rescue mission to restore us to our original glory: to live in communion with God.

And I bet you thought the Church was started only 2000 years ago by the Apostles. I even used those same words with the young man I was speaking with the other day. But in fact, the Church was started by God in the Garden long before Peter and Andrew the rest of the Apostles met Jesus Christ. That’s what makes this morning’s Gospel so amazing. Just listen to this…

“Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them.” (Matthew 21.34-36) These servants were the Holy Prophets and Righteous of the Old Testament. Despite every effort they were unable to rescue the fruit from the vineyard. The fruit is us, humanity – men and women, which God has been trying to save ever since the devil tricked us in the Garden of Eden.

The Lord continues with the parable: “Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.” (Matthew 21.37) And we all know what they did to His Son! And STILL God didn’t give up trying to save us. “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)

That’s where we come in! Ever since God started the Church as His mission to save humanity from death, He has never given up nor forgotten us. Even after they killed His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, God never stopped trying to save us from death. We, Orthodox Christians, have been given the vineyard to care for until His returns. What an awesome gift! We have inherited something priceless from the Jews, the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God has been described in many ways by Christ: A field of seeds; a mustard seed; leaven; hidden treasure, a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, a fishing net, a king who wants to settle accounts, a landowner who went to hire laborers for his field, a king who arranged for the marriage of his son, a man traveling in a far country. (Matthew 13.24-52, 18.23, 20.1, 22.2, 25.14) Do you see what a great inheritance we have? The Church is the Kingdom of God in all these ways and we have been given the gift of taking care of it until He returns and finally we are saved from death.

If the Church is the vineyard, then WE are the fruit and just like any other vine we have to be watered and nurtured so we can produce good sweet fruit. Jesus says to the Jews, “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruit of it.” (Matthew 21.43) Just think of what this gift really means.

Throughout human history, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3.23) And still God never stopped, He never gave up, He never let our sins get the best of us. He continued, and still continues to today and will continue until He returns, with His mission to rescue us from death. Saint Paul really set the record straight when he said, “God has passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3.25-26)

Faith is the only thing God asks from us. Not “do-nothing” faith but active faith. All the images Jesus gives for the Kingdom of God are active images: a working king, fishing net, a traveling man. None of these images suggests that our faith is lazy. We are a vineyard and if we are going to bear fruit for God we have to work! But at what?

We must cultivate our fruit – the Fruit of the Holy Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5.22) If we are going to bear fruit for God we must cultivate these traits in our lives and we only have until God returns to produce fruit!

Don’t be afraid my dear brothers and sisters. We human beings have been making mistakes for thousands of years and we will continue to make mistakes. I know I have made more than my share of mistakes. But God is good and He will never give up on us.

So the next time someone asks you what the Orthodox Church is remember…we are God’s vineyard – the Kingdom of God, and we have been given this great inheritance…are we lucky or what?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Are We Too Busy to Choose Christ?

The following story is fiction. Any similarity between the characters of this story and real people is purely coincidental. In other words, if you think this is about you, it’s just your guilt speaking to you.

A mother woke upon one Sunday morning exhausted from a week of taxi service for her three children. As her eyes adjusted to the sunlight peaking through the blinds, she glanced at her icons across the room. There was no way she was going to make it to Church this morning she thought, “It’s been a long week and God will understand if I stay home and sleep-in this week. I am a good mother after all and this is the only morning I have to rest from all the activities my children participate in.” She rolled over and fell back asleep. Moments later her three children stormed into her room. “Mom, we’re going to be late for Church! Did you forget that it’s your turn to sponsor coffee hour?” She dragged herself from bed, got her three children ready for Church and pulled into the parking lot just as the other children were leaving the Church for Sunday School. “See, you’re not late!” she said to her children as she began to unload the supplies for coffee hour. “11:30, right on time!” She was just finishing making the coffee as the rest of the congregation arrived for coffee hour. Later that afternoon, still exhausted, she thought, “I will never sponsor coffee hour again….someone else needs to do their share of work around that Church!”

This poor mother never made it into Church that Sunday morning and I know many parents feel this way on a Sunday morning. Many others feel it too because whether we are busy parents playing taxi for our children or working six days a week at our own businesses, it’s really easy to see Sunday as a ‘day of rest’. I can’t tell you how many times I wish I could eliminate that phrase from our book of sayings.

In the Gospel we hear of a similar situation: A woman so preoccupied with busy work that when it comes to Jesus Christ, she’s too busy to sit down for a while and listen to His word. Jesus had come to the home of His friends Martha and Mary for dinner. “But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?’” (Luke 10.40) We know she loved the Lord. This is the same Martha that runs to Jesus Christ after her brother Lazarus’ death, (John 11) but she was too preoccupied with being busy serving.

My brothers and sisters life in 2010 is busy, very busy. School starts this week (next week for some) and right about now every parent is wondering how we’re going to find the time to get everything done. Our children are involved in so many activities we struggle every day to teach them the proper choices and priorities. But we must admit that just because our life is so busy that doesn’t make it any more valuable. In fact when our busy schedule keeps us, like Martha away from spending time with Christ, simply put, we are too busy.

Life may be busy but we cannot sugarcoat the message Christ gives us in the Gospel. “And Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10.41-42) There is time for serving and there is time for sitting and spending time with God. And when the time comes for spending time with God, then all other things must stop.

Life may be busy but as Christians it is never easy. Either we are working, as Christians, to care for our families and friends and God’s children, or we are spending time with God in worship. This is the message of Gospel. Jesus doesn’t chastise Martha because she was serving but that she was allowing her serving to distract her from Him and spending time with Him. Mary understood the difference and made the right choice.

We always have a choice in life and our choices are not always easy. Either we choose to spend time with God or we don’t. God calls us to a life of difficult choices. When we wake up each Sunday morning exhausted from a long week, we get to make a choice whether or not to come to Church. In our parish, for example, as parents we have a choice to either bring our children for Sunday School on Wednesday nights or not. There is always a choice, but God’s desire for us is clear: “One thing is needed.”

One thing is needed my brothers and sisters and while I don’t begrudge the activities we or our children are involved in, I do get concerned when people think that Sunday is the only day we can spend with God. Monday through Friday is for work and school. Saturday is for having fun or doing yard work. That leaves Sunday for God….but only if we got everything else done we wanted to accomplish during the week.

Being Orthodox Christians means that God is at the very center of our lives, not just someone we allow to see us on Sunday morning. The very first Christians found time to spend with God every day. “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 2.46-47) The least we could do is come to Church on Sunday morning and during the week either for Sunday School or Bible Study or Saturday Great Vespers.

I’m not going to sugarcoat the choice….it’s a difficult choice to follow Jesus Christ as Lord but God will bless us when we do choose to follow Him. The mother in my story never made it to Church that Sunday morning even though she made it to coffee. She made the wrong choice that much is clear. Our choice is no easier than her choice but we have another mother to follow. Today we celebrate the Feast of the greatest women ever to walk the Earth. A little girl at the young age of fifteen made the difficult choice to put God at the center of her life.

The Virgin Mary made that difficult choice to allow God to be born of her and God blessed her. She risked humiliation and divorce to allow Jesus Christ to be born of her for our salvation. She wasn’t humiliated and Joseph never left her; rather she has been exalted for over two thousand years as the greatest Saint of the Church. What choice will we make to place God at the center of our lives? Will we limit God to whatever time is left over and spend the entire week being distracted by our busy schedule or will we choose to spend time with God in His Church on Sunday and bring our children to Sunday School each Wednesday? I know the choice isn’t easy but our Christian choices never are just like the Virgin Mary.

Will we choose the one thing needed? The good portion will not be taken away from us. God will bless us every time we place Him at the center of our lives. Sometimes that means eliminating other activities from our busy schedule so we have time for God. Sometimes it just means waking up early on Sunday morning to be in Church before 10:00am. God will bless us for this as He said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11.28)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Are You Martha or Mary?

When faced with the anxiety of serving dinner to Jesus and His disciples, Martha became frustrated with her sister for not ‘doing her fair share’ of the serving. She said, “’Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.’ And Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part.’” (Luke 10.40-42)

When faced with the daily struggles of life our temptation just like Martha many times is to ‘bunker down’ and ‘put our nose to the grind stone’ and ‘dig in our heels’ until ‘the job gets done,’ and then to complain about everyone else who is not doing their fair share of the work. This can be very common during Greek Festival season or when the hall needs to be cleaned after a Sunday School luncheon. But today our Lord gives us a chance to make a better choice.

There are times in our lives where simply digging in our heels isn’t enough and we are just too blind to see a better option. Like Martha, we are blinded by our own pride. We ask ourselves, “Why isn’t anyone else doing their fair share?” when what we should be asking is, “Am I really doing what I should be doing?” Mary knew the difference when Jesus was in her home and she “sat at Jesus feet and heard His word.” (Luke 10.39) Martha should have been next to her at the feet of Jesus.

As Christians in 2010 we cannot allow the busyness of the world to distract us from what is really important. “Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10.42) Which part will you choose? I leave you with words from the Divine Liturgy, “Let us lay aside all the cares of life that we may receive the King of All invisibly escorted by angelic hosts.” (Cherubic Hymn)