Sunday, January 30, 2011

Finding Our Way to Heaven

I remember when I first moved to Florence how appreciative I was for landmarks. Like in any city I’ve lived in, finding my way around town has meant reading maps, looking at GPS and listening to directions. The thing about directions is that they almost never include the names of streets and they are always different depending on who you ask. For example, if I were to ask anyone here which was the best way from here to Darlington, I might get three of four different routes, all getting me to Darlington, but each slightly different. In fact some might cause me to get lost. That’s happened before, but that’s because I wasn’t following the directions I had been given. I thought I knew where I was and I thought I knew a better way, but I was wrong. One thing is for sure. If I want the best directions somewhere, I have to ask someone who knows how to get there, or even better, someone who lives there because they’ve driven it so many times, they know not only the names of the streets, but every bump and every obstacle along the way. It’s only when I follow the directions from someone so intimately aware of the way that I can be sure to get there without getting lost. I just love the days when I get directions from someone like that!

Well today is one of those days. Today the Church is pointing the way to heaven with big bright lights. And thank God we are here this morning to listen to God’s directions; because after all, if you want to get to Heaven, God gives the best directions. The first thing God tells us this morning is that Church is a bright search light that the entire world will use to find Heaven. “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5.14)

It’s His way of pointing out landmarks along our journey that help us find our way. In other words, in the darkness of the world, amid the sins of society, the Church stands as a reminder of God’s light and hope for all to see. “Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matthew 5.15) It would be completely wasted if God blessed our Church and then covered it up so nobody could see. It wouldn’t help anyone find their way to God unless it was allowed to shine. God just doesn’t work that way.

God has placed His Church, the Orthodox Church, in our lives as a bright light, so we could be shown the way to heaven. Just think about how lucky we are for a moment. If we are having trouble with anything in our lives, we can simply turn to the Church and the Church will guide us back to Christ. Let’s look at a couple of examples….sort of looking at directions to Darlington.

Let’s say for a moment that we are struggling with being in Church, just a few pews across from someone with whom we had a bad business deal. Just seeing this other person in Church makes our blood boil because we “know” what that other person is like and we can’t believe their sitting in Church like nothing ever happened. We can turn to the Church and seek advice. The Church might say something like, “Have you forgiven that person for the bad deal?” because in our hearts we have never forgiven the person. Forgiveness is something at the very heart of our relationship with God and each other. When teaching us the Lord’s Prayer Jesus says, “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6.15) Until we forgive others we cannot be forgiven. The Church can guide us to the path of forgiveness and therefore to God.

Or let’s say we are struggling with controlling our temper. We seem to always be upset at the world. Nobody EVER does ANYTHING right. The Church might ask, “Are you fasting?” What does fasting have to do with anger you might ask? Well, in this example what we are really struggling with is our own ego. WE are the ones with all the answers. Fasting can help with too. When we teach ourselves that we can’t always have what we want when we want it, we learn to control our ego, which is at the root of our anger many times. Again, it is the Church’s way of life that can help us because we can’t get to heaven OUR way. We have to follow HIS way.

There are so many issues for which we can turn to the Church for guidance and as Christ promises us, the bright light will always show the way to heaven. And that is for one simple reason. The Church is way a life, not just a system of beliefs. When Christ calls the Church the light of the world, He is not speaking only of the teachings of the Church but the very way of life.

Consider the idea of a lamp. Only when it is placed on a lampstand does it give any benefit to the house. Only when the Church’s teachings and way of life are put to use can we get the full benefit of them. And that’s the gift we have received today. Because we are here today and hearing our Lord’s wisdom and voice, we can be assured that we have the right directions to find God.

There are many people in the world that are trying to tell us how to live, but only one way leads to God and a life with Him in heaven. He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14.6) The question is, “where is He so we can be with Him?” He is right here, present on the Altar Table and He is blessing us this morning with the opportunity to become one with Him.

We cannot hide the fact that God is present among us today and every day in the Church because His Light shines brightly. People are taking notice of our Church. People are taking notice that something special is happening here. I’ve noticed a difference in just the past few weeks. People are coming because they are searching for Christ. And they will find Him here among us just like we did this morning. They struggle just like we struggle. He will help them just as He is helping us. You can’t put a basket over the Church, the light is too bright.

And don’t be shy about it. Don’t boast, but don’t be shy about it. Our Lord says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.16) See, it really is like asking for directions but instead of having to turn this way and that way, we only have to walk the Church’s way, God’s way, and we’ll get there every time.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Must Be Present to Win!

It’s an old and very popular marketing technique to celebrate the millionth customer entering a store. I remember growing up hearing about some unsuspecting shopper covered in confetti and balloons flying through the air as the owner celebrated the one millionth customer to shop at that particular store. How many times have we all wanted to be that person; the right person at the right time to receive a lifetime supply of groceries! I don’t think grocery stores do this anymore because the stores have been around so long that having one million customers isn’t special anymore. But businesses continue to offer prizes for the most loyal customers. One thing remains though whether it is the customer of the week or the one millionth customer; you must be present to win the prize.

In this morning’s Gospel we see another example of this. Jesus had been approached by ten men begging for mercy because they were suffering from leprosy. “They lifted up their voices and said, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’” (Luke 17.13) After having been sent to show themselves to the priests, as was their custom, only one man returned to give thanks to God for his healing. Only one man was present to receive the greater gift from Christ.

“And He said to him, ‘Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.’” (Luke 17.19) What faith is Jesus speaking about? Was it the faith of ten men who had the courage to cry out to Jesus for mercy? Was it the faith to go and show himself to the priests? Or was it the faith to be present and return to Jesus to give thanks? In fact we don’t know much about the other nine except that as they went to show themselves to the priests they also were healed. But it was the one man who was present and returned to Jesus that was made well. That is the faith that Jesus is speaking about.

Jesus has a way of doing that. Most of the time, He doesn’t bother with those who are not present but speaks and blesses those who are. My brothers and sisters, today WE are the ones present and today God is blessing US because we have chosen to come and be present with Him this morning. It’s like taking last week’s Gospel and combing it with this week’s. Last week we were urged to repent and return to Jesus and this week we see the blessing for those who do.

Today we have been blessed by God simply because we are present with Him, and some of us may not even believe in His power to heal us but He can. Many of us here this morning may be struggling with issues in our lives that, like the ten men with leprosy, we just have to cry out to God, “Have mercy on us!” It might be illness, it might be a struggling marriage, it might be a struggling business, it can be anything really that causes us to feel pain, emotional or physical.

People with leprosy didn’t just suffer the physical pain of the disease, but were outcasts from society. So many other people in their own villages didn’t even have the heart to walk within twenty feet of these ten men. The can be said for us, and our suffering. Sometimes we even keep our suffering to ourselves just so we don’t have to be outcasts. But today can be different!

Today is different my brothers and sisters in Christ because we have chosen to be present with God and He will make us well if we ask Him. Go ahead and lift up your hearts to heaven and ask for His mercy. Ask Him to guide you through the next week of life and then return here next week to thank Him. Is there anyone of us who doesn’t need a blessing this week? Is there really anyone of us who is without struggle? You won’t offend God no matter how small the struggle. Just go ahead and ask Him, and then be ready for great things when you walk out of this church, just as the lepers were blessed when they began their journey and walked to the priests.

As we walk out of this church today we walk out knowing that God has the power to conquer all of our struggles if we ask Him. It might require a bit of work on our part, but anything worth something takes effort. The ten lepers were told, “Go, show yourselves to the priests,’ and so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.” (Luke 17.14) It wasn’t until they put their faith into action that Jesus cleansed them.

And that’s the clincher in today’s message that we should embrace. First we must be present with God in His Church and ask for His help. And then we must put that faith into action and do what He tells us to do. When we return next week, let’s remember these words from this morning’s Gospel. “And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And He said to Him, ‘Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.’” (Luke 17.14, 19)

Today we’ve done the first part. We’re here with God. Now let’s get out there and work on the second part!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Life Has Its Ups and Downs

Today’s news, like any day, is filled with joyful stories and stories of grief and sorrow. What brings this to my mind today is the continuing story of the Arizona shooting combined with news today of a natural disasters in Brazil placed against the news released today from the Vatican about the continuing process of sainthood for Pope John Paul II.
We all know life is full of struggle and the Church not only acknowledges this fact but embraces the struggle.
“but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5.3-6)

Pope John Paul I knew struggle living under communism in Poland and turned to Jesus Christ for His comfort. Those suffering in Brazil are turning to their Church for comfort and direction in their suffering. And those in Arizona continue to find meaning in the tragedy in the lives of those killed or injured.

The Holy Spirit whom Saint Paul refers is known also as the Comforter by the Church.

“Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, present in all places and filling all things, treasury of blessings and the Giver of life, come and abide in us, cleanse us from our sins and save our souls gracious Lord.” (Prayer to the Holy Spirit on Pentecost)

So in these days of struggle in your life, whether personal of political, remember the Holy Spirit is there to help you and keep you connected to Jesus Christ.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

On Frequent Communion

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, writing at the end of the first century, wrote these words to the Ephesians:

“Therefore make every effort to come together more frequently to give thanks [biblical language for the Eucharist] and glory to God. For when you meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are overthrown and his destructiveness is nullified by the unanimity of your faith. There is nothing better than peace, by which all warfare among those in heaven and those on earth is abolished.”
The “giving of thanks” is commonly understood by the Church to mean the service of Holy Communion, known as Eucharist (the Greek word for giving thanks) and was celebrated at least every Sunday in the Apostolic Church; and continues to be the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church until today. Today the service we call Divine Liturgy is the service of Holy Communion and was compiled using as it core the instructions from the Holy Apostles.

In Chapter 9, 10 and 14 of the “Didache of the Apostles”, written about 70AD it reads:

Chapter 9. The Thanksgiving (Eucharist)
Now concerning the Thanksgiving (Eucharist), thus give thanks. First, concerning the cup: We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David Your servant, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. And concerning the broken bread: We thank You, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever. But let no one eat or drink of your Thanksgiving (Eucharist), but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, Give not that which is holy to the dogs. Matthew 7:6
Chapter 10. Prayer After Communion
But after you are filled, thus give thanks: We thank You, holy Father, for Your holy name which You caused to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. You, Master almighty, created all things for Your name's sake; You gave food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to You; but to us You freely gave spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Your Servant. Before all things we thank You that You are mighty; to You be the glory for ever. Remember, Lord, Your Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Your love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Your kingdom which You have prepared for it; for Yours is the power and the glory for ever. Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David! If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen. But permit the prophets to make Thanksgiving as much as they desire.

Chapter 14. Christian Assembly on the Lord's Day
But every Lord's day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.

So here we have two ancient apostolic sources to confirm the teaching of regular and methodical Holy Communion. The Holy Apostles went so far as to outline the actual prayers to be used in the celebration. The Divine Liturgy we celebrate every Sunday is built upon this foundation of the ancient Church.

With these statements in mind how can we continue to pretend, as Christians, that we can alter these ancient traditions? How can we pretend that the Church was random and so-called “unique” in every town when the evidence clearly shows an integrated and connected and hierarchical Church?

The time has come for you to seriously consider what the Orthodox Christian Church has to offer in your journey toward salvation. The time has come for you to be Orthodox!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Illness of Selfishness

In the healing of the Ten Lepers (Luke 17.11-19) we witness just how deep selfishness can run. Faced with ten men suffering an awful disease, Jesus says, “Go, show yourselves to the priests. And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.” (Luke 17.14) In this particular healing, Jesus didn’t ask if they wanted to be healed, He didn’t question their faith, He merely sent them on their way according to the Law. As they were obedient to the Law and to His direction they were healed.

But in the case of nine of them, their illness was so deep they couldn’t return to give thanks to God. Jesus asks, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine?” (Luke 17.17) We can presume that since they were content with being healed they saw no real need to say ‘thank you’ to Jesus. In fact, the very Law that Jesus instructed them to follow in going to the priests required thanksgiving to God for the healing, and yet they were unable to return to Him. Maybe they thought they were above the Law since Jesus had already healed them. Either way; not giving thanks, or being above the law, are both indications that these nine men were suffering from a deeper illness than leprosy. They were suffering from selfishness.

Whenever we receive a blessing and don’t give thanks to God we suffer the same illness as these nine men. Whenever we think we are above the Holy Traditions and Canons of the Church established by Jesus Christ and His Holy Apostles, who were guided into all truth, we suffer the same illness as these nine men. Selfishness is an illness that, if we allow it, will run deep into our hearts and effect every action of our life. The deeper this illness grows the more difficult it becomes to lift ourselves up and seek the Lord’s blessings in the first place because we begin to depend upon ourselves rather than God’s love and compassion.

Nip selfishness in the bud and defeat it by being in Church at least every Sunday to give thanks to God. When we do this Jesus will say to us, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17.19)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

God Has Given us Another Chance; Let’s Take Him up on His Offer TODAY

It happens to me all the time. I get in the car to go somewhere. It can be anywhere really: a blessing, grocery shopping, picking my son up from school, or even home for dinner. I forget where I’m going and the end up somewhere else just in time to remember where I was supposed to go and have to turn the car around. It happened just the other day. I left the office to go home for dinner, but I had to stop by the grocery store to pick up an ingredient for dinner that I had forgotten the night before when I went shopping. (Lest you think my wife was to blame, this one was all my fault) I was almost home when I remembered; I FORGOT TO STOP AT THE STORE! AGH! I had to turn the car around and go all the way back to the store before going all the way back home. It really bugs me when that happens. I don’t like forgetting where I’m headed but thank God I can always turn around and get back on the right track.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is sending us a clear message to turn around and get back on track. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4.17) Repentance means nothing more than getting back on track and headed where you need to go, just like being in a car. Let’s keep this driving theme for a moment. Now imagine you are driving on the interstate and pass your exit. It can be really frustrating not just because you missed your exit but, especially if you are out in the country, because the next exit you can use to turn the car around isn’t for another 27 miles. Whenever we get off track, we count on those next exits so we can turn around and get back on track.

But thank God that in life we don’t have to wait for the next exit. We can turn our life around right now and be headed on the right track immediately. In life, U-Turns are always allowed! For the past couple of Sundays we have heard the message of repentance in the Gospel very pronounced; last week from Saint John the Baptist and today from the very mouth of God. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We might wonder, just like driving, if there is danger ahead.

If you have ever driven in high mountains and see the sign, “DANGER AHEAD!” you know that if you’re not careful you could very easily end up running the car off the cliff. Well the Gospel is doing the same thing, only this time it says, “ROAD ENDS, TURN AROUND!” or “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Highway departments are very careful to make sure we know the danger that lies ahead of our path in the mountains. Those bright yellow signs are always very helpful. If only life had the bright yellow signs.

Life does have bright yellow signs, only they were written by the Author of Life and not some convict in prison. The bright yellow signs are the Holy Scriptures. Our Lord is given us a great gift by warning us in the Scriptures that if we don’t turn it around we are headed for danger. Actually, He is saying something ever better that WHEN we turn it around we will immediately be blessed by Him in His kingdom.

Our Lord says, “The kingdom of heaven at hand.” It is not something that we are forced to wait for as it has been already been ushered in by His Birth and Baptism that we just celebrated. We should pay special attention to His words. This morning’s Gospel message takes place even before He calls His disciples, those chosen ones who would be guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit and establish His Church. Before He ever met Pilate and was crucified He said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

In other words my dear brothers and sister, the time has come, it has arrived, for us to take Jesus up on His offer of a new life and turn our old life around. If you could remember your baptism you would remember that long before you were naked and in the water of the font you were facing west spitting on the devil. Then you turned around and faced Jesus Christ and His Altar and embraced Him as your Lord and King. Jesus is offering us the same chance today to turn our life around. He knows that it has been a long time since our baptism. He knows that we may have become slack in our worship of Him. He knows that we need another chance and today He is offering it to us.

Jesus is offering us another chance at a new life. He is offering us a life in His kingdom free from the darkness of the world. All we need to do is turn our life around and face Him. It doesn’t matter how many times we have tried and failed in the past. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t perfect. It doesn’t even matter that we have doubted Him in the past. Today is a new day. Listen again to the words of Isaiah, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.” (Matthew 4.16 – see Isaiah 9.1-2 for complete citation)

You and I both know that life can be difficult some times. And God knows much better than we do that it isn’t always easy to follow His will in our life because the world is a dark and dangerous place filled with the devil and his evil demons. But He has given us His light to see in the darkness and we can use His light to see the warning signs to turn our life around, just as if they were bright yellow highway signs. He’s given us another chance, let’s take Him up on His offer and turn our life around.

Let’s make 2011 the year we rededicate our life to a deeper relationship with Him. Let’s make 2011 the year we commit to living our Orthodox Christian faith with purpose and not just sit around like a bump in the road. Let’s make today the day we start our new life for the “kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Are We Better Than Jesus?

January 5th is the Forefeast (pre-feast) of Theophany (Epiphany) which is honored by prayers, blessings, Liturgy and strict fasting. We do all this in preparation of the Feast on January 6th. Some people think there is no need to fast and yet our Lord fasted in preparation of His ministry. Are we better than Jesus?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Inside Story - Egypt's Coptic Christians

The story of Christian persecution MUST be brought into the public. We must also pray that peace reign in the life of all humans rather than violence. God is love and revenge is never sweet no matter they say.

It’s Day Four….How’s Your Resolution?

I was driving through town last night and noticed the full parking lots at all the fitness centers along the way, so I thought I would touch base and see how our New Year’s Resolutions were going. I challenged you in the past few posts to be more committed to your relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church. Many of us gladly make such a resolution every year, but as the days go by more often than not we fall back into old habits in terms of our faith practices.

Its days like today that while things are still fresh in our minds we must make certain efforts to alter these behaviors so that new habits form. The Church has forbidden fasting since Christmas and we have taken full advantage of the feasting prescribed by the Church. Tomorrow, however, is a strict fast day, as we return to the daily discipline of our spiritual struggle.

Its days like today that we need to look at our calendar and ask ourselves, “What specific steps have we taken to live a more committed life to Christ?” Tomorrow is our chance to begin that new journey with fasting and attending Church. Tomorrow is the Forefeast of Theophany (Epiphany) and the day is honored with services and blessings of the water and Divine Liturgy. If you were one who made a commitment to live closer to Christ in 2011, tomorrow’s your chance to put your actions where your resolutions are…..plan to be in Church tomorrow and Thursday for Epiphany.

In the ancient Church Epiphany was celebrated as a greater feast than Christmas. If you consider we took vacation days to celebrate Christmas, why not follow suite with the Feast of Theophany? Find a Church and

Be Transfigured! and live a new life in Christ!