Sunday, November 27, 2016

We Already Know What to Do

When we were growing up, our parents and teachers spent much of their time teaching us the proper way we were to behave. They taught us how to act in Church, the proper way to sit in a restaurant, and the polite way to remain still and quiet in a library. As we grew older and we forgot our manners (as we often did) our parents would remind us about proper behavior. As we grew even older and still forgot how to properly behave, if we were lucky they would ask, “Didn’t I teach you how to behave? Show me how you are supposed to act in Church.” Since we did remember everything they taught us, even though we didn’t always act like it, we were always able to repeat the rules to them. “We are supposed to sit quietly and pay attention” Eventually we became adults and our parents were no longer constantly reminding us about our behavior because we already knew what to do.

There was a certain ruler, who just like us knew the right way to behave. In fact he had always followed the rules. One day he asked Jesus how to have eternal life. When Jesus reminded him about keeping the commandments he said, “All these I have observed since my youth.” (Luke 18.21) He must have thought he was “good to go” to heaven, since he had always followed the rules. But there was something missing that Jesus pointed out to him. "You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." (Luke 18.22) There was only one little problem.....he was very very rich. The ruler walked away from Jesus that day very sad.

You see it isn’t enough to just follow the rules. Rules don’t get us into heaven. There are many stories in the Holy Scriptures about people who follow the rules but still end up losing. Of course it isn’t because they followed the rules that they lost. They lost because they thought following the rules was the key to heaven. They lost because they didn’t understand the purpose behind the rules in the first place. It is the purpose that counts, not just the rules.

When the ruler thought following the rules would be enough to get him into heaven he didn’t realize the rules had a deeper purpose. The rules were supposed to help him love the way God wanted him to love. When Jesus said, “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,’” He offered a few of the Commandments to remind the ruler that when we want to love like God loves, we would not commit adultery, or murder or steal or lie. Jesus was telling the ruler that the Commandments were supposed to help him learn to love.

Unfortunately for the ruler he was more concerned about whether the rules were being followed and never considered that he was expected to love. How do we know? When Jesus said, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor,” He knew that only someone who loved the way God loves would be willing to sell everything. Unfortunately for the ruler, he decided to walk away.

We are blessed because, just like our parents were willing to remind us about the rules, the Church is willing to remind us about the rules. We don’t have to walk away from God. We can still choose to learn from our mistakes. We can still choose to learn to love the way God wants us to love. After all, it isn’t about just following the rules. It’s about learning to love, but then again....we already know what to do.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Focus Focus Focus

Thanksgiving is behind you and the leftovers are gone. The fast is the best way to remain focused on the coming chaos of secular Christmas preparations. Don't lose focus. Pray, fast and attend Church services as often as you can. There'll be plenty of time for celebrating AFTER Christmas.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Every Good and Perfect Gift is from Above

It is tempting to think that our success has everything to do with our hard work. It is even more tempting to think that the fruit of our success are meant for our pleasure. Neither is true. In fact no matter what our vocation, whether we are fishermen or farmers, our only part in our success is a bit of hard work. Everything else is a gift from God and that gift has a purpose. When we were married the priest asked God to bless us so that we could help others. Thanksgiving is a wonderful opportunity to thank God for the blessings He has given to us by reaching out and helping other this year.

The Reason for Blessings

When we consider our accomplishments it is very easy to be filled with pride. Whether we arrived from the old country with twenty dollars in our pocket or rose up through the ranks of corporate America, our normal point of view is to say to ourselves, “You have done a great job! Congratulations!” Unfortunately we tend to forget that we didn’t accomplish it on our own, but I’m not talking only about the other people who helped us in our accomplishments. Even more than the people who helped us are the other gifts and opportunities provided by God.

Today’s Gospel begins with the words, “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plenty...” (Luke 12.16) In this case God provided the soil, the rain, the sun, the minerals, even the very seeds he used. There was nothing the man used, to plant and harvest his crops that were not provided by God. This is why in the Divine Liturgy we pray, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above, coming from You the Father of Lights.” The rich man in the Gospel forgot this singular truth about his accomplishments.... “If it is good, it comes from God.”

The problem isn’t in accomplishing good things, but when we forget where those good things come from. When we think we are the source of goodness, we also tend to think we are in control of our circumstances. The rich man said, “I KNOW what I’ll do....” as if he was in control of the sun, the soil, the rain and minerals in the soil. His eyes weren’t on thanking God but praising himself. He lost sight of why God has blessed him with such a great crop in the first place. “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?” (Luke 12.20)

God doesn’t bless us so we can praise ourselves. He blesses us so that we can bless others and lift others up. We run the risk of being a fool if we think our blessings are for us to enjoy ourselves. Such is the opportunity of holidays like Thanksgiving. This week we have a unique opportunity to come to Church on a day dedicated to thanking God. What would be the result if we spent this week focusing on thanking God for the blessings He has given to us, and THEN using those blessings to help others?

The fool is the one who stores up treasurers for his own pleasure. “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God." (Luke 12. 21) This week I would like to challenge each of you to consider the blessings that God has given to you and thank Him by helping someone else. Here are just a couple ways you can thank God this week...

Bring food to a local soup kitchen or emergency pantry
Donate supplies for the local Thanksgiving “give-away” (every town does something this week)

It doesn’t have to be complicated or over the top, but it does have to come from your heart. You can’t focus on yourself when you are helping others. Let’s face it, there is a reason for the blessings that God has given you. This year for Thanksgiving, start with helping someone else.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What is your excuse?

We all make them and we all think ours is the best. Excuses seem to be a part of our everyday life. Whether late for an appointment or delayed in completing a task, we all make excuses as to why we haven’t done something. Of course we don’t normally call them excuses. For us they are reasons. The word choice is crucial because rationalizing something creates the illusion that it may not have been within our control. For example, “I’m sorry I’m late, but I chose to spend a few minutes on a project that I knew I wouldn’t finish because I figured you would cut me some slack,” sounds much worse than, “Sorry I’m late, but I had to finish something.” Of course, that’s not to say that real obstacles to our agenda don’t exist. Traffic accidents, bad weather, illnesses, and other unexpected circumstances can always stand in our way to what we had planned. But let’s face it....MOST of the time it is just an excuse because we made a choice. Consider today’s Gospel Reading:
Luke 9:57-62 (RSV) - At that time, as Jesus was going along the road, a man said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." But he said to him, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
How many times have we CHOSEN to be absent from Church by making excuses as in today’s Gospel reading? “I’m sorry Father but I had to do some paperwork for the restaurant,” when what we really mean to say is, “Listen Father, I know you want me in Church but I want to have a life outside my restaurant so I get my paperwork done on Sunday morning. It allows my family to go an enjoy life every once and a while.”

If we are honest with ourselves we can admit that making the time (on average two hours) on a Sunday morning to attend Divine Liturgy isn’t enough to ruin any plans we may have for enjoying an outdoor day with family. Nor is it enough to suggest that there isn’t a “different” two hours we can find for paperwork. So let’s quit with the excuses and plan to attend Divine Liturgy EVERY Sunday and find time for the other things after Church. Until we make spending time with God actually FOLLOWING Him we won’t be “fit for the kingdom of God.”

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Sin is against God

Temptation and sin are an everyday experience, but it wasn’t always meant to be that way. Originally God created humanity to live in communion with Him under His protection, but our ancestors were led astray by the devil and his cunning ways. It began with the lie, “You will not surely die.” (Genesis 3.4) With these words the devil proved that he could not be trusted. But God had a plan to save us from ourselves and death. He understands our weakness. This is why said, “Temptations and sin are sure to come.” We can one the one hand be comforted that our Lord knew in advance that we would sin.

Then He said, “But woe to him by whom they come!” These words are more serious. WOE...isn’t just an insignificant expression. It is serious business to cause someone to sin. It is something that as a priest I consider every day. Are my actions, teachings, and guidance leading others toward God or toward sin? It is often easy to excuse away our behavior by rationalizing the behavior of others. But if we are honest, every day we cause others to sin. But it isn’t all bad news. There is always hope.

Since we all sin, and we are all tempted, the hope is our opportunity for repentance and God’s willingness to hear our confession, but that’s the “easy” (or at least easier) part. In Psalm 50 we pray, “Against You, You only have I sinned and done that which is evil in your sight.” If our sin is against God, and God commands us to forgive those who sin against us, that means He will forgive us. The difficult part is to understand that while we may “feel” the sin of others, their sin is really against God and we have no reason to hold any grudge or resentment against anyone. If OUR sin is only against God, then THEIR sin is also only against God. We really have no legitimate right to refuse to forgive anyone.

Just a bit to consider with today’s Gospel Reading

Luke 16:15-18; 17:1-4 (RSV) - The Lord said to the Jews who came to him, "You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God. The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one dot of the law to become void. Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery." And he said to his disciples, "Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive him."

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Secret Sin

It has been said that Orthodox Christianity is the ‘best kept secret in America’ because nobody knows the Church is present. Nobody outside the immediate Church member knows or understands what takes place inside the Church. In many places ‘outsiders’ don’t even know we are Christians since our Holy Traditions are so exotic and elusive. There are even some who read the sign on the street corner which begins with Greek, Russian, Antiochian, Bulgarian, etc., and think, “Well, even if they are a Church, we aren’t Greek or Russian, so we may as well go down the block to the next Church and check them out.” Of course our Churches are known for our food festivals of every possible ethnic combination, but to the extent that we are Church they may wish to enter for worship, we are relatively unknown. If it were otherwise, let’s face it, we wouldn’t call ourselves the best kept secret. Confidentiality is good, but in this case the secret is a sin. Consider today’s Gospel Reading:
Matthew 5:14-19 (RSV) - The Lord said to his disciples, "You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hid.  Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.  Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

If we are going to do the work of Christ we must make the work known not for our glory, but so others may join us in that work. It is a commandment of God that we open our doors and let the light shine in the darkness of the world. When was the last time you invited a friend to Church? When was the last time you spoke openly about the Church with your friends BESIDES inviting them to your Festival? When was the last time your Church opened its door to the public for prayer and reflection? If our Churches are going to be a light to the world, we can no longer keep that light under a bushel. It’s time to remove the bushel, open the doors, turn the lights on, and give glory to our Father in heaven. Anything else is a sin.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Sin is Sin

I can’t believe what HE did!
Did you hear what SHE did?
OH MY! I wonder what THEY did!

In the world there are sinners and there are sinners. That’s right, we are all sinners. The problem is that we go around thinking “they” are worse sinners than “we” are, but consider today’s Gospel Reading:
Luke 13:1-9 (RSV) - At that time, there were some present who told Jesus of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish." And he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, 'Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
There is no doubt that Jesus equates all sin as causing death. He also affirms that certain sins are no more sinful than others. They may actually be more dangerous and more difficult when it comes to repentance, but they are no worse. So if you are spending your time thinking that someone else’s sin is worse than yours, and therefore you are somehow better, think again....sin is sin.

That is why Christ gave the Church authority to forgive sin through the mystery of Holy Confession. Jesus said, “"If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (John 20.23) He gave this authority to the Holy Apostles who gave it to their successors, our Bishops. Sin may be sin, but forgiveness defeats them both! Call your spiritual father and schedule a confession so he can forgive your sins and you can get a fresh start before Christmas!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What have you done with the gift?

Today the Church commemorates a great Saint who offered himself to Christ and His Church. Saint Nektarios, a fairly recent 20th century Saint, is known for sacrificing his time and life for others. He was able to offer so much, not because he gathered worldly wealth and notoriety.  He recognized the great gift that God has offered in His Church. Consider today’s Gospel Reading:
Luke 12:48-59 (RSV) - The Lord said, "Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more. I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law." He also said to the multitudes, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, 'A shower is coming'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out till you have paid the very last copper."

The Church has been given to you by Christ to help you get to heaven. The Church has been given to you as a great gift to free you from the slavery of selfish materialism. You have received this great gift. What have you done with the gift? 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Seek the Kingdom Rather than Politicians

With the election of the new United States President planned for tomorrow, what a great gift we have (if we choose to accept the gift) in today’s Gospel Reading.
Luke 12:13-15, 22-31 (RSV) - At that time, while Jesus was teaching one of the multitude said to him, "Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?" And he said to them, "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." And he said to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well."

This year’s presidential election has been a rollercoaster of slander served upon scandal. Each candidate has been accusing the other of dangerous ruin for our nation if elected. It might seem we have nothing to be hopeful for in the future of our nation. Yet our Lord says, “Do not be anxious about your life.” Politicians come and go, but Christ and His Church are eternal. Vote but do not be anxious. Participate in the debate but do not place your hope in the economy or health care system. Seek the kingdom rather than politicians!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Learning from Each Other

“I grow old always being taught.” This ancient Greek saying expresses a truth about life that leads to heaven. It is only in a relationship that we can be taught and learn from each other. With the Church as our mother and teacher we learn to live together in humility, faith, patience and love waiting for God’s blessings. It is together that we experience joy and sorrow, anxiety and peace. We won’t always get what we want, when we want, how we want it, but through humility, patience and love as expressed by Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood in the Gospel, we learn to give glory to God.


Lessons Learned

In a society which elevates self promotion as worthy traits, it is difficult to imagine learning a lesson from a woman crawling on her hands and knees to secretly be healed by God. In a society which awards self accomplishment, it’s even more difficult to accept that it is honorable to sit and wait for healing rather than demand immediate attention. Our society, while offering wonderful opportunities for anyone and everyone to express their God-given talents, the last character trait we expect to see highlighted in humility. But it is humility that is our greatest teacher. In both healing stories we hear today in the Gospel, it is humility rather than self promotion and accomplishment that is lifted up by God.

The woman, despite the fact she had been seriously ill for twelve years without a single moment of relief from doctors, came to God secretly almost crawling on the ground just for a chance to touch His garments. By today’s standards she might have been accused of not have enough self esteem to approach God. Some may even ask, “Doesn’t she know God can heal her? All she has to do is name it and claim it!” God makes a lesson of her humility when He brings her to the front, “Who touched Me?” She was forced to admit she had dared to touch the Lord. She had dared to have enough faith that God would heal her. She knew the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. How many in the crowd knew the Old Testament prophecy this woman knew? (See Malachi 4.2) How many understood that when she reached out to touch the fringe of His garments, she was declaring Jesus to be the Messiah? Even so, this woman chose not to teach others the read the Holy Scriptures; she didn’t even want to be seen. It was enough to have simple faith that Jesus was the Messiah. She was healed and God lifted up her humility for us to learn a lesson.

The man whose son was near death begged Jesus to come to his house. This bold statement reflected a man that knew Jesus Christ had the ability to heal. Then while Jesus was on His was to heal the son, He was interrupted by a strange woman sneaking around to delay Jesus by getting healed. It was just enough of a delay that his son died. Rather than getting upset with the woman or going on a rage against the disciples for not keeping Jesus moving, the man was willing to walk away.  Jesus said, “Do not be afraid. Only believe and she will be made well.” (Luke 8.50)

If we were in the place of either the woman or the father in this morning’s Gospel story, would we have had the humility to sit quietly and wait for God’s healing? Or would we rant and rave that we were here first? Would we have been willing to allow the woman to approach Jesus? Or would we have dismissed her as just another member of the crowd? It is easy to follow the lead of our society and promote our agenda as more important than the others in our group. It is more convenient to demand first come first served rather than allow others to receive God’s attention or blessings before us. But then again any lesson worth learning isn’t easy. The path of self promotion and self accomplishment might be the preferred American way, but it isn’t the Orthodox Way. The Orthodox way is the way of humility.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Preach the Kingdom

As this week I am just beginning a new ministry in Tarpon Springs, Florida, today’s Gospel rings loudly in my mind. Our journey on earth, no matter what our career is temporary. We are brought together for a short time to accomplish great things in the Name of the Lord. Some will receive us and other will not. Having served the Church in various capacities for 23 years, I can attest to this fact. I have seen souls healed and bodies healed, but I have also seen angry rejection of God’s kingdom.  Consider today’s Gospel Reading:
Luke 9:1-6 (RSV) - At that time, Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal. And he said to them, "Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them." And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.
When we preach the kingdom and someone rejects us, we can’t think they are rejecting us. Jesus also said, "He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me. (Luke 10.16) But that doesn’t give us the free reign to abuse others and demand our own agenda under some false pretense that we are God’s messengers. It requires humility and constant confession of our own sins to our spiritual father. How can we accuse others of rejecting Christ if we don’t constantly repent of the sins of pride that plague our hearts?

As I begin my new journey here at Saint Nicholas Cathedral, please keep me in your daily prayers. Pray that I don’t fall victim to my own passions. Pray that I am able to see my own sins rather than the sins of others. Pray that I do not lose sight of preaching the kingdom and being a healing presence for those I meet. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

It isn’t an “Either Or” Game

It can be very tempting to dismiss the needs of others by claiming we have other obligations. We can’t feed the poor because we to build a new Narthex. Some say we shouldn’t expand the Church because we need to feed the poor. St John Chrysostom often wrote about the spiritual danger of having golden chalices while the poor were outside the Church starving. But he never suggested we had to choose between one and the other. Consider today’s Gospel reading...
Gospel Reading: Luke 11:42-46 (RSV) - The Lord said to the Jews who had come to him, "Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and salutations in the market places. Woe to you! For you are like graves which are not seen, and men walk over them without knowing it." One of the lawyers answered him, "Teacher, in saying this you reproach us also." And he said, "Woe to you lawyers also! For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers."

The key words here are “These you OUGHT to have done WITHOUT neglecting the others.” Feeding the poor and tithing to the Church is not an either or but a both and. If we are going to live a life dedicated to Christ and His Church we must learn to tithe our income to His Church for the work and blessings of the Church while still doing the other important charitable work that calls our hearts.