SERMON: Venerable Sergius of Radonezh

SERMON ON ST. SERGIUS OF RADONEZH

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ!

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

In my life I’ve been blessed on three occasions to visit the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra in Sergiev Posad outside of Moscow. It’s hard for me to talk about because the place affects me in such a deep and personal way. God’s gifts are many and they are varied. One gift that God gives occasionally is the gift of tears. These are not the normal tears that accompany our human emotions, but these are deep, spiritual tears that that are not from sadness, or loss, or vanity, or anger. No,” these tears flow from love of God. They nourish man, bringing great joy to his soul” as Elder Cleopa describes them. In the presence of God, in the courts of the Kingdom of Heaven, these tears may come to some. For me, it’s in the Trinity Cathedral, in the presence of the relics of St Sergius of Radonezh, that God, in His merciful loving kindness, has on three occasions granted me the blessing of the gift of tears. I don’t share this in order to boast. I have absolutely nothing to boast about. This is not about vainglory, or attention-seeking. I only bring it up so that you will understand the profound holiness of that place, and the grace-filled power of this amazing saint.

Today we celebrate the uncovering of the relics of our venerable and God-bearing Father, Sergius, abbot of Radonezh and Wonderworker of All Russia. Every time we commemorate him, we can’t help but recall his amazing and God-pleasing life. His life was like a beacon of fire or a lighthouse blazing with brilliant light that attracted so many thousands of souls for salvation in Christ. He was an apostle in the wilderness, and an icon of the monastic life, turning the deep forest into a gleaming city set on a hill, filled with angel-like beings working out their salvation. What is the monastic life, and why is it so important to the life and well-being of the Church?

Many people who live in the world, especially those who are far away from the Church, do not understand what monastic life is about. What good is it? What does it do for society? Isn’t it selfish? Isn’t it unnatural? These are the questions they ask. But remember, our Lord Jesus Christ Himself said that there would be some who would be called to a life of chastity and holiness.

“All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:11-12).

This ideal was emulated by many of those who decided to follow in our Savior’s footsteps and reject temporal life. One of the first was St. Paul who said, “For I would that all men were even as I myself” (1 Cor. 7:7-8), meaning that he did not marry and lived a solitary life, dedicating all his resources to his apostolic work. And after St. Paul there were virgin men and women, as well as widowers and widows who did not remarry, who decided to dedicate their entire lives to God. And in the fourth century some of these people became part of a great monastic movement, exchanging their lives in the cities for life in the desert and to create monastic communities, which later became monasteries.

So it was, that a holy monastery was founded by St. Sergius in the primeval forests of Radonezh. With time, disciples began coming to the saint in the Monastery of the Life-giving Trinity, and since that time multitudes of people, seeking to live a life of repentance and fasting has never withered. By their thousands, and for many centuries there have been those who have decided to emulate our Lord Jesus Christ in everything, including this choice of the solitary way of life, the life of repentance, the life of ascesis.

Let us pray to our venerable and God-bearing Father Sergius, Abbot of the Russian Land and intercessor for the whole world, that he may always pray for our holy Orthodox Church and intercede in Heaven for all its monasteries, and that monastic life may never grow weak in our holy Church but may flourish as it did in his time even in our own days. Amen.

FROM TODAY'S GOSPEL READING (Matthew 11: 27-30)

FROM TODAY’S DAILY GOSPEL READING
Matthew 11: 27-30

28 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

All of us feel overwhelmed, overworked, overburdened at times, don’t we? These words of Jesus feel like a cool stream on a broiling summer day to me. They are words of consolation and words of hope. But there is one particular group of people that the Lord is calling – the Jews. The religion of the Jews had become completely disconnected from God, and had become, instead, all about doing the works, the labors of religion. In the Gospel of Matthew 23: 2-4, Jesus speaks to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”

According to St. Theophylact of Ochrid, the Lord is calling all of mankind here to come to Him. He sees those who “labor” as the Jews, laboring under the Law and especially as interpreted by the Scribes, Pharisees, etc., and those who are “heaven laden” he sees as the Gentiles, whose backs are breaking under the weight of pagan darkness and sins.

29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

This is a fascinating saying. A yoke is a farm implement, a wooden cross beam. It connects or binds one or more animals together to perform a task for us human beings, albeit indirectly, via a plow, a cart, a wagon, etc. Here the Lord uses this metaphor to speak of the connection between us and Himself. He means that we are yoked together. As St. Paul says, “We are co-laborers together with Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:9). And what are we pulling, together with Christ? Our fallen humanity. He is doing most of the pulling. In fact, He does all of the heavy work, taking our fallen Adam-nature to the wooden yoke of the Cross. We are hoping to co-operate with this great grace, and drag ourselves out of and away from hell and into the Kingdom. The Greek word for fellow-laborer or co-worker is “synergos.” It comes from “syn-ergeia” from which we get our English word “synergy.” It means “working together.” But what is the yoke? What is this “farm implememt” that allows us co-laboring with Christ? What is the tool? Theophylact says:
"The yoke of Christ is humility and meekness. For he who humbles himself before all men has rest and remains untroubled; but he who is vainglorious and arrogant is ever encompassed by troubles as he does not wish to be less than anyone else, but is always thinking how to be esteemed more highly and how to defeat his enemies. Therefore the yoke of Christ, which is humility, is light, for it is easier for our lowly nature to be humbled than to be exalted. But all the commandments of Christ are also called a yoke, and they are light because of the reward to come, even though for a time they appear heavy."

ALL SAINTS NORTH AMERICA 2020

SERMON FOR ALL SAINTS OF NORTH AMERICA
June 18, 2020

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

One of the most amazing experiences of my life occurred about twenty years ago in Russia. We were a small group of pilgrims visiting for the first time the famous Diveyevo Monastery founded by St. Seraphim of Sarov. Diveyevo is about 500 km from Moscow as the crow flies, located in the Nizhny-Novgorod Oblast east of Moscow. The journey out there was a grueling eight hours on a jolting and thoroughly shabby train, and then another hour by hired car. Needless to say, we were dragging, exhausted, by the time we reached the wall and entrance gate of the monastery. But as soon as we passed through that gate we were like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when she opened the door from her crashed, sepia-toned house into the Technicolor paradise of Oz. No, this was much more glorious! In the background were two magnificent gleaming temples, the trapeznaya, the cells. But in the immediate foreground, and stretching all the way back toward the temples, were what looked like a sea of fragrant, fully-blooming, multi-colored roses. And near us the midst of this paradisaical waist-high forest stood a young nun, snipping away at the bushes. The moment she saw us she left her clippers and came up to me, making a metania, and taking a blessing greeted us with a mile, and with the words: “Христос воскресе!” just like St. Seraphim used to greet all of his guests, no matter the time of year. I was stunned by this perfumed garden, by this angelic person, and by the nearly palpable presence of St. Seraphim surrounding us. Tears were the only possible response.

In Sirach chapter 39, Yeshua ben Sira writes: “Listen to me, my holy children, and blossom like a rose growing near a running stream. Send forth a fragrant aroma like incense, and bloom with blossoms like a lily. Raise your voice, give praise together,
and bless the Lord for all his works.” (Sirach 39: 13-14).

Here God is speaking through through Yeshua and telling us that the saints are like sweet-scented flowers. The Mother of God is called “The Unfading Rose,” and in her icon the Mother of God “The Unfading Bloom” she is depicted holding lilies. But the saints are not earthly flowers. Their beauty is the beauty of the Holy Spirit, and their fragrance is the sweet fragrance of Christ, as St. Paul describes them (‎2 Corinthians 2:15). Each nation, each land is called by God to become a flower bed full of beautiful and sweet-smelling flowers, the saints, through whom God is glorified and faith blooms everywhere. In Psalm 15 and verse 3 (LXX) it says, “To the saints that are in his land hath the Lord been wondrous; He hath wrought all His desires in them.”

Brothers and Sisters, today we honor the first blossoms in our land, in North America,
Hieromartyr Alexander Hotovitzky, Missionary of America
Mitred Archpriest Alexis of Wilkes-Barre,
Venerable Herman of Alaska, first missionary to Alaska
Metropolitan Innocent of Alaska, missionary bishop
New Hieromartyr Archbishop Seraphim of Uglich
Priest Yakov Netsvetov of Alaska
Hieromartyr John Kochurov, served in America & Russia, died as first clergy martyr of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
Archbishop John (Maximovitch,) of Shanghai and San Francisco.
Hieromartyr Juvenaly of Alaska, Protomartyr of America
Bishop Mardarije (Uskoković,) Serbian bishop of North America;
Bishop Nikolaj (Velimirović,) rector of St. Tikhon's Seminary
Youth-martyr Peter the Aleut in San Francisco
Bishop Raphael of Brooklyn
Archimandrite Sebastian (Dabovich) of Jackson and San Francisco.
Bishop Varnava Nastić, the New Confessor
St. Basil Martysz,
And here’s another list, a list of popularly venerated persons under consideration for canonization, whether formally or informally:
Metropolitan Leonty (Turkevich)
Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky)
Archbishop Arseny (Chagovtsov) of Winnipeg, OCA, Canada
Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas
Bishop Gerasimos (Papadopoulos) of Abydos
Archimandrite Dimitry (Egoroff) of Santa Rosa
Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) of Platina
Priest John Karastamatis, of Santa Cruz
Matushka Olga Michael, of Alaska
Brother José Muñoz Cortés, keeper of the "Montreal Iverskaya” icon
Archimandrite Ephraim of Arizona

Dear ones, this is the garden, our garden, that we celebrate today, and these are our flowers. Our garden is still small, but it is expanding. And why is that? The Apostle Paul tells us,

“Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).

I’m going to finish with a quote written by a flower from another garden, Hieromartyr Gregory Petrov, shortly before his death in a prison camp in 1940. It’s Kontakion 3 from his Akathist Hymn “Glory to God for All Things.”

“Every flower is fragrant through the power of the Holy Spirit, in a delicate flow of aroma and tenderness of color; the beauty of the Great contained in what is small. Praise and honor to God, Who gives life, Who spreads forth the meadows like a flowering carpet, Who crowns the fields with golden ears of wheat and azure basilisks, and the soul with the joy of contemplation.”
Amen.

SERMON: SUNDAY OF ALL SAINTS 2020

SERMON: SUNDAY OF ALL SAINTS 6/14/2020

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Welcome to the Feast that celebrates ALL of the saints!

It was only last week when we celebrated Pentecost and the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit over the whole world. God Himself had predicted this through the Prophet Isaiah, saying, “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring” (Isaiah 44:3). And the Lord Jesus said, “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38).

If we are listening carefully, we hear that there are two outpourings of the Spirit being talked about here; two outpourings of the Living Water. 1.) The outpouring from heaven and 2.) the outpouring from those who believe in Jesus.
That’s right. We human beings, we Christians, are supposed to be vessels that contain the Holy Spirit. That’s why St Paul commands the Christians in Ephesus to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). If he commands them to do it, it must mean that they can choose not to do it, right? He gives them this command to make them choose between worldly pleasures or the Holy Spirit. The entire quote is this, “Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5: 17-19). The true believers are the ones who love Christ and follow His teachings and His commandments. The ultimate true believers are the ones who are not only filled with the Spirit, but also overflow with the Spirit. These are the special ones out of “whom flow rivers of Living Water.” These are the saints.

The great 4th century desert father, Abba John the Dwarf said,
“The saints are like a group of trees, each bearing different fruit, but watered from the same source. The practices of one saint differ from those of another, but it is the same Spirit that works in all of them.” That’s right. The same Spirit fills them, and the same Spirit flows out of them in holy words, holy deeds, and astonishing miracles.

Now, changing gears somewhat, what if we, as Christians, are not capable of containing the Spirit because of our sins and our worldliness? Then not only is our sanctity jeopardized, but even our salvation! Listen to what God Himself says through the Prophet Jeremiah, “Be stunned by this, O heavens; be shocked and utterly appalled,” declares the Lord. “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2: 12-13). Cisterns? Cisterns are water-holding tanks or vessels. God gave us a vessel to contain the Spirit, the nous or the heart. It was meant to contain the living water of the Spirit. But those who are Christians in name only (CINOS) live their lives as if God doesn’t exist, has no impact on their daily lives, has no influence on their choices. They have made their “belly” the vessel that contains all that the world, the flesh, and the devil have to offer. They replace God’s blessing with their own brokenness! Now, I’ve used the word “belly” because St. Paul used it to describe some other “Christians in name only” as those “whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). Broken cisterns. We don’t want to be like them. We want to aspire to be like the saints, filled with the Spirit and overflowing with grace toward others.

Before closing I want to take a minute or two to talk about how important the saints are to us. On this Sunday especially, we are called upon by the Holy Church to celebrate the saints, reflect on them, to honor them, and yes, to imitate them. So why are the saints so important to us? St. John of Kronstadt tells us,

“We ought to have the most lively spiritual union with the heavenly inhabitants, with all the saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs, prelates, venerable and righteous men (and women), as they are all members of one single body, The Church of Christ, to which we sinners also belong, and the living Head of which is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This is why we call upon them in prayer, converse with them, thank and praise them. It is urgently necessary for all Christians to be in union with them if they desire to make Christian progress; for the saints are our friends, our guides to salvation, who pray and intercede for us... God’s saints are near to the believing heart, and are ready in a moment to help those who call upon them with faith and love.”

Dear Brothers and Sisters, we are all spiritual mountain climbers, aren’t we? The peak is Heaven. And we are struggling to ascend. We don’t ascend alone. No, we are part of a rope team, the Church. We are all tied together, each one helping the other not to plunge to their death, unless they willingly untie themselves and go their own way. Above us are the saints. They are on the peak, but still tied to us who struggle below. They pull on the rope to make it easier for us to ascend. They are our security who stand together with Christ Who is our Rock and our anchor. They love us, they care about us, they encourage us, they guide us, and they pray for us. What a privilege to have them as our friends! What a blessing to have them as our family! Amen.

PENTECOST/TRINITY SUNDAY 2020

SERMON FOR PENTECOST/ TRINITY SUNDAY
June 7, 2020

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Happy Birthday! Happy Birthday Church! Today is your Birthday! Today is the Party too. Today is the celebration. We don’t have a cake, but we have the holy prosphora. We don’t have punch, but we have the sweet Eucharistic wine. Do we have presents? Yes! We have the Holy Gifts! Do we have candles? Of course, we have candles. Are they lit? Yes. Not only are the physical candles lit, but the spiritual fires are lit as well, and resting upon and within each one of us. As St. John of Kronstadt reminds us,

“When you look at the candles…burning in the temple, rise in thought from the material fire to the immaterial fire of the Holy Spirit” (My Life in Christ).

The divine flames, the “tongues of fire” which were first manifest on that first Pentecost 1,987 years ago, were also lit for each one of us on the day of our Chrismation. That holy fire remains with us always. It can never be blown out unless we decide to blow it out. As long as we love God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and do our best to follow the commandments of Christ, the empowering flame of the Holy Spirit remains with us forever. Isn’t that wonderful!?

St. Basil the Great writes:
“Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return to the adoption of sons, our liberty to call Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory, and, in a word, our being brought into a state of all ‘fulness of blessing,’ both in this world and in the world to come.”

Yes, the Holy Spirit has done all of that for us! But be careful, dear ones. Be very careful, because we can chase the Holy Spirit away. Did you realize that? It’s true. Here’s an example: David the King and Prophet when repenting of his double sin of adultery and murder, begs God: “Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 50/51, LXX). You see? David knows that his sinful choices and sinful actions can cause the Holy Spirit to flee from him! And here’s another example from Scripture where the Apostle Paul warns the Christians in Thessalonica “do not extinguish the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). That’s why if we apostatize, abandon our faith or join some other religion, we must not only repent and confess, we must also be re-Chrismated. Why? Because the Sacrament of Chrismation is the giving of the Gift of the Holy Spirit, and when you renounce your faith, the Holy Spirit flees from you and must be given to you once again.

The Holy Spirit enlightens and illumines us. In the Hymn of Degrees at Matins we sing,

“Every soul is enlivened by the Holy Spirit and is exalted in purity, illumined by the Holy Trinity in a sacred mystery!”
The flame of fire that once barred us from entering Paradise, now opens the gates wide and illumines our path as we enter.

As I near the end of this morning’s little sermon, I’d like to share with you some words of a wonderful Serbian Orthodox saint who lived in our times, St. Justin Popovich (+1979). He wrote:

"The holy mystery of the day of…Pentecost, is to be understood in the following manner: the spirit of man must be completed and perfected by the Holy Spirit, that is, it must be sanctified, illumined, and deified by the Holy Spirit. This holy mystery is realized continually in the Church of Christ and because of this, the Church is really a continuous Pentecost.... From Holy Pentecost, the day of the Holy Spirit, every God-loving soul in the Church of Christ is an unburnable bush which continuously burns and is inflamed with God and has a fiery tongue within it" (St. Justin Popovich, Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ).

May God grant us the grace to live always in this heavenly fire! May we offer ourselves to Him as living candles, upon which the Divine Flame of the Holy Spirit continually rests! May we find ourselves worthy of God’s gracious gifts of power, of light, of knowledge, of discernment, and of course, of LOVE.

Amen.

SUNDAY OF THE BLIND MAN

Sermon for the Sunday of the Man Born Blind
May 24, 2020; John 9:1-38

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Christ is Risen!

Dear Brothers and Sisters, today’s Gospel reading can basically be divided into three sections: #1 the discussion between our Lord and His disciples about why the man was blind; #2 the miracle itself and how it came about, and #3 the harassment of the formerly blind man and his subsequent encounter with Jesus. This morning I’m just going to begin speaking on the first section, the first 3 verses of chapter 9 of the Gospel according to St. John.

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” (Jn.9:1-3)

Why would the disciples even ask Jesus such a question? Well, don’t be so quick to judge them. Many of the Jews believed that guilt and punishment for sins would be passed down to their children. Why? Because of the Second Book of Moses, Exodus 20:5 which says: “I am the Lord thy God, a jealous God, recompensing the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations to those who hate me.” (LXX)

The Lord Jesus utterly rejects this notion, as do the Church Fathers. St. John Chrysostom points out that even God Himself, through the Prophet Ezekiel refutes this idea when he says:

“And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, Son of man, what mean ye by this parable among the children of Israel, saying, ‘The fathers have eaten unripe grapes, and the children's teeth have been set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord, surely this parable shall no more be spoken in Israel. For all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son, they are mine” (Ezekiel 18:1-4 LXX).

And later in Ezekiel, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).

Children will not suffer because of the sins of their parents, at least not from God. This is the clear teaching of Jesus in today’s Gospel. That’s not to say that children won’t be affected by the sins of their parents. St. Paul says: “Fathers, do not embitter your children or they will become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21). St. John Chrysostom rightly asks: “How will you be able to correct your son…if you yourself behave so badly?” And in another place he says: “When harmony (between husbands and wives) prevails , the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends, and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both of families and states, are thus produced. When it is otherwise, however, everything is thrown into confusion and turned upside-down” (Homily 20 on Ephesians).

The truth is that our God is a loving God, and not One to torture us or wreak some cruel generational punishment upon us. In fact, quite the opposite is true. David, in Psalm 102 sings: “the mercy of the Lord is from generation to generation upon them that fear him, and his righteousness to children's children; to them that keep his covenant, and remember his commandments to do them” (vs 17-18).

And again: “If thou, O Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? For with thee is forgiveness” (Psalm 129:3-4).

No, the blind man was not guilty, his parents were not guilty, neither were his grandparents guilty. He was blind, but his blindness was not without meaning. His blindness that day was for the manifestation and revelation of exactly that, God’s abundant and merciful love for mankind.

The blind man was instructed to go to the pool named Siloam in order to be healed. Siloam means “Sent.” And why was he “sent” there? Because…

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9).

Amen.

SERMON ON THE SUNDAY OF THE SAMARITAN WOMAN 2020

SERMON FOR THE SUNDAY OF THE SAMARITAN WOMAN

Dear Brothers and Sisters, Christ is Risen!

The Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel is exposed as a very immoral person, isn’t she? The Gospel shows that it was Jesus Himself Who exposed her sinfulness when He “said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and return here.’ The woman answered and said, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly.’” Now notice that he didn’t expose her publicly. He didn’t reveal her sins in front of others. He was careful not to humiliate or embarrass her that way. Her boyfriend wasn’t there. Her children were not there. The disciples of Jesus were not there. The townspeople were not there. Notice too how he didn’t speak harshly or angrily with her. St. Paul, in our Bible Study chapter this week, admonished the Galatians to behave in a similar way: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any misstep, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).

Jesus does not condemn the woman, and doesn’t judge her. He simply points out her sins. Why? In order to teach us to learn from His example. Each person, even if they appear to be immersed in their sins and fixed in their position, is nonetheless a child of God and is potentially a faithful member of the Church. This is, by the way, why many priests, including myself, will gladly offer prayers, moliebens, etc. for non-Orthodox, non-Christians, and even atheists. We are taught to view each person in hope, and to meet each person with love. This is what the Gospel demands. And why not? Notice the woman was not obstreperous, she did not react defiantly, but her heart drank in that “living water” of the Spirit like parched earth, didn’t she? Because her heart was open, because she allowed that “yearning for God” which every single human being is born with; because she allowed that yearning to bubble-up within her soul, she was able to receive Christ’s word of salvation, and was able to recognize Him as the Messiah, the Christ.

Even a word of correction, if it is delivered with love, can be received as a positive word, as a healing word. St. Paul said that we will know that we are maturing as Christians when we are “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). With these things in mind, I’d like to share with you two stories from my own life-experience. (If you’ve heard them before, as always, I beg your indulgence and your pardon.)

The first took place many years ago at Philotheou monastery on Mount Athos. Our small group of pilgrims were hoping to receive Holy Communion there at the Liturgy the next morning. The guest-master told us that the rule there was Confession before Communion, which we assumed would be the case. In the middle of the night, during the Kathisma of Matins I was tapped on the shoulder by a young hierodeacon who escorted me to a side chapel. I was shown a chair in the near total darkness. Seated across from me, barely visible in the dim candle light, was a small elderly monk wearing his priestly stole, epitachilion. The young hierodeacon, in perfect unaccented English, told me I could begin my confession. I asked him, “Does Father speak English?” He answered “No, but I will translate for you.” Well, I thought, this will be a first! So, I commenced my translated confession. The old monk listened, head tilted slightly, but didn’t say a word. When I was finished, it turned out...I wasn’t. The old man finally spoke, and through the hierodeacon, asked me about the sins I had forgotten to confess, listing them one by one, about ten or fifteen in all. I was dumbfounded, but not defensive. They were all true. All were accurate. But I did not feel condemned, I did not feel judged. I felt only peace and calm, like a spiritual warm embrace, and that’s exactly what it was, the forgiving and saving embrace of Christ. My sins were exposed, but my joy remained. This is speaking the truth in love. This is correction in the Holy Spirit. And of course later in the stay at Philotheou monastery it was revealed that the elderly monk who heard my confession was none other than Elder Ephraim himself, and the young hieromonk who helped me, is now the Abbot of St. Anthony’s in Arizona, Archimandrite Paisios.

The last story takes place on the Russian island named Talabsk (“Zalit” in Soviet times) in the middle of Lake Pskov, on the Estonian border. We were a small group of pilgrims, so we hired a fishing boat to take us out there, hopefully in time for Divine Liturgy, and hopefully to meet a renowned elder, a staretz, named Father Nikolay Gurianov.

I didn’t know much about this elder. I knew that he was a very aged parish priest and that he had suffered at the hands of the communists for years. He had been exiled, he had been sent to a work camps where his feet were ruined. I also knew that he was a church poet and a writer of ecclesiastical songs and hymns. So, we were going to meet him. But in my mind I asked myself, “Does one simply go to “meet” a Confessor for the faith? A staretz? I thought that I should at least have a question for him. But what question? It mustn’t be a stupid question, I thought. It must be profound yet humble. I don’t want to embarrass myself! So the Liturgy ended. Elder Nikolay was unvesting in a room off of the altar. It had a double curtain rather than a door, and I could see the elder looking out at me, or was it “us?” I couldn’t really tell. Suddenly, he bee-lined out of the little room right at me. He grabbed me in his arms and as he held me, he began to sing. I didn’t know what the song was, and I never did get to ask him a question. But later I was told by our Russian fellow-traveler what he was singing: “My soul, my soul, arise! Why art thou sleeping? The end is drawing near, and thou shalt be confounded. Awake, then, and be watchful, that Christ our God may spare thee, Who is everywhere present and fills all things.” I asked no question, but I got my answer. I was corrected while I was being embraced; my sins were exposed, yet I felt nothing but love. This is what the Samaritan woman experienced on that day. That’s why she repented. That’s why she changed her whole life around, and that’s why she’s a saint on our calendar – St. Photini, the Samaritan Woman.

So dear ones, when we are tempted to react with angry words, or harsh and vengeful criticisms, whether directed at spouses or children, or co-workers, or the cashier, or the driver on the road, or your fellow parishioner or your relatives...stop. Remember the example of Christ with Photini. Remember the example of God’s holy ones. Stop. Take a breath. Let grace return to your soul, and when the time is right, speak the truth in love. Amen.
Christ is Risen!

SERMON ON THE HEALING OF THE PARALYTIC AT THE POOL "BETHESDA"

SUNDAY OF THE PARALYTIC
May 10, 2020

Beloved,
Christ is Risen!

This morning we heard the reading from the Gospel of John, chapter 5, concerning the paralytic who was miraculously healed by our Lord Jesus Christ. A few pages further, in chapter 9, we will read about the healing of the man who was born blind. On this occasion, that is the healing of the blind man, the disciples had asked the Lord: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” The Saviour replied: “Neither hath sinned this man nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” In other words, the affliction, or the blindness, was not a result of sins committed by the blind man, nor a punishment brought upon his parents because of their sins. This was simply a “natural” occurrence; natural in accordance with the nature of this fallen world. Neither he, nor his parents, did something, committed some offense, which resulted in God visiting blindness upon the son. I don’t want to say too much concerning this because we shall hear more about it two Sundays from now on the Sunday of the Blind Man.

But what about the paralytic in today’s Gospel? We heard that after his miraculous healing, the Lord went and found him in the Temple, and said to him: “Behold thou art made whole; sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.” What can we learn from this? Lots of things, but first of all we must come to grips with the reality that his illness came as a result of his sins. “Sin is a fearful thing,” says St. John Chrysostom, “fearful and the ruin of the soul. And oftentimes, in excess, it overflows and attacks men’s bodies also” (Hom.38 on St. John).

In Deuteronomy 28 we hear a chilling list of maladies that might afflict people who sin, who disobey God’s commandments. Some are: plague (oooh that sounds familiar!), tuberculosis, fever, inflammation, the boils of Egypt, hemorrhoids, festering sores, and “an itch, from which you cannot be healed.” We can see clear examples of this in the Bible too. For example, for the sins of disobedience, lying, deception, covetousness and avarice, Gehazi (Γιεζι), the disciple of Elisha, was covered with leprosy and forced to depart from the Prophet's presence (2 Kings 5:27). For the sin of disbelief, Zachariah, the father of St. John the Baptist, was struck dumb, unable to speak (Luke 1:22). For the sin of daring to touch the Ark of the Covenant, which the Law strictly forbade him to do, plus the sin of not trusting God’s ability to prevent the Ark from falling off the cart, Uzzah dropped dead on the spot. (2 Samuel 6:1-7; 1 Chronicles 13:9-12).

It’s not that God does evil things to us or wants to hurt us. No, not at all! He loves us. But sometimes God allows physical afflictions to bring about our repentance, a change in our minds. Thus, St. Paul, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, turns the incestuous - adulterer over to Satan for the destruction of his body, that in the end his soul might be saved ( I Cor. 5:5). And happily, in Second Corinthians, we learn that the man repented and was, eventually, restored to the Church's communion (2 Cor. 2: 6 -7).

So we see by these examples that sometimes illness or infirmity can be a means for our deliverance from sin. This was surely the case for the paralytic in today’s Gospel. He was a wicked sinner in his youth, and as a result, he was afflicted with some type of paralysis for 38 years! What was he lacking? Repentance. After the Saviour healed the man, He later went out to show His disciples what became of him. And where does He find him? In the Temple. “This” says St. John Chrysostom, “is an indication of his great piety; for he departed not to the market places, or the promenades, nor gave himself up to luxury and ease, but remained in the Temple, in spite of being attacked and harassed there by so many. But none of these things persuaded him to depart from the Temple” (Ibid.).

But what was the nature of the paralytic’s sin? What had he done, that required such a strong medicine to effect his cure? The Gospel does not tell us. We only know that he sinned, and that Christ tells him to sin no more, lest something worse should come upon him. By worse He does not mean a worse physical affliction, but eternal damnation, the death that is worse than death.

So, beloved, “let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles us,” as the Apostle says (Hebrews 12:1). Let us be alarmed at our weakness and our susceptibility to its infections. Let us take courage in the healing words of the Saviour and “sin no more.” When we are once again permitted, let us run continually to the Temple and meet Christ here, and gain healing, salvation, and eternal life from Him.

Christ is Risen!

SERMON: SUNDAY OF THE HOLY MYRRHBEARERS

SERMON: Sunday the Holy Myrrhbearers
May 3, 2020

On the third Sunday after Pascha, the Church celebrates the first witnesses of the Lord’s Resurrection — the women who came to anoint His body with fragrant oils, the “Myrrhbearers” — along with the men who took Him down from the cross and buried Him, St. Joseph of Arimathea & St. Nicodemus the Righteous.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified on Friday — the day before the Sabbath (Saturday) and the day before the Jewish feast of the Passover. When He died, it was imperative that He be buried before the Sabbath, because it was against the Law to work on the Sabbath. Ss. Joseph & Nicodemus took His body down from the cross, hastily anointed the Lord with aloes and spices, and wrapped Him in a shroud made of linen. They placed Him in a new tomb, intended for Joseph originally, and sealed it with a massive stone.

While Peter and the other male disciples slept, the women disciples of the Lord bought more spices, fragrant oils and myrrh. They went to the tomb as soon as it was beginning to dawn, to finish the job of preparing His body. As they walked, they discussed how they could even get into the tomb, sealed by that huge stone that was too heavy for them to move.

When they arrived, the tomb was open, and He was gone! He had risen, as He foretold. They made several trips back and forth to Jerusalem, telling the disciples the good news, leading them back to the tomb, and searching for His Body to confirm the Resurrection the angels proclaimed. Thus, the Holy Myrrh-bearing women were not only the first disciples to witness the resurrection, they were also the first disciples to proclaim the resurrection!
But for a moment I would like to back-track. I’d like to back-track to that walk in the pre-dawn morning. We’ve talked before about this walk of the myrrh-bearing women in terms of their courage. It’s worth repeating. To recap: Both the Roman and the Jewish authorities were on the lookout to arrest and try any of the disciples of Jesus that they could catch, yet the women walked on. The temple leaders also feared that some of Jesus’ disciples might try to steal His body and proclaim that He had risen. That’s why they set a guard. They were a band of soldiers, and their job was to prevent anyone from approaching or opening the tomb, yet the women walked on. The men were hiding. The men were sleeping, yet the women walked on. Now that’s what I call courage, courage fueled by faith!

But now I want to reference another aspect of this walk. What is that? Well, it’s a walk that all of us are supposed to take every Holy Saturday night. We were prevented this year, but next year should be different, I pray! This the meaning of that sacred triple circumambulation we take around the temple. We are supposed to be imitating the Holy Myrrh-bearers. Isn’t that why we carry lit candles signifying our faith in the one Who is the Light of the World? Isn’t that why we sing “Thy resurrection O Christ our Saviour, the angels in heaven sing, enable us on earth, to glorify Thee with purity of heart.” Isn’t that about us, imitating the holy myrrhbearers, and singing about the resurrection in anticipation of the resurrection? Yes! Yes it is! And what about “purity of heart?” Doesn’t that refer to all of our efforts during Great Lent, all of our sacrifices, all of our repentance, all of our labors to change our lives, change our habits, change our attitudes and the way we deal with other people? Isn’t it all done so that we, as St Paul says, might become “a sweet perfume of Christ to God to those being saved; and to those who are perishing?” (2 Corinthian 2:15). And what does Yeshua ben Sira say? “Listen to me, my faithful children, and blossom like a rose growing by a stream of water. Send out fragrance like incense, and put forth blossoms like a lily. Diffuse your sweet aroma, and sing a hymn of praise; bless the Lord for all his works” (Sirach 39: 13-14).
So, dear ones, as we remember the Holy Myrrh-bearers today, let’s not forget that their walk of faith and courage needs to be an example for us for our whole lives. First: Always walk toward Christ, always seek Christ even though evils and dangers surround you. Even if others tell you He is dead, keep on walking. Never hide from Him or run away from Him. Second: Always carry with you in your hearts the flame of faith that recognizes that only Christ is the Light of the world and no one else. Only He can vanquish the darkness. Only He can conquer death. Third: Always make sure that you are striving to be a myrrh-bearer, a sweet fragrance of Christ in the world. Always seek to acquire the virtues and to shed the evil passions, then the Holy Spirit will lead you, lead you to that place where angels will await you, where Christ Himself will greet you, where things too heavy for you to move or too hard for you to bear will be rolled away forever, where the tomb is always empty, and death is no more. Amen. Christ is Risen!

THURSDAY NIGHT BIBLE STUDY

THURSDAY NIGHT BIBLE STUDY

Well, I thought I might be able to do this "live-streamed" tonight, but I'm sorry, it didn't happen. Maybe next week. Here's the text at any rate. I hope you find it instructive, edifying, and perhaps consoling as we remain in our bunkers. "Bring my soul out of prison that I might confess Thy Name!" (Psalm 141/142:7 LXX)

Galatians Chapter 4

1 Now I say that the heir, as long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all, 2 but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father.

This means that a child, even though he may be an heir to a kingdom, is subject to the provisions set down by his father prior to his death. He has regents, and guardians, all of whom speak for him and have authority over him until he comes to the appointed age. He's really no different than a slave even though he is, in potential, the master of all who are ruling for and over him. The Greek word used for “child” here is “nipios” meaning an infant. Figuratively it is also used for someone who is simple or lacks understanding.

3 Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world.

Paul says: We Jews, because we were infantile in our maturity and understanding, were subject (literally enslaved) to the rule of the Law. We were not free. “Elements of the world” means things like New Moons, Sabbaths, cycles of the sun and moon, etc., elements of the Law.

Paul wants to shame the Galatians by comparing them to infants and simple people, at least those who wanted to adopt the Jewish Law.

4 But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

The Law was the precursor to Christ. The Law was for people who were more simple, the Messiah came to save people...not only from sin and death, but from the Law itself, which kept people in servitude, and prevented them from becoming free and FAMILY. Remember what we read in the last chapter, in Galatians 3:13? “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law...” St Theophylact says: “Christ's incarnation accomplished two things: our redemption from the curse of the Law, and our adoption as sons.” Human beings were incapable of receiving it before because of their childish condition.

6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” 7 Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

How do we really know that we have been adopted as sons? St. Paul told us so earlier. Galatians 3:27 said what? “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” What does “putting on Christ” mean? It means being clothed in Christ. Do you remember the parable of the Prodigal Son? What happened when the youngest (read: most immature) son repented and was returning to his father's house? Luke 15:22 says that the father cried out to his servants: “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand...etc.” The son who was dead to the family was restored to the family. The robe stands for inclusion. Remember the man thrown out of the wedding because he failed to wear the wedding garment that was provided to him? He was summarily “excluded” from the event. The robe meant that you belonged there, that you were part of it, that you were included. The ring means a signet ring. It has an image or an inscription that means that the wearer belongs to a certain family, and bears the seal of that family. What do we say at every Chrismation that follows baptism? “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit!” In Holy Baptism and Holy Chrismation we were restored to God's immediate family, and made “robe bearers” and “seal bearers.” So were the Galatians. If they were already children and heirs of the Kingdom in Jesus Christ by means of faith and Holy Baptism, why would the Galatians be tempted to go to the Law; something they never had before? It's an early example of new convert craziness...over-zealous to be the most correct, to be hyper-Orthodox, going way beyond what they were taught; imagining that they know better.

New Section: Fears for the Church

8 But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods.

Paul is talking to those Galatians (the majority) which previously had been pagan idolators and had no idea about Who the true God was.

9 But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?

First Paul addresses them as those who “know God” but then quickly corrects himself to refer to them as ones “known by God.” Those who are known by God, but who do not “know” Him, are like inquirers, or like catechumens, who are as yet un-baptized. This is the position they have foolishly put themselves in because they want to adopt the Mosaic Law and the religious practices of the Jews. Instead of being enslaved to pagan darkness, they wish to adopt the weak and immature “elements” (he uses that word again) of the Law.

10 You observe days and months and seasons and years.
It is clear that the false prophets, the so-called “Judaisers” were preaching much more than circumcision. They were preaching the whole observance of Jewish feasts and fasts required by the old Law.

11 I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain.

The apostle is concerned, deeply concerned for them. This apostasy can deprive them of their salvation. But he holds out hope for them (that's why he uses the word “lest”). That's the purpose of this letter – to snatch them back from the precipice of false belief and apostasy..

12 Brethren, I urge you to become like me, for I became like you. You have not injured me at all.

This sentence is a bit confusing, and the translation is an interpretation. Other translations say “be as I am, for I am as you are.” The gist of the thing is: “Imitate me, do what I'm doing now. I've been where you are.” In 1 Corinthians Paul says to them: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). In other words, I follow Christ now, not the Law of Moses. Let's look now at Philippians chapter 3, verses 4b – 11 “If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh (here he means being a Jew and living your life according to the Law), I more so: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; 6 concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. 7 But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. 8 Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish (dung), that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; 10 that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, 11 if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

So Paul says that being a Christian cannot be about being a Jew and following the Law of Moses; it is about having faith in Jesus, and following and knowing Him.

“You have not injured me at all.” This is Paul's ointment on the wound. He has vigorously attacked their Judaizing direction, but he is still calling them brethren. They are still part of the family. They aren't yet hopelessly lost. They have not upset him beyond his love for them. His seeming harshness comes from love and concern, not hatred. After all, he is their father in Christ.

13 You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first. 14 And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. 15 What then was the blessing you enjoyed? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me.

Paul is asking the Galatians to remember all that he suffered, but in spite of that, he continued to preach the Gospel to them. He does not explain the nature of his infirmity, but it may have had something to do with a terrible eye infection of some kind. It must have looked hideous, because he commends them on their reception of him in spite of it. The clue about the eyes is explained in verse 15, where he says they would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to him, if it were possible.

16 Have I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth?

It's a rhetorical question. Has HE suddenly become their enemy because he denounces the teachings of those who seek to replace him as their father? No. It is the obligation of fathers to protect their children from harm no matter what stupid things they might do.

17 They zealously court you, but for no good; yes, they want to exclude you, that you may be zealous for them.

These false teachers are eager to convert you to their opinion, to their side. They want to divide you from me, so that you will more eagerly run to them.
They want to exclude you, shut you out, from the Orthodox (right believing) church as well, for this will be the result of your separation from me.
Remember, it's the devil who wants to divide you from me, not God. That's why he says “they zealously court you, but not for good.”

18 But it is good to be zealous in a good thing always, and not only when I am present with you.

The Apostle reminds them how zealous they were for the truth, for the authentic Gospel, when he was with them, teaching them. He is reminding them of their original zeal. He implies that his absence has allowed this calamity of take place, but he is not at fault for this. True disciples will remain steadfast even when the master is absent.

19 My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you,

Now Paul takes on the voice of a loving Mother who is desperately concerned for the welfare of her children. You need to start over, be re-born in Christ. You do not need a new baptism, but you need to start over, with a radical change in your thinking. This is, after all, the meaning of “metanoia” repentance. It means change of mind. As he says in another place to the Romans: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2)

20 I would like to be present with you now and to change my tone; for I have doubts about you.

Letters, like emails, cannot convey body language, tone of voice, the appearance of the face and eyes. He wishes he could be with them so they could really see his anguish. The translation “I have doubts about you” is a little inaccurate. The Greek word translated “doubts” is ἀποροῦμαι. It means “confused” or “at a loss what to do.” According to St. Theophylact, what Paul means is: “How I long to be with you and to weep for you; for we often resort to tears when we are perplexed and confounded.”

21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?

Now that Paul has assured them of his heart and his love, he now begins to show them what the Law and the Old Covenant are really all about. “Answer me!” he demands, “you who want to be under the Law, do you really understand what the Law says?”

22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman.

He instructs them using Genesis, the very first Book of the Law. (You should read this story so as to better understand the reference: Genesis 16: 17-18.)

23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise,

Meaning Ishmael was the result of a biological union from a slave, and Isaac was born from a miracle and promise of God from a free woman.

24 which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar— 25 for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.

Meaning: Ishmael stands for the Old Covenant.

26 but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.

Isaac is the child born of the Promise, whose mother is free. Jerusalem above stands for the Kingdom of Heaven. This refers to the vision of Ezekiel chapters. 40-48; and re-presented in Revelation 21:1-4 and beyond...(Read it)

27 For it is written:
“Rejoice, O barren,
You who do not bear!
Break forth and shout,
You who are not in labor!
For the desolate has many more children
Than she who has a husband.” [Isaiah 54:1 LXX]

Paul reveals another type from the Old Testament. Who are the “barren” here? Who are the “desolate?” The Gentiles. They gave birth to no prophets, no children of God. Yet Isaiah prophesied that more children of God would be coming from them than from Israel who Has a husband” i.e. God.

28 Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise.

By “we” here, St Paul means the Church, and specifically, the Gentiles who were then flooding into the church. He again makes the point that it is those who believe and who love and follow Christ, who are the new Chosen People, the new Children of God, the New Israel.

29 But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him 30 who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. (Read Genesis 21: 8-21)

Ishmael mocked Isaac – that is bullied, belittled, and yes, persecuted the younger Isaac. He and his mother Hagar are cast out from the family of God. They are the Gentiles. But God does not forget them, and promises, in the end, they will be a great nation. The fathers see in this the promise of the church and especially the Christian Roman Empire. But the apostles, and the early church see this persecution as the persecution of the Church, the children of the Promise, by the Jews – now regarded as the people of the flesh (in bondage to the dictates of the Law), and who have now become, themselves, the new Gentiles.

30 Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.

The unbelieving Jews, who had always identified themselves with Abraham and Isaac, are now being compared to Hagar & Ishmael by Paul. They are no longer in the Family of God. They are outside. The Law will not save them. One cannot inherit the Kingdom of God by the works of the Law.

The Apostle is saying to the Galatians: Never mind that the Jews are persecuting the Christians right now. In the end, YOU are the children of the Promise. Accommodating the Judaizers will not placate the unbelieving Jews. In fact, if you continue to do that, you will find yourselves “outside” with them.