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Sunday, September 22, 2019
In May of last year Matushka and I, (thanks to your generosity), were in the Holy Land. One of the first places that we visited was the city of Tiberias, located on the West side of the Sea of Galilee, otherwise known as Lake Gennesaret. I had been to Tiberias before, even stayed in Tiberias at a nice hotel with the late and ever-memorable Archbishop Job, Archpriest Dimitry Oselinsky, and a wonderful OCA tour group. But I don’t remember there being any holy sites to visit in Tiberias. It was a hub from which to travel to holy sites throughout Galilee and Samaria, but nothing in Tiberias itself. But the Holy Land is always full of surprises, full of delights, and Tiberias proved to be one of them. Unsure of where we were going, our Greco-Palestinian guide, Yianni, took us to the gate of what appeared to be a walled residence. Yianni reached up to ring a brass bell suspended near the front gate, and soon, the heavy gate opened and a young Greek Orthodox monk led us inside onto a lovely flower-filled garden courtyard. From the serene, rose-scented courtyard, steps lead us down to the monastery church, its air of mystery enhanced by gilded icons, brass lamps and elaborately carved wood. Inside the church there are three altars, three chapels. One is dedicated to the 12 apostles, another to Ss. Peter and Paul, and the last to St. Mary Magdalene. Sadly, I don’t remember the name of the young monk, but his joy and his enthusiasm were unforgettable, especially when he told us that on this site, 2,000 years ago, Jesus once spoke to a large crowd by the shores of the lake, sitting in Peter’s boat. This, he said, is also the spot where Jesus told Peter and the others to thrust the boat out into the Lake to go fishing again. And this, he said, is the spot where they hauled in so many fish that the boats were beginning to sink. This was the spot of the miraculous draught of fish. We were surprised and we were delighted. And that’s just how God is, isn’t He? The Apostles were certainly surprised and delighted with the miraculous draft of fish, and we were surprised and delighted to be standing on the very spot where it happened. Pilgrimages are like that, especially pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
Surprising and delightful. That’s how our relationship with God should always be. If our Christian life is dull, boring, and unexciting, then we are doing something wrong. Like what? Perhaps we haven’t been washing our nets! What do I mean? Let’s look. Before the whole miracle story begins, the Gospel says that the fishermen were washing their nets. It is kind of like a prerequisite to the miracle. Why were the disciples washing their nets? The answer is simple, if you think about it. The nets had to be washed because besides fish, they also gathered all kinds of other nasty debris. The method of fishing used at that time consisted of throwing nets into the water, allowing them to sink and pulling a drawstring to close the net and then pulling it back into the boat. This method of fishing will bring in any fish that are there, but it will also collect a good amount of debris as well-- dead fish, sticks, shellfish, garbage thrown overboard, seaweed, etc. would all end up in the net. Much of this flotsam and jetsam would have to be painstakingly picked out of the net and washed out of the net. It was a long and tedious job, but taking care of the nets was a primary concern for all fishermen.
We know, at least I think we do, that fishing is used repeatedly in the Bible as an analogy for preaching the Gospel. The fish are human beings, souls to be brought to God and placed in the boat of the Church. The fishermen represent the apostles. So what are the nets? The nets are the words and actions that the apostles must use to bring people to Christ. For us, who are not apostles, the nets still mean something: They represent our relationship with Christ, our life in Christ. Is Christ able to break through all of the flotsam and jetsam that clogs and clutters our lives? What do I mean? Well, let’s think of ourselves as a water pipe. If the pipe is clear the water flows. If the pipe is clogged, there is no flow, and the pipe is useless. In this analogy, it depends on us how clogged the pipeline gets.
Joshua ben Sirach says: “Whether a man be rich or poor, if he have a good heart toward the Lord, he shall at all times rejoice with a cheerful countenance” (Sirach 26:4). That’s what we want, isn’t it: surprise, delight, joy? How do we acquire this “good heart toward the Lord” so that we can begin to unclog the pipe, and clean up our nets, so that we can always “rejoice with a cheerful face?” Let’s find out.
St. Paul tells us in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (or your “nous.”) So for Paul, the opposite of a clean net, a clean pipe, a clean heart, is being conformed to this present, fallen, twisted age. In order to scrub and clean our nets so that Christ can break through and bring us joy, means to live differently, to think differently, to act differently in this world. That’s why St. Paul wrote: “Come out from among them and be separate” says the Lord. “Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters” (2 Corinthians 6:17-18). So, the nets are examples of the good, authentic, righteous lives that Jesus taught and asks his followers to lead. So what then is the debris? It's all the things that interfere with living that life... our greed, jealousy, lust, ambition, self-love, whatever prevents us from living the best, most joyous, most surprised, and most delighted lives that we can possibly live. Perhaps we are not called to be fishers of men like the apostles were, but we are still called to be beacons of light in the world. What did the Lord say?  “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). So let’s take care to clean our nets. It means to clean up our words and clean up our lives. Let’s work hard and painstakingly to ensure that Christ, the Living Water, can come flowing into our lives everyday, replacing dead religiousness with living faith, a living relationship, filled with surprise and delight. Amen.

“It Is No Longer I Who Live....” Sunday September 15, 2019
Dear Ones, Today is the Sunday after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Life-giving Cross, and with this in mind, I’d like to look at the Epistle reading appointed for today. It’s taken from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, and in fact, I’m only going to take one verse from it. Here it is:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
What does St Paul mean when he says: “I have been crucified with Christ?” He wasn’t literally there, on Golgotha was he? He wasn’t nailed to a cross like one of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ, was he? No, of course he wasn’t. So what does he mean “I have been crucified with Christ?”
We have a clue from another epistle of his. In Romans 6 he writes: “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be rendered inoperative, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Romans 6: 3-6). St. John Chrysostom says: “In these words, ‘I am crucified with Christ,’ he (Paul) alludes to Baptism” (Hom.II Galat.). Was Paul baptized? Yes he was, by Ananias, one of the 70 apostles and first bishop of the city of Damascus (Acts 9: 10-18). By extension then, Paul is suggesting that all of us who are baptized into Christ, are crucified together with Him. He took each and every one of us to the Cross with Him, and there He put sin to death. Again, St John Chrysostom says: “by death he signifies not what is commonly understood (i.e. biological death), but a death to sin.” This is why even the form of baptism is an image of death and burial. But of course, no one is left submerged under the water, are they? No, we are raised up to newness of life. What does St Paul say next, in this morning’s Epistle?
“It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” What does it mean? It means that because I have believed and been baptized, the old “me,” the sinful “me” is put aside, “unplugged” if you will. Now, in its place, the “new me” lives, the “new me” who has put on Christ, and the “new me” in whom Christ lives and dwells by means of the Holy Spirit. St. John again says: “if you remain dead to sin, you live to God, but if you let it (sin) live again, you are the ruin of your new life” (Ibid.). In other words, if I go and re-plug-in my old sinful life, my old sinful ways, then I abandon the “new me,” the “old me” is revived, and the Holy Spirit flees from me. Do you remember what King David prayed after his terrible fall into sin? “Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me!” (Psalm 50/51 lxx). What a terrifying thought! We can literally drive away the Holy Spirit!
To continue, the Apostle next writes: “and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” St. Paul is saying that “even though I am still living in this earthly body, I live a heavenly life due to the grace granted to me because of my faith in Christ.” Everything that I have and everything that I am has been given to me by my Lord Jesus Christ. Why does He do this for me? He does it because He loves me. In fact, He loves me so much that He died on the Cross for me. King David in another Psalm once asked the question: “What shall I render unto the Lord for all that He hath rendered unto me?” (Psalm 115:3 lxx). The question is a rhetorical one, because there is nothing that I can repay to God for all His goodness toward me. That doesn’t mean that I do nothing. First I must work to increase my faith. It is by faith that I am able to lead a heavenly life. It’s by faith that the “new me” can prevail over the old, sinful me. St Mark the Ascetic says: “Everything good is given by the Lord providentially; and he who has faith that this is so will not lose what he has been given.” So, number one, work on bolstering your faith.
And number two, give thanks. St. Nikolai Velimirovich says: “For if God does not for a moment tire of giving us good things, how can we tire of thanking Him for these good things?” And what do we sing at every festal Vigil? At the polyeleos, the Полиелей, we sing: “O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, Alleluia; for His mercy endureth forever, Alleluia!” (cf Psalm 135:1 lxx).
And third, share with others what good things God has done for you. Do you remember the man who was delivered from the “legion” of demons? He wanted to be a disciple and follow Jesus, but what did the Lord say to him? “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19). So what does that mean for us? St. Isaak the Syrian tells us: “Be a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are; for although your debt to Him is so great, yet He is not seen exacting any payment from you, but from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you” (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 60). Thank you God for your kindness. Thank you God for your goodness. Thank you God for your loving providence toward us all. Amen.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Birth of the Mother of God, the Nativity of the Theotokos. Last night at the Vigil service we heard these words: “Today grace begins to bear fruit, revealing to the world the Mother of God, through whom those on earth are united to those in heaven, for the salvation of our souls” (5th sticheron on “Lord I Have Cried”).
I’d like to take special note of the words “Today grace begins to bear fruit.” The second aspect or focus of our present feast is that of grace overcoming fruitlessness, grace overcoming barrenness. Nearly every verse, every sticheron, every hymn of this holy day expresses joy about two things: the birth of the Virgin Mary, and the overcoming of the barrenness of her parents, Joachim and Anna.
St. Andrew of Crete, reflecting on this, wrote: “Thus, Joachim and (Anna) lamented that they had no offspring to continue their line; yet the spark of hope was not extinguished in them completely: both intensified their prayer about the granting to them of a child...In imitation of the prayer of Hannah (1 Samuel 1: 10), both, without leaving the temple, fervently beseeched God that He would undo their sterility and make fruitful their childlessness. And they did not give up on their efforts, until their wish be fulfilled. The Bestower of gifts did not disregard the gift of their hope. Unceasing divine power came quickly to help those praying and beseeching God, and it enabled both the one and the other to conceive and bear a child. In such manner, from sterile and barren parents, as it were from irrigated trees, was borne for us a most glorious fruition — the all-pure Virgin” (Hom. on Nat. Theotokos).
The Prayer of Hannah was this: “O Lord God of Sabaoth, if thou wilt indeed look upon the humiliation of thine handmaid, and remember me, and give to thine handmaid a child, then will I indeed dedicate him to thee till the day of his death.” Hannah and Elkanah (her husband), and Joachim and Anna after them, did not give up hope. They did not give up on their podvig. There is a wonderful story from the Old Testament that goes like this: When God’s People were wandering in the desert, some of the men began to complain and rebel against the leadership of Moses and his brother Aaron. God spoke to Moses and He said to tell the people to bring one rod, that is a wooden staff, a walking stick, from each tribe, so that there would be a total of twelve rods collected. One rod for every tribe. Every man's rod would have the head of the tribe's name written on it. God told Moses to write Aaron's name on his rod for the tribe of Levi. God then told Moses to take all of the rods and lay them in the tabernacle. God said He would choose one man's rod and it would blossom. God said that this should end all of the complaining that the children of Israel were doing. Moses told all the people what God had said and everyone of the tribes gave one man's rod with their name on it. Moses laid all the rod's in the tabernacle. The next day, Moses went into the tabernacle and guess what?? Aaron's rod had buds and it had flowers, and it even had ripe almonds on it! Moses brought out all the rods of the tribes and every man took his rod. God told Moses to take Aaron's rod back into the tabernacle and it would be kept as token or a sign against the rebels to stop complaining against God or they would die. So the purpose of Aaron's rod budding was a sign to all the people that God had chosen Moses and Aaron to lead them, and that they should not give up hope. But even more than this, it was a sign from God for the future. Many years would pass. There would be many temptations, many failures, many tears, and much pain ahead for the People of God, but in the end, a dead stick would blossom and bear the most precious fruit, the barren Anna would give birth to the most fragrant blossom, the Unfading Flower, the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.
Sometimes in our spiritual lives we can feel a bit like dead sticks ourselves, can’t we? Sometimes we just seem to feel empty, right? Sometimes we feel like God is ignoring us or God has abandoned us. Sometimes we feel like David felt when he wrote Psalm 21/22 “O God, my God, attend unto me; why hast Thou forsaken me? Far from my salvation are the words of my transgression. My God I will cry by day, and wilt Thou not hearken? And by night, shall it not be folly unto me?...Depart not from me, for tribulation is nigh, for there is none to help me...”etc. Sometimes this is due to testing, God is testing us to bolster our faith. We must struggle to choose God, even when He seems far away. But most of the time, as in King David’s case, God does, indeed, withdraw from us for a time because of our sinful thoughts or actions.
St. Nikitas Stithatos in the Philokalia writes, “If while you are engaged in ascetic labour and hardship God withdraws from you because of some bodily lapse, or lapse of tongue or thought, do not take this to be strange or untoward. The lapse is yours and due to yourself.” And if this is the experience of those who are actively striving and laboring for their salvation, how much more will it be our experience who are always sinful, lazy and unmotivated. St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco says:
“God’s grace always assists those who struggle, but this does not mean that a struggler is always in the position of a victor. Sometimes in the arena the wild animals did not touch the righteous ones, but by no means were they all preserved untouched. What is important is not victory or the position of a victor, but rather the labor of striving towards God and devotion to Him.
Though a man may be found in a weak state, that does not at all mean that he has been abandoned by God. On the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ was in trouble, as the world sees things. But when the sinful world considered Him to be completely destroyed, in fact He was victorious over death and hades. The Lord did not promise us positions as victors as a reward for righteousness, but told us, “In the world you will have tribulation — but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). The power of God is effective when a person asks for the help from God, acknowledging his own weakness and sinfulness. This is why humility and the striving towards God are the fundamental virtues of a Christian.”
Joachim and Anna were certainly in a weak state. They must have felt like the whole world, everything and everyone, was conspiring against them. They may even have felt like God was very far away and not hearing them, but they never gave up. They continued to go every day to the temple to pray and to make their offerings. They continued to pray every day at home as well, both together and separately. They ignored those who ridiculed or belittled them. They forced themselves to rely on their faith and their confidence that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). And boy were they called according to His purpose! We should do everything possible to follow their example in our own lives, shouldn’t we? I’ll end with a quote from one of my favorite saints, John of Kronstadt: “
The parents of the Ever-Virgin sorrowed long over their barrenness; they prayed long and fervently to the Lord that He loose this barrenness, which was considered a punishment from God for sins. They gave much alms in order to incline the mercy of the All-Merciful, endured the reproach of their countrymen, and through this sorrow and ceaseless prayer and good works, they gradually purified their spirits, and burned ever greater with love and dedication to God, thus being prepared by God’s Providence to give blessed birth to the Most Blessed Daughter, chosen out of all people to be the Mother of the Incarnate Word.”  Amen.

Woe to you, Scribes, Pharisees, Hypocrites!
Matthew 23: 29-32
“Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.  Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.”
Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would not “judge according to appearance, nor condemn according to hearsay but He shall judge the cause of the humble and shall reprove the lowly of the earth; He shall smite the earth with the Word of His mouth and with the breath of His lips shall He destroy the ungodly” (Isaiah 11:3-4 lxx).  Jesus used strong language to warn the religious leaders about the vanity of appearance and pretense.  Tombs were often placed by the sides of roads.  They were painted white which made them glisten in the midday sun, especially around the time of the great feasts, so that people would not accidentally touch them and incur ritual impurity.  Jesus warns that what truly corrupts the soul is not ritual impurity but the impurity of sinful attitudes, such as pride, greed, sloth, envy, hatred,  lust, and gluttony.  The scribes and Pharisees were intensely religious in their outward observances, but their outward show didn't match the inner reality of the state of their hearts.  They not only neglected the poor and the weak, but they were intolerant towards anyone who challenged their unique interpretation of religion.  That is why so many of the prophets were persecuted in the past. “Fill up the measure of your fathers” means “take this to its logical conclusion,” finish the job; you killed the prophets because you rejected their word. Now you will kill the Messiah, God Himself, because He spoke directly to you, and you utterly rejected His word and Himself.”
Jesus chastised the religious leaders for demanding from others standards which they refused to satisfy themselves.  They professed, or feigned admiration for the prophets by building their tombs while at the same time they opposed their message and closed their ears to the word of God.  They shut themselves to heaven and they hindered others from understanding God's word.  They rejected the Messiah because their hearts were hardened to the voice of God. Only the humble of heart can receive wisdom and understanding from God.

The Apostles, Our Fathers
Sunday, August 25, 2019; 1 Corinthians 4:9-16
Dear Ones,
Today we celebrate the transfer of the relics of the Holy Apostle Bartholomew. He, like all of the Apostles, was chosen by God to spread the good news about Jesus Christ. He labored in Syria, and Asia Minor, where he endured much suffering, being imprisoned, stoned, maligned. When preaching in Greater Armenia, he was falsely accused, arrested, convicted, and finally crucified upside down. Similar to this was the life of nearly all of the Apostles, and this will be a theme for today’s sermon.
The Prophet Jeremiah once asked the Lord: “Why did I come out of the womb to see only trouble and sorrow, and to end my days in shame?” (Jer. 20:18). So...what do we know about Jeremiah? We know that he lived 600 years before Christ, and that he was called by God to be a prophet at the age of 15! (Pay attention teenagers!) Jeremiah prophesied for twenty-three years, railing at the Jews for abandoning the only true God and for worshipping idols. He predicted that they would suffer deep sorrows and devastating wars as a result of their apostasy. Often Jeremiah would stand by the gates of the city, and at the entrance to the Temple, wherever the people gathered, and he denounced them with anathemas and with copious tears. The people, however, mocked and abused him, and they even tried to kill him. Our Lord Jesus Christ, Himself, was out in the public, preaching, exhorting, healing, and appealing to the people to repent. He too, was subject to abuse, mockery, attempts to kill Him, and finally scourging and crucifixion.
Now with this as a background, we hear St. Paul this morning say these words: “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and are homeless; And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: Being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the world, [and are] the refuse of all things unto this day.”
Why is the Apostle talking about his own suffering? Is he boasting? Not at all! St. John Chrysostom explains: “(The Apostle) said these things in order to inspire the Christians to consider the way that they were living their lives, and to zealously desire to follow the example of the Apostles; their dangers and their indignities, rather than their honors and glories. For these, not the other, are what the Gospel requires” (Homily 13 on 1 Corinthians). Further on in this same Epistle Paul says: “Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Someone once said that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and so it is. In a perfect world, children would grow up learning to imitate the righteous and pious behavior of their God-loving parents. St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians wrote: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the nurture and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). And how often have we read in the Lives of the Saints that they were born “to devout parents?” Now some people in modern America DID grow up with this advantage, but probably most did not. That’s OK! God has provided us with help – extra parents, spiritual parents, in the form of Godparents, and especially in the form of our bishops, our priests, our father confessors, our gerontas and gerontissas. These become, by grace, our spiritual parents. Hence, St. Paul continues in today’s Epistle:
“I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I admonish you. For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me” (vs. 14-16).
St. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that he is their spiritual father. He offered them a new birth by means of his preaching of the Gospel, and by their acceptance of Holy Baptism. Now, I want to digress for a moment...a little side note...by calling himself the “father” of the Corinthian church, doesn’t St. Paul violate the Lord’s commandment to “call no man on earth your father for one is your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9)? You are aware, I’m sure, of how some Protestants accuse us of violating this so-called commandment when we call our priests or monks “father.” St. Paul obviously interprets the words of Jesus differently. He writes in another place, “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment” (Philem. 10). So does St. John the Theologian, “I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning” (1 John 2:13). Even Jesus Himself, in His parable of the rich man and Lazarus, has the rich man crying out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus.” (Luke 16:24). So what did Jesus mean?
In that quote from Matthew 23: 1-11, Jesus says “don’t call any man ‘father,’ but He also says don’t call anybody “master” and don’t call anybody “teacher.” Why? Because in this entire chapter He is railing against the false fathers, the false masters, the false teachers who are the Scribes and the Pharisees. Here we find all those “woes” being hurled at them because they are hypocrites, blind fools, whitewashed tombs, a brood of vipers, etc. So when Jesus tells His disciples not to call people father, master, or teacher, He is specifically referring to the earthly Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes of dead Judaism. He is decidedly NOT talking about the spiritual fathers, teachers, or masters of the Church. That’s why we feel perfectly fine about calling Professor Serge Verhovskoy a teacher, and Archbishop Benjamin “Vladyka” which means “Master,” and Abbot Tryphon “Father.”
To sum up, then, Yeshua ben Sira says: “Those who honor their father atone for their sins; and those who honor their mother store up riches.” The highest honor we can show to our spiritual fathers and mothers is to imitate them in righteousness, devotion, piety, and love. The highest honor we can show them is by bearing our pain, our suffering, our sorrows, our disappointments, and our trials with patient dignity, and stedfast trust in the providence of God. St. Peter of Damascus in the Philokalia writes: “Patient endurance kills the despair that kills the soul; it teaches the soul to take comfort and not to grow listless in the face of its many battles and afflictions.”  St. Nilus of Sinai says: “He who endures distress, will be granted joys; and he who bears with unpleasant things, will not be deprived of the pleasant.” And finally, St. Anthony of Optina wrote, “No matter what bitterness has befallen you, no matter what unpleasantness has happened to you, say, “I shall endure this for Jesus Christ!” and it will be easier for you, for the name of Jesus Christ is powerful. Through it all, unpleasantness is calmed, and demons disappear. Your disappointments will also be calmed and your fearfulness will be quieted.”
May God grant us all the blessing to hear and to imitate our spiritual fathers and mothers through the grace and loving-kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ; with Whom, to the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory, power, honor, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Delivered 8/18/2019
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today we continue our celebration of the Great Feast of the Falling Asleep, the Resurrection, and the Assumption into heaven of the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. Now, you know, I’m sure, that one of the titles of the Mother of God is the “All-Holy One,” in Greek, “Panagia.” All of our Orthodox bishops wear an icon of the Theotokos, also called a “Panagia” around their necks in lieu of a pectoral cross. Do you know why? Because the Virgin Mary is an image of the Church. She is the living ark, the human temple that contained in her womb the uncontainable God.
In this morning’s Epistle, St. Paul too reflects on the nature of the Church. To illustrate his teaching he uses two examples, that of a farm and that of a building. To start off he says:
9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building.
The Apostles, says Paul, are the co-workers of God in Christ. It means that it is their job to teach, to preach, to establish churches and to tend to them. That is their heavenly calling. The Bishops are the successors of the Apostles, in most respects. Then he says that the believers, the People of God, are the field, they are the soil, they are the farm. Clearly the Apostle is making reference to Christ’s parable of the sower in which Christ is the sower of the seeds, and we are various types of soil. Some types allow the word of grace to penetrate, but most do not. In order for soil to be receptive to the good seed of the Gospel, it must first be broken by humility, watered by holy baptism, it must have the stones removed, as in stony hearts, by the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, and it must be fertilized, nourished, fed, by the Holy Scriptures, the Holy Fathers, the Lives of the Saints, and by the Holy Eucharist.
Next the Apostle says that we are God’s Building. The Holy Apostle Peter says that Christ is the Precious Living Cornerstone of the Church, but we too are Living Stones, “being built together as a spiritual house...” (1 Peter 2:5). Stones, however, are of varying quality.
In a very early Christian text (c. 120 AD) called the Shepherd of Hermas, a Lady, who represents the Mother of God and therefore the Church, says to Hermas: “Lo! do you not see opposite to you a great tower, built upon the waters, of splendid square stones?" For the tower was built square by those six young men who had come with her. But myriads of men were carrying stones to it, some dragging them from the depths, others removing them from the land, and they handed them to these six young men. They were taking them and building; and those stones that were dragged out of the depths they placed in the building just as they were: for they were polished and fitted exactly into the other stones, and became so united one with another that the lines of juncture could not be perceived. And in this way the building of the tower looked as if it were made out of one stone. Those stones, however, which were taken from the earth suffered a different fate; for the young men rejected some of them, some they fitted into the building, and some they cut into smaller pieces, and cast far away from the tower. Many other stones, however, lay around the tower, and the young men did not use them in building; for some of them were rough, others had cracks in them, others were too short, and others were white and round, but did not fit into the building of the tower.”
St. Paul says that the foundation of the Church is, and can only be Christ. He says: “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (v. 11). Then he says, “Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day (of Judgment) will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” Don’t misunderstand. The Apostle is not at all talking about some imagined Purgatorial fire. This is a late and unprecedented teaching of the Latins, unknown to the ancient Church. Nor is he hinting that at the Second Coming everybody will be saved, saints and sinners alike. That is an ancient heretical theologoumenon known as the “Apokatstasis.” No. What he is saying is that in the End, there will be different degrees of reward, different degrees of glory. He hints at this later in the Epistle when he writes: “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15: 41-42). Why do you think it is that some apostles, like Peter, James and John, were closer to Christ than the others? Did Jesus love them more? Not at all. It is because they worked harder to be closer to Him. In the Resurrection, all who love Christ and strive to live in accordance with His commandments will receive the same reward, the same silver denarius, because the reward is Christ. But not all will receive the same glory.
This morning’s Epistle ends with these words:
16 Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If anyone defiles (φθερεῖ; defiles, soils, corrupts) the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.
So, the question for us is: what kind of stones are we? Are we precious and valuable stones? Are we strong and smooth stones? How does a stone get smooth anyway? By polishing, which means by humility. Are we cracked or weak stones which the other stones cannot rely on for building? What do we contribute to the edifying, the building-up of the church? What glory will we receive at the End of Time, when all our chances cease and judgment is at hand?

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Brothers and Sisters, to the world the Christian faith is ridiculous. An early Christian writer named Tertullian, sometime around the year 200 AD, reflected on this when he wrote: “The Son of God died; this is believable because it is nonsense; and that He rose from the grave is certain, because it is impossible." (Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ.) Being a Christian is all about having faith and believing in what the rest of the world thinks is absurd.
We know that the Dormition is the oldest Christian feast honouring the Virgin Mary, but we don't know exactly how and when it first came to be celebrated.
Jerusalem had been an officially pagan city for more than 200 years.
The Emperor Hadrian (76-138), (the same guy, who out of fear of the Scots, built a famous wall between England and Scotland to keep them out,) had leveled the city of Jerusalem in around the year 135. He rebuilt it and renamed it “Aelia Capitolina” When Hadrian rebuilt the Holy City, no Jews were allowed there. It became a Roman, and decidedly pagan, city. The Temple Mount became Jupiter's Mount, and other sacred sites became temples dedicated to other pagan gods.
It was not until the time of the first Christian Roman Emperor, St. Constantine the Great (c. 285-337), and especially through the efforts of his saintly mother, Queen Helen, that the Holy Places began to be uncovered, and Christian shrines and churches began to be built on these sites. Christians and Jews were free, once again, to live in the Holy City.
The Church of the Resurrection was constructed in 326, and other sacred sites began to be restored and memories of the life of Our Lord began to be celebrated by the people of Jerusalem. One of the memories retained in the mind of the Christians was about His Most Holy Mother, and centered around the "Tomb of Mary," in the Kidron Valley at the foot of the Mount of Olives. It was in this area where the early Christian community had lived prior to its expulsion. At this time, for sure, the feast of the "Remembrance of the Falling Asleep of Mary" was being celebrated. Later it would become known as the feast of the Dormition (from the Latin “dormitio” or “falling-asleep”) of the Theotokos.
In the beginning, the "Remembrance of the Falling Asleep of Mary" was marked only in Palestine, but later it was extended by the emperor to all the churches of the Empire. In the West, and even in some Orthodox churches, we see the feast being given another name, the  "Assumption of Mary." This is due to the Church's memory regarding the body of the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, being taken-up, “assumed,” into heaven after being raised from the dead.
This is a very ancient belief, dating back to the time of the apostles themselves. This is part of that tradition of “believing in the unbelievable” which is so much a part of our Christian experience and faith. I always find it odd that some people, even devout people, will question the church's memory about the assumption of Mary, but won't hesitate to confess the bodily resurrection of Christ, which is based on that same memory and faith of the church. What was clear from the beginning was that there were no relics of Mary to be venerated, and that her empty tomb stood on the edge of Jerusalem not far from the site of her death, and that that location soon became a place of pilgrimage, as it remains to this day.
At the Fourth Ecumenical Council, held in a suburb of Constantinople called Chalcedon in 451, bishops from throughout the Roman Empire gathered together. The Emperor Marcian asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem to bring the relics of the Virgin to Constantinople to be enshrined in the capitol. The patriarch explained to the emperor that there were no relics of Mary in Jerusalem, that "Mary had died in the presence of the apostles; but her tomb is empty....the apostles declaring that her body had been taken up into heaven."
In the eighth century, St. John of Damascus was famous for giving sermons at the holy places in Jerusalem. At the Tomb of Mary, he expressed in a hymn the belief of the Church on the meaning of the feast: "Although thy body was duly buried, it did not remain in the state of death, neither was it dissolved by decay...Thou art translated to thy heavenly home, O our Lady, Queen and true Theotokos.”
All the feast days of the Virgin commemorate the great mysteries of her life and her part in the work of the salvation and regeneration of the world.  Her whole being was radiant with divine life from the very beginning, preparing her for the exalted role of mother of the Saviour, the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
The death and assumption of the Mother of God declares and confirms God's  choice of her as the one who was “highly favored” and “full of grace” in that it was not fitting that the flesh that had given life to God himself should undergo corruption. The Dormition, Resurrection, and Assumption into heaven of Mary is the fulfillment of God's promises to her, as she ends her earthly life and begins her heavenly life as the protector and intercessor for the whole world. The present feast turns our eyes in that heavenly direction, where we hope to follow when our earthly life is over. As I've said many times before, the feast days of the Church are not just commemorations of historical events; they do not simply look at the past. They look at the present and they look to the future and give us an opportunity to pause and reflect on our own relationship with God.
The 13th Kontakion from the Akathist for the Dormition reads: "O All-hymned Mother of the immortal King of Heaven and Earth, Christ our God, living even after death, accept from us this our present offering for thine all-honored Dormition; and in this life and at the time of our death, deliver us from every evil assault, danger and torment, and vouchsafe us to be worthy of the Heavenly Kingdom, O Queen, who cry unto thee, Alleluia!"

Matthew 18: 21-22
“Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’”
The problem of forgiveness is universal, and is as ancient as Adam and Eve. Jews at the time of Christ were debating about many of the fine points of the Law of Moses, and the idea of forgiveness was to be found among them. The traditions of the early rabbis in the Talmud reflect the outcome of some of these early debates. Yoma 86b states the following: “If a man commits a transgression, the first, second and third time he is forgiven, the fourth time he is not forgiven.” This rule or principle is apropos to the Day of Atonement, also known as Yom Kippur. On the days leading up to Yom Kippur, a devout Jew would do his best to atone for his sins against God and his neighbor by asking forgiveness. If he kept coming back with the same transgressions, the rabbis decreed that there was a three-strike law in effect. He could only be forgiven three times, and no more.
It is in the context of such debates, that the holy apostle Peter asks the Lord:  “Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” And the Lord Jesus answers him:  “I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times.” The apostle thought he was more than doubling what was the currently accepted norm for forgiveness. The aim of Jesus was to show him how much greater is God's forgiveness than man's. And so He illustrates this teaching with a Parable, the Unforgiving or the Ungrateful Servant (verses 23-35). It is a story about three people: a king, a first servant and a second servant. The King is God, the first servant owes 10,000 talents to the king, the second owes 100 silver coins to the first servant.  Both amounts are multiples of ten. The first is a huge multiple of ten, the second much, much smaller. Ten represents the 10 Commandments given to Moses, a standard by which every person is judged, and by which we judge ourselves when we are preparing for Communion. Don't misunderstand this parable; WE are the ones who owe the 10,000 talents. We Christians. Aren't WE the close servants of the King? What are we called when we approach Holy Communion? “Servant of God” so-and-so. Right? Haven't we been forgiven everything by God, by virtue of our Holy Baptism, by means of Holy Confession, and in that very Sacrament of Holy Communion? 10, 000 talents, that's what we owe God in the treasury of Forgiveness. How much is 10,000 talents worth in today's money? Let's see. A denarius was a small silver coin equal to one day's wages for the common worker. (So the second guy owed 100 of these.) One talent, which is a bar of silver, is equal to 6,000 denarii, which would take an ordinary laborer 6,000 days (16 years) to earn. Let's convert that into US dollars; if an average day's wages is assumed to be 100 dollars, one talent is worth around 600,000 dollars. Since one talent is such a large amount of money, how much is ten thousand talents, worth? It is a tremendous amount of money, which is worth about 160,000 years' worth of wages! The number is, of course, astronomical! It's like our National Debt. It is, however, a symbol. It means "More money than you can imagine, and more than any slave could ever possibly repay." The depths of God's forgiveness are equally unfathomable. Christ poured out forgiveness on the Cross once and for all, saying: "Father forgive them! Forgive them all! Forgive them everything!"  But our lack of forgiveness toward others separates us from that grace of forgiveness. If we hang on to our grievances, we let go of our forgiveness. God in His mercy has forgiven us so much more than we could ever repay. Our sin in refusing to forgive our brother or sister becomes an instant impediment to our obtaining the mercy and forgiveness God has made possible for us through the sacrifice of His Son. God's forgiveness is withheld from us unless we choose to be channels of mercy and forgiveness ourselves. St Paul, who knew first hand the depths of God's forgiveness, wrote: "Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ" (Ephesians 4:32). Even when it is hard to forgive for our own sake, we are still called to the unity of forgiveness that is in Jesus Christ for His love and forgiveness is "the love that loves to the end" (See John 13:1).
When we forgive those who have hurt us we receive God's forgiveness. Forgiving others allows us to see how Christ could forgive all those who mocked Him, beat Him, lied at His trial and those who nailed Him to the Cross, which includes all of us, for we all spiritually crucify Him again and again, each and every day, each time we sin. If we live in Christ's righteousness, in His holiness and virtue, when we look upon those who have offended us, we should not see the face of our enemy, but, looking with divine compassion, we should see the face of Christ who loved us and forgave us. Love and forgiveness must be stronger than sin and offense. It must be our consistent choice. That's why St. Jerome said: “Therefore the Lord commanded Peter utilizing this parable of the king and his servant who owed him ten thousand talents, and was forgiven by his lord upon his entreaty, that he also should, in similar fashion, forgive his fellow servants their lesser trespasses.”

FEEDING THE 5,000 2019
FEEDING OF THE 5,000 2019
Matthew 14: 14-22
The Gospel this morning tells us that Jesus and his disciples were eager to get out of Bethsaida and head back to Capernaum. Why was that? Because Herod had just had John the Baptist beheaded, and the disciples were afraid that Herod would send troops to arrest Jesus along with themselves! So, they got into a boat and headed back toward their home base in Capernaum, to Peter’s house. But what happened? They stopped half way, and pulled into a place called, in Greek, “Epta Piga” or Seven Springs. Why did they do that? Because the crowds that been in Bethsaida were walking on foot, along the shore, trying to catch up to Jesus. Jesus was moved deeply at their willingness to suffer such hardships in order to be with Him. That’s what it says, He was “moved with compassion.” In other words, He rewarded their dedication and labor by stopping for them, teaching them, and healing those who were sick among them.
First of all this teaches us that the Lord Jesus is a true human being. He is God, too, but He is also fully human. He feels what we feel and He responds to things like we respond to things. He does not have sinful reactions, though, like we do. He does not flash with passions like we do. Even when He chased the money-changers out of the temple, it was righteous indignation, not passionate anger, that inspired Him to do so.
In today’s Gospel Jesus shows His deep love and deep compassion for those precious human sheep that were so desperate to follow their Good Shepherd.
Why do we call Jesus “the Good Shepherd?” Because He says it Himself: “I am the good shepherd” (Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός) “the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). A good shepherd cares about his sheep. He tends to them. He makes sure that they are safe. He makes sure that they have enough to eat and enough to drink. That’s what was happening in today’s reading. The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, is more about love than it is about food. The truth is, nobody loves us more than Jesus does. That’s just a fact. The Lord said in another place, “No one has greater love than this, that one should lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Didn’t Jesus do exactly that? Didn’t He die on the Cross so that we might live? Now, I want us to look at something else here. The English word “friends” is a little flat. The Greek word is φίλων. In another place Jesus says to His disciples, “No longer do I call you servants...But I have called you friends” (φίλους; John 15:15). Philous, Philon, what does it mean? Well, what does Phil-adelphia mean? It means Brotherly Love, the City of Brotherly Love. Philous, philon, means dear ones, loved ones. It’s much deeper than mere friends. When we speak of our “loved ones” who do we mean? Right, our closest family members. By calling His disciples “friends,” He’s really calling them treasured ones, cherished ones, people whom He loves, family, not merely disciples, or students, or pupils, or acquaintances.
At every Divine Liturgy, at the First Antiphon, we sing, “The Lord is compassionate and merciful, long-suffering, and full of great goodness.” This is Psalm 102 in the Septuagint, verse 8. That’s who Jesus is to us. He is our loving God and He has called us beloved family members.
St. Paul, in Ephesians, writes that God, before the foundation of the world, determined that we would be adopted as His own children. He says: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved” (Eph. 1: 3-6). And how is it that we receive this adoption? How do we become the “loved ones” of Christ? By faith and by holy baptism. In John chapter 3 Nicodemus is talking to Jesus and Jesus tells him: “I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” Again, in Mark 16:16 Jesus says, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.” And St. Peter, on Pentecost, preached: ““Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2: 38-39).
We’re going to have a baptism today. A young man who stands among us will soon be grafted into the family of Christ, which is the Church. The Lord loves him, and in fact, has always loved him, even before the foundation of the world. He has repented, he has believed, and today he will be baptized. He will officially become one of the pet lambs in Christ’s pasture. (See Canon of St Andrew of Crete, Thursday of the First Week). Today he will become one of Christ’s “loved ones,” a member of the family of God. And like those crowds who worked so hard to follow Christ, to be with Christ, he will walk together with them, and with us. Patriarch Kirill recently said:  “Following Christ means doing it with all your heart and living by his commandments. Following Christ often means going against the current, to be misunderstood by most inquirers…as it always has been in the 2000-year history of the Church.” May God grant us all the grace to follow hard after Christ, to be loved by Him, to be fed by Him, and to be healed by Him. Amen.

From Today’s Gospel:
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.’”
In other words, Jesus says: “If any of you really want to follow Me, that is, be My disciple, you must drop your reliance on yourself, your fallen minds, your opinions, your reasoning, and take up your cross and follow Me.” Of course they had no idea what He meant by “take up your cross,” but they did understand that he meant the total surrender of themselves to Him.  St. Augustine of Hippo says this:
“The Lord appears to be hard and grievous when He demands that ‘whosoever will come after Him, must deny himself.’ But what He commands is not really hard or grievous, because He helps us, so that what He commands may actually be done. For it is true what is said concerning Him in the Psalm, ‘Because of the words of Thy lips I have kept the ways that are hard’ (Psalm 16 [17]:4 LXX). And it is also true what He Himself said, "My yoke is easy, and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:30). For whatever is hard in what is demanded of us, love makes easy. We know what kind of great things love can do. Very often this love is even abominable and impure; but think about what great hardships men have suffered, what indignities and intolerable things have they endured, to attain to the object of their love? Whether it be a lover of money who is called covetous; or a lover of honour, who is called ambitious; or a lover of beautiful women, who is called sensual. Who can enumerate all the kinds of loves? Yet consider what labour all lovers undergo, and are not even conscious of their labours. The only time they notice the labour, is when they are prevented from doing it!  Since, then, the majority of men are what they love, and want no other cares or constraints in their lives interfering with that which they have chosen to love; why do you wonder, if he who loves Christ, and who wishes to follow Christ, for the love of Him, denies himself? For if by loving himself man is lost, surely by denying himself he is found.” St. Theophylact likewise observes: “He who follows behind Jesus is not he who only confesses Him to be the Son of God, but rather it is he who also undergoes all tribulations and endures them.”