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Thoughts on Today's Epistle Reading
In today’s Epistle reading from Romans we hear:
“Do not be wise in your own opinion. Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 16b-19; cf. Deuteronomy 32:35)
It seems to me that the further our society chooses to stray from God, religion in general, and basic Judeo-Christian morals and ethics, the further it strays from basic civility. The illustrious 17th century entrepreneur William Penn once famously said: "I know no religion that destroys courtesy, civility, and kindness." He was right. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the politics of our day, in our nation. I’m not writing in order to choose sides, but simply to point out a problem common to all. When politicians choose manna above all, when material concerns eclipse divine and human concerns, then they devolve from being kind, respectful, and civil human beings. Likewise, those who follow them, if they are not careful, can devolve right along with them. A disdain for the poor and a self-serving, self-aggrandizing philosophy of politics cannot stand before the justice of God. No faux facsimile of piety can pull that truck out of the mud. And conversely, when others proclaim the superiority of science over everything, and they seem compelled to remove God and God’s Law completely from their political thinking, you get another extreme. Karl Marx said: “The first requisite for the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion.” He also said: “The meaning of peace is the absence of opposition to socialism.”
When “science” is the god of one’s politics, grotesque things like Rudolf Hess’s statement that “Nazism is applied biology” begin to blossom. Intolerance, hate, violence, and gulags result. Orthodox faith and piety cannot abide either of these. Right or Left, neither is godly. Hate, vitriol, name-calling, demeaning, throwing people out of or heckling people in restaurants - none of this behavior is compatible with Orthodox teaching or Orthodox life. St John the Baptist would have one word for all such people who call themselves Christians and yet behave like devils: “Repent!”
The great British writer, Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote: "When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency." I beg to differ with the good doctor. There is always a way back. “Repentance” means exactly that – to turn around, change your direction, do something different. Hating, screaming, violence, these are the tools of the devil, whose very name means “the one who divides” or “the Destroyer.” Christ is the opposite of that. He is the great unifier. He says: “[I pray] that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” The word “politic” comes from the Greek word “polis” meaning a city. St Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that “here we have no permanent city, but we seek the one to come” (Hebrews 13:14). I think it safe to say, that here as Christians, we have no political city either. All are corrupt. All are of the world and not of the Kingdom. Politics is never the answer to the problems of humankind. Christ is. The ever-memorable Metropolitan Anthony Bloom probably said it best when he said: “The Church cannot belong to any party, but at the same time it is neither non-partisan or post-partisan. It should be the voice of conscience, the voice that is enlightened by the divine light. In the ideal state, the Church should be able to say to any party or political current, ‘This is worthy of man and God, or this is unworthy of man and God.’”
Charles W. Colson, Watergate felon turned Evangelical leader wrote: “People who cannot restrain their own baser instincts, who cannot treat one another with civility, are not capable of self-government... without virtue, a society can be ruled only by fear, a truth that tyrants understand all too well” (Colson: “How Now Shall We Live?”) The name of his book is a great question for all of us to ask ourselves, “How SHALL we live?” Shall we live our lives like Christians or like devils? The choice is ours to make.

Today is the Feast of the Birth or Nativity of St John the Baptist. On the Church calendar there are several celebrations of “nativities” – the Nativity of Christ on December 25th, the Nativity of the Theotokos on September 8th, even the Nativity of St Nicholas (yes – it exists!) on July 29th. But all of these celebrate New Covenant people and events. The really unique thing about today’s feast is that it is the ONLY nativity celebration for a saint who died during the time of the Old Covenant. Did you ever think about that? We don’t have a nativity feast for Abraham, or Moses, or Elijah, or Jeremiah. Only St John the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist is celebrated on his birthday. Why is that? It is because our Lord Jesus Himself declared that “of men born of women, there is none greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).
St Caesarius of Arles says: “He surpassed and excelled everyone; he excelled the prophets, he surpassed the patriarchs. Anyone who is born of a woman is inferior to John...So great was the excellence in him, so great his grace, that some even believed that he was the Christ” (Sermons, Vol.III).
And St. Cyril of Alexandria says: “They had beheld with admiration the incomparable beauty of John’s mode of life: the splendor of his conduct; the unparalleled and surpassing excellence of his piety. For so great and admirable was he, that even the Jewish populace began to conjecture whether he were not himself the Christ, Whom the law had described to them in shadows, and the holy prophets had before proclaimed” (Commentary on Luke).
John the Baptist was the cousin in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is always and forever linked to Him as the one who not only announced Him with words, but even in the details of his life He points to Christ. How? By juxtaposition! Just look -
John is born of an older woman who is barren; Christ is born of a young woman who is a virgin. That John will be born is not believed, and his father is struck deaf & dumb for his doubt; that Christ will be born is believed, and he is conceived in faith and obedience. Elizabeth bore her son by knowing a husband; Mary believed the angel and conceived hers of the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth conceived a man, and so did Mary; but Elizabeth conceived only a man, while Mary conceived both God and man. John is the voice, but the Lord is the eternal Word which was from the beginning (See Ss. Augustine of Hippo & Caesarius of Arles).
St John the Baptist is also considered by the Church to be the father and founder of the monastic life. St John Chrysostom says: “If thou art minded to learn from the facts, consider his food, his manner of life, the loftiness of his soul. For he lived as though he were living already in heaven: and having transcended above the necessities of nature, he travelled as it were on a new path, spending all his time in hymns and prayers, and not interacting with men, but with God alone continually. For he did not so much as see any of his fellow-servants, neither was he seen by any one of them; he fed not on milk, he enjoyed not the comfort of bed, or roof, or market, or any other of the things of men; and yet he was at once mild and earnest.”
John the Baptist is also an example to all of us for our own lives. Mild. Earnest. Humble. When we think of John the Baptist, we usually think of a rough ascetic who emerged from the desert wearing a “garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt round his waist, and whose food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). He preached repentance, loudly and clearly. He accused the king and his supposed wife of adultery publicly. He called the Pharisees and Sadducees “a brood of vipers” (3:7). That doesn’t sound very humble, does it? But if we take a more careful look at the life of John the Baptist, a different picture of him emerges.
First of all, John the Baptist had no delusions when it came to answering those who questioned him about his identity or God’s purpose for his life. The temple priests wanted to know if John claimed to be the Messiah or the great prophet Elijah who was to return on the Day of the Lord according to the prophet Malachi. Even though he was immensely popular, John had no illusions about who he was. In all sincerity and humility, he said he was only a voice, crying in the wilderness, warning people to prepare their hearts for the Lord.
John is considered to be the greatest of the prophets, yet he lived as a humble and faithful servant of God. Jesus regarded John the Baptist as the greatest of all men (Matthew 11:11), yet John declared himself unworthy even to untie Jesus’ sandals (John 1:27). He was neither weak nor quiet when he saw what needed to be said or done. He wasn’t afraid to confront kings, tax collectors, soldiers, and common citizens with their need to get “right” with God. And, true to his humility, he pointed others, not to himself, but to Jesus as the answer to all their needs.
In John’s words, “He (Christ) must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). This provides a clear picture of the man’s humility and his understanding of the limits of his role. He was simply to point people toward Jesus and then get out of the way so that they could come to know and love Him for themselves. John is a great model of humility for each of us. St Sebastian Dabovich said: “The many virtues of St. John, those of a martyr, a virgin, a teacher, and a prophet, were exalted in praise by Christ Himself,” and today we praise him as well.
On this holy day of St John’s birth, let us strive to imitate him. Let us seek, especially, to acquire the virtue of humility, so that we might point others to the Lord Jesus Christ through our own words and lives. Amen.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the Gospel we just heard this morning, Jesus says:
“Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”(Matthew 10:32-33)
The Greek literally says: “Whoever confesses IN me before men, I will likewise confess IN him before my Father Who is in heaven.” The “IN” is starkly missing, however, on the negative side of the equation. “But whoever denies ME,” not IN ME but just ME. How do the holy fathers understand this interesting subtlety in the language? St John Chrysostom says this: “Make note of (the Savior’s) exact care; He did not say "me," but "in me," implying that not by the person’s own power, but by the help of grace from above, the confessor makes his confession (of faith). But of him that denies, He did not say, "in me," but simply "me;" for he, having become destitute of the gift (of grace), issues his denial.” (Hom.XXXIV, Matt.) A person who is IN Christ, also has Christ dwelling withIN him! Those who are not IN Christ, do not have His grace and the Gift of the Holy Spirit within them. It's all about the outward expression of faith, aided by grace. It's about an outward confession of belief. A mental “acknowledgement” is not enough, Christ requires a physical, outward, vocal confession of faith. St. Paul echoes this very clearly when he says: “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” And again, St John Chrysostom says: “Why is it that (Christ) is not satisfied with the faith in the mind, but requires also the confession with the mouth? Answer: To train us to be bold in speech, more abundant in love and determination, and to raise us up on high” (ibid). Conclusion: If we are open about our faith in Christ, then Christ will openly declare His faith in us, at the Last Judgment.
Now, on a related subject; The saints, brothers and sisters, are the ones who have the grace and the courage always to live their faith openly. They have the courage to withstand the powerful temptation to simply go along with what the fallen world says is “right” or “reasonable.” St. Philaret of Moscow says: “A fish that is alive swims against the flow of water. One that is dead floats down with the water. A true Christian goes against the current of this sinful age. A false one is swept away by its swiftness.” St. Anthony of Optina says: “Can you place your hope in the world? Whom has it not deceived? To whom has it not lied? It promises much, but gives very little. Only those who hope in the Lord, according to the words of the Prophet David, do not sin, that is, they are not deceived in their hope!”
Today is the Sunday of All Saints. It celebrates the Mother of God, it celebrates the angels, the apostles, the prophets, the martyrs, the confessors, the unmercenary healers, holy ascetics, venerable monks and nuns, righteous bishops, priests, and deacons, Christ-loving kings and queens and other rulers, God-loving husbands, wives and children, in other words, all of the saints from the beginning of time up to this present day. Many of these saints are known to us. Their icons surround us as that “great cloud of witnesses” we heard about in today's Epistle reading. Their names fill the pages of the Synaxarion, the Menaion, and church calendars. However, many are unknown, such as the relics placed before you this morning – an unknown monk-martyr from St. Theodosius Monastery in Palestine. Their names are known to God. Their courage and their sufferings are honored by God, by the angels, by the saints, by all the Church Triumphant in heaven. Did you hear how St. Paul described them in today's epistle?  It said “out of weakness (they) were made strong, (they) became valiant in battle” (Hebrews 11:34). And we, too, the Church Militant, remember their courage today, in our hymns of praise, and in our union with them in the holy chalice. But let us be careful, beloved, and watch diligently over our own souls. Let's not forget the fearful words of the Lord when He said concerning the Scribes and Pharisees, “These people honour Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me”  (Matthew 15:8). St Paul reminds us that we are all “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2). It requires courage on our part, not to simply honour the saints, but to try to be like them. Saint Paul writes: 
“(My beloved children,) I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach, everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4: 16-17).
The courage to live what we believe, that's the message of the Sunday of All Saints. It reminds us to celebrate the fact that all of us are saints “in potentia.” Do you know what “in potentia” means? It means “having the potential that may be developed and lead to future success.” It means “having the power to get there but not yet having arrived!” We are all in the process of our journey. And what does that journey require? God gives us the power, we must supply the courage – the courage to be different, the courage to swim against the tide, the courage to confess Christ.
St. Peter of Damascus wrote: “Courage...consists in persisting in every good work, and in overcoming the passions of soul and body. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, not against people...it is against principalities and powers, that is, against the unseen demons (Eph. 6:12). He who is victorious conquers spiritually; otherwise he is himself conquered by the passions...But the righteous man is as bold as a lion (Prov. 28:1) in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom be glory and dominion throughout the ages. Amen.” (Philokalia, Vol.3, pg 258; Twenty Four Discourses, XIX)

Sermon for Pentecost – Trinity Sunday 2018
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!
Dear Ones,
The Lord went up in jubilation. The Lord ascended with cheering! Why were the disciples so glad to see their Lord taken up into the clouds? Because He promised that He would send them the Holy Spirit! For 40 days the Lord had appeared, sporadically, to various apostles and disciples. But He promised that when He sent them the Holy Spirit, His presence would be with them eternally, perpetually, and intimately. Pentecost is the celebration of the fulfillment of that promise.
Throughout history, God revealed His power and spiritual gifts by means of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. For instance, in Judges 13, we read the story of the miraculous conception and birth of Sampson. In verses 24-25 it says: “And the woman brought forth a son, and she called his name Sampson; and the child grew, and the Lord blessed him. And the Spirit of the Lord began to move him in the camp of Dan, and between Zorah and Eshtaol.” And we also read in 1 Samuel 10, that after Saul was anointed as king, the Spirit of God came upon him. It says: “Then Samuel took a vial of oil, and poured it upon (Saul’s) head, and kissed him, and said, Is it not because the Lord hath anointed thee to be captain over his inheritance?...And the Spirit of the Lord will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy...and shalt be turned into another man...(and) behold, a company of prophets met him; and the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them.” This also happened when David was anointed by the Prophet Samuel to be king. 1st Samuel 16:13 says “the Spirit of the LORD came upon David from that day forward.” And let’s not miss this point – the way that the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit came upon both Saul and David was through the Holy Anointing Oil, the Holy Chrism, that the Lord ordered them to prepare in Exodus 30:22- 31. And likewise Aaron was anointed as the high priest when Moses poured this same holy chrism on his head (Lev 8:12). In Psalm 133:2 we hear: “It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down on the beard, the beard of Aaron, running down to the hem of his garments.” And with this same anointing oil the tent of meeting along with the altars and the utensils were anointed and were sanctified – being filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit (Exodus 40, Leviticus 8). With this same anointing oil kings and prophets were anointed (1 Kings 19). And as a result of the anointing, the Holy Spirit came upon them, bestowing many powerful gifts.
It is the same for us! When we received the Sacrament of Holy Chrismation, we were anointed with the very same divinely-appointed holy chrism, the very same oil, same formula, same process, as delivered the power of the Holy Spirit to those ancient kings, priests and prophets. Our Chrismation, our anointing with the sacred oil, is our own personal consecration, ordination, commission, and empowerment, not only to live the Gospel, but to share the Gospel. The Holy Apostle Peter says: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Chrismation is an extension of Pentecost, it is our personal Pentecost. The same Holy Spirit Who descended on the Apostles in the form of fiery tongues, now descends on us, but with no less reality and power. St John Chrysostom says, “Do you not see His care for us and His boundless love? ...On this day He gives us the Holy Spirit, and through Him He sends us innumerable heavenly graces. Indeed, which of the graces necessary for our salvation is not given to us through the Holy Spirit? Through the Holy Spirit we are freed from slavery and called to liberty; we are raised to the status of sons and daughters; we are, in a sense, re-created, and we lay down the heavy and foul burden of our sins. Through the Holy Spirit we are given priests and teachers; from the same source come revelations and the gifts of healing; and all the other adornments of the Church have their origins in Him...Do you not see how complete the power of the Spirit is?...Through the Holy Spirit we have obtained the remission of our sins and we have washed away all defilement. By His gifts, we who have had recourse to grace have been changed from human beings into angels. I do not mean that our nature has been changed, but something much more wonderful: while remaining human we live the way the angels do. So great is the power of the Holy Spirit!” (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Pentecost, 2:1; PG 50, 463 – 465) Through Holy Chrismation every member of the Church receives the gift of prophecy – the gift of “speaking forth the word of God” to the world. Every chrismated Christian receives a share in the royal priesthood of Christ, and is called to act as a conscious witness to the saving Truth that is our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. As we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, we are reminded how receiving the Holy Spirit transformed the Apostles, especially Saint Peter, from cowering in the Upper Room to fearlessly preaching the Gospel to a world starving for it. In the Sacrament of Holy Chrismation, we receive that same Holy Spirit, and we are empowered, and expected, to do the same work of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today the Orthodox Church remembers the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council which was held in the city of Nicaea in the year 325. These holy bishops gathered from all parts of the Roman Empire in order to deal with the heretical teachings of a priest from Alexandria named Arius. In the year 325, the Church had just emerged from three centuries of cruel and often bloody persecutions. But persecution, suffering and martyrdom did not destroy the Church. In fact, the Church actually grew because of it. But now Satan decided to change his tactics. He resolved to corrupt the word of salvation by sowing the seeds of heresy inside the Church itself. As the Apostle Paul warned: “Even from your own number, men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).
So let’s try to understand what happened, how the Devil planned his attack, and what the results were. The trouble began with Arius. Arius was a very popular and highly-placed priest in Alexandria, Egypt. He was a renowned scholar and an eloquent preacher who attracted multitudes of believers to follow him and listen to him. He kept them spellbound with his mellifluous language and dynamic delivery.  He cultivated quite a cult of personality, centered on himself, and he reveled in his own popularity. Now in the year 313 Achillas, the bishop of Alexandria, died. In those days, following the death of their archpastor, the local clergy and faithful would elect his successor by a popular vote. The magnetic and erudite Arius, was convinced that the people would elect him. But what happened? The people chose another candidate to be their bishop, the priest Alexander. Like Arius, he was also bright, highly-educated, and popular, but not as “showy” as Arius. Alexander was more known for his holiness, simple piety, and spirit-filled wisdom. It was primarily for these reasons that the people chose him. This defeat severely wounded Arius’ pride. He became angry, jealous, and vengeful. And because pride is the mother of all evils, heresy is no exception. Heresy is almost never about truth, but it almost always begins from pride, vainglory and self-love. This is how Lucifer fell like lightening from heaven, and this is how the priest Arius fell from grace and separated himself from the saving doctrine of the Orthodox Church (Luke 10:18).
So what did Arius do?  In his spiritual delusion, his Духовная прелесть, he began to rail against his former rival, the canonically-elected Bishop Alexander. The late Metropolitan and Confessor, Philaret (Voznesensky) said that “(Arius) could not accept the fact that he was not a bishop. Once, Bishop Alexander spoke with his clergy about the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, about the equality of Persons, that the Holy Trinity is a Trinity of Unity, inasmuch as in three Persons there is One Divine Essence, One Divine Nature. Arius boldly stood up and began to contradict him and began to assert that the Son of God is not equal to God the Father, as Bishop Alexander had said, and not born of Him, but created by Him, as a creature, as part of creation. True, higher, more perfect, but still creation, a creature. Alexander tried to reason with gentle admonitions to reason with Arius, but he persevered. And since he was eloquent, this heresy arose, and because of him it spread and eventually roused the entire Church.”
The problem with Arius’ teaching is simple: If the Son and Word of God is not equal to God the Father, and is not born of Him, then He is not God, but a creature, which means that he was not incarnate as the true God-Man. That means that the actuality of our salvation was not accomplished, and we have not and cannot be saved. This is why God, through the Emperor St. Constantine the Great, called the First Ecumenical Council to be convened in Nicaea. Jesus said that the truth sets us free, but falsehood leads to the Father of Lies and the lake of fire. The fathers of the Council condemned the errors of Arius, and cast him out of the Church. There were many opportunities for him to repent and return, but he could never truly let go of his heresy. This demonstrates the power of demonic thoughts when combined with vainglory and this is the point that I want to make this morning. Arius’ thinking was corrupted because of his pride, his vainglory, and his willingness to listen to demonic suggestions. We need to watch over ourselves, our own pride and our own thinking. It is easy to be deceived, to be deluded, to fall into prelest. I’d like to share with you some advice given to us by a holy father, St Silouan the Athonite. He says:
1. Recognize two thoughts and fear them. One says: you are a saint; the other: you will not be saved. Both these thoughts are from the enemy, and there is no truth in them. You must think: I am a great sinner, but the Lord is merciful, He loves His children greatly, and will forgive my sins. But don’t depend on your deeds, though you may have labored much...in His grace the Lord dispenses mercy. The Lord wishes our souls to be humble, absent of hate and willing to forgive all, then the Lord shall forgive us with joy.
2. Know that if your thought leads you to scrutinize how others live, this is a sign of pride. Watch after yourself and you will see that as soon as your soul elevates itself above your brother, this is followed by evil thoughts.
3. Our enemies (the demons) fell because of their pride, and they call us to follow them, and bring us feelings of praise. And if your soul accepts that praise, then grace will depart, until the soul becomes humble again. And so all your life you must learn the humility of Christ.
4. A person can fall into vainglory either through inexperience or pride. If it is inexperience, the Lord will quickly heal him, but if it is pride, the soul will suffer long before it learns to be humble.
5. We fall into vainglory when we think we are smarter and more experienced than others, even our confessor.
6. That which is heavenly is experienced through the Holy Spirit, and that which is earthly through the mind: whoever wants to experience God with his mind through learning is in vainglory, for God can only be experienced through the Holy Spirit.
Dear ones, when it comes to matters of the faith, it is imperative for us to rely on what the Church has preserved for us, and not to rely on our own thinking. As Scripture says, “For many are deceived by their own vain opinion; and an evil suspicion hath overthrown their judgment” Ecclesiasticus 3:24). It is not by accident that the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, reacting to Arius, gave us a Creed, a Symbol of Faith, to recite every single day, rather than allowing us to make it up as we go along. Just as no text of Scripture is subject to our own personal interpretation (2 Peter 1:20), neither is any doctrine concerning the nature and person of our Lord Jesus Christ. May God preserve us all from “vain thoughts and evil imaginations.”*   Amen.
*from Prayer at the Bowing of Heads, Vespers

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
We heard in this morning’s Gospel, that Jesus had come with His disciples to Jerusalem to celebrate a Feast Day. The Gospel doesn’t tell us which Feast Day, but St John Chrysostom believes it was Pentecost. I will explain why that makes sense to me in a moment. So Jesus and His disciples are there, demonstrating to all of us how important it is to participate in the Feast Days. Each Feast Day has its own grace, its own power to heal, as the paralytic would discover. As they are walking toward the Temple, they pass by what the translators describe as a “pool.” of water. But the actual Greek word is very interesting; it is κολυμβήθρα. Now what is a κολυμβήθρα? In Attic Greek it means a cleansing and healing bath, such as might be found at a natural, warm mineral springs. In the Holy Orthodox Church, a κολυμβήθρα is the baptismal pool or font. This particular pool, by the sheep gate, at the time of Christ, was called called “Bethesda,” which means “house of grace” in Hebrew. St. John also tells us that it is covered by a colonnade consisting of five rows of columns supporting five roofs overhead.
So let’s step back and look at what this means. The encounter between the paralyzed man and Jesus takes place in Jerusalem. In the Old covenant, Jerusalem, Mount Zion, the Holy Temple, was the only meeting-place for God and God’s chosen people. Here, the paralyzed man represents all of us, all of humanity. All are broken, all are paralyzed because of their sins, all are sick and need healing. The paralytic has been sick for 38 years. What is the significance of the number? Well, we know that the number 40 is a holy number – a number of testing then fulfillment (forty years in the wilderness, forty days of fasting, forty days Moses interceded for Israel on Mt. Sinai, etc.) But this man is two numbers short. His period of trial cannot be completed or fulfilled without the two. He can’t ever be truly healed without the two! And what are the two? The Two is Theanthropos, the God-Man Jesus Christ! Perfect God and Perfect Man. The Two also represent the two great commandments “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22: 37-40). So, while the paralytic certainly has some basic faith, it is very weak faith, it is incomplete faith, it is immature faith. He is waiting for some “man” to put him into the water. He is not waiting for God. He is waiting for an angel to heal him. He is not waiting for God. The paralytic worries only about his own healing. He doesn’t consider that God wants to heal everyone there at the pool, and in fact, everyone in the world!
Beloved, the strong connection between this miracle at the pool, the “House of Grace,” Bethesda, and Holy Baptism should be very clear to all of us. The paralytic waiting by the water is about the brokenness, sinfulness, and incompleteness of the fallen original creation. Baptism is about the new creation, the re-creation. In Christ each person becomes part of the Kingdom of God, which IS the New Creation. In Christ, each person becomes, personally, a new creature according to St. Paul (2 Cor. 5:17). In the fallen world, mankind was laid flat on the bed of its corrupted human nature, far from God. In Holy Baptism, which comes about because of faith and repentance, mankind is healed instantly, born again! He picks up the bed of his restored humanity and walks. He walks with Christ as His disciple, as His friend, and as His newly-adopted family member! He picks up his bed, which symbolizes his flesh, and he carries it with him, which points to the restoration of both soul and body in Christ. Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be made whole.” And it’s only in Holy Baptism that we are truly made whole, truly integrated human beings. At the pool by the sheep gate, an angel descended only at “a certain time” and troubled the water. In Christ, Baptism can happen any day, everyday, and it is not an angel, but the priest of God who troubles the water, breathing upon it and making the sign of the Cross in it three times! This sanctified water is full of the Holy Spirit. It crushes Satan, and it cleanses from sin. It doesn’t merely heal one person, it heals any and all who will come. In Isaiah 45:22 the Lord says: "Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other.” And in Revelation it says: “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17).
Now, if you remember, earlier I said that St John Chrysostom believes that the Feast being celebrated at the time of the healing at the pool was Pentecost. This makes sense. Pentecost, for the Jews, was the time to remember the giving of the Law, the Torah, to Moses on Mount Sinai. Christ is the new Moses, or the fulfillment of Moses as a type of the Messiah according to St Matthew’s Gospel and the holy fathers. He comes not to bring the Law, but as the Law-giver Who, Himself, fulfills the Law. He doesn’t give commandments written in stone, but He sends the Holy Spirit. In the Sacrament or Mystery of Holy Baptism, it is precisely that same Holy Spirit that cleanses us from sin and leads us to Holy Chrismation which fills us with the Gift of the Holy Spirit Himself. It is our own personal Pentecost!
Brothers and Sisters! What happened after the paralytic was healed? He was questioned, hounded, persecuted, belittled, and tempted not to trust Christ, the same Christ Who had just healed him. Isn’t that just what the fallen world, and the prince of the fallen world, do to those who believe, those who have been healed, those who are trying their best to walk? “You’re a bad Christian” they say. “Don’t put your trust in that Jesus guy.” “Don’t believe what the Church says, the church is wrong, evil, behind the times.” But don’t be confused, derailed, or tempted by such voices. St Paul says: “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (Romans 3:4). Don’t allow yourselves to be tempted to fall back down onto the bed of spiritual sickness, selfishness, and immaturity. Don’t rely on the “men” of this world, the wise of this age, to guide you, to help you, to lift you, to heal you, to save you, but as Solomon says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways submit to Him and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). And as Joshua ben Sirach says: “Trust (in the Lord), and he will help you...hope in him...trust him, and you won't lose your reward” (Sirach 2:6, 8). The five-roofed colonnades represent those who rely on themselves, their own five senses, their own reasoning. They refuse to rely on Jesus, and because their hearts are timid, they won’t be protected at all (See Sirach 2: 13). Don’t be like them!  Keep close to the Saviour. Cling to Him alone. Trust Him alone. Look to Him alone. Believe in Him alone, and you and your household shall be saved! (Acts 16:31). Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Today our Holy Orthodox Church asks us to remember all those who were eyewitnesses to Christ's Crucifixion, His death and burial, and who returned to witness His Risen Body: the Holy Myrrhbearing Women along with the Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and the Righteous Nicodemus.
We can’t even begin to imagine how challenging, how terrifying, how dangerous it was for these righteous disciples to stay close to Christ during those terrible times so that they COULD be witnesses of His Crucifixion and Resurrection. That’s why we honor them today!
The Holy band of Myrrhbearing women who remained faithful and steadfast in their service to the Lord are: Mary the Mother of God, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha the Sisters of Lazarus, Salome the daughter of Joseph and mother of James and John, Joanna – a wealthy follower and supporter of Jesus, Susanna, another wealthy disciple of Jesus, and Mary the wife of Cleopas and mother of St Simeon who would succeed James as second bishop of Jerusalem.
The Gospel of John tells us that Nicodemus, a high-ranking Pharisee, spoke to Christ originally in secret, and at night. Later, after the Crucifixion, he spent vast sums of money to purchase a hundred pounds of myrrh, spices and fragrant oils with which to properly prepare the body of Jesus. Thus, he too is considerd a “myrrhbearer.” When it was discovered that He was a believer, Nicodemus was cast out of the synagogue and suffered eventual martyrdom.
The holy and righteous and “Noble” Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy member of the Jewish Sanhedrin and also a secret follower of Christ. Along with St. Nicodemus, St. Joseph removed Christ's body from the Cross, prepared it for burial, and placed it in his own sepulcher. Thus, he too is ranked with the myrrhbearers. Later, temple spies discovered his activities and told the authorities, who imprisoned St. Joseph. However, the resurrected Christ appeared to St. Joseph in prison and convinced him of His Resurrection. Some time later the Jews released St. Joseph from prison and banished him from Jerusalem. He then traveled throughout the whole world preaching the Gospel, eventually bringing the word of salvation to Britain, where he reposed peacefully in the Lord.
The myrrhbearers, who selflessly sacrificed all for precious myrrh with which to anoint and care for the Body of Christ, announced the Resurrection of Christ when others hid for fear of the temple authorities. All of the disciples were afraid, yet these holy myrrhbearers loved Christ so much, that they acquired the gift of holy courage to withstand all of the trials and temptations that would come their way as they preached the Gospel everywhere.
This concerns us all because, in a sense, we are all myrrhbearers. Since the Body of Christ, in the words of the Holy Apostle Paul, is the Church, therefore all members of the Church are members of the Body of Christ. Do we take care of our own bodies? Do we practice good hygiene? Do we go to the doctor if it is sick? Do we wear appropriate clothing to keep it protected from the weather? Do we spend money for food and medical care? Therefore we care for our own bodies, we must also care for the Body of Christ, we must care for the Church, which is crucified by this world every single day.
To do anything for the Church, for the Body of Christ, in this world, is difficult, because it requires faith and commitment, like those myrrhbearers had. Sadly, those who have little faith also have little time and patience to care for the Church.
For instance, a visitor recently came here and said to me: 'You are so lucky to have such a beautiful little church'. I was a little surprised by the statement, but didn’t say anything. Firstly, there is no such thing as 'luck.' Secondly, what we have here doesn’t belong to us, but to God. And thirdly, anything that is here is certainly not the result of luck, but of one of two things: either it is the result of God's undeserved blessing, which can be given to us and can be taken away from us. Or else it is the result of tears and sweat and blood, sacrifice and hard work, in other words - myrrhbearing, selfless caring for the Body of Christ. Our myrrhbearing is not only coming to church and participating in the sacraments, it is also doing those myriad things which are so difficult because they require our sacrifice. For example:
Those who sing in church are myrrhbearers.
Those who clean the church are myrrhbearers.
Those who prepare the flowers for the Feast Days are myrrhbearers.
Those who look after the grounds are myrrhbearers.
Those who sew vestments and altar-coverings are myrrhbearers.
Those who prepare food or wash the dishes are myrrhbearers.
Those who donate icons or make offerings of money are myrrhbearers.
Those who come and pray from their hearts for the salvation of all are myrrhbearers.
In short, all those who really work, who really sacrifice and put themselves out for the Body of Christ, the Church, are myrrhbearers, because they show that they too selflessly love Christ. And what is the reward of myrrhbearers?
It is they who will see, know, and declare the resurrected Christ because He will reveal Himself to them first. It is they who will clearly understand the meaning of the words of the angel: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is Risen!” This is our joy, not only to feel, but also to know that the Body of Christ, the Church, is Risen. She is the place of the Resurrection, and we are witnesses of Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection. Moreover, when we care for the Church, the Church cares for us, for we are risen with Her.
May we all always have and cherish this inner knowledge of the Truth of Christ, being myrrhbearing witnesses to His Crucifixion and His Resurrection. Amen.

Dear Ones,
Christ is Risen! Xpucmoc Bockpece!
Do you know what this day is called in the Orthodox Church? It’s called “Antipascha.” Isn’t that a funny name? Sounds like it’s somehow “opposed” to Pascha, an enemy of the Feast of the Resurrection of Christ. Can you imagine? Well, that can’t be right! And it isn’t. Antipascha also sounds a little like “antipasto” which, in Italian meals, are the light snacks, the pickled veggies and light “hors d’oeuvres” that come before the pasta course. Truth be told, maybe that makes a little more sense...light veggie thingies as an antidote to the luscious richness of Sirnaya Paskha...anti-pascha. Hmmmm. Well, forget it. Antipascha just means that this Sunday is the conclusion, the close of Bright Week. Pascha Day was the front bookend, and this is the last bookend. The 8-day Feast of Pascha ended before the 9th Hour last evening, although the Paschal Season will last another month, until Ascension. Now there’s another name for this day other than Antipascha. Do you know what it is? It’s “Thomas Sunday.”  Notice that I didn’t say “Doubting Thomas Sunday” as this nickname for the saint is the first thing we need to toss into the rubbish bin. Forget that somewhere along the way you came to believe that Thomas’ principal claim to fame is the passion of “doubt.” Forget that you still might think of him as a somehow inferior disciple. Forget that you’re pretty sure Jesus rebukes him for his lack of faith. Forget all of that. Why? Because in each case the opposite is true.
First, in St. John’s Gospel, (the only Gospel that has much of anything to say about him,) St Thomas is never described as “the doubter.” Rather, he is called  “Didymus, the Twin,” a name most of us have long forgotten. Further, when Jesus had declared his intention to return to Judea – and the other disciples tried to dissuade him because they knew it would mean his death – it is Thomas who urges the others to follow Jesus “so that we all may die with him.” (11:16) Thomas is not so much a doubter as he is a pious and faithful skeptic. He remembered the words of Jesus very well: “If anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There He is!' do not believe it!” (Mark 13:21). Thomas is also what some today might call a realist. Only a few days earlier, he’d encountered reality like never before as he saw his Master and Lord nailed to the cross and die. Now, when his fellow disciples tell him that they’ve seen the Lord, he reacts with a realist’s skepticism.
Second, did you ever notice that what Thomas asked-for was exactly what all the other disciples had already received? When Jesus appeared to the other disciples, he showed them his hands and his side and only then, John records, did the disciples rejoice “because they had seen the Lord.” (20:20) What does this tell us? One conclusion we might draw is that, despite his undeserved bad reputation, Thomas is really no different than the other disciples. Faith, after all, isn’t about having more knowledge of things, but instead it “is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews: 11:1)
By the way, some icons depicting this event are inscribed “The Doubting Thomas.” This is totally incorrect. In Greek, the proper and canonical inscription reads, “The Touching of Thomas.” The Slavonic inscription is even more positive, “The Belief of Thomas.”
Third, Jesus’ words at the end of this passage aren’t really about Thomas, are they? After all, who are “those who have not seen and yet believed?” Well, He’s not talking about the first Christians. The Scriptures tell us that the Lord appeared to His Mother, Mary Magdalen, the Mother of James and John, all of the apostles, and 500 people at once. In other words, almost everybody in the primordial church saw the Lord during His forty-day stay. No, Jesus isn’t really rebuking Thomas, He’s blessing those of us who would come later.
Looked at this way, far from standing as the inferior “doubter,” Thomas emerges as a model disciple in St. John’s Gospel. Or more accurately, he’s the model of how one becomes a disciple. He loves the Lord with his whole heart. He knows the word of God. He lives his life in obedience to those words. He knows who Christ really is. He tests and proves everything that comes his way in order to discern what is from God. He tries the spirits. He is no fool. In other words he is an example for us all. May the Lord grant us, through the prayers of the Holy Apostle Thomas, the grace to acquire these same, God-pleasing virtues. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dear Ones,
I remember as a kid back in 1961, seeing the movie “King of Kings” starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus. It was a lavish Hollywood production with a lot to dazzle the senses and a lot to stimulate the mind. Later, in my teenage years, I would see this film again, on TV, and it would have a very profound effect on my life and ultimately yours as well. But that’s a story for another day. The spectacle of the film impressed me, sure. But one part of the film, a small, quiet part, (if my memory serves me), made a lasting impression. It was the prayer at the breaking of the bread, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.” It’s a contemporary Jewish prayer superimposed on the first century, but I didn’t know that until decades later. But that’s not the point. At that time I thought to myself, “Wow! That’s really profound – King of the Universe!” I think that little prayer gave me a much deeper sense of the bigness of God. “King of the Universe!” That’s big.
But today we don’t see the King of the Universe. Today we really witness the “small” king, don’t we? Today we witness the little king, the humble king. Today we see the King of the Universe as the very incarnation of meekness and lowliness. He rides on the back of the lowest of creatures, a young donkey, which symbolizes our immature, temperamental and stubborn nature. And the children and their parents wave common palm branches, not banners of silk or flags woven with gold. The palm branches symbolize the People of God. They are green because only God truly gives them life, and their “v” shaped leaves symbolize the prayerful arms of the faithful that stretch up, reaching toward heaven, begging God for His mercy and help. These symbols, these powerful symbols, are all given for our contemplation, consideration, and action. We must be humble, meek and gentle if we are to follow this King. We must struggle against our fallen flesh which is stubborn and bestial and immature, if we want to hear the words of life spoken by the Saviour in the Temple. We must continuously raise our hands and our hearts to heaven, if we want to be found truly “alive,” vital, and worthy to stand in the rainy earthquakes of Golgotha. We also have to be willing to shed the garments of the “old man” and lay them at the feet of the humble King if we hope to see the vision of the empty tomb and the Risen Lord. And all of this requires ascesis on our part, holy efforts, spiritual podvig. For this week especially, it means being present, here, inside the church, inside the temple, inside of the “earthly heaven” as St Germanus of Constantinople (7th c.) calls it. For this week especially, this Great and Holy Week, the Church calls us to leave our lives in this world and follow Christ. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we will hear Christ teaching in the Temple and begin to participate in the dramatic events unfolding in Jerusalem. On Thursday morning we come to the celebration of the Last Supper where Christ first gave the Eucharist mystically to His disciples. On Thursday evening we will take part in the stirring Service of the Twelve Passion Gospels when the Church recounts all the details of Christ's betrayal by Judas, of His trial, of Pilate, of the scourging and the Crucifixion. On Friday afternoon Christ is taken down from the Cross and buried in the tomb. On Friday evening we see that which was unseen - Christ revealing Himself as the Liberator of those in Hades, and together we shall sing the meditative “Praises” around His Tomb. On Saturday morning, we shall witness the first Resurrection Liturgy with the changing of vestments from black into white and the tossing of the laurel leaves and rose petals symbolizing victory over death, the smashing of the gates of brass, and the sweet fragrance of Paradise re-opened. Then on Saturday night we will walk in the darkness like the Myrrh-bearing Women going to the tomb, and at midnight Christ will make clear His Resurrection. Never is His presence more clearly felt that at that very moment. How can we “skip” these services and still call ourselves Orthodox? How can we “skip” being with Christ through all the events of this Holy Week which changed the history of the whole world? Let us become those babes and sucklings and perfect our praise! Let us put away all those enslaving worldly cares, free ourselves from our lethargy, and come to be with the Mother of God and St John, and follow Christ to the Cross, so that we can then follow Him to His Resurrection, to Victory and Triumph, and so be resurrected in spirit together with Him.
I’ll end with the words of St Andrew of Caesarea (7th c.) who said this:  “Let us go together to meet Christ on the Mount of Olives. Today he returns from Bethany and proceeds of his own free will toward his holy and blessed passion, to consummate the mystery of our salvation...Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish us to live....let us spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in Him. We who have been baptized into Christ must, ourselves, be the garments that we spread before him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the Conqueror of Death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of His victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel.’” Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dear Ones – Earlier this week there was a message left on the parish answering machine. A man had died and the family was looking for an Orthodox priest to come and pray. The name they gave was unfamiliar to me, but nevertheless I met with the daughter of the deceased who told me an absolutely tragic tale. It seems that her newly-departed father had been very sick back in Moldova where the family came from. Over the course of many months, she was trying to obtain a visa for her Dad to come to the US for medical treatment, because health care was “not good” back in Moldova. Unfortunately, it took too long, and the visa only arrived in time for him to be brought to America to die, surrounded by his family. As you can imagine, the family was devastated. They could’t help but wonder out loud “If only we could have gotten him here earlier, our father/husband would not have died.” It sound lot like Mary and Martha in today’s Gospel, doesn’t it? “Lord, if you had only been here, our brother would not have died!” Such sadness. Such suffering. The man’s name is Nicolae. Please pray for his soul.
Then, just yesterday a young couple, Byelorussians, stopped by the church to light candles. They came to pray for the soul of the young woman’s teacher back in Belarus. Not just any teacher, mind you, but a teacher who had been a profound influence, mentor and friend. She had just learned of the death, and it was already the ninth day. The young woman rushed to get here to St Nicholas church, praying to God that the church would be open. It was about 5:00 in the afternoon. Aaron let the young pair into the church. I came in shortly thereafter. When the girl told me her story, I was heartbroken too, and offered to do a memorial service (Panikhida) for her. She cried thru the whole service. The name of this wonderful teacher is Inessa. Please pray for her too.
Fr Florovsky once wrote that the greatest tragedy to afflict mankind is death. It crushes, devastates and wounds. It confuses and discombobulates us. Death gives us that deep and sick feeling that cries out “This is wrong, very wrong, ALL wrong!” And os it is. Now we are embarking upon a new journey. Great Lent is over. The emphasis on “me” and my “spiritual life” is over. Now we are to look at life’s biggest question. Holy Week is all about this, because it’s all about death. It addresses death, it confronts death. It starts with the death of Lazarus and proceeds to the death of Jesus. But it doesn’t remain there, of course. It ends with the “good news,” the “gospel.” And what is this?
We say that Jesus came in order to share with us the Gospel...good news..”god’s spell.” “Spell” is a good old Anglo-Saxon word, related to German word “spiel.” It doesn’t mean a hex, or a witches curse, or the effects of a love potion. Not at all! Originally it meant,  “a speech or recitation in order to promote a thing or an idea.” So what is the “idea” or “thing” that Christ comes to promote or to demonstrate? It is this: that God has come in the flesh in order to crush death, to defeat mankind’s greatest and most tragic enemy. By His life, and by His death, Christ will destroy death, and wipe away every tear from every face “and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things will pass away” (Rev. 21:4) “And He will swallow up death for all time” (Isaiah 25:8).
According to Fr. Thomas Hopko, the Lazarus narrative forms the very heart of John’s Gospel, crucial in establishing the divinity of Christ. But beyond showing us the love of God and the deity of Christ, it also reminds us of the future that awaits all mankind in the final resurrection. To Martha, Christ says:
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Martha’s response even serves as the basis for the beginning of our pre-communion prayer today: “I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, He who is coming into the world.”
Even in his very name “Lazarus” (or “Eleazar” in Hebrew), we find the promise of the resurrection because it means: “God is my helper.” God himself, the God-Man,  came to the aid of Lazarus—the four-days-dead, Lazarus, the friend of God who would be truly helped by God.  That’s why we heard in today’s epistle reading these words of St Paul quoting Psalm 118:6 in the Septuagint: “The LORD is my helper; and I will not fear what man shall do to me”  (Hebrews 13:6).
The raising of Lazarus is God’s promise to us, it is God’s message and word for us. Ff we are His friends then He will help us too! That’s why the epistle is so full of warnings about our behaviour. In order to be the friends of Christ we need to imitate Christ (see 1 Corinthians 11:1). If we love Christ, as we claim to, then we must follow His commandments (John 14:15). Only such friends will reap the benefits of the bodily resurrection. Christ promises not merely to raise us up, but He will resurrect us to everlasting life and bliss in His heavenly Kingdom! That, my friends, is the Gospel. That’s the good news!
After the ascension of Christ, Lazarus continued on this earth another thirty years. When persecution arose, Lazarus relocated to Cyprus, an island once home to the Greek philosopher Zeno. While there, the apostle Paul appointed him as the first bishop of Kition, which is the modern city named Larnaca.
Lazarus reportedly spoke very little during his final years, rarely smiled (perhaps due to things witnessed in hades), and lived a quiet and peaceful life. The only time he laughed was when he saw a man stealing a clay pot. He is said to have remarked, “Behold, clay stealing clay!”
When Lazarus reposed (for the second time), he was buried in a marble tomb on Cyprus. A church was constructed to house his relics, the Church of Saint Lazarus, in Larnaca. On his ancient tomb, which still exists, it is written:
“The Fourth Day Lazarus, a Friend of Christ.”
His relics were transferred to Constantinople in 898 by Emperor Leo VI. They remained in Constantinople until the Fourth Crusade (A.D. 1204), taken by the Western Crusaders and then eventually lost. But more recently, excavations uncovered another “reliquary” much smaller than the first, but containing a portion of the relics NOT carried off to Constantinople, much to the delight and joy of the citizens of Larnaca, and to all pilgrims everywhere.
The Apolytikion (Tropar) to Lazarus is the same as that for Palm Sunday. It’s central theme is what? That Christ is the “Vanquisher of Death!” This is how it reads:
“By raising Lazarus from the dead before Thy passion, Thou didst confirm the universal resurrection, O Christ God! Like the children with the branches of victory, we cry out to Thee, O Vanquisher of Death: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!”