Homily: Friendship

Sunday, September 10, 2017: Sunday before Holy Cross; Menodora, Metrodora, & Nymphodora the Martyrs, Poulcheria the Empress, Afterfeast of the Nativity of the Theotokos

Ukrainian Orthodox Mission of Madison

Epistle: Galatians 6:11-18
Gospel: John 3:13-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

From the Church’s earliest days, there were Christians who cared more about the opinions of others than the Gospel. St Paul refers to these sad and deluded people in the epistle when he calls out “those who want to make a good showing in the flesh … in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.”

What about me? If those who knew not only the Apostles but Jesus we’re tempted why do I think I’m immune from preferring the good opinions of others to the Cross?

The sin Paul is describing is “vainglory.” Usually we think about vanity as undue or excessive concern for our appearance. While this can be part of vainglory, concern for appearance is more the result of pride–of having an excess view of my own worth.

Vainglory doesn’t cause me to look in the mirror but at my neighbor. At it’s core vainglory is about winning your good opinion of me no matter what the cost to myself. Or, and this is important, in the gripe of vainglory your opinion of me can come to matter so much that to I become willing to degrade and destroy you to win your approval.

In its effect on my relationship with you, vainglory is the opposite of friendship.

While there are different kinds of friends, for Christians friendship includes both emotional intimacy and a willingness to self-sacrifice for the good of my friend.

In the events leading up to His crucifixion and especially on the Cross, Jesus reveals Himself to be not just our Friend but the best of friends. At the Last Supper He tells His disciples that they are no longer His servants but His friends: “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).

Think about this for a moment.

Jesus is telling His disciples, and telling us, that we have the same intimacy with God that He has had from all eternity. The Creator and Judge of the Universe is no longer far away from us. Not only has He drawn close to us, in Jesus Christ we are drawn close to Him. God hasn’t only become your Friend, you are invited to become His.

We call Jesus our Friend as well because of His willingness to suffer and die for us. To free us from the power of Sin and Death, He “gave Himself up” for us. Even more than intimacy, it is the willingness to sacrifice for the good of the beloved that is the basis of all friendship.

And vainglory?

It is the refusal of friendship and a parody of intimacy. And in the place of self-sacrifice for the sake of the other, vainglory sees people as objects to be used and abused; to be forgotten and replaced.

Understanding the difference between vainglory and friendship helps understand importance of St Paul’s words to us this morning.

It isn’t just that there were those in the early Church who downplayed the Cross or compromised the Gospel. Yes, they did these things. But they did something far worse. In denying the Cross they  turned their back on friendship with God.

Sad as it is that there are those, even in the Church, who don’t want to be friends with God, there is something sadder still.They don’t know that friendship with God is possible. 

Aristotle says that a “friend is a second self.” More than that, though, a friend is someone whose very presence in our lives helps us to become more fully ourselves.

What is true of our friendship with each others, is even more the case in our friendship with God.

The more we are aware of God’s love and presence in our lives, the more we come to realize our own value. And, along with this, we come to understand the true, incalculable worth of the people we meet everyday.

St Seraphim of Sarov would greet everyone he met by saying “My joy! Christ is risen!” For the saint every person he meet, every conversation he had, was an experience of the joy and happiness of Pascha.

When I deny the Cross, when I seek the good opinion of others at the cost of friendship with God, I rob myself of joy. This is what St John Chrysostom means when he say “if a man does not injure himself, no one else will be able to harm him.”

To “glory … in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and “crucified … to the world,” means not only that I stop harming myself. It means I set out on the path to that joy that comes from friendship with God and with you.

So many people, again, both outside and inside the Church, are weary and dejected because they are lonely. They don’t know that God is their friend and that He wants them to be His friend.

And good friend that He is, God not only wants us to be His friend, He wants us to be friends with each other. God, if I may speak in this way, delights not only in our friendship with Him but with each other.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has created us in such a way that there “No medicine is more valuable, none more efficacious, none better suited to the cure of all our temporal ills than a friend to whom we may turn for consolation in time of trouble, and with whom we may share our happiness in time of joy” (Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship).

So let us, as we say before the Creed, “Love one another, so that with one heart and mind,” so that we can bear witness to God’s friendship for all!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Stand Firm in Christ

Sunday, September 3, 2017: 13th Sunday of Matthew; Anthimus, Bishop of Nicomedea, Holy Father Theoctistus and his fellow struggler Euthymius the Great, Polydorus the Martyr of New Ephesus, Translation of the relics of St. Nectarius the Wonderworker, Bishop of Pentopolis, Chariton the Martyr, Phoebe the Deaconess.

Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle:1 Corinthians 16:13-24
Gospel: Matthew 21:33-42

Here in Madison, I have two distinct, but related, pastoral roles as a priest.

For the last several years, I’ve worked with the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. Campus ministry has always been a special love of mine because it was a college student that my faith was kindled.

My second role is a new one that begins today with the first Liturgy of a mission so new it doesn’t even have a name. We’re just the “Ukrainian Orthodox Mission of Madison.”

Because we are new, we don’t have a church. We’re renting space from a local Protestant community. We’re here this morning with a folding table for an altar, icons on plate holders on that table serve as our icon screen, and we share our “sanctuary” with tables and chairs only recently stacked against the back wall.

While our situation is different from that of most Orthodox communities celebrating Liturgy this morning, it is very much like that of the early Church. Like those first Christians, we have as a community very little. And in a city where Orthodox Christians are in the minority, we are the smallest of the three small parishes.

But just as poverty and being on the margin of society wasn’t a disadvantage for the Christians at Corinth (a community to which, for good and ill, Madison bears more than a passing resemblance), it is a blessing for us as well.

Over the years I’ve heard many Orthodox Christians worry about losing their sons and daughter when they go off to college. This is a worry we share with other Christian and non-Christian traditions.

Unlike those other Christian communities though, we invest–let’s be frank–very little in campus ministry. Very rarely do students have ready access to the sacraments. Yes, local parishes are often welcoming of students when they show up. But in the main, we tend to neglect campus.

We do this not out of malice but from a misunderstanding that colleges and universities are mission fields. As such, they have their own unique culture. A college campus presents its own pastoral challenges and opportunities. If we don’t respond to these difference we shouldn’t be surprised that we lose our children when they go off to college.

Today we have our first Liturgy essentially “on campus.” Whether we will stay here is for God to decide. But for as long as we are here, or so it seems to me, we need to embrace God’s invitation to us to minister to college students.

This we do regardless of our age or education. Some of us are faculty, others staff at the UW. Others of us live and work in the area. And some of us are students.

But all of us are members of the Body of Christ. Each has his or own unique gifts and so vocation (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). This however shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of the fact that we share a common vocation, a common call, to be disciples of Christ and witnesses to His Resurrection.

We are each of us called to, as St Paul says, to “be watchful, stand firm in …faith,” to “be courageous, be strong” and to do what we do “in love.” In this our size and relative poverty can be a great advantage. Why? Because as Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel: “‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’”

These words and those of St Paul, are directed to each of us this morning. We need to understand that these words are not simply for today but for every day, every moment, of our lives.

We must always be watchful over our own hearts so we stay close to Christ. We must be watchful as well for those moments when we can bear witness to Him.

To be watchful in these ways requires that we always stand firm in our faith. We must first commend ourselves and all those in our lives to Christ. The fathers of the Church were keenly aware that apart from Christ, the tendency of creation to change leads only to death and decay. All things change, all things pass away, only Christ remains. Without Christ, not only will even the good things in our life will disappoint us, they will fail us and yes, even betray us.

It is only in Christ that our lives, our relationships, our projects and accomplishments, acquire a lasting meaning. This is what Fr Alexander Schmemann meant when he said Jesus comes not to make bad people good, but dead people alive. What does it mean to be alive in Christ? Just this. Not simply that we endure but are constantly made new (2 Corinthians 5:17).

To remain firm, however, means more than just having an individual relationship with Christ. We must know His friends, those who love Him and those who hate Him. Above all, we must know the faith the Church. Think about what it means to know someone, to become friends.

A true friendship means I not only know you but your likes and dislikes. I know how you look at the world and what you think about yourself, other people and events. I also know those who love you and, yes, those who hate you or would do you harm.

 

This is why I say to stand firm in Christ, means as well to stand firm in the Church and to know what we believe as Orthodox Christians. The tradition of the Church is nothing more or less than the record of those who love Christ, and those who hate Him. In the Church’s teaching we discover not only Who Jesus is–the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16)–but what it means to be His friend. We learn Who Jesus is and we learn what it means to love Him with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength (Matthew 22:27).

And, of course, because we love Jesus, we love not simply those who love Him but those who hate Him. Why? Because whether we love Him or hate Him, Jesus loves all of us.

The courage and strength we need to love others is the natural fruit of fidelity to Christ. It is this love, and only this love, that will help us not only to follow Christ but to be His witnesses here in Madison, at UW, in our jobs and with our family and friends.

And because this love flows naturally from our commitment to Christ, our witness will likewise be natural. It will be spontaneous and there will be nothing artificial in our words or actions, nothing aggressive or disrespectful of others or their views. But, again, only as long as we draw near to Christ.

My brother and sister in Christ! Draw close to Him Who has drawn close to you! It is only in this way that the good things in your life will last and you will be able to fulfill your vocation has witnesses to the Resurrection!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: A Debt Only the Gospel Can Pay

Sunday, August 27, 2017: 12th Sunday of Matthew; Pimen the Great, Holy Martyr Phanurius, Anthousa the Martyr, Poimen of Palestine, Hosisos the Confessor, Liverios, Pope of Rome, Monica

Epistle: Ephesians 6:10-17
Gospel: Matthew 19:16-26

While the rich young man’s initial question is reasonable enough, as the conversation unfolds it becomes clear that his obedience to the commandments is merely external. He hasn’t yet, to borrow from St Paul, “put on the whole armor of God.”

Sometimes a similar thing afflicts us in our own spiritual lives. Or rather, at times we hurt ourselves the same way the rich young man hurt himself.

Just as God blessed the young man with the Law and great material wealth, as Orthodox Christians living in America we have been blessed both spiritually and materially. Not only are we heirs to the Tradition of the Church, we live in a country that for all its problems has afforded us economic, educational, social and political opportunities beyond what any of our ancestors could have imagined. By most statistical measures, Orthodox Christians in America are well-educated, wealthy and at least according to secular measures powerful.

Our likeliness to the rich young man, however, has a second, darker side. To see this, we need to be honest with ourselves. We tend to admire our Tradition than

We tend to admire our Tradition more than we put it into practice. For example, we take our moral norms not from the Gospel but the culture. As a group, our moral views are indistinguishable from those of most Americans. While this convergence isn’t all bad, it does suggest that in many ways we are estranged from our own Tradition. This means we not to think with the Church but with popular culture; we tend to model our lives not after the martyrs and the saints but the rich and famous of this world.

There is, however, a third way in which Orthodox Christians in America are like the rich young man in the Gospel. Like him, God has come to us so that we can come to Him. As He did in His conversation with the rich young man, Jesus is saying to each of us this morning and every day our lives “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

We need to be careful in how we understand these words. We mustn’t interpret them in a crassly materialistic terms. While some of us are called to sell all and embrace a life of evangelical and monastic poverty, for most of us the command is more subtle.

Are we, am I, willing to put the economic and educational, social and political gifts God has us as Orthodox Christians living in America at the service of the Gospel? 

Are we, am I, willing to follow Jesus Christ as His disciples and apostles? 

Are we, am I, willing to shape my life around His Person and teaching and give witness by word and deed of the Resurrection?

All of these questions are really only one question. As we are asked at our baptism, do we believe in Jesus Christ as “King and God”?

Sincerely answering”Yes” to this question will transform our lives, our families, and our parishes. And a sincere “yes” isn’t simply something I say once and never again. It is rather something I must say every day, every moment of my life.

Have I said yes? Am I still saying yes to Jesus as my King and God?

While each of us needs to answer this in the depths of our own hearts, the general trend of the Church in America would suggest that many of us have stopped saying yes. We are losing not only young people but those who joined the Church as adults. This is happening, I would suggest, because we are living lives largely indistinguishable from our non-Orthodox neighbors.

In one sense, our being like everyone else is good and proper. As we read in the Letter to Diogentius,”Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life.”

In other ways though, being indistinguishable from those around us is a harsh indictment of our faith. It suggests that we have not taken St Paul’s words to heart that we put on the whole of the armor of Christ. This is why, again like the rich young man, we are often sorrowful. We fail, I fail, to find joy in being a Christian because I am attached to the things of this life.

What does it mean to be detached from the things of this world? St Paul tells us.

It means that we know that those around us, however much they disagree with the Gospel, are not our enemies to hate but our neighbors to love. We can love even those who hate us because God loves them. And we know that our battle isn’t with them, it isn’t “against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

Having said yes to God from the depth of our heart not simply once but daily, we understand that the blessings of faith but also of material wealth and civil liberty, are given to us by God not only for His glory but for our salvation and the salvation of those around us.

And make no mistake. However much we diverge from the world, many of the blessings God has given us have come to us through those who don’t yet know the Gospel. We owe to every non-believer, to all those outside the Church who have contributed to the good things in our lives a debt that can only be paid by offering them the Gospel.

And we can only pay this debt if we put on the armor of God, say yes to Jesus, sell all we have and give to the poor, and follow Jesus as King and God.

All of this is to  say that paying the debt you owe to your neighbor, means you must “be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”  (Matthew 5:48).

And what does it mean to be perfect? 

That we let nothing limit our commitment to Christ. 

That let nothing limit our witness to His Resurrection. 

Above all, to be perfect means letting nothing limit our love for our neighbor. Perfection means we have with the same love for our neighbor that Christ has for each of us. This love is the only way we can pay the debt we owe for the blessings God has given us by the hand of our neighbor.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Be Faithful Today, Don’t Worry About Tomorrow

Sunday, August 20, 2017: 11th Sunday of Matthew; Samuel the Prophet, Holy Martyr Luke of Bouleutos, Afterfeast of the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary, Stephen, First King of Hungary, Hierotheos, Bishop of Hungary

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 9:2-12
Gospel: Matthew 18:23-35

Glory to Jesus Christ!

St Paul chastises the Corinthians for failing to do for him and for Barnabas what they have done for “the brothers of the Lord and Cephas.” Paul is clear. As apostles, he and Barnabas have a “right to our food and drink” and “to be accompanied by a wife.”

This means that the church has an obligation to provide for the apostles. And make no mistake, Paul is talking here about the material and financial support the church is obligated to provide the apostles. “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim upon you, do not we still more?”

Yes, Paul chooses to not make “use of this right,” so as not to place “an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” But his sacrifice while it frees the Corinthians from their financial obligations, calls them to an equally high standard of generosity and service.

Using himself as an example, he sketches an expectation of self-sacrifice for all Christians. Though “free from all men,” St Paul willingly makes himself “a servant to all.” He does this so that he can “become all things to all men” in the hope that he might “save some.”

In other words, he makes these sacrifices “for the gospel’s sake” and with the hope that the church will make similar sacrifices so that they might also receive the “imperishable crown” of salvation (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-27).

At no time, though, does St Paul deny or minimize the demands of justice; he doesn’t pretend the Corinthians don’t have concrete obligations toward both him and Barnabas. Yes, he gives up these rights but he does so in obedience to his own obligation to preach the Gospel and draw others to Christ.

Paul doesn’t ask the Corinthians to forsake justice. Rather, by freeing the Corinthians from their obligations toward him, he calls them in turn to a higher moral standard. LIke Paul, they are called by God to preach the Gospel.

To see what it means to be freed from our obligations, let’s turn to the Gospel.

In the parable, the king absolves his servant of a debt that can’t possibly be paid. As the story makes clear, this new freedom obligates the servant to be merciful to others. When he fails in this, his

As the story makes clear, this act of forgiveness obligates the servant to be merciful to others. When he fails in this, his lord condemns him to prison “till he should pay all his debt.”

The sobering part of the parable, however, comes next. Turning to His listeners Jesus says “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

The genius of Orthodox spirituality is that it is so wonderfully human. The fathers, the saints, and the spiritual writers of the Church are all united in their understanding that we grow in holiness. Just as it does physically and emotionally, socially and vocationally, it takes time to mature spiritually. What Paul says of himself, applies to us all.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).

 

Our life in Christ is a call to grow in holiness. We don’t need to worry about meeting what God will ask of us tomorrow, or next week, or a year from now. Rather, we only need to do what God is asking of us today secure in the knowledge that by God’s grace what we do today, will prepare us for what is asked of us tomorrow. Do “not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will” bring with it not only new demands but the grace and new-found freedom we need to say yes to God (see Matthew 6:25-34).

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we don’t need to worry, much less despair, of our ability to do what God calls us to do. God only asks of us today the sacrifice we can make joyfully, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

It is through our fidelity to the daily demands of our personal vocations and the life of the Church, that we are able to grow ”from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). And it is through our daily sacrifices, freely offered, that we will all someday “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: The Silhouette of Virtue (revised)

Sunday, August 13, 2017: 10th Sunday of Matthew; Apodosis of the Transfiguration, Maximus the Confessor, Our Righteous Fathers Sergius, Stephanus, Castor and Palamonus, Dorotheus, Abba of Gaza, Tikhon of Zadonsk

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 4:9-16
Gospel: Matthew 17:14-23


Glory to Jesus!

What does it mean to be a fool for Christ’s sake?
Some Orthodox Christians think that this means that the Church doesn’t value human reason or education. Wrongly the imagine that the Church doesn’t value science or other forms of secular knowledge.

This would have surprised St Basil the Great, who compares the place of secular learning in the life of the Christian to leaves on a fruit tree.

Just as it is the chief mission of the tree to bear its fruit in its season, though at the same time it puts forth for ornament the leaves which quiver on its boughs, even so, the real fruit of the soul is truth, yet it is not without advantage for it to embrace the pagan wisdom, as also leaves offer shelter to the fruit, and an appearance not untimely.

Looking at the examples of Moses and Daniel, St Basil says these men were fools not because they were uneducated. No, their folly was that were obedient to the One God rather than to any earthly prince. As for their “severe” training in “the learning of the Egyptians” and “the sacred teachings” Chaldeans, these they placed wholly and unreservedly at the service of God (Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature, III).

Though the circumstances of our lives are different from theirs, we share one vocation with Moses and Daniel. Like them, we are called to serve God in all we do.

And like the Apostle Paul we have been set aside as disciples of Jesus Christ and it is our great honor to “bless” those who revile us, to remain faithful to Christ even when we are persecuted and to forgive and reconcile to Christ even those who slander us and reject us “as the refuse of the world, the off-scouring of all things.”

All of this is folly in the eyes of the world.

What we need to struggle against is the temptation to respond harshly to those who reject us. A harsh response serves no one and it harms our witness. When I give in to anger and resentment, I’m not being a fool for Christ’s sake. I’m simply a fool.

But I can hear the counter-argument. What about Jesus in the Gospel you ask? Doesn’t He at times response harshly to people? Doesn’t He respond harshly to His disciples in today’s Gospel?

St John Chrysostom says that Jesus speaks as He does to the disciples because they are afraid that they have “lost the grace with which they had been entrusted” to cast out demons. More importantly, Jesus speaks to the disciples as He does to prepare them for the events of Holy Week. They know, Chrysostom says, that Jesus is going to die “having heard it continually.” What they don’t know is the “kind of death” He’ll suffer. Much less do they know about who Christ’s Resurrection on Pascha will being the “innumerable blessings” (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 58.1 in ACCS vol Ib: Matthew 14-28, p. 62).

But Jesus does speak a harsh word to the boy’s father and the Jewish people. Even here, though, the point is not to alienate others but to draw them closer to the Kingdom of God. And so immediately after speaking harshly to them, He heals the boy. The harshness of His words is tempered by a tangible demonstration of God’s love and mercy.

What should we take from this?

First, we need to keep in mind that witnessing to Christ will sometimes bring us into conflict with others. Sometimes even someone we love. To paraphrase the Apostle James, friendship with God will bring us into conflict with the world (see James 4:4). While I ought not to go out of my way to find conflict, shouldn’t be afraid of it when it comes my way.

Second, when conflict does come I have to balance my hard word with a tangible demonstration of affection for the person. But, how do I do this?

When I disagree with someone, I need to actively search for what St Basil calls “the silhouette of virtue”(X). I need to look for a least faint glimmer of goodness in the person.

Yes, it’s easier to think there isn’t anything good or true or beautiful in those who hurt me or to imagine our disagreement is because of your bad will. But to say this isn’t simply to offend against the person’s dignity and moral worth, it is also to deny God.

When I refuse to see at least “the silhouette of virtue” in others I deny they’re created in the image of God. And isn’t this refusal to see other people as icons of God what it means to live a life apart from Christ?

My brothers and sisters in Christ, just as God sees what is good, true and beautiful in us, we must do the same with others. To be a true fool for Christ is to see “the silhouette of virtue,” the intimation of God, where the world sees only evil, lies, and ugliness

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Transfiguration of our Lord

Sunday, August 6, 2017: Transfiguration of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

Epistle: 2 Peter 1:10-19
Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

Upon Mount Tabor, Jesus revealed to his disciples a heavenly mystery. While living among them he had spoken of the kingdom and of his second coming in glory, but to banish from their hearts any possible doubt concerning the kingdom and to confirm their faith in what lay in the future by its prefiguration in the present, he gave them on Mount Tabor a wonderful vision of his glory, a foreshadowing of the kingdom of heaven. It was as if he said to them: “As time goes by you may be in danger of losing your faith. To save you from this I tell you now that some standing here listening to me will not taste death until they have seen the Son of Man coming in the glory of his Father.” Moreover, in order to assure us that Christ could command such power when he wished, the evangelist continues: Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter,  and John, and led them up a high mountain where they were alone. There, before their eyes, he was transfigured. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Then the disciples saw Moses and Elijah appear, and they were talking to Jesus.

These are the divine wonders we celebrate today; this is the saving revelation given us upon the mountain; this is the festival of Christ that has drawn us here. Let us listen, then, to the sacred voice of God so compellingly calling us from on high, from the summit of the mountain, so that with the Lord’s chosen disciples we may penetrate the deep meaning of these holy mysteries, so far beyond our capacity to express. Jesus goes before us to show us the way, both up the mountain and into heaven, and – I speak boldly – it is for us now to follow him with all speed, yearning for the heavenly vision that will give us a share in his radiance, renew our spiritual nature and transform us into his own likeness, making us for ever sharers in his Godhead and raising us to heights as yet undreamed of.

Let us run with confidence and joy to enter into the cloud like Moses and Elijah, or like James and John. Let us be caught up like Peter to behold the divine vision and to be transfigured by that glorious transfiguration. Let us retire from the world, stand aloof from the earth, rise above the body, detach ourselves from creatures and turn to the creator, to whom Peter in ecstasy exclaimed: Lord, it is good for us to be here.

It is indeed good to be here, as you have said, Peter. It is good to be with Jesus and to remain here forever. What greater happiness or higher honour could we have than to be with God, to be made like him and to live in his light?

Therefore, since each of us possesses God in his heart and is being transformed into his divine image, we also should cry out with joy: It is good for us to be here – here where all things shine with divine radiance, where there is joy and gladness and exultation; where there is nothing in our hearts but peace, serenity and stillness; where God is seen. For here, in our hearts, Christ takes up his abode together with the Father, saying as he enters: Today salvation has come to this house. With Christ, our hearts receive all the wealth of his eternal blessings, and there where they are stored up for us in him, we see reflected as in a mirror both the first fruits and the whole of the world to come.

St Anastasius of Sinai

Homily: Let Us Wait On God

Sunday, July 30, 2017: 8th Sunday of Matthew; Silas, Silvan, Crescens, Epenetus and Andronicus the Apostles of the 70, Julitta of Caesaria

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Gospel: Matthew 14:14-22

Think about this for a moment.

How serious must the situation in Corinth have been that the Apostle Paul was grateful to God for not baptizing people? Paul’s comment in this morning’s epistle is reminiscent of what Jesus says about Judas:

The Son of Man indeed goes just as it is written of Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:24, NKJV).

Better, Jesus says, that Judas had never been born than that he betray the Son of God. Likewise, better say St Paul, that he never baptize someone–that he never exercised his apostolic ministry–than that the sacrament becomes the excuse for division in the Church.

Compare this to what we see in the Gospel.

There are gathered around Jesus “ five thousand men, besides women and children,” all of them tired, all of them hungry. And yet, while it was clear that there wasn’t nearly enough food to feed all of them–”only five loaves here and two fish”–everyone sit quietly on the grass and wait patiently to have their meal.

The difference between these two scenes could not be more stark. In Corinth, the faithful–clergy as well as laity–take their eyes off Jesus while the “great throng” in the Gospel doesn’t.

In Corinth, the faithful are divided against each other because they have lost sight of Jesus Christ while the “great throng” are able to lay aside the concerns of the body because they treasure in their hearts the Word of God.

What should especially concern us, however, is the way in which for the Corinthians the things of God become the cause of their estrangement from Christ and each other,

How does this happen? How do I become so separated from Christ that like the Christians in Corinth even the sacraments become, if I may dare put it this way, the occasion of my fall?

St Augustine (Sermon CIII) says “But you, St Martha, if I may say so, are blessed for your good service, and for your labors you seek the reward of peace.” The bishop of Hippo goes on to say that while Martha’s work in caring for Jesus was “admittedly a holy one” it was not something that would last.

Rather, he asks her to consider whether “when you come to the heavenly homeland will you find a traveler to welcome, someone hungry to feed, or thirsty to whom you may give drink, someone ill whom you could visit, or quarreling whom you could reconcile, or dead whom you could bury?”

However important, and even essential, are the things we do in this life we need to remember that “there will be none of these tasks” in the Kingdom of God. Rather like what Martha we “will find there is what Mary chose.” In the Kingdom of God “we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed” by Jesus Christ the Word of God.

And so Augustine concludes “what Mary chose in this life will be realized there in all its fullness.”

And just after Jesus fed the multitude the disciples gather the leftovers, in her life Mary gathered the “fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, ‘Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.’”

No matter how wonderful the grace we are given in this life, it is still only a foretaste of what is to come. What God gives us in this life, He gives to inspire in us a holy hunger and desire to eat and drink with Him in His Kingdom.

Listen to what Jesus tells His disciples when He catches them squabbling over who is the greatest among them:

…he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves. But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:26-30, NKJV)

Even that which is best in this life is only an invitation to the Kingdom. When we forget this we can turn even the things of God into weapons.

And we use these weapons not simply against others but ourselves. Who among us hasn’t been made to feel ashamed by someone’s appeal to the Gospel or the tradition of the Church?

And who among us has not tried to shame another in the same way?

And who among us, having been hurt in this way or having hurt another in this way hasn’t experienced a deep wound?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us imitate the “great throng, and wait patiently for Jesus to act in our lives.

Let us imitate Mary and set at Jesus’ feet listening to Him so that, unlike Martha, we not become anxious and distracted by our many cares but instead comforted and strengthened by what God says to us (see Luke 10:38-42).

And let us finally, imitate the Most Holy Theotokos who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (see Luke 2:19).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: What Love Demands

Sunday, July 23, 2017: 7th Sunday of Matthew; Phocas the Holy Martyr, Bishop of Sinope, Ezekiel the Prophet, Pelagia the Righteous of Tinos, Trophimos & Theophilios and the 13 others martyred in Lycia, St. Anna of Levkadio, The Icons of the Most Holy Theotokos of Pochaev, Icon of the Mother of God

Epistle: Romans 15:1-7
Gospel: Matthew 9:27-35

When the Apostle James reminds us that faith without works is dead, by “works” he means our acts of practical, and this is the important point, effective charity. Wishing someone good luck and that they are “warm and well-fed” it isn’t enough. Put another way, while good intentions matter they aren’t sufficient.

Turning to this morning’s epistle, St Paul tells us to “bear with the failings of the weak.” Paul isn’t counseling “tolerance” as it is often understood in our culture. God doesn’t call us to moral indifference. In this life, we regularly meet people whose lives are marked, scarred really, by serious moral failing. Paul doesn’t tell us to turn a blind eye to this.

So, to understand what the Apostle means when he says “we who are strong,” we need to read on.

First, compassion for others is not about pleasing myself but pleasing my neighbor. Charity for my neighbor isn’t about doing something that makes me feel good about myself. In fact, if I take charity seriously, there are times when doing the morally and practically right thing will be costly. Failure to pay that cost because I don’t want to make the sacrifice is bad enough. But failing to do what love requires because it contradicts my self-image? This is by far an even worse sin because it makes my own comfort rather than Christ the standard of my life.

So, to understand what the Apostle means, we need to read on.

To please my neighbor doesn’t mean to do what he wants. Rather it is to act, as Paul says, “for his good, to edify him.” I must be for you, as Christ is for me. To do what is good for my neighbor is to do not what I want or even what my neighbor wants. It is rather to do what God wants from me for my neighbor.

Love, properly understood, means I want what God wants for you. And because “faith without works is dead,” love in its fullness always includes a practical dimension. God doesn’t simply desire our salvation, He does what our salvation requires even when doing so is costly to Him. “Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.’”

To avoid the temptation to sentimentality, to “faith” without works, we need to remember that actions worthy of the name “charity” demand practical skills. While our emotions have a role to play in our spiritual lives, like good intentions, they aren’t sufficient. More importantly, and again like good intentions, detached from the moral obligation to practical and effective good works, our emotions can easily deceive us.

To grow in holiness, I need to guard against prelest; I need to guard against spiritual deception or delusion. This doesn’t just mean not thinking that I am better than I am. I also need to avoid thinking I am worse than I am. Both self-aggrandizement and self-degradation are the fruit of pride.

Our need for realistic self-knowledge is why repentance (metanoia) is important. St Theophan the Recluse, “Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.” Where we often go wrong, is that we assume repentance means to think less of ourselves; it doesn’t

St Theophan the Recluse, “Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.” Where we often go wrong, is that we assume repentance means to think less of ourselves; it doesn’t

To feel bad about my past actions isn’t repentance. Rather, repentance means to accept with thanksgiving that I am loved and accepted by God. This transforms not only how I see myself but changes my relationship with you. This is because the same God Who loves and accepts me also loves and accepts you. And if we love someone don’t we naturally, spontaneously love what they love?

It is this conviction that everyone is loved by God that gives us the courage to do as Paul tells us, to act on behalf of our neighbor’s good. But what about those times when I don’t have the practical ability to care for my neighbor?

As we grow in our experience of God’s love for us and for our neighbor, something changes in us.

Like when we’re children, at the beginning of our spiritual life, will have a sincere but narrow sense of what love means. In our culture, that usually takes the form of refraining from judgment. This isn’t bad but (again!) it isn’t enough.

One of the great strengths of our culture, and especially of the young, is the importance we place on not rejecting others because of our moral disagreements. At the same time, we are called to something more.

Not just to refrain from judging but to help people grow in the knowledge of God’s love for them and, in so doing, become who God has called them to be.

Put another way, because we love others, we refuse to judge them or turn away from them because of their failings. But, because we love not only our others but God, we want for our neighbors what God wants for them. The power of our witness as Orthodox Christians is that we know from our own experience, that metanoia is wholly positive. It is through repentance that we are freed to not simply to be who we are but are freed to love our neighbor and to do so practically and sacrificially.

And what we want for others is they too have what God has given us.

Part of the sacrificial character of love is realizing that there are times when my practical skills are simply not sufficient to my neighbors need. But if I have come to accept God’s love for me, and so accept who God has created me to be, I can be at peace with my limitations. Not only that, but I can see my limits as an invitation to draw others into the circle of charity.

No, maybe I can’t help you in the way that you need. But I may know someone who can.

Love worthy of the name looks not only to serve but to help other also learn to serve. In Christ, I rejoice in my weaknesses, my practical limitations, because they make room for you to serve those who I can’t serve.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, God has called us not simply to do good for others but to help others become good according to the path God has called them to walk. What better way is there for us to live than this?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: In Praise of Good Works

Sunday, July 16, 2017: Sunday of the Holy Fathers; Athenogenes the Holy Martyr of Heracleopolis, Julia the Virgin-martyr of Carthage, 1,015 Martyrs in Pisidia

Epistle: Titus 3:8-15
Gospel: Matthew 5:14-19
The epistle this morning begins and ends with St Paul telling Titus to encourage the faithful “to apply themselves to good deeds.” Paul is here repeating what Jesus told the disciples that we must be “the light of the world” and must live in such a way that seeing our “good works” those outside the Church will “give glory” to God.

For many Christians, the centrality of good works to our salvation is much contested. And even when it isn’t, many Christians get anxious whenever they hear someone say that there are good deeds are expected of them. So what do we mean by “good works”?

Paul tells us that good works are those deeds that “are excellent and profitable to men.” More specifically, we are “to help cases of urgent need.” As used in the New Testament, “good works” are more than simply the result of a vague, philanthropic sentiment.

In the verses that immediately proceed those we just heard, St Paul says that disciples of Christ must “be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all” (vv. 2-3). Within the limits of the law of God, we are to be good citizens and good neighbors. Yes, as Paul makes clear here and in other places (see, Galatians 2:10), we are to help those in need, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ.

But our good deeds can’t be limited simply to caring for those in urgent need. Again, we are to be good citizens and good neighbors. In other words, our philanthropy isn’t a “one off” event, it isn’t something we do “now and then.” It is rather the fruit of a virtuous way of life.

A life of Christian virtue has implications for how we live as citizens. We cannot divorce our life in Christ from how we engage in the political life of our city, county, state, or nation. We cannot and must not separate our political decisions from what we believe as Orthodox Christians.

Likewise, what we believe has implications for how we live not only our private lives in our homes but also our social lives. Not only the books we read, the television we watch but also the social events we take part in and how and what we do in the workplace, these are meant to reflect our commitment to good works.

For the Christian, there can be no area of life that remains untouched by the Gospel and so no part of human life that can’t be transformed by grace. This is why, to return to this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that our good works fulfill the teaching both of the Law and the Prophets. We must live, I must live, so that in each moment of my life God’s mercy and love for humanity is made clear to those around me.

We have to live this way because it is our calling as Orthodox Christians to be co-laborers with Christ. In each moment of our life, in each encounter with our neighbor, God is present. This means in each moment of life, the possibility exists for someone to meet Christ in us, in you.

Today we remember the fathers of the seven ecumenical councils. Each council dealt with its own, unique, dogmatic questions. What unites them, however, is a concern to defend and proclaim the truth of the Incarnation. That in Jesus Christ, God the Son truly becomes Man.

The Son becomes as we are, says St Irenaeus, so that we can become as He is. That God truly becomes Man, takes on our nature in the technical vocabulary of the councils; isn’t just an abstract dogmatic concern. As St Gregory of Nazianzen writes, “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” If the Son doesn’t take on all of human life–including our life of social involvement–then we aren’t saved.

But because the Son does assume the whole of human life, all of our life, of your life and mine, is revealed to be a sacrament of God’s presence. In each moment of our lives, in all that we do and say, we have the ability by grace to do “good works,” that is to make tangible God’s love for humanity.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! When Jesus and St Paul encourage us to do good works what they are asking us to do is become who we are!

By God’s grace, we are set apart as witnesses and sacraments of God’s love. This necessarily touches and transforms the whole of our lives.

Let us now become who we are!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Who Would You NOT See Saved?

Sunday, July 9, 2017: 5th Sunday of Matthew; The Holy Hieromartyr Pancratius, Bishop of Tauromenium in Sicily, Dionysios the Orator, Metrophanes of Mount Athos, Patermuthius the Monk, Euthymios of Karelia, Methodios the Hieromartyr, Bishop of Lampis, Michael Paknanas the Gardener

Epistle: Romans 10:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 8:28-34; 9:1

The readings this morning contain an implicit challenge: Who would we not see saved?

Look at the Gospel. Jesus comes to redeem even those who despise Him. St Paul, likewise, preaches “in season and out” (see 2 Timothy 2:4) in the hope that those who despise him might themselves one day be saved. For both Jesus and Paul, everything is secondary to the salvation of others.

Jesus goes “to the country of the Gergesenes,” to those who are not of “His own city” but Gentiles. Once there He encounters two demons who, St John Chrysostom says, were engaged in acts of “horror … incurable and lawless and deforming and punishing” against the residents of that place. Evil though they were, even the demons knew they deserved condemnation.

Rather than turn His back on the Gerasenes, Jesus casts out the demons. For their part, the Gentiles are moved to repentance by the mercy Jesus shows them. St Jerome says that the residents of the city ask Jesus to leave “not out of pride … but out of humility.” Like St Peter, the Gergesenes “judge themselves unworthy of the Lord’s presence.” Though their words are different, their intent is the same as the Apostle’s. As one, they fall “before the Savior” and say “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (see Luke 5:8).

Like his Lord, St Paul has only one goal, that “all might be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (see 1 Timothy 2:4). For the Apostle, the salvation of the Jews is so important that, as he says in another place, if it were possible he would himself be “accursed from Christ” so that they could be saved (see Romans 9:3). The salvation of his fellows Jews matters more to the Apostle to Gentile than does his own.

And so I return to where I began and ask myself who would I not see saved?

Would I exclude those who, like the Jews, had zeal without knowledge?

Would I exclude those who my own people tell me to despise?

Would I exclude those who hate me and work against me?

Would I exclude others by remaining silent when, in my heart, I know I should speak about Christ and the Gospel?

Who would I exclude from the Church? Who would I not see saved?

These are hard questions.

Yes, I rarely explicitly seek to exclude others from the Kingdom of God. What usually happens is that I remain silent when I know I should speak. It’s all too easy to leave undone what I can do to fulfill Jesus’ command to “preach the Gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15) and to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).

Or maybe like the Gergesenes I’m overwhelmed by the sense of my own sinfulness and inadequacies. Maybe it isn’t a matter that I don’t want others to be saved but that I’m not sure of my own salvation.

Maybe it isn’t so much that I doubt God’s love for you as it is that I doubt His love for me.

But listen again to what Paul tells us this morning about God’s love for each of us:

The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.

Through Baptism, Chrismation and above all Holy Communion, Christ has come to live in our hearts, in your heart and mine. He does this out of His great love for each of us.

For our part, all that remains is for us, as St Augustine says, to “profess with our lips the faith we carry about in our heart.” We can only do this, he says, if we are motivated not simply for our own salvation but our neighbor’s as well.

To profess Christ for our neighbor’s salvation can never be a purely formal action. There can be nothing mechanical about sharing the Gospel with others. What we say must be the fruit both of our love for Christ and for the person with whom we are speaking. If love is missing, whatever I say will be artificial or manipulative. It will feel to people as if I’m trying to win an argument or, worse, humiliate them.

So what should we do?

Paradoxical as it sounds, we must first learn to remain silent. When God speaks to us He does so out of silence. Jesus is the Word spoken out the profound silence of the Father.

And when He speaks, Jesus points not to Himself but to Him Who sent Him. In other words, when Jesus speaks He invites us to enter more deeply into a relationship of love with the Father.

None of this can happen however if I fill my life with noise. Hard though it can be to do so, I need to carve out moments of silence in my life. It is in these moments, brief though they might be, that I’m able to hear the Word.

My brothers and sisters in Christ!

Let us pledge to keep silent so that we can hear. And then, having heard, let us then speak of the mysteries of grace God has entrusted to us. And finally, let us do this not only for our own sake or for the salvation of others but for God’s glory.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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