Tag Archives: homily

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

St Irenaeus: Homily on the Holy Spirit

Sunday, June 4, 2017: Holy Pentecost;: Our Father Metrophanes, Archbishop of Constantinople, Mary & Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, Sophia of Thrace, The Mother of Orphans

Epistle: Acts 2:1-11
Gospel: John 7:37-52; 8:12

When the Lord told his disciples to go and teach all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, he conferred on them the power of giving men new life in God.

He had promised through the prophets that in these last days he would pour out his Spirit on his servants and handmaids, and that they would prophesy. So when the Son of God became the Son of Man, the Spirit also descended upon him, becoming accustomed in this way to dwelling with the human race, to living in men and to inhabiting God’s creation. The Spirit accomplished the Father’s will in men who had grown old in sin, and gave them new life in Christ.

Luke says that the Spirit came down on the disciples at Pentecost, after the Lord’s ascension, with power to open the gates of life to all nations and to make known to them the new covenant. So it was that men of every language joined in singing one song of praise to God, and scattered tribes, restored to unity by the Spirit, were offered to the Father as the first-fruits of all the nations.This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in

This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul.The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, the devil too had been cast down like lightning.

The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, the devil too had been cast down like lightning.If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for

If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for man, who had fallen into the hands of brigands, having himself bound up his wounds and left for his care two coins bearing the royal image, entrusted him to the Holy Spirit. Now, through the Spirit, the image and inscription of the Father and the Son have been given to us, and it is our duty to use the coin committed to our charge and make it yield a rich profit for the Lord.

St Irenaeus, “Against the Heresies”

Homily: Holy Ascension

Thursday, May 25, 2017: The Holy Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Epistle: Acts 1:1-12
Gospel: Luke 24:36-53

The reading from Acts reminds us though God reveals His will to us, though He reveals Himself to us and draws us into communion with Him, there are some things about His will, about Himself, that God doesn’t reveal. And, of course, because these things aren’t revealed, we don’t know what they are.

There is, however, one thing we know we don’t know because God has told us He won’t tell us.

We don’t know when, in the words of the Creed, Jesus will come back as Judge of the living and the dead. This is what the Apostles asked Jesus in the moments before His Ascension: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?” Jesus answers that it isn’t for them, it isn’t for the Church, it isn’t for us, for you or for me “to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”

St Ephrem the Syrian says that God hides things from us, and tells us He is doing so, to inspire us to “keep watch.” If the time of the Last Judgment, “were to be revealed,” it would be to our harm. If we knew when Jesus was coming as Judge we would grow indifferent to His judgment. While God “has indeed said He will come, … He did not define when,” St Ephrem says, so that “all generations and ages will thirst for Him.”

In other words, in this and in all things God acts in such a way as to keep the desire for Him alive in the human heart.

And so immediately after telling the Apostles what they won’t know–after kindling their desire–Jesus tells them they “shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”

But even here, the fine details of the future are left unspoken. But this doesn’t cause the Apostles to be discouraged. Why? Because Jesus speaks in such a way as to inspire deeper love and greater devotion in the Apostles.

Remember what we just read in the Gospel.

Though they are momentarily stunned by seeing Jesus ascend into Heaven when the angels explain to them what has happened the Apostle return “to Jerusalem with great joy” and are “continually in the temple blessing God.”

Sometimes we think–sometimes I think–if only God’s will was laid out for us clearly and in minute detail we would be happy. But if God were to do this, what would happen to human freedom and creativity? If everything was laid out for me, if I had a step-by-step plan that I followed as I would a recipe, I wouldn’t be God’s co-worker but merely a spiritual functionary who blindly and thoughtlessly did as I was told.

This isn’t what God wants from us. God loves us. He and wants us to return His love. But love isn’t love unless it is free.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, as God is for me, I must be for others.

God doesn’t compel me, He woos me. God doesn’t just passively leave room for my freedom, my creativity, He creates the space, the conditions, for me to discover and exercise my freedom and creativity.

And as God has done for me, I must do for you.

To be disciples of Christ means that we help others find true freedom in Christ. This is why compulsion is foreign to the life of the Church. Like God, we must respect each others’ freedom. Anything less is not worthy of the name “Christian” because anything less is contrary to the example of Christ, “Who in glory ascended from us into Heaven” and now sits “at the right hand of God the Father for our salvation”!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Transformed by the Divine Light

Sunday, May 21, 2017: Sunday of the Blind Man; Constantine and Helen, Equal-to-the Apostles,Constantine and Helen, Equal-to-the Apostles, Pachomios the Righteous New Martyr

Epistle: Acts 26:1, 12-20
Gospel:John 9:1-38

Christ is Risen!

The Scriptures see blindness as having two, fundamental meanings. Like deafness, blindness is both a terrible physical affliction, It is also a sign humanity’s estrangement from God. For example,in the Prophet Isaiah, God complains about the spiritual indifference of the leaders of Israel: ““Hear, you deaf and look, you blind, that you may see. Who is blind but My servant, or deaf as My messenger whom I send? Who is blind as he who is perfect, and blind as the Lord’s servant? Seeing many things, but you do not observe; opening the ears, but he does not hear” (Isaiah 42: 18-20, NKJV).

Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus often calls the Pharisees “blind guides” who will not only fall into a pit themselves but causes others to do so as well (Matthew 15:14). These “blind guides” are also morally obtuse confuse the means God has given us to grow in holiness with holiness itself (Matthew 23:16-26).

Following the biblical tradition St John Cassian says that anger isn’t a matter of affect, it isn’t a feeling. Cassian’s understanding of anger as spiritual blindness. As for the feelings I associate with being angry, these are the symptoms that I’m numb to the presence of God in my life. They reveal to me that I’m blind to the presence of God in my life.

Symptomatic of this blindness, as St Paul tells St Timothy, is to have “a form of godliness” while nevertheless “denying its power.” We are, St Paul says, to “turn away” from such people who instead of preaching the Gospel “creep into households and make captives of gullible women.” Rather than repent, these blind guides are “ loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:5-7, NKJV).

While Jesus will,as we see in today’s Gospel, sometimes heal physical blindness, His fundamental mission is to heal the human heart of its insensitivity to the presence of God in human affairs. It’s easy for me to identify others who are blind to God’s grace and mercy. My real fault is that I overlook my own blindness. I need to learn and accept that Jesus comes not simply to heal you but me as well. The word spoken through Isaiah to the leaders of Israel and by Jesus to the scribes and the Pharisees is spoken to each of us.

Like the scribes and the Pharisees I’m blind because I’m a sinner. It is this spiritual blindness to the presence and mercy of God that is the singular source not only of my anger but also my despair and my many lapses in, and offenses against, charity.

There is, however, another form of blindness that isn’t the result my sinfulness but of the brilliance of God’s grace. The Apostle Paul describes this grace in his defense King Agrippa as “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun.”

St Gregory of Nyssa in The Life of Moses, describes this second blindness as “luminous darkness.” He says that “Scripture teaches” the knowledge of God “comes at first to those who receive it as light.” This why, he says, anything contrary to the Gospel is called “ darkness, and the escape from darkness comes about when one participates in light.”

As we grew in the spiritual life, we experience a change.As we grow in our intimacy with God, we come to see that “the true knowledge” of God “consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge.” It is because in contemplation we come to experience to limits of reason, that the experience of God is “a kind of darkness.”

This wholly positive and illuminating blindness is the result of God drawing close to the soul. This new blindness is like the momentary blindness that comes from looking directly at the Sun. This second blindness is source of not just of humility, but also hope in God, charity for others, and the faith needed to proclaim the Gospel with the courage of the martyrs. This, second blindness, is the experience of being overwhelmed by the brilliant light of God’s beauty. It is the experience of this second blindness that transform Saul ,the Persecutor of the Church, into St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles

Unfortunately, many in the Church today don’t actively pursue the kind of intimacy that St Gregory describes. Too many of us are content with knowledge about God rather than have knowledge of God. Of the former, Gregory says that “The man who thinks that God can be known does not really have life.” Why? Because he knows not the One, True God but only a facsimile of God “devised by his own imagination.”

Whether willingly or not, the individual who has only an abstract knowledge about God is spiritually crippled. For all that they may know about the canons, or liturgy, or Church history, they don’t understand that all that God has given us, He has given us for one reason, and one reason only, to inspire in the soul a desire for God that “never ceases.”

For St Gregory of Nyssa and for the Tradition of the Church, be a disciple of Jesus Christ, to center our life around His Persona and shape our life according to His teaching and example, means continually grow in our desire to draw close to God.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Listen again to the Gospel we heard this morning. When the blind man is healed, the restoration of his sight inspires the man not only to witness to Jesus Christ but to seek Him out:

Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe”: and he worshiped him.

Let us this morning, and everyday going forward, strive to lay aside our anger, our despair, our lapses in charity and instead draw close to the God Who has drawn close to us in the Scriptures, the sacraments, the worship and the tradition of the Church.

Let us, like St Paul, not be “disobedient to the heavenly vision” but rather ly aside our sins and turn to God, offering to Him “deeds worthy of … repentance.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Christians Are Exiles

Sunday, May 14, 2017: Sunday of the Samaritan Woman; Isidore the Martyr of Chios, Holy Hieromartyr Therapontus, Holy New Martyrs Mark and John, Serapion the Holy Martyr, Leontius, Patriarch of Jerusalem

Epistle: Acts 11:19-30
Gospel: John 4:5-42

Christ is Risen!

Human beings are different from each other it two, broad ways.

The first is that we are created “male and female” in the words of Genesis (1:27).Though this distinction is under attack by some–even by some in the Church–it remains the most basic human difference. Before we are anything else, we are either male or female and this is a created distinction inherent to being human.

All the other differences in the human family–nationality, language, social status–are secondary. And these other differences are–again, broadly–God’s merciful response to human sinfulness. To see this we need to go once again to Genesis and the story of the Tower of Babel.

To summarize, after the Flood during Noah’s time, God makes a covenant with humanity:“I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done” (Genesis 8:21, NKJV). As time goes on though, humanity begins, once again, to doubt God. Eventually, we simply no longer trust God to keep His word to us and so when we come to “the land of Shinar” we decided to “build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:3,4)

We exercise our creativity and technical genius in rebellion against God. Key to our ability to rebel is that we had “one language and one speech.” Seeing our rebellion, God destroys the Tower and confuses our speech and scatters humanity over the whole face of the earth so that, while we are one in our humanity, we become different peoples (see Genesis 11:5-9).

Again though, the differences in language, culture and nation aren’t a punishment but an act of mercy as God seeks to slowly redirect our rebellious spirit.

Today’s Gospel highlights for us the different differences in the human family. Not only male and female but between of culture, language and nation. To the surprise of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus doesn’t respect these differences. Or rather, it is more accurate to say, He doesn’t respect the way in which these differences are used as an excuse to divide humanity.

Just as from the covenant with Noah to the Tower of Babel, humanity lost sight of God’s promise, from Babel to the Well, we have lost sight of the fact that human diversity is given as a cure for sin. What God meant as a mercy, we have turned not just into an occasion of sin but a justification for sin.

Just as in the time of Jesus, the fact of human difference is an excuse for hatred, or at least indifference, to our neighbor, How easily we, I, can find a reason to ignore, minimize, degrade, or even reject, my neighbor’s humanity. How easy it is for me to deny that we share a common humanity not only with each other but with Jesus Christ.

And yet, it is that common humanity that the Son assumes in His incarnation. He becomes as we are, in the patristic formulation, so that we can become as He is. Notice please, the use of the first person plural pronoun. God becomes man not so I can become God but so that we, together, can become “sharers in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

In being freed from slavery to the powers of sin and death, we are freed as well from the tyranny of loneliness and isolation that is its hallmark. We shouldn’t imagine that these experiences are somehow unique to modern phenomena; they aren’t. Likewise, with hatred and prejudice. There was never a time when we didn’t use our differences as a reason to turn our back on our neighbor or to deny someone else’s humanity.

To see this, look no further than the Gospel. There we see that the fear and division between the Jews and the Samaritans, while different in content, is as real as any racial, or economic, or social, or cultural division we see today.

And yet, as He did after the Flood and  the Tower and at the Well, God is merciful and works to heal the divisions between us by reconciling us to Himself. This work of reconciling humanity to God, and so in turn with itself, is the fundamental work of the Church.This is why, though “man meant it for evil, God meant it for good” (see Genesis 50:20), even the persecution and scattering of the Apostles worked for humanity’s salvation.

Just as He did for the sons of Israel in the time of the Patriarch Joseph, God used the persecution of the Church to bring salvation to the Greeks. Before they were scattered, the Apostles only spoke to the Jews. But afterwards, as an almost natural result of their new situation, the Apostles found that they had Gentile listeners.

So what about us? How has God called us to share in the work of reconciling humanity to Himself and so to itself?

Let me suggest that to answer this question, we need to look to those parts of our life when we find ourselves on the margins. The ancient Irish monastic had an interesting take on this. As an ascetical and evangelical discipline they would voluntarily accept exile from their native land and people. For the sake of their own salvation and to spread the Gospel, these monks would become strangers in a foreign land (see Exodus 2:22).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! This willing exile, though undertaken for many reasons, is how the Orthodox Church came to North America. We are, all of us, spiritually, and more often than not biologically, the sons and daughters of exiles. Many of us, in fact, willingly left our native lands and came to this place and time.

And so, as the spiritual sons and daughters of exiles, we too need to go to the margins, to the edges, of our own lives. We do this not to bring Christ where He isn’t but (to borrow from the Fr Alexander Schmemann), to find Him there waiting for us!

Both the Gospel and Acts of the Apostles are clear. The Church grows and humanity is saved, because (like Jesus) Christians are willing to go where God the Father will lead them. And where the Father leads us, spiritually (and sometimes literally) is always to the margins of our own lives. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ always means to be an exile.

Let us become, willingly and joyfully, who we are!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: To Obey is Better than Sacrifice

Sunday, May 7, 2017: Sunday of the Paralytic; Commemoration of the Precious Cross that appeared in the sky over Jerusalem in 351 A.D., Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem, Akakios the Centurion of Byzantium, Pachomios the New Martyr of Patmos, Repose of St. Nilus, abbot of Sora

Epistle: Acts 9:32-42
Gospel: John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen!

“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three.” writes St Paul, “but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13, NKJV). It’s important to emphasize that the Apostle says this immediately after warning us of all the deficiencies inherent in our current relationship with Christ:

…whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away (vv. 8-10).

Though real, these lapses are not in and of themselves sinful. Rather they reflect that, in this life, we are in our spiritual infancy; we understand and think as children who have yet to “put away childish things” (v. 11). This isn’t to say that we live in spiritual ignorance; like a child, we are young but not stupid. But, for now, Paul says, “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” (v. 12).

The Christian lives in expectation of the revelation of Jesus Christ which is to come. This should foster in me not only a joyful expectancy but also a loving attention to the gentle prompting of divine grace. While the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is still to come, this life is not devoid of His Presence. Like He did at His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor God makes Himself known to each of us to the degree we are able to receive the revelation.

And it is here, in my capacity to receive God, that I find the meaning of Jesus’ last words to the Paralytic:”See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.”

Sometimes in our anxiety to avoid suggesting that by our works we somehow merit salvation, we downplay any suggestion that we are, again as St Paul says, “co-workers” or “co-laborers” with God in our own salvation (1 Corinthians 3:9). And yet, it is precisely by His grace and with our co-operation that we are saved. To be saved is not to be the merely passive recipient of divine grace or the object of a divine fiction that images we are other than as we. To be saved means to say with the Virgin Mary, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NKJV).

Or sometimes because our anxiety to avoid any suggestion of moralizing, we try and sever any connection between human behavior and our condemnation. And yet, the Scriptures are more than clear. Some actions are so immoral that they bring about out condemnation. The Apostle John refers to these as “sins unto death” (1 John 1:5, KJV). St Paul refers to them as “the works of the flesh.” It is these–”adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like”–that we must avoid, or if we fall into them repent of in confession, if we wish to “inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21, NKJV).

Returning to the Gospel, Jesus tells the Paralytic, and us, two things.

First, avoid the sins of the flesh; avoid those sins that kill faith, hope and love. It’s worth noting, if just in passing, that every age has works of the flesh that it tends to minimize or even glorify. Our own age tends to downplay the deadly seriousness of sexual sins even as earlier ages had their own lists of sins that they would not acknowledge as sins. No age is morally superior to another in any absolute sense. Rather each ages and culture people have their own, preferred, ways of turning their back on love.

Second, it isn’t enough to avoid sin, we must cultivate virtue. We must cultivate those three things that last: faith, hope, and above all love. In one of his homilies on John’s Gospel, St Gregory Dialogos asks his hearers whether or not they, personally, belong to Jesus Christ as members of “his flock.” He goes on to ask them, and us,

…whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds. I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action. John the evangelist is my authority for this statement. He tells us that anyone who claims to know God without keeping his commandments is a liar.

The saint reminds us that as important as are faith and hope they aren’t in and of themselves enough. To St Gregory’s appeal to the Apostle John, we add our appeal to the Apostle James:

You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? (2:19-20, NKJV)

A living faith in the revelation we have received, a living hope that is yet to come, requires that I love God and love my neighbor.

To love God means to keep His commandments the second of which is to love you. And to love you means to want what God wants for you. And what God wants for you, is for you to return His love for you. This isn’t an emotional response but obedience. We love God as He loves us by keeping His commandments and being faithful to His will for our lives.

And second, He wants you to love others as He loves you. This can’t be done except that you are faithful to your own, personal, vocation. It is in and through our fidelity to our vocation that we not only grow in the love of God but also the love of our neighbor. This is they way we grow in the love of God. And unless we aid each other in this process of vocation discernment and fidelity, we can’t truthfully claim to be obedient to God or to love our neighbor.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us begin the great work being of faithful to our own vocations and an aid to others as they live theirs!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily for Sunday April 30, 2017: Vocation

Sunday, April 30, 2017: Third Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Pious Joseph of Arimathea & Righteous Nicodemus

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43-16:8

Christ is Risen!

God has called each of us, each of you, personally to a ministry that you–and only you–can do. This ministry, this life of sacrificial love and service, is for the glory of God and your salvation and your neighbors’.

The broad outline of your vocation is found in the natural talents and spiritual gifts God has given you. To borrow from the Divine Liturgy, when God called you “out of non-existence into being” in your mother’s womb, He gave you a particular constellation of abilities. Maybe you are naturally athletic or mechanically inclined. Or maybe you are natural compassionate or patient. Or maybe you love a good argument or like to talk.

To the talents He gave you at your creation, at your baptism He added spiritual gifts. Unlike our talents, the spiritual gifts we’ve been given manifest themselves in the ways in which God draws others to Himself through us. The are in New Testament several different lists of these gifts (e.g., Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 28, Ephesians 4:11, Galatians 5:22-23). Because these gifts reflect the presence of God in our lives, the exact combination of the gifts is effectively infinite. What unites them all, according to the Apostle Peter, is they are given so that in our lives “God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11, NKJV).

Today we recall two events in the life of the early Church that highlight the importance of glorifying God through our care for the most vulnerable members of the Body of Christ.

Sometimes we might imagine that tensions between different ethnic groups in the Church is unique to our own time. These tensions arise because we tend to focus on the superficial, differences between those raised in the Church and those who joined as adults. In the early days of the Church, no one was raised a Christian from infancy. Everyone was a convert! And yet, we see that dissension (murmuring) that arose between the Hebrew and Greek-speaking Christians about how the Church was, or wasn’t, caring for the widows from each community.

It was to solve this problem while leaving the Apostle free to pursue their own vocation “to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” that the Church establishes the order of deacons. We can talk about the diaconate another time. For now, though, it’s worth noting that in the New Testament understanding, the pursuit of one’s vocation is not “zero-sum.” Fidelity to your vocation doesn’t in anyway harm my pursuit of my vocation.

And how could it otherwise? Since all our vocations come from God Who “is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33, NKJV). But this, largely negative view of vocations, doesn’t exhaust what we see in Acts. It isn’t simply that we don’t get in each other’s way.

It isn’t simply that we don’t get in each other’s way. For example, the deacons’ fidelity of the vocation supports the apostles’ fidelity to their vocation. The deacons, in other words, make it possible for the apostles to do as God has called them even as the apostles confirm the deacons in their own vocation to serve at table.

This is the key to understanding what it means to pursue our own, personal vocations. Not only is fidelity to my vocation to my advantage–it is after all the means God has given me to grow in holiness–it is to your advantage as well. One sign that we are living in obedience to God’s will for us, is that we become a source of support and encouragement to others as they live out their own vocation.

Or, if you’d rather, the only way I can become a saint is if I help you become a saint as well!

Turning to the Gospel, we see that vocation fidelity requires not only obedience to God but courage. It was dangerous for Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene and the other Myrrh-Bearing Women to care for the Body of Jesus. Doing so was a direct challenge to the civil and religious authorities. Caring for their deceased friend meant, at a minimum, risking being ostracized. It could easily have meant death.

Courage is necessary to pursue our vocation becomes obedience to God will inevitably bring us into conflict with the powers of this world. As the Apostle Peter tells the Jewish authorities who ordered him to stop preaching that Jesus rose from the dead: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (see Act 5:12-42, NKJV). We cannot obey to God without at times being disobedient to men.

As important as courage is, more important still, however, is a life of personal prayer. Nourished by the sacraments and guided by the liturgical life of the Church, the reading of Holy Scripture and the fathers, I have to pray–and pray daily–to know and do the will of God.

This is what the Apostle Paul means when he tells us “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2, NKJV). Apart from a life of prayer, there is no transformation and without transformation, I remain conformed to this world and enslaved to the powers of sin and death.

Taken together the discernment and pursuit of our personal vocation is nothing more or less than the path to liberty in Christ. Whatever our vocation, it is always the means by which we come to be “partakers of the divine nature” (see 2 Peter 1:4). As I said a moment ago, God has called each of us, each of you, personally to a ministry that you–and only you–can do. This ministry, this life of sacrificial love and service, is for the glory of God and your salvation. It is through fidelity to your vocation that you will become by grace what Christ is by nature.

Our vocation is not only the source of our freedom in Christ but all the good things that flow naturally from life in Christ.

Through our vocation we grow in “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23, NKJV).

And it is through our vocation we discover what it means, concretely, to love “the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mark 12:30-31, NKJV).

My brothers and sisters in Christ, there is no other way to love God and our neighbor, there is no other way to grow in holiness or to bear witness to the Risen Lord Jesus Christ but through fidelity to our personal vocations! We must do what God calls us to do so that we can become who God has called us to be!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Distraction, Detachment, and Discipleship

Sunday, April 23, 2017: New Sunday or Anti-Pascha Sunday of Thomas the Apostle, Called “The Twin” Great-martyr George the Trophy-bearer.

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31

Christ is Risen!

To follow the Person of Jesus Christ, to shape our lives around His teaching and the example of the saints and martyrs who have gone before us in faith (Hebrews 12:1), this is the essence of our life in Christ. While our particular vocations are different, as Orthodox Christians we share a common call to be His disciples and to preach the Gospel to all the world (Mark 15:16). Each of us follows a unique path in life but we have a common goal.

Because we have the same destination–the Kingdom of God–our personal vocations also share common features. Chief among these is the need to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope, and love. These are the fruit of divine grace poured out in the sacraments of the Church, the life of prayer and ascetical struggle. Apart from these, whatever else might be the value of what we do, what we do isn’t Christian.

Just as there are common sources for our unique vocations, there are common dangers. In the Gospel this morning we hear about the Apostle Thomas and his unwillingness–at Vespers last night we hear it referred to “the delicacy of the beautiful unbelief of Thomas”–to believe that Christ is Risen. In a word, Thomas doubt.

Doubt is an interesting thing.

We tend to think that the solution to doubt is more information or a better, clearer explanation. If however you have ever struggled with doubt, or indeed any distraction in the spiritual life, you know that this solution is no solution.

The cause of doubt is not a poverty of information but of attention. Doubt, like fear, anxiety, despair and any number of other temptations in the spiritual life, is the fruit of distraction. Doubt arise when I shift my attention from Jesus to my own thoughts.

At the beginning of this morning’s Gospel, it isn’t so much that Thomas doesn’t believe that Jesus is Risen from the dead as it is he attached to his own thoughts. He is willing to believe in the Resurrection, if and only if, it is revealed to him on his own terms. “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.”

In effect, Thomas will accept the Resurrection if it comes to him, not the free gift of God but as the fruit of his own effort. Thomas can’t believe because he is attached to his own thoughts.

This then is the heart of doubt and all the other distractions of the spiritual life: My attachment to my own will.

While this attachment might, at first, seem sweet, very quickly my thoughts come to torment me. My thoughts enslave me. I make myself a slave to myself. I am as bound by my own thoughts, as Peter was by his chains before the angel of the Lord freed him from prison.

I cannot live as a disciple of Christ if I am attached to my own will, my own thoughts about the spiritual life. It is my plans, my vision, that obscure Christ and so become the source of doubt and the other distractions.

What I need to learn to do–and this takes not only divine grace and real effort on my part but time–is to become detached from my own thoughts. Notice please, I didn’t say I need to NOT have my own thoughts, plans, or feelings. It is “proper and right” to have these. Where I go wrong is in my attachment to them, to caring more about my own thoughts and feelings than I do Christ.

Like I said, finding the balance between prayerful and obedient attention to Christ and respecting the integrity of not only my own thoughts and feelings but those of other people, is the work of a lifetime.

Too often Christians neglect this work and instead give themselves over to one form or another of fundamentalism. Or, to look at the other deformation, they neglect faith altogether and given themselves over to a life of self-aggrandizement.

The irony here is that whichever deformation they choose, in the end, what is chosen is the person’s own will. Both paths elevate the preferences of the individual above the love of God or neighbor.

So, to follow Christ, the be His disciple, I must like Thomas, take my eyes off myself and instead look to Jesus Christ as “My Lord and my God!”

I won’t lie to you. There will be times when doing this is hard, harder than anything you have ever done.

But there will also be times when shifting your focus to Jesus, will not only come easily but joyfully. Over time, what was once hard becomes, if not exactly easier, than to be a moment of liberation.

And with that renewed inner freedom comes not only a more mature, sober way of life in Christ but also an ability to, like Peter, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory