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Homily: What God Wants From Us

April 1 (O.S., March 19), 2018: Sixth Sunday of the Great Lent: Palm Sunday, the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem; Martyrs Chrysanthus and Daria, and those with them at Rome: Claudius, Hilaria, Jason, Maurus, Diodorus presbyter, and Marianus deacon (283). Martyr Pancharius at Nicomedia (ca. 302).

Epistle: Philippians 4:4-9
Gospel: John 12:1-18

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today’s readings are odd.

The epistle doesn’t mention at all our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem. Instead, St Paul tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always!” And, lest we miss what he means, he repeats himself and says again we are to rejoice.

He then goes on to explain to us what it means to rejoice.

We are to be gentle, to lay aside anxiety in favor of prayer, and with a thankful and peaceful heart ask God for what we need.

He concludes by encouraging us to reflect on all things that are true, noble, just, pure, and lovely. We are to concern ourselves not with human failure but with what is virtuous and praiseworthy.

Importantly, the Apostle doesn’t tell us to limit our mediation to those things which are specifically or explicitly Christian. No, whatever form it takes, if it is true, noble, just, pure, or lovely we are to reflect on it and allow it to shape our lives.

But, in all this, there is not one word about Jesus.

As for the Gospel, the events we are celebrating this morning are almost an afterthought. Unlike the Gospel at Matins (Matthew 21:1-11;15-17), most of the text is devoted to the events surrounding Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

As is so often the case, those around Jesus–even those closest to Him–misunderstand. The Apostle John says that the disciples–and he–“did not understand” what was happening.

Judas misunderstood because he was consumed by greed.

The chief priests misunderstood because they were consumed by jealousy.

Even the crowds came “not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead.”

The only one who seems to have any sense of what is happening is Mary the sister of Lazarus. Mary knows that Jesus is going to die. And so she “took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”

Like the disciples, I often misunderstand the will of God because, to return to today’s epistle, I give myself over to grumbling. Frankly, I have an almost unending list of complaints and disappointments. In my more lucid and honest moments, I realize how easy it is for me to find fault with others and myself. I hold on to injuries and resist forgiving those who have wronged me.

This is why I am forever misunderstanding what God asks of me.

Since St Paul sees fit to say what he did to the Church at Philippi, it seems likely that–for all my shortcomings–I’m really no different from any other Christian. We all need to be reminded to attend to the myriad signs of God’s grace and love for us. We all of us need to cultivate a sense not simply of gratitude but celebration.

And if we take St Paul’s counsel to heart, we must cast as wide a net as possible. We must thank God for whatever is true, noble, just, pure, or lovely.

Only in this way, to work backward through the text, we acquire a spirit of gentleness.

Only in this way, will we find the boldness to ask God for what we need.

Only in this way, will we fulfill the command to rejoice in the Lord always.

The crowds, the high priests, Judas and the disciples all of them had the opportunity to sit and eat and drink and talk with God. And all of them allowed that opportunity to slip through their fingers because they “did not understand.”

Instead, they preferred signs and wonders or power and wealth. All good things in themselves to be sure but not the point.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Each day, each moment, Christ comes ready to enter into our lives. He stands at the door to our hearts knocking. If we open our heart to Him, He will come in and dine with us (see Revelation 3:20).

What God wants from us is not palms or hymns. What He wants from us is simply this: He wants us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Forgiveness

Sunday, February 18 (O.S., February 5), 2017: Cheesefare Sunday; Sunday of Forgiveness Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of Bliss; Apodosis of the Meeting of the Lord. Holy Martyr Agatha (251). Martyr Theodoula, and Martyrs Helladius, Macarius, Boethos, and Evagrius (304). St. Theodosius, Archbishop of Chernihiv (1696).

Ss. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: Romans 13:11–14:4
Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Forgiveness is the Christian tradition’s response to not only the petty annoyances of everyday life and the conflicts that corrode our relationships with family members, friends, and colleagues. It is also our response to systemic social injustice and the naked manifestations of evil.

In the Gospel, our Lord calls us to forgive all from to the most innocuous to the most horrific of harms. If I don’t understand this, if I don’t understand that I must always be ready to forgive and to counsel forgiveness, I’ve missed the point not simply of today’s Gospel reading but of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The world will often scoff at the Christian’s call to forgive. This happens not because forgiveness is seen as hard–though it is often so hard as to require heroic virtue from us–but because forgiveness undercuts the sinful heart’s desire to “lord it over” others (Matthew 20:25, NKJV).

This temptation to exercise power isn’t limited to “the rulers of the Gentiles.” It is a common human failing. This why in His response to the bickering of the Apostles over who is the greatest among them, Jesus says “whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28, NKJV).

And yet we need to be careful. We need to understand what forgiveness is and, maybe more importantly, what it isn’t.

When I forgive someone, I lay aside, I give up, my desire to punish them for an offense. To the unforgiving heart, it doesn’t matter if the offense was great or small, real or imagined, intentional or inadvertent. What matters to the unforgiving heart is that someone–indeed, anyone–suffers. To the unforgiving heart, someone must be punished.

Not punishing those who harm us isn’t the same as saying the offense didn’t happen or that it didn’t matter. Nor does forgiveness rule out restitution.

No, what forgiveness does is create a space, it creates the opportunity, for the offender to repent, for restitution to be made and for the reconciliation of those who are estranged.

Sadly, we have all of us had the experience someone who is always willing to remind us of our shortcomings and failures. There are those who see in the failures of their neighbor an opportunity to shame the person, to use their neighbor’s weakness as a way “lording it over” the person.

When this happens, I’ll speak simply for myself here, I resist acknowledging my fault. The more the other person tries to shame me, the less willing I am to examine myself and so to repentant.

This isn’t simply because I am a sinner, though I am, but because shame cripples us.

To forgive then means more than not punishing someone; it also means refusing to shame the person who has harmed me. I do this so that he or she is free to undertake the hard and necessary work of self-examination.

As I said a moment ago, forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation. These are, however, very different actions. While I am always free to forgive, reconciliation requires the cooperation of the other person.

Even assuming a mutual willingness to reconcile, circumstances may prevent this from happening. Once lost, trust in an intimate relationship can be hard to re-establish. Or maybe the harm caused is not simply personal but social–I wound not only my neighbor’s heart and so our relationship but his reputation. This is why gossip is so deadly. It can destroy a person’s place in the community.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we prepare to begin the Great Fast and our journey to greet the Risen Lord Jesus, we are commanded by that same Lord to forgive. While last week we told to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the lonely, sick and imprisoned, today we are told to do only one thing. To forgive.

Let us repent the desire to “lord it over” others.

Let us repent of our fantasies of revenge.

Let us repent of our desire to punish or humiliate those who have harmed or offended us.

Let us, in a word, forgive.

Forgive me a sinner!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Growing in Love

Sunday, February 11, 2018 (O.S., January 29): Meatfare Sunday; Sunday of the Last Judgment; God-bearer(107). Martyrs Romanus, James, Philotheus, Hyperechius, Abibus, Julian and Paregorius (297) Martyrs Silvanus, bishop of Emesa, Luke the Deacon, and Mocius (Mucius) the Reader (312). St. Laurence, recluse of the Kyiv Caves and bishop of Turov (1194).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, Madison WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

Reflecting on his love of tragedies and of the grief he feels when a character in a play suffers, St Augustine says he did this not because he loved sorrow but because he wanted to think of himself as the kind of man who feels pity at the sufferings of others. He wanted to think of himself in other words as merciful.

After all,he asks himself, “what kind of mercy is it that arises from” fiction? The audience isn’t asked “to relieve” the suffering they see on the stage “but merely … to grieve.” The more we sorrow, the more we applaud. In fact, he says the “insanity” is so perverse that if we don’t go away feeling bad, we feel cheated. Perversely, if we grieve at the fictitious suffering we shed “tears of joy” (Confessions, III:2).

Writing some 15 centuries later, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would refer to the insanity Augustine saw in himself as “cheap grace” describing it as “the grace we bestow on ourselves.” “Cheap grace,” he says, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship, 44,45).

Whether we call it “insanity” or “cheap grace,” St Paul in his epistle condemns it. Because of sin, there is in me a tendency to selfishness, to deal sharply with God as I seek to minimize what He asks of me. Like Augustine, I want to feel mercy but not act mercifully. Or, to return to Bonhoeffer, I want to be forgiven but not asked to repent.

As we look forward to the beginning of the Great Fast, the Church asks us to reflect once again on St Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.” This isn’t a rejection of fasting but a sober reminder of its limits. Indeed of the limits of all of our efforts.

Many of us, whether we Christian or not, fall into the same trap as Augustine. We imagine that it is enough if we feel bad for others. We think it is enough to have the right feelings or to hold to the right opinions. If our heart is in the right place, it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do.

I desperately want to be judged not by what I do but by what I feel. In the grip of this madness, I think my words and actions don’t matter as long as they “come from a good place.” I want, in other words, “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

This was the spiritual illness that afflicted the Corinthians. They thought their liberty meant they could do as they please without any thought to the consequences of their actions for other people.

As important as fasting is for the fathers of the Church, it is only a means to an end. I fast in order to overcome my selfishness so that, in turn, I am able to love.

And just as “cheap grace” isn’t really grace but a counterfeit, love without sacrifice isn’t really love. True love isn’t just sacrificial, it longs to sacrifice. If I love you, I want what is best for you. And if what is best for you is costly for me? I am glad to pay that cost and more.

St Maria of Paris reminds us that “The way to God lies through love of people.” Reflecting on the Gospel we just heard Mother Maria goes on to say that

At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead, I shall be asked did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.

The reason that I will be asked this, and nothing else, is because

About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe (The Pearl of Great Price, 29-30).

Not all of us are called, as Mother Maria was, to open a hostel for the poor. But, as the Gospel makes clear, whatever our state in life, all of us are called to care for those in need as best we can. St John Chrysostom says even the poor are called to care for rich by speaking a kind word or offering a prayer.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Everything we do in the Church is done for one reason, and one reason only. To heal the human heart of the selfishness that is the defining quality of sin.

As selfishness recedes so too will fear.

As fear recedes, your desire to love will grow.

As the desire to love grows, your willingness to love sacrificially will also grow.

And as your willingness to love grows, you will begin to discover more and more opportunities to love!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: The Poverty of the Son

Sunday, January 7, 2018 (December 25, 2017, OS): The Nativity of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ; The Adoration of the Magi: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Mission, Madison WI

Epistle: Galatians 4:4-7
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

Christ is Born!

Poverty, economists remind us, is always relative. We need to avoid the temptation of thinking of poverty only in monetary terms. Limiting poverty to merely the absence of material wealth, we risk overlooking the fact that it is in the nature of human beings to be poor.

What I mean by this is that, in the beginning, when God “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7), He created Adam in need. We see this in the Hebrew word translated as “living being” or sometimes “living flesh,” nép̄eš a word that connotes “neediness.” It is sometimes used to describe things like a flute or the throat, things that function–are only themselves if you will–because they are empty.

As it comes from the hand of God, it is in Adam’s nature to be poor.

Far from being a hardship, this original poverty means that all that humanity has, all that Adam and all of his descendants have, we have as a gift of God. My natural talents, my spiritual gifts, my family, and my very existence all these are God’s gift to me even as all that you have is likewise His gift to you.

When in the hymnography of the Church we hear that the Son becomes poor for our sake. This isn’t primary referring to material wealth. If Jesus was born in a palace with the Theotokos lying in a bed of finest linen, attended by the best physicians and with midwives who washed the Newborn Child with water poured from vessels of gold, we would still say that the Son was born in poverty.

The simple reason for this is that to be human means to be empty or, if you will to be poor. And while Adam rejects his own poverty, his own radical dependence on God, in the Incarnation the Son freely embraces all this “for us and for our salvation” as we say in the Creed.

In the faith of the Church, humanity’s poverty is a fitting vehicle for the revelation of God. Our poverty reflects the supra-abundance of the divine nature.

And this, in turn, means that Jesus not only reveals the Father to us, He reveals us to ourselves. To say that humanity is created in the image of God means that we are created according to the pattern of Jesus Christ Who is Himself the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” St Paul goes on to say of Jesus that

…by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything (Colossians 1:15-18, NKJV).

In becoming Man, the Son doesn’t cease to be God, He doesn’t cease to be the one through Whom all things are created and in Whom all “all things are held together.” Rather, in taking on our humanity, the Son takes on our poverty, our dependence on God. And as we see in the events of Holy Week, He also takes on our vulnerability to our indifference and cruelty.

It is God’s embrace of poverty that troubles “Herod the king … and all Jerusalem with him.” St John Chrysostom says that Herod and Jerusalem are troubled because like the Hebrew children in the desert they are in the grip of “idolatrous affections.” Once again they are more inclined toward “the fleshpots of bondage” than the offer of that “new freedom” that allows them to cry out “Abba! Father!”

Chrysostom goes on to say that Herod and all of Jerusalem “were on the point of having everything going their way.” Even though “they knew nothing” yet about the Incarnation, if they only “formed their judgments … on the basis of self-interest,” the fact that the mighty Persians came to worship this Newborn King should have strengthened their faith in God and their hope for liberation from Roman tyranny. That they were troubled the saint says means that their hearts were dull and marred by envy, (“The Gospel of Matthew,” Homily, 6.4 in ACCS: NT vol Ia: Matthew 1-13, pp. 22-23).

Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” this same envy that often mars our own spiritual lives.

Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” we are tempted to prefer the passing riches of man to the poverty of God.

Like Herod and “all Jerusalem with him,” like Adam, we are troubled because we reject the poverty that the Son willingly embraces.

And yet, for all that we fail, there is hope. As I said a moment ago, Jesus not only reveals the Father to us but us to ourselves. We see simultaneously in the Face of Jesus both God the Father and our own deepest identity.

To embrace the poverty of the Son doesn’t mean to become materially destitute. Rather it means to put all that we have at the service of glorifying God and reconciling humanity to the Father and with itself

As Orthodox Christians living in America, we are members of a painfully small community. As a new mission, we are the smallest Orthodox community in the city of Madison.

But given our location on the Isthmus, we have been given the great blessing of being at the heart of not only Madison but of the whole state of Wisconsin.

God has set us aside as witness of His love to the most powerful voices in our city, our state and really in the nation. In calling us, God has blessed us and will continue to bless us if we remain faithful.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the required fidelity consists merely in this: to imitate the willing poverty of the Newborn Christ Child.

Christ is born!

+Fr Gregory

Homily: In Christ is All

Sunday, December 24, 2017 (December, 11 OS): 29th Sunday after Pentecost. Tone 4; The Sunday of the Holy Forefathers; Ven. Daniel the Stylite of Constantinople (490). Martyr Mirax of Egypt (640). Martyr Acepsius and Aeithalas at Arbela in Assyria (VII). Ven. Luke the New Stylite of Chalcedon (979). Ven. Nicon the Dry of Kyiv Caves (1101).

Epistle: Colossians 3:4-11

Gospel: Luke 14:16-24

The violence and compulsion that always seem to travel along with the Kingdom of God are wholly of my own making. Let me explain.

1211to1217sundayofforefathersSt John Chrysostom tells us that when we hear about God’s anger, we shouldn’t think that God’s anger is like our own. I get angry because I am offended or afraid. Even when my anger is righteous, there is something sinful mixed in. My anger always reflects my over-attachment to my own will, to my own plans and projects.

For God, however, “even if He punishes even if He takes vengeance, He does this not with wrath, but with tender care, and much loving kindness.” This why Chrysostom concludes that when we sin we should be courageous and “trust in the power of repentance.” Why? Because God doesn’t react out a sense of His own wounded dignity but rather “with a view to our advantage, and to prevent our perverseness becoming worse by our making a practice of despising and neglecting Him.” While it may feel like an affront or even a punishment, what God does, He does not to “[avenge] Himself on account of our former deeds; but because He wishes to release us from our disorder” (An exhortation to Theodore after his fall,” 1, 4).

The more I have rebelled against God the more His will feel to me like an act of violence. The more I give my heart over to created reality rather than to God, the more it feels like, in the words of today’s parable, that God is “compel[ling]” me to “come into [His] house.

The more I love the creature more than the Creator, the more it will always feel as if God is compelling me, forcing me to do His will. The violence, however, is not committed by God.

Rather, I am the one who commits violence against myself. It isn’t God who violates my freedom or wounds my dignity. I do these things to myself when I resist His grace. When I refuse to, as St Paul says, “put to death” all that is earthly in me, I make Adam’s transgression my own and become my own worst enemy.

This is why it is important at times simply to stop. To take the time to keep silent, to pray and reflect on my life. I need to remind myself of all the ways in which I prefer the creature to the Creator and my own will to the will of God. To avoid harming myself I must, in the words from the Liturgy, live a “life of repentance.”

We need to pause at this point to avoid making the mistake of thinking that to prefer the Creator to the creature or the will of God to my own will, means to ignore the personal and work demands of everyday life. Nothing could be further from the truth!

In fact, what we need to do is learn to see the demands made on us in light of the Gospel. The obligations that make up life are an intrinsic part of the everyday asceticism that God asks of us. Our daily obligations, the myriad little and great tasks of my life, must be seen within the wider context of the “Grace, mercy, and peace” that comes “from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love” (2 John 1:3, NKJV).

Here’s the great blessing that I often overlook in my short-sighted pursuit of my own will.

Apart from God, even the very best thing in my life will, even those things and people that bring me the greatest sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, will eventually become sources of bitter disappointment and division.

In Christ, the people and tasks in my life, my successes as well as my failures, all these become sources of healing, reconciliation, and communion.

In Christ, that is undertaken with a spirit gratitude to God, everything in my life becomes a moment of divine grace.

And as if this wasn’t enough…

In Christ, all that we do not only glorifies God but also is a step along the way to becoming more fully the man or woman God has created us to be.

Reflecting on the Magnificat, St Ambrose of Milan points out that “the human voice can[not] add anything to God.” Even the best of my accomplishments or the purest expression of my love, adds nothing to God. But, Ambrose reminds us, still we can say that God is “is magnified within us” because when “the soul does what is right and holy, it magnifies… God, in whose likeness it was created and, in magnifying the image of God, the soul has a share in its greatness and is exalted” (Commentary on Luke, II, 19.26-27).

My brothers and sisters in Christ, when we “put off the old man with his deeds, and … put on the new man,” the myriad tasks and relationships of our lives take on a lasting and eternal character.

Likewise, as we set aside our own sinfulness–that, is through repentance–we are “renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created” me, we become more fully the men and women who God has created us to be.  And it is in this that we find the justice and peace and the mercy and love that is always escaping even the best of our merely human intentions.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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