8th Sunday after Pentecost: Feeding of the 5000

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Scripture Reading

Gospel: Matthew 14: 14-22  Epistle: 1 Cor. 1: 10-18

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Today’s Gospel from Matthew 14 tells us about Christ feeding the multitudes – 5000 men plus the women and children, – and we know that there must have been more women than men cause they catch on quicker after all. In the next chapter, chapter 15, St. Mathew tells us Christ is again feeding the multitudes – this time 4000 men plus women and children. The Fathers teach that the formula is always the same, Christ gives thanks to His Father – representing the Anaphora prayers; breaks the bread – representing His body, the Eucharist; gives it to His disciples to distribute – representing the Priests distributing communion at the Chalice at each Liturgy – and the people are filled – unto eternal life! You don’t generally hear the prayer that the Priest says at the Altar as he breaks the lamb up into the 4 main pieces for communion, as the communion hymns are already underway, but it is:

“Divided and distributed is the Lamb of God: Who is divided, yet not disunited; Who is ever eaten, yet never consumed; but sanctifying those who partake thereof.” Today’s Gospel reading demonstrates for us this reality which is eternally present.

This miracle of the feeding of thousands with the bread from Christ is told by all 4 of the Gospel writers and in John chapter 6 Christ explains the true significance. Yes, this was one of the signs of the Messiah, but more than that, Christ explains the Eucharist in very clear and unambiguous terms. John Chapter 6 starts with the feeding of the 5000 but ends with Christ scandalizing the Jews by saying “I am the bread of life…I am the living bread which comes down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world.” The Jews are in shock and say “How can this be?” Christ replies “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in You. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him.” Is that clear enough for you? I don’t find a lot of wiggle room in this passage, although there are certain branches of the “bible believing” evangelical non-sacramental world that seem to have this passage written in invisible ink in their versions. Just to be completely clear Christ then finishes with “As the living Father sent Me and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven – not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever,” We need to be coming to the cup at every opportunity, this is life! If there is really something standing between us going to receive communion, we should waste no time in coming for confession and receiving forgiveness. Never let yourself stay away from the chalice for twice in a row unless specifically instructed to do so by your Priest.

I would like to talk a little about the great feast of Transfiguration coming up this Wednesday. I am very excited to be able to go down to Holy Myrrhbearers and celebrate with Fr. Gregory, as this is one of the great feasts of the Church! In the Transfiguration passage we see Peter, always one to be a little impulsive and look for action – remember he was the one who cut off the guard’s ear when they came to arrest his Lord. Peter says; “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish let us make here 3 tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

We get a glimpse of the Glory of God, and we get frantic. We need to do something, build a Church, preach to the poor in spirit, start a mission, do something! But remember, He is everywhere present and fills all things, so the light of Christ is always here, but sometimes our eyes are opened to this ever-present reality and we see reality a little more clearly. What does God say to Peter’s suggestion? “This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased HEAR HIM” A divine command to shut up and listen! That’s what God wants us to do. Don’t run off and try to accomplish a bunch of kingdom building activities – unless we have first stopped to listen, to hear Him. Just to soak in some of the awe and glory He is allowing us to receive, to feel, to see and experience. We need to stop long enough to really hear Him. We may be building wonderful commendable things for our kingdom, not so much for His.

I read a wonderful story in the book “Everyday Saints” It is on my highly recommended reading list, full of fascinating stories that occurred at Pskov caves Monastery in Russia, the only monastery that managed to stay open all during the communist era because of some very gifted elders and Abbots. One of the stories is about a very hard working and gifted Monk called Melchisadek… tell story.

God really doesn’t need us to accomplish His purposes. If we aren’t available or willing, or just not listening, He can use a talking Ass if necessary. I’m referring to Balaam’s donkey of course, but God could use anyone for His purposes. The donkey saved Balaam from the destroying angel in his path and when Balaam beat him the donkey said (I love the King James Version for this verse) “And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.”

Why am I telling you about the talking donkey? Not just to show you that donkey talking in Shrek is really not such a novel thing, but to tell you that we really aren’t doing God some great and cosmic favour when we choose to do the only sensible thing, and cooperate with Him in seeking to bring His kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” When we put our efforts into really working for the Church. He is blessing us and granting us life and He is the one doing us a huge favour, covering us with His love, and allowing us to participate with Him in His true and lasting eternal work. It’s important that we keep that straight, that we don’t slip into some warped kind of “Look at all I’ve done for You, don’t I at least deserve…” type of thinking. It is He who is doing us a huge favour by granting us the incomprehensible privilege of cooperating in His work. We are never doing God any favours. We have only that which He has given us to bring to Him. If we don’t choose to connect this divine spark – the divine gift within each one of us to the source of this life, to Christ and the uncreated and ever-present light, to that transfiguring light revealed to Peter, James and John at Mount Tabor, revealed to Moses at the burning bush, revealed to Motovilov through St. Seraphim, and revealed to so many of the saints throughout all the ages, our spark of divinity stays struggling and lonely, barely staying lit.  As we unite this spark of divinity which is within each one of us, with the source of this divinity, with Christ Himself, the light grows and glows and melts our stony hearts and slowly turns us into true flesh and blood humans, Sons and daughters of God. Glory to Jesus Christ!

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6th Sunday after Pentecost: Saint Elijah/Paralytic

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Scripture Reading

Gospel: Matt 9:1-8 & Luke 4:22-30 Epistle: Rom. 12:6-14 & James 5:10-20

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Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit!  Today we are celebrating St. Elijah’s saints’ day. Elijah; what a wonderful saint. Elijah has a special mission throughout the scriptures, after his deathless, bodily departure into the kingdom of heaven. Christ, in speaking to his apostles about who John the Baptist is says: “…he is Elijah who is to come, He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” In the Wisdom of Sirach in Chapter 48, where there is a wonderful 12 verse summery of Elijah’s service to God and His people – it says of Elijah that “He will come at the proper time with rebukes, to turn the heart of the father to the son.” In Malachi it says: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord and he will turn the heart of the father to his son, and a man’s heart to his neighbour.” And in Luke, the angel in speaking to Zacharias about the birth of his son John the Baptist says: “He will also go before Him (Christ) in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the father to the children.”

Such an emphasis on turning the hearts of fathers around. How does this work? It is always the same message whether in the Old Testament or in our present time. We must repent, turn from our sin, and choose life over death. We need to cry out to God with all our hearts to help us to see and confess our sins, and to accept His forgiveness. Then our hearts can begin to be softened and we can once again begin to feel tenderness and compassion and even the love of Christ for those who have hurt us; family, friends or even those who mistreat us. We can begin to live in the process of granting forgiveness, as this is an ongoing life process and not a one-time decision. As John the Baptist, in the spirit of Elijah cried out to all he encountered; “Repent and bear fruits worthy of repentance. Turn to Christ who will baptize you in fire and the Holy Spirit.”

Elijah and Moses appeared to the apostles, Peter, James and John on Mount Tabor, when Christ was transfigured, and the uncreated glory of His divinity was revealed to His disciples. Transfiguration coming up on Aug. 6 is one of the great feast days of the Church. The revealing of the uncreated light during the transfiguration of Christ is considered to be a revealing of the normal state of reality. We are normally blind to this presence but it fills all things at all times. The apostles had their eyes opened to truly see reality. Moses, in seeing the burning bush, was not seeing a special bush, but simply having his eyes opened to see the ever present reality of the uncreated light of God, that exists in all life at all times. This is why the first icon that a student of iconography in the Orthodox tradition will usually be taught to complete is the Transfiguration. The uncreated light that is the theme of this icon, is also present in every icon, and really in all of creation. Moses is seen by the Fathers as representing the Law and those who have died. Elijah is seen to represent the prophets, and since Elijah never experienced death, but was carried off bodily into the heavens with a chariot and horses of fire, he is understood to be representing all who are alive in Christ! May God grant that this includes all of us here. 

One of the most striking occurrences in Elijah’s life was when he told King Ahab there would be a drought that would last until Elijah gave his word to end it. Three and a half years later he meets with King Ahab and has him round up the 850 false prophets of Baal and other false gods and they have the famous encounter on Mt. Carmel.

The false prophets are unable to get Baal and their gods to send down fire to burn up their wood and offering. Elijah then has enough water poured upon his wood and offering to fill up a trench and prays to God to send down His fire; and thereby to turn the hearts of His people back to Him. God sends down fire and consumes everything – even the stone altar the wood and offering were laid upon. Elijah then slaughters the 850 false prophets who had been leading God’s people away from Him.

The destruction of the 850 false prophets represents the destruction of sin, which then enables those caught in its clutches to get a fresh start and freely turn to God. God Himself is described as a consuming fire; a fire of love, of glory, of purification and destruction, turning that which it touches to pure gold or to ash. This fire both illuminates all truth, and exposes that which needs to be destroyed. The Orthodox Church has always seen the fire of God as a purifying fire which is welcomed by those who are seeking to unite with Christ – taking away Elijah in a fiery Chariot – but felt as a terrible burning by those who are attempting to flee from Him. The concept of a wrathful God sending evil people to hell or purgatory where eternal flames burn them forever, is not an Orthodox concept. St. Mark of Ephesus a great champion of the Orthodox Church in the 15th century stood up and called this idea a Roman heresy at the Council of Florence. The very same, never changing flame of God’s love, is experienced by people that love God as great wonderful light; and by those who try to flee from God, as burning fire. There is no fleeing God who is everywhere present and fills all things and who waits for His creation to choose to come home to Him.

The fire of God burns up sin as the fire in purifying Gold burns away the dross and leaves only 100% pure gold. Everything else is turned to ashes and refuse but the pure gold can not be touched, it is only freed by the fire and made more concentrated and unburdened fro all of the dross. As painful as this cleansing is, please come and purify us and burn away the sin and the wrong thinking from us that we might be pure dear God. When we as Priests serve the Proskomedia to prepare the lamb for the Liturgy, once we have cut out Christ the lamb of God, the very next action is to take out a large separate triangle representing the Theotokos, and we say as we put this piece to the right of the lamb “The Queen stood on Your right side, arrayed in golden robes, all glorious.” All through the scriptures, pure gold is valued as a symbol of the pure, of that which has no dross or sin left. The golden robes of the Theotokos represent absolute purity.

Our Gospel reading today gives us the image of the paralytic; he whom sin has rendered paralyzed and incapable of movement. He needs to be carried by his faithful friends and brought before the Lord. The paralytic presents an image of where we end up, if we continually fill ourselves with the paralyzing poison of sin. We end up paralysed and almost incapable of resisting on our own, and need the prayers of our brothers and sisters who bring us before Christ so He can free us if we get to this sad state. However, please note the result of these efforts by the paralytic’s dear and precious friends. Once they have successfully taken their friend before Christ, he sees their faith and looks down in compassion and gives the paralytic a brand new start. “Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven you.” He is freed from his paralysis and able to once again in his own power move and choose to come to God. It is far better however, to choose to come to God on our own and ask for healing and forgiveness before we reach such a paralyzed and deadened state. The sacrament of confession is a great and healing gift to us.

The Fathers talk about the process of sin. All sin starts with a thought, a logismoi in Greek. There is no sin in having an initial thought attack you. Many of these unhealthy and disturbing thoughts are directly from the demons. We are all subject to these attacks, even Christ was attacked with these thoughts by the devil – remember Christ’s struggle in the wilderness. No there is no sin in having these thoughts, no matter how inappropriate or horrible. However, immediately upon having a temptation, we have a choice which will then determine if the thought or temptation leads us down the road to sin. The advice of the fathers is to immediately choose to ignore the thought and to not in any way engage it. The Jesus prayer can be of great help in this regard. If the enemy sees that every time he attacks us it results in us fleeing to Christ in prayer, he will find his attacks very counter-productive and we will find they slow down. The Fathers teach we should just continue on with what ever it is we are doing. Often these thoughts come as we try to pray. If so, continue praying. However, we often choose to engage and entertain these thoughts, to start an interior conversation with them. This is the second stage called “interaction.” While not sinful in itself, it is already very dangerous. We debate, hmmm, does this idea have any merit, any value, should I, or should I not, picking the daisy petals one at a time. Should I open up that web page? There could be some educational value in it after all? This then often leads to the third stage, to “consent.” Once the decision is made to act upon a bad thought, we have entered into the realm of sin. We only really have our free will to offer God. Everything is a gift from Him, but our free will, we can give back as the only gift we possess to offer back to God, to show our gratefulness. The Fathers teach that once we have decided to consent to a sin, it will very shortly follow that we will enter the fourth stage where we perform the sin once the opportunity arises. This is called “captivity.” As this pattern becomes repeated our ability to resist becomes increasingly more difficult, until we are a slave to the sin and we enter the final stage of sin called “passion” or in more modern language “addiction.” Once this stage is arrived at, we continually give way to this activity and become more and more deadened to the horror and reality that we are killing ourselves, and cutting ourselves off from the love that God is always offering to us. Our consciences become deadened, our hearts become hard and calcified, and we end up like the paralytic in today’s Gospel, where only the fervent prayers and actions of our brothers and sisters in Christ can bring us to Christ and heal us from the sin we have chosen to yield to.

Thanks be to God, He knows how susceptible we are to this disease, and His love for us never changes. He is always waiting for us to come to him so we can have Him heal us and give us a fresh start, hopefully before we are so paralysed that we can not come to him by our own choice. Let us turn to God from this very day and repent of whatever habitually sinful ways we have been captured by. Christ is faithful and calling us to come to Him, to come home to His love and forgiveness. Glory to Jesus Christ!

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5th Sunday after Pentecost – The Pigs

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Scripture Reading

Gospel: Matthew 8:28-9.1 Epistle: Romans:10:1-10

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In the name of the Father & the Son & the Holy Spirit…Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today’s Gospel from Matthew is a familiar one.  It is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  It comes around at least twice; and when we have a late Pascha three times every year, as a Sunday Gospel Reading. Why did all 3 of these Apostles and the entire Church find this particular lesson to be so important? It teaches us reality!

The Gospel lesson of the Demoniac and the pigs is a true shining explanation of reality, and therefore one that the Church in her wisdom wants us to hear over and over and over again. Christ and the Apostles arrive in the Gadarene region; immediately encountering 2 men completely out of their minds – possessed by many demons and exceedingly fierce.  What is going on here? How did these men end up in such terrible condition? We should never judge; simply because we don’t have a clue as to what is really going on. There is always far more going on in any situation than we can know, and this is why God tells us to leave judgement to Him. Only God sees and understands all things. We see a man in this condition, or perhaps someone living on the street in our culture, out of his mind and in desperate straights, and we often tend to think he must have done something very bad to deserve this fate. The demons did everything they could to cause the Gadarene demoniacs to destroy themselves. They drove them from human companions – this is always what the evil one is trying to get us to do. Isolate ourselves. A common saying of the Fathers is: “We enter heaven together with our brothers and sisters, we enter hell alone.” The evil one will always try to help us to be hurt and offended about someone or something in our Church, and whisper in our ear that we shouldn’t stick around to deal with it. It’s easier to just leave. He is like a wolf, trying to separate a suffering sheep from the flock so he can devour him in solitude. If you want to stay sane, you can be wounded; but it is not optional to stay wounded. We place ourselves in grave danger when we allow ourselves to be separated, and should constantly be asking God for the grace to forgive, and to accept forgiveness. Doubtless the demons did everything in their power to try to destroy these men, yet they managed to resist, and then when they encountered Christ, they immediately responded to cling to him, and be freed from the demons. We can never judge, we just don’t see the whole picture.

The Gospel presents us with a reality that we would probably not usually like to dwell on. It is an uncomfortable reality that very starkly illuminates the seriousness of what is actually going on while we are having our brief visit to this planet. There is a very real enemy of man who hates us with a hatred that is fierce and ugly beyond what we can even imagine. He is furious that God would create such helpless and pathetic creatures as us, and place the very stamp of His divinity within us. What was God thinking! Satan wants to show God what a mistake He made. Satan’s goal is to cause us to not even realize, let alone work towards the great calling and purpose that we have been gifted with and created for. He and his demons are committed to do anything they can to separate us from our brothers and sisters in Christ; to cause us to stray from the love of God, and then to destroy us; thereby proving to God we don’t deserve the great heritage God has bestowed upon us.

Of course Satan is correct in this assessment – we don’t deserve the unbelievable love and care God has given to us, his creatures, and we can do nothing to earn it. It is a gift from God and only the love and grace of God make this possible. We can only gratefully accept His unwavering love. By cooperating with God and being united with Him and transformed into the Image of Christ placed within us, we fulfill our destiny. The Church calls this “Theosis” however we really can’t even begin the journey, without a clear understanding of reality. This is what the Gospel story of the Demoniacs, and really all of the Gospel lessons are trying to teach us. What is real and of lasting eternal substance – not just a fleeting distraction that will crumble and prove to have no lasting value? It is of course, only that which leads us to the eternal Kingdom of God, our true home.

These days, many in our culture would like to dismiss demonic activity as just mental disturbances, figments of an old superstitious mindset. CS Lewis was a fairly modern man; the dean of Oxford College in England, better known today as the author of the Narnia series of books and many other writings. He wrote a very instructive book on the strategy of demons called “The Screwtape Letters” I think he sums up the demonic strategy and our earthly reality quite well when he says:

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe and feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

The demons have a very good grasp on what is real. While they do everything in their power to cloud this understanding for us, the Children of God, they themselves are under no illusions, and know that they are completely subject to Christ and his Church, and that their time is short and coming to an end.  In today’s gospel the demons cry; “What have we to do with You Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come to torment us before the time?” No, the Demons do not struggle with reality; they only try to distort it for us, hoping to keep us from knowing true reality and desperately trying to keep us asleep.

Overall, the battle is not really a battle, it is already won. Christ is completely in charge. However each of us individually are engaged in a battle while here on earth – for our very souls. This present age, before the final judgement, is given to us to determine our eternal future. The final judgement will most certainly end time, but we will enter into eternity – where time as we know it does not exist, and the final judgement – not so much at some cataclysmic battle at the end of the ages, as upon our death. This almost always occurs much sooner than we had planned on! The demons do have some freedom to whisper lies, and attempt to fill our minds with phantasy before the time of the final judgement, while we and they are here living on the earth. Battling with these thoughts and rejecting their influence, allows us to grow in maturity as children of God.  As we exercise our free will, and choose God’s path – our conscience begins to awaken. We become more aware of the fierce battle for our very souls that is going on all around us. The good news is that only 1/3 of the angles fell and became the demons; so they are outnumbered 2 to 1!

During our beautiful Vespers services, there are some prayers that are aimed at helping us along in protecting us and strengthening us in this battle with the demons. “Clothe us in the armour of light. Deliver us from everything which comes with darkness. Grant sleep, which You have given us for the repose of our weakness, free from every phantasy of the devil.”… “Let not our hearts incline to evil words or thoughts, but save us from all those who pursue our souls”… “Protect us this evening and throughout the coming night from all our enemies, from every assault of the powers of hell, from vain and useless thoughts, and from evil memories.”

Did you catch that: “from vain and useless thoughts and from evil memories.” I don’t know about you, but that probably describes half the thoughts that go rumbling through my head. If the majority of the thoughts and memories that I catch myself thinking and dwelling on, were subject to the purifying fire of God we spoke about last week, I’m afraid they would end up in the ash pile, not the gold side. Speculation about others motives; impure sexual images; memories that I have not asked God in to heal, and still cause me to feel hurt and offended, or make me wish for revenge, or fill me with guilt;  labelling myself or others in a negative way; mind reading – feeling I know what others are thinking without them telling me; future telling – knowing how things are bound to turn out – and it’s usually bad; and pretty much most of the other garbage flowing through my mind in a stream of consciousness that is not focused upon God, would fall into the “vain and useless thoughts and evil memories” category.

It is no wonder that the Jesus prayer has been given such a high recommendation by the Fathers throughout all the centuries. As soon as we catch our minds spinning off in some less than helpful direction, the Jesus prayer is the quickest and simplest way to fill our minds and hearts once again with thoughts of real and eternal value. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me a sinner.” This is always a prayer to cling to and fill our mind with. Once the demons start to see that when they whisper some of their poisonous little suggestions to us, it actually causes us to wake up and start to repeat the Jesus Prayer, they become much more reluctant to play with us. They find it quite discouraging and counter-productive, if their efforts just cause us to turn to Christ.

Have you ever really listened to the exorcism prayers at the start of every baptism service? A small sample of the prayers; “…most crafty, impure, vile, loathsome and alien spirit, by the might of Jesus Christ who has all power both in heaven and on earth…Depart. Acknowledge the vainness of your might, which has not power even over swine…” and “Breath and spit upon him”. This is just a small sample of how the Church deals with the enemy in the battle for our souls.

The evil one hates us and wants to destroy us but he is restrained by God. Even when we, in our self destructive delusion, cooperate with the evil one and buy into his twisted rebellion and anger, thereby giving him some acceptance of his influence, God places limits on what Satan can actually do to us. Many of us can personally testify to God’s protection, even before we had an understanding of His ways and love for us, and consciously chose to follow Him. Thank God for His ever present love. In the Gospel lesson when the demons enter the pigs, they immediately rush headlong to their death. Even animals can not bear the stench of the demons. God permits this to happen to show in very graphic and real terms, what is the end result of life with the demons. Through God’s grace, the demoniacs resisted this final destruction, even when they had the entire legion of demons affecting them. All God requires from us is to willingly choose to turn to Him in His love. As the epistle of St. Paul to the Romans said today: “The word is near you in your mouth and in your heart: that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead you will be saved.”

The people of Gadarene beg Christ to leave them. He has disturbed their present comfort level and has cost them a tidy sum on the pork belly market. Here is the most terrifying line in the Gospel reading. “So He got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city.” Christ will patiently stand and wait to be invited into our lives, but will obey our wish to have him leave, should we choose to send him away. It is always our decision. Thank God He never goes far. After all He is everywhere present and fills all things. Hopefully we will wake up in the middle of the night and cry out in fear…Lord have mercy! Christ knew that the people of the region were not ready to receive the good news that the Kingdom of God was at hand. They had clearly shown that they valued commerce and getting ahead more than following God, even when God was right in their midst, working wonders and healing the sickest among them.

In Mark’s gospel, it says that the demoniac, once healed and sitting at the feet of Jesus and in his right mind, begged that he might stay with Jesus. This was the surest indication that he was now in his right mind. We understand true reality when we want to always stay with Jesus. Earlier when first encountering Christ, the man was fearful. Before we make the decision, and keep making that decision to cling to Christ with all of our heart and mind and soul, it seems like a scary decision. Will we be giving up our present comfortable life? Even if our life is less than comfortable looking to others, we often fiercely hang on to it. The saying; “the devil we know is better than what we don’t know” seems to describe how we live much of our lives. God often allows the consequences of our poor choices to continue to affect us, so that we will somehow come to our senses and cry out to Him to save us. He will not impose His will upon us, even though it breaks His heart to see the mess we choose to live with, rather than simply choosing true life in Christ. He laments about Jerusalem, and really about all of His wayward children in Matthew and Luke: “How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

Shortly after this encounter with the demoniac, Christ sends his 12 disciples out to preach that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and gives them power and authority over demons. Shortly after this he sends the 70 out to preach that the Kingdom of God is here. They return overjoyed that even the demons are subject to them in Christ’s name. Jesus instructs them that this is a minor benefit compared to the true goal – that their names are written in the Kingdom of heaven.

We need to firmly get our minds and hearts to understand that the Kingdom of God is the ultimate reality, and is always present and accessible, here and now! There is always much more going on than we can see with our physical eyes, and hear with our physical ears. Following Christ is a very light and joyful yoke, in huge contrast to the crushing and destructive yoke we take on when we choose to chart our own course. We know so little about what is really going on, and what true reality actually looks like, that we struggle to make good decisions. We are often so out of touch that we don’t even realize what our true state of being is. May God help us, to be willing to allow Him to show us true reality, and open our spiritual eyes and ears to His ever present love and protection. Like the freed Gadarene demoniac’s, let us proclaim to all the world what great things Christ has done for us! Glory to Jesus Christ!

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4th Sunday after Pentecost: Centurion

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Scripture Reading

 Epistle: Rom. 6: 18-23, Gospel: Matt 8:5-13

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Glory to Jesus Christ! Today is the 4th Sunday after Pentecost and we consider the Centurion. As we all know, century means 100, and a centurion was in charge of a Roman regiment of 100 men so he was a man of some standing in Roman society. The scriptures speak highly of the Centurions. We have St. Longinus the Centurion standing at the foot of the cross saying (Matt 27:54) “Truly this was the Son of God.” Later after guarding Christ’s tomb and witnessing the miracle of His resurrection, St. Longinus refused to be bribed by the Jews to say Christ’s body was stolen and went to Cappadocia to preach the good news of Christ’s resurrection. It wasn’t long before Pilate sent soldiers to silence him and his 2 other soldier companions and he was martyred very early. We also have the Centurion Cornelius who was in charge of the Italian regiment. He was the one who God told to send for Peter and when Peter arrived, he became the first official non-Jewish Christian when the Holy Spirit fell upon him and those with him and Peter baptized them all. Today we have another very special Centurion. In all of the gospels, this is the only passage where it is recorded that “Christ marvelled” in a positive manner. The only other “marvelling” Christ does is at the unbelief of those in His home town of Nazareth.

The main quality which causes Christ to marvel in this short passage is the centurion’s faith. Christ tells us “Assuredly I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel.” Love, compassion and humility are also very evident. It was not a normal occurrence to care so deeply for a servant, but here we see a man greatly filled with love and compassion for his fellow man. We have the story of this Centurion also given to us in Luke with some additional information. In Luke’s telling, the Centurion’s faith and humility are such that he does not even feel himself worthy to approach Christ himself, but rather first asks his admiring Jewish Elder friends to approach Christ on his behalf. After all, he knows that this is the Jewish God that he is approaching, and his humility keeps him from being presumptuous. It is a similar attitude to the one found when the gentile women was entreating Christ to heal her daughter and Christ told her (Matt.15:24-28) “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of Israel…It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she answers “Yes, Lord yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” Christ praised her saying “O Woman, great is your faith.” So we see how humility and faith go hand in hand.

Interestingly, in today’s gospel in Matthew, the centurion begins by addressing Christ as “Lord,” a very significant title from one in command of a Roman garrison when the Roman’s are overseeing the subjugated Jewish people. This was even before the Apostle Peter tells Jesus (Matt. 16:16) “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In Luke’s version where it is not the centurion himself but rather his Jewish Elder friends who initiate the conversation with Christ, they do not call Him Lord, they really don’t get who Christ is. It says (Luke 7:4) “And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, ‘for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.” God has obviously been working in the centurion’s heart, filling him with true faith and revealing to him His son.

We get a sense of how well regarded the centurion is amongst his Jewish friends by how they present his request to Christ. But notice that Christ does not have the same reasoning as the Jews of what it is that is to be commended in the centurion. The Jewish elders are very impressed with what the centurion has done for them. He is a great benefactor and has built them a synagogue. He sees that they are the superior and God chosen nation on the earth. This is the reason he is deserving in their eyes. Christ sees that the Centurion has great qualities of the heart; faith, love, compassion and humility. God is always concerned with our hearts, with our true spiritual state. He is not impressed with any of our activities and accomplishments and successes, unless they are the fruit of our hearts loving Him and our fellow human beings. We can accomplish much good work, but the question is always Why? What is our underlying motive? Paul says (Cor. 3:11) “No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid which is Jesus Christ.” If our foundation is to impress others, even dad and mom, to win the praise and admiration of our peers, to establish our reputation or any foundation other than Christ, it will be a very temporary structure we build. We can put a beautiful looking building with the very best of materials and workmanship on a bad foundation and all of the wonderful work and effort put into the building will end up in a rubble pile when the foundation is tested and fails. While the centurion’s Jewish friends were most enamoured with the cathedral that he built them, the centurion’s love and compassion for his servent who lay suffering, his great humility in not even feeling worthy to have Christ under his roof, and his faith that Christ could heal his servant with a word is the story that has come down to us and to every generation for the last 2000 years. This is of true lasting value and he took this with him beyond the grave, the cathedral he built has long ago ceased to exist.

We have been considering the great treasure that is ours in the Orthodox Church these last three Sunday’s as we consider the formation of the saints. It is true that God has given us everything needed to grow and develop into the image of Christ here within the fullness of the Orthodox Church. He has placed His image within each one of us of the race of Adam, and grants us His grace to allow that which He has placed within us to develop into fullness through Theosis here in His Church. However, we must always be very careful not to become complacent and comfortable with our Christian walk, somehow assuming that now that we are members of the Church, now that we have found the true Church, now that we have arrived, we can just relax. No, the whole point of having access to the entire treasure house of the Church as our heritage, is that we make use of the treasure. We can know that what we taste, and learn, and absorb here within the protection of the Church is tested and safe and of help in our salvation, but it is only of help if we actually partake of it. The question is not just where is the Church, but what do you do within it once you have found it.

The Jews who came to Christ on behalf of the centurion assumed that the Kingdom of God was theirs by inheritance. They were very impressed with their centurion friend because he helped confirm that they were the chosen people of God. They were correct, but only in as much as they allowed God to change their hearts to conform with His image. We are not God’s children just because we are privileged to be born into a certain race, into a certain church, that would be called being racist, not Christian. As John the Baptist said to the Jews when they claimed to be the children of Abraham (Luke 3:8) “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” Christ never denied the fullness of the Jewish people being the chosen race of God, but all through the gospel’s we see Christ presenting non-Jewish people as models for the Jewish people to emulate. Today Christ holds up the centurion as one with greater faith than any in Israel and then he tells His people the Jews “…many will come from east and from west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the utter darkness,” Membership is not enough, even though it should be a great advantage, we must allow our hearts to be united to Christ. In the same manner, Christ has said He would establish His Church as a real and tangible body founded upon the teachings and blood of the Apostles and saints, and that the gates of Hades would not prevail against her. That is us, the Orthodox Church. But there are also notable and faithful centurions who are not a part of the Orthodox Church, who have never encountered her except as a distorted misrepresentation. Some will also come and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. They may even be given a greater reward, as they had far less truth than we in the Church have to draw from, and yet managed to keep their hearts turned towards God.

The centurion’s faith in Christ was not based on seeing a miracle. He did not say “if you heal my servant I will believe in you.” It was a simple faith that Christ was God and could accomplish anything. The Jews continuously asked for a sign, Christ said to the Jews (Matt 12:39,40) “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Faith in the resurrected Christ, not in miracles and signs is what is needed. Faith is having our eyes open to see that all of life is a miracle. Who can explain anything really, define the life force that causes the smallest creature to the great towering Cedar tree to live; all of life is a miracle far beyond our comprehension. This faith of the centurions was based upon the true humility that comes from this understanding that all of creation is a miracle far beyond our grasp. The author of all of creation stood before him; of course Christ was capable of healing his much loved servant, but he the centurion wasn’t worthy to even stand in His presence. Through this great gift of faith which he demonstrated, he showed the entire Jewish peoples and indeed all of us here in the Church, that faith is completely intertwined with humility. A few verses back, Christ has just finished talking to the people saying (Matt. 7: 22,23) “Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesized in Your Name, cast out demons in Your Name, and done many wonders in Your Name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you, depart from Me, you who practise lawlessness.”

The faith healer with the type of faith that boldly goes out in great self assurance and confidence and lists and promotes all the great wonders they have accomplished – in Jesus name of course – is greatly to be avoided. We have a huge and ever present tradition of wonder-working saints in the Orthodox Church. I challenge you to find me one who wished to have anything they did made public. If you asked them about the many miracles that it was well known had occurred through them, they would deny they had any giftings of the sort. Fr. Phillip explained to me when we were serving an Unction service with 7 priests that having 7 priests was a great safeguard, as when healings of a notable nature occur, as they often do at such services, no-one can take credit. For “Yours is the power and the glory” and when any of it starts to stick to any of us it is a very dangerous situation. As our icon of Christ says (2 Cor. 12:9) “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

When I was first ordained, I asked a number of priests for a word of wisdom. Fr. Anthony Karbo, our son, Subdeacon Michael’s priest, told me to remember the donkey that Christ was riding during His entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The donkey was quite proud of himself seeing everyone lay down the palm branches and shout praises to him and after when describing to another donkey friend how great it was to be shown such deference, his donkey friend just said “It’s about Christ dummy, not you,” What we see today with our dear centurion is what true faith looks like. It is always wrapped in true humility and never seeks its own glory. Glory to Jesus Christ!

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3rd Sun after Pentecost – Celtic Saints

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Scripture Reading

Gospel: Matt. 6:22-33, Epistle: Rom. 5:1-10

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Glory to Jesus Christ! Today is the third Sunday after Pentecost and once again we are to consider the saints of the Orthodox Church. We have gone from considering all of the tens of thousands of canonized and glorified saints throughout the entire world and all of Church history, to last week considering the handful of our recognized saints here in North America, and now today we look at the thousands of first millennium British and Irish Saints, mostly the Celtic saints; one of the best known of course being our own St. Aidan of Lindisfarne. This 3rd. saint’s day was instituted by the Russian Orthodox Church very recently, in 2007.

It really is an inexhaustible list, Sts. Athanasius, Chrysostom, Basil, Nicolas, about 5 Gregory’s another 10 Mary’s, Seraphim, Prophyrios, Nektarios, more John’s than you can count and tens of thousands of others, then to our North American guys, Sts. Herman, Peter, Tikhon, Innocent, John, Nicolai etc. and today if we were to start listing our Celtic bunch there would be Sts. Aristobulos, Patrick, Brendan, David, Kevin, Columba, Columbanus, Colman, Cuthbert, Bridget, Hilda, Ida, Dymphna, Martyr Kings Edwin, Oswald, Oswin, the 1000 martyrs from Linchfield who suffered under Diocletian, and thousands more.

It is very significant that for the first three Sundays after Pentecost we are to reflect upon the saints who have gone before us and manifested the gift of the Holy Spirit, radiating still with the light of Christ, to bring the kingdom of heaven to those they touch. This is the fruit of Pentecost, and this is why we are to study the lives and writings of the saints. That we may see that this is the path that we also are called to, and we may see with clarity what it looks like in the thousands of lives that have travelled it within our Church. There are as many different paths to sainthood as there are saints and they are all marvellous and treasured in the eyes of God and His Church.

One of the most astounding things that we come to see as we take the time to read and study the teachings of the saints is the absolute consistency of doctrine and belief that runs through their teachings. These thousands of our recognized and glorified saints are all part of the “visible” Church of Christ, the Orthodox Church, not of some amorphous spiritual union of well meaning Christians with a thousand different understandings regarding what is a proper interpretation of scripture. Throughout every century when you read the works of the saints of the Church, the interpretation stays the same. We can read Sts. Athanasius or Chrysostom in the early fourth century, the venerable Bede or the Gregory’s of Rome in the eighth century, Sts. Symeon or Sava in the 12th century, Sts. Macarius or Mark of Ephesus in the 16th century, or in this century, St. Cleopa of Romania, St. Nicolai of Zicha or St. Prophyrios, glorified last year- the message never changes. There is no “new move of God,” (Heb. 13:8) “He is the same yesterday today, and forever.” I hear people say that “this is what God is doing today” and I confess I am puzzled. Has God come up with some new and more effective idea? No, it is not some new move of God we seek, but our hearts which need to be moved and converted and come to rest in Christ, as have all the saints through all the ages before. The most reliable and time proven way for this to occur is within the protection and nourishment of the Church, through her sacramental life.

We should not expect that somehow we will receive great revelations apart from what has always been taught by the Church. Actually Christ tells us in the last days just the opposite will occur. (Matt.24:4,5) “Take heed that no one deceive you. For many shall come in My name, saying I am the Christ and many will be deceived.” The main safeguard that can protect us from being deceived is learning what the saints of every age have taught us, what the Church teaches us and thereby having a standard to judge by. Yes, we all say we follow what the bible teaches, but the important question is whose interpretation of the bible do we follow? Do we really think we have the wisdom to decide? We need to cultivate a spirit of humility and realize just how susceptible we are to error when we judge by our own reasoning and understanding. Not a popular message I realize in our modern culture where a 3 year old’s “Happy meal” at MacDonald’s comes with the banner that to achieve “girl power” you must “rewrite all the rules.”

One of our great 7th century Celtic saints, Bishop Cuthbert taught his flock with great love and gentleness. His advice was “You need to learn and put into practise the teachings of the Fathers and avoid heretics.” He comes with good credentials. When just a 17-year old lad while he was out tending his flock of sheep, he had a vision of the angels bearing the soul of St. Aidan to heaven in a fiery trail of light. Several days later news of St. Aidan’s repose on Aug. 31, 651 reached his area and St. Cuthbert learned it was at the very hour of his vision. St. Cuthbert’s relics were found to be incorrupt and streaming myrrh when they were moved to Durham and opened more than 300 years later. You can trust that these Celtic saints we celebrate today were real and serious about following Christ. You can trust that all of the saints that have been glorified and given to us for emulation by the Church are well worth not just leaning from, but as there are no dead in Christ, they can be of great help interceding for us before the very throne of God, once we take the time to get to know them and ask for their help.

Today’s Gospel starts out saying “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” What does this mean? The only light possible is from Christ, so we need the mind of Christ to replace all of our bitter judgements, and foolish conclusions about how life works if we are to be full of light.

All through the scriptures Christ is talking about spiritual blindness as He heals physical blindness – always drawing parallels between the two. As He starts His ministry he announces that one of His chief purposes is to bring “recovery of sight to the blind”.

We have the Sunday of the blind man, with Christ healing the one born without eyes and then the Sunday where we read of Christ healing blind Bartimaeus. Christ describes the Pharisees as “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel,” and when they ask Him if they too are blind, Christ replies “If you were blind you would have no sin; but now you say ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.” So, we see that the subject of the state of our blindness, especially our blindness to our blindness is of great importance.

One of the chief characteristics of spiritual blindness is that we have no idea that we are suffering from it. The Pharisees are continually held out to us as examples of those who are most deluded and at the same time most confident that they are right. You can be right OR you can be happy and joyful but you can’t be both; they are mutually exclusive. The Pharisees are completely resistant to having anyone intrude upon their world view; even God Himself standing in front of them in the flesh. Unfortunately, they aren’t really all that unique, and our sinful human nature has not really improved, no matter what our new age friends in the wonderful human potential movement try to tell us. John Michael Talbot has a very moving song about Christ’s crucifixion called “Would You Crucify Him?” The last line concludes: “Yes, I think we would crucify Him, my religious friends, If He walked right here among us once again.” Very sad but very true. This is why the Church gives us the Jesus prayer to continuously pray as an antidote to our great spiritual blindness. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.” It expresses our true reality. As this prayer seeps into our hearts, the scales covering our eyes will slowly dissolve and the light of Christ begins to fill our vision.

It can be very unsettling and painful when we first begin to suspect that our paradigm, our view of the world is very flawed and extremely limited and limiting. Paradoxically this starts us on the road to having our eyesight corrected. We usually do not want to willingly give up our very comfortable and self-affirming world view. We tend to surround ourselves with those who think as we do, so we can continually reassure each other that we are all viewing life and reality properly, allowing the narrow limitations of the cultural environment that we grow up in to shape our entire view of reality. True reality is that we here in North America live in a very unique time and place, and our world view is radically different from much of the world around us, and especially from any generation going back before the beginning of the last century, and not necessarily better. Travelling to a completely different culture, visiting a third world country, an ancient civilization with roots that go back thousands of years, or even studying history can radically change our perspectives and shake us out of our rather insulated comfort zone. This is a very valuable spiritual exercise, as in our great comfort we tend to develop a certain arrogance and self reliance, a sinful perspective that we are somehow a little superior to most others. This in reality is the sin of pride, a great delusion which the human race is very prone to. Anything that helps to open our eyes to our utter dependence upon God and each other, and produces a spirit of humility is of great value. We have all from our very earliest years made many mistaken and harmful conclusions regarding how life works, and all of these need to be brought to death at the cross and drowned in the cleansing water of our baptismal tank. This is what Christ, through the Orthodox Church offers to us and has faithfully delivered to every generation of His saints since He established His Church.

So let us learn to be less trustful of our own perspective, let us ask God in His mercy to continue to break down our barriers and defences in His gracious timing, that the light of Christ may illumine those areas of our lives that we can’t quite yet bear to see. Let us realize that we are suffering from great delusion, and that our friends and families and our entire culture usually only serve to reinforce that delusion, as we are all suffering in it together. He is gentle and loving and will not give us more self knowledge than we can handle, but we need to be willing to let go of many of our judgements and viewpoints to make room for the light of God’s true reality. We need to recognize our blindness, repent and ask Christ for His healing and restoration, and walk in this new resurrected life.

May Christ, through the prayers and examples of all the saints, the power and wisdom of His Church and the communion of the Holy Spirit, lead and guide us into His kingdom! 

Glory to Jesus Christ!

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2nd Sunday after Pentecost – All Saints of North America

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Scripture Reading

Gospel:   Matt: 18-23 ; Epistle: Rom: 2: 10-16

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Glory to Jesus Christ! Today is the second Sunday after Pentecost, and also the Sunday of all the Saints of North America. We started celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit given to the church two weeks ago at Pentecost. Then last Sunday we celebrated the results of this gift, by considering all of the millions who have been transformed into saints through this continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit ever since Pentecost. Today we get closer to home, and honour some of the saints that have walked among us here. These would be saints that perhaps our patents or grandparents, or even we ourselves, if we were active in the Church, could have met and known. And then next Sunday we resume our regular Sundays after Pentecost Gospel lessons as we start to consider exactly what we need to do to join the ranks of the saints, and what it means for us personally to trust in God completely. What wisdom is possessed by our Orthodox Church!

We have a new Icon to venerate today that is quite appropriate to All Saints day. Fr. Michael Oleksa from Alaska has been designing it and having some iconographer friends of his paint the actual icon. His inspiration was when he was at an All saints of Russia feast day around 1970, listening to a homily about some of the Russian saints with an icon of a few of them that looked a little like this one (icon from Altar), it really struck him that our North American Icon only had one – St. Herman was the first glorified and this was in 1970.

We have made some progress in the last 40 years or so – there are 16 on our new icon of the saints of North America – but compared to other Orthodox jurisdictions we still have a way to go. You will find Blessed Olga and a couple others on the icon that haven’t yet been officially glorified but whom are pretty much accepted as saints among the Orthodox faithful. This is how saints become recognized in the Orthodox Church. Those who knew the saint and those living in the region where they lived, start the process by simply recognizing that this person exceptionally cooperated with God to have the image of Christ – which we all have residing within us and which is alive and active from our baptism on – grow to become the obvious and visible likeness of Christ. There is a commonly shared understanding that this person was exceptional in how their lives witnessed and manifested the grace of God while alive. They faithfully lived their lives in the fullness of the Orthodox Church and did not stray into questionable areas of theology or non-Orthodox understanding. After their death there is a growing of the awareness that Theosis was well developed in this person, the local community naturally starts to venerate and ask for the prayers of their very special departed saint. This starts to spread beyond the local region to the rest of the Church. There are often stories of miracles associated with the saint while they were alive, and also miracles and visions of them helping others after their departure. Their memory and reputation grows as these stories are shared and often new incidents occur. Finally the Church officially recognizes what is self evident. The Church does not create a saint but simply recognizes what they already are. It is a very organic process starting from the local Church where the saint lived.

There is not a top down 4 step process like in the Roman Catholic Church where once the Vatican researches to make sure the prospect lived a morally good life they need one verified miracle before being named Blessed and then one more miracle performed after being named blessed and then they are in.

We are all called to be saints of God, this is our job description, our very purpose in life. This is our feast day! We all have but one thing to contribute to God to this end, our free will. In today’s epistle we are given very good instructions about what is required. “Be not hearers of the law but doers”. It is good to listen to God’s word, this helps greatly in training our mind and even our conscience, in understanding what is good and right and pure. But Paul says that even those who do not have the benefit of this training, who are not within the Church, have truth written in their heart and are pleasing to God when they listen to their conscience and DO what is right. Coming to Church and learning God’s truth and then choosing to ignore our conscience will only harden our hearts and make us crazy in the long run. I remember listening to Fr. Thomas Hopko a while back and someone asked him why some people come to Church and seem to get sweeter and more loving and with others it seems the longer they come, the more twisted and bitter they become. He answered that when we are encountering the living God on a regular basis, receiving communion while not allowing Him to forgive and heal us, we are likely to get worse rather than better. Coming to Church really doesn’t do us a lot of good if we are not willing to change, to put into practise what we hear. Choosing to stay hurt and not to forgive when we are insulted and wounded, choosing to close our eyes to the pain and poverty around us when our conscience is pleading with us to be generous, these choices will not enable us to grow closer to Christ.

However, when we realize we have once again made a bad choice, that we have been selfish and self absorbed and we cry out to God – Lord have mercy, help me to follow your ways and forgive me – then we have made a choice that allows God the freedom to heal us, and our hearts begin to soften. The choice we need to continually make is the choice of repentance. It is always available, instantly we can choose to come again to the warm and healing embrace of our heavenly Father and start again. This is the way of the saints. This is very counter-culture however. Looking out for #1 and tuning in to WIFM – What’s In It For Me? – is what we are taught in the media and the prevailing message of the day. The instructions for growing in Christ and becoming saints are found in the wisdom of the Church, seldom in the wisdom of the age, although there are glimpse of truth everywhere. God can use even talking donkeys to reach us as He did with Balaam (Num.22.28) not to be confused with the questionable wisdom of donkey in Shrek.

Beware of the many self help and new age sources of wisdom as they usually contain just enough truth to get you started and attract you and then throw you more and more off the path. If you want to be successful you must have a vision – great advice – however let me submit to you that the vision we are called to is Theosis, to following Christ with all our heart and soul and mind and being transformed into saints. Too lofty we think, we need to concentrate on our career goals, on our own personal development, on our education… we need a nicer vehicle and a boat, and a bigger house. These are not bad goals, but they should be given to God with an open hand. Everything we ask for and desire should come with “however, not my will but Your will be done”. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you says our Lord. You fathers know how to give good things to your children, if they ask for a fish will you give him a serpent? God knows what we need far better than we do. His greatest desire is to grant us the grace to become saints in Christ. This is not some lofty far fetched goal; this is the primary will of God for us. However, for this to happen it must also become the primary goal for us.

Our Gospel reading today is the calling of Andrew and Peter and James and John to leave their nets and come and follow Christ. It says “immediately they followed Him”. I am always humbled by this response. I tend to respond more in a “just need to finish off this one last thing” way. Funny how often there ends up being a continuous collection of “one last things” that always seem to need to be taken care of. Christ said to Martha that her sister Mary, by leaving everything and focusing on Him was doing the “one thing needful” and it would not be taken away from her. St. Andrew, pray for me that I may be more responsive to immediately following Christ and choose that one thing needful. Let us start from today and not wait until our schedules are a little better to re-new our commitment to truly follow Christ, to put Him first, before everything else in our lives. Let us ask that the Holy Spirit would to renew in us, our desire to follow Him in all things, and to keep unspotted that precious robe of light we were given, when we first put on Christ at our baptism. Glory to Jesus Christ!

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1st Sunday after Pentecost; All Saints Sunday

Matt: 11:32,33; 37,38; 10: 27-30 (comp); Heb 11: 33-12; 2; OT: Is 43: 9-14; Wis. Sol 3:1-9,5:15-6:3

With the feast! Tomorrow starts the Apostles fast so do enjoy some feasting today.

Look around at all the saints on the Icons around us. This is All Saints Sunday. We have been celebrating All Saints Sunday since it was first instituted in 731 by Gregory 3; pope of Rome at St. Peter’s chapel as a reaction to the Iconoclastic decree issued by Emperor Leo 3, which began the destruction of Icons and one of the bloodiest periods in the Church. Fifty years later in 787 the 7th ecumenical council – the council of councils – affirmed the veneration of Icons was essential to the fullness of the Orthodox faith or we would be denying Christ’s fully human nature. Fifty years after this, in 835 Gregory 4; pope of Rome expanded All Saints Day to be celebrated everywhere by the whole church and 7 years later in 843 the Sunday of Orthodoxy was instituted, once and for all ending the Iconoclastic struggle in the Church.

It took more than 100 years to work through and define once and for all these issues regarding Christ’s human nature. To ensure that the true faith passed down from the beginning from the Apostles stayed intact, required defying the emperor and his hand selected group of iconoclast bishops. This was a struggle over who got to control and define the faith and the Church, the bishops or the Emperor? We see that through the dedication and great sacrifices of the saints the Church always comes through these battles intact. A similar power struggle that took 80 years to work out occurred much more recently in communist Russia where hundreds of thousands of Clergy and millions of the faithful were martyred. But again we see the lasting power of the true Church that the gates of Hades shall never prevail against. Through much suffering and struggle, the Church has passed the fullness of the Orthodox faith on to every succeeding generation, until today when it has been passed down to us to guard and keep intact and pass on to the next generation. This is our sacred duty and it is important that we understand the faith so we can pass it on unaltered. When I was ordained I asked Bishop Irénée what advice he would give me. He immediately replied “Don’t make stuff up.” As we celebrate All saints Sunday, let us pray that we would be faithful to preserve and pass along the fullness and undefiled faith that all the saints held in common.

Today we ask for help from these saints gone before us, those who have successfully travelled the road leading to Christ and the kingdom of God, and are calling out for us to join them. We can learn from their experience, gaining wisdom and understanding and following the sure trail they have painstakingly marked out for us. Or we can learn the hard way from our own experience, going down dead ends and false trails and coming back waving wildly, with our hair standing on end – or in some cases leaving entirely – screaming “Not that way boys!” There are millions of our faithful brothers and sisters in Christ – these saints gone before us – a great cloud of witnesses, as Paul says in his epistle today. I read a fraction of the complete list we commemorate each day at the dismissal at the end of our Liturgy, asking for their prayers, so you get a small idea of just how much support we have available to us.

We often tend to look at the saints in awe, like we are spectators in the stands watching professional athletes who have trained and performed and are at the top of their game. The saints are greatly varied in their talents and giftings but they all have one thing in common – they intensely focused on the object of their quest – being united with Christ – “the author and finisher of our faith.” They understood why they were here for their short tour of duty on this planet, and let nothing distract them from their purpose. We look on in admiration and are inspired.

But notice that we have this completely reversed. We are the ones in the arena. They the saints are the spectators, cheering us on. In today’s epistle Paul says “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race which is set before us.We are running the race; they have finished their race. Now is our time, we are in the arena! It is up to us to take seriously this race we run in front of God and all of heaven, with the huge crowd of angels and saints cheering us on, doing all they can to help and encourage us; and with the devil and the demons who are booing and cursing and doing all they can to discourage us, attempting to cause us to lose heart and abandon the race. It is our race we run. No-one else can run it for us. The effort we put in now will pay rewards that multiply beyond all time. The prize we run towards, that awaits us at the finish line is life abundant, eternal, beyond our most glorious imagining; communing with the Creator of all that exists, and taking our place with our true and loving family for all of eternity.

What is the great chore, the huge sacrifice we must make, in order to receive such precious and priceless treasure? What is it we must do to join with the millions of saints who have gone before us, who have finished their race and reached the blessed kingdom and claimed the priceless prize? We must reach out to “Jesus, the author, the finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” We must give to Him our entire life, always being willing to follow Him in all. We must give up our woundings, our hurts, and give them into His hands, to bind and anoint with healing oil. We must admit we have no love, or even life within us, apart from Him, and that even our most wonderful qualities are shot through with sin and selfishness, and cry out to our Saviour and to His Mother and all the saints for help.

In our Gospel reading today, we are told we must love God more than our spouses, children, parents, or anyone else. At first, this seems a little extreme doesn’t it? I mean how can we have more love than we have for our sweet newborn child? Perhaps you remember the great and all consuming love you had for your spouse in the beginning, especially before they started exhibiting those rather surprising aspects of their personality, which you somehow never noticed until after the honeymoon. Yet we are told we must love God more than this. How? Why?

I think the “Why” is simply that we really don’t know very much about pure love. Self emptying, dying to self, real love that isn’t a fleeting feeling, but a continuous ever present sacrificial reality. Christ demonstrated true love for us on the cross as He laid down His life, for the life of the world. He then tells us we too must take up our cross if we wish to follow Him. True love is demonstrated in our actions, not our feelings.

We are often quite unloving, even to ourselves. Without the love and power of God, we strive and struggle to forgive ourselves and others with little success, as we don’t have the capacity to carry it out. Human love is shot through with sin; it is full of selfishness, manipulation, control, neediness and is ultimately very stingy. Those we love the most are often the very ones we seem to hurt, and who we feel have hurt us the most. Then when hurt, we tend to retreat to protect ourselves, and our ability to trust and be open, to give and receive love, is damaged even further. On our own, we really have very little love to share, even with those closest to us. However, once we begin to allow our hearts to accept God’s love and forgiveness, we start to change, as our hearts begin to soften.

Today’s scripture is not a call to love our spouses, children, parents and others less. It is a call to be filled with Christ and His love above anything else. This is the “How.” Rather than closing up, protecting ourselves, and once again nursing our wounded feelings, we need to learn to automatically turn to Christ. We will then be able to actually love our families exponentially more than we are even capable of imagining! Only the love of Christ can ever truly heal and transform. He is waiting, to come and abide in us, to cleanse us from all impurity, to save our souls and to fill us with His true love.

Once we allow Christ to start to penetrate our stony hearts, by throwing ourselves into His arms, His true love can start to flow through us. To our spouses, and children and parents, our brothers and sisters, and even to those who are so lost and wounded that they despise and use us – our enemies – as the scripture calls them. Of course, our real enemies are really only the demons, who truly despise all of us pathetic, frail, human creatures, because God has placed the very spark of His divinity within us and enabled us to become sons of God. They feel He made a ridiculously poor decision in doing this and have rebelled ever since. They are constantly trying to show God what a mistake He made, by attempting to influence us to behave quite contrary to the potential for divinity that God has given each one of us. Rather than trying to fight and struggle and argue with these enemies when they attempt to try to influence us, we are far better off to simply turn and run to Christ. Don’t engage the attacking thoughts, don’t mentally debate with them, just turn your back to them and flee to Christ. As soon as we realize we have once again allowed ourselves to get sucked in to listening and considering their suggestions, run to Christ, come to confession, and start again fresh.

This is the easy road. This is the training, and the measure of our performance in the race we are running – this is what enables us to join with the saints – learning in all things to quickly turn to Christ. Are you in danger? Run to Christ. Have you been wounded in body or soul or spirit? Run to Christ. Are you being attacked or ignored, criticized or cheated, suffering loss or humiliation? Run to Christ. It is not humility to think we are not able to aspire to be joined with the saints – this is delusion, and a lie of the evil one. The very purpose of our life is to be enrolled with the company of the saints. It is humility to realize we can never be deserving of this great and awesome privilege, and yet through the grace of God, this is His gift and will for us. Through the prayers of all the saints Lord Jesus Christ have mercy and save us. With the feast!

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

3rd Sunday after Pentecost, June 21, 15, Gosp. Matt. 6:22-33, Ep. Rom. 5:1-10, Fr. Andrew

Celtic and Other Saints

Glory to Jesus Christ! Today is the third Sunday after Pentecost and once again we are to consider the saints of the Orthodox Church. We have gone from considering all of the tens of thousands of canonized and glorified saints throughout the entire world and all of Church history, to last week considering the handful of our recognized saints here in North America, and now today we look at the thousands of first millennium British and Irish Saints, mostly the Celtic saints; one of the best known of course being our own St. Aidan of Lindisfarne. This 3rd. saint’s day was instituted by the Russian Orthodox Church very recently, in 2007.

It really is an inexhaustible list, Sts. Athanasius, Chrysostom, Basil, Nicolas, about 5 Gregory’s another 10 Mary’s, Seraphim, Prophyrios, Nektarios, more John’s than you can count and tens of thousands of others, then to our North American guys, Sts. Herman, Peter, Tikhon, Innocent, John, Nicolai etc. and today if we were to start listing our Celtic bunch there would be Sts. Aristobulos, Patrick, Brendan, David, Kevin, Columba, Columbanus, Colman, Cuthbert, Bridget, Hilda, Ida, Dymphna, Martyr Kings Edwin, Oswald, Oswin, the 1000 martyrs from Linchfield who suffered under Diocletian, and thousands more.

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2nd Sunday After Pentecost: North American Saints

  2nd Sunday after Pentecost             June 14, 2015             All Saints of North America    

Gospel: Matt 4: 18-23 ;         Epistle: Rom: 2: 10-16 ;                                Fr. Andrew

Glory to Jesus Christ! Today is the second Sunday after Pentecost, and also the Sunday of all the Saints of North America. We started celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit given to the church two weeks ago at Pentecost. Then last Sunday we celebrated the results of this gift, by considering all of the millions who have been transformed into saints through this continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit ever since Pentecost. Today we get closer to home, and honour some of the saints that have walked here among us. These would be saints that perhaps our patents or grandparents, or even we ourselves, if we were active in the Church, could have met and known. And then next Sunday we resume our regular Sundays after Pentecost Gospel lessons, as we start to consider exactly what we need to do to join the ranks of the saints, and what it means for us personally to trust in God completely. What wisdom is possessed by our Orthodox Church!

We are a mission Church. Our mission is to reach out to the thirsting people all around us and show them the love of Christ and the fullness of the Orthodox Church. The community around us knows almost nothing about the Orthodox Church, and most of what people do think they know, is based on their encounters with the Roman Catholic or Protestant church. This often has little resemblance to what the Orthodox Church teaches. Our view of original sin, of the wrathful God and hell, of missionary outreach, prayer and union with God, and much else is radically different. Yes, we are a mission of a mission Church here in Cranbrook and the East Kootenay Valley. Today all of the more than 250 million world wide members of the Holy Orthodox Church that we are part of are celebrating the saints on their home soil. Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Georgia and other countries are each celebrating hundreds of local saints today. Greece and Constantinople are celebrating thousands. I think we at last count had 14 officially glorified, although a few of them were actually glorified by Russia and Serbia and only 2 were actually born in North America. Yes, we are all very much part of the Orthodox mission church here in North America.

The Church is a hospital; she provides everything needed to bring us fully into the healing restoration of life in Christ. But in order to be healed within the hospital, we must first realize that we have a serious disease, which is surely and relentlessly killing us. It is known as sin. It has a myriad of different presentations but always attempts to stay hidden, away from the light of exposure. Once we understand we have a terminal disease that can be treated, we will of course run to check ourselves in for treatment. But if we are unaware that we even have a disease that is continually working away destroying our very life, why would we consider going to a hospital – they are only for sick people after all. Christ clearly tells us that (Mark 2:17) “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” However, scripture also tells us that (Rom. 3:23) “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:10) “There is none righteous, no, not one.” and (1John 1:8) “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So Christ is telling us the prerequisite of Him being able to come and heal us is for us to realize our broken and wounded state and ask for His healing. Christ tells us (Matt.15:14) “The blind can not lead the blind as they will both fall into a ditch,” so our first job as missionaries is to check ourselves into the hospital, the Church and fully avail ourselves of every needed treatment that we may have our vision corrected, and be restored to health, replacing the spirit of infirmity with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then, in God given health we are to go out and bring others to Christ, for treatment into the spiritual hospital of the Church. This is our mission here in Cranbrook and the East Kootenay Valley. We are presently small in numbers but we have a large mission and the God of all creation to equip and strengthen us to do His will in this.

The Orthodox Church has existed and has been creating saints continuously from its beginning, from when Christ first called Peter and his brother Andrew and James and John the sons of Zebedee. They immediately left their nets and followed Him as we hear in today’s gospel. I am always humbled by this response. I tend to respond more in a “just need to finish off this one last thing” way. Funny how often there ends up being a continuous collection of “one last things” that always seem to need to be taken care of.

Christ in His earthly ministry honoured the assembling together to worship God in the synagogues and spent much time there. In today’s gospel we have a perfect summery of Christ’s ministry “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.” Note; His first activity was to go attend and preach in the synagogues. He said to St. Photina, the Samaritan women at the well “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship for salvation is of the Jews.” In Acts we see Paul starting at the synagogues. When he first went to Thessalonica, scripture says he went to the synagogue (Acts 17:2) “Then Paul as his custom was, went into them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the scripture.” Christ and the Holy Spirit in His Apostles and saints, established His visible Church where all people could come to worship God in a God-given and God-pleasing way – in Spirit and in truth. God has always blessed those who seek Him in His house, first in the synagogues and now in the Church. When Paul went to the synagogues, it was to show the Jewish people, through their own scriptures, the revelation of the new age, brought into being by Christ the Messiah. Led by the Holy Spirit, the Apostles established the Churches with an ordered pattern of liturgical worship. As early as the 1st and 2nd century we see in the writings of Justin Martyr and other saints, the skeleton of the Liturgy we follow today in the Orthodox Church.

The Liturgy teaches us to how to pray and worship and give proper thanksgiving unto God. We gather to eat and drink of the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to be mystically transformed and united into the body of Christ, together to become saints. We pray in the Anaphora prayer “we ask You, and pray You, and supplicate You: Send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these Gifts here offered” Christ clearly tells us in John (6:53, 56) “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you…He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him” Our Liturgy is God-given, to lead us into communion with God. We may not always feel the joy, and comprehend the eternal mystery that without exception takes place when we gather to celebrate the Divine Liturgy; but this is due to the dullness of our own God-receptors, not because anything is absent from the throne of God. The more we fully and with godly effort participate in the Liturgy, the work of the people, worshiping with the angels and with the saints gone before us, the more our contaminated God -receptors are cleansed. We begin to become more consciously aware of God being ever present and filling all things. Through every generation for 20 centuries, from the Apostles, through all the saints and right up until today here in St. Aidan’s, God has been faithfully present in every Liturgy, transforming hearts and calling His people to union with Himself.

We are sometimes tempted to judge whether God is active by our own emotional response. We tell each other “Wow, God was really here today.” Was He on vacation yesterday? This is a grave error that will leave us very susceptible to being manipulated by false Christ’s and teachings. God is always with us, not just when someone or something manages to cause an emotional reaction within us. Every one of the cults and other religions can promise their followers great emotional highs, and often are expert at producing the environment to achieve these feelings. We usually place far too much trust in our ability to discern when we are thinking in error, or being lured off the path. Faith is the evidence of things not seen – or felt.

When we hear a song that expresses what we wish to pray, we unite our hearts to it. Keith Green nailed it for me years ago with “No Compromise”  “Make my life a prayer to You, I want to do what You want me to, No empty words and no white lies, No token prayers no compromise.” Unfortunately there was also much in Keith’s and other Christian music writer’s lyrics that was pretty flakey so it’s nice to be able to quote his good stuff when you can. But the principle of really uniting our hearts to a God-pleasing lyric, to a solid prayer is a very valuable practise. That’s what liturgical prayer is all about, except we do not have to wonder if what we are repeating and allowing to sink into the depths of our heart is truly coming from God. These prayers have passed the test of centuries of use and are well proven to help lead us into true union with Christ as we make them ours.

One of the great prayers of the church that I have found helpful comes from St. Philaret where He prays “O Lord, I know not what to ask of You. You alone know what are my true needs. You love me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I dare not ask for either a cross or consolation…”  The struggle of Liturgical prayer is to unite our hearts with the prayers and make these prayers our own. Asking that our hearts can be transformed, becoming infused with the wisdom and purity being expressed by the saint who wrote the prayer in Christ. When we are having difficulty with this, we can ask the saint whose prayer we are using to intercede for us and ask Christ to fill us with the reality of the prayer. In the Orthodox Church we have 2000 years of the collected and non-conflicting wisdom of the saints. If what we are struggling with or thinking doesn’t square with what is called Church tradition, the same tradition that gave us the New Testament and has been carefully guarded and passed on to us by every generation of those who faithfully served Christ within the Orthodox Church, perhaps it would be wise to consider that we may be in error. It is sometimes put that we are safer letting the Church judge us when we disagree, than for us to be judging the Church. This is a very counter-cultural idea in our society were we are constantly being encouraged to “do it my way” and not let anyone tell you what to do. “Sola scriptura” has come to mean “my own private interpretation of the scriptures alone” is the only right one – a sure recipe for complete chaos.

So what has all this to do with the saints of North America whom we are celebrating today? Everything. They were all formed within the bosom of the Church. You will find reading the lives of the saints that they immersed themselves in the cycles of the Church. They availed themselves of every opportunity to be present, to receive communion and pray, eagerly cooperating with the transforming grace of God.

We too are all called to be saints of God, this is our job description, our very purpose in life. Today is also our feast day! We all have but one thing to contribute to God to this end, our free will. In today’s epistle we are given very good instructions about what is required. “Be not hearers of the law but doers.” Coming to Church and learning God’s truth is very good. But then choosing to ignore it will only harden our hearts and make us crazy in the long run. I remember listening to Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory, and someone asked him why some people come to Church and seem to get sweeter and more loving, yet with others it seems the longer they come, the more twisted and bitter they become. He answered that when we are encountering the living God on a regular basis, receiving communion while not allowing Him to forgive and heal us, we are likely to get worse rather than better. This isn’t magic. Coming to Church really doesn’t do us a lot of good if we are not willing to change, to put into practise what we hear. Choosing to stay hurt and not to forgive when we are insulted and wounded, choosing to close our eyes to the pain and poverty around us when our conscience is pleading with us to be generous, these choices will not enable us to grow closer to Christ, no matter how much we go to Church.

Let us do all we can to learn from the saints, asking for their intercessions before the very throne of God, and imitating them as best we are able.   Glory to Jesus Christ!