11 Sunday of Luke, Luke 18:18-27, Idols

Today we again hear the story of the rich young man who has everything going for him as far as worldly wisdom would indicate. Clean living, respecting his parents, fabulously rich and even a ruler. What mother wouldn’t love such a catch for her daughter! In Mark we hear that Jesus, looking upon this young man “loved him” and then told him to “sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come and follow Me.” What an opportunity! Yet all three Gospel writers conclude with the man going away sadly – the cost was just too much, and Christ saying “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And in reply to the astonished Apostle’s resulting question “who then can be saved” comes the answer “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” So, the first and most important lesson we need to get is that there is nothing whatsoever we can do, no perfect following of the rules, no “good thing” that will enable us to be saved through our own efforts. We all need to go through the eye of the needle for we all have sinned. It is completely by God’s power and grace and love for us that we are saved. There is also no falling into sin so deeply that we can’t repent, and it is always the case that God desires not the death of a sinner but that we may turn to Him and live. All things are possible for God!

In yesterday’s Gospel reading we heard Luke 12:32-34 “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms, provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches not moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This is the lesson that today’s gospel is teaching us.

We are given countless scriptural council regarding the dangers of the love of money. Why is this such a common theme? Because all through history this is such a common problem. It is easy to track where we stand on this issue. We just need to get out our check books and our Visa statements and compare how much we spent last month on ourselves and those pleasures we have come to see ourselves as deserving, and compare this to how much we spent on furthering the kingdom of God, or on the homeless and destitute that live all around us, those who would see a place to live and regular meals as a blessing beyond compare.

We are very good at thinking a little too highly of ourselves. If we regularly give a little money to a good cause, we can consider ourselves to be quite exceptional and generous people. If we practice tithing, we may even start to think of ourselves as great philanthropists. Perhaps this rich young leader was a regular tither. But in today’s Gospel, Christ sees that he is caught in the snare of loving his wealth more than loving God. This a serious life-threatening affliction. Jesus offers him a quick and thorough solution. “Sell all that you have and follow Me.”

We get quite uncomfortable when we hear such extreme requests, and this is why at Sunday Gospel readings, we are given this passage and others like:

    • Lazarus and the rich man – where the rich man would trade anything to get another chance to return and help Lazarus at his gate,

 

  • the rich farmer determining to build bigger storage barns rather than share his wealth who hears God say, “You fool; this day your soul is required of you,”  
  • the final judgement and the separation of the sheep and the goats where Christ tells us; “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did or did not feed, cloth, shelter or comfort the least of these, you did or did not do it to Me.”

 

It is exactly to make us uncomfortable that the Church gives us such passages to consider. To shake us out of our deadly comfort zone. To wake us up to grasp the reality that “Where your treasure is your heart will be also” and force us to consider where our hearts truly are.

Getting too comfortable with our life here on this very short journey, means we have probably lost sight of our real purpose – to prepare to meet face to face with our God and Creator – where our every act and thought will be revealed. If we were to roll out an entire ball of yarn and picture that this represented our life in eternity, and then put two knots an inch apart into this long string, that 1” length would represent our lifetime here on this earthly visit. Anything that becomes more important to us than Christ and the kingdom of God becomes an idol. Idols always separate us from truth and reality and take us out of communion with God and our brothers and sisters. The number one goal of the enemy is to separate us from God and humanity and to isolate us into communing with ourselves and seeking after our own individual pleasures and passions. He will do all he can to influence us to serve an idol. God created everything good, but selfish obsession with any of the holy and good things God has created for our benefit, separates us from God, and from the proper use and nurturing of His good creation.

Wealth is certainly not a problem in and of itself. It is a great blessing that enables us to live and to share in God’s work, when we use it for our needs and to help the poor and build Christ’s Church. It is the selfish hoarding and obsessing of money and of “things” that is the problem. We are to love people and use things, not love things and use people. All that God has created is good when used as God intends. Food is obviously good and needed for our very existence here on earth, but when it becomes the focus of self-satisfaction and becomes gluttony it becomes an idol which can destroy us. Sexual intimacy is a great gift from God bringing wonderful comfort and union with our marriage partners, and allowing us to share with God and each other in the miraculous creation of life, yet used selfishly for our own pleasure it becomes warped and twisted into horrible abuse and dehumanizing pornography and worse; separating rather than uniting us from God and each other. Drugs are a great gift for healing and comfort, used by thousands of unmercenary and even slightly mercenary saints throughout the history of the church. But wrongly used they become a dark vehicle of death and tragedy. All things are created good, but anything used selfishly can become an idol and take us from God and each other and ultimately lead to our destruction.

It is certainly not that money is evil, or that money is the only idol we place between loving God before all else, although it is obviously a very common one. St. Porphyrios whose feast day is today Dec. 2 had a spiritual child that got obsessed with a political party during one of the Greek elections. She passionately defended her chosen party and was horrified at the opposing party and their actions. While she was visiting Elder Porphyrios he asked her how she was going to vote, and when she told him he said, “I am asking you to vote for the other party.” She was horrified and told him she would do anything but that! He released her from his request and told her he felt this would be best for her, but she should do whatever God would enlighten her to do. She struggled hugely with this, but finally in obedience to her Elder, she voted for the opposing party. As her ballot fell into the box, an unbearable burden lifted off her and she felt completely freed from her obsession and wondrously filled with the Hoy Spirit.

So, we hear today what may seem like a very extreme request from our Lord, but was it? Perhaps we only react with dismay to this loving and generous offer that Jesus brings to this, rich young ruler, because we too suffer from the same problem. Love of money is undoubtedly the most common addiction in our prosperous culture. It is not usually considered a problem to be wealthy, but rather is often our chief pursuit, even the main mark of God’s blessing in some twisted versions of the prosperity gospel. As usual, Orthodoxy is Paradoxy. If the young man suffered from addiction to drugs, and Christ told him to completely give them up…or morbid obesity and Christ told him to just eat bread and water…or was addicted to pornography and prostitutes and Christ told him to become completely celibate… and come and follow Him, would we consider His request extreme? But somehow when we hear “sell ALL that you have, and you will have treasure in heaven and come and follow Me.” we react differently. May God give us clarity and illumination to recognize our own idols and to do whatever it takes to always seek first the kingdom of God.

There are many stories of those throughout history who heard this passage and responded to it, and went on and became great saints. This is the case with the father of monasticism, St. Anthony the Great in the 3rd. and 4th centuries and also of St. Iakovos Tsalikis who is a very recently glorified saint having reposed in 1991 and being glorified just last year; Nov. 22 is his new saints’ day. Saint Anthony, upon hearing today’s Gospel passage, gave away his large inheritance, leaving enough to look after his little sister, and giving the rest to the poor. He then moved to the countryside and began to live a solitary life of prayer and became a great saint.

Saint Iakovos was known for giving away everything he had, whenever he had anything to give away. He considered it a great waste if a day went by and he couldn’t give anything away. He kept a moneybag into which anything anyone gave him was put. When anyone gave him anything, he wouldn’t even look to see what it was but just put it into the moneybag which always hung on the end of his bed in his small cell. Since he had a reputation as a clear sited Elder, he had many visitors. Whenever anyone would ask, or when God would reveal to him that a visitor had a financial need, the Elder would reach into his moneybag and whatever his hand grabbed he would give to the visitor. The bag was never empty and the more he gave the more the bag was filled.

St. John of Kronstadt was talking with a large group and was handed a parcel of money as a gift. Another man in the crowd had his hand stretched out for alms. Without a pause, St. John gave the beggar the parcel of money. In shock the donor of the parcel of money said; “There are $1,000 rubles in that bag!” ($30,000 in today’s value).  “Lucky man” said Saint John.

Today the rich young ruler asks Jesus “What do I still lack to inherit eternal life?” This is the primary question we all need to be asking ourselves. What is it that stands between us and truly following Christ with all our heart, soul and mind? Let us learn from the young rich man and not sorrowfully drift away from Christ, but choose to follow Christ and let nothing be more important.            Glory to Jesus Christ!

 

10th Sunday of Luke Luke:13: 10-17 “Hypocrite!”

In today’s short 8 verse gospel reading from Luke, we encounter Christ once again taking on a religious leader. Why was He continuously running into opposition from the religious leaders? Jesus identifies the reason in one word “Hypocrite.” Hypocrisy is a false reality, a delusion built upon lies. It comes from the father of lies, and has no part in God Who is the Way the Truth and the Life. A spirit of hypocritical religiosity develops when we think we know the rules and are doing a pretty good job of keeping them. At least certainly better than many around us. We can then take great satisfaction that we are “not like them,” in the process isolating ourselves from suffering humanity and also therefore from Christ.

The common suffering people knew they needed help, they welcomed the Saviour and cried out, “Lord have mercy” when they encountered Christ. Christ came to heal the sick and suffering. If everything is just peachy who needs Him? As Jesus said (Matt. 9:12,13) “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means ’I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” Today’s ruler saw himself as far superior to the common people. He was a leader of leaders, even daring to straighten out God Himself! What a great and complete tragedy when we are so deluded in our self assessment that we don’t count ourselves with the sick and needy, that we somehow think of ourselves as doing just fine, having no need for the Great Physician.  

The dictionary defines “hypocrite” as “a pretender, a liar, one who engages in the same deeds they condemn others for.” Hypocrites think very highly of themselves and expect everyone else to do the same. Everything is about them. Whenever we read the gospels, it is a good exercise to ask God to show us our sinful and broken ways. We should learn to identify with the deluded sinner in these gospel passages rather than congratulate ourselves that surely, we would have behaved better. The one thought leads to self congratulation; pride and blindness, the other to humility, repentance and illumination to awareness of our great need for God’s love and forgiveness.

Throughout the scriptures we are given the antidote for the sin of hypocrisy. In Matthew 6, Christ instructs us we are to pray, give alms, and fast in secret, and above all forgive everything and everyone always, without exception. We are to check our motives to see if we are doing or saying things, so others can be impressed with us. If so, this is hypocrisy, it is simply feeding our pride. St. Paul tells us where to train our minds to focus (Phil,4:8) “Finally brethren, whatever things are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy – meditate on these things.” Finally we are to (Rom.12:15,16) “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep….Do not set your mind on high things but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.”

Of course, we are told the opposite everywhere in our culture. As usual Orthodoxy is Paradoxy. We are trained to keep up appearances. We must put our best face forward to get ahead. Dress for success and fake it till you make it, is the advice of the business success guru’s in the human potential movement. The problem with following this advice is not just that we spend a lot of money on really bad clothes; but that we begin to lose touch of what we really feel, and even who we really are. We become increasingly self- deluded and unwilling to challenge ourselves and our image of ourselves. We somehow think that if it gets out, even to ourselves and God that we are sinners, we will be ruined. But God knows we are sinners and loves us completely and unconditionally anyway. It is we ourselves who need to recognize the depth of our sin, so we can go to Him and be healed and soak in His love. The problem isn’t just that we are sinners; we have the entire human race for company in this, the problem is that we don’t recognize our condition, and therefore we don’t flee to Christ for healing. The Christian journey is a life of repentance. The best cure for hypocrisy and self delusion is to find fault with ourselves and repent. This is one reason the Church gives us the Jesus prayer. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me a sinner.

The synagogue ruler becomes a hypocrite by denying reality. The reality he is denying is that before him stands Christ the Messiah, God Himself in the flesh. That’s a pretty serious and non-negotiable reality. Christ continually demonstrated this truth to the Jewish leaders and everyone else, fulfilling all the prophesies of the coming Messiah, healing the sick, even raising the dead. Delusion doesn’t work well as a coping mechanism. Once we deny the truth, things start to fall apart. We are living in unreality, in a phantasy, as only truth is real. Everything opposed to truth really has no substance. When exposed to the light of God’s illumination or fire it simply burns up. Christ said to Pilate (John 19:37) “…for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate had no understanding of God’s absolute true and unchanging reality “What is truth?” he cynically says. This is always the world’s answer to considering God’s absolute truth. My truth is as good as your truth, and the greatest wrong you can do is to claim otherwise. Truth is relative; read – non-existent, has become our culture’s mantra.

We however believe truth exists whether you wish to accept it or not. God is truth and denying this leads to delusion. When we deny reality, we then must invent an alternate reality, a delusion. So, the synagogue leader explains why this miracle that Christ just did was NOT a sign of the Messiah. In refusing to consider that his world-view could be wrong, he builds up a “delusion.” As soon as we need to defend a delusion, we become an enemy of the truth. We then blame and attack truth as being false, replacing it with our version which supports our position. The leader can’t deny a miracle has been performed, but belittles this glorious fact claiming that surely the Messiah would never do such a healing miracle on the Sabbath. He says this with great certainty and authority.

Like the ruler of the Synagogue, we too, often deny true reality. We too, feel compelled to hang on to and share our alternate view of reality and deny the simple truth before us. We have all constructed an idealized image of ourselves and we protect ourselves from pain and vulnerability by hanging on to it fiercely. This is our world view, our carefully constructed self which we present to the world. It is painful to allow ourselves to even consider that we have constructed a false image and are not being real; that we are missing the mark and not seeing true reality and living a lie. Christ says (Mark1: 15) “…the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.” This is the cure. As we see where we are not living in truth, where we are twisting truth and reality to fit our delusions, acting out of fear, self-interest, self-preservation, and pride; we need to thank God for this revelation, to repent and confess our sins in this area to “Get Real.”

But instead, we often stubbornly insist that our delusion, our twisted version of reality is the real truth. We desperately need to prove we are right. We are the righteous ones, the suffering, martyred and wounded ones. Proving we are “right” becomes all consuming. It is that other guy, usually our mate or co-worker or boss, or perhaps another parishioner or even your friendly neighborhood priest who just doesn’t understand. Then we enter into the third stage of hypocrisy, blame, and our hearts start to crust over.  “It’s all their fault. If they had just noticed how hard I was trying, that my motives really are good. I may have reacted poorly, who wouldn’t under those circumstances? The solution is obvious, they need to change. If they would just; give me some space, quit trying to control me, be a little more understanding, realize how stressed I am, just get off my case I wouldn’t have to react like that. It’s really all their fault.” If we keep on this path of blame, feelings of love and respect wither and fade. Without forgiveness and repentance, the delusion creates a very lonely life filled with anger, pain, anxiety and fear. The opposite of blessed communion in co-suffering love with Christ and our brothers and sisters.

Addiction councillors of course deal with this reality every day. The practicing alcoholic or other addict, has an arsenal of alternate realities designed to keep them from having to admit that it really is their problem. Only when the results of their actions become so horrific that they are finally at a loss to justify their behaviour, leaving them unable to blame someone or something else for their actions – is there hope for change and healing.

We can all see the problem when it is extreme, as in today’s synagogue leader or in the addicted person. But we all suffer from this same disease. It is called sin. When our partner, boss or co-worker, classmate, parent or child, point out a simple reality, a problem in our behaviour, we should be most grateful. But instead, if we often quickly dismiss it and explain why they just don’t understand, and then go on to explain how things “really” are. “I had to speed because you hate being late after all.” “I have to yell because you don’t listen to me!” “I had to curse him out because he drives like an idiot.”

Hypocrisy, self-delusion and blame is a commonly shared human characteristic. The enemy is the father of lies, and does everything in his power to convince us to believe them. Any lie or delusion we adopt pleases him greatly. Indeed, in the right hands, like Hitler or Stalin or the architects of the Residential school system, these lies can be used to promote great human suffering. But of course the main lie he is always trying to instill in us is the original one (Gen.3:4). Forget God, you can go your own way and be gods.

We often tend to think we need to perform in a manner acceptable to God and our brothers and sisters, or we will be unlovable. Christ would have us know that we are completely loved just as we are. We can never increase His love and acceptance of us by our performance. His love for all of us is always constant and unconditional. While it is true that our actions can bring great grief and trouble into our life, God’s love for us is in no way affected. It is we ourselves who need to recognize the depth of our sin, so we can go to Him and be healed. Sin is simply not turning to God. We see the problems in the other guy, but only by seeing them in ourselves can we grow in Christ. The same problems that we see in the other guy, are likely the same ones we ourselves suffer from, but are not yet able to face. Yet even as we reap the sad consequences of our sinful deluded behaviour, God will use these dark moments in our lives to teach us at the deepest level that we are completely loved by Him. Christ is always with us unto the end of the ages. Once we allow His love to begin to settle into our hearts, we can start to let go of the false self-image we so carefully constructed, and discover who we really are – the wonderful person God created us to be.     With the feast!

 

8th Sun of Luke (10:25-37) The Good Samaritan

Today we hear the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Christ is asked by the Jewish lawyer “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This Jewish lawyer has asked a most significant question, one that each of us needs to ask ourselves. Christ agrees with the lawyer’s answer. “You must love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.” “Do this and you will live” replies Christ. But then the question becomes “Who is my neighbour?” The Fathers hold that the man wounded by robbers (the robbers represent the demons) is representative of broken and wounded humanity. Christ is telling us that all of the “race of Adam” are our neighbours. The chief leaders of Israel, the Priest and Levite, did nothing to help this man, but rather looked the other way. “Not my problem, I’m far too busy.” What they had planned for the day was very important. It simply couldn’t be interrupted by what God had planned for them for the day. Remember, we the Church are called “the new Israel.” In the end the one who helped the suffering man was a Samaritan. The Samaritan’s were despised and cut off from Israel and thought to be heretics. Yet the Fathers hold that the good Samaritan represents Christ in this parable, the bandaging and re-clothing of the wounded man represents baptism, the oil Chrismation, the wine the life-giving Eucharist, and the Inn represents the Church.

The Samaritan’s were a Jewish heretical sect who worshiped God on Mount Gerasim rather than on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, and held there had been no prophets since Moses. Remember the woman at the well, the future St. Photini, to whom Christ offered “living water?” She was also a Samaritan and asked Christ which mountain it was proper to worship at. Christ replied that salvation was truly from the Jews, but we all need to worship God not at a particular mountain but in spirit and truth. So we see that the Jews had the right theology and were truly considered to be the chosen people of God, and that the Samaritan’s were truly heretics. Yet the actions of the good Samaritan demonstrate that he, rather than the theologically correct Jews, had obeyed the law of love and found the answer to obtaining eternal life. He alone recognized this wounded man left half-dead by the demons, to be his neighbour, and acted in a God-pleasing way.

As I said, this parable should give us in the Church, “the new Israel,” pause for some serious self examination. As St. James makes clear in his Epistle “Faith without words is dead.” We need to give ourselves a wake-up reality slap if we are deluded into thinking that because we have understood and accepted that the theology of the Orthodox Church is true and pure, and we have entered her, we have arrived, and our salvation is now accomplished. No, our work is just starting once we come home to the Church, to be in communion with all the saints that have gone before us and those that are now journeying with us here on earth. At the final judgement seat we are told we will be shown that what we did and didn’t do to help the least of our fellow humans, will be what matters. Not just whether we kept our Church membership cards up to date.

In today’s parable it is the despised and heretical Samaritan whom the Fathers all say represent Christ. We hear St. Peter, the chief of the apostles say, (Acts 10:34,35) “…In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation, whosoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.” We can’t coast on our privileged position as Baptized and Chrismated members of the Orthodox Church. If anything, more is required of us now than before we came in. How many times did Christ lay out the principle that (Luke 12:47,48) “…for everyone to whom much is given, from him will much be required…”

We have the privilege of worshiping here in the fullness and glory of the Orthodox Church, the very Church which Christ and His apostles established, and the gates of hell shall not be able to withstand. What a privilege! But we need to ask ourselves, what does this mean to us? How do we unite ourselves in gratefulness with Christ and His Church? What is our calling? How can we participate in reaching out and sharing this wonder to the suffering world around us? In demonstrating Christ’s agape love to those around us? How do our actions express our faith?

I discovered a very clear and straightforward passage from St. Theophan the Recluse in my readings this week. I think it wonderfully instructs us in how and when to minister as God-pleasing good Samaritans and servants of God. St. Theophan went into seclusion to write in 1866 and gave us many wonderful clear and inspired spiritual books writing right up until his death in 1894. I highly recommend you read about his life on the OCA website and get to know him.

“You ask, ‘Must one do something?’ Of course one must! And do whatever comes along – in your circle of friends and in your surroundings – and believe that this is and will be your real work. More will not be demanded of you. It is a great misconception to think, whether for the sake of heaven or, as the modernists put it, to ‘make one’s mark on humanity,’ that one must do great reverberating tasks. Not at all. It is necessary only to do everything according to the commandments of God. Just what exactly? Nothing in particular – only those things which present themselves to everyone in the circumstances of life. Those things which are required by the everyday happenings we all require. This is how God is. God arranges the fate of each man, and the whole course of one’s life is also the work of His most gracious foreknowledge, as is therefore, every minute and every encounter. Let’s take an example: a beggar comes up to you; it is God who has brought him. What should you do? You must help him. God has brought the beggar of course, desiring you to act towards this beggar in a manner pleasing to Him, and He watches to see what you will actually do. If you do what is pleasing to God, you will be taking a step towards the ultimate goal, the inheritance of heaven. Generalize this occurrence, and you will find in that in every situation and at every encounter one must do what God wants him to do. And we know truly what He wants from the commandments He has given us. If someone seeks help, then help him. If someone has offended you, forgive him. If you yourself have offended someone, then hasten to ask forgiveness and to make peace. (St. Theophan the Recluse. Letter to a young girl.)

In today’s gospel, Christ is telling us that we need to expand our understanding of whom our neighbour is. The good Samaritan   showed through his actions he was following Christ’s teaching and acting in a manner such as we have just heard recommended by St. Theophan. Our faith is demonstrated and grows to maturity through our actions. We start to wake up when we become more aware, that at every encounter we are being presented by God Himself with opportunities to help others, and we choose to act in a manner pleasing to Him. Christ tells us we are so connected in communion with God and His people that (Matt.25:40) “…Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it (fed, gave drink, clothed, visited, etc.) to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” We are joined together in Christ. Mother Teresa of Calcutta put it this way “The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved they are Jesus in disguise.”

Christ has clearly taught that all of us humans are in this together. That we are all family, no matter how we struggle with each other. That the despised Samaritan was most blessed and Christ -like because he responded with love to the opportunity to help the battered and broken stranger/neighbor he encountered. Today He gives the lawyer and us His final word on the subject. “Go and do likewise.” May God open our eyes to see the suffering neighbour God is sending into our lives to help us grow in Christ. What a gift they are; even if we don’t immediately like the wrapping paper containing the priceless present.  He is asking us to love them as ourselves, to open our hearts to bind their wounds with oil and wine. Let us all join with God in working towards bringing His kingdom here, “on earth as it is in heaven”…….Glory to Jesus Christ!

7th Sun. of Luke Luke 8:41-56 Jairus and St.Veronica

There is a huge crowd waiting for Jesus when He comes back across the Sea of Galilee to His home town of Capernaum. The crowd thronged Him so that the disciples were astonished when He asked “who touched Me?” Out of this great crowd, only Jairus the Synagogue leader, and the woman with the flow of blood receiving healing. These two couldn’t have been further apart in their place in society. Jairus was the ruler of the Synagogue and thereby a most respected man. The women with the flow of blood – tradition tells us she was to become the beloved St. Veronica – was a complete outcast, considered “unclean” and shunned by her people lest they touch her, and her contamination be transferred to them. Today they are united in purpose as their social standing makes no difference to them in their desperation. Both were seeking Christ with all of their heart and soul in their great need.

There is no blueprint to salvation apart from following Christ in the path He puts before us. But often it is life’s difficulties that lead us to cry out and encounter God. We pray “Grant us, O Lord, all of our petitions which are unto salvation.” It is always our eternal salvation and participation in the kingdom of God, which God is helping us to receive. This is why we are to thank God in all things, not just those which meet our comfort and approval here and now. Unity in Christ does not mean uniformity. Every saint has their own path, and our unique path leads us unerringly to Christ when we keep our focus on Him above all else, in all of life’s circumstances.  St. Paul tells us, (Eph 2:10 “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Let us always be on the lookout for these gifts from God, these potential good works!

In St. Veronica we see a glorious example of (Mark 10:31) “many who are first shall be last and the last first.” She goes on from this encounter with Christ to be the saint who in various ancient reports is given the very image of His face on her handkerchief when He wipes His face with it while carrying His cross to Golgotha; the saint who married Zacchaeus the tax collector  who climbed the sycamore tree and had Christ come and dine with him, and then gave ½ his possessions to the poor and restored any wrongful gain 4 x. They are reported to have spread the Gospel to southern France. We see her faith, her determination to find and follow Christ in the middle of great suffering, when many would fall into complete despair. This is a woman of great and undistracted faith, single-mindedly but secretly reaching out to just touch the hem of His garment to find healing. In her humility she does not even approach Christ directly with a request. She demonstrates a faith beyond even that of the centurion who didn’t want Christ to even take the time to come to heal his ailing beloved servant, but to simply say the word and his servant would be healed.

Although the future St. Veronica had been suffering with this great affliction for twelve years and had become impoverished through seeking a cure with no results, she understood a great truth. Healing always flows forth from Christ. The common wisdom of the day was a fearfulness that ones uncleanness could somehow contaminate and flow into others, so she was isolated. According to the Jewish law she could not even come into the temple. But she knew if she could just touch even the robe of Christ, that rather than her contamination flowing into Him, His healing power would flow into her.

We are often fearful. We need to protect ourselves from the attacks of the enemy. After all, (1 Peter 5:8) “…your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” But he is a toothless lion because he is restrained by God. Two verses earlier St. Peter tells us how to protect ourselves (1 Peter 5:6,7) “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him for He cares for you.” St. Veronica intuitively understood this. She completely casts her cares under the hand of God, trusting in His love and care for her. She came in great humility. Trying to make herself as unnoticed as possible and not wishing to draw attention to herself, she simply grasps the hem of Christ’s robe. The hem of the robe is down on the ground so in her humility she stoops and bows to the lowest point, for she knows through her unfathomable faith, that this is enough to accomplish her healing. God is love. Love drives out fear and hate and bitterness. This is the natural order of power, it never goes the other way. It is as certain as light drives out darkness. Turn on a light switch and see if you witness a great struggle with the darkness fighting back and trying to overcome the light. This is how the transfer of healing travels in us who are being transformed into the image of Christ in humility. The healing overcomes the sickness. The power of blessing and healing flows from us to those needing it not the other way around. Immediately after healing Jairus’s daughter, Christ calls his 12 disciples to him and gives them the power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases. Christ continues to be with us, the Church alays in this way.

We hear Christ tell us (Matt.16:18) “…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” We often hear this and think it means we are protected from the assaults of the evil one. While this is true, the verse is not illuminating this fact. Gates are defensive structures not offensive.  They keep things or people in or out. They don’t attack. Christ is saying that the church is attacking these gates and they will not stand. Christ tore them down and bound the devil and set free the captives of sin and death held behind these gates of Hades. We are set free! It is Christ and in Him we the Church that has the power, not the devil. It is the Church that is on the offensive destroying the bounds of sin and the lies of the evil one. Fulfilling what Christ has already accomplished. But only in Christ. If we think for a moment, we are strong enough to confront the least of the demons in our own strength, we will very quickly discover our pathetic weakness. The Lord’s brother Jude tells us, (Jude1:9) “Yet Michael the Archangel, contending with the devil, when he disputed with the body of Moses, dared not bring a reviling accusation, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you.” The future St. Veronica understood this reality and only wanted to touch Christ’s garment, to allow this power to flow into her.  

In Jairus, we see a lesser faith. A desperate tentative faith that requires Christ to come and lay His hands in healing Jairus’s daughter. Jairus has come to Jesus hearing of His power and in great desperation. He has been given a measure of faith to come and fall at Christ’s feet. He is the leader of a synagogue and Synagogue leaders, his peers, were not known to be friendly towards Christ. He was risking alienation and scorn from his fellow Jewish leaders. But, he has chosen Christ over all the world has to offer; power, position, riches, respect. We see a rich man who is not saying “I have need of nothing” but is rather choosing to say by his actions “though I have much, it means nothing in comparison to seeking Christ.” We see that our worldly circumstances, no matter how enviable, are insignificant beside what is truly important, faith and union in Christ. Jairus has faith, but not like the Gentile Centurion who told Jesus it wasn’t necessary for Him to come to his house, just say the word and his servant would be healed. Not like St. Veronica who just needed to touch the hem of Christ’s robe to be healed. In God’s economy, it is arranged that Jairus receive a boost to his faith. St. Veronica stops the procession of the crowd going to Jairus’s house, and Christ’s healing power is demonstrated for Jairus as a testimony; just before he is greeted with the messengers from his house telling him “Your daughter is dead. Do not trouble the teacher.” Christ then turns to Jairus and says, “Do not fear; only believe.” Jairus’s faith will be made unshakable when rather than healing his daughter, Jesus raises her back to life.

We receive what we need when we need it. Notice the perfect timing of all this. How often do we beg God for this or that, for the strength to handle future occurrences, only to wrestle and struggle in our minds with scenario’s that mostly never happen, or that happen much later than we expect? There are countless stories of the martyrs who courageously went to their deaths singing the praises of God, seemingly unaffected by the most horrific tortures. There is the story of one who the night before she was to be burned at the stake, held her hand over a candle flame and recoiling in great pain cried out to God “How can I possibly be burned for your name when I can’t even hold my little finger over a candle?” History records that the next day as the flames rose up and consumed the body of the saint, all around heard the glorious praises coming from her mouth and saw the joyful rapture in her expression as the angels brought her the martyrs crown and collected her soul.

As I said at the start, there was a huge crowd thronging around Jesus, but only Jairus and St. Veronica came with purpose and intent. She especially came and drew power “dynamis” is the Greek word – the root for dynamite – from Christ. You know every Sunday, we also come to gather around our Lord. We are here to encounter Christ, to partake of His very body and blood. Are we like most of the crowd with Jairus that day, touching and hanging around Christ without drawing power from Him? When we come to Liturgy, when we come to partake of the very body and blood of our Lord and Creator Jesus Christ, what is our intent? How desperately do we wish to reach out and truly touch Christ, to have him heal the great wounds of our soul, transforming us with His light and love into a new creation? Do we join Jairus and St. Veronica in their desperate need, or do we mill about with the crowd, not realizing the incredible power and love we are directly encountering? He is here with us my brothers and sisters, we have entered Kairos time and all of eternity, all people, things, events, past and future, are part of this reality. How desperately do we want to have His power, His dynamis transform us and blow us into His light and love? What is our focused intent as we approach the cup? O God save us, do not let us be satisfied with just being part of the throng, but fill us, awaken us, and let your healing power flow into the depths of our being. Call us into complete union and communion with You.

May we be granted the grace to call out with intensity and longing of St. Veronica and Jairus, to have the dynamis power of Christ heal and transform us. Through the prayers of St. Veronica and of all the saints, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy upon us and save us.

 

6th Sun. of Luke, “The Pigs” Gospel: Luke 8: 26-39

For two and sometimes three Sunday’s every year, either in Matthew, Mark, or like today in Luke, we are given to consider this story of the Gadarene demoniac(s). This is a fundamental reality check to compare what the Church has always taught regarding the huge cosmic battle being waged all around us for our very souls; and to compare this true unchanging reality against our present world view. Our paradigm of course changes with each generation and one of our most important tasks is to work to see how we are captured by our cultural and historical world view and to challenge it in light of the never changing light of the wisdom of Christ and the Church.

Christ and the Apostles arrive in the Gadarene region; immediately encountering a man completely out of his mind – possessed by many demons – enough to enter 2000 pigs – naked among the tomb stones and exceedingly fierce. What is going on here? How did this man end up in such terrible condition? We mustn’t 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. God tells us to leave judgement to Him on the last day as only God sees and understands all things. Christ tells us, (John 12:47,48) “And if anyone hears my words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words has that which judges him – the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day.”

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 may tend to think he must have done something very bad to deserve this fate. This very thought exposes our faulty thinking. God is not out to punish us. This concept of the “wrathful God” sitting in judgement and punishing us for our sins here on our earthly visit completely misses the mark. God is love. Period. Full stop. His only desire is to bring us into communion with Him that we may attain to that which He created us to be – true sons and daughters of God. Sin is “missing the mark” not seeking to be transformed into union with Christ. We all stumble and then get up and hopefully continue to try to seek God. God does not punish us for our stumbles, but like a father watching his young child learn to walk, lovingly supports our smallest effort to get up and try again.

The demons did everything they could to cause the Gadarene demoniac to destroy himself. They drove him 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 lives and especially in our Church. They 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 it in solitude. If we want to stay sane, we must recognise that we can be wounded – rather we will be wounded; but it is not optional to choose to stay wounded. We place ourselves in grave danger when we allow ourselves to be separated, when we nurse our woundings and grudges rehearse in our minds how badly we have been treated. We must ask God for the grace to forgive, and also to accept His forgiveness for our part, and for keeping resentment alive in our minds.

Today’s Gospel presents us with a reality that we would 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. We have a very real enemy of mankind 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. His goal is to cause us to not even awaken to, let alone work towards the great calling and purpose that God created us for. His best strategy is to get us to not believe that he even exists. From there it is a short journey to getting us to believe that even God Himself isn’t real. As impossible as this task should be, just consider how anything created came into existence. How do you dismiss the vibrant and pulsating life force in everything around you, how does a tiny apple seed grow into a huge apple tree…? The evil one and his demon followers seem to have some success in influencing us prideful and deluded creatures.  They are very experienced in the folly of humans will do anything they can to delude and separate us and to cause us to stray from the love of God and simple sanity. Satan’s goal is to destroy us; thereby proving to God we don’t deserve the great heritage and destiny which God has bestowed upon the human race. He is essentially a giant tattle-tale, completely devoted to his name, (Rev. 12:10) “accuser of the brethren.”

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 to be transformed into the image of Christ placed within us, we fulfill our destiny. The Church calls this “Theosis.” But we really can’t even begin the journey without a clear understanding of reality. This is what the Gospel story of the Demoniac is trying to teach us. What is reality and not a phantasy, of true lasting eternal substance – not just a fleeting illusion that will crumble and prove to have no lasting reality? It is of course, only that which leads us to Christ and the Kingdom of God, our home.

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 race of Adam, 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 calling, and desperately trying to keep us from waking up to what is really going on and who we are created to become – Sons and Daughters of God!

Overall, the battle is not really a battle, it is already won. Christ is completely in charge. Christ tells us of the Church of Christ, (Matt. 6:18) “…the gates of Hell/Hades will not prevail against it.” Note that “gates” would be constructed to keep people out or lock them in. They are defensive rather than offensive structures. Therefore it is not so much that we need to fear and defend against these gates of Hell/Hades attacking us, but rather that these gates of the enemy will not withstand the Churches assault against them to free those held captive within them. “Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death be death and upon those in the tombs (Hades) bestowing life!” The war is won! 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 into the final judgement – not so much at some cataclysmic battle of Armageddon 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 living here in this present age 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. Their very efforts to destroy us drive us into the arms of our loving God. Remember that only 1/3 of the angles fell and became the demons; so they are outnumbered 2 to 1! We can call upon God and the help of our guardian angels for protection!

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 today’s Gospel lesson when the demons enter the pigs, they immediately rush headlong to their death. God permits this to happen to show in very graphic and real terms, what is the goal of the demons concerning us. Death and annihilation, hopefully with as much pain and suffering imaginable. No matter how wonderful the demonic masquerade, how convincingly they appear as “angels of light” their only purpose in the end is to hasten our death and to use us to delude and ultimately bring to destruction as many of our brothers and sisters as possible. Through God’s grace, the demoniac resisted this final destruction, even when he had this entire legion of demons affecting him. What a heroic struggle! All God requires from us is to choose to turn to Him. God can turn our darkest hour into the brightest; the one that starts us back on the wonderful journey to Him; our loving, gracious and forgiving Father.

The freed man begged to follow Christ, but Christ seeing the complete conversion and gratefulness of his heart, tells him to stay and tell the people of the region all that had been done for him, to be God’s witness to the reality and love of God and His Kingdom. Jesus knew that He – God incarnate, the Christ – would be rejected by the people, but He loved them and wanted to leave His presence with them through the freed Gadarene demoniac – His new Apostle! It was a very effective decision as in Mark’s version it says, “the man began to proclaim all that Jesus had done for him: and all marvelled.”

The transformed man’s response stands in stark and horrifying contrast to the response of the rest of the people of the region. The people of Gadarene beg Christ to leave them. He has disturbed their present comfort level and greatly shattered their paradigm. Here is the most terrifying line in the Gospel reading. “And He got into the boat and returned.” 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 in this world more than following God, even when God was right in their midst, healing the sickest among them. But He still loved them!

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. The consequences of our poor choices to continue to affect us, so that we will somehow come to our senses and cry out to Christ 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 us, His wayward children in Matthew (23:37) “…how often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

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! 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. 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, let us proclaim to all the world what wonderful things Christ has done for us!         Glory to Jesus Christ!

5th Sun of Luke; Lazarus and the Rich Man, Luke 16: 19-31

What a study in the contrast between heavenly and earthly success, we are given today! That which the world teaches us is of utmost desire and importance was achieved by this nameless rich man. He wore the finest clothes and lived and ate “sumptuously” every day. Great word, describes our idea of the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Is that our goal?  To live the “sumptuous” dream, that life we are told could be ours next week if only we win the lotto. I’m sure the rich man had a great funeral and everyone in town knew of his passing. “Great guy old whatz his name.” Yes, we aren’t even told his name, his epitaph was simply “He died and was buried.” No “memory eternal” being sung here.

In contrast we are introduced to Lazarus who had to be “laid” at the gate of the rich man, as he was paralyzed and covered in sores. He received more comfort from the affection given from the local dogs than from the rich man. He would have been most grateful for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Yet, we know his name, Lazarus means “God is my help.” His memory is eternal, remembered by God; and when Lazarus died, he was met by the angels and joyously escorted to heaven, to Abraham’s bosom.

In today’s gospel we hear this rich man begging Fr. Abraham across an uncrossable divide between Paradise and Hades, to just send the blessed Lazarus to him with a drop of moisture – the equivalent perhaps to one of the crumbs of bread that Lazarus longed for while alive in his suffering body. We learn that our lives continue far beyond the boundary of our physical death. That the purpose of our short lives here is to prepare us for our individual judgement and place in the true and everlasting kingdom of God.

Lazarus was laid at the gate of the rich man by his friends. What a wonderful godly action by those who brought him there. This was meant to be of benefit to the suffering Lazarus, but of even more value to the poor rich man, who was desperately poor in the eternal riches of the kingdom of God. And let’s face it, we resemble the rich man in this parable far more than we resemble Lazarus. The poor and the suffering are a great gift to us who have the means to help them. We can trade in a few quite worthless dollars that we often squander frivolously, and receive in return heavenly riches that are completely safe for all time from the ravages of thieves and inflation. St. John Chrysostom in explaining the great value of almsgiving says “For there is nothing more profitable than this trade and traffic. It is preformed on earth, but is completed in heaven….But it is not the amount of money given that can purchase heavenly things, but the disposition of the giver, as is shown by the gain of the widow who with her two mites gave more than all the rest.” Christ Himself says earlier in this chapter (Luke 16:9) “…make friends for yourself with unrighteous money, that when you fail they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much.”

So, there is a very clear kingdom principle at work here.

For those of us who have wealth, it is not really ours; it is given or rather lent to us. Our wealth is not for our own use to live “sumptuous” lives. Its main purpose is so that we can be good stewards of that which the Father has entrusted us, for the benefit of them and ourselves. This is how we can convert “unrighteous money” into true riches for our salvation. St. Paul explains how almsgiving and the principle of equality is to work in the Church (2 Cor. 8:13,14) “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack – that their may be equality.” And so we see in today’s parable, the result of not living in this manner. The extreme spiritual poverty of the rich man is not met because of his choosing to not meet the physical needs of Lazarus his “houseguest” when he could have easily done so.

If only the rich man had understood and acted upon this true wisdom, Lazarus would have been at the front of the line welcoming him into Abraham’s bosom and extolling his great generosity. What a wasted opportunity! Let us learn from this.

God is always bringing us these wonderful opportunities, laying Lazarus’ at the gate of our lives for us to benefit from. But of course, the choice is always ours, as to whether we close our eyes and step around the blessing, or recognize it and act, and benefit eternally from it. St. Isaac the Syrian says “The great sin is our lack of sensitivity to sin.” God never interferes with our choices. He has given each of us the great gift of free will as our birthright as His human creatures. God has foreknowledge of what we will do, but He does not interfere or pre-ordain our actions in any way. There is no past, present or future in eternity. (Heb. 4:13) “…all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” St. Porphyries of whom I am especially fond said; “He respects our freedom. He does not abolish it. He loves us; he does not make us slaves; He gives us worth. God does not intervene in our freedom; He respects it fully. Consequently, we are responsible, because we do what we want. God does not compel us…Consequently it is not God who pre-ordains and decides, but mans’ free will.” When we recognize Lazarus laying at the gate and respond, we are acting as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. It is our actions that transform us into God’s children and bring us into the kingdom. Our knowledge and good intentions are of no use unless they cause us to act.

Remember the sheep and the goats? (Matt. 25:33) “He will set the sheep on His right hand and the goats on His left.” Christ gives us a very practical and simple test to measure if our faith is real or theoretical. What did we do or not do for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick and the prisoners? In as much as we did or did not help the least of these, we did or did not minister to Christ Himself. Let us take heed. The Christian life is a life that calls us to action. Yes, God loves us beyond anything we can comprehend. That is why He provides countless opportunities for us to grow into the image and likeness of Christ. But we must choose to do these things, uniting our will with His. Our only opportunity to get this right, to establish ourselves solidly with Christ and His Church with the angels and saints is right now, during the very short time we are alive here on planet earth. Upon our death will our souls be found to have more in common with the prideful and selfish ways of the demons, or the God focused nature of the angels? We are taught by the fathers that after our death our soul’s inclination will not change but here on earth we have this freedom to repent and seek God.

The passage on the sheep and the goats starts out with (Matt. 25:31) “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.” We all have a guardian angel, and they are protecting us and fervently interceding for us, that we might choose to do the things that bring us closer to God and His kingdom. Notice all the angels will be gathered with Christ at the judgement seat. They will be defending us against the accusations of our enemy, the “accuser of the brethren.” Let us act upon the God-given opportunities that we are granted, that we might give our devoted and loving guardian angels something to work with. Everything will be revealed in the light of Christ. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so a constant life of forgiveness and repentance is required of us. We are saved only through the grace and love of God, but we must choose to accept and grow in this gift now, while we are alive in the body.

The rich man failed to do anything to help poor Lazarus. He obviously knew his name as he calls out to Fr. Abraham asking for Lazarus to come and “dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.” He doubtlessly walked by him several times daily as he came and went through his gate. Probably the first few times he considered doing something, but soon he hardly even noticed him as he stepped around him. Failure to act on our good intentions causes our hearts to crust over and become more insensitive. The time to act is always NOW, upon realizing what God would have us do. It is not wealth or poverty that has any bearing on how we fare at the final judgement. It is our acts and reaction to the circumstances we find ourselves in. Do we choose cursing or thanksgiving; faith in God or blaspheming, when things don’t go like we want them to? There are many who live in great luxury who are most miserable; constantly criticizing and cursing whatever small annoyances befall them. Many who are poor and sick are also bitter and despairing, cursing God for their miserable situation. But there are also those who have great riches who are known for their generosity and kindness; who are grateful for all the opportunities God brings to them to help others, and give thanks for all things. And there are also those blessed souls who live in poverty and sickness but who are joyous and thank God for all things. They are a great inspiration to us, demonstrating true faith, trusting that He truly is a good God who loves us and all of mankind.

The whole point of our journey here on planet earth is to become what we have been created to become – fully functioning children of God. Ultimately that will be the only criteria for success that means anything. What joy awaits us at our death – our entrance into true life – if we have used our time here on this short visit to planet earth to seek the kingdom of God. What horror and regret, wailing and gnashing of teeth will be ours if we frivolously pursue only a better earthly life – selfishly striving to live “sumptuously.” Let us learn from the state of the rich man and re-focus our lives accordingly, asking God to open our eyes to see the Lazarus’s at our gates. Those whom God sends us for our salvation, in His great mercy and love for us.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

 

3rd Sun. of Luke; Luke: 7:11-16 Widow of Nain; Death is done

In today’s Gospel Christ raises the son of the widow of Nain. God is love. Everything to do with God is love as we conclude at every dismissal “for He is a good God and loves us and all of mankind.” Christ in raising the widow’s son back to life shows His great love and compassion for suffering humanity, and demonstrates His power over death which He has come to destroy. This demonstration of His authority even over death – our greatest and most terror filled enemy – serves as an icon of hope and joy not just for the widow and her son and the crowd of mourners in the funeral procession, but for us and all of mankind! Everything has changed as the most important event in human history the resurrection of Christ is at the doorstep! St. Athanasios said in the early 4th century “He put on a body that He might find death and blot it out.” The scripture says of the crowd “…they glorified God, saying. ‘A great prophet has risen up among us and God has visited His people.” Christ is establishing clearly that He is the long awaited for Messiah.

In His great love and compassion, Christ meets the widow and the funeral procession as they are going out of the city gates. Christ is coming into the city gates. This is an intersection we will all cross someday as we leave the gates of this world and look to Christ for mercy and forgiveness in the hope of the resurrection of the dead. May we ever be mindful of this scheduled meeting! Christ had much to say about death and the Church teaches that He came to rescue us from the clutches of death, and restore us to life.

It is our responsibility as children of God to demonstrate through our lives that God is love, period. We ourselves choose death when we choose to live selfishly and to go our own way, to live as individuals not in communion with our ever-loving God and Creator. We cut ourselves off from He who is the only source of life and reality, as all of creation is formed and exists only through the ever-present will of God. When we cut ourselves off from His sustaining life, going our own way, we thereby enter into death through our actions. Yet, God’s love is so great so incomprehensible, that He sent His only begotten Son to us, (John 3:17) “…not to condemn the world, but that the world (the Cosmos – all that exists) through Him might be saved.” This word “Cosmos” includes all that exists everywhere. Larry Norman had a nice line in one of his song’s. “If there’s life on other planets then I’m sure that He must know, and He’s been there once already and has died to save their souls.”  Can’t always quote Larry theologically, but he got it right with that line.

Christ took on our humanity fully, being clothed with flesh in the virgin Mary’s womb and becoming fully man. He came to become one of us – fully human, and to enter into death, that He might enter the realm of the dead – Hades – and free His dear friends Adam and Eve and all those held captive there, and lead them joyously into the kingdom of God. Death, our great enemy which no mortal could escape, was defeated and plundered. The devil whom reigned there was bound, and his captives set free! This was the purpose of Christ coming, to complete our salvation, and it was gloriously completed with His dying words (John 19:30) “It is finished.” God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit together and indivisible with only love – not wrath – rejoicing in the redemption of the human race!

So, we shout out with all of creation, in victory and celebration and thankfulness, “Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” This is the faith delivered to us from the Apostles from the beginning. Listen to the last four stanza’s (102 -105) from St. Melito of Sardis’s Pascha homily, delivered by him to his parish around 160 to 170 AD and get a sense of what the Church has always believed “everywhere, always and by all.” as St. Vincent of Lerin put it in the mid 5th century.

102) “It is I’, says the Christ, ‘I am He who destroys death, and triumphs over the enemy, and crushes Hades, and binds the strong man, and bears humility off to the heavenly heights. It is I’ says the Christ”

103) “So come all families of people, adulterated with sin, and receive forgiveness of sins. For I am your freedom. I am the Passover of salvation, I am the lamb slaughtered for you, I am your ransom, I am your life, I am your light, I am your salvation, I am your resurrection, I am your king. I shall raise you up by my right hand, I will lead you to the heights of heaven, there shall I show you the everlasting Father.”

104) “He it is Who made the heavens and earth, and formed humility in the beginning, Who was proclaimed through the law and the prophets, Who took flesh from a virgin, Who was hung upon a tree, Who was buried in earth, Who was raised from the dead,

and ascended to the heights of heaven, Who sits at the right hand of the Father, Who has power to save all things, through Whom the Father acted from the beginning and forever.”

105) “This is the Alpha and Omega, this is the Beginning and the End, the ineffable beginning and the incomprehensible end. This is Christ, this is the King, this is Jesus, this is the Commander, this is the Lord, this is He who rose from the dead, this is He who sits at the right hand of the Father, He bears the Father and is borne by Him. To Him be the glory and the might for ever. Amen”

Death is defeated, yet we still die and mourn and are separated from our dear loved ones every day. What has changed? Christ has changed everything. Before His victory, before His chronological resurrection, in today’s gospel He was demonstrating His power over death by raising up again to life the widow of Nain’s only son. Yet her son’s life here on planet earth was only extended for a short time. Christ also raised from the dead Jairus’s daughter and the 4-day dead Lazarus – who after his 4 days in the grave went on to be the first Bishop of Cyprus. But they died again a second time, but with such a difference. Their very death became their entrance into life! They left their bodies in the grave, and flew up with their souls and spirits into the blessed kingdom of God there to await the final uniting of their body’s and souls at the last judgement. Even if they lived another 80 years here on earth, this is a drop in the ocean of eternity. Our time here is very short. My dear 91-year-old mother Dorothy, who just came back into the loving embrace of the Church last year, told me that it seems that she has really not been alive for very long at all. Eternal life in the kingdom of God, this is the point of our short journey here. Everything else is just window dressing. This life here on earth is a fleeting moment when we can prepare and begin our forever future by uniting our wills to Christ. A dot on the ribbon of eternity.Then, incomprehensible joy and unending growth going from glory to glory. We step through the doorway of death in our baptism and are born again into true life in Christ and the kingdom of heaven as surely as we were born into this world through our coming forth from our mother’s womb. (John 11:25,25) “Jesus said to her, (Martha, Lazarus’s sister) “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whosoever lives and believes in Me, shall never die. Do you believe this?” Death has now become life to those who believe!

In death, the soul does not perish but enters into an awareness and understanding far beyond that which we now possess. St. Paul said (1 Cor.13:12) “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 am known.” This awareness and illumination will be a great comfort and ever-increasing joy to us, if we have been cultivating the values of the kingdom of God, the teachings of the Church and turning to Christ in our life here. We will continue to grow and be confirmed and enlightened in those qualities of the soul we have developed and sought while still alive in the body. Here is a beautiful passage from the Fr. Constantine Callinicos, the Greek author of “Beyond the Grave.” “In the blessed state of the righteous, the immense mind flourishes, the heart extends its arms in innumerable embraces, the will never tires of choosing what is good, freedom no longer stands as a broken reed, but as a great oak tree. All the spiritual treasure within us, all that unimaginable world that is now sleeping in our souls will then be awakened; it will bud and blossom, and never again be barren. Knowledge will become perfect. The fog which now restricts it will disappear.  Doubts and objections will be no more. Mysteries will be explained…it is as if God is embroidering a wonderful embroidery above us, and we being underneath it, see the wrong side. Hence our criticisms. But the day is coming when we will go up into the heavens and see the embroidery from the right side; and then whatever seems chaotic to us today, will appear as perfect.” This is what death holds for us!

However, this awakening will be a source of great anguish if we have been consumed with selfishness and self promotion, nurturing grudges and unforgiveness and feeding our carnal pleasures above our spiritual development. Leaving ourselves no time to connect with God. We will continue to struggle with these dark qualities once we have left the body. This is the time to deal with our soul’s condition, now while we are alive in the body and have opportunity to choose to act with love and intentionality, physically in deed and truth. If we waste this opportunity, we will be greatly dismayed and sorrowful when we are called to give an account of our lives.

We always pray for and with our dearly departed as they have need of our love and prayers and we trust that this is a comfort and help to them. We do not know nor try to determine exactly how these prayers help, but every service from the very earliest days of the Church has included these supplications for our departed, so we know they are very important. They help us to stay connected with our dear ones and we are especially united with them when we celebrate the timeless eternal Divine Liturgy. Here we are joined with all the Church, those gone before us and those all around the world joined here with us. As we pray, our love for our brothers and sisters here, and for those gone before us in the hope of eternal life grows, our hope and participation in the fountain of immortality is strengthened, our hearts are enlarged in love, and our grief is soothed in communion with Christ and His entire bride, the Church.

There are no dead in Christ. Christ says to the Sadducees, (Luke 20:38) “For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him.” Look around, our walls are adorned with icons of the saints. They are alive and praying with us, cheering us on. St. Paul says after listing dozens of saints from the Old Testament (Hebrews12:1) “since we are surrounded by 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 that is set before us.”

So, we never worship alone. Even when just two or three are gathered, there are the saints who have gone before us worshiping with us.  At the little entrance, while the choir is finishing the third antiphon, “Blessed are those…” the priest is praying the entrance prayer “O Master, Lord our God, who have appointed in heaven orders and hosts of angels and archangels for the service of Your glory. Grant that with our entrance there may be an entrance of angels serving with us and glorifying your goodness. For unto You are due all glory, honour and worship: to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” The angels are here right now with us!

So today we rejoice not just that Christ raised the son of the widow of Nain back from the dead and that this sent a chill through the very heart of Hades. We celebrate that death has become life through the glorious resurrection of Christ our Lord. Orthodoxy is paradoxy and this is the greatest most glorious paradox of all. (Matt. 10:39) “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My names sake will find it.” We joyously join with the apostle Paul in repeating the words of the prophet Hosea 1 Cor. 15:55“O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?”

So as we go to celebrate Thanksgiving, let us not stop at being thankful for our many perceived blessings, for our pampered life, as we live in conditions where 80% of the world would gladly switch places with us in a heartbeat. Let us not stop at being thankful for our precious families and dear friends; but let us expand our gratefulness to our God and the kingdom of heaven and the unfathomable blessings of eternal life and fellowship with all of our true family, the saints, the angels, the Mother of God and especially the love of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and His love for us and all of mankind!    Christ is Risen!

1st Sun of Luke “Bursting Nets” Luke 5: 1-11

 Glory to Jesus Christ! Today we start the first Sunday of Luke as the “Lukan Jump” comes the first Monday after the feast of the Elevation of the Cross” for those of you who are interested in Lexicon order. Today’s reading starts at the beginning of Christ’s ministry. He has been baptized, confronted the devil directly while fasting for 40 days in the wilderness and announced to those in His home synagogue in Nazareth that He was the awaited for Messiah that Isiah had prophesied was coming. (Isa. 61:1,2) He stood up and read “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” He then sat down and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” What a wonderful description of Christ’s purpose in coming to us. As (John 3:17) says “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” Christ then goes on to actively fulfill all of these signs of the Messiah, casting away the oppression of the demons and freeing those held captive by them, healing the sick and restoring both physical and spiritual sight to the blind and bringing the good news that He had come to be the Saviour of the world to all without exception.

Christ is teaching in the synagogues, attracting large crowds already but His disciples have not yet been selected. He has encountered the Apostle Peter and healed Peter’s wife’s mother from a fever and then healed many others who found out Christ was at Peter’s house. As we start with today’s gospel, we know that Peter has already seen the miraculous healing power of Christ, so when Christ asks him to put out a little in his boat so that He could speak to the crowds, Peter did not hesitate. Once again, the soon to be Apostle Peter is given a front row seat to hear what Jesus has to say. This is God speaking the completely God bearing word of God.

No doubt, Peter and his fishing companions Andrew, James and John were pretty much spent before Jesus appeared. They had finished a full and discouraging night working the nets and toiling with no results. They had given up as the day had come and fishing was known to be unfruitful now until later in the day and they had just spent the last of their energy cleaning out their nets so they would be ready to try again that coming evening. No sane fisherman would be found fishing during the heat of the day. Christ finishes addressing the crowd and tells Peter to “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter protests a little, I mean he was a very seasoned fisherman and this request flew in the face of everything he knew to be sensible. But to his credit, he quickly recovers and realizes that this man Jesus was someone who did not seem to operate along normal worldly principles. After Peter’s initial protest – his telling Jesus why His request just made no sense – he quickly adds, “nevertheless, at Your word I will let down the net.” Remember, ultimately it is not so much what we say, but what we do that matters. It is not our words that will convince anyone of much of anything for very long, it is our life, and our actions, how we live, that they will see and consider.

Remember the parable of the Son who immediately said he would go work in the vineyard but never showed up and the other Son who said he had no intention of working in the hot sun but then went anyway? Words alone really don’t cut it. So Peter even at this early stage is shown to be a man of action, even when those actions are based only on simple obedience to what Christ asks, and go against everything Peter believes he knows, based upon his life experience. We would do well to pay attention to this demonstration of faith by Peter. He doesn’t agree with God’s word, it makes no sense to him and he doesn’t understand what possible good can come out of it, yet he DOES exactly what God asks. He puts out and lowers the nets. And what happens?

They bring in a catch such as they could never imagine. This is a complete and in your face miracle of the highest proportion for these fishermen. These are fishermen. They know fishing and know what a good catch looks like. Their main pursuit in life has been a good catch and this is the mother load of all catches. They have never seen anything like this. Their nets are breaking and then their boats are sinking from the weight of the fish. Upon seeing this great miracle and recognizing the author of the miracle as Christ, Peter realizes his sinfulness and unworthiness, as the pure light of Christ that illuminates all shines upon him. He has an awakening, a reality check and falls down at Christ’s knees saying; “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” This is true wisdom, this is the fear of God, this is the only sane response when coming face to face with the living God and realizing how far removed we are from the purity of God. This awakening and understanding is always the prerequisite to truly following Christ. Christ’s reaction to Peter’s confession of his unworthiness is immediate, “Do not be afraid, come and follow me. From now on you will catch men.” He accepts Peter completely and lovingly and eternally and sends him out to be a fisher of men, to feed His sheep. He does the same for each of us as we come to Him.

Peter’s response reminds us of that of the prophet Isaiah when he found himself in the presence of the Lord on His throne in His glory, surrounded by seraphim singing holy, holy, holy and with the incense smoke of our prayers. He says (Isaiah 6:5-8) “Woe is me, because I am pierced to the heart, for being a man and having unclean lips, I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips; for I saw the King, the Lord of hosts, with my eyes! Then one of the seraphim was sent to me. He had a live coal in his hand which he took with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth, and said, ‘Behold this has touched your lips. Your lawlessness is taken away, and your sin is cleansed.’ I also heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go to this people?’ Then I said, ‘Behold here am I, send me.”

So we see the pattern. An awakening to our unworthiness to even be in the presence of God. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Then we encounter God’s grace-filled response to take away all of our iniquities, and cleanse us of all our sins. Our awareness of God’s love causes us to learn to trust and love God as St. Anthony the great said, “I no longer fear God but love Him.” BTW, the Fathers teach the coal that touched Isiah’s unclean lips and removed all of his sin represents the Eucharist; the precious and holy Body and Blood of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ which we are about to receive for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting. The priest repeats this passage from Isaiah after receiving and giving communion to the deacon’s in the Altar (Isaiah 6.7) “…Behold this has touched your lips, and shall take away all your iniquities and cleanse your sins.”  Finally, God then sends us out as His servants like Peter and Isaiah to share His great love and forgiveness to all of our brothers and sisters of the race of Adam.

St. Peter gets it. He sees his broken and sinful human nature and because he understands and does not try to hide or excuse it, he is now truly ready to follow Christ. As Christ says a little later in this chapter (Luke 5:32) “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” In following Christ and becoming the chief apostle, Peter does not so much bring his gifts and talents to his Lord as his weakness and brokenness. The apostle Paul says (2 Cor. 12:9) “…My grace is sufficient for you for My strength is made perfect in weakness” as we see on our icon of Christ.

It is only Christ’s reality living in us that allows us to accomplish anything that will be of value when the final assessment is made. When all things are brought to the light, and the fire of the purity of God burns up all that is worthless, the hay and stubble and our frantic busyness, to reveal the gold, we will all suffer loss. We all, to some extent, concentrate on building our kingdom, rather than choosing to live in the kingdom of God, bringing His kingdom “here on earth as it is in heaven.” The entire point of our little journey here on planet earth, is to learn over and over as did our dear apostle Peter, how to follow Christ. Coming to Him in repentance and re-committing ourselves; forcing ourselves to retreat from our busy all-consuming pace of life and come to Him in silence, waiting quietly to hear His voice and know His loving presence in our hearts; denying ourselves and taking up our cross and following Him. May His grace be sufficient for each of us, and may the fishing be good! Glory to Jesus Christ!

16th Sun after Pent. Talents – Matt. 25:14-30, Cross – Mark 8:24-9.1

With the Feast! We are still in the after-feast of the Elevation of the Cross, so we are blessed to hear two gospel readings today. I’m going to start with a few thoughts on the significance of the feast of the Elevation of the Cross and the cross of Christ itself. This is a very ancient feast of the church. St. Constantine defeated his powerful adversaries Maxentius and Licinius and became emperor of the eastern and western Roman empire after seeing the sign of the cross in the heavens and being told “in this sign conquer.” His Christian mother St. Helen, within a few years of her son Constantine establishing Christianity as a legal non-persecuted religion set off to Jerusalem in 326 to try to find the site of Christ’s burial and the holy life-giving cross. This was a very blessed and God pleasing endeavour. She discovered that 200 years earlier, the Emperor Hadrian had ordered that the grounds of Golgotha and the Sepulchre of Christ in Jerusalem be covered over, and a temple of the pagan goddess Venus and a statue of Jupiter be built over them. Helen had the temple torn down and discovered the three crosses of Christ and the 2 thieves, as well as the Holy sepulchre of Christ. To establish which of the 3 crosses was the holy cross of Christ, Patriarch Makarios of Jerusalem touched each of the crosses to a body in a passing funeral procession. Upon touching the dead man with the actual cross of Christ, life returned to him and the identity of the true cross of Christ was established. The emperor Constantine gave orders to build a great church on the site and in 335, just 10 years after the 1st ecumenical council – this church was finished, and the feast of the Elevation of the Cross was established. We have just celebrated the 1683rd year since this blessed event and the Holy Fire has come down at this Church at Pascha every year since then!

Regarding the power of the cross, the apostle Paul says (1 Cor. 1:18, 23) “…the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God…we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks, foolishness.”

It is the ultimate counter-cultural sign, representing the wisdom of God and His strength made perfect in weakness; and exposing the folly of the wisdom of the world, which we are all so saturated with. Christ tells Peter and the disciples that He will suffer crucifixion, and Peter immediately says; (Matt. 17:22) “Far be it from You Lord; this shall not happen to You” Christ tells him, and us, that this thought comes directly from Satan and that the cross is the true and only road to salvation. Any understanding of who Christ God is apart from the cross is directly from Satan! St. Athanasius said, “Christ put on a body that He might find death and blot it out.” We want to follow Christ, but we generally want to follow Him on our terms…for our own benefit. This should be a feel-good experience, shouldn’t it? Doesn’t God want us to be successful and prosperous and happy after all? Isn’t that the point? Somehow ending up being nailed to a cross and dying a painful death doesn’t really fit this view. We hear in our first Gospel reading today (Mark 8:34-35) “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My names sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Pretty much the opposite of striving to get ahead and achieve worldly success at all costs. But Orthodoxy is paradoxy.

The cross is such a powerful force in our life as followers of Christ. We adorn our churches with it, we wear it around our necks and cross ourselves at every prayer and supplication. One of the most terrible tragedies in the protestant world was when the enemy managed to convince them not to cross themselves, thus depriving them of a great weapon and source of protection in their battle against him. Last Sunday we blessed the baptismal waters by signing them with the sign of the cross, by pouring blessed oil into them in the form of a cross and finally by plunging the cross into the waters. We started the exorcism part of the service at the back of the church by breathing upon each of the baptismal candidates in the sign of the cross and signing them with the cross. We bless the waters at Theophany and other times, plunging the cross into the sanctified waters. The sign of the cross in blood above the doors kept the Hebrew children protected when the destroying angels were taking the children of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Moses signed the Red sea with the sign of the cross and it parted saving the Israelites and then closed on the Egyptians. The demons tremble and flee when the saints sign themselves with the sign of the cross. The first thing we do upon awakening in the morning and the last thing we do before bed at night is to cross ourselves. Two days every week, Wednesday and Friday are dedicated to “the power of the precious and life creating cross.”  The last thing we do after every Liturgy is come and venerate the cross before leaving the church building, taking the power and victory of Christ’s voluntary death on the cross into the world around us. The cross heads our processions at Pascha! Twice a year, in the middle of Great Lent and at the great feast of the Elevation of the Cross which we are still celebrating today, we decorate and venerate the cross, and celebrate the great saving power and victory accomplished through it.

In today’s second gospel reading we hear the parable about the talents. We are all given a different amount of talents and it really is not important how much we are given. One talent is worth over $1 million so it is plenty to work with. What is critically important is what we do with what we are given. Are we willing to share them, to use them to bless those around us, or do we bury and keep them from being of much use to anyone including ourselves? What we choose to do with the talents each one of us have been given will largely be determined by how we view the Master – our God. The two faithful and good servants, who both received identical praise saw that God was a generous rewarder, a good God who loved them and all of mankind, full of abundance and they worked to be like Him. They used their talents to further the kingdom of God investing in those investments that last eternally, the poor and needy and the church and the kingdom of God generously, building up their treasure in heaven while here on earth. The wicked and lazy servant saw that his Master was a stern and hard taskmaster, one to be feared.  Now fear of God, is the beginning of wisdom as we recognize just how far the difference in essence is between us as created beings, and He Who is our Creator. As we grow to know His great love for us and for all His creation, this fear changes to great love and adoration. St. Anthony the Great said “I no longer fear God, but I love Him.”

The lazy and wicked servant was deluded in his view of his Master and probably surrounded himself with those who were of like mind, who would confirm his viewpoint and tell him how clever and wise he was to be suspicious and fearful. Got to watch out and protect yourself after all, “Looking out for #1” as song goes. St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century tells us what it means to bury your talent in the earth, “To hide one’s talent in the earth is to occupy the intelligence God gives us in purely earthly matters, not to seek spiritual profit, never to lift our hearts above worldly considerations…Paltry are the goods of this world, however great they may seem, in comparison with the reward of eternal life.” The fearful and spiritually unprofitable servant was not willing to do the work to change his thinking, to seek truth. “You wicked and lazy servant” says his Master upon his return; seeing his gift lay stagnant and useless, buried in the ground, of no use to anyone, as he had made no effort to work and grow and to bless the world around him with his God given talent.

We are all guilty to some degree of refusing to do the work it takes to grow in Christ. We are called to change, to go from glory to glory, we have yet a long way to go on this blessed path. What is the work? Self-examination leading to a life of repentance and conforming to the ways of God. Understanding our purpose is to look for opportunities to bless and help those God brings into our lives. We need to seriously consider how we are thinking; how do we view God and life? Why do we do the things we do? What is our motive base? Is it love of God and His creation, or need for admiration from people? If there is bad fruit in our lives, then we have work to do. How does what we are thinking line up with what the scriptures and the Church’s understanding of the scriptures say? We have 2000 years of faithful and unconfused revelation contained within the treasure house of the Church. Agreement from the Apostles and saints of every generation up to today on every issue of theology and what it means to live a God-pleasing life. Have we taken the time to find out what the Church has to say on how we think? Do our views match up? Or would we rather take the easy road, the presumptuous, self-assured but often deluded path of trusting in our own private interpretation. Do we do the work to see if we are truly understanding the people and situations God brings to us? Do we stop and pray and seek to align with the mind of Christ and His Church? God loves us completely and unconditionally, but we must choose to do the work, if we are to grow in illumination into life in Christ – into Theosis and our true destiny.

Our talents are given to us to bless those around us, our family and friends and all of mankind. They have great power to bless and be a conduit of God’s love and grace to all of the world. It is a great tragedy when we hide them and refuse to let ourselves come to life. It is a great loss, not just to ourselves, but more importantly to those who we are meant to bless. But our talents will not be allowed to stay buried forever. No, like the lazy servant’s, they will be taken away and given to those who will risk and use them.

So let us learn from the lazy and fearful servant in today’s gospel. Let us get out our shovels and with great haste ask God’s help in doing whatever excavation is needed to unbury these precious talents we have been given from Him. Each one of us has been given them, no-one has been missed, and we desperately need to learn to put them to use; that we may bless and give and receive an abundance that has no limit in the kingdom of God. May God help us to locate and generously put those talents He has blessed us with to use, for the glory of His kingdom and to life everlasting, now and ever and unto ages of ages…With the Feast!

Nativity of the Theotokos and Exaltation of the Cross

This week we celebrate two great feast days; the Birth of the holy Theotokos and ever Virgin Mary was on Monday, and today is the Exaltation (Elevation) of the Cross!

We don’t have a great amount of detail in the scriptures regarding the story of Joachim and Anna and the birth of the Theotokos, but the earliest church tradition from such sources as the Proto Evangelium of James and other very early and respected sources tell us that they were past the age of child-bearing , probably in their 70’s. Being barren was considered to be a great curse of God in the time of Christ. Joachim was a fairly wealthy and God loving shepherd with substantial flocks of sheep, and we are told that Joachim would divide his income in thirds with 1/3 going to the poor and needy, 1/3 to the temple and the final 1/3 he would keep and live on. When he went to give his sacrifice at the temple, the High Priest scorned him as he was childless and would not accept his sacrifice. Joachim left in shame and when crying out to God in despair over their situation was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and told that he would be the Father of the precious Theotokos that all of mankind had been waiting for. Anna his wife was visited at the same time by the Archangel with the same incredible news.

We always hear the familiar Gospel from Luke 10 and 11 on the feasts of the Theotokos. Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus doing the one thing needful – keeping her eyes and attention on Christ, and Martha working away serving, and feeling sorry for herself. Serving is not the problem here, it is Martha’s attitude. Serving with joy and being grateful for the opportunity, for the privilege of serving Christ, is always a blessing. Serving with frustration and an overdeveloped sense of duty, complaining and judging those not measuring up or chipping in enough – in our misguided opinion – is always a problem. Mary the Mother of God always kept her eyes and heart fully attuned to her Son and her Lord Jesus Christ and completely fulfilled “the one thing needful”.

In the second part of this familiar scripture we hear: “Blessed is the womb which bore You, and the breasts which nursed You. And Christ replies: “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Why was the Blessed Virgin Mary chosen to have the incomprehensible privilege of containing within her womb; Him whom all of heaven could not contain; He who is the very source of life to her and to all of mankind. He who brought us from non-existence into being and pursued us, and made a way for us when we had fallen, and raised us up and brought us with Him to His Father in heaven. The Creator of all dwelt in Mary’s womb and nursed from her breasts. Yes, blessed indeed is Mary, beyond any who had ever been born before or since. More honourable and beyond compare than even the Cherubim and the Seraphim.  She who gave birth to God Himself. There is none born of the human race that are on the same level of honour as the Theotokos. Yet…Christ answers the woman from the crowd with the reason WHY – with the reason that the precious ever-virgin Mary, is granted this most privileged of all roles in the plan of human salvation. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Never in all of human history has anyone more perfectly heard the word of God & kept it. Our pathetic efforts pale under the brilliant illumination and perfection of the sweet humble acceptance of Mary, the Mother of our God.

“Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be done to me according to Your word”

“Whatever He says to you, do it.” She is the very fountain of wisdom, the new Eve who fulfils her blessed role and brings life to us all!

The blessed virgin Mary accepted with grace and humility to be the very gate, the portal, to allow her womb to be the throne of God, to allow what all of heaven could not contain to be contained within her womb. If she had said NO, I’m just not up to this, it is too much to require of me, the entire plan of salvation would have been lost. None have ever more perfectly heard the word of God and kept it, and that is the why -the reason she is more blessed and honoured than any other, and today we rejoice with Joachim and Anna and all of heaven and earth at her birth.

Like Mary, we too want to follow Christ, but we generally want to follow Him on our terms…for our own benefit. After all, this should be a feel-good experience, shouldn’t it?  But Christ clearly says we will suffer, and our blessings will be related to these sufferings. Suffering is part of the promise; Christ says; “he who would come after me must pick up his cross and follow me”. The cross demands participation, all of the saints suffered. Mary was told “A sword shall pierce your heart” by St. Simeon when she brought Christ as an infant to the temple. Yet, through all of her sufferings and everything in her life, she was careful to “hear the word of God and keep it.” Every Sunday we sing the Beatitudes; “Blessed are those who mourn, who are meek, who are persecuted, reviled, and lied about.” Everything is counter-intuitive in the Kingdom. It really doesn’t square with what most of us learned at home and at school. It is not at all about getting ahead as the world defines it, or about personally being fulfilled and having our needs and desires met. It is completely counter-culture. If you find your life you will lose it, and if you lose your life you will find it. The first will be last and the last will be first. Orthodoxy is paradoxy.

How are we to live this Paradoxal life?  What does this really mean – to follow Christ? We want to work for God, O God, use me, I am your servant, we cry out in our saner moments. But we don’t work for Christ and His church, He works through us. Otherwise we run off with our own ideas and feelings and just make a mess of things. We must die that He might live in and through us. We really have no being, no reality, and are completely nothing outside of Christ. We are not even real human beings apart from Christ. The stamp of divinity which God has placed within each one of us is completely dormant and of no value unless it is energized by God. We are like flashlights without batteries, we look the same from the outside, but a flashlight without batteries is quite useless and unable to illuminate anything. Only life in Christ is real!

Today we have another feast day, the elevation of the cross. “For God so loved the world He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” This is the gospel, this is the message of the cross. This is God’s love for us, all that is required is that we accept His gift. There is nothing we can do to add to it or to make ourselves somehow worthy of receiving it. We must simply always keep our gaze on Christ. We have healing and life when we keep our eyes on Christ lifted up on the Cross. The Israelites, when they were being bitten by poisonous serpents were instantly healed when they looked up to the copper serpent Moses was lifting up which prefigured the cross. Through the serpents came death; through the Cross came death, and yet through Christ choosing death on the cross for our sakes comes life! Everything is counter-intuitive. Keep your gaze on Christ and the cross and be saved; lower your gaze and be bitten and ravaged by the enemy of mankind. When we are attacked by evil thoughts and our minds are temped to accept false and destructive understandings, when persecutions and malicious slander comes our way, when our faith is shaken, we must run to Christ. Lord Jesus Christ, save me! We know our gaze is lowered when confusion and doubt assail us.

Elder Prophyrios; a very wise and precious elder from Mount Athos and Greece says: “There are two paths that lead to God; the hard and debilitating path with fierce assaults against evil; and the shorter, safer, and easier route with love. This is the most perfect way. That is, don’t wage war on evil directly, but love Christ and His light, and evil will then retreat. Always open your arms and run to Christ” Through the prayers of the Theotokos and the great saving work of the cross may we ever draw nearer to Christ, our King and our God. With the Feast!