Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Second Sunday of Lent

This Sunday I once again had the opportunity to offer the sermon. Since, due to lack of time, a long thought about post on technology and prayer has been delayed (hopefully not beyond the coming weekend), here are my thoughts for the Second Sunday of Lent.

"And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay." We heard this passage in today's Gospel reading. Compare it with the story of another paralytic, who says, speaking to Jesus, "Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me." The second paralytic needed a circle of friends, a family that would help him be healed of the infirmity which had been troubling him for thirty eight years. Each one of us is in the position of the paralytic – in need of family and friends. Most of us, thankfully, have family and friends around us. Sometimes, we forget, however, that we are also part of the family of Christ. Christ told us to love one another as He loved us, to carry each other's burdens, as He carried our sins. In today's Gospel, the friends of the paralytic show us the kind of love that Christ speaks about: they carried the paralytic on his bed to the top of the house, removed the roof, and lowered him in the middle of the assembly. The friends of the paralytic literally, in their love for him, brought him to God, to be healed.

Throughout the history of the Church we find many examples of pastors who have brought their faithful to God, bringing them healing in the process. Our Church commemorates today, on the second Sunday of Lent, one such pastor: St. Gregory Palamas. St. Gregory was born in a wealthy family, but from an early age was attracted to the monastic life. He became a monk on mount Athos and spent long most of each week in solitary prayer. On the weekend, however, he and other monks would meet for the celebration of the Eucharist. St. Gregory would have wanted to finish his life as a monk, living the quiet life of prayer. However, he was a holy, well-educated, and eloquent man. His wisdom and holiness became known, and he was chosen to be Archbishop of Thessaloníki. At Thessaloníki, St. Gregory found a divided city, in the midst of a popular revolt which prevented him from entering the city for three years. Yet St. Gregory waited, and once he could enter the city, he worked was a true shepherd of his flock. He worked for peace, he worked for the poor, and, when he died, he left behind him a healed city, united in their admiration for their holy bishop. The city itself had been paralyzed and St. Gregory acted as the friends of the paralytic had done, lifted the city up, and brought it before God to be healed.

We see in the Gospel reading for today and in the life of St. Gregory two facets of the same coin. We are all in need of healing, both individually and as a community. Sometimes the community brings us before God to be healed and at other times we are called to be the ones healing the community. Some have an illness, others a passion, like anger, or envy; if we are truly honest with ourselves, we will admit that we are all in need of healing. The Holy Spirit who breathes life into our Holy Church always gives us today cause for hope. Here, in the Church, we love one another and bear one another's burdens. When we are frail and in need of help, we ask our friends to lift us up, and bring us before God to be healed. And there is hope even in the darkest hour, for St. Gregory Palamas shows us that one single man, by the grace of God, can succeed in the most unlikely of circumstances. This hope is based on a very simple, yet very difficult principle: we have to seek God and to be willing to hear His voice and His will for our lives. We see these in today's gospel and the life of St. Gregory.

We see that the paralytic and his friends were looking for Jesus, having faith in His power to heal. It is not only an honest search, but a very thorough one. I think you would agree that removing the roof of the house and lowering the bed through the opening would not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of how to get close to Jesus. We can assume, therefore, that the paralytic and his friends tried to get close to Jesus by other means – approaching him in the street, entering the door – yet, for some reason they failed. Instead of giving up, however, we see that they seek even harder. And this seeking is rewarded with more than the physical health of the paralytic. Jesus forgives the paralytic's sins and sends him, healed, on his way.

St. Gregory Palamas also sought God throughout his life. Like most of us, he had a particular idea of what his search for God would look like and a particular plan for his life. Unlike most of us, his plan included praying alone, on a mountain, in the quiet of Mount Athos. Yet God's plan for St. Gregory called him away from that life of solitude and thrust him into the middle of the theological, political, and economic unrests of his time. And St. Gregory responded to that call with a continual "Here I am, Lord." He worked to defend the faith, to bring peace, and to feed the poor. He came to God to be healed and brought healing to countless others. The time spent in prayer and in contemplating the mysteries of God allowed him to understand that God's ways often do not conform to the ways of the world. Sometimes, God calls us to come to Him by removing the roof of the house and lowering ourselves down, rather than simply by opening the door and coming in. Now, if next week you plan on coming to church through the roof of this beautiful building, please clear it with Fr. Andrew first.

In the end, the honest and thorough search of the paralytic and his friends led to his healing. St. Gregory's openness to God's will in his life led him to a truly blessed life and the everlasting love and respect of the Church. The Church is here to direct our search for God in our individual lives and to open our hearts up to hear His voice in our lives. She does this through her prayer life, through her moral guidance, and especially through the sacraments. Let us be partakers in this life that the Church sets in front of us and may we open our hearts to hear God's voice and be healed through the prayers of St. Gregory Palamas archbishop of Thessaloníki, and to the glory of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Random notes

It seems that the South is fertile ground for Orthodoxy. Yesterday morning we had Liturgy and a number of the Ecumenical Patriarchate archons were here for a weekend retreat. Fr. Nick, the president of the school, took the time to introduce the few students who were there (this week is spring break here). Not counting those whose place of origin is abroad (three of us, plus the celebrating priest), all but one of the others hailed from Texas (2), Georgia (2), Florida (2), Alabama, South Carolina (2), and North Carolina.


This morning the Liturgy at St. Vasilios in Peabody had a rather different flavor with forty or so members of the Rachmaninoff Choir joining in to sing for the service. On a different note, the psalm we chant prior to communion (by the chanters), was started about a sixth higher than written. Now that was an experience.


We had been looking for soy smoothies in the stores, but since we couldn't find them at our regular stores (BJs, Whole Foods, Stop 'N' Shop), we decided and make some. This got rave reviews from Magda: about 150 grams of strawberries, 1 can of frozen juice (in this case wildberry flavored juice from Stop 'N' Shop, which I only later discovered was mostly high fructose corn syrup...), and about half a liter of soy milk.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Thoughts from the beginning of Lent

We are less than two days into Great Lent, but these two days have been a blessed time. When we say Lent, the first thing that comes to mind is fasting and indeed, the first week of Lent is a particularly austere time. Most of us are not able to eat just two meals from Monday through Friday, as Bp. Kallistos Ware notes in the Lenten Triodion. However, all of us, if we are honest about our fasting efforts, will experience a certain degree of hunger during this period. Personally, I have been fasting for a number of years and I have felt this hunger, but it wasn't until this year that I finally thought about it.

There are two particular messages which I had known before, but which are now, by the grace of God, a more integral part of my life. The first thought with regard to hunger is that we come to realize how uncomfortable it is and this, if we live in the spirit of the Fast, cannot help but lead us to missions. If we know how difficult it is to go without food, can we have parishes without a program for feeding the hungry? We feel the hunger voluntarily; we have to think - in practical terms - of those who feel it because of the fallen nature of this world.

The second thought came to me when I finally noticed how often I needed to ward off thoughts of food. We have a phyical need for food, but we also have a spiritual need for God. It is true that physical needs are more easily noticed, but that only means that we need to become more attuned to our spiritual needs. If we think of food so often when we are hungry, we need to think of God just as often when we are in need of Him. And yet, it is exactly at those times that we are most likely to move away from Him.

A final thought, on a (slightly) different matter. The seminary is holding three days of continuous prayer to start the lenten season. I signed up for the 3-3:30am slot. It was an impulse of the moment - like a number of other things in life, whose meaning I did not understand until later. What I have found - something that the Fathers knew and spoke about - is that there is a different dimension to prayer in the middle of the night. Standing in front of the icons, alone in a little chapel with the prayer book at three in the morning, there is a particular intensity that is hard to describe. There is little light to distract your attention, there is no one else to share the space. It is just you and the icons and the words of the prayers come to life under the watchful eyes of Christ, His Mother, and the saints.

Have a blessed Lent.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Exchange of the day

Somewhere around the Holy Cross chapel, yesterday morning ...

Me: Greetings
Mary: Greetings, earthling!
Me: Me, earthling?
Mary: Just kidding!