Second Sunday in Lent
Just a bit of context: the congregation for most of my sermons is Church school students with a few adults (mostly their families) sprinkled in. Also the previously mentioned disclaimer: this is a rough approximation of what I actually said (part of the sermon was interactive).
A few days ago one of the major sporting events of the year began – the NCAA tournament. For those of you who know me, you know that I am a basketball nut: I love watching and I love playing even more. This morning's Gospel reading reminded me of my first basketball coach. Back when I was about six or seven, I was doing both swimming and basketball and he tried to convince me to focus on basketball. So he took me aside and said: “What are you doing all that swimming for? Basketball is much better. Here, if you make a mistake, the other four guys will cover for you...” He probably did not know it at the time, but the team concept he was describing comes very close to this morning's Gospel. A group of friends comes together and four of them work to make up for what the fifth lacks.
When a team comes together for a game, the players also have one common goal. Each of the players wants to win that game and the players - especially on good teams - work together to achieve that goal. Here, in the Church, we also have a common goal: to become holy as God is holy and to reach the kingdom of heaven. We are a team and we need to help one another to reach that common goal. St. Augustine said that the lone/solo Christian is not a Christian. The monastics in monasteries encourage one another every day on the journey towards the kingdom. Even the hermits in the deserts have their spiritual fathers who help them along.
One other important element of a team is a coach. Behind most great teams there is a good coach. There are many examples in history where poor coaching and poor teamwork have left great players without winning the prize they sought. In the Orthodox church we have the sacrament of confession and the tradition of spiritual fatherhood. As much as possible we go to confession to the same person so that he can get to know us and guide us through the difficulties of life, which are bound to come, through temptations, and to the kingdom.
Just like finding a good coach, finding a good spiritual father can be a difficult process. Not everyone can be a spiritual father; not everyone has the grace. Even when someone does have this wonderful gift, he may not be the right spiritual father for a particular person. The relationship between spiritual father and child is intensely personal and for that reason a good spiritual father for one person may not be as good for another. These days an additional degree of difficulty is brought about by the moves that we make in our lives - from one part of the country to another... from one country (or continent) to another... The church acknowledges the difficulty of the process of finding a spiritual father. this is why we have prayers for finding a spiritual father. It does take effort and it may take time, but finding a spiritual father is a great aid in our journey to the kingdom.
Now, in this holy time of Lent, we can look at sports teams and we can look at this morning's Gospel and ask ourselves: “Are our friends on the same team on which we are? Are they helping us to grow closer to God, to become better Christians, love our neighbors, friends and enemies?” Can we reach our goal without a good team and without a coach? We have been created in God's image and have been endowed with power - physical, mental - so that often think that we can do it. By God's grace everything is possible, so on occasion it may even be possible to reach the kingdom alone. However, the journey is going to be significantly more difficult to do on our own, and the chances of failure much greater. So now that we are in the Lenten period - this period which often may seem too long - let us gather around ourselves a team of friends and a coach, a spiritual father, who can help us grow closer to God. And let us always give glory to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.