Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sermon on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, 2014

This is the Sunday of the Last Judgment. It is very apparent from all the hymns that we chanted at the end of Orthros, last night at Vespers, the gospel reading. So today the Church reminds us that there will be a judgment. And this topic of judgment is a rather tricky one to approach these days. Of course, the idea of judging, of saying that something is wrong, is not popular. The idea is that there is an actual Truth, whom we believe to be the incarnate second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Word of God. That truth is absolute; it us unchanging. Jesus Christ: the same yesterday, today, and forever.

This is a rather difficult concept to practice these days, and it is a difficult concept for all of us, because it is a temptation to think or make God in our own image. We have this temptation to say only God can judge us, and by that to actually mean that "I know what I'm doing is right because I have my own truth and it must be right for me and God has to be right with it, so basically—leave me alone." That is what the Church reminds us of today, that we cannot make God in our own image.

At this point, I would like to make a parenthesis, speaking of the image of humanity. We are created in the image and likeness of God, but we are created as physical and spiritual beings. We are the bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world. So we have a physical component that our faith should never ignore. I think it's important to remember that, especially in the context of all the—I will call them political debates—about the relationship between evolution and creation.

I am bringing that up because I was reading a few weeks ago, and I re-read it recently, a brief interview with Metropolitan Nicholas (Hatzinikolaou) of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki. He has a doctorate in biomechanical engineering. He has taught courses at Harvard and MIT. He has been at the University of Crete since 1990, and he, I believe, continues to teach courses. He is on various bioethics committees and things like that.

There was a question that, given all the controversies... Of course, recently there was a debate between Bill Nye and [Ken Ham]. It got quite publicized, but what Metropolitan Nicholas was saying is that we seem to have this obsession with our relationship to the animal world, but ultimately it doesn't particularly matter how God created us, whether it was through evolution or any other means. It doesn't matter, because we were created in the image and likeness of God. Can we think and imagine how different the world would be if our focus was on the image and likeness of God, the relationship that we are called to have with Him rather than whether we evolved from lower life forms or not?

I think that's an important point to make, an important thing to remember, because that is where our focus needs to be. We are created in the image and likeness of God, we are called to be holy as God is holy. We are called to be transformed into the likeness of God, not to make God into our own image and likeness. And this is the difficult reminder of the Sunday of the Last Judgment in the Orthodox Church, that just because we think something is right, or we like something or want something, that does not mean that it is something that is automatically good or something that God will approve of.

As we prepare for Lent and throughout the whole Lenten period, the Church calls us to reflect on our lives; to look at our thoughts, at our hearts; to see what things we need to repent of, what things we need to be cleansed of, what changes we need to make in order to continue this road in the image and in the likeness of God.

It is often a difficult prospect, because we don't like being wrong, and we like to get into a routine, to stick with that routine, to have things be comfortable and familiar, and it is often the case that God will call us to struggle in those familiar settings, break out of what is familiar, in order to get to know Him better.

So we are today, on Meatfare Sunday; next week is Cheesefare, the Sunday... I think it is interesting and beautiful that the Church follows the Sunday of the Last Judgment with the Sunday of Forgiveness. Let us take this morning's gospel lesson and see how we can apply it to our lives. Let us take the time of Lent to finding a little bit more time to find out about what God teaches for our lives. Let us find time for repentance, both in front of our own prayer corner and here in front of the icon of Christ in the sacrament of confession or, if you have a father confessor, wherever he may be, with your spiritual father.

And so continue to grow, continue to transform ourselves, because we are called to a perpetual, continual, eternal transformation into the persons we are called to be, into Christians who can experience the beauty and the joy of God at all times. May God grant us the grace and the strength to do this at all times, but especially during the upcoming Lent, because we truly, always, when we spend time learning our faith and in repentance, in that joyful sorrow that we often speak about, we are truly doing that for our salvation, and in doing that, also to the glory of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Children's Sermon on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, 2014

Today is Meatfare Sunday, and the actual name of this Sunday in our tradition is the Sunday of the Last Judgment. As we heard in the gospel, we talked about what will happen at the second coming of Christ and how, specifically, God will look at us, what He will use to determine who is saved and who isn't, as it says in the last sentence, who will be punished and who will not be. I think of this, thinking back to when I was your age, and I was back in Romania, and it was under Communism, so my parents had me baptized when I was six months old, but I didn't really know almost anything about the Church.

So when I heard this morning in Orthros, in one of the hymns, it was asking: Are you fasting? Make sure that you don't say anything bad about your neighbor, about somebody around you; make sure that you watch what you say as well. And I thought back to when I, as I said, was about your age, and I'd never thought about that in particular, you know, the things we can do with our words and how sometimes we don't pay attention, and I can remember things even now, things that I said that I should have known better, that are part of our fasting process. It's not just a matter of food. We talked about that last week, how if you hadn't done anything you could start with something little like not eating meat on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, but there are all these other things that are associated with Lent.

And you have this wonderful opportunity to listen to the epistles and the gospels of the Church, if you are here early enough also to listen to the hymns that we sing in Orthros, that basically tell us what this upcoming fast is all about, how we're supposed to look at it, the things that we're supposed to do, and how we're supposed to live our lives. So this morning, one of the hymns in Orthros, as I said, reminds us to pay attention not just to the things that go into our mouths but to the things that we say. Do we allow ourselves to say things when we're angry that we're going to regret later? Do we do things... Perhaps we hurt people and not tell them if we have a reason for it. Those are things to which, as we begin Great Lent, the Church calls us to pay attention. So we have one more week before we start Great Lent, and we'll begin that next Sunday at vespers, with Forgiveness Vespers, when we come and pray and ask forgiveness of one another.

As we think about that, as we think about all the things that we hear—we heard this morning in the epistle, we heard about food again, and in the gospel we heard about visiting the sick, about helping the poor—there are ways that, even at your ages, you can do that; you can help. What do we do every Lent here at St. John's? Throughout Lent we collect coins for the Orthodox Christian Mission Center. So we help people in various parts of the world hear the good news of Jesus Christ, hear the Gospel. We have this opportunity that is such a wonderful opportunity to learn about Christ. Like I said, at your age I did not have that opportunity, and you are so blessed to have the opportunity to learn your faith, to live your faith. And I'm very thankful that I had that opportunity later on in life.

One of the things we need to do, as Christ tells us in this morning's gospel, is to collect whatever little change we have around the house and your parents may give you for one thing or another and bring it here to collect for the Orthodox Christian Mission Center. Let that be one of the things we do. I mentioned paying attention to what we say and how we say things, and you can think of other things. You can read the gospel from this morning again after you go home or if you can't read it, have your parents read it with you. And see if you can do some of those things that Christ speaks about in this morning's gospel in your own way, because, as I said, it truly is a blessing to be able to know your faith, to live your faith, and of course, by living our faith, we do this for our salvation and to the glory of God: the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sermon on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, 2014

As I was thinking about this morning's gospel, it struck me at one point that this is—the first part of the story, anyway—a little bit of Sinatra gone wrong, because the young man wanted to do things his way, and it didn't matter whether it was right or wrong, it didn't matter whether it went against everything he had been taught from his childhood. He wanted to do things his way. He asked for his share of the inheritance, something that today would seem out of place—in most places—but it was basically unheard-of in the society at the time, but he wanted to have things his way. He wanted to have the money; he wanted to go and live whichever way he thought he would enjoy, again, whether it was right or wrong, it didn't matter.

And at some point, the gospel tells us that the money ran out, that there was a famine in the country, and he basically ran out of food. Still, at that point, for a while it was more important that he do things his way than to do things the right way. So he continued. He found a job, so to speak, where he probably became a servant to someone wherever he had gone who had work, who had pigs, and, again, if we think about the context of the story, in Israel pigs are an unclean animal; they're not supposed to be eaten, touched: you become unclean by the law of the Old Testament. So even that didn't matter. He was on his own, doing things the way he wanted.

Thankfully, the gospel tells us that he came to himself, so, in a way, he came to his senses, and realized that that was not the most important thing. And that can be a difficult lesson for us to learn because, especially in the United States, the idea of the Lone Ranger, the cowboy who takes the law into his own hands and makes everything right on his own, is part of the mythology of the land. Of course, we have examples these days, people who are admired who basically started from nothing and pulled themselves by their own bootstraps and have "made it" in whatever field that may be, and we tend to glorify such people.

So it is difficult to come to ourselves, to come to our senses, to realize that in the end doing things our way is not the most important thing. Now, sometimes, it may be—there are circumstances, there have been circumstances in history—when one person was right and everybody else was wrong, and thank God, that one person stood up for what was right and defended his beliefs and lived by his own code of beliefs—although it should be said that in the cases that relate to the Church, that person still thought what he believed was the proper faith of the Church.

I was reading this week about the life of St. Maximus the Confessor, whom we commemorated a couple of weeks ago, who defended the way he understood our faith: who Christ was, as fully God and fully man, and that meant that he had everything that a human being had, including a human will. Without getting into all the technicalities of theology, when St. Maximus lived, the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) and the Christian Church were closely intertwined, so if there was a dissension within the Church, it destabilized the life of the empire, the political life.

And the emperor was not very happy about that sort of thing, so he tried to have St. Maximus disavow the things he had taught, or even just said: Don't disavow; just don't talk about it. And St. Maximus said: No, I cannot do that. I believe that I stand in an unbroken continuity of the Church from the very beginning, and I cannot assent or remain silent about things that are contrary to that faith. So St. Maximus had his tongue cut out and his arms cut off, and that's why he is called the Confessor, because he remained steadfast in his faith. A few decades after he died, the Sixth Ecumenical Council vindicated him, and said that, yes, he was right.

So there are these cases in history where one person is right and everybody else is wrong, but even he did not try to have things his way. He stood in his position because that was the faith of the Church that he had received.

So, the Prodigal comes to himself in humility and realized that what he had done was not good, and he had the humility to go back and to ask for forgiveness from his father, to ask not to be received as a son but as a servant. Of course, we know that the father [sees him while he's far off and] comes and embraces him and puts on a robe and a ring on his finger. But what was essential was that glimmer of humility, of realizing that he had been stubborn, that he had done things that he should have known better than to do. It must have been heart-breaking, to realize that. I think it's difficult for most of us, if not all of us, to realize we are wrong. And since we're not God, we're all wrong at one point or another. But he had the humility to go back and to ask forgiveness.

And this is extremely important because we have the converse example, the opposite example, which is that of Judas. We have talked about this in our various education series, that Judas betrayed Jesus, and he realized that he had done something wrong and he repented, but he lacked that one final ingredient: the humility to go back and to ask for forgiveness. The Church tells us that had he done that, he would not have been lost. He was lost because he did not ask for forgiveness. And then, realizing that he had done wrong led him to despair and then he was lost and he hung himself.

So let us learn from the Prodigal from this morning. Let us learn from his initial hard-heartedness and from where wanting to do things his way at all costs led him, but let us more importantly learn from his humility, for the Father welcomes all of us, no matter where we have strayed, no matter how far we may have gone off the path, no matter what we have done. We have a loving and merciful God who awaits us and welcomes us when we turn to him in repentance. And, in doing so, we receive grace, we receive his joy, we receive his gifts, for we are not received back as anything lower than the children of God, created in his image and likeness. That is a wondrous and marvelous gift that God always has ready for us, and I hope and pray that for that we are always grateful and always give glory to Him: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Children's Sermon on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, 2014

This morning St. Paul says that all things are permitted for me, but not all things are beneficial to me, and I'd like to think about that for a little bit, because it's an interesting thing to think about, an interesting thing for him to say. What does that mean? He gives an example: food was meant for the body, for the stomach, the stomach for food, but he will not be in debt to anything. So what he's saying is, and the reason that the Church puts this before us, a couple of weeks before starting the Great Lent, is that food is good, but food should not be merely enjoyable; food should not be the most important thing in our life. It should be there to sustain us, and there are more important things in our life than food. The fast of Great Lent reminds us of that, because it asks us not to so much focus on food (although sometimes we think so much about what we're going to eat when we fast that we focus on that a little bit too much), but to use the time and when we eat different things, maybe we eat a little less, feel hungry sometimes, to think about God, to remember God at all times.

So things are good, but there is a time for everything. Not everything is good all the time. One thing that I've been thinking of is, for example, I'm sure we all like to spend time playing something, whether it's a game or a sport or something, maybe a game outside, maybe a game on the computer. It's not a bad thing to do, but there is a time for it, and we should be able to think that if we have something else that we need to do, for example, have work to do around the house or homework, it's not the time yet. It is a good thing, but right now it is not beneficial to us, because then it's going to be late at night, we're going to be tired, and we're still going to have to do all the homework that we hadn't done earlier. So there are good things, but there are times in which those good things need to be done, need to be partaken of. As St. Paul said: food is good, but we're going to set it aside for a while.

For quite a few of you down here, you can start doing a little something. Maybe, who knows, maybe on Fridays during Lent you're not going to eat meat, if you haven't done anything before. Just begin with something little, because fasting is also something we grow into, and then we remember when it comes to Friday and we look at what we're going to eat. Maybe we'll forget, and somebody will ask, "Can I have a hot dog?" and maybe our parents will say, "Well, no, remember we're starting to fast a little bit, so today we're not going to have a hot dog," and you're going to think, "Oh, we're fasting." Why are we fasting? So we can remember God. Hot dogs are great, but today is not the time for it. Today is the time to remember God a little bit, and that will help us remember.

As we do things in our lives, whether it is with food, whether it is time for play, whether it is time to sleep, whatever it may be, we need to think, "Is this the right time for it, or do I have something else that needs to be done that would be better?" because all things are good, but they are good in their proper place at their right time. With the help of parents and the help of our teachers, in certain cases, of course, with the help of the Church, we can figure out what that good time is for all these good things that God has given. And you know what? If we keep everything in its right place, in its proper place, if we use everything that is good, when it is good, you know what we're doing then, yes? We give glory to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Sunday, February 09, 2014

Help, my wife has a smartphone!

And has decided to record, transcribe, and post as many sermons as the kids' wiggliness will allow. So, it seems this blog has come back to life.

Sermon on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, 2014

I had quite a bit of driving to do yesterday, through a fair part of Southern Iowa. The weather wasn't entirely cooperative towards that end, but, thank God, everything went well. It gave me the opportunity to think a little bit about driving down the road. Both during the storm and immediately after the snow plows had come and especially on the highways, the road itself was actually in pretty good shape, but if you were to stray maybe six inches off where the side of the road was supposed to end—once it got to the shoulder—then things could get a little interesting. Of course, not everybody was going to drive a little bit off the surfaces of the snow and then to crash, but chances are you're going to get a little bit of a scare, have the car twitch a little bit, and, yes, eventually if you stray too far over, then you're going to lose grip, turn around, and get stuck, or even worse, have the car totaled.

And I was thinking about that in relation to the gospel lesson of today, because on the road, we have the road: the road that is clear, that is marked, and stepping off meant trouble. So I had to keep my eyes on the road; I had to keep the car pointed to where I needed to go. I couldn't really afford to relax or, who knows, change the radio or anything, because I didn't have that much margin for error. I had to keep my eyes on where I was going.

So where are we going? I hope and I pray that we all are planning or we are traveling on the road to salvation, the road to the kingdom of heaven. In order to do that, we also have to keep our eyes on where we are going. By God's grace, through his love, we have a path that is clear, that has been set forth, that has been cleared for us, and it is a path that is fully built up by the Church, by the teachings of Christ and the practices of the Church that are there exactly for that reason: to guide us to the kingdom of heaven, so that we can keep our eyes focused on Christ, so that with our efforts, and always by His grace, we may not veer off, get into the snow, and who knows what might happen. So our eyes need to be focused on Christ.

If we look at this morning's gospel, we see the Pharisee. Technically speaking, he was a righteous man. He said himself, "I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I inherited." But his eyes were not on God. He says indeed, "I thank You that I am not like other people. I thank You that I am not even like this tax collector." His eyes were looking all the way around, and that is a temptation for us these days, too. We have television shows that show how the rich and famous live and can easily make us look at our lives and say, "Oh, I haven't done as well. I need to have more. I'm not as successful as they are."

That is not where our eyes need to be; our eyes need to be focused on Christ. He is our goal. He is our standard. God says, "Be holy as I am holy." He doesn't say, "Be as—pick your man—Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Lebron James." He says, "Be holy as I am holy." So our eyes, the path our life, needs to be determined by exactly that.

Just as I was driving yesterday with the car and not every time we veer off the road we end up or should end up in a crash, not every time we take our eyes of Christ we are going to fall completely off the path. But the more we do it, the more chances we have to fall away. Of course, with Christ there is always, always the gate of repentance. As we chanted this morning in Orthros, "Open to us the door of repentance." That is always open to us.

I think you will agree with me that it is safer not to take our eyes off the road, not to take our hands off the steering wheel, but to be focused on Christ, to use everything that the Church puts at our disposal for our salvation so that we remain on that narrow road that leads to salvation, because in this we find not just peace and joy here, but eternal joy and in this way I pray that all of us together, here on earth and in the eternal kingdom, will joyfully and prayerfully and peacefully give glory to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Children's Sermon on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, 2014

In the epistle reading this morning that we've just heard, St. Paul writes to St. Timothy. They had known each other for a while, and St. Timothy was ordained by St. Paul. He was bishop of Ephesus, and he became a leader in the Church at quite a young age. In a different letter, in a different place, St. Paul reminds St. Timothy not to let his youth be a stumbling-block or to make other people use his youth as an excuse, and this morning St. Paul reminds St. Timothy of all the things he has learned from his childhood. So we know that he became a Christian at a young age. Maybe he was baptized at a young age; we're not sure, but he learned the things at a young age. He was rooted in the faith from that young age. He learned it from his mother and his grandmother, as St. Paul also says, and he remained faithful through that.

So I think there is a lot we can learn from St. Timothy and from his experience, that he paid attention; he learned as a child; that St. Paul told him that his youth should not be held against him. You can take that for yourself, you know. You are young, but I think you can understand the doctrines and grasp the faith, and now is the best time to do it. Now is the best time to learn who God is, to begin to know God.

As we're here every Sunday, as we pray together, as you go down to your religious education classes, either early in the morning or later on, I will ask you to pay attention to what the prayers say, to what the teachers are teaching, because this is the best time to take root, to let the faith take root in your heart, let the faith take root in your soul and in your mind. In some ways, it's easier to get to know God when you are young, and I hope that all of you do everything that you can, and God's grace will work with you, will be with you, to get to know God now, because as we all grow up, we find difficulties.

We find times when we struggle to, at times, to see or to know where God is, and it is important at those times that we have this strong faith that is rooted in us from when we are young so that we can remember God from when we knew he was close to us, remember Him in those times when it may not feel like He is close to us. He is there, but all of us in life will have times when, for one reason or another, we won't be able to feel His presence. So let's do the best that we can now, in prayer and in studying, so that our faith truly defines who we are, that we get to know God so that we have something to look upon in the difficult times that we all find some way or another.

And let us ask for the help of St. Paul and St. Timothy, because they live the faith. And what did we read in St. Paul's letter? What was Timothy supposed to remember? He was supposed to remember St. Paul's faith, his example, his suffering, his difficulties. So even the greatest of saints like St. Paul went through difficult times, and we should remember that, that life is not always going to be easy, but God is always with us, even in those times when we're not aware of it. So let us pray that God strengthen our faith and that He be firmly in our minds, our hearts, and our souls. Let us ask for the help of St. Timothy and St. Paul, and together with them and with all the saints, both when it is easy and when it is not, when we know that God is here and when we don't feel His presence, in all times and in all places, give glory to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Friday, February 07, 2014

Sermon on the Presentation of our Lord, 2014

Yesterday, I got a bit of a surprise. I came to the church, turned on the water, and nothing happened. Michael, Kosta, and Dennis looked into it, we had a couple of plumbers come by, and there was nothing they could do. So, this morning, as you may have noticed on the signs, we have no water at church. But this got me thinking. Water service is something we expect and rely on. We go, turn on the faucet and water comes out and I can't help but wonder if we feel the same way about God: when we need Him, we go, turn on the faucet, and expect His grace to come upon us immediately.

The problem with that approach is that the grace of God is something that we need to prepare in order to receive. We are seeing these days in the Orthodox Spirituality series that in order to know God, we need to be prepared, to have a relationship with Him, to do the commandments, to live according to His teachings. We cannot experience God without that… and so it is easy to have that connection to God frozen if we don't pay attention to it. And then we wonder where God may have gone, why we cannot feel Him next to us, and perhaps we even begin to wonder what is there after this life, and we start focusing on this life and holding on, for lack of a better expression, for dear life to the things we have here.

I think it is instructive to contrast that with St. Symeon, whom we celebrate tomorrow and who... today we celebrate his reception of the 40-day-old Jesus in his arms at the temple. And we are told that he was old, that he was agéd, and we are told that the Holy Spirit had told him that he would not die until he saw the Lord's Christ, and he took that promise to heart and he lived with expectation of this promise in the temple. We know that he was a priest.

So he spent his time waiting, preparing himself for this moment when he fully trusted that the promise God had made to him through the Holy Spirit would be fulfilled, and I think what is amazing to me is his reaction to seeing God. God's promise was fulfilled. I don't think he had doubted that it would be, but there is this sense of finality, that he had seen the salvation, that God had prepared for all the people. He had had this joy of holding in his arms the infant Christ, and for him this is all that he wanted. This is all he was waiting for, and he trusts in the something better that comes after this life, because as he takes the infant, he says, "Lord, now let your servant depart in peace."

As with the saints, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, he knew that his true home is in heaven. But he knows that because he trusted the promise of the Spirit. He knows that because he spent his life in the temple, waiting for the fulfillment of this promise. He has prepared himself. He is able to see God's revelation. He is able to receive the infant Christ in his arms. And as I said, his prayer is one of the most amazing things that I think we can see and we can make our own as a prayer, as a reminder that our true home is with God in His kingdom, seeing the joy and the peace that St. Symeon has and how he is able to just pray out of his whole heart:
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all people, a light and revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Your people, Israel.
May we remember this beautiful feast and the beautiful example that St. Symeon sets for us. May we prepare ourselves to receive Christ in our hearts as he received Him into his arms. May we have the same faith, the same dedication that he had. May we prepare with the fervor that he prepared for the arrival of Christ. And in this way may we always give glory to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.