Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee 2018 (adult)

Luke 18:10-14

Once upon a time, some time around the beginning of Lent, two Orthodox Christians were going to church. Since it was the beginning of Lent, their priest had mentioned at some point in the past weeks about the sacrament of confession. As they were going to church, one of them thought, "God, I thank you that I have not killed anybody; I have not stolen, I give some money to the church; I don't really need to go to the sacrament of confession," while the other prayed:

Lord Jesus Christ, my God, loose, remit, forgive, absolve, and pardon the sins, offenses, and transgressions, which I, a sinful, useless, and unworthy servant have committed from my youth up to this present day and hour, whether in knowledge or in ignorance, whether by word or in deed, whether in my intentions or in my thoughts, whether by habit or through any of my senses.

In case you're wondering, that last fragment is from one of the prayers from the service of preparation for holy Communion prayed by St. John Chrysostom. It feels strange to think that a saint, one of the great saints of our Church, who is commemorated a couple of times during the year, and then in a couple of days, with St. Basil and St. Gregory, as one of the Three Hierarchs—what a strange thing that that he read, St. John Chrysostom, this morning's gospel, and he looked at the Publican and he took that to heart, that he really looked into his heart to see what is there. He didn't look at those around him; that's not the measuring-stick. It wasn't for St. John Chrysostom, and it is not for us. Our measuring-stick is to be holy as God is holy, as we are reminded in both the Old and the New Testaments.

Okay, we may say this prayer was St. John's, and maybe he had done something that we don't know about that he really needed to repent of. But the Church this morning in Orthros, and starting today and going through Lent sets before us and sings in Orthros and, if I may make a small parenthesis, in the prayers that we are looking at in our religious education series—we looked at the prayers in Orthros—and one of the prayers says, "Grant us to chant with understanding." So not just to say the words and say them beautifully, but to understand what we are saying and to apply it to our lives and let them come into our hearts.

When I ponder in my wretchedness upon the many terrible things that I have done, I tremble for that fearful day, the Day of Judgment. But trusting in the mercy of Your compassion, like David I cry to You, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy."

It is typical to read these and apply them to ourselves, to think that they should apply to us. We don't live in a world that is particularly focused on self-reflection, and I think most of us know that we have a certain part of ourselves that isn't quite what God would like us to be, what He calls us to be. It is uncomfortable to sit and think about that and admit that to ourselves and—well, I was going to say, "God forbid," but that sounds strange—God forbid we have to say it in front of the priest!?

It can be difficult, but when Christ said that the kingdom of God is taken by violence, He doesn't mean physical violence. It means that trouble that we have to take up with our own selves, to look for God's illumination so we can see ourselves as we are, and we take up this work of repentance. Again, it's not about "Well, I'm better than him, I'm not as bad as people a couple of steps away from here at the jail or the people who have to go into drug rehab programs" or whatever other comparisons we come up with. That's not our measuring stick. We are called to be holy as God is holy, and that takes some discomfort. It takes reading this prayer of St. John Chrysostom’s before God in preparation for holy Communion. It takes reading or singing through these hymns that are placed before us in the Triodion, in the lenten period, and saying, "You know, these do apply to me, because I may not have murdered and I may not have stolen, but this, that, or the other thing are in my heart. I've been angry, I've gossiped"—who knows. We know that we're not quite holy as God is holy.

The period of Lent is a period of work, of hard spiritual work. So let us look at these prayers. If you'd like a copy of the preparation of holy Communion, let me know. They are part of the prayers we've been looking at in our educational series, and I can print a copy for you. If you're able to, come to Orthros or to Vespers and see and hear the things that we chant, on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee or on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, because the hymns, many of them, are written in the first person, and they're written so that they bring us to repentance, so that we have the opportunity to throw away all the things that have accumulated in our souls and be resplendent with the light and brightness of God, the likeness in which we have been created.

May God guide us there, to be able to stand before an icon of Christ, taking time on our own, meditating on those things that we have fallen short of the glory of God and ask God for forgiveness and guidance, that we may draw near to Him and that we may fulfill the calling of becoming saints. May God grant us the strength, the wisdom, the grace, the patience, the courage to do this, and may we do it so that we may have true joy and peace in our hearts and, with that joy and peace, lift up our voices in thanksgiving and glorification to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.


Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee 2018 (children)

2 Timothy 3:10-15

These letters from St. Paul to St. Timothy sure are something, aren't they? They say so much. They show the care that St. Paul has for this young man who learned the faith that he learned from St. Paul when he used to learn from St. Paul. There are two things that strike me in this morning's reading that I wanted to talk to you about a little bit.

The first one is that St. Paul reminds St. Timothy that he has endured struggles. He tells him about several instances where bad things—if I can call them that—happened to him. He says: You know what happened to me at Lystra, at Iconium. We know that St. Paul was imprisoned, and we know that he ended up dying a martyr's death. But St. Paul also said that from all those things God delivered him; He gave him strength. Eventually God gave St. Paul strength to face his martyrdom.

So the first thing that we need to keep in mind is that our lives are not always going to be easy. Just because they led to difficulties does not mean that God has left us. God is there with us in those difficulties, just as He was there with St. Paul, as He has been with all those who have suffered. God, as St. Paul says in another letter, because He has suffered and tempted, He is able to help those who are suffering and being tempted. The Son of God in His incarnation, has suffered. In this, He has not abandoned those who are faithful to Him, but He is there with them in their suffering. So just because we encounter difficulties does not mean that God has abandoned us. God does not abandon.

The other thing that I wanted to talk about in this morning's letter from St. Paul to St. Timothy is that St. Paul tells St. Timothy: You hold fast to these things you have learned because you know whom you have learned them from. St. Paul relies on his authority as an apostle of Christ. He is telling St. Timothy: Your parents were faithful—your mother and grandmother—and I am an apostle. You have learned the faith from people who were trustworthy. I want you to think about that as you learn your faith. Whom are you learning your faith from? Who God is, what God asks from us in terms of how we should live our lives—you are learning that from the Church of Christ: the Church of Christ who can, through the bishop, can trace her lineage down to the apostles, who has fought throughout history through the sufferings of the confessors and the deaths of martyrs to keep the faith pure and to hand it down to us in such a way that if we follow it, we could be led to the joy of Christ, both here on earth and of course in the kingdom.

So you know whom you're learning things from. You're learning from the successors of the apostles, from the Church that Christ has founded. Take courage and have faith that what you are learning is the truth that Christ has handed down through the apostles, and through the bishops and the priests through the ages, all the way down to us. And know that whatever difficulties you encounter, God is with you in them. He never forsakes you.

But, knowing these things, let us be diligent in learning our faith, knowing what we believe, knowing what those beliefs mean in terms of how we should live our lives, and let us always draw near to God so that... Even though He is near to us, there are times when we might not perceive His presence. So let us open ourselves in prayer and join ourselves to Him so that we may be able to perceive His presence in those difficult times, to know and not forget that He is with us to the end of the ages. For this promise that God has given, that he will be with us in all circumstances, let us be thankful and give glory, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Sunday of Zacchaeus 2018 (adult)

Luke 19:1-10

It's our first inkling that Lent is near, one week away from the Triodion, four weeks away from Lent. I think Zacchaeus is one of my favorite characters in the entire Bible, because, like the Publican, which he was, the Publican whom we'll read about next week, he knows the life he has led. So when he encounters Jesus, he tells him, "Half of my goods I give to the poor, and, if I have defrauded anyone, I am restoring it four-fold." He knows that he's done some things that he shouldn't have done, that he's taken more than he was supposed to, that he has defrauded people, and he even knows who those people are. I find that amazing: the fact that he has that presence of mind, that knowledge about himself, to be able to say: Yes, I know I've defrauded people, I know who those people are, and I am going to do everything I can to make it right with them, that being part of our being made right with God.

Our Old Testament professor in seminary often talked about the two dimensions of the cross, that there is a vertical dimension, where we have our relationship with God, but there is also a horizontal aspect to the cross, and that we cannot really be made right with God if we do not, as much as is in our power—we were talking about that in our religious education class this week—as much as is in our power, if we don't try to make it right with one another. That's why we ask for forgiveness before receiving Communion and why there are admonitory verses in the service of preparation that say, "Before receiving the Blood in Communion, make peace with those you have offended."

Here Zacchaeus encounters Christ, and he is struck by the fact that he is not right with God, but he has this realization, first of the knowledge of the things that he has done. And this reminds me of the old Greek saying, that the unexamined life is not worth living. Obviously, at least at that point, Zacchaeus was able to examine his life, to know what he had done wrong and to try and set things right. So he encounters God, he realizes he is not right, and he realizes that part of making his life right with God meant making things right with those whom he had defrauded, those he had wronged.

So we are coming to Lent, and I know I talk about this often, but the things that Zacchaeus did are set before us as an example, as are many of the things that are in there - as I was talking to the little ones, St. Paul was talking to St. Timothy, but he's talking to us. We have the story of Zacchaeus and his example of how to repent, and that is an example for us as well. Of course, I'm mentioning this because, yes, we are coming to Lent, which is traditionally the par excellence time when we partake of the sacrament of confession, but that requires us to know what we have done in our lives, to be honest with our shortcomings so that we may bring those to Christ, that we may be not just forgiven but also healed of the things which are not of the according to the will of God.

And, just as Zacchaeus did and as we are admonished to do in the service of preparation for holy Communion, we don't just come to the sacrament of confession, but we try as much as is in our power to make right the things we have done wrong, to apologize to those whom we've wronged, if we have fallen like Zacchaeus and taken more than was our share, or whatever it may be. We are four weeks away from the start of Lent, and it's a time of preparation. In order to come to Pascha, to the Great Feast, prepared, able to receive the joy and the light in its fullness, I think it's good to start preparing now, to think: When Lent comes, what do I need to set right—with God and with those around me?

Let us take the time to start thinking about that now, so that when Lent comes we may be prepared ultimately, through the sacrament of confession and all those things that repair the relationship that we have with God and with one another.

So Zacchaeus is one of my favorite characters, favorite people in the Bible. I shouldn't say "character," because he's not a fictitious character, but he is someone who turns his life around and turns his life to Christ, and that changed how he interacted with those around him as well. May God give us the grace, the wisdom, the strength, to face ourselves and to right the things we have done wrong and to come before Him in the sacrament of confession, to be forgiven and healed of our sins and of our passions, so that we may indeed be lightened, be burden-free, be bright with the light of the grace of God and so, always with peace and joy, give glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.


Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sunday of Zacchaeus 2018 (children)

1 Timothy 4:9-15

Today’s reading is one of my favorites. St. Paul is writing to St. Timothy, whose feastday is tomorrow. St. Timothy was an apostle of the seventy and he was the bishop of Ephesus. There's one thing here: "Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity." So we see here in St. Paul's words that Timothy is a fairly young man, but he says, you know, live the way you're supposed to live. Be an example. Even though you're young, don't make that an excuse, but do your best to set an example, in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Yes, you're young, but you are a Christian, and this is how you're supposed to conduct yourself.

That's a difficult thing to remember, because we have many examples, if we look around us, of people who want to continue to act like children in society. We don't have to look too far to see people who are grown up and who should know better and who continue to try and act like children or young men and women. Here we see the opposite: that we want to become mature in our faith, from a young age. Yes, we make mistakes along the way, and that's the way we learn. In our faith, we learn our whole life through. But, as St. Paul tells Timothy, he's telling us, even especially to you who are young: Let no one despise your youth.

Set an example of how you talk: talk with love for one another, do not gossip, do not lie. Set an example in your speech. Set an example in your conduct: do not get angry easily, do the things that you need to do even though they may not be the things that we love the most. I know I didn't like homework a whole lot when I was in school, but, again, these are things that are, for the most part, good for us: they teach us things, they help us to grow as human beings. So set an example in your conduct. Do the things that you need to do, joyfully. Live your lives in love, in faith, and in purity.

Like I said, St. Paul is telling Timothy, but we read them in church because he tells them to all of us. So do your best from now, when you're young, and the rest of us wherever we may be in life, to follow these words of St. Paul, and set an example, in speech, in conduct, in love and faith and purity. Because these are the things that make the people around us know that we truly have the grace of Christ, that we are actually Christians because we have the love of God within us and the peace of God within us. Let us ask God to guide us, let us strive to the best of our ability to do the things that St. Paul tells here to St. Timothy, and let us always give glory, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.