Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Homily for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Just about every kid has a period in his or her life where they love superheroes. Children idolize the ability of superheroes to do the impossible, to fly, to scale skyscrapers. They are awed by their incredible strength or their x-ray vision. When I was growing up, I loved Superman. I wanted to be just like Superman. I remember running around my house with my homemade cape. Whenever I saw a phone booth I wanted to go in and change into Superman. Superheroes are again becoming popular. New movies are coming out all the time about superheroes. They are so amazing because they can do such amazing things.

Sometimes I think that we read the Bible like we would read a comic book or watch thrilling adventure movies starring a superhero.  We look at some of the amazing things that some of the folks did in the Bible and are amazed by them. We even idolize their lives and their passion for God, but sometimes we see them as superheroes whose super powers are impossible to match. In truth, this is an unrealistic perception. It is unrealistic simply because we forget that with God all things are possible, that is if our faith is strong and sure.

We read of some amazing things and some amazing people in the Bible. Sometimes it is hard to grasp that these were real people who really lived, and not just made up persons or stories. These people had real struggles and real problems in life. They did not have superpowers. They were not superheroes. They were just people like you and me putting their faith into practice. They were super people with super character and of great virtue, but they did not have special powers to live better lives than you and me. They are, however, examples for us as to how we should live our lives.

When I read of people like Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, and Paul I envy them all in one way or another. I envy most especially the closeness they had with God. They had a special relationship with God; they had a constant communication with Him. I envy what they could accomplish and did accomplish for God. Would that I could do the same, but I am so much weaker than they.

It is amazing to me how God can take such weak and imperfect human beings and work great wonders through them. God does not always choose the powerful and strong and wise to do His works, but rather the simple and humble of heart, even the broken in spirit and those on the fringe of society, the outcasts. It is through people such as these that God works great wonders that amaze and stupefy the world. I envy their unswerving faith.

As you read of the key people in the Bible we can see that many of them differ in personality and specific roles that they were raised up for, but one thing is always the same: they had strong faith. They trusted God when it didn’t make sense, when it was not popular and when things were not going their way. They are legends we are talking about thousands of years later because of the kind of faith they had. I hope today that as many of you read the Bible, you will reflect and say, “That’s the type of person I want to be” or “that is the type of faith that I would like to have.”

The bottom line is that we can have that kind of faith. Jesus promised that we would be able to have a faith that could move mountains. We can have that type of relationship with God today. Sometimes, we are way too easily satisfied with mediocrity in our faith. We are satisfied with being a casual Christian in name only. We are satisfied with our lack of commitment, excitement or zeal. We are content to be uninvolved or lukewarm. I hope and pray that as we continue together in our earthly pilgrimage you will want more for yourselves and what you have right now. I am not talking about material things but rather about the holy things of God, those things which bring true and eternal happiness, peace and joy. Today, I hope that you are not content where you are in your faith. I hope that you want to be like some of the incredible people in the Bible and have a faith that can do amazing things.

One of my favorite people in the Bible is the Apostle Peter. Peter was a man who was full of zeal for the Lord. When Jesus was on the mountain and was transfigured with Moses and Elijah it was Peter who wanted to stay and build shelters for all three of them. When Jesus told Peter that He was going to be killed it was Peter who said he would die with Him. It was Peter who assured Jesus that even if everyone else denied Him he would not. It was Peter who drew his sword and cut off Malchus’ ear as the soldiers came to arrest Jesus. It was Peter who ran to see the empty tomb. It was Peter who left the boat and came to the resurrected Lord. People can fault Peter for some of his over-zealous behavior and actions, but overall, Peter had a heart for Jesus and is an example to us all of the excitement we should have in following Jesus.

Peter was always zealous to be with Jesus. Peter’s greatest desire was to be with Jesus in any way possible. In this account of Jesus walking on the water, we see that the disciples are out to sea,and there is a great storm that is around them. These disciples were experienced fishermen, so most likely they knew some things about boating, but it says that they were afraid. Then we learn that Jesus walks out on the water towards them. Peter then speaks up and says, “Lord, if it is you tell me to come to you on the water.” Peter wanted to get to Jesus. He wanted to get to Jesus so badly that the waves did not deter him from getting out of the boat; He knew he would be safe with Jesus near. Did you notice, that Peter didn’t say, He wanted to get to Jesus.  Peter wanted to get to Jesus because he knew that Jesus alone could calm the storms of life.

Today we live a life that is being buffeted by the wind and the storms of life. Sometimes life can be hectic and chaotic, but there is a solution to life’s problems. There is a person who can calm the storms howling around us and beating against us. That person is Jesus. He offers us the same hope of calming the storm that He offered the disciples two thousand years ago.

You know what is strange about us as people; we like to handle our problems on our own. We think that we can fix all of the things going wrong in our lives. I want to tell you this morning that there is one who wants to bear our burdens, struggles, frustrations, and griefs. There is one who wants to make our life easier. If only we would come to Him He would take those burdens away. Sometimes to come to Him we have to get out of the boat and step out on faith and know that Jesus alone can save.

Peter ate up the opportunities he had to be at the feet of Jesus. He loved things like when Jesus picked him to go up the mountain and see Him transfigured with Moses and Elijah. He did not want those moments to end. Peter knew that Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us. He knew that nothing came to be without Jesus allowing it. He knew that Jesus had control over His creation and that is why walking out on the water was not such a big deal. He knew that Jesus could control the wind and the waves. By the time that Jesus’ ministry was over and He ascended to Heaven, it was plain to Peter that Jesus was Lord over the sea, Lord over the sick and diseased, Lord over the demons, Lord over life because He raised Lazarus up from the dead and death could not hold Jesus in.  Peter knew in the depths of his heart that Jesus had control over His creation and he wanted to be with His creator as much as possible.

Peter is often ridiculed for stepping out of the boat, but I believe Peter showed more faith than the eleven that stayed in the boat. When Peter stepped out of the boat, he became afraid because of the wind, he took his eyes off of Jesus and began to sink. He cried out what I believe are some of the most amazing words in all of Scripture. He cried, “Lord, save me!’ These three simple words are so packed with meaning. You know, when people begin to sink and when people are put in a tough spot they often reveal what is really inside. Peter’s cry for his life was for Jesus to save him. He knew that Jesus had the power to bring him up out of the water and save him from sinking. He addressed him as Lord, or Master. That word he used means supreme in authority or controller.

Did you also notice that his faith did not change just because he was sinking? Before he walked out on the water he addressed Jesus as Lord, and even as he was sinking he addressed Him as Lord. Peter knew that Jesus alone at that point could save him. He knew he could not save himself. He knew no one else could save him. Not even the disciples in the boat could save him. Only Jesus, the all-powerful God could save him.

I remember many years ago, over thirty years to be exact, I was serving as subdeacon and private secretary to His Eminence, Archbishop Peter, of thrice-blessed memory, then ruling bishop of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey of the Orthodox Church in America. As was usual, I was accompanying His Eminence on a pastoral visitation to one of his parishes in Upstate New York. During the Divine Liturgy for that Sunday, the Archbishop preached his homily on this very passage. Being that it was so long ago, I must admit I do not remember much of what the Archbishop said, but I do remember him repeating through his homily Peter’s words, “Lord, save me!” At that time I realized something. I realized I like Peter am drowning in a sea. I cannot save myself, and no one else can save me, but Jesus.

Today, as I stand here before you, having gone through so much over the past few years, I can honestly say with all my heart, that only Jesus saved me from drowning in a dark and murky sea of despair and hopelessness. My hope and faith is in the Lord. That is not to say I am out of the storm yet, but I have trust and confidence that I will make it, with the help and grace of God and with Jesus near me always. This is the hope that I give to all of you who may be experiencing the same turbulence, doubts and feelings of hopelessness I have felt and still sometimes do experience.

Jesus is never that far away from us my children that He does not hear our groans of sorrow and despair. And of this we should not be ashamed or afraid. No one knows better our suffering and hurt than Jesus. We are safe with Him.

After the miracle of Jesus and Peter on the water, Jesus taught the large crowds about the Bread of Life. The Bible tells us that the crowds had a hard time accepting Jesus’s message and were offended. (John 6:66-69). Amidst the crowds turning their on Jesus, He looks back to His disciples with a broken heart and asks them if they going to leave him too. Peter is the one that pipes up and says an incredible thing that was no doubt shaped by the incident on the sea just a little while earlier, “To whom shall we go, You alone have the words of eternal life, we believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter is saying, I believe without any doubt that You alone can save.

To whom shall we go if not to the Lord? We too should want to be near Jesus because He alone can save. We should have zeal and a passion about encountering Jesus today and always. We encounter Jesus primarily through His Word and also through His people who possess His Spirit. We should have a zeal for opportunities to encounter Him in those we meet, especially the poor, the marginalized, the lost and the forgotten. In these, the least of our brothers and sisters, we find Jesus in all His glory and majesty. It is in the weakest among us that we see the strength, the power and hope of the Most High God. In their simplicity, in their struggles and in their suffering we find the hope of Gospel and the promise of Jesus Christ most clearly and perfectly.

Christ not only can save but He can transfigure and make new all that is old and weary. Are you weary and tired? I know that I get like that a lot. But then I turn to the Lord and ask Him to lift me up, to save me from all that troubles me. But most importantly, I ask Him to save me from myself, for at times, I am my own worst enemy. One thing that we must remember, my children, is that we are worth more than we sometimes think. God knows this and he wants us to know this as well. Sometimes, I think we beat ourselves up too much over the stupidest things. We take ourselves too seriously and that is when we start sinking in the water. We think we can do everything on our own, that we do not need help, especially help from God. But we could never be more wrong. We need God more than we know. We need to let God take over our lives and direct us along the path which He chooses and knows best will get us to where we want and need to be. St. Peter understood this better than anyone.

Peter was the type of guy that always longed for an opportunity to be used by God. Sometimes it was that same zeal to serve God that got him into trouble. Peter had an unmatched zeal and passion to serve. He was excited about what he believed but sometimes he did not always think things through and spoke before he really had time to consider what he was saying, but his heart was usually in the right place. Sure Peter had faults like the rest of us, but his zeal serves as an example for many. Peter wanted to be an instrument to be used by God and he was. For example, God used him on the Day of Pentecost to lead 3,000 people to Christ.

A lot of times zeal is nothing more than an idle talk of what people want to hear. We as people are good at talking the talk, and not always so good at walking the walk. We should want to be used by God and want to put our zeal and excitement into practice by serving in whatever capacity necessary. A lot of people frequently talk about zeal and excitement, but it is nothing more than just words. Zeal for the Lord should lead to serving the Lord. An excitement and a passion for God should lead to a willingness to work for God.

We as Orthodox Catholic Christians, who possess the fullness of the truth, should be the most excited people in the world. We should be the most eager to be committed to what we believe and we should be the most hungry for more. It seems that sometimes people that have the truth are the least committed to the truth and the zeal and commitment of people of other faith, even if it is based on a lie and wrongly directed, is far greater than our own.

We need to put that zeal for God that Peter had into practice like Peter did. If Peter would have just always been the foot in mouth disciple like he was on many occasions we would never speak of his faith. Though he messed up sometimes and made some big mistakes, and even though he spoke without thinking sometimes, no one questions his desire to serve and to be used by God.

The questions you need to answer today are these, “Will you turn your words into actions?” and “Will you become like Peter?  Perhaps today you have zeal and a love for God. The Scriptures tell us that if you love God you will obey His commandments. Will you turn that head knowledge and love for God into commitment to serve Him with all your heart? Will you go beyond talking the talk and start walking the walk? We are not saved by how good we can talk. Neither are we saved by what we say we want to do, and what we say about God. But putting those words into practice will save us.

If you claim to love God and have zeal for His Word and His work, or if you are excited about what God has done for us, then how will you put those feelings into action? Will you just keep your zeal and your love to yourself, or will you share it with others?

One of the biggest obstacles facing the Church today is our own people and the hypocrisy which so abundantly flows from us. The greatest obstacle and challenge we face in the Church today is people, both clergy and laity, who talk a good talk but do not walk the walk. These are the people and clergy who think that they are good stead in the sight of God because of the feeling they have in their heart about God and because they follow the rules with exactitude. In reality, however, there feelings and behavior are nothing more than a deception. Jesus had a great deal to say about such people. A quick read of Chapter 23, verses 1-36 of the Gospel of St. Matthew will tell you exactly how Jesus felt about such people.

There are many people in the Church today, and even among us here this morning, who have faith. They believe in God and say God should be number one priority, but they don’t show it. I would like to ask you a few blunt, straightforward, heart-examining questions. “When are you going to change? When are you going to go from talking to doing? When are you going to move from being a Christian in name to a true disciple of Jesus Christ in your actions? When are you going to become involved in the mission of the Church? The answers to these questions for most people will be “tomorrow is another day.”

People jump all over Peter because sometimes he was a little over zealous. Remember in the upper room, Peter really showed his zeal. He told Jesus that if everyone else falls away he would not. He also told Him that he would never disown Him even if he had to die. Jesus also got up to wash Peter’s feet, and Peter said, “Lord, You will never wash my feet.” Jesus then said, “You will have no part with Me if I don’t wash your feet.” Peter then replied, “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well.” Sometimes Peter missed the point. Sometimes Peter messed up. Sometimes Peter was overzealous, but when push came to shove that zeal lead to service and effectiveness in the Kingdom. He wasn’t just a hearer or a talker of the Word he was a doer of the Word. 

Sir Edmund Hillary made several unsuccessful attempts at climbing Mount Everest before he finally was successful. After one attempt he stood at the base of the mountain and shook his fist at it, and shouted, “I’ll defeat you yet, because you are as big as you are going to get, but I am still growing.” Every time Hillary climbed that mountain and failed he learned something new and one time he did not fail. That is a lesson we can learn from Sir Edmund. Troubles and difficulties will always be here and they will only be as big as we allow them to get. We, on the other hand, can defeat them as we grow spiritually. No matter how big the problems and difficulties are or become, we can defeat them.

Peter went through some times of adversity, some very difficult times in fact.. He had times of ups and downs. He promised Jesus that he would never turn his back on Him, but Jesus told him that he would deny Him three times. After Jesus was handed over Peter stayed around the area, and three times he was recognized as one of Jesus’ disciples and asked about it, and three times Peter denied knowing Jesus, even cursing His name. Peter failed big time at a time when he could have stood up for his friend, Master and Savior. After Jesus rose from the grave He reinstated Peter and forgave him for denying Him, but that event actually served to shape the man that Peter was to become. The adversity, difficulties, and failures in Peter’s life served to change and transform him into a better person. 

The reality of life is that we all have difficult times. We all face adversity from time to time, and we all have times when we miss the mark and fail at what we were supposed to do. The option that we have is what are we going to learn from those experiences and how can that adversity shape our character?

We live in an environment where we will all face the storms of life, but we can see that every great person has been shaped by difficult times and struggles and comes out stronger. We must choose how we are going to react to those times of adversity. Some people react by rejecting God, because they cannot believe that a God would give them a bad lot in life. They see it is God’s job just to throw blessing after blessing upon them and the second they do not get what they want they blame Him. Some people, however, through difficult times and adversity learn some things. They learn something about trusting God to carry them through. They learn something about being dependent upon God.

The adversities in life that Peter faced served to shape him into a man that would make an everlasting impact in the Kingdom of God and in eternity. It was through mistakes he made, times of failure, and times of hardship that he did some learning and growing. We, like Peter, have our times on the mountain top when everything seems to be going great. We feel near to God and life is going along smoothly, but we also have times where we are sinking in the waves. We have times of denial and rejection, and we learn through those times.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Peter makes two requests of Jesus. The first is this, “Lord, if it is You, tell me to come to You on the water.” Peter wanted to get out of the boat; he wanted to be with Jesus. I am telling you this morning that sometimes in order to get to Jesus we need to get out of the boat. Jesus told Peter to come out of the boat to Him. Today, He is calling us out of the boat. He is calling us to step out on faith and come to Him. The road isn’t always easy, but the Lord invites us to make the journey with Him. He will never abandon us and will always be by our side, even when the going gets rough.

Some people are more content staying in their boat though for whatever reason. Perhaps it is where you are in life that you feel content. Your boat is whatever represents safety and security in your life apart from God. Your boat is whatever you are tempted to put trust in. Perhaps that boat is worldliness and things that you have. Perhaps you do not want to give that up. Perhaps your boat is yourself, or someone else. Perhaps your boat is success. Whatever your boat is, Jesus invites you to come out of the boat and come to Him, because He alone can save.

When Peter was called out of the boat the storm was howling greatly and the wind was crashing. We all have seen just how powerful water can be. You can see by the floods that have ravaged so many of our communities just how water can destroy anything in its path. The water that Peter and the disciples were in was not calm water and still he stepped into the water to be with Jesus. We need faith to step out of our boat because Jesus is calling us to Himself.

When Peter stepped out of the water and began to sink he cried out, making a second request of the Lord. But this time he was pleading for Jesus to save him. This morning perhaps you need to cry out for the Lord to save you. He is faithful and He extends His hand for you to come to Him. Will you get out of the boat this morning and come to Jesus? Will you get out of the boat and give up whatever it is holding you back from coming totally to Him? Will you get out of the boat and serve Him wholeheartedly?

The storms of life which toss us about do not last forever. They come and go but when they come, they can be terrifying. Do not be afraid, my children, for the Lord is with you. He calls you to come to Him. Do not refuse His invitation, for He alone is life and can save you from all harm.

Amen.


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