Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

In this morning’s Gospel reading, St. Luke tells us that Jesus was being pressed by yet another crowd of people. Most of them probably did not yet know who Jesus was but they surely had heard of His miracles and teaching. So, it is no wonder that so many of them were curious and anxious to see Him and hear to what He had to say.

The story of Jesus’ ministry to this point has Him preaching and teaching in the Temple. This is the first account of Jesus going out among the people, into the streets, meeting them where they were and entering into their everyday lives. This is the perfect example of evangelization and it is the exact behavior and conduct Christ expects of all of us, but especially those who are His consecrated and ordained ministers: His bishops, priests and deacons. But this is subject matter for another homily at another time.

As was told to us in the Gospel, Jesus gets into Peter’s boat, summons him and asked him to put out a ways from the shore so the people could gather on the shore and listen to him. After speaking, he told Peter to go out to the deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Now, Peter and his partners had already finished a very hard day’s work and like many of us who have tried our hand at fishing, he had come up empty. They had already washed their nets in preparation for the next day and most likely were surely exhausted, disappointed and ready to just give it up for the day. But Peter, in an act of obedience says, “Ok, if you say so I’ll do it.” Nothing more than that, just simple obedience to Jesus.

I certainly have times what I am totally worn out, tired of fighting to get people to take their faith seriously, tired of government that constantly tries to silence the Church and diminish its influence, tired of people who cannot or simply refuse to accept the fact that I am human, tired of people who demand more than I can ever hope to deliver, not to mention all the thousand other little things that make work to make one’s day oftentimes hectic and frustrating.

It is specifically in those times that I hope Jesus does not call me and ask me to do even more before I have an opportunity to rest and catch my breath! But inevitably, God has other plans. So the phone rings at 11:00pm and it is one of the local hospitals calling to request that I come to the hospital to give Holy Anointing to someone who is dying and is not expected to make it through the night. So, I get up, get dressed and head over to the hospital, where I know I will be until whoever I anoint passes from this world into the arms of God. The hospital always likes it when I show up because I do not simply anoint and go my way. It is this time, this very intimate time, when one is about to experience death, that a priest is most needed. Sometimes the situation is not so grave. Sometimes it is just a call to come and hold the hand of a sick person who is sacred and alone. You would not believe what a joy and comfort it is for me when I have such opportunities. Just to be able to sit with the person, hold their hand and talk about this or that or about nothing at all, what a tremendous sense of comfort and joy. It is such a blessing to be able to enter into another’s sadness, grief or fear.

There are other times when God’s blessings manifest themselves in other ways, like sharing a meal with a homeless person, or washing or bathing someone who cannot do these basic things for themselves anymore, or taking an elderly person out for lunch and/or shopping. I believe those blessings are indeed as great as a fisherman’s boat overflowing with fish. I admit that I only recognize some blessings in hindsight but they are always there. I would suggest that it is in the times when we have given ourselves over to worldly problems and done everything we can to control our lives that we are most likely pressed into the work of living out the Gospel.

Acting on Jesus’ command, the nets are raised and are overfilled with fish. So many that another boat is needed to hold the catch. Needless to say, the fishermen were astonished and certainly had to have a feeling of discomfort and uncertainty, as one would expect after having witnessed a miracle. Peter’s response to the miracle of abundance was to protest that he is unworthy because he is a sinful man.

This story is similar to one which appears in the Old Testament, in the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah is in the presence of God and is being called by God to take a message to His people. Isaiah protests and says, ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Both Isaiah and Peter feel the magnitude of their unworthiness. A seraph cleanses Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal and Jesus has a word of cleansing for Peter. Whatever troubled their hearts was let go as God set them on a new course and empowered them for the new work in the kingdom.

After witnessing all that took place, Peter, James, John and the others leave everything they have and follow Jesus. They dropped everything they were doing, walked away from their possessions and families and followed Jesus. This surely made more sense in the times when miracles and the supernatural were simply assumed to be what they were, but I think that it is probably a stretch, even then, to assume that they were normal occurrences. In the days of Jesus, miracles were also signs of divine power of which the true importance lay not in the vents themselves but in what they might signify.

Matthew and Mark recall the vent but do not include the miracle of the fish catch. The disciple’s response is probably easier for us to accept if we include the miracle but their action is nonetheless an act of free will made in faith and obedience to Jesus. That, of course, begs the questions, “What do we have to leave behind to follow Jesus?” and “What have we failed to leave behind to follow Jesus?”

About six years ago, a very prominent and successful attorney I know from New York City, his name was Anthony, made a visit to our Cathedral. Anthony was tired and worn out physically, mentally and spiritually. He was very troubled and could not find any peace or solace; no matter what he tried to do, he could not still his restless heart. I suggested that he take some time and get away, drop everything he was doing, and just pick up and go. I invited him up here for a weekend visit. After much going back and forth and indecisiveness, Anthony called me about three weeks later and asked if he could come up and visit. He called on Sunday and said that he would like to come the next day and spend a few days. I told him that he was more than welcome and that I would be expecting him.

On Monday morning, Anthony drove up here to our beautiful Mohawk Valley and checked into a local hotel. Later that evening we met for dinner, during which I invited him to come and visit the Cathedral and spend the next day with me. We agreed to meet at the Cathedral at 9:00am. When he arrived here, I met him outside. Anthony was very impressed by the building but was quite stunned by its surrounding environment. I could tell by the look on his face that he was not used to such surroundings. When we entered the Cathedral the look of shock and disbelief on his face quickly deepened. You could clearly see his uncomfortableness. Obviously, what he saw was not what he expected. I can only imagine what Anthony was thinking but it was obvious that he regretted taking time off from his very successful life to come up here and be exposed to a lifestyle and environment that was pretty much beneath his position and status.

After letting him take in all of the Cathedral’s poverty for about thirty minutes, I suggested that we leave and that he accompany me on some errands. Thus we set about my weekly Tuesday routine: going to the local Hannaford’s Supermarket and picking up boxes of bread and cakes and delivering them to Mother Maryann’s Soup Kitchen. Anthony helped me load the boxes into the car and then unload them again and bring them into the soup kitchen, where we were warmly greeted by some of the volunteers. I introduced him to the volunteers and some of the guests, all of whom thanked him profusely for doing so much good for them. The poor man did not know what to make of it all or what to say. I was pleased that his level of uncomfortableness was on the rise.

After the soup kitchen we made a couple of more stops, one being the home of an elderly woman for whom I did some shopping and house cleaning each week. As I went about putting groceries away and some cleaning, vacuuming and dusting, Anthony was at the kitchen table taking to Agnes. Yes. He was still very uncomfortable, not knowing what to make of it all. I was smiling to myself as I listened to the conversation. I am sure he wished he was someplace else, like back in New York City at the New York Health and Racket Club or even in a crowded subway car; anywhere but here. After we left Agnes, we made a couple more stops, at a nursing home to visit three residents there. After all of this we went to lunch, where he did not say much at all.

After lunch, we headed back to the Cathedral, where he sat for the longest time over there, against that pillar, just staring into the Sanctuary. Every once and a while, I would glance over at him. I could see that he was deep in thought, even praying it seemed.

Later that evening we went out for dinner. Anthony did not talk much but then he asked me a question, “Do you enjoy doing what you did today?” I looked and him and said, “I do not like doing what I do.” He looked at me puzzled and shocked. I took a sip of water and then said to him, “I love what I do!” He smiled and just went on eating his dinner.

The next day Anthony met me at the Cathedral early as I was going to celebrate Divine Liturgy; it was the commemoration of one of my favorite saints. It was only me, our cantor and my friend Anthony present for the Liturgy. After Liturgy, I saw the same look of confusion on Anthony’s face, yet there was something different about his demeanor. He said the Liturgy was beautiful, even sublime, and that it reminded him of the Italian Masses he remembered as a young child, but that it was sad that only three of us were present. I quickly corrected him and told him that we were not just three in attendance but that the whole Church Triumphant was present in the Cathedral worshipping and giving praise and thanks with us. Again, he smiled and said nothing.

My friend left on Thursday morning to go back to New York City. He had just spent three days being shaken out of his comfort zone, spending time in prayer and reflection, and quiet listening for God. That weekend Anthony called to thank me for the hospitality and told me the visit gave him a lot to think about. I told him he was welcome and that I was here for him if he needed me.

About a month later, Anthony called me again and told me that he had met with the vocation director of his diocese and that he had made the decision to leave his practice and enter the seminary to study for the priesthood. I was overjoyed! He made a decision at that time to leave his comfort zone of high income, recognition in the legal community, power and prestige, and enter seminary. Last year, Anthony was ordained a deacon and next year, God willing, he will be ordained a priest. God said, “Follow Me,” and in faith and obedience, this man did exactly that. There was a special blessing for me in all of that because I was with Anthony over the course of those three days when God began whispering in his ear.

We all know the story of Mother Teresa. At the tender age of 12 she strongly felt the call of God and knew right away that she was called to spread the love of Jesus Christ. At age 18 she entered a convent and joined the Sisters of Loreto. While teaching at a high school in Calcutta she was so moved by the extreme poverty she saw from her window that she sought and received permission to work among the poorest of the poor in the slums. The story of her work is well known throughout the world. The woman we know now as St Teresa of Calcutta continued to obediently answer God’s call to serve His people until her death.

I know there are thousands of stories about people who have received calls to radical vocation and there is assuredly no logical or rational explanation for why such things happen. But the fact is, God calls us to follow Him today just as certainly as Jesus called Peter, James and John. Now, I am not suggesting you run away to a monastery or convent (actually not a bad thing to consider), enroll in a seminary (well yes, I actually recommend our young men do such an off-the-wall thing) or fly over to Calcutta (no need to fly there as there is much of the same work to do here in our own country).

The important thing to recognize is that God’s work of calling did not stop with the Gospel stories. God’s calling to us continues to this day. God’s call to us is not an invitation! It is not “Hey, ya’ll wanna come over here?” God’s call throughout history is one of command; sometimes subtle and gentle and sometimes aggressive and yes, even violent. God has already “ordered” all things so the call is just one more piece of the divine puzzle. That was surely the case with Peter, James and John. When Jesus commanded them to follow him, the events surrounding their lives had already been ordered to support their obedient response.

Just as Jesus involved Himself in Peter’s everyday concerns about fishing, God calls to each of us in our ordinary everyday lives and asks that we follow Him. Sometimes that call is to radical vocation and sometimes it is a call to feed God’s sheep right where we are, in our families, at our work, in our Church, and in our communities. Jesus’ behavior and actions provide the perfect model for us. He went out among the people, into the street, where they lived, worked, experienced joy and sorrow – all of the messiness of their lives.

As for us, how do we respond? Did a homeless person appear before us this week as a reminder? You know all the kinds of people we welcome and serve here at the Cathedral. The plight of the world does not escape us here at the Cathedral. Many of those we serve would not be welcome in other churches. In fact, if some of the people we welcome and serve here were to present themselves at some of the more “affluent” churches in the city, the police would be called to remove them.

The doors of our Cathedral have always been open to the least acceptable of God’s people. Sometimes we are scared and uneasy about encountering some of the people who show up here. I must admit that I too sometimes experience the same feelings and fears that some of you do. I know what I am called to do and I confess to you that sometimes it is difficult to respond to that call in the way that Christ commands us. Perhaps my faith was at a low point or perhaps I had once more replaced God’s will with my own. But in the end, God’s voice was loud and clear and my heart was moved to share unselfishly the love I so richly receive from the Lord in my own life. From there, the floodgates just open and immense joy fills my heart. This is the experience I tried to convey to Anthony that one night at dinner.

What I have learned is that following God’s call is not a single event, it is a life-long process filled with much failure punctuated with occasional bright spots of success. God’s call to follow can be as subtle as something that moves us to ask questions or it can be very dramatic. It can be the pain and agony of homelessness, or a debilitating illness, or drug addiction that constantly spurs this parish to compassionate action and to a more genuine appreciation of God’s blessings to us and the gift of life He has given us.

I am convinced that we are called to continue Jesus’ ministry to bring good news and hope to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and to challenge the powerful to allow God’s people to enjoy His every blessing without interference and oppression. If we have a blessing of wealth, power and prestige, we are called to use those blessings to continue Jesus’ ministry and bring souls to God through Him. If we have the beautiful blessings of poverty and humble life we are called to use those blessings to continue Jesus’ ministry and bring souls to god through Him.

The message in Luke’s Gospel is not so much one of acceptance of, or recognition of, a call, it is one of obedience. A call to discipleship is something that God has both commanded and enabled.

As the story of Jesus’ ministry unfolds we see that His work and ministry have grown to require the recruitment of disciples, of workers of charity and service. After His death, the growth of His Church requires many workers in the vineyards: the apostles, the seven chosen to serve, St. Paul, St. Barnabas, the men of Cyprus and Cyrene, St Phoebe, St. Teresa of Calcutta and millions more over the ages.

You see, the fishing for people continues. God has chosen to work through we human beings, we vessels of clay, and because God has chosen to work this way, it is crucial that we be alert to God’s call and obedient in response to that call.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Homily for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

The Parable of the Vineyard appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, with Matthew’s account being the most complete. However, there are additions in the others which do not appear in St. Matthew’s Gospel; so, it is wise to consider all three accounts so as to achieve the greatest understanding of this particular Parable.

In order to get a clearer picture of what is happening, we need to first look back to Matthew 21:18. Early in the morning Jesus goes to the temple courts to teach. While He is teaching, the chief priest and the elders confront Him, wanting to know by what authority He is teaching. Not allowing them to control the conversation, Jesus answers the question by first asking a question. They do not like His question nor His response to their answer. Essentially, He has told them that they cannot save face from their obvious attempt to cajole Him and, therefore, He is not obligated to answer their question.

What Jesus told them is that John the Baptist and he received their authority from the same source. This exchange causes the leaders to become angry and puts them in opposition to Jesus. Jesus then further frustrates the priests and elders by telling two parables: the first was the Parable of the Two Sons, and the second is the Parable of the Vineyard, sometimes called the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

The first parable Jesus teaches tells the priests that they have claimed to accept the message from God but they have failed to live up to it by being obedient. Outwardly, they are pious and appear to be people of God, but God knows the heart, and there they have failed miserably. The next Parable (the Parable of the Vineyard) is like pouring salt on the wound. Just in case they did not fully understand (which they did), Jesus gives a much clearer picture of what He means. Obviously, this further infuriates the priests and elders, but it also gives the others who were present an opportunity to hear Jesus fully explain the implications of the disobedience of the Jewish people throughout the ages.

There are six main characters in the Parable of the Vineyard: 1) the landowner, who is God, 2) the vineyard, which represents Israel, 3) the tenants/farmers, which represent the Jewish religious leadership, 4) the landowner’s servants, who represent the prophets who remained obedient and preached God’s word to the people of Israel, 5) the son, who is Jesus, and 6) the other tenants, who are the gentiles. The imagery used is similar to Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard found in Isaiah chapter five.

The watchtower and the wall mentioned in verse 33 are means of protecting the vineyard and the ripened grapes. The winepress is obviously for stamping out the juice of the grapes to make the wine. The farmer was apparently away at the time of harvest and had rented the vineyard to tenants. This was customary of the times, and he could expect as much as half of the grapes as payment by the tenants for the use of his land.

We are told that the landowner sent his servants to collect his portion of the harvest and how they cruelly rejected by the tenants; some were beaten, stoned, and even killed. Then he sent even more the second time and they received the same treatment. The servants sent represent the prophets that God had sent to His people, Israel, and then were rejected and killed by the very people who were claiming to be of God and obedient to Him.

Jeremiah was beaten, John the Baptist was beheaded and others were stoned. In this parable Jesus is not only reminding the religious establishment what they were like, but He was putting in their minds a question: how could they claim obedience as God’s people and still reject His messengers? We do not know how many servants the owner sent, but that is not important; the theme is God’s repeated appeal through His prophets to an unrepentant people.

As the parable continues, the situation becomes even more critical, so much so that the landowner sent his own son, believing that they will surely respect him. But the tenants see an opportunity here; they believe that if they kill the son they will then receive his inheritance. The law at the time provided that if there were no heirs then the property would pass to those in possession (Possession is nine tenths of the law). This amounts to conspiracy to commit murder by the Jewish leadership, and it is prophetic in the sense that Jesus is now telling them what they are going to do to Him. After Jesus’ death Peter would make the same charges against the religious establishment. The tenants probably thought that the fight for the property was over, but it was not; the owner would now appear on the scene.

Jesus now asks the question, what will the owner do to the evil tenants? What He is doing is forcing the religious leaders, priests and elders to declare their own miserable fate: condemnation for their blatant disobedience. This is similar to the question that Nathan put to David. Up to this point, Jesus has been dealing with the immediate situation of Israel and its past disobedience; now Jesus leaves open the question of what Israel’s leadership is going to do with the Messiah, the Son of God, whom He refers to as the “chief cornerstone.”

Cornerstones and capstones are used symbolically in Scripture and picture Christ as the main piece of the foundation of the Church and the head of the Church, respectively. Jesus is the beginning of and is foundational to the Church, and He now stands over the Church in His rightful position of honor, guiding the Church to fulfill Her divine destiny. Jesus’ statement makes clear prophetically how He will be rejected by the religious establishment and ultimately be crucified.

The key to understanding this parable and what it says about religious leaders is found in verse 43, where Jesus makes clear their lack of obedience personal. Jesus tells the leaders that because of their disobedience they will be left out of the kingdom of heaven (individually and as a people); that they have let their opportunity for the time being slip away to be given to the Gentiles (the “other tenants”). Of course, this is more than they can tolerate and bear. Jesus also tells them that there will be a new people of God made up of all peoples who will temporarily replace the Jews so that He can establish His Church.

This will change the way God deals with man, from the old dispensation of the law to a new dispensation of God’s grace. It will usher in a period of time where man will no longer understand forgiveness of sins as man’s work through what he does or does not do or by the sacrifices of animals on the altar, but by the work of Christ on the Cross. It will be a time where each individual can have a personal relationship with the One and only God of the universe.

The exciting aspect of this parable is the phrase, “who will produce fruit.” This gives authority to the Church to share the Gospel of Christ to the lost of the world. Up to this time, the Jews felt that they had automatic membership in God’s kingdom because of their relationship to Abraham; this is why they put so much emphasis on genealogies. But the new people of God would truly have what God wanted for Israel all along: a personal and holy relationship that would be honored through the spreading of God’s word to all peoples.

Jesus continues the stone metaphor to show how a stone can be used to build something beautiful, such as His Church, or how it can be used to crush and destroy, depending on the situation. This could be likened to God’s Word: to some it is salvation, peace and comfort. To others it is foolish and disconcerting because of its ability to convict man of his sins (2 Timothy 3:16).

This morning’s Gospel gives us three insights into the psyche of the chief priests of the religious establishment. First, they are jealous and envious of Jesus’ popularity with the common people. It encroaches on their authority and power to govern and control the people. Second, they have come to the realization that Jesus is talking about them. This hurts their pride and ego and embarrasses them in front of the people. Third, they understood the analogy of the son and that Jesus was referring to Himself. This was blasphemous to them, and they would seek to kill Jesus. From here the leaders would meet in secrecy to plot how they would get rid of Jesus. Why all the secrecy? The people thought of Jesus as a prophet from God; arresting Him could cause an uprising. An uprising would jeopardize the leaders’ relationship with the Roman authorities, something that the Jews did not want ant any cost.

So what does this parable mean for us today? We can apply this parable to our lives by asking two questions: first, have you truly accepted Jesus in your life with all that such an acceptance implies or have you rejected Him like the Jewish leadership did? If your answer to the first question is “yes, I have truly accepted Jesus into my life,” then the second question is: What have you done or what are you doing to make that acceptance sincere, real and tangible? Are you like the bad tenants, rejecting His Word and living a life of disobedience? If you are, then something truly needs to change.

We all must change, my children. We all, to some degree or another, act like the bad tenants. In order to effect the changes about which Jesus speaks in this parable, we need to do two things. First, we need to listen to and live more fruitfully the Word of God. Second, we need to take up the Cross of Christ, putting our life in proper perspective. This is not to say that our life should be one of frequent burden and suffering. On the contrary, we need to recognize and understand that the Cross is the path to life.

Suffering, hardship and burdens are not the things that God wants His people to experience or endure but when we encounter them, it is the power of the Cross that gives us the strength to bear them and overcome them. You see, my children, you cannot follow Christ without taking up the Cross. In other words, we cannot simply pick and choose those things of Christ’s life that we find convenient or that make us feel good. We must accept all of Christ’s life for ourselves, and that includes carrying our cross together with Him.

Jesus tells us that whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for the Lord’s sake and that of the Gospel will save it. This is the way to life, my children, as Jesus so clearly states. This is what the religious leaders of Jesus’ time did not want to accept. They knew the truth in their hearts, but they refused to accept it. They continued in their ways: declaring their faith and belief in God but not living according to His laws and ways, which they interpreted according to what was convenient and pleasing to them at the time. How many of us live our lives the same way?

It is not always easy to hear and listen to the truth. And it is even harder to comprehend that our Lord can speak so harshly and strongly. Jesus was not all about peaches and cream. Much of what Our Lord said is hard on the ears; we just hear it the way we want to hear it. Many priests today only talk about the love of God, about His mercy, compassion and forgiveness. They speak nothing about His justice or our need for repentance. They refuse to acknowledge that Jesus spoke very firmly and strongly about the attitudes, behavior and hypocrisy of those who called themselves religious people but did not practice what they preached or believed. I do not think we want to find ourselves in that category. I do not think we want to be on the Lord’s bad side, do you? Maybe it is time for us to rethink our priorities, our way of thinking and living.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Homily for the Twelveth Sunday after Pentecost

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

“Good Master, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” And Jesus answered, “Go and sell all that you have and give to the poor and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me.”

What does this brief passage mean to you?

This morning’s Gospel reading gives us much subject matter to talk about. The Gospel lesson speaks about stewardship; wealth, and our slavery to it; and it even speaks about disappointment.

When we speak of stewardship, the first thing that often comes to mind is money. But money is only a very small part of stewardship. The word “steward” in Greek means “to manage” or “to administrate.” God is the giver of all things and He has made us stewards over all that He has given us. That means everything we have is actually on loan from God. It is not ours. We are supposed to manage it all on behalf of God and return it to Him at the appointed time.

It may sound ridiculous what I just said but if you take a little while to think about it in light of God’s plan of creation, then it makes a lot of sense. You see, in the order of creation, God has placed man over all of His creation. “Fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28). It was God’s will that we, humankind, have dominion over the earth. But our dominion over the earth was, and is, intended by God to be a stewardship of what He put at our disposal. This means a responsible use and care of all that God created, ordered, and made available to us.

Our very existence as human beings is from God. He has given us a lifetime to manage. What we do with our lives and how in what state we return them to God at our death will determine how good a steward we have been with what God has given us. Once you die, your time of choosing is over. With the life you have been given, you can turn it into something bad, mediocre, or good. You can make it a failure or a success. And by failure or success, I do not mean success or failure by worldly standards.. I speak of failure and success in terms of faithfulness to the Commandments and the Gospel. That is what is truly important.

Consider the young man in today’s Gospel. We can assume that he was young, rich, and had a position in society, maybe he was a judge or other public official. Obviously, this was not enough for him. He wanted more. He wanted to obtain eternal life and he believed that Jesus was the man that could give it to him. Remember the young man’s question to Jesus, “Good Master, what good thing must I do to have eternal life?” You see, he had it all: money, position, influence, good health and probably many years of life to look forward to. He also seemed to be a basically good person, following all the rules and prescripts of the Law. But when Jesus responded to the young man’s question, the young man was disappointed by the Lord’s answer.

Is it not funny that when we turn to the Lord to ask for His help, advice or counsel, we are frequently disappointed by His answer? Yet, the Lord never disappoints in His help or counsel He gives us. We bring disappointment upon ourselves because we close our hearts and minds to His responses especially when they are not what we want to hear. We turn and walk away sad. That is exactly what the young man did. He turned and walked away sad and disappointed when Jesus told him what he needed to do to have eternal life.

Nothing has changed in 2000 years. Our attitude is still pretty much like that of the young man. “I am going to make it to heaven because I have been good. I have not killed anyone. I have stolen anything that does not belong to me. I have not committed adultery. I am not a liar. I treat my parents well, and I treat people around me well.” The young man truly believed that he was going to make it to Heaven because he was a good person. But, just to be sure, he asked Jesus, “What else do I need to do.?” Jesus simply tells the young man that if he wants to spend eternity in Heaven, he must surrender everything he has to God, even his material wealth.

Jesu is not telling the young man that he must be poor to be saved. On the contrary, he is telling the young man, and us, that we must surrender our entire life to Him and be willing to give up everything we have to follow Him. If we are not willing to do all this, then the gates of Paradise will not be opened to us and we will find ourselves cast out of the Kingdom.

Matthew 19:22 is one of the saddest verses in the Bible. The young man walked away saddened and disappointed. You see, he was willing to do most things for eternal life, but to give up all his money and other wealth? That was asking too much. How many of you here this morning would give up all that you have to live in eternal blessedness and happiness with God in heaven? For the young man, the decision was just one he could not make because he was too attached to his money and possessions. In the end, they meant more to him than God.

Hearing the conversation between Jesus and the young man, the disciples then asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answers, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Herein lays the answer: Whosoever believes in Jesus Christ and does as He does will inherit eternal life.

You see, my children, it is not enough to just believe in Jesus Christ as God and Lord, but you must do as he did when he walked this earth. You must live His words and emulate His life. That means, first and foremost, you must live righteous and holy lives, lives lived for God and no other. You cannot have other gods like money, sex, drugs, alcohol, and the love of material possessions as your gods, but only the One Who gives all to all.

Now, there is nothing wrong with being wealthy, of enjoying life to the fullest, of going to the casino, or having a few drink with friends. But, in doing all these things, we must put them in their proper place on our list of priorities and always remember that they are passing. Only the things of God are eternal and bring true pleasure and real happiness. We should never be too attached to the thigs of this world and we should never take them too seriously. In fact, we should never take them seriously at all except to recognize that we must always treat them responsibly and never permit them to be our downfall, to control us to the degree that we become slaves to them and let them rule us and direct our behavior. If we allow this to happen, then all hope is lost. We will end up like the young man in this morning’s Gospel. We will turn and go away disappointed and sad because, even though in every other respect we may be living a good life, we have not given ourselves over totally to God.

Being a Christian involves sacrifice and discipline. We must die to ourselves and live for God. We must acknowledge that God is the giver of all that we have and that we are only stewards of what we have been given. If we go through life with this knowledge always in our hearts and minds, then we will not be attached to worldly things, we will not be slaves to all those worldly enjoyments and attractions which distract us and draw us away from God.

Attachments to things of the world are occasions for sin and when we sin, we turn away from God, for that is exactly what sin is: turning away from God, not doing His will but our will, and despising the persons of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit in words and deeds. Sin is not obeying God’s laws but our own selfish desires. Sin is also injuring others.

If we are to inherit eternal life, the first step in achieving this goal is to admit that we are sinners and in need of God’s mercy and grace. The young man in this morning’s Gospel never figured that out. I do not care how nice you are. How benevolent and generous you are. How intelligent you are. Scripture says, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). Thus, we must always bear in mind that we are sinners and fall far short of what God expects of us. Now, this does not mean there is not hope for us. Christ is our Hope. If we enter fully into the life of Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to work unimpeded in us, then all is not lost and the promise of salvation will become a reality for us.

If we concern ourselves only with the things of this world, then sin will certainly become a frequent companion and co-traveler in our earthly pilgrimage. Sin is not something we want to entertain in our lives. It is not something we want to be comfortable with because sin creates unhappiness, sadness and disappointment. If we want to be perfect, then we must rid ourselves of the attachments we have to the things of this world. “If you want to be perfect go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.”

In today’s Gospel, the Lord says to His disciples, “’I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’”

No matter how much wealth we amass, it will not give us a good life, at least not the good life we need to get to Heaven. Jesus does not say we cannot be wealthy. It is what we do with our wealth that He is concerned with. If we horde what we have, no matter how great or small our possessions may be, and do not share them with others, they we are guilty of an offense before God. Remember, even the poor widow offered a penny in the temple. Out of her meager possessions she gave that penny out of love for the Lord to the work of the Lord. How can we not do any different?

I know a lot of people who go to the casino each week and spend hundreds of dollars in the hopes of winning a great deal more. Yet, when they go to Church they only put one dollar or five dollars in the collection basket. They believe that they are doing a good thing and fulfilling their obligation to their parish and the Church, but in essence are they not being greedy and selfish?

Such people have no problem throwing away hundreds of dollars each week chasing a dream but they wouldn’t even think of giving their parish or the Church that much, even once a month. Heaven forbid that the Church should see such generosity. Imagine if everyone who went to the casino once a week gave their parish half the amount they spend at the casino monthly, what a blessing that would be. Churches would not have to have fundraisers and they could expand their outreach ministries to those in need.

This is what Jesus meant when He said, “Go and sell all that you have.” Not so much selling, but sharing. And, more importantly, detaching himself from the hold which his wealth had on him and which was preventing him from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. He was telling the rich young man to do something every difficult, something that would change his way of thinking and living forever. This is what the Lord is telling us to do today. Do the difficult. Make a difference. Do not be attached to the things of this world. Seek the holy things of God and cling to them, cherish them and make them a tangible part of your life so that you may obtain the Kingdom of Heaven.

Remember that we are stewards of all that God has given us. As Christians we do not horde or keep to ourselves what we have. Nor are we to be reckless with God’s creation. The beaches, the mountains, the rivers and streams, the ocean, the sky and the air, and the forests, these all belong to God. We are just stewards of these resources and we must treat them responsibly. If we mistreat and misuse them, then we are here too committing an offense, a sin, against God.

My hope is that you will leave here today with a lot to think about. For certainly God has blessed all of us here today with many and varied gifts and blessings, all of which I know we can share with others and the Church, if we truly want to gain eternal life. Be generous, my children, to the Church and those in need and be good and responsible stewards of all that God has placed in your hands at your disposal. Make a difference. Do the right things.


Monday, September 5, 2016

Homily for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

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

Today’s Gospel reading places the subject of forgiveness before us for our attention and consideration. Forgiveness is not a topic many want to discuss and it is a virtue many of us do not practice. It is easier to hold a grudge and hold up the sins, transgressions and faults of others than it is to forgive them. An individual can do one thousand good deeds, but let him or her do one thing wrong and it is the bad thing that people will remember for years on end.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians instructs us, “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, FORGIVING ONE ANOTHER, even as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32). Sometimes I think people interpret this verse by saying that we should only forgive people when they are kind to us. But that is not what Scripture tells us. It is certainly not what the Fathers of the Church have taught and instructed us over the centuries. On the contrary, their teaching has been consistent and unwavering: “forgive one another as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven you.” But the problem with this is that very many people, including the clergy, especially many bishops and priests, do not heed this admonition. Simply put, they do not practice what they preach. And if bishops and priests do not practice forgiveness, how can one expect the faithful to do so, when such a bad example is set by the shepherds of the flock, the archpastors and pastors of the Church. The visible lack of charity, the lack of forgiveness in the Church, is one of the sicknesses that infests the Body of Christ today. This lack of forgiveness in the Church is one of the Church’s greatest hypocrisies.

God calls us not only to love another, but to forgive one another’s sins and transgressions not once, or twice, or three times but seventy times seven times. God will not forgive and pardon our sins if we do not forgive those who have sinned and trespassed against us. That is the lesson of today’s Gospel.

God’s love for us is full of kindness, tenderheartedness and mercy. Because it is all of these things, it is always ready to forgive. Such should be the depth and greatness of our love for those who transgress against us and offend us.

Too many people today, too many Christians especially, do not heed the words of Christ, do not put into practice the love which He commanded us to show to our brothers and sisters. Is it any wonder that they are not receiving God’s best in their lives? It is impossible to walk in God’s love, to receive it and accept it, to understand it and relish in it when we are so firmly entrenched in our own egos and self-righteousness.

If we are going to obey the Word of God, if we are going to be true disciples of Christ, then we must open our hearts to the Holy Spirit and allow Him to reside in us and work in us without hindrance. We must change the inward man so that we emulate Christ and become vessels of HIS love and forgiveness, thus making them a part of our very being. It is only when we “put on” Christ and make no provision for the flesh (Romans 13:14) that we will be able to forgive one another, even as God for Christ’s sake forgave us.

God spoke through the Prophet Isaiah saying, “I, even I, am He that blots out your transgressions for My own sake, and will not remember your sins.” (Isaiah 43:25). And in St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, we hear the words of the Lord recounted to us: “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.” If God, the supreme and only Judge of all can forgive men their sins and transgressions so easily, why is it that we cannot forgive just as easily? Why is it that His bishops and priests, ministers of His compassion, mercy and love, cannot be as easily forgiving and merciful?

The Scriptures tell us that once we ask forgiveness for our sins and transgressions and are truly repentant of them, God does not remember them anymore. Yet, those within the Church do not do the same. In fact, they do quite the opposite, and sometimes with great fervor. God does not say, “I am going to hold against you everything you have ever done, and I am going to remind you of your sins every time I think of them.” But I know bishops, priests and people in the Church who do exactly that, and more. Some are very outspoken in their refusal to grant forgiveness, others are very coy about it. They manifest their unforgiving behavior and attitudes in subtle ways: keeping offenders at arm’s length, giving them the cold shoulder, being condescending, etc. Thank God Scripture reminds us that when we ask forgiveness of our sins and transgressions and are truly repentant of them, God forgives and remembers our sins no more!

How many of you here this morning who are married tend to remind each other of past mistakes every time a disagreement arises between you or when you have an argument? That does not help in building and maintaining a good marital relationship or even a friendship. If you constantly remind one another of past mistakes and failures, it will ruin your prayer life and make your faith inoperative. If husbands and wives are unforgiving and hold ill will against each other, it can affect their physical, emotional and spiritual health, and do irreparable damage and harm to their marital relationship.

The same holds true for friendships. If friends constantly point out the faults of each other, the friendship is doomed to die and nothing can be done to repair the damage done. Here too, the prayer life of each party concerned will suffer. The prayers of each will be hindered and their faith will weaken and eventually die.

We must all learn to forgive and forget like God does. I have always heard it said, “Forgive but never forget.” I have come to understand that this is a statement of the world, not an instruction of God. If God Himself even forgets the sins and transgressions we commit, then why should we not do the same? Are we better than God?

If we really and truly love someone, be they husband or wife, mother or father, son or daughter, brother or sister, or friend, we will not keep reminding them of their past mistakes, sins, and failures. If a bishop truly loves his priests and deacons, if a pastor truly loves his parishioners, if parishioners truly love one another and Christians truly love one another, then they will not keep reminding them of their past mistakes, sins, and failures. They will not keep reminding them about the way they hurt them, let them down, or offended them. No, you forgive them and, where possible, give them a second chance, and even a third.

Certainly we must hold each other accountable. We must support each other and encourage each other, not only by prayer, but in every other tangible way, to ensure that the same mistakes are not made again. We are responsible to and for each other. None of us is perfect and we are all subject to temptation by the evil one and his wiles. Getting through each day without stumbling and falling is a struggle and for some, it is a heroic act.

The devil is always working hard to bring us down and sow dissension and disunity among us. For example, he may bring a picture to your mind of something that happened between you and another person that causes you to harbor ill-feelings and ill-will towards that person. Such work of the devil may cause you to slander the person, gossip about him or her, spread unkind or even unfounded rumors about the person.

The worst kind of gossip and rumor  is that which has its basis in truth. When we gossip or talk about another person’s problems or troubles, inevitably we tend to exaggerate beyond the actual reality and truth. The damage done in such a case is oftentimes irreparable. Consider this, if you will. Line up ten people and whisper something into the ear of the first person in the line. That person turns to the second person and relates what you said. This continues all the way down the line to the tenth person. The tenth person then tells you what he or she heard. By the time the story gets back to you, it is nothing like what you told the first person. It is a completely different story.

As a story is passed from one person to the next, it gets embellished and exaggerated along the way.  The truth gets buried beneath layers and layers of untruths and exaggeration. In such an instance, a person’s integrity and character are destroyed, literally assassinated. It could be intentional or unintentional, but regardless of the motivation, a serious wrong and injustice has been inflicted upon an otherwise good and decent person. And forgiveness becomes even more difficult because the truth has been even more distorted. We do not want to do this. We do not want to be involved in this kind of behavior. It is a behavior that is totally uncharacteristic of a Christian and it is diametrically opposed to everything we believe in as Orthodox Catholic Christians. It is truly the work of the devil.

Some people say, “Well, I just cannot forgive.” But that does not line up with God’s way of doing things and it is not the teaching of Christ. God is love and that same kind of love that God is dwells in each and every one of us by virtue of the Holy Mysteries of Confession and the Holy Eucharist. Therefore, you can forgive with God’s love, just as He forgives.

Divine love forgives even that which we, in our human frailty and imperfection, consider to be unforgiveable. If the one who sinned has asked for forgiveness, is truly repentant, and is resolved to sin no more, then how can we withhold forgiveness from such a person?

The Church is a place of second and third chances. It is a place where God’s grace and mercy changes hearts and lives in tangible and visible ways. If we deny this is true, then we blaspheme against the Holy Spirit and make a mockery of all that the Church has taught and believed for the past twenty-one centuries.

I personally know of bishops and priests who heard the confessions of those who have transgressed against one or more of God’s laws of those of the Church and after giving absolution in the name of Christ, still, to this day, hold those sins and transgressions against the individual to the detriment of the individual’s emotional, physical and spiritual health and well-being.

Be merciful as your God is merciful. This is what we are called to do as Orthodox Catholic Christians. Our practice of mercy and forgiveness should be an example to all people everywhere of the presence of the living God in the world. Ours is a living faith, a faith that comes from a vibrant participation in the very life and work of God Himself. If we deny mercy and forgiveness to those who seek it in sincerity and truth, then we declare that God is not at all what He is…Love and that Jesus is not what He is…Love Incarnate.

In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul says, “Forbearing one another and forgiving one another, if anyone has a quarrel or disagreement against his brother or sister: even as Christ forgave you, so also must you do.” (Colossians 3:13). We have no right to call ourselves Orthodox Catholics let alone Christians if forgiveness and mercy are not part of our spiritual and physical makeup. We are not members of the Body of Christ if these two attributes are not part of our life as members of the Church.

God will deal harshly with us if we do not forgive those who transgress against or offend us. This is, as I said earlier, the central message of this morning’s Gospel and we would do well to take it seriously. There is much at stake here, my children. This Gospel lesson today tells us clearly what God expects of us, of what Jesus Christ expects of us as members of His Church, and of what will happen to us if we do not forgive others their sins when we have asked God for forgiveness of our own.

I mentioned earlier the great hypocrisy of the Church when it comes to the preaching and practicing of forgiveness and mercy. When I was in prison very few people corresponded with me during those nineteen months. More sadly and disappointing, not one Orthodox bishop or priest ever sent me a card or note of encouragement and support or to say that they were praying for me. And of all the Catholic priests that I know from Utica, only one wrote me every month. He has been a faithful friend for over 30 years. One Catholic Archbishop also corresponded with me while I was in prison and even after I was released. His words of encouragement and his prayers were a great source of comfort to me.

Even when I was in the hospital several years ago for major surgery, not one Orthodox priest from the area came to the hospital to visit me or administer the Holy Mysteries. But a Catholic priest came to visit me every day. I could never understand the coldness, the lack of charity and love, and especially the lack of mercy that Orthodox clergy had for one of their own.

I used to wonder if those who shunned me ever gave any thought to the discourse in St. Matthew’s Gospel of the Last Judgment. “Lord, when did we see you ill or in prison and visit you?” It appears that most people are not concerned with this. And among many of the Orthodox, mercy and forgiveness appears to be only available to those whom they deem “canonical” or are in other ways acceptable to them. I do not wonder about such things anymore for I know, especially after having been in prison, just how great and powerful the healing powers of mercy and forgiveness are.

The nineteen months I was in prison were such a great blessing to me. The spiritual gifts I received I cannot describe in words. My priesthood and my episcopate were both greatly enriched by the experience and I grew as a person spiritually and in wisdom and knowledge. This was not of my own doing but solely by the grace of God. Though I questioned at times, many times in fact, where He was, I always ended up finding Him in the other inmates, even the “bad asses.”

In prison, you see a great many things, not all of them good, nice or pleasant. But you also see some amazing things, things we take for granted on the “outside.” Do not be misinformed, my friends, not all people in prison are criminals nor are they bad people. There are a lot of good, decent people in prison, individuals who simply made bad decisions and stupid mistakes, like drinking and driving. Some were victims of their social or economic environment, selling drugs or stealing to survive or live an unrealistic lifestyle. Yes, they were wrong to do such things, but to hold such things against them for the rest of their lives and deny them the forgiveness they are entitled to, especially when they ask for it and show true repentance, is a sin against the Holy Spirit, the majesty of God and His love for mankind.

I had the honor and privilege of having many inmates come to me for confession. It was truly a humbling experience. To be able to be an instrument of God’s mercy and love in a place where you would least expect it was a wonderful spiritual experience. The relationships I established with many of the men, some of whom were hardcore bad boys, I will cherish in my heart always. In prison, when mercy and forgiveness is sought out, it is an awesome and powerful experience of the Holy Spirit at work. This is the joy of every bishop and priest, to be the instrument of God’s mercy and the gushing fountain of the refreshing and renewing waters of His divine and transfiguring love. There is no feeling in the world like it. But it took being in prison to make see such things as they really are. In a “normal” life on the outside, we can become jaded, take things for granted, become indifferent and even oblivious to what’s really important. But prison wakes up you, it shakes you up and makes you grateful for everything, even the smallest things we often take for granted. Mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love are just some of those things we take for granted on the “outside.” In prison, they are as priceless as the crown jewels of England and when found and received, they give hope and change lives.

In prison there is such an appreciation and gratitude for the ability to express remorse, ask forgiveness and receive it. I found that to be compassionate and understanding was to make God real to people who questioned His existence and or His place in their lives. Sitting for an hour or more with an inmate, or walking with him in the yard and just talking or listening was an act of love which became a precious gift that made God real in His life. I wasn’t just another inmate to them; I was their “Padre” their “Shepherd.” I belonged to them and they were my children, my spiritual sons. I was their connection to God at a time in their lives when He seemed absent or far away from them. It was truly a humbling experience, especially when Bloods and Latin Kings (gang members) would turn to me for advice, counsel and spiritual guidance.

I know that mercy and forgiveness, when properly sought and asked for, can change lives in very dramatic and wonderful ways. When God’s love, mercy and forgiveness are given through us to those hungering for them, lives are changed forever and the world takes another step closer to peace and harmony and a more intimate communion with God.

Having been in prison, I am even more convinced now than I was before I went in that there is no room for arrogance and self-righteousness in the Church, especially among the hierarchy and clergy. Bishops and priests are to be living and authentic examples of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. By our sacred ordination, we are conformed to Christ. How then can we be anything other than what Christ is and do what Christ does?

I used to shake my head in sadness and disappointment when, on the Sunday of Forgiveness, year after year, I would see the hypocrisy of clergy and faithful who would approach to ask one another for forgiveness but who still held the same grudges after the service that they had against each other before the service began. It was nothing more than an external ritual with no effort or desire to change the inward being. Jesus spoke harshly about such behavior, especially that of the elders of the Church who put on airs, who appear to be something that they are not.

We can make all the confessions we want. We can make all the prostrations we want. But none of them will work unless we are truly able not only to forgive others but forget as well. Our hearts must be filled with the love of God, Who not only forgives but forgets the sins of the truly repentant sinner. You can  get up every morning and say your prayer rule and then again every night before you go to bed, you can go to Orthros every morning and Vespers every evening, keep the fasts of the Church assiduously, but none of it will have any meaning or do you any good if there is not mercy and forgiveness in your heart toward those who have hurt, offended or sinned against you. Simply put, prayer does not work in the absence of mercy, forgiveness and repentance. Jesus was clear about this, “When you pray, if you have anything against anyone, forgive.”

Beloved in Christ, take the message of this morning’s Gospel reading to heart. Do not be deceived into thinking that forgiveness and mercy are selective or that they should be applied sparingly or only in certain circumstances. Sin is all around us and none of us is exempt from it. Our weak human nature will always be tempted to sin and many of us will give in to the temptations of sin. Therefore, we all must be ready to show mercy and forgive one another as God forgives those who are truly repentant.

Whether you realize it or not, a lack of compassion and an unwillingness to forgive others are the things that hinder us from receiving God and from growing spiritually. Being unforgiving
hinders us from being what God wants us to be and from being who God wants us to be.

God’s Word works, but you must be a doer of the Word and not just a hearer. Showing mercy and forgiving others is part of doing God’s Word. Mercy and forgiveness are the essence of Jesus Christ, the God of Love. One cannot be Christ to others if one does not possess and make real and active all the attributes of Christ.

Press forward, my children, to that finish line which brings the prize of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ.