Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Monday, March 12, 2018

Homily for Forgiveness Sunday/ Divine Liturgy - (February 18, 2018)

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

If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Typically, this expression means: If you have a great body, don’t hide it under modest attire. Show yourself off for the world to see. If you have a brilliant mind, don’t be humble and unassuming. Expose the genius within. If you have money, spend it so that people know you’re loaded. Perhaps you can see the problems with the notion, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Yet, for some bizarre reason, many Christians assume that this expression is valid in the spiritual realm.

It is common for Christians to brag about how much they give, how much they pray, how much they serve, and how spiritual they are. Honestly, we have all been guilty of this behavior. It is easy to be spiritually smug and let pride enter into our lives. We all want to be recognized and appreciated. We all want to impress people with our gifts and devotion. Yet, the Bible is clear that we must seek to impress God alone. This requires a motives check-up. After all, motives matter when it comes to being approved and rewarded by God. This means you must do the right thing in the right way.

As we stand at the threshold of Great Lent, Jesus shares three practices that will enable us to do the right thing in the right way and that will make our Lenten journey to the Cross and the empty tomb more spiritually rewarding and meaningful. What Jesus has to say to us this morning, beloved, is more than food for the soul. His words are life, eternal life. If we listen intently and carefully to His words, if we take them into our heart, and employ actively in our lives, then we shall watch them blossom forth into abundant fruit that will draw men into the bosom of the Father.

The first thing Jesus tells us is to give without fanfare. He urges you and me to give with pure motives that please God. Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” The word “beware” always warns of danger ahead, like an elevator being out of order or a road being washed out.  To refuse to obey such a sign is both foolish and dangerous. Here, Jesus warns us to beware of seeking to impress people. He does not say that you cannot be impressive.

Many Christians are impressive people. Jesus is not opposed to public righteousness that is an act of worship. We are commanded to be “salt” and “light.” Jesus’ primary concern is with our motives. God looks at the heart (motive) before the hand (action)! If our motives are to hear people “ooh and ah” over our righteousness, we have our reward…but it is on earth, NOT in heaven.

Jesus’ words are absolute. He is saying, “Anyone who does a good deed so as to be seen and appreciated by others will lose his or her reward, no matter how ‘good’ and beneficial the deed is. There are absolutely no exceptions!” It is imperative, therefore, that we do the right thing in the right way.

After laying down the overarching principle, Jesus focuses on the topic of financial giving. He says: “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full.” Jesus says “when” you give. The word “when” is a key word throughout this entire passage. Jesus does not say “if” but “when.”

Jesus assumes that His disciples will give to those not only to those in need, but to support and assist their brothers and sisters in the faith. This means giving is not optional. Yet, maybe you are thinking, “I’m barely making ends meet and you want me to give?” I know how difficult it is to give when you cannot even afford the rent put food on the table. But, what I have learned from my own personal experience is that there is always someone out there who is struggling worse than me, who is struggling and worse off than I am. Therefore, I appreciate what little I have and how precious it is. That is why I am more grateful to God for giving me the ability to share what I have with those who have less than me.

If you are struggling to get by, give to someone who is struggling more than you. The Lord will meet your needs, especially if you are obedient to give and do so with an open and free heart.

The question that Jesus is addressing to us today is not “when” but “why.” Why do you do what you do? It is important to see that Jesus does not look down on or forbid public giving, but He does not want us to “sound a trumpet” when we undertake works of charity or almsgiving. This is a figurative phrase from which we get our expression “toot your own horn.” In other words, do not give for the purpose of being “honored” by people. When the offering baskets are passed, do not cough loudly as you put money into the basket. Do not slam-dunk your offering into the basket or make a scene of it. Do it discreetly and quietly. If you are giving a large bill, then fold it up discreetly and when the basket comes before you, place it quickly in the basket so that no sees the denomination of the currency.

Do not give so that your name will be inscribed on a building, on a plaque, on a brick, or in a list of donors for all to see. If you do, that will be your reward. The word translated “in full” (apecho) is a technical term for commercial transactions and means to “receive a sum in full and give a receipt for it.” When you make a donation to the Church or to some charitable organization and ask for a receipt so that you can deduct it on your income taxes, you are not really giving, because you will get your donation back in the form of a tax refund. The same thing happens when you ask for an annual end-of-the-year statement of giving from your parish. All the money you put into the collection basket over the course of a year and all the extraordinary donations you make are not really donations at all because you will get it all back in the form of a tax refund. This is equally true when I seek to impress people instead of God. The end result is that your donations are not donations at all because you are getting something in return, basically a tax deduction.

Fortunately, Jesus offers an alternative to giving with fanfare or expecting something in return. He says: “But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Please do not take this verse literally. This is a hyperbolic phrase that means “give in secret.” Do not give with your right hand while you wave your left hand in the air. Instead, just drop your check in the offering or send it in the mail, without drawing attention to yourself. Fold the check. Keep the envelope sealed. Give in a spirit of humility and simplicity, as an act of worship.

Try giving anonymously sometimes, even if it means that you do not receive a tax deduction. Why? “So that your giving will be in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Again, there is nothing wrong with public giving that is an act of worship. But there is plenty wrong with giving money to impress people.

Does this mean that you should never tell anyone what you give and who you give to? No! The Book of Acts tells of Christians selling possessions and giving to the needy. In Chapter 4, Verses 36-37, St. Luke tells us that Barnabas sold a field and brought the money to the feet of the apostles. If Barnabas was looking for status and prestige, his motive was wrong. But it is certainly false to say that it was wrong for others to be made aware of his gift because Scripture itself reveals that! Barnabas’ act of generosity was commonly known among the believers and was publicly and permanently recorded in Acts. Chapter 7 of the Book of Numbers lists the names of donors to the tabernacle. The Book of Chronicles tells exactly how much the leaders of Israel gave to build the temple. These recorded in Scripture for our encouragement and motivation.

Jesus does not object to the fact that people may know what you give, but give only for God, as an act of worship and to His greater glory. We need heroes in the Church. We need to know that our friends and leaders are giving. This motivates and challenges us to give even more sacrificially. The key is: why do you give? Do you give to please God or to impress people? When it comes to giving, make sure you do the right thing in the right way.

The second practice that Jesus puts before us is prayer without pride. Jesus’ teaching on prayer is the centerpiece of the entire Sermon on the Mount. Here, Jesus contrasts prideful and humble prayer: “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So, do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:5-8).

Again, Jesus’ concern is praying to impress others. He is not opposed to long prayers or public prayers except when you are seeking accolades from people. Jesus’ point is: When you pray to impress people, you are paid in full. Instead, pray in secret and receive a reward from God.

Perhaps a few questions will help you to assess your prayer rule as well as the motives for your prayers. Do I pray frequently or more fervently when I am alone with God than when I am in public? Is my public praying an overflow of my private prayer? What do I think of when I am praying in public? Am I looking for “just the right” phrase? Am I thinking of the worshipers more than of God? Am I a spectator to my own performance? Is it possible that the reason more of my prayers are not answered is that I am more concerned about bringing my prayer to men than to God? There is a right way and a wrong way to pray.

Jesus taught us the most perfect prayer, “The Lord’s Prayer.” In this beautiful but short prayer, there are a total of six petitions. There are three petitions that promote God’s glory and there are three petitions that concern our well-being. This pattern indicates that we should have more concern for God than we do for ourselves. Let us take a few minutes to explore this powerful prayer that has been an integral part of our Orthodox Catholic Faith for more than 2,00o years.

In the first petition, Jesus tells us to pray and how to pray: “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy Name.’” In this first petition, we do not ask God for anything. Rather, we worship Him. we acknowledge Him as our Eternal and Heavenly Father, and we praise and glorify His Holy Name.

The word “our” demonstrates that this prayer is for the gathered community, not merely for private use. Only fifteen times was God referred to as the Father in the Old Testament. Where it does occur, it is used in reference to the nation Israel or to the king of Israel. Never was God called the Father of an individual or of human beings in general. He was always called Yahweh and Adonai.

In the New Testament, Jesus comes on the scene and emphasizes the fatherhood of God. He expands the intimacy that we can have as we approach God in prayer. However, God is not our pal, our buddy, or “the man upstairs” - He is our Father who is in heaven! He is the Most High, the Eternal and Everlasting God, and He still expects to be approached with awe.

The word “hallowed” means set apart. “Name” refers to personhood and character. To understand why God's name should be hallowed, we first need to understand that the Jews (God's chosen people) had different naming customs than we do today. To a Jew, a person's name was more than just a way to identify them physically; their name also reflected their nature. Jews named their children in a way that expressed the child's mission in life. Because of this custom, the Jewish people had about 16 different names for God in the Hebrew Old Testament. Each name reflected a different aspect of God's character, so God's names were considered by the Jews to be just as holy as God Himself. In fact, God's names were and are so holy to the Jews, that they never write His full name for fear of bringing disrespect to it and to God.

In the Lord's Prayer, the phrase, "Hallowed be Thy name" is appropriate, because not only is God holy, but His name is holy too. We should never treat God's name with disrespect as some do when they curse and use God's name in vain. We should give the same respect and honor to God's name that we give to God because He and His name are one in the same. 

In the second petition, Jesus says pray, “Your kingdom come.” In the New Testament, God’s kingdom is expressed as both a present reality and a future consummation. Jesus inaugurated His kingdom during His earthly ministry, but the fulfillment of His kingdom will not be fully consummated until He sets His feet down in Jerusalem and rules and reigns. When this occurs, we will experience a theocracy (not a democracy) where Jesus is King.

In the third petition, Jesus tells us to pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a prayer for God’s control of earth and our life as He has of heaven. In heaven, the angels respond to God’s commands perfectly and immediately. God expects this same type of obedience from us. This means that we go into our day saying, “Lord, I want to live this day for You. May Your will be done in my marriage, my family, my work, and my church. Use me to fulfill Your will perfectly and immediately. I do not want to make You look bad. I want to be Your representative.”

The fourth petition deals with our personal needs. Jesus tells us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Here, Jesus is not just talking about food. “Bread” is a figure of speech, which represents our needs. It is interesting that twice in this brief sentence we have an emphasis on “today.” “Give us today what we need today.” Jesus only promises us TODAY, not tomorrow, next week, or next year. He wants us to live in daily dependence upon Him. After all, none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Jesus wants us to know that we do not provide for ourselves, neither does the company we work for, our spouse, or our family. He alone meets our needs.

The fifth petition deals with our interpersonal relations. Here, Jesus tells us to pray: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus assumes that you and I will forgive. He goes on to say, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” These words are not included in the Lord’s Prayer, but they are worth paying particular attention to and giving thought to their full weight.

Jesus promises forgiveness if we forgive others. He explicitly states that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us! This may sound severe but remember the underlying ethic in Jesus’ teaching is love—love for your heavenly Father and love for people. God loves you so much that He will allow you to come face to face with your sin. He will confront you with your refusal to forgive by withholding communion with Him. This is to bring about deep repentance and restoration of the love between the parties involved. So, how should you respond in light of Jesus’ words? I propose that you do three things.

First, remember the debt you have been forgiven. There are five key Greek words in the New Testament for sin. Only one is used in the Lord’s Prayer. It is the word translated “debts” but it can also mean “sin,” hence some translations of the Lord’s Prayer use the word “trespasses” instead of debt. If we think about the word debt, we know this word has to do with a balance owed. That is why Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts.” Every time you sin, you go into debt to God. You have taken on an obligation you cannot possibly meet. It is like maxing out your credit cards when you are out of work and have no income to make the monthly payments. Sooner or later, collection agencies are going to start calling you, demanding payment.

Sin makes us overdrawn debtors to God even though we are already Christians. As a result, our fellowship with God is broken. Only compassion and forgiveness can balance the books. The more aware we are of our great evil (and sin, no matter what kind of sin it is, is evil because we spit in the face of God every time we do something wrong) the more we will be able to forgive.

If you feel that you are not as sinful as the next person, then forgiveness will not be one of your character traits. However, if you know God’s forgiveness you will forgive, for a forgiven person is a forgiving person. Today, will you see anew and afresh the enormous debt that you owe God? Will you choose to see the sin that still pervades your life even though you are an Orthodox Catholic Christian? Will you repent before God so that you can forgive those who sin against you?

The suggestion I have for you is that you rely on the Holy Spirit to enable you to forgive. The word “forgive” (aphiemi) literally means “to release, to let go of.” Simply put, forgiveness is letting go of my right to hurt you for hurting me. In the New Testament, the word forgiveness was used primarily to describe the release of someone from a financial obligation. Forgiveness gives up the right to hurt back. When you forgive someone, you are saying, “What that person did to me was wrong. He has hurt me deeply and deserves to pay for his offense. But today I am releasing him from the obligation he has toward me. I am not forgiving him because he has asked to be forgiven or deserves to be forgiven. I am forgiving him because of the tremendous forgiveness God has offered me.”

Does biblical forgiveness work like a charm? Not in the sense that you may think. Although I have forgiven various individuals, fleshly thoughts toward these individuals still rear their ugly head. When this occurs, whether it is hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly, my goal is to release my negative emotions to the Lord. Forgiveness does not mean that you will forget, it means you let go of your desire to retaliate and seek retribution Instead, you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Obviously, this requires supernatural empowerment which only the Holy Spirit can give.

My third suggestion is this: recognize the personal benefit of forgiveness. It is possible to develop a root of bitterness that will defile you and many others. If you choose not to forgive, you will be the one who suffers. In the end, those whom you do not forgive are holding you as a hostage. Stop for just a moment and think about the person or persons that you have chosen not to forgive. Not forgiving those who wrong you is like carrying around a bag of rocks. The burden is heavy and can make one’s life exhausting and miserable. The angry we bear in our heart affects everything we do. This is what happens when you refuse to forgive. Often, we think of forgiveness as a gift to the other person, but it clearly is a gift to ourselves.  Save yourself some grief. Unload your unforgiveness today.

The sixth and last petition of the Lord’s Prayer deals with God’s protection. This final petition deals with our spiritual concerns. Jesus tells us to pray, “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” If this passage teaches that God leads us into temptation, then does that not contradict what is written in the Letter of St. James, wherein the Apostle tells us that God does not tempt anyone? The word translated “temptation” (peirasmos) can mean “temptation,” “testing,” or “trial.”

Prior to the time of the New Testament, this word only meant “testing” or “trial.” The New Revised Standard Version translates this word “trial”. If their understanding is correct, Jesus apparently is teaching that we should pray that God allow us to escape from trials. The idea of escape or deliverance is carried on in the second part of the petition “deliver us from evil.” Most English versions read: “deliver us from the evil one” rather than simply “deliver us from evil.” Either translation is possible and acceptable but “deliver us from the evil one” is the better translation, particularly since the Gospel of St. Matthew records the temptation of Jesus by Satan, the evil one.

The point of all of this is that we are incapable of handling spiritual problems on our own. We need God’s help. He alone is capable of handling each and every problem we face.

As we come to the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer, I want to make mention that many Bibles have a final sentence either in brackets or as a footnote. Scholars tell us that these words are probably not part of the original prayer taught by Jesus, but that they were added later as a doxology of praise. Although they may not be part of the original, they make a fitting conclusion to the prayer: “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Whether inspired or not, these words remind us that God is great and that He is in control. As you reflect on these words, please recognize that when you fail to pray you are basically saying that you can make it on your own. This is the epitome of arrogance. So acknowledge your need and pray without pride.

Jesus’ final topic of instruction deals with fasting. In a world of golden arches and pizza temples, this is a hard word. We are gluttons who worship food. Nevertheless, Jesus says, “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Mondays and Thursdays. But when they fasted, they looked miserable and tried to draw attention to themselves. They seemed to say, “Look at me; I’m fasting!” They are like some politicians who ride in helicopters over natural disasters. Their faces are grim and mournful, but it is only a “photo op.” Jesus says, “Do not be like them!” Instead, look to the positive examples in Scripture.

Old Testament believers fasted (Nehemiah 9:1-2; Daniel 9:2-20). Jesus fasted in preparation for His earthly ministry and implied that Christian disciples would fast following His brief ministry.  The Early Church fasted as well (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23 and Corinthians 6:5; 11:27). Yet, fasting is not commanded in any of the New Testament letters. However, fasting still seems to be assumed, even though it is not commanded.

So, what exactly is fasting? In Scripture, fasting is typically a time of abstaining from food for the purpose of devoting one’s self and one’s time to the Lord. We should not think of fasting as a way to get something from God. We fast as one means of drawing closer to God. You become keenly aware of your dependence on God when you are very hungry. This is designed to stir us toward God. But be careful of your motives. Do not think things like, “This will help me lose weight or purify my system.” Fasting is to purify the believer’s heart, to spend time focusing on God, to learn to deny the physical in order to grow the spiritual. Fasting is for repentance, for sorrow, for purification. Fasting helps us become more sensitive to God. If you are going to fast, make sure that your doctor gives you the freedom to do so. The motive and manner are crucial; the length, frequency, and intensity depend entirely upon one’s physical, spiritual, and medical condition. Always discuss your fasting rule with your priest or spiritual father. He will guide you as to what you should do so that fasting achieves the most spiritual good and benefits as possible. Remember, Jesus cares only about our motives. This is why He says, “Give without fanfare, pray without pride, and fast without notice.” It has been said, “The secret of religion is religion in secret.” Who are you when no one is looking? That is the ultimate question. Do the right thing in the right way.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

Archpastoral Letter for the 2018 World Day of the Sick - (February 11, 2018)

Beloved of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church: Faithful, Friends, Benefactors, and Supporters:

The grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all!

The Gospels speak of Jesus’ great concern and love for the sick. On several occasions, He went out of His way to respond to the needs of one in need of healing. We read how He cured the sick and restored them to friendship with His Father. The Church continues Jesus’ ministry of caring for the sick with deep compassion and respect for human dignity.

The Gospels also reveal our Savior experiencing the depth of human suffering and death itself. Jesus suffered and died for our sake in loving obedience to His Heavenly Father; that is how He redeemed us. “Dying, He destroyed our death; rising, He restored our life.”

By suffering, dying, and rising, the Lord gave the mystery of human suffering and death a profound and salvific meaning. Seen in the light of Jesus’ redeeming love, sickness can bring believers into close proximity with this immense love and overcome all that separates them from God. Through this union with our suffering Lord, people of faith often experience deep inner healing and reconciliation; they can help others to open their hearts more fully to Him. To be sure, the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church teaches the importance of preserving life and prays for the health and healing of its members.

The Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church also teaches that futile or excessively burdensome treatment may be withheld or discontinued after profound prayer and an honest use of conscience. Through this balanced and compassionate teaching, the Church provides guidance and helps us make morally sound decisions about the course of our health care even as it helps us prepare for death with the unwavering hope of eternal life.

The Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church continues Christ’s ministry to the sick and dying through Orthodox Catholic health care services and ministries and through many committed Orthodox Catholic laymen and women who devote themselves to the care of their sick brothers and sisters.

Christ’s love of the sick and suffering also is continued through the Holy Mysteries of the Church. In offering the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Holy Anointing, and Holy Communion, the priest brings to those who are ill the loving and redeeming touch of Christ. In these moments rich with grace, the priest, acting in the Person of Christ, brings to the patient forgiveness, inner healing, and strength for what lies ahead. Together with the priest, deacons, religious, lay ministers, and volunteers share with the patient, and with the patient’s family, the Good News of Jesus, the Gospel of Life and salvation. And of course, the Christian family – the domestic church – ministers to their sick family members and friends through their kind words, helpful deeds, and loving presence. Through God’s grace, patients are enabled to unite their sufferings with the Lord’s that they may share His everlasting joy and glory.

We must never be indifferent to human suffering. As believers, we reach out in love to suffering persons because we see Christ in them. Furthermore, our faith enables us to see the suffering that serious illness entails as an opportunity to share in Christ’s redemptive suffering.

The Church encourages us to pray and dedicate our pain and fear to help others and ourselves; to offer our dependency, helplessness, and suffering to God on behalf of others. With the help of medical science, however, we try to bring to the suffering as much comfort and relief as possible, but never through euthanasia.

The Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church endorses programs of pain management, palliative care, and hospice care in accord with Orthodox Catholic ethical principles and morals. In essence, if a person’s condition includes physical pain, he or she may request pain-relieving medication in dosages sufficient to manage the pain. If the person is dying and pain management should require increasingly greater dosages of medication, the patient or a health care agent may ask that the dosages be increased in increments sufficient to manage the pain, even if the patient is made less alert or responsive, or if this increase should, as a side effect, hasten death. Pain medication, however, must never be given for the purpose of hastening death. Pain management is critical in the appropriate care of the dying.

We all tend to defer thoughts of serious illness and death until the last possible moment. Yet throughout our lives, reflecting on the tremendous gift and fragility of human life promotes a spirit of gratitude and a greater desire to care for this gift. We should prayerfully cultivate the virtue of prudence and reflect on the deep truths of our Orthodox Catholic faith about the value of human life and our calling to life everlasting.

We need to know the Church’s moral teaching on the sanctity of life and understand the principles that derive from that teaching. We do all this with hope for everlasting life; the Church continues to urge us to pray for the grace of a happy death.

From time to time, it is helpful to discuss these matters with a parish priest or one’s spiritual father. Clearly, we are not entirely free to do whatever we wish when we make decisions about the care of our own life and health. We are called to preserve and protect our lives with prudence for the service of God, family, and neighbor. When professional medical care is needed, we must consent to the reasonable use of prudence. Prudence helps the Christian in the face of moral dilemmas.

I encourage everyone to always make proper use of appropriate medical and support services so that we do not neglect our own well-being and the spiritual and family obligations that are ours. Beyond these normal efforts, we are at liberty to employ or to refuse the techniques of modern medicine that may entail excessive difficulty or risk. It is morally acceptable to interrupt such treatments when they are no longer beneficial or have become disproportionately difficult.

Healing is not seen as a single goal or even a main thrust of the Church’s rites. Suffering is a mystery. This does not mean that a sleuth-like approach will always result in a neat, clear-cut, and desired solution. The cause and purpose of suffering often lie beyond rational understanding. The believer searches for deeper meaning when encountering a mystery. We begin with what we know: first, the link between illness and salvation, and second, that Christ’s words and promises are verified and made manifest in His healings as well as His compassion.

Not only is this sound Orthodox Catholic theology, but the Jewish prophetic tradition also explored this theme. While it was once thought that outward signs in one’s life point to misfortune, that is not always the case. Certainly, there are cause-and-effect connections: a lifelong chain smoker may suffer from lung cancer. And nicotine may well be the killing agent. But not all smokers develop cancer, and not all cancer sufferers are smokers. All of this is a mystery.

It was once often thought that if one became sick, especially terminally ill, it was a punishment imposed by God for one’s sins. This was especially true when someone was diagnosed with AIDs and suffered a slow, agonizing, and painful death. But such a belief, which is still common among many Protestant confessions, has no relation to the God which we, as Orthodox Catholic Christians, profess and know.

While we should always accept illness with grace, dignity, and holy resolve, resistance to it is not futile. A believer need not passively accept illness as a punishment. We should always fight strenuously against all sickness. This applies especially to caregivers and medical professionals as well as family members and the individual.

The proper behavior of all Orthodox Catholic Christians should be that healthy believers will be open to the witness of those who are sick. That is why we have a presumption of public, not private, rites, and that the parish is ideally involved in ministry to the sick: liturgically, charitably, and in all appropriate ways.

This presumption lays the groundwork for the theological and liturgical approach the Church takes in its rites of pastoral care for the sick and the dying. Because of this, we assume a rejection of the older biblical passages that link suffering to personal sin. Moral blame is not the Christian understanding of suffering.

We see in the Church’s prayers, hymns, readings, and rites used in the pastoral care of the sick and dying that they reflect and support the Church’s theology, teach it by celebration, and reinforce it pastorally for those who are sick, those who minister to the sick, as well as the main body of the faith community.

Ministry to the sick is to be exercised by all believers. Remember the traditional work of mercy? Caring for and consoling the sick? Remember also that the Church sees all lay people involved with the sick: loved ones, medical personnel, clergy, and other lay people as sharing a “ministry of comfort.” This seems a reasonable definition of ministry: accomplishing a task as Christ would, and always explicitly in His name and always for the greater glory of God.

The sick are not out-of-sight, out-of-mind for the praying, believing community. The prayers we offer at Divine Services, especially in the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Mystery of Anointing, are the way that we stay connected with the sick, suffering, and infirm. They are the spiritual medicines that the Church uses in treating, helping, and caring for all those who are sick. They complement and support the medical procedures and treatments a patient receives and together, they give the patient the knowledge that everything necessary and profitable for their recovery and healing is being done for them.

On this World Day of the Sick, let none of us forget the necessary role we all play in the care of and service to the sick, suffering, and dying. This work of mercy and compassion is not to be considered simply a work of charity to be done once in a while, but a way of life characteristic of a true disciple of Jesus Christ who truly lives in and for Him.

May we all pray and work constantly for the health, well-being, and salvation of all God’s people, especially the members of our parish churches and domestic churches.

To all of you, I extend my archpastoral blessing and wishes for health, peace, length of days, happiness, and joy in the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Paternally yours in Christ,

+ Archbishop Stephen
Most Rev. Archbishop Stephen J. Enea
Primate of the Italo-Greek (Italo-Byzantine)  Orthodox Catholic Church       

Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgment - (February 11, 2018)

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

Some of you are involved in our annual Wednesday Lenten Lunch Program at the cathedral where at 1 p.m. we gather to distribute and deliver bag lunches to our hungry friends and neighbors. Once again, beginning this coming Wednesday, some of us will brave the bitter cold of the winter season and the more bitter cold of the cathedral vestibule to feed and in other ways comfort our brothers and sisters in need. In the 16 years that we have been conducting this ministry of service, I counted only 19 times that we were unable to do our work because of inclement weather. At this moment, I would like to thank those of you who have volunteered in past years as well as those who have volunteered this here for this good work. You know how deeply I appreciate your commitments to the meager efforts of our community to bring the love and compassion of Christ to the less fortunate, the suffering, and the wanting of our neighborhood and our city. May God bless all of you for the work you do in His name.

I would like to tell you a story of an experience I had last year during one of Wednesday Lenten Lunches. Once we had completed our distribution at the cathedral, I went to deliver a box of sandwiches, some containers of homemade soup, bread, fruit juice, and fruit to one of our new families who joined our program in 2016. I knocked on the door and had to wait a few minutes, even though there seemed to be many people inside before someone came to open the door. As the door opened, I was greeted by a completely naked little kid – maybe 3 or 4 years old, and a man and woman whom I assumed were the child’s parents. The parents did not seem to think about the naked child standing in the open doorway; they just let the kid stand there jumping around and running in the hallway.  As I entered the apartment, I was taken by surprise because it seemed there were more family members in residence than the previous week.

The parents and two other little ladies embraced me, almost knowing me off my feet, and said, “We are so glad you are here. We didn’t know what we were going to do for food tonight!!!” They grabbed the box from my hands and scurried to the kitchen, where they put the box on the table. The box of food quickly became like a bowl of honey with bees swarming all around. Multiple hands were pulling items out of the box faster than you could imagine.

I told the woman and man who greeted me at the door that there was not enough food to feed all the people in the apartment. They gleefully told me, “it’s okay… it’s ok Abuna, there is more than enough food here for everyone! I said, “How can that be? I brought only enough food for five people! I counted fourteen here! The woman laughed. She said, “Abuna, you stay and see. I will show you just how we did it in our country.” All of all sudden, like a determined general, the woman clapped her hands, and everybody started doing something. Within two hours, the table was filled with food enough for all the people in the apartment to have a decent meal.

To this day, I do not know how they did it. As the woman told me before dinner began, which they asked me to bless, they had scrimped and saved to bring over her and her husband’s parents and their grandparents from Ethiopia. The following week and thereafter, I made sure to bring them some extra food so that they did not have to stretch too far.

You never know what you are going to encounter when you engage in these kinds of ministries. It is really an eye-opener. Sometimes it tugs at your heart, and sometimes it makes you angry, even to the point of crying because of the hardship you see. But that day, I really felt as if Jesus Himself was in that apartment working a miracle that multiplied a simple box of food into a nourishing and complete meal for fourteen of His children. And because of that, it makes me thankful to be able to take a small part, and it makes me happy. Not because I did something good, but because Christ was glorified by my small effort.

That is the message I want to share with you this morning. It is not by works alone that you will get into heaven. It is the faith in Christ that you have that brings about the fruit of good works. Good deeds without faith, without being done in the name of Christ, are empty deeds. Any person of good will, and even those of not-so-good will, can do good things, but only a person who has faith in Christ and understands the true meaning of serving others will do good works consistently, as an integral part of their life, because they know that they are in Christ and Christ is in them. Without Christ, nothing is possible; but with Him and in Him, all things good are possible, and do happen.

We know that Christ alone is the Giver of all good, and that which we receive from Him must be given back to Him one-hundredfold by doing good for and sharing with those less fortunate than ourselves. If we do not do for others, if we do not serve them as we would serve Christ, if we do not give and do with genuine charity and love in our hearts, then we shall face judgment and the justice of God on the last day.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us that when He returns “All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate (us) one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The sheep are gathered on the right side of Christ, the side of approval and honor; and the goats on the left side, for condemnation.

Now the criteria for judgment may be astonishing for some of us. On the Day of Judgment, Jesus will not ask anyone about their creeds or their standing in the community. He will not ask them what denomination they are. But instead, He will ask: “What did you do for the poor family down the street? Ever make any visits to the local jail?” The hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, the physically afflicted, the mentally challenged, the drug, alcohol, and sex addicted, the oppressed, the poor…what have you done or not done for them?”

The clear message is this:  God so intimately identifies with human beings that to care for another person is to care for Him. To ignore the plight of another is to ignore Jesus Himself. I do not know about you, but I sure am thankful that Jesus cares so deeply about those of us who are hurting, suffering, and basically imperfect. That is why His judgments in this regard are just.

The ironic thing is this. When we answer those questions that Jesus will surely ask each of us on the day of judgment, it will not be the Lord who will judge us guilty or not guilty. We shall bring judgment upon ourselves because we will reveal our true selves before the Lord and all of mankind; all people from the creation of man to that very day. We will decide what our fate will be and the Lord of all will meet out His justice accordingly. On that day, there will be no second chances, no bargaining, and no pleading. There will only be Heaven or Hell.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is continually healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, touching the lepers, feeding the hungry, showing love to the marginalized: the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the demon-possessed, even persons called Samaritans and Gentiles, people of different ethnicities and religions. In the eyes of God, there are no Blacks or Whites, no Asians or Hispanics, no heterosexuals or homosexuals, no blind or lame, no rich or poor, no intelligent or unintelligent, no male or female. There will only man, a creature made by God in His own image and likeness. The only thing God will want to know and be concerned with on the Day of Judgment is how much like Him we all were while we were alive on earth.

There are so many people who are living on the margins, in fear, in darkness, and despair, all without hope. And it is God’s yearning that we, His children, will live in love for one another. With a parent and child, or a husband and wife, the bond can be so closely bound that the misfortune of one becomes the misfortune of the other, but the bond between Jesus Christ and humankind is even closer than this.

Our gladness or sadness not only affects Jesus, it is a part of Him. He is troubled by our sorrows, not from a distance, but in His very heart. Therefore, when we help one another, we are, in all reality, helping Jesus, and Jesus comes to know us and we come to know Him through this helping.

Remember in Matthew, Chapter 7, when Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of My Father who is in heaven”? Well, we find the will of the Father here, in Chapter 25:31-46 of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew writes not about “social justice” but about life in God. One of the problems with the Church today is that She, in the person of many of Her bishops, priests, and laity, have greatly politicized Jesus’ words. Christ is not interested in social justice. In fact, Jesus was not even interested in it while He walked, preached, and ministered on earth. Jesus was interested only in man’s relationship with God and man’s life in God. In other words, Jesus’s mission on earth was to reconcile man with God and to re-establish man’s existence with God as it was before the Fall…a life IN God, in perfect communion and community.

We have turned Jesus’ words and commands into “charitable works,” but Jesus is talking about a way of life which manifests a reality of community wherein all become one and are one in the Father through Him by the working of the Holy Spirit.

We are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, make friends with the stranger, clothe the naked, look after the sick, and visit those who are in prison not because they are good things to do and will score us points with God, but because they are what a life in Christ, a life in God, is all about.

In the Orthodox Catholic Church, we speak of our relationship with God in terms of “theosis” or “deification,” which is the fruit of our life’s work on earth. When we achieve theosis, we will look straight into the eyes of Christ. That is why we try to conform ourselves so intimately to Him. It is what the Church means when She proclaims and affirms the eternal truth that all men and women have been created in the image and likeness of God.  Knowing this, we can never look at another person the same way again. In every human being, we encounter in our lives is Christ God. How we treat our fellow man is how we treat Christ.

The Day of Judgment is not something we should take likely or ignore altogether. Listen to a description of what that day will be like as it is described by St. John in the Book of Revelation: “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from His presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that was in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that was in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-20).

I hope St. John’s vision helps give an impression of just how incredible the Last Judgment will be. Billions of people in front of God, being separated into two halves – one half being welcomed to their inheritance, those standing on the right; and the other half condemned to eternal punishment. I suspect that the crowd on God’s right will be smaller than the crowd on God’s left. The most probable reason for this is that most people do not believe that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. In fact, many people do not believe in Christ at all. So, is it any wonder that the goats will outnumber the sheep?

Jesus starts His teaching about the Last Judgment by using a very familiar image of separating sheep and goats. It is not a straightforward process unless done by a skilled shepherd. Sheep and goats look fairly similar and were often allowed to graze together during the day. At night time, however, they had to be separated because the goats need more protection from the cold than the sheep. The way to tell them apart is to look at their tails: goat’s tails go up, sheep’s tails go down.

Having separated them, Jesus then begins to speak to the sheep telling them to take the inheritance that was prepared for them from creation. The word inheritance implies a relationship, so the sheep are getting only what is their due. The reason they are getting it is that they have behaved just as their Father would have them behave. The goats, on the other hand, have not behaved in the way their creator would have them behave.

Notice that both the sheep and the goats ask exactly the same question: “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? When did we see You a stranger and invite You in, or needing clothes and clothe You? When did we see You sick or in prison and go to visit You?’

Notice also, that both groups start their question with the word “Lord.” There can be no denying God here. There are no atheists now. There are no agnostics now. This is the time mentioned in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2:10-11. “… at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). It is obvious who Jesus is, the creator of the universe, the son of God, the judge of mankind.

Notice though that the way the Lord responds to each group is different. To the sheep, He says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me”, but to the goats, He says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me.” Which leaves us with the question who does Jesus say are His brothers?

The short answer is this: we are all mankind are the brothers and sisters of Jesus because Jesus shares our humanity. He became one of us in the flesh. Also, there is an even more intimate relationship that Christians alone have with Jesus and that is that we are baptized into His Body. By Baptism, we are washed clean of our sin and become a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. This relationship does not exist with those who do not profess belief in Jesus Christ as God.

Jesus’ sharing in our humanity and our being made members of His Body imposes upon us a twofold obligation. Where there is suffering, oppression, and injustice experienced by our fellow human beings, we are called to do what we can to relieve it and eradicate it. At the same time, we are especially encouraged, to see to it that all members of the Body of Christ are especially looked after and cared for. St. Paul attests to this in his Letter to the Galatians, saying: “Therefore, as we have the opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10).

Politics has no place in the work the Lord has commanded us in the Gospels to do. Jesus did not speak or teach as a politician, philosopher, social worker, etc. He spoke only as God and Lord. His words, the words of the Creator and Ruler of all things, were backed up by the example of His life. Thus, His teachings and the example of His life call us to follow Him and continue His work until He comes again in glory.

If you believe that salvation can be bought simply by doing good works, you are going to be greatly disappointed on the Day of Judgment. Also, you are going to be completely out of luck. As I said earlier, there will be no second chance to make things right at that point in time. In a similar vein, those of you who believe that you will get to heaven by faith alone, that good are not necessary, you too shall be very disappointed. Remember the words of St. James: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17)

The truth is that you do not do good works to get into heaven, you do good works because you already have a relationship with Jesus. If you say you are a disciple of Jesus, you will do what He did, and have the same attitudes as Him. If you say you are a Christian you cannot ignore God’s people or any of God’s creation. If you think that Jesus came with some wonderful teaching and some good ideas, then be very careful how you try to implement those good ideas. If they end up ignoring the plight of the worst off, you will end up with the goats.

That seems to be what has happened with the goats. Their main sin seems to be one of omission. In their busyness, their greed, or their complacency, they have simply overlooked those who are in need and lived their lives for themselves. They have used their strength to make their own lives comfortable and have left the needy to fend for themselves. Some of them have used their strength and resources to exploit those in need and to make their lives even harder than they would otherwise be. Whichever it is, come Judgment Day, they will find themselves among the goats, and the consequences will not be good. In fact, they will be hell. So, do you want to be among the sheep or the goats? Now is the time to decide.


Homily for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son - (February 4, 2018)

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

When I was a child, I do not know, maybe 6 or 7 years old, I went for a walk to discover the neighborhood in which I lived. I ended up about four blocks away, at my school and the playground where I would play with my fr4iends during recess. There I met some of the kids I knew from school. I must have been gone a long time that day because my mom was frantic. She got all the neighbors and kids to go looking for me. When it began to get late in the afternoon, I started walking home and was confronted with some people who had been looking for me all afternoon. When my mom saw me about a block away, she ran to me, hugged me, and then spanked me all the way home.

That story ended on a good note. But every year, about 2 million children are lost to their parents. Some run away. Some are kidnapped. Some are kidnapped and put into sex trafficking. I cannot imagine the panic, despair, and grief that a parent experiences when they have lost their child. Can you imagine? What would you do if one of your children got lost, not for a few minutes in the mall, not for an hour, but what could be forever? What would YOU do?

Luke 15 starts out with the scribes and Pharisees being upset with Jesus because He was eating with and socializing with tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were universally hated by their fellow Jews because they collected taxes for the hated Roman invaders and even worse, extorted extra money to line their pockets. Sinners included a broad category of thieves, prostitutes, and generally irreligious folks. The religious folk did not have anything to do with the irreligious folk. And when Jesus spent time with the irreligious and enjoyed their company, the religious folk began to grumble.

Knowing the hardness of their hearts, Jesus launched into three of the most well-known parables He ever taught. Remember that a parable comes from two Greek words “para” meaning "alongside" and “ballo”, meaning "to throw or throw down." So, a parable is a story thrown down alongside a truth to illustrate it.

The first parable in Chapter 15 of St. Luke’s Gospel was about a shepherd who lost one of his sheep. He risked the ninety-nine to go after The One. The second parable was about a woman who had lost a coin. She turned her house upside down searching for The One. Now, this third parable takes on a more personal dimension: it is about a father whose son had chosen a path that separated himself from his father, and a father whose heart ached because of the separation and who celebrated when the son finally did come home.

The actions of the father toward the first son is shocking. This son asks for his inheritance. Normally, and inheritance is given when a father dies but not while he is alive. It is as if the son looks at the father and says, “I wish you were dead.” Wow! How would that feel?

The shocking part is that the father gives him what he asked for. Have you ever been in a position, as you watch your children fall into traps, where you know from the get-go that they are going to fail? You give them advice and yet they fall into the traps of the world. This is not an easy thing to watch.

But notice the love of the father. He gives as the son requests. We do not know how long the son was gone. It could have been weeks, or it could have been years.  But what we do know is that the money soon runs out and the pleasures cease. The money is squandered. Nothing left to show. Now this son is regulated to helping in the “pig pen.” Nowhere to turn but to go back home. At least he could be his father’s servant.

If you are here this morning and you feel like you are lost and separated from the Father; if you feel like you have been squandering your life in foolish living, there is a message here for you straight from your heavenly Father: It is time to come home. He longs for your return. You have nothing to offer Him except yourself. Jesus is telling this parable because that is why He came: so that if you will come to your senses and seek the mercy and forgiveness of God, you will be redeemed.

Brothers and sisters, close your eyes and listen carefully to my words: You can bring nothing to God that will make you acceptable to Him. It is only by your repentance and faith that redemption can come to you. If you confess your sins, repent of them, and make sincere, honest, and fruitful satisfaction, then your sins will be forgiven you, and a great and heavy burden will be lifted from your shoulders. Then, and only then, will your eyes be opened, and your hearts illumined that you may see just how much you are loved by God and how much He wants you to come back to Him.

Open your eyes and let us continue with the parable. Somebody is not happy about this reunion and celebration. Who is it? Well, besides the fatted calf, the older brother is certainly not happy, at all. Let us think about why Jesus told this parable.

Jesus was really aiming these three parables, this last one in particular, at the scribes and Pharisees who had been grumbling because Jesus was socializing with and loved being with the sinners and irreligious. He knew that they were searching for something. He knew their hearts were heavy and their lives filled. He understood their pain and their suffering.

Some of us who walked in here today were or are typical of the younger son. We may remember the days when we were lost; we may remember the day we were found. But most of us here this morning are typical of the older son, possessing three not-so-nice and unattractive characteristics to some degree. They are indifference, a sense of entitlement, and, self-centered.

The older son showed great indifference to the pain and heartache of his father. While the father was looking and longing for the return of his estranged son, what did the older son do? He went about his business, taking care of the chores and work necessary to care for the estate. While admirable, it indicates a lack of concern for the one who was lost and separated from his father.

I appreciate the service you give to our Heavenly Father: greeting at the doors, leading worship, teaching children, mentoring your small group members. And the Father appreciates it as well. But in our serving, are we forgetting the ones who are not here? Are we concerned and burdened and longing for their return, praying for them and witnessing to them in the hopes that they will come to their senses and come home?

Sometimes we suffer from a sense or feelings of entitlement. What did the older son say to his father? “Look at what I’ve done for you! Don’t I deserve some special treatment as well?”

What happens to us after a while is that we begin to feel entitled. For example, some people refuse to regularly volunteer their time and talent to the Church because they feel that since they spent years doing it, it is time for others to step up and for them to relax. In other words, they “did their time” and fulfilled their “obligation” which means they are in good standing with the Church and are therefore entitled to a special consideration. Unfortunately, they are sorely mistaken. Another example would be when I ask people to make room for people who are new and nervous and may be far from God so that it is easier for them to find a seat and still a bunch of you cling to your chair or your “space” because you feel entitled. The longer we are believers, the more we feel entitled to special treatment. And finally, another example. How about those people who demand that their priest do this or that, or make this consideration or accommodation simply because they donate large sums of money to the Church? That is one that really gets my goat. That is the line in the sand for me. That is when I say, “Thanks, but no thanks. I would serve Divine Services in a barn before I would sell my soul to the devil.”

Finally, we can be self-centered. Jesus finishes this story with the father pleading with the son to rejoice with him; to be excited and joyful and to celebrate with him. There is no indication that he did. Jesus ends the story abruptly and in such a way that the question is left open for the listener to respond to: Am I going to have the heart of the older son? Or am I going to have the heart of the Father?

How will you answer the question? Will you remain indifferent, entitled, and self-centered, or will you long for, seek out, and actively participate in the mission of finding the lost and uniting them with the Father?

Like many of you, I fight those three characteristics. But I am praying like never before that God will absolutely shake me to my core, burden my conscience to the point of pain, and empower me by His Spirit to be always on the lookout for those who seek to return to my Father’s house. I invite you to come home to your Father’s house if you feel lost, and I invite you to seek out and bring back those who have left our Father’s house and want to come back but are ashamed and scared. Let us run to meet them with open arms and tears of rejoicing. Nothing can make us feel better than forgiveness, mercy, and love.


Homily for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee - (January 28, 2018)

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

Today, we begin the period of the Lenten Triodion. This Sunday is known as the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, and it is the first of three preparatory Sundays before Great Lent begins. Each of the three preparatory Sundays has its own theme, all of which are related to Great Lent and which are intended to help us prepare for our Lenten journey, the holy season of intense prayer, fasting, and works of charity. The theme of this morning’s Gospel is concerned primarily with prayer, self-righteousness, and humility.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men: robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ I tell you this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

In Jesus’ time, the Pharisee would have been considered the good guy, he wore the white hat. He was a synagogue leader in his town. All Pharisees were super-religious men who were extremely careful about obeying the Torah, which is basically the first five books of the Old Testament. They also followed the Mishnah, which explained how to obey the Torah. There might be several chapters in the Mishnah devoted to one single verse in the Torah. In addition, they followed the Talmud, which was a commentary on the Mishnah. These guys lived by the book!

A tax collector, on the other hand, was considered the scum of the earth, the very bottom of the religious food chain in Israel. Hired by the pagan Romans, he could charge exorbitant taxes and keep most of the money for himself. He was considered the villain, he wore the black hat. If you had been a good Jew listening to Jesus, when he mentioned the Pharisee, you would have cheered, “Yeah! Hurrah for the good guy!” When He mentioned the tax collector you would have cried, “Boo! Hiss! Boo!” But Jesus is always full of surprises. He introduced a good guy and a bad guy, and by the time He finished the parable, the good guy had become the bad guy and the bad guy became the good guy!

In case you still do not get the picture, I have written a modern paraphrase of this parable. I call it “The Parable of the Priest and the Gang-Banger Drug Dealer.”

As Father John walked into church one Sunday morning to prepare for Divine Liturgy, he was disgusted to see Larry Lowlife there, for Larry was a notorious local gang banger and drug dealer who had just gotten out of prison. Father John warned some of the ushers to keep a close watch on Larry because he was a no-good crook.

After finishing the vesting prayers and before beginning the Liturgy of Preparation, Fr. John, as was his custom, began to pray using his religious tone of voice, “Heavenly Father, I thank Thee that I’ve been a priest in this church for 20 years. I even remember when I built this building using my own two hands. And I thank Thee that I haven’t missed a single Sunday for over ten years. There were times, O Lord, when I was sick, but I came anyway. And Father, thou knowest I used to sing in the choir until I was persecuted by the choir director who simply just didn’t like me, but I can endure persecution just like Thou didst. Thou hast blessed me financially so I’ve been able to give you much more than 10 percent. I Thank thee that I’m morally pure for I don’t drink, and I don’t swear, I faithfully keep the fasts, and I don’t use drugs or sell them–like someone who is in this church today. Lord, continue Thy blessings upon me, that I may show the way of righteousness to Thy people. Amen.”

After pontificating for about 15 minutes with a homily that took great pains to point out his theological knowledge, Father John strolled out of church feeling good about himself because he made it through another Sunday. He liked leaving the church because he did not have to think about God again until the next Sunday.

Meanwhile, Larry Lowlife was slouched in the back pew. After hearing the message about God’s forgiveness, he slipped to his knees and began to pray. Holding his face in his hands he sobbed quietly, “God, I’m the dirtiest sinner in this town. I’m so sorry. I don’t deserve it, but is there any way you can wash away my filthy mistakes? Please, God, I need you!”

I tell you, it was Larry Newlife, not Father John, who went home that day right with God. For he who struts his stuff before God will eventually be slapped down. But when you admit you are like dirt compared to God’s purity, He will pick you up and clean you up.
So, I ask you: Are you more like Fr. John or Larry in that story? As we reflect on this morning’s Gospel, I encourage you to answer three important questions:

First, why did you come to Church? In the parable, both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector went to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. But when you examine their actions and attitudes, you discover they went for two different reasons. Why did you come today? To be seen?

Obviously, the Pharisee was at the temple for others to see how good he was. To him, it was a public performance and his behavior at the temple was just part of the script. He had given much thought to what he would wear, and where he would stand, and what he would say because there was an audience. When he arrived, he walked up to the front and stood before the people in his flowing robe with the ornate prayer shawl the Pharisees wore. It was just all part of the religious show for him. The words he prayed were not really directed toward God. He prayed to himself. He was there to be seen and to be heard by the other worshipers. Jesus warned about this kind of behavior in Matthew 6:5, “But when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.”

When you are preparing to come to church, are you thinking more about who will be there to see you than you are about worshipping and adoring God? Do you choose what you are going to wear based on what other people will think about you? I know you will not believe it, but some people actually come to church because they think it will help them in their business, or in politics, or will improve their social standing. Answer honestly: Why do you attend church?

We all struggle with the temptation of trying to please other people rather than pleasing God. Even during our time here, I constantly try to focus on just speaking to God rather than using Divine Services as merely an opportunity to “preach” to you. Do not get me wrong, I love to preach, but preaching is not about me, it is about teaching and speaking God’s heart. In other words, preaching is about Christ speaking to you through me.

Before I went to prison, I was often asked to lead in prayer at public functions away from the church. Actually, I do not get asked very much anymore, primarily because of the fact I was in prison, but it is also because most people have learned I am going to pray in the name of the Holy Trinity and that is not politically correct in our culture. But when I am asked to pray, I sincerely try to simply talk to God rather than to deliver some kind of cute sermonette in my prayer. We must all guard against praying so others will be impressed with what we say. Prayer should always be directed to God alone.

The tax collector represents another reason you might be here today. Did you come to seek God? The tax collector showed up because he was in trouble and he believed God could help him. His body language revealed his sense of unworthiness; he could not walk to the front of the crowd, instead, he kept his distance. He did not focus on the other people there, he focused on God.

Worship does involve an audience. But it is an audience of one. When we come to church, we should be primarily concerned about seeking God’s face. You may receive the applause of man, but you should be deaf to it. You should be listening only for the applause of the nail-scarred hands.

Why are you here today? Is it just your habit, a part of your weekend routine? Perhaps you came because your parents or your spouse pressured you to come. Or maybe you feel guilty if you do not come. Or did you come seeking to connect with the Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe? God says in Jeremiah 29:13, “‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you.’ declares the Lord.”

The next question I would like for you to think about is: What is your attitude in church? In the parable, Jesus showed two totally different attitudes people can display in worship. The Pharisee presented an attitude that said: I’m proud of my goodness.

In some instances, pride can be good. It is okay to say you are proud to be an American, or that you take pride in your neighborhood. But the Bible warns against the dangerous kind of pride characterized by self-love, egotism, and arrogance. This kind of pride is revealed in the prayer of the Pharisee. He wanted others to know about his goodness, so he bragged that he fasted, tithed, and kept all the commandments. Here is how you can recognize if you have pride in your heart: pride loves to talk about “I.”

In verse 11, the Pharisee used “I” and “me” several times. He said, “I thank you that I am not like other men...I fast twice a week, and I give a tithe of all I get.” Those are all good things to do. You should pray, you should fast, and you should tithe. But if you are doing it because you think it will get you into heaven, or make you appear to be a good person before others, those good things become dangerous.

The Bible says, “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18). According to Isaiah 14, once the devil was a beautiful angel named Lucifer. Pride filled his heart and he developed an “I” problem. He said, “I will ascend and make my throne with God, I will be like the Most High. I am going up!” But God said, “No, Lucifer, you are going down!’ That is really what pride is, reflecting the ego of the devil. Here is an acrostic for you to remember what pride is: It is the "Perverted Result of Imitating the Devil’s Ego."

Some people are happiest when they can talk about themselves. That is often a marker that they have a problem with pride. Someone once said that “pride is the only sickness everyone can recognize except the person who has it!” God must get a little weary of listening to proud prayers full of “gimme, gimme, gimme.” When some people pray it must sound like the lyrics to the country song by Toby Keith: “I wanna talk about me, I wanna talk about I; wanna talk about number one; oh my me my; What I think; what I like; what I know; what I want, what I see; I like talking about you, occasionally; but mostly, I wanna talk about me!”

All of us should have an occasional “I” exam. If you recorded your conversation and your prayers for 24 hours, how much of your talk would be centered on the big “I”?

Pride seldom admits a need. Pride gives a person a false sense of self-sufficiency. Have you ever heard the expression, “I’m too proud to ask for help?” When you are too proud to ask for help or admit you have a problem, you are too proud–period! When you ask a proud person how you can pray for them, they will often say, “Oh, I’m alright. There’s really nothing you need to pray for me about.” They say that because they are too proud to admit they have a need. They fear if they tell you where they’re hurting they’ll lose their facade of perfection and goodness.

Pride sees the faults of others. Did you notice the Pharisee was quick to criticize and condemn the tax collector? Pride blinds a person to their own faults and magnifies the failures and faults of others. When you compare yourself to someone else, you are using the wrong standard. God’s measuring stick is not the goodness or badness of another person; His standard is Jesus, how you measure up to Him.

I heard people justify their goodness by saying they have never robbed a bank or murdered someone. Sure, when you compare yourself to some serial murderer, you look like a moral hero. God does not grade on the curve. It does not matter if you are a little better than average. What matters is if you are a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.

I once read a story in which a man described a house in Scotland that was painted white. The house stood out clean and brilliant against the dark green backdrop of the grass-covered hills. One day it snowed, and the entire countryside was transformed into a winter wonderland. When the man looked at the cottage against the backdrop of the pure fallen snow, he noticed for the first time it was dingy and dirty. It was the same house, just a different backdrop. When you compare yourself to a rapist, you may appear to be morally clean, but when you stand up next to the purity of Jesus Christ, you see a different picture.

There was another attitude expressed in church. The tax collector displayed an attitude that said: I desperately need God’s mercy! The tax collector could not even lift up his head, he was so burdened by his own sinfulness. He pounded his fist on his chest, a spontaneous gesture of his agony over his sin. He uttered seven simple words with a voice broken with emotion: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” He literally said, “Be merciful to me, THE sinner,” as if he considered himself the chief among all sinners. You do not have to pray a long, eloquent prayer full of religious words. If you pray a simple prayer that comes from your heart, God hears you and He will answer you.

When the tax collector caught a glimpse of the greatness and holiness of God, he realized how dirty and filthy he was. The Bible says, “All our righteousness is as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Even the good things we do are dirty compared to the stark, brilliant holiness of God. When you see God for Who He is–holy, then you will be able to see yourself for who you really are–a fallen creature in desperate need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. That will humble you in a hurry.

I recall a great line from the movie “Rudy.” Rudy was an undersized kid who dreamed of playing football for Notre Dame. In one scene he was talking to an old Catholic priest. The priest told Rudy, “After all these years, there are only two things I’m totally certain about: (1) There is a God; and (2) I’m not Him!” Is that your attitude? Have you come to a place in your life where you know you cannot make it another moment without God’s mercy, peace, and forgiveness in your life?

C. S. Lewis wrote: “How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of God but are all the time imagining how He thinks them far better than ‘ordinary’ people. They pay a penny-worth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of Pride towards their fellow-men (or women)...The real test of being in the presence of God is, you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.”

The final question I want to ask you this morning is this: How will you leave here today? In the parable, Jesus said only one of the two men went home justified. “Justified” is a great Bible word meaning to be “right with God.” The only way you can be right with God is to receive His mercy and forgiveness. Whenever I read the word “justified” in the New Testament, I rejoice that God treats me “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned.

In verse 14, Jesus summarized the main principle of the parable: “He who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted. The message paraphrase of verse 14 is, “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” The world says, “Promote yourself, look out for #1.” God says, “Humble yourself, seek Me first.”

Just like in Jesus’ parable, you will go home today basically in one of two conditions. You may go home Unchanged–Religious and proud of it! The Pharisee was so committed to his religious observance that he could be proud of his performance. So, he went home unchanged. Thousands of people attend church Sunday after Sunday, but they leave exactly the way they come in. To them, religious observance is something they DO so they can be proud of their conduct. God addressed the problem of superficial religion in Isaiah 29:13. The Lord says, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”

Jesus criticized the Pharisees by saying they clean the outside of the cup, but the inside was filthy. He said they were like whitewashed tombs, shiny and clean on the outside, but on the inside, they were filled with rottenness (Matthew 23:25-28). Religion cleans you up on the outside, but only Jesus can clean you up on the inside.

Having religion may give you a little more respectability in your business or in your community, but if you are not careful, religion can make you so proud you may miss heaven. Without a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ lived faithfully and fruitfully in His Mystical Body, the Church, religion leads you to Hell while making you think you are going to Heaven.

I hope you leave here today the same way the tax collector did: Unburdened–Right with God and thankful for it! Jesus said the bad guy, not the respectable, religious Pharisee went home justified in the eyes of God. He entered church so burdened down by his sin he could not even lift up his head. But when he cried out for the mercy of God, he experienced the liberation of forgiveness. He had not done anything to deserve it, so he could not brag about it. All he could do was to thank God for it!

Maybe you are here today and feel a little out of place because you are not really a religious person. In fact, you have done some dumb things and messed up your life in a big way. Congratulations! Like the tax collector, you are the best candidate for salvation! The hardest people to be saved are those religious people who think their goodness makes them VIPs with God. The easiest person to be saved is the one who will admit to God that he has sinned royally and has to have His mercy, or he is a goner.

You must approach God in humility if you want to receive His forgiveness. You cannot strut into His presence bragging about how nice you are. In Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Nativity is built over the place believed to be Jesus’ birthplace. It is a huge stone complex, but it only has one tiny door through which people can enter. It is called the “door of humility” and it is less than 48" high. Originally, there was a larger door, but when the Muslims first conquered Bethlehem, the soldiers rode their horses into the church to defile it. So, the monks reduced the size of the door so only a person can enter. And every person must stoop and bow and enter alone. What a lesson! The doorway of salvation is open to you today, but it is a door of humility as well. You cannot approach God with an attitude on the basis of your parents’ salvation. You must do it alone, you must work out your own salvation. And to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness you must humble yourself and bow down before Him.

Would you like to experience God’s mercy and forgiveness? Will you humble yourself and admit you are a sinner? 3,000 years ago, another man needed God’s mercy and forgiveness. Even though he was a good, religious guy, he made a huge mistake. He was guilty of adultery and murder. If you need mercy, try praying the same prayer King David prayed in Psalm 50/51:1-2: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions and my sins are ever before me.”

Remember, beloved, that as we approach the holy season of Great Lent, the Church offers us these preparatory weeks to get ourselves together that we may humbly seek God’s mercy and forgiveness and enter the season of repentance and fasting with the right disposition and objectives.