Category Archives: Homily

Sermon on Luke 12:16-21 (The Rich Fool)

Sermon on Luke 12:16-21 (The Rich Fool)
By Daniel VanderKolk

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today God calls someone a word that no one ever wants to hear: “fool“!

How scary is the thought of being called a fool by God!

Why does God call this man a fool? The man was rich. He worked his land well. He saved his extra crops. God even blessed his soil and gave this rich man good harvests.

So why is this rich man called a fool by God? Is it a sin to work hard, budget for the future, and save our resources?

No. Hard work is the virtue of diligence. Budgeting for the future is the virtue of prudence. Saving our resources is the virtue of frugality. So why is this rich man a fool?

Because this rich man fooled himself into thinking that all he had in life was his own. The man who wisely managed his goods, foolishly managed his thoughts. This rich fool said to himself: “I am the author of my life, my goods are my own”. This rich fool wrote God out of his life.

He separated himself from God who said, through the words of Saint Paul, that those rich in this present age should be rich also in good works. They should be ready to share. They should be generous. They should store up treasure for themselves in heaven.

This rich fool did not see himself as a steward of God’s treasure. He thought that by ignoring God’s command to feed the poor he would have more of the good things in life. He thought that he would have more joy and fulfillment by following his own will and ignoring God’s will.

parable of the rich fool_2017The rich fool forgot that God gives us all good things in life. The rich fool forgot that God wants us to be filled with joy by accumulating an abundance of virtues. The rich man only sought to please his own stomach, never once thinking about how to please God. His body lacked no physical food, but his soul was starved for virtue.

God gave the rich man treasuries of food so that the rich man would cultivate love in his own heart by being charitable to his neighbor. But the rich man chose the fleeting joy of an overfull stomach rather than the eternal joy of supporting the poor. God wanted this man to be rich in virtue.

This man’s stomach wanted him to be starved for virtue. God knows that we easily love our stomachs more than we love His commandments. Thankfully, God easily loves us more than we love our stomachs.

God loves us so much that He gave His only-begotten Son to a humiliating crucifixion. But Christ’s life did not end with death. Christ conquered death, ascended into Heaven, and reigns at the right hand of the Father.

So too, our lives do not end with death. After death, we will be judged. And after the judgment we hope to behold our Lord in heaven. We hope to feed on the joy that comes from eternal communion with God. As we sing in the Troparion for the Departed: “Give rest to the soul of thy servant O Savior, preserving it in the blessed life which is with Thee, who lovest mankind.”

Because of Christ’s victory over death, we no longer fear death. Because of Christ’s victory over death, we look with joy to the life to come. We steward well the treasures God gives us in this life. We eagerly hoard good deeds and virtues, because they are the only things we can take with us into the next life.

On the 26th of December, 1782, Vassily Drozdov came into this world. He grew up in the town of Kolomna, near Moscow. God gave Vassily many gifts. He was able to study in some of the finest schools in Russia.

He never once thought that he deserved or earned his good things in life. He was grateful to God for all of the treasures he received. Vassily knew that he was partner, with God, in all of his endeavors in life. When God, in His love, gave Vassily learning and understanding, Vassily, with deep gratitude, wanted to return God’s love.

Out of love for God, Vassily chose to use his intellectual gifts to pursue virtue, for God’s glory. Vassily taught at seminary, considering the professional duties of a teacher of utmost importance. He cared for his seminarians, spent time with them, prayed for them, and loved them.

Vassily also used his intellectual gifts to feed the sheep outside of his seminary. Late at night, when Vassily was tempted to eat, drink, and be merry, he called his own stomach a fool and chose to be rich toward God. He labored at night, writing edifying words for his Orthodox brothers and sisters.

Vassily loved his neighbor. Vassily loved God. Vassily loved virtue.

On the 6th of November, 1808, Vassily, the seminary professor was tonsured Philaret, the monk. “Philaret” means “he who loves virtue”. Truly, St. Philaret, the Metropolitan of Moscow, loves virtue with all his heart.

Emulate his love. Practice the virtue of thankfulness today. As you sit down to eat dinner tonight, pause for a moment.

Think of all the hard work that went into your meal. Think of the people who labored over your food. Think of the good favor God showed you in allowing the farmer’s crops to grow and produce the food that you are now eating.

Think of God’s love in supporting our economy, the economy that allows you to purchase such good food. Think to yourself that although God implants in us the need to nourish ourselves with food, He also allows us to enjoy our food and derive pleasure from fulfilling our daily needs.

And then say aloud: “The poor shall eat and shall be filled. Those who seek the Lord shall praise Him; their hearts shall live forever.”

And as you eat your dinner, fill your mind with nutritious thoughts. Think of how St. Philaret enjoyed eating food but did not obsess over his stomach. Think of how St. Philaret loved virtue more than he loved food. Think of how St. Philaret was a good steward of the treasures God gave to him, because St. Philaret knew that all good things in life come from God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Seminarian Daniel Vanderkolk is a 3rd-year Master of Divinity student, from the Diocese of the Midwest, Orthodox Church in America. Prior to coming to St. Vladimir’s Seminary, he taught 10th-grade Latin Language and Literature at Oakdale Academy in Waterford, MI. This homily was given on Sunday, November 19, 2017, at Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, New Haven, CT, where Seminarian Vanderkolk is a student intern under rector, Archpriest Michael Westerberg. On that Sunday the Orthodox Church also commemorated the repose of St. Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow.

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“Following Jesus to a deserted place”

Second-year Seminarian Brian Crivella gave this homily during our daily Matins service in Three Hierarchs Chapel, Thursday, October 12, 2017, as part of his Master of Divinity program coursework requirement. The Gospel reading for the day was Luke 9.7–11, and Seminarian Brian especially concentrated on verse 10:

And the apostles, when they had returned,
told Him all that they had done.
Then He took them and went aside privately into a deserted place
belonging to the city called Bethsaida.

Before enrolling at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Seminarian Brian was a member of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Mentor, OH, Orthodox Church in America, Diocese of the Midwest, and had spent nearly 8 years on active duty in the U.S. Coast Guard—performing search and rescue missions on the Great Lakes, and even patrolling the Caribbean Sea to catch drug smugglers and traffickers!

We are pleased to share Seminarian Brian’s labor and good words with you.


“Following Jesus to a deserted place”

In the name of The Father, and The Son, and The Holy Spirit. Amen

Today, Luke tells us of a man who seems to have it all. He has servants who attend his every want. His home is huge. Everyone wants to see him, to have his ear. Herod is a king, and on top of the world. But Herod is perplexed.

There is a Man, a Man performing all sorts of miracles. Who is He?

One of the old prophets had risen again, they whisper. Others declare it is Elijah, who has appeared as foretold.  But then the bombshell: it is John. John the Baptist had risen from the dead.

When he hears this, imagine how Herod must have reacted. Imagine his face falls dark. His brow furrows. His nostrils flare. He declares, “John I have beheaded,” asserting his control of the situation.

And, indeed, John he did behead. Because despite all he has, Herod is empty. Despite all his friends, Herod is lonely. Despite his total authority and control, Herod is helpless. There is something deep inside that Herod doesn’t fully understand: a gnawing, a deep emptiness and despair.

SB_deserted place2_crivellaHerod is not any different from us. Especially us. Like Herod, our lives are filled with worldly luxury and conveniences.

The world tries to convince us to fill ourselves with our carnal desires in order to feel happy, to feel satisfied. If we just had the right stuff, the right people, or went to the right places, we’d feel happier. Right?

But the things that are supposed to make us happy, don’t keep us happy. The things that are supposed to satisfy us don’t satisfy us.

We tell ourselves, “You know, if I were just more popular, I’d be happy. If more people really knew me and about me, they’d love me.” So we spend all day on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. We don’t get anything done. Then, when we finally turn off our phones and look around, we find ourselves alone.

So, maybe, what we need to do is to take a trip? To see something new, experiencing something fun, something exotic or relaxing? A trip to the beach…a trip out of town…a trip to the game?

But soon we find ourselves back home, back where we started. We’ve seen something new, but our life remains the same. We’ve gone to relax, but now we’re back to our stressful job, our stressful school, our stressful relationships—all of them unchanged.

We tell ourselves, “Let’s go see the new movie.” We grab the newest game…newest iPhone…newest car. New, new, new. “New” will make us happy.

But the newness wears off. We take our things for granted. They get stale, old, boring.

The crazy thing is, the more we try to fix our broken feelings, the more we inevitably feed into them. We become lonelier, sadder, emptier.

But this is how the world says to fix it. Yet, it doesn’t fix it.

But there is a way to fill this ache, this gnawing within each and every one of us. There’s someone that can help us cope with the deep brokenness that we all experience and struggle with. Someone whom we can follow, who will heal us.

To Bethsaida the multitudes follow Him, even when He seemed far away, “in a private place.” Yet as soon as they hear that He is there, these multitudes, these great groups of people, drop everything to follow after Jesus—not their jobs, not their toys, not their school, not their social standing or friends; they follow after Him.

When we follow Jesus, we no longer follow after ourselves or the world. When we follow Jesus, we don’t need to fix ourselves.

Just as the multitudes did, we receive what we really need to be satisfied. We receive Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ, who bears all our burdens, pains, longings, and shortcomings with us—our struggle with our shortcomings, our failings, or the pain in our past. Christ carries them, with us, to the Cross.

Follow him. It doesn’t matter if He’s far away, privately with His 12 disciples. The multitudes followed Him there. We follow Him there, with them. Christ gives us the very strength to do it. Christ gives us the strength to forgo the empty desires of this world, just like the multitudes.

As we put down our phone and spend time with those around us, in person, attentive to them, we are following after Christ.

As we travel—not for our entertainment nor for our enjoyment but for the sake of another who cannot leave their home, their hospital bed, or their prison—we are following after Christ.

As the precious extra time and money we’re blessed with finds itself spent on giving good things to our neighbors who have nothing or food to all those who are starving, we are following after Christ.

As we stop following after the way of this world, we are transformed in Christ, and our mind is renewed.

Today, we follow Christ where He resides privately with His disciples in Bethsaida. We give thanks for all that He has born with us. And as we draw ever nearer to Him, we bless and fill others with good things in His name. In this way we are truly fulfilled and truly satisfied.

Glory to God!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Homily upon First Archpastoral Visit of His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon in New Academic Year

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, and Chairman of the Board of our seminary, made his first archpastoral visit of the new academic year to our campus on Sunday, September 24, 2017, which marked the Synaxis of All Saints of Alaska. In addition to seminary faculty, staff, and seminarians, and area faithful, participants in a three-day conference organized by the Orthodox Vision Foundation [OVF] gathered for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, at which Metropolitan Tikhon presided in Three Hierarchs Chapel.

We’re pleased to share His Beatitude’s inspiring homily on that occasion, which thoughtfully focuses on a “martyric” way of life as a witness to Christ and His teaching, and which marks the perfect path to becoming truly human.

[Reprinted article, with permission from oca.org]


HOMILY

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

At the beginning of today’s Epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offers these words:

Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Cor 6.1–2)

AllSaints-NAmerica-DeisisIt often happens that the readings from the lectionary fit the occasion perfectly. And so today the Orthodox Vision Foundation has brought many of you together for the first time, Orthodox leaders in your fields of business, science, medicine, the arts, education and social service to get to know each other, to learn about the possibilities and challenges for philanthropy, for new projects, and to experience a taste of a seminary’s life. It is good that you see for yourselves the students and families and faculty and staff who have set aside other careers and potentials in order to sacrifice and serve the mission of the Church. It is remarkable that every year a new crop of men and women make this decision to set upon the uncertain path of service in the Church.

They are needed and you are needed to carry this mission forward.

I know that Father John Behr began the conference with a talk on martyrdom, on the martyr as the image of a human being fully alive. Today we celebrate the feast of the Protomartyr and Equal to the Apostles, Thekla, a disciple of Saint Paul and a great image of martyrdom. The second epistle for today, for the martyrs, was from Romans, chapter 8.And here we have one of the most moving passages in Saint Paul’s letters speaking personally and precisely about this life of witness.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8.35–39)

The Gospel for the martyrs makes this an exhortation for our witness today:

This will be a time for you to bear testimony….You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Lk 21.12–19)

As you all know, this picture is a reality today. Millions and millions of Christians, from all churches—Orthodox and non-Orthodox—face serious pressure and outright persecution in many parts of the world. We here are called not only to help share their burden, but also to share their witness for Christ where we are, here in North America. Perhaps we often get discouraged at the prospects as we look around at the meager fruit from years of labor. But once again, the readings are perfectly fitted for today. The Sunday Gospel recounts the great and unexpected catch of fish:

Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking….But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken…. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Lk 5.5–11)

With realistic statistics there are about 1,000,000 Orthodox in the United States, which is a very small fraction of the 325,000,000 people in our country. In North America the population is 500,000,000. It is time for us, as the Orthodox on this continent, to expand the mission of the Church. In the Orthodox Church in America, since the arrival of the first missionaries in Alaska in 1794, over 700 parishes and missions have been established, by God’s grace. In the last ten years, we have provided over $1,000,000 in planting grants to new missions. But this is a drop in the bucket. In the United States, 90% of the counties in this country do not have a single accessible Orthodox parish, where the services and the life of the community are open to all and conducted in the language understood by the local population, either English or Spanish.

And, of course, there are thousands and perhaps millions of new immigrants and refugees who are looking for the life of the Church in their own languages.

But all of those languages become intelligible not through the development of better translating programs or through countless hours spent with Rosetta Stone. As practical and helpful as these tools are, the languages that separate us become intelligible through our love for one another, but not the emotional or saccharine love that is presented to us in social and entertainment media, but the sacrificial love of martyrdom. Another great saint that we commemorate today is Saint Silouan the Athonite, who gives us some guidance in this when he writes:

The greater the love, the greater the suffering of the soul. The fuller the love, the fuller the knowledge of God

The more ardent the love, the more fervent the prayer. The more perfect the love, the holier the life.

The Orthodox missionary task in North America sets before us a huge challenge worthy of a lifetime of work. But this will mean not only plans and projects and funding and measurements of success. It will call on us to deepen our spiritual life. It will call on us to keep attending to healing what is broken in our own lives. It will call on us to share in humility the healing that we have received in Christ.

There can be no missionary effort, no way to reach those who question Christ and the Church, those who doubt, the 25% of the population who have given up on faith, those who suffer, those who are broken, without our having first entered the arena to become a genuine person in the image of Christ. It is here that we begin to fulfill our apostolic ministry.

I close with the words of a fiery preacher of the 20th Century, Saint Nikolai Velimirovic, himself having given a martyric example in the concentration camps of Dachau. He offers this prayer:

You are the only event of my life, O lamp of my soul.

When a child scurries to the arms of his mother, events do not exist for him.

When a bride races to meet her bridegroom, she does not see the flowers in the meadows, nor does she hear the rumbling of the storm, nor does she smell the fragrance of the cypress or sense the mood of the wild animals — she sees only the face of her bridegroom; she hears only the music from his lips; she smells only his soul.

When love goes to meet love, no events befall it. Time and space make way for love.

Aimless wanderers and loveless people have events and have history. Love has no history and history has no love.

Brothers and sisters. You who are gathered here have so many gifts. You are accustomed to working hard, overcoming failures, persisting and enduring. By God’s grace, may this time together this week enable you to apply all that you have received and experienced to recommit yourselves—or perhaps commit yourself for the first time—to serve Christ and the mission of His Church for the life of the world. There are so many ways to serve this mission. May our Lord inspire you to find those ways that most set your soul on fire for the glory of the Kingdom and to the glory of God.

Amen!

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Pentecost, the Feast of the Church

By Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann (+)
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Spring & Summer 1953, Nos. 3, 4, pp 38–42

Schmemann Alexander2This past Sunday, we Orthodox Christians heard sermons in our parishes about the meaning of Pentecost, which celebrates the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the abiding presence of the Spirit in the Church throughout the ages.
In this essay, Father Alexander (Dean of St. Vladimir’s 1962–1983) also begins by speaking about major themes that characterize this great feast: the presence and actions of the Spirit in the Church, the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and the purification of each person’s soul in the body of Christ.
However, one of the most interesting portions of Father Alexander’s essay, published in 1953, is his explanation of the “Kneeling Prayers,” that mark the Vespers services following the Divine Liturgy for the feast, and that section is reprinted here.


The peculiar characteristic of the Liturgy on the day of Pentecost is that it is immediately followed by a Vesper service that is commonly called “kneeling prayers.” This Vesper service signifies the transition form the first major theme—the joy of the coming of the Spirit—to the second—the prayer for the abiding of the Spirit in us, for His help in our earthly life.

icon-pentecost2Litany supplications are added: “For the people present who are awaiting the Grace of the Holy Spirit…that the Lord may strengthen us into the attainment of a good and acceptable end…For those who are in need of help.”  And in the sticheras for “Lord I have cried unto Thee” (which repeat the chvalitny of the Matins service) and in the great prokeimenon, “Who is a great God like our God?,” the fullness of joy comes once more.

But immediately after the prokemin, people are asked to kneel down. This first bending of the knees after Easter signifies the conclusion of the Triodion—the fact that the Church now enters the “narrow path” of struggling, and of the difficult daily acquisitions of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, in this first prayer, we bring to God our repentance and augmented prayers for forgiveness of sins—the first condition for entering into the kingdom, into the perfect joy. In the second prayer, we pray to the Holy Spirit for help, that He would teach us to pray and to follow the true path, that He would enlighten us in the dark and difficult night of our life. Finally, in the third prayer, we remember our fathers and brethren who have departed, who have finished their earthly journey, but who are united with us in the eternal love of the Church.

To every one of these prayers the usual evening prayers are added. So again begins the night of the history of the world, in which the Church has to wander.

In this “night,” the enemies’ tricks are awaiting us: temptations, the whole burden of sin and our feebleness. The joy of Easter has been completed, and we again have to wait for the dawn of the eternal day of Christ’s kingdom. Therefore we are praying on our knees for help and protection, so that we may pass this night and attain to the morning.

However, as we know our weakness, we also know the joy of the Spirit who has come:  we know that we have not remained orphans. The benediction at the end of the Vespers service bears His testimony to it: “He emptied Himself…came down on earth to take upon Himself our human nature wholly and to deify it…He sent down His Spirit upon His Holy Apostles, who were illumined by the Spirit and through whom the whole world was illumined.”

At the Compline service of the same day a special canon to the Holy Spirit is sung, where we experience once more the feast of His coming and His abiding in the Church. It is significant that all the irmosi of this canon, except the first, are taken from the canon of the Nativity! The coming of the Spirit fulfills that which began when the Word became flesh. “Christ was born, now the Holy Spirit descends as if returning Christ to us, who ‘is and shall be’ in the Church with us forever.”

It would be impossible to enumerate all the details of the services commemorating the Feast of Pentecost, which blend into one perfect harmony, making us truly feel the breathing of the Holy Spirit. This harmony reveals itself fully only in the Liturgy, only in the common act of worship. As we have said, the Feast of Pentecost concludes the Triodion, and we enter the “ordinary season” of the year. However, there are no ordinary days for the Church. Every week has its cycle, which is concluded with its own small Easter—“Sunday.”

The Church is always living a divine-human life. Heaven and earth, promise and fulfillment are mysteriously united in Her. On the Feast of Pentecost, we adorn our churches with flowers and green branches, for the Church is truly an evergreen tree. Therefore on the First Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate the memory of all the saints, whose holiness is the glory of the Church and a testimony to the Holy Spirit, who is ever present in Her.

The life of the Church is an eternal Pentecost, the eternal coming of the Holy Spirit, and so, “whosoever thirsteth, let him come and drink” (John 7:37).

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The Archpastoral Message of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon Primate of the Orthodox Church in America & Chairman of the Seminary Board of Trustees on the Great and Holy Pascha 2017

To the Venerable Hierarchs, Reverend Clergy, Monastics, Distinguished Stewards, and the entire family of the Orthodox Church in America:

CHRIST IS RISEN! INDEED HE IS RISEN!

Paschal icon_Mules

(Photo: Glen Mules)

The radiant day of the Resurrection of Christ has dawned and our Paschal celebrations have bathed us in the glorious light of renewal and regeneration. Today is a completely new day, a day which began when the divine brilliance pierced and dispelled the darkness of Hades and ended with the remarkable explosion which took place when Eternal Life crushed death and corruption.

On this new and bright day, our faith is renewed along with that of the Myrrhbearing Women standing by the open tomb; our hope is confirmed along with that of the Apostles on the road to Emmaus; and our love is strengthened along with that of the Mother of God who remained ever at the side of her Son.

Even if we count ourselves among the numbers of those who previously denied or deserted the crucified Lord, such hesitation or shame cannot withstand the force of the new life of this day.

We know too well that there is no human being who lives and yet does not sin, and the consequences of the Fall are reflected in a world overshadowed by war, terrorism, and human misery. Nevertheless, this dark reality loses its hold on us today because we have tasted of the new drink from the fountain of incorruption, which fills us with spiritual courage and divine hope.

This courage and hope are not simply fleeting emotions of the moment but rather an experience of the life of the risen Lord Who fills our hearts with such joy that every day and every moment of our existence we can sing paschal hymns such as this:

How divine! How beloved!
How sweet is Thy voice, O Christ!
For Thou hast faithfully promised to be with us
to the end of the world.
Having this as our anchor of hope,
we the faithful rejoice.

With my archpastoral blessing and love in the Risen Lord,

+ Tikhon
Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada

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Homily: “The Publican and the Pharisee”

fr-paul-coats-mat-gerianne-and-daughter-helen

Fr. Paul Coats, Mat. Gerianne, and daughter Helen

We are pleased to share a Homily on Luke 18.10–14 by Priest Paul Coats, Alumnus (M.Div. ’08), Assistant Priest at St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Mission, Rock Hill, SC. As we anticipate our Lenten journey, his thoughtful words on “The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee” offer us a lodestar to understand how to “fulfill all righteousness,” as the Gospel commands.

[9] He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: [10] “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. [11] The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, `God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. [12] I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ [13] But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ [14] I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18.10–14)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

icon-publican-and-the-pharisee-3In today’s Gospel, Christ tells what must be a shocking parable to many who were doing their best to obey God, as good Jews, and be obedient to the law to the best of their ability. In this parable, it seems that all the best efforts of those trying extra hard to follow God, the Pharisees, are said to be of little value.

With this parable and others like it, for some Christ shattered their whole belief system. He takes someone despised as a lawless sinner, a tax collector, and says that this man can be justified simply by a sincere acknowledgment of his sin, and a request for mercy. This must have been outrageous to those who were convinced that strict obedience to God’s law was the only way to please God and have salvation. After all, isn’t this what all the prophets, beginning with Moses, had said? Isn’t this what God had been communicating with his people all along?

~

In regard to zealously following the Law and trying to obey the commandments, Christ was on the side of the Pharisee! We must remember that at the very beginning of his teaching ministry, Christ said, Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, I have come to fulfill them. And further, whoever relaxes the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; he who does them and teaches others to do so, will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ was pleased with the Pharisee’s good works.

But listen to his next words: For unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And Christ goes on to talk about the kind of righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees: not only do not kill, but do not even be angry with another. Not only stay chaste in marriage, but do not lust—you must be chaste in your mind, too. Instead of being fair (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth), suffer injustice. Instead of loving those who love you, love those who hate you. And lest we think the bar is set too high, he simply confirms it: You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is the radical inner righteousness that Christ requires of us.

~

Christ does not condemn the Pharisee for being honest, just, and moral as the Pharisee claimed himself to be. But the Pharisee’s righteousness was incomplete. His pursuit of righteousness did not lead to love for God or men. He had started down the path of righteousness, toward God, but on the way he took a wrong turn! He had probably started honestly, as many of the Pharisees, such as St. Paul, had started out honestly in pursuit of God. But it had taken such a wrong turn that even someone who had not even started on the path—the tax collector in the story—was ahead of him.

What was the problem here?

~

One of the things I learned very early growing up in rural northern Illinois was how to find the North Star in the night sky. We would sometimes be out camping or even hiking in the woods at night, and we needed a way to orient ourselves and find our way back home, back to the road, or back to the camp. If we tried to get a sense of direction from things on earth, things around us, the landscape, some lights in the distance, or trees, we were very likely to get lost in the dark. . . things didn’t seem as they really were at night, and so forth. But if we could find the North Star, we could find our way. In other words, it took a permanent, unchanging reference point to find our way; the moon didn’t work, it changed locations constantly . . . the other stars didn’t work, they also changed directions. But the North Star is always in the same location, directly north, and never moves.

How had the Pharisee gotten so far off track? I think it was this: the Pharisee had as his reference point other people, instead of God. He didn’t have his eyes on God’s righteousness and holiness, he had his eyes on other people.

And this was disastrous, because in his sinfulness and pride, this led to exalting himself above others, inwardly condemning others, and despising them. And so therefore he really blew it. Because of this wrong turn, all his good works were useless, because they strayed from the ultimate goal. Not only that, but he had turned 180 degrees and was using his works of righteousness as a weapon against others, to condemn them, and to despise them.

The tax collector, on the other hand, saw no one but God. He wasn’t looking at the Pharisee . . . he didn’t even physically look up to God, out of shame. But this was because God was too present in his vision. It’s safe to say the only thing in his mind, the only thing in his inner vision, was God and his righteousness. And making God his reference point, he was able to honestly pray the prayer, God, be merciful to me, a sinner. And here, we have what is essentially the Jesus Prayer, one more time. In recent Sundays we heard it from the blind beggar, we heard it from the Canaanite woman, and today we have it from Christ’s own words, which he put in the mouth of the tax collector as he tells this story.

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This story that Christ tells should never be used to somehow try to promote “having faith” over and against good works. This is a false opposition. Christ commanded good works. Good works are meant to be a means to learn true love of God and others, just as the Law was also meant as a means to learn to love God, for the Jews. Orthodox spirituality teaches that we cannot cultivate love for God in our hearts without overt acts of mercy and service to others. In two weeks, we will hear the parable of the Last Judgment to drive this home.

But this parable is a strong warning from Christ that our good works can become a curse if we turn from our true reference point; that good works are meant to lead us to repentance, not self-justification; that our good works are a necessary beginning, and paradoxically the end fruit, of a heart turned toward God, a heart that recognizes its own need for God, a heart that truly loves God with everything it has, and other people as well.

So today Christ warns us strongly about comparing ourselves to others. . . using others, instead of God, as our reference point. I have found this to be very subtle. Do you find yourself subtly judging others? This is an inward disposition that leaves no room for true love. It’s destructive to others because it is not loving them; it’s destructive to ourselves, because it breeds a confidence in oneself, a trusting in ourselves for our own salvation.

Not everyone struggles with this. There are those who have been given the grace of compassion and full acceptance of others. But for those of us who do struggle with it, it is one of the hardest things to stop. When we see someone who bothers us, or who is so different from us in personality and interests and approach, we may almost involuntarily and automatically judge that person. But we become the Pharisee in the parable when we do that.

I have one suggestion in this regard: one of the quickest cures for this is to pray for people we are tempted to judge, and ask God to bless them with all the same things that we ask God to bless us with. Inwardly, then, we’re giving to that person, serving them, and not judging and condemning them. It’s a double blessing—we are released from the sin of comparison, judgment, condemnation and pride, and they are the recipients of a prayer heard by God, and God will honor that prayer in the way best for both the one who prays and the one prayed for.

Brothers and sisters, we are in the preparatory Sundays leading up to Great Lent. We will soon be saying the prayer of St. Ephraim, which ends with “grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother.” Let us begin to prepare, then, by trying to set aside the comparing of ourselves to others, completely. Let us set our eyes on the true reference point, our Lord Jesus Christ. The more we do this, the more we will be able to pray the prayer of the tax collector with sincerity, God, be merciful to me, a sinner. We will not inwardly exalt ourselves over others, and our good works will be a blessing to us and to others and will lead to the love of God. May Christ strengthen us all for this. AMEN

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The Fifth Sunday of Luke: Good Deeds during Advent

Sermon delivered October 30, 2016
By the Very Reverend Timothy Baclig, SVOTS Class of 1983
Pastor of St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church of the San Fernando Valley

fr_timothy_baclig-preview

Father Timothy Baclig, who grew up in Hawaii, being honored by his parish and family on the occasion of his 30th anniversary to the priesthood.

The lesson of the Fifth Sunday of Luke is among the lessons that introduce us to the season of Advent, preparing us for the Feast that celebrates the birth of our Lord. It focuses our attention upon the practice of good deeds, reminding us of God’s love and personal sacrifice by sending His Son into the world.

In our time there is a great deal of attention being given to the subject of wealth and poverty. St. John Chrysostom spoke at length on the subject. (His writing is available in English, published by St. Vladimir’s Press, entitled: On Wealth and Poverty.)

People whose lives are shaped either by wealth or poverty manifest certain attitudes and behaviors. Significant attitudes and behaviors can also be evident among those whose lives move from poverty to wealth and from wealth to poverty. Very often, whether someone worked to earn his or her wealth, or simply inherited wealth, is very telling.

For Christian believers, the core virtue in the case of both—which is the true test of one’s sincerity—is humility. Humility as a virtue is the foundation Christian love. It is the basis of a “good confession” and the true motive of love. Its opposite is arrogance, selfishness, greed, and hatred—all of which we are warned about by our Tradition, beginning with Christ, the Apostles, and the Holy Fathers. And, their warnings come with their pointing out consequences.

We also hear in the Gospel our Lord’s own warning: “To whom much has been given—much will be required” (Luke 12.48). Money will not buy you everything.

Sadly, there are many who think the opposite. It amazes me how some have believed that pouring millions into a political campaign will guarantee an election. People are not as naïve as some would think. It is sad to think what all of that money could have done to help those who are now facing incredible suffering.

The parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” of today’s Gospel lesson is in two parts: 1) the life of the rich man and Lazarus on earth, and 2) their life after death. The two are contrasted to make the following points: There is an eternal perspective to life; and this eternal perspective gives us a sobriety, and an understanding that a spiritual quality is acquired in this life, whether a person is wealthy or in poverty.

In commenting on this parable, St. Gregory the Great speaks of the effects of poverty and riches on the rich man and Lazarus: “The fire of poverty cleansed Lazarus of his evil deeds, and the happiness of this passing life rewarded the good deeds of the rich man. Poverty afflicted [Lazarus] and wiped him clean; wealth rewarded the [rich man] and deprived him of everything else.”

In a commentary by St. Ambrose we hear: “Lazarus was a pauper [one of extreme poverty and lived by charity] in this world, but [was] a rich man before God . . . Yet not all poverty is holy nor is wealth sinful, but as excess dishonors riches, so sanctity commends poverty.”

One’s eternal destiny, therefore, is something that begins in this life, and our stewardship of material things—whether in abundance or in poverty—has a direct effect on our spiritual life.

The message at the beginning of Great Lent (in the Paschal Season) is very similar: “What doth it profit a man if he were to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8.36). We are reminded before Great Lent that insofar as we are merciful to others, so will our Father in heaven be merciful to us; and that doing good to the needy is the same as having done a good deed to the Lord.

Likewise, at the start of the Nativity Fast, and at a time of the year when we are commemorating our nation’s many blessings at Thanksgiving, we are again reminded that merciful kindness, Christian charity, and love are among the spiritual virtues that save us from needless agony and eternal torment.

Prayer

O Lord, our God of love and great mercies, we thank Thee for your goodness in providing for all of our needs. Purify our hearts and minds from all forms of selfishness, neglect, and arrogance. Grant us the vision to see and to understand the meaning of your Gospel message as we gather about your table and anticipate dining in your heavenly kingdom. Forgive us our sins of omission and renew in us the desire to serve others as serving Thee. For Thou art He who came to serve and not to be served, and unto Thee do we ascribe thanksgiving and worship, together with Thy Father who is from everlasting and Thine all-Holy good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Enjoy more of Father Timothy’s sermons on his parish website.

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