29 April 2007

Living in the "Little While"

An excerpt from the sermon preached today at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church.

Our Blessed Lord sets Himself continually before us, and every time He presents Himself He also reveals our life’s true end. Only a few weeks ago we celebrated with great joy both Our Lord’s abiding presence and the kingdom, the reward, the fullness, the perfect end and the great happiness He has waiting for us. And every time we gather, we not only celebrate these facts, but also receive them and are strengthened by them—by Our Lord who stands even now before us in His heavenly kingdom in this little place.

If only we had eyes to see. If only we had mind and heart to live what we hear.

Our Blessed Lord knows this as well. And as His first measure, He diagnoses the cause. “It is because you do not see Me. And because you do not see Me, you focus on the stress or grief or hurdles or turmoil or pitfalls in this life. And when you focus on these things, you see them as challenges to be overcome or avoided at all costs; and so you lose focus—the focus that I have already overcome all these things, and that I have already gained for you and given to you this victory. But you wish to play your part—not as victors, but as men who might re-fight my battles and re-conquer my enemies and overcome once more all that I’ve already put to rest and put to death for your sake. You do not see Me; and so you forget Me and all I’ve done for you and won for you and given to you. Yet a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.

“But for now, you must live in this ‘little while’ when you do not see Me as you desire, this ‘little while’ when you must struggle and strive and fight against your fears that there is no hope of breaking the endless cycle. Now you must live in the ‘little while’ of patience and trust, believing that what I’ve promised is true and strong enough, and that my Word will truly see you through. And during this ‘little while,’ ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful—but believe Me, your sorrow shall be turned into joy. And the more you believe Me—the more you believe that I am truly with you and that you truly do stand in My kingdom when you stand in this holy place—then you will regain your footing and your clarity will return and your resolve with strengthen and your desire to do good and to live godly will increase. And to aid you in this, I shall envelop you in My Spirit who shall bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. And since He is the Spirit of all who believe, He shall also surround you with the great cloud of witnesses who shall intercede ceaselessly for you so that, when you stumble, you may return and not lose your way.”

Our Lord speaks words like these not harshly, but gently. He speaks not as one who has been offended, but as one who wishes once more to strengthen your resolve and re-focus your vision and renew your purpose.

28 April 2007

Staying the Course

Each Saturday evening the faithful at Holy Incarnation Orthodox Church gather to pray First Vespers of Sunday. Using the Monastic Diurnal according to the Solemn form, the entire service is chanted with four appointed Psalms, the appointed propers are sung, the altar and faithful are incensed during the Magnificat, and the appropriate Marian Antiphon is sung by all. After the last Pater Noster and Ave Maria have been said silently, I preach on the chapter which, from Advent until Pentecost, is the first few verses of the Sunday epistle.

Below is the essence of the homily that I preached at the conclusion of this evening's Vespers. I post is with the prayer that it may edify those who read as well as those who heard it.

Even though we are now three weeks past the end of the fast of Great Lent, tonight’s chapter reminds us that we must not lose the benefits we gained during our 40 day fast. We gained the godly benefit of exercising and strengthening our body and soul against the temptations of the devil, against our disordered passions, and against ungodliness. Even though the year’s Great Lent has passed, we should not forget these lessons or let down our guard or grow weary in doing good. For then the devil will make greater inroads than he did before we started. And then the victory we gained in Christ will be for naught.

That victory that we gained in Christ is the victory He won for us by His overcoming temptation and resurrection from the dead. This He did in our flesh, for our flesh. Into this we were baptized, and in this we actively participate whenever we strive against evil, against our sinful flesh, and against temptation.

So during our Easter joy, let us stay the course by continuing to “forsake those things that are contrary to our profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to it.” In doing so, we shall be strengthened tomorrow as we hear the same words again in the Epistle, as we rejoice in the comfort Our Lord gives in the midst of sorrow, and most especially as we partake of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ which, by the invocation of His Spirit, strengthens and preserves us in the true faith and in our life in God.

23 April 2007

Taking up His Life

The following is an excerpt from the sermon preached last Sunday (Misericordia Domini Sunday) at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church.

We tend to think that “sacrifice” is chiefly about taking or laying down a life in order to save a life. But Our Lord does not merely lay down His life. He does not simply die. He rises from the dead. He takes up His life again. And in taking it up again, He demonstrates that He is more than a substitute. For it is not necessary that the one who substitutes his life for another then rise from the dead. The one who has sacrificed himself by substituting his own life has added nothing by rising from the dead. Yet Christ is risen from the dead. And, if you can believe it, His resurrection gives full meaning to His death; and His resurrection gives greater benefit than His death.

What is the benefit? That we might live even as He lives; that we might live in Him, even as He lives in us; that we might both rise from the dead on the last day, and even also live in the newness of His life on this day. So Our Lord Jesus rises not only to announce or prove that His death was good, but more so to give us the fruit and benefit of His resurrected life.

St Gregory the Great highlights this greater purpose of Our Lord’s death and resurrection and, in doing so, reminds us of the greatest Good that our Shepherd is. St Gregory declares that “The Good Shepherd has laid down His life for His sheep in order to change His body and blood into a sacrament for us, and to satisfy the sheep He had redeemed with His own body as food.”

09 April 2007

Steeped in Tradition

This article might be of interest to some. It ran Easter Sunday in the Lansing State Journal and discusses the reception of converts at St James Antiochian Orthodox Church where Fr Richard Peters (a good friend and colleague) serves. The photo on the left is of Fr Richard leading the Palm Sunday procession.

Thanks NC!

Christ's Resurrection is the Foundation of Our Faith

The following is an excerpt from the sermon preached during the Resurrexi Mass at Holy Incarnation Orthodox Church. You may read the full sermon here.

The foundation of our faith is not the death of Our Lord Jesus Christ. For His death by itself gains us nothing. By itself, Our Lord’s death is nothing more than the death of another innocent man for a righteous cause. By itself, Our Lord’s death is simply the death of another hero. And, by itself, Our Lord’s death produces in us nothing but fear and trembling.

The power in Our Lord’s death is not that He died. The power is that He rose from the dead. The strength of Our Lord’s death is not that He entered the grave. The strength is that He burst open the gates of the grave. The impressiveness of Our Lord’s death is not that He confronted Satan, but that He robbed Satan of His deadly power. And so it is His resurrection from the dead which gives force and might, and significance and meaning to His death. Our Lord’s resurrection elevates His death above the death of all men. And so, not His crucifixion, but His resurrection is the foundation of our faith.

St Paul says this plainly when he declares that “if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” What do these words mean? Only that Our Lord’s death gains us nothing unless He rose from the dead. “But now Christ is risen from the dead, the firstfruits of them that sleep.” And since He is risen, our faith is not in vain. Neither is it vain for us to receive His body and blood in this Holy Mass. For now, because of His resurrection, His sacrifice has power and meaning. And more than that, because of His resurrection, the Holy Spirit is able to give us a share in Christ’s sacrifice by letting us partake of the self same body and blood that was sacrificed on the cross. And not only sacrificed, but also then raised from the dead to be the fruit which enables us to live.

So while we celebrate the sacrifice and death of Our Lord, we do so only because of His resurrection. For without rising from the dead, Our Lord’s death is just another death. But because of His resurrection, His death has meaning.

It is Not Enough to Say "Christ is Risen"

The Paschal Vigil, celebrated at Holy Incarnation Orthodox Church, began at 11:00 p.m. on Holy Saturday. The liturgy followed that prescribed by the Western Rite Vicariate of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America with the exception of the blessing of baptismal waters (since Holy Incarnation does not have a permanent baptismal font).

Below are excerpts from the sermon. Here is the full sermon.

It is not enough for us to say “Christ is risen!” We must hold these words firmly in our hearts, and live these words with every breath we take, every thought we think, every word we speak, and every deed we do. For our Easter greeting is nothing more than an empty ritual and a religious tradition, unless it comes alive with frequent prayer to God, regular thanksgiving for His mercy, and constant kindness toward all men.

Christ our Savior clothed Himself in our weakness, endured our temptations, became our sin, suffered our death, entered our grave, and then rose victorious so that, by His Spirit, we might stop living for ourselves, and instead live for our Father and for all mankind with all that we are and all that we have.

This is what St. Paul means when he says that we should serve sin no longer.

Christ Our Lord suffered to death our sinful self-serving so that He might free us from sin’s bondage. More than that, He also put death to death, and destroyed the power of the grave and the grip of the devil. For our selfishness comes from deep-seated fear—the fear that we will miss out; the fear that death will overtake us before we get all we want from life.

In His death, Our Lord gives us all that Life Himself has to offer. In His death, Christ Jesus submerges our fears and resurrects a living hope—a hope that lives beyond this life, into the life of the world to come. In His death, Christ Jesus put to death any benefit we may see in our self-serving, self-pleasing ways—and gives us a taste of His benefits, which exceed our imaginations. And in His death, Christ Jesus frees us to live no longer serving ourselves by serving sin, but so that we might freely serve God and so reach the full maturity as the men and women He created us to be.

The rich words and symbols in today’s early morning liturgy teach and remind us that our new life has begun—both in the resurrection of Our Lord, and in our baptism into His death and burial. In our baptism, Christ has accomplished what we desired but could never achieve—a complete break with our former ways, a severing of our self-serving life in sin. So since we have been baptized, we have been freed from sin—and released from the fearful grip of death. So let us not revert to our former ways.

For Christ Jesus has risen from the dead, trampling down death and the rule of sin. And by His overwhelming mercy, He has bestowed upon all of us His abundant and full life—a life that now lives to serve Him, knowing that from Him we have received not only all we hoped for, but more than we ever imagined; to whom with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit belongs all glory, honor and worship.

01 April 2007

Saving Man: Exceeding Wisdom

The following is an excerpt from the Palm Sunday sermon at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church.

The salvation of Noah and his family by destroying the world with a Flood; the salvation of Lot and his daughters by raining down of fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah; the salvation of the children of Israel by wiping out the Egyptian army in the Red Sea; the restoration of the Promised Land by the destruction of heathens—each of these events are spectacular; each of these befits an Almighty God. And even more so, raising a young boy by the prayer of a prophet; raising a dead man by the bones of a deceased saint; giving flesh to an army by the word of still another prophet. And then, even more than these, raising a young girl and a young man and then Lazarus by a touch or a word—these also are public, spectacular and very apt demonstrations of the Lord’s power over death and the grave.

So why did God not determine to restore all of mankind in a similar way—by a decree, or an unforgettable event, or a final indisputable act?

Yet in more spectacular way than we could ever have devised or imagined, for this greatest saving act, Our Lord chose not the agency of a prophet, or to use creation against creation, or to provide a show of force. For our salvation—for the salvation of the entire cosmos by saving all men—Our Lord God determined to become the chiefest prophet and the creation He had made

And, most spectacular of all, Our Lord God determined that in order to destroy death He would enter unnoticed into death’s home and then rob death of its greatest weapon—imprisoning man in the grave. And to restore life to our blood, Our Lord God determined that He would transfuse our poisoned blood with His own life-giving blood.