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Speaking in Parables

            Today’s Gospel is one of the most vivid parables that Christ gave. It would be very difficult not to understand the meaning of the seed and the various soil in which it falls. Perhaps because the disciples understood the parable of the sower so well, they took this opportunity to ask Jesus as to why he spoke to the people in parables. The answer Jesus gives in a sense goes to the universality of the Gospel message.

            Sometimes we make things just too difficult to understand. Early in the history of the Church, one of the challenges constantly encountered was that of Gnosticism or a secret knowledge. Speaking in parables is something different. The Gospel message is a very simple one, meant to include all. Gnosticism on the other hand was condescending. It sought to separate those with the secret knowledge from those who could only aspire. Those who resisted Jesus the most were the religious leaders of the time.

            The old adage, KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. With salvation being a matter of faith and belief rather than a intellectual or mental formula, it was accessible to the common person. Those people of faith rather than those able to rely upon their intellect, financial or their good works for their salvation are more readily to respond to the Gospel.

            The Salvation that Jesus Christ offered is also available to the intelligent, the rich and those who do good. The parable is not lost on them.

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The Famed Feeding of Five Thousand

As mentioned last week, St. John the Evangelist closes his Gospel account telling us were there to be a written account of all Jesus did in his time here on earth, I suppose the earth could not contain all the books that needed to be written. Imagine in John’s case, having to recall events, names, places of events that occurred seventy years prior; then having to select the most significant. 

St. Matthew, in a brief passage, provides emphasis to this point by mentioning all those who came to him on a certain day and a certain place. Jesus healed them all; the blind, the deaf, the lame and the demon-possessed. He had compassion on them all. Had this not been the reason why God the Father had sent the Son, “He so loved the World.”

Jesus had just received word that his cousin, John the Baptist had been beheaded. He sought a deserted place to be by himself. When “Jesus went out” the text tells us that he was met by a great multitude. Moved with compassion, he healed their sick. At the end of the day there were 5000 men plus women and children.

When it was evening, the disciples remind him that the area is deserted place, it is late and the people need to eat. Jesus tells the disciples that the people do not need to go away, you feed them. All they are able to find is five loaves of bread and two fish.

Twelve baskets are filled with the fragments that remain. Knowing this story, one of the most famous of Jesus’ many miracles, is the point at which we living 2000 years later enter. To dismiss such an account is not really an option. This account emboldens our faith; the compassion of Christ for others, whether to be healed or simply fed. The math strains incredulity: five loaves/two fishes feed 5000+ people with 12 full baskets left over. Matthew the Evangelist, an eyewitness, was sufficiently awed that he would record these details some forty years later. 

At a time when hope seems so far away, the compassion of Jesus Christ that fed 5000 is our reminder of His Glorious Return!

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And Jesus sternly warned them…

“And Jesus sternly warned them, saying, ‘See that no one knows it.’” On Friday, we read from St. Matthew’s Gospel, “great multitudes came to Him, having with them the lame, blind, mute, maimed and many others…and He healed them.” This passage supports the conclusion of the Gospel according to St. John, which ends, “there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” The notion (and this is not the only time Jesus said this) of not telling others and stating it sternly, causes us to wonder why. 

The two blind men recognize Jesus as the Son of David. In and of itself, this statement of faith indicates that many, we could almost easily say most, could not make. When the disciples are asked by Jesus who do men say that I am, they respond, Elijah or John the Baptist, etc. Recognizing Jesus as the Son of David is to recognize him as the Anointed One, the Christ, the Messiah. They certainly had eyes to see.

The blind men ask for mercy. Jesus knows that mercy for them takes form in providing their vision. They are asked a question by Jesus. Their answer confirms their faith. “Do you believe that I can do this?” Their faith was never in question. The stern admonition follows…so that no one knows.

As they went out (of the house, we presume), a mute man, demon-possessed is brought to him. When the demon is cast out and the mute man spoke, the multitudes are amazed…but those who should know being a part of a Hebraic sect committed to the Scriptures and the fulfillment of same, see the man, see the miracle and make the connection of casting out demons in cahoots with the ruler of demons. This would not be the first time that a miraculous deed of Jesus was attributed to the forces of evil rather than good. These are not people of faith and will never, ever be able to comprehend the goodness of God. 

Though the faith needed is said to be equivalent to the size of a mustard seed (in other words, not much) and blind men are able to see what the learned and the religious are not. Because of miracles done before people of no faith will always elicit skepticism and a response that reveals their lack of spiritual vision. 

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Fulfill the Law and Prophets

The Bible remains one of the best-selling books each year. This is the case in Europe, the United States and those places that have been historically considered Christian. It comes as no surprise that increasingly those places are referred to as being post-Christian. This would suggest that those purchased Bibles are either not read or not understood. 

Today’s Gospel reading is found towards the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not think,” Christ tells the listener (which includes those of us within earshot), “that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” This aids our interpretation of the Law and the Prophets; they point to Jesus and here is confirming that such is the case. Simply put, the Law and Prophets aid us in understanding the Messiah/Christ, the Gospels and the uniqueness of St. Paul’s ministry.

Sunday Divine Liturgy readings are either the letters of Paul or events from the Acts of the Apostles read from Pascha to Pentecost. Paul, an ardent Pharisee sought to destroy the “novel” interpretation of the Law and the Prophets that he felt that Jesus and his followers were advocating. His encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, changed all that; from then on Paul was literally on a mission to explain to everyone with whom he had contact, just how Jesus had fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. 

No one was better prepared to do so than Paul. The reason he was in Jerusalem was because he was studying under the great rabbi, Gamaliel. He was advancing at a pace greater than his fellow students and his field studies or laboratory work was persecution of those who differ. When Paul writes to Titus about fractious disputes and bitter quarrels, he knows of what he speaks.

For those of us living in the 21st century, it would be hard to imagine someone not having easy access to a Bible. Further, the most noted Bible verse has to be John 3:16, “For God so Loved the World that He gave His only Begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him, shall be saved.” So well-known and so simple. What does it all mean? Only the most important decision of our entire life. It would seem then we could find some answers in the Law & the Prophets, the Gospels tell of that fulfillment and St. Paul makes that connection to which Jesus refers in today’s Gospel. It is worth your time to read further on this incredible story of redemption available to you and all humankind.

At a time, when we seek some semblance of hope, this is our hope. T.S. Eliot wrote, 

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope 

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, 

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and love and the hope are all in the waiting.”

Everything for which we Orthodox Christians hope or love are to be found in that which the Law and the Prophets foretold; it eternally remains the same in the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. Just as he said on that Mount nearly 2000 years ago.

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Swine into Sea

Throughout the Four Gospels, time again it is made very clear that Jesus came first to the people of Israel. They were the people entrusted with the Law. They were to keep that Law from the time of Mount Sinai until they entered the Promised Land. Upon that entrance they were to have nothing to do with the people that were living in the land, taking no prisoners. The reason for this was that these people worshipped different gods. The One True God was a jealous God. In the giving of the Law, He told His chosen people that they were to have NO other Gods. 

The people of Israel did not keep this First Commandment. Even on the Exodus from Egypt, they had worshipped a golden calf fashioned by Aaron, Moses’ brother. There were other incidents in Moab that were in violation of the Law. Yet still within a year after leaving Egypt, they were on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Sending in twelve spies, the report came back that it was a magnificent land, ten of them reporting however that there were giants in the land…too big for us. Joshua and Caleb noted the wonderous place, the giants, adding God has given this to us.

For forty years, they would wander back in the very desert from whence they had come. A people without a land. That generation would die off and it would be Joshua and Caleb who would lead them into the Promised Land. They would worship God in the Tabernacle that had been fashioned in the Wilderness. Ruled by Judges, they noted that the nations around them had a King, they also wanted a King. Always wanting to keep up with the neighbors, when all the while they were given God’s best.

King David wanted to build a Temple, yet he was a warrior, a man of blood. Yes, “he was a man after God’s own heart, but God had disqualified him for this role. Nevertheless, toward the end of His reign, he started to gather the best building materials, having them shipped to the City of David. It would be Solomon that built the Temple. When he died, the bill came due. At that time, the ten northern tribes separated from Judah (and tiny Benjamin) due to the Temple being in Jerusalem, which was in Judah. “Why,” the citizens of the North wondered, “should we pay for your Temple.” The influence of the surrounding people, their gods continued to lead the people of Israel astray. 

We note today that Jesus goes to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Whether pagans, or wayward people of Israel, no doubt they had long been influenced or influenced away from worshipping the one true God. Jesus meets and exorcises the demons of two men. At the request of the demons, they are cast into a herd of swine, who race down a steep hill into the sea and are drowned. When they hear what has happened to their livelihood (illegal if they were keeping the Law and/or if they were Jewish) they ask Jesus to leave the area. 

This is not a pork-eating issue, not only had God declared what had been unclean, clean, the Law was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Temple (and earlier tabernacle) worship, the worship of the one, true God, was directed at a person, not a building. Further, your body is a temple of God. We cannot serve God and man, for you will hate one and love the other. God is a jealous God and He wants all of you, for your own good. The choice is yours.

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We the People

We the People. A very empowering thought. One that contains the notion that we are our own authority, collectively making decisions that are best for us. That authority is something not to be taken for granted; with it comes freedom, but also a great deal of responsibility. 

In today’s Gospel, we read of a Centurion (one of seven referred to in the New Testament) that approaches Jesus on behalf of a servant. Being in a high-profile position, he recognizes Jesus is very busy and does not want to trouble him. At the same time his servant is suffering and he knows Jesus is able to heal. 

Being in a position of authority, he tells Jesus that he also is in a position of authority; able to tell a man to do this or go here and he does it. Knowing that Jesus heals the sick and suffering and knowing that he is a man of authority, is recognized by Jesus as an individual with great faith. Faith that he has not seen to such an extent in Israel.

People in authority are able to use that authority for good or for their own purposes. One who cares to such an extent for a suffering servant that he would go out of his way, is one who has that love for humanity that God the Father had for his own creation in sending His Son. This after all is the summarization of the Law: “Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.”

Our Epistle reading underscores this (recall that the last Great Feast was Pentecost and therefore the work of the Holy Spirit is going to be given as a steady reminder for the faithful. We are given the fruits of the Holy Spirit. These fruits are only evident in those whom the Holy Spirit resides. 

We the People. Your authority; is it a force for good or for our own devices and desires?

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Trials & Tribulations

In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul gives an extraordinary statement, “…we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope.” This must have been uppermost in the mind of the first century Christian for St. James writes something similar in his epistle; “…count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.”

We are now in the fourth month of something none of us expected to experience. It certainly meets the definition of a trial or tribulation. Though today we are opening up to more of the faithful than at any time since early March, we are still on alert and do not know the length of this ordeal.

The perspective that both St. Paul and St. James is one worthy of every Orthodox Christian. The Old Professor used to tell us, “everyone wants the product, nobody wants the process.” In the Christian faith it truly is about the process as we conform ourselves to the image (icon) of Christ. This is what we Orthodox refer to as Theosis and it is also put this way, “Saved, being Saved and hope to be Saved.” That being Saved is the process.

For trials and tribulations, God knows the length and the breadth of it. The fruits of the Holy Spirit include patience and long-suffering. God is with us every step of the way. Further, He gives us only as much as we are able to endure. He is a God of Mercy and Love! He does not try to crush us.

May God grant you His rich mercy through these days ahead.

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Our Great Salvation in Context

In his most recent book, a favored author, Tom Holland contends that Christianity once so “revolutionary and disruptive” has “saturated “Western Civilization with its “assumptions.” Christianity is the “principal reason why, today, we think it nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering; why we assume every human life to be of equal value.” Perhaps, this is why Christian is synonymous with Western Civilization.

This is the context we find ourselves. Underlying assumptions in thought and living, we are at odds with our neighbor. There was a different time and context when people who were not familiar with the Law of Moses, were doing the right thing simply by nature. 

St. Paul had never been to Rome. He was anticipating going to the Capital of the Empire for a number of years prior to his imprisonment and appeal to Caesar. He wrote this letter, in some sense his Magnum Opus detailing how salvation corresponded to the Law. Those who had been most diligent in keeping the Law at the time of the Incarnation, were those who led the way to crucify the Anointed One of God, Jesus Christ.

Attempting to keep the Law, doing all the right things, dotting each “i” and crossing “t’s” only seemed to exacerbate the sense of falling short of God’s Glory. Yet there were those apart from the Law who by nature did the very things for which the Law was given. They became a law for themselves.

It is just a few weeks since Pentecost, the Day of the Holy Spirit and we remain in the Apostle’s Fast. This is our Liturgical calendar context, though the Holy Spirit is available to us at all times as He lives within us. The context in which we live is dramatically different from that of the Apostles. Call it post-Christian (though many in this nation live in the Bible Belt), but those who with whom we have contact have many of the same assumptions as we ourselves. 

Four Fishermen living in a Pagan world dominated by the worship of Caesar is quite different from our context. How much more than should we long to look into our great salvation.

Knowing our faith, not for the purpose of winning arguments or triumphalism, but to come to the aid of our fellow man, as they as well try to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling.”

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Have you ever loved someone or something so much, that anyone or anything else just did not matter?

Have you ever loved someone or something so much, that anyone or anything else just did not matter? A couple in love seem to be so absorbed in one another that no one else seems to matter. A most favored toy of a child, or that Porsche just driven of the Dealer’s lot, soon turns to possessiveness.

If that is how we use the term love, then when we hear Christ say “whoever loves father, mother, son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” When we love Christ above all others, we are loving Him, the way He loves us! This is how He can love all. His kind of love is Eternal and Universal; and ever expansive. It is a growing and expanding love. By loving Him, your Love is able to expand.

This Love only comes via the Eternal. Our love tends to be self-centered and selfish, somewhat exclusive. It is not the Love of the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit. It may be why we find it a little difficult to understand why Jesus would say “if you love others more than me, you are not worthy of me.”

The sort of Love of which He has and offers, is an inclusive love. It overflows. Try this. Rather than look at the faults, the mistakes or the things we do not like about another. Determine to love them. A kind word or gesture, or even just a thought. They do not even have to know it. This is about you loving Jesus more than father, mother, son, daughter or stranger. We say we believe, believe me this works. It is a change of attitude. Your father, mother, son, daughter and even spouse will notice the change. They may not say anything, but you will know the reason that you love them a little bit more. You loved Jesus even more.

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The Spread

The Spread. These days, it only means one thing and we take certain measures to stop that spread. On the Day of Pentecost, we speak of a different Spread. This one, we can only hope that goes beyond our wildest imagination, which is very possible. All good and we have the ability to extend the spread.

It started at nine in the morning. The disciples who remained in Jerusalem after the Ascension of Jesus Christ, as he had told them. They would go to the Temple to worship. It was 50 days after Passover, hence Pentecost, a Hebrew Feast. The Jewish faithful had gathered from all known parts of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian world. The disciples, perhaps on the way to the Temple, suddenly had what appeared to be tongues of fire above their heads. These men, four fishermen, a few political zealots, a tax collector and most from the Galilean area, were speaking in the languages of those who were gathered. The message in every language was the same; Jesus was the Anointed One, spoken of in the Old Testament. He had been crucified Passover Last, dead and buried, He arose on the Third Day. 3000 believed that day. The Gospel was Spread.

It would continue to spread. A few years later, a devout Pharisee was on the way to Damascus. He was actively hunting for those Jewish believers in this Jesus. On that road, he was blinded by a very bright light (the sun, those with him thought) and heard a voice (thunder, his companions determined). It was Jesus Christ. So impressionable was this encounter, that this man would travel the Mediterranean world, all the way to Rome, to spread this good news. The good news that God so loved His World that He sent His only begotten Son, this Jesus Christ, so that we could be reconciled with Him. On the second of four separate journeys, having had a vision, he ventured into Europe. 

For the next three centuries, the Roman Empire would be transformed from Caesarian worship to that of Christianity being legalized and the dominant faith. Paganism was on the decline and all because of the spread. Over the next millennium, many a King and Ruler, would accept and adopt Christianity as the religion for his people to the point that over a dozen nations in Europe still have a cross as part of their flag.

Statistics tell us that 31% of the 7.8 billion people on earth consider themselves Christian. As Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware points out, many of these are counted because of their baptism. For the Orthodox, this was also accompanied by Chrismation “Sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” This coincides with the My Big, Fat Greek Wedding style of Evangelism and Outreach, “Greeks marrying Greeks producing More Greeks.” Indeed, this is one way to continue the Spread. But there is a far quicker and more effective way. A way that more closely resembles that day 2000 years ago at nine in the morning. For just like the disciples, the same Holy Spirit of God is within us and available to us. How do we know? “By their fruits you shall know them.” “The Fruits of the Spirit are these; Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Long-suffering, Kindness, Gentleness.” Good things to spread.

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The Greatest Day in History

This is a true story about a single day two thousand years ago. Early in the morning a group of women neared a tomb, where they had observed the dead body of a loved one, being placed just a few days before. At that time of year, the sun arose just after six. Having observed the site, they were quite concern as to who would roll away the stone that guarded the entrance. Having observed the stone being moved in place, they knew that they lacked the strength. For their purposes, anointing the body, this would be essential. 

The day before being the Sabbath and a day of rest, they had no way of knowing that the very religious leaders behind the death of their friend, had gone to the Power responsible and requested a Guard. This Guard (most likely a group of soldiers) were to make certain that the body would not be stolen by the man’s followers. They had recalled the man saying that he would rise after three days. Perhaps recalling one of the man’s followers pulling a sword when they had seized the man, they credited his followers with courage and bravery. Even at that moment, these men were behind locked doors after scattering at the moment of crisis. 

Unaware of a guard ever having been posted, the women approached and were stunned to see that the stone had been rolled away. They were met by a young man in white (other accounts say an angel) who told them that the dead man was not there, but had risen…just as he had said. “Now, Go and tell his followers to meet him where he told you to meet him.”

What they did not know, nor could have known, was that sometime in the previous six hours…just after midnight…the earth shook just as it had a few days earlier. Earthquakes tend to do that; but this was something more. As if synchronized, an Angel rolled away the stone, at the precise time that the dead man rose from the grave. A split second after midnight was sufficient to fulfill the prophecy – three days meant any part of three days, it did not mean a literal and clocked 72 hours. Beside there was no sign of the Guard. When they saw the Angel, they were seized with fear and lay like dead men on the ground. They also had time to collect themselves of sorts, go to those who had placed them there, gather, meet and concoct a story should they be questioned. They needed every one of those six hours to recover and prepare.

The women, with no body to anoint, left to do what the angel had told them to do; tell his disciples. One woman remained behind. The group of women were met by the risen man while on their way. The woman remaining at the tomb, remained overcome with grief. She was assuming that the gardener or someone, had moved the body; for that is exactly what she asks of the someone she senses behind her. Upon hearing her name, she realizes it is the risen man! She is told by the risen man, the same thing that the angel had spoken: go tell his followers. She must have known where at least two of them were, for the next thing we know those two are having a foot race to see if what they were told was true. They see the empty tomb; they do not see the risen man…at that time.

To this point, there was only an empty tomb, where a dead body had been lying the day before. The guard that had fled could attest to that. Yet now there were eyewitnesses that had seen the risen man. However, all had been women and at that time, there testimony was not valid. Not even his followers believed the women. However, word is starting to spread among his followers.

Two men from Emmaus, a town about seven miles WNW of Jerusalem begin their journey home later that day. They are talking about the events of the past few days, when they are joined by another. As they continue to discuss, one of them turns to the man who joined them and ask, “Are you the only one that has not heard about the things of these past few days?” To which the man responds, “What things?” They continue and as they approach their home, they invite the other to have dinner with them, as it is getting late and the man appeared to be going further. As they sit down to eat, they ask the man to “say grace”. As he does so, suddenly they realize that this is the very man of whom they were speaking.

Though it is getting late and the return two-hour trip is uphill, they leave almost immediately. They go to a room where his followers have gathered. They are relating their story, when suddenly the risen man is in their midst.

A risen man. It takes time for the implications to sink in. A few people had been raised from the dead, some of them even by the risen man. But what sort of man is it that has power over death? Three hundred years later, the debate would still be raging as to whether this was a man or God or a God-man.

We know and have known. It is why we gather. Once a week we gather to remember the greatest day in history. It is more than just remembering, it is being in His Presence. We know from those followers and those who followed that this was fully God and fully man.

Like the newsboy on the corner shouts, “Read all about it.” We have the account which we read just a portion of each Sunday. We have just read in the services of this past week, numerous accounts of people preceding the aforementioned events telling how some of these events would unfold. This is possible because the God we worship and serve is the beginning and the end. The Alpha and Omega. He has always been. That risen man was God Incarnate. He took on flesh for us and for our salvation. How can we ignore (or be complacent) about so great a salvation?

The thin fabric of these United States…

The fabric of this great experiment called the United States of America has always been very delicate. To secure ratification northern and southern states compromised, large states and less populated states found the middle ground by having a bicameral legislature. Even the Electoral College was put into play in order to balance. It has always been a little uneasy and called for the greatest of care both by our leaders and “we the people.”

It is often said that “united we stand and divided we fall.” 2020 has been a year of great angst in America. A Senate trial to remove the President from office, the Covid-19 pandemic, the ensuing quarantine, the economic distress as a result, unrest and an unprecedented contentious Presidential debate. We all feel it. 

Recently, I recalled something I had read long ago about the friendship between Senator Barry Goldwater and President John Kennedy. A friendship which had started when Kennedy had also served in the United States Senate. In the early sixties, with Kennedy in the White House they talked about the 1964 election; an election they hoped would offer the American People a choice for a United States following either the Liberal or Conservative ideal. An assassin’s bullet ended this possibility. Goldwater of course would gain the Republican nomination. But such a stark ideological choice would never be realized. 

In today’s Gospel, we are told to love our enemies, that anyone can love someone who thinks the same way, does good to us or gives but expects quid pro quo. We as Christians are told to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us.

Walk your neighborhood. Notice the signs…you can’t miss them. Some you may agree. Some you may not. But not a one of them are your enemies. They are your neighbors. The Christian is to love their neighbors and their enemies. As Solomon is about to open the Temple, God tells His Chosen that “if my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Personally, I think it worth a try. I am a bit tired of the anxiety.