Forgiveness Sunday (2018)

If Lent is to be a truly Christian fast, it must be accompanied by love and forgiveness. Thus, before Lent begins, we are called to forgive everyone who has injured or offended us from the bottom of our hearts. Only then can we have a truly Christian Lent. Only then can our fast be pleasing to God.”   (Vassilios Papavassiliou, MEDITATIONS FOR GREAT LENT: Reflections on the Triodion, Kindle Loc. 281-83)

St. John Chrysostom tells us that we should consider forgiving others and reconciling with them as an essential part of spiritual lives – not something optional if it is convenient and easy, but something critical and necessary no matter what what the obstacles or what the cost.

If the Emperor had laid down a law that all those who were enemies should be reconciled to one another, or have their heads cut off, should we not every one make haste to a reconciliation with his neighbor? Yes, truly, I think so!

What excuse then have we, in not ascribing the same honour to the LORD that we should do to those who are our fellow servants? For this reason we are commanded to say, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’. (Matt. 6:12) What can be more mild, what more merciful, than this precept! He has made you a judge of the pardon of your own offenses! If you forgive few things, he forgives you few! If you forgive many things, he forgives you many! If you pardon from the heart, and sincerely, God in like manner also pardons you…

Do not tell me, ‘I have besought him many times, I have entreated, I have supplicated, but I have not effected a reconciliation.’ Never desist till you have reconciled him. For he said not, ‘Leave your gift, and go your way’. Although you may have made many entreaties, yet you must not desist until you have persuaded. God entreats us every day, and we do not hear; yet he does not cease entreating. And do not then disdain to entreat your fellow-servant. How is it then possible for you ever to be saved? In proportion as the good work is accomplished with greater difficulty, and the reconciliation is one of much labour, so much the greater will be the judgment on him, and so much the brighter will be the crowns of victory for your forbearance. (Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle 2950-62)


The Lord is Not Like Us

“No man of himself can know what God’s love is unless he be taught of the Holy Spirit; but God’s love is known in our Church through the Holy Spirit, and so we speak of this love.

The sinful soul which does not know the Lord fears death, thinking that the Lord will not forgive her sins. But this is because the soul does not know the Lord and how greatly He loves us. But if people knew this, then no man would despair, for the Lord not only forgives but rejoices exceedingly at the return of a sinner. Though you be at death’s door, believe firmly that the moment  you ask, you will receive forgiveness.

The Lord is not like us. He is passing meek, and merciful, and good; and when the soul knows Him she marvels greatly, and exclaims: ‘O what a Lord is ours!’

The Holy Spirit gave our Church to know how great is God’s mercy.”

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 363)

How unlike us humans is our God.  Human may never forgive or forget and can keep angry all their lives, but not so with the Lord.  Humans demand retributive justice and often want to treat people as they deserve, or even worse.  On the other hand, God, so the psalmist tells us is not like us.

The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.   (Psalm 103:8-10)

St. Isaac on the Merciful Heart

Isaac loved solitude and stillness, but any kind of closing in upon himself, any thought of his own salvation apart from his brethren, was entirely alien to him. He possessed that ‘merciful heart’ which is characterized by having compassion on all creatures, not only Christians, but also apostates, animals, and demons. His personal prayer, like liturgical prayer, grew to a cosmic scale embracing not only neighbors and strangers, but the whole of humanity and the entire universe.

(Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, p. 202)

The Intercessions of the Theotokos

“The Mother of God, who is also the Mother of all humankind, pleads at the tribunal for universal mercy, not for the forgiveness of sins (which is impossible, for sins must be completely expiated and suffered through) but for mercifulness to sinners. The existence of hell is surrounded not by the cold of an egotistical indifference but by the radiant cloud of the caring love of saved humankind, that is, of the Church which abides for ages of ages in its sobornost as one, holy, and universal. In the Church, the one humankind is not divided into two and is not reconciled with the severing of its parts – hell – but sorrows over this part.”  (Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 193-194)

According to Fr. Sergius, the Theotokos intercedes for us all – pleads that God will be merciful to all of us.  She does not ask God to forgive sins, but rather that the God of justice will show as much mercy, leniency and compassion as is possible to everyone who lived on earth.  She does not ask God completely to lay aside judgment, but rather to behave according to His nature – God is love.  If it is necessary that God corrects us or punishes us, may God do it in His love and His mercy, not to destroy us but to bring us to holiness.

Fr. Sergius’ imagery is most interesting, for he doesn’t envision the saints in heaven being self-satisfied as they leer down on sinners in hell.  The saints aren’t rejoicing in the punishment of sinners but rather the saints of God surround hell with their prayers and love.  Saints do not rejoice that any of humanity is punished in hell.  Saints do not rejoice that humanity can be divided between those in heaven and those in hell, but rather those in heaven continue to extend love to their fellow humans by joining the Theotokos in beseeching God: “Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy!

The Miracle of God’s Mercy

As Jesus sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’ [Hosea 6:6].  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:10-13)

St. John Damascene (d 780AD) composed an evening prayer in which he wonderfully expressed the joy and hope of Christians experiencing the grace of God’s salvation:

It is not wonderful if You have mercy upon the pure;

and it is not a great thing if You save the righteous,

but show the wonders of Your mercy upon me, a sinner! 

Sunday of the Last Judgment (2017)

Sermon notes for the Sunday of the Last Judgment.

Epistle:  1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2

But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.


But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?  And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?  But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.


1]  In many ways the Epistle readings before Lent certainly frame fasting in a very particular way which seems to go against many of the popular ideas about fasting, especially among those who want to keep the food fast strictly.  Paul seems to argue eating or not eating is all indifferent for the Christian.  It doesn’t commend us to God one way or another.  But there is an issue of love, this is maybe the Paul Principle for how to deal with disagreements in the local community.  One needs to pay attention to the scruples of those around us.  Those who are really concerned about food and fasting:  these are the “weak” in Paul’s framework.  They worry about what others are doing, they suffer a loss of faith and fervor if they see others aren’t keep the fast strictly.  They worry over ever little detail about fasting rules and regulations.  They read the labels on every product.  St. Paul would consider them weak in faith.  Those who are not so fastidious have an obligation to love those who are overly scrupulous and respect their concerns by following their fasting rules when with them.  This is what love requires.  Some of us are Marthas and some are Marys, but both can be blessed and loved by Christ.  I may not be so bothered by all the minutiae of fasting regulations, but if I’m with someone who is I should in love follow their rules.  Love tells me don’t wound their conscience.  I end up laying aside my thoughts, beliefs and practices in love so that I don’t offend my fastidious neighbor.  Yes, I surrender my freedom in Christ, but I do it voluntarily in love.

8271152404_c41179af30_n2]  The Paul principle – let all you do be done in love, be concerned about your neighbor, put your neighbor’s needs and scruples ahead of your own.  This is to be in the heart of everyone in the parish.  So if people become concerned about what others are wearing, or how they make the sign of the cross, or how their children are behaving, then one has to think what is the need of this person, and put that ahead of my own concerns.  This doesn’t mean we can’t express differing and disagreeing opinions.  We can do that, but then we are supposed to think, “what is best for my neighbor?”  If my child is disturbing my neighbor, then I should think about what is helpful to my neighbor.  If the child  in front of me is misbehaving, what is helpful to the parents of that child?   If I think the person in the next pew is dressed inappropriately, what should I do that is best for my neighbor?  When I’m getting dressed to go to church, I should consider whether my clothes might offend or be too alluring to my neighbor.  I should always be thinking about the other.

3]  This is very hard to live in real life.  It is an ideal that is very had to live up to.  So often we fail, then what?  Back to figuring out how to love the neighbor and do what is best for them, not for me.

Gospel:  Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.


 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  


Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

1]  Note the righteous in the Gospel lesson were also not aware of having done what they did for Christ.  They are surprised that He judges them this way.  “When did we do that?” they ask.  They are being kind and charitable to the poor and needy.  They didn’t know in treating others with mercy that Christ was being blessed.  Every truly merciful act of kindness and charity that we do for others is being done for Christ.     Even when we care for an aging parent or grandparent, or care for someone that no one else cares for, we are doing it for Christ, even if we aren’t aware of that or feel we have no other choice then to do the kind thing.  When we care for that bothersome or negligent neighbor, we are ministering to Christ whether we know it or not.   It isn’t the case that the righteous have to consciously be aware of doing good for Christ.  If they are merciful to others, they are doing it to Christ, even when Christ isn’t in their mind or on their radar or part of their belief system.

2]  The Gospel of the Last Judgment is a Gospel of hope, it is good news.  Whether or not you have sinned, even if you are burdened with sin, even if you fail to overcome your habitual or pernicious sins, you are still capable of loving others – and so you can still receive a favorable judgment from Christ.  Even if you don’t have proper faith, you can still unwittingly show mercy to Christ by showing mercy to others, and thus receive a favorable judgment on the last day.  This Gospel lesson if full of hope!  I may be addicted to sin and not able to overcome my weaknesses, but I can still love some of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.

5399225597_15118792c0_n3]  The fathers talk about 3 levels of justice –  First, there are those who aren’t interested in justice and don’t even attempt to be just.  Second, there are those interested in human justice, this is about being fair (but humanly speaking we are often interested in fairness only when it is to our advantage).  This can also be an eye for an eye thinking, or retributive justice, or revenge.  Human justice is imperfect as we see sometimes in the court system when some criminals are set free unjustly and some innocent are punished unjustly.   We often use our ideas of human justice to understand the Last Judgment.  The third level is divine justice.  Because God is love, divine justice is the same thing as Divine love or divine mercy.  God can find ways to have a judgment in which even sinners are forgiven and blessed.  As in the Gospel of the last judgment, the terms of the judgment are changed – it is not about sins/breaking the commandments.  The question is ” have we loved those whom we could have loved?  In these terms, even sinners and unbelievers might find God’s mercy!

God’s Word is a Seed

5096763138_3435941b81_n“A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold.”

As he said this, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”  (Luke 8:5-15)

Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich finds deep meaning in the parable:

“The field signifies the human soul; the various parts of the field signify different human souls. Some are like the ground alongside the path, others like stony ground, yet others like patches of thorns.

Others, though, are like good ground, well away from the path, clear of stones and thorns. Why does the sower not cast his seed only on the good ground, rather than along the path or among the stones and thorns? Because the Good News of the Gospel is common to all, not secret and not confined to just one group of people, as had been the case in much dark and ‘magical’ teaching among the Greeks and the Egyptians, that had as their goal more the acquisition of power over a man, or by one group of people over another, than the salvation of the soul. ‘What I tell you in darkness, that speak you in light; and what you hear in the ear, that preach you upon the housetops’ (Matt. 10:27).

Thus the Lord commands His disciples; the Great Sower commands the sowers. God desires the salvation of all human souls, for ‘He will have all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4), ‘not willing that any should perish’ (2 Pet. 3:9). Were the Lord to have sown His divine teaching only among good people, the wicked would have had the excuse that they had never heard the Gospel, and would have ascribed their perdition to God, not to their own sinfulness. No-one will ever come to perdition through God’s fault, for God is righteous and no sort of fault can approach the light of His righteousness.” (Homilies, p 214)

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC        (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
 ( BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Even if we think that some people have hardened hearts, hearts of stone or heads full of rocks, we are to share the Good News with them.  Even if we think they will never produce anything but thorns and weeds because we can see that in their lives, we are to live in such a way as to be light to them and to provide them with the seed of the Gospel.  It doesn’t matter what they are like, the Sower of Good Seed sends us into the world to continue His ministry.

Mercy is Justice

“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”   (1 Timothy 1:15-16)

“Since justice insists that all people get their due, and since mercy implies that at least some receive what is not their due, how can the two claims avoid contradiction?

Wisdom and Justice

The answer lies in the biblical understanding of our relation to God. He does not owe us our existence but grants it as sheer miraculous gift. There is nothing we could possibly do to compensate for this gift, to make it something deserved – not even to return it. We would be totally indebted even if we were unfallen. Sin hugely magnifies our obligation to the triune God. His deliverance of us from bondage through Israel and Christ and the church makes the debt absolute.

Elijah, Christ, Moses

In the deepest sense, therefore, God’s mercy precedes his justice and serves as its very basis.

His judgement is but the enforcement of his mercy: God insists that we live by the same merciful measure wherein we have been created and redeemed.  [Author JRR] Tolkien repeatedly demonstrates his understanding of this profound paradox that mercy is not contrary to justice but the true realization of it. Over and again we encounter characters who have done wrong and who deserve punishment, but who receive justice in the form of mercy – as their bad deeds often issue in surprisingly good things.” (Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien, pp 96-97)

SS Peter & Paul
“Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

(James 2:13)

The Canaanite Woman is My Sister

The Gospel reading of Matthew 15:21-21 presents a hard lesson both because Jesus appears to treat the woman harshly and because we are challenged to think about people like this woman who might appeal to the parish for help but whom for various reasons we feel justified in just wanting to be rid of them.

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

In the Gospel text, the word rendered in English as “knelt before” or in some versions, “worshipped”, is the Greek word prosekunei which has the implication of humbly submitting like a dog before its master by being down on the ground on all fours and waitinganxiously for the master’s command.

It is the way she submissively kneels before Jesus, on all four, like a dog, that apparently elicits the response from Jesus reported in the Gospel.  (see also my blog You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks)

But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

The Children’s Bread

The woman asks from Christ, like so many other people in the Gospel, for mercy – not for herself but for her daughter.  Jesus appears to either mock her by comparing her to a little puppy that follows its master around hoping to get some crumbs of food dropped by the master, or Jesus out and out is comparing her and her daughter to nothing more than dogs.

In the desert fathers, there is a very interesting comment about this Gospel lesson.  Abba Poemen reminds us that such unwanted nuisances such as the Canaanite woman are actually our brothers and sisters who we are commanded to care for.  The Canaanites were no friends of the Jews and often were hostile to them.  The Jews forbade intermarriage with the Canaanites.  Whatever the Canaanites represented, even as a religious threat to each Israelite, the Lord Jesus responds favorably to her, seeing in her something the Twelves Disciples cannot see.

 “Abba Poeman said:

‘We are in such trouble because we are not taking care of our brother who the Scripture stipulated we are to take in. Or do we not see the Canaanite woman who followed the Savior, crying and beseeching for her daughter to be healed – and that the Savior looked with favor on her and healed [her daughter]?’”

(Poeman in Give Me A Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 260)

Today, many Syrian, Mideastern and Muslim refugees are very much like the Canaanite woman to us.   But it is not only them, for many of us have a distrust and dislike for any migrants, any poor, any people of different culture or color.  We want them to go away, or maybe we, like the apostles, hope God will make them go away.  But He might, instead, mercifully answer their prayers.  And He might expect us, His servants, to do the same.

God’s Love and Judgment

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev shares a theological truth, which he learned from St. Isaac the Syrian. He encountered the teaching while reading the works of Vladimir Lossky.  It was an idea that stood out in Metropolitan Hilarion’s heart and mind.

“I was particularly struck by some words of Isaac, quoted by Lossky, about the suffering of those in hell. According to Isaac those who endure torment in gehenna are chastised, not by divine anger, not by any desire on God’s part to exact retribution – for there is no cruelty or vindictiveness in God – but ‘with the scourge of love’. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart that has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God…But love acts in a double way, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed. Lossky comments:

‘The love of God will be intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.’

Once more, as with Isaac’s description of the compassionate heart, it was as if someone had suddenly opened a window in my mind and flooded my whole interior world with light. Here, I felt, is the only interpretation of judgment and hell that makes any sense. God is love, and his love is inexhaustible; and this inexhaustible love is present everywhere, even in hell. But ‘love acts in a double way.’” (The Spiritual Word of Isaac the Syrian, pp 9-10)