St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church
872 N. 29th St. Boise, ID
an American parish of the Russian Orthodox Church

The weekly homilies are now also available on YouTube in video format:  Homilies

9/17 - Earthen Vessels - Fr. Matthew Garrett

When asked what the greatest commandment in the law is, our Lord said, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and added that the second greatest commandment is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In the Lord Jesus Christ, these two great commandments are brought together. To love Christ, to worship Him and to serve Him, is to fulfill the greatest commandment. And because He became man and shares our nature, if we love Him, we will love our neighbor as ourselves because of His surpassing love for all mankind.

When we grow in His likeness, we are transformed and transfigured by the grace of God working in us. Saint Paul says this morning that “it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” By God’s grace we become bearers of the light of Christ, but as Saint Paul says, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.”

The same lump of clay can be turned into a vessel for honor or dishonor, for something very beautiful or very utilitarian; these vessels can be sturdy, or extremely fragile, but all must be cared for if they are to last. One of the most beautiful of vessels for this light, in is the married life. A husband and wife form a little Church in which Christ comes to dwell, and the excellence of marriage is found in His light shining from within the marriage. We, for our part, must take care never to depart from one another and to never depart from Christ Who is the glory of marriage.

On this Sunday, the Church gives us an example of a God-bearing marriage in the memory of the Right-believing Prince Peter and Princess Fevronia, and calls on the faithful to strengthen and protect their marriages.

Saint Peter was prince of Murom at the beginning of the 13th century. Stricken with leprosy, he could find no one able to help him. In a dream, it was revealed to him that a certain bee-keeper’s daughter, Fevronia, who lived in a peasant village could heal him. So he sent for her and indeed she did restore his health. He fell in love with her and married her not for superficial reasons, but for her piety, wisdom, and virtue – those things which gave her the ability to bring about his healing. However, the boyars of Murom were not happy that he had married a commoner, and so the couple went into exile, but clung to one another throughout their trials, and were eventually brought back to Murom by the people. These Saints are known for the piety and charity that they practiced together.

The foundation of their marriage was thanksgiving and the love of God, of wisdom, and of virtue. In other words, their marriage was centered around Christ -- giving thanks for all things, and keeping His commandments. They gave thanks for all of God’s provision for them, even knowing that enduring difficulties would strengthen them if they clung to one another and to Him.

We must learn to give thanks if we are to have strong marriages. It can be easier to complain, to criticize, or to harbor resentment, but when we look at our blessings, when we consider the good that comes to us, even when that good comes about through sorrows and tribulations, when we give thanks to God for these things, when we pray for one another, care for one another, and forgive one another, we draw closer to one another and to God.

We must also be lovers of wisdom. By this I don’t mean knowledge or information, but understanding of truth. We must know God if we are to follow Him, and truly know one another in order to discern how to live as Christ asks us to. Know your spouse’s strengths and draw on them, know their weaknesses and help them, learn to love them sacrificially and selflessly. Marriage is not simply two people living together in harmony, it is two people made one in Christ; it is one of the strongest calls to love one’s neighbor as oneself. If we cannot show this kind of love for our spouses, what are the chances that we can love strangers or our enemies at all?

We also must live virtuously. This does not mean being generally good, or nice to others. Saint Philaret of Moscow speaks of virtue as victory over self, as self-sacrifice in which we trade the yoke of desires and passions for the yoke of Christ’s salvific commandments. It is difficult at first just as doing anything worthwhile is, but the more we live virtuously, the more the burden lifts and becomes lighter until we are able to live this way with greater ease than we previously lived fulfilling our own desires. This life gives us wings and bears us up to heaven. It makes us more human, more angelic, and even more god-like.

Marriage is the arena in which most of us will fulfill the Great Commandment and the one that is like it. And the first thing that most of us must learn to do is to forgive. Forgiveness is not just for the big offenses against one another. The Church gives us the rite of mutual forgiveness which we practice every year on Forgiveness Sunday, but it is also a powerful help in marriage if practiced regularly.

Even if our sins against one another are small, who can say that they have gone a whole day without sinning against their spouse in some way? Have you been annoyed, or resentful? Have you remembered sins of the past? Have your eyes gone where they should not have, or lingered too long? Have you neglected to do what you said you would, or delayed doing something out of laziness? Have you wondered how your life would be different if you had chosen someone else? Have you led your spouse into sin instead of leading them toward virtue? These and many other things might not even be something your spouse knows about, but for you seek for forgiveness. Likewise, your spouse might be harboring resentment -- waiting for you to ask forgiveness without you knowing it. It is important that we constantly forgive one another fully and completely, because our Lord tells us we cannot draw near and offer gifts to Him without first forgiving others.

We must pray for our spouses and pray with them. We must, of course, seek Christ for ourselves, but married couples need to also seek Him together. We need to keep Him at the center of our lives, and strengthen and encourage each another to draw nearer to Him. Likewise, we should fast together. To deprive yourself is more difficult when you are alone in the struggle. It is why the whole Church fasts at the same times, but especially in marriage we need to help one another in this labor of self-denial.

Likewise we should be charitable together. Inflame within one another the desire to help others. When we are merciful to others, we draw down God’s mercy on us. We become like Him and learn to live not for ourselves but for others and for God. When we do this together we strengthen our bonds with each other and with God.

These lessons are not just important for husbands and wives, but for all Christians. We should all forgive, and love others, we should all pray, fast, and give alms, we should all seek wisdom and live virtuously. But there is something very important about marriage. Christ’s first miracle was performed at a wedding, and as water into wine, He still transforms the faithful in their marriages.

We all marvel at marriages that last half a century or more, because so much in this life is transitory, it changes, and it ends. The friends we have now are likely not the one we had years ago, or the ones we will have many years from now, but marriage more than most anything in this life endures. The married life of a husband and wife can show the world how to fulfill the great commandments, to live piously, with wisdom, virtue, and charity. It can show forth in our earthen vessels the glory of God in a way that is rarely seen elsewhere. And by doing so it can endure not just for decades, not even centuries but for eternity.

As a sign of this, Saints Peter and Fevronia before they died on the same day, asked that they be buried together. Their request was not honored by the people, but by a miracle of God that is how their relics were found. Their resting place together demonstrates the enduring power of a life lived for God and with godly love for another.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself. For those who are married, seek through forgiveness, piety, wisdom, and virtue to make your marriage holy, not merely for your own sakes but that others might see the power of God to transform two lives into one and to make holy this life which you share.

9/10 - A Wedding Garment

Matt 22:1-14

This great wedding feast is an image of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Our God loves us to such a great extent that He has prepared a great feast for us in the life to come. The wedding, of course, is our union with God, when we are joined to Him and share in His Life. This feast is a spiritual feast in which we are given all the joys and pleasures that emanate from God Himself and which we then enjoy eternally. This parable was originally directed to the Jews who rejected our Lord Jesus Christ – a warning of the eternal consequences of that rejection.  It also foretold the entry of the gentiles into the Church.  But, like all the parables of Christ, this parable is not limited in time and place to just the relationship between Jesus and the Jewish leaders – it continues to teach us throughout the ages about our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our Lord has invited us to a great feast – but we must respond to that invitation.  It would seem that this would be an obvious choice, but as we all know, in this world there are many things that seek to compete with the Life in Christ.  We are told that one man went to his farm – and indeed our possessions and the passion to acquire more possessions in this world can prevent us from following Christ. The time, energy and resources that go into acquiring, maintaining and using our possessions too often takes away from the time, energy and resources that we might use to pursue and acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit which is the means by which we are joined to Christ.  Another man went to his merchandise, that is to his business.  The Evangelist Luke says that he had just purchased oxen – he was addicted to his work in the world; he was addicted to his reputation, to his fame, to the respect of others, to the influence that his labors provided for him.  For us this is the same; we busy ourselves with this, that and the other thing which then means that we have no time or energy left to do those things which are vital and necessary to our spiritual well being.  We don’t have enough time to pray or to read the scripture; the worship of the Church is relegated to those moments when we don’t have anything better to do.  Luke tells us of a third man who had “just married a wife” – and indeed many of us are addicted to pleasure; we run after every pleasurable experience and stimulus in this life and dedicate ourselves to enjoying every possible thing.  We have no tolerance for the struggle of denying ourselves,  the sorrow and suffering of taking up our cross or the discipline of following Christ.  If we succumb to these distractions, then like the unfortunate friends of this king in the parable, we will be rejected and will face destruction.

However, for the most part, those of us standing here have responded positively to the invitation of Christ and have entered the feast.  But even having “accepted” the invitation of Christ is not sufficient.  In the parable there was one person in attendance who was not dressed in the proper wedding attire.  The host came to him and asked, “Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment?”  For us, what does this mean?  How are we to be attired to participate in this spiritual feast that has been prepared for us by God?  We must remember that the attire is not the physical attire of the world, but it is the spiritual attire of the heart.  We must adorned not with jewels, fine clothing, cosmetics and perfumes, but rather with the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and tolerance. (Gal 5:22-23).  These are the things that we need to seek to acquire – these are the “wedding garments” that are necessary for the spiritual feast to which we have been invited.

But this man had not bothered to acquire these spiritual adornments, but put his trust in his own accomplishments and his own worthiness. And when the host confronted him about his improper attire, he was “speechless” – he had no answer.  This speechlessness indicates for us a lack of repentance.  Now we all sin, we all fail at times (well, to be honest, most of the time) in our spiritual labors.  There is nothing that we can do that can fulfill the calling of God.  But when confronted by our failings, that is when we are convicted of sin by the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our heart, there is a response, and that response is repentance.  We fall down before the Host of the feast and confess that we have sinned, and beg His forgiveness, and we turn away from that sin, rejecting its place in our lives and its hold on us.  From that moment on we strive to leave the sin behind and follow Christ.  This is the response that God desires from us when He confronts us with our sin.  If we confess our sins, then He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  That means that God, by forgiving us breaks the power that sin has over us and by cleansing us, He places us again on the path of salvation – but, it is now up to us to walk that path, being careful not to stray off from it and fall down again.  As many times as we sin, we must repent. And as many times as we repent, God forgives us.  Since it seems that we are never without sin, let us also never be without repentance.

But this man was “speechless”, he didn’t repent – perhaps he didn’t see his sin, or perhaps his pride was such that he tried to justify himself, or perhaps he loved his sin more than he loved God.  As a result of his lack of repentance, he was bound hand and foot and “cast into the outer darkness where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” St Gregory Palamas points out that the meaning of being bound hand and foot indicates that he was no longer able to do anything or go anywhere, but that this ability was taken from him.  It is well known to all of us that in this life we are given the opportunity not only to repent, but also to gather spiritual treasure (the grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit) for ourselves, but that after we die, these things are no longer possible – we must “make do” with what we have acquired in this life.  If we did not repent in this life when we had the opportunity to do so, in the next life, we will not be able to repent.  If we did not follow Christ, but went our own way in this life, in the next life we will be cast out into the outer darkness where we do not wish to go.  If we do not gather spiritual treasure in this life, then we will be without any resources in the next.  Therefore, let us make use of the time and opportunity that God has given us now.  We have this life to repent, to nurture the fruit of the Holy Spirit and bring it to fruition, to acquire spiritual gold and silver and gems which are the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Too often we waste this precious time that we have been given striving after worldly riches, respect or pleasures and we have no time for spiritual labor.  It is good to constantly remember that the time will come soon (sooner than anyone of us thinks) that we will no longer have the chance or the ability to acquire these things and we will stand before the throne of God naked, except for the “wedding garment” that we have sewn for ourselves in this life.

Let us therefore stop wasting time – stop this very moment.  As St Herman instructs us, “From this very day, this very hour, this very moment, let us strive to love God above all else.”  The day is indeed far spent, the night is upon us – perhaps even this worldly night will be our last.  Let us then spend what little time we have left acquiring heavenly riches rather than worldly riches that we might enter into the heavenly banquet clothed in a brilliant wedding garment and be greeted by our Host with the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.”

9/3 - Watch, Hold Fast, Be Brave, Be Strong, Love - Fr. Matthew Garrett

In the gospel reading this morning, we heard the parable of the vineyard and its workers. A landowner planted a vineyard, he set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. In other words, he gave the laborers everything that they would need so that they could enjoy the fruits of the vineyard in due season. “Saint John Chrysostom says, “He left little for them to do. All they had to do was take care of what was there and to preserve what was given to them. Nothing was left undone but all accomplished.”

And yet, when the time of harvest came, the laborers did not want to share anything with the landowner, and instead killed those whom the landowner sent to collect. The Lord is specifically criticizing the Jewish people who had for centuries enjoyed the Lord’s care and provision, but who also regularly chose sin over the covenant made with their fathers, who killed the prophets calling them to repentance, and would soon crucify Him.

In the Church, we too have been given a vineyard in which we can enjoy all manner of spiritual fruit with minimal labor. And yet we begin to think that it belongs to us, that it is rightfully ours and that because we have labored in the vineyard, we should not have to give back from what we obtain.

We most likely don’t speak in this manner, but we act in this way. We have received rebirth -- spiritual regeneration in the font of baptism, we have received the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit, we eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of God, and we are anointed for healing of soul and body. We receive the grace of God regularly in small and great ways, but to pray for a few minutes morning and evening, or to fast from certain foods, or to come to Church, read Scripture, or share with others some of the material blessings we have received seems too much. We want maximum blessings with minimal cost to ourselves. We are not willing to present back to the Lord the fruits of the blessings which He has bestowed on us.

When none of the landowner’s servants could collect what was due to him, the landowner sent his own son to collect, thinking that they ought to at least respect his son. But seeing the son, they said something truly shocking: “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.” Christ is pointing out that they will do the same to Him as they did to the prophets. But imagine thinking that you could seize all that belongs to the landowner by killing his son. Imagine thinking that the landowner himself would not take back what rightfully belongs to him. Imagine thinking that you can take everything from the one who gave you everything.

Such a thought really ought to be unthinkable, and yet, our Lord didn’t just tell this parable to the Jews that desired to put Him to death, He tells this parable for us as well.

When the Jewish people came back from captivity in the land of Babylon, they sought once again to be secure in the vineyard which God planted for them, but they did so through zealotry. They rigidly kept the law and all their interpretations of the law as a means of securing their place in the vineyard. But when Our Lord came in the flesh, He did not need to be sustained by what the vineyard offered, after all, He was the source of all those blessings. So, He spoke the truth to them, and they could not bear it because it differed from what they thought. And so instead of being zealous for the Lord, they were zealous for their own ways, even to the point of crucifying the Lord of Glory, seeking to make the vineyard their own.

It is good for us to be zealous for the Lord but be certain that it is the Lord for whom you are zealous. Saint Paul said to the Corinthians in the epistle we read this morning: “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.”

The first thing he tells them is to watch. The vineyard in the parable had within it a tower. You likewise are endowed with the highest portion of the soul, and with it the ability to watch over yourself. Examine every thought, every inclination, as Saint Paul says, “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”

Next, we need to stand fast in the faith. We are not called to figure things out for ourselves, to make up the faith as we go along. The faith was once delivered to the Apostles; we must remain in it. But this is not to be done passively. We must understand our faith and know the God who delivered it to us if we are to stand fast in it.  Learn what the Church teaches, so that you may be ready as Saint Peter said, “to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” Pay special attention to the words, “with meekness and fear.”

These words can seem contradictory to Saint Paul’s words: “be brave, be strong.” But they are not. We must be brave if we are to stand fast in the faith because the world and the demonic powers will try to pull us away. We must be brave in standing against these hostile forces in the fear of God. We likewise must be strong in withstanding these forces, but with meekness. Saint John of the Ladder says that “Meekness is an unchangeable state of mind which remains the same in honor and dishonor. Meekness is the rock overlooking the sea of irritability which breaks all the waves that dash against it, remaining itself unmoved... In meek hearts the Lord finds rest, but a turbulent soul is the seat of the devil” So meekness is itself a great strength, one that allows us to choose the good by being unmoved by the evil.

We have been made heirs of the Kingdom. We have everything that is needed for our salvation. We must take care and labor to make sure that we have fruit to present to the Lord at the time of harvest. We live in turbulent times. We live among people who will often despise those who are faithful to God but are themselves zealous for vain and sinful living.

Heed well the words of Saint Paul: “Let all that you do be done with love.”  We should desire to be brave and to be strong in reaction to the hostility of the world, but we must do all things with love. We must keep watch over ourselves; we must hold fast to the true faith, not our opinions; we must be brave in the fear of God; we must be strong in meekness -- unmoved by the tempest which surrounds us; and we must act in love. This love is perhaps chief among the fruits of the vineyard which the Lord desires to receive from our hands. Make sure that you are cultivating this fruit in abundance so that you may present it to our Lord when He comes to receive it from you.

8/27 - Attachments

Matthew 19:16-26

We are all attached to many things in this life – we are attached to people (parents, siblings, spouse, children, friends, partners, co-workers…); we are attached to things (house, property, car, heirlooms, collectibles, tools, toys, foods, drinks, valuables…); we are attached to activities (work, hobbies, pastimes, games, sports…); we are attached to ideals (reputations, lifestyles, careers, interests, opinions…).  This list could go on and on.  However, the spiritual life is about detaching ourselves from the things of this world, which is mortal and passes away, and instead attaching ourselves to the Kingdom of Heaven which is eternal.  As we all know this is a difficult thing to do and in the Gospel account today we have an example of just how difficult it is.  A young man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to be saved.  After pointing out the necessity of keeping the commandments, Jesus then says to the young man, “Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor and come and follow Me.” The young man went away greatly sorrowful for he was quite rich.  Jesus, seeing this said to the apostles, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

This wealthy young man was attached to his wealth and when he was confronted with the requirement to break that attachment, he was greatly saddened for while he desired greatly to be saved, to enter the Kingdom of God, as evidenced by his strict keeping of the commandments (for he told Jesus that he had kept all of them from his youth up), still he wanted also to be able to hold onto those things to which he was attached in this world as well. But anything to which we are attached in this world becomes for us a “master” that dictates what we do and how we do it.  But Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters…you cannot serve God and mammon (worldly wealth)”.  When we embrace Christ, we have to let go of everything – we cannot hold onto Him and onto the world at the same time.

The ancient desert ascetic fathers took this necessity quite literally – they sold all that they had, gave it to the poor and then withdrew into the desert where there were no distractions and began to live lives exclusively devoted to prayer.  However, not everyone (and indeed very few in these later times) is called to such a severe and extreme life. How then do we put this one-sided love and devotion to Jesus Christ into action in our lives?  How do we let go of the world; how do we “sell all that (we) have … and follow (Christ)?”  At this point we need to look at our lives, at how we live and what determines that, and reassess our priorities. We have to reorder our lives so that everything in them works toward the same goal, that is toward the Kingdom of God. St Ephraim the Syrian gives us an example of this kind of focus on the Kingdom of God. “If a person takes a sack of money in hand and goes to the cattle market to buy oxen, will he diligently attend to the swine? If again, he wishes to purchase donkeys, will he go looking for dogs? All of his attention will be focused on that which he wishes to purchase, and that alone will he examine with care, so that he be not cheated and so that he not carelessly lose the money which he has in hand. So then, when we go to the holy Church and stand before God, let us raise all of our thoughts to Him and let us attend only to those things which refer to Him, thinking only on these, so that we might gain thereby our salvation and enjoy the good things of Heaven.“

This then gives us something that we can follow. Let us take all that we have in this life, our “bag of money”, and use it all for the purpose of purchasing that which we desire – that is the Kingdom of God. First we must let go of the idea of “ownership” of any of those things to which we have been attached and remember that they do not belong to us, but to God – He only “loans” us all the things that we have in this life so that we can use them for the working out of our salvation.  This is how we “sell all that we have” – by transferring ownership from ourselves to God.  Now it is up to us to use all of His property for the purpose that He has ordained for it.  We must “give it to the poor”.  Sometimes this will be a literal “giving” where we give to someone who is in need. Jesus said that we should give to him who asks of us without any qualification about whether or not that person is deserving.  Saint Gregory the Dialogist tells of an abbot who had gathered in the harvest of grain for the monastery.  He unexpectedly went to inspect the threshing floor and happened upon three thieves who were preparing to steal some of the grain. The abbot, instead of crying out and apprehending the thieves or at least chasing them away undertook to help them fill their sacks with grain and sent them on their way.  He did not ask if they were hungry or if they were in need; he didn’t try to “teach them a lesson” or give them some kind of sermon about morality and mercy – he simply gave to them that which God had given to him. It is this kind of approach that lies before us – all that we have is given to us by God, it all belongs to Him and so let us then give freely out of what has been given to us.

Sometimes this “giving to the poor” is not quite so literal.  Sometimes what this means is that we must retain what we have been given and without being attached to it, we must use it for Christ’s sake.  Have you been given wealth? Then use it for the welfare of the Church (by this I mean not only the building that we call the Church, but more importantly the people of the Church, the Body of Christ.)  Have you been given knowledge? Then use it for the uplifting of the Church. Have you been given a skill? Use it for the care of the Church.  Everything that you do from this point on must be centered on the Church.  Just as we consider everything that we have as belonging to Christ, so also we must consider that everything we do must be done for His glory.

St Nikolai of Ochrid, concerning this Gospel says, “Wealth is not evil in itself, as nothing that God has created is evil in itself, but men’s bondage to riches, lands and possessions is evil: and the destructive passions that riches empower and invoke … are evil.” So if these things are not evil in themselves, why must we “sell all” and “give” it all away?  Why can’t we just keep everything and our way of life and use our position as a “wealthy man” to do good, or our position of power and influence in society to benefit people.  Why can’t we just stay where we are and enjoy the “comforts of home” instead of having to let go of all these things?  St Nikolai continues, “Few there are who have the strength to resist the temptation of riches and to be in control of their wealth rather than becoming its servant and slave.”  We are indeed weak and like the fathers of the desert, because of our weakness, we must flee temptation. 

The Optina Elder St Anthony, recognizing this says to us, “Of course, it would be easier to get to paradise with a full stomach, all snuggled up in a soft feather-bed, but what is required is to carry one’s cross along the way. For the Kingdom of God is not attained by enduring (only) one or two troubles, but many.”  Our own natural desire to have a “full stomach” and be “snuggled up in a soft feather-bed” but our Lord called us to “deny yourself to “take up your cross” and follow Him.  It is necessary first and foremost to detach ourselves from everything of this world.  Only having done this will we be able to follow Christ for He leads us out of this world and into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Let us therefore, leave this world behind and follow Him that we might “gain thereby our salvation and enjoy the good things of Heaven.“

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