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

11/28 - And Who Is My Neighbor? - Fr. Matthew Garrett

“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” This is the teaching of the Law and the Prophets, and it is the way that we will inherit eternal life. This teaching, though simple to say, is not easy to put into practice. In the First General Epistle of Saint John, we read that “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” This points to some of the difficulty we face in keeping these two greatest commandments.

We tend to love God as those who do not really know Him. We believe that there is a God, and we may genuinely want to please Him, but we don’t give ourselves over to living fully in union and communion with Him. Our love for Him rarely goes past appreciation for the things in our lives that we consider “good.” We give thanks for our blessings, but not for our trials and tribulations. When life is good, we love God; but when life is hard, we grumble and complain.  We do not know His will for us, we do not see His hand at work in our lives, and so we don’t truly love Him.

When it comes to our fellow man, we like to think of ourselves as loving people, but we often fail to act lovingly. Perhaps we love our parents, our spouses, or our children... Perhaps. Maybe we love some of our friends, or our close acquaintances... Maybe. We might perform acts of charity to try to demonstrate a more general love for humanity. But we get annoyed when people don’t love us back, when they don’t appreciate our efforts; or when they insult, criticize, or offend us. We love the idea of being loving people, but the reality is difficult to accomplish.

We are not commanded to love God as a proposition, or humanity as a concept, we are called to love as persons. And in fact, these two commandments are not really two but one, a reality that is so important as we begin the Nativity Fast today. We are beginning to prepare ourselves more earnestly to celebrate the birth in the flesh of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. This Nativity Feast, in which God becomes man, brings together the Divine and the Human, and thus it unites as one for us the love of God and the love of man. God becomes man out of love for him, therefore, we must love our fellow man if we are  to love God.

The Lawyer in this morning’s gospel asked our Lord “And who is my neighbor?” In response the Lord tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. The point of the parable is not to identify who the lawyer’s neighbors are, as though some people are his neighbor and others are not. To answer this question in the way the lawyer asked it would be to give him an excuse to only love those he wants to. Instead the Lord tells this parable in order to teach how we are to love -- how we are to be a neighbor to all.

In truth, our Lord is the good Samaritan in the parable. When man departed from Paradise, when he departed from Jerusalem, he fell among thieves -- among the demons that want to steal from him his inheritance. Man was beaten and wounded by sin, he was stripped of his heavenly garment, and he was left half-dead -- alive in body, but spiritually dead in sin. The Priest and the Levite -- the Law and the Prophets -- passed by leaving him in his condition, but the Lord Himself came to us bringing healing and restoration. Like the Samaritan, our Lord was despised by the Jewish people, but He still treats all of us -- the wounded, robbed, and half-dead -- as His neighbor.

After the parable, the Lord asks the lawyer the more important question, “which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”  Whether those in need are close to us, love us, or appreciate us, or whether they are distant from us, hate us, or persecute us, we are still to act as neighbor to them because that is what our Lord has done for us.

Yet we keep asking the question “who is my neighbor?” We make distinctions based on race, ethnicity, language, class, religion, political affiliation, or any number of criteria. We find ways to limit our love to only those who we think deserve it, or those who are like us. Instead we should ask “how can I be a neighbor to each person that I encounter?” This is not a call to some notion of diversity, pluralism, or relativism, but rather a call to love all as God loves us.

All around us are people who have been robbed of their heavenly inheritance and are half-dead in their sins, and we pass by because we exclude them from our list of neighbors. But what if we looked on each person as an icon of Christ and sought to venerate that image in them? What if the poor, the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the sick, or the imprisoned were someone that we treated as a neighbor? What if we treated them as Christ first treated us? Our Lord tells us what will happen. He tells us that what we do to the least of these we do to Him, and for this we will inherit the Kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world.

When you treat your neighbor as yourself, you not only act like Christ, but you encounter Christ in them. Christ is both God and man, He has united His Divine nature to our human nature, and because of His great condescension, we encounter God both in our love for God and in our love for Man.

In the Epistle reading this morning, Saint Paul writes: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” The great mystery of the Incarnation is that God comes to us while we are dead in our sins, and he gives us the greatest riches. He comes to us and unites Himself to us. He offers to make us by grace what He is by nature. He is a neighbor, he is close, to all of us, to each and every person. He bestows His gifts to all, to the Greek as well as to the Jew, to male and female alike.  He shows us how to be neighbor to everyone.

So when we love God, we must love Him as we have encountered Him on that road leading out of Jerusalem. We must give thanks to Him for the healing that He has given us, for the care and provision that He has shown to us. We must love Him, not as a philosophical notion, or religious doctrine, but as the neighbor who rescued us from death. And when we love our neighbor, we must not love them in proportion to how good they are to us, but fully and completely as God first loved us. The neighbor is one who shows mercy as God shows mercy. Go and do likewise.

11/21 - Guardians and Nurses

Luke 8:41-56

In the Church we celebrate many different kinds of feasts.  Most important, of course, are the feasts of the Lord, the greatest of which is Pascha, the feast of the Resurrection.  Second to these are the feasts of the Mother of God, the Ever-Virgin Mary.  We have in addition to these great feasts, the feasts of the various saints which fill every day of the year.  Sometimes there are feasts to commemorate great events which serve to preserve for us an important dogmatic truth, such as the first Sunday of Great Lent when we celebrate the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” and the final defeat of the iconoclasts.  On that day we also remember the proper place of icons in our Orthodox worship.  Today is also such a feast – a feast in which we celebrate the establishment of a doctrinal truth and the condemnation of various distortions and errors which had crept in around this truth.  Today is the feast of the Archangel Michael and all the bodiless host and today we call to mind the proper place and role of the angelic host in our Orthodox faith.

Throughout the centuries there have been many distortions concerning the angels.  Angels were incorrectly worshipped as gods – even at times by the Hebrews and some who followed Christ.  For them angels were some kind of lesser god, but still a god worthy of worship.  Some even went so far as to say that Jesus Christ was an angel or that as incarnate God, having a body, he was somehow inferior to the bodiless angels.  This foolishness finally came to a crisis in the city of Colossae in Greece.  A council, that of Laodicea, was convened by the local bishop in order to combat this distortion of the place of angels.  This council condemned the heretical worship of angels and further it defined the proper and pious veneration of the holy angels as God’s servants and the guardians of the race of mankind.  This feast of the Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the bodiless hosts was established on this day to fix for us a constant reminder of the proper belief concerning the bodiless host.

This distortion and complete fallacy regarding the angelic host did not end with the council; throughout the centuries new heresies continue to arise and old ones appear in “new clothes”.  Today there are those who still worship angels as part of a pantheon of gods and spirits.  Others seek to invoke the angels and demand their assistance through spells and the incantations of “white magic”.  Conversely, there are those who attempt to humanize angels, making them out to be some kind of “superhuman” or superhero, endowed with extraordinary powers, but afflicted by the same passions and desires as men.  There is also the popular but foolish belief that angels are the souls of righteous men and women who have departed this life and who abide in heaven (just as demons are thought to be the souls of evil people).  The errors are endless.  Many of the people who embrace these false beliefs do not do so out of malice or as enemies of God, but rather they do so out of ignorance, for the truth of the angelic host is often not taught despite the feast which is established for just that purpose.

In order to reject the heresies of what angels are not, it is important to learn what angels are and their proper place in the kingdom of God.  Angels are creatures – that is, they were created by God.  They are part of the “invisible creation” that we confess in the Creed (“I believe in one God… maker of heaven and earth and all things visible and invisible…”) Angels are the servants and ministers of God – they are the agents by which He governs all of creation, they are His messengers proclaiming the Heavenly mysteries and they are the caretakers of all that God created. 

Just as the servants of an earthly king are also the servants of his children, so also the angels are our servants and helpers in accomplishing the will of God and in working out our salvation.  When we are baptized a guardian angel is joined to our life to be our particular caretaker, and beyond that all the heavenly host are there to assist us as well. Consider how the children of an earthly king are given into the care of nurses and guardians to protect them as they grow up and mature.  The children are expected to submit to these guardians and nurses even though technically they are their own servants.  Only when the child comes of age is he freed from the necessity to obey and submit to his caretakers.  Mankind was made in the image and likeness of God, we are His children and heirs, however we are given into the care of God’s servants, the holy angels for the time of our childhood.  Only when we enter into our maturity – only when we enter the Kingdom of Heaven are we freed from their supervision.  In the meantime their task is to protect us from harm, especially spiritual harm, to teach us the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, to guide us and educate us in how to live and to bring us to the place where we will enter into the Kingdom of God.  What is it then that we are expected to learn?

In today’s Gospel we find the answer to that question – we are expected to learn to live by faith and to exercise that faith in an ever increasing trust in God.  In today’s Gospel we encounter two different people who in faith came to our Lord seeking help.  Each of them were different in the strength and maturity of their faith.  Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue came asking the Lord to come and heal his daughter who was near death.  His faith was present but weak.  He needed Jesus to come and to lay His hand upon the daughter in order for him to have sufficient faith.  Contrast that to the woman with an issue of blood who came to Jesus seeking not that He would touch her, but only that she might touch the hem of His robe.  Her faith was shown to be the stronger of the two and she was healed first in the presence of Jairus in order that he might be encouraged and enlightened by a faith stronger than his own.  A faith even greater than either of these two was evidenced by the centurion who sent to Jesus to heal his servant.  He did not ask Jesus to come to his home or even to touch or be touched by the sick servant.  He only asked that Jesus speak the command knowing that this was sufficient that his servant be healed.  Upon hearing this, our Lord “marveled and said…I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”

So here we have three examples of faith in ever increasing strength – the faith of Jairus that required the presence of Christ and the touch of His hand, the faith of the woman who needed only to touch the hem of His robe and the faith of the centurion who required only the word.  All of us in the Church are familiar with the faith of Jairus for this is the faith with which we approach the sacraments – we come asking to be touched by Christ and so healed of our spiritual diseases.  All of the sacraments have this component of a physical element wherein we experience that Jesus Christ comes to us and touches us and we are healed by His grace.  This requires only the smallest amount of faith and yet the results of the sacrament are beyond comprehension – we are touched and healed and raised from the death of our sins.  There is also the faith of woman which also requires a touch – to touch the hem of His garment.  The power of this faith is in humility for the woman recognized her own unworthiness and yet reached out to the Lord knowing that He would heal her.  As we grow the strength of our own faith this is the key element – humility. For this reason we see our sins, we confess our sins and we repent of our sins.  This humility produced by repentance amplifies the power and strength of our faith and trust in God’s help and mercy.  Finally there is the faith of the centurion which requires only the living Word of God – this is the communion of pure prayer to which we all aspire and towards which we all labor, however, only a few saints acquire this faith in this life.  For many, even for most, that communion of pure prayer will be achieved only in the next life. 

Throughout this whole process of growth and development in faith, we are watched over, guarded and cared for by our “guardians and nurses” the angelic host.  For now we are “a little lower than the angels” (Heb 2:7) but the time will come when we shall judge even the angels (1Cor 6:3).  The angels are our heavenly helpers, and even those most distant from us and nearest to the presence of God still touch us and impart to us the gifts according to their rank and station.  We ought not to exalt angels beyond their proper glory, nor should we degrade them and make them less than they are.  The angels are the servants of God who, each according to his own place, assists us and helps us that we might share in their joy crying out before the throne of God: “Holy Holy Holy, Lord of Hosts, Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!”

NOTICE:  Due to the changes in yahoogroups, I have moved my sermons onto a blog on wordpress called "Pastoral Thoughts: Musings of a Village Priest"  If you would like to get the sermons via email (and other random thoughts I might have), please subscribe to my blog. - Fr. David