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"...Honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” 1 Peter 3:15

The Cave of Transformation

Sunday, March 7, 2021 - Fr. Nicholas Livingston

One of the faults of humans is when we try to make things more complicated than they need to be. But today, Christ shows Himself as the Great Simplifier. While not negating the other aspects of His teaching, Matthew 25 gives us a glimpse into the most simple and fundamental aspect of the Christian life. Christ’s teaching today about the Last Judgment clarifies things into an understandable image: Whatever you do (good or bad) to others, you also do those things to Christ.

If this is so simple, why do people struggle so much to act this way? Why do we hurt, slander, and hate others? Do we not know that our neighbor is our salvation?

I’m afraid that many people, in fact, do not believe this when it comes to actual people. They may have heard it in Sunday School, they may even hear it in church as adults, and believe it in a philosophical way, but they shy away from it when actually confronted by the opportunity to live it. I think we’ve all been there, but it’s worth asking “why would someone not accept this simple reality?”

Whenever we approach God, the contrast that exists between us becomes dreadfully clear. We may not be aware of this as long as we live at a distance from God…as long as his presence or image is dimmed in our thoughts and in our perceptions... but the nearer we come to God, the sharper the contrast appears. Is this not perhaps why we choose to live lives that do not include God? They are afraid because, in the words of Metropolitan Anthon Bloom, “Every encounter with God is a last judgment”.

We understand that when we come into Christ’s presence, the stark difference between what He is and what we are comes sharply into focus. But it’s much more difficult to confront the fact that, in hearing the words of our Lord today that, “whatever you do to the least among you, you do to me”, we must accept that every encounter we have with other people is also a moment we are faced with our self-realization. If every encounter with God is a Last Judgment, and every encounter with another person is also an encounter with God, then every encounter with the least among us is therefore also a Judgment.

So why do we pretend to not see people in need, or argue against social action to care for people in need? Are we afraid of encountering God? Are we afraid of encountering the least among us?

Even though we may be afraid of experiencing the great divide between us and God, it is the very thing we need the most. If we ever want to become who we really are, without delusion or dishonesty, to be free and at peace, then we must “draw near in the fear of God with faith and love”; we must risk coming close enough to the flame of God’s love to be ignited by it. We pray before Communion, “You have smitten me with yearning, O Christ, and by Your divine eros You have changed me. But burn up with spiritual fire my sins, and grant me to be filled with delight in You.”

A paradoxical part of human nature is that we are often afraid of receiving the things we desire the most. There’s a saying that,, The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek” (Joseph Campbell). We must ask ourselves, “What is the treasure I seek?” Most people I know seek love, belonging, peace, joy, goodness, beauty. If God is the creator and fashioner of all these things, then what we truly seek is God, Himself.

So where do we find Him? We find Him, of course, in a cave; the cave in Bethlehem and the cave of the empty tomb, because it is in Christ’s joining Himself to humanity and in His Resurrection that we receive the mercy, love, acceptance, and divine transfiguration we so desperately desire. Is this the cave we fear to enter? We must enter the cave of repentance, the cave of death to our old self, in order to emerge with Christ in His resurrection, sharing in the divine transfiguration, embracing our true, pure, Spirit-led self.

An encounter with God must change us because every time it is a judgment. It is a judgment of all that is false in us, all that needs to die in us, all of our disordered parts, but it is also a revelation of all that is good, lovely and worth holding on to; it is the death of our false self and the revelation of our true self. The problem, of course, is that we do not always know the difference between these. “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” If we ask, God will show us the difference, but we are often too afraid to ask, too afraid to enter the cave. Will I have to change? Will I have to give up too much? Will He ask of me more than I want to give? The answer to all these is YES, YES, YES, but still He tells us not to be afraid. His love will not destroy us, it will make us more truly alive. What we end up giving away is the cause of our individual misery and the false selves we have constructed and that turn us all into slaves.

Where do we look to find Christ? We look in each other and we look inside ourselves; the image of Christ is imprinted upon our hearts and everything we do for the least among us (the one who is in need), is done unto Christ, Himself. With this principle guiding our every action and effort, we hope to arrive at the judgment of every encounter and at the end of time, counted among the sheep who were willing to enter the cave, to enter into the joy of our Lord.

Faith That Heals

November 8, 2020

Today’s Gospel reading presents us with a scene we can hardly imagine anymore. A massive crowd is gathered to see Jesus of Nazareth; a crowd so big we are told it nearly crushes Christ. And, it’s hard to not imagine this scene, Jesus comes to a halt and exclaims, "Who touched me?" He must have used a loud voice since the crowd was certainly noisy and otherwise he couldn't have been heard. Peter, as is so often the case, is perplexed by the question, "What do mean, 'Who touched me', the crowds are pressing all around you. Many people are touching you!" "No, Jesus, replied, "someone has touched me; for I know that power has gone out from me."

Remarkable, isn't it? There was something different about this woman's touch. There was intent behind it, there was faith behind it, there was rich content in her touch that made her contact with the Lord significant, so significant that it coaxed power to proceed from him! Why?

Christ tells the woman that her faith is what made her well. Her faith. Do we realize what this means? He does not heal her so that she will believe in Him; He heals her because she already believes so deeply in Him. He does not heal her in a public manner to make a show for himself, but what he makes public is the sincerity and power of her faith. Miracles are the result of faith.

How many times, especially these days, do we hear something to the effect of, “If your god was so great, he’d cure the world of COVID”. “If He’s so great, let him show us how great he is.” The problem with this perspective that we must realize is that this is not the way God works. We remember that every single time in His life Christ is presented with this argument, He does not engage with it. The Judean leaders ask him for a sign, a miracle, to prove that he is God, but every time he says they will not receive one. When He is hanging on the Cross, the soldiers mock Him and challenge Him that if He is the Son of God, come down from the Cross. But He endures His death in silence.

God does not perform miracles in the Gospels, or the lives of the saints, or in our own lives in order to prove His power, but the manifestation of His power in the lives of His people, is because of the FAITH already present in His people.

So, what is faith? If it’s so important, if it’s what healed this woman of her disease, what is it? It’s so much more than just believing intellectually that Jesus Christ is God. Yes, that’s true and important, but it’s more. Faith is not knowledge; Faith is conviction; Faith is action. To be faithful means to never lose our confidence that God is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing, and that He works everything in our lives for our salvation; yes, even the difficult parts of life can help in our salvation.

One time when I was at our summer camp, I asked the kids to define faith, and an 8 year old girl said that, “faith means having a confidence that God will do what He says He will.” What does God promise us? He promises that if we live by His commandments and are faithful to Him, He will be our God and we will be His people, and He will prepare a place for us in His Kingdom.

As we all know, it’s hard to remain faithful, especially through hard times; it takes real effort. It’s easy for us, in times of temptation or difficulty or pain to try to blame God. We may even say we lose faith in Him. We try to make it all His fault and place the onus on Him to show Himself to make our lives easier. But that is not the way of the Cross. That is not the way of Christ.

What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to be faithful? To be faithful means to remain connected to the other person in our relationships at all times! Even, and perhaps especially, in the face of adversity. We say someone is unfaithful when they abandon their spouse in a time of temptation or struggle, and join themselves with another person. We are in a relationship with Christ, and it is the decision of us beloved faithful to remain unwavering in our committment to Him, even through years of pain; and that endurance is the proof of our faith. This woman who approached Christ was hemorrhaging uncontrollably for 12 years - can you imagine being uncontrollably ill for that long, with no relief?? Can you imagine this pandemic lasting that long? And yet, she never lost her faith in her God. Remember that this woman approached Christ in a large crowd that was engulfing Christ and He stopped in His tracks when she touched Him -- not when the hundreds of others touched Him, but when SHE touched Him. Why? Because her faith in Him never wavered, even though years of pain and shame, with no end in sight.

We cannot expect God to remove the hardships from our lives. We cannot expect that if we just believe hard enough, things will get better. But we can, with lots of effort and lots of patience, remain faithful to Him. We say God is all-knowing, but we must believe that. If He is all-knowing, then He knows what is best for me, even if I can’t see it.

Whatever pain, whatever discouragement, whatever temptations you are struggling against right now, please do not despair. Turn to Christ, turn to His mother (the Theotokos), turn to the women and men throughout history who have been faithful to Him through situations harder than our own, turn to the woman in today’s Gospel for inspiration and support; by remaining close to Christ through the pain, we will be strengthened. And, God willing, when the time is right, we also will be relieved of our suffering.

To God be the glory.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

November 1, 2020

If we were to place ourselves in this parable, we probably would not be Lazaros, since we are not beggars looking for food scraps. We may have some similarities to the rich man, but he is dead in this parable, and in great anguish. I think most of us can identify with the brothers of the rich man, as people who have much of what we need and, in our comfort, sometimes veer off course.

The rich man, in his anguish, begged Abraham to send Lazaros to his brothers to convince them to correct their course, to repent. But we know that Abraham says Lazaros cannot go, because the brothers have all the information and guidance they need to correct their lives, but they choose not to follow it. They had the Israelite history, the wisdom literature, the prophets, and they still fell short of their goal. We, also, have everything we need for salvation. We have the teachings of Christ. We have the encouragement of Paul. We have the example of the Israelites! We have the wisdom of the Church Fathers. And yet, we still also fall short of our goal.

Sometimes we veer off course, and that can look like any number of things (big or small).

But, as the rich man wanted for his brothers, we do have reminders in our lives of where we ought to be, what our aim ought to be.

Difficult as it has been, we must look at the COVID-19 pandemic as a messenger for us to correct our course. We talk about a “return to normal” but what if our “normal” was fallen, distorted, unhealthy, and sinful? We have before us a unique opportunity to be transformed. But how are we transformed? By the love of God. The prayers before Holy Communion say, “we have been changed by the eros of God”. This is precisely why the Church exists: to save souls. To encourage and facilitate a unique, powerful, and transformative relationship with our good and loving God.

We’ve felt, through this pandemic, a real sense of weakness, and been forced to accept our inability to fix everything; we’ve seen our own vulnerability and perhaps have been inspired to change the unhealthy parts of our lives; to accept the transformation offered to us through Christ.

Separate from the pandemic, but equally real in our lives, this transition in parish leadership is also an opportunity to emphasize the most important parts of Church life. We said before that the Church exists to save souls. I hope that through the relationships we cultivate with each other, all of us can grow closer to God. I hope through my ministry to, for, and with you, to offer a liturgical life that affords you every opportunity to be here at the church (to be touched by the transformative power of God), to provide educational opportunities to cultivate your faith, and to share with you the blessings of our Lord in your most vulnerable times, both the joyful and the sorrowful.

No matter who we are and what we struggle with, whether rich or poor, righteous or sinner, we all have the invitation to grow; for our lives to be changed for the better; and to grow in holiness.

Faithful Christians must live and love with a sense of urgency that reminds us that the time is coming when it will be too late for us to change our course. The rich man in today’s Gospel could not alleviate his suffering in the next life after his death. But we, who are still alive, have the opportunity to be the Christians and the Parish Family that we want to be. And being guided by Christ, we will walk together towards His Heavenly Kingdom.

Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist

October 18, 2020

Today we celebrate the Apostle and Evangelist Luke. Xronia Polla to everyone who celebrates today! We wish you many years of health, happiness, and holiness.

Being that it’s St. Luke’s feast day, today’s Gospel reading was chosen especially for him. But why this particular reading? He wasn’t explicitly mentioned in it. Yes, this passage is taken from the Gospel he wrote, but that’s not the reason. The reason is that in this text, we find hugely important lessons about sharing the message of Jesus Christ, which is the role of an evangelist, and the role of every Christian. What is an evangelist?

An evangelist is someone who shares the ευαγγέλιον, the Gospel of Christ. Properly, there are only 4 saints with that title, the 4 Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, John, and our Luke. But, in a very real sense, every Christian is called to be a evangelist, because each of us is called to share the ways Christ has transformed our lives.

We hear from our Lord in the Gospel reading that the Apostles are to preach the Gospel, but always to remember the freedom of the individual they encounter. “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear”. This means very plainly that we are to speak to those people who are seeking God and open to learning, in a way that they can hear and understand. While Christ spoke these words to the Disciples, He is also speaking them to us. We, also, by virtue of our baptism are called to share the Good news of our Lord with the world.

St. Luke is a model for us to consider how we can live our lives as true Christians. St Paul tells us that there are many varied roles in the life of the Church: some are preachers, others teachers, others are skilled in food ministry, and others as a welcoming face for visiters. St Luke shows us that there are many ways for a person to live up to their vocation of sharing the message of Christ. He was trained first as a physician. Obviously he was a bright man to be educated in the field of medicine, but he also was an artist. We understand that St Luke painted the very first icon in the history of the Church, one of the Theotokos. In cooperation with these talents he cultivated, he continued to have ears to hear; that is, he was seeking after the truth, seeking afer God, and was ready and willing to dedicate his life to following Christ, when given the opportunity. St Luke shows us that we don’t have to fit into a certain mold in order to have a place in the Church; we are who God made us, and we grow in holiness wherever we find ourselves. .

We must take to heart the words of St. Paul in today's epistle when he encourages us to make "the most of the time…Conduct yourselves wisely," he says. "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt," that means, speech that is lovely attractive, delicious! We want our lives, our words, and our actions to mirror the love of the Compassionate Savior so that when people leave an interaction with us, they will be left with an image of what it really means to be a Christian. People should say, "What a nice, gracious, lovely, sane, holy, compassionate, loving, kind, extraordinary person that was!"

Whether we speak directly about the Gospel or not, doesn't matter. The Gospel lived supersedes the Gospel preached. The Gospel shown supersedes the Gospel spoken. So, we are called, each and every one of us, to be evangelists. To be sharers of the Gospel of our Lord, sharers of His victory over death, and sharers of the invitation for other to join in His great victory and experience His unending love, certainly through our words, but most importantly in our actions. We look at the lives of the saints and in them we see how a youth becomes a holy youth, how parents become holy parents, how a married couple becomes a holy married couple, how a teacher becomes a holy teacher, how a business owner becomes a holy business owner, how an artist becomes a holy artist, and how a family becomes a holy family.

As we remember St. Luke the Evangelist today, we remember our challenge to offer ourselves as evangelists in our own way. Yes, he wrote words and and preached everywhere he went. But he also preached through his actions. He was a physician, and through his work in healing people’s bodies, he communicated the love of Christ, working to heal their souls. He was an artist, and through his talented hands he gave us the first icon of the Panagia, sharing the beauty of our Orthodox Tradition with future generations. No matter where we are or what we do in life, our goal is the same: to grow in holiness and to share the love of Christ with our world. “They will know we are Christians by our love”. If our love is not felt, then we are not being true Christians. The love of Christ is the only thing that can bring together that which is divided. How divided is our nation? How divided is our Church? How divided are even our families? One thing unites us and one thing saves us: Christ and His great love for us.

If we truly love as Jesus loves, then it will show in our sincere admiration for everyone we meet. And that, brothers and sisters, will be the greatest sermon you could ever preach. "The Lord said, 'He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.'" We want everyone who comes to us to "hear" Jesus in our words and "see" him in our actions even if we do not say his Name. If our offering is accepted, then it will be because of our great love, and if we are rejected, then let it be also because of our great love.

Every. Extraordinary. Moment.

October 8, 2020

At my parish yesterday, a man came by and wanted to see the church and learn what kind of community we are. Over the course of our conversation, he kept emphasizing the importance of the Scriptures as the Word of God, that they have no errors, that they are complete and central to everything, etc etc etc. Finally I confirmed that yes, many of those things are true, but the Word of God is not limited to the Scriptures. Jesus Christ, the Godman, the Θεάνθροπος, is the incarnate Word of God. The scriptures contain His words. But we must also realize that God continues to speak to us, to cast His seed throughout the world, and into our hearts, every moment of every day.

Divine seeds of God’s Word come to us continuously as moments sent by God. Our Lord wants nothing more than for us to accept Him as He comes to us, and to allow Him to take root in our hearts, to illumine our lives. It’s as though every moment is a little seed of God that comes to us and has the beautiful phrase written on it, “I love you, my child”.

If every moment and every encounter is a gift from God, then every moment is filled with divine potential. There are no ordinary moments.

What makes the things of God “ordinary” is when we become desensitized to His love. The soil of our hearts can become dry, full of weeds, and deadly to any living seed. So, the “sowing of the seed” in today’s Gospel reading means, on the one hand, our acceptance of the Christian message, but also (and more importantly for us today) it means our recognition of God’s presence before us, His messages of love sent to us every day.

We look around at the state of our nation and the state of our Church, and we see brothers and sisters who struggle to recognize and embrace the words of God (the seeds) as they come to us moment by moment or person by person. Why do we struggle this way? Because the soil of our hearts is rocky and full of weeds. We may engage in the “stupid controversies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law” that St. Paul mentioned in his epistle to Titus we read today.

So what are we to do if, upon honest and undeluded introspection, we realize that the condition of our hearts is not the good soil? What if we have some weeds, some rocks, or some thorns that choke the love of God?

Again, we look to the words of St. Paul when he says, “let our people apply themselves to good deeds, so as not to be unfruitful.” Applying ourselves to good deeds allows us to be fruitful. Fruit, and all seeds, can only grow in healthy, moist, and oxygenated soil, and the action of these good deeds cultivates the soil of our hearts.

In addition to good deeds towards others, perhaps we can also actively look for God’s messages to us; we can convert our minds from being closed off, to more open; from being full of fear and defensiveness to less fearful; from cold and dying inside to truly alive and sensitive to God’s word, allowing the divine seed to take root in us...and we can grow into something miraculous.

Even the most simple tasks are chances for us to hear God. This can be as simple as not assuming the worst about a person. Valuing the precious moments with our loved ones → truly listening and being listened to. And most powerfully, to apply ourselves to good deeds, both for those who love and for those who hate us.

We have to pay attention to the extraordinary moments placed before us when God is speaking to us, when He is sowing the seed of His Word, and when He sends messages to tell us just how great His love is for us.

When we are mindful of the blessings and the beauty in our lives, when we till and fertilize the soil of our hearts to receive the divine seeds, miraculous things will grow; YOU will grow in holiness and illumination, unto union with the Almighty.