Sunday, September 17, 2017

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Today’s Gospel reading is one of my favorite texts because it deals with a very important subject: love. Love is something we all have taken for granted at one time or another in our lives. We toss the word around every chance we get but do we really know what it means?

This morning, Jesus opens our eyes to the true nature of love by telling us: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Even the first book of Sacred Scripture, the Book of Genesis, speaks of love. We are told that God in His love created the world and mankind.  Thus, we learn that life does not precede love, but that love precedes life. God loves so deeply and intently that He created the world and mankind to be the fruit of that love.

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus speaks of three directions of love: love toward God, love toward neighbor, and love toward self. Jesus is very clear on the priority or order in which we are to love. The Lord tells us that our love of God must take priority over everything else in life.

The amount of time we spend with God being in His presence, speaking with Him in prayer, is a reflection of how much we love Him. The amount of time you spend reading His Holy Word is a reflection of how much you love Him. Our lives should yearn to be in the presence of the Lord as often as possible.

I have spent the better part of my 20 years of priestly ministry and thirteen years of episcopal ministry encouraging you to spend some time in church with the Lord. I am so proud that many of you took my words to heart and made it a practice to come to the cathedral several times a week to spend time with God. I know many of you miss not being able to be in the church for those private moments but, prayerfully and hopefully, we will be able to come back to our home in the near future.

In the Orthodox Catholic Church, we do not put time limits on our worship of God. When someone asks me how long our services are I simply respond, “as long as our love of the Lord compels us to stay.”

Life is the fruit of love. This truth explains why married couples who are able to have children. Children are the fruit of a couple’s love, and God abundantly blesses that love. Even couples who are not able to have children for whatever reason are able to share their love and their life with a child who has no parents. God abundantly blesses their love too.

Let me tell you a short story. A little boy entered the family room of his home after dinner where his day was reading the newspaper. The little boy inched up beside his father and said, “Daddy, I love you.” “I love you too, son,” the father replied. Then he continued reading the paper. But the father’s response did not satisfy the child, so he went around to the other side of the chair and began rubbing his father’s arm, and said, “Daddy, I love you.” And with the slightest amount of impatience in his voice, the father again said, “I love you too, son.” But still, the little one was not satisfied. Suddenly, the little boy came crashing through the newspaper onto his father’s chest, reaching his little arms as far around his dad as he could, and said, “Daddy, I love you and I’ve just got to do something about it.”

Sometimes, we too need to be reminded how important that all-giving love is not only to those who receive it but to those who give it. Beloved, you are not living if you are not loving. Is it not the time to love God with such intensity that we need to do something about it? What is the degree of love you have for the Lord?  Is it intense? Or is it lukewarm? It is time, beloved, that we really take stock of how deep and abiding our love for God is.

The love of God is what gave us life in creation. The love of God is what sought us out and offered us salvation by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus taught us that if love is to be fully manifested, we must love God first, others second, and ourselves last. Unfortunately, however, far too many of us have got it completely backward!

The Scriptures speak with authority. The Scriptures speak with Truth. If we love God, then and only then will our love grow. And this love of God supernaturally produces a love for others, and also for ourselves. In fact, if we love God most, we will love others best.

C.S. Lewis put it this way, "When I have learned to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now." Our love for God inescapably motivates us to love others, to love our neighbors. But, it can be hard to love everyone at times.

An elderly couple had a neighbor across the street who would not. for some reason give them the time of day. But that did not stop them from cheerfully saying: "Hi!" every time the neighbor was in his yard.

One day a little boy asked the couple, "Why do you all bother to say "hi" to that guy? He never even looks your way. He never says "hi" back!" The elderly couple answered...very matter of explanations…no complaints: "Because Jesus tells to love our neighbor as ourselves.” We are called to love our neighbor even if they do not reciprocate in kind.
I am sure many of you have heard these words before. Loving your neighbor is at the heart of making a friend.

We are loved and cherished by the God who created the heavens and the earth. Jesus overcame hate, evil and death through His sacrificial act of ultimate love on the Cross!!!
Just think how full this life would be if all of us practiced the love of Christ!

There are two extremely powerful yet simple principles that can transform any relationship almost overnight. The first is this: When it comes to love, say it! Others need to hear it, especially in this crazy world where the reality of true love is lost in the muck and mire of a sexually permissive and promiscuous culture.

The second principle is this: When it comes to love, show it! Love must not only be articulated but it needs to be demonstrated. Love is more than just “love is.” Love also does.  Love is proactive. It is tangible. It is practical. It is real. It is profound. It endures all things.

A simple touch or a hug can convey an incredible sense of love, of affirmation, of acceptance. When we, as Orthodox Catholic Christians, greet each other in the name of Christ, who is the source of all love, we normally do so by kissing one another three times on the cheek, an act which calls to memory the love of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There was a study done several years ago, I believe it was conducted by UCLA, about relationships. The study found that to maintain good physical and emotional health, men and women need 8 to 10 meaningful physical contacts a day. They were not speaking about sexual activities, but rather, meaningful touches. The researchers defined a meaningful touch as a gentle tap, a caress, a hug, or a kiss given by someone who was “significant in their life” like a husband, wife, parent, child, or friend.

Remember the television commercial which asked parents: “Have you hugged your kids today?” At no other time in human existence is that question as relevant as it is today. Showing our love to those who are important to us, especially our children, our parents, and our grandparents, is what makes life beautiful, special, and wonderful.

And if we can show our love to those who are important to us, how much more should we show our love to the God who has given us everything that is good? We would have nothing: not our spouses, not our children, not our friends, not our material possessions, not even life if God did not love us.

Beloved, love sets off a divine chain reaction. Love changes lives; it opens our eyes to a better and more fulfilling existence. Love is the spark that kindles the fire of compassion. Compassion is the fire that lights the candle of service. Service is the candle that ignites the torch of hope. Hope is the torch that lights the beacon of faith. Faith is the beacon that reflects the power and majesty of God, and God is the One who creates the miracle of love.

Jesus said that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. On the surface, some might see this as a mandate for self-love. But when we consider His words in context, we see that the principle Jesus gave us is both radically new and wonderfully refreshing.

Essentially, Jesus declared that when we love God the way we ought to love Him, we will love others the way we ought to truly love them. And when we love God and others as Scripture commands us, we will find a peace and happiness that surpasses all understanding.

As Christians, we need to yield to the Holy Spirit and allow God to enable us to become better at loving. Allowing God’s love to flow through us to others involves change, it involves risk. But it will bring a tidal wave of joy that washes and cleanses your very soul, even in the most difficult moments of life.

How can we who have encountered the risen Christ do anything else but love? Only those who have encountered Christ will persevere to finish the race and to finish well.

Beloved, passionately love the Lord God with all your heart. Passionately love your neighbor as yourself. God knows your heart. He knows where our affections lay and what our priorities are.

The way God knows that we love Him is by how we treat people. Whenever we demonstrate kindness, patience or gentleness, we see the Lord’s love at work through us, especially when the other person has been unkind and does not deserve such pleasant treatment. Our relationships with others demand priority over things that will not last or will not matter in a few years. If we love God and love people, we will naturally obey the rest of the Commandments. That is only natural. After all, the two Great Commandments are an example of the Golden Rule.

It is our assurance that God loves us that makes us able to love ourselves and therefore be grateful for the gift of ourselves. This awareness of life as a gift is what we mean by loving God. When we love ourselves, we are grateful to God, and this gratitude sets us free to love other people. When we truly love people, we value them as gifts of God.

Jesus’ teaching is not about how we feel about God and our neighbor, but what we will do. We are to love God with all our lives, including our work. Doing so restricts our activity to the straight and narrow path that God has created for us to walk on. It is the basis of our obedience to God. It shows that our love for God is number one in our lives. Love for God and love for all of those who are made in His image form the backbone of everything God says to us in His word. In the words of the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, “Love is the fulfillment of the law”.

Let us, therefore, reorder our priorities to align them with what Christ has told us this morning. Let us show our love for God, for our neighbor, and for ourselves not only with words but with deeds.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Today’s Gospel comes from one of three parables in which Jesus spoke directly to the chief priests and Pharisees who opposed Him. These parables were recorded just a few days before Jesus’ crucifixion and death, so they are of particular importance.

This parable is the most remarkable of all, as Matthew's Gospel was written to the Jewish people to prove to them that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah; and in this parable, we find the whole message of Matthew's Gospel.

Now, I think that of all the social and cultural events people can attend, a wedding can be the happiest and most joyful of all. It is usually an honor to be invited to a wedding because the invitation is a way of expressing that you are an important person to the one who invites you; and that they desire your company in the big event.

In biblical times, as today, an invitation to a wedding was something to be taken seriously, and the wedding feast in Jesus' parable was to be taken even more seriously because it was arranged for the son of a king. So, to be invited was a very great honor indeed!

Jesus used this analogy to teach the chief priests and Pharisees a lesson; meaning that the wedding which Jesus described is intended to be a picture of the kingdom of heaven that He, Jesus, came to extend to those who would worship Him. It is obvious, therefore, that the king is God the Father; the bridegroom is Jesus Himself, the king’s son; and the 'invited guests' are God’s covenant people, the Jews.

This parable then is a good illustration of how Jesus came and presented Himself to the Jews as the Messiah and how they rejected Him. And yet the wedding feast went on regardless, with the king extending the invitation to the Gentiles, who were brought in to replace those guests who rejected Jesus as the Messiah.

I hasten to add, however, that God has only temporarily excluded the Jewish people for now, as He will still keep the promises He made to them as a nation. Romans 11:25 says the "blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so, all Israel will eventually be saved"

The whole Gospel of Matthew is about the invitation to enjoy the full blessings of the kingdom of God, and in this parable, we see the true nature of that invitation. It is an invitation that is to be treated seriously; and this morning, I will share briefly five important points that it makes.

The first is this. The father loves his son very much, arranging and putting on a magnificent wedding for him. In those days, this would have been a very great event, with many days spent feasting and celebrating. Without a doubt, the news of it would have reverberated throughout the whole land because the king was calling all people, (i.e. all the Jews in the land), to honor and celebrate the union of his beloved son with his bride.

And so, after they planned and prepared for the great day when the oxen and the cattle were slain and being cooked, and all things were made ready, the king sent his servants out to call those who were invited. The scene would now have been set.

However, as things turned out, the invited guests refused to come.  Matthew does not really go into detail as to why those who were invited did not come. The reasons are left to our imagination, and I am sure this was the Apostle’s intent. But this also brings us to my second point.

The father of the groom showed great patience and forbearance to those who refused to attend the wedding feast. Think about it for a minute. If any of us had gone to such great effort and expense to set up a wedding to honor our children, and the guests we invited refused to come, patience would be the last thing on our minds. Would it not? But not in the case of the king. He did not get angry. He simply sent his servants out once again to those who had been invited, asking them to come to the feast.

But what happens? Those who were invited refused again. To refuse an invitation or summons of a monarch is considered very bad manners. It is the highest form of insult and disrespect a person can show to such a high personage. In fact, it would have even been considered an act of rebellion against the king.

To make matters worse, those who were invited went so far as to 'make light' of their invitations; some passively by attending to things on their farms, or to their businesses; but others 'made light' of it actively, by actually seizing the king’s servants and killing them.

Can you see the great parallel in history, where God has shown patience to those who rejected our Lord Jesus? The Jewish nation had been given promises in the Scriptures from the prophets, who told them time and time again that their great Messiah was coming. When Jesus was born into the world, though witnessed by the shepherds and wise men, the rest of the Jewish nation did not even notice. Then, when our Lord reached a full age, God sent a mighty herald to announce the coming of the King in the person of John the Baptist; calling the people to repent of their sins and prepare the way for Him; but again, they did not listen and John was later beheaded. Even after the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead, they still did not listen.

In the Book of Proverbs, there is a warning given, which says: "He who is often rebuked and hardens his neck, will suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy" (Proverbs 29:1).

And so, we come to the third point. Continuous bad behavior brings some very serious consequences. After the repeated invitations had been disregarded or rejected, and after those whom the king had sent were mistreated and killed, the king became furious and sent armies to destroy those who had killed his servants, defied him and dishonored his son.

Jesus Himself said in Chapter Five, Verse 23 of the Gospel of St. John that "He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him." There comes a time when the Father's patience is exhausted toward those who persist in disregarding and disrespecting His Son. Sadly, for example, the day came in history, within forty years after Jesus speaking these very words, that the Roman armies came and destroyed the city of Jerusalem. Matthew 24:2 says "Not one stone of the temple would be left upon another”; and history proved that statement to be true.

God is patient toward those who are hardened against Him; He will allow time for repentance, but, (and it is a big but), there does come a time when the offers cease, and the outpouring of His wrath begins.

God is unbelievably patient with us, more than we could possibly imagine and more than we certainly deserve. But, there IS a limit to just how long we will be able to get away with being sinful.

Perhaps we might look at it this way. If you were 10 years old and got into trouble with bullies and they were contemplating stabbing you to death because you stole something from them, your father would come and pay off those bullies so that you would not be killed. Your father would have "paid in full" the debt you owe. You would owe nothing to the bullies. But when you got home, your father would surely discipline you, even punish you, not because he hated you or because you owed him a debt, but because he loved you. It is no longer about "debt", it is about "discipline." There is a difference.

Our God is certainly a loving God, but He is also just. He is merciful, but it is foolhardy, even delusional, to think that God will not hold us accountable for our sins, even when He forgives us. There are consequences to sin, even once sin is forgiven.

St Paul explains it more clearly in his Letter to the Hebrews, saying: “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by Him; for the Lord disciplines those He loves and chastises every child whom He accepts. Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?  If you do not have the discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not His children; Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share His holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:5-11).

Let us move on. The wedding feast had not been canceled, it would go on as scheduled, and the king graciously sent his servants out onto the highways to find as many people as they could, and invite them to come to his son's wedding and fill the banquet tables. The King opened his heart and extended grace towards those who had NOT been invited, and by that, I mean us, the Gentiles.

Jesus tells us that the servants gathered together all whom they found, both the bad and the good. There were no qualifications other than to honor the king’s son. They were all gathered in, and the banquet hall was filled to capacity with extremely happy guests. They included every kind of sinner you could possibly imagine. Truly, the guests at the wedding feast comprised all sorts people, people who would never have expected to be so privileged as to sit at the wedding feast of the son of a great king; and yet, there they all were! There we all are, praise God.

And that brings us to my fourth and final point. God invites everyone to come to His wedding feast, without exception. But there were conditions. Well, there was but one condition. All the guests were required to wear a wedding garment. This sounds harsh, but remember that when a great king would put on a great feast, he would not only provide all the food, he would also provide the necessary garments to wear at the feast.

In those days, there were social protocols and formalities to be observed. Sadly, that is not so much the case today. Our society has become very banal, crude and informal. Social graces and courtesies have given way to mannerisms and customs which border on the ridiculous, boorish, and offensive.

Jesus tells us that, “as the king entered into the banquet hall and observed all the guests, his eyes fell on a man who was not wearing a wedding garment”. The wearing of a wedding garment was an important addition to the dignity of the feast, but this man was wearing no such garment. He defiantly wore his own filthy rags. Jesus continues the parable, saying “And when the king saw him, he said, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ and the man said nothing.”

He had presumed to enjoy the benefits of the feast while refusing to be adorned with the garments the king provided. As a result, the king ordered that the man not be merely shown to the door, but that he be bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness where, as Jesus says, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This is strong stuff, but this is a warning, a very great warning.

The Bible speaks regularly about clothing us in white raiment; white for purity. For example, in Revelation 7:9-11, we read, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb.’

And in Revelation 3:5, it says “…and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He who conquers shall be clothed like them in white garments, and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life; but I will confess his name before my Father, and before His angels.”

We must not think that we can enter into the blessings of God’s kingdom without properly preparing ourselves and making ourselves presentable. Just showing up the way we are will not get us into Heaven. That is equivalent to turning up at the wedding feast adorned in your own clothes.

We need the righteousness of Christ to approach God; we are to be washed in the blood of the Lamb. We are to be made righteous before God by the confessing Jesus is Lord, repenting of our sins, asking forgiveness of them, doing penance, and resolving not to sin again. In short, we are to clothe ourselves with Christ, the garment of salvation.

The only garment that the Father will accept on any of His guests at His Son's wedding feast is that of His Son's righteousness; anything less than that will result in being thrown out into outer darkness. It is all about what Jesus achieved for us; not what we achieved for ourselves.

Jesus closes by saying, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Now you may say, “How then do I know for sure that I am among the chosen?” The answer is simple; can you truly confess in your heart of hearts that Jesus is Lord and His life is the life you want to live?

If your answer to that question is a definite yes, then you stand a good chance of being at the right hand of the King on the Day of Judgment. If you are progressively turning from sin and following Him in loving obedience, then chances are you will be one of the chosen.

If your answer to my question was “no,” then what are you doing here today? Why do you even bother coming to church if you are not willing to live according to God’s commands and be obedient to His will? If you have no interest in going to Heaven, then why waste your time doing something you do not want or believe in?

I know we all fail; we all sin. But that is what we are here for. We are here so that our sins may be forgiven. We are here to worship God and God alone. We are here to be nourished, fed, and strengthened by God. We are here to be instructed by God. And we are here to do His bidding on this earth. So, let us go forward and enjoy that great wedding feast with Him.


Friday, September 8, 2017

That All May Know

Several days ago, I was at the Cathedral and was approached by a group of people who asked if they could see the inside. I assumed that they were interested in buying the building and that the purpose of their visit was to look it over.

During the course of our conversation, it became apparent that the purpose of their visit was not because they were interested in buying the building, but rather to "find out more about us."  Having heard about us (specifically me) through the news and the internet, they were curious about who we were, what we believed, which Church we "were a part of," etc.

Normally, I do not mind answering such questions. But this particular time, I found myself bothered. The reason I took offense was the disingenuous way in which they made their intentions known.  They came across as being very kind and solicitous, but it became clear after a while that they also had an agenda. In essence, we (namely me) were "accused" of being selective in what we believed and how we practiced our faith. In other words, we condone and support same-sex marriage, advocate birth control, support the ordination of women priests, and welcome openly practicing homosexual men into the priesthood. These were all the standard-fare allegations individuals hurl at those they do not like or approve of and want to discredit or ruin. Obviously, these individuals (they called themselves “faithful” Christians) have not read my many pastoral letters and writings on these matters.

As has always been my custom, I usually do not bother to publicly address these kinds of allegations. I normally respond to such statements directly and privately to the individual or individuals who make them. But, times and people do change, and I feel that I must make clear, once and for all, and in this public forum, exactly where I, personally, and the Church which I oversee, stand on these very important issues.

So, that being said, let me state clearly:

We are committed to the sacredness of human life, from the moment of conception to natural death. We, therefore, stand in opposition to any and all attempts by any local, state, federal or provincial government entity to decree or legislate otherwise.

We uphold the holiness and sanctity of marriage as being between one man and one woman. We do not support, nor do we advocate, the idea that marriage, as it is understood by the Church, can be an estate entered into by people of the same sex.

We affirm that being homosexual or lesbian is not a sin, but that people of the same sex engaging in sexual activity with each other commit sin. 

We affirm that those who are homosexual, lesbian, and bi-sexual are full members of the Church but that they, like all who are members of the Body of Christ, are called to live chaste and holy lives, seeking always to walk the narrow path of righteousness before God.

Our beliefs regarding human sexuality are consistent with the teachings of the Lord, His Apostles, and the Fathers of the Church. We uphold them and teach them, without compromise, as being noble values and moral absolutes upon which are built spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and morally healthy lives, families, and communities.

We recognize, understand, and affirm that sexual activity between members of the same sex is sinful and that sexual activity outside the Holy Mystery (Sacrament) of Marriage is also sinful. Such activities, unless renounced and repented of, precludes those who participate in them from the sacramental life of the Church.

We believe that God, in His infinite wisdom and love, created mankind male and female. We refute the modern notion that men and women can choose their gender; that a man can choose to be a woman, and a woman can choose to be a man. While men and women may honestly experience such desires, they nevertheless have the duty and obligation to remain faithful and true to the gender which the Creator deigned for them at the moment of conception. This decision may indeed be painful for them, but the Church stands ready to support, comfort, and assist them in living their lives so that they experience the greatest joy and happiness that God desires for all His children.

We believe that men and women are equal member members in Christ's body but have different roles and responsibilities. Therefore, we are unable to accept, and we disavow, the ordination of women to the Holy Priesthood and episcopate.

Though we are not in communion with the other Local Orthodox Catholic Churches (not by our own choice), we nonetheless revere and honor the Church of Constantinople as our Mother Church and we acknowledge, esteem, and honor His All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople as our spiritual father, and we commemorate him, as has been our custom since the late eighth century, in all Divine Services of our Church.

We revere and honor also the Church of Rome since the Italo-Greek (Italo-Byzantine) Church was originally under her jurisdiction. But, being ever mindful of those matters which still keep us estranged from each other, we do not concelebrate or practice intercommunion. However, we do acknowledge and affirm that there are times and circumstances when it is possible, and even necessary, for us to join together with our brothers and sisters of the Catholic Church in common prayer, witness, and service.

We actively work and pray for the reunion of the Orthodox Catholic Churches and the Roman Catholic Church but we do so on the basis of the Orthodox Catholic Faith of the undivided Church as it was lived and manifested in the first millennium of the Church's history. We acknowledge, accept, and affirm that the Sacraments (Holy Mysteries) of the Catholic (Latin and Eastern) Church are valid and efficacious.

We affirm that the Oriental Orthodox Churches (non-Chalcedonian) are our brothers and sisters in Christ and are truly Local and Particular Churches as those terms are understood by the Church. Though there is, at present, no eucharistic or full ecclesial unity between the Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches, we acknowledge, accept and affirm that the Holy Mysteries of the Oriental Orthodox Churches are valid and efficacious.

With regards to other ecclesial communities and so-called Christian “churches” (principally the Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Baptist communions), we do not recognize, except for baptism, their so-called sacraments.

Regarding those ecclesial bodies which purport to have a “priesthood” (Anglican/Episcopal and Lutheran), we do not recognize their so-called “holy orders” and the “sacraments” confected by them.

While we acknowledge that the aforementioned ecclesial bodies contain within themselves some elements of the Church and that they have some relationship to the Church, they are nevertheless outside the Church. It is our duty and obligation, therefore, to bear witness to our separated brothers and sisters, many of whom sincerely and daily seek God and strive to live the Gospel of Christ in their lives, to the fullness of the Faith of the Church and assist them in coming home to her.

Regrettably, and with great sadness, we state that we do not have any ecumenical relations with communities of the Anglican/Episcopal communion and that corporate reunion with them is no longer a possibility due to the unfortunate fact that the communion has chosen to ordain women as priests and bishops and has also accepted and ordained actively homosexual and partnered men as “priests.” Clergy and faithful of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church are prohibited from participating in common prayer or in any event at which so-called “priests” and “bishops” are present. Ecumenical relationships are permitted with those Anglican communities which have separated themselves from such communities.

We are neither "conservative" or "liberal," neither "traditionalist" or progressive." We are simply Orthodox Catholic, faithfully maintaining the Christian faith which "was once for all handed down to the saints." We remain faithful in our adherence to the whole of the Apostolic Faith, to Holy Tradition, and to the teachings, dogmas, and doctrines of the Orthodox Catholic Church.

We are not “Old Calendarist” or “New Calendarist” as those terms are pejoratively used by many in the Church. While we lament the existence of two different liturgical calendars in the Orthodox Catholic Church and the fact that their use disrupts the unity of the Church, we do not consider the use of one or the other calendar by any of the Orthodox Catholic Churches to be “heretical.”

When we gather for worship, it is to worship the Omnipotent God and to commune with things unseen. While the divine services of the Church, especially the Holy Liturgy, the Divine Liturgy, were made for the people, they are not about us as much as they are about the God who created us and to whom we owe all glory, thanksgiving, and praise.

Our Liturgy is formal, structured, and ritualized. For our Eucharistic celebrations, we use four liturgies: The Divine Liturgy of St. Peter the Apostle (used primarily as the Pontifical/Hierarchical Liturgy and on some major feast days and holy days), the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (the usual Sunday Liturgy; also celebrated on most feast days and holy days), the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great (used on the Sundays of Great Lent and on certain other feast days and holy days), and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (used on Wednesdays and Fridays during Great Lent and on the first three days of Holy Week). In addition to the foregoing, we also use the Divine Liturgy of St. James the Apostle (used exclusively on the Saint's feast day.  All these liturgies are of the Byzantine rite.

When we gather together for worship, we, the people, are not the center of attention. We stand in the presence of the eternal and awesome God and so we are expected to show due reverence, respect, and awe. It is understood, therefore, that when we present ourselves before the King, we must conduct ourselves properly and prepare ourselves accordingly for a fitting and worthy participation in the Holy Sacrifice, that our offering may be acceptable and pleasing in His sight.

Because we exist to worship and serve God, we do not concern ourselves with matters of time or convenience. It is right and just, therefore, that we give to God what is rightfully and properly His. That means we give Him our time and full attention. We do not set time limits on the duration of our worship and adoration of God.

In divine worship, especially in the Divine Liturgy, the "work" done is not exclusively or even primarily that of the people. It is done for them and on their behalf by the priest, who acts in persona Christi, or in the person of Christ. The Divine Liturgy is then, in its very essence, the action or work of Christ for and on behalf of His people. 

As members of Christ's Body, we participate in the Liturgy by worshipping the Holy Trinity, listening to God's Word, giving thanks to God for all the blessings and good things we have received from Him, and offering back to Him a portion of what we have made with our hands and minds. We also come to church to receive God's blessing and to be fed, nourished, renewed, and strengthened by Him with His Precious Body and Blood. 

Because the Holy Eucharist is the most perfect manifestation of the unity of believers who share the fullness of Orthodox Catholic faith and belief, we do not practice "open communion." That is to say, we do not give Holy Communion to those who do not profess or believe in totality what the Orthodox Catholic Church teaches and believes.

To receive Holy Communion at Divine Liturgy in the Italo-Greek Church, Orthodox Catholic Christians must have properly prepared themselves beforehand. This means saying the appointed prayers, fasting from the end of the Vigil Service (or Great Vespers), and making a proper confession (at least twice a month). Orthodox Catholic Christians visiting a parish of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church who are unknown to the parish priest and who wish to receive Holy Communion must make a confession before they can receive the Holy Mysteries. Priests of the Church are under grave obligation to reasonably ensure that all those who receive the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ are in a state of grace.

The Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church condemns, without exception, abortion, euthanasia, artificial contraception, sodomy, adultery, cloning, embryonic stem cell research, as well as other attacks against the sanctity of life and the family.

It is the obligation and duty of the Bishop to ensure that the Holy Eucharist is not administered to those who are manifest (public), obstinate, and persistent sinners. Additionally, it is the Bishop's duty and obligation not only to protect the Eucharist from sacrilegious reception but also to protect the faithful from sorrowful scandal.

So that there is clarity, the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church defines "manifest, obstinate, and persistent" sinners as individuals who are actively and openly living in so called same-sex "marriages"; who support, advocate, or in any way affirm the gay "lifestyle" as being normative; those who are divorced and 'remarried' without benefit of an ecclesiastical divorce; those who work in abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood; those who facilitate, provide or otherwise participate in, recommend, or support abortions; those who are known organized crime figures, drug dealers, sex-traffickers, and other notorious criminals; and couples living openly in fornication or adultery (this is certainly not an exhaustive list of manifest, obstinate, and persistent sinners).

Let it be known that any individual who is a manifest, obstinate, and persistent sinner is forbidden to receive Holy Communion until such time as they repent of their sin. Furthermore, such individuals are not entitled to be married in the Church, have a Church funeral, or be buried in an Orthodox Catholic Cemetery until such time as they repent of their sin.

W we believe in the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage. But we also understand human weakness and that marriages sometimes cannot be salvaged and saved. Therefore, we allow, with great sadness and even trepidation, couples to separate and divorce.  However, let it be known that the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church permits only ONE ecclesiastical and civil divorce. Members of the Church who, after having exhausted all possible means for reconciliation, must first obtain the permission of the Bishop to divorce both ecclesiastically and civilly. An ecclesiastical divorce must be obtained prior to seeking a civil divorce (the sacramental bond must be dissolved by the Church first).

Individuals who cohabitate and engage in sexual activity before marriage or who have obtained a civil divorce without first obtaining the permission of the bishop and obtaining an ecclesiastical divorce may not receive Holy Communion until such time as the illicit situation or relationship are corrected.

The Church reveres and honors the offices of bishop, priest, and deacon. Being a bishop, priest or deacon is not a “career”, “job”, or “profession.” They have no equal in civil society. The offices of bishop, priest, and deacon are sacred and holy offices to which men (males) are called by Christ, affirmed by the Church, and into which they are installed by established rites of ordination and consecration. Therefore, let it be known that anyone who physically harms or in any way unlawfully attacks, whether verbally or physically, any bishop, priest, or deacon is guilty of the sin and crime of sacrilege, the penalty for which is formal public excommunication.

Finally, the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church condemns all forms of sexual abuse, harassment, and misconduct on the part of its hierarchy, clergy, volunteers, and laity. Clergy and laity found guilty of committing such crimes and offenses are subject to disciplinary and, if warranted, ecclesiastical and civil criminal penalties. 

It is my prayer and my hope that this public statement answers any questions and clarifies any misunderstandings people may have about what the Italo-Greek (Italo-Byzantine) Orthodox Catholic Church believes and stands for.

I know that some who read this statement may find some of our beliefs and practices offensive and off-putting, but as a bishop, it is my duty to uphold God's laws and teachings regardless of what people will say or think about me. The reality is, I am not here to be liked. My job is to be mindful of and provide for the spiritual well-being not only of the souls entrusted to my care but for all God's children.

Those who know me know well that I always treat everyone with respect and love. We welcome all with open arms and turn no one away. We care deeply about all of God's children and seek only to assist them in their journey toward heaven and to build a community rooted firmly in love, justice, equity, truth, and peace.

As always, if anyone has any questions or comments, please feel free to communicate them to me. I will respond as quickly as I can.

Paternally Yours in Christ,

+Archbishop Stephen

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Homily for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

I would like to tell you a story. It is about a man who was a very successful builder of fine homes. So outstanding and of such high quality was his work, that he had people from all over the country wanting him to build their homes. He had a national reputation for being a creative and detailed-oriented craftsman, a shrewd businessman, a fair-minded employer, and a generous philanthropist. But he was aging now, and before he set out for Florida for the winter, he approached his senior project manager and told him that he was retiring. “I want you to build me a home, the finest home this company has ever built. Spare no expense, use the finest materials, employ the most gifted tradesmen, and build me a masterpiece before I come home next spring.”

The next day, the senior manager set out to build that home, but not exactly to orders. If his boss was retiring, that meant he would be losing his job, so he needed to pad his own savings account, lest he become destitute. He ordered inferior concrete blocks for the foundation but charged the owner for premium blocks, and he pocketed the difference. He hired inexperienced carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers, and landscapers, but he charged his boss wages that would be paid to master craftsmen, and he put the difference in his own bank account. He installed cheap appliances and lighting, insufficient insulation, inferior carpet, and drafty windows, and he skimmed a tidy sum off the top for himself.

In the spring, when the home was finished, it looked spectacular; it was the signature home in the neighborhood, and the only thing that made the project manager happier than how the project looked was the bottom line in his personal bank account, which had grown by hundreds of thousands of dollars that winter.

When the elderly business owner arrived home from Florida that spring, he toured this home fit for a king, and he was ecstatic. The project manager handed him the keys and thanked his boss for the privilege of working for him all these years. And then the owner did an unthinkable thing: he said to the employee “You have been a trusted friend and a loyal partner in my business for all these years; you deserve a home like this.” And he handed him the keys.

When you were growing up, did your parents ever have to take anything away from you because you did not look after it? If so, you can understand what Jesus is talking about in the parable of the wicked tenants. It is a parable of God’s kingdom on earth. Specifically, God is the landowner, the Jewish leaders and people who reject Jesus or do not care about Him are the tenants, the Old Testament prophets are the servants sent by the landowner, and Jesus is the landowner’s son. God gave the kingdom to the Israelites to tend and do His work, but they rejected their duties and turned away from God. In return, God sent the Old Testament prophets to warn them, but the Israelites rejected the prophets, even to the point of hurting or killing them. Finally, God sent His son Jesus to warn them, but He was also rejected and crucified.

The parable of the wicked tenants in this morning’s Gospel represents our broken relationship with God, His attempts to repair it, and mankind’s rejection of His attempts. In spite of our continual rejection of Him, God never gives up on us. His love for us never diminishes nor does it ever fail.

Greed is what the parable of the wicked tenants is all about, and greed is everywhere. That is why the parable is so timely and relevant today; because as that wise homebuilder knew the heart of his employee, so Jesus knows the selfish condition of our hearts, and He wants us to change our ways. This parable speaks of anger and hatred against not only God but against those who oppose Him. This can be anyone: nonbelievers, criminals, terrorists, even those who are merely indifferent.

In the Old Testament, God told Israel what He wanted them to do and how He wanted them to live their lives. But they did not listen to Him. They rejected Him and ignored Him. God did everything possible to give Israel every advantage. He established an everlasting covenant with them. He led them through good times and bad. He gave them the Promised Land as their inheritance. He even gave them the law and prophets as a help and to guide them. Were the Israelites grateful to God? No. They accepted everything He offered except for the one thing He asked for in return, and that was to worship Him and accept Him as their Lord and Savior.

In His parable of the vineyard, Jesus was not so much foreshadowing the shift of God’s emphasis from Jewish to Gentile realms as He was anticipating the replacement of Israel by the Church, which united both Jews and Gentiles.

The same situation exists today. God has sent godly bishops, priests, preachers, and evangelists to us to urge us to change our ways and accept Christ, but we and our worldly society continue to reject Him. We treat Christ with the same contempt, indifference, and intolerance that we often times treat our fellow human beings.

For those who are faithful to Christ’s cause, how can we expect a favorable reception from a wicked world? We must accept the suffering, the persecution, the ridicule, and the humiliation knowing that God will emerge victoriously. Eventually, He will deal with those who reject Him just like He dealt with the leaders of the Jewish people. The kingdom will be open only to those who believe in Him and are willing to do as He asks. Opposition to Jesus is a wrong response as is an attitude of apathy. Those who harbor such attitudes are in danger of being judged.

The attitude of the tenants is represented by the Pharisees. They were so concerned about obeying the Ten Commandments that they came up with many rules and regulations governing what the people could and could not do. In time, the Pharisees developed an attitude of being entitled to God’s kingdom even though they disregarded the spirit of God’s law and emphasized the letter of God’s law. They considered themselves to be the only people who were good enough for God’s kingdom. In reality, the Pharisees rejected God even though they thought they were accepting Him.

We have a similar attitude today. Our world is not a playground that God will let us live in. His commandments are a reminder that He has expectations for His chosen people; people who have been chosen not for privilege but for service and witness. When we try to be in charge, it speaks of privilege, our misuse of freedom, or our arrogance. We fall into the trap of thinking we have a right to the many blessings that are part of the world we live in, just like the Israelites thought that they had a right to the blessings God gave them.

If we want to avoid the same fate as the Jewish leaders, if we want to inherit the kingdom, we must know what God wants us to do with our lives. The only way we can do this is through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, reading Sacred Scripture, and worship. If we want God to bless our stewardship, we must live righteously, care about each other and bear witness to our faith. In other words, we must be fruitful and multiply.

The Church in the Third World is growing while churches in North America are in decline. Why? One possible reason is that people in the Third World are on fire for God and are filled with the Holy Spirit. They have few resources, but much enthusiasm for the Gospel, so much so that they are willing to share with anyone who will listen.

God wants tenants who will produce fruit for Him. Do we want to be His tenants? If so, what will we produce? If we produce, we will receive the kingdom of heaven. It cannot be taken by us, nor can we believe that we have a right to it, especially if we reject God outright or are lukewarm in our faith. We can only attain heaven if we earn it. It can only be granted to us by Christ, who expects us to do our part and who expects us to show a yearning for it.

The only rent God will charge us is our time, our abilities and a portion of our money. We are called to be stewards of our lives, to give of ourselves in the name of the Lord as ministers and servants of Jesus Christ. We are to share ourselves, our time and our possessions with others as a sign of God’s love. Wherever we spend vast amounts of our time and energy working at a job, caring for a family, helping those in need, making sure that the less fortunate get a fair deal, etc., these are places for us to be conscious of the fact that we are doing work in God’s vineyard, and we will be held responsible for it at the proper time.

The task is not ours alone to complete. God has invested care and concern for the work we do in His vineyard, and in the end, God’s ways are what we are trying to accomplish. We must remember that we are only tenants, and the full responsibility for the success of our work rests solely with us, both individually and as the Church.

Giving grows out of loving, and love comes from God. We know love because God first loved us. We have known love and so we love others in return. Giving is our response to God’s love, and our giving makes things happen. That is servant leadership.

Leadership must be about service and about nurturing God’s people. Actions have consequences. Good actions reap good consequences like appreciation, respect, a rise in income, etc. Bad actions reap bad consequences like disrespect, prison, other forms of punishment, or even death.

This morning’s parable is a statement of God’s concern for His people and a declaration that God’s plan cannot be defeated by man. If we love God, we realize that He knows the best way for us to live. He knows how to keep us from following the ways of the world. He sent His Son Jesus to pay for our sins so we could be free from sin and walk in a way worthy of Him. Which consequences do we want to reap at the end of our lives?

We must remember that the world in which we live does not belong to us. The parable which Jesus tells reminded the Israelites that the vineyard belonged to God who, as the owner, demanded a part of the yield. They withheld from God what was rightfully His and thereby denied themselves His blessings. Without the blessings of God, the vineyard could only yield sour grapes. Unfortunately, we seem to be repeating the same mistake today. We fail to see God as the owner of everything we have and refuse to give Him His just demands.

Withholding from God what is rightfully His is to deny ourselves His blessings. God blesses obedience and empowers the obedient to bear the fruit of love, holiness, justice, and righteousness in their lives. God cannot bless disobedience and the disobedient end up bearing the fruit of hate, injustice, oppression, and idolatry.

The landowner’s love and provisions made no impact on the tenant farmers. They rejected His love and rather sought to take over His vineyard. We are still rejecting God’s love today and instead of righteous living, we have become self-righteous. We want to put ourselves in the place of God so that there is no longer any need to obey Him. Our disobedience has resulted in hate, envy, and greed. Envy and greed leads to wickedness and rebellion. An envious and greedy person will destroy anything and anyone that dares stand in his or her way even if it leads to death. Wickedness and rebellion will eventually lead to murder. When the landowner sent his servants to collect his rightful share of the fruit, the farmers mistreated some, beat up others and even killed some of them.

The desire to be in control of our own lives is the main reason behind the rejection of God’s love. The rejection of God’s love, however, brings us under the control of the flesh, and that is the worst thing that can ever happen to anyone. The flesh is a mindset that is contrary to the Word of God and leads to unrighteous acts that show no regard for God.

Paul, before his conversion, was ruled by the flesh. In spite of all his religious knowledge and training, he persecuted and killed the followers of Christ. When Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus he came under the control of Christ and renewed his mind to align his thinking with the Word of God. A mindset that agrees with the Word of God leads to a life of love and righteousness. Paul’s new life reflected the mindset of Christ. He “counted everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord” (Phil.3:8). With the mindset of Christ, Paul finally understood that his righteousness could never come from obeying the Law but only by the grace of God. Paul’s life was transformed when he turned to Christ as his Lord. We also need to turn to Christ and accept Him as our Lord and Savior. Do you know Christ and the power of His Cross and Resurrection? Have you become like Him in all things except sin?

God’s love has triumphed over sin, Satan, and death. When Jesus told this parable, the Jewish leaders were already planning to kill Him. Jesus knew this would happen and willingly gave His life to pay the penalty for every person’s sin for “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”. (Rom 3:23) Christ shed His blood for the forgiveness of sin. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 6:23). Christ died to give us eternal life. “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17).

When Adam and Eve rebelled in the Garden of Eden God drove them out of the garden for their own good. It was God’s love that denied them access to the tree of life to prevent them living forever in their sinful condition. God only granted them access to the tree of life after He had made provision for their salvation so that they could live eternally in God’s presence.

When Christ was rejected and put to death, He paid the price for our redemption and made provision for all to be reconciled to God. “By grace are we saved through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Christ has made provision for our salvation, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His Only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Let us produce the fruits of the kingdom so that we all may reap the rewards of our labors to the praise and glory of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.