Sermon for Sunday, June 18
Hebrews 11:33-12:2; Romans 2:10-16; Matthew 4:18-23; 4:25-5:12
Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week – the Sunday after Pentecost – the whole Church celebrated all the saints who have shone forth throughout the world in every century.
On Mount Athos, each monastery commemorates the saints that have arisen from their own brotherhood, but in the nineteenth century the monasteries established a feast on the Sunday after All Saints, to commemorate all the saints who have been revealed or secret in all the monasteries of Mount Athos.
Far off in Russia, that seemed like a great idea, so a service for All Saints of Russia was established. Romania and several other patriarchates have done likewise. And so in recent years the OCA commissioned for this morning a service to all the saints who have shone forth in North America.
I think that’s a great idea. But the service I really want to attend is All Saints of Southeastern Washington. I want to commemorate and follow the example of the holy and wonderworking spiritual fathers and mothers who have arisen here in Walla Walla.
I’m not really joking. There is an empty spot on the calendar with your name on it. That’s why Saint Paul addresses his first letter to the Corinthians “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
If you thought your calling as a Christian is to go to church on Sundays, be nice to people, just don’t sell drugs or rob any banks — then you may be suffering from a small vision.
You know, there is a place and a God-given purpose for the acquisitive, competing drive in our souls. It’s a kind of love called eros, and despite our culture’s abuse of the word, eros is not primarily about sex. Eros is the love that acquires, unites, creates, and urges toward perfection. Athletes struggle both to outdo one another and to beat their own personal best performance; marathon runners and high-jump competitors cheer for one another’s victories, and find inspiration in them. Saint Paul advises the Hebrews, “Let us consider how to provoke one another unto love and to good works” (Hebrews 10:24).
In the spiritual life, there is always room for a sense of peace and wonder, to be still and know the Lord is God (Psalm 45:10lxx), and to rest in him. But we commemorate the saints, we tell their lives and miracles and their struggles, in part to awaken in us a desire to have something like their fruitfulness and holiness in our lives.
Are you going to do 3000 prostrations every morning like St Joseph the Hesychast? I don’t know. But when we read the way he struggled and the wisdom and peace and experience of God that he poured out, doesn’t it make space in us for the idea that we too could do one more prayer rope, one more Psalm, fast a little more strictly?
The life of Saint Seraphim is a wonder from start to finish, but the reason we love and venerate him is the way this old man – crippled from a beating by criminals, humbled by prayer day and night – shines with joy and gentleness. He greeted everyone, “My joy! Christ is risen!” and his genuine wholesome care for every soul made everyone know the welcome of the Lord. This servant of God was purified by the grace of the Holy Spirit, who granted St Seraphim to struggle with diligence and perseverance all his life.
Most of us do not overflow daily with the joy and gentleness of the Holy Spirit. But seeing the purity and love that the Lord poured out through Saint Seraphim might make space in us for more of the peace, patience, and kindness of God to grow and be poured out. We can learn to hunger and thirst for righteousness – and be filled – if we allow the lives of the saints to makes us thirsty.
We don’t imagine we will impress God with our mighty asceticism — but the lives of the saints open us up for a wider, greater vision of what we could permit God to do in us.
If we have a small vision, if we plant few seeds and water them indifferently, we’ll reap a small harvest. To see increase in the virtues, and in freedom from the passions on the outside, in our words and actions, we have to make room on the inside.
* * *
In the Epistle today, we heard: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…” (Hebrews 12:1). How many saints surround us, bearing witness to our struggle here and now! We read that passage last week on the Sunday of All Saints, and again today, because these are our heroes. Our examples. Targets we can aim for.
Before we were Orthodox, some of us saw Christians honoring the saints and asking their prayers, and it looked as if there were middlemen or obstacles complicating the picture, standing between Christians and Christ. But in fact the saints surround us. They can’t hinder or come between us and the Lord, the Giver of life; they surround us, they stand with us, just as you see brothers and sisters standing with you right now in the Liturgy, and the saints add their Amen to our prayers. In your prayer corner you are the deacon, saying “Help us! Save us! Have mercy on us! Keep us, O God, by they grace!” and a million saints add their voices and sing out, “Lord, have mercy!”
In monasteries, at the beginning of Lent, monks greet one another “Kalo stadio!” Good stadium. The hymns of Lent call fasting “the arena of the virtues,” because when we struggle for the virtues, we are like boxers or racers who get up, gear up, and show up to practice and contend for victory.
And in that stadium, the saints are our audience: they’re cheering for us. In a relay race, one racer runs, then hands off the baton to the next, and now the first racer can rest and cheer for the one who runs the next lap of the race.
(And you probably know, the word for passing on the baton in a relay race is the word translated as “tradition” in your Bible*.)
The prophets and apostles and saints finished their course in victory, passed on to us the life they lived – the Tradition – and now they’re your audience as you run your lap.
In a stadium where thousands have gathered to watch a race, and one racer stumbles, what happens? Ten thousand voices, as one, cry out, Awww! And every single one, whatever runner they came to cheer for, now they’re urging that one who fell: Be okay! Get up! Go! You can still win this!
The saints who endured every torment and conquered every sin and passion, are the ones intently watching you today, and applauding. And when they see you fall, they cry out to God: Help them! Save them! Have mercy on them! Strengthen them to get up and press on toward the high call of Christ! (Philippians 3:14).
After the cross and resurrection, Christ sat at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:11), and all the saints with Him (Ephesians 2:6).
Therefore, since we also are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith; who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).
“For the joy that was set before him, endured the cross” – What is this joy that sustained Christ throughout the Passion on the cross? You are the joy of Jesus. And for the Lord, the way to that joy was through the cross. The way to life and resurrection and union with God is always the way of the cross.
In your fight against temptations, not only millions of saints cheer for you: the Lord God Almighty is well-pleased when you persevere.
Saint Ambrose of Optina told of an ascetic woman who was besieged for a long time with unclean thoughts.
When the Lord came and cast them away from her, she called to Him: “Where were you before now, O my sweet Jesus?” The Lord answered: “I was in your heart.” She said then: “How could that be? For my heart was full of unclean thoughts.” The Lord said to her: “Know that I was in your heart, for you were not disposed to the unclean thoughts, but strove rather to be free of them; and when you were not able to be free, you struggled and grieved. By this you prepared a place for Me in your heart.”
In a sermon by Saint John of San Francisco, I read these words:
God’s grace always assists those who struggle, but this does not mean that a struggler is always in the position of a victor. Sometimes in the arena the wild animals did not touch the righteous ones, but by no means were they all preserved untouched.
What is important is not victory or the position of a victor, but rather the labor of striving towards God and devotion to Him.
Though a man may be found in a weak state, that does not at all mean that he has been abandoned by God. On the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ was in trouble, as the world sees things. But when the sinful world considered Him to be completely destroyed, in fact He was victorious over death and hades. The Lord did not promise us positions as victors as a reward for righteousness, but told us, “In the world you will have tribulation — but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
The power of God is effective when a person asks for the help from God, acknowledging his own weakness and sinfulness. This is why humility and the striving towards God are the fundamental virtues of a Christian.
To Saint John, victory is not a goal far off that we hope to gain, if we can just get good enough. The victory he calls us to take hold of is the victory Christ won when he destroyed death – and granted us to be born of water and the Spirit, into the life of the Kingdom of God.
Tomorrow is the holiday called Juneteenth: Commemorating the day when, four years after emancipation, and three months after the Civil War had already been won, the US Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce that victory and bind the illegitimate authorities who still held free Americans as slaves. They announced to those in chains that they were already free. Their struggle was no longer against slavery, but to learn how to live as free men and women.
So we are enlisted now in a struggle where the victory has already been won. Now the task is to being that victory out of the book of the Gospels and into our own experience. And “he who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22; 24:13; Mark 13:13; 2 Timothy 2:12; Hebrews 10:36; James 1:12; 2 Peter 1:10-11; Revelation 2:26).
[I want to] gain Christ, and be found in him, not having my own righteousness from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death; so that, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8-14).
To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Update: it’s Sunday evening and I’ve just seen this video clip. I wish there were a way to have included it in this morning’s sermon.
When Derek Redmond injured his hamstring while running in the 1992 Olympics, his father Jim showed what a Father is.