Sermons at St. Nicholas:
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! [Glory to him forever!]
I’m going to tell you a quick story about a very dear friend of mine. When I was in college, I was blessed to have a professor—his name was Dr. Robert Shankovich, and he’s still a very dear friend. I became very close to him. He was at my ordination. He was at the baptism of some of our children. He’s been to this parish before. In fact, I talked to him this week, and he’s going to the Holy Land today. He’s a very fine man. He was someone that I wanted to emulate. He really became like a second father to me: the way that he comported himself, his musical talent, his speech. I was thrilled when I found out—he and his wife were both professors at Duquesne—that I was chosen to be his graduate assistant. There I studied music theory and composition, and received a graduate degree under his tutelage.
I wanted to please him so much, and I remember one day I was working in his office. I wanted to sort of impress him, and I brought him this coffee carafe that I had bought. He liked to drink coffee, and I wanted him to have something where he could keep it warm, so I bought this coffee carafe. It was very nice. He was so happy. He said, “Oh, this is so beautiful. Look how nice it is,” he said to his wife. “Oh, thank you, thank you.” He used it, and it kept the coffee warm, and the second time he used it, poured out the coffee, it was beautiful.
He was a very well-dressed man, very organized. The third time, the third day that he used it, he went to pour the coffee, and the coffee carafe, something happened inside, and it literally leaked all over himself, all over the papers on his desk, all over his clothes. I was mortified. What I didn’t tell him and actually I never even told him to this day was that it was really just like a five-dollar carafe that I bought at Big Lots somewhere. It was cheap, but it looked nice. I think the lesson that I learned is: Beware of cheap imitations.
I want to talk a little bit today about cheap imitations when it comes to religion and when it comes to Christianity and the Gospel. In America, we live in a kind of a consumer culture. When you go to the store—I think of our Russians that are here that grew up in the Soviet Union—when you went to buy toothpaste, you just bought the toothpaste, right? There was no 30 different brands of toothpaste. Today we have so many choices, it’s mind-boggling. You can go to the store and spend 20 minutes just trying to figure out what you want to choose for one thing, and it’s so unfortunate that that mentality has also allowed us to think the same about religion.
It is true. There are choices. And it is true that we have to make that choice and we have to make that decision, but the problem with kind of impressing the values of a consumer culture, when we “choose our religion,” is the same experience that I went through, and that is: Beware of cheap imitations.
When we hear in the epistle reading this morning this letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians—it was his second letter—the Corinthians were going through a very difficult time. He had written them a very harsh letter, explaining to them all of the things that they were kind of doing wrong when he wasn’t there, all of the problems that they were getting into. It was primarily because they were following a false teacher. They were being influenced by teachers who were not focused in on Christ; they were focused in on themselves.
The same thing can happen to us. We can be beguiled by smooth speech. We can be beguiled by someone who promises us the world, but only offers us a cheap imitation. So, for instance, if you look at the epistle reading this morning, St. Paul makes it clear that all of the difficulties that he’s been going through… And by the way, he wasn’t always successful in making converts; his church wasn’t always full either. In fact, he talks about the Jews, and he says their eyes have been blinded; they’ve been blinded by the prince of this world, and the Gospel is veiled to them.
Sometimes when we think about the religious landscape, and we can never, as Orthodox Christians, deny anyone the opportunity to explore philosophically and religiously and spiritually whatever they want. But at the same time we can’t deny that, we should not deny the fullness of the truth that we have and that we experience in the Orthodox faith, because everything that we do points to Christ. We don’t want to be beguiled by the prince of this world, by the things of this world, which block out the truth about Christ.
For instance, in the example that St. Paul gives, he says, “We have this truth in earthen vessels.” It says in the epistle reading today: “We have this truth in earthen vessels.” What does that mean? It means we’re weak. We’re subject to suffering. We’re subject to, you might even say, as a leader, kind of depression about what might be happening in the community. People are persecuted for their faith. It looks like it’s a failure when that happens. Look at our Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters in Syria, in Egypt. Whatever we’re going through in this country, whatever inconveniences we’re going through in this country, changes in policy, changes in morality and what is acceptable in the society, that’s nothing compared to: “Can I actually exercise my faith without being beheaded?” That’s what they’re going through.
So St. Paul makes this point clear. He says, “We have this treasure, this truth, this faith, in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” Now I want you to follow me and understand this. Our weakness allows God to shine. The weakness in our life, whatever suffering that we have in our life, whatever weakness we have, even as a community, as Christians…
In America, the Orthodox Church is kind of tiny. When our Russian visitors came a few weeks ago, they were shocked to realize that Orthodoxy is less than one percent of the American population. But what it allows for us is it allows God to shine, because it’s not about us. It’s not about me; it’s about God, it’s about Christ. In my life, I have to make sure that I’m showing that.
There’s a popular—and I don’t mean this to sound like a cheap shot, but talk about “Beware of cheap imitations”—there’s a very popular “Christian preacher”: Joel Osteen. I’m here to tell you: he is, in fact, a false teacher, and millions of people, millions upon millions, buy his books. Do you understand why? Because it’s the opposite of what St. Paul is teaching here. The titles of his books are about me and I, titles like Your Best Life Now, Every Day’s a Friday. His teachings are as if Christ is some kind of magic genie, that comes here to bring us comfort, that comes here to bring us the easy life.
We just sang the hymn in the Beatitudes: Blessed are the merciful, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the persecuted. There’s no comfort in any of those things. St. Paul says we have this treasure, this truth, this faith, in earthen vessels, something that’s weak, something that can break like a clay pot—it’s fragile—to show that this is not about me. It’s not about us; it’s about Christ. It’s about God. Everything that we do in our life should show that forth, that I get out of the way, and I allow Christ to shine, that I’m not here to have a faith that is just solely focused on me, and it’s about me and showing me. Like when I wanted to impress my professor, and it ended up making me look silly.
So that’s the first point. Let’s get out of the way, and let’s not make our faith about us. Let’s not make it me-centered. Let’s make our faith Christ-centered.
The second one is related. The second point is related. If we accept that, if we accept the understanding that it’s about God, then why does he allow the suffering? Why does he allow the weakness, the difficulties, the struggle? What is it about that that is important? St. Paul says:
We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed, always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
I love that. He says we’re perplexed, but not despaired. It’s okay if we look at the world and we look at our lives and we look at what happens in whatever, in our church, in the faith, in our country, to our fellow Orthodox Christians, and be perplexed and say, “Why does that happen?” But our faith should be such that it doesn’t allow us to despair. We can be pressed, but not crushed. We can suffer but not be destroyed. It’s all for one reason—that’s why it’s related—so that our suffering can show forth the death of Christ, that our suffering can show forth the resurrection of Christ, the life of Christ in us, through our suffering, through our death, through our being perplexed about everything that happens in this life.
Our weakness is what allows God to work. That’s the difficult message of this epistle reading and this gospel reading today. The gospel reading is amazing, and it’s short. This widow of Nain, her only son dies. Do you realize what that means? In that society women didn’t employment; they relied on their husbands. Her husband was already dead; she was a widow. Now her only son died, too. What was she going to do? It says: “Christ had compassion on her.” He didn’t take her out of the suffering; it’s still her life. Her son was not able to provide for her; he was dead. It says out of that death, he brings life, and he comes to the bier, and he raises her son from the dead to show that he is the focus, he is the life, that life comes from him, not on focusing in on the suffering. The suffering brings life. That’s the point of both of these readings today.
I want to mention one more point. It’s tangential to what we’re talking about today—Beware of cheap imitations. The reason why it’s so enticing to follow false teachers like Joel Osteen is that it allows us to escape our suffering, to say, “You don’t deserve to suffer. You don’t deserve to be poor. You don’t deserve to have bad things happen to you.” The ridiculous teaching is: if you have faith in God, these things won’t happen to you.
St. Paul was writing one time to his protege, Timothy, his young protege-pastor, and nobody wanted to accept Timothy because he was so young. He gave him a warning about the people that were going to listen to him. He says:
For the time will come when they (that is, the people) will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires. Because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers, and they will turn their ears away from the truth and be turned aside to fables.
Our itching ears don’t want to hear the truth about what God really has in store for us, that the suffering of this life is nothing in comparison to the glory of the kingdom of God. When we think about our life, we shouldn’t look to escape it. We shouldn’t look to escape from being weak, from being vulnerable. We should, in fact, find God in it, and once we find God in it, allow him to shine and not say, “Poor me. How can I get out of this?” What we can say is, “God sustained me through it. God sustained me through it.” In other words, it’s not about me. It’s about God.
Dear brothers and sisters, that’s what’s so dangerous about false teachers. That’s what’s so dangerous about a message that promises you something that is not true. Beware of false imitations. To the extent that we are Orthodox Christians, let us give glory to God, but let us never—and I want you to understand this—let us never preach Orthodoxy for the sake of Orthodoxy. There are some times I can read articles about Orthodoxy, and—it’s unbelievable—I never hear the name of the Lord Jesus Christ mentioned once! Without Christ, what is our faith? It’s nothing! It’s like Byzantine court ritual. We’re not about Byzantine court ritual. We’re about experiencing the kingdom of God that is being given to us by the Lord Jesus Christ who initiated us in the waters of our baptism and set us on a new path to the kingdom of God. That’s what our faith is about. That’s what our life is about. Let’s embrace that every day, every moment, so that in us they won’t see us; they’ll see Christ.
To him who is our life, with the Father and the Spirit, be glory, honor, and majesty, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ!